Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Thinking About Syria

Just Like A River

Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib

I have been thinking these past few days, especially in light of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, of how blessed it is to be to be among those able to live a peaceful and secure life, free from the madness of war and economic privation.  Watching footage of the August, 1963 March with my children, I was moved, as I always am, by the size and energy of the crowd gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: women in dresses and men in white shirts and ties (despite the suffocating Washington humidity, folks were dressed as if for church); young and old crowded the walkways that edge the reflecting pool, spilling north and south toward the aprons of grass where memorials to wars in Vietnam and Korea now stand.  The courage and yearning for human dignity reflected in the faces of that crowd--black and white faces intermingled with the easy grace that frightened many Americans--made me think, this time around, through the usual terrible accidents of history, of the generations of suffering undergone by the people of Syria, a thought forced upon me in recent days by the gas attacks unleashed by Assad's forces and by the gut-wrenching photographs of shrouded bodies--adults and small children--from Khan al-Assal and other villages outside of Aleppo. Syrians have endured decades of political and economic oppression; the more complex issue, and one I am unqualified to judge, is the extent to which the forces now allied against the regime of Bashar al-Assad promise relief from the policies imposed on Syrians by the Ba'ath Party for the past forty years.

It was with a sense of relief, and an equally strong sense of unreality, that I turned this past weekend to a small novel by the highly-regarded Syrian scholar and novelist Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib--Hakadha ka-l nbahar, translated by Michelle Hartman and Maher Barakat as Just Like a River. On a quiet Saturday afternoon, with no bombs falling in my neighborhood and none of my neighbors asphyxiating from Sarin gas, I allowed myself to slip into the (deceptively) quiet world of Damascus as it existed in the 1980's--not a place altogether at peace, but at least a city where one might fall in love, enjoy friendship, pursue a career, and dream of a possible future. 

Hani Zurob
Al-Khatib's novel follows a nested group of characters through the tense political landscape following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel--one short vignette folds into another, with the stories overlapping but not moving toward clear resolution--in just the way a river flows through a landscape.  Chief Sergeant Yunis's daughter Dallal is a university student and devoted to an Englishman who happens to be her professor; Yusuf is attracted to Dallal but wary--she isn't the sort of girl to settle down with a poor elementary school teacher.  Yusuf's best friend, Zuhayr is devoted to Layla, who has married a man she doesn't love to escape Damascus.  Fawziya is a divorced woman with a small child who is Dallal's good friend and eager to become romantically involved with a decent man....and so it goes, not quite a soap opera because what informs the relations of the book are limited rather than unlimited possibilities--the aspirations of the characters all run up against the realities of living in a poor country that is at war and governed, as we now see quite clearly, by a dictatorial dynasty.

What moved me in this lovely gem of a novel was the evocation of normality.  Certainly there is a sense of futility in the restless pursuit of love and a meaningful life, but that, of course, is the point--that is the meaning of "normal."  As I followed events in Syria this past week with an increasing sense of horror, it was a relief to be drawn back into the push and pull of ordinary yearning, desire removed from the cruelty of politics.  Again: to find in fiction a concern for the human realities that should (but never do) transcend the cruelties of power. 

"As time passed, Dallal grew to love Fawziya, and she even began to find the Middle Eastern feminity within herself that she had hidden behind the mask of her education and liberation."

Aside from love and longing, al-Khatib's  other great theme is enlightenment--the powerful attraction of learning for those who have been assigned a limited role in society--as a teacher or student or soldier--and who chafe against the subtle yet binding norms of conduct in a Muslim country. I imagine that the touching story of Yusuf's search for liberation through the embrace of an intellectual life was the author's own means of escape.

"Yusuf opened the book that he had bought the other day, The Age of Enlightenment, and tried to read, to escape from both his memories and himself.  He felt that his past and his present were alive and portrayed on every page of the book.  He saw pictures on the pages but realized that he could not understand even one word.  He closed the book, got up, and made himself a cup of coffee, sat back down, and drank it, surrendering to the memories that he had become addicted to." 

Is there a better definition of peace, of a life well lived than this?  To read a book, to think freely one's thoughts, to pass from thinking to reverie and back again?  Isn't this the goal of the great social and political movements now unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa?  Yes: rights and political empowerment; but toward what end?  For peace, security, and the right to envision a possible future for oneself and one's children.  Yes: we have a dream.  

Readers owe a great debt to Interlink fiction for making available little known authors and titles from the Middle East, North Africa, India and China.  Here is a link to their web page and catalog:

Just Like a River is considered to be that country's finest modern novel.  All available biographical information about Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib appears to be in Arabic. 

George Ovitt (8/27/12)


  1. Once again you've introduced me to a book and an author I would not otherwise have known. I've just ordered Just Like a River. Thank you.

    1. Thank you...I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. I know so little of Syrian life, apart from politics and it was a great revelation to come upon this small gem of a book.