Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Streak of Light through Damascus: Samar Yazbek’s Cinnamon

Author Samar Yazbek (Photo: AFP / Joel Saget)

There are novels about revolution, and there are revolutionary novels. Both kinds of novels have their own appeal; novels about revolution allow us to feel like we are a part of contemporary or historical events, and their fictional frame introduces a human and subjective quality to events that history texts are often lacking. Novels about revolution, at their best, allow for greater ambiguity than reportage, and they are incredibly valuable as such – one such example is G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. Revolutionary novels are not the same thing – they are ‘revolutionary’ not necessarily because they depict a revolution, but because they change the way we think about a person or a place, or because they illuminate individual people in ways that cause us to question or rethink what we know either about certain places, certain classes, or certain figures. Samar Yazbek’s Cinnamon is a revolutionary novel, set in a Syria before the current revolution began, but which is enriched by our recognition that the world of Cinnamon may be one that no longer exists.

Yazbek is a remarkable figure in her own right. Born into an upper-class Alwaite family (the same religious sect as the notorious Syrian ‘President’ Bashar al-Assad), Yazbek grew up being conditioned to support the regime, which is often credited with dramatically improving the social and economic status of the Syrian Alawi community, and with ensuring their safety (Alawites have historically been persecuted by other Muslim groups). Yazbek broke with her family when she began to protest against the regime in 2011, a political stance that initiated a cycle of social ostracization and military detention that she could only break by leaving Syria for Paris with her daughter. Her most famous work is a non-fiction account of her experiences as a protestor and dissident, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, but Yazbek has a pedigree in fiction as well. She belongs to that small group of writers who deserve to be classified as both a writer of revolution, and as a revolutionary writer.

Cinnamon is Yazbek’s first novel, published in Arabic in 2007 and in English translation with Emily Danby (Haus Publishing, 2013). It has been translated into French, German, and Italian as well. The book tells the story of two women, Hanan and Aliyah, for whom a single moment, a second of forgetfulness or even simply negligence, changes and breaks the lives to which they have become accustomed. From that single negligent act, Cinnamon carries the reader forward by about twelve hours, and backwards by about twenty years. It is an instant that causes both women to reflect upon the lives that they led up until that instant, and the loves, fears, and abuses that make them the people who they are in relationship to one another. I call it a moment of negligence, but it may in fact not be negligent at all – the pressures on these women and their lives call into question the very possibility of the unintentional.

The novel is set in Damascus, and moves in between the very upper-upper class of Damascene society and the slums that surround Damascus on all sides. The novel is pervaded by an awareness of class, an awareness that Yazbek shares with her characters. In this sense, it is a brutally honest depiction of the stratified class system of pre-revolutionary Syria: there is absolutely no question of social mobility in this world. One is born into a certain class and one dies in that class, and the possibility that either work or education might mitigate one's inherited status is so remote as to be, at most, ghost-like and illusory. In the carefully decorated salons of the modernized and upper-class Malki district and in the filthy, bloody alleys of Ramli and other slums, the presence and prerogative of power (institutional and sexual) is ever-present, and both worlds are circumscribed by a political and social geography in which the citizens of either world have agency only, if at all, in secret.

There is an element of magical realism to this work, an impressionistic emphasis on description and association that readers of Arabic fiction will be quite familiar with. For many English-speaking readers, the level of abstraction in Arabic fiction often present a barrier to enjoyment and comprehension, and some readers may fail to connect with Cinnamon on this ground. It is not a plot-driven book; it is driven only by a moment. And yet, I would encourage readers who tend to avoid the abstract to give this book a chance. In format, Cinnamon might be described as a series of very short stories, told to the reader as they are remembered by the characters. These short stories are grippingly, brutally, and sometimes terrifyingly concrete. They are the stuff of nightmares, but not magical-realist nightmares in the vein of Midnight’s Children; these are human nightmares, real nightmares, imminently possible and recognizable to us all.

This is also, in many ways, a feminist novel, and written by an author who identifies herself as a feminist. At the same time, it calls into question many of the assumptions that one makes about feminist literature; yes, Cinnamon is about the oppression of women, both social and physical. Yes, the oppression and abuse suffered by the two main characters in many ways elides their social and economic distinctions. Yes, both characters in a very material way only live the lives that they live because of the effects of male power and male violence. Yes, it is about women who find the fulfillment of their emotional desires and needs in loving and sexual relationships with other women, rather than men. But these are not simply victims (though they are that in many ways), nor heroines – they are not immune to the allure and abuse of power. Nor do the autonomous but secret lives they carve out depend on their ability to manipulate men or use their sexual attractiveness to men to their own advantage. They are deeply flawed as individuals, and they have, as far as we can see, absolutely no impact whatsoever on the world outside their homes. And this is what makes it a feminist novel; that a woman who has been made a victim and robbed of her agency does not need to become a martyr or a ruler in order to regain that agency. In the end, neither of these women appear to have made any visible change in their own lives, much less on the lives of the people (or men) around them. But their story is worth telling.

Coming in at 124 pages, you could probably read Cinnamon in a couple of hours or less. But you need more than a few hours to parse the complexity of the world that Yazbek draws. On the second reading, and on the third, you will discover new and provocative questions, many of which the author leaves unanswered. What originally may seem like an abstract carelessness with description the second and third reading reveals to be carefully calibrated threads that juxtapose and weave together the lives of these two women. Even if you have never heard or thought about Syria outside of the context of the Revolution, and even if you have no particular interest in Syria, this is a book that is deserving of careful attention, by an author who bears following.

Cinnamon is available from Amazon in both paperback and ebook formats.

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review - I agree with your comment about the translation to English. It doesn't have the same progression that many English stories have, but it was still very nicely written, and I enjoyed the book a lot.