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    Three women struggle against the forces of society, family, and passion in a small Druze village in the south of Syria as the country itself struggles against the forces of the Ottoman Empire, the French Empire, and then the Baath. The village of Sarmada is an enchanting place, but the people who live there don’t much notice it.

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Sarmada. By Mark Staniforth

Sarmada

Mark Staniforth

‘Sarmada’ is by pretty much any measure a unique and audacious book, drawing heavily on the both Scheherazadian tradition of stories within stories, and elements of magical realism as employed with aplomb by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
This cross-cultural clash is fitting, for ‘Sarmada’, named for a real-life Syrian mountain town perched in the far north-west near the border with Turkey, is as broad and ambitious as its influences.
‘Sarmada’ is split into sections, which ostensibly tell the life stories of three different women from the town: Azza/Hela, Farida and Buthayna.
Azza is a member of the Druze faith which believes in transmigration, a form of reincarnation in which souls are transferred from human to human. She convinces the author, whom she meets randomly at a reception in Paris, and with whom she shares the home town, to return to Sarmada to seek answers for her death in a previous life, when, as Hela Mansour, she was brutally murdered by her four brothers for eloping with a travelling salesman.
Hela’s story evolves into that of the voluptuous Farida, who is tainted with the stigma of bad luck after the premature deaths of her first two husbands: her first shot by a stray bullet during their wedding feast; the second of heart attack brought on by his excitement at the prospect of their first night together.
It is here that things start to get a little off-beat. Farida slits the swollen breasts of her first husband’s mother, who is consumed by grief, and uses her copious gallons of rich, scented milk to throw a rice pudding party for the whole of Sarmada, which at first poisons then purges its inhabitants of their sorrows. Suitably reprieved, and shamelessly coveted, Farida convinces herself she has found her true calling in hastening the journey of Sarmada’s teenage boys into adulthood.
The sex scenes that follow are honest and lavish: at times, the story threatens to degenerate into pure centrefold porn. There were reports that the book’s first English language translator gave up in protest at these extended scenes, though if true, the decision is more likely to have been influenced by elements of the significantly more challenging third and final section of the novel.
Buthayna is the sister of Farida’s deceased first husband; as such, she despises her, and consults an old soothsayer with the intention of expediting her fate. Instead, she becomes obsessed with Farida’s young son, Bulkhayr, who is born with two penises and will later come to devote his life to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Here is where even the most broad-minded readership will encounter problems: there is one short passage in particular that seems wholly unnecessary, and which only serves to cheapen the complexity both of their relationship and the book as a whole. It is the editing, in fact, which presents Sarmada’s major flaw: it feels flabby at times, especially towards the end, and – even within its admirable Scheherazadian framework – is over-burdened with unnecessary backstory.
The narrative interruptions, too, are inconsistent and unconvincing, and disappointingly, the engaging mystery of Azza’s memories are sidelined to the point of irrelevance as the novel draws on. But for all Sarmada’s easily identifiable faults, it should not distract from what is a brave and clever first novel. Fans of the epic ‘The Dark Side Of Love’ will recognise the influence of Rafik Schami, whose Swallow Editions facilitated Adam Talib’s tireless translation.
While Schami roots his work in realism, Azzam prefers to weave the myths and legends of Syria’s mosaic of communities and clans in a more palpable way. The effect, though, is the same: works that paint extraordinarily vivid pictures of the nation’s troubled history, and ask pertinent questions about its future.
‘Sarmada’ will undoubtedly polarise opinion. In my view, there is a lot here to admire, and the first two thirds present a spell-binding addition to the growing list of Arabic fiction translations. The chief charge against Azzam is perhaps merely one of over-ambition. There is more than enough here to mark him down as a name to watch out for in the years to come.