Faysal Khartash: دوار الموت ما بين حلب والرقة (Roundabout of Death)
Our hero is Jumaa Abd al-Jaleel. He is called Jumaa because he was born on a Friday. Jumaa is Arabic for Friday. He is an Arabic teacher in Aleppo, The novel is set in 2012 and Aleppo, having avoided the worst excesses of the early part of the Syrian Civil War, is now really suffering. Russian planes regularly unleash bombs,missiles and chemical weapons on seemingly arbitrary targets. Various groups, including the Russians, the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army and other groups opposed to Assad and various ethnic groups (Armenians, Kurds and so on) get involved. It also means getting normal services – food, water, electricity – is made more difficult.
As is often the case in Arab countries, Jumaa’s social life revolves around a local café, Joha’s Club, in Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, in the centre of Aleppo. The area is reasonably safe, as it is under the control of the regime. The area is quite colourful
Shabbiha are all around. Shabbiha are black market dealers. Khartash gives us a description of them. One in particular stands out. He is called Jassim but pronounces it Qassim. He sells a variety of smuggled tobaccos. When the police come to check up, he slips them a bribe and business carries on as usual. However, there is more to him. Firstly, he is very much taken with Miss Beauties (his nickname for her), a woman who came up from the country when her village was bombed and lost track of her husband and sons. He has sex with her regularly but then so do a lot of men in the area.
He has also acquired a machine gun and when there is an incident in the square, he leaps into action, becoming an unofficial guard. An incident in which he shows his prowess, involving young men playing with grenades, is an example.
We follow Jumaa as he learns of many attacks on the city, including a bomb hitting his house and his mother’s house being bombed. He will witness numerous attacks by bombs, missiles and guns. He will see numerous examples of military and others seemingly randomly attacking people, beating them up and arresting them. At times Jumaa is scared and concerned but quite often he takes it all in his stride. He watches Russian MiGs bombing and launching missiles with an almost casual concern.
Of course it is sometimes grim. His bus journey to Damascus or his visits to his mother both take a lot longer than normal and are also risky. When he first tries to go his mother’s bombed out house, he find the way barred by security blockades. He tries approaching from various directions, always coming up against a security blockade.
The situation is made worse with the city divided by the areas under the control of the regime and the area under the control of the the Free Syrian Army, making moving around more difficult. There is the problem of food – there are huge queues for bread, for example and water, becomes more difficult to obtain.
Jumaa was a teacher but schools are closed (we learn a bit about his teaching which seems a bit casual). Schools are now used for other purposes. Some schools are with the Free Syrian Army now and some are with the regime, some have been converted into storehouses for warehousing airplane parts and projectiles, while others are secure, although some of those are occupied by internally displaced people, and still others have been destroyed by tank blasts and artillery, and so forth and so on.
He now spends much of his time in the café where he is deliberately obstreperous. Once the political conversation starts, there is nobody more disagreeable: on one occasion he’ll side with the Free Syrian Army, on another with the regime, occasionally he’ll be opposed to the use of violence or the emergence of the Free Syrian Army, while at other times he’ll argue against both the opposition in exile and that inside the country, claiming that the opposition is responsible for all this destruction.
However, the square is not safe. The café, the Officers’ Club (which is also used for torturing suspects -they can hear them in the café toilets) and the various shops are all obliterated. BOMBING…BOMBING DESTRUCTION…DEVASTATION We endure this horror every day, this raving madness poured into our brains every night, all the people subjected to murder and shelling.
They manage to find a nicer café – The Island Café – and around ten of them hang out there. Some are retired, some own their own businesses, some of us have lost our children and some are just waiting for no reason at all. He is still cantankerous. I consider myself part of the opposition, which means I’m opposed to anyone who sits with me. Eventually, however, he finds a job selling grilled meat.
Things carry on getting bad. He is arrested but can bribe his way out of it. It is not so simple when his son his arrested. His wife has had enough and wants to move away, so he takes the bus to Raqqa – a long and arduous journey. Raqqa is under the control of the Islamic State and is not a place to be for a man who is not very religious.
There is no real plot to this novel, merely a portrait of a man caught up in Aleppo at its worse and struggling to survive. Often, they just take the falling bombs and missiles in their stride. For example: When three missiles blew up here in the al-Jumayliyah neighbourhood, everyone scattered for a few moments, but they reemerged and cleaned up the glass and everything else that had been broken, taxis took the wounded to the hospital, and then everyone went back about their business as if nothing had happened.
Sometimes it is scary, particularly when their son is arrested and they do not know where he is or what he has (allegedly) done. It is not only bombs and missiles and arbitrary arrests that cause concern. Food, water and other supplies are difficult to get hold of. It is difficult to get around. There are taxis but they are reluctant to go to certain areas and whether you go on foot, in a taxi or by bus, there are going to be roadblocks, impassable areas and snipers to contend with.
Reading this account, I frankly wondered how and why people could put up with it. The answer is, I suppose, because they had to. Some do get out and flee to Turkey or elsewhere but most seem to just carry on, presumably hoping that it will eventually end, as it did. What makes this book so interesting is not just the harrowing account of their sufferings but the often laconic stories Jumma throws in, such as his cantankerous attitude with his friends in the café or the story of Miss Beauties and her relationship. In other words, he may be suffering all sorts of ills, but he is not going to let the bastards grind him down.
First published in 2017 by Dar Al-Rayyes
First published in English in 2021 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Max Weiss