Rafik Schami: Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (The Dark Side of Love)
Barudi is a young police commissioner who has done well. He has been promoted from Aleppo to head up murder investigations in Damascus.
According to legend Bulos himself, the sainted founder of the [local Christian] Church, had escaped from his pursuers over the wall in a basket after his revelation on the Damascus road. Accordingly, the local priest has placed a large basket on the wall to remember Bulos’ escape. The caretaker is not happy, because people throw all sorts of rubbish in it, including dead cats and rats, and he has to clean it out every morning. However, one day, a passer-by sees a human hand hanging out.
Barudi has to investigate. The body is that of Major Mahdi, a senior secret service officer. With him is a note that reads Bulos betrayed our secret society. Barudi is just starting his investigation, interviewing the not very grieving widow. Colonel Badran, head of security for the state, takes over. He is clear that it is a politically motivated murder, particularly when he finds Mahdi’s notebook with six names in it. They are arrested, tortured and confess. They are then shot. Case closed.
Rumours still proliferated but, as we know from detective books, films and TV, any police officer pulled off a case is going to investigate and come up with a different result. Barudi has his theories and they do not coincide with those of Colonel Badran.
We now jump back in time. Farid and Rana are having an illegitimate affair. They. are the two main characters of this book. Farid is also a member of the cCmmunist Party, a dangerous activity. We also learn of Jasmin, a Christian, who married a Muslim. Her sixteen-year old nephew shoots and kills her to save the family’s honour. He is applauded and will serve only a short time in jail. This is not the last honour killing to take place in this book. Farid and Rana fear a similar fate.Though both are Christian one is Catholic, the other orthodox and in the village they came from – Mala – the Catholics and Orthodox hate each other more than they hate the Muslims. More importantly, as we shall see, there is a bitter feud in Mala between two rival families and Farid comes from one of the families and Rana the other.
Furthermore fallng in love is not permitted. As Schami comments Since time immemorial, parents had refused to sanction a marriage if they found out that it would be a love match. A letter was enough, or a poem, for the lovers to be parted for ever. Half of all Arabic lyric poetry tells tales of such tragedies.
We get a long and colourful account of the origins of the rivalry in Mala, which is between two families – the Mushtaqs (Farid’s family) and the Shahins (Rana’s family). Tales of banditry, revenge, often brutal, lots of violence, lots of sex, including marital, extramarital, stable boys, goats and a man with such a massive penis that his father is bitterly jealous, love and passion. All of these stories – and there are very many of them – are leading up to show the origins of Farid and Rana and where they come from and the situation they currently face.
Farid’s father, somewhat surprisingly, is a confectioner called Elias. However, though he may be a confectioner, he can be as ruthless as the rest of his family. We follow his story as he battles his father and siblings. He is tough on his son and when Farid strays, his punishment is to be sent to a monastery to become a priest. Farid is not happy with the idea, particularly as he loves Rana. Life at the monastery is tough for Farid and other boys and he does not last too long.
All of these stories are told against the background of Syrian politics. Presidents/prime ministers come and go, their departures all too often violent. Schami disguises their names but it is not too difficult to determine who they are. Mala is generally fairly immune from politics but not entirely. In one case a man, Butros, is arrested for gun-running, an offence that carries a death sentence. To save Butros, it is suggested that the President be enticed down to Mala to celebrate his birthday (suitable bribes, a common occurrence in this book and, presumably, in Syria are made) and the president comes. He is a good Muslim but he also likes his drink. He gets roaring drunk and passes out. The scene with the grieving wife and children, who were to appear and plead with the president, cannot take place, as the comatose president is whisked off. Neither the president nor Butros, survive much longer.
We continue to follow the stories of Farid and Rana, with Farid caught up in politics and twice arrested, with fairly grim consequences and Rana forced to marry.
This is a very long book – some nine hundred pages – and, I must say that by around page 800, I had forgotten about Commissioner Barudi and Major Mahdi but the latter does reappear at this point, with Barudi coming in even later. As we know, Mahdi is going to die and his death is, of course, connected with our story. Barudi continues his investigations but it does not go well for him, either.
There are a few things that stand out in this novel. The first is the horrific treatment of women in Syria (which, presumably, is not unique to Syria). As we have seen they are not allowed to fall in love and must marry whoever their parents pick for them. They are subject to massive restrictions, a lot of violence, which is invariably tolerated. and not allowed opinions. Yes, I am aware that this is the situation in many places but, in this book, Schami really drives it home.
Secondly, Syria seems to be a very violent place. Again, this is not unique to Syria but in this book, there is a huge amount of violence, including routine torture, murder and brutality. Associated with this is the complete lack of human rights. People are arbitrarily arrested on a whim, tortured, imprisoned and murdered. The powerful are not immune. While we might be used to Assad, father and son, before them, presidents and prime ministers came and went with monotonous regularity, often violently.
Religion, of course, plays a big part. We tend to think of Syria as a Muslim country but, in this book, we see a large number of Christians and some Jews (though most left after Israel was founded). One of the key issues in the family feud in Mala is religion but not Christians versus Muslims but Catholics versus Orthodox Christians. Religion is a good way of controlling fools one character succinctly comments.
There are numerous stories in this book, far more than the Farid/Rana story, though many of the stories are connected, often indirectly, with their story. They are generally colourful and fun to read, though often violent. Sex abounds and sometimes humour comes in. We often wonder where the book is going, as it often veers off into tangents, but, eventually, returns to the key story-line. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read, even if often grim, and given it length, should keep you entertained for a long while.
First published 2004 by Carl Hanser
First published in English by Arabia Books in 2009
Translated by Anthea Bell