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Rana Haddad: The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor

Joseph Noor is a successful heart surgeon. Originally from Syria, he has gone to London to study and become a surgeon and has become successful. His heart was the centre of his life and Joseph became obsessed not merely with the medical aspects of hearts in general, but his own in particular. He thought that if he learned all about the human heart he might be able to save his own from itself indefinitely.

While certainly interested in the opposite sex, he has not had a serious relationship till, one day, he meets Patricia. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She had that sort of icy beauty that not many women in Syria had and which he found irresistible. She thought he might be French or Spanish. They got married and settled down in London. They had a daughter, Dunya. However, when Patricia was pregnant with Dunya, Joseph decided that he really had to return home to Latakia. For him and other Latakians, Latakia was a beautiful city, though for others, including Patricia, It’s just an ugly little town.

So they moved back to Latakia. Patricia was not happy, not least because of her mother-in-law, but also because she was expected to follow the conventions regarding women married to important people. Fortunately, because of her beauty and blonde hair, her mother-in-law was one of the very few people who did not like her.

But this book is about Dunya. Like her mother, Dunya did not conform to the societal norms for girls. She had a big mouth and she was curious. Girls were meant to keep quiet. She was sent to military school, not least because President Assad was creating a Golden Age in Syria. Only it wasn’t a golden age for most people, despite the promises of democracy, freedom of speech, and liberation. Dunya soon realised the whole thing was a lie.

Dunya took an interest in photography, another aspect of her character that was decidedly unladylike for a young Syrian woman. Even less ladylike was her interest in Malek the son of a fisherman. She was trying to see what love was about but young Syrian women are not supposed to do that. Falling in love with any boy was seen as a tremendous criminal offence in those days, but to fall in love with a fisherman’s son — that was beyond anyone’s understanding.

However, when Dunya decided she did not want to attend the voluntary demonstrations and then did not turn up and, moreover, refused to apologise, she was in trouble. Patricia knew that she had to get her daughter out of the country and soon Dunya and her mother were back in London.

Patricia soon returned to her husband but Dunya stayed in England, not entirely happy. England was too cold. It was also a country where logic ruled and magic had been forgotten, where facts were collected but meaning had been lost. And then she met Hilal.

Hilal was originally from Aleppo, the son of tailors. Hilal was an expert on the Moon and had won a physics prize, which gave him a grant to study in London. His parents were permanently unhappy and clearly there was something he did not know that was making them unhappy. They meet and fall in love. Dunya notices that Hilal seems to be missing something in his life, something that made him unhappy. However, they live together, happily, till Hilal learns that his father had died six months previously.

The rest of the book tells of Dunya’s adventures in Syria. Joseph disapproves of Hilal (his view is that the proper powers and functions of fathers in a family setting should mirror the powers and functions of God) and then Hilal later disappears. Dunya goes into a men-only café where she hears Nijm (a hakawati and singer) singing and is very much attracted to him, not least because he seems to somewhat resemble Hilal. Together, they try to track down Hilal, meet Hilal’s mother and confront Joseph.

On the surface, this is a whimsical, quirky love story, albeit with various twists and, as such, works very well, as Haddad tells her story well. However, it is first and foremost a feminist novel. Dunya, as a girl and then woman, is expected to follow certain rules of behaviour in Syria. I’m sure you must’ve discovered in your travels that it’s men who rule the world? And that only a man has the right to speak, whereas a young woman is mostly expected to be silent. Dunya does not agree with this, despite the fact that her mother and her best friend in Syria more or less go along with it, limiting any rebellion to very minor incidents. Her father, in particular, expects absolute obedience. Indeed, the love story itself is a rebellion, as young Syrian women, at least of her class, are expected to marry who their parents tell them to marry. Married men of course, can have affairs but married women cannot.

Haddad, who has spent her adult life in England, is also keen on showing the differences between Syria and England. While she welcomes the freedom people, and women in particular, have in England, she sees England not only as a cold place but also one that has lost its magic and charm, with logic and shopping having taken over. Nevertheless, she is certainly well aware of the faults of the Syrian Assad regime.

Haddad cleverly uses two conventional symbols for love – the heart and the Moon – and has them featuring in their normal, non-love-related usage. Joseph, who is continually mocked, is, of course a heart surgeon and as the quote in the first paragraph of this review shows he is very much concerned with the heart as a physical object. Hilal, while not opposed to romanticism, is very much concerned with the Moon as an astronomer, writing a book called A New Theory of Moonlight. However, Haddad does manage to slip in various references to the moon and moonlight in a more romantic context,

This is certainly an interesting first novel which is very enjoyable reading and it is good to see a feminist novel coming from Syria. There are other female Syrian novelists – Hamida Nana, Samar Yazbek, Dima Wannous and Ghada al-Samman come to mind – but a new one is always welcome and it is to be hoped that we will see more from Rana Haddad.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Hoopoe