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Olga Grjasnowa: Gott ist nicht schüchtern (City of Jasmine)

Olga Grjasnowa was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and now is a German national living in Germany. However, her husband is a Syrian refugee and this novel is set primarily in Syria and is mainly about the Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011.

Hammoudi is a Syrian who has studied medicine in France. He has just completed his residency as a reconstructive surgeon in Paris with honours and been offered a job in a top hospital in Paris. He has a girlfriend, Claire, with whom he is in love. She has turned down his proposal but they are still together. Before he starts his new job, he decides to go to Damascus, to renew his passport and to see his family.

Damascus has changed. Tiny grocery shops forced to close and the spaces reopened as Zara or Benetton; bakeries making way for cafés serving soy-milk cappuccinos at European prices; shops that once sold absolutely everything, from screwdrivers to petrol canisters, replaced by mobile phone stores. His family is happy to see him. He goes to the passport office and, inevitably, has to wait but eventually, he is told he should return that afternoon. When he does, he is handed his passport, but told that he cannot leave the country. Through family and friends, he tries to have the decision changed, but to no avail.

He realises that he had better get a job and applies but cannot work as he qualified in France and not in Syria. He has to apply to take the Syrian medical exam, which he does. There are three other candidates, a graduate from Oxford, one who studied in Russia and the other in Ukraine. He and the Oxford graduate fail, while the other two pass. He resits it later and does not answer a single question but does remember to bring an envelope containing a gift for the examiner. He passes.

Meanwhile, we have been following Amal. She is a drama student, half Russian, half Syrian. Her father studied in Russia, met her mother and they married. The marriage eventually broke down. The mother went back to Russia. Under Syrian law, the father keeps the children. Amal and her brother, Ali, have never seen or heard from their mother since.

The Arab Spring has started in Tunisia and has spread. It seems to be happening in Syria. The young generation have had enough. They were sick and tired of the corruption, the secret services’ arbitrary decisions, their own powerlessness and permanent humiliation. They were sick and tired of all public libraries, airports, stadiums, universities, parks and even kindergartens being named after the Assads. They were sick and tired of their fathers, brothers and uncles mouldering in jails. They were sick and tired of the whole family having to chip in to buy the sons out of military service.

There are more demonstrations but also more repression. Amal has taken part in several but is worried as the State is reacting more and more viciously. Eventually, she is caught, brutalised and even undergoes a fake execution. She is released but knows the government is watching her. Too many disappeared. She meets a young would-be director, Youssef, and they start a relationship. She also meets Hammoudi who is staying in a flat in her building. Together, they join a group, who are determined to resist.

One of the issues is medical attention for those injured at demonstrations. Any doctor or hospital treating them faces dire consequences. Doctors and other medical staff are being shot for helping them. They develop a plan to provide emergency medical treatment.

The rest of the novel takes place during the Syrian Civil War and Grjasnowa paints a very grim picture of what happens. Hammoudi moves back to his home town of Deir ez-Zor, not far from the Iraq border. The town is essentially obliterated by the Syrian army and then by Isis. Hammoudi works as the only doctor in the town but under very difficult conditions. There is continual bombing, limited supplies, not only medical, but food and drink. He often works many hours at a stretch without sleep and often receives several patients at a time and has to choose which one to give priority to, knowing the others are likely to die without immediate attention.

Eventually, Isis are involved. They threaten him and then make him act as their doctor. Eventually, on the advice of his brother who is fighting with Al-Nusra (a Syrian Al-Qaeda), he leaves via Turkey, before Isis kill him.

Meanwhile Amal and Youssef (separately) realise that they have to get out of Syria and do so, heading for Beirut where, amazingly, they bump into one another. They get back together but it is not a happy relationship.

All three struggle to get out of Lebanon/Turkey to Europe and we see the exploitation and plight of refugees fleeing the conflict, which is also not pretty.

Grjasnowa paints a really grim picture of what happened and may well still be happening in Syria and of the terrible things that the refugees have to face, not only in Syria, but also when trying to escape to regain some sort of semblance of a life. She makes it even gloomier by adding some complex but unpleasant details of their personal lives. In Europe, at least and, I assume, the rest of the world, we have read a lot about the Syrian refugees and the problems they have in getting into other countries. If you read this book, you will fully understand the horrors they faced and why they fled, as Grjasnowa spares us few of the details, from Isis beheadings to sinking ferry ships.

A quick note on the title: the original German title translates as God Is Not Shy which, seems to have been considered as the original English-language title. The final English title – City of Jasmine – refers to the nickname of Damascus. While some of the action does take place in Damascus, much does not. Is it being used ironically, given the horrors we witness? I must admit I quite like the original God Is Not Shy which is also used in the Dutch translation.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Aufbau
First English translation 2019 by Oneworld
Translated by Katy Derbyshire