Susannah Tarbush reviews “Sophia: or, The Beginning of All Tales” by Rafik Schami


Framed by the very structure of the clan

Translated from the German by Monique Arav and John Hannon
Interlink Books, Northampton, USA, 2018
ISBN: 9781566560313. Pbk, 480pp, $20.00 / £14.95

In this exuberant novel, the Syrian-German author Rafik Schami weaves an intricate tapestry of love, sectarianism, exile, oppression and revolution, extending from the late 1920s to early 2011. The rich 444-page non-linear narrative presents a multitude of characters and storylines in settings from Damascus, Homs and Beirut to Rome and the German city of Heidelberg
Schami was born in Damascus in 1946 and migrated to Germany in 1971 for political reasons. He has built a reputation as a master storyteller, with the publication since the early 1980s of a stream of novels, short stories, children’s books, plays and essays. He has won numerous awards, and his work has been translated from German into many languages.
Sophia: or, The Beginning of All Tales is the most recent of three big multigenerational family sagas Schami has produced this century: Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (2004) Das Geheimnis des Kalligraphen (2008) and Sophia oder Der Anfang aller Geschichten (2015). All are published by Hanser Verlag of Munich.
The first two titles were translated into English by Anthea Bell. They were published in the US by Interlink Books, and in the UK by Arabia Books, as The Dark Side of Love (2009, excerpted in Banipal 31) and The Calligrapher’s Secret (2011, excerpted in Banipal 39 and reviewed by André Naffis-Sahely in Banipal 40).
The English translation of Sophia by Monique Arav and John Hannon reads well, although there are occasional infelicities, for example in word choice or order.
At the core of the novel are three main characters: Karim, Sophia, and Sophia’s son Salman. Karim, a Muslim, was born in Homs in 1927. As a youth he fell madly in love with Sophia, a bold and beautiful Christian. She returned his passion, though being careful to retain her virginity and making it clear that she intended to marry a wealthy Christian. She duly married a rich Damascene goldsmith.
After Karim moves to Damascus as a schoolteacher in 1950, he and Sophia conduct a secret affair. His life is plunged into turmoil when he is framed by his own family for the honour killing of his sister and the Christian husband with whom she had eloped. Sophia saves Karim by taking him to the home of her aged aunt, who harbours him until he is no longer hunted by the authorities. Karim is deeply grateful to Sophia for all her efforts on his behalf and tells her: “How can I ever repay you? I would do anything for you, even die.” But to Sophia’s dismay Karim insists on ending their affair when he gets married and promises his wife that he will be a faithful husband.
The search for freedom, whether personal, social or political, is a recurring theme of Sophia. Karim is a liberated free thinker. In the opening scene of Sophia, set in Damascus in summer 2006, he is teaching his lover Aida to ride a bicycle down Jasmine Street, in the Christian quarter. It is six months since the couple first met and fell in love. Karim is in his early eighties, Aida in her mid-fifties, and both have been widowed for many years.
The late-blooming love between Karim and Aida and their public displays of affection bring much criticism in the neighbourhood, partly because he is a Muslim, she a Christian. Karim counters hostile questions with “I’m not a Muslim, a Christian, a Druze, or a Jew. Love is my religion, do you understand?”
Karim and Aida first met at a monthly meeting of “the Selfless”, described as “peaceful idealists who meet to sing, eat and hold discussions”. They are followers of al-Hakim, author of a subversive book entitled The Fortress of Love. “Every line, every word, was a call to resist dictatorship and its loss of freedom and dignity.” Al-Hakim was said to have been murdered.

Rafik Schami, photo Root Leeb

In the novel’s second chapter the focus switches to Sophia’s son Salman, who is the wealthy owner of a food import-export business living in exile in Rome with his Italian wife Stella and 15-year-old son Paulo. Salman had realised long before, during his first marriage to a German woman, that he is unable to form a mature relationship with one woman. His erotic life in Rome combines his cooled marriage with a series of infatuations and sexual adventures.
As a young graduate in Syria, in 1967 Salman had joined an underground armed anti-government group. He fled the country in 1970 on counterfeit travel documents, having shot and wounded a policeman in an attack on a police station. He is still worried that the policeman may have died of his injuries.
His escape took him first to Beirut to stay with his paternal aunt Amalia. She had been shunned by her brothers 30 years earlier for marrying the Lebanese Protestant academic she loved, rather than a Syrian Catholic. She tells Salman that as long as young revolutionaries like him fight only for social or political change, their struggle will be futile. “No change will ever come to Arab countries until the very structure of the clan that enslaves us, body and soul, has been destroyed.” Salman grew painfully disillusioned with his former revolutionary activities.
In summer 2010 Salman becomes obsessed by the idea of returning to Damascus after his long years of absence, being increasingly distracted by his memories of that city. But he distrusts an amnesty for past political offences that the Syrian government had issued earlier that year. His aged parents approach his cousin Elias, who had been a guerrilla with Salman but is now a senior officer in the Syrian secret service. Elias keeps them dangling for months until, after Salman’s father pays him $10,000, he assures the family that there are no records against Salman in the 15 departments of the secret service, or at border posts.
Salman flies to Damascus in December 2010 and is brought up against the realities of the Assad regime. Schami casts a satirical eye over the upper echelons of Damascene society as he describes Salman’s realisation that many of his revolutionary comrades from the 1960s are now colluding with the regime and prospering.
But Salman is forced to go on the run after Tishrin newspaper publishes his photo with a report that he is wanted for the murder of Fatima Haddad, wife of the culture minister and former head of the secret service. Salman suspects that Elias is somehow involved in publication of this fake news. After all, even during their days as armed militants, some of the revolutionaries had suspected Elias of being a traitor.
Like Karim, six decades earlier, he is on the run, framed for a murder he did not commit, and desperately in need of a safe hiding place. Sophia visits the now elderly Karim to beg for his help, and Karim agrees to give Salman refuge. He tries to come up with a plan to enable Salman to escape the country. Salman has been told by his cousin Tarek that Sophia had once saved Karim’s life, and that Karim had promised to return the favour. When Salman asks Karim why he is risking his life for him, Karim recalls his old love story with Sophia, whom he describes as “the beginning of all tales”.
At one point Salman visits former comrade-in-arms Hani, who has suffered years of imprisonment. In the most harrowing chapter of Sophia Hani tells Salman of the incarceration and torture he endured, particularly at the hands of Elias: “. . . An entire city of hell lies beneath Damascus, seven floors down, and spreads out . . . It’s hundreds of kilometres wide and it mushrooms out of the ground in Adra, Saidnaya, and Palmyra. There are camps and prisons there for hundreds and thousands of innocent people. This hell is so well organized that the people who live above ground can’t hear or feel it.”
Sophia ends in early 2011, just as the “Arab Spring” is beginning. It is a novel that makes it amply clear why Syria was at that time a tinder box, waiting for a spark to ignite it.



First published in Banipal magazine