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Mapping the Syrian Consciousness
By Bhakti Shringarpure
Just Like a River
By Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib
Translated by Michelle Hartman and Maher Barakat
Interlink Books, 2003
Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib's prose could belong to a parable, which is perhaps why a small novel makes for fast, engaging reading. Underneath this lyrical simplicity lies an intricately woven, complex universe of people, places, emotions and ideas. Through short chapters titled after each character, al-Khatib sets the stage and with each progressing episode, the novel gains more depth and density.
The reader traverses the main city of Damascus as well as the smaller towns and retains the specific political context at all times. This is the time of the missile crisis and the book begins with the middle-aged Chief Sergeant Yunis who is longing to chat with someone at the nearly empty army camp. In his loneliness, he muses over his family and wonders about their futures, drinking glass after glass of maté. Soon, the book branches out with more detailed glimpses into the lives of the people Yunis was thinking about. His independent and rebellious daughter Dallal, his intellectual family friend Yusuf, Dallal's sensuous friend Fawziya, Yusuf's urbane friend Zuhayr and many others enter this scene. The events, the people and their thoughts start to diffuse and flow into one another and indeed the novel's structure does start to acquire a river-like fluidity.
The plot here is nothing but a mapping of those various conflicting forces that plague each one of these characters; a graceful delving into different minds. Dallal is the Syrian girl who wants to cast off the yoke of suppression, which she believes is imposed by a chauvinistic Middle Eastern sensibility, yet she is drawn to Fawziya who cultivates a beguiling femininity. Yusuf is the man from a small town who is attracted to Dallal and yet wary of his own desires. He also battles with the idea of reconciling to live in a secluded rural setting or choosing the vibrant city life. Each person here becomes emblematic of a certain dilemma that al-Khatib clearly sees etched in a contemporary Syria. Chief Yusuf is the middle-class man who falls apart with his daughter's eventual decision to leave and his son's death in the war. Dallal's frustration with the repressive society makes her elope with her British professor only to end up fairly destitute with a menial job in London .
Al-Khatib tries to open up various complex and problematic issues through a range of voices and opinions. The impending war becomes the backdrop to everyone's passions and subsequent pessimism. This is a gritty work about Syria in the 80s and the places are rendered with great familiarity and detail. Issues of migration, influences of the Western world, the dichotomy between cities and villages, the claustrophobia of being a woman as well as the mundane monotony of middle-class living are all dealt with through a wide array of individuals.
This novel opens up some key factors about this community, yet it chooses to provide no clear-cut answers. Al-Khatib's vision is bleak and at the core of this work lies an almost existential pointlessness. All the characters try to follow their choices but still lose something in the end or get nowhere at all, condemned to an absurd, mundane existence. There is much room for exploring different discourses and al-Khatib finds many portals but leaves them unexplained and under-examined. Perhaps that is the thrust of the novel; an observation of universal human nature and its fundamental hopelessness represented without judgment and without remedies.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 49 (Fall 2004).
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