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FT Review: States of Passion by Nihad Sirees - dance of desire

Nilanjana Roy SEPTEMBER 14, 2018
Financial Times: States of Passion by Nihad Sirees - dance of desire :

"The world is so strange. Syrian writer Nihad Sirees is an invitation to step into a circle of old-world storytellers. Max White, "The Tale of the Tale, or the Prologue, or the Preface, or Whatever Heading Novelists Typically Use Their Introductory Novels". It introduces the unnamed narrator, who works at the Agricultural Bank, and disclaims any storytelling prowess. Aleppo, near the village of Abu al-Fida, he and his colleagues are caught in a fierce rainstorm. In search of shelter, he abandons his companions and, after a skirmish with wild dogs and hyenas, finds his way to inviting, stately home in the wilderness. Shaykh Nafeh becomes his host and the plate of a tale within a tale, of lost love and the romances between golden age Aleppo. Shaykh Nafeh tells the story of Khojah Bahira, a beautiful wedding singer, and the delicately beautiful Widad, daughter of one of Bahira's former lovers. Khojah Bahira rules her home, Farafrah House, and her flotilla of dancing girls and lovers, or banat-al-ishreh, with a firm hand. In Shaykh Nafeh's words, the banat al-ishreh are "women who are with other women the same way men with women". Bahira, whispering words of seduction to the young Widad, has no time for the male gauze: "When a woman loves another woman, the goal is love and love alone. Without children, the two of them co-operate and serve one another. It's the purest form of love. Our love is like the love of mystic. "In a time when contact between men and women was not socially sanctioned, the banat-al-ishreh had a long, flowering reign in the city of Aleppo, especially among the professional entertainers. Shaykh Nafeh and Widad, who is still seductive love stories, wants to have little difficulty guessing the connection between Shaykh Nafeh and Widad , Shaykh Nafeh is old and in uncertain health. Sirees, with something of the elegance of writers as Sandor Marai, turns the story into a race against time and the elements. This is a relaxed and romantic novel and the sections are beautifully recreated. Isayakh's villainous companion-servitor Ismail, who has his own (and predictable) reasons for wanting the story to be told. Ismail's progressively ludicrous attempts to solve the problem by bumping off the narrator involving scorpions, snakes, pistols, assorted poisons and possibly the hyenas, and this does little to raise narrative tension. Their performances in the public baths, their performances of the salacious "bee dance", that capture our attention. Sirees brings them to life - Widad's shy courage in finally claiming her own right to love whom she wants, her mother Badia's pragmatic boldness in sending forth her young daughter to Aleppo, choosing for her the relative freedom of the entertainer's world over a stifling small-town life, and Bahira's struggle to accept the waning of her sexual allure in middle age. Sirees left Syria in 2012, forced into exile by the surveillance and censorship of the times, and now lives in Cairo. He is the author of seven novels and three plays. So he wrote a series for television, The Silk Market, first broadcast in 1996, which documented 1950s Syria and the rise of the Ba'ath party and was banned in the country. His best-known novel The Silence and the Roar, translated by Weiss in 2013, is about a writer no longer permitted to write. Along with the devastation of war, one of the subtler losses of conflict is the erosion of the memory of cities as they were before the bombs and bullet holes. States of Passion takes us back to Aleppo's golden age when it's busy, musical city filled with dance and life.

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The Silk Market (Khan Al-Harir):

The original novel of the widely known TV serial. Its events take place in the 1950s in Syria, a time of serious political tensions which led to the short-lived union between Syria and Egypt. It depicts the social, economic and political life at the time through the lives of people connected to the Aleppo silk market, home of the famous textile trade.
The novel was published in 2005 by Kanaan Publishing House in Damascus.
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The Silence and the Roar

 

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A Case of a Passion (Halet Shaghaff):

First published in 1998 by Attia Publishing House in Beirut. It looks closely at the special society of women and their music and singing that flourished during the 1930s in Aleppo. It is an interesting novel which combines an absorbing mystery story with a case of passion for a woman who affects both men and women.

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The Pastoral Comedy (Al-komedia Al-fallahiya):

Published in Damascus in 1990. It is about tribes who leave the desert because of tribal conflicts and settle in a Bedouin quarter around the city of Aleppo. These people infiltrate the city, exerting an influence on it. The spirit of tribal society finally prevails throughout the urban society.