Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet (Emerging voices – new International fiction)

Written by Ulfat Idilbi Trans. Peter Clark
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Middle-aged Sabriya hangs herself in her family’s Damascus garden, leaving behind a book of memoirs for her young niece. This story-within-a-story takes us back to Syria of the 1920s where national sentiment is crushed by a superior western power (France) at the same time Sabriya’s personal emancipation is crushed by the traditional values of her society.

During the rebellion, Sabriya’s bright, sympathetic and idealistic brother dies a martyr’s death. Her brother’s friend, Adil, with whom she has a budding romance, returns alive. Their hopes for a life together end, however, after Sabriya’s first, timid foray into national politics: participation in a demonstration against submission to the occupying French. Although she does no more than ride on a car with other slogan-shouting women, all anonymously veiled in black and surrounded by a protective cordon of protesting young men, she comes home late. Her jealous brother sees her with her careful escort Adil and assumes the worst. They are then parted permanently and in a most brutal fashion.

Sabriya then spends the rest of her spinster life nursing one parent after the other. With the death of her father, she has outlived her usefulness, and her remaining brothers conspire to sell the family home from under her, as easily as the former heroic ideals were forgotten.

If this sounds pretty grim, well, it is. Any positive message left behind to the young niece is understated and hard to find. Although a slender volume, it is weighted down in places by political discussions and a point of view which, in keeping with the status of our narrator, is stifling and passive at times, certainly for western tastes.

Voices of Middle Eastern people, and women in particular, are so infrequently heard. I must recommend this book on these grounds alone, as well as for its historical reality so finely drawn by Syria’s most celebrated living novelist.