The Calligrapher’s Secret

Written by Anthea Bell (trans.) Rafik Schami
Review by Viviane Crystal

Noura is a woman who is educated by her scholarly father in mid-20th century Damascus, Syria.  However, that spirit of curiosity and her learning do not prepare her for the mundane world of being a wife, homemaker and dressmaker that she is expected to embrace.

Schami’s novel first depicts the backgrounds of all the major characters so that the reader may truly understand what shapes the hopes and dreams of all.  We meet the young boy, Salman, who begins life as a protector of his abused mother and is ready for little else than a life as someone else’s apprentice in poverty. All of this changes when he is introduced to the world of learning by a caring friend. Meet Nasri Abbani, a rich and vain man who spends his time womanizing and carrying on like a playboy, never having to worry since his assistant Tawfiq is a mathematical genius who perfectly manages Nasri’s business affairs.  Noura will marry the great calligrapher, Hamid Farsi, a man who loves calligraphy not only as an art but also as a means to reform the Arabic language and modern world, including the role of Islam in that world.

The world of all these characters will change forever when Nasri falls in love, with a stunning final surprise.  A passionate love for the art of calligraphy sustains all through the trauma and chaos that follow, enduring for generations. A magical quality enchants the reader on every page of this unusual novel (translated by Anthea Bell), which unfolds universal and exotic sensibilities on every page.  Fascinating!