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Coming of Age in Syria: Turbulence of Cultural Change
By Silvia Chelala
By Ammar Abdulhamid
London: Saqi Books, 2001
“Menstruation” is a first novel by a young Syrian writer, Ammar Abdulhamid, an intellectual and a rebel whose writing has shocked conservative readers. His first work was a collection of poems called “The Void Man” and was published in Britain. It is worth noting that several of his works remain unpublished because they are considered too controversial. In an interview he said, “I take a really head-on approach and make ‘The Satanic Verses’ look tame.”
The main characters in this novel are presented in the first pages. They are a young intellectual couple educated in the United States (Kindah Kayali and her husband Nadim Qanawati), a young married woman dissatisfied with her situation (Wisam Nur al-Din) and the young son of an Imam (Hasan al-Zirkili). Friends, relatives, and acquaintances surround them. These young adults, led by example and Kayali and Qanawati’s teachings, question the establishment. Rebellion takes many forms: a desire to choose and marry a spouse for love, the refusal to have children, lesbian relationships as a way of liberating the spirit, extra-marital relations as adventure and a way to relieve boredom, and the study and discussion of “subversive” texts that analyze reality from a different perspective. Society is presented as quite closed and intimate with everyone knowing everyone else’s business and interfering in each other’s lives.
The main theme in this novel is that appearances in Syrian society are deceiving. The order and formality of outward life contrasts with the turbulence and rebellion Abdulhamid describes underneath. While the outside world is bent on carrying on with tradition, young people are rebelling in both thought and action. Hasan’s father pressures him to marry and promises an apartment and other monetary support to start his own business if Hasan will only follow tradition. However, he is not so sure that he wants to marry someone who is chosen for him but does not know how to extricate himself from his family situation. As the book continues, we learn that some of the characters carry secrets from their pasts including incest and sexual exploration among siblings and same sex friends, once again belying the quiet and orderly surface.
The book is divided into chapters named after the characters. Each chapter is divided with subtitles such as “an event,” “a thought,” “a sentiment,” “a whisper,” and “inquiries.” These subtitles herald a change or interruption in the sequence of events, and thus the text becomes a series of short excerpts without continuity. Frequent quotations from works of the two rebellious intellectuals (Kayali and Qanawati) expand upon the main concerns of the characters. The disjointed effect of the text mirrors the turbulence under the serene façade of society.
If shocking the reader is Abdulhamid’s goal, then the title of this short novel accomplishes it. As a woman, I was intrigued to see what a young man would say with this title. “Menstruation” by Ammar Abdulhamid is a compelling work which reflects the swirl of cultural change bombarding Syria at this time and, indeed, it likely reflects the writer’s opinion of what Syrian society is really like. As with many “coming of age” novels, this one is filled with youthful doubt and questioning. We should look forward to reading more by this creative young Syrian in the future.
This book review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002) Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid