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'Sarmada'-- fantasy, passion, violence
By Lauren Khater
By Fadi Azzam
Translated by Adam Talib
Interlink Books, 2012
In a personal introduction to his novel “Sarmada,” Fadi Azzam tells of the power of words, stating that “letters seem…to shine even as the world grows dark.” This compelling idea echoes throughout Azzam’s novel, which begins with the emigrant Rafi Azmi encountering a compatriot in France and subsequently plunging into the history of his village and people through the narratives of three women. While Rafi serves as the narrator of a frame tale, the voices of these three women represent the true core of “Sarmada.” Their stories bring light to a forgotten corner of the world, evoking the deep complexities of life: passion, loss, fantasy, and faith represent a mere few of hundreds of personal emotions that Azzam infuses into his novel.
The first story belongs to Azza Tawfiq, the woman whom Rafi Azmi meets in France and who instills within him a desire to return to his village in Syria and delve into its mysteries. Azza’s story draws Azmi and the reader into Sarmada by introducing the topic of “transmigration”: the idea that souls travel from one person to another. Azza’s connection to Sarmada lies in her transmigrated soul’s past life: Hela Mansour, a young woman who is brutally killed by her brothers upon her return to Sarmada after running away with an Algerian wanderer. This heartbreaking tale of courage and love compels Rafi’s return to Sarmada, which arrival heralds the second village’s second story.
Upon his return, Rafi learns that of the death of Farida bint Fawda, a pivotal woman in Sarmada’s—and Rafi’s—history. Where Hela Mansour’s death left the people of Sarmada with a guilty emptiness, Farida’s sudden arrival revives the village as she establishes a life embodied in intense passion and fantasy. But while Farida’s presence invigorates Sarmada—especially its teenage boy population—her own life is enshrouded in death and loss. In spite of the tragedies that continue to plague Farida, her story reveals an enduring strength and self-sufficiency, culminating in the birth of her son, Bulkhayr.
This son ties Farida’s story closely to that of Buthayna’s, whose narrative completes “Sarmada.” The two stories are inextricably linked, first by Buthayna’s utter hatred of Farida, in whom she “found the cause and the causer” of the death and loss that ravaged Sarmada. Later, Buthayna finds herself irresistibly longing for Farida’s son, cementing an ironic bond between the two women. This bond brings together the various threads of Sarmada, interlacing personal experiences, desires, and journeys with the words of intellectuals, regional movements, and Syria’s rapidly evolving politics.
Ultimately, the reader and narrator are left with an intimate view of the lives lived in a small village called Sarmada. Fadi Azzam’s writing evokes powerful emotions and delicate details that cause “Sarmada [to] become Scheherazade, weaving the story of” a place that is familiar and strange, wondrous and exotic, and joyous and tragic for all those who encounter it. Indeed, these words reveal the light of life, even in history’s darkest moments.