“Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet” by Ulfat Idlibi – Translated from the Arabic by Peter Clark

“She was like a hand grenade with the safety pin removed.” That, in essence, is Ulfat Idlibi for you! Explosive! Born in Damascus in 1912, she grew up amidst the French occupation and the accompanying violence. She went on to become Syria’s most acclaimed woman writer and died in Paris in 2007 at the age of 94.

No one can read this novel and remain unmoved. It describes life in Syria between the World Wars, underlining the pathos of the human condition, outlining the mute longing of young couples who rarely get to meet, describing clandestine love affairs and surreptitious messages passed through unsuspecting conduits, and bemoaning the emptiness clouding the lives of young women caught up in the deadly tentacles of a patriarchal society.

The story begins with a woman’s suicide. Barely forty days after her father’s death, Sabriya hangs herself from a lemon tree in the courtyard of her parental home. She had tended to the old man for ten long years after he had suffered a paralytic stroke. Her mother had died earlier. Her brother Sami and her lover Adil had chosen the path of insurgency and died heroic deaths. Sabriya is unmarried and her two surviving brothers, Raghib and Mahmud, are planning to sell the family home, when her suicide comes as a bolt from the blue. Sabriya’s young niece, Salma, discovers her diary in her room, and she is the narrator of this incredible story.

Idlibi’s language is an exquisite blend of poetry and prose, embellished with liberal doses of simile and metaphor. “She was still hanging from the lemon tree, like a black flag at half-mast, protesting loudly at oppression and injustice.” Who else could have described a gruesome corpse with such literary finesse? Sabriya’s private thoughts and her conversations with the many characters in the novel have unmistakeable feminist and nationalist overtones. Here are some samples:

  • In our country they train a girl, as soon as she is aware of herself, to serve the men, be it brother, husband or son. So when she has grown up she feels that such servitude is part of nature.
  • May Allah pardon you Sami, when you told me that my steadfastness was also part of the struggle and that I should have the courage of those who are fighting. Brother dear, this silent struggle is hard, very hard. It is unsung. It is heroism without the glory.
  • “Sometimes I almost explode with anger at you, Mother. A woman of your age, old enough to be a grandmother, having to seek permission from her husband whenever she wants to leave the house!”
  • “What cowards we are,” I observed to Mahmud. “Our county is being burnt and destroyed and we are like rats who have slunk into their holes.”
  • Why is it that the people of my country demand freedom and at the same time cannot grant it to each other? Half the nation was shackled in chains created by men. That is a wrong we refuse to acknowledge.
  • “Did you read in the papers about the battle raging between those for the removal of the veil and those who want to retain it?”
  • If the French left we would have Hitler or Mussolini here.

Umm Abdu, one of the stoic women in the story, utters some prophetic words, “What does the revolt, what do politics mean to us? It will be all the same to us whether it is the French or a national government that rules us. Or whether we are ruled by blue monkeys.” Adil’s words to Sabriya echo the same sentiment: “When we have achieved our independence we shall embark on battle among ourselves fiercer than the one we are waging with the imperialists.”

When we behold Syria’s tragedy today we can’t help but wonder whether the author had an eerie premonition.

Overall Assessment: Must read – especially if you are a woman.


Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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