The novel Sarmada, by Fadi Azzam, is the story of the Druze village of Sarmada in the rugged southern mountains of Syria. The narrator, a journalist, has escaped his upbringing in this backwater for the cosmopolitanism of Paris and Dubai. In Paris he meets a woman who believes that in another life, she was a beautiful young woman of Sarmada, Hela Mansour, who in 1968 was punished for running off with a lover. The narrator goes to Sarmada to investigate this fantastic tale of transmigration. Interviewing village survivors, he learns of Hela’s five brothers and how their monomaniacal obsession to restore family honor forced the lovers to live as fugitives and pariahs. He learns how, out of exhaustion, Hela left her lover and returned to Sarmada to face the bloodlust of her family and how no one in the village intervened to stop the brutal death foretold. The narrator in his return becomes a seeker looking for “. . . clues to help me try to understand how I fit in with these people who made me who I am . . . who nursed me . . . with the waters of rage, fear, joy and gloom.” Foreshadowing the present convulsive awakening in Syria, with all the divisions and sectarianism, he portrays a place of myth and magic ultimately under siege by the forces of transformation.
In Azzam’s Sarmada, women are the subversive heart of the interlocking stories. They love inside or outside the bounds of marriage and find strategies to deal with loss and grief as the men with epithets like “Scatterbrain” and “Crackpot” disappear into the vague mists of war, revolution, vagabondage, madness, or emigration to far off and unimaginable places like Venezuela.
Soon after Hela’s death, Farida marries into the village, but her husband is killed at the wedding by a stray bullet. She becomes known as a black widow. As she struggles to make her own way, she evolves: chaste outcast widow and then village healer running experiments with “grief-milk.” With this magic fermentation: “She realized . . . it was her duty to reawaken joy in the village that was surrounded by sorrow, stones, and dark blue basalt.” Later she awakens to her own sexuality and proceeds to initiate every adolescent boy in Sarmada. One of the initiates is the youngest of Hela’s brothers with whom she conceives a son, Bulkhayr, born with two penises—a strange imagining perhaps meant to imply that unlike other men in the village, this character will be truly manly and potent. He ends as a kind of mad wandering poet. His visions and potency do not bring him any peace. Farida becomes a devoted mother and gives up her loose ways to follow a spiritual path as a Druze devotee.
Farida’s story intertwines with that of her sister-in-law, Buthayna, bent on revenge against the “black widow.” Over time, they make their accommodation, but Buthayna seduces Bulkayr when he is a schoolboy, teaching him to write his letters with molasses on her body. Azzam portrays a culture with a deep transgression bent on undermining surface traditionalism:
His first year of school went by and the grape molasses lessons continued, even though her irresistible instinct to possess the child gnawed at her and her dream of becoming a mother constantly lashed at her soul. . . . Was she really just trying to get revenge on Farida by corrupting her child? . . . she resolved to stop regardless because her feelings of deadbeat guilt drowned the pleasure in sin.
In the course of these tales, Azzam gives us a panorama of history as the men go off to fight against French imperialism, to be lost or imprisoned in the ‘67 war against Israel or to become dupes or victims of the Baathist dictatorship. The framework of return creates a tension in the structure of the novel that at times gets in the way of the powerful conjuring of place. The narrator’s personal epiphanies sometimes intrude and distract. He invokes Scheherazade who enchants a king by disappearing behind her tales as they tumble out and over each other; he keeps promising the reader that he will step out of the way and let the stories and characters of Sarmada speak for themselves. He says: “Places like people, live and feel: they hate, they love, and the mood deteriorates.” The village, steeped in legend and tradition, resists and succumbs to the pressures of history and is both catalyst and witness to the fate of its inhabitants. The interwoven stories of Hela, Farida, Buthayna and Bulkayr twist and turn in ways that reveal a hidden politic within a mythic atmosphere. Sarmada is most compelling when the narrator keeps his promise.