Novella a Day in May 2019 #9

Just Like a River – Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib (1984, trans. Michelle Hartman and Maher Barakat, 2003) 110 pages

Just Like a River was Syrian writer Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib’s first novel, set in Damascus in the 1980s. It forms another stop on my much-neglected Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. The novella looks at the lives of a group of Syrians, with different chapters from different viewpoints. In this way, al-Khatib builds a picture of the individuals, Damascus, and the wider Syrian political situation.

Dallal is the young daughter of Yunis, a Chief Sergeant in the army. She struggles with the expectations placed on women where she lives and idealises life overseas:

“Young European women live alone. They rent rooms and come home at night when they like. Over there, men do not harass women in the streets but are polite like Doctor Morton White.”

Ha! Unfortunately we know she is sadly mistaken, in both this and in her assessment of her professor. He is self-centred and shallow, and exoticises Arab women without really bothering to get to know a single one:

“He had illusions that he would discover Arab women through Dallal. He would explore this Middle East that was shrouded in secrets.”

By returning to characters over various chapters al-Khatib deepens the individual portraits. Yusuf is in love with Dallal and his friend Zuhayr at first seems a real misogynist. Then it becomes apparent that his flippancy hides a deeper hurt, and he is as cynical about men as he is women:

“What do we offer them other than a mirror image of our fathers’ backwardness? We act as if we are only thieves or guards of their hymens.”

The portrayal of women is sympathetic, so Dallal is seen as young and naïve rather than ignorant and prideful. Her friend Fawziya is hurt yet optimistic:

“Fawziya was a disappointed woman. Her tempestuous love affair with Sami caused her to have a general disrespect for men, coupled with a longing for some certain, but unknown, man… She and her mother dealt with things just as one might expect two destroyed women in solidarity with each other would. They were two women betrayed by both men and time, and who persevered, waiting for a certain something, a certain man, a certain incident. This is why they spent so much time reading coffee cups and interpreting dreams.”

As they all deal with the day-to-day concerns of family conflict and unspoken feelings, the political situation is building in the background. When he is called to the army, Yusuf is not particularly concerned. As it becomes clear that the conflict may be escalating, he meets it with grim humour:

“ ‘They don’t give us good weapons or enough of them. Look, can’t you see how the bombs fall down like paper?’

Yusuf laughed. ‘I fear that we, not the missiles, are paper,’ he said.”

Just Like a River is an evocative and memorable portrait of a group of people struggling against the forces directing their lives, and themselves. If that makes it sound heavy or depressing, it isn’t. It looks at huge themes straight on, but does so with compassion and understanding.

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