What is the darker side of love

The dark side of love

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung | Meeting of June 30, 2005Only death is straight
Loving ones with a hardship allowance: Rafik Schami's Damascus novel

The novel has 304 chapters and nine hundred pages. Its content can be briefly summarized: It describes love under the most difficult conditions, "Romeo and Juliet" in Syria. The impossible love between Rana Schahin and Farid Muschtak, the children of warring clans from the mountain village of Mala, is the fabric of the magic carpet. It is not free from weaving defects, fraying threads and excessive ornamentation, and yet the thousand and one narrative threads are linked into a pattern: Damascus experiences, light and dark. Rafik Schami, born in Damascus in 1946 and fled to Germany from military service and political persecution in 1970, ties two love stories together: Just as Farid and Rana maintain their forbidden love against violence, mistrust, separation and doubt, he too remained loyal to his homeland in exile.

"The dark side of love" conjures up the colors, smells and rumors of Damascus, the streets and cafes where liberal intellectuals, communists, nationalists and Muslim brothers fought, beat and gathered against the army and the secret service in the 1950s and 1960s. The novel overhears the conspirators in the underground and in the torture cellars, the "moon women" in the bathroom, the pupils in the convent school, the traders and camel butchers in the souks. He tells the mad, dramatic purr of Omar, the ironer, and Mansur, the mouse-catcher, of sodomites and bitchy higher daughters; touching and terrible stories of merchants, tribal feuds, blood revenge and murder. We learn how Farid, the escaped Jesuit student, flirts with communism and descends into the hell of the prison camps, how his girlfriend withers to a "cactus" and ends up in psychiatry. Society, history and politics mark the couple in body and soul with tragic pathos; the narrator, with all the anger in a more humane and milder mood, lets both of them get away with life and love.

Between them there is not only the old hatred between the Greek Orthodox Mushtaks and the Catholic Shahins, Arab chauvinism and the clan's code of honor, but almost a century of ethnic, social, religious and political conflicts, from the fight against Ottoman and European colonial rulers to the proclamation of the republic in 1947, from the reign of terror of the coup generals to the seizure of power by Hafiz al Assad in 1970. The disputes between Shaklanists, Hablanists and Baathists, Alawis, Shiites and Christian sects are difficult to understand even with the help of the "read-in book". The drama of love all the easier: Farid and Rana are surrounded by brothers and fathers, informers, traitors and hate preachers, are forced into secrecy and compromises, are torn apart and all the more firmly welded together.

In 1962, Shami was an eyewitness to an honor killing of a Muslim woman who had loved a Christian. The primal scene has shrunk to an episode in the novel - and has become an encyclopedia of all love affairs under difficult conditions. For almost forty years, Shami struggled with the material of his life, which sometimes eluded him and then swelled up again. For a long time he experimented with an ancient, crazy narrator; but a burlesque Scheherazade seemed the wrong tone to him. Now Gibran, the sailor, has taken on the role of the crazy storyteller; But Farid too has mastered the art of "saddling the tongue and riding away". Schami found the philosopher's stone on August 14, 1995, allegedly in a dream: like the mosaic artist he once did his apprenticeship with, from then on he wanted to arrange calligraphically painted stones into a picture that can only be recognized as a composition from a distance gives. The technique is neither particularly original nor specifically oriental. But with this novel, Schami has finally become one of the brightest shining stones in the increasingly colorful mosaic of German-language immigrant literature.

Gluing together a great epic from small pieces of glass does, of course, involve risks. "If you want to tell about Damascus," they once said, "you have to be careful not to sink, because Damascus is a sea of ​​stories. The city knows that, so despite all the Arabs' love for winding streets and alleys, it keeps one straight street, which is also called that. " The Via recta is the orientation line for pedestrians and storytellers, the compass in the confusing network of alleys, and its needle has been pointing from east to west for more than three thousand years. In the meantime, traders have long since narrowed the wide Paradeallee to a curvy little street with all sorts of fronts and extensions, stalls and fruit pyramids.

But for Schami, the slalom is not a detour. In contrast to the European social novel, which, following in the footsteps of Baron Haussmann, cut dead straight lanes of destruction into the thicket of winding cities (so that the strollers can gain a free path and a clear view of their reflection in the shop windows), he prefers the arabesque curves, the uneconomical curves and anecdotal arcs, and sometimes it goes too far. "Life has to do with arches. The olive branch bends under the weight of its fruit, the belly of pregnant women is an arch, and the branches of the palm are rounded. Only death is straight." Curvature, Schami swears, shortens the distance, at least for sight.

But curvatures, arches and columns, folkloric frames and fruit pyramids can sometimes make the perceived narrative route long, at least for the western fast runner, who is easily overwhelmed by the change from leisurely meandering to cocky hops and leaps in time. In any case, the first third of the novel is a dry spell through the desert, even if Schami on the wayside is always served with sweet treats, childhood memories and sociocultural flatbread as provisions. Only when he turns onto the broad main street of his Romeo and Juliet story does the rumbling story cart start moving and get on the track.

Western culture - films, books, ideologies - play a large role in Farid and Rana's socialization; but the greater fascination comes from the Islamic world. Farid's Christian father was also a confectioner and whore. but Muslims are simply more colorful, louder, more sensual. Their food tastes better, their tea sweeter, their sex rougher. In this family saga, people love, laugh and die more (and more freely) than in "Buddenbrooks". But Schami is not a Thomas Mann: his novel is closer to the epic innocence of "A Thousand and One Nights" than the reflected irony of the old European novel. Not only because his language is still indebted to the style of oral tradition and the dialogues ("Do you really think that our love has the chance to survive the pack of fanatics"?) Occasionally buzzes: the characters are not psychologically differentiated individuals, but members of their clans still in rebellion. Feelings, moods and streams of consciousness are only described externally, if at all, neither aesthetically exaggerated nor judged morally.

Schami doesn't want "The Dark Side of Love" to be understood as a political novel. But the history of Syria is more than just a backdrop or a hardship allowance for autonomous, absolute love. Religious conflicts, family violence and state terror are not a stony, barren field in this novel, but the humus of love, the fertilizer that lets all the flowers of the Koran and the Bible shoot into the herb. Just as censorship often spurs on the male imagination of literary and veiled women, Ranas and Farid's love is only inspired by inhibitions and obstacles, and this also applies to Shami's love of narrative.


Rafik Schami: "The dark side of love". Novel. Hanser Verlag, Munich 2004. 896 pp., Hardcover, 24.90 [euros].

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