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Dark Side of Love, The
Rafik Schami; translated from the German by Anthea Bell

published 2009 • 5 1/4” x 8 1/2” • 853 pages
ISBN 9781566567800 • paperback • $24.00

featured on Boston NPR station WBUR's nationally syndicated show, On Point with Tom Ashbrook  Read/Listen to the Feature >>

"Like the mythopoeic India of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the main protagonist of Schami’s encyclopedic, jigsaw puzzle of a novel is a country: Syria. In telling the story of a Romeo and Juliet–like romance between Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin, two teens in Damascus in the late 1950s, Schami goes back through their family history, to the Ottoman era, and forwards to 1970. The baroque feud between their families is a microcosm of the internal, patriarchal violence from which the whole country suffers. George Mushtak and his bride, Laila, appear in the Christian village of Mala and begin to make inroads on the power base of Mala’s most powerful man, Jusuf Shahin, beginning a multigenerational feud that creates a legacy of violence—George persecutes his son, Elias, who flees to Damascus, and Elias in turn persecutes his own son, Farid; Rana well remembers how her aunt was the victim of an honor killing. Rana’s bullying brother, Jack, marries her off; Farid goes from a punitive stay in a monastery to intensifying persecution and incarceration because of his dissident politics. Through Farid and Rana’s romance, Schami gives voice to the entire chorus of Damascus life. Which is why, despite the grim plot line of revenge, this is essentially a joyous book, an exile’s book of love and a surprisingly fast read. Schami, a major international talent, has a broad range, from the scatological to the sexually comic to the painful, and with this extaordinary book deserves to establish an American audience."
—Publishers Weekly, Review of the week (starred review)

"This first American edition of a novel initially published in Germany in 2004 introduces Syrian-born Schami to English-speaking audiences. At the forefront of the migrant literature movement in Germany, Schami replicates Romeo and Juliet’s tale in his complicated and embellished story of two star-crossed lovers, Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin. The young lovers meet and fall in love in Damascus during the 1950s and encounter numerous obstacles because of a long-standing family feud between their two Christian families. Schami establishes context by recounting the 1907 events that initiated the feud. Moving forward, the narrative spans Syrian social and political history during the first half of the 20th century; a discussion of Farid’s experiences as a political dissident reveal the range of political alliances and coups at that time. VERDICT At almost 900 pages, this book is daunting, but patient readers will enjoy rambling through the streets of Damascus, a city that Schami clearly loves and evokes effectively and affectionately. An important contribution to Syrian literature."
—Library Journal


More Reviews »

Independent Publisher Book Awards 2010, Gold Medal Winner - Multicultural Fiction

An international bestseller available in English for the first time,a story of forbidden love set against the background of Arabic culture and endless feuds between clans

A dead man hangs from the portal of St Paul’s Chapel in Damascus. He was a Muslim officer—and he was murdered. But when Detective Barudi sets out to interrogate the man’s mysterious widow, the Secret Service takes the case away from him. Barudi continues to investigate clandestinely and discovers the murderer’s motive: it is a blood feud between the Mushtak and Shahin clans, reaching back to the beginnings of the 20th century. And, linked to it, a love story that can have no happy ending, for reconciliation has no place within the old tribal structures.

Rafik Schami’s dazzling novel spans a century of Syrian history in which politics and religions continue to torment an entire people. Simultaneously, his poetic stories from three generations tell of the courage of lovers who risk death sooner than deny their passions. He has also written a heartfelt tribute to his hometown Damascus and a great and moving hymn to the power of love.

Rafik Schami was born in Damascus in 1946, came to Germany in 1971 and studied chemistry in Heidelberg. Today he is the most successful German-speaking Arabic writer. His novels have been translated into 21 languages and received numerous international awards.

Anthea Bell translator of The Dark Side of Love, was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's new year (2010) honors list "for services to Literature and to Literary Translations," and was awarded the 2009 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.


Media Reviews

"A doorstop of a novel, this story of love and blood feuds set in Damascus, filled with myths and legends and enough tragedy to last a few lifetimes, opens with a murder and goes deep into a century of Syria's history, politics and religion. Break out the baklava and let it rain."
—Publishers Weekly (Favorite Reads for Summer)

"At last, the Great Arab Novel - appearing without ifs, buts, equivocations, metaphorical camouflage or hidden meanings... Schami's book is exceptional not only in the scope of his ambition... but also in its ability to juggle a vast cast of characters in a complex structure which the author himself likens to a mosaic of pieces that create their own patterns... the book is a compulsive read."
—Simon Louvish, The Independent

"Novels from Syria rarely come our way, and novels from the Syrian emigre community of Europe are scarcely more frequent, so Rafik Schami's "The Dark Side of Love," first published in Germany where it was a best-seller, comes with preoccupations that are new to most of us. Its form...is a lot like those 19th-century novels that trace their hero's plight for hundreds of pages....The novel is framed as a detective tale in which Inspector Barudi seeks to discover the murderer of an important, and, as it turns out, sadistic secret service agent. But Barudi soon fades into the background as the novel focuses on Farid Mushtak and the love of his life, Rana Shahin, before finally coming together as a history of Syria in the middle decades of the 20th century. It's a history that is rivetingly full of incident, awash in despair, yet not without dignity as exemplified by Farid. Many chapters record feasts, family visits, outings, historical episodes, and storytellers' tales - often of tricksters who find ways round authority....like the scores of paint spots on a pointillist canvas or the myriad colorful pieces of the mosaic described by Mr. Schami in his final chapter, these episodes suggest the shimmer of life, the sheer multiplicity of people and events build the days and weeks and months into history. If one side of Syrian life is adamant, the other is lush with loyal friendships and relationships. The picture of Syrian life and recent history is the great strength of this novel. Mr. Schami would not have achieved it without considerable skill....Mr. Schami's characters often come alive, sometimes alarmingly so. Politicians, secret agents, sadists and torturers hover horrifyingly over the action. Those flinty men George and his son Elias seem startlingly real...The women in the book are lively and often fun...Characters...leap off the page. With its feuds, lovers, murders, villains and assorted heroes and heroines, this is a novel to enjoy and to ponder."
—The Washington Times

“Romeo and Juliet meets Arturo Pérez-Reverte and John le Carré in the dusty streets of Damascus in this novel from Syrian-born Schami, a bestselling author in his adopted homeland of Germany. The setup: the body of a Syrian intelligence officer is found in a rather unnatural position that rules out suicide. … What lies beneath Madhi Said’s murder… is anything but monosyllabic. Bit by bit, Schami reveals an endlessly complex tale that turns on a simple universal: Boy meets girl, boy’s mom and dad disapprove, girl’s mom and dad disapprove, mayhem ensues. …swiftly paced narrative… Schami’s multilayered allegory is never obviously allegorical… A rewarding and beautifully written, if blood-soaked, tale.”
—Kirkus Reviews

"“Romeo and Juliet” set in 1950s Damascus – that’s the essence of this debut novel by a Syrian author. The story starts with a murder and moves through a tangled web of stories of love and revenge, set against a backdrop of Syrian history and politics."
—Christian Science Monitor, (Summer Reading List)

"In 1970, the young writer and dissident Rafik Schami was forced to flee Syria for Germany, never to return. 'The Dark Side of Love'... is the extraordinary fruit of his half-a-lifetime's exile...  Schami's prose (brilliantly translated from his adopted German by Andrea Bell) is clear, colorful and fairy-tale-wry... a fittingly beautiful tribute to "the most beautiful city in the world".
Rachel Aspden, New Statesman (Books of the Year 2009)

“[A] murder mystery and epic love story set against a century of turbulent Syrian history, with a panoramic view of its religious and political conflicts, and family feuds. This mosaic of stories, each piece individually colored and shaped, forms a dazzling whole in which drama, humor, erotica and sadness all play a part.”
—Banipal

"...may turn out to be the first Great Syrian Novel. In "The Dark Side of Love", Rafik Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is melded with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive...Tolstoyan in its marrying of the personal, social and political spheres, of private with national life...The canvas is vast and closely painted. It feels encyclopedic, in psychological observation as well as social breadth. There are no faux-magical pyrotechnics in the telling, but richly detailed characters working through real situations, characters whose inherited wounds the reader comes to care deeply about. Each is vividly drawn, with quiet and acute intelligence... "The Dark Side of Love" is a fiction that accurately (if selectively) documents Syrian social history. Its sweep reaches from 1907 to 1970, through the French occupation, the chaotic coup years, the rise of the Ba'ath and the disastrous June war. Farid and Rana swim on the great currents of 20th-century Syrian thought - communism, feminism, nationalism, Islamism - and witness the poisoning of the waters. Farid's torture scenes are painfully, brilliantly narrated. Relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims, between the countryside and the city, between men and women, and between political factions, are explored with subtlety and honesty. It is translated very well from the German... "The Dark Side of Love" illumines almost every side of love, as well as fear, longing, cruelty and lust. Darkness and light alternate like the basalt and marble stripes on Damascene walls, and the novel's structure is just as strong...as expansive, as comprehensive, as War and Peace."
—Robin Yassin-Kassab, The Guardian

“This sprawling novel of life and death in Damascus, by German-Syrian writer Rafik Schami, is a 1001 Nights of the mid-20th century. It begins with a straightforward murder mystery. In 1969, the body of a Muslim army officer is discovered in a basket hanging outside the chapel of St. Bulos, in a gruesome parody of St. Paul's famous escape from the city. To unravel the crime, it plunges through hundreds of interwoven tales of betrayal, revenge and forbidden love. The roots of the crime lie in Mala, an Aramaic-speaking Christian village in the mountains outside the city. Despite its idyllic surroundings, the village is plagued by a blood feud between the Catholic Mushtaks and the Orthodox Shahins, which flows down the generations to poison the love affair of Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin. The warring families move between the village and the city, unable to throw off the feud despite their newfound urban sophistication. Each generation wrestles with another age-old problem: desire thwarted by the dictates of age, status, parental whim, religion, tribe, politics or simply by a pre-existing marriage. The novel's view is as fatalistic as its sympathies are generous: though the most ardent new spouse is soon disporting him- or herself with a variety of lovers, it is usually for a good reason. Even the devoted Farid betrays Rana with his cousin Laila (though no one seems to mind). The backdrop - or, sometimes, foreground - to this domestic turmoil is the turbulent history of Syria in the 20th century: a series of military coups, occupation by the French and a brief and unwelcome union with Egypt (whose leader Gamal Abdel Nasser appears as the adored, then reviled, President Satlan). Damascus's tradition of co-existence suffers: the ancient Jewish community flees, bit by bit, to Israel; a Muslim boy threatens to burn down the Christian quarter in a fit of rage over the Suez crisis. The political upheavals eat away at Syrian society, creating an underworld of torture cells, secret service, disappearances, murders and corruption. Repressed and embittered, ordinary Syrians become addicted to underground societies. Farid joins various anti-government movements, including the outlawed Communist party, and is twice consigned to torture camps before his eventual escape, with Rana, to Europe. The heart of the book, though, is not desire or politics, but Damascus itself: a ‘lost luggage office of cultures,’ a ‘mosaic with pieces that have been fitted together by travelers over a period of eight thousand years.’ Schami's love for the city shines from every sentence: it might be stalked by government informers, sex pests, corrupt police and unfaithful spouses, but it is still a place where magic is more likely to happen than not, where lovers can hide and the Christian quarter can wake up one morning to find it has "rained" sugar-coated fennel seeds. The central sections of the novel describe the city's hamams, shops, cinemas, courtyards, cafes and houses, its street games, festivals and food, through Farid's childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Every detail is preserved, from the craze for home-made scooters to the crafty stall-expanding techniques practised by the merchants of the Straight Street bazaar. This passionate accumulation of memories is an exile's prerogative. Schami left Damascus, fleeing political persecution, in 1970 and has lived in Germany ever since. He is well-known to German readers as a children's writer and storyteller and his prose is deceptively simple: clear, colorful, wry and rich in what sound like expressive borrowings from Damascene Arabic. A famous bandit is ‘so small of stature that, if an egg fell out of his trouser pocket, it wouldn't break when it hit the ground’; the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, reckoned by the lunar calendar, ‘wanders through all the seasons of the year.’ In Anthea Bell's deft, witty translation, each of Schami's 853 pages and 304 chapters is a pleasure to read. The 304th chapter, the ‘final piece of the mosaic,’ tells the story of the novel itself. It took Schami three decades to piece together from a true story told by his mother at the party she gave to mark his final departure from Syria. ‘For over 34 years, whenever I open my eyes I have thought of Damascus, the most beautiful city in the world,’ he writes. "The Dark Side of Love" is a fittingly beautiful tribute to this most constant long-distance love affair.” 
— The Observer

"extraordinary, exquisite, and entirely its own creature...Readers will not be disappointed by his expert pen...Romance, mystery, family saga, political exploration-The Dark Side of Love takes on many shapes. This is an enthralling page-turner that will invite readers to find out how the pieces fit together; it also offers prose as succulent as sweetmeats that begs to be savored."
— Foreword Magazine

"Resembles Western literature far more than contemporary Arab work. The Dark Side of Love spans a blood-feud-thwarted love affair and a murder-mystery, and is told in largely realist style....Some wonderful things result from Schami’s mostly realist narration. ...Schami’s precise, sometimes watchmaker-like prose... allows Schami the space and time to lovingly develop his core characters, particularly Rana Shahin and Farid Mushtak, and Farid’s parents, Elias and Claire... a grand, Arab-style mosaic, depicting several generations of Syrian history. The Dark Side of Love is full-to-bursting with different varieties of passion."
—Sycamore Review

“The sights, sounds, tastes, and feel of Damascus are imported into English in a new translation coming out of Germany. Schami’s long epic romance, translated into English by well-known translator Bell, is a mythical love story at its heart.
...The reader looks back through layers of Middle Eastern history and the complicated culture of clans and tribes and loyalty. Forbidden love is the theme and tension that holds the passion in the work.
"The Dark Side of Love" is a magnum opus...reading it is a work of love. Schami’s works have been translated into 21 languages, which is proof of the enduring quality of this writer’s voice in English.”
—Multicultural Review



"Syrian-born Rafik Schami is an author of sagas. His novel The Dark Side of Love, which told the centuries-old story of two feuding Christian families from a Syrian village, is a masterpiece that everyone should read. This winter, he's back with The Calligrapher's Secret, a mesmerizing tale about a calligrapher that realizes the limits of Arabic script in the modern world and creates a secret society for reform. Aside from the calligrapher, a plethora of colorful characters-all linked in some way to the calligrapher-make this book a gripping and fantastic read."
-Elle (Middle East)

“A masterpiece! A marvel of prose that mixes myths, tales, legends, and a wonderful love story…”  
—Die Zeit

“A superb novel… Rafik Schami is one of the best German-language storytellers…”
—Brigitte magazine

“An Arab retelling of Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending… An immense declaration of love to Damascus…”
—Neue Züricher Zeitung

“A superb book—one of the richest, most fruitful, and most beautiful attempts to capture the world in recent years.”
—Deutschlandradio  

“An opulent mosaic of stories…”     
—Die Welt

“Rafik Schami tells a wonderful story about forbidden love…”
—Sächsische Zeitung  

“Rafik Schami’s novel is a festival for the imagination…”
—Süddeutsche Zeitung

“This Arab version of Romeo and Juliet paints a unique picture of the historic and social panorama of Syria.”
—Deutschlandradio Kultur

 



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