Nihad Sirees is Syrian which is what attracted me to States of Passion with its promise of a glimpse into the world of old Aleppo. Poor Syria is less often in the headlines these days despite her destruction grinding on relentlessly. First published in 1998, Sirees’ novel spins a tale of love, passion and jealousy amongst the female musicians, dancers and singers of 1930s Aleppo, many of whom prefer to take their pleasure with each other.
Our self-deprecating narrator is an administrator for an agricultural bank who seeks shelter from a terrible storm while out assessing farmers for loans. He’s admitted grudgingly to an elegant mansion in the middle of nowhere by a manservant, then greeted effusively by Ismail’s master eager to tell our narrator his story. For five days and nights as the rain beats against the windows, Shaykh Nafeh tells his tale and our narrator becomes riveted, desperate to know how it ends but increasingly worried about the strange noises he hears in the night. Nafeh fell deeply in love with Widad, a young dancer in thrall to the powerful Khojah Bahira who conceived a passion for Widad just as she did for her mother. With the help of a sympathetic go-between, the young couple conducted a covert affair until Bahira found a way to break them apart. What happened to these young lovers, and why is Ismail so determined to prevent our narrator from hearing his master’s story?
Our narrator begins his story with a multitude of protestations about his lack of qualifications for the job, casting doubt on his reliability before going on to unfold this story of passion and jealousy expertly. There are stories within stories in Nafeh’s discursive narrative which begins when Syria had recently negotiated its independence from Paris in 1936. Set against a backdrop of wealthy Aleppo, there are vibrant depictions of all-female societies of musicians, dancers and singers who perform at weddings and for audiences of women who share the performers’ passion for each other, married or not. Syrees has a nice thread of suspense laced with humour running through his narrative as Ismail’s behaviour becomes increasingly baroque in his attempts to prevent our narrator hearing the end of Nafeh’s story. It’s a tale well spun, offering a glimpse of a culture about which I knew nothing and would like to know more. An introduction would have been the icing on the cake.
That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to Norfolk for a spot of walking and probably some reading.