I’d only read one book by a Syrian author – Nihad Sirees’ Tales of Passion – before Samar Yazbek’s novella which seems a bit of a gap. Yazbek is acclaimed, both within her country and outside it, and has written in an impressively wide number of genres, from journalism to television drama. Where the Wind Calls Home is a brief but powerful piece of fiction which follows Ali through the day in which his comrades have been killed by a bomb leaving him the sole survivor, his every movement mirrored by the Other who he thinks may be his soul.
He was walking and walking; the road to the Graveyard of Martyrs seemed never-ending. This was the new graveyard created especially for the soldiers killed in the war, because the village’s original burial ground had been filled with the bodies of its youth and children and there wasn’t an inch of space left.
Ali is convinced that the bomb which has torn his small company apart has been dropped by the forces for which he is fighting. As he slips in and out of consciousness, unsure of the extent of his injuries, he remembers his family: his mother so distraught by the death of his eldest soldier brother she fell into his grave desperate for a last look at the son so horribly mutilated his coffin lid was nailed down; his father, stony faced with Ali who refused to go to school, beating him with the pomegranate cane he used on Ali’s mother, but ultimately willing to sacrifice himself for his son. Almost family for Ali is Humayrouna, the henna-haired centenarian who taught him about nature, derided by the rest of Ali’s mountain village but unbowed and determined to touch the coffin of every martyr returned from the front. Theirs was a life of grinding poverty, growing tobacco for Zayn whose riches stunned Ali on his one visit to the overlord’s palace. As Ali struggles towards the oak tree so like the one he loves at home, determined to climb it before darkness falls, the severity of his injuries slowly becomes clear.
You see, we’re afraid even to laugh here!
Yazbek’s novella is written in richly poetic language. From Ali’s hallucinatory reverie emerges the story of his life, the middle son of a mother, determined that her children escape poverty, whose dreams have been blown apart by the war. Ali had been the difficult child, often angry and ridiculed by the villagers as much for his association with Humayrouna as for his own eccentricities. Yazbek’s descriptions of the landscape are beautiful, her depictions of what has happened to Ali and his comrades necessarily graphic. The visceral horrors of war are laid bare, the confusion and fear of people who do not understand its causes only the devastation of their own already impoverished lives, vividly evoked. Not an easy book to write about nor one to enjoy, for obvious reasons, but certainly impressive and memorable.
Cathy at What Cathy Read Next also loved this one. You can read her review here. She’s included a link to her review of Yazbek’s previous novel, Planet of Clay.
World Editions: London 9781642861358 168 pages Paperback (read via NetGalley)