The last SyrianDreaming of freedom
It is March 2011: a "tsunami of rage" has swept over large parts of the Arab world. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, young people have taken to the streets of the country's major cities, demonstrating and challenging the regime. Youssef, an alter ego of the author, has joined them in Damascus and is protesting against the Assad regime.
Youssef – a student in the Syrian capital – is no fanatic. He is an educated young man who allows himself to be carried along by the general turmoil. At the same time, he is careful enough to move his home to the smaller city of Homs when the civil war breaks out. Since then, he has been commuting between the two cities, secretly meeting with the members of a group of activists.
We get to know some of them in the novel. Josephine, for example, the founder of the group known as "Daou", took her name out of admiration for Josephine Baker. No one knows her real name. She is the beating heart of the group. For Josephine, it is only natural to open up her home to the members of the group, giving them a place to meet and sleep.
Chalil is a particularly active member of the group whose courage sometimes flips into foolhardiness. He seems convinced that the regime can be overcome. He believes that the revolution will win and imagines "soldiers deserting and building up a new army to support the revolution".
Even though he moves into what he assumes is a safe flat on the outskirts of Damascus, the secret service still finds and arrests him.
The desire for personal freedom too
Josephine is much more realistic. She is better at assessing the situation. "The Islamists hate us because we are laicists, the regime hates us because we are rebels, and the politicians hate us because we are honest," she says.
"They call us traitors, infidels, heretics because they don't yet know what it means to be free."
This desire for freedom relates not only to political reforms, but also to the choice of sexual partner, such as the love between two men, who can only meet up from time to time and otherwise send each other e-mails.
The passages about Mohammad and Youssef (who also has a close relationship with Josephine) are some of the most emotionally touching parts of the novel.
Mohammad runs a clothes shop in Damascus and is married, but his marriage is just a sham to keep his parents happy.
Youssef is his only passion. He burns with longing for him, sometimes coming perilously close to abandoning all caution for his sake. At times, the reader fears that their love affair could be discovered by state or Islamist forces, which would lead to severe punishment and prison.
Overall, the political tone of the novel creates a certain distance to the protagonists, which means the reader never really gets to know them as individuals. The exception to this rule are the passages about the relationship between Mohammad and Youssef.
A bridge to democracy?
Interesting details are scattered throughout. We learn, for instance, that when Youssef was a boy, he loved to dress up in his mother's and sisters' clothes and have his photograph taken.
Mohammad, on the other hand, doesn't like people who wear sunglasses: "He doesn't know what they are looking at or what their feelings or intentions are. The glasses give him the feeling that he is dealing with a ghost." Such casual observations lighten up the predominantly sober, matter-of-fact atmosphere of the text and give the reader an insight into the protagonists' feelings.
About halfway through the novel, events take a dramatic turn: one of the friends is shot by the police on the street for no apparent reason. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the secret police are closing in on the activists. Arrests are made, and people are tortured in prison – scenes that are described openly in the novel.
The atmosphere among the protagonists grows increasingly dark. The hope for their movement is fading fast, and they fear that they will be arrested at any time: "They are rounding us up, one after the other, like rabbits, and they won't stop until they have every last one of us!"
In this situation, it is particularly important not to despair and to focus on the positive, as Mohammad does when he sees an elderly couple treating each other with tenderness: "People like them restore my faith in the future. We are alive, despite the ruins that surround us."
This is a dark, yet exciting novel that refuses to relinquish the desperate hope that the current generation will be "a bridge" that the next generation can cross "to get to (…) democracy".
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Omar Yousef Souleimane, "Le dernier Syrien", published in French by Editions Flammarion; available in German translation ("Der letzter Syrer") from Lenos.