International Prize for Arabic Fiction Longlist: Fadi Azzam’s ‘Sarmada’

I’m as yet only half-way through Sarmada, but yalla, we’ll never get through the longlist by Dec. 7 at this snail’s pace.

The shortlist was originally scheduled to be announced in Cairo on the 7th, although I imagine the location is now thrown into some doubt.

Anyhow: Sarmada is Syrian writer Fadi Azzam’s debut novel, and the book has echoes of Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love (although Sarmada is richer and rougher) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (but Sarmada is much more sprawling; stories within stories within stories). And, well, 1,001 Nights. 

Perhaps the acclaimed Schami, a Syrian author who writes in German, saw something of himself in Azzam when he selected Sarmada as the first book for his new Swallow Editions imprint. He told a Melville House interviewer: “My favourite Middle Eastern writers are those I haven’t read yet. I never praise those who have been well known all along, but two works, Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist and Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada show the kind of literature I prefer.”

What’s to favor about Sarmada? First, there’s his layered plunge into stories and memory, particularly the memory of transgression. In the book, the narrator asks (in Adam Talib’s translation): “How exactly does memory get passed on from one generation to the next? How does it pass down the stories of scandal, of those who’ve violated the tyranny of hidebound sectarian and tribal law?”

But this book is not just about how we remember violence and transgression. There is also memory’s twin, forgetting:

“Everything that happens in Sarmada is testimony to the power of forgetting: the meetings of the local branch of the Party, the educated young people from Damascus and their revolutionary zeal; every single one of them: the communists, nationalists, Nasserists and Baathists; the only idea anyone had was to take the defeat in the war and recast it as a ‘setback’.”

Through all this writing down and erasing of collective memory, Azzam has an appealing tenderness for his characters, both female and male. One young lover “looked pitiful: he’d squeezed himself into his younger brother’s blue trousers and was wearing the shirt his cousin had bought at the second-hand clothes’ market, reeking of half a bottle’s worth of cheap aftershave, his Brilliantine-drenched hair looking shiny and comical, and his pimples all the more hideous for his pathetic attempts to pop them and then being smothered with Ideal spot cream.”

There is only one review on GoodReads thus far, and interestingly, the reviewer says (my shoddy translation):  The idea’s great and the style’s excellent and the construction, plot, word choice are all great. As a whole, I give it five stars. But, the reviewer goes on, the book loses “three stars” because of the sex scenes (and even suggests renaming the book “sharamuta.” For myself, I’ve found the sex thus far compelling and freshly written.

Proper review to follow.

You can see Azzam read from his novel (in Arabic) and speak a little about it  (in English), although the sound isn’t great:

And see a performance inspired by the novel (English):

International Prize for Arabic Fiction Longlist Profiled Titles:

Habib Selmi’s ‘The Women’s Orchards

The whole IPAF longlist can be found here.

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9 comments

  1. i’v read the novel and i found it a bit lame.
    The writer constantly tries to prais his novel’s hero, and how him as a secual, sensitive and alfa male. I believe that the write has a deep selfesteem issues that caused him to creat a charactar who shares a lot of personal details with him, but has whatever he actually dreams to have.
    Every second i spent reading this was a wast…
    Sorry!!

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