‘The Last Syrian’: A Novel That ‘Reveals That the Sexual Is At the Heart Of, and Inseparable From, the Political’
Translator Ghada Mourad introduces Syrian author Omar Youssef Souleimane’s sophomore novel, The Last Syrian, published in 2020 as Le Dernier Syrien by Flammarion, and shares an excerpt from her English translation. Told in seventy vignettes, the novel follows the struggle of a group of young Syrians who undertake their own revolution on different levels and subverts stereotypes of “tame” Syrian fiction:
The Last Syrian is a novel that narrates the early days of the Syrian revolution as it is experienced by four young Syrians: Youssef, a young Damascene, dreaming of freedom and experimenting with his sexuality; Mohammad, a young Syrian and Youssef’s sexual partner; Josephine, a young Alaouite organizing the anti-government protests against the will of her family and religious community; and Khalil, an enthusiastic activist recruited and secretly enamored by Josephine; he is arrested by the intelligence agents and taken to prison where he is mercilessly tortured. They all meet in Josephine’s apartment to share their vision of the future, their dreams, and their hopes.
Like the revolution that shattered all expectations, The Last Syrian subverts stereotypes; it surprises the readers that are accustomed to tamed Syrian fiction and reveals that the sexual is at the heart of, and inseparable from, the political. Josephine, the disturbingly charming Alawite, is a true revolutionary. She adopts this name out of admiration of the American Josephine Baker, and because this name means “the one that brings together.” Mohammad breaks up with his fiancée, the veiled revolutionary Sarah, and sets up rendezvous with other men in his apartment at the risk of getting discovered and disowned by his father. The Last Syrian weaves a deeply complex picture wherein opposites sometimes intersect and overlap, and binaries are deconstructed, unraveling many complex facets of the human condition in a moment of deep crisis during a journey toward emancipation. The novel’s main protagonists are waging each their own revolution on three distinct levels: the rigid family, the traditional society, and the dictatorial government.
As these characters’ destinies unfold in the narrative, so does their revolution; it gets violently repressed by the regime, appropriated by the well-funded armed Islamist fundamentalists, and instrumentalized by the Syrian National Council for opportunistic ends. As the novel’s denouement shows them defeated and disillusioned, Youssef reveals the main reason for their inability to carry a revolution: “Our families do not accept us for who we are; for that, we would have to be mere reproductions of them. We will be persecuted because of our difference.” At this moment, the novel ceases to be a narrative of the Syrian Revolution; the ending circles back to the beginning to signal that “this is an old story” about inter-generational conflicts, rebellion, and emancipation. It is about the indomitable yearning for freedom that, despite all the obstacles and setbacks, will reemerge until it ends in deliverance.
An Excerpt from The Last Syrian, tr. Ghada Mourad
This is an old story.
Some merchants had found a child in a well, near the pyramids of Egypt. They decided to take him to the slave market where he was sold to the high steward of the pharaoh who, having no descendants and fascinated by the intelligence of this little boy, adopted him.
The boy grew up in palaces and became extremely handsome: his bewitching face aroused an illicit passion in his adoptive mother.
One day, she had her female friends gather around and gave each a knife while the young man brought them fruit. At the sight of this magnificent being and unsettled by his beauty, the women slashed their hands “This is not a human being; this is an angel!” they exclaimed. Overwhelmed by desire for the young man, the mistress of the house wanted to lock him up to reserve his charms for herself. He defended himself, so when the adoptive father arrived, the woman accused him of attempting to rape her. Although the lie was uncovered, the high steward threw the young man in prison.
Youssef had heard this story dozens of times: “That’s why I named you Youssef, my sweetheart. So that you become beautiful, like the prophet Joseph,” his mother would say to him on winter nights, his head resting on her knee while she ran her hand through his hair. “He worked miracles, could foretell the future from people’s dreams, and was finally released from prison, because he was honest, patient, and never abandoned his principles.” These words were the last the child heard before falling asleep every night.
This is an old story.
In March 2011, when Youssef took part in the first demonstrations in Damascus, he had the impression that the cry for freedom raised against the Al-Assad regime after forty years of silence and fear was a miracle more powerful than that of the prophet Joseph. No god had provoked it; it was the pure product of outrage. Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia to say no to dictator Ben Ali and, in response to his sacrifice, a massive wave of protests swept through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and then Syria. This tsunami of anger had not been foreseen by anyone.
After one of the demonstrations ended, a police officer chased after Youssef, who ran to the entrance of a building, threw his bag away, and took off his jacket. Upon leaving the building, he played as a beggar, asking the policeman for a coin on his way. Even today, he does not understand how he dared to do this or how his pursuer did not recognize him. Since then, he feels like everything he sees around him is nothing but a movie. This thought, which makes him laugh, still comes to him in the toughest times.
He has not returned to Damascus since that episode. He misses the capital that inspires him so much. Despite the risk of being arrested by the intelligence services, it would be an exciting adventure to return and meet new comrades. For him, Damascus is like a mirror, a sun between two clouds; there he feels eternal. Every time he visits, he feels like he has found a part of his soul. He loves to walk around the old town for hours; this is the only place where he is not obsessed with the future—a bird in flight that he pursues relentlessly.
Youssef is wearing his best clothes. If he were to disappear from this world, he would like to be elegant. Elegance is his way of resisting.
Joy sweeps over him as he watches the scenery pass by through the bus window. At this moment, nothing can disturb his happiness or shake his strength. All will be well—this idea enflames his heart. From his seat, he watches his reflection in the glass, and he meditates on his first name: “I have no connection with this prophet, I don’t even know if this is a true story and I don’t care. He guessed the future through dreams, but the rebels make them come true, and that is what matters most.”
The space between his seat and the one in front is tight. This is nothing new; he often has this problem with his long legs. When he was little, the other students nicknamed him “the Spider” and kicked him.
He then thinks of his friends from Qalb, whom he met in Homs a few months ago. They are activists fighting for a different future, eager to bring together all the different groups of the Syrian youth against the regime. These students, who are often brilliant and active, scientists as well as literary types, come from several universities. They were all fed up with the corruption there; children of high-ranking military officers could, for example, have access to examination questions before exams. These activists converged from the start of the revolution and after much discussion, decided to establish a political movement. For Youssef, the primary objective is to avoid a civil war. “We must resist the regime peacefully, reject all forms of violence, and remain independent. We are not a political party that wants to come into power.”
The bus passes a golden statue of former president Hafez Al-Assad, smiling, his arm raised in a salute. “Soon this land will be free,” he says to himself. “You’ll see, we’re gonna kick you in the ass, we’re gonna crush you and throw you in the trash.” He reads the headlines on his cell phone: “Protests in the South, despite the army siege of the regime. Nineteen-year-old boy killed on the coast by sniper bullet.” He switches to international news: “The Islamist militias are fighting the government in the capital of Libya. Democratic elections for the first time in Tunisia. A new sex scandal around Berlusconi.”
He turns his head to the left. A man in his fifties is eating sunflower seeds as he watches the third-rate film that is shown on the screen of the vehicle. Youssef never liked this custom of showing bad movies on crowded buses. You can’t hear the voice of the actors and this type of movie from the 1970s always has a happy ending: the two heroes get married while the bad guys are dead or in prison.
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Omar Youssef Souleimane is a poet, a novelist, and a journalist. He was born in Syria in 1987 and has lived in France since 2012. His last book, Le dernier Syrien, was published by Flammarion in Paris in January 2020 and has just been nominated for Le Prix de la littérature arabe by L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. His previously published books include Le Petit terroriste (Flammarion, 2018) adapted for theater, and Loin de Damas (Poems) (Le Temps des cerises, 2016). His last novel Une chambre en exil has just been published by Flammarion. It was nominated for the literary prize Jean Daniel and the Le Prix de la littérature Arabe by L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
Ghada Mourad teaches French and Francophone studies and Humanities in Southern California. Her translations from Arabic and French appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies including The Common, Asymptote, Banipal, Jadaliyya, PEN English, ArabLit, Metamorphoses, Transference, Al-Jadid, Denver Quarterly, A Gathering of the Tribes, among others.