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Story within a story from Syria’s golden age

Noel Grima Sunday, 22 January 2023, 09:37 Last update: about 2 years ago

‘States of Passion’. Author: Nihad Sirees. Publisher: Pushkin Press / 2018. Pages: 253

First published in Arabic in Lebanon in 1998 and now published in translation, this book has been awarded the PEN Translates award for novels in translation.

The book opens when the narrator gets lost in a storm and finds refuge in the house of an elderly man who is served by a brooding butler. Soon the narrator finds himself listening over the next days to the old man's tale.

It is September 1936 and beautiful 18-year-old Widad leaves her village for the big city Aleppo. She carries with her a letter of introduction written by her mother Badia shortly before her recent death, to be presented to Khojah Bahira, formerly one of the most famous singers in the city.

It turns out that years earlier, Bahira gave shelter to Badia and ushered this innocent, inexperienced peasant girl into the exotic and unconventional binat al-ishreh, a society of women who live, play and perform song and dance together.

But despite Bahira's repeated warnings about men (her "mortal enemies" being "fearsome savages" who "stirred up women's worries, put foetuses in their wombs"), Badia falls for a Turkish officer who disappears during the Great War, leaving Badia pregnant with Widad with no option but to abandon Bahira and leave the city.

When we pick up the thread of Widad's story, we see her following in her mother's footsteps, inhabiting an all-female lesbian world, captivating audiences as a wedding dancer and disregarding Bahira's stern caution about men by contemplating a future with the one man who considers her the love of his life.

Nihad Sirees was born in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo (Halab) in 1950. He has a Masters in civil engineering and ran a private engineering office in Aleppo.

His first novels were published in the 1980s and he gained a reputation as a realist in his writings which reflect the environment in Aleppo and the lives of the middle class, as well as political, historical and social issues.

He has written seven novels and a number of plays, TV drama series and children's drama.

His novel The North Winds, which deals with the First World War and the blossoming of Syrian national consciousness at that time, was described by critics as one of the most important historical novels in Syria.

He is also recognised for his original approach to television drama with the widely screened series The Silk Market, set in the political turmoil of the 1950s and the 1960s which presented the environment, culture and dialect of Aleppo for the first time in Syrian television drama. This highly acclaimed television series was praised for its realism, courageousness and dramatic suspense. It is still being telecast on satellite channels and it has been translated for screening in English, Farsi (Iran) and German.

The author's work also includes a TV series about the Arab-American writer Kahlil Gibran which was screened in 2008 in countries around the Middle East.

His novel The Silence and the Roar, banned in Syria, has been published in German and French and most recently was published in English.

Branded an opponent of the Syrian government, after increasing surveillance and pressure from the Syrian government, Nihad Sirees left Syria for Egypt in early 2012 and now lives in Berlin.

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