There is something disconcerting about reading a story in which characters vanish and reappear all of a sudden — and this is the unsettling hallmark of Almas w Nisaa (Diamonds and Women, 2014), the most recent work of Syrian author Lina Hawyan al-Hassan.
The IPAF-shortlisted novel is an unpredictable tribute to Syria’s past and a nod to its tragic present. It is peppered by stories of people, fabrics and struggles for independence, stories that are rich yet sometimes patchy and not unproblematic.
Part fashion memoir, part historical research and part literary snippets, Diamonds and Women reconstructs a history of Syria on the eve of World War I through the lives of the Syrian elite and the region’s first immigrants to South America. The Levantine immigration there was one of the most significant demographic phenomena of the 19th and 20th centuries for Syria and Lebanon, and Hassan often seems more interested in this history than her characters.
Although historically the early émigrés were middle and lower-middle class immigrants, Hassan retells the narrative through Almaz (Turkish for “diamonds”) and her Francophone, multiethnic social circle. The story then continues through Almaz’s son and his two childhood friends.
In contrast to her previous novels, which were often based in the Syrian desert and on living among Bedouins (The Beloved of the Sun, 1998, Daughters of Naash, 2005, The Sultanesses of the Sand, 2009), Diamonds and Women takes place across Damascus, Paris, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Beirut, São Paulo, Moscow and Buenos Aires. In her 300 pages Hassan repeatedly criss-crosses across the Atlantic and Mediterranean in disorienting patterns – not in a postmodern sense, but in a jumpy way, sometimes making me wonder if she is skipping times, places and characters out of sheer inattention.
From the beginning, the plot is inconsistent. Hassan’s characters, though often richly constructed, suddenly drop out of the narrative with little or no empathy for the character or the reader – perhaps a rather utilitarian approach to character development. They are alive and well as long as they serve their purpose, but once they hinder her quest, they are swiftly pushed off a cliff (literally in one case) or murdered by intruders (an Abyssinian maid is killed in an act of symbolic racial violence that is profoundly disturbing).
As the author explores Syria’s modern history through that wave of immigration, women are central to the story. Hassan depicts women as pioneers in settling and leading the Syrian communities in Brazil and Argentina, but her references to the history of the early women’s movement in Syria and in Egypt seem hasty and forced. She drops names, cites events and even makes Almaz herself a proto-feminist, but it all feels a bit superficial.
In an interview, Hassan has discussed creating empowered female characters condemned by society for their choices and their fight for freedom. Nonetheless, they tend to fall prey to abusive and manipulative men who drive them to prostitution or madness. With very few exceptions, nearly all the women in this novel are subject to some kind of abuse at the hands of men they care about – for example Almaz’s nemesis is her distant, unfaithful husband.
The few women depicted as powerful, meanwhile, are also heartless and calculating. The beautiful but ruthless Nadja, for example, tricks men and steals their fortunes, and Damascus’ most coveted mistress, Latifah, is not dissimilar.
Both stereotypes reflect a classical solution to the “problem” of the strong female character. There is little empowerment in women who derive their sense of worth and well-being from men who regard them as personal possessions — a glaring, unsettling contradiction for the feminist characters the author claims to have created.
If the women themselves aren’t fully developed, Hassan’s fascination with their fashion becomes the strongest feature of the story. She revels in the elaborate fabrics of Damascus in the early 19th century, using them as recurring motifs carrying the beauty, mystery and burden of history — perhaps to the detriment of the story itself. The story of each fabric’s creation is described, as well as its patterns and motifs and how they relate to the history of the city and its inhabitants. And we also learn who makes, sells, buys, wears or passes them on.
But where Hassan shines is making the many cities her characters traverse come alive. Unsurprisingly, Damascus takes the lion’s share of the novel, with lengthy passages on old palaces, rivers and markets — a beautifully evocative depiction that speaks volumes for the author’s fascination with the historical city. Hassan laments the state’s destruction of parts of the old city in the 1970s and 1980s for the sake of modernization. Just as her characters escape Damascus during the two world wars, they escape again in the early 1970s by the time Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000) assumes power and Syria dramatically transforms again.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is the author’s attempt to draw parallels between the present and a past haunted by state monopolies, censorship and omissions. The great Syrian migration from the early 19th century all the way to the 1970s painfully resembles the massive exodus taking place in Syria since 2011 (about 4 million refugees have fled Syria since the outbreak of the war).
The Kurdish saga and the dream of a homeland is exemplified through the Kurdish-Syrian character Butan, a descendant of Kurdish princes defeated by the Ottoman Empire — a storyline echoing the current crisis of Kurdish separatists and their war in Syria and Iraq. The repercussions of the Ottoman millet system that dominated Syria since the early 17th century, which separated Jews from Christians and Muslims, and divided Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites, separate from the Druze, and so on, tragically parallels the deeply divided Syrian people at the moment. It becomes impossible to read such history without realizing the terrible manifestations it has in the present.
Hassan also possesses a distinctive voice and uncanny ability to create these intriguing atmospheres and settings. And her damning portrayal of some of her female protagonists is balanced by the stories of hope and reconciliation: a Jewish man falls in love with a Muslim woman and marries her in São Paulo, a Muslim raises a Christian child, a Kurdish activist campaigns for freedom.
Hassan is aware of the impossibility of writing the present as it unfolds, and by looking at the past through her characters’ complex stories, she constructs her temperamental novel. The narratives might be threadbare, but they are not without their charms.