Partly fiction, but mostly not, the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.
The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.
‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques. The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’
The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service. He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives. When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.
On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest. His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased. Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.
This sense of freedom is shortlived. In fact his problems are truly just starting. By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service, his country has plunged into Civil War.
The regime would never dare, they said. As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react. They said.
Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs. The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches as the bombs start falling.
Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay. More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.
The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble. Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible. Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because. Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.
This is not a political book. It is a book about a humanitarian disaster. If the author makes judgement at all, is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other. These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.
Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds. It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness.
He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with. That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.
May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires. Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.
The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:
I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.
No! The woman replied. We must save the cats not shoot them.
I meant photograph them, Sami replied.
Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.
Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book. Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey. Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says: look, this happened. This is still happening. What did you do when you knew?
My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.