The last two decades of bloodshed in the Levant have offered a macabre challenge to Arab authors seeking to communicate the horrors their societies have endured. Iraqi novelists in particular have stretched their imaginations to the darkest possible corners, as in Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, two works that revel in the surreal and hideous.
Syria’s Faysal Khartash, by contrast, offers an account of the war in Syria which conveys a certain numbness in its realism and minimalism as it confronts multiple levels of barbarism. Roundabout of Death is billed as a novel, but its 18 short chapters, while chronological, eschew story, plot, and even characterization in favor of finely-detailed accounts of the brutality unfolding all around the narrator in Aleppo. Fittingly, this approach seems to mirror the illogic and confusion of the mess in Syria since the Assad regime’s hyperviolent response to unrest during the Arab Spring in 2011. The Syrian conflict has been called a civil war, an uprising, and a revolution, with added factors such as ethnic cleansing—of Sunni Muslims—and the wholehearted, bloodthirsty involvement of Baathist Syria’s Russian and Iranian patrons. The resulting chaos brought not only confusion but a weird apathy. The varying settings and moods are admirably rendered in Max Weiss’s solid translation from Arabic.
Witness the distraction that beckons the narrator, Jumaa Abd al-Jaleel, and those around him. When Jumaa’s weeping mother informs him over the phone that her home in the Midan neighborhood has been destroyed, his emotional retreat, as he sits in a café in Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, is swift:
“I was overcome with sorrow and bitterness. I didn’t say a word, kept silent, distanced myself by observing the pine tree in the public park. The treetop was so tall, it seemed boastful and proud, it could have been the first tree ever planted in this park.”
That is that. Then a Palestinian who frequents this favorite café of Jumaa’s recounts his visit to a doctor for advice about his son’s sudden bout of extreme phobias:
“[He] said that his son would start convulsing whenever he heard the sound of a missile, and after the seizure stopped, he would lie down in his father’s lap and start crying. The doctor said all this was very normal. “How old is the boy?”
The reader immediately wonders: Two? Four? Six?
“Sixteen,” the Palestinian answers.
The doctor again reassures him that this is normal.
Khartash is a native of Aleppo, so it is striking that instead of emphasizing the long and widespread devastation of the city, he confines his tale to what his protagonist sees and touches daily. Aleppo was once a city of captivating beauty and diversity, whose native sons and daughters are fond of boasting that it was richer and older than Damascus. The twists and turns of its ancient covered souqs rife with arches, columns, and promenades, with carpets and spices beyond anything that Damascus, Jerusalem, or Baghdad could offer. 700 years of this splendid and vibrant living artifact were torched and left in ruins, along with Aleppo’s hospitals, by the hammer of the Assad regime. Those who know Aleppo knew that this was the equivalent of Milan or Florence being razed, their art and refinement availing nothing to the thugs whose only mission was to terrorize. Khartash instead focuses his lens on Jumaa’s activities in Jabiri Square, adjacent to Aleppo’s biggest public park, and nearby locations in the neighborhoods of al-Telal, Aziziyeh, Bab Antakya, and Sulayman al-Halabi were frequented by middle-class Syrians in regime-controlled territory.
With Jumaa’s teaching career becalmed, he spent his days sitting in cafes, one of which, the real-life Joha’s Club, was destroyed in 2012, along with most other buildings lining Saadallah al-Jabiri Square. (At least one structure survives: “The business hotel now looked like an old man staring at his own grave.”) He gazes out at the street fighting, police harassment of young men, prostitution, and sporadic aerial bombing while his companions share tales of violence and tips about escaping to Turkey or Europe.
We learn that Jumaa’s brother-in-law was shot by a sniper, and that his widowed sister retreats from the world as her family members turn on each other, some supporting the regime, some the Free Syrian Army, while their eastern part of Aleppo “became a shooting range for barrel bombs.” Meanwhile, his younger sister is wooed and wed by a married man whose patience with his wife—who has produced three daughters but no sons—is at an end. While this sister is busily tweezing her eyebrows and filing her nails, the wronged first wife screams imprecations and douses herself with gasoline in the courtyard of their home as her sobbing daughters watch. As soon as her husband shows up, she strikes a match and immolates herself, “but my sister didn’t move a muscle, just sat there with the nail polish applicator in her hand, holding on to her toes as if nothing had happened …”
Beyond the characters’ numbness to the nightmare they inhabit, the understated storytelling sometimes seems to have an eloquence of its own, in a story, and a reality, marked by silence and erasure. This is especially pronounced in the fourteenth part of the book, entitled “My Son, Without Any Protection,” when Jumaa learns that his college-aged son Nawwar has been arrested by regime thugs. The boy is released to his family after 45 days of beatings and torture, and like his father, like the Palestinian teenager, like the indifferent sister, he turns inward, becoming emotionally distant from his family. Eventually, Nawwar quietly abandons his bedroom refuge to take illegal passage to Turkey. Jumaa’s devastated empty-nest wife then tells him, “I want to get out of here.”
“But go where?” Jumaa asks.
“Raqqa. Didn’t you say you know a lot of people there? Rent us a house, any house, we’ll just go.”
Raqqa, of course, has by then fallen into the hands of psychopaths and murderers, albeit in the cause of Allah and not the Baath Party. In the following chapter, entitled “Raqqa … Capital of the Islamic State,” the hapless Jumaa scopes out the real estate for his anguished wife. He discovers a tactful Islamic utopia where merchants do not dare overcharge their mujahid overlords, perhaps because the city’s famous clock tower square is adorned with the severed heads of miscreants, “carefully arranged … one to the east and two facing north, placed on the edge of the clock as people took pictures. On the ground, along the base of the clock, were decapitated corpses.”
Jumaa experiences several days of terrifying hospitality and honesty at the hands of European, American, Arab and other vile and misguided emigrants to the Islamic State. One of these recognizes Jumaa in the street as someone he once met on a visit to France. Bahaa, a dapper Beirut-born Frenchman, who once aspired to model for Chanel in Paris, is now Abu Muhammad Bahaa al-Din al-Faransi, carrying a Kalashnikov and bristling with weapons and hand grenades. He explains his religious conversion to Jumaa over a convivial dinner, his treat, but the renewed friendship reaches a dead end the next day when Bahaa vanishes. When Jumaa tries to find him, he learns that his old acquaintance has left on a suicide mission: “Heaven was his final destination,” Bahaa’s ISIS housemate informs Jumaa. Our narrator laconically records these encounters and then his circuitous bus ride, marked with detours and bribery, back home to Aleppo.
The Abd al-Jaleels do not move to Raqqa, but based on what we have learned about the banal and empty lives of the young men and women, from Belgium to Indonesia, who did move there to live or die, we have to ask, might Jamaa and his family have fit in as jihadist pioneers had they made the move? Were all the ISIS demographic hardened fanatics, or perhaps destroyed, disillusioned spouses like these who had survived the secular dead ends of Syria and Europe and placed a final despairing bet on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s desert paradise? The capital of the Islamic state, as it is shown to us, is no more or less terrifying than either half of bisected Aleppo. The Syrians in Khartash’s slender book learn that there is no escaping death and terror. They all have appointments in Samarra, and everyplace is Samarra.
Jumaa gets home in time to learn that his son has found a job in Istanbul and that both his sister’s sons—one pro-Assad, one not— have been killed. After a mourning ceremony attended by young men in camouflage, he passes by his now-empty café only to end his narration with a rendezvous with the roundabout of death to buy groceries. We know he survived the journey home from Raqqa, because we have his book, which closes with his quest for vegetables in “the new part of Aleppo, the southern part, the roundabout of death,” but there is always another pass around that inevitable rotary.
Peter Theroux is a writer and translator who lives in Los Angeles.