The 19th-century realists called and they want their novel back. That would be a fair one-liner review of Shahla Ujayli’s third novel, A Sky Close to our House (2015).
Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2016, the novel takes place over the Levant (Palestine, Syria and Jordan), Europe, the US and exotic places as far as Vietnam and Oman’s Musandam Peninsula. It spans the last decades of the 18th Century all the way to 2015, following the story of 40-something Syrian exile Juman Badran and, through omniscient flashbacks inserted into the narrative, her family back in Aleppo since the late 1800s. The scope is clearly ambitious, and yet Ujayli successfully anchors her narrative in the bourgeois universe of early modern Arab subjects, creating a story that is at once relevant and wistfully nostalgic.
Reading it is like watching the Egyptian film Rodda Qalby (Return My Heart, 1957), which chronicles the fall of the Egyptian bourgeoisie and the rise of the post-colonial nation state, with its socialist, anti-imperialist worldview. Ujayli herself is only 44 years old, meaning she didn’t witness Syria’s early modern Arab bourgeoisie, which started forming in the 1860s and lasted less than a century. By the time Ujayli was born, that world was long gone. The novel’s overflowing nostalgia for it, which is told brilliantly, although rather erratically — there is a jerky rhythm to Ujayli’s narrative — feels anachronistic: It is strange to read a very convincing portrayal of the hopes of those early modern subjects 100 years after their disappearance, written in a world they would not recognize.
Ujayli’s novel is also oddly reminiscent of 19th-century French novels, such as Dumas fils’ The Lady of the Camellias, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary and Balzac’s The Human Comedy — all capturing the lives of the rising bourgeoisie in the post-revolutionary state, and all centered around women who face terrible fates by virtue or vice of having entertained lofty aspirations. Those French realists seem to have sought to punish the bourgeoisie for wanting what the revolution and modern capitalism promised: the decadence of the embattled aristocracy. Ujayli doesn’t shy away from punishing her protagonists in the same way — including but not limited to terminal disease, sudden death and reversal of fortune — but for entirely different reasons. She’s not interested in mocking or revealing the short-sightedness of the early Arab bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary, she exalts their nobility in comparison to the corrupt and cruel post-independence state. Ujayli’s politics border on reactionary, to the point of sounding monarchist.
But the politics is not the only aspect of the novel that feels off-tune or out of touch. Unlike the measured narratives of the French realists, Ujayli’s stories spin out of control. They verge on magical realism, but without the magic or the irony. Nearly every character in her novel gets their own side story, and each ends up being linked to a celebrity (Dalida, Christopher Columbus, the terrorist Abu Hamza al-Masri) or a global event. It is impossible not to laugh at the naïveté, especially as these subplots are written so convincingly and with a flourish that feels self-congratulatory. There’s a certain childish fantasy about creating characters all aligned to momentous events or renowned historical figures. It feels as if Ujayli has to justify the importance of her characters’ lives — to legitimize their significance and place in the world — ultimately creating exactly the opposite effect: her characters and events read as caricatures of something more meaningful or real.
The most memorable and disturbing aspect of Ujayli’s novel, however, is the parallel she creates between Juman’s exile from Syria to Jordan and eventual cancer ordeal, and the suffering of her family back in the inferno created by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Islamic State. Juman emphatically repeats statements such as, “At least you still have your health,” talking over the phone to her siblings back in Syria who are being bombed and otherwise attacked by everyone from Assad’s forces to Islamist militias. It is a comparative study of misery in inexplicable bad taste. There can be no comparison between an exile receiving treatment for cancer and the lives of Syrians under siege. For one thing, cancer is a disease that is not motivated by any political agenda and is relatively indiscriminate. Syria’s civil war cannot be seen within the paradigm of a pernicious malignancy, no matter how attractive the figurative language sounds — the comparison with a random cell mutation undermines the intentional ethical choices Assad has been making throughout the past five years.
The pages and pages where Ujayli’s protagonist wallows in self-pity slowly erodes any sympathy we might have for her. The insistence that developing cancer may be worse than what has happened in Syria, or that our empathy should be directed to Juman, undermines the novel to a critical degree. Cancer is a debilitating global malady that has claimed many lives, but the way in which it is compared here to living through one of the worst humanitarian crises since WWII is unproductive.
A Sky Close to Our House elides questions about how those Syrians who cannot leave are living, and what futures they envision when one day the war comes to an end. In a way, Ujayli remains true to the Syrian tragedy as it is: Her protagonist escapes the war, survives the “cancer of that experience” and moves on, while her fellow citizens languish in oblivion and horror. This seems pretty symptomatic of how the world at large is dealing with Syria. For the IPAF, the fact that the Syrian civil war has been raging on for five years no doubt begs the question of what kind of literary texts such a tragedy will produce. It makes sense that they feel compelled to include narrative voices from Syria, but they have included a novel that has very questionable politics. Perhaps this too is fitting: Ujayli disappoints, but so does most of the Arab responses to what’s happening.
Ujayli has previously written a collection of short stories, Mashrabiya (2005), and two novels, Eye of the Cat (2009) and Persian Rug (2013). These all took a more experimental approach. Eye of the Cat uses a non-linear narrative to explore issues of sexuality and mysticism. Persian Rug continues her historical exploration of Northern Syria through the inter-faith conflict between shia and sunni Muslims during the Abbasid period in Raqqa. A Sky Close to Our House fits with Ujayli’s literary-anthropological project to examine Arab sexuality and retell its history of Syria. While the protagonist does explore issues of cancer and body-image and how it effects one’s sexuality, in addition to expounding on various sexual experiences of Arab women, there is nothing especially poignant about those experiences or profound in their literary rendering.