I confess myself bowled over in appreciation of Ghada Samman’s compelling new novel, Farewell, Damascus, recounting a young married girl’s awakening sense of having lost her life after handing it over to a man she once loved, now become her hateful enemy. This young woman freely determines each day how to live dependent on no one, whether lover/ husband, father, or even her Grandma, who advises her to confide in no one (or perhaps just in God, as the mother advises in Walker’s The Color Purple). So Zain assumes control of her own destiny. Treading between her passions, thoughts and aspirations, she mixes with her neighbours, unearthing surprising sympathies, while expressing herself in burgeoning stories. Zain learns the hard lesson of every woman, whether in England or Syria; a woman’s path leads through the thorns of adversity. Ghada recounts her tale in a combination of realistic dialogues, with dream, fantasy and magic realism leavening its inspirational prose. Zain is accompanied everywhere by the familiar or symbol of her owl, her own unconscious and her indefatigable female soul which many around her determine to suppress.
Her companion owl is also her mother Hind, who, far from being able to write, had been slaughtered through the criminal negligence of a fundamentalist brother-in-law. He determined that the jewel of a woman’s body should be hidden from a doctor during her time of greatest physical peril while giving birth, wickedly allowing his sister-in-law to die in childbirth, refusing her even life. The outrages of a blind and deaf, but not dumb, patriarchy tramples through this book. But its ravages are disdained by Zain and her fellow women, who daintily but determinedly step through adversity to the best of their ability, honing their hidden strengths. Zain instigates a small revolution in Damascus, inspiring women around her to throw off the shackles that bind half of the population from even living, and blocking meaningful life. Thus Zain reclaims her ‘squeezed lemon’ body and rights from her husband and even her loving father, as well as the potential lover that she could so readily fall for. She leads the way through the wilderness of the beautiful Damascus, a death-trap of violence, rape and injustice for the pure women who emerge with dignity in refusing to admit defeat or take denial for an answer.
Zain is confused about what she might attempt, let alone achieve. Her father, working through the terrible guilt of allowing his beloved wife to die for outdated, pernicious notions, has actually always encouraged his daughter to build up her strengths. He taught her to use her ‘second engine’ and not give in to adversity when she feels drained; he also encouraged her to resolve her own mistakes, whether marrying for blind love, divorcing when her love dies, or learning to fix an old rattle-trap of a car that a sharp has sold her. He is there for his daughter, as is her Grandma Hayat, truly named ‘life,’ just as Eve was similarly called ‘Havva,’ the mother of all living, who initiated all history by her brave defiance against the limiting restraints of the garden of Eden.
Samman takes us through the gardens of Damascus, even as they are being submerged in concrete over-construction that is swamping the cities of our beautiful world. Zain’s initiative enables others to step out in courage against physical and psychic ravages and follow her own heart and mind. She inspires a girl sold into service, then married into a new form of servitude because of her great beauty, to live beyond dancing at her husband’s second wife’s wedding, actually to take up arms against her husband together with her co-wife. As Carter enquires, when will women learn to team up against the patriarchs in order to throw off oppression—perhaps keeping the men on to do the housework. Strains of Carter and her indefatigable Fevver of Nights at the Circus emerge here in the magic realism of Zain’s fantasies, her owl flying along side, as she learns to stretch her budding wings; if there is no road available for women to follow, then flight above adversity may be the only route.
This stunning novel adopts Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness, reminding us of such derisions: “Women can’t write. Women can’t paint,” and Walker’s dialogues, as when Celie’s husband retorts:“You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, you nothing at all,” to which she retorts:“I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly. But I’m here,” which she definitively proves. Ghada Samman joins this noble community of women writers, rejecting narrowly patriarchal concepts and victimhood and embracing the maternal womb of sisterhood. Zain constructs herself into a boulder, her owl in her mirror swooping along beside her; what I would call the stony Medusa Gaze. As the women of Samman’s novel forcibly demonstrate, Islam was not created as a religion to crush women, despite the scenes we frequently witness in today’s world.
Gillian M.E. Alban lives and teaches English Literature in Istanbul. Her recent book, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Literature: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017), illustrates the power of the female gaze to strengthen women through modern women’s writings. Her first book was Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology (Lanham Press, 2003). She believes in the empowering force of literature and myth for women. Further information on her website: gillianmealban.com.