Nihad Sirees’s new novel is a study in storytelling set in the golden age of Syria
One stormy night, a bank employee is driving home from a business trip when his car breaks down. Trekking through darkness and rain, pursued by packs of howling wild dogs, he eventually arrives at a secluded mansion and is invited in by its elderly owner and his taciturn manservant. When the man asks his host who he is and what brought him to live in such a remote place, it triggers what turns out to be the strangest tale he has ever heard.
So begins Nihad Sirees’s latest novel to be published in English (ably translated by Max Weiss). It couldn’t be more different than his last one, the supremely accomplished The Silence and the Roar. That book chronicled a day in the life of Fathi, an oppressed civilian struggling to stay sane and be heard in a totalitarian state where “madness reigned over all existence”. The country remained nameless, but it was hard not to see it as anything other than Assad’s Syria – and Sirees’s homeland, from which he was forced to flee for exile abroad.
In contrast, States of Passion is set in a named place (Syria during its golden age) and narrated by an anonymous man. First published in Lebanon in 1998, States of Passion harks back to a happier, more peaceful era. However, against that supposedly stable backdrop, Sirees creates tension and intrigue from a potent mix of fraught relationships, forbidden desires and guilty secrets.
The narrator sits down to listen to the start of the aged gentleman’s tale. In September 1936, beautiful 18-year-old Widad leaves her border village for the big smoke of Aleppo. She carries with her a letter of introduction written by her mother, Badia, shortly before her recent death, to be presented to Khojah Bahira, formerly one of the most famous singers in the city.
At this juncture, the old man – who is later named as Shaykh Nafeh – branches off, suspending Widad’s tale for Badia’s backstory. Years earlier, Bahira gave shelter to Badia, and ushered this innocent, inexperienced peasant girl into the exotic and unconventional binat al-ishreh, a society of women who live, play and perform song and dance together. But despite Bahira’s repeated warnings about men (her “mortal enemies” being “fearsome savages” who “stirred up women’s worries, put foetuses in their wombs”), Badia falls for a Turkish officer. He disappears during the Great War, leaving Badia pregnant with Widad and no option but to abandon Bahira and swap the city for the sticks.
When Nafeh picks up the thread of Widad’s story, we see her following in her mother’s footsteps: inhabiting an all-female realm, captivating audiences as a wedding dancer, and disregarding Bahira’s stern caution about men by contemplating a future with one young man who considers her the love of his life.
On a basic level, Sirees’s novel takes the form of a single story – a fireside yarn – recounted across five days and nights. Closer scrutiny reveals it to be a series of stories. Nafeh’s tale comprises tangents and detours, each of them either naturally running their course or artfully feeding back into the main narrative. Some distract and disorientate; most prove satisfying. After describing Badia and Widad’s Aleppo adventures, Nafeh concludes with a third history, his own, that involves a life-changing encounter and a tragic outcome.
Widad binds together all three strands and prevents the book from reading like a collection of disparate stories. While Widad is a beguiling presence, it is Bahira and her close-knit coterie of women and the attendant vanities, loyalties, jealousies and entanglements that truly enthral.
But the novel yields one more story – that of the narrator. The longer he stays in the house listening to Nafeh replay the past, the more uncomfortable he feels. Things go bump in the rainswept night. He is poisoned by the food, startled by a masked intruder and routinely threatened by the butler – a man who starts out sinister, but ends up menacing.
These intercut segments thrill and unnerve, like sections of a Gothic chiller. The narrator comes to believe that the butler, Ismail, has something to hide, and despite the growing danger to his own life, is determined to stick around until the bitter end of Nafeh’s tale. The reader is compelled to do the same.
In places, Sirees over-eggs the mayhem and suspense with some cheap tricks: the narrator’s discovery of a scorpion in his room one night and a snake the next feels like the desperate ploy of a cut-price Bond villain. Otherwise, that crucial element of mystery is as beautifully controlled as the treatment of young love, unorthodox living and thwarted ideals are elsewhere.
This is an absorbing novel that celebrates the art of storytelling. As Sirees’s characters tell their tales, they disclose a lot about themselves and present a valuable snapshot of a vanished world.