Friday, 20 September 2013

Book Review: The Calligrapher's Secret by Rafik Schami is often on the news these days, but only when new atrocities of the dictatorial regime against civilians become known or because heads of state disagree on what should be done to end the senseless slaughtering. Ever since the last days of the Ottoman Empire the Middle East has been a region of unrest, and yet, Syria remained an important centre of Arabic culture, above all the big cities Damascus and Aleppo. Allow me to once again turn back time and to take you to Damascus in the 1940s and 1950s with my review of The Calligrapher's Secret by Rafik Schami.

Rafik Schami (رفيق شامي) means friend from Damascus and is the penname of Suheil Fadél (سهيل فاضل). The writer in German (and in the early stages in Arabic, too) was born in Damascus, Syria, in June 1946. At the age of twenty he co-founded and ran the wall news-sheet Al-Muntalek in Damascus which was banned in 1970. The following year Rafik Schami went to Germany where he pursued doctoral studies in chemistry while doing unskilled work for a living and writing fiction in his spare time. Soon his writings (among them also tales for children) were published and won several literary awards which allowed him to become a fulltime writer in 1982. Despite his success in German-speaking countries only few of his works have been translated into English like for instance A Handful of Stars (Eine Hand voller Sterne: 1987), Damascus Nights (Erzähler der Nacht: 1989) and The Dark Side of Love (Die dunkle Seite der Liebe: 2004). The novel The Calligrapher's Secret (Das Geheimnis des Kalligraphen) came out in 2008. Rafik Schami lives in Marnheim, Germany, with his family.

The Calligrapher's Secret begins in April 1957 on an unusually hot morning when rumour spreads in the streets of Damascus that Noura, the beautiful wife of the famous and rich calligrapher Hamid Farsi, has run away. In an Arabic, more precisely a Muslim environment this is a life-threatening crime for a woman to commit, even more so in the novel’s time period. People say that Noura felt insulted by the ardent love letters from Nasri Abbani which the womanizer known all over town and almost illiterate had ordered from her unknowing husband to seduce her. The First Kernel of the Truth behind the whole story lies in the lives of the protagonists. There is Noura, of course. She is the daughter of the respected, well-read and fairly modern imam Sheikh Rami Arabi who allowed her to go to school and to become a dressmaker. When Noura was about eighteen, she entered into an arranged marriage with Hamid Farsi. Restricted to house and yard like any good Muslim wife, she lived lonely and boring years until she met Salman, her husband’s apprentice and errand-boy. Salman is the son of a poor Christian family living in the Grace and Favour Yard in the Christian quarter of Damascus. Already as a child he began to support his sick mother and to protect her from her violet husband. He worked as a waiter in Karam’s café until several years later when he got a position as Hamid Farsi’s apprentice with the help of his boss. Noura and Salman fell in love virtually at first sight and began a secret as well as dangerous affair. The Second Kernel of the Truth leading to the disgrace and subsequent fall of Hamid Farsi lies in his passion for Arabic calligraphy and his attempt to reform the script. He goes about the modernisation with so much zeal that he is blind for the danger arising from religious fanatics who call themselves “The Pure Ones”. Only little by little the role of each one of the novel’s characters in the course of events is revealed.

It’s a complex and interlocked story which Rafik Schami unfolds in The Calligrapher's Secret. The plot is so rich and varying that it would have justified even more pages to develop, especially in the second half of the novel which feels a bit cursory. The book is a little different from what we are used to today, since its author isn’t just a novelist, but a story-teller who combines the best of Arabic oral tradition and western literary skill. Language and style are modern and accessible. Of course, I read the original German version of the book, but it is said that its English translation by Anthea Bell is excellent. The setting gives the novel the touch of a fairy-tale from the Arabian Nights. At the same time Rafik Schami isn’t sparing of criticism. The novel’s world is far from perfect. Intelligent women are forced into the roles of subdued wives who are excluded from society and life altogether. Men are discontent with what they believe to be expected of them or they are confused by the fact that neither they nor their wives are happy. Traditions are held in high esteem and even small changes are seen as threats to cultural identity and true faith. In this very realistic world of the past (which could just as well be the present) reformers have a difficult, even dangerous life.

I passed a good time reading The Calligrapher's Secret. Someone who looks for a sentimental love story or for an exciting mystery may be disappointed although the novel includes some elements of both. For me it has been a very enjoyable read which helped me to understand the Arabic mind a little better. I invite you to discover the stories of Noura, Salman, Hamid, Nasri, Karam and all the others who populate Rafik Schami’s novelistic Damascus. It's worth the time.


  1. Thank you for this fantastic review. I loved "The Calligrapher's Secret", too.I loved the history of calligraphy, the description of Arab life, the historical aspect, just everything about the book.

    Marianne from Let's Read

    1. Yes, it's a wonderful book - although there are people who don't like it (I read a rather condescending review by an Australian writer about it). I think such books are important too because they help to get a bit of an idea of why Arabs are the way they are - the cultural background I mean.

      Thanks for your comment Marianne!

  2. Great review. This book sounds interesting!

    1. I'm glad that my review aroused your interest in the book, Melinda. Thanks for the comment.


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