States of Passion…
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
About the Book:
A hapless Aleppo bureaucrat is stranded in the middle of the deserted countryside as a violent storm sets in. When he seeks refuge in an isolated old mansion, inhabited by an aged gentleman and his sinister servant, he begins to uncover a captivating tale of family secrets, lost passions, and shady dealings.
He is transported by these stories to Aleppo’s golden age – a time of art, music, wealth and laughter – and the all-female society of the banat al-ishreh, a society of women who live, love, and perform song and dance together. And as he gradually realises how these entanglements of love and passion, cruelty and resentment, stretch across the generations, he discovers that his own life is also in danger.
Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world.
States of Passion was first published in 1998 in Arabic with this English translation being released just last month. Set in Aleppo in the 1930s and 1960s, this novel was such a treat for me. I’ve never read any novels set in Syria, much less ones actually written in Arabic by a Syrian author, so the experience of learning about a different culture and setting was impossible for me to resist. As far as translations go, this one was to me, done very well. I can only imagine that Arabic is pretty far removed from English in terms of words and phrases, yet this story flowed as seamlessly as if it had been originally written in English. I am not surprised the translator, Max Weiss, has won awards for his work. Now, onto the story itself.
On a dark and stormy night, a lost traveller stumbles upon a mysterious house containing an elderly man and an odd butler. The old man offers him shelter, warmth, and an intriguing story…
So many classic novels spring to mind with this sort of opening and Nihad Sirees harnesses this classically gothic feel to perfection. States of Passion is a story within a story and it’s narrated as though the author is intimately telling you about a situation he himself had once gotten into. The story that the old man tells his guest is equally as intriguing as the story of the narrator and his experiences within the house in his few days of staying there. There’s something not quite right about the whole scenario and the increasing menace from the butler, combined with the urgency of the old man to tell his story, spills over into a terrific atmosphere of dread and mystery. Even more alarming is the effect this has on our narrator. As he begins to fear for his life, his desire to hear the rest of the story increases to a fever pitch, leading him into a state where he appears to take leave of his senses, culminating in a terrifically entertaining narrative that I could barely put down.
“At this point, dear reader, I’d like to confess that, in that moment, standing by the window, I felt a little bit afraid, especially since the house was shrouded in mystery, its furnishings and lighting as well as the way the servant behaved and the way he looked at you. The most mysterious thing about the house was its very existence there.”
Embedded within the story the old man tells is a wealth of information about Aleppo in the 1930s. It was so interesting to read about the social classes, the way of life, the customs, and Aleppo’s place within a world caught between two world wars. This novel really is a treasure trove for history lovers who thrive on learning about different cultures. Nihad Sirees certainly knows how to spin a good story. Fortunately, Max Weiss has also translated another of Nihad’s novels, The Silence and the Roar, which I’m keen to also read.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of States of Passion for review.
About the Author:
Nihad Sirees was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1950. After working as an engineer, he became an acclaimed novelist, playwright and screenwriter, but found himself under increasing surveillance and pressure from the Syrian government. In 2012, he left for Egypt and now lives and works in exile in Berlin, Germany. Pushkin Press publish States of Passion, as well as The Silence and the Roar, banned in Syria.
About the Translator:
Max Weiss is a faculty member at Princeton University, specializing in the culture and history of the Middle East, and an award-winning translator of contemporary Arabic literature.
States of Passion
Published by Pushkin Press
Released September 2018