Syrian novelist Shahla Ujayli’s ‘Summer With the Enemy’ is a hot summer read

Wherever you spend your summer, let yourself be transported to Syria and immerse yourself in the world of Shahla Ujayli’s historical novel Summer with the enemy.

The continuing devastation of the war that began in 2011 has focused the world’s attention on Syria. Reading a Syrian novel is a way to experience its deep and rich culture, history and literature beyond the headlines.

Summer with the enemy was a finalist for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction, sometimes known as the “Arab Booker Prize”. It was written in Arabic by Ujayli, one of the country’s most prominent female writers; I translated it into English a year later.

City of Raqqa

Ujayli’s evocative narration evokes the city of Raqqa, from its past as a dusty provincial town from the 1920s into the 20th century, to its occupation and 2017 siege by Islamic State (ISIS) militants. In Summer with the enemythe main characters must eventually leave Raqqa for a new life in Germany.

A detailed and intricate portrait of three generations of one family in this northern Syrian city, Summer with the enemy combines historical fiction with a romance and a coming-of-age story with a story of first love. The characters challenge Western stereotypes about Arab-Muslim women – that they must be “rescued” from oppressive realities – through descriptions of their active, diverse and complex lives.

The city of Raqqa is so important to the story that one reviewer claims it is actually a character in the novel.

Family drama, first love

Summer with the enemy by Shahla Ujayli, translated by Michelle Hartman (Interlink Publishing)

It’s hard not to feel drawn to the Raqqa of the past, with its tight-knit multi-ethnic community rife with local conflict and family drama.

Each story told by the grandmother puts the younger generations in suspense, waiting to hear about a scandal, an illicit affair, a failed love match or an exotic trip abroad. She always leaves her audience wanting more when she gets up mid-sentence to stir the coffee on the stove, which builds tension.

During the summer of the title, in the 80s, the protagonist, Lamees, rides a horse along the Euphrates, a vast desert that surrounds her, and dreams of an equestrian future.

Horses mean she can avoid her mother. Their relationship had become strained, after Lamees’ father left Syria, never to return. Lamees resents his mother’s budding romance with a visiting German professor, Nicolas, the book’s title enemy. The girl serves as a local guide for Nicolas, who leaves once his research is complete. The women later call on Nicholas to find passage to Germany after their beloved city falls.

Revisiting memories of Raqqa

About 10 years after the fictional Lamees lived in Raqqa, experiencing the Assad government’s belt-tightening policies, I embarked on the long journey from Damascus with a university friend. In the summer of 1995, my visit revealed a Raqqa very similar to the one Lamees showed his German enemy.

But when I was in Raqqa in the 90s, I had no idea that more than 20 years later I would be video chatting with a famous Syrian author from the city. Ujayli was giving me a sort of interview before I translated his novel. Among other questions, she asked me: “Have you ever been to Raqqa?”

I was happy to say yes – I had visited long before most people outside of Syria had ever heard of Raqqa. I prepared to translate this novel by revisiting this trip by talking to Ujayli and reviewing old photographs, revisiting memories of the place.

Translate Arabic to English

During an interview about my translation process, an interviewer asked me the same question.

Translating Arab women writers from Arabic into English has a difficult history: many translations have been altered so much that they are unrecognizable.

As researchers have shown, the overall focus of a book can change with translations creating new titles, edited and censored sections, altered narrative voices, and altered entire characterizations.

I worked with Ujayli to convey the details of the text with precision, while finding words to give the new English text as much life as the Arabic original.

In the summer of 2019, I translated the novel in a Lebanese mountain village. Just across the border, Syria was visible on a clear day. That summer we could hear the echoes of the bombs dropped in the valley.

Focused on conveying the details and intricacies of the book, I felt the tension between the book’s beautiful depiction of the past and Ujayli’s searing description of life under ISIS occupation, from fierce battles to Raqqa and Lamees’ subsequent flight to Germany.

Lessons in empathy

The total destruction of Raqqa between 2013 and 2017 and any semblance of past lives lived there felt so real.

Lebanon is a country that still bears the scars of its long civil war (1975-90). The reverberations of the bombs that we heard that summer in Lebanon had an undeniable impact on the translation. The words a translator chooses to translate are always influenced by their environment.

Ujayli’s novels offer “lessons in empathy”, as noted by Marcia Lynx Qualey, founding editor of the ArabLit website.

Filled with humor, drama, romance and 100 years of history, Summer with the enemy puts women at the center of attention, will take readers to the heart of a woman’s coming of age in Syria and offer insight into her past and present.

michelle hartmannProfessor and Director, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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