Arabic Literature (in English) - 5 Books to Read Before You Die
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By Samar Yazbek
Translated by Emily Danby.
‘[Her novel] is a defiant and resonating cry. Ground-breaking… it merits our attention and concern.’ - Arab Weekly (al-‘Arab al-’Usbū‘ī)
Published in its original Arabic in 2008, Cinnamon is the first of Samar Yazbek’s novels to be translated into English. Set in Damascus, it centres upon the story of an illicit sexual relationship between an upper-class woman and her young female servant. When events lead to their separation, the novel vividly portrays the disparate lives of its two protagonists; that of the older woman, secluded in her sterile mansion, and that of the girl as she journeys back to the sordid alleys of her childhood.
Cinnamon is a remarkably bold novel, both in content and in tone. The lives of Yazbek’s characters allow her to explore contentious issues of class, gender and sexuality in her native Syria, and by implication, the wider Middle East. Furthermore, the book voices the same passion and defiance to be found in her most recent work, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution. Although written prior to the Arab Spring, Cinnamon remains highly pertinent to unfolding events; it conveys a palpable sense of the oppressive conditions, and the inequalities, that would soon erupt into protest. More personally, it resonates with Yazbek’s own political aspirations and provides insights into her reasons for identifying with the revolution, and participating in it, despite the considerable costs.
But Cinnamon also promises to challenge the more liberal sensibilities of ‘western’ readers. Occasionally prurient, often beautiful, Yazbek portrays the awakening sexuality of an older lesbian woman, together with that of the young girl in her service; the latter, however, is inducted into the sexual relationship when a minor. In this light, the novel’s more subtle shades of grey have the ability to challenge contemporary taboos. The work raises profound and unsettling questions about innocence and consent, abuse and love.
SAMAR YAZBEK was born in Jableh in 1970. She studied literature before beginning her career as a journalist and a scriptwriter for Syrian television and film. She is a celebrated author in her native Middle East; her novels in Arabic include Child of Heaven (2002), Clay (2005), Cinnamon (2008) and In Her Mirrors (2010). In 2010 she was selected as one of the Beirut39; a prestigious group comprising the 39 most promising writers of the Arab World, under the age of 39. But she has also achieved wider international prominence; she won the 2012 PEN Pinter Prize as a writer of outstanding courage, and also the 2012 Swedish Tucholsky Prize; awarded to writers who have made exceptional efforts to promote freedom of speech. Previous winners of the award include Salman Rushdie, Bei Dao and Nuruddin Farah. Yazbek has been deeply involved with the Syrian opposition since the uprisings broke out in March 2011. Fearing for the life of herself and daughter, she was eventually forced to flee the country and now lives in hiding.