Searching for life

Headshot of a woman with shoulder-length brown hair (Najat Abed Alsamad)
Syrian writer Najat Abed Alsamad was awarded the Katara Prize for her novel "La Ma'a Yarwiha" (No water quenches her thirst), which has been published in German as "Kein Wasser stillt ihren Durst" (image: Farah Abou Assali)

Najat Abed Alsamad's award-winning novel, "La Ma'a Yarwiha", has been published in German translation as "Kein Wasser stillt ihren Durst" (No water quenches her thirst). In it, she tells the story of a young Druze woman who roundly rejects the traditional rules imposed on her by her parents and relatives and begins a long fight for her freedom

By Volker Kaminski

From a young age, Hayat, the novel's protagonist, knows she will never be able to accept her parents' patriarchal rules and ideas. It's not just a matter of how suffocating it feels in her little family home in Damascus, where she grows up with her five sisters, two brothers, her violent father and unsympathetic mother. For Hayat, the end of her childhood also heralds a farewell which she has been anticipating for some time: "When I started my periods, that was the end of the joys of playing at the neighbour's house or anywhere else for that matter (...) I distanced myself from my family and let my thoughts wander through the sky, high above the clouds."

Yet despite this early realisation, Hayat cannot live her life according to her own preferences and desires. When she finishes school, she is determined to follow her brother to Beirut to study. Instead, without being consulted on the matter, she is married off to a man whom she has only met three times before: Khalil, one of her father's cousins, is "a tall, sullen, forty-year-old man in a matte-brown suit and shiny shoes". 

Khalil is not remotely inclined to support Hayat's yearning for education and freedom. Their wedding is a cold, ceremonial affair, which mainly revolves around the dowry negotiated with the bridegroom and the subsequent move to a new home. The bride is practically kidnapped straight after the wedding and taken to the village her parents came from, but which she has never visited before. 

Cover of Najat Abed Alsamed's "Kein Wasser stillt ihren Durst"
"This is a grand, highly literary novel, translated into German with reliable skill and in a spirit of epic calm by Larissa Bender," writes Volker Kaminski. (Source: Edition Faust)

More than a story of emancipation

It quickly becomes clear that Khalil views his new wife as an object for satisfying his own sexual desires. Hayat, who rebels against living a life "as an eternally available woman", discovers, to her horror, that she is destined to the same fate as her mother who, like Hayat, had to submit to her husband in bed, a man who expected her to wash his feet every night. When Hayat refuses to carry out this humiliating, archaic practice, Khalil beats her. It soon becomes clear that Hayat is going to be very unhappy living in the village with him. 

However, the novel is much more than just another story about emancipation. This is mainly due to the complex family structure within the book – an almost impenetrable labyrinth of family relationships. Hayat, for example, is related both to her husband and to her great unrequited love, Nasser, one of her aunt's sons. 

The similar ordeals suffered by both mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, are to some extent etched into the ancestry that closely binds the Druze religious community together like a little cosmos. It is no coincidence that the family trees of both the book's main families are printed in the book along with a list of the names of all the major and minor characters.

Yet this is no straightforward family saga. The narrator's eye goes far beyond the individual fates of the protagonists and creates a tableau of the life of the Druse in the region around the city of As-Suwayda in south-western Syria. For centuries, people here have been eking out a meagre existence, fighting for survival, battling water scarcity, devastating droughts and a lack of resources, and caught up in a constant struggle for survival, all of which touches the lives of the families in the novel. 

Merciless and bitter

Over the course of a series of long, historical sketches, we learn a host of interesting facts about well-building in the dry steppes – a demanding profession that appeals to many young men, granting them freedom and a relatively good income. The wells reach as far as 700 metres into the ground – an enormous undertaking, the significance of which is also alluded to in the novel's title.

The author's original narrative style enables her to take in the complex, multifaceted and far-reaching setting for the novel, which comprises both family life and a history of the region as a whole. Part poetic, part powerfully direct, Alsamad's style can also display an astonishing bitterness. 

The narrator, for example, is merciless when it comes to describing her father warts-and-all: "That day, I wished I would die, or that my father would die (...) or that I had a different father to the one I had, a man who did nothing with his life except go to work as a third-rate clerk at the vehicle licensing authority, come home carrying ridiculously small bags, before arguing with my mother and either hitting just her, or all of us..."

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Hayat is not, however, doomed to repeat her parents' fates. In spite of her brutal, unloving husband and the four sons she raises, she enjoys little escapes, a secret affair, and her life ultimately takes a unique turn, which this intricate and formally sophisticated novel with all its hints and references reveals page by page.

It is no mean feat to keep up with the narrator and her expansive tale, with its many flashbacks, flashforwards, italicised parentheses, and a narrative style that is not really plot-driven. Yet at no point will readers find their interest waning. 

This is a grand, highly literary novel, translated into German with reliable skill and in a spirit of epic calm by Larissa Bender. 

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoğlu

Najat Abed Alsamad is a Syrian writer and gynaecologist who was born in As-Suwayda, Syria, and who now lives in Germany. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Damascus and has published a number of novels and short stories, which have been published in Syria, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.