Hammoudi is welcomed by his own rowdy group, although he had actually intended to take a taxi straight to his hotel. He’d like a little peace and quiet–two nights of sleeping alone, far away from Claire and from his family waiting for him in Deir ez-Zor. A brief time out, just for himself. That’s why he didn’t tell his friends in Damascus his arrival time. They interpreted his silence as forgetfulness and simply looked up the landing time online. Now they wrap him in hugs and kiss him on the cheeks. Hammoudi is loaded into a car, complete with his heavy case full of gifts.
Grajasnowa’s study of the slow almost imperceptible slide of normal society into chaos and beyond begins with the temporary return of Hammoudi to Syria as illustrated in the opening quote. After studying in Paris and being accepted in a prestigious Hospital as a plastic surgeon, Hammoudi need only reurn home to renew his passport, a formality, to take up the position and to live with his Jewish girlfriend, herself a surgeon in Paris. Onc home the complications begin:
‘You can have your passport back but you’re not allowed to leave the country.’ ‘Pardon?’ Hammoudi responds. ‘The Security Service has some concerns about letting you leave the country again. Please contact the relevant authority.’ ‘But the Syrian embassy assured me I could just get my passport renewed. It wasn’t a big deal, they told me.’ ‘Where was that?’ ‘In Paris.’ ‘Then go and see my colleagues in Paris.’ ‘But I’d have to leave the country first!’ ‘I’m not going to get into a discussion.’ His face devoid of expression, the civil servant flips open the next file.
We follow Hammoudi’s life as he slowly realises he won’t be leaving in the near future and in order to obtain an equivalency document to practice in Syria he must sit an exam, at the first sitting he answers all of the questions and fails, at the second sitting he pays the expected bribe and steadfastly refuses to answer a single question and of course passes.
In parallel we follow the story of Amal, the daughter of a rich father who makes money working for the Assad regime, amid a general but timid uprising of the people to obtain basic rites. No one in Syria is dupe, they all know of the brutality of the Assad regime:
Amal got a degree in English literature but books weren’t enough for her, so one day she auditioned for the prestigious Institute of Dramatic Arts. All that seems long ago now. Fear has settled in like a parasite building a nest inside her ribs. Amal knows exactly what might happen to her but she doesn’t know when or whether it will come about, and it’s this uncertainty that makes her tremble. Too many people around her have been arrested or tortured or have simply disappeared, which amounts to the same thing.
The situation in Syria slowly deteriorates, as the Regime has a file on everybody, with absolutely anybody being a potential informant, Amal is arrested once for being present at a demonstration where Grajasnowa describes the arrest and detention process of a totalitarian state; as her father tells her, he can bribe her captors to get her release but there are so many different organisations capable of arresting her that he would have to know that she had been arrested and then know who held her in order to pay.
Amal leaves Syria for Jordan whilst Hammoudi’s town of Deir ez-Zor finds itself a rebel centre. As the regime then tries to bomb the town and its people off of the map, Hammoudi, at great risk to his life, runs an underground surgery where he saves some lives but loses many. As Daesh first appear then absorb mant of the warring factions, Hammoudi who has repeatedly, under pressure, operated on and saved leaders of the oposition finds himself a target of Daesh and flees at the last minute with help from the retreating forces and decides to try to find his way to Europe.
The story then moves on to the tragedy of immigration as he must first cross over into Europe and then move within Europe, he reflects on the situation he discovers in the camps:
Illegal immigration is strictly regulated at the camp but not by the European governments, there’s a hierarchy of refugees. Syrians usually arrive in whole families and in boats that are slightly better and not quite as overcrowded they’re from the former middle class and they have small financial reserves that have enabled them to get to Europe. Pakistanis and Afghans cross the Mediterranean in extremely unseaworthy boats, in some cases so tightly packed that they don’t even have space to sit. The Afghans are also the most prepared for the journey, their rucksacks are very well packed and they often have instant access to dry shoes and socks. Syrians though often don’t have a plan, they don’t know what’s happening to them. The preparedness of its emigrants is still the best indicator of the state of a society. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the people from central and Northern Africa.
As the final tragedy approaches we learn from Hammoudi how much he has been marked by his experience as when interrogated by the Europeans to decide on his status, he is able to quote the exact number of lives he was unable to save.
This story successfully transmits the idea of inevitability, if you live there , no matter who you are, there is no way out. As Amal finally realises, all those years of studying and working to become someone have been lost forever.
First Published in German as “Gott ist nicht Schuchtern” in 2017 by Aufbau Verlag.
Translated into English as City of Jasmine by Katy Derbyshire and published in 2019 by Oneword Publications.