‘Sophia: Or the Beginning of All Tales’ by Rafik Schami
In his novel “Sophia: Or the Beginning of All Tales,” Syrian-German author Rafik Schami sheds light on Syrian society, politics and culture under Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government intertwining a forbidden love story with oppression and exile.
Schami explores the political and social conditions that led to the 2011 anti-regime mass protests that degenerated into full-fledged civil war, now in its ninth year.
Schami is known for his internationally acclaimed bestselling novel “The Dark Side of Love,” a forbidden love story revolving around the Arabic culture and traditions resulting in family feuds. He is a notable figure in the European migrant literature movement.
The author investigates the oppressive nature of the contradictory Syrian society from the 1920s to early 2011 and depicts it through a love story between a Christian woman, Sophia, and a Muslim man, Karim. The novel is based in various settings including Damascus, Homs, Beirut, Heidelberg and Rome.
Although Schami had been granted amnesty from the Syrian government, he said he lived in fear of being arrested if he had returned to Damascus. He portrays his fear through the character of Salman, Sophia’s son, who was granted amnesty from the government.
Sceptical of the government’s intentions, Salman nonetheless returns to Syria to reminisce on his childhood only to be charged for crimes he did not commit. To save him, Sophia relies on Karim to return a favour and help her son flee to Rome.
The book explores various aspects of Syrian culture at the time; Schami gives sustained attention to the religious divergence between Muslims and Christians. Karim receives much criticism from neighbours for saying: “I’m not a Muslim, a Christian, a Druze or a Jew. Love is my religion, do you understand?”
The novelist notes that there was a religious revival that emerged because of the lack of security from the state, driving people to cling to their beliefs.
Sexism plays a significant part of the novel. Women are seen as breeding machines. “The girls matured early, many looked like adults as early as 12 but they were worn out and often already pregnant. By the time they were 20, they sometimes have as many as six or seven children,” Schami writes. Female education is also frowned upon. Phrases like “What would they think of you? You’ll never find a good husband that way!” are common.
The lack of freedom of speech is evident; citizens must obey the dictatorship or would otherwise face arrest or death. Schami describes the people as slaves, conditioned by the dictatorship.
“The clan is built on obedience and loyalty and couldn’t care less about democracy, freedom or human dignity. We are satisfied slaves of our clan leaders, priding ourselves on the fact that we haven’t been arrested yet,” he writes.
Status and class are depicted as the main drivers of corruption, where ranked officials of the military exploited their power and utilised it to torture people in the name of the dictatorship. In the last chapter, Schami describes the situation in Syria: “Corruption is the only reliable instrument of our state.”
The English translation by Monique Arav and John Hannon reads well, though there are inaccuracies in the word choice. The novel portrays the political and social situation in Syria with immense details. “Sophia” gives an understanding of the conditions that sparked the civil war in Syria and similarly in other Arab countries that led to the “Arab spring.”