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The International Writers Magazine

A Charlie Dickinson Review

JUST LIKE A RIVER by Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib
English translation from the Arabic by Michelle Hartman and Maher Barakat Interlink Books, 2003, 120 pp,
ISBN: 1-56656-475

A compact & well-wrought novel, originally written for an Arab audience, but which, translated, shows universal appeal.

First published in 1984, JUST LIKE A RIVER by Syrian novelist Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib might have been written yesterday. The conflicts--liberation of Arab women, Syrian and Israeli troops clashing, Western influence on Arab culture--all seem CNN and Al Jazeera fresh.

Set against a backdrop of the early 1980s (when Syria's Russian connection had more throw-weight), Khatib's first novel fuses timeless, universal human emotions with the inevitability of social change in modern Syria. When the novel opens, we meet Chief Sergeant Yunis, a thirty-year veteran of the Syrian Army, ready to retire to his village and tend an olive grove. The sergeant, at first impression, is, perhaps, suggestive of traditional Syrian life. But by novel's end, even his yearning must accommodate a Syria no longer like that of his youth. Most of the novel, however, concerns the sergeant's family in Damascus, especially his daughter Ballal, a university student and a half-dozen, or so, other young Syrians, characters whose age makes them even more vulnerable to Syrian social upheaval than soon-to-retire Yunis.

Ballal sees her overprotective father as symptomatic of so much wrong with typical Arab men. With feminist ardor, she aspires to the equality shown by European professional women in Damascus, free to come and go any hour of the day, no father waiting up when they return home. Not surprisingly, she is tempted to use her foreign, British professor as a stepping stone to a new life. But Yusuf is also of interest, a philosophy professor, who oddly always brings out the argumentative in her.

Yusuf's best friend Zuhayr is a slacker journalist for the State-run newspaper, but a zealous advisor when it comes to women. He has Arab women pegged with a stubborn analysis similar to what Ballal has given Arab men. That both Yusuf and Zuhayr are looking for female companionship helps keep the story on a boil.

What makes JUST LIKE A RIVER an especially worthwhile read is the multiple character voices. A polyphony of narrative lines, chapter-by-chapter, like a river meandering seaward, touches a bit of everything in its path. We see Ballal not only as she sees herself, but also as five other characters see her. The same is true for other characters and the effect makes for a convincing portrait of Syrian society, especially among the young Damascene professionals. From their eyes, it's with bittersweetness, we see the pervasive Western influence on their lives: They are equally likely to stay in Syria as to strike out for a better future--possibly--in Moscow or London.

And yet, with a positive tone, Khatib also illustrates a Syrian social order of intricate and valued relationships, unspoiled by rampant Western materialism and high-speed superficial exchanges. Khatib, a prominent social critic in Syria, wrote this novel for an Arab audience two decades ago. Part of the novel's rich texture derives from details understood by Syrian readers. For example, Yunis prefers to drink mate, a tea brought to Syria by Syrian workers returning from South America, and somewhat local to southern and coastal Syria.

With this new English translation, many Westerners can share a poignant portrait of cultural loss and changing promise no less valid for Syria today, as it was when originally published in 1984. We in the West, who desire to know Syrians as more than those on the "wrong team," could do worse than to pick up a copy of JUST LIKE A RIVER.

© Charlie Dickinson Jan 2004
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