A Chinese box style story–within-a-story frames this novel’s focus on women-only dancing groups of 1970’s Aleppo, and the ensuing lesbian relationships within them. First published in 1998 in Arabic but only now translated by Max Weiss, this is only the second novel by Nihad Sirees to be translated into English (the author now lives in exile in Cairo after leaving Syria in 2012). It has already been awarded the PEN Translates award for novels in translation, and all these points collectively meant I was very excited to delve into what looked like a unique story filled with atmosphere and intrigue focussing on people in a time and place I had previously read nothing about.
States of Passion opens promisingly enough with a man, the narrator, lost in a storm and finding refuge in the house of an elderly man and a brooding butler. The elderly man starts telling him the stories of these women, and the narrator finds himself unable to leave until he has heard the end, to the concern of the increasingly violent butler.
Unfortunately, what soon becomes clear is that the reader will not likely be gaining any further insight into these supposedly central female characters than the superficial, repetitive descriptions of their beauty. It’s described in a classic ‘male gaze’ lens that is, in this case, magnified by several layers – the author himself; the first person narrator who introduces his story-telling skills self-deprecatingly, and not unduly as it turns out; and lastly the elderly man from whom he hears this tale.
Many of the stories of these women are broken up by the two men discussing their relationships in what is, at times, an excruciatingly stereotypical and misogynistic way. At one point, when describing his new fascination with finding out more about these hidden lesbian liaisons (quelle surprise), the narrator highlights the difficulty that will come with getting women to open up about these things with an enquiring man, and that the reader might want to look into it themselves ‘by way of your own wife’ – because of course it is impossible that the reader could be female. It is hard to know whether this sexist language is something that has arisen out of misjudged translating, or was part of the original text. From how the story continues, my thinking is the latter.
Although the original text is only twenty years old, it does feel outrageously dated in its cartoonish depiction of its female characters, solely either as young, innocent, slim and beautiful, or ugly, old fat and disgusting. It offers up an ample example of why increasing self-representation of marginalised voices within the writing world is forever necessary, and where the story of lesbian relationships really would in this case have been better served written by someone who identifies in some aspect with the characters described, rather than a heterosexual man. As a result, little of their lives is actually illuminated beyond the already widespread cultural norm that is lesbians are there for either only the gratification of heterosexual men or for making them feel emasculated and resentful, as is the case in the surprise identity reveal towards the end of the novel.
While I wish States of Passion success in encouraging further interest in translated fiction, and Syrian writing by extension – a country where it is sorely necessary to share and publish stories beyond those solely associated with the current catastrophic war, it made for a disappointing and frustrating read. Here’s hoping for a more insightful and honest depiction of this particular group of marginalised people in the future.
States of Passion was published by Pushkin Press on 6 September 2018