Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
I often shy away from books on Syria written in the West. Regrettably, political bias taints most works of fiction and non-fiction about this beautiful land. For Stripped to the Bone: Portraits of Syrian Women by Syrian-Canadian author Ghada Alatrash, I made an exception. A brilliant work of lyrical prose, this collection of short stories evokes many personal memories of Syria and its people in quieter times. More importantly, it cuts to the core of the denigration of human dignity caused by the current Syrian civil war and stands on the side of humanity and solidarity among women. If for no other reasons, this makes the book a compelling counter-narrative to the superficial news coverage of the Syrian conflict.
Ghada Alatrash hails from Syria's small Druze community. Although some of her stories centre on the lives of women from her own community, others portray the struggles of Muslim and Christian women. Her writing embodies the secular ideal, for which many progressive Syrians have long struggled. She is careful to show that the tragedies befalling her “women” are not entirely linked to the civil war but have deeper roots in the contradictions of Syrian society.
One of the strengths of Alatrash is the simplicity of her writing. She employs very few literary devices to enhance her stories and instead allows them to flow in a straight narrative augmented by the occasional parabolic side story. In her first story, “Zahrah,” she portrays a woman from her own Druze community, who fantasizes about romance while watching Hollywood movies. Her father insists that she can only marry a Druze man. At 36, she is at the edge of marriageable age in Syria and the one suitor whom her father brings home is in his early sixties. Zahrah opts to be unmarried and pursues a Ph.D. at the university where she meets the man of her dreams, a Christian. It is a relationship that can never be consummated. This seemingly unvarnished story reflects the intractable problem of a country, to which all Syrians profess to love while remaining incapable of overcoming the sectarian differences that undermine its unity.
Alatrash does not ignore the terrible abuse of women in Syria both at the hands of the Syrian government and religious extremists. In her second story, “Reem and Mayyada,” she takes on both aggressors and exposes the connivance between the two. Reem and Mayyada are two Syrian women who find themselves in prison for tasting two very different forms of freedom. Reem, a woman from a liberal Muslim family, has insulted the Syrian president by posting on her Facebook page a passage of poetry from exiled Syrian poet Adonis, which implicitly condemns the president as a murderer and a tyrant. Mayyada has been imprisoned as punishment for marching in a demonstration. However, it is unclear whether prison for her is really just a refuge from her brother, a religious extremist, who flogs her every time she dares to defy his orders to stay at home or, on the rare occasions she is allowed to go out, to be fully covered in a niqab.
Although the Syrian government openly champions secularism and the protection of women from extremism, it tolerates horrendous abuse of women in its prison system. And while the Syrian opposition was born out of the long-suppressed desire for freedom and equality, most of its large militant factions employ religion in the most abusive way to control Syrian women. In prison, both Reem and Mayyada are tortured and raped and when released, each finds her own way to continue her defiance and dream of when Syria will be free from the oppression of women.
While Atrash's first two stories take place completely in Syria, the remaining five stories bridge life in the diaspora with the lives of those still in Syria or in the process of leaving the country. These stories are a lament to a country that the women deeply love and now see taken from them. Whether it is the young orphan, Salaam, adopted by a gay Syrian-American couple in Seattle or Um Maryam, a grandmother who leaves her Christian community in northern Syria for the U.S., the sense of losing one's world dominates the endearing narratives that Alatrash weaves for us.
Ghada Alatrash's first collection of fiction has a distinctly cathartic nature, speaking to the readers from a deeply personal perspective. For those seeking a stronger understanding of Syria, this is a must-read.
Stripped to the Bone: Portraits of Syrian Women is published by Petra Books.