It is a powerful opening chapter with a beautiful description of Damascus by an author who knows the city well and knows to the dot how the dwellers of that city truly live their lives. Rumours are rampant and feed people's imaginations at times when food itself is scarce and hard to come by. In Syria, as in most of the Arab countries, rumours take on a life of their own so that by the time a rumour has done the rounds and returns to its initial instigator even they fail to know it is the same one they had started themselves. But it is also a powerful weapon that can make or break a person's life and jeopardise all they have strived to achieve all their lives.
There are two sides to this story and they are both based on love albeit in two different forms and what Rafik Schami is trying to conclude is that once we fall into love's trap we are helpless and would do anything and give up everything for love when it is pure and strong. There is Noura, who finds herself trapped in a love-less oppressive marriage which she feels has stripped her of all humanity. Let down by her own parents and society she feels she has reached a black tunnel until she meets the apprentice who changes her life forever and offers that glimmer of hope of a better more worthy life.
Love takes many forms in this novel and it proves time and again that whenever there is a slither of hope there is always a chance for love to make its way through. There is the love between Karam the Cafe owner and Badri the barber, the love of Salman for his mother and his dear friend Sarah, and the wider forms of love between Christians, Muslims and Jews in Syria. Love comes in different forms and our relationships with each other as humans determine how open we are to receive, to give as well as to dedicate ourselves to love and the methods in which we choose to do so. There is no right or wrong we find but just that people's experiences ultimately shape their perception of what love is and one cannot give what one does not know.
The Calligrapher on the other hand has a deep secret that not even his wife Noura knows about. Hamid Farsi is a Master Calligrapher and lives and breathes only for his art. He has high hopes for calligraphy and for the Arabic Alphabet and it is only towards the end of the book that we find out just what these aspirations are and how they could mean the end of all he has achieved.
It is a good story, not as powerful as Schami's The Dark Side of Love but still very entertaining and gripping. Syrian politics are lightly treaded in this book and seem to come as an after-thought at the end of the book or maybe it was because the politics was the main underlying theme of The Dark Side of Love that I personally expected more of it in this book. I just felt that the social issues highlighted here had been dealt with in Schami's previous novel bar the art of calligraphy which is in itself truly fascinating. It was a pleasure to be reminded of the various forms of Arabic writing that as a school girl I had to learn and identify with as part of my Arabic studies. Calligraphy is art, politics, religion and a labour of true love and dedication in the Arab World and its journey has been a hard and challenging one for more than a thousand years. Just for a window into that world, it is well worth giving the book a go.