by - 9:39 PM

Title: Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet
Author: Ulfat Idilbi
Publisher: Quartet Books


Sabriya portrays life in Damascus in the 1920's. Central to the story is Sabriya's journey to self-knowledge, intertwined with the rise and eclipse of national and feminist awareness during her painful life. The national revolt is crushed by superior foreign power and Sabriya's personal emancipation is stifled by the traditional values of a patriarchal society.

Written from the point of view of a young girl passionately committed to the nationalist cause but unable, because of her sex, to take an active part, it seethes with the frustrated energy of the reluctant bystander and vividly expresses the terror of civilians living in a city rocked nightly by explosions.


You ever start a book and know after a few pages that you're probably going to be a bit more wiser after you finish? This is that kind of book. It makes you reflect on the life you live and what other people have gone through to get you the freedoms you have. I had to look up the author's background story to know how much of this book was personal account.

Sabriya has committed suicide and left a journal of her life for her 15 year old niece. In this journal she narrates the Syrian revolution against the French occupation in the 1920's. She narrates the domestic and emotional abuse her family has put her through, the sexism and dichotomy of a society that confines women between the 4 walls of their houses, she also speaks of lost love and death and depression.

This book was so raw and hit on so many topics. If you're looking for an intersectional feminist story that depicts the lives of Syrian women in a historical period, then I would highly recommend you read this. One of the things that hit me the most is realizing that the majority of atoricities committed against the Syrians in this narration is not that far off from what's happening in Syria nowadays. It was also very enlightening and discusses a historical event I have not read about before. You get to see the effect of colonization on civilians, you witness familial clashes on political views, and where nationalism really comes from.

The writing was so beautiful. You can genuinely feel when the Sabriya was at her happiest, and how events that she goes through change her in the way she writes, you can tell when she starts going mad, when she becomes depressed, you can foresee the suicide halfway through the book. It is somehow always in the back of my mind that this novel was written in the 80's about an earlier period all together. The author has herself had to leave school and was forced to be married at the age of 17 and discharge from her education. This made reading these personal entries even more heartbreaking because you can tell they come from personal experience.

One aspect that I liked was the restraint on romance. Adil and Sabriya did not have the luxury of meeting and talking every day and had to be grateful for the 5 minutes he saw her every morning when he delivered bread at their door. Years later, they developed to 30 minutes every week in a hidden garden. I felt like I saw the struggle of what it's like not to be free to do what one wishes.

I'm going to put some of my favorite quotes that discuss important issues:
"I am helpless, helpless. There are generations behind the way I have been brought up. Over the ages religion, customs, and tradition have imposed taboos with roots so strong in our hearts that the are venerated. " 
"It was totally unacceptable for a young veiled girl to walk out with young men even when they were close relations. I felt a sense of oppression. I had been defeated. This humiliation made me introspective even at that tender age." 
"I long for more freedom, for honor, and for a better life. We live in our own country, oppressed and despised." 
"After this calamity Damascus became like a humble dove that fold its wings over a fracture and remains silent in steadfast defiance. Damascus, a smile of sorrow, harboring tragedy. The secret of your eternal survival, dear Damascus, is that silence in the face of disaster. You have suffered so much. Through raids and plunder, you remain forever." this quote in particular is so relevant to nowadays. 
"Why is it that the people of my country demand freedom and at the same time cannot grant it to each other? Half the nation was shackled in chains created by men. That is a wrong we refuse to acknowledge." (THIS QUOTE!!! this right here is what it was like being a woman in the Arab world in the 20th century at the peak of nationalism. Men demanded freedom from colonialists but took it away from women in the same way.)
"Why aren't women taking part in the demonstration? Don't women have the right to defend their country? How long will half the nation remain paralyzed?" 
Overall, this is an important read, with a lot to learn from. I highly recommend people to read it.

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  1. Okay so the romance sounds like it was lacking...but I may still pick it up because of the intersectional feminist aspect! I've also never read a book set in Syria (if you've got any more recs for that, I'm all ears!) so that's a plus. Great review, Leenah!
    -Jackie @ No Bent Spines

  2. I need to read this one! Sounds amazing and the intersecional feminist section is my fave. I see it was also hard hitting snd emotional for you. I can't wait :)