Shahla Ujayli’s “Summer With the Enemy”

14 December, 2020


Raqqa, Syria before the start of the civil war, in 2010.

Raqqa, Syr­ia before the start of the civ­il war, in 2010.

Sum­mer With the Ene­my, a nov­el by Shahla Ujayli
Trans­lat­ed by Michelle Hart­mann
Inter­link Books 2020
ISBN 9781623718671

Just out from Inter­link Books—one of the most ven­er­a­ble of small­er inde­pen­dent pub­lish­ers in the Unit­ed States to fea­ture a major col­lec­tion of Mid­dle East/Arab and Iran­ian literature—comes Syr­i­an writer Shahla Ujayli’s new nov­el, Sum­mer with the Ene­my. The book traces the lives of women not only in Raqqa where the bulk of the nov­el is set, but also in the places their fam­i­lies lived before — Turkey, Jerusalem, Alep­po and Dam­as­cus. It reminds us that Syr­ia and Syr­i­ans have nev­er been iso­lat­ed from the world, and that indeed the lives of peo­ple stretched far beyond the con­fines of Raqqa’s city lim­its, long before the online world existed.

A Silent Crime

an excerpt from Sum­mer With the Enemy

By Shahla Uyali


Shahla Ujayli's  Summer With the Enemy  is available from  Interlink Books .

Shahla Ujayli’s Sum­mer With the Ene­my is avail­able from Inter­link Books.

HE REACHED behind the white organ­za cur­tain trimmed with embroi­dered sil­ver ros­es to close the win­dow. The long edges of this white wood-framed, rec­tan­gu­lar win­dow run down the wall like two columns. The glass is divid­ed into a grid of eight thick square panes. A cold south­ern wind was blow­ing in from the Rhine, car­ry­ing on it the min­gled scents of met­al river­boat fer­ries, char­coal-roast­ed fish from near­by side­walk cafés, and the humid­i­ty of the pre­vi­ous night’s rain­fall. The riv­er could be spot­ted between the domed bridges run­ning along Rhi­neover Street.

He leaned his body slight­ly for­ward to reach the edge of the win­dow and his chin brushed against the top of my fore­head. Though almost the­atri­cal­ly smooth, his sud­den move­ment star­tled me. I had been in a deep sleep, my body cra­dled in his right arm and my face nes­tled in the crook of his neck, which gave off the warm scent of musk and mul­ber­ries. I tried to ignore it, search­ing for his nat­ur­al scent, redo­lent of my far­away childhood.

Actu­al­ly, so that we could have some time alone before I left for Munich, I’d rushed to meet him so quick­ly that I did­n’t even have time to dye my hair. White roots have start­ed to peep through again and this is total­ly incom­pat­i­ble with how old I feel and the youth­ful spir­it I har­bor inside me.

I had­n’t real­ized that Abboud lived right across from the munic­i­pal build­ing on Port Street. I’ve passed by here every day for three days. I’ve walked down the side­walk, fol­low­ing peo­ple set­ting off to work on foot or bicy­cles. Cologne had very few cars for such a big city. You nev­er felt you had to leave ear­ly because the traf­fic would like­ly make you late for an impor­tant meet­ing. Many dif­fer­ent kinds of tourists reg­u­lar­ly descend­ed on the old city, as did the foreigners—I had decid­ed to call the refugees foreigners.

The day before, I’d sat in the café that the very win­dow I’ve just described looks out onto. I enjoyed a deli­cious cof­fee and lunched in the restau­rant next door. It was an excel­lent restau­rant and the meal was­n’t pricey. I usu­al­ly sat with my back to the old brick build­ing beside it, and looked out at the bridge instead. I’ve always loved bridges—they make return a pos­si­bil­i­ty no mat­ter how much time has passed! As I stood up to leave, the build­ing whose third-floor apart­ment I am now stay­ing in cap­ti­vat­ed me. I was tak­en by the lit­tle crys­tal pen­dant lights emit­ting a dif­fuse yel­low glow, the clas­sic organ­za cur­tains I was now rest­ing behind, and the Opa­line chan­de­lier on the first floor that must have been pro­duced at the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. It illu­mi­nat­ed a table with a white table­cloth, atop which passers­by could spot a bowl with untouched red apples and green grapes, so per­fect they looked plas­tic. I was secret­ly jeal­ous as I won­dered: Who lives there? It must be locals, set­tled people—Germans with fam­i­lies near­by. They own their apart­ments, hav­ing bought or inher­it­ed them. They have rel­a­tives and friends who vis­it and they spend pleas­ant evenings togeth­er on the river­banks. For­eign­ers don’t live in the cen­ter of the old town—their places are far removed, on the out­skirts of big cities, in lit­tle vil­lages, vir­gin forests, lands where there are few peo­ple. These are neu­tral places we reg­u­lar­ly pass by, be it by habit or chance, which have no par­tic­u­lar appeal and hold no spe­cial mean­ing for us. We may like them or hate them, or want to go in and buy them. We may even fear them. Then in the blink of an eye they can even become our own spe­cial places, and we cre­ate our own sto­ries about them.

Abboud apol­o­gized for dis­turb­ing me and nes­tled me in his arms again, cradling me back to sleep. But I start­ed ram­bling, telling him I’d seen him in my sleep, in a dream: 

“Do you remem­ber Bushra?”

“Bushra…? Oh yes, Bushra, of course, Khalil’s wife?”

“She passed away…”

“Oh God! May she rest in peace,” he said, voice full of sleep. 

He did­n’t ask me how she’d passed. I did­n’t vol­un­teer any infor­ma­tion because most of the peo­ple we knew who’d passed away recent­ly had died for rea­sons relat­ed to the war. But he and I were sure­ly think­ing the same thing. The day Bushra and Khalil got mar­ried I was ten, and Abboud was two years old­er than me. Like most oth­er sum­mer nights, we were play­ing out­side with the neigh­bor­hood chil­dren when the wed­ding par­ty arrived, clap­ping and singing in the street. We fol­lowed them to the par­ty, clap­ping along. When we got too close, Amm Ismail, the father of the groom, shooed us away from the dabke troupe with his cane, to allow the cir­cle of pro­fes­sion­al dancers to join togeth­er. We were all in the wide open-air court­yard fac­ing their cir­cu­lar gar­den, filled with orange, apple, and lemon trees, as well as red and white Damask rose bush­es. This court­yard was sur­round­ed by their five-room house. Some of us rushed to mim­ic their dabke dance at the edge of the patio area where there was a large bath­room, a half bath­room, and a kitchen. But our dabke end­ed up a chaot­ic swirl, some legs thrown up in the air and oth­ers land­ing hard on the ground with no atten­tion to rhythm, like chil­dren’s dabkes often are. The new­ly­weds went up to their pri­vate cham­ber just after midnight. 

The next morn­ing, at per­haps six, I awoke and looked out at the neigh­bor­hood. Abboud was sit­ting out­side alone on an iron bar­rel my father had left in front of the house. Our place was on the cor­ner of a street with three oth­er streets branch­ing off from it. My father had left the bar­rel there to pre­vent speed­ing cars from run­ning into the wall and dam­ag­ing it. I washed my face and got dressed quick­ly to go out and catch up with Abboud. We entered through the main door of Amm Ismail’s house and walked up the still-untiled, unpaint­ed con­crete stair­case lead­ing to the roof. Khalil had built three rooms for him­self on top of his par­ents’ house. The win­dow was open and we peered in to spot the two of them naked. They were hold­ing each oth­er and sleep­ing peace­ful­ly. Bushra’s body was pale, white, firm, beautiful—it was the first time I’d seen a naked woman, except for Granny Makkia—one of our elder­ly neighbors—whose body was tiny and flac­cid. We’d start­ed help­ing her show­er in our bath­room after she had no one left to help her out. 

After their hon­ey­moon, when Khalil would leave for work, we’d steal in and sneak peeks from behind the door at Bushra bid­ding him farewell. We’d glimpse a wisp of a shiny silken nightdress—red, pink, or blue—and some­times we’d make out a sec­tion of eggshell-col­ored thigh, or a fresh­ly man­i­cured crim­son toe­nail. We’d each silent­ly won­der: how could Khalil leave such beau­ty and go off to work? Would he ever find it mun­dane to spend the night with her? 

I looked over at Abboud’s smil­ing face, his eyes closed. He laughed his old laugh, while try­ing to con­ceal an endear­ing boy­ish­ness and instinc­tive embar­rass­ment. It came out sti­fled and half­heart­ed, and I sur­mised that he was think­ing about that night. Abboud and I share many secrets, and what we saw of their wed­ding night-naked­ness is not even the most risqué.

As soon as sum­mer came, we always scat­tered through the neigh­bor­hood, like birds escap­ing their cages. Noth­ing and no one could stop us—not the neigh­bors’ shout­ing at us to move away from their cars or out from under their win­dows, nor their scold­ing us for walk­ing with our mud­dy shoes on their fresh­ly washed side­walks or on the still-wet, new­ly laid pave­ment. We took those shouts and threats as friend­ly warn­ings, and respond­ed imme­di­ate­ly. We would slow down and low­er our voic­es. But then we’d for­get and start dart­ing around again a minute later.

We ran through the streets, drew with chalk on the side­walks, and rode our bicy­cles around. Two of us in the front, three in the mid­dle, and two behind, then we would switch places. I liked being with Abboud even if we did­n’t talk at all. I always felt like he was on my side, that he under­stood me and would defend me if the need ever arose. He knew every­thing about my dif­fi­cult fam­i­ly life and nev­er used it against me, what­ev­er bone of con­tention might have arisen between us. I was curi­ous about his feel­ings for me, and I wished I could ask him about it, but our con­ver­sa­tions nev­er led in that direc­tion. We sim­ply played togeth­er. We were always on the same team—cops or rob­bers, it did­n’t mat­ter. I admit that back then I loved him a lot, and at a cer­tain point he became the only thing I thought about. It’s not uncom­mon: younger chil­dren are often tak­en with old­er chil­dren, always try­ing to impress them. I don’t remem­ber exact­ly what I used to do to get his atten­tion, but I tried many things. Per­haps he did­n’t notice any of it, though I can’t be sure because boys think in ways unfath­omable to even the most expe­ri­enced girls. This con­fu­sion per­sists even after we become mature men and women, and then lat­er old peo­ple. But it was because of him that I paid atten­tion to music and Ein­stein, or “Ayn Stayn,” in the Amer­i­can way he used to pro­nounce it. 

His moth­er allowed him to come out and play only for short peri­ods, and strict­ly for­bade it on school days. In the sum­mer, he could only play with us for two hours in the after­noon, accord­ing to her rules, but he’d often ignore her and come out­side any­way. He trav­eled with her to his grand­fa­ther’s house in Czecho­slo­va­kia for a month every sum­mer. That’s when every­thing became bleak  and sum­mer vaca­tion would turn into a night­mare. Every­thing felt emp­ty and bor­ing even though there were oth­er boys and girls teem­ing around the neigh­bor­hood like ants. When the uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents returned to Raqqa from Alep­po and Dam­as­cus, they would sit around on moon­lit evenings and talk about their stud­ies and far­away girl­friends. Men and women gath­ered and chat­ted in front of their hous­es until dawn, but I missed Abboud, every sin­gle day from morn­ing to evening, and wait­ed on ten­ter­hooks for his return.

Abboud’s father, Doc­tor Asahd, had stud­ied vet­eri­nary med­i­cine at Brno Uni­ver­si­ty, south­east of Prague in Czecho­slo­va­kia. He brought his beau­ti­ful col­league Anna back home with him as his wife. Every­one loved her, includ­ing me. I real­ly admired her, even though she was the one who made me feel the dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing me and Abboud, and pushed me away from him and their world if I got too close. She dragged him upwards, to Europe, and left the rest of us to wade through the mud­dy 1980s of our devel­op­ing coun­try. When he used to show me pic­tures of them on the Charles Bridge or at his grand­par­ents’ house in the old city of Staré Měs­to, my heart would pound in my chest, sad about our impend­ing sep­a­ra­tion. I decid­ed to study hard so I could get a schol­ar­ship and fol­low him wher­ev­er he went. Then some­day, I would be able to stroll with him along all fif­teen bridges that crossed the Vlta­va Riv­er. He’d drape his arms over my shoul­der as we mean­dered down the Saints’ Road from the old city to the cas­tle. We’d take a pic­ture as a memen­to which we’d dis­play on a table in our house, as well as a pic­ture of us next to the stat­ue of Christ on the cross on the Charles Bridge, writ­ten above him in Hebrew: “Holy Holy Holy is Jesus Christ the Mes­si­ah.” These words were a pun­ish­ment for a Jew­ish Rab­bi who’d ridiculed Christ, refus­ing to take his hat off in front of him, Abboud told me. 

The men who’d stud­ied in East­ern Europe in the 1970s formed a sort of com­mune, their own lit­tle pri­vate club, in Raqqa. They had gone to the Sovi­et Union—Czechoslovakia, Hun­gary, Bul­gar­ia, Roma­nia, Poland, and East Ger­many. All of these coun­tries were friend­ly with Syr­ia, and they offered each oth­er mutu­al sup­port in their lib­er­a­to­ry strug­gles for social­ism and democ­ra­cy against cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism. These men mar­ried beau­ti­ful women, who bore them love­ly boys and girls we called the “for­eign wom­en’s chil­dren.” They were clean, tidy, polite, and seri­ous in their stud­ies. They cared about music and lit­er­a­ture, and usu­al­ly had some kind of pet—a dog or a cat. 

Those Mus­lim chil­dren went to church with their moth­ers and cel­e­brat­ed their birth­days at home in their small mod­est hous­es, near the al-Thakanah or al-Dariyiyah neigh­bor­hoods. Their homes were cozy and dis­played a mix of ele­gance, good taste, and prac­ti­cal­i­ty. Every­thing was in its place and there was no excess. These fam­i­lies would vis­it each oth­er reg­u­lar­ly and spend evenings at each oth­er’s houses—we would hear about it from their chil­dren at school. Their food had a dif­fer­ent taste than our Arab food, and their drinks weren’t like araq or whiskey, which peo­ple bought from Abu Ibrahim’s liquor shop wrapped up in brown paper bags. They brought wine back with them from the Cau­cus Moun­tains in Geor­gia, and vod­ka from coop­er­a­tives in Moscow. When the vod­ka ran out, the doc­tors, engi­neers, and phar­ma­cists con­coct­ed sim­i­lar things local­ly, there­by trans­form­ing them­selves into wine­mak­ers and cre­at­ing a car­ni­va­lesque atmos­phere of laugh­ter, song, and friend­ly quar­rels. They brought home lots of pota­toes, boiled them, mashed them, then added bar­ley to them. Every­thing was pro­duced local­ly in Raqqa, the best there was. They would stir the mix, let it cool a lit­tle, and then add yeast to it. After a few hours, when the first car­bon diox­ide bub­bles appeared, they would cheer and shout. About four days lat­er, they would pre­pare some fil­ters for the dis­til­la­tion process and Doc­tor Asahd would begin the work he was known for, as an arti­san of good taste, repeat­ing the process until the puri­ty of the drink was deemed sat­is­fac­to­ry. He reduced the sharp­ness for those who pre­ferred it lighter, by treat­ing it with bak­ing soda. 

Dur­ing the sea­son, Abboud and I used to be tasked with rush­ing to blind Attar’s shop in Suq al-Shar­qi to bring the men any­thing that was miss­ing in their recipe: yeast, bak­ing soda, bar­ley, dried orange peel… This whole process allowed the men to trav­el back in time to their days study­ing in the land of snow, fur coats, and sweet pota­toes! Abboud used to tell me that Mendeleev, the per­son who cre­at­ed the peri­od­ic table of chem­i­cal ele­ments, was the one who cal­cu­lat­ed the rel­a­tive ratio of water to alco­hol in order to cre­ate the best vod­ka. This kept evolv­ing until it was patent­ed in 1894, with the name Russ­ian Stan­dard Vodka—greatly con­tribut­ing to the devel­op­ment of the Russ­ian econ­o­my. I nod­ded my head, tak­en by the col­ors of Abboud’s world. Like him, I grew to love per­fumed tea and despise Coca-Cola. Those fam­i­lies gave our lit­tle town of Raqqa wings!

After each of his trips to his grand­fa­ther’s house he brought me back gifts. Once it was a lit­tle ceram­ic tra­di­tion­al house with a point­ed roof that broke a week after I got it, anoth­er time a sil­ver neck­lace with a pic­ture of the Vir­gin Mary with a sad, down­turned head that I lost with the pass­ing of time. Yet anoth­er time he gave me a doll dressed in tra­di­tion­al Czech clothes—a bright white cot­ton dress with a roy­al blue vel­vet dress over it embroi­dered in gold. She had two thick black braids and wore a vel­vet cap. We called her Natasha and I kept her by my side right up until I left Raqqa. Once he gave me a sil­ver ring with a green gem­stone that his moth­er had left behind and I con­sid­ered a token of our eter­nal bond. When we broke up, the ring stayed in an old, emp­ty pow­der box. Lat­er on when I came across it by chance, I bare­ly even remem­bered Abboud or the rea­son I’d kept this rusty tin ring.

AleppoDamascusRaqqaSyrian civil warSyrian literature

Shahla Ujayli is a Syrian writer, born in 1976. She holds a doctorate in Modern Arabic Literature and Cultural Studies from Aleppo University in Syria and currently teaches Modern Arabic Literature at the University of Aleppo and the American University in Madaba, Jordan. She is the author of a short-story collection entitled The Mashrabiyya (2005) and two novels: The Cat’s Eye (2006), which won the Jordan State Award for Literature in 2009, and Persian Carpet (2013). She has also published a number of critical studies, including The Syrian Novel: Experimentalism and Theoretical Categories (2009), Cultural Particularity in the Arabic Novel (2011) and Mirror of Strangeness: Articles on Cultural Criticism (2006). In 2017, she won the Al Multaqa Prize for her short-story collection The Bed of the King’s Daughter.