Where The Wind Calls Home: A rich vignette of Alawite memory

Where The Wind Calls Home: A rich vignette of Alawite memory
Book Club: One of Syria's most gifted novelists, Samar Yazbek's latest book examines Alawite existence, tradition, and culture in the context of civil war.
6 min read
13 December, 2023
Yazbek here explores the secrets of the Alawite faith and its relationship to nature and the elements in a tight poetic novel dense with life and hope and love [World Editions]

It is indisputable that the ramifications of war wrought on the psyche and spirit are indelible.

Samar Yazbek is one of the few writers who have been able to craft with profound acuity the insidious ways in which violence and trauma rip apart people's lives and minds.

In her latest book, Where The Wind Calls Home, the reader is transported into the final hours of a 19-year-old soldier, Ali, who survives his patrol station bombing in the Lattakia mountains at the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

"Via vignettes of his life, we witness the rich traditions of the Alawite people, their intrinsic connection to nature, and the extraordinary ways our minds cling to beauty and resilience in the face of terror"

The macabre scenes of combat, the politics that inform plunder, and the lives that continue despite it all are detailed in Yazbek's mellifluous prose through Ali’s disoriented and wounded state.

Yazbek is a Syrian author and journalist born to a wealthy Alawite family. She is no stranger to the repression and atrocities of the Assad regime.

Dedicating her life and work to human rights and to documenting the unrelenting pillaging of the Syrian people, she has now penned a tale so visceral that it blurs the lines between reality and fiction.

The poetic cadence of this short novel transforms the reader into a phantom within Ali’s mind, floating through his hallucinations and memories with him. Via vignettes of his life, we witness the rich traditions of the Alawite people, their intrinsic connection to nature, and the extraordinary ways our minds cling to beauty and resilience in the face of terror.

The novel opens with Ali as a phantasmagoric figure watching a funeral from afar. He witnesses a burial and the wailing of bereaved women, including his mother. He appears to be in a state that is somewhere between life and death. Is he a soul watching his funeral unfold? Or is it a dream?

Eventually, it becomes clear that Ali is remembering the death of his older brother. With this realisation, Ali falls in and out of consciousness while reflecting on fractured memories of his life before being conscripted by President Bashar Al-Assad’s military.

At the same time, his body is jolted out of shock, and he slowly becomes aware of his gruesome injuries. He lies under a giant oak tree and realises he must will himself to reach the top before nightfall arrives to escape the bloodthirsty wild animals of the forest. Ali was always a dreamer who longed to spend his time among the trees of his small village.

Humayrouna, a strange and mystical woman who lived in their town, was a permanent fixture in his life. Though on the margins of society, the villagers still revered and feared her for her spiritual wisdom. Humayrouna is the one who taught Ali about their faith and the power of the trees.

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Fragments of his childhood reveal his complex family dynamics with an authoritarian father, his strong-willed mother, Nahla, and several siblings. In his adolescence, he navigates guidance from village Sheikhs and learns to champion his innate connection to the divine and the earth.

While his outlandish tendencies perplex his family, Humayrouna encourages him. His trees and the village maqams or shrines to saints consume his soul with fervent passion. But he can not escape the shadow of bestiality that was swelling quietly within the Syrian political climate.

One of the most poignant moments that marked his youth was the death of the Syrian president, Hafez Al-Assad. The men and women around him are in a frenzy over the news, “The President is dead… Long live the President!”

The young Ali was baffled by this juxtaposition of phrases, “He hadn’t yet learned that this new President was the son of that other president and that this phrase which he found so peculiar… wasn’t as strange as his thought. The son of the President had become the new President and Commander of the Armed Forces.” 

And this solemn truth would tragically alter his fate.

As he struggles to seize on his dwindling life under the oak tree, he remembers the people and moments that shaped his nascent life thus far. The pace of the novel initially feels mystifying and paradoxical. It is difficult to grasp whether Ali is alive, dead, or in a stupor.

Unquestionably, this perturbation is crafted deliberately and astutely by Yazbek. It allows Ali’s injuries and ruminations to be intensely tangible to the reader. While the war is an ever-looming presence, the crux of the tale lies in understanding the everyday life of Syrian society and the idiosyncratic individuals who comprise it.

Ali’s reflections on his childhood, minute decisions and eccentric fascinations can feel familiar to most of us. His battles with his parents to accept his disdain for schooling, his love for nature and tradition, and the disparities between his siblings are reminiscent of families across the globe.

It’s a simple life of survival and searching for spirituality and purpose. But militia and Mukhabarat checkpoints are interwoven into the fabric of this society.

Soldiers who appear with news of martyrs or draft the youth to fight on behalf of the country and people come to disrupt their lives. Every few days, the State unjustly seizes a miserly farmer’s land, citing neglect. So everyday life becomes “mined with checkpoints that popped up and vanished… their common denominator was that the people manning them all carried weapons.”

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Yazbek’s lyrical storytelling and Leri Price’s wistful translation paint pain, the nuisance of emotions, and the subtle ways war obstructs life with incredible tact and skill. The novel demands perseverance from the reader as the poetry of Ali’s story requires cherishing, reflection, and praise. Although the carnage of war is precisely felt, the beauty of nature and life also erupt despite it.

While Ali bleeds, he adores his trees and finds solace in the earth that will eventually claim his body. She writes, “He found pleasure in paying attention to the sounds of the leaves and making up different names for them… or waking at dawn on icy days to watch the frosted dew encircling the fruit so that they seemed to be wrapped up in crystal balls.

"He was enchanted by those spheres, those sparkles of light when the sun rose and illuminated the frozen fruit, while the iridescent colour of the water shone all around them. At that moment, he would see all the colours in its glow.”

Thus, without question, the power of this novel lies in each of the meticulously selected words that evoke an array of lambent sensations in the fortunate reader.     

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe

Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin