Book Review: ‘A Sky So Close to Us’ transports readers to the Syria of yesteryear
CHICAGO: Shahla Ujayli’s moving novel “A Sky So Close to Us” follows a humanitarian worker, Joumane Badran, living in Amman, Jordan. Her memories of home keep Syria alive and thriving in her mind, but her reality is much harsher as she struggles with her health.
The author introduces the Syria of 1947 to her readers, where a spring day opens on a family whose history is as rooted as the ancient neighborhoods of Damascus. Ujayli walks her readers through the Azizieh quarter of Aleppo, amid the tumultuous rising political troubles, all the while listening to the voice of Shaykh Omar Al-Batsh who sings his muwashahat and entrances his listeners with his oud.
Ujayli’s story, which was shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and published in English in 2019, moves seamlessly between past and present. There is a fluidity to her storytelling as she maneuvers years, dates, families, and histories. She writes a love letter to the country as her character recalls life in Raqqa with her sisters and her family — the hotels, cafes, and cinemas they would frequent. She recollects the neighborhoods and the stores, the Bab Al-Faraj clock tower and the landmarks that make up Aleppo’s historic city.
There is a deep emotion connected to each word and each instant in Ujayli’s book. There is a longing for a country that is deteriorating and the past that was as vibrant as it was rich with food, culture, history, and heritage. Her book then shifts tones as Joumane, who works for a Dutch humanitarian organization, finds out she has cancer. The deterioration begins as suddenly in her body as it did in her country. She is far away from her family and everything she knows as she battles the disease alone.
The story takes its readers across the world with its international characters and themes. Ujayli joins movements from opposite ends of the world and brings people together in their humanity, rather than point out differences. There is a lightness to her work, although the topics are heavy and painful. Joumane’s plight as a Syrian is different and yet similar to those of the Palestinian man she befriends. And as she moves through the world and meets people, one from Serbia, another from Vietnam, she can understand their pasts and traumas.
Ujayli’s narrative is filled with maps, directions, and places and how they can define life or can be ignored. She, however, remembers her geography and the importance of the past.