June 13, 2023
Read Asymptote’s beautiful review of Alrez’ “A sleepless giraffe in Damascus” – by Margaret Litvin

Read Asymptote’s beautiful review of Alrez’ “A sleepless giraffe in Damascus” – by Margaret Litvin

Published by Asymptote, on June 5, 2023

In a three part series, Asymptote asks the 2023 PEN/Heim grantees to talk about the books they are working on.

Below, we are happy to share Margaret Litvin’s words on Khalil Alrez’ “A sleepless giraffe in Damascus”.


At first it was the rhythm of his sentences: polished and wry, leisurely but not ornamented, like no Arabic prose style I had seen.

Next it was the Russianisms: what were all these references to Chekhov, Turgenev, and Bondarchuk doing in contemporary Damascus, as if tailor-made for my research on the literary legacies of Arab-Soviet ties? Finally, it was the personality of Syrian novelist Khalil Alrez himself, glimpsed through every gleaming line. Who else could write such a lovable and quirky novel while escaping from bombed-out Damascus suburbs through Turkey and Greece, eventually completing it in a refugee shelter in Brussels? Who else, well aware of Russia’s role in the war, would set that novel in a fictional zoo run by a Russian former journalist named Victor Ivanitch, and furnish it with a wall newspaper, two wolves, three eagles, a hyena, an Afghan hound, and her friend the poodle Moustache? Khalil and I spoke over Zoom, and for a while I told myself I was just asking questions, not preparing to translate the book. But who was I kidding? The Russian Quarter had captivated me; I needed to share it. Keeping the Syrian civil war in the background for most of the novel, The Russian Quarter [A sleepless giraffe in Damascus] reads nothing like a news dispatch. The action stays close to the unnamed narrator and his Russian-speaking girlfriend Nonna, who live in a rooftop room inside the zoo, next to rebel-held Ghouta. The book’s moral center is a giraffe. Time plays Proustian games, uncoiling spirals of memory. The virtuosic opening paragraph sets up the tension between the narrator’s mounting anxiety (his girlfriend is late in a war zone) and his cool descriptive eye:

On the roof of the zoo in the Russian Quarter, my 14-inch television, balanced on its table near the giraffe’s snout, was showing an archival soccer match between Spain and Uruguay. The rumble of nearby mortar fire had not stopped since early morning; my tea had gone cold waiting for the apple fritters baked by Denis Petrovitch, the clarinet teacher at the Higher Institute of Music, as I sprawled next to the giraffe watching tiny black-and-white goals filmed in Madrid fifty years ago. The artillery was shelling neighboring Ghouta from the orchards of the Russian Quarter. But my ears were trained on the long, still-empty staircase behind the couch on which I lay, expecting it to fill with the sound of Nonna’s elegant footsteps at any moment. She had gone to the cultural center in downtown Damascus to visit her dad. The full moon shone on me, and the screen’s silver light reflected brightly in the giraffe’s wide black eyes and flowed over her thick-fuzzed lips, which nearly touched the long-vanished players, the long-vanished spectators, and the long-vanished grass of the soccer pitch.

The deliberate prose knits a self-contained magical realist world, but Alrez also makes a point of exposing that imaginary ecosystem to the blunt force of real-world violence. When the war floods in, it is like a crashing wave swamping a tidepool—whose colorful, delicate creatures the reader has unwittingly grown to love.

The same qualities that make The Russian Quarter so charming—its otherworldliness and translingualism, its exacting rhythm—also make it fun and strangely natural for me to translate. Born in 1956 in Raqqa, Alrez studied in Aleppo and then moved to the Soviet Union, intending to study theatre. He studied and worked in Leningrad and Moscow from 1984 to 1993, then returned to Syria when Russia’s economy collapsed. He has published ten novels; the latest, set in 1990s Moscow around a production of Othello, is titled Spotted with Strawberries. He happens to write in Arabic, but he belongs to world literature; his closest literary kin are not Hanna Mina or Muhammad al-Maghut but people like Chekhov (whom he has translated into Arabic), Andrey Kurkov, Jose Saramago, and Italo Calvino. In a recent interview he rejected the premises of my questions about identity, stating instead that he is “a hybrid person. . . the child of what I have read and watched and heard and experienced.” (…)

Tolerance is fragile, and Russia’s role in the novel is double-edged. While incorporating Russian culture and some luminous Russian characters, The Russian Quarter also highlights Russia’s role as chief sponsor of Syria’s murderous Bashar al-Asad regime. The heartbreaking conclusion (which I won’t spoil) features a Turgenev reference but also a Russian-made T-90 tank—the same model used in Russia’s earlier wars in Chechnya and Donbass—rolling through downtown Damascus.

Vladimir Putin’s brutalization of Syria foreshadowed and enabled the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As I began translating the novel in spring 2022, history’s wheel ground through another macabre turn: now Syrian conscripts were being paid or forced to travel to Ukraine to fight on Russia’s behalf. Unexpectedly, working on the translation became a welcome break from the headlines. The Russian Quarter is an exercise in writing about a war’s effects while maintaining the artistic autonomy that war, like dictatorship, works so hard to take away. “I don’t want to write about the ambulances, the sirens, the bloody images on the news, the shelling that broke my windows more than once,” Alrez told me. “Some writers wait for such events and jump to write about them. My challenge is, how do I build a wall between myself and the war?” I believe this artistic problem, and Alrez’s glorious solution, will resonate with English-language readers too.