A sleepless giraffe in Damascus

A sleepless giraffe in Damascus

Publication Date: 2019

Publisher: Difaf

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 286

Al hay al russi

The narrator has been living in the zoo of Damascus for a while, occupying a room with his girlfriend Nonna, on the rooftop of a small building. The narrator, Nonna, and the giraffe, by far the zoo’s most popular figure, form a strange, yet happy family. It hasn’t always been this way. Before Nonna came into his life, the narrator and the giraffe were on their own. Well, sort of. Everyone came to visit her in the evenings, after hours. They would all gather on the narrator’s rooftop: the depressed zoo director, Victor Ivanitch, Abu Ali Sulayman, the French teacher and clothing shop owner, along with his old poodle Moustache, Raisa Petrovna, the Afghan Hound, and sometimes Essam, the local hero — who once confronted Borya’s mafia, and protected Artin’s bar from his racketeering.

In these days, he, the narrator, was very obviously the giraffe’s favorite. She would react differently to his presence, and he would not hesitate to hug her fury head bent over him on his rooftop, when he missed his deceased mother (whom he had never hugged). The giraffe has his mother’s eyes, and like her, the giraffe would watch with him an archival Spain-Uruguay soccer match on TV. When Nonna came along, she seemed to have her own relationship to the giraffe, bringing her the fresh scallions she seems to love so much, and seemingly reading the giraffe’s mind.

Why doesn’t the giraffe sleep? Nonna wonders. Because of evolutionary reasons: She needs to stay alert and escape lions and other predators, explains the narrator. Obviously, the giraffe was born in captivity and has never encountered any of these predators. This is the reason why a brand new color TV is brought to the rooftop, for the giraffe to finally see the predators she unknowingly fears. It is not always easy to find images of lions feasting on their prey on TV, and when the narrator and Nonna do find such images, the giraffe stares at the screen, unperturbed. What they mostly come across on TV are silent scenes of death and violence, unfolding in the neighboring Ghouta district — the roaring government planes are constantly in the background, along with the smell of burning plastic.

A sleepless giraffe in Damascus is a surprising and unexpectedly moving story. Set in the margins of the Syrian civil war, the novel depicts a group of colorful people, the inhabitants of the fictional “Russian quarter” (incidentally the novel’s Arabic title), trying, naturally, to hang on to joy and to life, while brutal violence is unleashed a few hundred meters away.

Yet, despite these efforts, and precisely because of them, this community is ultimately dragged into violence, when one night, and for unknown reasons, Essam decides to cross over to Ghouta, and gets killed. As his body is returned, the need to burry him in dignity becomes existential: Not burying him in the way befitting their hero would amount to acknowledging the war and giving up their way of life. Burying him in the way he deserves however opens the gates of hell — and culminate in the death of the giraffe, shot in the head in the book’s closing scene.

A sleepless giraffe in Damascus is a sweet moving portrait of a plethora of human and non human characters. In the self-contained magical realist world of the Russian quarter, war is akin to horrific abstract art showcased inside the safe frame of TV — until in one fateful night, it no longer is abstract, or framed, and all this colorfully loud community is forced out into the grim real world.

Translated by Margaret Litvin

On the roof of the zoo in the Russian Quarter, my 14-inch television set, balanced on its table near the giraffe’s snout, was showing an archival soccer match between Uruguay and Spain. 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 half a century 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.

I had always thought that the small space allotted to the giraffe was not adequate to her enormous size compared to the surrounding mass of the zoo and its animals. Passers-by in the next street had grown used to seeing her head towering over its walls and trees ever since I had moved into my friend Salih’s room on the roof overlooking the zoo. Salih had disappeared from the Russian Quarter a few months before the war. Meanwhile I had disappointed my wife’s hopes in me, and her father’s hopes as well, by manifesting many unpraiseworthy traits (as they saw it) on which this is neither the time nor the place to expound. So when I began to feel superfluous and overlooked at home, in the house owned by my wife and her father, I decamped and left it to them without delay or regret. Salih’s place was still vacant then and I filled it, with the warm blessing of the Afghan hound Raisa Petrovna and her owner Victor Ivanitch, my old colleague from the Moscow News translators’ room two decades ago, who now ran the Russian Quarter zoo and edited the bulletin board known as its wall newspaper.

I had been no stranger to the giraffe even before I became her neighbor, for everyone had welcomed me into the zoo for a long time. Each time I approached the giraffe it made me happy to imagine that among all the hands extended to her through the fence she could spot mine. I felt she was not embarrassed of me, as she was for instance of Ivanova who swept away her droppings every day, and not skittish, as with the veterinarian Bashir Ghandoureh when he examined her from time to time

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A sleepless giraffe in Damascus