This is a review of The Syrian which appeared in Volume One, a weekly published and distributed in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
WORDS OUT OF WAR
An Eau Claire writer uses knowledge of Mideast to pen thriller
by Barbara Arnold photos by Andrea Paulseth
RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES. Cathy Sultan hopes her debut novel, The Syrian, which is
set agaist the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War, helps readers understand the
complexities of Middle East history and politics.
After I turned off the lights on Halloween night, I was transported to another light … of the Mediterranean … “the turquoise sea” … “its waves sparkling like diamonds in sunlight as they caressed the shore” in Beirut, Lebanon – a city that had been known as “The Paris of the Middle East” prior to the 15-year civil war that began in the early 1970s.
Nadia, a Lebanese attorney for the United Nations, is eagerly anticipating the arrival of her fiancé, Andrew, an American physician, to her family’s home for an engagement party when she receives a call from her friend Sonia, a Lebanese journalist, who informs Nadia that her husband, Elie, a Lebanese university professor who disappeared during the civil war and was declared officially dead, is alive in a prison in Syria.
That’s just page six of local author Cathy Sultan’s newly released novel, The Syrian, whose title refers to Jaafar, the former head of the Syrian military police, who has carried a torch for Nadia since before the war. When she is summoned to meet with Jaafar in secret, he threatens that he will own her for life if he allows her husband to be released.
“After writing three non-fiction books about the Middle East, I thought it was time to write a novel to educate readers about the Middle East in perhaps a more palatable way and hopefully encourage them to learn more about the area and why what’s happening there now is happening.” – Cathy Sultan on her debut novel, The Syrian
Four hours and 293 pages later, I finished the not-to-be-put-down, James Bond-style thriller, filled with romance, sex, violence, war, and political intrigue, just in time for my interview with Sultan. The Eau Claire author is already well-known for her stunning memoir A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War (2005), and two other non-fiction books: Israeli and Palestinian Voices (2003 with a second printing in 2006), and Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006 (2008).
When I enter her dining and living room with one orange and several apricot-colored walls, I feel as if I have been conveyed back to her family’s home in Beirut. The walls are filled with maps of Lebanon, including one dating to 3,000 BC, when the Phoenicians ruled, and another from the Napoleonic era when Lebanon was a French colony. Tables of clustered, framed photos of her family are displayed with artifacts and objets d’art.
Many of these items arrived in 52 cartons from war-torn Beirut lovingly packed by a cousin after Sultan’s family became refugees while in the United States when they were not allowed to return to Lebanon. They lived on the Green Line, or “no man’s land,” between East Beirut and West Beirut, the dividing line between Christian and Muslim areas of the city. They experienced bombings, broken glass, separation, and the shell-shock that one who has lived through it knows.
Sultan, a Washington, D.C., native, who met her physician husband while he was in residency there, came to Eau Claire in the mid-1980s with her husband, Michael, and their two then-teenaged children. She started her writing career in 1989, when her son, on a break from Harvard University, said: “Mom, maybe it’s time you start writing about our life in Lebanon.” So she did, having kept journals throughout. She won a contest for a chapter of her memoir from The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis which gave her the chance to pick a writing mentor. She chose Ian Graham Leask largely due to his British accent and the fact his wife had lived in Beirut. Writer and editor have stuck together since.
The Syrian is Sultan’s first foray into fiction, and not her last as a sequel is already in the works. “I wanted to see if I could do it,” she shared. “It was a challenge for me after writing nonfiction, which is more like journalistic writing, where you have facts and interviews to rely on.
“I laid out the entire plot, initially 24 chapters, on a long piece of paper … a very long piece of paper,” she said, spreading her arms apart the length of her dining room table and beyond. “The characters developed themselves, and the dialogue came rather easily,” she continued. “Nadia and Andrew are fairly predictable characters while Sonia was a surprise. I don’t know anyone like her … at all.”
Four years in the making – three years practically full-time – The Syrian was released in early October, published by Calumet Editions, a relatively new publishing house co-owned by Leask.
“After writing three non-fiction books about the Middle East, I thought it was time to write a novel to educate readers about the Middle East in perhaps a more palatable way and hopefully encourage them to learn more about the area and why what’s happening there now is happening,” she said.
Sultan describes the genre of the novel as “historical fiction.” The novel has a you-are-there quality with visual, graphic details of geographic locations, streets, nature, clothing, and even food. Her intricate weaving of historical events and information into the plot and dialogue is James Michener-esque. And while you might be tempted to take some notes as you read or even pull out a map, things keep happening so fast that you simply want to keep reading rather than stop.
She has actually visited all of the locations in the novel, including the Khaim Prison, where atrocities were committed. When touring the prison, after it had been shut down, one of the Lebanese Army officers who arranged the tour asked that she “tell our story.” The novel is dedicated to the “17,000 people who were disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War, and to their families who continue to live suspended lives, unable to put closure on their suffering and loss.”
The Syrian is available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., and on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle editions.
The book is also available here.