The Calligrapher’s Secret

April 12, 2014

When did I take this book home? January? December? I remember a rainy gray winter Sunday. My wife had told me that she was “out of books,” so, ever the gallant provider, I had suggested that we swing by the Central Library on our way to dessert. I forget what she checked out, but she grabbed her usual handful, and I latched onto a single thick paperback that I had spotted in a special display.

Why had I taken this book? Simple. I judged it by it’s cover. The title appealed – I had just received a set of calligraphy pens (still unopened) for Xmas.  The cover drawing was beautiful as well: a series of elegantly inscribed Middle Eastern doorways that promised layers of meaning. The author’s name, Rafik Schami, sounded like music from my past, and the dust cover promised, “the Great Arab Novel.” Sigh. Just one book in my hand, but quite enough, yes?

I ended up lugging the book around for three months, renewing it every couple of weeks at the last moment so as to evade a library fine, apparently the only Portlander with any interest in this title. But why was I taking my time? And why was I sticking with it? Why not just return it to the library?

To tell the truth, I normally avoid fiction completely during the school year. The months that stretch from late August to mid-May are filled with a million demands, menial and otherwise. The possibility that I might enjoy a piece of fiction, especially such a long one, usually seems so remote that I seldom even try. (Disclosure: last December a friend talked me into joining his book club and I drove myself through Huckleberry Finn and Tevye’s Daughters this past winter. Maybe I have more time than I think?)

Perhaps I kept this book with me because this year was far worse than most. This was The Year of Being Department Chair, The Year of Running an Ailing Department, The Year of (the required) Self-Evaluation, The Year of the Two Qual Weekends, The Year of the Department Review. In short, an absolutely dreadful year for setting aside time for reading, but, paradoxically, a year that demanded a book that I could dive into completely, ten feet deep, a book so thick that it would close over my head and lock out emails, Google calendars, to-do lists and everything else that was dogging me.


It seemed at first that I had absolutely chosen the wrong book. Set in Damascus in the 1950’s, The Calligrapher’s Secret is steeped so deeply in Syrian history, politics, and cultural criticism that I imagined the cracks between every word, even the tiny ones between letters, to be stuffed with hidden meanings and attributions that I, a late 20th-century American, could only guess at.

Also, my lackadaisical approach to reading didn’t help. Picking up the book only every fifth or seventh day, I quickly lost track of the multitude of names and life stories that swept past in the first few chapters. Where had The Calligrapher disappeared to? What possible secret might he be hiding? Every paragraph seemed to start a new story. What was this?

I almost gave up, but the periodic renewal reminders from the library encouraged me to resume reading before someone else requested the book.

Eventually I understood that The Calligrapher’s Secret was being told along the lines of The Arabian Tales and not a made-for-Hollywood novel. Each little story, some stories lasting only one or two paragraphs, could be enjoyed for itself. How convenient for my limited attention span! I decided to relax and put my faith in the author’s ability to assemble a picture from all of these stories. I told myself that the book was a mosaic. Eventually, once all the tiles had been glued in place, I would see the full picture. At once reading became more enjoyable. Instead of lying on the table at home, the book began following me around to weekend tea sessions with the wife. After a few months, it was finished.

And what did I learn about The Calligrapher’s Secret? Nothing that I can share. (I’m not sure I even understand the secret.) But I did get this: an incredibly unhappy state of affairs exists between many Syrian men and women. While some women are lucky to find loving, understanding men (there are several in the book), the majority of experience only misery in the shape of a man.

Moreover, the worst sort of man seems to be the one who has never grown up around women and has never practiced any kind of social interaction with them. This kind of man (and the Calligrapher is only one of many) is incapable of seeing women as human beings worthy of tenderness, feeling, decency, or respect. A deeply flawed character, he probably he fears women (he certainly fears men), and, lacking social skills and comprehension, he frequently resorts to violence.

The Calligrapher’s Secret shows the corrosive nature of a traditional society based on social separation of the sexes. While the fear, the violence, and the sadness that run through the pages made the book a difficult pill for me to swallow, I can also see that I should be grateful for something that I might have been taking for granted: my daughters have found men worthy of them. There is joy in their lives. This is a father’s comfort.


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