a mandate mystery: Night Falls On Damascus
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 29, 2008
You said that you read two books this past weekend, my aunt noted. What was the second book?
Oops. I got so carried away with my post on Jamelie, Jamelie that I forgot about the second one – and it was a total gem. Frederick Highland’s Night Falls on Damascus is set in the mid-Mandate period of the early 1930s, and it tells the story of a Lebanese man, Nicolai Faraoun (whose mother was Russian – hence the curious spelling of his first name), a former Legionnaire who has recently been appointed chief of Damascus’ police forces. He’s a few other things besides, but I won’t ruin the narrative for any would-be readers – like you, Intlxpatr :)! – by revealing all so soon.
The story is good, the characters are well-drawn, and the setting … well … nothing can beat Damascus :). But what I loved best about this book was the way in which it read like a part of a much longer series. From the first page, I felt that I had entered a world that was already in motion – Highland handled the tricky issues of narrative exposition and background with incredible finesse. It was almost like watching a movie – except, of course, that the movie was entirely in my mind.
There were a few oddities – but most were oddities of time rather than authorial mis-understandings. I almost laughed out loud seeing the streets called “boulevards” – especially “Midhat Boulevard”, which locals today know as Midhat Pasha, and which tourists call al-sharia al-mustaqim, “the street called straight”.
(I know: that’s the name of the street in the Bible. But the Bible was published a long, long time ago – and since the 1870s, the street has been known as Midhat Pasha, after the reformist bureaucrat who modernized Ottoman law.)
I laughed, but at the same time I realized that during the Mandate era the French government probably did insist on referring to the city streets as “Baghdad Boulevard”. And of course there was no “Sahhat Yusuf al-Azmeh” then!
Highland maintains a website dedicated to the books he has written (several, although no other books set in Damascus, sadly!), with a page about Night Falls On Damascus that includes short essays he has written about Damascene food, the battle of Maysaloun and other Mandate-era events. You can visit it here.