In Mamdouh Azzam’s ‘Ascension to Death’ love is the enemy

CHICAGO: When this novel was originally published in Arabic in 1987 as “Mi’raj Al-Mawt,” the subsequent acclaim only bolstered the fame of celebrated Syrian novelist Mamdouh Azzam. 

Now, just over 30 years later, the book has been published in English with the title “Ascension to Death.” And it’s now enthralling a new audience with the story of a young girl’s fate in a southern Syrian village. In this heartbreaking tale, Azzam plays out the devastating love story of Salma, in the conservative Druze village in which she was born and in which she will die.

Azzam first introduces Salma to the reader as a captive. She has been locked in a shed, her body has begun to wither and her will to live is slowly fading away. All she has are her memories of fleeting happiness, a rarity in the life of the young orphan girl who was abandoned by her mother and raised by an uncle who has never shown her any affection. Salma sees marriage itself as her potential savior, rather than a husband — because to choose the man she wants to marry is not an option.

Azzam’s account of Salma’s life, her fate and the lives of the villagers is akin to a secret confession. He reveals the terrible truth of his main character’s life and the almost-automatic complicity of the villagers as they destroy her for falling in love with the wrong man.

The villagers constantly betray Salma, meaning her relationships are often fleeting and built on shaky ground. The author describes in meticulous detail an environment where love is an enemy, happiness is only available to those who can afford to buy it and traditions — however outdated — are treated as unbreakable laws.

Azzam delicately convinces the reader that Salma “is a sad bird in a wicked hunter’s cage,” painting an unremittingly bleak picture of her existence in a harrowing reminder that the world can be full of misery, especially when neither your life nor your fate is yours to decide.

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