/Rafik Schami, photo by Andreas Pohlmann/
First of all, I have to say that I am so happy I discovered Rafik Schami and Syria through his eyes. A Hand Full of Stars (published in 1987) is a book about a teenage boy who wants to be a journalist. The book is actually his diary, in which he describes daily life in his hometown of Damascus.
Inspired by his dearest friend, old Uncle Salim (a man whose great love for telling stories reminded me of another uncle – Uncle Jihad from Alameddine’s Hakawati), he begins to write down his thoughts and impressions of family, friends, life at school, political situation in Syria, working in his father’s bakery and his growing feelings for his girlfriend, Nadia.
With time, the diary becomes more than just a way to remember the daily adventures; on its pages he explores his frustration with the government injustices he witnesses. His courage and ingenuity finally find an outlet when he and his friends begin a subversive underground newspaper.
Born in Syria in 1946, Schami is the son of a baker from a Syriac Christian family. Much of the story in A Hand Full of Stars seems autobiographical. From 1964 to 1970 he was the co-founder and editor of the wall news-sheet Al-Muntalak (The Starting-Point) in the old quarter of Damascus.
Like his main character in A Hand Full of Stars, he faced regime’s oppression on daily basis. In 1970, he left Syria for Lebanon to evade censorship and the military draft, and the following year he moved to Germany, where he still lives today.
Storytelling and writing books remain one of his biggest passions. A Hand Full of Stars is a simple and sweet book. In all its simplicity it manages to make you happy, angry, sad, but most of all – aware and hopeful.
I love that it’s an obligatory read in some elementary schools in Croatia (which was also a discovery to me, since I didn’t encounter it during my formal education years).
It is a great way to inform children and young people about other societies (in this case oppression and political instability in Syria), but also help them discover the beauty and diversity of different cultures – Schami’s Damascus is a great window into that.
And maybe the most important thing – it teaches children (and all of us adults – because everyone should read it) about compassion and solidarity, about the little ways we can help each other and help our society. It tells us that being kind and corageus in small, everyday situations, actually goes a long way.
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