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

Updated 08 October 2018

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

  • 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where love is an enemy, happiness is only available to those who can afford to buy it and traditions — however outdated — are treated as unbreakable laws

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where love is an enemy, happiness is only available to those who can afford to buy it and traditions — however outdated — are treated as unbreakable laws.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.


What We Are Reading Today: Republics of Knowledge by Nicola Miller

Updated 22 October 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Republics of Knowledge by Nicola Miller

The rise of nation-states is a hallmark of the modern age, yet we are still untangling how the phenomenon unfolded across the globe. Here, Nicola Miller offers new insights into the process of nation-making through an account of 19th-century Latin America, where, she argues, the identity of nascent republics was molded through previously underappreciated means: The creation and sharing of knowledge.

Drawing evidence from Argentina, Chile, and Peru, Republics of Knowledge traces the histories of these countries from the early 1800s, as they gained independence, to their centennial celebrations in the 20th century. Miller identifies how public exchange of ideas affected policymaking, the emergence of a collective identity, and more. She finds that instead of defining themselves through language or culture, these new nations united citizens under the promise of widespread access to modern information. Miller challenges the narrative that modernization was a strictly North Atlantic affair, demonstrating that knowledge traveled both ways between Latin America and Europe.