I picked up Roundabout of Death for its title. The word roundabout conjures up modern day chaos of Arc De Triomphe in Paris and for me, growing up in small-town colonial India, also old-world serenity. The objective of entering a roundabout is to exit and get on with the journey. But what if the exit leads to death? Faysal Khartash’s title sums up the book beautifully yet it doesn’t divulge any of the story. It is brilliant. To know about women who slip in and out of burkhas through the course of a bus ride, about men who rob you of dignity by forcibly cutting finger-nails when they could just as easily shoot you, about cafe-goers who patiently wait for the bombing to ease before going vegetable shopping, about fathers who pay bribes so their sons may exit the roundabout of death, you will have to read the book. Its sparse prose impacts the soul more than a sentimental rendering of the tragedy that is the Syria. The original Arabic title translates to Roundabout of Death Between Aleppo and Raqqa but other locations are referred to in the book and the topic is too great in scope to be limited by geography. Max Weiss translation with the shorter title is perfect.
Usually, I don’t read books about the Middle East because the ones I come across are written from a western mindset. But this one, I asked myself, is a Syrian author and the title is great so why not? I am glad I did. Roundabout of death is a fast read, with vivid descriptions of what it means to live in a warring state. But its strength is also its weakness. I was totally engrossed in the lives of the narrator, his wife and his son yet the author could not help me understand why any of them did what they did. Why they were so meek when they should have been brave and so brave (as at checkpoints) when I would have packed up and died. Sentences like bombings are no good because they cause the women to wail do not draw me to the author. Book reviews talk about the destruction of Aleppo, about the loss of a major historical masterpiece. For me the greatest loss is the impact of war on people; they put up with anything to survive. In doing so everything is lost.