Death of a Monk (Syria)

Death of a Monk

by Alon Hilu

In 1840 in the city of Damascus, Christians falsely accuse the Jews of that city of murdering a monk (and his Muslim servant) to use the blood in baking matzoh. Mobs, riots and torture ensue. It’s called “The Damascus Blood Libel” and it really happened. Around this central seed of history, Israeli author Alon Hilu has sprouted a novel filled with juicy and tormented people who seem so alive.

I guess the Christians at the time who were doing this didn’t know or didn’t care that kosher dietary laws forbid the use of blood in cooking. Wiki says in areas where Jews could fall victim to “blood libels,” their religious authorities forbid them from drinking red wine – for their own safety.

Growing Up

Until now, my blog has avoided coming-of-age stories. Their teen dramas bore me – and I remain spectacularly uninterested in the coming-of-age of boys. Since this novel, like its hairy young narrator, is pre-occupied  with the male organ, I was prepared to dislike it intensely. Except for one thing. He’s gay. In 1840. In the Middle East. All right, I admitted cautiously, now I am interested.

Sucks to be you, Aslan Farhi, for those who dare to act on their homosexuality will be stoned to death. Aslan Farhi was a real person. There’s more about him in a book called The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore.

Consulted after the fact, Wiki says the author’s choice to paint Aslan as homosexual “has caused astonishment among historians” – it seems historically likely to me. A priest by the name of Pieritz reported in writing that the real Aslan was “so timid he was afraid to be alone with his wife,” adding that servants were required to sleep in the same bedroom with the couple so as to protect him from her.

Eventually the fictional Aslan’s longings lead him to a dalliance with the gay, married and Muslim Suleiman Negrin, a poor barber, and also with the pedophilic Father Tomaso – a Capuchin monk.

Courtyard of a Jewish house in Damascus
Courtyard of Jewish house in Damascus

Of Inflatable Dragons

At first I was annoyed that everything in Aslan’s life seems to revolve around his…ejderha. But then I began to view his sexual obsession as the natural consequence of having to repress your entire self. And of course, being a young dude, which I’ve never been.

For Aslan is certainly is not accepted or loved by his family: They reject and judge every aspect of him. He’s too timid to be a man. He prances too much. He’s too spindly / too naughty / too disrespectful:

Well, gee, you can’t help being spindly!

  • Aslan’s father wants him to be a shrewd businessman who cares for nothing more than adding to the wealth of the family – a strong and clever merchant who can fend off the incursions of rival merchant houses;
  • Aslan’s young wife wants him to be as pious (and as straight) a man as her chief rabbi father and desires that he will immediately impregnate her with a son and;
  • Aslan’s mother wants to treat him like a beloved daughter, playing dress-up with her in her bedroom all day, slathering him with makeup and letting him wear her shoes – but condemns him at night when his father comes home:
A Syrian opposition leader claims the Jews are keeping Assad in power - does this statement sound familiar?
2012 – Syrian opposition leader claims Jews in Damascus really did make those damn blood matzohs out of old Father Toma. Does this guy also believe in the Tooth Fairy?

“Not a soul knew of the garments I would don from time to time, not even the servants toiling in our home. Once, only once, while we were under the mistaken impression that he was off somewhere tending to one of his numerous business concerns, Father returned home early. His shoes hammered the marble floor as he rounded the fish pond while Maman rushed frantically to strip me of my gown and remove the spots of make-up, almost ripping the expensive fabrics from my body so that Father would not catch us in our misconduct…

“And when Father heard all this, his eyebrows became enraged once again, and he said I was worse even than the Harari brothers, may their name and memory be blotted from the earth, and he pushed me outside the room, towards the marble fountain standing in the shade of the apricot tree, and shoved my head into the small fish pond, the permanent residence of the goldfish, and pressed upon my  neck until I choked and retched and did not know what was to become of me, and she called to him from behind, her breasts ample, protruding: “Harder, deeper, teach him a good and bitter lesson.”

It’s no wonder this poor kid is confused. Others in the community resent his wealth and privilege, although he doesn’t much enjoy it. At school, when he is caught holding hands with another boy, the kids revile and stone him. A foretaste of what he will endure if he dares to take his longing any further.

I didn’t quite believe Aslan’s attraction to the singer Umm-Jihan, despite the description of “her manly, muscled chest”. But that’s ok. He thinks for awhile it will rescue him from his longing for men and his inability to be aroused by his wife. Of course, it doesn’t.

Jews / Christians / Muslims

Syria EthnicThe Farhi family are Jews, but they seem to have more in common with the Suleimans of Damascus than the Rothschilds of New York. Of course, the wealthy Farhis aren’t particularly religious, while the Chief Rabbi’s family is extremely poor. (I have observed before that wealth and education tend to lessen religious adherence.)

A little over a year ago, I read The Map of Love for this blog (Egypt). That novel described the shifting alliances of “them” versus “us” and how those tribal lines were re-drawn by the colonial powers using the markers of religion. To me, people who have lived for thousands of years in the same area of the world have more in common with each other than they do with people from over the seas – no matter if those people worship the same gods you do. But here once again we see religion used to split like from like, making it “them” versus “us”. Brrr!

And now, it seems, there are almost no Jewish people left in Syria. Things got so bad for them in the 1970s that a Canadian lady worked to bring almost 3,000 to Canada and Israel. Knowing this lent the novel a little more poignancy.

The Last Word

I would give this novel three apricot trees. While it was too sex-obsessed for my G-rated liking, I think the author did a good job of making history come alive and creating flawed characters that pulled me into the story. I also thought he did a great job of portraying the disgust and dismay felt by many kids as their bodies propel them through puberty, ready or not. And I thought he did a skillful job of describing Damascus and its environs using beautiful, vivid language. As a writer, that was what I enjoyed about this story the most.

PS–How come nobody dings the Brits for their production of blood pudding? That’s an actual thing. Gross.

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