September 25, 2020
Exclusive photos from the man whose life inspired City of Sparrows
by Allison Green
Last week the literary debut City of Sparrows—the raw, emotional story of a young man growing up in Homs, Syria in the ’90s—hit shelves. Because the book’s contents are so sensitive to those involved and unpack such a tumultuous time in Syria, City of Sparrows uses pseudonyms for safety reasons. The author took the name Eva Nour, while the main character in the novel, whose life the story is based on, took the name Sami.
When Bashar al-Assad came into power, things changed. Sami is drafted into the military and trains as a cartographer, sparing him from the atrocities being committed by the Syrian army. With a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions on the horizon, Sami’s military service ends but the demonstrations against the Ba’athist government are only beginning. They spread like wildfire with surrounding regions such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya participating.
Perhaps the true horrors settle in when Sami receives a text message from his girlfriend at the time, a participant in the demonstrations, that reads, “They’re shooting at us!” With government troops firing on their own citizens (sound familiar?), the hope infused in the revolution is strong as ever, but is it strong enough? Sami’s story is one of enduring love amidst the true despair of war.
Within the contents of City of Sparrows, the reader will find a penetrating letter from the author herself that we’ve included here, along with exclusive, never-before-seen photos that Sami took himself (that will likely leave you breathless).
I call myself Eva Nour. The pseudonym is necessary to protect the main character Sami, to whom my novel is dedicated. We first met in 2015 and now share a calm life in Paris, with some stray cats in our courtyard. When we met, Sami had recently arrived in Paris as a Syrian asylum seeker and I was there as a Swedish journalist to report on the terror attacks. We became good friends and then, after a while, more than friends.
At first, Sami preferred not to talk about the war and his escape. The stories came out in fragments and flashes. Some of the things he told me were so horrifying that I had to write them down to organize my thoughts. It started as a private diary, but the narrative gradually grew and took on greater importance, while Sami encouraged me to keep making notes and asking questions.
A rule of thumb for journalists is that you should never interview people you know well. The lack of distance can be a weakness, but here, it became a strength. I dared to ask things I had never dared to ask before – and Sami dared to tell me.
Sami’s story gives frightening insight into one of the world’s harshest dictatorships, but it also poses universal questions about the responsibility and authority of the individual, and about the power of love. Questions that are not limited to the suffering in Syria. All major events in the novel are based on reality and are seen through Sami’s eyes, but several characters and situations are fictitious. I believe fiction can often bring us closer to the truth, and in Sami’s case the fiction was a necessity and prerequisite for publishing this book.
For the shape of the narrative, I have drawn inspiration from nov- els such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, witness literature like Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness and Samar Yazbek’s brave literary journalism.
Cats have been included as a red thread in the book and the title The Stray Cats of Homs came after Sami showed me a picture he had taken. It showed a couple of kittens that he’d given a bowl of yogurt to. It turned out that the picture was taken in his home, shortly after the house was destroyed by the regime’s missiles. How could that be possible, I thought. Your home has just been destroyed and yet you feed the animals. For me, the cats became a symbol of humanity.
It started out as a love story and turned into a novel. Which in turn is an act of love, a love of both Sami and the Syrian people. And the name? Eva is a common Swedish name that means ‘life’. Nour is a common Arabic name that means ‘light’. Light and life. Since this is, after all, a story about keeping hope alive.
Eva Nour Paris, 2019
Allison Green is the social media manager at Melville House.