If you didn’t a chance to read “Aleppo’s Lament,” check it out then take a moment to get to know Justin Fenech. You won’t regret it.
RUM PUNCH PRESS: You are from Malta. How does your upbringing in a cultural center influenced by Europe, Africa, and the Middle East influence your writing, especially with this piece that is focused on Aleppo and its civil war?
JUSTIN FENECH: Malta is, as you say, at the confluence of the civilizations that have shaped the modern world: the European and the Semitic. Here we speak a Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet and pray to the Christian god using a Muslim word, ‘Alla’. And because Malta is so small all these influences are just a stone’s throw away from you. So it’s easy to immerse yourself in history, culture, food, drink, art; easy to be inspired. It’s something we don’t need to be taught.
Having said that: Syria is a shore too far for me. I can’t say being Maltese gives me a special ticket-of-interest in Syria and Aleppo. I am just as shocked and intrigued as anyone else. But being Maltese imbues me with an interest in the gloriously mundane day to day lives of people – the music they listen to, the food they eat and refuse to eat, and so on. So what inspired this story is the question: how do people live and inspire themselves in the midst of a holocaust?
RP: In your piece, “Aleppo’s Lament,” you leave us with this striking moment.
“Yesterday night, a man played violin in the music garden. There were quotes from the Quran etched into the ceramic tiles that covered the pillars. “So abstain from the pollution of the idols and abstain from false vain words.” (22:30) But the man didn’t abstain from the pollution of music. Music was his one and only heirloom from his father. The only gift he could ever give his wife. And the only pride he could bestow upon his mother.
All those people have died in the last five years. Only the music survives like the sole survivor of a dying species. His music was Lonesome George. And no one was more lonesome than Firas.”
It’s so telling that your protagonist is clinging to his music. Still, it doesn’t seem to assuage the pain of war. What were you intending when you used the quote from the Quran? Is the reader meant to believe there is a clash between art and religion? How is this clash impacting Firas?
JF: There is a clash between art and religion, of course. Religion – all religion – by its very nature is dictatorial. You can have no other master but the gospels and surats and Torahs. And the war highlights the conflict latent in Firas’ mind. The war has taken everything from him; his family, his wife, his home. All he has left is his music. But Firas refuses to have that stolen away from him too. Not even by religion. There are some things in life we can never surrender. If we do, then we truly are dead.
RP: The ending of this story is quite haunting and heartbreaking. It also raises the question of the impact of war and politics on art. In Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities, one, especially artists, can’t help but wonder the permanent impact of war on the region’s art. What does your story suggest about the war’s impact on Aleppo and its culture?
JF: Aleppo will rise again. It always has. The old mistress has already seen it all. In 1827 25% of the population died from plague, in 1798 Bedouins raided the outlying villages creating a famine which killed off half the population, Tamerlane destroyed it in 1400 and… need I go on? So I’m optimistic. But there is one thing that worries me: I worry that Aleppo might become pigeon-holed by the war. That, for years to come all the art coming out of Aleppo, or even concerning Aleppo will be fatalistic, destructive, obsessed by images of death and the verse of chaos. That would be a shame. That is the ultimate ignominy war imposes on the defeated; Aleppo will have to undergo a long period of Stockholm Syndrome where its inhabitants will be obsessed by the destruction rained upon it. And that’s hard to take. Art without beauty is tragically masochistic. And my story, ultimately, is about the silencing of that great music.
RP: Where can we find more of your work?
JF: Being a helpless graphomaniac I instantly took to the blog form. Thus you will find most of my writing on my blog: The Champagne Epicurean. Do also look out for me on Amazon where several ebooks of mine are available, from novels like The Pale Dove and My Noon, My Midnight, to short story collections like Tides that Bind and even a travel book called Travels of a Champagne Socialist. Besides those avenues I am also addicted to Facebook (Justin Fenech) and Twitter (@FenechJustin).