CHICAGO: Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018 and newly translated into English in 2022, “Flowers in Flames” is by award-winning Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir.
Weaving a narrative of ethereal dreams and difficult awakenings, Elsir introduces readers to Sur, a city where Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Africans and Europeans peacefully coexist.
Among the inhabitants is a small group of Copts including Khamila, the narrator of the tale. Between Khamila, her father Jamari Azer, the town’s wealthiest maize merchant, and a host of community members, locals live predictable lives until rumors of a threat emerge and life is turned upside down. .
Translated into English by Raphael Cohen, Sur appears as a light and is just as quickly extinguished when the Righteous and his extremists invade the city.
Through Khamila, readers discover Sur, a rich city built by the multiple personalities who inhabit it. Ruled by the Turk Yusuf Dameer, the locals settled into life, securing food and engaging relationships. In a big melting pot like Sur, there are bound to be religious and patriarchal borders that are not crossed, but everything is handled peacefully.
Khamila is a young Copt in her twenties and curious about the world around her. She lives in a city that has moved between cultures and religions through the ages, creating a special place to call home. But the welcoming atmosphere diminishes when war comes.
According to Khamila, Sur is a city “which has always oscillated between order and chaos, between civilization and a charming primitiveness, but which has always been the home of every community and every faith”. And it is for this reason that the Righteous and his extremists target Sur.
As people begin to disappear and food becomes scarce, Khamila’s world fades. She realizes that she may never see the people she loved and lived with again. The comfort and safety she once knew is snatched away in an underground bunker in Majd Square where the women are kept safe and then eventually captured.
As Sur, a city of transition between ancient and modern, accommodating to the diverse cultures and religions it represents, the attack represents a time of transition in the fictional world of Elsir, from liberal thinking and open to extreme conservative thinking. Caught in the crosswinds are the people who have no desire to be forced into a new normal.
Elsir masterfully leads readers to Sur to fall in love with its people, then quickly tears them away when extremist ideology descends upon them. Its history is that of a dynamic city that disappears overnight and with it the people who have shaped it for centuries.