Basra, in southeastern Iraq, is the country’s principle port city, best known to lovers of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, as the site from which Sinbad set sail. But over the course of its long history, from the time it was first founded as a military camp in 635 CE to the present day, it has had a rich, diverse, and often troubled history. More recent times have been marked by the repeated onslaught of violence and destruction during the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. Imagine, then, this grim reality as a back drop—sometimes distant, sometimes immediate—for whimsical, melancholy and magical flash fiction and you have an idea what Diaa Jubaili’s newly released collection No Windmills in Basra has in store. Of course, with seventy-five brief stories and one more expansive piece, many variations of joy and heartache play out across the pages of this lively, inventive volume.
Born in Basra in 1977, Jubaili has published eight novels and two earlier collections of short stories, but No Windmills in Basra is his first book to be translated into English and his first foray into the territory of flash fiction. In an interview with Chip Rossetti, the translator of his new book, he explained this move:
I chose this genre because there are ideas that can’t sustain elaboration or filling in gaps with things that don’t mean much to the reader. Getting an idea across with the least number of words is a difficult task, but just the challenge of doing it isn’t enough: the writer has to have an exceptional ability to create surprise. But I’ve loved this genre of concentrated narrative for a long time, and I read a lot about it before I tried writing the first text.
He goes on to talk about the importance of using vivid, poetic language to build a scene and provoke questions in the mind of the reader. Puns and play on meanings also appeal to him, an energy that charges his powerful, often surprising conclusions.
The stories in this collection are divided thematically—wars, love, mothers, women, children, poets and miscellaneous—but, as one might expect, key elements like war, love and family reappear throughout. Jubaili’s preparatory work serves him well—his tales are tightly woven, witty and affecting. Fantastical elements abound, a reflection of the importance of magic in Arabic folktales, often employed with humour, irony and black comedy. For instance, in one story, a man returning to his hometown after the end of the Iran-Iraq War finds his family plot of land has turned into a wasteland of salt. Tirelessly he and his sons work to rejuvenate the soil, hoping to restore it and once again harvest fruits and vegetables. But to their surprise they awaken the rotting corpses of soldiers, fallen there over the intervening years, who bitterly complain that with the salt gone they have been deprived of all they had left—the taste of death. In another, a woman suddenly loses her sense of taste after eating her first banana. As time goes on she loses her sense of smell, then she loses her colour. She grows weaker while everything else thrives around her. In the end she has become water. Elsewhere, we encounter a child who develops a plan to deal with dreaded stealth bombers, a young woman with sparrows in her ribcage and a blind woman searching for and finding a particular photo of her dead son by its scent. Ranging in length from a single paragraph to a few pages, this collection moves from the capricious to the tragic and back again.
At times Jubaili calls on traditional folklore and stories from the Quran (briefly explained in translator’s notes, as needed), but he also references and often invokes a wide range of western and international literary figures, sometimes even making them central characters as in the story “Death Stones” where Mrs. Woolf, collecting stones to fill her pockets for her fateful final walk, keeps setting her collection aside to pursue more, only to return and find her stash gone. Eventually she crosses the river, sets down a new collection, and watches from behind a tree as a young girl, also named Virginia, picks up the stones and skips them across the water’s surface. In another, Flaubert and Tolstoy meet and decide to exchange characters. And on it goes. It is impossible to offer more than the most minimal sampling of what this endlessly surprising collection contains, but across seventy-six brief stories, there is much to delight and entertain. At the same time, we are also granted a vision of Basra and life during wartime in a fashion that only flash fiction can deliver.
No Windmills in Basra by Diaa Jubaili is translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti and published by Deep Vellum.