“I was a soldier and this is the nation’s soil!” No Windmills in Basra by Diaa Jubaili

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.

Welcome to Casablanca: Blood Feast by Malika Moustadraf

First, read the stories. Unsettling, allow them to assault your senses. Enter a world marred by poverty and illness, poisoned by the values of traditional patriarchal society, infused with everyday magic and superstition where women and men are trapped in roles defined by factors beyond their immediate control. This is the Casablanca of Malika Moustadraf’s fictional landscape, the space in which she ignites fires, large and small, and lets them burn. Finally, turn to the Translator’s Note and realize just how important and tragically small this remarkable work truly is.

Blood Feast (published in the UK as Something Strange Like Hunger) is a slender volume containing all of the stories the Moroccan Arabic-language writer wrote during her short life—fourteen tales, some only a few pages long. Together with one novel (Wounds of the Soul and Body) self-published in 1999, they form the sum total of her literary output. During her lifetime she was, through her writing, an out-spoken activist, with a style and thematic focus on gender, sexuality and class under patriarchy that challenged what was acceptable for turn of the twenty-first century female writers in her home country. Yet, until recently all of this work had long been out of print in Arabic and none was available in translation. Today she is recognized and celebrated as a feminist icon.

But, again let’s have a look at the stories. The first ten pieces were published in Arabic in 2004 as Trente-six, a project supported by the Moroccan Short Story Research Group. Her settings tend to be squalid, pungent and unpleasant. As are the people that inhabit them. Slang, harsh language, and cultural references abound. Her female narrators, are typically facing the consequences of severe gendered oppression, propagated by callous fathers, abusive partners, or the demands of unreasonable, outdated social norms. Her male narrators often echo the sexist attitudes of the system they were raised in, unable or unwilling to rise above it. And yet there is a defiance, a resilience, and a conscious weighing of the odds motivating many of her protagonists’ actions—even those that are unlikely to improve their situations. The narrator of “A Woman in Love, A Woman Defeated,” for example, visits a seer to find out how to make her husband return even though she herself wonders why she even wants him back. Looking out at her very pregnant cat, she says:

She left home a while back, chasing after a scabby tom who had seduced her, and then later she came back, rubbing herself up against me like nothing had happened. I did the same thing, left everyone behind and followed him. He wasn’t handsome. He looked like a little bald bear with a saggy paunch hanging down past his genitals, and he had a huge ass and a round face. I always hated men with huge asses and round faces. So how did I fall in love with him? Love is like that, it always shows up without an appointment. Love is like death, like illness, always arriving when we least expect it, at the most peculiar times and places. Love makes us behave like irrational children. Why can’t they just invent a vaccine against it?

Within the tight scope of her characteristically brief stories Moustadraf was able to paint claustrophobic portraits that often explored territory that was extraordinarily progressive, given the time when she was writing. The narrator of “Just Different,” for instance, is a gender non-conforming prostitute whose identity is never clearly defined. Perhaps an effeminate gay man or a transfemale or even intersexed person—that which is undefined leaves possibilities open— reflecting, on a quiet night working the street, back on childhood and their father’s brutal hostility toward any hint of feminine mannerisms. Later in this collection, among the four stories completed following the publication of Trente-six (three of which were published after her death), her protagonists appear to have somewhat more agency, and two even engage in online flirtation—probably, as the translator suggests, “the first ever published literary depictions of cybersex in Arabic.” One can only wonder what she might have produced if her health and economic situation had not conspired against her.

As it was, she died in 2006 at the age of thirty-seven, from the complications of chronic kidney disease and her inability to obtain the life-saving surgery she needed. The exact biographical details of her life are not well known but she seems to have been diagnosed with kidney disease and started on dialysis in her teens. She famously resented the fact that women writers were assumed to be only capable of writing autobiographical fiction, denying that they, like men, could have access to a robust imagination. However, the title story of the present collection, “Blood Feast,” can be read as a powerful exception to her rejection of autobiographically inspired themes. In this story, dedicated to her sister Karima from whom she received an unsuccessful transplant, the male narrator is struck with kidney disease shortly after his wedding. The bride is blamed, alternate understandings are sought, and the proclamation of the female doctor is met with distrust. But when he finds himself flat on his back in a putrid hospital, he becomes the unwillingly captive audience of his smoking fellow patient who imparts his wisdom about navigating the almost hopeless process of applying for financial assistance for the necessary treatments in a corroded semi-privatized system, a reality the author knew only too well.

Moustadraf faced her own host of impossible barriers in her journey, yet as her illness progressed, her literary spirit only burned brighter. Writing was her way of coping, one that paradoxically weakened her health when she had to go without medications to be able to afford to self-publish her novel. The challenges she faced, physically and artistically, to bring her work to light adds an important context and power to her bold voice, amplifying it far beyond her relatively small oeuvre. And at last she is getting her due, in no small part, thanks to the dedication of her translator Alice Guthrie who literally fell in love with her work when first invited to translate a piece for the online journal Words Without Borders several years ago. She has ensured that Malika Moustadraf is no longer forgotten.

Blood Feast by Malika Moustadraf is translated by Alice Guthrie and published in North America by Feminist Press. In the UK, this same collection was published by Saqi Books under the title Something Strange Like Hunger.

The weight of emptiness: The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam

This is my life, my story: it has a lot of drama, successive doses of profound distress, and a lot of peculiarity, to the extent that I continually imagine myself a mere character in the novel, choreographed by the hand of a brilliant writer, but he overburdens me with unusual loads. I don’t mean in a literary sense—that’s for the critics—I’m talking on a human and personal level. He always puts me in the most complex scenarios, boiling over with seemingly cosmic plots, or at least in pivotal points of tearful collective historical plots, always overturning places on my head.

The narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, Akram Musallam’s metafictional meditation on loss, identity and emptiness, is at the mercy of his own pen as he endeavours to commit his own story to the page, a story which finds him at the intersection of a lineage bound by village and familial legend and a series of events that define the history of Palestine in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He is his own anti-hero, haunted by successive losses, disappearances and absences that undermine his efforts to write himself into being. The resulting novel-about-a-novel-about-loss, by turns melancholic and absurd, thus becomes a mirror of much larger questions haunting the Palestinian imagination.

Born in 1972 in Talfit, near Nablis in the West Bank, Musallam is a journalist for the Ramallah daily Al-Ayyam. The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, first published in Arabic in 2008, is his second novel, his first to be translated into English. And although its premise may sound bleak, this playful tale manages to be both sorrowful and fun to read. The magic lies in its charming and determined narrative voice.

The novel opens with a dream-like account of a night in late 1988 when our protagonist, a teenager working in a hotel across the border in Israel, has his first sexual encounter with a young woman who has a freshly tattooed scorpion at the base of her spine. At one point he asks her to stand, naked, facing the mirrored wall behind the carpeted stage in the “dance hall” where he slept each night. He traces her hips on the reflective surface with lipstick. The girl, a visitor from Paris, would leave for home the next day, disappearing from his life forever. However, she and her scorpion would begin to revisit him in his dreams, lying beside him once more. As he stroked the deep-blue design on her lower back the creature would come to life, slip off her skin and struggle to climb up the mirror to find its place between the lipstick lines drawn there. This scorpion in its desperate attempts to reclaim a perch on something that no longer exists, haunts the narrator, who adopts it as an identity for his story’s hero. “Isn’t this a novel-esque dream, or a dream of a novel?” he asks himself and the answer, he knows, is yes. Which I suppose means it’s both.

It is mid-2006 when he finally commits himself to realizing this novel-esque dream. He arrives at a parking lot in Ramallah and offers to rent a particular stall although he has no car to park there. He simply wishes to sit there, on the ground or on a plastic chair, think and maybe even write a novel. The attendant is uncertain, but the parking lot manager, a former political “prisoner” jailed for his actions during the Uprising, is smitten by the idea of hosting a writer. As the author-narrator’s story unfolds—that which we are reading and/or that which he is writing—the “prisoner” becomes his audience, his cheerleader and his challenger to the truth of the narrative as presented. But, just as real-life has dictated the narrator’s story, the liberties he takes in recording it are often the only way to begin to adequately—and safely—address the huge gaping holes that fate and history keep placing in his way.

‘Names aren’t that important, believe me, usually there are no names in my novel, haven’t you noticed that? Names are constraints for the characters and me, I don’t like them. I prefer to describe my characters according to what sets them apart. Then, my friend, you want a novelist to write “real-life things.” Listen: in order to be able to speak the truth, you have to wait for a lot of people to die; in the same way, speaking the truth may end up killing a lot of people.

The Scorpion’s earliest life memories are charged with absence. When he was very young his father lost his leg, the result of a workplace injury attended not by doctors but by construction site “first aid” of a much more basic sort. As the only child it would fall to our hero to scratch his father’s missing foot—not the stump, but the space where his foot once was. It was an early, tangible experience of emptiness and perhaps began to condition him for life in a time of conflict in a land under occupation, insofar as one can ever be prepared to have the places most important to you, your key touchstones, destroyed or irrevocably altered—to have your history erased. He would have preferred that the war would stay out of his life, but it kept intruding, driving the plot. For the narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, his connection to lost places may seem exaggerated at times due to the magical tone of his tale and his tendency to limit or avoid identifying details, but they are not only fundamental to his sense of self and his ability to tell his own story, they echo the broader collective concerns that haunt the Palestinian people.

This is, then, a deceptively quirky, light tale filled with eccentric characters and family legends woven against historical events—the Passover Massacre in Netanya, the Second Intifada, the 2002 Invasion—that is deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves to address loss and emptiness, to remind ourselves that we do exist. As the narrator insists “my game, our game is a game of stories.” It is also about the stories we can dare to tell, especially in dangerous times. So, as his own manuscript takes shape, it isn’t completely clear where the novel we are reading and the novel being written diverge, if in fact they do. The scorpion is an enigma. Who is the scorpion? The narrator or his self-protagonist? Or a dream symbol of the impossible? A scorpion that can sweat, struggling to hold on to a memory and an idea of a time, a place and a nation that holds an increasing amount of absence as time goes on.

The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam is translated by Sawad Hussain and published by Seagull Books.

“Dignity is the heaviest thing in a man”: Slipping by Mohamed Kheir

Alexandria’s aging buildings sagged into one another, yellowed and peeling. They were set back from the road on ether side, and between them lay a great network of streetcar lines, crossing and recrossing like a tracery of veins. Bahr picked up a path through the tracks, and cautiously I followed. I followed him over rail after rail, while he kept his gaze fixed on the ground as though trying to marry a memory to what he saw.

Suddenly, he stopped, whispered, “Here!” and tugged at me so that I was standing upright, directly behind him. Then I heard it, the distant but distinctive metallic tick of streetcar wheels approaching, and as that grew louder, an identical ticking, echoing the first, started to close in from somewhere behind us.

The most important thing you need to know before entering the slippery, shifting world of Mohamed Kheir’s novel Slipping—his second published but first translated into English—is that it is, in the words of translator Robin Moger, “a book about not knowing what’s going on.” If you are the type of reader who feels most comfortable when you have, or at least believe you have, a firm grasp on what is happening and where you are going beware that, in the world Kheir invites you into, reality is an uncertain quantity from the opening pages through to the final chapters where some threads are picked up in unexpected ways while others, even the ones that felt most secure, are loosened, untied, rewound. But if you are open to a book that, to quote Moger again, “teaches you how to read it,” Slipping is an exhilarating journey into a fragmented, dreamlike vision of Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The opening chapters unfold like a series of unfinished vignettes as new characters and scenarios are introduced only to disappear, not resurfacing until much later as the narrative is building toward a close. The overall effect is similar to a nested narrative, but with an amorphous, magical quality that burs the edges of the experience throughout. I was inclined to take careful notes at the beginning, like leaving a trail of bread crumbs, a practice I soon abandoned. Likewise I have noticed that other reviewers have taken pains to sketch the initial “unfinished” stories, only to slip ahead to the end to indicate how the thread is picked up. That creates a spoiler effect of sorts, in so much as one can “spoil” a book that leaves many questions unanswered even after the final page is finished. But for a novel filled with ghosts, disappearances, magic and mystery it is strangely fitting—especially because painfully real circumstances like protests that turn into riots, police brutality, mass migration and exile, ground this alternate-Egypt in the harsh realities of a recent past.

The core narrative driving Slipping is revealed gradually. The first chapter introduces Ahmed, a young man whose deceased father holds a commanding presence over his household from beyond the grave, informing his wife and son how he wants things done—even what he wants to have prepared for dinner. Other early chapters entertain the unusual predicaments of a waylaid bridegroom, a doctor, a singer and other individuals and communities. The only recurring figures are Bahr, an old, almost ageless man who has returned to Egypt after many years of exile with a mission to revisit a number of mysterious locations, and Seif, the journalist who has been assigned to accompany him and report on his observations. Their adventures, as narrated by Seif, first appear as alternate chapters before coming to carry the flow of the central portion of the book.

Together they visit spaces where reality intersects with the unexpected, such as the “safe point” in the railyard described above where two ancient streetcars pass within inches of where they are standing or a location where for a brief time each day the level of the Nile drops to a few inches, allowing transit from one side to another, or a neighbourhood in Cairo where the risk of falling corpse flowers keeps the streets quiet or an abandoned village emptied when the residents decided to travel north by boat in search of a better life on another continent. Seif’s account is not chronological or even entirely clear or consistent. Amid the details of the strange places his companion leads him to, he weaves memories of his lost lover, Alya, an enigmatic and gifted woman with an uncanny ability to sing any sound—the sea, the rain, the wind—and Bahr’s own stories of his life in Egypt and abroad.

Both men’s lives have been personally impacted by protests and political violence and their country is, as they piece their way through it, distorted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Likewise, the protagonists of the other various storylines also find themselves in a world at once peopled by ghosts and caught within an increasingly surreal bureaucratic nightmare. As the book’s final sections near, earlier stories approach apparent conclusions that seem to raise further possibilities, while what we think we understand of Seif and Bahr’s journey becomes less clear. Slipping, is a work that seamlessly slips between tales, weaving a mesmerizing blend of magic and mystery to craft a fable resting on a foundation of unpleasant truths that leaves much to ponder.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir is translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger and published by Two Line Press.

In the brotherhood of sleep, all sleepers are equal: The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany

It is said that we spend one-third of our lives sleeping, sometimes struggling to fall sleep, other times either struggling to stay awake or seemingly lost to the world. Some, like me, even wear trackers that weigh, measure and rate the quality of each night’s rest, but no matter how you consider it, sleep has a claim on us all. We are all sleepers. Yet, apart from typical biological and psychological considerations, what does that actually mean? What is the nature of sleep? And how might the sleeper be understood in relation to the waking self and in relation to others? These are the kinds of questions that percolate through Egyptian writer Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep, questions examined and entertained in a space removed from conventional approaches to the subject. An open space.

The reality of sleep is not antithetical to that of waking; it is an extension of it, a reordering. Sleep suspends gravity’s pull, it confuses inner with outer, while waking restores gravity and divides reality into an exterior space which we share with others and an interior in which we close in on ourselves.   (from “The Sleeping Space”)

Over the course of eighty-six short non-narrative prose pieces—most no more than one or two pages long—El Wardany employs philosophical, political, and literary devices to think about sleep and the sleeper. The resulting work is one that defies easy categorization—a thoughtful, fragmentary, poetic imagining and reimaging that reaches widely. However, it unfolds in the shadow of the rising unrest in Egypt that marked the spring of 2013 during which the book was written.

The Book of Sleep rests on an understanding of sleep and the sleeper as existing in relation to other objects or beings. It is a perspective not commonly taken, one that allows for a natural progression of reflections that move from the individual to the group. In a conversation recently re-run on the ArabLit site, El Wardany describes for Roger Outa his approach the questions of the identity of the sleeper and the meaning of sleep (translated by Book of Sleep translator Robin Moger):

The book contains three sections on the sleeper. In the first I write about the relationship between the sleeper and the unseen social. In the second I discuss the relationship between the sleeper and the social body: how sleep opens a space in this body and opens it up to another body. In other words, sleep is body opening up to body and all the desires and fears and dispositions in contains. In the third section, I discuss the sleeper’s relationship with the individual and the group and try to escape the binary or introgressive categories this relationship carries with it to say that the group may be other than what we assume: it may be a collection of non-existent people, or of non-human creatures, or of things, or places, and so on, In any case, I do not seek to define the sleeper or compile a list of its possible meanings, because my aim is not to author an encyclopedia on sleep, but rather to write down ideas and observations, which is why I chose fragments.

The format of the book with its many brief open-ended chapters, offers the attentive reader plenty of room for self-reflection, in fact it invites personal engagement. Notions are explored through observations, micro-essays, allegories, and fictional vignettes. Dreamscapes are entered, anchored in a somewhat altered reality save for the presence of the dead. Fellow literary companions are summoned, most notably Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Nancy, two thinkers who present views of sleep that have clearly had an impact on the author’s musings. Throughout this intelligent inquiry, questions are asked, situations are presented, and possible understandings are offered—this is not an argument to be fought but a hopeful reframing of a subject long constrained by black and white reasoning.

If revolution is awakening—a long awaited anomaly that brings a deep collective slumber to an end—then is not sleep a return to dispossession? Is it not a synonym for failure? A failure to reshape reality? An inability to alter the circumstances of life? A defeat in the struggle to redefine the self? But a closer look at what takes place in the instant that we enter sleep tells us something different: this moment does not mark the onset of failure; it simply concedes it. It is the moment in which the sleeper surrenders to his drowsiness and his inability to stay awake. The failure comes first, whether it is the failure of  the self to maintain control or the defeat of the collective in its fight for change.       (from “Coma”)

It is difficult to capture the experience of reading The Book of Sleep without resorting to catch phrases. In truth, the entries, the titled prose pieces, play against one another, approaching the evolving images of the sleeper, sleep and all it might mean from different angles, bringing in varied techniques to flesh out ideas. Some fragments directly echo one another, others revisit and build on themes touched on earlier. A strong poetic sensibility runs through every piece. It is, in the end, an exercise in how to interpret anew, in the possibilities of literature as a “methodology for thinking” that can be applied to other topics that have been suffocated under rigid preconceptions. A process that can open fresh ways of understanding.

In the brotherhood of sleep, all sleepers are equal. Their experiences, their selves, their memories, all are dispersed equally among them: even their unshareable absence is held in common. Sleep proposes another kind of community, a community that does not define the group in terms of its members’ presence but as the product of a shared absence: a bond of kinship that connects all those who have departed; or rather, if the expression holds, a bond of unrelation.
(from “A Bond of Unrelation”)

A book rich in unexpected images and interrelations, this engaging volume invites a reader into a deeply rewarding interrogation of a state of being that consumes so much of our existence—one that we tend to accept with our eyes closed, so to speak.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany is translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.

It’s in your genes: The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif

Cairo can be an inspiring city, especially in winter. So I think to myself as I come home one evening. The microbus stops where the overpass descends to the street, rain pouring, Road 10 running beneath, the taste of a damp cigarette. Winter is, even so, like religion: both fit spaces for expressing emotion, sadness above all. A whistle lengthening then broken off: a soundtrack to the scene; a perfect summons to tender feeling for a tableau that has been generated thousands of times before and embedded in memory and which, when tickled by the tune, comes back to life.

The Law of Inheritance, by Egyptian poet and writer, Yasser Abdellatif, originally published in Arabic in 2002, and now available in Robin Moger’s crystalline translation, is a delicate, filmic ode to emerging adulthood set against the tumultuous political environment of Egypt in the 1990s. Drawing on his own memories and on mythically-toned stories from his Nubian family history, Abdellatif manages to spin, in a mere 94 spare pages, a richly textured tale.

The opening section, “Introductions,” sets the stage, sketching in fragmentary, third person passages, images of a young man, at various ages from childhood through adolescence, from grade school to high school, from cigarettes to hashish, to the University of Cairo where both creative and Leftist political energies will be sparked. His father is absent, forced abroad to find work, his mother fragile, and the weight of being the older brother rests uneasily on his small shoulders. This brief, cinematic prelude paints a minimalist portrait of the narrator who will soon step out of the shadows to carry forth his own account, framed within a multi-stranded evocation of contemporary Egyptian identity distilled to its most elegiac essentials.

The narrative is moody and melancholic, evocative of time and place, infused with memory and family lore. Architecture and addresses serve as conduits to a personal past—the Lycée the narrator attended as a child, the University of Cairo where he studied Philosophy and finds himself swept up in the fervor of political protests  in the early 1990s, the roads and byways where he and his friends lingered, listening to rock and roll and experimenting with pharmaceuticals. One has the sense of a slow, directionless drifting toward adulthood, which echoes and reverberates with stories drawn from his ancestral past and woven into the tapestry of this lyrical novella. As the narrator unspools his tale, he traces his family’s intersection with the city, with its streets and neighbourhoods. Relatives, pushed into exile from their native Nubia, arrive as social outcasts in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some find the promise of a better future; others find it more difficult to adjust. Yet for all of them, even the narrator and his father who are born there, Cairo seems to be a somewhat uneasy fit.

His grandfather does well. By virtue of his education, he chances to rise from a barman to an office worker, a transition that affords his family a move up in both social standing and neighbourhood.  However, it also loosens the restraints he’d previously maintained against his own religious inclinations, an enthusiasm accompanied by periodic bouts of depression. By contrast, Fathi, a nephew to whom he is very close, has quite a different experience. Given to the pursuit of carnal pleasures, he embarks on an affair with an Italian girl in the mid-1930s. This enrages her budding Fascist countrymen who chase him through the streets and eventually force him into retreat in Rhodes. Another distant relation will fall into religious fanaticism and madness, and will ultimately retreat back to the Nubian countryside.

The Law of Inheritance is a novel of exile—from a homeland, a city, a neighbourhood—that succeeds through its lyrical precision and its measured humility. The narrator warns against vanity early on, and he is, in his own transition to adulthood, neither hero or victim. Likewise, the men in his family whose stories are told without glory or pity. The result is a powerful, moving exploration of what it means to belong in a world that is ever shifting and changing shape.

The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

“The city is bigger than a poet’s heart and smaller than his poem”: Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun

We who are strewn about in fragments, whose flesh flies through the air like raindrops, offer our profound apologies to everyone in this civilized world, men, women and children, because we have unintentionally appeared in their peaceful homes without asking permission. We apologize for stamping our severed body parts into their snow-white memory, because we have violated the image of the normal, whole human being in their eyes, because we have the impertinence to leap suddenly on to news bulletins and the pages of the internet and the press, naked except for our blood and charred remains.

—from “We”

There is an eerie and uncomfortable synchronicity in coming to Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin while, on the TV, a reporter stands against the skeletal structures of the besieged Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, now a ghostly battleground where Syrian government forces are closing in on the last remaining Islamic State fighters in the capital region. That is because this devastated neighbourhood is also the birthplace of the Stockholm-based, Palestinian poet whose first collection to be published in English is one of the titles long listed for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. From a part of the world that has been producing poetic visionaries for more than a millennium, Almadhoun offers a powerful twenty-first century testament that reinvents earlier forms and imagery to create a vivid, contemporary lament for the futility of war and the costs it extracts.

I was going toward death when the fighters stopped me. They searched me and found my heart on me. It was a long time since they had seen a heart with its owner. One of them shouted ‘He’s still alive,’ and they decide to condemn me to life.

—from “Schizophrenia”

His is a poetry about dying or not dying or being dead already too many times to count. About that which death can neither ennoble, nor ensure. In history, in the recent past, and in the ever present. In the world he conjures up, massacre and Damascus are personified, grief and angst are objects that can be purchased, new or second hand, and “suicided” is a verb. Employing a mix of prose poetry and free verse, the images he draws are coloured with unexpected juxtapositions and observations. It is a poetic reality at once modern and ancient, speaking to displacement as does the poetry of an earlier generation of Palestinian poets, but bound with the more recent flow of  refugees who have fled the Middle East and North Africa seeking new lives in Europe.

He is among those refugees, whether he fled or was lured away by love, the place he left behind lies in ruins. Yet, he is aware that the safe quiet space he has found in Stockholm confers upon him a privileged perspective and particular responsibility to be a voice for those people and places who have been rendered mute by conflict. And that elegy extends beyond Damascus, and yet is ever beholden to her—at once his mother and his first lover—and to his Palestinian identity. Take, for example, “Schizophrenia” a poem written following a visit to Ypres on the 100th anniversary of the first chemical weapons attack. Among the visitors to the reconstructed city he notes the contradictions and the burdens his presence represents:

I am the Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish refugee, wearing Levi’s jeans invented by a Jewish immigrant from Germany in San Francisco, filling my camera with pictures like a Russian peasant woman filling a bucket with milk from under her cows, nodding my head like someone absorbing a lesson, the lesson of war: I am the Palestinian distributed over many massacres, standing here naked, trying to wear my poem in the hope that it will hide my wounds, confusedly gathering pieces of me from here and there in order to become a witness.

As this series of poems and collected facts will go onto illustrate, the gas attacks of one hundred years ago, the recent sarin attacks on Damascus, and all of the wartime deaths  rendered by chemical means in between have taught us nothing. Nothing at all.

Almadhoun’s poetry is a potent blend of defiance, passion and melancholic nostalgia. It is a heady mix that produces work of raw beauty. Throughout this collection, his beloved birthplace is never far from his imagination, a bond evoked most intimately in “The City,” where Damascus is portrayed as a multifaceted female figure, timeless and complex:

She is the earliest cemetery, which people have celebrated as evidence that memories are real. I pass her, a stranger to myself, so she passes me without recognising my face. I distinguish her in the faces of strangers who have belonged to her, so she and I are briefly deluded into believing we are one. She is old like a fossil and I am new like the end of history, I hold on to her dress like a child and she holds on to my heart like a woman and we commit a poem, I the dreamer hunting down verse and she reality giving birth to children and not raising them. I the ephemeral and she the eternal, everlasting, I the fatalist stuffed with transcendental truths, she the heretical realist. There is no consolation for me, and no harm done to her, except that by chance we are lovers

The most striking quality of the poems that comprise Adrenalin is the urgency that comes through. These are fiercely intelligent political pieces that invite historical figures, philosophers and other poets into the conversation. Deeply rooted in the intertwined tragedies of recent Palestinian history and the Syrian civil war, it offers an urgent, compelling commentary presented in a style and manner that even those who tell themselves they don’t read poetry will find remarkably accessible and compelling.

Finally, if you would like an opportunity to experience Almadhoun’s poetry in the best way possible—hearing him read it himself—I strongly recommend this poetry video in which  he reads from “Details,” one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. Presented with Catherine Cobham’s piercing translation, against visual and musical accompaniment, this is the best endorsement for this book that I can think of.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun is translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham and published by Action Books.

“No, you are better than me, Yahya”: Where the Bird Disappeared by Ghassan Zaqtan

He felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names kept repeating themselves in succession without end.

The enclosures were always building themselves in processes to which everything contributed. Everything gave birth to everything. Time, places, names, women, trees, men. He felt he was traversing the book, word by word.

Memory, for Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan, is a troubled quantity, shaken and shaped by the past, near and distant. His work is rooted in the land and the lives of his people, disrupted and dislodged by the forces of history. The losses cross generations. The tremors run deep.

His first work of prose to be translated into English, Describing the Past, was set in a refugee camp east of the River Jordan, a location based on the settlement where Zaqtan grew up after the Israeli invasion of 1948 forced his family out of their home village. The first part of a trilogy, this dream-like coming-of-age story is a tale of loss—the loss of childhood friend and of childhood innocence itself. The narrative, shared by three voices, has a gently circular flow. The young man at the centre, continually eludes to the future yet is sensitive to the ongoing presence of the past, to the ghosts that continue to have a tangible existence in the community.

With the second installment, Where the Bird Disappeared, Zaqtan takes a somewhat different approach, but one that is likewise weighted with lyrical beauty and sorrow. The narrative begins in the years just prior to the invasion and extends to the present day, while its echoes with the past go much farther back in history. Set in the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, the central character is a youth also named Zakariyya. He and his best friend, Yahya not only share their names with two prophets so strongly associated with the region—known to Christian tradition as Zechariah and his son, John the Baptist—but bear distant imitations of their personalities and fates. Other characters and images also shadow figures from the shared Biblical and Koranic traditions.

This novella adopts a narrative style with more of a mythic feel than Describing the Past. The tone is still dream-like, spare and poetic. However, the disruption and violence of the invasion is much more explicitly portrayed in this tale which unfolds in a series of short, intimate vignettes. As adolescents, Yahya is a restless spirit, given to wandering alone in the countryside around the village. Zakariyya is the more reflective of the two, intuitive and sensitive to place. Together with the other boys of their village, they have their own visions and dreams for the future. Until the military arrive.

With the sudden forced migration, as families flee into the hills, all of the young men are thrown into dangerous new roles. They are drawn back to their villages, to try to protect their homes against impossible odds. There are casualties, including Yahya who is captured, and shackled inside the citadel outside Zakariyya. His friends keep vigil for three days and nights until he is finally killed:

Yahya knew that they were listening to him from the cactus field. His voice was full of testimonial. The pain had stopped and the fear had stopped with it. Only the testimonials remained, running through his voice and pouring into the air. They gathered them in the cactus field.

Zakariyya’s own journey commences with the death of his friend. He sets off to find Sara, who had loved Yahya, drawn by his own attractions as much as the need to bring her the difficult news. Along the way, he takes refuge at the Monastery of Saint Saba carved into the mountain side overlooking the Kidron Valley, halfway between Old Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. His short stay is a time of mystical suspension and release from the burdens weighing him down. He is attuned to the presence of the thousands of monks who passed through the complex over the previous fifteen centuries:

Saints, and pious men at the edges of sainthood, rose up, their chanting lingered as the living met the dead in the vestibules and halls of the monastery, sharing bread from nightfall to dawn.

He listened to their talk and their steps, he distinguished between the weightless steps of the dead and the empty stammerings of language. He arrested the movement of his body and left the air entirely to them.

Gathering the peace afforded him by his time at Mar Saba, Zakariyya sets off again to find Sara. He joins a refugee camp where she also comes to settle with her family. But once he is in close proximity to her, he comes to realize that he cannot approach her, and that to preserve his memories of both Yahya and Sara as they were all once together, to hold on to what little he has of his own past, he must leave. He returns to pass the night at the monastery before continuing “down the falling road” to the Dead Sea.

Zakariyya will settle to work the salt mines, in a land yet again bound to the far-reaching named and remembered history within which he is half aware that he exists. As the years pass, and age bends his back, he finds himself haunted by the strange notion that he was born a father. It’s a sensation that increasingly troubles him. He does not understand it, knowing only that it is bound to a name and that it is becoming more oppressive, leading down a road carved through memory. A road that will ultimately lead him back to Zakariyya. The place. His home.

Rich with allusions, but never forced or heavy-handed, Ghassan Zaqtan weaves a delicately devastating fable that illustrates that the connection of the Palestinian people to their land is not simply geographical, political and economic, but bound through mystical and psychological ties that are enduring. And not easily severed.

Where the Bird Disappeared is translated from the Arabic by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books. The final part of the trilogy will be published in Spring of 2019.

Ancient sorrows, modern woes: The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar

Don’t let the current fashionable popularity of flash fiction deceive you—it is a form with a long history in Arab literature, an allegorical tradition to which Syrian writer and poet Osama Alomar proudly belongs. But, as an immigrant living in exile in the United States, his tightly crafted parables and short fictions have a quality that is both timeless and timely. We cannot but recognize ourselves and the world we live in today.

Free Elections
When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human dignity.

In his most recent collection,  The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories, Alomar employs this traditional manner of storytelling to craft pieces that range from a single sentence to a page or more. Animals and objects—man-made and natural—are often animated to take centre stage, offering philosophical reflections on life, humanity, or wondering at strangeness of the universe. His narrators and protagonists, human or otherwise, speak to sadness, loneliness, and injustice while the shadow of his troubled homeland hangs over their tales. It cannot be ignored. The futility and violence of war is a frequent theme. These pieces may read like age-old wisdoms, but their message is immediate. If they sound timeless, it is because, at the end of the day, little changes.

The Dark Side
The moon wished to punish humans for the many transgressions and frightful crimes they commit against each other and against nature. She decided to hide her lighted side so that they would curb their behavior and return to reason. And so the eclipse took place. But great was the surprise of the moon when she saw millions of people coming out of their houses to enjoy the view of her dark side.

His style is spare and unsentimental. The shortest entries have a sharp aphoristic tone, whereas the longer ones, with a wider stage on which to play out contemporary themes, are painfully heart-wrenching. “Love Letter” is a long message addressed to a woman with whom the narrator was involved. It speaks to intimacy against a backdrop of war and revolution, an intimacy that deepened even after he left the conflict zone. When her letters and emails stop he fears the worst but holds to faint hope. “The Shining Idea,” one of my favourite pieces, is a dialogue between an unconceived child and the man he hopes will give him life. The would-be child sees only the beauty and joy in the world beyond the transparent boundary that contains him. The father he beseeches knows only suffering and poverty and cannot be convinced that his is a world worth bringing another life into.

Time and again, knowledge, compassion and understanding are the ingredients most at risk, or missing altogether in the world Alomar presents us with. His weary narrators and anthropomorphic characters know this well. But, in keeping with the tradition from which he emerges (Kahlil Gibran is one of his heroes), his messages are never forced or dogmatic. They are simply laid bare for the reader to encounter:

 Never Been Touched
A book sitting on the shelf with torn covers and pages filled with comments and notes in the margins said to his colleague who stood behind him, “I envy so much your freshness and your eternal youth!”
But his colleague answered him dejectedly, “I never been touched!”

With over 160 stories spreading across no more than 95 pages, one might be tempted to consume the accessible, entertaining short fictions that comprise this collection in quick succession, swallowing one after another. However, these fables, wisdoms and cautionary tales are best digested slowly, over a few days perhaps. At once beautiful and urgent, they deserve a little extra attention. The chorus of their voices deserves to be heard.

The Teeth of the Comb & And Other Stories by Osama Alomar is translated from Arabic by C J Collins with the author, and published by New Directions.