5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads From February 2017

Over the past month, I focused on writers from the seven countries that were/are on the US Travel Ban list. Most of them are, of course, Arabic language writers, so I am thankful to be able to find English translations free online.

I got the idea from Asymptote Journal’s project to collect writing from these banned countries. Their special feature issue, with at least two stories from each, will be out in April 2017. A taste of what they are planning can be seen in this story they published at The Guardian: Made in Denmark by Iranian writer, Mohammed Talouei, translated by Farzaneh Doosti.

Though the list below is rather male-centric — because we are dealing, mostly, with highly patriarchal cultures — I have searched harder to get some women writers too. So here are stories from: Goli Taraghi (Iran); Hassan Blasim (Iraq); Hisham Matar (Libya); Nuruddin Farah (Somalia); Leila Aboulela (Sudan); Zakaria Tamer (Syria); and Nadia Al-Kokabany (Yemen).

In looking for each country’s stories, I also read a bit about its ancient history and how it has arrived, culturally and politically, to its present state. Even if we put aside the vast cultural legacies these countries have given to the world, their storytelling traditions are so rich and deep that, if they could trade their stories as currency, they would probably be the most blessed (and, perhaps, peaceful?) nations in the world.

1/ Iran — The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi (Words Without Borders)

Iran has a long tradition of storytelling — all the way to ancient Persia. My internet search gave me so many choices that I am both embarrassed for not having bothered to read more Iranian stories before and amazed at the talented, skillful art this country continues to produce.

My first introduction to literary Iran — if we leave aside the Arabian Nights stories — came from Azar Nafisi’s memoir ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran‘. It is about, among many other things, the repression of women in revolutionary Iran. Then, more recently, there was the news about an Iranian short story writer, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, being sentenced for an unpublished fictional work found in her home — this, after her activist husband was already serving a 19-year sentence. There’s censorship for you.

Goli Taraghi’s short story collection, ‘The Pomegranate Lady and Sons‘, was one of the Best Books of 2013 at NPR. Arun Rath recommended it as follows:

I have met the pomegranate lady, and you may have as well. If you’ve ever made a disarmingly intimate connection with a stranger while traveling, you’ve had the experience. Connections and dislocations drive the characters in these stories: dislocations of place — exiles who end up in Paris, but never really leave Iran behind, and dislocations of time — elites who preserve a bubble of the “old,” secular, drinking, partying Iran — upon which modern, revolutionary Iran intrudes, with tragic-comedic results. Constantly moving between cultures is not easy on these individuals — but perhaps because of that, it reveals so much raw humanity, both cruelty and compassion.

Words Without Borders has a handful of stories from this collection, including this title story.

You should also read this excellent 2007 interview at Bookslut, where Taraghi talks about publishing and censorship in Iran, living as an expat in France, and her own writing.

In the title story of this collection, an educated, worldly woman is traveling from Tehran to Paris and has to help an older, illiterate woman who has never been on a plane before and is going to Sweden to see her fugitive sons. There are all kinds of tragicomic exchanges between the two women, of course. But, it is also a beautiful story within a story of the life of the older woman and we can see why the younger one is drawn, against all her common sense, to try to help her. The ending has a little wrenching twist.

I hate this life of constant wandering, these eternal comings and goings, these middle of the night flights, dragging along my suitcase, going through Customs and the final torture, the humiliating body search. “Take off your shoes, open your handbag, let’s see inside of your pockets, your mouth, your ears, your nostrils, your heart and mind and soul.” I am exhausted. I feel homesick—can you believe it? Already homesick. And yet I want to get away, run, flee. “I will leave and never come back,” I tell myself. “I will stay right here, in my beloved Tehran, with all its good and bad, and I will never leave. Nonsense. I am confused. All I want is to close my eyes and sleep, to slip into that magic land of oblivion and disappear.

2/ Iraq — The Abandoned Village by Hassan Blasim (Literary Hub)

Iraq or, as the 45th President of the United States refers to it often, “we-should-have-taken-the-oil.” This is where, in the late 4th millennium BC, the world’s first writing system and recorded history itself were born. City States were first created here. The first evidence of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, written law, medicine, and organised religion — all came from here.

I’ve featured this story before. I loved it so much that I also wrote a story from a ghost’s point of view, which was published at Lunch Ticket (though, that is all I borrowed from his work, as you see.)

I first came across Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi-born writer who writes in Arabic, when his short story collection, The Iraqi Christ, won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I recall reading a translated excerpt (translator: Jonathan Wright) somewhere and thinking I must read more by him.

This story is part of a collection of five contemporary new Arabic short stories. It was one of twenty-four published in The Common Mag, Issue 11, which was dedicated to new fiction from across the Arab world.

What I like most about it is how the narrator is a ghost, yet it is not a ghost story. Also, though we all have read news accounts of such abandoned war zone villages and incidents of lone soldiers being tortured by enemy forces, reading about these things here gives them a whole different kind of immediacy and poignancy. Most troubling of all, of course, is the central story about the mother and her daughter, both waiting for the father to return as he had promised them.

Sawsan’s mother was too frightened to move to another town without her husband. Her familiar life in the village where she had always lived had been torn apart, and the woman was now living a nightmare. She had heard that the regime militias were committing atrocities. People called them the “ghosts” and said they raped women and girls but preferred those with fair complexions. So the mother decided to give Sawsan a suntan. She forced her to sit in the sun for hours on end. Maybe they would leave her daughter alone if her skin were the color of burnt barley bread. The woman took other precautions. She had a pistol, and she had gathered all the village dogs in front of her house in the hope that they would frighten off anyone thinking of coming close. Sawsan was as frightened as her mother. More than once she thought of running away, but she had no idea where she could go.

3/ Libya — Naima by Hisham Matar (The New Yorker)

This ancient country has been through so much. My generation only knows about some of the conflicts: the US bombing of Libya, the Lockerbie bombing, Gaddafi’s dictatorship, the Benghazi siege and investigation.

Hisham Matar’s name has popped up a few times now in my writer-reader circles. Born in the US, exiled from Libya due to his father’s political persecution by Gaddafi’s regime, he now lives in the UK.

Matar’s first novel, ‘In the Country of Men‘, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker and the 2006 Guardian First Book Award. It went on to win: the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award, the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the 2007 Premio Gregor von Rezzori for foreign fiction translated into Italian, the Italian Premio Internazionale Flaiano (Sezione Letteratura), and the inaugural Arab American Book Award. Phew.

This story was included in the collection ‘PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012‘. A man remembers how, when he and his parents were living in exile in Egypt, his mother died and what that did to his father and their relationship. We see the child’s world and emotions through the adult’s eyes, so there are the inevitable gaps in information and comprehension. But, also, there is lingering, unprocessed pain and fear, which Matar has shown beautifully — not an easy thing to do. There are also these hints throughout of a big family secret that has been withheld from him — no spoilers here. What took my breath away is how Matar lets us, the readers, in on the secret while his narrator, who is telling us the story, doesn’t seem to have grasped it yet.

I woke up several times believing that Naima was there. She was our maid, and had been since before I was born, before my parents left our country and moved to Egypt. In winter, when the sky got dark early and Mother worried about her making the long commute home, Naima would sleep on my bedroom floor. I would watch her lying on her side, facing the skirting board, her leg bent with the tight determination of a tree branch. Her devotion had always seemed muscular, too intense, but now I yearned for it; I wished that she had come with us, or even that I had been left behind with her in Cairo.

4/ Somalia — The Start of the Affair by Nuruddin Farah (The New Yorker)

As with the other countries on this list, Somalia has a long, ancient storytelling tradition, particularly in verse form and folk literature. Today, it is, apparently, the economically poorest nations in the world. If stories could be currency, though, this country would be among the richest.

Nuruddin Farah is probably Somalia’s most well-known contemporary man of letters. Among the many universities he attended, the first was in Chandigarh, India: The Punjab University. That is also where he met his first wife, Chitra. Despite having lived in exile for a few decades now, he has written with unique and relevant perspectives about his homeland. He is also considered long overdue for the Nobel.

Here is an interesting 2012 profile of his life and career. Of particular interest to me is that he writes female characters who are agents of their own lives (though not in this particular story, which features two male characters.)

This story is about a retired professor of politics in South Africa who is now a restaurant owner. He meets and is attracted to a young Somali man who comes to his restaurant kitchen for leftovers. They become friends in a slowly-unfolding, almost one-sided courtship. This is an older man, younger man relationship story but it is also much more.

[Side-note: Interestingly, I’ve now read about a handful such OMYM stories and they have all involved the older man being more invested and more active in the hunt-and-chase. I hope that is not going to become a tiresome trope.]

James realizes right away that he has made a faux pas. And so, in an attempt to charm him, he offers his hand, formalizing the ritual of their encounter with a handshake. As he takes the young man’s slender hand—the hand of a pianist, James thinks—he expounds, “I know that you Somalis have one name, which is your given name, another which is your father’s name, and a third, which is your paternal grandfather’s. So whose name or nickname is Mooryaan?” James is aware that descriptive nicknames are often bestowed on people bearing the commonest of names. Presumably, there are thousands of men called Ali, and the idea is to distinguish one Ali from another. Hence Ali-Mooryaan.

5/ Sudan — Missing Out by Leila Aboulela (Granta)

Sudan is the home to several ancient civilizations that lived along the Nile river. And, before 2011, when North and South Sudan were one, it was the largest country in Africa and the Arab world. Through many invasions over the centuries, both Christianity and Islam have had their way with this country. Then, it was civil war and famine that roiled the nation for decades. Today, we also know about the state-sponsored terrorism, the invitation to Osama Bin Laden, Darfur war/genocides, Sharia law, and so on.

Leila Aboulela was born in Egypt, raised in Sudan, and now calls Scotland home. A devout Muslim, her faith is clearly evident in her writing, which is in English. Interestingly, she took an M.Sc. and an MPhil in Statistics from the London School of Economics before turning to creative writing.

In 2000, Aboulela won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story, ‘The Museum‘. It is also in her collection, ‘Colored Lights‘. A handful more of her short stories can be found here.

This story was published in Granta in their ‘Going Back‘ issue. Majdy is a young man studying in London. His recently-married wife joins him from Khartoum. She adjusts easily to almost everything. But, coming from a disturbed country like Sudan, the serene continuity of England is difficult to get used to. She shares with her husband nostalgic memories and vivid daydreams of going back and living in their home country — something he does not intend to do. Her homesickness both worries and disappoints him. When he sends her back home for a short break, he realizes that London has changed for him or, rather, he sees London through a different lens.

‘I am not making this up,’ she said one night as they walked on a side street sleek with rain and yellow lamplight. ‘This really happened. After your mother phoned you at the Central Post office she stood for an hour waiting for a bus or a taxi. None came; transport was bad that day because of the petrol shortage. The sun burned her head and she became exhausted from standing. So she walked to the middle of the road, stood right in the middle of the road, and raised her hand, palm upwards. She stopped the first car, opened the front door and got in. “my son,” she said to the driver, “I am fed up of waiting for transport. And I can’t move another step. For Allah’s sake, drive me home, I’ll show you the way.” And he did drive her home even though it wasn’t on his way. And as they chatted, he called her Aunt.’

6/ Syria — Three Very Short Stories by Zakaria Tamer (Free Word Centre)

Syria — the epicenter of the current troubles in that entire region. So much of their ancient culture has been crushed to rubble. So many lives have been lost. When will it come to a merciful end?

Zakaria Tamer is one of the most widely read and translated short story writers in the Arab world. Many of his stories, including the ones for children, are folktales or political satire. The main themes that recur in his work are of oppression, repression, and exploitation. Though these are weighty themes, he does not over-sentimentalize or over-dramatize. His prose is of the spare, no-frills kind, but all the more powerful for it.

These stories are from a popular collection titled ‘Breaking Knees‘. Though they have a folkale kind of narration, they are complex and give us, the readers, plenty to mull over. Beautifully-told too, of course.

The first woman he saw on the street had a lovely face and beautiful figure. He came close to her and felt her buttocks, but she rushed to complain to a policeman nearby. Abdel Hadi said to himself: “If the policemen arrests me, I’ll volunteer to give blood in two days, but if he only gives me a slap to teach me manners, I’ll go to the baths in the souk tonight.”

The policeman did not arrest or slap him. He gave the woman a searching and admiring look and said, “He’s right. Anyone who sees all this beauty would not be able to control himself.”

Abdel Hadi stood immobilized in the street, at a loss what to do and unable to find anything to say to himself.

7/ Yemen — It’s Just Love (novel excerpt) by Nadia Al-Kokabany (Banipal)

This country has been under rebel control since February 2015. Through the centuries, it has seen ancient civilizations, from the Bronze Age onwards, destroyed through constant invasions, dynastic kingdoms, religious upheavals, kleptocratic power-sharing government by the elites, and, most recently, civil war due to conflicts between the Houthis and al-Islah, and the al-Qaeda insurgency. All of this has made Yemen the poorest country of the Middle East.

Nadia Al-Kokabany got herself a PhD in Architecture before turning to publish short stories and novels. Though she has published five collections of stories and three novels, there is not much available in English translation online.

I was not able to find much information about the novel online as it has yet to be fully-translated into English. In this excerpt, we have a female narrator relating the horror of her violent wedding night, the tradition of the bride’s blood-soaked towel being taken to her parents’ home so the women can celebrate the loss of her virginity, the jealous husband who wanted her to stay at home rather than teach at her university lecturer job, her fears about “being a divorcée in a society where the woman is always considered responsible for the failure of the relationship.”

[Side-note: I must confess that I found this excerpt get tiring toward the end. Perhaps because of the predictability of the jealous husband who turns into a wife-beater for reasons described so glibly (jilted by another woman, etc.) Surely the writer, if not the story’s narrator, knows that people who are violent in relationships have, most likely, become so after having suffered from violence themselves. And the narrator’s voice reads like she’s writing some desperate Facebook post. I don’t know that I could read an entire book of someone going on like this — but, that’s probably just me.]

I remember the arrival of my four sisters’ towels the morning after their own wedding nights. My father and my brother brought them back after a quick early morning visit to each one of them while my mother waited impatiently, and greeted them with pretended concern. She opened my bag which smelled of perfume and spices. She took out the towel and threw it down on the ground in front of the other women just before they started their ululations.

Happy reading. Till next month, then.

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