Wednesday, August 13, 2008

modern arabic short stories


Around the Arab world in a dozen short stories
by
Susannah Tarbush

In Egyptian writer Salwa Bakr’s compelling short story “Ancestral Hair”, the first-person narrator is a lonely woman on the cusp of 40 whose husband has long since deserted her and their Down’s Syndrome boy. The son is now a man of 24 with “a wild body but the mind and innocence of a nine-year-old child”. His mother is excluded from society by her status as a divorcee and by the condition of her son. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with a much older woman neighbor with whom she spends time smoking a narghile on the balcony.

The friendship takes an unexpected turn when the narrator visits the old lady and finds her airing the stuffing of her pillow preparatory to making a new pillowcase. The stuffing is actually the hair of the old lady’s late mother, who had collected it over the years. “Look, this is the black hair from when she was young; that’s the red from the time she started to dye it with henna after she turned grey. When she grew older, she kept her hair its original color.”

The narrator starts to view the old lady in a different way, and to become preoccupied with the details of her world. “In some way, she had become a mysterious old lady with peculiar idiosyncracies.” The younger woman envies her neighbor’s contentment. “I, on the other hand, am consumed by fear a thousand times every day.” Hair is a potent symbol running through the story, and ultimately the old lady’s own silver braid of hair becomes a source of empowerment for the younger woman.

“Ancestral Hair” is an example of Bakr’s interest in writing of the poor and downtrodden, and in particular of the injustices inflicted on women and the ways in which women survive. The story appears in the anthology “Modern Arabic Short Stories: A Bilingual Reader” published by Saqi publishing house of London and Beirut. The anthology contains a dozen short stories by masters of the form from across the Arab world, newly rendered into crisp and fluent English translation by the book’s editors Ronak Husni and Daniel L Newman.

Ronak Husni has a BA in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Mosul, Iraq, and a PhD from the University of St Andrew's, Scotland. She is a senior lecturer at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, teaching Arabic language, literature and translation. She previously taught at Durham University, where Daniel L Newman is course director of the MA in Arabic/English translation.

In the bilingual reader, the English translation and Arabic original are laid out on facing pages. Each story is introduced by a two or three-page biography of the writer, and followed by a few pages of translation notes. The stories are organized in order of difficulty with the easier ones first.

In their introduction, Husni and Newman explain how they selected the 12 stories. Their aim was “to provide as complete a picture of the modern Arabic short story landscape as possible.”

They note that anthologies of Arabic literature tend to be centered on the Eastern part of the Arab world at the expense of North Africa and the Gulf. Their selection covers a geographical area from Morocco (represented by Muhammad al-Zafzaf’s “The Sacred Tree” and Muhammad Shukri’s “The Night and the Sea”) through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and on to Kuwait with Layla al-Uthman’s “Night of Torment”.

Egypt is the country most represented, with stories by Najib Mahfuz, Idwar al-Kharrat, Salwa Bakr and Yusuf Idris. Three of the 12 authors are female: Layla al-Uthman, Salwa Bakr and Hanan al-Shaykh, who is originally from Lebanon but has lived for many years in London. As regards language, the editors chose stories written in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fusha. But colloquial expressions frequently occur, especially in dialogue, and these are explained in the notes to the stories.

Many of the stories concern the marginalized and deprived in society who, as in Salwa Bakr’s story, are often women. Muhammad Shukri’s writings draw on his experiences of extreme hardship when he was growing up in Morocco. His story “The Night and the Sea” depicts in language touched with poetry a young Moroccan prostitute and the underlying sadness of her life. In Syrian writer Zakariyya Tamir’s sensual “A Lonely Woman”, a charlatan sheikh claims to a young woman that he can summon up the jinn in order to bring her husband back to her. He persuades her to disrobe, lie down and close her eyes, while he deceives her into thinking it is the jinn who are touching her.

In “A Hidden Treasure”, Iraqi writer Fu’ad Takarli (who died in Amman in February) portrays a woman, Khadija, who has risen to become the wife of a high-ranking official at a Baghdad oil refinery. Meeting her childhood sweetheart by coincidence after many years, she expresses intense gratitude for his not taken advantage of her readiness to give herself to him totally when they were young. She is indebted to him for not “ruining” her, “though you could have done...You are the one who granted me the life I am living now”.

The childhood sweetheart, who narrates the story, has had a hard life having become the breadwinner for his mother and sisters after his father died. He has now reached some equilibrium, working in the oil refinery and living with his mother. But his encounter with his former love, and his vivid memories of their passionate liaison, throw him into turmoil. At the end of the story he is left with “hunger, misunderstanding and hollow echoes, which rang out the name of ‘Khadija’.”

Layla al-Uthman enters the milieu of migrant workers in “Night of Torment”, which contrasts the life of a lowly woman toilet attendant at an airport with that of a seemingly pampered woman. Yet the story reveals that they share a frustration with their husbands. Perfume and the sense of smell play a crucial symbolic role in the story.

The stories in the anthology exemplify the Arab storytelling tradition brought into the modern era. The editors point out that the Tunisian writer ’Izz al-Din al-Madani, author of “The Tale of the Lamp”, frequently uses “Arab history, folklore and classical Arabic literary genres as a spectrum through which he addresses contemporary issues such as governance and power.”

Najib Mahfuz’s story “Qismati and Nasibi” follows from birth to death the lives of a pair of conjoined twins. The twins, with their different facial characteristics, personalities and desires are locked into an awful closeness yet are mutually dependent on each other. The story, told with much zest, is an example of Mahfuz’s forays into magic realism.

The Libyan writer Ahmed Ibrahim al-Fagih has published numerous collections of short stories. “The Book of the Dead”, written with his characteristic humor, tells of a tradition-bound schoolteacher who is greatly disturbed when he finds a girl sitting among his class of boys. There was “no doubt that this was a demon who had taken on the guise of a girl”. Fagih chronicles his descent into madness.

“Modern Arabic Short Stories” is a rewarding collection that takes the reader on a journey through the Arab world, illuminating its difficulties as well as the vivacity and resilience of its people. The stories should appeal to students of Arabic at schools and universities, and to readers who are interested in modern Arabic literature but who lack the language skills to read stories in the original Arabic.
Saudi Gazette, 11th August 2008

2 comments:

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