With the simultaneous publication of the short story collections “Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats” by Mahmoud Shukair and “A Retired Gentleman” by Issa J Boullata, Banipal Books of London brings us the work of two accomplished storytellers who were born in Jerusalem. There is a further link between the two writers: Boullata has translated from Arabic the four main short stories, plus 20 “vignettes”, in Shukair’s collection.
Shukair, born in 1941, studied at Damascus University from where he has an MA in Philosophy and Sociology. He worked for many years as a teacher and journalist, was twice imprisoned by the Israelis for a total of nearly two years, and in 1975 was deported to Lebanon. After living in Berlin, Amman and Prague he returned to Jerusalem in 1993, and has been editor in chief of the weekly magazine Al-Talia’a (The Vanguard) and Dafatir Thaqafiya (Cultural File).
Shukair has written 25 books, among them nine short story collections, folktales and books for children. He has also written plays, TV series and numerous articles for the press. He has been writing short stories since 1962, many of which were published in the magazine Al-Ufuq al-Jadid, or New Horizon.
Shukair is a master of the satirical short story that shines a light on quirky angles of the multifaceted experience of the Palestinians, particularly under Israeli occupation. He is also adept at the very short story or vignette, of which more than 40 are included in the collection.
Issa J Boullata took the path of academia in the West, obtaining a PhD in Arabic literature from London University, and then serving as Professor of Arabic Literature at McGill University in Montreal until his retirement in 2004. He is an award-winning translator, and the author of several works including the novel “A’id ila al-Quds” (“Returning to Jerusalem”) and a biography of the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. His short stories are set mostly among Palestinian, Lebanese and Egyptian immigrants in Canada and the US. The stories are humane and tender, often humorous but also sad.
Growing up in Jerusalem has left an indelible mark on the two writers and their work. Both have written accounts, published in these collections, of how the Jerusalem cultural environment shaped their early literary development. For Shukair, the early 1960s were a time “when Jerusalem celebrated culture and writers had a role in the city, in complete contrast to today”.
In his essays “My journey in writing” and “Hemingway in Jerusalem”, Shukair traces his attachment to the short story to the launch of New Horizon in 1961. “The appearance of the magazine at this time, I believe, played a major role in bringing us into the arena of creative writing, in refining our talents, and in focusing our attention on international literature.” He and his friends were known as the “New Horizon generation”. They bought books translated in Beirut and Cairo, and loved sitting and discussing in Jerusalem coffee shops. When he read the first issue of New Horizon, the short stories it contained, some of which were on the Palestinian naqba (catastrophe) of 1948, “gripped me with a passion such that I started writing stories full of rhetoric and tradition.”
The editor of New Horizon, the poet Amin Shanar, “had the important role of paving the difficult way forward for our generation, which profited so much from his patronage.” Shukair read books by Palestinian and Arab writers, and then moved on to writers in English, translating stories by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and others. He particularly valued the way in which Hemingway “touches only the tip of the iceberg and leaves the rest buried deep below the ocean’s surface. By leaving his stories open to interpretation in this way, Hemingway lends his stories a lasting and universal significance.”
In his stories, Shukair has an eye for absurdity and the essential role played of fantasy in allowing people to transcend the shackles of their situation. In the story “Shakira’s Picture” the cousin of the first-person narrator has queued fruitlessly several times at the Israeli Ministry of Interior in an effort to get a document to allow him to travel abroad. When a guard asks him his name, and he replies Talha Shakirat, the guard asks him if he knows the singer Shakira, of whom he is a fan. The narrator’s cousin claims she is a member of his family, and this supposed family relationship with Shakira is the edifice upon which the short story is constructed, to amusing effect. The cousin’s father throws himself into the pretence, convinced it will help him get a new identity card which will enable him to go to Spain and on the Haj.
Taxi driver Kadhim Ali, the central character of “Ronaldo’s Seat” claims to be in e-mail contact with the footballer Ronaldo, who has promised to come with his wife and child to spend a month or two as his guest. Kadhim reserves the front seat of his taxi for Ronaldo, and falls under suspicion of saving the seat for women, or of being a collaborator with Israel.
Mordechai, in the title story of the collection, is an Israeli reservist with a handlebar moustache. Disliking the views of Israeli leftists, he volunteers to serve at the checkpoint of Qalandiya near Ramallah. This brings him for the first time face to face with Palestinians, and he tries to suppress his feelings of sympathy for them. Then he finds that twirling the ends of his moustache brings forth farting sounds from the mouths of the queuing Palestinians, Even his Israeli colleagues laugh behind his back at this mockery of him.
In “My Cousin Condoleezza” the narrator realizes that his cousin Matheela, divorced from a college friend of his, is like Condoleezza Rice in being a black-haired “shrew”. His mother is pressuring him to take her as a second wife. He protests that he cannot live under the same roof as Condoleezza Rice. He dreams he is marrying Condoleezza, whose father is Rumsfeld.
Issa J Boullata writes in his essay “Books and I” of the joy of reading his first book in Arabic, “The Little Red Hen”, at the age of eight in 1937. He became a great admirer of the renowned Palestinian educator and author Khalil Sakakini. He writes of his subsequent excursions into reading at school, and in his father’s extensive collection of Arabic books, some in translation into French, and at the Jerusalem YMCA.
The first story in Boullata’s collection, “Without a Court Trial” is set under Jordanian rule in 1957. Two friends who have been celebrating at a restaurant the departure of one of them for the US the next day are taken to prison on the whim of the military governor dining in the same restaurant.
In Boullata’s stories past events in the Middle East continue to shape lives. In “Search for Saleema” a man continues for the rest of his life to search for the fiancée from whom he became separated in the 1948 naqba. In “A Retired Gentleman”, retired Montreal multi-millionaire William Shibli has remained a bachelor in the 30 years since his childhood sweetheart from Lebanon, tired of his neglect of her after she came after him to Canada, married someone else. The elderly William strikes up a friendship with a beautiful girl who is researching Arab textile businesses in Montreal. She turns out to be the daughter of his lost love.
“True Love, Mad Love” takes the form of a letter from an obsessed man to Nadia, an Arab-American poet of Palestinian descent. The letter has been found after its writer’s suicide. He had been planning to visit the poet in Boston on his way to Columbia to lecture on Arab-American poetry, but she had told him by e-mail not to come. He is clearly obsessed by a relationship that has been conducted only by e-mail and phone since he met her for a few minutes at an Arab-American poetry reading a year earlier. He declares that his is “a true Arab love that clings and does not let go.”
The collections of stories by Boullata and Shukair are valuable contributions to literature by Palestinians available in English. Written from inside the universe of Palestinian experience they avoid the stereotypical portrayals of characters, and show the power of imagination and humor to cross cultural barriers.
Saudi Gazette December 3 2007
[the covers of both books are watercolours by Nabil Abu Hamad]