Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Writers' voices from the "banned" Muslim nations cross the Atlantic in Banthology

In January the UK publisher Comma Press published a unique and timely anthology of new short stories, by writers from the seven Muslim-majority countries named in US President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations appeared on the first anniversary of Trump’s 27 January 2017 signing of Executive Order 13769 which imposed the US's first-ever Muslim ban. The Executive Order banned people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA for 90 Days. It also halted refugee settlement for 120 days and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely. 

Banthology is edited by Sarah Cleave, who writes in her introduction: “The idea for this book was born amid the chaos of that first ban, and sought to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are populated entirely by terrorists.” 

She adds: “As publishers, we are acutely aware of the importance of cultural exchange between communities, and have also seen first-hand the damage caused by tightened visa controls and existing travel restrictions, not just on artists but on their families – that is to say the damage that impacts on all citizens of nations targeted by prejudicial border controls.”

On 27 March Deep Vellum Publishing of Dallas, Texas, in association with Comma, is due to publish the US edition of the book under the title of Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations.

Since the ban was first issued, it has faced a series of legal challenges and has undergone various reformulations. Will Evans, director and publisher of Deep Vellum, says: “The collection was created in response to Trump’s hateful original order, and remains especially urgent in the wake of recent events resulting in the reinstatement of the ban, and as the world awaits the Supreme Court’s final ruling on its legality.”

Evans says literature offers a means “to bring cultures into conversation, to share stories, build connections grow empathy. The stories in Banthology reflect the shared experience of the human condition that unites us all, and no hateful political ban will ever be stronger than the bonds of our shared humanity.”

the US edition - Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations.

The two men and five women contributors to Banthology are Najwa Binshatwan from Libya, Rania Mamoun (Sudan), Zaher Omareen (Syria), Fereshteh Molavi (Iran), Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (Somalia), Anoud (Iraq) and Wajdi al-Ahdal (Yemen). Two of the stories were written in English, while four were translated from Arabic and one from Italian.

Comma Press is, like Deep Vellum, a not-for-profit publisher. It is supported by the Arts Council England, and focuses on promoting new writing, particularly short stories. It takes a keen interest in translating and publishing literature by Arab authors, and prior to Banthology had published seven books of stories translated from Arabic including, in 2016, The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction edited by Ralph Cormack and Max Shmookler and Iraq +100: stories from a century after the invasion edited by Hassan Blasim. 

After Trump signed the Muslim ban, Comma declared it would stand in solidarity with those of its writers affected by the ban, including all 20 contributors to The Book of Khartoum and Iraq +100.

The contributors to Banthology were asked to develop "a fictional response to Trump’s discriminatory ban, exploring themes of exile, travel and restrictions on movement.” The publisher wanted “to showcase as many different experiences as possible, as the travel ban not only affects those living inside the so-called ‘banned nations’, but also those that have sought peace and freedom in exile.”

The writers approached the themes in diverse ways, often entering the realm of speculative fiction. Their accomplished and disturbing stories tell of attempts to transcend borders and barriers of various kinds. The elliptical narratives are frequently laced with irony, playfulness and a sense of the absurd. Though the authors’ protagonists show resilience, they are prone to a sense of loneliness and to psychological distress that on occasion tips over into breakdown.

Wajdi al-Ahdal 

The stories range freely over place and time. “The Slow Man” by Yemeni novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and dramatist Wajdi al-Ahdal, translated by William M Hutchins, transports the reader back to the year 100 according to the Babylonian calendar. Al-Ahdal explores what might have happened had the prophet Yusuf of the Quran, Joseph of the Bible, been barred from crossing the border into Egypt with the caravan that rescued him as a boy after his brothers tried to kill him and then abandoned him in the desert.

The Commander of the northern frontier of Egypt and Gaza – the “Slow Man” of the story’s title – has imposed a ban preventing the Babylonians and those they rule from entering Egypt. “He justified his ban as a temporary measure, designed to keep Egypt and its territories safe from the infiltration of enemies.” The High Priest persuades the Commander to waive the ban for the Israelite caravan carrying the boy Yusuf, and the Commander agrees, but after the Priest falls victim to an assassination plot the conspirators order the caravan to turn back.

Al-Ahdal sketches the disasters that befall Egypt and reshape world history, geography and spirituality in the absence of Yusuf over a series of time slots starting with the year 128 in the Babylonian era when more than 80 per cent of the Egyptian population dies in a famine, that Yusuf would have helped avert, and Babylon takes over the country and erases Egypt from the map by diverting the Nile to flow south into Lake Chad. In the Babylonian year 4000 previously unknown creatures slip through the cracked “space-time cone of four-dimensional existence”, claiming to be the planet’s primordial species returned to recolonise earth as “They Who Have Come to Retrieve the Earth from Mankind.”

Najwa Binshatwan

In Libyan author Najwa Binshatwan's adventurous story "Return Ticket", translated by Sawad Hussain, a woman tells her grandson about the only time she left her home village of Schrödinger. She was pregnant at the time with her grandson’s father, and travelled to meet her husband who had left the village for work. At every stage of her journey she encountered hostile airport officials. They imposed strict and baffling rules, forcing her to forfeit inter alia her headscarf and underwear. When she arrived at her destination her husband was so enraged by her partially unclad state that he divorced her on the spot. She was stranded in the airport for years, "selling tissues to travellers until I could buy a return ticket to Schrödinger".

The village’s name alludes to the Nobel Prizewinning quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger. It is “an open-minded village, where people, animals, plants, diseases and every type of wind pass through with great ease.” And it is a cosmic anomaly: "The name granted the village extraordinary powers; it could move through time and space, changing its orbit spontaneously as if it were the sun rising in one place and setting in another.”

'the Statue of Liberty and her bird-shit-splattered crown'

The only humans to visit Schrödinger were six American tourists, who got stuck there because the walls of their nation rose day by day until it was cut off from the world. Each attempt by an American tourist to scale the towering walls and return home was fatal. The walls were built higher and higher “until all that could be seen was the snuffed-out torch of the Statue of Liberty and her bird-shit-splattered crown.” From time to time the dead tourists speak from their graves in Schrödinger, and the eldest one comments: “It’s good that we died before America’s prison warder came to power.”

Rania Mamoun

In Sudanese author, journalist and activist Rania Mahmoud’s lyrical story “The Bird of Paradise”, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, the protagonist has longed to travel “ever since I realised that the world’s limits are not those of my city, Wad Madani; that the world expands so much further than the reach of my imagination”. She is oppressed by her tyrannical brother, who assaults here for daring even to spend the day in a nearby village. “I dreamed of becoming a bird of paradise, resplendent with colourful feathers, a beautiful head, black eyes and powerful wings.”

With the support of her girl cousin Ashwaq, who unlike her had been allowed to study at Khartoum University, she plans her escape. “Everything was arranged. I would have a seven-hour stopover then get on another place to another city, where Ashwaq’s friend would be waiting for me.” And yet when the moment comes to board the plane she finds herself nailed to the spot and unable to move forward in the queue. Like the protagonist of Binshatwan’s story she is marooned in an airport, stuck in limbo.

An earlier story by Mamoun, “Passing”, appeared in Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction. Comma is scheduled to publish her story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise this year.

A story by the Iraqi woman writer Anoud, entitled “Kahramana”, was published in Iraq +100. “Storyteller”, her story for Banthology, depicts an Iraqi woman driven to the edge by the serial traumas of Iraq and then of living in the UK as an asylum seeker.

While eating in an Indian takeaway in East London, Jamela recites her harrowing personal chronology to the staff, starting with her first experience in 1991 of an air raid, and moving on to describing her hunger under economic sanctions in 1996, the 2003 US and UK-led invasion, the torture, rape and killing of a friend, the murder of a cousin, and her own surviving a car bombing. As an asylum seeker in the UK she has drifted into alcoholism, drugs, dodgy sexual encounters and suicide attempts.

Jamela describes seeing a car wrecked by a bombing in Baghdad that she has seen as an exhibit “mounted on a clean white podium under a blinging spotlight at the Imperial War Museum in London … The slabs of dented metal were so mangled they looked like tens of human guts pressed together and left baking in Iraq’s burning sun until they were bone dry.” (Presumably a dig at the uncomfortable concept of the aestheticization of violence). Jamela erupts into uncontrollable fury when the TV in the  takeaway shows Trump’s notorious December 2015 campaign speech: “Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s’ representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Zaher Omareen 

The protagonist of Zaher Omareen’s blackly comic “The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling”, translated by Perween Richards and Basma Ghalayini, is an illegal migrant from Hama, Syria. A former prisoner in his mid-twenties, he is travelling across Europe to his hoped-for destination, Sweden, “where I will press the RESTART button”. Omareen’s story is well-observed and witty, its narrator given to wry asides such as “When in Rome do as the Romans. When in Greece do as the Syrians do.” He had travelled on a boat with other refugees from Turkey to Kos had capsized. He grumbles to himself about the “XL sized family who got overly excited when they saw the land of dreams getting closer. The boat had tipped over with everyone in it.”

The migrant constantly curses Kalimera, the Kos-based people smuggler from Aleppo, with “ten mobile phones in front of him, all ringing and falling silent in chorus.” Carrying a mobile phone is essential for those making their perilous journeys to Europe. “Oh god of mobile phones, master of the luminous dawn, carrier of fertility to our barren lands, patron saint of the tired and hungry,” the narrator muses.

Kalimera has provided the narrator with a fake passport of the Hungarian ambassador to Turkey’s husband, throwing in a Greek ID as well for free. The narrator manages to pass himself off as Hungarian during his flight from Greece to Paris, and then masquerades as Greek. From Paris he arranges a lift in a car to Denmark from where he will travel to Sweden. To the narrator’s horror he finds the driver of the car has brought along a giant Doberman: the narrator is terrified of dogs. The Doberman’s barks remind him of interrogations by prison guards.

Fereshteh Molavi 

The enigmatic story “Phantom Limb” by Iranian writer Fereshteh Molavi is set among a group of artistically-inclined exiles in Toronto, where Molavi herself lives. The first-person narrator is an Iranian who came to Toronto on a student visa with dreams of becoming a theatre director. He and his three roommates, who are aspiring actors, perform plays at home after dinner. But in the day they have to work at mundane jobs.

The story focuses on the narrator's observations of the elusive Farhad, an Iranian Kurd whose Persian cat stalks from room to room. The narrator is fascinated by two pictures Farhad has hung on the wall: an old map of Iran "covered with intricate painted patterns, much like a Persian cat's coat" and an old black-and-white photo of a woman on horseback, dressed in Kurdish men's clothes and a turban, and carrying a gun.

The roommates speculate on whether the photo is of Farhad’s mother or of the girl he had loved years before. The girl would sing to him from the prison cell next to his before she was executed.

After Farhad learns in a phone call from his father back home that his mother has had to have her right leg amputated he starts to develops pains in his foot and leg and eventually his leg is badly injured in an accident. The story is suggestive of the bonds between those in exile and their homeland and family. Their pain is carried like a phantom limb, and the difficulties in realising one’s dreams in a new environment.

The roommates work for an exiled Iranian entrepreneur of an older generation who had served in the Iranian Air force under the Shah. While he interviews the narrator for a job he tucks into a  gargantuan display of Iranian delicacies lovingly provided by his wife, “As he ate, he spoke endlessly about his journey from lowly immigrant to top-class businessman. His story didn’t interest me. I’d heard it before…”

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

Somali writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah was born in Verona, Italy, to an Italian father and Somali mother. Her exquisite story “Jujube” is translated from Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson. The dreamlike story becomes increasingly chilling as the reliability of the narrator Ayan, who has lived through horrific violence in Somalia, is called into question.

Farah starts her story by evoking the traditional way of life in the village, where Ayan's mother is a healer using medicinal plants. The mother tends the hair of  her two daughters with extracts from the leaves of the Jujube tree. People flee to the village from the city, which "burns and glows like a brazier, a filthy firework under the full moon", before the village itself is attacked.

Ayan becomes separated from her mother and sister and we next find her in freezing Italy where she is nanny to an Italian woman’s young daughter. Ayan has filed a request for family reunification with her mother and sister whom she says are in the US. But her narrative is interspersed periodically with brief notes by an interpreter. The interpreter states that Ayan’s account, while making a request for asylum, is full of omissions and incongruences.

Comma Press should be applauded for commissioning and publishing this powerful collection of original stories, as should Deep Vellum for being Comma’s co-publisher of Banthology in the USA. The stories shine a light on collective experiences through individual stories and might help bring about an understanding that runs counter to the demonisation of a religion and of entire nationalities through a crass, unjust and discriminatory ban.

Susannah Tarbush, London