The other tradition to which Alomar most obviously belongs—in this case by choice—is that of the very short story. But this tradition is complicated, for within this genre, we have different traditions and different types. While Alomar is working within his own particular cultural heritage, he is of course also sharing in a wider international legacy of the very short story or prose poem, the more contemporary part of which spans more than a century at least: from the prose poems of Baudelaire in the mid-nineteenth century, to those of Francis Ponge and other French poets of the twentieth; the lyrical and nostalgic real-life stories of the early twentieth-century Viennese Peter Altenberg and the quirky numbered “handbook” instructions of the Bohemian / Czech Dadaist and pacifist Walter Serner; the Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s grim and syntactically complex paragraph-long stories in The Voice Imitator; the self-denigrating, anti-climactic, quarrelsome tales of the Soviet Daniil Kharms; the lyrical autobiographical sequence of the Spanish Luis Cernuda; and the pointed philosophical narratives of the contemporary Dutch writer A. L. Snijders (whose term, zkv or zeer korte verhaal—very short story— means exactly the same thing as Alomar’s al-qisa al-qasira jiddan); to mention only a few.
And then, there are the literary traditions in which the very short story shares, and Alomar’s work with it, including moral tales, fairy tales, works of magical realism, coming-of-age novels, and so forth ad infinitum. I read, for instance, Alomar’s “Conversation of the Breezes” and I hear, suddenly, an echo of the voice of the swallow in Oscar Wilde’s very moving late nineteenth-century tale, “The Happy Prince.” I read his “Sea Journey,” in which a weary office worker dreams of delirious adventures in the waves and wakes to find he is late for work, and I am reminded not only of Kafka but also of the great early twentieth-century Dutch writer Nescio, both of whom so vividly evoke the man of imagination stuck within the rigid entrenched bureaucracy of the madly irksome office routine. Again I think of Nescio’s classic, Amsterdam Stories, with its interrelated stories of three pals growing up together, and also of a long early section of the multi-volume My Struggle, by the contemporary Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, when I read Alomar’s “Dividing Line,” one of the rare longer stories in the book and a succinct and crystalline tale of adolescent exuberance, heedlessness, rebellion, and epiphany. And—to return to the short form—Alomar’s insidious and powerful tale, “The Hammer and the Nail,” deploying personification with such utter ease and inevitability, reminds me of the terrifying absurdist domestic fables of the contemporary American poet Russell Edson, while the eccentricity and anguish underlying the occasional simple friendly tale reminds me of the weird and powerful work of the Brazilian Clarice Lispector, one of whose main forms was also the short story.
Although my frame of reference may be international, it is not particularly Syrian, which is of course my own loss. I have turned to Alomar’s translator, C. J. Collins, to learn what, in Alomar’s Syrian or Arabic heritage, have been the sources of his inspiration, particularly in the short form, and he has given me some interesting insights into the history of the form in the Middle East, both recent and older: there was an explosion of this form of writing in Syria in the 1990s; it became popular in magazines and newspapers as an expression of frustration at Syria’s bureaucracy and corruption and lack of freedom of expression. In an economically depressed time, too, there was a demand for the densest, briefest, most compressed of stories—a longer literary work was in fact a luxury—and these were shared and circulated freely and spontaneously, like personal anecdotes.
One of the best-known contemporary practitioners of the Arabic-language short story is the Syrian Zakaria Tamer, now in his eighties—many of his story collections have been translated into English and are available here. Going back another fifty years, there is the Lebanese literary and political rebel Khalil Gibran, with his formally innovative spiritual stories or prose poems, hugely popular in the American counter-culture of the sixties and an important influence on Alomar (Gibran himself being profoundly influenced by the earlier cosmopolitan Syrian prose poet Francis Marrash, who died in 1873). But the very short form has its roots in various Arabic literary traditions that go back to the Middle Ages and before, one important example being the mammoth story compilation One Thousand and One Nights (whose multi-cultural origins lie in the tenth century or arguably even earlier) and fable traditions like the Panchatantra, a third-century Indian set of linked animal tales imported into Arabic in the eighth century as the Kalila wa Dimna.
The personification of animal characters in the Kalila wa Dimna, for instance, finds its direct descendent in the naturalness and conviction with which Alomar personifies many of his protagonists, whether they be natural elements—the ocean, a lake, fire and water, breezes, clouds—or everyday objects such as a wistful and ambitious drop of oil, that cruel hammer and that gullible nail, a proud bag of garbage—or, yet again, abstractions such as freedom and time, allowing us to move easily into the alternate reality created in so many of these stories, whose forms range from moral fable to political fable to political allegory, to myth, to realistic moral tale, even to undisguised political statement, as in the title story “Fullblood Arabian” with its crushing final sentence.
The range of forms within this collection is matched by the versatility with which Alomar shifts tone, subject matter, and even structure from one story to the next. While some of the tales are explicitly angry or bitter, others are ironically detached, and still others make their point with a piece of sly wit, one of these being “The Pride of the Garbage,” in which a bag loaded with garbage, in its vainglory, is satisfied only if it is placed on the very top of the heap of bags bound for the dump. Formally, some stories proceed straight to the final shock or stunning image, as in “The Drop,” with its beautiful closing opposition of earth and sky. In others, the focus shifts smoothly, subtly, and naturally throughout the story, so that, to our surprise, the subject turns out to be something quite other than what we expected.
Such is the case in “Expired Eyes,” where the firm grounding of the plot in a realistic situation (a man enters his apartment after a day at work) allows us to accept its fantastical, perhaps futuristic ending (the man goes to his doctor to acquire a set of new eyes): here, realism is skillfully deployed, along with a reverberating emotional truth, in the service of fantasy. In Alomar’s stories, however, fantasy never devolves into mere whimsy. His magical imaginative creations are, every one, inspired by his deeply felt philosophical, moral, and political convictions, giving these tales a heartfelt urgency.
“Tongue Tie,” one of the simplest, neatest, and hardest-hitting, in its humorous restraint, ably illustrates this and can be quoted in full, being also one of the briefest:
Before leaving for work I tied my tongue into a great tie. My colleagues congratulated me on my elegance. They praised me to our boss, who expressed admiration and ordered all employees to follow my example!
* * *
Four stories by gtranslated from the Arabic by C. J. Collins with the author:
FULLBLOOD ARABIANTHE FIRST, wistfully: “If only I were a fullblood Arabian horse!”
THE SECOND, disdainfully: “Would you wish to be an animal when God in his mercy has created you as a human who belongs to a great and ancient nation proud of its glorious history?”
THE FIRST: “Man, don’t you know that the value of a fullbood Arabian horse in this world is far greater than the value of a fullblood Arabian human?”
THE PRIDE OF GARBAGEWhen the owner of the house picked up the bag of garbage and headed out to the street to throw it in the dumpster, the bag was overwhelmed with the fear that she would be put side by side with her companions. But when the man placed her on top of all the others, she became intoxicated with her greatness and looked down at them with disdain.
A DROPA drop of dried blood on the ground looked at the setting sun with an expression full of sadness. “Why do people look at that giant drop with happiness while they look at me with fear?” she asked in a weak voice. “We share the same roots!”
A reply came to her from somewhere unknown: “Because you are fixed to the surface of the earth and she is fixed to the sky.”
EXPIRED EYESClimbing up the steps to his home one night after working late, he staggered back and forth from exhaustion, carrying paper bags filled with fruits and vegetables. After entering the apartment and putting down the bags, he opened the door to his bedroom and was shocked to see his wife making love with insane ardor to a friend of their son’s. She glanced up at him, deliberately flashing him looks of malicious gloating. He rubbed his eyes hard and opened them to see her humbly performing her prayers. He rubbed his eyes again, this time with furious intensity, and opened them to see her dancing completely naked in front of the window that faced the house of their young neighbor. He closed his eyes in horror, rubbing them with two hands like tornadoes. When he opened them again, his wife was there, inviting him to share breakfast in bed, her eyes brimming with love and tenderness.
He knew then that the allotted time of his eyes had expired. He visited the most famous eye doctor in the country to have two new ones implanted—specially ordered fresh from the factory. And from that day on, he saw his wife exactly as he desired.
Lydia Davis received this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Her next collection of stories, “Can’t and Won’t” will be published next year.
C. J. Collins is a student of Arabic and a librarian currently based in Grafton, New York.
Osama Alomar was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1968, and is now living in Chicago. He is the author of three collections of short stories and a volume of poetry in Arabic, and performs as a musician. His short stories have been published by Noon, Conjunctions.com, The Coffin Factory, Electric Literature, and The Literary Review.
Photograph: Christopher Anderson/Magnum
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