art of resistance, Palestine, Syria

The Book To Read: Victims Of A Map.

7-berlin-biennale-khaled-jarrar-briefmarken-2012-651x940/photo © Khaled Jarrar/

Victims of a Map is a beautiful bilingual anthology of Arabic poetry, including works of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al Qasim and Adonis. The three of them are absolute stars in the world of (Arabic) poetry.

Alongside the original Arabic, this book includes thirteen poems by Darwish and a long work by Adonis written during the Beirut siege in 1982 – never before published. It’s really a labour of love and you can feel it in every page (lovely translation by Abudllah al-Udhari).

In The Desert (Diary of Beirut siege), great Syrian poet Adonis writes:

“My era tells me bluntly

you do not belong

I answer bluntly

I do not belong

I try to understand you

Now I am a shadow

Lost in the forest

Of a skull”

Most of the poetry by Adonis and Darwish and al-Qasim particularly, is written in a simple, everday language, but it speaks of the things greater than life – the hollowness of isolation, inevitability of “destiny”, solidity of “roots”, overwhelming hopelessness and permanent yearning for freedom.

victims

In We are Entitled to Love the End of Autumn Darwish writes:

“We are entitled to love the end of autumn and ask:

Is there room for another autumn in the field to rest our bodies like coal?

An autumn lowering its leaves like gold. I wish we were fig leaves

I wish we were an abandoned plant

To witness the change of seasons. I wish we didn’t say goodbye

To the south of the eye so as to ask what

Our fathers had asked when they flew on the tip of the spear”

As it is written in the introduction of this book, the poems in Victims of a Map express not only the fate of Arabs, Syrians or Palestinians, but also of the humanity itself, trapped in a contemporary tragedy. The resistance poetry by Darwish, al-Qasim and Adonis, raises a local tragedy to a level of a universal one.

Just think about it – how many people are today, and in how many ways – victims of a map? In The Story of a City, al-Qasim writes:

“A blue city

dreamt of tourists

shopping day after day.

A dark city

hates tourists

scanning cafes with rifles.”

Read this beautiful little anthology! Like it is often the case with great poetry books – you’ll never finish reading it and it is worth all of your time.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

War Works Hard

Desert Songs Of The Night

In The Country Of Men

After Zionism

Standard
art of resistance, Lebanon

Playlist: Jerusalem In My Heart.

jimhnews3

Jerusalem In My Heart (JIMH) has been a live audio-visual happening since 2005, with Montréal-based producer and musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh at its core.

Moumneh is a Lebanese national who has spent a large part of his adult life in Canada and has been a fixture of the Montréal independent music community for the last twenty years.  He’s also active in the Beirut and Lebanese experimental music scenes, where he spends a few months every year.

With performances occurring a couple of times per year, no two Jerusalem In My Heart events have ever been the same: configurations have ranged from 2 to 24 participants, with varying degrees of theatrical stage action alongside a film/video component.

Enjoy a little bit of the JIMH experience listening to this lovely piece.

Previous Playlist:

Maghawir by Mashrou’ Leila

Selda Bağcan

Saul Williams

Farida Muhammad Ali

Standard
art of resistance, Iraq

Playlist: Farida Muhammad Ali.

IMG_1964ciel-hichem-selected-copie1-650x429/art © Raja Aissa/

Farida Mohammad Ali is a famous Iraqi singer, a legend. She’s known as the mother of Iraqi maqam, urban classical vocal tradition of Iraq. It is sometimes said that each maqam evokes a specific emotion or set of emotions – and listening to Ali, you will realize that is very much true.

Ali says poetry and topics like the beauty of nature or love and the grief of departure are an essential part of maqam repertoire. “When performing the maqam the reciter must feel these emotions and transmit them to the audience”, she explains in one of her interviews.

Ali currently lives in the Netherlands, she left Iraq in 1997. Living in exile is hard, but she was happy to establish the Iraqi Maqam Foundation in the Netherlands, together with her husband. Everybody involved with the foundation is aiming to convey the history and the essence of the maqam on an academic level.

A lot of things changed in Iraq, over the last decades Iraq has lost many of the things that made it such an amazing and diverse country, but Ali is sure of one thing – “the maqam is the essence of Iraq. The maqam will not die”.

Previous Playlist:

Nakba Day

Ghalia Benali

Alsarah & The Nubatones

Kaan Wafi, Pieces From Exile

Standard
art of resistance, Tunisia

Playlist: Ghalia Benali.

/Ghalia Benali, photo © Cidric Saletnik/

I just realized I haven’t written anything about Tunisia in a while, which is a shame. I will make up for it sometime soon. In the meantime, new Playlist edition allows me to share songs by one of the greatest Tunisian singers – Ghalia Benali.

Benali writes songs, sings and dances, and she does it all in the most beautiful way (just listen to her voice, how easy it all seems). She was born in Belgium, grew up in Tunisia and returned to Belgium at age of nineteen to study graphic design.

She regularly visits Tunisia and performs all around the (Arab) world – always with outstanding musicians in her band.

Somebody wrote that Benali is a “microcosmos that merges the Arab musical legacy into something new”. I agree. Enjoy this haunting music.

Previous Playlist:

Alsarah & The Nubatones

Kaan Wafi, Pieces From Exile

Yasmine Hamdan

Atab by Cheb Abid

Standard
art of resistance, Libya

The Book To Read: In The Country Of Men.

Textiles of a city Najla Shawakat Fitouri/Textiles of a city by Najla Shawket Fitouri, image © Noon Arts/

Libya, where art thou? That is a question I already asked – a lot of times. There are no certain answers, but I still manage to find Libya and its people, to catch a small glimpse of their lives.

It doesn’t happen through media and daily news, Libya is still a zero-interest story for most of those outlets. I go through libraries, art exhibitions, old and new photos – that is how a part of the country, a part of its history, a part of the daily lives of some of its people is revealed to me today.

One of those moments happened with Hisham Matar’s book In the Country of Men. It is Matar’s debut novel, first published in 2006. It has been translated into many languages and has won numerous awards.

It is a book about Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy living in Tripoli, stuck between a father whose anti-Qaddafi activities bring about searches, stalkings and telephone eaves droppings by the state police, and a vulnerable young mother who resorts to alcohol, her “medicine”, to bury her anxiety, anger and powerlessness.

Matar’s own family fled Libya for Egypt in 1979, and his father, a former UN diplomat and political dissident, was kidnapped in 1990 in Cairo, while Matar was studying in London. In the Country of Men is an autobiographical book in many ways.

men

Through the eyes of a young boy, the novel explores his relationship with his unwell mother and his uneasy relationship with his father. Matar writes beautifully:

“Although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me,my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Coping with the harsh and counfusing reality around him, Suleiman makes disturbing decisions, he isn’t afraid when a normal child would be, and it easily leads to (more) destruction around him. He feels emotionally distant at times, and it is unusual to see a child act that way – it makes you think about the heavy influences of the tense and violent environment he lives in.

At the end of this simple but powerful novel, fifteen years later, the narrator looks back with regret at a life interrupted by political forces that have left him distrustful, displaced, alienated, half empty.

Matar writes:

“I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. I am both repulsed and surprised, for example, by my exaggerated sentiment when parting with people I am not intimate with, promising impossible reunions. Egypt has not replaced Libya. Instead, there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike.”

In the Country of Men is highly memorable, it feels honest – and there’s a special and rare beauty in that.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

After Zionism

The French Intifada

The Librarian of Basra

A Hand Full Of Stars

Standard
art of resistance, Sudan

Salahi’s Garden & What’s Inevitable.

el_salahi/photo: Behind the Mask 1 by El-Salahi © Haupt & Binder/

Ibrahim El-Salahi is a Sudanese artist, an important figure in African and Arab modernism. El-Salahi is considered a pioneer in Sudanese art and was a member of the Khartoum School that was founded by Osman Waqialla.

Hassan Musa writes about El-Salahi (he first heard stories about him when he was a teenage boy): “I was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary Muslim man could live as an artist, because in my imagination they were unreal creatures who came out of European literature”.

El-Salahi’s international success soon turned him into a national hero, so much so that in 1970 the Department of Tourism distributed a poster in which El-Salahi posed in his studio, with the caption “Sudanese artist at work”.

mid-late-60s-6e_0/photo © Ibrahim El-Salahi, via Tate/

El-Salahi developed his own style and was one of the first artists to elaborate the Arabic calligraphy in his paintings. He developed an iconography from sources in primitive and Muslim art, leading to the formation of the Khartoum School.

He was an assistant cultural attaché at the Sudanese Embassy in London from 1969 to 1972, when he returned to Sudan and became Undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture and Information until September 1975. At that time he was imprisoned without charge for six months.

Deprived of pen and paper, El-Salahi secretly drew designs in the sand during his daily 25 minute exercise break, protected by other prisoners, and quickly erasing his work as the guards approached. He summed up his experience in prison in a series of parables. Hassan Musa mentions his favorite one:

For the first few weeks of detention, we claimed Freedom and Respect according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, because the prison food was tasteless, we asked for a few onions.

One day, during the monthly visit of the Director of Prisons, it was my turn to ask for the precious onions. We were given three onions, which were to last us until the next visit. I took a piece of onion and planted it in the damp soil under our earthenware jar of drinking water, hoping to see something growing. When the onion became a plant, my fellow inmates called it ‘Salahi’s garden’.”

ibrahim el salahi/photo © The Inevitable, Ibrahim El-Salahi/

The Inevitable is El-Salahi’s reaction to his time spent in prison: the canvas divided into nine separate sections that represent the different periods of time incarcerated. Niccoló Milanese writes about the painting:

In The Inevitable, eyes are either shaded-out into black voids, or are averted from the viewer. Only a soldier keeps a sideways watch on us. The picture is machine-like, sharp and cold. For there is a demand and a prayer made in each of El Salahi’s designs, and in this picture the questions posed are the same, but here the responsibility is even greater: who will dare to look at this? Who will dare to do something to avoid The Inevitable?”.

In the summer of 2013 a major retrospective show of El-Salahi’s work was mounted at Tate Modern – it was Tate’s first retrospective dedicated to an African artist.

Standard
art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: The Librarian Of Basra.

librarian/image © The Librarian of Basra/

Here is a real-life hero story. Alia Muhammad Baqer was the chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra (Iraq). Baqer saved around thirty thousand books from destruction during the Iraq War, including a biography of Muhammad from around 1300.

Her story inspired two children’s books, one of them being The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (illustrated by Winter in bright acrylic and ink). It might be presented as a children’s book, but this lovely story is out there for everyone.

The book is written in a simple style and it’s very easy to understand, but the story it describes is not a simple one – it took a lot of courage to do what Alia Baqer and her friends did.

Baqer worked at the library for fourteen years.  As the war spread out, she tried to make sure books from the library would be safe, but the government officials denied her requests that the books be moved to safety. That is when she started to smuggle books out of the library.

The-Librarian-of-Basra-image

Soon after the 2003 invasion Basra was suffering from a humanitarian crisis in which residents lacked both water and electricity. The city was suffering, its people were suffering. Not long after Alia smuggled most of the books, the library was also destroyed.

Her new mission at the time was to raise funds to rebuild the library. The library was rebuilt a year later and she was reinstated as chief librarian.

One thing you could say is missing from this book is showing the sides involved and responsible for the war – that is not represented. It definitely doesn’t want to burden children (and adults) with US involvment in the war.

Some people would say that’s a good thing – beacuse it shows a war story, and all war stories are alike and show how wars never work, how they destroy societies. That is the most important thing, I guess.

On the other hand, you could say there needs to be an awareness, a burden of responsibility, for this is a war that is still going on, and it is a war that didn’t just happen. Our lives are political (and politicized) from an early age, and we do not need to run away from that fact or protect children from it.

I am also aware of that fact that more people enjoyed this book without the political stuff in it, because it makes them feel better and it doesn’t open the space for criticism, anger, doubt, protest. This book could have given more if you look at it that way.

Still, I appreciate it for introducing me to Alia Baqer, a woman who thought about more than her own safety and well-being in the worst of conditions. She thought about the future, did something heroic for the land of uncertainty that is tomorrow.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Hand Full Of Stars

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Standard
art of resistance, Lebanon, Palestine

Elias Khoury: Gate of the Sun.

The following is an excerpt from Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun (translated by Humphrey Davies). Drawing on the stories Khoury gathered from refugee camps over the course of many years, Gate of the Sun has been called the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga.

gate-of-the-sun

Umm Hassan is dead. I saw everyone racing through the alleys of the camp and heard the sound of weeping. Everyone was spilling out of their houses, bent over to catch their tears, running. Nabilah, Mahmoud al-Qasemi’s wife, our mother, was dead. We called her mother because everyone born in the Shatila camp fell from their mother’s guts into her hands. I too had fallen into her hands, and I too ran the day she died.

Umm Hassan came from al-Kweikat, her village in Galilee, to become the only midwife in Shatila – a woman of uncertain age and without children. I only knew her when she was old, with stooped shoulders, a face full of creases, large eyes shining in a white square, and a white cloth covering her white hair. Our neighbor, Sana’, the wife of Karim al-Jashi the kunafa  seller, said Umm Hassan dropped in on her the night before last and told her her death was coming.

“I heard its voice, daughter. Death whispers, and its voice is soft.”

Speaking in her half-Bedouin accent she told Sana’ about the messenger of death. “The messenger came in the morning and told me to get ready.” And she told Sana’ how she wanted to be prepared for burial. “She took me by the hand,” said Sana’, “led me to her house, opened her wooden trunk, and showed me the white silk shroud. She told me she would bathe before she went to sleep: ‘I’ll die pure, and I want only you to wash me.’ “

Umm Hassan is dead. Everyone knew that this Monday morning, November 20th, 1995, was the time set for Nabilah, Fatimah’s daughter, to meet death. Everyone awoke and waited, but no one was brave enough to go to her house to discover she was dead. Umm Hassan had told everyone, and everyone believed her. Only I was taken by surprise. I stayed with you until eleven at night, and then, exhausted, I went to my room and slept. It was night, the camp was asleep, and no one told me. But everyone else knew.

No one would question Umm Hassan because she always told the truth. Hadn’t she been the only one to weep on the morning of June 5, 1967? Everyone was dancing in the streets, anticipating going home to Palestine, but she wept. She told everyone she’d decided to wear mourning. Everyone laughed and said Umm Hassan had gone mad. Throughout the six long days of the war she never opened the windows of her house; on the seventh, out she came to wipe away everyone’s tears. She said she knew Palestine would not come back until all of us had died.

Over the course of her long life, Umm Hassan had buried her four children one after the other. They would come to her borne on planks, their clothes covered in blood. All she had left was a son called Naji, who lived in America. Though Naji wasn’t her real son, he was: She had picked him up from beneath an olive tree on the Kabri-Tarshiha road and had fed him from her dry breasts, then returned him to his mother when they reached the village of Qana, in Lebanon.

Umm Hassan died today. No one dared go into her house. About twenty women gathered to wait, then Sana’ came and knocked on the door, but no one opened it. She pushed it, it opened, she went in and ran to the bedroom. Umm Hassan was sleeping, her head covered with her white headscarf. Sana’ went over and took her by the shoulders, and the chill of death flowed into the hands of the kunafa-seller’s wife, who screamed. The women entered, the weeping began, and everyone raced to the house.

I, too, would like to run with the others, go in with them, see Umm Hassan sleeping her eternal sleep and breathe in the smell of olives that clung to her small home. But I didn’t weep. For three months I’ve been incapable of reacting. Only this man floating above his bed makes me feel the throb of life.

For three months he’s been laid out on his bed in Galilee Hospital, where I work as a doctor, or where I pretend that I’m a doctor. I sit next to him, and I try. Is he dead or alive? I don’t know – am I helping or tormenting him? Should I tell him stories or listen to him?

For three months I’ve been in this room. Today Umm Hassan died, and I want him to know, but he doesn’t hear. I want him to come with me to her funeral, but he won’t get up. They said he fell into a coma. An explosion in the brain causing permanent damage. A man lies in front of me, and I have no idea what to do.

I’ll just try not to let him rot while he’s still alive, because I’m sure he’s asleep, not dead. But what difference does it make? Is it true what Umm Hassan said about a sleeper being like a dead man – that the sleeper’s soul leaves his body only to return when he wakes, but that the dead man’s soul leaves and doesn’t come back?

Where is the soul of Yunes, son of Ibrahim, son of Suleiman al-Asadi? Has it left him for a distant place, or is it hovering above us in the hospital room, asking me not to go because the man is immersed in distant darknesses, afraid of the silence? I swear I’ve no idea. On her first visit Umm Hassan said that Yunes was in torment. She said he was in a different place from us.

“So what should I do?” I asked her.

“Do what he tells you,” she answered.

“But he doesn’t speak,” I said.

“Oh yes, he does,” she said, “and it’s up to you to hear his voice.”

And I don’t hear it, I swear I don’t, but I’m stuck to this chair, and I talk and talk. Tell me, I beg of you, what should I do? I sit by your side and listen to the sound of weeping coming through the window of your room. Can’t you hear it? Everyone else is weeping, so why don’t you? It’s become our habit to look out for occasions to weep, for tears are dammed up behind our eyes. Umm Hassan has burst open our reservoir of tears. Why won’t you get up and weep?

Standard
art of resistance, Syria

Zaher Omareen: A Bedtime Story For Eid.

I recently wrote about the Hama massacre, marking thirty-three years since it had happened. This month, to pay respect to the victims of that horrible event that took place in February of 1982, I am sharing one more story. It is Zaher Omareen’s tale A Bedtime Story For Eid. Zaher Omareen is a Syrian writer who is currently completing Tales of the Orontes River, a collection of short stories drawn from the collective memories of the 1982 Hama massacre. A Bedtime Story For Eid is one of those stories (translation by Alice Guthrie).

pop/Hama massacre, photo via NPR/

—So he gave you a kiss, and wished you a happy Eid, and said ‘Send my love to your Mom?’ My God, what a good memory that guy’s got! Yeah, those guys used to live over at al-Tawafra, right near al-Kaylaneya. You know where I mean, don’t you? Al-Tawafra was your grandparents’ old neighborhood, actually.

—Yeah, I know—but al-Kaylaneya? Where’s that?

—Hmm, al-Kaylaneya, you kids are too young to remember it, aren’t you? Well, it’s like—where would it be now? It was more or less that whole area from where the Afamia Hotel is now, all the way across to the street on the right of the bridge, yeah—opposite the Saba’ al-Arab family orchard. You know that bit of scrubland where you all play football? That used to be part of the al-Kaylaneya neighborhood.

—What, were there houses there before, then? Was it not always empty?

—Of course there were—there was a waterwheel there, too, and the al-Kaylani family palace, and one of those old zawiyas, you know, a traditional tomb shrine—but all that’s long gone, it’s just bare earth there now . . .. And no one dares build on that land—it was seized by the regime and became state property. Your Granny’s dear friend Um Omara used to live right by there. That poor woman’s got such a story: during The Events they came for her kids, they took all three of them—and those boys were all so lovely, such beautiful lads . . . One was in high school, one was just about to graduate from the Faculty of Business at the Uni, and the eldest was a mechanical engineer—his name was Omar.

—The one we read al-Fatiha for at the cemetery today? Was it his grave we prayed over?

—Yep, that’s him, that’s Omar. That man’s really got a story . . ..  After The Events happened, Um Omara nearly lost her mind, trying to find out whether her sons had survived or been executed; of course in those days absolutely no one dared to ask the authorities what had happened to their children, or where they were. A few years after The Events, news reached Um Omara that her two younger sons had passed away in al-rush—someone had been there when they were martyred, had seen it all happen, and told her about it . . .  so she knew it was definitely true.

But she wasn’t able to find out anything at all about her eldest son, Omar. Now, Um Omara, may she rest in peace, was a God-fearing woman! I still remember—I must’ve been about fourteen then, I would’ve been in the ninth grade or so—she used to come round to your granny’s a lot, and I remember how she always used to say to her, ‘My heart doesn’t lie, Hajja: I can feel it—something tells me Omar’s still alive.’ She had this sense about it and it didn’t let her rest.

Anyway, eventually some kind people put her in touch with this man who supposedly had proper security force connections—he was meant to be getting news of people’s kids for them, apparently, letting them know where they were being held, maybe even how they were doing and all that. So she went to meet him and asked him about her son. He said to her ‘For 200,000 Syrian pounds I can tell you if he’s dead or alive.’  Um Omara was a widow in her fifties: she was hard up, she had always lived off her relatives. But—ya haram—a mother’s heart . . ..

She sold her house in Bashoura, in the Old City, to raise some cash—but she only got peanuts for it, you know, this was some time in the mid-nineties; she bought a tiny flat in the suburbs to live in, and then gave that guy all the money she had, the whole lot, so he’d get news of her son for her. And from then on he started getting more and more money out of Um Omara—she sold off all the furniture from her old house, which was that proper original pearl inlay stuff, real quality, and then she sold her gold jewelry, and then when all that was gone she started borrowing money to pay him, running up debts….

But he just kept on stalling, for ages, until in the end she found out he was nothing but a crook, some security services bullshitter with no inside access to prison records at all—and eventually he disappeared: no one ever saw him again.

Time passed, seasons came and went, as they do; after several years—I don’t know how many—a little group of prisoners were let out. Now, as you know, the custom, whenever someone was released from prison, was that everyone in Hama would go and see them, to greet them and welcome them back and all that—offering their blessings, really, on their return—but also, of course, to ask them about their disappeared children: Had they seen them? Were they incarcerated with them? Where were they being held? Are they OK? Are they alive?

One of the prisoners released in this particular little group told Um Omara that Omar had been held with him for a while in Tadmor prison, but that he’d been taken out of their cell two days before The Tadmor Events. He said they’d taken Omar away naked . . . This guy had managed to keep Omar’s shirt the whole rest of the time he was in prison, and he had it with him. He said to Um Omara ‘I think your son must have passed away . . .  because that was right before they shot hundreds of prisoners right there in the yard, my God, I don’t even know how many . . .’ And sure enough he handed her Omar’s shirt, and she just knew straight away it was her son’s—a mother’s heart, you see, Son? There’s nothing like it.

—Really?

—Absolutely. She didn’t doubt the news for a minute. And so the next day she opened up her house for three days of mourning, with her son’s shirt on display for everyone to see. I’ve never forgotten the sight of that tattered, faded blue shirt hanging from the middle of the sitting room ceiling on an old wooden hanger. The women all poured into the little flat for the wake, praying for Um Omara’s sanity, saying things like ‘God protect Um Omara from what her mind must endure.’ Anyway, after the three days of mourning, Um Omara took the shirt to the Sreheen cemetery and buried it and had a proper stone tomb made, with flower beds and a headstone and everything. She wanted somewhere she could go to remember her son, poor woman, she was heartbroken, destroyed, really . . .. And from then on she went to that grave every single Thursday and read the Quran over it, put flowers on it, and watered the plants growing there . . . until, about a year or so later, the force of her grief and pain overwhelmed her and she passed away.

She’d only been dead a year when another batch of prisoners were released—and guess who was let out with them this time?

—Who?

—Omar!

—What are you talking about?!

—It’s true, honestly—he came out alive! And they let him out after he’d done something like twenty years inside. It turned out that when he was moved out of that cell the other prisoner’d told Um Omara about, just before The Tadmor Events, they actually took him to the Palestine Branch of the Security Services.

—And then what? What happened to him after that?!

—I’m getting to that, hang on! That poor man . . .  when he finally got let out it was the middle of the night—cos they only ever used to release anyone from prison in the small hours, the real dead of night. The state security agents took him back to his old family home and dumped him there outside the door. Poor old thing, he sat there on the doorstep for hours, until the dawn call to prayer sounded—he didn’t dare knock at the door and frighten his family. When the azan sang out, the new owner of the house got out of bed to go to the mosque; when he opened his front door he found a stranger sitting there on the step. He thought he was a beggar, and he gave him five Syrian pounds. But apparently at that Omar just burst into tears and cried like a little child. So the man asked him his name, and he knew straight away who he was.

—How? How come he knew about him?

—Son, everybody knows everybody in Hama—and everybody knows everybody’s stories! You know how the old saying goes. ‘Mother gathers the family together and keeps them close.’ Well, in Hama it’s more like ‘Misery gathers the community together and keeps them close.’ But also, when Um Omara did that full mourning ceremony for the shirt, everyone talked about it, even more than usual—she became an exemplar of suffering, somehow.

So anyway, the owner of the house rang Omar’s relations right away! And the aunts and uncles, whoever was left of his extended family by then, all came to get him and took him to their place and bit by bit they filled him in on what’d happened to his family. Eventually he had to take in that the old house in Tawafra was gone, his Mom was dead, his brothers were dead—and that even he, himself, was supposedly dead!

Well, as usual, the good people of the city really rallied round—someone found him a place to live, someone sorted out a job for him, someone helped him with his medical stuff . . .. My auntie Um Ibrahim used to really love Um Omara, God rest her soul, and she had a young daughter called Samiha—she got pregnant with her when she was already quite old, actually—and anyway she offered Omar her hand in marriage.

And you see, thank goodness, how life moves on, Samiha bore Omar a lovely little daughter who they named Rajaa, after his mother—but everyone in the neighborhood and all the relations always just call her Um Omara!

And poor old Omar, bless him, once things were a bit more sorted out and settled for him, he started doing what his mother used to do: every Thursday, still, he visits his mother’s grave, and puts myrtle on it—and as he’s passing, he waters the plants on his own grave, too.

—And where is he now?

—What do you mean ‘Where is he now?!’ He’s that guy who gave you a kiss today, in the cemetery, and told you to send his love to your Mom. He still remembers me—he used to walk me and my sisters to school when we were in primary.

—Oh, I see! But wait, why do they call his Mom Um Omara, as if she was the mother of a woman called Omara, which isn’t even a real name? Shouldn’t they call her Um Omar?

—Well, according to your granny, when Omar was born, he was such a beautiful little baby that everyone thought he was a girl! So his mother got called Um Omara instead of Um Omar, and it stuck . . ..

Right, come on now love, bedtime, yalla, off you go—tomorrow’s the second day of Eid and we’re going to your Granddad’s for breakfast.

• • •

For more on Zaher Omareen and this story, go to Words Without Borders.

Standard
art of resistance, Egypt

Yusuf Idris: An Aimless Sort of Running (The Aorta).

Yusuf Idris was a great Egyptian writer of short stories, plays and novels. Here is an excerpt from his short story The Aorta (the story can be found in Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East). It was translated from the Arabic by Trevor J. Le Gassick.

Yusuf_Idris_portrett/Yusuf Idris, photo via wikimedia/

It wasn’t important that there was running; what mattered was that it was happening all over the place as if Doomsday itself had come. A very peculiar type of running it was, not like someone in a hurry, or fleeing in terror, or racing to save a life. No – an aimless sort of running, as if those doing it were trying to find some spot from which to actually begin their running and hurrying.

And so no one knew the goal or purpose of the others, all being in a state of watchful anxiety, concerned that one of them would find his own point of beginning which would then, no doubt, define their own. That’s why you saw people running so madly, crazily, and trying so desperately yet unsuccessfully to watch where the others were heading. Whenever anyone appeared at all hesitant and slowed down, or became more purposeful and increased speed and so seemed about to discover his goal, then dozens would rush toward him, hoping to arrive before him, to be the first to set off after a clearly defined objective.

This whole activity made the place, if viewed from high above or far away, seem to pulsate with sudden throbbings that then dispersed and subsided, it all happening at more than one place at a time. You would have thought the square paved with smooth veneer, if it had not been for those sudden pulsations occuring here and there that alone gave signs of life. You would have thought it all veneer of stone, or the human b eings gathered there lumps of multicolored rocks. No one knows whether blows were struck or not. Well, actually, I personally was struck by more than one blow, vicious painful blows. But it was impossible to know who was doing the striking because one had no constant neighbor and the continous fluid movement prevented you getting so much as a glance at the hundreds passing you or whom you were passing. In any case there were, most certainly, blows struck.

And what a surprise then! How could I ever have guessed that turning next moment to the person right beside me – the very first close neighbor whose features I had been able to properly examine – I would find, to my shock and amazement, Abduh!

But even as food Abduh was completely unappetizing, disgusting even; he was thin and weak. He never showed a glimmer of defiance, never faced up to anyone else to assert or defend his own existence.  He was ‘good’, that weakly, negative sort of goodness, as if he had a double hernia or something, and he sang sweet songs when by himself. He seemed ‘foreign’, out of place wherever he was, as if he’d never found his own country. When things got too much for him, he’d cry. His eyes would suddenly fill with tears. But there’d be no redness in them; the flush would gather into his nose, which would seem to swell and fill with the secretions.

Yes, for three whole days, morning, noon, and nights, I’ve been looking for you, Abduh, turning over the pavement stones in Cairo, breaking into houses, asking, demanding, pleading for help in finding you, searching every road, every street, every alley. My strength finally sapped, I fell asleep only to wake up in a rage of despair at finding you: my dream, my nightmare, and the pain of my hours awake or asleep is the thought of truning around sometime and finding you there, Abduh! 

‘Where have you been, Abduh, and where did you hide the money?'”

Standard