ONE of the niches carved out by the publishing house Comma Press, located in Manchester, North West England, is the publication of collections of short stories inspired by cities. These anthologies started with “Decapolis: Tales from Ten Cities” and “Elsewhere: Stories from Small Town Europe”. Comma’s attention has now shifted to the Middle East, with the publication of “Madina: City Stories from the Middle East” edited by the Lebanese poet, translator and journalist Joumana Haddad.
Haddad writes in her introduction that cities are “doomed to be entangled with writing they’ve inspired” and that “cities and literature are knotted together”. The anthology contains 10 stories from cities in the Arab world from Egypt eastwards, and from Israel and Turkey.
Alongside high-profile cities such as Baghdad, Beirut and Istanbul, with their “somehow mythical ‘reputation’ in literature”, Haddad wanted to include cities that are not much talked about in that way, such as Latakia, Dubai, Akka and Alexandria.
The one city from the Arabian Peninsula included is Riyadh, represented by Saudi novelist Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s “There’s No Room for a Lover in this City”. The story shows Riyadh through the eyes of a romantic young man living in the city to pursue his studies. He is puzzled to receive from the girl he loves a letter posted a year and four months earlier asking him to meet her in a certain shopping mall on a specified Friday.
The young man fantasizes that his beloved has been waiting for him every Friday since sending the letter and decides to visit the shopping mall to see if she is there. For him Riyadh is a city of thwarted desires (as symbolized by the seizure of red roses on Valentine’s day). Al-Mohaimeed handles with much skill and sensitivity the young man’s being driven to the brink of hallucinatory madness by his yearning for love.
Haddad has chosen stories which are adventurous in literary terms and which reveal something about a particular city rather than merely using it as a backdrop. These qualities are shown in her own story “Living it Up (And Down) in Beirut”.
The thread of the story is an affair between a woman “whose green eyes made trees stumble” and an Italian man 13 years her senior “whose blue tears invented the Mediterranean sea”.
The story is divided into four “acts”, each set during a critical month in Beirut’s violent history of the past 20 years. The story is written in the third person, but it is supplemented by first-person footnotes, some of which provide graphic accounts of the horrors visited on Beirut at different times.
Other footnotes tease the reader about the veracity of the text, in which the date of the lovers’ first meeting is always shifting. A final footnote reveals: “Two matching paths, two parallel souls that were definitely made for each other, that kept on coming nearer and further to one another, without ever crossing”. The story has a striking candor and sensuality, but under the sharp humor and tricksy narrative lies much pain.
The civil war that broke out in 1975 when the woman was only four “ate up the best years of her childhood and adolescence, a war that made her all rotten inside, full of putrid scars that she did her best to hide.”
Haddad’s story is one of two to have been written originally in English rather than translated. The other story written in English is “The Week Before the Wife Arrived” by Palestinian writer Fadwa Al-Qasem.
The central figure of Al-Qasem’s story is an expatriate from Jordan who, like so much of the population of Dubai, has been drawn to the city “of unfinished skyscrapers” by its employment prospects. His marriage has gone stale, and he has been passed over for promotion.
The story has a reverse time sequence, starting from the arrival of the man’s wife back in Dubai after a holiday. In her absence the man has had a liaison with a woman named Titiana, has discarded his wedding ring and has been smoking honey scented tobacco (he had previously given up smoking). Although the husband’s attempts to obliterate all traces of Tatiana and the honey tobacco are comical, there is a sense of sadness over his frustrated dreams.
The violent sectarianism of post-invasion Baghdad is the focus of “The Reality and the Record” by Iraqi poet, writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim. The story takes the form of a statement by an Iraqi refugee to an immigration officer in Sweden.
The refugee, a former ambulance driver, was kidnapped in Baghdad and tells a bewildering story of being sold from group to group and of being forced by his various captors to make statements to video which have been broadcast “all over the world”.
The narrator’s voice is engaging, the horrifying material dealt with in disconcertingly everyday language.
Nabil Sulayman’s story is set in Latakia, Syria, during a spate of assassinations and bombings in 1980. The title “City of Crimson” alludes both to the bloodshed in the city and to the crimson dye that local fishermen prepare from certain mollusks.
The story is steeped in the history of the Latakia area, and is told from the point of view of a man whose friend from childhood, a medical doctor, has been assassinated. It builds to a ghastly climax.
Turkish writer Nedim Gursel depicts in “The Award” a writer returning from exile in Paris to his native Istanbul to be given a major literary award. The writer recalls his student days, a time of political demonstrations and state-sanctioned killings, and laments the disappearance of some of the older parts of the city.
A disturbing sense of alienation permeates a number of the stories. In Egyptian writer Gamal Al-Ghitani’s “Midnight on the Outside” a vulnerable dreamy 19-year-old from Alexandria goes in 1968 to work in a distant town.
The young man has left his sweetheart behind in Alexandria, which is a constant presence in the story. Al-Ghitani brilliantly conveys the loneliness and disintegration of the naïve young man and his violation by the sinister caretaker of a deserted guest house.
Jordanian writer Elias Farkouh gives an offbeat view of Amman in his story “Amman’s Birds Sweep Low” in which three men and two women set off in a car to “raid” the other side of town.
From Israel there are two stories. Ala Hlehel, a 34-year-old Israeli Palestinian resident of Akka is well known for his satirical fiction, of which “The Passport” is an example. The story is set during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon, and involves an Arab writer in Akka desperately trying to retrieve his passport from the closed Ministry of the Interior so that he can travel to Britain.
Israeli poet, author and journalist Yitzhak Laor’s Tel Aviv story “Meningitis” is set in a military unit filled with recruits with medical conditions from which their nicknames are derived. Laor has long been an outspoken critic of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and Lebanon, and his story is a critique of Israeli militarism.
While each story in the anthology has its own particularities of setting, theme and style, there are some commonalities, in particular the constant encroachment of war, violence and social change on the lives of individuals in Middle Eastern cities.
The anthology is also a sampler of the vibrant writing coming out of the Middle East, and it may well encourage the reader to embark on further excursions in the region’s literature. – SG