17 June 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In today’s globalizing world, solving international conflicts by violence is becoming increasingly impractical and unpopular. Nonviolent methods must be based on mutual understanding, which is an important part of any relationship. It is primarily in this vein that Contemporary Iraqi Fiction (Syracuse University Press, 2008), edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa, is a worthwhile and valuable read. The book provides an enlightening sample of storytelling from the people of one of the world’s hotbeds of international conflict of the last two or three decades. It provides an intimate introduction to people in and from Iraq.

One aspect in particular that goes a long way towards achieving this intimacy is the inclusion of an essay introducing each author, in which the editor has outlined the author’s work as a whole and briefly described and analyzed the stories selected. These essays are appropriately brief and informative as to familiarize the reader with each of the authors presented. As a whole, the book sheds light on a place that has long been construed as dark and alien, and effectively brings this distant place a little bit closer.

The book would not have this effect if the content were not worthy of literary merit. All of those presented are talented writers; some are not particularly memorable, but several authors in particular stand out as brilliant craftsmen and –women whose ability to breathe life into their prose is truly surprising, and a great pleasure to read. Among these are Mahdi Isa al-Saqr, Mayselun Hadi, Jalil al-Qaisi, and Samuel Shimon.

Al-Saqr is a prolific writer whose work, produced over the course of about fifty years beginning in 1954, has been translated into six languages. His stories have a dreamlike quality; Waiting is the depiction of an old woman’s fantasy come to life. Breaking Away is a subtler meditation on escape from the real into the world of dreams, or the converse, the bringing of dreams into the real world. Both of these, as well as Morning Exercises, are well-constructed, complete fictions. His fourth piece, A Dreamer in Dark Times, is a selection from a novel titled The Witness and the Negro, a selection which inclines the reader to read the novel itself. Al-Saqr has written three volumes of short stories and five novels to date.

Mayselun Hadi is a more recent author, born in 1954. Of her three pieces selected here, Outage is the best, reflecting the state of war which makes up most of Hadi’s subject matter, according to Mustafa. The absence of tangible violence in the story, and the sense of suffocating darkness, truly and effectively convey the debilitating fear of the characters without resorting to overt symbolism or blatant proselytism:

He gave a broken, nasal laugh and put down the lantern next to her. He relaxed in the dark, lying back to watch the pattern that the lantern made on the ceiling. She put out her hand and slowly felt his features. It was late at night, and she wondered why the power cut happened. She touched the rim of his prescription glasses and then his unshaven face. She almost asked him something, but she didn’t. (p.76)
A third war story, and in my opinion one of the best stories in the book overall, is Jalil al-Qaisi’s Zulaikha. The story recalls the horrifying yet poignant war scenes of Hemingway, a touching scene of human bonding in bondage and a microcosm of the struggle of an oppressed people against their oppressors. The feeling of attachment between the two strangers in a cage, attachment simply because of their common predicament, is strongly evoked.

Samuel Shimon’s story, The Street Vendor and the Movies, stands out in several regards. Foremost it is the longest story in the anthology, and as a result it seems that despite its being the only of Shimon’s work in the book, it seems to give the reader a closer familiarity with the author than any other. This may also have to do with the strength of the writing:

That particular picture spurred an argument one day between me and Khajik over silent and sound films. You like silent movies, he said, because you’re the son of a deaf and mute father. That day I found a piece of rope and planned to strangle that mean Armenian boy, but Ibrahim did not think that was a good idea, especially when my dad was trying to get a job at Umm Khajik’s bakery….I also had a pang of guilt because Khajik’s dad used to give me a whole dinar at Christmas. Not last Christmas, though, because he had passed away just the week before. (p.139)

Rare is the writer who can see the world through the eyes of a child and convey it thus on the page, and Shimon’s success in this venture is reminiscent of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close on a much smaller scale.

My one complaint with the book is the editor’s decision to include excerpts from a few novels. I feel that the selections from novels are among the book’s weakest, and this must only be because they are small pieces of a larger whole, pieces which do not stand on their own in the context of short fiction. While I was intrigued by one of these selections (al-Saqr’s A Dreamer in Dark Times) to read the whole work, on the whole I believe that the collection would be stronger if the excerpts had been left out, and perhaps replaced by some more work by those authors who are less represented or some more authors.

On the back cover, the book is described as “the first anthology of its kind in the West.” Specifically referring to Iraqi fiction, this is true (although there are several available volumes of translated Arabic literature such as The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, translated and edited by Denys Johnson-Davies). This book’s unique quality of being Iraqi in origin is primarily what makes the book a most worthwhile read. The material is good too; while a few of the authors are not particularly noteworthy, all of the pieces are well written and well translated, and a few stand out as gems to be pursued and appreciated further.

Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology
edited and translated by Shakir Mustafa
Syracuse University Press
200 pages, $22.95

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