Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures. There was just so much loss all around me. Everywhere I turned seemed stabbed right through, constantly punctured by the outside world. The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deep I tried to bury it. So many different things—situations, times of year, people—made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it—any of it—stop.
The Bridge of Sorrows: An Excerpt From Thin Places
Malika Moustadraf (1969–2006) lived, worked, and died in the major port city of Casablanca, on the Atlantic west coast of Morocco. She published just one novel, a single short story collection, one other short story, and a few articles during her short life. After her death, three more short stories were published in a literary magazine. The short story collection and the four subsequent stories are what make up Blood Feast, the first ever full-length translation of her work. This slim volume is but a snapshot of a gifted maverick writer in her ascendancy, creatively going from strength to strength even as her health deteriorated during the final weeks before her death. Had her life not been tragically cut short, Moustadraf would undoubtedly have gone on to reach great artistic heights. In 2022 she would have been just fifty-three, eight years older than me. I would have certainly visited her in Casablanca over these last six years since I’ve been reading and translating her work, and would have gotten to know her. We would have spent time hanging out in her favorite café, working through the innumerable fascinating linguistic and cultural questions any serious literary translation project generates. Perhaps we would have enjoyed ranting to each other about the patriarchy, exchanging music, making each other laugh? And surely, by now, she would have become more widely respected and less persecuted for her feminist activist sensibility than she was at the turn of the millennium. But she did die in 2006, and so this modest oeuvre is all we have—the culmination of her life’s work, all but lost to the world over the last fifteen years since her untimely death.
Blood Feast: Translating the Troubled Life and Troubling Work of Malika Moustadraf
We are dodging icebergs at twenty-five miles per hour. From the bow of our eighteen-foot Zodiac, I try to make sense of the ecosystem I’ve come here to investigate: northern Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coastline. But my customary visual bearings don’t seem to be serving me here in Alice’s Arctic Wonderland, where even the most fundamental rules of spatial arrangement have been upended. I see liquid lying over land, tundra hovering in midair, and chunks of ice floating several feet above the sea. I strain to delineate boundaries between water and sky, solid and gas, near and far. Where I expect borders, I find continuity—gradations of color, shifting shapes, and fluid forms. Reflections are sharper than the objects that make them, forcing me to question which way is up.
Once upon a time I lived at the beach, and not just any beach, but one of the good ones: Newport Beach in Orange County. A hashtag search delivers 2.3 million Instagram hits; if you stand at the end of Newport’s wood-planked pier on winter mornings, Catalina Island looks close enough to touch. I was not there the day a masked booby showed up, but I have seen a sea turtle, a bloom of moon jellies, and a stout man paddling a paddleboard completely naked. Coffee in hand, sitting on the front steps of my rental cottage, I would admire the early surfers jogging past in neon-trimmed neoprene, shortboards clamped under blond arms. I envied their urgency and zeal. According to their wet suits, their names were O’Neill and Rip Curl. Their girlfriends were even prettier and more fit than they were. I had a surfboard too, but it didn’t do me much good. Any wave obvious enough and slow enough for me to catch just petered out in the kelpy slop thirty seconds later. Mostly, I used it to prop open the door when I brought in the groceries.
The morning was clear and the colors vivid: yellow brush, white ocean froth against cobalt sky. In front of me, dense gray volcanic stone appeared to consume the light. I stood in salty mist before an altar on the north coast of Rapa Nui, Easter Island. A single toppled moai lay in violent chunks on the ground. At 9:00 a.m. the sun still hovered tight at the horizon. Rapa Nui, which is part of Chile 2,300 miles away, is kept closer to mainland time than by geographical rights it should be. The sun rises gray and sticky at 8:30 in the morning, and sets late, too. This is not the only disorienting thing about Rapa Nui, but rather the most objective example.
I have dreamt of this Arabian Gulf Portfolio ever since I was a teenager, writing about snow and squirrels and picket fences—despite living in Dubai where I had more experience with temperatures of 40+ degrees, karak chai, compounds… Because English was my first language, the fiction that was available and accessible to me at the time was perpetually happening elsewhere. My high school education focused on the British and American canons, meaning that we had no exposure to global Anglophone literature, let alone any works set in the United Arab Emirates. The bookshops sold mainly self-help and cookbooks in the 2000s. The public libraries were few, poorly stocked, and dominated by Arabic literature that was also generally quite dated. Consequently, for most of my teenage years, my imagination was furnished by foreign clutter and peopled by strangers I had no knowledge of first-hand. There was the book-world and there was the real-world, and I didn’t even appreciate how separate they were in my mind until I began to write about rivers and forests and realized there were none around me. The mimetic dimension of literature had been severed entirely.
“We want to simulate Mars on Earth and so we need a place that looks as much like Mars as possible. And we found it here in Oman.” —Alexander Soucek, lead flight director of the AMADEE-18 mission, in Phys Org, October 30, 2017
The first time my husband visited me in Oman years ago, he peered down from the plane window and received his first glimpse of the landscape: an undulating palette of browns, beige, mauve, and grays. This is Mars, he thought to himself. Mars on Earth.
This was Arabia as a romantic imagination might have created it; nights so mellow that they lay out under the scatter of dry bright stars, and heard the silence beyond their fire as if the whole desert hung listening.
—Wallace Stegner, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil
“When we arrived there [Aramco], it was no Arabian Nights at all. It was just a kind of shack, it seemed to me.… Air-conditioned shacks with a great big swimming pool in the middle with a canvas over the top.”
—Mary Stegner to her husband’s biographer, Jackson J. Benson
“It was No Arabian Nights at All”: Coming of Age in America’s Kingdom
Sitting on a green couch in what is now a bedbug-infested Brooklyn apartment, I suddenly realized that my flight to meet my family for the first time in five years was actually tonight, not tomorrow; 12:30 a.m., not 12:30 p.m. I had planned to wake up early in the morning, make two cups of coffee, and pack a small bag with the few gifts I managed to buy last minute for my siblings. I thought I had more hours to sit with my heavy feeling, which I assumed to be a mix of excitement and longing, but which was rather a combination of wariness and fear, of things going wrong, of encounters no one can prepare for.
In front of the couch, there was a round coffee table, which I circled around in panic, not sure if I could make it to JFK on time, to Kiev on time, to Tbilisi on time. For months, my sister and I had saved and borrowed so we could have this one-week reunion trip in a country we knew nothing about. A few months after my arrival in the United States, the Kuwaitis had denied my application for passport renewal, subsequently making me an asylee. My family’s attempts to get U.S. visas were repeatedly denied, so we began to make different plans. We called embassies every morning, in the United States and in Kuwait. I asked, “Do you accept a U.S. refugee travel document? How long to issue a visa?” while they asked, “Do you accept a stateless travel document? How long to issue a visa?” The mutually closest country was Georgia, a place Arabs have come to discover in the past few years, this time not as conquerors, but as refugees in transit, hoping to infiltrate Europe from her eastern side.
Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait