An introductory essay to Stories from Syria, a portfolio published in English by The Common and in Arabic by Akhbar Al Adab (Egypt).
Today, in the second installment of a transatlantic literary collaboration which I hope will last for many years to come, Akhbar Al Adab publishes the original Arabic texts of stories by Syrian writers whose English translations appear in a special portfolio in Issue 17 of The Common, a literary magazine based at Amherst College. The first portfolio in the series contained stories by Jordanian writers and was published in Issue 15 of The Common, which followed the collaboration’s inaugural project: an issue of the magazine (Issue 11, Spring 2016) entirely dedicated to contemporary Arabic literature in translation entitled Tajdeed (Renewal), in which editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker and I selected stories and artworks by twenty-six writers and five artists from fifteen Arabic-speaking countries, with eighteen translators bringing the work into English.
Regardless of how it turned out, the situation certainly demanded a courageous decision. I could no longer bear the chaos that had spread to all areas of my life—a life that I was constantly striving to keep in the best possible state of order.
At the borderland between the desert and the plains, Emirate of Transjordan, early twentieth century
Two men sat near the round threshing floor in the western fields. Each with his rifle on his lap. “What a goddamn year,” Tafish said. He had a skull-like face. Small, sunken, deep-set eyes. Emaciated cheeks with protruding cheekbones. A broad forehead with dark blue veins at the sides. Skin like an aged tortoise. His hair and lower jaw were hidden behind a white keffiyeh, held in place by a black fleece cord around his head. His frame was tall, straight, lithe. He rubbed his nose with his hand, letting a low whistle out of his nostrils. By the time he lowered his hand, a pensive expression of disgust had formed on his face. Staring straight ahead, he spoke, as if to himself: “What a goddamn year.”
I sit on my old chair, scatter my multicolored toys around me, and start watching evening cartoons on TV. Cool Pancho shoots off through the streets in his car, feeling awesome. He’d bought the car back from the old lady living next door. Never mind that he’d paid too much, more than two thousand pounds. No problem. He slows down, speeds up, and finally stops at the green fields to go for a stroll. The episode ends, but I stay glued to the television, waiting for my truly favorite cartoon: The Adventures of Zaina the Bee. Zaina is a menacing creature; she has no other business but instigating pranks on her friend Nahhul. Nahhul, for his part, has no choice but to come crawling back to his bully-of-a-buddy every time.
Between France and Marrakech is a route upon which travels a single bus from Paris. The bus reaches its destination safely, as one might hope and expect. Then the passengers who so desire transfer to another bus, which takes them by an established road to Agadir.
Stand in front of the window of your kitchen refuge and prepare the following ingredients:
A welcoming, empty green glass.
A bottle of cold, fresh milk.
An orange and brown tin of Cadbury’s Cocoa.
The two large tablespoons locked in an embrace in the drawer (possibly because of your awful dishwashing skills), which have triggered your loneliness. Use them as they are; do not expend any emotion separating them.
His coffee lasts. It’s what he starts his mornings with, early, and then he drinks half a cup in the mid-afternoon. It keeps him company. Maybe the smell of it fresh is the reason he keeps sipping it, even after it’s gone cold. Or maybe he has other reasons. Maybe he feels a certain duty, a responsibility toward it. His coffee, poured into a paper cup, changes in color, shape, and size each day, depending on the kiosk he buys it from. The man and his coffee spend the whole day together, and then he leaves it on his desk or the first ledge he sees. He abandons it without a last sip, or even a word of farewell. He leaves the paper cup of coffee and returns to his world, trusting that another one will be waiting for him in another kiosk tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that.