Tag Archives: Arab literature

Humanity in the face of atrocity: Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak

Translated from Arabic by Perween Richards (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s fair to say that The Sea Cloak is one of my most anticipated books… ever. Comma Press first started advertising it last Spring: author Nayrouz Qarmout was to appear at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August 2018, but her visa application was turned down twice by the Home Office. She just made it in time after the festival intervened on her behalf, and was then invited back this year to take part in a panel on migration and refugees – so publication was postponed in order to launch The Sea Cloak during Qarmout’s visit to the UK. So I’ve been looking forward to this book for over a year, and I can tell you that it was absolutely, unequivocally, 100% worth the wait.

Qarmout was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and was “returned” to her home in Gaza in 1992, making her a refugee for a second time, but this time in her own country. The Sea Cloak offers insight into life in Gaza, but without melodrama or exaggeration – for Qarmout, this is simply her home, her life, her political context that she is observing. Her background in journalism shows through in her writing: there is nothing partisan here, nothing that tells her reader to think or react in a particular way. Perhaps this is also an effect of her being an “outsider” even in her own country: rather than instructing, she lays out fragments and stories from her context, and offers them for interpretation. There are aspects that hint at autobiography or personal experience (for example, the female protagonists of both ‘The Long Braid’ and ‘A Samarland Moon’ are journalists, the protagonist of ‘The Sea Cloak’ “retreated into the past, to a sprawling camp buzzing with children playing marbles and forming teams for a game of ‘Jews and Arabs’”, and the bombing of a building in ‘Our Milk’ echoes an experience Qarmout describes as being intimately connected to her writing – she forced herself to write one story for every floor that was rebuilt), but the rich tapestry of everyday people presented in The Sea Cloak defies any narrow interpretation of the text as being the experience of only one person – the rhetorical question in ‘14 June’, “How many times has she jumped out of bed thinking that a bullet has punctured her window?” may very well be Qarmout’s own experience, but it is also doubtless the experience of anyone who lives in a warzone. Fictional characters live through real events, such as in this depiction of a restaurant bombing: “The waiter staggers for a moment, still standing in the rear half of the restaurant that hasn’t collapsed. His face gushes with blood – some invisible piece of shrapnel has sliced his cheek – but he barely notices it. All he can do is stare at the splashes of colour that fringe the rubble: strips of tapestry and flesh, both heavy with history.”

Not all of the stories deal with terror and conflict: like Gazan life, these are part but not all of the picture. Many of the short stories have women’s experience at the fore: in ‘The Sea Cloak’, a girl struggles with the transition to womanhood and the restrictions that this forces on her; in ‘The Mirror’ there is the memory of a sexual assault; in ‘The Long Braid’ a schoolgirl is told by her teacher that emancipated women are “sluts”; in ‘Breastfeeding’ a mother and father want something better for their daughter than becoming “entangled in the traditions that they themselves were raised with and could never escape”, only to discover that all options lead to restriction. Life is too often decided for these women, but in many cases other women uphold this patriarchal society. Yet Qarmout’s characters try not to be, or not to remain, victims. These are not stories of misfortune but of life, and the strength of The Sea Cloak comes from not having one definable agenda, but rather a collective one: destinies are interwoven with intelligence and compassion (read ‘White Lilies’ in particular), showing us that we are never truly external to the problems of a region, because they are the problems of humanity.

As for the language and the translation, both are excellent. Qarmout’s writing has a wisdom and clarity, and a richness of expression that is both exciting and compelling. Perween Richards translated all but the title story of the collection (which was translated by Charis Bredin), and she conveys this richness superbly, bringing the text to a recognisable place without ever being untrue to its origins: the translation is careful and precise, yet not overworked. Richards was one of two winners of the Translate at City translation competition in 2016, and as far as I know this is her first major translation – and what a debut it is. This collaboration is a shining example of the best of connections: between people, places, cultures and contexts. The narratives might be shocking in their everyday candour and the lack of melodrama to describe the atrocities that have become commonplace, but there are nonetheless universal messages such as this one from ‘Breastfeeding’: “We all have to grasp at the chances we can in this life.”

This juxtaposition of extraordinary situations and ordinary lives is one of the most striking features of the collection: as Richards notes of Gazan life, “Not everyone is a freedom fighter, most are just normal people trying to go through life with dignity and purpose in the face of impossible odds.” If there is everyday violence, there is also everyday experience – there is a new take on forbidden love in ‘The Anklet of Maioumas’, in which a girl and boy from opposite sides of the border hope to be together; in ‘A Samarland Moon’ two young people who have drifted apart – one towards religion, the other towards emancipation – try to remember what they loved about one another, and young boys work to advance in life in ‘Pen and Notebook’. There is no preaching or overly didactic comment – Qarmout’s characters go about their lives, and their lives just happen to unfold in one of the most volatile regions on Earth. I learnt a lot from reading The Sea Cloak, yet I didn’t feel “instructed” – I think this is a necessary book. We need this book in the west. We need to know, we need not to read only books in which we recognise ourselves. One character in ‘Black Grapes’ asks “When are they going to understand?” – this is the challenge laid down gently by Qarmout. Terror, violence and death abound, yet if there is one thing that truly defines this collection, it is humanity, and that is the connection that rises above all others. As Qarmout stated in her recent appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival, “Suffering in revolution is a collective experience. I rebel. Then we exist. I believe creation is a revolution. Palestinian identity needs this revolution.” The Sea Cloak is indeed a quiet revolution, and I urge you to be part of it by reading and sharing these stories.

 

“A city haunted by many ghosts”: The Book of Cairo

Edited and with an introduction by Raph Cormack (Comma Press, 2019)

This is the first of Comma Press’s “Reading the City” books I’ve read, and I was drawn to The Book of Cairo for primarily personal reasons: Egypt is my dad’s homeland, and its history the reason for my family’s enforced dispersal across the globe. I wanted to learn more about a country that for me carries much displaced nostalgia, and Raph Cormack’s thoughtful introduction gives a moving insight into the history and modernity of Cairo: “The city has entered into a state of enforced forgetfulness”, he writes of the Arab Spring – a different historical conflict from the one that my family endured, but the same deliberate state-sponsored amnesia. Cormack writes of a “desire to escape” prevalent among young Egyptians, and describes Cairo as “a city that has always felt on the verge of disintegration”, “beset with difficulties and haunted by many ghosts”. The Book of Cairo presents ten short stories (four of which are by women writers), and brings to life this troubled, complex city.Together these stories present a mosaic of a shifting city, fraught with problems ranging from poverty and inequality to drugs and military interventions. But they also have an individual and very human dimension, from the street-sweeper fearful of not being able to afford his daughter’s wedding (‘Gridlock’) and the alienation of experiencing everything outside of a collective narrative (‘Into the Emptiness’) to the misery of unrequited love (‘The Other Balcony’) and the single-minded quest for truth that blinds the seeker to all else (‘Hamada al-Ginn’). Cairo’s streets and buildings come to life, as does its fresco of diverse inhabitants and its westernisation (messages are sent via WhatsApp, Pampers and Persil are part of a family’s regular shopping experience, and high-rise buildings spring up to “brush the sand away into the backdrop”). The stories range in tone from comical to satirical, surreal to sinister: in ‘Whine’, an office manager becomes convinced that evil spirits are manipulating his fate, while ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ questions notions of “truth”: “They both stuck to their stories, despite the continuous physical interrogation that they were subjected to for three days, ordered by Major Haitham Hamdy himself (some people give this ‘physical interrogation’ the name ‘torture’).” In ‘Siniora’, a man is so obsessed with observing his girlfriend’s genitals that he doesn’t notice that while she is sitting naked before him she has been setting up an illegal home-grown drugs empire and has moved on from him entirely; in ‘Two Sisters’, a woman’s attraction to a masked man in a video store has vampiric consequences, while the narrator of ‘Into the Emptiness’, “dissolve[s] in this world and disappear[s].”

My two favourite stories in the collection were (perhaps coincidentally) both about storytellers: ‘Talk’ is about a professional rumour-monger, and ‘The Soul at Rest’ about an obituary writer. In ‘Talk’, a doctor is surprised to find his life close to ruins because of a rumour that he thinks has no basis in truth: his investigations lead him to the office of a man who gleefully admits that he started the rumour as part of his own ministry of vigilante justice. A failed writer himself, the rumour-monger explains that “I used to write stories that no one ever read. But I was only successful at rumours. I’ll remain an uncredited author, but at least I’ll be a well-off one. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll achieve some immortality”, and this chilling attitude highlights the dangers of slanderous stories in a fame-seeking fake-news age in which “innocence and guilt are one and the same, since both the innocent and the guilty issue the same denials.”

In ‘The Soul at Rest’, an obituary writer makes an ill-advised judgement about a woman whose lover wants her to have the most lavish obituary he can buy. The obituary writer then attempts to make amends for his thoughtlessness, acknowledging that he needs to feel better about his own mistake: “What I want to say won’t take more than a page, maybe two. But one thing is for sure, regardless of the number of pages, it won’t make a difference to anyone but me. I just want to vent so I can feel better about what I’m going through”. The obituary writer lavishes his time and money attempting to atone for the wounds caused by his thoughtless prejudice, because “the pain kept growing inside me until it had become a permanent resident”, and tries all he can to escape from his own guilt:

“I cried a lot, I asked God for forgiveness; I even went as far as asking for a transfer to another department.
I just wished that I could meet the man again, to ask for his forgiveness.”

This proves impossible for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself, but his ultimate admission that “my pain has still not subsided” is a timely reminder about the importance of resisting judgement based on class and creed.

The Book of Cairo is a superb collection of intimate modern stories that shatter the mysticism of the Orient and show us what Cairene life is and can be. I love the work Comma Press seeks out, and shall be reading more from their Reading the City series. I also highly recommend Banthology, stories of protest commissioned from the seven “unwanted nations” on Trump’s original “travel ban” (five of which are by women writers) – literature can and should be political, should challenge and subvert, should resist complacency and the “culture of sameness” – and Comma Press are leading the way.

Review copy of The Book of Cairo provided by Comma Press.