“The Darwinist” by Diaa Jubaili, translated by Alexander Hong (4995 words)
This is a rather weird story about belief and about longing and about corruption. It centers on Shafiq, who was born of a mother craving bananas and a father who disappeared searching for some to satisfy her. Shafiq is born with a birthmark, a fuzzy growth that resembles a banana, and in some ways it’s this that acts as his reminder of his father, a Darwinist and communist whose disappearance is never really solved, though the village where he lived wanted to believe that he was transformed into a monkey as punishment for his beliefs. The story is told in a clear, straightforward style that builds slowly, that keeps a sort of distance from the characters and the action, which for me acts to make it feel more real, more like a report or bit of nonfiction. The story sticks mostly to the “facts,” which is an interesting frame for a piece of speculative fiction. I think it enhances what happens, though, the impact of the ending, by building up a world that seems almost mundane, where the magic has been disproven, where the rejection of the ideals of communism and Darwinism have made room for a more religious fundamentalism that brings in tanks and the promise of war. Shafiq as a character is one ruled by a certain kind of intellectual distance, the same that rules the story. Until something happens to shake him out of that distance, that brings things very, very close indeed. That breaks through the layers of remove and creates an intimate, claustrophobic effect at the end, that brings the magic back in force, though not the way that anyone anticipated. Instead of the religious transformation and punishment that Shafiq had to live in fear of, something else transpires, something more mysterious and more dangerous. The transformation of a man very much living in line with his country becoming something else. Like his father, become a dissident. Someone who wants change, and will work for it. It’s an interesting and at times difficult story, but ultimately for me a great read!
“Judo” by Rasha Abbas, translated by Robin Moger (1798 words)
This is another weird story that holds a lot of its speculative punch to the end. It centers a woman who works in a bakery, an immigrant who feels a palpable isolation and struggles between the desires to break that isolation, to reach out and take chances, and her own knowledge of the danger she faces, the anger and the suspicion aimed at her because of her status. I love the voice of the story, told in first person from the perspective of this woman, her world one of memory and change, where she is living in such a different place than she grew up and yet in many ways all of these places are linked by the way that she is an outsider, always held at bay by the feeling that she doesn’t belong, that there is no one there for her to be close to. She becomes fascinated by a man she sees every day at the same window, and sees mirrored in him a lot of her own fears and insecurities, that inability to go out and enter into the place where she lives. Her communication is largely through mediums, over the phone or through letters that she doesn’t seem to send. Her environment is full of opportunities to connect but also risks, people who seem to pay too much attention to her, who might mean her harm because she’s a woman or an immigrant or both. And yet her outlook is almost cheery, optimistic. Her voice is one that wants to see the good but so often is confronted with the bad. Like with the man, like with the ending, where she can finally begin to overcome her hesitation, and finds instead of a kindred spirit a different kind of situation entirely. It’s another somewhat difficult read in part because it’s a subtle piece, where the magic is in desire and intent and distance between those and what’s possible, what’s happening. It comes from the hope that the main character feels despite everything, that there can be belonging, and healing, and peace. And it’s a strange read, but definitely a piece worth spending some time with!
“15 July 2017” by Rabha Ashry
I like the way this poem reaches for this moment of balance, of sharing, where the sun and the moon are both out and in the sky. The piece, for me, becomes about that feeling, of striving for a completeness that is also a sort of chaos, a balance that isn’t quite a balance. The poem is structured in short stanzas of three to five lines, not taking up an awful lot of room. It gives the piece a rather long, airy feeling, a certain fragility that is interesting given that it’s about strength and about struggle and about stories and erasure. The narrator of the poem, for me, is one looking for justice and for something better, wanting a release from conflict but also knowing that such a thing can only come from a sort of harmony, from the attempt to bridge the distance between people. And for me then the piece becomes about the different ways to fight, the different ways to struggle for something large. Not always with violence but with words as well, with stories and with poems and with the power of language and imagination. That here the narrator can work toward finding that razor-thin hour of moon and sun and building something there that can grow, that can allow people to be safe and free. And it’s possible that I’m missing something large in this one, I will admit, in part because I’m not sure what the title refers to—possibly the date the piece was written on but also possibly a reference to something I don’t know about. Which sort of requires me or tempts me to think of something “big” that the poem might be about. Except that the piece just feels more intimate than that, seems more like a small moment, and focusing perhaps on the power of small moments, small resistances, small pieces of a larger movement that creates something big. It’s also perhaps a way to remind people living outside of the areas most touched by war, conflict, and loss, that each day can be momentous in its own way, that each day will bring news of bombings and military actions and assassinations and executions. That things are not settled, however much those distant to the fighting want to think they are. So yeah, a wonderful poem!
“DAB3 (Mount Hermon, 1998)” by Sara Saab
This seems to me to be a poem about purification and action, desolation and damage. It features a narrator recounting the ways to cleanse oneself of something, toxins or sin, to become clear in the eyes of god, who is a mountain, who is the earth and sky, who is the land where this narrator is from. Meanwhile the poem circles around a dying hyena, one that seems very concerned with place and with the past, with the weight of sin and the stain of violence. And that I think is what the poem gets across to me, this attempt to make right was has happened, to wash away the pain and the loss and be left with something that is right and good. And finding that it’s not quite so simple as going through the motions of a ritual. That some things don’t wash clean, or don’t wash clean easily. That it takes more than just going through the steps outlined in the poem, more than just wanting to be forgiven or feeling back over what has happened. That the only thing that will make things right is working to make things right, and how that looks, and what shape that takes, changes based on what’s happened, based on the person and the situation. And I like how the poem is built around this idea of the word for hyena, this sound that has no equivalent in English. The way that some things can’t be translated, can’t be taken out of the context of its place and time. It’s a bit of a haunting poem, one that carries this voice, the voice of the hyena, that is a warning and reminder both, that is old but still a predator and still powerful. It’s a gripping piece and one that I very much recommend you check out!
“The Scratch Inside Your Chest” by Layla Al-Bedawi
This poem features a strong generational voice, the narrator one of many of those who have been molded by a now-absent or mostly absent person who seems almost like a parent, almost like a general, almost...well, the poem is effective in the way that it doesn’t reveal exactly what’s going on, instead focusing on this feeling, this sense that the narrator and those like them are left with the imprint of this person like a bruise after a slap, their behavior suited to how this person trained them to be. And in many ways it doesn’t have to be a person, then, but could also be a place, a culture. Could be the roles that are expected of a person even after they move away, the way that things like that stick with you, get inside you. But it doesn’t only look at that relationship from the one direction. Instead, it looks at how it can work the opposite way, these people now finding that they can be a sort of vector for change, that they can get under the skin of the culture and begin to change it, can begin to make it into something that will fit them, that they can still love and participate in but without the pain of it, without the way it forces them into these narrowly defined roles. It’s a strange and rather visceral poem, full of a stifling atmosphere and imagery of biting and tearing and hard edges. It’s a poem of distance and control, and a sort of longing that is complicated by harm and by pain. And from that there’s also the sense that the narrator and those like them are changing and growing and making themselves into something new and uncontainable. Which makes for an excellent read!
"In the Business of Things That Don’t Earn You Much” by Ziad Gadou
This poem speaks to me of living in a difficult situation, in a place and of means where a person can live, and especially can live if they have a partner to share costs with, but can’t do much more than that. It carries with it the voice of people who are living with less than they feel they were promised, always struggling and never really able to get into one of “those jobs” that will open doors and make saving possible. Instead it’s living paycheck to paycheck, day to day, hoping that things will get better, that there will be less a pressure to fail, for everything to fall apart. It means that for the narrator, speaking to someone that feels a bit like their partner, they are stuck. Stuck without a voice in government and so without a way to be heard or effect change. Stuck too in that they can’t seem to move up or get ahead, seem capable only of holding onto what they have already, and then only just, and perhaps more accurate to say it’s a slow slide, able to be done as long as nothing bad happens, as long as the narrator and the you of the poem don’t get hurt or sick or need anything. It captures so nicely that feeling of not having a home not because there is no home to be had but because the price tag is too high, because they find themselves on the outside looking in, having that carrot of security dangled in front of them to keep them busy, to keep them invested in a system that will likely never pay off for them. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and the ending lines just hit right in a place that hurts an awful lot. So yeah, it is a fantastic poem that looks at the ways that systems fail, that people are forced into a business of things that don’t earn you much. Definitely go read this piece!