Book Review: The hidden treasures of Jordanian literature
Book Review: The hidden treasures of Jordanian literature
The book opens with a short note from author Samir Al-Sharif, also featured in the collection. He takes the reader through a quick overview of Jordan’s literary journey, from the beginning of the 20th century to the end. He starts with the work of Khalil Baida, Mohammad Subhi Abu Ghanimeh and Mahmoud Seife Ad-Din AlIrani, writers who dominated the 1930s. Nestled in the heart of the Middle East, Jordan’s location has much to do with its ever-changing narrative, as pointed out by Al-Sharif. By the early 1950s, there is a “significant transformation,” which comes in the form of social and political change, and the influx of Palestinians after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. This “changed the way Jordanians conceive space, culture and identity,” as it changed much of the consciousness of the Arab world.
With the change, Jordanian authors thrived, and they did so through the 1967 war with Israel, the Lebanese civil war, Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war. By the end of the century, women emerged onto the scene and took literature in a different, monumental direction.
Although Jordan has a long literary history, it is underrepresented in the literary world, according to editor Mahmood. As a translator and journalist, she was surprised to find so few Jordanian stories available in English today. To Mahmood, “literature in translation is one of the purest channels of intercultural communication, a thing of incredible importance to any age.” And so she, along with American poet and editor, Alexander Haddad, chose specific Jordanian short stories to feature in their anthology, representing contemporary works to translate in order to share the ever-growing narrative of Jordan.
The book begins with a short story by Samir Al-Sharif called “To Make a Living.” He writes of a man looking for work whose responsibilities weigh down on him heavily. He struggles with himself and the world around him as he is paid meager wages as a construction worker. The need for money is ever-present, as his mind shifts from thought to thought, thinking of his family, his wife who needs a new dress and his children, “who regard the lamb in your neighbor’s kitchen with heartbroken longing.”
From here, the book moves on to Basma El-Nsour and her story, “The Brass Kohl Pot.” She writes of a woman, a 40-something-year-old spinster, who is full of zeal for life. The character is shy but very conscious of herself and how she is perceived as she travels to Aqaba on a bus.
She says of herself, “I am a very pleasant spinster, certainly a burden to no one but myself,” with a career and an array of positive qualities. She has been to Aqaba once before, where she found a charming brass kohl pot and where she encountered a man who told her “your eyes are amazingly beautiful.” She now travels back to find the pot, and maybe more.
The wonderful stories of Jordanian authors in this anthology present themselves through the text, lexicon and introverted thoughts that add just another dimension to life. Such as the work of Ahmad Abu Hleiwa who writes “The Old Man and the Snow.” He describes the serene imagery of the stretches of landscape across Jordan, with mountain villages standing resilient against winter with only escaping chimney smoke as signs of life. He writes of the season as “clouds devour the warmth of the sun, the cold immobilizes everything; the land, like a corpse, is shrouded in snow.” An old man has lost his wife and his children have left him. As he visits his wife’s grave, he’s not sure he wants to continue to live without her, as the “old cypress trees, bent like beggars beneath sacks of snow, groaned, swaying precariously.” In his frozen world, the man rethinks his life, deciding whether he wants to live alone or be with his wife again.
Through the pen of Magdalene Abu El-Rub, the reader is introduced to a mistreated woman, with no future of relief, who longs to escape her family. And through Manal Hamdi, we meet a woman whose secret desires are more vivid than her reality. Through Musa Abu Rayash, the reader is made to rethink life, to reevaluate the things they hold valuable as his character, with a low-wage job, stops to help a crying child, and how the one act can change his entire outlook.
Khalid Yousef Abu Tamaa is behind “Eyes Confused,” in which a man and a woman speak opinionatedly of life, writing, happiness, wealth and philosophy, both on either sides of a line. Attempting to get to the heart of the written word, the woman asks, “What’s the point of draining your soul into a pen and your mind into an inkwell, if nobody cares for what you have to say?” To which the man replies, “My pen is the true governor of that province of life and it writes whatever it wishes…”
The anthology ends with a story by Julnar Zain called “Big Fang” in a thrilling story of a not-so-damsel-in -distress, and a disguised fanged monster.
The stories in this anthology run the spectrum of storylines, from reality to fantasy, between men and women, the focused and the wayward, embracing and entangling themselves in life, from the heart of the Middle East. It is an important addition to English language narratives, adding layers of imaginative truths and multi-faceted stories to global narratives.
As Mahmood said, “literary translation is a tough business: it is often referred to as a form of treason,” but that does not stop her from sharing what is, in her eyes, an important addition to English language narratives that, through translation, can encompass and embrace Jordanian literature.
And in the same context, Samir Al-Sharif reminds us that “the Arabian Nights are not just Scheherazade’s nights: They are everyone’s nights.”
— Manal Shakir is the author of "Magic Within," published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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