Book review: a ″Banthology″ of short stories

Framing the dangerous nations

Born in a difficult space, this seven-story collection celebrates the work of prose artists from Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Sudan, Libya, and Iraq – the seven nations on Donald Trump′s January 2017 travel-ban diktat. Marcia Lynx Qualey read the book

″Banthology. Stories from Unwanted Nations″, released in the UK in January and coming to the U.S. in March, manages to slip the frame′s trap, at least somewhat. It does so by coming straight at it: selecting stories that wittily, angrily and movingly write back against borders.

The stories were composed in three different languages – Italian, Arabic, and English – and unfold in markedly different styles, from Libyan novelist Najwa Binshatwan′s fantastical futurism, set in a town called Schroedinger; to Syrian writer Zaher Omareen′s bitter humour; to Iranian writer Fereshteh Molavi′s eerie mystical realism.

Islamifuturism

Two of the stories are set in a distant future: Binshatwan′s ″Return Ticket″ and Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal′s ″The Slow Man″. Binshatwan′s story, sharply translated by Sawad Hussain, takes place in a town called Schroedinger, an echo of the Austrian physicist. ″The name granted the village extraordinary powers; it could move through time and space, changing its orbit spontaneously as if it were the sun rising in one place and setting in another.

Thus, the village allows its inhabitants to violate nature′s borders and boundaries – and life is always new. Yet, year after year, one thing remains the same in Schroedinger: its six U.S. tourists.

                             [T]hey stayed not out of love for the place, but because the walls of their own nation

                             never stopped rising, day after day, until it was cut off from the world and the world cut off from it.

                             Each attempt by an American tourist to scale the towering walls and return home proved fatal.

Schroedinger hovers over the U.S. twice a week, in an attempt to repatriate the six tourists′ bodies. This makes U.S. intelligence services suspicious and they suggest the villagers are trying to scale the walls, which have become so high that all one can see from outside is, ″the snuffed-out torch of the Statue of Liberty and her bird-shit-splattered crown.″

In reality, the citizens of Schroedinger have no desire to enter the benighted future U.S.. After all, ″who in their right mind would want to live in a walled prison with people who can′t even get along with themselves, let alone others?″

"Banthology. Stories from Unwanted Nations", edited by Sarah Cleave (published by Comma Press)
"'Banthology' allows the authors′ words to cross borders. Yet, much like the ′Axis of Evil′ collection released a decade ago, it also reproduces Trump′s frame of 'dangerous' nations," writes Qualey

Al-Ahdal′s story, by contrast, is less ″Black Mirror″ and more religious futurism, opening in the ″year 100 according to the Babylonian calendar″, when a number of caravans arriving from the north are stopped at the checkpoint between Gaza and Egypt.

All twelve are denied entry. There was ″no prejudice behind this ban,″ the narrator smoothly assures us. It′s only that the Commander is supremely slow.

The Ismaelite caravan camps out, stubbornly, waiting to be allowed in. They finally slip in with their wares. Not long after, 80 percent of the Egyptian population dies of famine, allowing the Babylonians to take over Egypt and then the world.

Then, almost 4000 years later, ″when electronic chaos cracked the space-time cone of four-dimensional existence″, aliens slip through and claim to be earth′s primordial species ″returning to colonise it once more.″

Here, it′s much harder to map the present onto the story. Although ″The Slow Man″ begins with a border ban, it then takes us through nearly four millennia of human history before annihilating the species in a fresh act of settler colonialism.

Bright, bitter humour

Humour that alternates between light and dark are features of both Syrian writer Zaher Omareen′s ″The Beginner′s Guide to Smuggling″, co-translated by Perween Richards and Basma Ghalayini, and ″Storyteller″, by the Iraqi short-story writer Anoud.

The main character in Omareen′s story is attempting to smuggle himself into Europe. To this end, he buys a passport that belongs to ″the Hungarian ambassador to Turkey′s husband″. The seller, named Kalimera, tells him, ″You′re educated. Clever. Not like these sheep. Just memorise a few Hungarian words and you′ll get through the airport.″

Yet the narrator has trouble remembering any Hungarian beyond his already-difficult new name, ″Kaszuba Szabolcs″. Still, he′s allowed on the plane. Once ″Kaszuba″ lands, he switches his fake Hungarian ID for a fake Greek one. But by the time he reaches Denmark, his papers are missing and all he can tell the border guard is, ″I don′t know. I′m sorry. I′m a student going to Stockholm to study program. I′m Doctor.″

As proof of his identity, the border guard asks our narrator to say ″good morning″ in Greek. Since he′s been cursing the ID-seller Kalimera the whole journey, that is the word that pops out of his mouth. Almost by magic, this gets him through.

Watery, magical realism

Fereshteh Molavi′s eerie, incantatory ″Phantom Limb″ follows a young man who′s recently moved from Tehran to Toronto. Our narrator, an aspiring theatre director, lives in an apartment with three other Iranians. One of them is Farhad, whose mother′s right leg was recently amputated.

As we enter the men′s lives, we learn Farhad had been imprisoned in Iran, where he fell in love with a fellow prisoner whose face he never saw. Phantom pains, stage productions and the singing of unseen women recur throughout this part-real, part-mystical narrative. Despite borders and distance, Farhad continues to hear, feel and perform a parallel life in Iran.

″Jujube″, by Somali writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, presents another tortured dreamscape. The young narrator can′t quite narrate the horrors she has experienced at home, while the interpolated ″interpreter′s notes″ explain, rightly or wrongly, things the girl cannot say.

Taken together, the collection is just seven stories in seventy short pages. They are not a perfect fit, although most do provide a compelling if brief  take on new ways of imagining bans and borders. As a political intervention, the collection doesn′t seem likely to change public discourse. Yet who knows perhaps some power broker in the U.S. will read about the village of Schroedinger and begin to fear the walls closing in around them.

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© Qantara.de 2018

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