You Never Know What You’re Going to Get

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The contemporary Arabic short story lives in the literary shadows. For hundreds of years, poetry was the most glamorous literary genre in Arabic. Although the erudite composed and compiled many prose works in Arabic, including works we would recognize now as short stories, poetry was the genre where an author earned the widest admiration. This included poets like al-Khansa reportedly showed off her considerable skills at sixth-century poetry battles at the Okaz Market, in what is now Saudi Arabia; al-Mutanabbi in the tenth century, who was an Abbasid court favorite; to poets like Mahmoud Darwish in the twentieth.

Long and short fictional works were composed in Arabic from the early medieval period, and some did earn acclaim for their authors. Indeed, the maqamat—a prose form that relies on rhyme—was an important genre to showcase literary skill. Yet works conceived of as “novels” and “short stories” did not appear until the late 1800s. Indeed, Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq, whose masterful Leg over Leg (1855) is sometimes called the first Arabic novel, satirized European literary conventions. But starting from the late nineteenth century, Arabic literature saw massive shifts in both poetry and prose. Poets re-invented—or abandoned—forms that had endured for centuries, and the novel took up more and more space as a prestige literary genre.

Through all this, the short story thrived, if never quite in the spotlight. Where the medieval period’s short stories were brought together in exclusively fictional collections, such as in the anonymously compiled Thousand and One Nights and Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange, they were considered lesser—even frivolous—entertainments. By the twentieth century, the Arabic short stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines were sometimes considered as artistically serious as a novel. But even then, critics such as the eminent Faisal Darraj have suggested they were not quite an end in themselves, but rather “practice” for a novel.

Still, short stories did experience a brief flourishing in the early twentieth century, when magazines and newspapers were blossoming. But by the flourishing was brief. In February 1962, the great Samira Azzam (1927-1967), a Palestinian writer who focused on short stories, wrote in al-Adab that the Arabic short story was going through hard times:

It seems to me that the Arabic short story is going through difficult times. The reason might not lie in its nature, as much as it does in factors outside of it, including its subjugation to the novel. Writers of the short story have become convinced that writing a novel is the measure of their creativity, especially since short story collections are not heralded by critics the same way novels are: The publication of a story collection goes by without anyone even trying to say a single word about it… And publishing houses hesitate to accept story collections, as if publishing them is a risky venture.

This remains true. Yet the shadows can also have their benefits, and one is that there is more room for taking risks. As a space for either frivolity or “practice,” short stories have offered not only more room for experimentation, but also room for creators at the margins. Short stories have been a genre for women writers, disabled writers, and writers without the time or resources to support a novel. Short stories could be written in between dialysis treatments, as by Malika Moustadraf (1969-2006); or the pressures of family, such as Alifa Rifaat (1930-1996); or in the middle of exile or war, as has been the case for many twentieth and twenty-first century writers.

Short stories also have had an easier time evading the expenses and censoriousness of traditional publishing. While most novels still appear from traditional publishing houses, short stories are often published online. In the early 2000s, experimental Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim could not find a publisher for his gritty, speculative work. He published his stories, and those of other writers, at the now-shuttered IraqStory.Com. Publishing online offered not only freedom from the constraints of traditional publishing, but also immediacy. After the mass uprisings of 2011, the acclaimed Syrian short-story writer Zakaria Tamer published his short-short stories on a Facebook page he titled al-Mihmaz.

Short-short stories have also been a favored genre, further blurring lines with prose poetry. Some, like Sudanese short-short story writer Fatima as-Sanoussi, even use line breaks in their stories. And while a number of missives about what was or wasn’t a proper Arabic poem or novel appeared in the twentieth century, short stories mostly managed to evade such declarations. If a writer said something was a story, that was usually sufficient proof.

This is not true of all types of short stories. Oral stories have many rules: there are opening phrases a reader expects, such as kan ya ma kan, as well as stock endings. There are plot formulae that the teller, or hakawati, adapts to their audience and moment. And while oral tales are certainly less popular than they were a few hundred years ago, contemporary hakawati continue the tradition, sometimes using Soundcloud or YouTube to distribute their work. Many oral tales have also been gathered into written collections, such as Sharif Kanaana and Ibrahim Muhawi’s Speak Bird, Speak Again and Najla Jraissaty Khoury’s two-volume collection, which was slimmed to Pearls on a Branch in Inea Bushnaq’s translation.

There has been other crossover between written and oral forms. Medieval-era short fictions were often read aloud from compilations, and some were so beloved that they leapt into the performed versions passed down by hakawati. The famous interlinked stories of the Thousand and One Nights were written, although they may have been borrowed from spoken tales, and later some were performed as oral stories. But written short stories have a long history of being distinct from oral tales. Centuries before the Nights were in circulation, readers enjoyed the great short tales of al-Tanukhi.

Abu ‘Ali al-Muhassin al-Tanukhi (939-994 CE) compiled collections of entertaining and edifying short prose, and he is best known today for his collections Relief after Adversity and Table-Talk. Like other men of letters of his time, al-Tanukhi mixed genres with abandon, moving from history to moral tales to mysteries. Perhaps his most enduringly popular short fiction is “The Missing Hand.”

The story begins with a formula that feels oral yet is common to print: a chain of transmission. It opens by evoking the story’s history: “Muhammad ibn Ya‘qub ibn Yusuf Abu l-Mughira, a poet of the Asadi clan, told us: Abu Musa ‘Isa ibn ‘Ubayd Allah al-Baghdadi told me: A friend told me (the following story).” In the tenth century, a litterateur’s genius was not in being a lonely genius, but rather in standing on the shoulders of one’s ancestors—and besting them. In the words of scholar Julia Bray, who has translated many of al-Tanukhi’s tales, the author “clearly got great satisfaction from knowing he’d outdone his predecessors with their paltry few pages of jottings. When things got him down, I should think he enjoyed gloating over that.”

“The Missing Hand” begins in a cemetery, where the narrator arrives late at night, exhausted from his journey. There, he confronts a grave robber and cuts off their hand. The grave robber flees, and the narrator is left with the severed hand, which turns out to belong to a woman. The narrator-detective traces the hand back to the daughter of a local judge, who he confronts with her crime. As a way of keeping the man quiet, the judge gives our narrator his one-handed daughter in marriage.

So far, so ordinary: violence + detective work = marriage. But the twist comes when, months into the marriage, the grave-robbing woman remains gloomy. One night, the narrator wakes to find her sitting atop him, a knife at his throat. She asks: “Did you think you could disgrace me, cut off my hand, marry me, and get away with it? Think again!” At this point, the narrator must wheedle his way out of a potentially murdery situation. He offers a divorce and a coverup. His wealthy wife agrees, tossing a hundred dinars into the bargain, and the narrator tells us he never saw her again.

Anthologies like al-Tanukhi’s remained a popular form until newspapers and magazines finally began to overtake hand-copied manuscripts in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when silent, individual reading became a primary way of engaging literature. By the mid-1950s, a vibrant print culture meant that the biggest newspapers and magazines circulated to hundreds of thousands of these individual readers. Many short stories appeared in newspapers and magazines. Novels also followed a short-story format, and popular writers like Ihsan Abdel Kouddous and Naguib Mahfouz serialized their novels.

The mid-twentieth century was also when individual authors began to bring together short stories in collections. Great mid-century short-story collections include Samira Azzam’s The Clock and the Man (1963), Ghassan Kanafani’s The Land of the Sorrowful Orange (1963), and Yusuf Idris’s The Cheapest Nights (1967). Whether or not Faisal Darraj is correct, and authors wrote short stories as practice for a novel, Samira Azzam never published a novel. Perhaps this is one reason why she has not yet achieved the central place in Palestinian literary history that many authors and critics, including Darraj, believe is her due.

Samira Azzam is not alone among the women writers who primarily or even exclusively made their mark on the short story. She is joined by Morocco’s Malika Moustadraf, Algeria’s Zoulikha Saoudi, Egypt’s Alifa Rifaat. Short stories were a more flexible and inexpensive genre than the novel. Moustadraf sank the money for her medical treatments into the publication of her first and only novel, which she later regretted. After that, she published inventive short stories that left her with a cult-classic status but have never quite made her part of the canon.

While it’s common to think of a “book” as the central force in literary transmission, it was only for a brief period at the end of the twentieth century that the printed Arabic book had clear dominance. By then, literary works published in large-circulation newspapers had declined, and the internet had not yet taken a central place. Print favored the novel; particularly popular and inexpensive paperbacks.

But literary gravity shifted again in the early twenty-first century, when young writers began posting stories online, sometimes on literary websites, but often in blogs and social-media spaces.

Online venues offered not only a quick way of reaching a reading public, but also a way for writers without financial means or connections to develop an audience. A number of young authors, like Rehab Bassam and Ghada Abdel Aal, first became known through the short stories on their personal blogs and then came to print—and, in Abdel Aal’s case, a TV adaptation of her interlinked short stories, I Want to Get Married! Bassam says that established novelists often scorned these books; Khairy Shalaby, she said, referred to them as “Kleenex” books, suggesting they were flimsy and disposable. But while the stories originally published online may not have carried equal cultural prestige, they achieved wide circulation and passionate fandom.

In this century, the Arabic short story is the site of some of the language’s most innovative writing. The most exciting practitioners include Syrian writer Rasha Abbas, South Sudanese writer Stella Gaitano, Sudanese writer Rania Mamoun, Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal, Palestinian writer Mazen Maarouf, Egyptian writer Muhammad al-Hajj, Iraqi writer Muhammad Khudayyir, and Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan. Their stories are wild and speculative, sexy and funny, mixing together genres and linguistic registers, as well as visual art. In Arabic, as in many languages, it’s harder to interest publishers in short-story collections. Yet stories also travel more easily than novels, both in space and through languages.

Katharine Halls, who has translated stories by Rasha Abbas, said what she values most about the Arabic story is the genre’s real unpredictability. “You never know what you’re going to get with a short story!”

This was part of their pleasure in the tenth century, too. “The Missing Hand” doesn’t end where a reader might expect. Instead, it veers off-road, ending not in marriage, but in a quasi-amicable divorce. Throughout its history, the Arabic short story has skirted rules and respectability. It has become more than a space where one can “practice” before writing a novel; the Arabic short story is a space for those writers who enjoy making their own rules. Long may they confound and delight us.

 

 

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