Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: Muhammad Khudayyir

m_KhodayyirI have read only the two opening stories of Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology, finally available in Egypt from AUC Press.

If all the rest of the pages were blank, I would still be delighted with this book.

The first two stories—“Yusuf’s Tales” (available on Banipal) and “The Turtle Grandmother”—are both by Muhammad Khudayyir (here Muhammad Khodayyir). To my knowledge, only full-length work of Khudayyir’s has made it into English, the beautiful, layered, memoir-history-fictional Basrayatha.

“Yusuf’s Tales” tells of a giant publishing-and-writing edifice that was constructed in the narrator’s city “after the war.” It is a full one by two kilometers, overlooking the river, twelve stories tall. We roam the hallways of this real-imagined house of literature, and finally find the titular Yusuf in the building’s basement (or perhaps it’s not the basement; the narrator has lost his spatial sense). Yusuf is printing his book by hand—ten copies, he will print, to last the generations—and it is one of the most moving tributes to the literary arts. Khudayyir’s prose melts in my mouth—if anything will make me get off my duff and learn how to read proper Arabic, it’s him:

“He’ll bend over the single-page forme to set the reversed characters of the tale with his blackened thumb, then align the rows within the wooden frame. And while we relish the leisure of our nights, he’ll secure the type forme to the be of the press, feed in the ink, and lay a blank sheet of paper. He’ll turn the spiral handle gently down in the faint, saffron light of the bulb over the machine.”

I want to print this story and hang it above my desk. Who needs a print run of 50,000 when you could have ten beautiful copies?

“The Turtle Grandmother” also has its beautiful, murmuring moments. The narrator’s companions disappear—it is war time—and the moment of connection is fleeting and ethereal—but it remains a story of hope, a story of possibility and memory in the midst of war.

Khudayyir is the author of several collections of short stories and was awarded the prestigious Oweiss prize in 2004.