Last Day of Short Story Month: Celebrate Yahya Taher Abdullah

Short story month seems to have made a few waves in the U.S. and Canada, with The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, the Toronto Globe & Mail, and National Post celebrating the genre. Their selections, as you might imagine, have been heavily North American.

When I think of the Arabic short story, I usually mention Yusuf Idris, maybe Ghassan Kanafani. But last night I finished reading Yahya Taher Abdullah’s The Collar and the Bracelet. The translation by Samah Selim won this last year’s Banipal translation prize: as it should have.

Abdullah’s short stories have a wonderful, dancing quality: the words swirl around the page, around the reader’s mouth, repeating and elevating. From the Translator’s Afterword:

Abdullah was a poet, a master craftsman of language steeped in a centuries-old oral tradition, a modern-day heir to the itinerant balladeers who performed the ancient epic cycles of North Africa and southern Arabia in Egypt from the fifteenth century onward.

Abdullah often performed his stories for literary gatherings; surely, these were evenings not to miss. The stories in The Collar and the Bracelet have the feel and the delight of tales from the Arabian Nights, but with modernist twists. Elia the Lover is eternal, but he is also prey to petty Egyptian bureaucrats.

I will try to both fall within the parameters of fair use and give you an idea of Abdullah’s style, as re-imagined by Selim. This is the last micro-story in the collection, which echoes themes and images throughout. It is not my favorite, nor the best, but it is short enough to copy. I think.

The Messenger

The messenger of death (the swindler, the able one) removed his silken garments, his ornamental necklaces, earring, and anklets, and disguised himself as a live fish swimming in sweet water.

The messenger of death (the swindler, the able one) removed his silken garments, his necklace and earrings.

The messenger of death and lover of ornament (the swindler, the able one) removed his robes of silk, his necklace, earrings, and anklet and disguised himself as a large live fish swimming in a sweet-water well. “Come,” the master of the house called out to him in the language of the fish. The messenger, reaper of souls (the swindler, the able one), removed his robes of silk.

Unrelated note: I’m sure you’ve seen this already, but Israeli ships attack aid flotilla, at least 10 dead.