Exile and Sense of Place in Buthaina al-Nasiri’s ‘Final Night’

In his introduction to Final Night, translator Denys Johnson-Davies notes that, “Although she has lived in Egypt for the past twenty years and was a frequent traveler to Europe in her youth, Buthaina al-Nasiri is very much an Iraqi writer….”

Al-Nasiri’s stories from this collection are compact, tightly structured, and character-focused. Although some of them close down too quickly—and al-Nasiri works too hard to equalize characters that are not equal—she has a strong grasp on what makes a short story work.

But, for better and worse, the collection has a strained relationship with place. The title story “Final Night” is a moving portrait of the dissolution of a relationship told almost entirely in dialogue, not unlike Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

But whereas in Hemingway’s story there are at least the hills to ground us—as well as a few sounds, and  the drinks—here we know only that there is a bed, and a couch, and morning light that comes through the window. At times, al-Nasiri’s stories—particularly those that take place indoors, like “Final Night”—seem to take place on a bare stage with only a few items for setting.

Johnson-Davies also writes, in his introduction, “As is to be expected, it is her earliest stories that are most local and whose background is specifically Iraqi, stories in which she often uses words and phrases taken from Iraq’s local dialect.”

“Circus Dog,” he writes, is one of these early stories. “Circus Dog” is, like al-Nasiri’s other short stories, tender and non-judgmental toward all its characters (to a fault), particularly the animals. It is one of her more realistic stories, focusing on a beggar, his ill-trained dog, and their desire to find work. But, like the other stories, “Circus Dog”—at least in its English translation—could be set anywhere.

The names, too, give no hint of place: beggar, dog, circus manager, elephant trainer. And any Iraqi dialect has been swallowed up and recast as standard British English. Not only could the story have been written in English, it could have taken place in the English-speaking world.

Even where place is an important part of the narrative—such as in “All This Land” or “A Time for Waiting”—it appears as description rather than as an essential part of the narrative, except in brief instances like, at the end of “All This Land,” where the protagonist joins with the earth. Still, it is her relationship with her husband that has priority, not her relationship with the land.

The story that comes through with the most sensory detail is perhaps “Omar’s Hen,” which is dedicated to the author’s son Omar “and his devoted hen.” Indeed, it is the animals—like the circus dog—that bring the setting alive.

This brings to mind the work of another exiled writer, Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, who still sets his stories in the desert after long years in the city, then in Russia, in Eastern Europe, and in Switzerland. It is his animals, such as the camel and the moufflon, who most clearly evoke the concrete aspects of the lost landscape. Although, as al-Koni said in an interview with Swiss World, it is not his goal to evoke the desert in a photographic manner:

If it were my mission to speak about the desert qua desert, I would be unable to write even one single letter on the topic. I was driven out of my paradise as a young child, remember. And even if I were a prophet, I would not have managed to write sixty books about it from memory. … So in order to make this beloved of mine present I have had recourse to memory of another kind, what the Sufis, the Islamic mystics, like to call ‘inner memory’ and psychologists refer to as ‘the unconscious.’ For which reason the desert that lives in my heart is precisely not the same desert as exists outside my heart.

Certainly, the stories in Final Night that work best are the ones that seem to come deep from the author’s inner memory—such as “Why Don’t We Go More to the Sea?” The stories that clank are the ones set elsewhere, as the strange “Homecoming,” set in Israel. “Homecoming” follows two newcomer-protagonists from Cologne named Yael/Eva and Dan/Karl. Along with a slightly realized setting, the story suffers from al-Nasiri’s desire to make all parties  (artificially) equal under the light of her sympathy, although that’s another subject, I suppose.