Iraqi novelist and short-story writer Mahmoud Saeed (Saddam City, Through the Eyes of Angels) has seen two of his short stories — both translated from Arabic into English by William Hutchins — nominated for the Pushcart prize. The first was “Lizards’ Colony,” which ran on World Literature Today, and the second was “Love and the Demonstration“, which ran on Brooklyn Rail. Saeed answered a few questions about his relationship with the form:
Mahmoud Saeed: The short story and the novel are two types of storytelling. When, at the dawn of history, storytellers appeared, they were the narrators of entertainment. That was what the people needed, especially during the long winter nights, when there was no television, books, radio.
Entertainment is still, in my view, the first goal. After that, other things come through. Storytelling grew and then evolved into the present short-story form. If there are complicated events, it becomes a novel. The ancient Iraqis, Sumerians and Babylonians, recorded stories like this, and, in the Abbasid era, storytelling reached a summit, which can be seen in collections such as Maqamat. Also, there appeared the proto-novel: A Thousand and One Nights.
Until now, the target remains that readers enjoy hearing the story. However, storytelling now changes with the degree of awareness in the writer, of course.
AL: Why write short stories? Why not just focus on novels?
When I was last in prison, I wrote Saddam City, because the events were as great as falling into the sea.
MS: I do not think that the writer has a choice about this. For a novel, it’s like falling from a helicopter into the sea: You will have to swim for a long time to maintain your life and your strength until you see the rescue ship. Here, you must survive for several days. But if you plunge into a river, then you can swim until you reach the beach, after a shorter time. The nature of the writer pushes him to interact with events. If he see a simple event, then he will write a short story. But if he see a complex series of events, he will write a novel. For example, the occupation of Iraq is a huge event, so I wrote The Truck Novel. When I was last in prison, I wrote Saddam City, because the events were as great as falling into the sea. But if the events are small, like swimming in the river, I express it as a short story, such as “Lizards Colony.”
You know that the Iraqi people have not lived in a stable era for of long — there have been military coups, arrests, and murders from 1980 until now. The situation before 1980, under the Baath party, was also very bad. This is pushes the writer to write.
I can’t write poetry or articles, so I chose the novel and the short story. The first short story I wrote was “The Ominous Gun.” I was 18 years old, and it won the first prize in a competition in a local newspaper in Mosul. Two years later, I wrote my first novel. After another two years, I wrote anoter novel, but because of the military coup in 1963, many of the manuscripts deposited with the Iraqi Writers Union were lost. In my opinion, both the short story and the novel express what I feel personally and exactly.
AL: When did you write these two stories? Do you remember the seed of the ideas?
MS: I crafted “Love and the Demonstration” in 2006 and “Lizards’ Colony” in 2010, in Arabic first, after which I delayed publishing in English because I could not find a good translator. My good friend William Hutchins surprised me when he translated them. The seeds of the first one go back to 1956, the second to 2003, after the occupation of Iraq. The biggest problem I suffer is finding a good translator for my work. I wish the readers could help me find such translators. I have written more than 20 novels and more than fifty short stories, but most have not been translated into English, only 15% of them.
AL: Short stories usually don’t get as much attention as novels (Yusuf Idris Naguib Mahfouz) What do you think readers miss out on if they completely ignore the short form?
Short-story writing seems easier than writing a novel, so it has attracted and continues to attract a lot of writers. There are millions of short stories, but most of them end up in the trash.
MS: In my opinion, a good the short story does not exceed more than1% of the readership in Arabic, even with the short stories of well-known writers like Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris, Zakaria Tamer, and so on. Most of the short stories are superficial and free from deep awareness; they also lacks cohesion and logical sense. The main objective of the reader in my opinion is to enjoy the experience. The fun comes from reading something that tightens the mind and emotions of the reader, something that will remain in his mind such that he doesn’t forget it. But if he reads something illogical, he will not be enthralled by the work. Short-story writing seems easier than writing a novel, so it has attracted and continues to attract a lot of writers. There are millions of short stories, but most of them end up in the trash.
AL: What are the characteristics of a great short story?
MS; Every writer has his own conditions, I, for example, consider a humanitarian view comes first, then comes the logic, analysis, political awareness, a noble goal, beautiful expressions, clear personalities, and so on.
Read Saeed’s stories: