Osama Alomar’s ‘Teeth of the Comb’: A Stranger in the English-language Landscape

A review of Osama Alomar’s second collection in English The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories (April 2017)translated by the author with CJ Collins, appeared in Qantara. It opens:

Cover of Osama Alomar's "The Teeth of the Comb" translated by the author and C.J. Collins (published by New Directions)A literary immigrant in strange clothes, Osama Alomar′s The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories perches brightly and uneasily at the edge of the English-language landscape. It′s the second collection by the U.S.-based Syrian writer to make its way from Arabic into English.

Most of the stories in The Teeth of the Comb look like prose poems or micro-fiction and yet they don′t read like their English cousins. Alomar′s language isn′t poetic, nor are the stories densely plotted. Many of Alomar′s stories are plainly voiced by talking rocks, animals, swamps, or weather. At first glance, they read like moral tales for children.

A story mid-way through the collection, titled, ″Embrace″, is just a single sentence: ″In a pleasant garden, the trees embrace over two quarrelling brothers.″

″Embrace″, like many of Alomar′s stories, relies on the juxtaposition of opposites. We′re in a pleasant garden, where peaceful flora intertwines over the heads of two argumentative humans.

On its own, this story would hardly catch a reader′s attention. But the overall effect of Alomar′s collection is to make a mosaic of tiny, evocative micro-tales told by an ironic moral fabulist for adults. ″Insult″ is another story that works on opposites. Its full three sentences: ″A man of principles was forced to swallow an insult. He choked and died. As for the bootlicker, he chased after the insult with all his might, fearing that he would die of hunger.″

It′s the appearance of the running bootlicker and his fear he will ″die of hunger″, that adds a surprising and funny twist to the tiny fable. In places, the translation could be a bit tighter – there′s no need for a ″that″ in the story′s final sentence. Yet, for the most part, the plain language transfers well from Arabic to English.

Who is the enormous bag of garbage?

Many of the stories evoke a Syrian landscape – with tyrants, co-opted authors, prison cells and police interrogators. But they could just as well be about life anywhere. The story ″On Top of the Pyramid″ begins with an enormous garbage bag who, ″seeing the social pyramid shimmering in the sunlight, wanted to reach the top.″

When this enormous garbage bag (who could be an ambitious Syrian army officer, or Donald Trump, or your boss) finally struggles his way to the top, he′s filled with pleasure.

Then, by chance, the apex pierces a hole in him. ″Soiled water mixed with garbage poured down the four sides until the whole structure was covered in a monstrous pile of slimy debris whose hateful smells permeated even distant places.″

There is pleasure in this small reversal-of-fortune, which might apply to any ambitious bag of trash.

There are many such reversals and inversions in the collection. In the short story ″A Taste″, Satan appears. The devil tastes from ″the tip of his finger a very tiny amount of human hatred. It poisoned him and he died right away.″

The collection features not only garbage and Satan, but also streams and clouds and a number of stories about flowers.

There are, for instance: ″Flowers of Different Classes″, ″The Garlic and the Flower″, ″The Kinds of Flowers″ and ″The Souls of Flowers″. In most cases, the collection juxtaposes its flowers with very human struggles.

The stories often flip the reader′s perspective, as when, for instance, the garlic can′t stand the scent of flowers. Or, in ″The Kinds of Flowers″, when a human contemplates his garden with a satisfied joy. ″But when he himself turned into a flower in that garden, he began to see all other kinds of flowers as surpassingly ugly.″

As with ″The Kinds of Flowers″ and ″Insult″, Alomar′s stories do feature the occasional human. But these are generally archetypes and only rarely have names. One of the few is ″five-year-old Samar″, who stares at a doll on the other side of her bedroom in ″The Forbidden Doll.″

Read the rest of the review, by ArabLit founding editor M Lynx Qualey, at Qantara.