‘Banthology’: Seven Redefinitions

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a third version of the country’s “Muslim ban” — so-called because the Trump-regime executive order targets visitors and workers from now what’s now five predominantly Muslim nations: Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia — was “facially neutral” with a “sufficient national security justification”:

The first discriminatory order in this series of three came in January 2017. That’s when Don Trump signed an executive order abrogating the US travel rights of many people from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

The first order, which was later struck down by the US Supreme Court, sparked wide outrage. There were a number of literary responses. Among them: two publishers — Comma Press in the UK and Deep Vellum in the US — worked together to co-publish an anthology that commissioned work by authors from the seven original “banned” nations, ed. Sarah Cleave. These authors are: Anoud, Wajdi al-Ahdal, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, Najwa Binshatwan, Rania Mamoun, Fereshteh Molavi, and Zaher Omareen.

The stories have been translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Basma Ghalayini, Perween Richards, Sawad Hussain, William M. Hutchins, and Hope Campbell Gustafson.

The choice to reproduce the “banned” nation frame is not without its downsides, as discussed in Bulaq Episode 5. Arabic literature in translation has, in the past 15 years, often found itself pressed into service in various ways, probably most often as proof of the humanity of Arabs.

This collection does not, however, read as an attempt to show that Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians, Somalis, Sudanese, and Yemenis eat, breathe, roll their eyes, and write poems just like the rest of us. (By Jim, they do!) Instead, the collection works to interrogate border-ness, bans, and the words and ideas that circulate around them.

As I wrote earlier, in a review in Qantara, Binshatwan′s future-fic ″Return Ticket″ was particularly memorable:

Two of the stories are set in a distant future: Binshatwan′s ″Return Ticket″ and Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal′s ″The Slow Man″. Binshatwan′s story, sharply translated by Sawad Hussain, takes place in a town called Schroedinger, an echo of the Austrian physicist. ″The name granted the village extraordinary powers; it could move through time and space, changing its orbit spontaneously as if it were the sun rising in one place and setting in another.

In the story:

Schroedinger hovers over the U.S. twice a week, in an attempt to repatriate the six tourists′ bodies. This makes U.S. intelligence services suspicious and they suggest the villagers are trying to scale the walls, which have become so high that all one can see from outside is, ″the snuffed-out torch of the Statue of Liberty and her bird-shit-splattered crown.″

In reality, the citizens of Schroedinger have no desire to enter the benighted future U.S.. After all, ″who in their right mind would want to live in a walled prison with people who can′t even get along with themselves, let alone others?″

The collection also features stories with a bright, brittle border-crossing humor, such as in Syrian writer Zaher Omareen′s ″The Beginner′s Guide to Smuggling″, co-translated by Perween Richards and Basma Ghalayini, and ″Storyteller,” by the Iraqi short-story writer Anoud. A watery magical realism marks Fereshteh Molavi′s eerie, incantatory ″Phantom Limb,″ and ″Jujube,” by Somali writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, presents a tortured dreamscape.

Apropos of many things, novelist, translator, filmmaker and poet Sinan Antoon tweeted yesterday:

Certainly, more singing about the dark times. Also: re-inventions of the words and frames that bind us to them.


An excerpt from Rania Mamoun’s story “Bird of Paradise,” tr. Kemp

Book review: Framing the dangerous nations

Marilyn Hacker: Ghazal: The Dark Times