We can all agree that the “must-read” qualifier is a bit overused. I don’t know if you must read these stories, but you’ll enjoy them:
Three short-story collections by women made my “best of” for 2018: Pearls on a Branch, The Sea Cloak, and Withered Flowers. Unfortunately, none of the stories from Withered Flowers are available online (although I will see if I can beg, borrow, or buy rights somehow), there are a number of other stories to be enjoyed.
Here is a handful of pearls, stitched to a branch:
This gorgeous, subversive, beautifully translated collection — subtitled “Tales from the Arab World Told by Women” — is a must-have for all ages. This story, published on Tin House, opens:
There was or there was not
In olden days that time has lost…
O you who like stories and talk
No story can be pleasing and beautiful,
Without invoking the Almighty, the Merciful.
THERE WAS A KING – there is no sovereign but God – and this king had a daughter. She was his only child and he liked to please her. So when the month for the pilgrimage to Mecca drew near, the king asked his daughter:
Tell me what do you want me to bring you from the Hajj?
2. Rachida el-Charni, “The Way to Poppy Street,” tr Piers Amodia. (Tunisia)
This story — by Tunisian writer Rachida el-Charni — was also selected for the Granta Book of the African Short Story, ed. Helon Habila. I have enjoyed it each time I’ve read it.
She saw him coming towards her, whistling and humming. He stopped in front of her to ask politely if she knew the way to Poppy Street. Not for a moment did she imagine that he would use the second she took to think to snatch her gold necklace and take to his heels.
3. Lena Merhej, “I Think We Will Be Calmer in the Next War,” tr. Merhej. (Lebanon)
This story, by talented Lebanese artist, cartoonist, and graphic novelist Lena Merhej, opens:
You can read both the Arabic and the English of these graphic short stories — or comix — at grandpapier.org.
4. Malika Moustadraf’s “Just Different,” tr. Alice Guthrie. (Morocco)
This story, by the maverick Moroccan short-story writer Malika Moustadraf (1962-2006), opens:
Avenue Mohammed V is silent and desolate this late at night, empty apart from a few stray cats meowing like newborn babies; it’s a creepy sound.
5. Basma al-Nsour’s “Disappointments (and a Few Clarifications),”tr. Andrew Leber (Jordan)
This story, by acclaimed Jordanian short-story writer and attorney Basma al-Nsour, opens:
My life would have been a lot easier if only my grandmother had not been a liar. Or, to put it more nicely, if she hadn’t been so imaginative on that winter night when she convinced me that she would never leave me.
You can also read al-Nsour’s “That Pathetic Woman,” tr. Thoraya El-Rayyes, on ArabLit.
6. Hadiya Hussein’s “The Blizzard,” tr. Srpko Leštarić and Edward Alexander (Iraq)
From the story’s opening:
Time: 1 January 1996
Place: Any place in the world suitable for a tragedy.
Wait a moment while I just catch my breath, why’re you in such a hurry anyway? Besides, I don’t want anything right now, I’ll wait for him, he said that he’d come at ten o’clock. What time is it now? Five to ten? So he’ll come soon, just give me a coffee. I’ll pay, believe me when I tell you. Look, this is his letter, it arrived yesterday, and it was his choice to meet here, as it’s always been till now. You can de nitely remember him, can’t you? The handsome one, with chestnut hair and honey-coloured eyes. Well, his hair isn’t chestnut-coloured anymore – the wars have painted it the colour of snow. Tell me honestly, my good waiter – do I look beautiful? I put a lot of effort into looking good, don’t I look pretty? And this dress, does it suit me? Look at it carefully. What? The colour? But you haven’t got any taste, I’m stupid for even asking you what you think about something which is hard for you to understand. What time is it now? A quarter past ten? Never mind, you know how many things can happen to a man on the road.
7. Rasha Abbas, “The Gist of It,” tr. Alice Guthrie (Syria)
There are also a number of other Rasha Abbas stories online, such as “Statement of Absolute Hatred,” “Falling Down Politely, or How to Use Up All Six Bullets Instead of Playing Russian Roulette,” and “Statement of Absolute Hatred,” all tr. Guthrie.
8. “The Sea Cloak,” by Nayrouz Qarmout, tr. Charis Bredon (Palestine)
A collection for Qarmout’s stories, titled The Sea Cloak and tr. Perween Richards, is forthcoming from Comma Press this May. The story isn’t printed online, but you can listen to it performed by Grazyna Monvid: