Ola al-Jabr on Writing in Damascus

Syrian writer Ola al-Jabr recently released a short-story collection, Live Broadcast from Jerusalem, her sophomore follow-up to the collection Barriers which was published three years ago:

Al-Jabr was born in Damascus in 1987, although her family is from the occupied Golan Heights. Both of her collections have a variety of short and short-short stories, which al-Jabr characterizes as “political, realistic…and sometimes satirical.”

As her collection was released, she spoke with Ahmed Salah al-Mahdi about how she got her start writing, why she writes short stories, and the books that have formed the substrate of her fictional consciousness, which, she said, include works by Roland Barthes, Amin Maalouf, Edward Said, and Jacques Derrida.

When al-Mahdi asked her about the difficulties she faced as a Syrian writer, which, she said, comes down to “the lack of publishing houses that support literary writing.” Publishing in Syria is near-impossible now, she said, and authors are turning to publishing houses outside it, often in Egypt. She submitted her first book to a competition being held by the Arab Library for Publishing, and, she said, “the collection was accepted despite the fact that the house wanted to publish novels.”

“I tried with the second collection to publish in Damascus,” al-Jabr said, “but the doors are closed.”

Al-Mahdi translated one of the stories from her new collection:

Live Broadcast from Jerusalem

By Ola Al-Jabbr

Translated by Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

He stood in front of the camera, holding the microphone.

He adjusted his collar and cleared his throat, to make sure that his voice would be loud enough.

Then he said: “Three…two…one… Go.

“Here is Jerusalem, Al-Quds. Here is the capital of… the capital of… excuse me… the capital of…”

Many thoughts raced though his mind in that instant, unstoppable.

His tongue was tied; should he cut off the broadcast? he wondered.

There was no rescuer, no salvation from this embarrassment.

This was the job he’d always dreamed of. He’d always played at it when he was young. His dreams couldn’t end, just like that. He must put an end to this agony…

He relaxed a little and closed his eyes. Then he opened them, as if to start all over, and said:

“Welcome to this live and exclusive broadcast from Jerusalem, Al-Quds, capital of…”

(Oh my God, what is happening?)

“Excuse me, valued viewers, but this broadcast will be interrupted for an emergency.”

(What is happening to me?)

He closed his eyes, and swallowed the sound of his breaths.

He breathed out deeply and walked, head bowed, into the alleys of Al-Quds, listening to the chattering of the people, their sighs, the sound of their footsteps on the ground.

He crouched to ask the stones who they were.

But when he opened his eyes… Nothing to say.

Four walls and a mirror surrounded him with the void of an ancient dream. He threw his body on the bed, succumbing to the chill of exile.

Ahmed Al-Mahdi is an author, critic, and translator. Find him at www.ahmedmahdi.net. His YA novel Reem is available in translation on Amazon.