An introduction to Syrian author and playwright Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa:
By Maisaa Tanjour
This introduction aspires to be a door that you will be intrigued to open, or a passage to enter where you will discover the narrative world of the distinguished Syrian playwright, short-story writer, and journalist Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa. Born in Idlib, Syria to a working-class family in June 1981, he was brought up in a liberal and educated environment of diverse religions, sects and social classes; as a child, teenager, and adult, he lived in several cities, which enriched his life experiences and memories. He was forced to leave Syria on April 20, 2014 due to the ongoing conflict. Almosa narrates the story of his escape in “Smuggling Dostoevsky’s Heroes Out of Idlib” (published in English in July 2020). His escape, struggle, displacement, and asylum in Turkey came to inform many of the stories he later wrote. Several of his short stories have been translated into European languages, as well as Turkish, Japanese, Persian, and Kurdish. “My Mother is a Terrorist Gang,” which is published here, is taken from the collection Vase from a Massacre. It is one of 58 stories I have translated into English in collaboration with my friend and co-translator Alice Holttum. The texts are chosen from six collections of Almosa’s short stories published between 2012 and 2020.
I set out to translate Almosa’s stories driven by the belief that language, literature, translation and other art forms have can provide freedom and power in the midst of chaos. All art forms can and will play a role not only in describing and defining our scars, but also in transforming them into a new experience which, along with the incredible human capacity for healing, will be the infrastructure to start the process of rebuilding Syrian society. This project also aims to increase the visibility of Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa and his literary work, which may be less well-known in English translation, and to bring it to a wider audience.
There is a magical formula in Almosa’s texts which weaves between dark comedy on the one hand and absurdist fiction, with its important existential questions, on the other. Although some of his stories are set in a war-torn country, presumably Syria, others are universal and portray various human subjects, emotions, relationships, and realities. Many of the stories compel us to experienceharsh reality, whether set during war or in times of peace. The stories portray a variety of diverse scenarios: a man befriends a witch and together they fly on her broomstick over checkpoints to besieged territories; a whimsical man believes he is greater than Noah and puts together a plan to save his nation; three conceited painters argue in a bleak cellar, which serves as their workshop; a mouse liberates human beings from inside their paintings; a writer is obsessed with the knee of a woman sleeping in front of him on a train on the way to a seaside town; another in search of inspiration decides to isolate himself in a deserted district in order to write; a writer claims to have translated a book from English in the hope that it will be published.
Almosa’s characters are ordinary Syrians from all walks of life. They exist, live and move in familiar places, by no means exotic, but then suddenly the absurd, the supernatural, and the fantastical arise in the guise of a witch, a corpse, a ghost, a genie, or an animal endowed with reason. Meanwhile, characters are often tormented by the loss of a loved one or forced into displacement and exile, in an eternal search for a substitute homeland and belonging.
In his rich and varied corpus of short stories, Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa addresses his readers as well as the wider world. The ends of his stories are mostly unexpected and challenge our judgements and our fitness as readers. This adds beauty to the stories, broadens the imagination, and plunges the readers more deeply in the narratives. This collection broadens and diversifies our understanding of the human nature within various contexts. It is, in short, an invaluable attempt to denounce war, to exist, and to learn how to cope with loss and disappointment. It is a scream against fear and death as much as it is an ode and a homage to life and love in times of both war and peace.
My Mother is a Terrorist Gang
By Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa
Translated by Maisaa Tanjour and Alice Holttum
Death called me a couple of hours ago and told me in its foggy and cold voice that it wanted to visit me. I accepted and said that I would be here waiting. I was very happy, finally I would get to see Death in person. God! How beautiful this thing was. Of course, I had never seen Death personally – I had only felt it.
I was embarrassed because we did not have any fruit or sweets worthy of such a beautiful guest in the house. We only had tea, coffee and cough syrup.
Through my happiness I suddenly wondered, “Where did Death get my mobile number from?”
I privately guessed that my friend Mazen must have given it.
Mazen had mysteriously disappeared from the streets of Damascus a year ago. I imagined that the naughty Mazen was now in the other world, on a big bus, throwing paper scraps out of the window with my number written on them. Death had found one of the scraps on the street and called me.
I used to do this in my adolescence: I threw pieces of paper out the bus window with my home phone number and a paragraph from a song by Hany Shaker, hoping that a beautiful girl would find one and call me, and a love story would begin.
But it never happened. One time, the cleaner called and angrily told my father, “Your number’s polluting the streets; it’s what’s causing the hole in the ozone layer.”
“Do you remember, Mazen, when we used to mix gin with cola in the University Faculty of Media cafeteria to drink, get tipsy and look stealthily at beautiful girls? Do you remember when we went to–”
The bell rang. How punctual in its appointments, our friend Death!
I rushed to the door and opened it. I gasped as I saw Mazen in front of me. We hugged eagerly and laughed. “Oh you devil,” I told him. “You really imitate its voice perfectly. Upon my honour, I thought that who spoke to me was Death itself!”
I brought him into my room and we sat down. My mother came in and I introduced her to Mazen.
My mother was a weirdo. Since the start of the war, her behaviour had been getting more and more strange with each passing day. As I was introducing her to Mazen she turned her back and walked out, without even greeting him.
I apologised to him and said, “Don’t be upset; please forgive me – it’s ageing and all its ailments.”
I went into the kitchen and made two cups of coffee.
On the way back to my room, I passed the living room door. I heard my mother crying as she told our neighbour, “Yesterday, he was talking to Nada and today it’s Mazen.”
“What’s the problem with that?” Our neighbour asked, and my mother replied, “The problem is that there’s no one in his room, not yesterday and not today. He’s talking to his friends who were killed.”
The tray dropped from my hands.
Coffee spilled on the tiles.
My mother… As always, I had created a dream and let it walk the streets of Damascus, but then she came along … and snatched it away.
“My Mother is a Terrorist Gang”
Taken from the collection Vase from a Massacre
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Syrian author and playwright Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa has published six collections of short stories.
Maisaa Tanjour is a freelance translator and researcher. She was born in Syria in 1979 and currently resides in Leeds. She is also an interpreter with years of experience working in diverse professional, humanitarian, local and multicultural communities and organisations. She studied at the University of Homs, and has a BA English Language and Literature and a PG Diploma in Literary Studies. She came to the UK in 2005 to study at the University of Leeds, and has an MA in Interpreting and Translation Studies, and a PhD in Translation Studies.
Alice Holttum is a part-time freelance translator and translation proofreader. She was born in Edinburgh in 1979 and currently resides there, working also as a furniture maker. She has a Joint Honours BA in Russian and Arabic (2004) and an MA in Applied Translation Studies (Arabic-English) (2006), both from the University of Leeds.