By M Lynx Qualey
May 8, 2023 — The Amherst, USA-based literary magazine The Common today launches its 25th issue, which features a special section of short stories and art from Kuwait.
The issue features short stories by Nasser al-Dhafiri, Bothayna al-Essa, Homoud Alshaiyje, Bassam Almusallam, Faisal Albebainy, Hooda Shawa Qaddumi, Jassim al-Shammarie, Estabraq Ahmad, Basima al-Enezi, Khalid al-Nashrallah, and Sulaiman al-Shatti; translations by Nasha Nasreldin, Sawad Hussain, Nariman Youssef, maia tabet, and Lara Albast; and visual art by Zahra Marwan, Farah K. Behbehani, Alia Farid, Sami Mohammad, Thuraya al-Baqsami, Ghadah Alkandari, Amira Behbehani, and Dr. Mohammed Alkandari.
Although many common Kuwaiti literary motifs ran through the section — the Iraqi invasion, pearl diving, exile, censorship — one of the best things about these special sections in The Common is that, although they are often organized around nation-state, a work doesn’t need to be representative of that national identity to be included.
Indeed, two of my favorite pieces were the over-the-top part-epistolary short story “Dear Customer” by Basima al-Enezi, translated by Sawad Hussain and the memoir-esque “The Human Revealed Unto Himself” by Faisal Alhebainy, translated by Nashwa Nasreldin.
“The Human Revealed Unto Himself” is a second-person story in which the narrator is visiting Europe for the first time and, in order to be able to show off about it later, decides to visit a museum with his art-loving friend. Certainly, there is a part of the story that’s about the narrator’s lack of access to these paintings, his outsider status. But it’s an outsider status to which many of us (at any rate, those who aren’t specialized in the visual arts) can relate:
You stand in front of an unfathomable painting. You listen to your friend— who is an art enthusiast—cooing: “Wow!” and “Incredible!” and “Amazing!” You notice how intensely he is gazing, and so you copy his expression. He crosses his arms, so you cross yours. You listen to him as he explains the reason why the reds and the yellows are blended in such a way, but all you see is orange. He tells you that the painting represents the “despair of the twentieth century,” but all you recognize is your own despair at seeing it.
You feel a pain in your left heel and wish you could sit down or continue walking, but it would be embarrassing to walk away so quickly from the painting. You have to wait, since this is what someone who appreciates and understands art would do.
Indeed, when the special section on Kuwaiti art comes a few pages later, it’s hard not to imagine the narrator from this story pausing in front of each work, wondering how long he should hold the page open before flipping, to prove that he gets them.
Meanwhile, in the wonderful demi-epistolary “Dear Customer,” Sabah, on her final day of work at Golden Track, finally starts being honest with a customer who’s been writing in with complaints. But if the epistolic sections are largely comedic, the end is a melancholy reflection on the person in relation to corporation — and object — as we’re told that only the “tables in the cafeteria and the mirror in the elevator” will remember her, now that she has shifted from an employee to a customer.
There are many other striking short stories and art in this issue, including a co-created work by fiction writer Bothayna al-Essa and artist Zahra Marwan.
You can find out more about this issue at thecommononline.org.