Thursday, March 03, 2011

Evil weeds

The subject of Egyptian literature came up at work today, because someone's reading something Egyptian, and he mentioned it to our Egyptian-Palestinian coworker when she stopped by my desk, thinking she might be familar with the author, but he couldn't remember the author's name, and she suggested Nahguib Mahfouz, cuz really that's the first (or only) name that usually comes to mind, but no it's someone else, and she went on a bit about having read Palace Walk, and not liking it, and how it quite surprised her, whereas I had read Miramar eons ago and the only thing I can remember about it is that it bored me, and she expressed some, hmm, let's say regret, about how she's not as culturally well-versed as she'd like to be wrt her heritage, and then we chatted kind of generically, about audiobooks, and locking yourself in the bathroom — away from family distractions — to read, and a bit about work.

And I remembered I had a book: Three Egyptian Short Stories, by Youssef Idris — a bilingual edition (published 1991 by York Press, and not readily available these days it seems). The Arabic language fascinates me, and I'd taken a couple courses, and somewhere along the way I'd plucked this slim little volume out of some bargain bin or other, my aspiration being to read it in the original language. (Hah!)

So I came home from work and went straight to my shelf. Maybe my coworkers will be interested in this book. But I should read it first (had I ever actually read it?). So I read it.

Three short, very powerful stories. Poignant. Just plain sad.

The walls were half-covered in blackness in the form of paint, while the other half was stained with gloom.

Reading these stories I'm reminded a little bit of Simenon, bleak and seamy. Not so sordid as Simenon; these characters are just miserable, and poor.

Henceforth, the square witnessed an eccentric and gloomy man, whose dry and dark face was ever frowning, who broke his silence occasionally with a stray and fleeting word, only to be dominated again by dead silence, whose trembling moustache had grown wild like a bunch of evil weeds.

The stories are "Farahat's Republic," "The Wallet," and "Abu Sayyid." I trust they are available in other collections of Idris's work. While the latter two stories are sad in a pull-at-your-heartstrings kind of way, the first story packs an existential punch.

[Perhaps I feel this way because I made the mistake of checking the news online this evening. While I try to keep abreast of world events, in a shamefacedly superficial way, smaller-scale stories, if I can call them that, to differentiate them from the big picture, make me want to cry and scream, and I avoid them. Kids stuffed in luggage, dead. Some guy on speed driving around with his wife on the hood. I like to think you can change the World. But you can't do a damn thing about the sick fuck who lives down the street.]

"Farahat's Republic" is about a police officer. Even while he betrays a rich inner life, the real crime, he states, is that the rabble at the station won't give him a minute's peace, bothering him with their "petty" squabbles.

And so I feel morally defunct and guilty this evening.

Idris was nominated several times for the Nobel prize for literature.
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