Anthology Reveals Quality, Variety of Today’s Arabic Short Fiction

Kim Jensen

Under the Naked Sky:

Short Stories From the Arab World
Selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
Cairo: AUC,  2000, 243 pp.

With more than 25 published volumes of translations to his credit, Denys Johnson-Davies is certainly the most prolific Arabic-English translator of our time. Some of the noteworthy books that he has translated include “Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih, “The Wiles of Men and Other Stories” by Salwa Bakr, and “Echoes of an Autobiography” by Naguib Mahfouz.

Last year, Johnson-Davies brought out his third anthology of short stories from the Arab world. “Under the Naked Sky” represents an outstanding cross-section of the most talented writers of this genre in the Arabic language. Unlike his first two collections of short stories, published in 1967 and 1983, this new one features an excellent selection of women authors. Moreover, though half of the 30 authors included are from Egypt, the book does bring together a host of writers from all parts of the Arab world, from North Africa to Iraq. The variety of writings is impressive on all fronts: geographically, thematically, and stylistically.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education decried the lamentable state of publishing in the Arab world, yet this apparent lack of professional publishing opportunities does not seem to have hindered the development of the short story as an art form. “Under the Naked Sky” is a pleasure to read and reveals a remarkable literary output from a region that, despite its political and social traumas, continues to generate some masterful literary texts. This collection testifies not only that there exists a lively community of short story writers, but that their work is, in many ways, more animated and engaging than the stories that are now coming out from the major American presses.

Some of the highlights of the volume were: a haunting story of an ill-fated love affair called “Fear” by Ghalib Halsa; a Chekovian slice-of-life piece about an old Egyptian couple by Ibrahim Aslan; a terrifying allegorical story called “The Pilot” by Mohamed Makhzangi; two short but memorable pieces by the modern masters Yusef Idris and Naguib Mahfouz; and the sad tale of a prisoner of war who returns home to a wife and children who would rather he were dead, “The Return of a Prisoner” by Buthayna al-Nasiri.

My one quibble with “Under the Naked Sky” is that, despite his experience, energy, and talent, Johnson-Davies tends more toward literal translations at the expense of using idiomatic expressions in English. One might argue that “literal” translations tend to preserve the unique cultural dimension of the texts, but there is no denying that it adds an element of stiffness to the English version.

One story in particular illustrates everything that is excellent (and the one weakness) about the book. It is Salwa Bakr’s “Corncobs,” the story of Zarifa, an impoverished young mother in Cairo who is struggling to feed herself and her children. Her husband is a construction worker who has been sent far away, perhaps never to return. In order to make a living, she plants some corn on the government-owned land that divides two busy streets. When the corn sprouts, she roasts it and sells it to passersby.

“Corncobs” is wonderful in all its immediacy and its focus on the way that simple Egyptians are able to survive on the fringes of informal economies. The brief descriptions of Zarifa’s past and her encounters with journalists, civil servants, and ordinary people make a charming vehicle for an ironic look at contemporary Egyptian life. Unfortunately, the consistent use of the word “corncobs” throughout slightly weakens the story, for the phrase “corn-on-the-cob” would have been much more appropriate in many places. After all, we don’t eat the corncobs; we eat “corn-on-the-cob.” There might be any number of defensible reasons for this word choice. This is the type of slightly awkward vocabulary that makes its way into many of the stories.

This issue is only a minor “bone to pick” (or corncob to pick!) with an important collection of stories. “Under the Naked Sky” is diverse, exciting, and should be added to the reading lists, not just of serious students of world literature, but of anyone who simply enjoys curling up with a good book.

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.7, no. 36, Summer 2001).
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid

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