Syria – The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories

Experimental writing is a risky practice. Authors who engage with this style tend to focus more on the form than on the content, and this comes with costs. Plot, setting and characters all become secondary concerns as the author focuses all their attention on presenting them in a way that feels different, original, and not what the established literary gatekeepers are producing. When it succeeds, the experiment becomes a work of art that can be enjoyed on many different levels beyond the straightforward story. And that’s what currently many Arab writers are trying to create, while struggling to forge an identity in a world that so violently needs to experience change.

Flash fiction is one of the more popular experimental writing in the Arab World. These micro stories, which are often less than a hundred words, are perceived as an act of rebellion against the established institutions associated with full length short stories and novels. As such, these stories often contain a bit of social commentary, or a small satirical message, and a tiny impact. At least that’s what I felt while reading the hundred or so very short stories in The Teeth of the Comb and Other Short Stories by Osama Alomar.

Tiny Stories, Tiny Impact

“Because he was a lake of great purity, the others were able to catch his fish easily.”

This is an example of one of the better, one sentence, micro-stories in the book. It’s a tiny story, with a pretty straightforward commentary, on how the more good you are as a person, the more easy it is to take advantage of you. At least that’s the surface reading, and it depends on how you read the story. It can be viewed as a moral fairy tale, similar to those produced by Aesop so long ago, or it can be viewed as poetry. In which case multiple interpretations are possible. And it can be both.

Not all stories are sentences though. Some are multiple paragraphs and some are a page or more. These stories can be short biographical anecdotes, they can be parables, modern beast tales, social commentary, cynical pieces of satire, or bits of poetry disguising itself as prose. Each story is different, and each has a different message, worth dwelling on, which was a problem when trying to read this book sequentially. Another problem was they just weren’t, to me, all that deep.

These stories which are a metaphor, or commentary, almost always had some sort of message to them, but to me those messages just didn’t feel all that profound, which again is why experimental writing is such a risk. Writing a one paragraph story, for example, about clocks that revolted and were subsequently replaced, just didn’t do all that much for me. The message was straightforward, and it just wasn’t possible for me to develop an emotional investment in a single paragraph. I suspect that part of this had to do with the fact that the book is a translation, and I imagine some of the words lost their power when they were translated into English. The real issue though for me, was that each tiny story only had a tiny impact, which led to an overall experience of wasted time, and not something I would recommend that others go through.

Let’s Try This

The Omer today is kingship in bravery. Neither of these work with this book because I was left feeling pretty empty after I finally finished. Instead I’ll write a very short story that uses those two words.

“The brave peasant confronted the king. ‘Your Majesty, your taxes are starving us and we have nothing left to eat. I was forced to devour my horse just to make this trip to you, and now I can’t return home without dying.’ His heart moved, the king gave the peasant another horse to devour for the return trip. Now the brave peasant could die surrounded by his family and loved ones. All praised the king for his generosity, and the peasants continued to work with happiness in their hearts.”

Okay. Not the greatest of stories, but this was pretty much the style of most of the stories I read. I’m giving myself a #bebrave for sharing it publicly.

About the Author

Born in Damascus, Syria in 1968 and now living in Pittsburgh via Chicago, Osama Alomar is one of the most well-respected Arabic poets writing today, and a prominent practitioner of the Arabical-qisa al-qasira jiddan, the “very short story.” He is the author of Fullblood Arabian in English, and three collections of short stories and a volume of poetry in Arabic. Alomar’s first full-length collection of stories, The Teeth of the Comb, was published by New Directions in April 2017. His short stories have been published in, Noon,, The Coffin Factory, Electric Literature, and The Literary Review. Currently, Alomar is working on a new novel about the Syrian War tentatively called The Womb, as well as another project called The Book of Meditations about love, hate, democracy, dictatorships, motherhood, freedom, success, and failure among other concepts surrounding the human experience. He also enjoys singing and playing guitar, and often travels with his translator C.J. Collins. He is a current writer-in-residence at City of Asylum Pittsburgh whose organization works to provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers, so that they can continue to write and their voices not be silenced.

The Teeth of The Comb and Other Stories

Author: Osama Alomar

Translator: C. J. Collins

Publisher: New Directions

Published: 2017

Pages: 191

Format reviewed: Digital