Osama Alomar’s ‘Teeth of the Comb’: A Stranger in the English-language Landscape

In most cases, the collection juxtaposes its flowers with very human struggles. It′s the second collection by the U.S.-based Syrian writer to make its way from Arabic into English. Its full three sentences: ″A man of principles was forced to swallow an insult. There are, for instance: ″Flowers of Different Classes″, ″The Garlic and the Flower″, ″The Kinds of Flowers″ and ″The Souls of Flowers″. Most of the stories in The Teeth of the Comb look like prose poems or micro-fiction and yet they don′t read like their English cousins. On its own, this story would hardly catch a reader′s attention. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Friday Finds: Two Contributors to Iraq + 100 Reflect on Science Fiction in Arabic LiteratureCategories: short stories, Syria At first glance, they read like moral tales for children. In places, the translation could be a bit tighter – there′s no need for a ″that″ in the story′s final sentence. There are many such reversals and inversions in the collection. He choked and died. Or, in ″The Kinds of Flowers″, when a human contemplates his garden with a satisfied joy. Many of Alomar′s stories are plainly voiced by talking rocks, animals, swamps, or weather. The devil tastes from ″the tip of his finger a very tiny amount of human hatred. Alomar′s language isn′t poetic, nor are the stories densely plotted. ″Insult″ is another story that works on opposites. It poisoned him and he died right away.″
The collection features not only garbage and Satan, but also streams and clouds and a number of stories about flowers. Then, by chance, the apex pierces a hole in him. Many of the stories evoke a Syrian landscape – with tyrants, co-opted authors, prison cells and police interrogators. It opens:
A literary immigrant in strange clothes, Osama Alomar′s The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories perches brightly and uneasily at the edge of the English-language landscape. A review of Osama Alomar’s second collection in English   The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories (April 2017),   translated by the author with CJ Collins,   appeared in   Qantara. But they could just as well be about life anywhere. As for the bootlicker, he chased after the insult with all his might, fearing that he would die of hunger.″

It′s the appearance of the running bootlicker and his fear he will ″die of hunger″, that adds a surprising and funny twist to the tiny fable. ″But when he himself turned into a flower in that garden, he began to see all other kinds of flowers as surpassingly ugly.″
As with ″The Kinds of Flowers″ and ″Insult″, Alomar′s stories do feature the occasional human. Who is the enormous bag of garbage? The stories often flip the reader′s perspective, as when, for instance, the garlic can′t stand the scent of flowers. Yet, for the most part, the plain language transfers well from Arabic to English. We′re in a pleasant garden, where peaceful flora intertwines over the heads of two argumentative humans. ″Soiled water mixed with garbage poured down the four sides until the whole structure was covered in a monstrous pile of slimy debris whose hateful smells permeated even distant places.″
There is pleasure in this small reversal-of-fortune, which might apply to any ambitious bag of trash. But these are generally archetypes and only rarely have names. A story mid-way through the collection, titled, ″Embrace″, is just a single sentence: ″In a pleasant garden, the trees embrace over two quarrelling brothers.″
″Embrace″, like many of Alomar′s stories, relies on the juxtaposition of opposites. The story ″On Top of the Pyramid″ begins with an enormous garbage bag who, ″seeing the social pyramid shimmering in the sunlight, wanted to reach the top.″
When this enormous garbage bag (who could be an ambitious Syrian army officer, or Donald Trump, or your boss) finally struggles his way to the top, he′s filled with pleasure. In the short story ″A Taste″, Satan appears. One of the few is ″five-year-old Samar″, who stares at a doll on the other side of her bedroom in ″The Forbidden Doll.″
Read the rest of the review, by ArabLit founding editor M Lynx Qualey, at   Qantara. But the overall effect of Alomar′s collection is to make a mosaic of tiny, evocative micro-tales told by an ironic moral fabulist for adults.