[Marxism] A Syrian novelist driving a cab in Chicago

2014-05-03 Thread Louis Proyect

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NY Times, May 3 2014
Taking Fares, and Writing in Between
Osama Alomar Pursues His Literary Ambitions in Exile


CHICAGO — In the Arab world, the Syrian writer Osama Alomar has a 
growing reputation as the author of short, clever parables that comment 
obliquely on political and social issues. But here, where he has lived 
in exile since 2008, he spends most of his time as the driver of Car 45 
at the Horizon Taxi Cab company.

Up to a dozen hours a day, six days a week, Mr. Alomar cruises the 
northwest suburbs around O’Hare Airport in his bright blue cab, 
dictionaries and a volume of Khalil Gibran piled beside him. When parked 
in line waiting for a fare to appear, he pulls out a notebook and tries 
to write.

“Driving a cab is hard work and very hard psychologically, because it 
takes me away from writing,” Mr. Alomar, who turns 46 on Saturday, said 
in an interview here recently at a coffee shop and in his cab. “It is a 
kind of spiritual exile to go with my physical exile. But I have to be 
strong. I have to be patient.”

On Saturday and Sunday, Mr. Alomar, whose first book to be translated 
into English, “Fullblood Arabian,” was recently published by New 
Directions, will take a brief respite from that grueling routine to 
attend the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York. He is 
scheduled to take part in two panels: “Creativity and Craft in Asylum,” 
on Saturday, and a Sunday afternoon conversation with the American 
writer Lydia Davis, who has emerged as his biggest champion, and the 
Icelandic writer Sjon.

Mr. Alomar’s super-short stories “are very imaginative and vivid and 
exhilarating,” said Ms. Davis, whose own work often occupies a terrain 
similar to Mr. Alomar’s in terms of length and tone. “Some are dark and 
angry, while others are funny. They are compact stylistically, wasting 
no words, and they go quickly from one moment to the next and on to the 
end. So they have density, but also are sort of explosive, with an 
aftershock, because they seem to tell one story at the same time they 
are telling another.”

Mr. Alomar sees himself as an heir of a literary form, now called 
al-qissa al-qasira jiddan, or very short story, that in the Arab world 
dates back more than a millennium and contains elements of poetry, 
philosophy, folk tale and allegory. “Fullblood Arabian” was, in fact, 
issued as part of a poetry series that includes work by Lawrence 
Ferlinghetti and Hilda Doolittle, and the stories in the book run no 
longer than three pages, with the shortest being only one sentence.

Muhsin al-Musawi, a Columbia University professor and literary critic 
who is also the editor of The Journal of Arabic Literature, described 
the genre Mr. Alomar has embraced as “similar to the riddle or puzzle,” 
but requiring “a high level of prose.” As such, he added, “it offers a 
way out of many restrictions and constraints without being very explicit.”

Certainly, many of Mr. Alomar’s stories make use of ambiguities, 
especially in relation to the political scene. Here, in its entirety, is 
“Tongue-Tie,” the title piece of one of his three collections published 
in Arabic: “Before leaving for work I tied my tongue into a great tie. 
My colleagues congratulated me on my elegance. They praised me to our 
boss, who expressed admiration and ordered all employees to follow my 

C. J. Collins, Mr. Alomar’s translator, remembers meeting the writer for 
the first time in Damascus in 2007. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, 
had eased some restrictions on private gatherings, and Mr. Alomar was a 
regular at salons that had then sprung up, where invited speakers would 
address political, cultural and social topics, but steer clear of 
directly criticizing the dictatorship.

“In the discussions that would come afterward, Osama’s stories would 
come up spontaneously as a way of driving home an intellectual point in 
a poetic fashion,” Mr. Collins recalled, adding, “In the States, it is 
putting literature down to call it utilitarian, but for me it was quite 
striking to see his work put to this really concrete use.”

Mr. Alomar was born in 1968 in Damascus, where his father was a 
philosophy professor and his mother an elementary school teacher. He 
read widely from his parents’ library, studied Arabic literature in 
college and sang and played guitar in a pop band. When the BBC’s Arabic 
service broadcast a poem he had submitted, he became convinced that he 
had a future as a writer.

Thanks in part to that upbringing, “I’m very interested in social and 
political movements,” he said. “Especially in my own country, but in the 
Middle East in general. As a secular person, I believe in democracy and 
individual freedom. There is a lot of persecution and 

[Marxism] A Syrian novelist driving a cab in Chicago

2014-05-03 Thread michael yates
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A good story. Now if he had been a US native, he'd have been on facebook 
begging for cash, deriding those who wouldn't pony up, saying that he had a 
God-given right to be a writer.  

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