One thing this quest has taught me is that there’s no harm in trying. You can never predict whether someone will help you from reading their biography or studying their tweets. The worst that can happen when you fire off an email asking for suggestions of books from far-flung corners of the planet is that you receive a grumpy message in reply (rare) or you hear nothing back (more common and completely understandable). But every so often, if you type really nicely and wish double hard, you strike gold.
With this in mind, I sent an email to University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature and leading translator Roger Allen back in June this year, asking for advice on some of the Middle Eastern countries I had yet to source books for. As I discovered when I came across an interview with him on the blog Fascinated by the Arab World, Allen was uniquely placed to help me. Not only does he hold the US’s oldest professorial post for Arabic as a separate language, but he has also translated books by some of Arabic literature’s finest writers, among them Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, whom he met many times.
In spite of his busy schedule, Allen replied with several thoughts. All in all, he confirmed, there was very little available in translation from the Gulf states. However, when it came to the UAE, there was one writer he could recommend with some short story collections in translation: his name was Mohammad Al Murr. I lost no time in looking Al Murr up and within minutes his intriguingly titled The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf was winging its way to me.
Al Murr’s collection spans a cross-section of UAE society. From the businessman flying first-class to the thief rustling camels to please his prostitute girlfriend, Al Murr’s characters are eclectic and often surprising. There is the driving instructor who charms her way into a family circle, the trumpet player with impractical plans for starting a string of businesses, and the middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with owning a talking parrot.
Quirky and intriguing, the stories often deal with the minutiae of existence, showing how a look, a word or even an apparent wink – as in the case of the title work – can change the course of a life. Often these changes centre on small tragedies or victories, as in ‘The Night’s Catch’, in which three boys steal and sell some pigeons from a violent collector in order to pay for a trip to the cinema, but they frequently point to more fundamental shifts. The outstanding ‘Road Accidents’, for example, in which a husband and wife undertake a treacherous drive through fog, testing and exposing the cracks in their relationship along the way, is a masterclass in using small details as chess pieces to play out psychological battles.
In this world where much is left unsaid and people are often at cross purposes to one another – conducting affairs, gossiping about irrelevancies around a sick-bed and, in the case of the children in the collection, bemused by the oddness of the things others take for granted – it is often left to the non-human participants in the stories to act out hidden tensions and desires. While the naughty pet ape Umm Kamil leads her owners a merry dance in ‘Just Standing There, Smiling’, crashing a wedding and at one point even disrupting worship in a mosque, Adoul the monkey becomes the agent of his mistress’s cruel revenge on a servant in ‘The Awesome Lady’.
One or two of the more enigmatic stories, such as ‘The Secret’, in which a boy becomes a mute because of something he witnesses, have an unfinished quality. In addition, the play with dialogue and one-sided conversations, which works brilliantly in stories such as ‘Words, Words, Words’, overwhelms the drive of a few pieces so that occasionally it seems as though Al Murr is more interested in exploring the technical possibilities than developing the action.
Overall, though, this is a fascinating collection. Packed with rich perceptions, it is an intense evocation of people’s lives and concerns. It is also testament to Al Murr’s skill that our faith in the situations he creates does not falter, no matter how bizarre they may be. It will be a long time before I forget the image of Umm Kamil appropriating the bride’s veil during a wedding feast.
The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf by Mohammad Al Murr, translated from the Arabic by Jack Briggs (Motivate Publishing, 1998)