The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories
(New Directions, 2017)
By 2012, Syrian author Osama Alomar (born and raised in the city of Damascus, until expatriating in 2008) already had something of a foothold amongst a certain North American literary elite. He had escaped before his country’s Arab Spring/Civil War etcetera, well on his way, embarking on his second life abroad by necessity. He had one novel-in-manuscript destroyed by a bomb along with the rest of his home during the fighting. Translations of his stories, or prose poems or “very short stories” à la Lydia Davis—whatever you want to call them—began appearing in magazines like Noon, Conjunctions, Coffin Factory, and The Literary Review, to name a few. His recent profile this past May in The New Yorker shows him looking a bit like some sort of a beloved character actor: the jovial cab driver who turns out in the end to also be a firebrand intellectual genius, a mystic journalist, humble storyteller poet, and philosophical comedian of letters. C.J. Collins, Alomar’s longtime loyal translator, used to ride along with him during the workday to copy down the new stories while the maestro dictated them. Mr. Alomar happens to be one of the main attractions within the latest Summer issue of Fence as well. He mentions in his bio he is currently reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
His real debut was actually in Syria when he was only thirty-one years old, publishing his first short-story collection, naturally in Arabic. Its title translates as “O Man” in English; it was published in Beirut in 1999. He established himself further with one more collection of poetry, Man Said the Modern World (2000) and two more collections of fiction a few years down the road: Tongue Tie (2003) and All Rights Not Reserved (2008). He went on to win the prestigious Najlaa Muharam Short Story Contest in Egypt in 2007, soon afterwards sharing his work on the BBC Arabic Service's international broadcast. He has said he published all those books in Lebanon because of the hostile political climate in his native land. His perhaps somewhat sardonically titled first collection in English: Fullblood Arabian—a New Directions poetry pamphlet—appeared in 2014, garnished with Lydia Davis’s wholesome praise that he “...belong[ed] at once to several different important literary traditions.”
Writing about the very short story as a special form in light of Alomar, in her introduction, Davis explained “...there was an explosion of this form of writing in Syria in the 1990s; it became popular in magazines and newspapers as an expression of frustration at Syria’s bureaucracy and corruption and lack of freedom of expression.” From a literary standpoint, really, it seems unfair to both Davis and Alomar that people would choose this facet of their multifarious accomplishments in writing as the most remarkable. At best, the very short stories can have the effect of a timeless proverb or parable. They can resonate as political allegories or simply like a great “catchy” pop song. Sometimes too they also seem like a wincing, overly-cutesy little trinket with little resonance at all, appearing almost ornamental on the page... perhaps little more than evidence of the author’s laziness or lack of commitment to their ideas at that particular moment. But compared to his American contemporaries, Alomar’s motivations seem unique. “They might be called flash fiction in the U.S., but in the Middle East they are known as al-qissa al-qasira jiddan,” Mythili G. Rao writes in The New Yorker: “There, the genre has a rich, ancient history, and, in recent decades, repression and unrest have brought the style back into fashion. Very short stories can be published and circulated quickly; their political critique is often sharp but also oblique enough to evade censorship.”
Simply put, The Teeth of the Comb is a successful book of wisdom. Speaking recently at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Alomar claimed that “the style chose him” and he has never felt especially conscious or doting regarding the different forms his writing may take. Since he was a teenager he knew he wanted to be a writer. His philosopher professor father encouraged him a great deal. When he was 17, Alomar finally felt he could understand the many philosophy books in his father’s library. Ever since then, he has maintained a love of philosophy, and it shows throughout The Teeth of the Comb:
When I became a third-class passenger on the ship of existence, I realized that I was very close to the engine of life.
Most important to Alomar (according to him) is that he remain always honest to himself, as a writer, and therefore equally honest to his readers. He is not an academic and he has not benefited from any MFA Industrial Complex/University writing programs; he was once a scion of a certain scene of intellecuals in Damascus, where he would often perform his work at literary gatherings. “Creativity is honesty,” he stated. Franz Kafka is his sweetheart; an author who prophesied many of the more disturbing social/political phenomena that have come to define the late 20th/early 21st century epoch.
Books should not just be read and liked and then put to rest somewhere on a shelf, effectively forgotten. Alomar wants us to let their wisdom teach us how to improve our practical lives and bring about positive social change, to help us learn to practice greater love and principals overall, real human values: “It’s too easy to hate, harder to love. Love and wisdom are just like oil and gold, if you like... like diamonds... even if it takes so many years for the diamond to form. It takes a great effort for anyone to discover these things within ourselves.” At the end of the festival panel, he also mentioned he is currently hard at work on a full-length novel about the Syrian War. “The world is now so full of Syrian refugees,” he added. “At this point, there may even be a few Syrian refugees in outer space.”
The Teeth of the Comb’s only weakness as a collection is that a few of the stories come across as so sweepingly abstract (while they are also so short) that they seem to slide off the page and end up on the floor, before ever coming into sharp focus. Or they seem too easy—like an extended, high-powered literary equivalent of a “Bless This Mess” placard someone would put up in their home:
“It's rare that anyone gets away from me,” the quicksand said in a voice filled with confidence.
But the quicksands of life answered her scornfully, saying, “How many people keep flailing and thrashing in me all through their life, and they neither get away nor drown entirely!”
The longer stories in the collection are the best—full of lovelorn government functionaries, frantic street scenes and protests, magical realism, animal fables, tall tales, cleverly long-winded jokes, diary confessions—Kafkaesque indeed, and very allegorical. A man slaves away building a temple for a new religion that becomes maddeningly popular, the new religion is called Capitalism. A pack of incouragable wolves scour a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape looking for food and end up becoming prey themselves; a garbage bag tries to ascend to the upper echelons of society life and ends up falling from grace, you could say, like Icarus. These stories are alternatively hilarious, portentous and utterly poetic. The author dedicates the book to his mother: “Because a mother is a universe in which creatures don’t get lost, I dedicate this book to my universe.”