Literary CornerDead, but still he is in good health [Archives:2005/854/Culture]

June 27 2005

By Abu Alkalmah Al-Tayyibah
Subject Book: Dead, But Still He is in Good Health

Author: Afaf Al-Bashiry

Language: Arabic

Publisher: Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Year Published: (2004)

There is no question that the literary world in Yemen is still a male dominated environ. However women in Yemen are now beginning to show that they are capable and willing to take up the pen to reflect the flow in their minds. In journalism, we are beginning to see many women take on daring political stands that demonstrate their ability to comprehend the trends in public opinion and criticize openly where Government has reneged on the social contract between rulers and the governed. Some have been subject to harassment or pressure, but that has increased the determination of these women to be more outspoken.

In literature, many have gone and issued their collection of poetries or short stories. Aziza Abdulla Abu Luhoum is a pioneer in the short story genre (Literary Corner will not neglect to look into some of her short stories and poetry later). There are also others, who are just starting, but have shown a high degree of imagination and literary prowess in putting their thoughts and reflections on Yemeni social life. One of these is the author of the book we are reviewing here. This critic accidentally found the book, “Dead, But still He is in Good Health, with a friend. At first, I thought this is probably one of those absurdists, who wants to get the reader immersed in an abstract field, from which there is no exit. However, upon starting to leaf through the first few pages, I could not help but become drawn by the mastery of intellect and the ability of the author to put expansive ideas or thoughts in a few well selected words. This is her introduction to the book: four lines of verse but reflecting wide horizons of thought and feeling. Let me share them with the reader:

My stories, which were short

Grew fast and have lost their charm of innocence

I bereave for a time that has since passed

And today there is no more time for reading

The actual number of words in Arabic is less than half of the words above (with every effort made to make the translation as concise as possible). Yet, the choice of words is so expressive. They seem to show a whole life span of literary development amidst a world of paradoxes that often are not encouraging for any writer, because there are so few, who would read one's efforts. In other words, I have a lot to say, but a very few people to share them with.

The work is a very short one indeed with 68 pages. Moreover the work is a collection of short stories, sometimes in the narrative, i.e. with a taint of autobiographical input. There are also a few thoughts thrown in here and there.

Most of the stories or thoughts show a strong influence of Sana'ani life on the author and, accordingly the Ministry of Culture was correct in choosing to publish this when Sana'a enjoyed the honor of being the Arab Worlds' first cultural capital in 2004.

The stories Afaf gives us are about ordinary common folk in Sana'a, who are not really busy with politics, big business or fighting over real estate.

They are stories that start with one about a little girl, that has an innocent affectionate relationship with a neighbor Gradually, she realized that she cannot defy the evolution that growth brings to children in gradually limiting their freedom to feel and to interact with people to as far as their innocence can take them. As the years advance, the question arises, can this innocent relationship be turned into a permanent one of matrimony. In the end, we find how she feels about that. When her mother told her that her long-time storekeeper friend has come to ask for her hand: “Wake up! Abdul-Salam came. My heart was arrested and I felt a lightening has hit me, so I turned my face away from my mother to let my eyes pour tears that wet my pillow tears I shed in sadness at what remains of a fatherhood that was implanted in my heart

The remains of a fatherhood Abdul-Salam (the long time storekeeper friend) decided to cut up with his own hands!

On another three line story titled “Shh! (“Uss” in Arabic), we have again a scene of change in character:


-Look, isn't that the one who never left a women without winking or flirting at her? What is with him today, he has kept his vision straight and his eyes cast down??

– Shh, you imbecile Shh! He has fallen in love!

That is it; the story is over. Many times does Afaf do this, a few lines, a minor scene of two friends talking and a passerby, a simple dialogue and the reader is left to make out the past, and imagine the future with only a brief interlude of the present.

In an interesting story, Afaf, gives us a man who lost his wife sometime ago and had a passionate relationship of love with her. He has since consoled himself by constantly talking to her picture, giving her tales of his plans to marry describing to her in detail, how the new wife will be so much like her. He asks her why she is staring at him so puzzlingly. It is his hair. It is now gray. He speaks for her and asks himself “Why haven't I dyed it? He then recalls how she, soon after their marriage, was playing with his hair smilingly told him: “I will continue to enjoy my eyes, with the slowly creeping white on your hair”. I interrupted her and told her: “You talk as if ageing is only the predicament of men and not of women as well.” She quickly interrupted me: Oh no! I will never let you look at me in ageing. In your eyes, I will always remain a youth in her adolescence!” He then goes into explaining to her the torment he has had to go through. Their love was strong and passionate and seemed to be an everlasting journey. Her sickness and early death ended a life that simply could never be reinstated in him. He sought to continue the joy by daily going to talk to her, as if she was still around, trying to tell her that he is about to find a replacement, but in reality he knows that she knows there is really no replacement! Torment and the sweet bliss of a love affair that only has one player to carry on the affair with. Then there is story of the husband, who returns to his wife after having lost his leg in war and the dialogue that ensues between them about what change shall come about in their feelings, never mind their going about in life as such.

Such are Afaf's stories, small but passing through years and decades, with much left to the reader to immerse him/herself in his/her imagination as to how to fill the gaps in between . A truly enjoyable book!