Almost exactly a year ago, on January 27th, 2017, Donald Trump signed an Executive Order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries (Lybia, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Iran) from entering the United States for 90 days, halting refugee resettlement for 120 days, and banning Syrian refugees indefinitely. In response to this, independent British publisher Comma Press picked an author from each of the countries affected by the ban and commissioned them to write a short story exploring themes of exile, travel, and restrictions on movement. The result is Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations, which came out last Thursday.
Three of the stories fall within the realm of fantasy and science fiction:
- In Wajdi al-Ahdal’s Islamofuturist satire ‘The Slow Man’ (Yemen; translated from the Arabic by William H. Hutchins), an Ancient Egyptian border commander who doesn’t like Babylonians unwittingly plays a part in the incident that results in the Babylonian takeover of Egypt, and, from Egypt, of the rest of the world; 4,000 years later, monotheism has failed to catch on and we’re all worshipping the Babylonian god Marduk. It’s a strange story, with strange pacing and vertiginous twists and turns, but I appreciated its sheer what-the-fuckery.
- In Najwa Binshatwan’s ‘Return Ticket’ (Lybia; translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain), we learn about a village named Schrödinger that is at the same time everywhere and nowhere, though of course from the perspective of someone living in Schrödinger it is the rest of the world, not Schrödinger, that is weird. I loved the narrator’s mini-odyssey through a series of (non-Schrödinger) airports with increasingly absurd security regulations, and it made me hope that the author would one day turn it into a longer piece—perhaps a modern response to Gulliver’s Travels that takes place exclusively in airports.
- In Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s magical-realist ‘Jujube’ (Somalia; translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson), we learn that the, before the war that tore her family apart, the narrator’s mother had been a healer with a special connection to the jujube tree. This was by far the standout story for me: both the author and the translator have a gift for conveying sensory information, particularly when it comes to colour—starting with the very first paragraph, in which we meet the narrator’s mother, “her face yellow with turmeric and butter” and her head nodding “like the feathery flower heads that sprout from acacia in bloom”. Of all the stories in Banthology, ‘Jujube’ made me most feel like I’d visited a faraway country, and Ubah Cristina Ali Farah is the author I’m most likely to keep in mind in future book hunts.
‘Jujube’, which is partly set in Italy, is also one of three stories whose protagonists live far from their countries of origin. In Fereshteh Molavi’s ‘Phantom Limb’ (Iran), the connection between a young Iranian man living in Canada and his mother, who is still in Iran, manifests itself in strange ways, while in Anoud’s ‘The Storyteller’ (Iraq), a homeless Iraqi woman living in London is stuck in a loop of reciting over and over again, the key traumatic experiences of her lifetime, from the first time she felt hunger, due to the economic sanctions of the 1990s, to the first time she took shelter from an air raid, in 2003, to the time she saw tourists take photos of a Baghdad car bomb at the Imperial War Museum, in 2014, and so on. ‘The Storyteller’ is without a doubt the most harrowing story of the bunch, while ‘Phantom Limb’ keeps the hardship and tragedies of its characters’ lives bubbling just under the surface of its deceptively causal and lighthearted tone.
Finally, two of the stories feature people trying to leave their countries of origin.
- In Rania Mamoud’s ‘Bird of Paradise’ (Sudan; translated from the Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp), the narrator’s family prevent her from straying far from home for so long that when she finally gets the opportunity to leave, she finds that her own mind makes it impossible to board the plane that would take her away. It’s a relatively simple story, simply told, but the image of the narrator queuing at the airport but unable to take a single step forwards when boarding starts may well haunt me for a long time.
- Finally, in Zaher Omareen’s ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ (Syria; translated from the Arabic by Perween Richards and Basma Ghalayini), the narrator is a Syrian refugee attempting to reach Sweden via Greece and France. Like ‘Phantom Limb’, ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ is fairly lighthearted and humorous in tone, except for the glimpses the narrator lets slip of his previous life as a prisoner, and all his previous attempts at escaping his country.
When Comma Press first sent me this anthology, I was intrigued by the concept but also worried that the quality would be uneven, as that’s usually my experience with these kinds of collection. However, I’m happy to report that I found something compelling in every single one of these stories, and, as a bonus, the book is just over 100 pages long, making it both a quick read and something that can be very easily revisited. To quote the introduction by Sarah Cleave, the collection’s editor, I’d recommend them to anyone who wants to go “to all the places that Donald Trump doesn’t want you to go”.
(And who knows, maybe next year we’ll get a sequel—a Shithology, perhaps?)