By Mike Schneider
Osama Alomar writes bullets. He aims them at the dictator inside the mind. To hit the target they must pierce many layers of confusion.
Even as Alomar’s native land, Syria, suffers unspeakable devastation, it’s not Bashar al-Assad or other brutal dictators of history as much as the dictator inside us that Alomar targets.
His weapon is his pen (and keyboard). His “bullets” are a cross between poetry and prose called in Arabic al-qisa al-qasira jiddan, which comes across in English as “very short stories.” See, for example, “Historic Missile.” (at the bottom)
What he means by “the dictator inside” gains clarity within the historical context of revolutions gone awry. Alomar remembers the idealism of pre-civil war Syrian liberal society:
“But little by little the revolution against tyranny and oppression became something else… The tyrant who had been sleeping in the depths of the ordinary citizen began to wake up, baring his fangs. The country entered through the widest gate the hell of sectarian and civil war. The nation’s severed limbs were mixed up with the severed limbs and heads of its humans. . . . When the situation had gone so far down the road of destructive chaos and insanity, I came to understand that the enslavement of humans to deadly and destructive notions and ideas is far more dangerous than the enslavement of humans to other humans, and the road to the paradise of freedom and human dignity is spread with tongues of hell.” (from “Love Letter,” Sampsonia Way, May 1, 2017.)
On April 27, at Alphabet City on North Avenue, Alomar — current resident writer at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum — read from his new collection, The Teeth of the Comb (New Directions, 2017). It’s his second in English, after Fullblood Arabian (New Directions, 2013), both translated in close collaboration with Christian Collins, who met Alomar in 2006 at a Damascus literary salon.
By then, Alomar, born in 1968, had established himself as a writer in Syria, despite censorship, by publishing in Lebanon. In 2008, before civil war broke out but “fault lines were evident,” he emigrated to join his brother and mother in Chicago. “Before I left,” he says (in an interview with Caitlyn Christensen in Sampsonia Way magazine), “nobody could speak freely. Nobody could even think, say or protest anything.”
In Chicago, Alomar soon found he could no longer live as a full-time writer and turned to cab-driving — seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, in order to feed, clothe and house himself. Collins on several occasions met with Alomar in the cab’s front seat to work on translations. “I’m the worst cabdriver in the world,” says Alomar.
City of Asylum enabled the Syrian exile to revive his dream of living as a writer. As we go to press, he’s at Yaddo artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, working in a cabin in the woods. From very short stories, he’s shifted to a realistic novel about the Syrian disaster.
Relying on metaphor, Alomar’s very short stories tend to be indirect and open to interpretation. With the novel, feeling an urgency to get to the point, he’s turned to a project he left behind when he hastily departed Damascus in 2008 — a love story set within the devastating context of civil war and the international tragedy of Syrian refugees.
It’s not a project to be rushed, says Alomar — to describe suffering, persecution, torture, the plight of Syrians in search of a safe landing worldwide, if not beyond. “There are Syrians in outer space,” he says, with a turn to his trademark black humor. “Some people care, of course, but some think the Syrian devastation is not their business. Some people,” he cautions, “think Syria is a faraway place.”
Mike Schneider is a widely published poet, freelance journalist & member of the TMC Editorial Collective who lives in Pittsburgh’s historic South Side.
Launched from the depths
of history, a missile of unknown
origin exploded in the present.
The enormous explosion resulted
in terrible loss of life and property.
Shrapnel sprayed the recent past
and the near future alike, leaving
many dead and wounded. In the
tornado of terror that spun
everyone in its vortex, many
thought the flames of World War III
had been ignited. People rushed
out to buy reserves of food and
water, and took refuge in bomb
shelters and basements. Scholars
and historians immediately began
in-depth investigations to discover
the deadly historical faults from
which this disaster had resulted,
and the era in which they
Until now their research has
yielded no results. Millions of
humans remain in hiding in
shelters and basements, awaiting
“Historic Missile” by Osama Alomar, translated by the author and C.J. Collins, from Fullblood Arabian, published by New Directions Publishing Corp., copyright 2014 by Osama Alomar. Translation copyright 2014 by C.J. Collins and Osama Alomar. Used by permission of Denise Shannon Literary Agency, Inc.