The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar
Translated from the Arabic by C.J. Collins
“On Top of the Pyramid”
An enormous garbage bag, seeing the social pyramid shimmering in the sunlight, wanted to reach the top. He made great attempts to climb up, but every time he would slide back down. After many failed attempts, his efforts finally brought success. He sat regally at the top of the pyramid out of breath from the fatigue and the intoxicating joy of victory. The thrill of his accomplishment caused him to forget the suffering he had endured.
But within moments the apex of the pyramid had pierced a hole in the bag. Soiled water mixed with garbage poured down the four sides until the whole structure was covered in a monstrous pile of refuse whose terrible smell spread far and wide.
“Bag of the Nation”
I took the big bag that I had inherited from my grandfather down from the attic. It was brightly colored like a storm of rainbows. I hoisted it onto my back and went out into the street. I closed my eyes and began to choose samples at random from everything that was inside: humans and stones and dust and flowers and wind and the past and the present and the future.
I carried the heavy bag on my back and set off on a far-ranging journey around the world, proudly carrying the overflowing wonders of my nation’s genius.
As soon as I arrived in the first of the many countries I had decided to visit I headed toward the public square and stood in the middle, shouting as loud as I could:
“Ladies and Gentlemen… Ladies and Gentlemen! I have come to you from a faraway country carrying roses and flowers… concepts and creativity… a history glorious with the colors of spring and a future desiring to stand humbly before my nation’s lofty gate.”
The magnetism of my shouting drew in all sorts of people f rom the arteries that opened onto the square until they became a thick crowd. Voices quickly rose: “Come on, stranger… show us what you have… show us the wonders and the creativity of your country.”
I took the heavy bag off my back, sweat pouring off me, and combed the crowd with a look full of confidence. I undid the mouth of the bag and opened it wide, but when I did, an atomic irony exploded from it, blowing me into the air, then dropping me to the ground. Everyone exploded in laughter. Some of them even fell on the ground clutching their stomachs. The women and the children looked at me with disgust. Many turned their heads away. The surprise shook me like an earthquake… my spirit filled with fissures. One of the people from the crowd came toward me and gave me a small mirror, then turned and went away laughing. I looked in the mirror. The horror! My face had been terrifyingly disfigured. As for my country’s reputation, it had suffered degradations such as it would not recover from for tens if not hundreds of years.
“Oh my country… what did you do to me… what did I do to you?”
I cast my tearful gaze about the square that had emptied of even the breeze. I tried to get up slowly, propping myself up on my broken spirit, but I immediately fell back down. I repeated the effort many times. Finally I succeeded. My thighs trembled as if the shards of my self-confidence had joined together there. I looked at the charred bag of the nation. I looked at the effects of the explosion of atomic irony. Tears fell thickly from my eyes, trying to make their way through the peaks and crags of my ravaged face. I picked up the bag and threw it into the sea and wandered off not knowing where.
When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human dignity.
When I crushed a large number of ants by accident with my feet, I realized that weakness is punishment without wrongdoing.
Osama Alomar was born in Damascus, Syria in 1968 and now lives in Chicago. A poet, short-story writer, and musician, Alomar is the author of three collections of short stories and a volume of poetry. He is a regular contributor to various newspapers and journals within the Arab world.
C. J. Collins is a librarian and a translator based in Queens, NY.
This excerpt from The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories is published by permission of New Directions. Translation copyright © 2017 C.J. Collins.
Photo: Osama Alomar, Private
Photo: C.J. Collins, Private