When the writer Osama Alomar emigrated from Syria to Chicago in 2008, he and many other Syrians could already foresee some of the troubles that were coming. The country was in the middle of a severe drought, and tensions were high between the Alawite government and the Sunni opposition. But no one anticipated the brutality of the civil war that broke out in March 2011, and Alomar expected he’d come back to visit every two years or so. He felt so secure he left behind most of his possessions in his apartment in Damascus, including ten manuscripts ready for publication and a novel in progress. But the political situation was worse than he’d imagined, and the war was more violent.
His apartment was destroyed by a bomb. He lost everything. “I was very stupid,” he says. He shrugs. “But I’m still alive.”
Alomar tells his life story with the same sort of irony and mordant humor that fills his fiction. His stories feature characters who unwittingly find themselves the butt of the joke that is life.
Alomar is familiar with those kinds of situations. In Syria he grew up under a regime so repressive that gatherings of five people or more had to be registered with the police, but he found freedom in writing and eventually made it his career. After he came to America, he was able to enjoy complete liberty, at least in theory—but as an immigrant with a limited understanding of English who arrived in the middle of a recession, the only paying work he could find was as a taxi driver.
Now, after seven years of driving and working on his stories between fares, Alomar, who’s 48, has begun to find recognition for his writing in America. The Teeth of the Comb (New Directions), his first full-length story collection to be published in English, comes out later this month. And thanks to City of Asylum, a literary community in Pittsburgh that supports refugee writers, he has a fellowship for the next 14 months that requires him to do nothing besides live and write. But this is all happening at a time when the United States is starting to become less welcoming to its immigrants, particularly immigrants from Syria. Although Alomar became a U.S. citizen in February 2016, these developments have made him start to worry about his future here.
One of his skills as a writer is devising aphorisms, and he has many about freedom. The one that applies particularly well to his current circumstances is “Freedom is dignity.”
Just before he left for Pittsburgh at the end of February, Alomar read some of his stories at an event sponsored by Chicago City of Refuge, a new project that was established to help writers who have, like him, been exiled from their home countries. A collaboration between the Guild Literary Complex, PEN International, and the International Cities of Refuge Network, Chicago City of Refuge hopes to someday provide a similar community for refugee writers here that City of Asylum has in Pittsburgh. (Similar programs also exist in Las Vegas and Ithaca, New York.) Though it doesn’t yet have the resources of City of Asylum—it has no money at all—its founders hope they can offer some help to writers like Alomar who found that, in coming to America, they sacrificed one form of freedom for another. It can give them a bit of dignity.
Alomar began writing when he was 13. His first piece was a description of spring. He showed it to his father, a professor of philosophy. “He was a really intellectual person,” Alomar remembers, laughing. “And he asked me, ‘Who wrote this?’ I said, ‘Me.’ He said, ‘Don’t lie to me, son.'”
The praise from his father and his teachers at school encouraged Alomar. “I felt that I have something inside me,” he says. “I need to express it in a material way. So I started to write more and more texts. When I turned 15 or 16, I felt that my destiny or my future was going be as a writer. Nothing else but a writer.”
He was already aware that the Syrian government, led by President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, the current president, placed severe limits on personal self-expression. “You could say nothing at all,” Alomar says. “You cannot even think.” But even as a teenager, Alomar had begun to notice that most people didn’t seem bothered by this lack of freedom, or at least not enough to stand up for their basic rights. “I’m not talking about human rights, these big issues,” he explains. “I’m talking about the simple issues, of our ordinary lives, of our daily life. Many people say ‘yes, yes, yes,’ but nobody dared to say no.”
Alomar knew he’d move to America eventually. He has a knack for making predictions about his life that have come true, and he knew that temperamentally, with his preoccupation with freedom, he wouldn’t be able to survive in Syria. He also believed he’d have a better chance of establishing his name as a writer if he did it in the United States.
In the meantime, he studied Arabic literature at the University of Damascus and began publishing short stories in Syrian newspapers. He was particularly drawn to al-qissa al-qasira jiddan, which translates as “very short story.” It’s an old form of Arabic literature that goes back to the Middle Ages, but it found new life in the 1990s as writers discovered that it was a useful way to cope with the repression of the Assad regime. These stories don’t take up much space—some of Alomar’s are just a sentence long—and they read like fables, relying on characters that are more like archetypes and are often personified animals or objects. It’s obvious that the stories have some sort of allegorical meaning, but the meaning itself isn’t always obvious. This made it an ideal form for commenting on a dictatorial state. (Americans often tell Alomar that his stories remind them of Kafka, whom he greatly admires.)
For example, Alomar’s story “The Pride of Garbage,” which reads in its entirety as follows:
When the owner of the house picked up the bag of garbage and headed out to the street to throw it in the dumpster, the bag was overwhelmed with the fear that she would be put side by side with her companions. But when the man placed her on top of all the others, she became intoxicated with her greatness and looked down on them with disdain.
“It takes more than one interpretation,” Alomar explains. “You can take this story, you can make a projection on dictatorship. You can make a projection on people, ordinary people, the people who think—or any person who thinks—he is the best, he has an overblown ego. And really he’s just a garbage.”
The Syrian authorities, however, didn’t bother with the subtleties of literary criticism or interpretation. They simply regarded “The Pride of Garbage” as a very short story about a bag of garbage. And so Alomar could publish without repercussions.
By the time he reached his 30s, Alomar had established himself as a serious writer in Syria. He published three books of stories (O Man in 1999, Tongue Tie in 2003, and All Rights Not Reserved in 2008) and one of poetry (Man Said the Modern Word in 2000). He was able to quit his day job as a trader at a garment company and write full-time. He became part of a circle of artists and thinkers who gathered monthly in the Damascus apartment of Sahar Abu Harb, a writer and a feminist. This was one of many similar get-togethers, known as muntadayat in Arabic, that emerged during the Damascus Spring, a brief period of political liberation and reform after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president in 2000. That era ended after a little more than a year when Assad began cracking down hard on the intellectuals who opposed him, but Abu Harb’s group continued to meet in secret.
“It was a really vibrant group of people using their art to rethink some aspects of their society,” says Alomar’s friend and translator C.J. Collins, who attended several of the gatherings during his year as a Fulbright scholar in 2007. “In retrospect,” he continues, “I was naive at the time, I didn’t see it, but they were foreseeing the things that happened afterward, the advent of sectarianism and civil war. They were using their work to call that stuff into question.”
Alomar was always an active participant in the discussions, Collins recalls, often using his stories as a way to ground the conversation or bring it to another level. He has a way of condensing big ideas into pithy phrases. He describes the origins of the Syrian civil war in his story “Love Letter” this way: “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 citizens began to wake up, baring his fangs.”
It was no secret that Alomar wanted to come to America. Immigration was a dream of many Syrians, but out of reach to all but the wealthiest or luckiest. Alomar was lucky: his older brother and mother had immigrated to the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, respectively, and he was able to get a green card and join them in Chicago in 2008.
Alomar spent his first few months in America at his cousin’s house. When his cousin told him he needed to get a job, Alomar informed him he had come to the U.S. to be a writer. “He looked at me, just like that,” Alomar recalls, “and said, ‘You have to be realistic.’ So after three, four days, I was driving a cab. I never imagined that one day I would be a cabdriver even in my worst nightmares. I don’t like driving. I prefer a bicycle. Or walking.”
Alomar laughs as he tells this story. He laughs easily, especially at himself; in his stories, humiliation is usually the price his object-characters pay for taking themselves too seriously. In repose, his face is melancholy, even sad, but when he laughs, his head tips back and he looks almost beatific, like a Buddha. “We need to laugh,” he says. “When you laugh, you increase your spiritual immunity. If you become weak, you will lose everything. You will lose yourself.” (Or, as he writes in his story “Swamp,” “I turned into a swamp of inactivity, and because of this, no one was able to see the gems in my depths.”)
Driving did not prevent him from writing. He told himself that life has no respect for the weak (another aphorism) and that he had to be patient. His mind was always working on something. “The idea starts just like a stone, a small stone,” he explains. “So then I try to polish it, to work on it. Sometimes it takes a few days, sometimes weeks, sometimes even several months.” He would jot ideas and phrases down at traffic lights, in a notebook or on a Starbucks cup.
As a teenager, he practiced his English by playing and singing Beatles songs on the guitar. In America, he kept a stack of dictionaries in the passenger seat of his cab, both Arabic-English and Webster’s. His English improved, but not to the point where he could write in it or translate his old stories. He called his friend Collins for help.
Collins, who was then living in Massachusetts and working as a librarian, made several trips to Chicago for four or five days at a time. Alomar couldn’t afford to miss that many fares, so most of their work sessions took place in the front seat of his cab, between passengers.
“We would be sitting at the Rosemont train station, kind of dreading the next customer who would break our train of thought,” Collins recalls. “It was funny, the guesses the customers would make about who I was.”
Translation was a collaborative process. They’d go through the stories sentence by sentence, negotiating the proper words and phrasing. Alomar uses a deceptively clear standard Arabic in order to emphasize the ironic twists in his stories. But like a lot of written Arabic it comes off as formal and even old-fashioned in comparison with the spoken language. He and Collins debated how much of that formality to preserve in the English translation; whether to attempt a re-creation of the long, elaborate Arabic sentences or some of the puns; and whether to hold on to the gendered pronouns. (There is no neutral “it” in Arabic.) They opted to use a matter-of-fact but slightly formal English to create a sense of defamiliarization, and to refer to objects as “he” or “she” to emphasize their human qualities. For instance, “Trying to Pass,” which reads:
One of the minutes tried to pass her companion in front of her, but the hand of time slapped her so hard she was thrown back a couple of minutes. She was just starting to recover when she was slapped back into her place in time.
New Directions published Fullblood Arabian, Alomar’s first English-language collection, as a pamphlet in 2014. All the stories had been published in Alomar’s previous books in Arabic. Just 63 pages long, it contained 51 stories, a translator’s note by Collins, and a preface by the short-story writer and translator Lydia Davis, who placed Alomar’s work in the context of the international tradition of the very short story. (She compared him favorably to a long list of writers who would be more familiar to American readers, including Kafka, Oscar Wilde, and Karl Ove Knausgaard.)
Fullblood Arabian brought Alomar a fair amount of attention. The fact that he was working as a cabdriver was good for publicity, as was the growing awareness in the U.S. of the atrocities of the Syrian civil war. The New York Times did a profile. The stories were reprinted in literary magazines, including Ploughshares, Triquarterly, and the online editions of Vice and the New Yorker; the Internet, it seems, is as good a medium for obliquely political short short stories as Syrian newspapers were 20 years ago.
One of Alomar’s new readers was Henry Reese, cofounder and president of City of Asylum. “It certainly isn’t like anything I read before,” Reese says now of Fullblood Arabian. “There’s a fablelike character to it, but it’s not a fable. There’s a wittiness to it that’s like a joke, but it’s not a joke. It’s well done, but it strikes to the heart of many issues we deal with, in terms of the role of the writer in society and the relationship of the governed to the governing, things we find vital and important.” Reese invited Alomar and Collins to Pittsburgh for readings; they also used the time to work on the translations that would appear in The Teeth of the Comb.
As Reese got to know Alomar better, he began to get a sense of what his life was really like. “It hadn’t sunk in, how constrained his circumstances were,” Reese says. “As a creative artist, he’d been hamstrung. Our program is predicated on freeing that creativity.”
Alomar was thrilled when City of Asylum offered him the residency. To him, it wasn’t just an honor, but peace of mind. He gave up his taxi, cleared out his apartment in Schiller Park, and left for Pittsburgh at the end of February. City of Asylum owns most of the buildings on Sampsonia Way, a small street in the Middle Allegheny neighborhood. Previous visiting writers have left their mark by creating “house publications”—murals and stories painted on the exterior walls. Alomar has a two-bedroom apartment there, a living stipend and health care, and no other responsibilities for the next 14 months except to write. He’s working on two books, one he describes as “a book of wisdoms” and the other a novel that combines elements of autobiography and the Syrian civil war. Although he hasn’t experienced any Islamophobia personally since he’s been in the U.S., he’s seen the effects of the war.
“Actually, most of my writings are about the Syrian war,” he says, “because this war affects not only the Syrians but I think it affects the whole world. [Other] governments become more strict about refugees. Partly I understand them, because they want to protect their countries, but what about the children and what about women and what about the civilians? I think most of them, they generalize: ‘You are from Middle East? You are a terrorist. You are Muslim? You are a terrorist.’ It doesn’t make sense at all.” (Alomar is Muslim, but not observant. “Actually, my religion is humanity,” he says. “I want to celebrate the humans, to encourage their feelings, their ideas without any kind of fear. To express their talents.”)
Here in Chicago there’s been a growing awareness of the high cost of the war, particularly after the new immigration rulings placed restrictions on Syrian refugees entering the country. Nick Patricca, a playwright and professor emeritus at Loyola University, learned about City of Asylum and other similar programs during a PEN International congress in Quebec City in the fall of 2015. City of Asylum is part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an organization of more than 60 cities in Europe and North America that offer refuge to writers and artists who face persecution in their home countries.
Given the lack of funds in both Illinois and Chicago, Patricca was under no illusion that he and his collaborators at the Guild Literary Complex would be able to raise enough money to create a program here that would operate on the same scale as City of Asylum. But there were still things they could offer: office space, free Internet, and library privileges—all courtesy of Loyola—and opportunities for the writers to read from their work and be heard.
By the time Chicago City of Refuge was ready to launch, Alomar had already accepted the residency in Pittsburgh. But he participated in the program’s inaugural event at Loyola, where he and the Nigerian-born writer and LGBT activist Unoma Azuah read from their work and discussed the persecution they’d endured in their home countries. This weekend at Loyola he’ll read from The Teeth of the Comb and talk about the Syrian political situation with Riad Ismat, a playwright, director, and former Syrian minister of culture who now lives in Chicago, and Wendy Pearlman, a political science professor at Northwestern.
Although he misses Chicago, Alomar is very happy to be in Pittsburgh. The mountains, he says, remind him of the mountains of life. But mostly he’s enjoying the peace of mind and the freedom to write. And he believes freedom will come to Syria someday. “In the long term, they cannot repress freedom of expression,” he says. “It’s something inside people’s nature. It’s a kind of instinct.
“I’m still optimistic,” he continues, “because I’m still alive. I can read. I can write. I can work. I’m still alive.” v