Stories from unwanted nations
‘Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations,’ edited by Sarah Cleave (Comma Press, £10, pages)
In January 2017, in one of his first acts as U.S. president, Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, banning all people from seven Muslim majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya – from entering the United States for 90 days. The move also put a temporary halt on all refugee resettlement and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely.
The order has since been blocked, challenged and revised. But it was seen as a continuation of Trump’s campaign pledge to impose a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. A year-and-a-half since he first entered office, Trump has only become more poetic, notoriously questioning why the U.S. continues to allow immigration from “shithole countries.”
The idea for “Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations” was born amid the chaos of the initial ban. The small Manchester-based publisher Comma Press brought together seven men and women from the so-called “banned nations” to develop a “fictional response to Trump’s ban, exploring themes of exile, travel and restrictions on movement,” writes editor Sarah Cleave in the introduction.
The concept may be rather worthy, but the book is generally a subtle selection of stories from “shitholes.” At barely 80 pages the volume is remarkably slim. Few of the contributions are longer than 10 pages but their tone and style is varied: Some are emotional, some are humorous, some are literal, and some are whimsically allegorical.
Zaher Omareen’s “The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling” presents an amusing but serious meditation on a migrant’s journey from Syria to Sweden via Paris. The story is full of darkly comic ruminations, as the narrator struggles with fake passports and has to pretend to be both the husband of a Hungarian ambassador and a Greek student doctor. But then the reader is confronted by a sudden, sharp reflection: “There were many Syrians in Greece, we all looked the same: broken and humiliated faces with no names. We were all individuals until we reached Europe.”
Perhaps the most direct and emotionally resonant contribution is “Storyteller” by the pseudonymous Iraqi author Anoud (who previously featured in “Iraq +100,” a speculative look at what Iraq may look like 100 years after the U.S. invasion. “Storyteller” is the only piece in the selection in which Trump is directly mentioned, depicting the psychological and physical effects of hellish recent decades in Iraq and the cruelty of the anti-migrant ban. We are given an almost Brueghelian picture of ordinary life going on as a traumatized woman recounts extraordinary things in a London curry house.
The final contribution, “The Slow Man” by Yemeni novelist Wajdi ah-Ahdal, shifts the tone. The story is a heady mixture of historical allegory and speculative theorizing. It reimagines the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis (also known as Yusuf from the 12th sura of the Quran), describing an Egyptian border guard forbidding the entry of all Babylonians into the country. The commander does not add “until we can figure out what the hell is going on,” but the present-day reverberations are clear.
Works commissioned and promoted by publishers from the Middle East and North Africa sometimes essentialize their subjects. As the editor Cleave warns, writers themselves are often expected to “bear the burden of representing an entire region or country.” Despite the guiding concept behind the volume, “Banthology” avoids this pitfall. The result is a stimulating and moving volume.
* An edited version of this article previously appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via iTunes here, Stitcher here, Podbean here, or Facebook here, or Twitter here.