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Fighting misery, oppression through art

Elliot Ziwira At the Bookstore
WHEN the heart bleeds, the mind burdened and the soul is weighed down by suffering, the body becomes emaciated and enervated. It is during such times that reality and the metaphysical become intertwined with the symbolic elements that make up Man’s world, to create interfaces of hope and regeneration.

In an oppressive and miserable world, everything is skewed in favour of the might whose deification and reverence lead to a class struggle that pits the poor at the deep end, where they eke out a non-existent living in the dustbins of their dreams.

Unable to find solace in the reality of their condition, they seek the elixir in reverie, religion, alcohol and death; all of which are mere hallucinatory attempts to tame their suffering. Gagged by poverty, subjugation and fear; real or imagined, the individual’s voice becomes a muffle of suffocated hope.

As the voice of the voiceless and “truth’s defence”, the artist avails himself/herself as a sacrificial lamb, whose ink becomes the blood that is shed on the printing press to give a lifeline to his/her people.

It is against this backdrop that the reading of “Iraqi Short Stories: An Anthology” (1988), edited by Yassen Taha Hafidh and Lutfiyah Al-Dilaimi becomes apt and revealing.

The book published by Dar Al-Ma’mun for Translation and Publishing (1988), Ministry of Information and Culture, is the effort of 37 Iraqi writers born between 1921 and 1957.

The writers whose works were previously published in Arabic, tell the Iraqi story from the 1930s to the 80s in such a way that brings to the fore the universality of suffering, misery and hope in an oppressive world.

The artistes use different tropes to take a swipe at the agents of imperialism, royalists, feudal lords and their beneficiaries who rob the common man of his daily bread and usurp his dreams.

They are on a social mission to denounce misery through effective use of metaphors and symbolism, which allows the reader a leeway to interpret the fictional experiences in a plethora of ways.

The possible outcomes are vast as the stories are transcendental; cutting across geographical boundaries, religion and ethnicity.

The opening story, “Sickness” by Abdul Malik Nouri, pokes at the universal neurosis that leads to the stasis, paralysis and malaise at the centre of the family unit, community and nation.

Told in the first person voice, the story visits the familiar turf of normlessness, alienation and the search for identity. It is the story of Amin Uthman, who, in his search for an identity, runs away from himself.

Torn between himself, the world that he believes hates him and his runaway sweetheart; he believes that existence owes him an apology, as everything becomes a “sickness” that waylays him.

Tormented by the loss of his sweetheart whose features he scantly recalls, the protagonist bumps into her as a prostitute who has assumed a novel way of impassionate kissing. He feels the need to hold her as they used to do, and yet the distance that was created by her sudden departure haunts him.

His entire world becomes a mist that takes him in, and he somehow remains outside.

“Song of the Turnip Vendor” by Nizar Saleem explores the darkness of Man’s heart, his selfishness and deceit. The story examines the dearth of values, the rise of individualism steeped in violence and the demise of a collective struggle against poverty and oppression.

Khamees, the turnip vendor, recalls the days he used to sell hot turnips in winter and ice-cream in summer to an exuberant and tightly knit clientele that called him “Uncle Khamees”.

His story merges with Noriya’s, whose aunt is fond of boiled turnips, which the vendor is no longer keen on delivering to her street because of the closure of the students’ hostel as a result of violent disturbances.

The students were the vendor’s friends and gave him good business. They would ask him to sing for them, and he would willingly do so and everyone would rejoice in between mouthfuls of hot turnips or gleeful licks of ice-cream.

The vendor recalls Sami and his friends, Shamil and Ali; great buddies, indeed.

However, with the voyeur inherent in Man that usually derives excitement in trauma, beckoning for its share, Khamees sinks, as he witnesses deceit at its ugliest slot. As the violence erupts at the students’ hostel, Shamil and Ali turn against Sami whom they clobber to death.

Khamees recalls: “They took hold of him. I shouted at them: You’re brothers. What is wrong with you? What has happened? You, Shamil, and you Ali . . . you’re brothers.

“Yesterday you’re all together, but today you are against him.”

Although there is no direct reference to political violence in the story, and most of the stories in the collection, connotative deductions can easily be drawn through interpretation of the symbols, metaphors and images used.

As brother rises against brother in the rat race for superiority, the feeble and vulnerable remain rooted on the first rung of the ladder to spiritual and physical satiation.

The vendor, like most of his ilk, who are a creation of the capitalistic inclinations of the oppressor, is far from a beneficiary as his poor customers may presume.

A conduit between the oppressor and the oppressed, Khamees does not only offer a service to mitigate their suffering, but he also suffers the vagaries of nature and Man alike, because he has to be in the open day and night.

The heinous side of Man confronts him first in the solemn streets as he tries to keep body and soul together. Although the book recollects episodes of the Iraqi story through realism and inspiration from the French, Russian and English traditions, the stories are refreshingly unique.

The narrative points of view vary and heighten the thematic issues raised. Love, marriage, oppression in all its facets and culture are some of the themes given prominence in the anthology.

“Government Bread” by Edmon Sabri and Abdul Rahman Majeed Al-Rubai’i’s “The Hero and the City” examine the tendency to sugar-coat the real issues that affect the common man through flimsy myopic policies, which are used as a stop gap measure or fodder.

In “Government Bread” misery, a culmination of the rise in the prices of goods and souring unemployment rates, is aggravated, instead of being mitigated, because government’s idea to give free bread to the suffering masses does not in any way solve the problem.

Ismail, who had been a soldier for 10 years before losing his eye, believes that his wife Maheeba needs more than just bread to be able to provide milk to their suckling baby.

Like all the others braving the cold dawns of their lives for a morsel of bread, he wants a little money, so he writes a petition, which unfortunately is not delivered.

In pursuit of novel heroes, the people are entranced by a wrestling hero in town as portrayed in “The Hero and the City”. All roads in Baghdad are leading to the Mal’ab (stadium) to watch the great wrestler, Fawzi al-Baghdadi (hero of Baghdad), who has defeated “many challengers who had come from Europe”, and is said to be “a source of pride to Iraq and the Arab nation.”

The protagonist, Adil and his friend Nassir try not to be swayed by this frenzy, as they are conscious of the nascent lie within, but in their quest to escape they remain entangled in the same web they purport to be running away from.

Wherever they go; cafés, hotels or any other public place, the talk on TV or radio, is all about the new hero in Baghdad.

In a community where everyone is blind, indeed, the one eyed man is king.

Stories like “Orbit”, “The Five Rivers of Paradise”, “The spectacles” and “Mud Structures” by Mahmoud Al-Dhahir, Ghazi Al-Abadi, Abdul Razzaq Al-Muttalibi and Khudhayir Abdul Amir, respectively, highlight the oppressive tendencies that stifle individual expression, as everything is seen through borrowed or stolen spectacles.

Borrowed solutions to internal problems are always baneful. Solutions should always be sought through a collective and selfless platform.

Notwithstanding the travails that have become the alpha of the oppressed, the omega should not be seen embedded in death or any other form of escapism.

There is so much hope in spirituality, yes, but that alone cannot take all and sundry to kingdom come.

In “Picking Season” Lutfiya Al-Dilaimi is conscious of the social barriers that impede on women’s progress and freedom. She also lashes out at rigidity and the fight against change outlined through time, as both oppressive and retrogressive.

Time brings about change, and the predominant feeling of change is difficult to subdue, but that same change should not in any way be confrontational. It has to be compromisingly constructive.

“Iraqi Short Stories: An Anthology” (1988) does not only tell the story of Iraq, but it chronicles a universal story that engrosses all of us.

Source : The Herald

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