As a writer, fables have always eluded me. I am not a pious person, but when I try to write a fable, I try so hard to make it meaningful that it comes out pious, pretentious, overwrought. Osama Alomar does not have that problem. His book, The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories, is a delicate, sometimes hilarious, and often starkly heartbreaking collection of modern fables. Alomar worked with C.J. Collins to translate his Arabic stories into English, and while some of them seem like they could be from land in any time, others like “The God of Virtues” dive into hypermodern questions—“What if Satan joined Facebook?”—and many wrestle, either directly or obliquely, with the ravages of war.
No matter the topic, however, Alomar manages the trick I never can: his parables are never didactic. They’re warm, human, occasionally terrifying, but at no point do you feel the author sitting you down to deliver wisdom. These fables are jewels, each facet showing you a different corner of humanity.
Rather than a standard review I thought the best way to give you a taste of Alomar’s work was by quoting a few of the stories. Believe me, there are plenty more, and if you like these, you’ll love the entire book.
In “Don’t Give Up the Fight,” Alomar sums up protest movements and proletarian struggle by giving life and will to a hose, and speech to a horse:
While cavorting in a field, the wild horse felt overjoyed to see a water hose flailing in all directions, water spraying from it fearsomely as a farmer tried in vain to grab hold of it. The horse shouted as loud as he could, encouraging the hose, “Don’t give up the fight!”
The hose answered him enthusiastically, “Right on, my friend!”
“Descender” could be a wise commentary on the need for empathy for others, and a reminder to be kind to everyone, lest your social roles be reversed in the future. Or, it’s just a hilarious tale of shit-talking elevators:
The elevator that was going up to the top floor looked at his colleague who was going down to the lowest and called to him disdainfully, “You descender!”
But after a while the roles were reversed and so were the names.
And in “They Stick Out Their Tongues at Me!” life plays a particularly dark joke on the narrator:
When I was young I would laugh at old people all the time. Now I am old and the memories of my youth have begun to stick out their tongues at me and dance their eyebrows, say, “Hey old man!”
The book’s darker themes become apparent quickly, and are returned to often. The weak are repeatedly exploited by the strong, whether it’s human oppressing each other, the wind acting as a tyrant against leaves and feather, or, as in “Mutiny,” people putting down a Clock Rebellion:
The clocks all over the world decided to stand unified before the tyranny and absolute hegemony of time. Each clock began to move her hands as she pleased and wherever she wanted. They shouted with one voice. “Long live freedom! Down with tyranny and oppression!” They toasted their freedom and independence. After a while, however, people all over the world took off their wristwatches and pulled their clocks down from their walls and threw them all in the garbage, forming the largest clock graveyard in the world. A new generation of clocks was produced which contained a device to prevent them moving their hands as they pleased. The clocks cried bitter tears for the return of tyranny.
In Alomar’s stories, the heavens themselves are sentient and alive, and watching humans with a mixture of curiosity and horror. Stars watch as military heavies beat civilians to death. Te moon eclipses herself to punish humans for their cruelty, only to realize that they love watching the eclipse. A child starves in the the streets thinking that the stars are as cold and lonely as he is. People build temples to money, never realizing that the money is conscious and traumatized from constantly being exchanged and moved to new, unfamiliar wallets. Even numbers seem to have internalized human value systems:
The number seven looked at zero standing to his left and said to him, “O Nothing! O Nobody, you are like a beggar or a bum among the humans. Nothing good or profitable can come from you!” But zero went along calmly until he cameto the right side of seven. Seven was struck with surprise and looked at zero with great respect.
“Will you remain my guest forever?” seven asked in a voice flooded with flattery. “And what would be nicer that if you invited the greatest possible number of your friends among the zeros to join you!”
For every sweet, anthropomorphic animal or inadvertently funny bag of garlic, there’s a king or a tyrant abusing his subjects. Tanks roll through the book, buildings fall, people are ground into dust. It isn’t even so much the shadow of war that hangs over this book—it’s the utter fact of human destruction. The poor and weak are going to be crushed. Those who try to fight are going to be disappeared into unmarked cars and lightless cells. Revolutions are temporary, and art is always at risk.
As the shepherd played on his little reed flute, his instrument stared sorrowfully at the barrel of a nearby cannon, thinking, “I wish I were as big as that flute! I bet his melodies reach far across the world.”
And in a little while the giant flute began to play his tune.
Here is a classic fable, an anthropomorphized flute, given sentience and, more importantly, envy. His mistaking of a cannon for a fellow flute is cute and funny at first. And then Alomar twists the story in only a few words, creating an ominous tale of war. The fragility of art is set against giant, inevitable machines of war.
I feel that I can’t leave this essay without telling you a little bit about Alomar himself. He wrote many of the stories in this collection in Syria, speaking about his writing to London Review of Books:
…because of the dictatorship most of my stories are political and social. However, there was also very strict censorship, and I used humor in my stories to allow for more than one interpretation, to avoid being censored. It also allows you to realize the difference between one reader and another, how their experience changes their interpretation of the story.
He left Damascus, Syria, almost a decade ago. He came to the United States in the hopes of becoming an author here, but, more immediately, finding the freedom to say and write what he pleased. Because of his emigration he escaped that war that has ripped his homeland apart since 2011. If he hadn’t come here, the world may have lost him entirely, and we certainly would not have his fables. We have this book, and his previous book, Fullblood Arabian, because he and his friend C.J. Collins sat in the front of a cab and translated Alomar’s work together. Alomar had to work seven days a week, driving a cab in Chicago, in order to make enough money to survive and stay in the US. He now lives in my home city of Pittsburgh, as part of their City of Asylum program, which will allow him to write full time for a year. But you’re able to hold his book in your hands and his words in your mind because this country allowed him to come, and because he and his friend were willing to sit in his cab in between fares and write together. Rather than giving up and remaking himself entirely as a cabbie, he chose to skip breaks and force himself to remain a writer for at least a few moments each day, painstakingly taking Arabic that he’d written under a dictatorship, and transforming it into English to try to become a published author in his new country. He has friends who didn’t make it out. When his Damascus apartment was destroyed in a bombing in 2014, he lost a novel and more stories.
So now that I’ve told you that, I’ll say again: this book is incredibly funny, and that’s part of the point. For every prisoner kicked and beaten by a guard, every civilian murdered by military brass, every instance of the weak being crushed by the strong, there are another five fables that are perfect little jewel-like jokes. Reading this book, you will laugh, and then turn the page to find yourself back in a dank prison. The jokes and the talking horses will unbalance you, allow the prisoners to creep into your mind and set up camp until you can’t ignore them anymore.
In this case, one tiny case, art escaped war. Something as fragile as a laugh proved stronger than a tank. But this is only one case. How many words have we lost? How many are we going to lose if our doors our closed and our walls are raised?