Short Story Review – Hisham Bustani – Faisaly and Wehdat (trans. Maia Tabet)

Note, October 2018 – I have altered the text of this review slightly based on some feedback provided by Hisham Bustani.  In abstract, my sensitivities to some of the generalisations and specifics of Bustani’s short story are less finely tuned than that of a literate Jordanian or Arabic reader.  I missed, or misread, a reference that was clearly intended to be presented in a different manner.  Specifically, the words ‘The Jew’ was replaced with ‘The Israeli’ in the seventh paragraph of my review, not including quotations.

When he reached the clubhouse, he was lost in a wave of green men streaming forth on their way to the confrontation.

And

When he reached the clubhouse, he was lost in a sea of blue men, and the blue wave streamed out to the confrontation.

The first two paragraphs of Hisham Bustani’s short story, Faisaly and Wehdat (translated by Maia Tabet) concern a green man waking from a green dream.  He readies himself for the day, drinks two glasses of green milk, and then considers the upcoming confrontation.  Ready or not, it’s coming.

The third and fourth paragraphs concern a blue man waking from a blue dream.  He, too, readies himself for the day, though his milk is blue.  A confrontation approaches.

Soon, green and blue men clash, screaming and stabbing and wounding and killing.  Dying.  They are angry – at one another?  Certainly, but why?  The struggle seems both ancient and recent, and definitely recurring.  It’s a battle without end, and what benefit is there to being the victor?  Blood, of course, runs red, and as the men die they become colourless.

“That is your homeland and don’t you ever forget it,” they would say to him, recounting stories of expulsion, massacre, and betrayal—meaning the Arabs’ betrayal. “The Arabs betrayed us and never bothered to find out what became of us, and now they torment us, just like the Jews, if not worse,” his father had told him one evening. His friend and the neighbor’s son said the same thing.

It’s not really a cyclical confrontation because it just never seems to end.  There’s no pause, no gap.  Brothers die, fathers die, sons die.  The ones who are left make new sons, who also die.  Green or blue, they end up smashed into pulp on the ground.

Bustani juxtaposes a green and a blue man’s experience immediately before the battle, and they are largely the same.  Of course, there are minor exceptions, but the words choices carry more similarities than differences, and it’s made very clear, before the battle begins, that these men are the same except for their colour.  Which, I suppose, matters more than anything.

Toward the end of the story the structure breaks, the viewpoint of the story widens, and we become privy to the real power-brokers behind the confrontation.

His highness and majesty says: Here is my kindling wood, ready for your fire. I will chop and pile and sort, favoring some over others, until they crowd my door. Such is my kingdom in the likeness of a woodshop.

This is just one.  There are others, and they are archetypal examples (the Englishman, the general, the Israeli, the refugee, the bosses).  All have a vested interest in the battle between the blue and the green men continuing – well, forever.

It is easy to imagine Bustani wrote this story angry.  It reads angry.  It’s clear that he sees his people as pawns in other people’s games, and clearer still that, at least for now, it doesn’t seem as though there is an easy way out.  The repetition of the activities of the two differently coloured men really hammers this home, but in a way that adds to the dread of the situation.  It’s a trick, yes, but an effective one.

Later, when the story breaks into a ‘live transmission’ of the dying and the dead, and then a ‘Salvador Dalí painting’ where powerful men discuss powerless men, the tricks expand and well – we’re delving into literary pyrotechnics here.  But the story is able to hold up, and if anything this deepens the impact.   Bustani clearly knows what he is doing, and throwing in stylistic curveballs serves to heighten the fable-like, fantasy elements of the story.  He doesn’t need to be beholden to realism when dealing with highly stylised blue and green men, and so he isn’t – clever choices.

And no, there aren’t any happy endings here.  The blue men and the green men don’t reach a point where they throw down their weapons and embrace one another.  Instead, the story ends on a particularly violent death, which suggests that while the reader may have learned something, the men themselves have not, and that nothing at all will change until they do.  But who is going to tell them?  Not the government, who benefits from conflict.  Not the capitalists, who profit from death.  Not the religious leaders, who stir up feelings from outrage.  Not the generals, who gain recruits from pictures of dismembered limbs and rotting corpses.  Not the writers, too, who are able to draw from an endless well of misery and pain.  Everyone benefits except the blue and the green.

Faisaly and Wehdat is a short story by Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani, and was translated by Maia Tabet.  You can read the story online at Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism & Translation.

Author Hisham Bustani
Title Faisaly and Wehdat
Translator Maia Tabet
Nationality Jordanian
Publisher Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism & Translation

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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