Short Story Review – Rasha Abbas – How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile (trans. Fatima El-Kalay)

The central metaphor to Rasha Abbas’ short story, How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile (trans. Fatima El-Kalay) is abundantly apparent throughout the text, but you know what?  That’s ok.  Writing as someone who lives in a peaceful, quiet country (Australia), the message being conveyed is foreign to me, completely so – it is not and could not be a lived experience.  Not for me.  But for the narrator?  And the other people in her country?  Oh, yes.

The narrator has had poor eyesight for as long as she can remember.  Early on, she receives new glasses, and now she can see the city as it is.  As it is, which is to say – bombed streets, ruined buildings, missiles and helicopters overhead.  They were always there, but not for her.  She lived a more pleasant life before attaining clarity.

A few days later I received my new glasses. Things were undoubtedly better, but it was too late to see the city. Instead, all I got to see were very lucid scenes of red missiles, flaring in the night, heading to some unknown place, fired from the bottom of the mountain that overlooked our elevated window. Or the sight of military helicopters slowly hovering in the early morning, on their way to other neighborhoods.

This is, politely, a violent place.  Somewhere that is utterly foreign to me.

On the way, there was a police officer joking with a local child. He pointed his rifle at him and asked him which football team he supported. The boy exposed his belly in defiance before the rifle, proud of his preferred team, even though it apparently didn’t go down well with the policeman.

Ah, my Western sense of what is ordinary and right are in trouble!  Abbas is able to reframe the conflict in Syria to be new to the narrator via the mechanism of the new glasses, which then allows it to be explained to a foreign reader.  Not that she is obliged to do this, of course; writers from far-off countries to myself are under no obligation to serve as teachers or educators.  But it is appreciated nonetheless.

There is a lot crammed into these short pages.  An aside about a butcher’s son, who babbles and burns pictures of the President and gives presents to children, and who may have been vanished along with his father – this is great, evocative, interesting writing.  It contrasts neatly with the more matter-of-fact appreciation of violence and destruction from the narrator, as she finally sees her city for what it is.

 He loved wild birds, and would catch them and place them in cages, and forcefully give them as gifts to the local children.

The ending is very neat indeed.  Swimming in a pool with a friend she has made, the narrator wonders to herself at how miserable it must be to have always seen clearly.  And there’s something to that, there’s something to being forced into an awakening about what is familiar and known.  We must reassess, we must see things with new eyes, and it is hurts us, so be it.  If it helps us, so be it.  Seeing the world afresh each day is an impossibility to which we must at least attempt.  And how wonderful if we can do it once or twice a month?  Revelatory.

With appreciation from M Lynx Qualey for providing the copy of ArabLit.

How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile is a short story by Syrian writer Rasha Abbas, translated by Fatima El-Kalay.  

Author Rasha Abbas
Title How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile
Translator Fatima El-Kalay
Nationality Syrian
Publisher Arablit Quarterly

 

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