Syrian writer Osama Alomar at City of Asylum | Program Notes

Syrian writer Osama Alomar at City of Asylum

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Great reading last Tuesday by a singular expatriate voice.

Alomar emigrated to the U.S. from Syria in 2008, and he's just published his first chapbook in translation, Fullblood Arabian (New Directions).

Odds are you haven't heard of Alomar, but he's making a name for himself. The introduction to his book was written by no less than Lydia Davis, the critically acclaimed flash-fiction author.

No coincidence there, because Alomar himself writes something like flash fiction, though often with an allegorical or fabulist twist.

Here, in its entirety, is one he read last week at a salon-style event at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, on the North Side, titled "Tongue Tie."

"Before leaving for work I tied my tongue into a great tie. My colleagues congratulated me on my elegance. They praised me to our boss, who expressed admiration and ordered all employees to follow my example."

Alomar, who drives a cab in Chicago, speaks good English and writes in Arabic. He was accompanied by his translator, C.J. Collins, who read a couple of Alomar's stories as well. Though Collins lives in New York state, he and Alomar actually do most of their translation work in Alomar's cab when Collins is able to visit, which makes for some amusing conversations with passengers.

The visit to City of Asylum came with a sort of mini-residency: The group put them up for three days so they could work on new translations uninterrupted by dispatchers or fares waving from street corners.

Alomar's stories reminded me a lot of some of Kafka's very short pieces. Here is one of Kafka's titled "Couriers":

"They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other — since there are no kings — messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service."

Last Tuesday, during the Q&A, I asked Alomar about Kafka and he said the famed writer was a big influence — though he said he considered Kafka less a writer per se than a philosopher. Collins added that Kafka's take on the oppressiveness of bureaucracy had considerable resonance in modern Syria, which Collins visited several years back and where he first met Alomar.

Alomar left Syria well before the current civil war there, but many of his stories comment, if allegorically, on political repression in his homeland.

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