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A Conversation with Osama Alomar

The City of Asylum writer-in-residence from Syria on style, substance and not being understood

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Osama Alomar is the kind of person who speaks softly, but leans forward so you can hear him clearly. Raised in Syria by a book-loving family — his father taught philosophy and his mother, elementary school — he started writing when he was 13, inspired by the works of Kahlil Gibran, who “was the writer who made me decide to become a writer.” 

Alomar wanted to come to America around the age of 18, but had to finish college first. After several years, he started writing full time, focusing on short stories, poetry and essays. Alomar’s early work was published in newspapers, and the BBC Arabic Service. At 30, he published his first book, O Human, in Arabic. [Editor’s note: While censorship is common in Syria, Alomar does not cite it as a major factor in his writing.]

Eventually, Alomar moved to Chicago, where he drove a cab for eight years, as he couldn’t get any other job. He logged 11-hour shifts, seven days a week. This was a depressing period of his life. 

He had little time to write, but still managed to collaborate with his translator, C.J. Collins, who sat next to him in the cab, translating, as he drove. Alomar’s works are mostly very short stories, some of them parable-like; his first full-length work to be translated into English was the collection Fullblood Arabian, in 2014. The book drew national media attention, and praise from admirers including the writer Lydia Davis.

Alomar, now 49, applied to City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, and in Februrary was awarded a one-year residency, on the North Side. He loves to write at Starbucks, and composes with pen and paper, not a computer. His latest book is The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories (New Directions Press).

The style of The Teeth of the Comb could be called aphoristic. Why this style?
The style chose me. I don’t care about genre. The most important thing for me is to put my heart and soul on paper. To be honest with myself and with my readers. I always try to make my stories open texts. I want to make my readers think a lot about my texts because I respect my readers. I want them to use their minds.

Do people ever misunderstand your stories?
Sometimes they say, “What do you mean? Your writing is very mysterious.” I say, “I cannot explain it to you. You need to explain it to yourself.” My stories are not beach books.

Which writers have influenced you?
The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edgar Allan Poe was a genius in my opinion. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea influenced me a lot. Herman Melville was a great novelist. John Steinbeck. Several French writers: Rousseau, Sartre, Camus — especially The Stranger. And Nietzsche, Kafka.

How about Arabic writers?
We have a great poet, Muhammad al-Maghout, who passed away a few years ago. He was Syrian. Also, the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize. And the Syrian poet Adonis. [Editor’s note: “Adonis” is the pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber.]

Did you leave Syria because of the war?
I left before the war, in 2008. I came to the U.S. to establish my name as a writer, and to establish my freedom, too. As a writer, I can do nothing without freedom. Freedom is creativity. Creativity is freedom. That’s why I publish my books in Lebanon, because there’s no censorship there.

Did coming here change the way you write?
No.

What are you working on now?
A novel about the Syrian war. It’s taking a while. I’m in no rush because I want to make it a good story.

You write in Arabic, then work with your collaborator to translate into English. Describe this process.
If you want to translate a creative work, you need to be creative, too. When Baudelaire translated Poe into French, the translation was better than the original text. Why? Because Baudelaire himself was a great artist. C.J. and I spend many, many days on translating: revising, revising. It’s a very long process and not easy at all. But it’s very exciting.

Are you better understood here, or in Arabic countries?
Very good question. Many people told me, “Even in Syria, your style is very strange.” Whether in Syria, or here. I always hear that.

So which audience is more understanding?
Actually, young people. Young people like my writings a lot. I’m happy for that.

What’s it like living in Pittsburgh?
It’s a wonderful place. I’m happy here because it was a tipping point in my life. I went back to my soul. To my real life, writing, reading. It’s a quiet city and I’m a quiet person.

Any final thoughts?
In my writing, I want to create more awareness of the Syrian disaster. There are victims every day. Innocent people. Women and children. It’s hell. As you know there’s Syrian refugees everywhere now, maybe even in outer space.


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