This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) residency — the world’s oldest and largest multinational writing residency — will host another thirty to thirty-five authors this year, among them Saudi author Abdullah al-Wesali, Sudanese writer Sabah Sanhouri, and Egyptian poet, novelist, and translator Ahmed Shafie:
Over the decades, the program has hosted more than 1,400 writers from more than 130 nations, including Palestinian poet and Beirut39 laureate Najwan Darwish, popular Egyptian novelist and blogger Ghada Abdel-Aal, and celebrated Syrian novelist Nihad Sirees, among many others.
This year’s program is set to begin August 23, and thus far information about twenty of the residents has been revealed.
Certainly, not all 1,400 residents have become internationally celebrated authors, but a good number of them have, or should be.
On al-Wesali, from the IWP:
Abdullah AL WESALI (fiction writer; Saudi Arabia) is the author of short story collections [The Glow of Dusty Times] (2003) and [Gametes] (2010), and the novel [One Foot of Thickness] (2009), presently banned in his home country. Al Wesali is the coordinator of the Dammam Cultural Forum of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture & Arts, and writes a weekly column on social issues for the daily Alyaum. His most recent novel [Predestinations of the Township] was published earlier this year. He participates courtesy of the U.S. Consulate in Dhahran.
The writing sample for al-Wesali (@attasaad1) seems to have been taken from New Voices from Arabia, and translated by Alice Guthrie. Some of the short-shorts seem very small and closed-ended, but the story “Ice Cream” makes for an interesting, brief, nauseating portrait of a moment in a mall:
Waiting for her mahram, she looked out from the two holes of her cover which she had grown accustomed to seeing the world through, and saw the young man. He had jet-black glossy hair and western features. His smiling eyes, despite their stillness, shone with passionate desire as they beheld a cone of brightly colored ice cream, piled high. Persuasive words of an enticing offer were at the bottom of the ad.
Although the sun had set almost completely, the air still felt hot. She headed for the ice cream shop to quench her thirst. Once the cone was in her hand, its drab colors confirmed what she had suspected when she saw that the shop assistant’s only similarity to the man in the advert was the uniform he wore.
Now that she was outside the mall, she didn’t know how she had ever been able to ignore all those staring men, sitting in their cars in the car park, who now focused on her more than any of the women waiting there.
She considered licking the ice cream when she felt it trickling down her hand in a cold sticky dribble. Then she changed her mind: it would be a difficult procedure without lifting the niqab that covered her face. Keep reading “Ice Cream” and all of al-Wesali’s samples.
Sabah SANHOURI (fiction writer; Sudan) is a freelance journalist. Her story “The Isolation” won the El-Tayeb Saleh competition for Youth Short Story Writers and has been made into a short film; it was published by Words Without Borders, and appeared in French and Arabic translations. A story collection, [Mirrors], came out in Egypt and Sudan earlier this year. Her participation is made possible by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S Department of State.
Sanhouri’s short story, “Isolation” — ranslated from the Arabic by Max Schmookler, with Najlaa Othman — originally appeared in Words Without Borders. It is a story looking at a story looking at a story, but it also makes some interesting moves.
I continue walking down the road. The houses on both sides of the street appear to be completely still. Wait, I think, what is that over there? A windmill, how ironic! A windmill? It looks like they built it before the wind retired. Indeed, the wind must have worked here. Is there anyone inside? I sneak in and see a number of spiderwebs — and even they look abandoned. But where are the spiders? I spin around. There are a number of flour sacks and a container of unmilled grain. Someone must be here, I think. Yes, it is ridiculous to think that there is no one here, not a single person, not even a spider. Even a rat would be enough for me. I ask you, please, I will call out in my loudest voice and perhaps some people will wake up. But let me not be greedy. It’s enough to ask for one person, a single person to awake. Fine, I will cry out . . . But oh my god. Can I not shout? Why will the words not come out? It would be enough if I could pronounce the letters one by one, but what language do I speak? I know I am able to speak, I am certain of it because I am always thinking in this language. Yet I speak only to myself and I do not speak to myself out loud. Is this because I am afraid that I will be called crazy or that I’m afraid someone will hear my secrets? How I wish they would call me crazy, just let them appear before me and call me crazy and I would be ecstatic. Keep reading “Isolation.”
And finally, Shafie (@ahmadsshafie):
Ahmed SHAFIE (poet, fiction writer, translator; Egypt) is the author of the poetry collection [and Other Poems] (2009) and the novel [The Creator] (2013). He has translated Charles Simic, Billy Collins, Lucille Clifton, and an anthology of Afro-American poems into Arabic. Shafie writes for the poetry translation blog ‘Aswast men Honak’ [Distant Voices], and blogs at ‘Qera’at Ahmed Shafie,’ [Readings of Ahmed Shafie]. His participation is made possible by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
If you feel you’ve read an English-language excerpt of Shafie’s The Creator already, you have — onQisasukhra. This excerpt was translated by Robin Moger. But read this witty, entertaining, sharply translated excerpt again. A bit of it:
As a child I would be astonished whenever they excavated in our village and found nothing beneath the soil except water and clay. I was quite sure that anyone digging a fairly deep trench beneath our village—an Egyptian village, ancient to the point of decrepitude—would have himself a vertical cross-section of accumulated history, would see with his own eyes Islamic dwellings stacked on Coptic stacked on Pharaonic and, oh, the naivety of it all… But early on I learned why this was fantasy. One of our teachers had told us there was no archaeology worth mentioning in the Nile Delta, due to its abundance of groundwater. So history dissolved in the water we drank: anyone who wanted to find Egypt’s history would have to prick holes in us, not our soil; would have to deal—with the gravity accorded archaeological maps and ancient graves—with our piss and shit. Instead of this groundwater nonsense, why didn’t the oh-so-clever teacher inform us that the people of our village were ancient in their irrelevance, that from time immemorial they’d been unworthy of immortality, that there was no nearby mountain inducing them to emulate its eternal constancy, that their only vision of the world was clay’s ooze and insubstantial dust?
Pharaonic Egypt blinded me—in my childhood, at least—to the beauty around me. They had always taught us that beauty was stone and age. That he who has no history—thousands of years of history at least—has a deficient present and a future of dubious worth. And for a long time I never questioned this deep-rooted certainty.
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