Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations merely strengthens Western stereotypes about the Middle East

The book contains a story from each of the seven nations under Trump’s “Muslim ban”, but lacks distinctive voices.

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As the Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah pointed out recently, despite an increased interest in Middle Eastern writers and subjects among Western audiences, Middle Easterners remain “only alive on the surface of the liberal psyche. They bob up bloated, are sometimes acknowledged, other times swiped aside.” Unfortunately, Banthology merely strengthens Western stereotypes about the Middle East.

Commissioned in reaction to Trump’s infamous “Muslim ban” – the executive order restricting the entry of people from Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Libya into the US – Banthology has a simple premise: showcase a story from each of these “unwanted nations” in order to “take you to all the places that Donald Trump doesn’t want you to go”. Nevertheless, only one of the book’s seven stories actually does that.

“Storyteller”, by the Iraqi author Anoud – a pseudonym – begins in an Indian restaurant in east London, where a woman named Jamela recounts “between gulps of rice and curry” her experiences of growing up in Iraq. Her tale opens in 1991, during the First Gulf War, when Jamela and her sister “thought that war was some kind of game, like the Arabic-dubbed GI Joe cartoon on TV”, an illusion that is quickly exploded by “the sound of bombs outside slicing through the air”. As the Second Gulf War begins, Jamela’s father and brother dig a makeshift bunker in the family’s backyard, only to see the women dash from its damp and smelly confines to wait out “the bombing with tea and sweets, watching a dubbed Brazilian soap opera”.

Once the Sunni resistance to the American occupation gets under way, Jamela’s best friend Farah is murdered, a loss further compounded by the assassination of Jamela’s cousin, Anwar. Her final images of Iraq before her departure for London in 2012 are suffused with carnage, where dead bodies scattered around the Iraqi capital look like “old and torn up sandbags”. Jamela’s life in the UK quickly spirals out of control, however, as she seeks solace in drink and drugs.

By the time her story reaches 2017, the men standing behind the counter at the Indian takeaway have started to “regret feeding the woman”. When Donald Trump finally appears on the restaurant’s television screen calling for his ban, Jamela begins to shake her fist and curse, recalling an incident in 2014 when she was reprimanded for touching “the remains of a Baghdad car bomb… mounted on a clean white podium under a blinding spotlight at the Imperial War Museum”. As soon as the takeaway’s employees overhear her use the word “bomb”, the police are called and Jamela is handcuffed and bundled into their car, resetting her horrifying loop: “Jamela made herself comfortable in the back seat. She and the officer made eye contact through the rear-view mirror. Jamela began again: ‘In 1991, I experienced my first air raid…’.”

Anoud’s intimate and vivid evocation of place and history allows the reader to gain a greater understanding of the forces that led to the destruction of Jamela’s former existence. Every major event in her life – including losing her virginity – is warped by war. In many other instances throughout Banthology, however, the emotional and thematic palette of these “unwanted nations” and their writer-ambassadors is reduced to mere displacement and loss. Although the editor, Sarah Cleave, stressed that she wanted “to showcase as many experiences as possible”, these stories are strikingly homogenous. While two could be classified as either fantasy or science fiction – Najwa Binshatwan’s “Return Ticket” (Libya) and Wajdi al-Ahdal’s “The Slow Man” (Yemen) – the others centre on refugees who are either in the midst of fleeing or else trying to make sense of exile.

“Bird of Paradise”, by the Sudanese writer Rania Mamoun, is a case in point. A young woman finds herself stranded at an airport, where she’s spent a week surviving on water she drinks out of bathroom taps. Suddenly, the sight of another stranded woman stealing a chicken triggers a reverie in which the narrator recalls the birds of the title, which used to visit her native city of Wad Madani on their migrations, and which inspired a desire to travel – a desire that was curbed at every turn, first by her older brother, Ahmad, who forbade her to study in Khartoum, and then by a “mysterious force” that keeps her from boarding her plane. While poignant in parts, the story is also both underdeveloped and studded with clichés. It doesn’t help that the book’s cover sums up its contents so well: birds flying above rows of barbed wire.

Some stories simply feel unoriginal, as with “The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling”, by the Syrian Zaher Omareen. An unnamed refugee from Hama finds himself in Paris looking for a driver who will escort him to Sweden – of course, only so long as he successfully passes himself off as the husband of Hungary’s ambassador to Turkey, whose passport he is now travelling under. Omareen’s tale is strikingly similar to certain stories in Hassan Blasim’s The Madman of Freedom Square (2009), also published by Comma Press.

Trump and his supporters clearly see Middle Easterners as a monochromatic rabble of dangerous refugees, and while Banthology attempts to subvert this trope, the lack of substance in these stories ultimately does nothing but encourage the book’s readers to consider the region exclusively through the lens of Western politics. Purporting to promote Middle Eastern writers and topics in the name of diversity while simultaneously failing to offer a viable alternative to old stereotypes is a case of hollow virtue signalling. In fact it amounts, to use Trump’s phrase, to a “complete and total shutdown” of any meaningful discourse. 

André Naffis-Sahely is author of “The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life” (Penguin)

Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations
Edited by Sarah Cleave
Comma Press, 80pp, £9.99

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce