Traveling through the Arab world

April 14, 2024

From the bustling streets of Beirut to a remote and harsh desert, Beirut 39 offers stories and poems, crafted in an exquisite style, that immerse readers in Arab culture.

Traveling through the Arab world


here is an inherent excitement in reading fictional short stories, as opposed to full length fictional or non-fictional books. Regardless of the time it takes to finish these books, readers do not necessarily arrive at their own conclusions; often, the books provide them. In the case of a serialized work (such as Dune or Harry Potter books), the narrative continues where it left off.

Traveling through the Arab world

However, fictional short stories offer a different experience. They empower readers to become storytellers themselves. Long after a writer has concluded a story, readers can continue to craft their own narratives, letting their imaginations roam freely in any direction. Failure to engage in this imaginative process leaves one intrigued and wondering about the fate of the characters. In some instances, a short story serves as a chapter from a longer fictional work, prompting readers to seek out the complete book to uncover what happens next. However, when a short story stands alone, devoid of any preceding or subsequent narrative, its allure becomes even more captivating.

A case in point is Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World - edited by Samuel Shimon. Featuring 39 writers, this anthology provides readers with a comprehensive glimpse into Arab culture, regardless of their motivation for acquiring the book. It enables readers to traverse the Arab world as if they were Bedouins, gaining insight into its nuances and intricacies.

Beirut 39 prompts readers to contemplate various aspects of the Arab world, challenging their preconceived notions and interpretations. Even if it fails to achieve any of these objectives, the anthology boasts a diverse array of writers, each contributing a captivating story that lingers in the mind long after reading.

In Bedouins on the Edge by Abdelaziz Errachidi, the narrative unfolds around an abandoned car in a desolate town. Despite thorough investigation, no substantial clues about the car’s occupants emerge. Curious bystanders offer elaborate stories, yet none witnessed the actual events.

As speculations mount, the story delves into themes of perception, storytelling, and the human tendency to construct narratives in the absence of concrete evidence.

Eventually, the situation compels them to approach the curious to glean any information they might have regarding the passengers and their unexpected stop. Questions swirled: Who were the passengers, and what prompted them to abandon their car in such a place? The noisy tires had drawn attention, yet despite the clamor, no eyewitnesses surfaced.

The police diligently questioned the bystanders, only to encounter elaborate but ultimately fruitless accounts. Each bystander seemed to possess a vivid narrative, yet none had actually witnessed the accident or any individuals leaving the scene. Puzzling discoveries within the car – a mysterious axe, a seed bag, and an oddly shaped hoe – alongside torn fragments of paper, only deepened the mystery. Without the forensic capabilities of a crime scene investigation, the torn paper remained an enigma.

As time elapsed, the community spun endless tales, stripping the car down to its bare bones in their discussions. Some referenced past encounters with Europeans, either through colonial interactions or mercenary dealings.

Among them, a gypsy named Al-Mahjub wove his own compelling narrative, seemingly privy to intimate details of the passengers’ journey and their interactions with the town. Time seemed immaterial as discussions raged on, with the focus shifting from the stories themselves to the thoughts brewing within Al-Mahjub’s mind. What secrets did he harbor, and what significance did the passengers hold in his perception of the elite? These questions lingered, adding yet another layer to the unfolding saga.

Yet, without delving into the pages of Bedouins on the Edge, the full truth remains elusive.

Errachidi’s narrative not only captivates with its tantalizing suspense but also offers a poignant exploration of community dynamics and the reverberating impact of external forces on local culture. Through the prism of this enigmatic tale, readers are compelled to interrogate their preconceptions and confront the multifarious complexities of human nature, thereby gaining profound insights into the intricate socio-cultural tapestry of the Arab milieu.

Throughout the collection of 39 stories, readers will encounter exquisite poetry alongside narratives that serve as fragments of larger works. Some stories stand alone as complete tales, while others leave lingering questions that persist in the reader’s mind for days.

In Hyam Yared’s Layla’s Belly, readers are drawn in from the very first line: “By the time Layla thought she found love; it was too late.” The story unfolds in the vibrant setting of Beirut, Lebanon, where Layla remains detached from the city’s turmoil. Amidst the backdrop of techno music and heated debates, Layla chooses solitude, finding solace in the companionship of her cat amidst the pervasive fog of loneliness that shrouds her existence.

This is why she compelled herself to frequent the city’s nightclubs, with their kitschy and flashy decorations, offering her a temporary respite from her solitary existence. These venues provided an opportunity for fleeting connections with foreigners, as she believed it was preferable to avoid entanglements with locals. Prior to encountering Will, she engaged with men who offered nothing beyond a brief reprieve from her loneliness. Will emerged unexpectedly as the soulmate she had never encountered before, nor had she anticipated his arrival.

He stood apart from the rest until the moment they shared together, unveiling a revelation that cast doubt on the sincerity of their connection. His candour was tainted with a hint of deception, leaving her questioning why he withheld this information earlier. With newfound knowledge about his life, their relationship took on a different significance, one that became unsettling with the emergence of an unimaginable truth.

“The absolute is often seedier than you think,” Will remarked, seemingly attuned to her innermost thoughts. “It’s not reality that’s abusing you, it’s you demanding more than it can give.” With these words, her perception of reality underwent a profound transformation, realizing that despite her attempts to deceive herself, the pain remained engrained. Loneliness gnawed at her with an intensity akin to a razor slicing through her being. Despite her anger and exhaustion, the notion of succumbing to death was not one she could entertain.

How could she overlook the truth before her very eyes? Why did she permit others to exploit her, only to discard her later? What led her to believe that Will was an exception, and where did she go wrong in her pursuit of finding genuine affection? As for Will, his fate remained shrouded in mystery. Could she undergo a transformation, and if so, would it pave the way for love to finally embrace her?

Layla’s Belly leaves a lasting mark, resonating with readers long after the final page. Its themes of loneliness, love, defeat, and hopelessness strike a universal chord, weaving through every passage and line with an emotional intensity that flows like a powerful current.

Expectations may lead you to believe you have the story figured out, anticipating its conclusion. Yet, therein lies the beauty of masterful writing—it defies predictability while resonating with emotional authenticity. Despite being set in Beirut, the narrative transcends external conflicts, delving into the internal turmoil that resonates universally, leaving an enduring impact. Immersed in Layla’s world, you’ll find yourself grappling with a reality that mirrors aspects of your own, yet distinct in its essence, offering a poignant lesson that may linger in your thoughts long after the final page is turned.

Is there a shared thread that connects us to Layla’s journey? Can her experiences serve as lessons for our own lives? Does Layla’s fragility mirror the delicate nature of existence, prompting introspection on our ability to retreat within ourselves, or do we hold the potential to awaken to a renewed perspective?

Beirut 39 delves into both linear and nonlinear narratives, featuring short poems alongside longer ones, showcasing a diverse array of writing styles. Even if obtaining the book isn’t feasible, the profound intimacy and illuminating nature of the prose will linger in your thoughts, leaving an unforgettable impression.

A striking illustration can be found in A Boat That Dislikes the Riverbank by Mohammad Salah al Azab, featuring the remarkable figure of Amm Samaan, a 70-year-old man whose vitality belies his age. Known for his perpetual smile and gleaming white teeth, he radiates health and vitality, with not a single strand of white hair nor any sign of past injury marring his robust physique.

When others inquire about his remarkable vitality, Samaan attributes it to a divine blessing. The narrator, who happens to be the sheikh’s grandson, observes that Samaan has been in the sheikh’s service for three decades. Despite his vitality, Samaan occasionally struggles to complete his thoughts, veering off onto different topics and occasionally forgetting what he was discussing. Additionally, he exhibits a tendency to stutter.

However, the narrator acknowledges that Samaan is the storyteller, implying that anyone eager to hear the tale must yield to the elderly man. Despite this, Samaan digresses at the outset, discussing various topics and resisting the urge to recount a specific story, even as the sheikh’s son persists in his inquiry.

Samaan hails from a distant land, fully aware that to earn a living, he must venture into the desert. Despite leaving behind a lush environment abundant with sweet water and verdant landscapes, he recognizes the harsh reality that survival in the desert demands resourcefulness. The sheikh’s son ponders how a man who struggles to thrive in a fertile land can possibly succeed in the unforgiving desert.

Eventually, he begins to recount the tale he initially refused to discuss. The narrative shifts between the perspectives of the sheikh’s son and Samaan. In a land where poverty stifles the ability to feed oneself, the prospect of finding a life partner remains a distant dream, albeit one that Samaan never entirely relinquished. However, after three decades, he confides in the sheikh’s grandson that he was instructed to return home. It was the sheikh who urged his departure, recognizing that Samaan’s prospects for survival were slim if he remained. With the means to provide dowries for not just one, but four olive-skinned women, mirroring his own complexion, Samaan was poised to establish a home.

The sheikh’s son, who maintained a personal connection with all the laborers and could recall each of their names, found himself more intimately connected to them than to his own students. Despite a palpable distance between them, this arrangement remained acceptable until Samaan announced his impending departure, partly facilitated by the sheikh’s generosity.

Amidst the anticipation of returning to his homeland, Samaan failed to notice the tears welling in the sheikh’s grandson’s eyes. Yet, as Samaan departed, reflecting on the possibility of the young women he left behind being married by now, the grandson extended his hand in farewell. Thus, the unspoken bond forged between them came to an abrupt end. Like the others, the grandson, too, eventually departed, realizing that they had all journeyed here solely for financial gain—this land was never truly their home.

As the dust settled, Samaan departed with a grin of anticipation for the future that awaited him. Meanwhile, the sheikh’s grandson, though unable to halt his friend’s departure, bore the enduring scar of losing a cherished companion, a wound he knew would linger despite his efforts to forget.

Through Beirut 39, readers are invited to embark on a journey of discovery, forging connections across borders and cultures, and celebrating the enduring power of literature to transcend boundaries and unite us in our common humanity. In embracing the complexities and contradictions of Arab culture, we gain a deeper appreciation for the richness and diversity of human experience, and the universal desire for connection, understanding, and belonging.

Whether contemplating the fragility of life or the enduring quest for meaning, these narratives invite readers to engage deeply with Arab culture and its universal themes.

In Hyam Yared's Layla’s Belly, readers are drawn in from the very first line: "By the time Layla thought she found love; it was too late." The story unfolds in the
vibrant setting of Beirut, Lebanon, where Layla
remains detached from the city's turmoil. Amidst the backdrop of techno music and heated debates, Layla chooses solitude, finding solace in the companionship of her cat amidst the pervasive fog of loneliness that shrouds her existence. This is why she compelled
herself to frequent the city's nightclubs, with their kitschy and flashy decorations, offering her a
temporary respite from her solitary existence.

Traveling through the Arab world