The Syrian Exile Who Went from Depressed Cabbie to Celebrated Writer
Osama Alomar's 'The Teeth of the Comb' is a surreal story collection about human dignity in the face of hatred and absurdity.
Photo by Nina Subin
Osama Alomar is, in many ways, living the dream he'd had since he was a teenager. In April, the Syrian-born author published his second collection of very short stories, The Teeth of the Comb, to positive reviews, and after seven years of working full-time as a cab driver in Chicago, he is currently the writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that seeks to "provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers," where he can devote an entire year to only writing.
"I wanted to establish my name as a writer here in the US," Alomar says of his desire to move here from Syria. "I was looking for freedom, too. To be honest with you, I felt freedom when I reached here." When asked if he still feels that way, he laughs darkly. "After Trump, not really."
We are sitting in a pan-Asian restaurant in Chelsea, near the High Line Park. I've never met or corresponded with Alomar before, but as another writer of short short stories, I've admired his work for years and recently reviewed The Teeth of the Comb for the New York Times.
Born in Damascus, Syria, in 1968, Alomar immigrated to the US in 2008, moving to Chicago where he had family. During his nine- to ten-hour shifts as a full-time cab driver, he would scribble stories in a notebook between fares. The stories were never about his day job. "In the last seven years, I could not write a single word about my experience as a cab driver, because I could not like it at all," he says. "For me, there was not any kind of inspiration. It was only daily humiliation."
Transcending their less-than-lofty origins, Alomar's enigmatic flash fictions blur the lines between aphorism, parable, and fairy tale, often personifying household objects and animals to comment on modern politics and the human condition. (Four of his stories were published on VICE.com in 2015.) They can be as short a sentence or two. Here is the story "Strength":
I lay on the riverbank enjoying the gentle breezes. A few meters from me, a feather, blown violently in every direction, was cursing the storm.
Here is another, called "Free Elections":
When the slaves reelected their executioner entirely of their own accord and without any pressure from anyone, I understood that it was still very early to be talking about democracy and human rights.
"It was tipping point in my life," he says, of reading the famous Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran. "He changed my mind." After reading him around age 13, Alomar knew he would be "nothing else" but a writer. "Even if I became very poor, I don't care about that. I want to be myself, despite money."
The road from Damascus to the storied Yaddo colony, where he is a visiting artist, wasn't a quick or easy one for the self-exiled Alomar. Although he had experienced success and publication in the Middle East, he struggled for years to have his work published in the United States, even though he had an agent (Denise Shannon, who represents Lydia Davis, another writer of very short works who was an early champion of Alomar's writing.) "Maybe there is a lot of competition," he said. "There are a lot of writers. It is a very big country."
After his first English translated book, a New Directions pamphlet called Fullblood Arabian, was published in 2014, Alomar found it easier to get published in magazines. That book, along with The Teeth of the Comb, was translated by C. J. Collins, who Alomar describes as his "best friend."
Alomar lists an eclectic list of influences, although unsurprisingly many of them are authors who favored short forms—flash fiction, aphorisms, fables. Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Aesop, Arthur Rimbaud. The son of a philosophy professor, Alomar is also influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whom he praises for his "poetic style."
Alomar's interest in parables, his forte, was both aesthetic and practical. "I like this style because there is great imagination," he says as we walk on the High Line overlooking the bustling, chaotic New York streets. "Animals, objects, insects"—these are "always projections on humans," he says, and they often "take more than one interpretation."
It's a metaphorical style also helped him avoid censorship, or worse, from the Syrian government. Before he moved to the United States, Alomar says he couldn't write freely. Most of his work was published in Lebanon because in Syria the Syrian Intelligence, he says, "control culture, art, everything."
"Two of my friends, they were writers," he explains. "They were much more daring than me. Later, they disappeared. I was told they were arrested by Syrian Intelligence. They were tortured. I don't know where they are now. I don't know if they are still alive or no. This happened before the revolution, before the war." Alomar says he didn't want to say more about them, since he was unsure if they were still alive or not.
"If you laugh, it means you have immunity against hate. This is my responsibility as a writer, to keep writing about love, human rights, human dignity."
In 2011, a few years after Alomar's arrival in the US, the Syrian civil war began. In 2014, the apartment Alomar kept in Damascus because he had planned "to go back and forth between here and Syria" was destroyed, and all his possessions and manuscripts were lost in the rubble. "I lost everything," he says. "I lost an unpublished novel that was ready to publish." (He is currently working on another novel, this one about the Syrian war.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a darkness in many of Alomar's stories that reflects the situation in his home country. He says that people tell him his work as gotten gloomier since the war. Human rights are trampled and dictators walk around his stories unimpeded, as in "A Handkerchief of Freedom":
The Dictator sneezed. He pulled Freedom from his pants pocket and blew his nose. Then he threw her away in the wastebasket.
"The Syrian war affects the whole world. There are Syrian refugees everywhere. Maybe even in outer space," Alomar says. "I'm not worried about only myself, about Muslims, about immigrants from the Middle East. I'm worried about the whole world. It looks like the whole world is going to disaster. Some people say I'm pessimistic, but I think I'm realistic. There is much more hatred than before. In the whole world."
Alomar notes the seemingly widening gulf between the East and the West, and how little interest there seems to be anywhere in bridging the divide. "We have very high material technology," he says. "But at the same time, we do not have very high spiritual technology. This is our problem in the modern world."
Still, Alomar's works are filled with humor: In "Descender!" one elevator mocks another as "you descender!" only to find that soon "the roles were reversed and so were the names." In "Don't Give Up the Fight," a wild horse cheers on a water hose spraying a farmer. The petty, humanlike behavior of these objects and animals is as funny as it is incisive.
"Humor can give us psychological immunity against all this hatred," he says. "If you laugh, it means you have immunity against hate. This is my responsibility as a writer, to keep writing about love, human rights, human dignity. Despite all this hatred in our world, despite my pessimism, like many people, I think love is the end, despite everything."
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The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories by Osama Alomar is available in bookstores and online from New Directions Publishing.