Hisham Bustani’s crisp critique of modern society

The Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani, Syracuse University Press (2015)

To some readers of The Electronic Intifada, Hisham Bustani is familiar as a campaigner and activist. He has promoted solidarity with Palestine in Jordan, particularly through the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and the rejection of gas deals between the Israeli and Jordanian governments.

But in the Arabic speaking world, Bustani is also a well-established writer of short stories with four anthologies under his belt, whose work has been translated into a number of languages and has appeared in English in literary journals and magazines.

This first collection of Bustani’s stories has been translated into English by Palestinian-Canadian translator Thoraya El-Rayyes, giving English-language readers their first opportunity to encounter Bustani’s work. What they will find is a witty, pugnacious, bitingly satirical and sharply glittering assemblage.

The original Arabic collection was published in 2012. As such, it is tempting to read this outburst of frustration and disappointed hopes as a lightning response to the unhappy aftermath of the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011. If not, it at least seems prophetic.

To call many of the works in this collection “stories” is perhaps a misnomer. Often there is little in the way of plot, characters are mere brief sketches and on occasion a page may contain only a line or two of text. Some works seem more like short works of prose poetry for their beautiful, if brutal meaning as well as their format.

Surreal observations

Rather, this is a book of exercises in observational — sometimes surrealistic and darkly magical, sometimes bitter and angry — comments on the modern world, human relationships, media and politics.

Bustani’s disillusioned cynicism and rage at the way that these things have been corrupted and hollowed out by the viciousness of global capitalism and the powers that enforce it is almost palpable.

So we have a sexualized, almost pornographic version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” an exemplar of an embittered take on love and sex which runs throughout the book. The erotic is presented as cheap, sparkling and tawdry, often tainted with violence and anger, but there is a wistfulness that suggests that this attitude has evolved out of disappointment and heartbreak.

“Distance sharpens the senses,” writes Bustani, so that only after she is gone can the lover write of his love’s beauty and his desire for her.

Human beings generally get short shrift in Bustani’s moral universe. One piece, early in the collection, says:

Apes do not wage wars
Apes do not invent instruments of torture …
… “Humans are descended from apes?”
Who says the apes would approve?

And nature often appears as the victim of capitalist man’s instinct to destroy anything that hints at life, color or individuality, as in:

Behold the flowers sprawled out over the fields:
white, red, yellow, lavender.
How naïve,
they do not know the concrete is coming.

Discordant and erudite

Running through these tales and snapshots is a constant stream of surprising, sometimes discordant, sometimes darkly funny, but always erudite references — from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to Dave Mustaine of the metal band Megadeth, from Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa to Mayan poet Humberto Ak’abal. The late Turkish novelist Oğuz Atay and figures from millennia of Arabic literature, from al-Hallaj to contemporary Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni, are all invoked.

Some appear as brief motifs. Others — notably Ak’abal — are Bustani’s partners in a poetic “dialogue” encompassing issues of nature and environmental destruction.

Occasionally, unfortunately, this whirlwind of erudition causes confusion. Fossil fuel emissions, for instance, cause climate change, they don’t “puncture the ozone layer.”

Bustani’s engagement with the issue of Palestine emerges in both political and cultural references. These range from the “whispers of the dead,” which include:

I am seven years old. A smart bomb found its way into our neighborhood.
I am three months old. A rubber bullet found its way into my head.

They take in the three Palestinian poets — Yusuf Abdul Aziz, Yousef Abu Loz and Taher Riyad — depicted sitting in a hotel in the Jabal Lweibdeh neighborhood of Amman. In Bustani’s vision, like much of the international Palestinian resistance and its institutions, the poets have seen their aims defeated and their potency curbed:

The poets, three of them, missed the wolves’ train and so sat in the subway station waiting for teeth — now worn, nails — now clipped, and a life that has passed and will not return.

No easy read

The Perception of Meaning is not an easy book to read. The precision with which is offers up its dystopian vision is almost cruel in its coldness and intensity, alleviated only by occasional glimpses of compassion and sadness.

And any reader seeking realistic depictions or clear messages on the causes Bustani supports and for which he is also famous will be disappointed. This fractured narrative rejects solutions, heroes and neat endings.

But it is worth the challenge for the exhilarating boldness of its crisp critique of modern society — in the Arab world and globally — and the energy of its hyper-modern, dizzying journey through the beauty and sordidness of sex, war, nature and the human brain.

Sarah Irving is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.