Taking Fares, and Writing in Between: Osama Alomar Pursues His Literary Ambitions in Exile
CHICAGO — In the Arab world, the Syrian writer Osama Alomar has a growing reputation as the author of short, clever parables that comment obliquely on political and social issues. But here, where he has lived in exile since 2008, he spends most of his time as the driver of Car 45 at the Horizon Taxi Cab company.
Up to a dozen hours a day, six days a week, Mr. Alomar cruises the northwest suburbs around O’Hare Airport in his bright blue cab, dictionaries and a volume of Khalil Gibran piled beside him. When parked in line waiting for a fare to appear, he pulls out a notebook and tries to write.
“Driving a cab is hard work and very hard psychologically, because it takes me away from writing,” Mr. Alomar, who turns 46 on Saturday, said in an interview here recently at a coffee shop and in his cab. “It is a kind of spiritual exile to go with my physical exile. But I have to be strong. I have to be patient.”
On Saturday and Sunday, Mr. Alomar, whose first book to be translated into English, “Fullblood Arabian,” was recently published by New Directions, will take a brief respite from that grueling routine to attend the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York. He is scheduled to take part in two panels: “Creativity and Craft in Asylum,” on Saturday, and a Sunday afternoon conversation with the American writer Lydia Davis, who has emerged as his biggest champion, and the Icelandic writer Sjon.
Mr. Alomar’s super-short stories “are very imaginative and vivid and exhilarating,” said Ms. Davis, whose own work often occupies a terrain similar to Mr. Alomar’s in terms of length and tone. “Some are dark and angry, while others are funny. They are compact stylistically, wasting no words, and they go quickly from one moment to the next and on to the end. So they have density, but also are sort of explosive, with an aftershock, because they seem to tell one story at the same time they are telling another.”
Mr. Alomar sees himself as an heir of a literary form, now called al-qissa al-qasira jiddan, or very short story, that in the Arab world dates back more than a millennium and contains elements of poetry, philosophy, folk tale and allegory. “Fullblood Arabian” was, in fact, issued as part of a poetry series that includes work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Hilda Doolittle, and the stories in the book run no longer than three pages, with the shortest being only one sentence.
Muhsin al-Musawi, a Columbia University professor and literary critic who is also the editor of The Journal of Arabic Literature, described the genre Mr. Alomar has embraced as “similar to the riddle or puzzle,” but requiring “a high level of prose.” As such, he added, “it offers a way out of many restrictions and constraints without being very explicit.”
Certainly, many of Mr. Alomar’s stories make use of ambiguities, especially in relation to the political scene. Here, in its entirety, is “Tongue-Tie,” the title piece of one of his three collections published in Arabic: “Before leaving for work I tied my tongue into a great tie. My colleagues congratulated me on my elegance. They praised me to our boss, who expressed admiration and ordered all employees to follow my example.”
C. J. Collins, Mr. Alomar’s translator, remembers meeting the writer for the first time in Damascus in 2007. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, had eased some restrictions on private gatherings, and Mr. Alomar was a regular at salons that had then sprung up, where invited speakers would address political, cultural and social topics, but steer clear of directly criticizing the dictatorship.
“In the discussions that would come afterward, Osama’s stories would come up spontaneously as a way of driving home an intellectual point in a poetic fashion,” Mr. Collins recalled, adding, “In the States, it is putting literature down to call it utilitarian, but for me it was quite striking to see his work put to this really concrete use.”
Mr. Alomar was born in 1968 in Damascus, where his father was a philosophy professor and his mother an elementary school teacher. He read widely from his parents’ library, studied Arabic literature in college and sang and played guitar in a pop band. When the BBC’s Arabic service broadcast a poem he had submitted, he became convinced that he had a future as a writer.
Thanks in part to that upbringing, “I’m very interested in social and political movements,” he said. “Especially in my own country, but in the Middle East in general. As a secular person, I believe in democracy and individual freedom. There is a lot of persecution and oppression.”
Asked about his literary influences, Mr. Alomar, who speaks accented but nearly fluent English, produced a diverse list. Gibran, the Lebanese poet who wrote “The Prophet” and lived for many years in the United States, is at the top, but Mr. Alomar also cited Aesop, Hemingway (not surprising for a writer who values terseness and brevity), the British novelist and philosopher Colin Wilson and Kafka.
Emulating Gibran, Mr. Alomar came to the United States in 2008 to join his mother and an older brother. From an apartment near O’Hare, he has watched on CNN and Al-Jazeera over the last three years as his country has disintegrated into civil war, and he finds it agonizing.
“At the beginning, I was optimistic, because the Syrian people had an awareness about their freedom,” he said. “Now I’m not, because we have a lot of obscurants, even in the opposition. To see this suffering, it breaks my heart every day.”
If his exile started voluntarily, it would be difficult to return to Damascus now, Mr. Alomar said, and not just because he is so publicly identified with opposition to the Assad dictatorship. This year, he said, an apartment he owns there was destroyed in a bombing, and he lost not only his library and Fender guitar and amp, but also many manuscripts, including a novel.
“I lost everything, but I have to be wise about this,” he said. “I have to live with it. I have anger, but I keep it inside me. You can take it two ways, and I want that this can be a positive experience.”
Like Gibran, Mr. Alomar now aspires to write in both Arabic and English: “My goal, my aim, is to become an American writer,” he said. Inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea,” he has begun a novel that he said will be written in the form of a journal kept by a fetus, even as he continues to write his short stories.
Yet the long hours behind the wheel trying to make his weekly nut limit his opportunities to write and to meet people other than passengers who know nothing of his story and aren’t necessarily interested in Syria’s conflagration.
“I feel isolated in my cab,” he said. “I like my life here, but to be honest with you, I am homesick, too. I have a lot of memories of every corner, of every stone in Damascus. But this is my new country, and I want to penetrate it.”