REVIEW: “The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid” by Mazen Maarouf

Review of Mazen Maarouf, Jonathan Wright (trans.), “The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 171-214 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Oh, my. Just…oh my. This was by far the strangest, most bizarre (and longest!) of the entire collection. One part science fiction, two parts surrealism, with a blithe disregard for anything so basic as laws of nature. It was unapologetic in its oddness, and every page was a turner. I can’t even begin to summarise the plot, only say that this story hooked me in a way that none other in the anthology did, and it was an excellent way to close the collection out.

REVIEW: “The Association” by Samir El-Youssef

Review of Samir El-Youssef, Raph Cormack (trans.), “The Association”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 143-151 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The premise of this story is both utterly unexpected and delightfully apt:

Since the 2028 Agreement, the people of the country … had decided that forgetting was the best way to live in peace. The study of the past was forbidden (p. 144),

meaning, among other things, that suddenly, the occupation of “historian” no longer existed.

But, as shouldn’t be surprising, forbidding the study of history doesn’t prevent people from studying history, and plenty of covert historians still exist, including Professor Omar Hijazi, age 68, who is found dead in his apartment one night. The police rule it an accident, a byproduct of a theft gone bad, but petty journalist Zaid at the Daily Diwan disagrees. He sets off to find the truth, and what he discovers is way bigger, and way more oppressive, than he imagined.

It feels weird to say it about such a dystopian story, but this was really a fun read.

REVIEW: “Commonplace” by Rawan Yaghi

Review of Rawan Yaghi, “Commonplace”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 153-160 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Smuggler Adam deals in sedatives, but no amount of sedatives will take away his nightmares of his sister, Rahaf, who was 15 when she went into the Eastern Land, and in retaliation was attacked and left for dead on their doorstep. In the end, there is only one way he can banish those nightmares, and that is to retrace her steps.

This is the sort of story where there is not much plot, not much that happens, but yet the title feels very apt: The story is told as if the events in it are commonplace, ordinary, even though they are so clearly extraordinary.

REVIEW: “Final Warning” by Talal Abu Shawish

Review of Talal Abu Shawish, Mohamed Ghalaieny (trans.), “Final Warning”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 161-169 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Every morning the citizens of Ramallah bathe their eyes in the rising sunlight. No one expects a morning to come when the sun doesn’t rise. There is no light, there is no power, electronics do not work, engines do not work, everything in the city has come to a standstill. Apocalypse has come.

But only to Palestine. A message comes to the region: “Cut it out” (p. 168). The earth’s rotation will be restored, the power of electron-based energy will be restored — but only when the borders are redrawn and everyone commits to justice. This isn’t just about Palestine, though: This is the only way to prevent the entire galaxy from succombing to nihilism.

Ramallah is a multi-faith city, filled with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, as well as athiests, and Abu Shawish explores the ways in which the end of the world is interpreted through each of the three lenses.

Two footnotes explain to the non-Arabic-speaking reader some terminology left untranslated.

REVIEW: “These Wondrous Sweets” by Tony Pi

Review of Tony Pi, “These Wondrous Sweets”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 294, Jan. 2, 2020 — Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

This is the fifth story in what appears to be a continuing series. (Two of the earlier stories also appeared in BCS and were finalists for Aurora and Parsec awards.) Don’t worry if you haven’t read the previous work; I hadn’t either, but references within the current story make it easy to understand what has gone before.  

Ao, who creates and sells blown caramel figurines, lives in Chengdu, China and has two of the more novel “superpowers” I’ve encountered in SF/F: the ability to “pour his soul” into his caramel creations and conjure animals from water. In previous stories, Ao apparently used these powers to help save the life of the Pale Tigress, the mystical, tiger-like protectoress of the city. However, the Tigress was seriously wounded (as was Ao) in a confrontation with the Ten Crows Sect, which has somehow allied itself with a demon in hopes of seizing power in the city.  

The current story primarily involves Ao’s attempt to create a diversion so that a doctor can get to the Tigress and treat her injury without giving away the Tigress’ hiding place. To do this, Ao fashions a Tigress-shaped caramel figurine, expands its size with water, then sends his consciousness into it. This provides Ao a measure of control over his creation. However, as another character wryly observes, “plans always go wrong,” and most of the story involves Ao’s increasingly desperate attempts to improvise as the Ten Crows Sect closes in. 

Thin on plot but strong on ambience and action, this is a story worth reading. 

REVIEW: “Application 39” by Ahmed Masoud

Review of Ahmed Masoud, “Application 39”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 117-141 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I said in the review of the anthology that as a whole, the stories are dark and not very hopeful. This is one that bucks the trend — alternating hopeful and hilarious — for the first half of the story, at least. Rayyan and Ismael pull a prank: They submit an application to the International Olympic Committee for the State of Gaza (by now its own independent city-state) to host the summer Olympics in 2048 — only eight years away. What neither of them ever dreamt is that the application would be taken seriously and be successful. For the first four years, planning goes smoothly, even ahead of schedule! But Gaza isn’t without its enemies, and in the final four years before the games, it becomes increasingly clear those enemies won’t let the games go off without a hitch, and both Rayyan and Ismael are caught in the center of it all. By the end of the story, it was no longer very hopeful at all.

REVIEW: “Vengeance” by Tasnim Abutabikh

Review of Tasnim Abutabikh, “Vengeance”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 103-116 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Ahmed is on a vengeance mission, to track down the descendant of the man who betrayed one of his ancestors. When he finds the man in question, Yousef Abdulqader, he plays the long game, seeking employment with Abdulqader (who makes prosthetic limbs and other devices) and gaining his trust, until one day he follows Abdulqader to a secret meeting with a terrorist leader, photographs him, and turns in the evidence to the police. Finally, he’s got this vengeance.

But of course, no story is ever as simple as that, and the complicating twist in this one is desperately heartbreaking.

REVIEW: “Personal Hero” by Abdalmuti Maqboul

Review of Abdalmuti Maqboul, Yasmine Seale (trans.) “Personal Hero”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 95-102 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I think I ended up reading this story three times over. The first time, every few paragraphs I paused and reread what I had just read, until I reached the end having read it twice, and then I went back and reread it in one go. For such a short story, it is quite complex; it took me awhile to realise that instead of looking purely to the future, as many of the other stories in the anthology do, this one also marches slowly but surely into the past. It isn’t quite time-travel but it is such that reading the story and rereading it is definitely recommended.

REVIEW: “Digital Nation” by Emad El-Din Aysha

Review of Emad El-Din Aysha, “Digital Nation”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 77-94 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story was a really interesting discussion of the role that Utopias play in society, and the question of why Muslims don’t really have Utopian stories (apart from al-Farabi’s The Virtuous City but “he got his inspiration from Plato” p. 82). At the very end of the story (don’t worry, no spoilers), one character says to another, “They had a Utopia, of sorts, at the time of their Prophet, then it all fell apart afterwards” (p. 94). Not only that, but no one ever tried, after that — until a man, known only as “Hannibal”, got involved.

REVIEW: “The Key” by Anwar Hamed

Review of Anwar Hamed, Andrew Leber (trans.), “The Key”, in Basma Ghalayini, ed., Palestine+100, (Comma Press, 2019): 65-76 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Not all stories told in Palestine are stories of displaced Arabs…the Israeli settlers too have their stories to tell, and one of such story is Hamed’s. In his future, a novel solution to the Arab-Israeli tensions comes in the form of a gravitational wall: Invisible, but programmed to only allow those who have the right key embedded in their chips to allow them to enter and exit. Even though the wall is protected with unhackable encryption, it comes as no surprise to the reader that no wall is ever going to be a tenable solution in the long run.