Canary, by Ahmed El-Khamisi, Cairo: Akhbar El-Youm - Ketab El-Youm Series, 2011.
In 1967, a small book was published in a series entitled ‘New Writings’ through The Arab Writer publishing house. The book included a collection of short stories — during the golden era of short stories — and included first works by three writers: Ahmed El-Khamisi, Ahmed Hashem El-Sherif and Ahmed Younes. It was titled Dreams, Birds and the Carnival.
The collection attracted attention immediately, in being distinctive from what was common at the time. It appeared to open a whole new dimension to short story writing.
Forty three years later, Ahmed El-Khamisi issues his new collection through the Ketab El-Youm Series, Canary. The book catches the reader from its very first lines, and through the 20 stories it shimmers with pain, love, fear and loss; the delightful moments are rare, similar to the days we live now and which guided the writing of the book.
Between the first and the second collection there was El-Khamisi’s world; that of a noble writer, not only for his political stances, but also because of his persistence and quiet work away from the noise of public relations and personal interests.
Between the two books, El-Khamisi worked as a translator and writer, writing 12 books in the fields of criticism, history and politics, as well as earning his PhD in Russian Literature from Moscow University. All throughout staying away from the lights. Yet the pace of his work continued to be slow; between the first and second collection seven years had passed, and six between Canary and the book that preceded it.
In the introduction to the collection, Mohamed El-Makhzangy, the prominent Egyptian writer, pointed to the stories as, “models for the abilities of a senior writer of Arabic short stories, for he made sure his models share a macro view, merging — with great sensitivity and capability — the very personal and the national, between soaring imagination and warm reality, making one coherent weave. I’m mesmerised by this brief rhetoric that renders his sentences strong, vibrant and without extravagance.”
El-Makhzangy chose his words carefully, as usual, putting his finger on the most important feature of El-Khamisi’s writing. For example, in the story entitled "Waiting", he mixes between rough reality and imagination. We observe a stranger in poor clothing carrying a bag and sitting on the pavement, and answers that he’s "just waiting" when asked by the owner of the bakery next door. Two days later he’s joined by another man, then a women with an unconscious child, followed by a fired worker, and so masses of poor, lost and sick people pour in. One week later, the police kicks them out, so they withdraw slowly without resistance, ending on the agricultural road far from the city. “The masses kept flooding, people from everywhere, coming, putting their bags, telling their stories, the news of the billions stolen from them, the fires that eat up their history and documents and old buildings, the ferries that sink in the sea carrying people, the beauties killed by their businessmen lovers in a moment of anger, the trains locked with death, and the explosions of the wronged through tapping on blind drums.”
The scene ends with one of the strangers exchanging stories, digging a dry branch in the ground and hanging a little piece of cloth that dangles carelessly with the winds, thus establishing a new city in the wilderness, where the poor and the estranged would live.
In the story entitled "Canary", the narrator talks to his little bird who responds back. The bird flies with the narrator in the sky for some time, crossing lakes and rivers, and over mountains where the canary pushes him hard to get over his fear of falling down. Before falling asleep, the canary sings for him, “’Sleep my little one. Don’t be scared. Nothing and no one in the forest will dare touch you.’ She’s protecting me now. I pretend to fall asleep. The night falls deeper and deeper and she’s standing inside it like light. I take a peak at her, but she rebukes me with pride, ‘Sleep. Don’t fear.’”
"Little While Ducklings" is told by a narrator who suddenly finds the coffins of dead Palestinian children pouring from the television into his room, on the table and the floor; little coffins rushing forward held on the shoulders of bent fathers’ heads, hiding under the couch and chairs before another raid hits. These little children then turn into little white ducklings filling the narrator’s house and crowding it, hitting the air with their wings while feathers float in the air. The narrator is surrounded by peaking eyes to whom he stares back saying, “Am I the raider who throws the bombs on the children?”
El-Khamisi continues along these lines, moving quietly, weaving together pain and repression, fear and death, without any screaming or bombast. He owns this pure pain, and sees the pure story for himself, writing about it with as few words as possible.
Most of the stories in the collection are no longer than two or three pages, though carrying many unspoken words amid apparent quietness. For example, in the story "Child in a Cage", there’s nothing but a child sitting in a little cage pulled by a bicycle. The narrator who “would never struggle for anything or against anything” meets the eyes of the child, freezes in his spot and his heart falls down, with his eyes observing the departing bicycle, and shouting, “My son … my song.”
The randomly selected stories above are just a glimpse of what El-Khamisi presents in this collection loaded with agony and but a little joy, with a quiet language that’s always nearly exploding.