The Stories of the Forgotten

Silvia Chelala

They Die Strangers

By Mohammad Abdul-Wali
Translated by Abubaker Bagader
Austin University of Texas Press, 2001

New York is a busy city with crowded subways where people keep to themselves. One evening, as I was traveling and reading Mohammad Abdul-Wali's book, I noticed a woman next to me sitting too close for comfort. When I turned to her, she apologized and confessed that she had been reading over my shoulder. She was enthusiastic about the work and immediately took down the title and publisher. I was impressed by her reaction. Abdul-Wali's "They Die Strangers" is captivating in its simplicity and authenticity. It is about the poor, marginalized, and sometimes forgotten Yemenis who survive in difficult circumstances. Their experiences reflect the universality of immigrants' struggles.

Mohammad Abdul-Wali, a distinguished Yemeni writer, died tragically at an early age. According to Shelagh Weir, Abdul-Wali revolutionized Yemeni literature by departing from traditional works (biographies of notable citizens, religious treatises, histories, and geographies) to write about ordinary people. He is largely unknown in the West; this is his first book to be translated into English.

His (Abdul-Wali) work has a strong autobiographical feel to it as it depicts the loneliness of men and women living rather solitary lives in their own communities or abroad as long-time emigrants.

Mohamamad Abdul-Wali was born in Ethiopia, a child of Yemeni and Ethiopian parents. His work has a strong autobiographical feel to it as it depicts the loneliness of men and women living rather solitary lives in their own communities or abroad as long-time emigrants. The title of this work captures the flavor of the book: all immigrants are strangers in strange lands. In this collection of a novella and thirteen short pieces, the author portrays the dreams, disappointments, concerns, hopes, and lives of people who have been affected by emigration.

In most immigration stories, the main character emigrates to a foreign land, works hard at success and finally reflects on his or her achievement. However, in Abdul-Wali's work, emigrants risk losing their identities and severing ties with their mother land without becoming integrated into the new society. In "They Die Strangers," the novella, the main character Abdou Sa'id is shown working hard as a storekeeper and living a frugal life in Ethiopia to make money and send it back to Yemen. He has not acculturated completely. He is appreciated by the people in the neighborhood where he lives, but he is not really one of them. A devout Muslim, he prays dutifully and does not touch alcohol, but he has many extramarital relationships with prostitutes and non-Muslim women. The death of a prostitute with whom he has had an illegitimate child confronts him with the contradictions of his life.

Abdul-Wali is sympathetic to women and their plight. In "The Land, Salma" the main character is taking care of the family land alone while her husband is away in a foreign country. She is tempted to consider another young man but decides that, like all other men, he will also leave. Her solution is to bring up her own son to love the land so he will stay close to her. Women's lives are depicted: working hard, surviving, and taking care of their families, always hoping that their husbands will come back to them. Some wait in vain.

It is not only women who are lonely; men also are, and Abdul-Wali portrays relationships between men humanly. In Ya Khabiir two unlikely travelers learn from each other: the soldier learns that not all civilians are heartless, and the civilian that not all soldiers are criminals and delinquents. A young child and a homeless artist in Abu Rupee show the reader a touching and warm relationship in which the child learns from the older man what he is missing by living away from Yemen.

The transparent style of these stories is unpretentious and accessible. The characters are honest. The connection to the characters' own place, Yemen, is very important, and it is almost as if by leaving, the people are corrupted by strange values and ideas. Purity and authenticity are found close to home and the earth.

Abdul-Wali's "They Die Strangers" brings to the reader a set of moving stories about ordinary people and their lives. The stories captivate with their simplicity of style, the universality of the experiences they relate, and the intimacy of the relationships they describe.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, no.40 (Summer 2002)

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