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Basrayatha: Portrait of a City

Translated by William M. Hutchins
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Basrayatha is a literary tribute by author Mohammed Khudayyir to the city of his birth, Basra, on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in southern Iraq. Just as a city’s inhabitants differ from outsiders through their knowledge of its streets as well as its stories, so Khudayyir distinguishes between the real city of Basra and Basrayatha, the imagined city he has created through stories, experiences, and folklore. By turns a memoir, a travelogue, a love letter, and a meditation, Basrayatha summons up images of a city long gone. In loving detail, Khudayyir recounts his discovery of his city as a child, as well as past communal banquets, the public baths, the delights of the Muslim day of rest, the city’s flea markets and those who frequent them, a country bumpkin’s big day in the city, Hollywood films at the local cinema, daily life during the Iran–Iraq War, and the canals and rivers around Basra. Above all, however, the book illuminates the role of the storyteller in creating the cities we inhabit. Evoking the literary modernism of authors like Calvino and Borges, and tinged with nostalgia for a city now disappeared, Basrayatha is a masterful tribute to the power of memory and imagination.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-169-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Four Points of Entry to Basrayatha
    (pp. 1-16)

    Narrators recount the bygone events and marvels of ancient cities, but inBasrayathaI recount what is known and recorded in the lines of destiny. Not everything there is marvelous. What is amazing, though, is the power of every citizen in it and a veracity that surpasses any other power. When you are in a mood to marvel, you must inevitably find that what is widespread and common in the natures and customs of nations is marvelous, rare, and unparalleled. Al-Asma‘i, for example, told of a palm tree that rats climbed in order to eat its dates. Al-Jahiz sketched a...

  4. First Exploration
    (pp. 17-30)

    We had not yet learned all the nooks of the city where we lived—only our school buildings, the playing field, the nearby river, the garden alongside it, and the neighborhood market. The city was not a place one went to without making preparations and getting help. Later on, though, we began to explore it, bit by bit, in carefree rambles, impetuous raids, or wary excursions. By the time we had learned our way around and come to understand it, we had matured, our legs had grown tired, and our desires had diminished. We no longer felt like leaving our...

  5. Umm al-Brum: Banquet in a Cemetery
    (pp. 31-46)

    The city changes the names of its neighborhoods the way it changes the names of its natives, in order to join everything in a single current, emerging from its historic womb. It sacrifices bits of a name to save the whole, in order to diminish childbirth’s pains, time’s extension, and the map’s disfigurement. One area, for example, was a cemetery for the poor and then a square named in honor of King Ghazi. Next, it took the ancient, maternal name: Umm al-Brum, since the square was like an umbilical cord for the city. The winding market had numerous names: Souk...

  6. Shatt al-Arab: A River’s Dream
    (pp. 47-64)

    The waterless desert appears before my eyes, stirring in me a buried sensation. I am overcome by an intense desire to share the secret. I dreamt that the river’s water dried up and receded to leave a vast trench, exposing boulders, miscellaneous refuse, and the skeletons of the drowned. Time as well retreated, and I found myself a boy in a group of young people. We were exploring the dry riverbed, making our way between eroded boulders. We collected what the river had left behind at its bottom: coins, cans, keys, and other items I do not remember. I also...

  7. Abu al-Khasib: Story Road
    (pp. 65-88)

    Imagine with me a man whose job is collecting stories. What road would he take? What would he ride? Who would he be?

    I knew a man, the last man my era retained of those who held this profession. They kept busy, moving about and traveling along the Abu al-Khasib road, concealing their inner essence behind familiar external characteristics and common traits. These folks would return from a lengthy trip down its side roads, through its hamlets and bridges, and along its rivers to their lost villages in the orchards beside the road. The storytellers’ village was known as the...

  8. Al-Zubayr: The Camel’s Eye
    (pp. 89-108)

    Zzzzzzzz … the winds roll this Thamudi consonant and toss it down on the northern border of the desert elevation of the Arabian Peninsula. The sands’ roar puts the extra dot on the middle consonant in Arabic to distinguish betweenkathaba(assemble) andkataba(write). The one additional dot that distinguishes ‘t’ from ‘th’ in the Arabic script rises like a grave. A camel’s hoof traces the name ‘Zubayr’ where his tomb lies. Consider these words with the same consonants as his name:zabarais a synonym forkataba(write),al-zabrforal-kitaba(writing), andal-zaburforal-kitab(book). The...

  9. Mobile City
    (pp. 109-124)

    A passenger on the night train confronts this riddle: did cities and their train stations create trains—or did trains create cities and their stations?

    Since my first train trip in the 1960s, the train has disclosed to me one of the laws of perception, portrayal, and creative writing, because if you remember how fields spring forth at dawn with the rising sun, how the earth’s undulations gradually advance, and how life surges before you in those isolated places, which then rapidly retreat behind you, you will discover—like me—one of the unpublicized private laws for writing short stories,...

  10. Friday’s Gifts
    (pp. 125-140)

    Friday is both the memory of a name and the name of a memory. It is the repository of all that day’s gifts and that night’s secrets, because Friday is the day’s answer to the night’s question. It is free circulation and a preordained gathering. It is people, selection, mutual recognition, rising, assembly, and the straight path. My memories of Friday include the house’s flat roof, eating outdoors there, the family dinner on the roof beneath a see-sawing heaven where shooting stars fell like a flaming tongue dangling from the toothless mouth of primordial substance, a child’s bed flying through...

  11. Morning Airs and Nocturnes: A War Diary
    (pp. 141-154)

    The night was spattered with thousands of artillery rounds and the sirens of speeding ambulances. The night shook with thousands of explosions, whereas the earth was stable enough for the tongue of death to loll over it, licking away at the city’s body. Walls, doors, windows, and roofs rocked, and this night was dreadfully dark. The night was covered by a million cloaks and blankets, a rifle, a rib, an eye. This night’s teeth clacked together, and it raged, terrifyingly black. In a continuous growl, locks were crushed and glass shattered. With anxiety and compassion the mothers let their cloaks...

  12. Glossary
    (pp. 155-156)
  13. Note on the Epigraphs
    (pp. 157-158)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 159-160)