Most of us are fortunate enough not to have experienced an exile. Somehow, Maazan Maarouf has snagged two. His double exile begins as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, where his family fled the siege of Tel al-Zaatar to Beirut, and continued as a political refugee in Iceland. In an Al-Jazeera Poets of Protest documentary from 2012, Maarouf is filmed walking in Reykjavík. Wrapped in winter clothes that shield from the Icelandic cold, his long, curly hair bounces distractingly in the wind. He admires the snow, eagerly imparts his observations, but seems preoccupied, a vigilant traveller shooting weary glances. He says, ‘Beirut resonated between a city that was mine and a city that was rejecting me.’ 

Maarouf, who initially gained recognition for his criticism in Arabic magazines and newspapers, has had some strange misfortunes. In 2013, a thief in Stockholm stole his backpack which contained a notebook with 27 finished poems. He turned to prose as a kind of recovery. His luck improved, and Jokes for the Gunmen, his first short story collection, won the Al-Multaqa prize in 2016, and then, in 2019, Jonathan Wright’s translation of the book was longlisted for the Man Booker International. 

Maarouf describes his art as a ‘mission of how to reconstruct the dirt, this is poetry, maybe to make a rose out of dust.’ This idealism, seeking to transmogrify the mundane, would otherwise feel dated and naive; post-war humanism that tastes of didacticism and moral authority, yearning for an era before truth became passé. But in Jokes for the Gunmen this moral imperative chills when it appears in a child’s voice. Suddenly the search for stability and honesty is sombre. Think of Greta Thunberg and child warriors. Conviction in unexpected bodies. It’s a refreshing rejection of chic-nihilism. This collection of twelve stories isn’t a study of war or a simulation in absurdity. It’s an odd, boyishly wrangled fantasy that grieves lost childhood. Call it a comic plea that cautions against miscommunication and the violence men inflict on each other. Yes, war is present and pervasive, but only as a soundscape or as a circumstance. Maarouf describes war as a ‘scenography’ or as a ‘pinned background’. And this is where the stories excel, rather than fetishising settings, Maarouf downplays them. Instead of focusing on the gratuitousness of violence, its arbitrariness and alleged absurdity, Maarouf pushes details; a father drooling at the edge of a bathtub, the turning handle of a gramophone, a secondhand matador’s suit. 

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