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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

They Die Strangers

Mohammad Abdul-Wali

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To purchase They Die Strangers

Title: They Die Strangers
Author: Mohammad Abdul-Wali
Genre: Fiction
Written: (Eng. 2001)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: They Die Strangers - US
They Die Strangers - UK
They Die Strangers - Canada
  • A Novella and Short Stories from Yemen
  • Translated by Abubaker Bagader and Deborah Akers
  • With an Introduction by Shelagh Weir

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Our Assessment:

B+ : simple but effective -- and an interesting glimpse of a foreign world

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       They Die Strangers consists of a slim (50-page) novella with that title, and thirteen short stories. As Shelagh Weir explains in the Introduction, author Abdul-Wali was born in Ethiopia (in 1940), his mother Ethiopian and his father an émigré from North Yemen, and Abdul-Wali first returned to his homeland (well, South Yemen) at age 14 (going on to Cairo to study barely a year later). Many of these stories are coloured by experience, centred around Yemenis abroad.
       The novella 'They Die Strangers' is the most detailed description of the émigré-experience, telling of the shopkeeper Abdou Sa'id, a Yemini who set up shop in Addis Ababa and has been working there for some ten years. No one really knows much about him or how he came to start a business there, but he is popular -- he has a way with the women -- and even though his shop is dingy he does a brisk trade. However, despite doing good business, he doesn't seem to have -- or at least spend -- much money.
       In fact, Abdou Sa'id has a wife and son back in Yemen, and that is where he sends almost all his money. His grand dream is to return in triumph to the large house that has been built in his absence, with the funds he sends.
       Meanwhile, he does allow himself some pleasures in Addis, specifically pleasures of the flesh. Women are drawn to him, and he doesn't turn them away ("They said he even made love to a fifty-year-old woman" !) -- and there are also quite a few kids with more than a passing resemblance to him running around town by now. When the mother of one of these boys dies, leaving the child an orphan, it leads to a crisis -- with the local Muslim powers pressuring Abdou Sa'id to take responsibility for the child:

     "What concerns the hajji is that leaving the boy with the Christians would mean a Muslim soul might be led to godlessness. As Muslims, we can't let these Muslim children go to hell, can we ?"
       Abdul-Wali tucks a lot into the story, and from the description of Abdou Sa'id's shopkeeper-life (and his longings for home) to the difficulties faced by mixed-race children to the émigré community in Addis of the time (the 1950s or so) it's a very rich account. And, aside from being surprisingly licentious, there's also a bit of politics as well, as the "half-breed" secretary criticises his boss, the hajji:
     "No, sir, you didn't come to liberate your country. You escaped from the ghost of the Imam. You were afraid. If you really wanted to liberate your country, why did you get married and have children ? I tell you frankly, you'll never be the ones to liberate your country . If it is liberated, it will be by those who stayed there, or perhaps by us."
       Like many of the other stories, the novella is more poignant than sad -- but there are no real happy endings here. Abdul-Wali presents the desires and ambitions of the émigrés well, but is also keenly aware of the sense of having deserted country and loved ones that they all feel. Life abroad presents an opportunity, but it also comes at a high cost. (The idea of Ethiopia as a land of opportunity may strike some readers as strange, but clearly at that time it was just that for some.)
       In stories such as 'Nothing New' Abdul-Wali shows the toll from the other perspective, the story an account of a woman and child left behind and waiting, their only contact the occasional letter and money sent by the man who has gone far, far away. "Years passed, followed by more years": it could almost be a refrain, the wait a common experience -- and in just a few pages Abdul-Wali conveys the whole weight of this separation.
       Several of the stories are told from a child's or youth's perspective -- experiences, presumably, from Abdul-Wali's own life. It is the older characters, however, that serve as warning of what can be lost abroad, as in the man the narrator meets in 'On the Road to Asmara', a Yemeni whose children don't even speak Arabic any more:
     "Everybody here speaks Amharic. With whom would they speak Arabic ? We Yemenis here hardly get together. I'm tired and don't go to the capital much anymore. We all speak Amharic, the schools, too," and he laughed. "I personally have started to forget Arabic."
       In parting the narrator asks him whether he'll go back to Yemen:
     He thought hard and then said: "Yemen. I have already forgotten it. All I'm waiting for is death. Nobody would know me there if I returned, and what would I bring back after being gone so long ? No, I'll stay here until the end. There's nobody there for me anymore. I won't go back. My children might go back one day, when they realize their father is a foreigner. But then they might not, they might stay as foreigners like me."
       The stories and the telling are fairly simple, but also quite effective. The stories are short, but resonate deeply -- and Abdul-Wali introduces a truly different world and set of experiences than what is usually found in even 'exotic' fiction.

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They Die Strangers: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature
  • Nicholas Clapp looks for Sheba in Yemen

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About the Author:

       (North) Yemeni author Mohammad Abdul-Wali was born in Ethiopia in 1940 and died in 1973.

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