We don’t get a lot of modern Arabic literature in translation over here, and it’s not easy to find out much about Egyptian short-story writer and novelist Mahmoud Al-Wardani, other than that he is 58 years old, was imprisoned for student activism in the 1970s, had the job of transporting dead soldiers during the 1973 Egypt-Israel war, and is currently deputy editor-in-chief of the weekly Cairo newspaper Akhbar al-yawm and editor of the opinion page of the daily al-Badil. But a brief note on Words Without Borders will bring a nod of recognition from anyone who’s just had the head-spinning pleasure of reading Al-Wardani’s Heads Ripe For Plucking (American University in Cairo Press): “Typically his works are dispassionate and discontinuous depictions of ambiguous, disturbing situations.” No kidding. That sounds just like the writer who, after having his unnamed narrator—dancing for unexplained reasons on the roof of a moving train—forget to duck and end up with his head impaled on an iron bridge and his body on the tracks below, and then has the stuck head open Chapter One with:
“This was not the first time I parted with my head; I had parted with it several times before, just as others who preceded me had likewise parted with their heads.”
Dispassionate, indeed. The long-suffering head goes on to tell a series of intricately interlocked tales of headlessness—the helpless, stultifying effects of oppression, that is. The title comes from an infamous remark by an official of the early Caliphate, just before he brutally suppressed an uprising: “I see heads before me ripe and ready for plucking.” And the novel too ranges that far in time, from Arab history’s ur-beheading (so to speak), that of the Prophet’s grandson al-Husayn, through dictator Gamal Nasser’s prisons, the decapitation of an expat businessman at the hands of his wife and her lover, and into an-only-to-be-expected future where the authorities routinely remove heads for repairs and the insertion of fresh programming. Witty, jarring and strangely, oddly hopeful, Heads Ripe For Plucking is both a window into another world and a fine novel.