Hidden Gems

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Review of "Literature from the 'Axis of Evil'", Eds: Words Without Borders, The New Press $25

This anthology includes writing from three regions: North Korea, Cuba and the Middle East. Many of the writers are translated into English for the first time - largely as a result of US government policy which, until 2004, effectively banned the translation of any author from an embargoed country. Ironically, many of these authors live in exile from fear of government persecution in their own countries, but most still write in Farsi or Arabic.

The most interesting and surprising writing here is from the Middle East. The North Korean stories are Stalinist propaganda so crude it's funny. The Cuban writing is good, but Latin American culture is so popular and available that it doesn't feel like something new and different.

Since 9/11 we've been constantly fed racist stereotypes about the Middle East. A great strength of this anthology is that it continually blows those away. You discover that Syria isn't all baking desert but that it snows in the winter. Many stories mention Muslim characters drinking alcohol. A political satire includes a gay character who, imprisoned by the Iraqi regime, has sex with all his fellow prisoners. The warden transfers him to a private room next to his own office, equipped with glamorous underwear and red nightgowns.

The writing also gives a different take on history we're used to seeing from a European perspective. A Libyan author describes the North African battles of the Second World War from an Egyptian point of view. In other stories we see European colonialists, such as oil company workers, through Iraqi eyes.

While most characters are Muslims, other faiths are represented. A Syrian story describes growing up in a Christian family. Jews are also often mentioned, particularly in stories set in the first half of the last century, suggesting multicultural communities characterised by a mixture of accommodation and prejudice.

Authors tell their tales in a variety of styles. Two beautifully observed stories give realistic accounts of childhood - Houshang Moradi-Kermani's tale of an Iranian child who wants to be a writer and clashes with a dictatorial teacher, and Hanna Minah's depiction of a young boy beginning work in the rough camaraderie of a warehouse.

In others "magical realism" reflects the collision of Middle Eastern traditions with imperialism. Salim Barakat begins a story by describing the arrival of a new baby in rural north Syria, and then shifts to science fiction and fantasy as we learn an eerie detail about the newborn.

The first chapter of Fadhil Al-Azzawi's novel The Last of the Angels is my personal favourite, combining political activism with an Arabian Nights style fairy tale. After an Iraqi worker is sacked by a British oil company his neighbours organise a demo, which brings about a miraculous rainstorm. Or perhaps the rainstorm was caused by Dalli Ihsan, who is believed to have magical powers. Many years ago, for example, alerted by talking cats, he crashed a magical party featuring supernatural beings, chandeliers of pearls and an immense lake with ships on it, all somehow contained in the women's baths in Kirkuk.

The Last of the Angels exemplifies a frustrating aspect of this anthology - in many cases you'd like to read more of a work or author, but few are translated into English. Writing this good, and the lessons we can learn from it, deserve a wider audience.