The one image that lingered in my mind long after finishing Ahmed Zaghlol Al-Sheti’s newest short story collection is that of three sad tigers sitting down for tea with a stranger in his home. Before leaving him, they approach slowly and shower him with feline affection.
“Daw’ Shafaf Yantasher b Khefa (Transparent Light Spreading Softly) is the title of the collection. Most stories are less than one page-long, resembling internet blog posts rather than traditional short stories. Some stories focus on one scene in isolation, a technique many creative writing bloggers often follow.
Some stories feature nameless characters who disappear almost as quickly as they appear. Other stories eschew characters altogether; comprising single observations or notes (this particular style is rarely found in print). Al-Sheti perfects this style in one remarkable story entitled “A Morning.
“The window is open to the street. It lets in the spring morning light, a reminder that life is beautiful and that mornings like these don’t last.
While simple, compact and comprehensive, “A Morning is more of a moment or a meditative thought than an actual story, short or not. More interesting than what category this piece of prose falls under is the room it leaves for interpretation. Searching for any hidden meaning in the collection’s best stories robs them of their mystique.
Similarly, many of Al-Sheti’s short stories don’t aim to deliver a clear-cut message. The beautiful imagery is Al-Sheti’s forte, even though it over-powers the meaning.
Building a space where the reader can interpret the stories in different ways without losing grasp of the beauty of the imagery is quite an accomplishment. Few writers succeed in creating this ambiance, and it’s this particular quality that renders his collection unique and enjoyable.
“Gypsies is another story where focus is reserved for the conjured imagery. The story revolves around a man or woman (the gender of the protagonist is never revealed) obsessed with gypsies. At a young age, the protagonist grows fixated on his/her next-door neighbor, Faten. Once the reader had the urge to learn more about her, to cross the fence that separates them, the main character decides not to reveal any details, expressing instead his enjoyment of peeking at Faten’s body.
Is the author commenting on the fence separating the spiritual and material worlds here? Does materialism eventually lead to spirituality? Here again, Al-Sheti leaves room for extracting, or imposing, different meanings, but the simple narrative itself overpowers all interpretations.
In a few stories, Al-Sheti uses references from present Cairo. Well-off neighborhoods, the ones less so and the contrast between the two is a recurring theme in the collection. The author takes snapshots of ordinary Egyptian streets and turns them into little fantasies.
Al-Sheti also explores themes of first love, separation and lost love. The shortness of the storylines renders these efforts closer to love letters.
“A Novel Plot is the only story in the collection where the author tackles the relation between the writer and his writing. Al-Sheti’s hero, referred to as ‘The Narrator,’ is inspecting an apartment to rent. He later finds himself thrown in a police chase before his real estate agent disappears. The Narrator then meets a princess he tries to escape from by making a hole in the wall that would lead him to the street outside.
The central idea of the story is a writer being haunted by his creations. Each character he briefly encounters has an interesting story Al-Sheti only hints at it. However, fast-paced dramatic events leave no room for any of the subplots to develop.
From sad tigers to mysterious gypsies, Al-Sheti’s short story collection is a fun read, although if you’re adamant on finding lucid explanations, you might want to look elsewhere. The title, “Transparent Light Spreading Softly, is very fitting; after reading one light story after another, readers may find no specific color to behold. They see each story in whichever light they please.
“Transparent Light Spreading Softly is published by Merit Publishing House. Available now in all major bookstores.