Jokes for the Gunmen
Jokes for the Gunmen operates at a remove from our world on many levels. The first is in its translation from Arabic, which means that some subtextual meaning is inaccessible. Then there is its setting: a war-torn city almost inconceivable to Westerners. But Maarouf’s darkly fanciful tales are at their most removed from our reality in their ability to float above the chaos.
Narrated by disillusioned children, the impassive depictions of adult evil in this collection cut deeper than satire or pointed critique could. The text’s otherworldly bent offers relief from its tragic backdrop, but simultaneously draws attention to its most horrific components: a cow orbits a bombed movie theater where only one child survives; a man lives through the explosion that annihilates his bar because he’s turning the handle of a gramophone. These instances of everyday magic straddle the line between cloying and affecting.
It’s an astute choice that Maarouf’s narrators aren’t phased by the violence that surrounds them. The contrast between a character’s and a reader’s experience is key to the collection’s success: to us, the idea that a pepper plant could house several human souls is only slightly more foreign than the concept of constant bombing in our backyard. Not so for Maarouf’s protagonists. The text thus acts as an exercise in empathy, for the world Maarouf creates is one we should all strive to comprehend.
Words: Sophie Stein