Shahrazad's Tooth

Jan 6, 2014

 “Shahrazad’s Tooth and Other Stories”
Author: Gretchen McCullough
Publisher: Afaq Bookshop & Publishing House
Pages: 269
Price: $5.99 (E-book)

Gretchen McCullough, who earned the MFA in fiction writing at the University of Alabama, is an old Middle East hand.

She has taught in Turkey and Syria and now for many years at the American University in Cairo.

Two years ago McCullough published “Three Stories from Cairo” and now these and six more make up “Shahrazad’s Tooth.”

All are set in Cairo not merely in recent times but just about yesterday. The stories are informed and, in a simple sense, accurate—McCullough is a knowledgeable, experienced expatriate, a keen observer and fluent now in Arabic, but they are not strictly speaking realistic. They are not useful as guide books, or entertaining as travel narratives; they attempt to capture the flavor and the absurdity, the wackiness of everyday life in Cairo as Egyptians interact with expatriates of various stripes, who understand less than they think they do, and with hapless tourists who understand nothing at all.

Some explore the dilemmas of women. Keiko is a Japanese women learning Arabic who is distressed by the fantastic amount of noise coming from the presumably empty flat upstairs. Of course the superintendent, the bawab, has rented it out, off the books, to a seamstress of belly dancing costumes who also has athletic meetings with male lovers.

A bored wife, Hoda, becomes obsessed with the sex life of her across- the-alley neighbor who buys a noisy parrot. Hoda retaliates by buying a noisy blue heron. All her husband wants is peace and quiet and bechamel lasagna. The opening story, “The Wedding Guest,” takes place at a grotesquely extravagant wedding at the Sharm il Sheikh Marriott, complete with belly dancers, Nubian men in ostrich feathers, and horses.

“Shahrazad’s Tooth,” the title story, begins with a visit by an American, Mary Beth Somer, to a Cairo dentist. Somer had been kept hostage for 205 days in Lebanon, 17 years earlier. She had written a book about her experience but refused therapy and would not talk about that experience or many others.

The dentist’s only gift to Mary Beth is a leather-bound journal with her name engraved on it. “Write down the stories,” he urges. After he has left she does, and as with the heroine of “1001 Arabian Nights,” we feel doing so will save her life.

In “Tiger,” Hale, an American Goth from Tuscaloosa, visits Cairo after being ejected from the M.A. program at Ole Miss where he is specializing in Elvis Studies. Intellectually lazy and scornful of working in his father’s hardware store, Hale meets Egyptians who do actually read Faulkner and would love to have a job, any job.

This volume ends with a pair of stories as absurd as the setting in which they occur. In “Pure Water” Gary, an American biologist, is losing his mind. To call attention to pollution he has a ton of toxic fish dumped at the gate of the university. After a spell in a jail/mental ward, Gary and his new friend Karalombos, a Norwegian Greek ballroom dance instructor who believes he has impregnated The Big Man’s daughter, flee to Malta.

In the sequel they return surreptitiously to Cairo only to land in the middle of the anti-government riots. In hiding, they become caregivers to a menagerie of bizarre animals including a diabetic chihuahua, but life inside their apartment is no crazier than the looters, tanks in the street and mayhem outside.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”