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In the Magazine: Mortada Gzar's "While He Was Sitting There"

Posted on June 27, 2018

Mortada Gzar.

This month's issue of Words Without Borders celebrates Pride month with a selection of Queer literature that, in the words of Editorial Director Susan Harris, "elude[s] facile compartmentalization." One such story is author and animator Mortada Gzar's "While He Was Sitting There," set at a gay bar where a Iraqi student enjoys casual encounters with American soldiers.

The narration rolls along casually, like something overheard at a bar, peppered with jokes and goofy references to the narrator's "Arab beast." Yet, this apparent off-handedness conceals the story's sharp plotting, which culminates in a surprising final twist; and the sunny tone is occasionally, deliberately pierced with allusions to recent history.

The soldiers in the bar, recent veterans of the war in Iraq, buy the narrator drinks "to assuage their guilty consciences…their affection taking the edge off their regret." So many of these soldiers have PTSD that the narrator is surprised to encounter one who seems to show no side effects. As the two men joke and spar, the phrase "side effects" briefly becomes a flirtatious double entendre ---until the story's final lines, which reveal that no one escapes a war zone unscathed.

To get to know author Mortada Gzar, students might watch a ten-minute video interview from the On the Map series, produced by The International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In the interview, Gzar reflects on gay life in Iraq, on writers he admires, and on the "genderless" nature of writing. He also mentions that his name is often difficult for Americans to pronounce, something the narrator of "While…" also experiences (and addresses with a string of false, purposely exoticized names.)

(Watch on YouTube.)

After students watch the interview, you might ask them to consider Gzar's comment that writing is genderless, but we can't run away from our gender while we write. (At about 4:43.) Do they agree? What might be the differences between "genderless" and gendered writing? Does students' own writing reflect a particular gender(s)?

Then, as students read the story, you might have them pause midway through, at the point when the narrator is wondering why the other soldiers are avoiding looking at "the giant." Ask students to speculate on the possible reasons, and on what might happen next.

Students may need help understanding the term ammiya, which refers to a dialect of Arabic: Mashriqi (or Eastern) Arabic, spoken in Iraq, Egypt, and other countries located between Iran and the Mediterranean Sea. That region is known as the Mashriq, "the place of the sunrise." Students can listen to the dialect during Gzar's reading at the beginning of the video interview above. 

To learn some of the history of the U.S. in Iraq, and find out why the U.S. soldiers might feel guilty, students might view the images in "Looking Back at the War in Iraq, 15 Years After the U.S. Invaded", from The Atlantic. An NPR interview with the author of a recent memoir about the Iraq war can provide further insight.

For context on gay life in the U.S., students might look through the Library of Congress's online audio-visual collection, which also includes a link to stories from gay veterans who served in Iraq.

If you are interested in having students compare this story to other texts, you might try reading it alongside a Chinese story about the after-effects of war, also published on WWB Campus: "Appointment in K City." (If you are looking for modern, book-length war stories, try book critic Michiko Kakutani's recommendations.)

Or, you might pair "While…" with the Russian oral history, "The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt," which describes a love affair between a woman and a gulag survivor. Like Gazr's story, Alexeivich's oral history seems to be asking about the possibility of recovering human emotions, such as love, in the wake of trauma.

Other stories of Queer life on WWB Campus include: 

For more from the author, students can browse his short animated films on YouTube, or read his story in an anthology of work about post-U.S. invasion Iraq, Iraq + 100, from commapress.

A potential assignment might ask students to create work inspired by the story:

Of the "Tuesday bar," the story's narrator writes: Jeffrey is a regular at this bar, one of its features, part of its scent. Reread the passages in which the narrator describes the bar, and then…

  1. Describe a place you often visit, the people you usually see there, and what usually happens. Use several senses (smell, hearing, etc.)

  2. Describe something out of the ordinary happening in that place – it can be something that really happened, or something you imagine might happen. Either way, try to make sure it feels true to the place and the characters.