Ali Mahdi’s QAMAR AL-ZAMAN is based on a dark premise: that an excluded group in society, made up of people with black eyes, is destined to commit suicide. In fact, the premise is so strong that the titular lead character is the last remaining of the group, with both his parents having predeceased him. With rules in place determining that Al-Zaman cannot commit suicide until the age of 25, he’s instead subjected to a life of near slavery. While he’s able to educate himself to some degree, he has to work for his keep within a rich household where he’s poorly treated, and later shifts to long hours where he’s further exploited in a generic, socially uncomfortable factory. The son of his rich master eventually gets Al-Zaman addicted to drugs, which suck up his paycheck in full, while his schooling comes to depend on an ultimately platonic love interest, the first person he truly considers to be a friend.
Throughout the short story, the lead character oscillates from light hope to utter despair, often contemplating his supposed destiny, his creed’s tendency towards suicide. There’s a sense that he’s looking for sparks of hope, of direction, and a less final way out of a life that’s become a dirge. Mahdi’s point seems to be largely about how difficult it is to feel different, to feel culturally on the outside. The ‘get out’ of death hanging over the story as a whole adds a bleakness and a depth, with that deathly pressure playing a role in life both literally and metaphorically. The naivety of the lead character – who participates in events like an annual festival of sex despite knowing it’ll be used largely to ridicule him – also jumps to the fore, but it’s obvious that the character is the victim. His flawed persona just highlights that victims don’t always have to come across entirely sympathetically to their audience.
Short, bleak and yet thoroughly afflicting, the main flaws of QAMAR AL-ZAMAN come in the sometimes clunky way its message is expressed, and that the parable-like message is not a particularly new or original one, though it is delivered in a stark way that cuts through the chaff. As a thought-provoking, hard-hitting piece of reading that will occupy little more than a lunch break, it’s well worth a glance, particularly if relating to the scenarios others face is something that requires a little fiction to connect with. QAMAR AL-ZAMAN won’t go down as a classic in short story telling, simply because the metaphor and message are a little stark and saturated, but it does make for a fulfilling, at times touching and at the same time utterly grey-toned read that’s extremely easy to become invested in. It’s culturally bizarre and pointedly tough, and colorful along with it.
A brief exploration of the difficult outsider life of one man in a fictional and tightly regimented society, QAMAR AL-ZAMAN is quite a dark, layered book, coming across as something of a morality tale. Comfortably readable in an hour, it’s one of those narratives that’s both stark and simplistic, but also subtle in its affecting feel.
~James Hendicott for IndieReader