Al-Mahraqa (The Incinerator), by: Intesar Al-Serry, Sanaa: Ibda'at Yamanya, 2013.
In her short story collection Al-Mahraqa (The Incinerator), Yemeni writer Intesar Al-Serry sheds new light on new issues related to life in Yemen, its traditions and the female psyche.
The writer begins with a quote from Winston Churchill that grabs the attention: “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” This quote sets the tone for the writer’s state of mind during writing the book.
The title Al-Mahraqa comes from the book’s first story. Al-Serry describes a woman burning her memories, her childhood pictures, her wedding band and many other items that one would normally hold dear. She feels that she is getting her freedom back from what seem to be bonds put on her by mysterious forces. Eventually she too burns in the incinerator. The significance is that we are our memories, even if bound by chains.
In The Stranger, the author describes the visit of the angel of death, who takes her soul to another dimension. This has been treated a lot in literature, changing the concept of death from a painful, frightening experience into a transition led by a wise visitor.
The Dinner Invitation describes a guy seduced on by a girl sitting at the next table while his girlfriend is with him. The narration is from the girlfriend’s view, and the story explores the pain and jealousy she feels while seeing her man slipping from her hands into those of a seductive stranger. The collection as a whole often deals with women’s emotions and inner thoughts, from women as victims of a traditional chauvinist society, to women betrayed by their partners, to women who are being playful and seductive, proud of their beauty and enjoying their resulting power over men.
It is always a challenge to write about a collection of short stories. Trying to find the writer in their stories, the narrator or the main character is always challenging, particularly with so much variety. Al-Serry’s exploration of the inner lives and feelings of her female characters, however, does bring this collection together and provide a sense of cohesion.
Other stories deal with the feelings of a rape victim the morning after, the feeling of a rapist choosing his target and persisting in getting his victim, the thoughts of a non-virgin bride in her wedding night, and a girl buying a dress while seducing the salesman.
The writer refuses to let the war in Yemen become the main theme in her stories, but the shadows of the tragedy, ongoing since 2015, can still be felt. In Shell, the angel of death takes the form of a pigeon to take the soul of a young girl who is killed by a shell falling on her house.
The tender symbolism in some of the stories that describe the war, death and the destruction in Yemen takes the reader into two directions. First, that perhaps death is not as bad as people think, and maybe it’s a solution to the miserable life that people live in during the time of war. The second idea is that resistance is still an option, but in a kind, subtle way; instead of crying about death, we must continue to live in spite of war.