By Mike V. Derderian
October 20 2008
“We have died enough. We die on a daily basis but what enrages me most is that our death is still primitive and happens so easily, which affirms our inability to learn more about it. It is like dying for the first time,” Satirist Muhammad Tommaleih, wrote, foreshadowing but not fearing death that will one day consume all.
The above quote by Tommaleih was featured in an article written in Arabic by Muhammad Shamma, a Jordanian journalist and radio presenter, who mourned Tommaleih, Jordan’s first and foremost satirical writer, who passed away on Monday, October 13.
“To describe him as a cultural phenomenon is not easy but he is a phenomenon. Through his articles and writings Tommaleih gives you a dose of reality and sincerity—honest and blatant sincerity without courtesies or euphemisms. Through his writings he embodies social reality with all its aspects,” Shamma wrote.
“I think that Tomaleh’s death and absence from the literary arena will have an impact specifically among sarcastic writers because he is one of the most influential book cynics among the new generation of writers. Although there are many cynical writers but they are not a creative talent like Mohammed,” Shamma later told The Star, adding, “he has always been strong willed and had a zest for life in spite of his misery.”
Even when he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his tongue in 2004 Tommaleih stood up against life’s cruel judgment and disparaged his calamity in his daily writings in al-Arab al-Yawm newspaper. Still its impact was sensed in his writings whereby he started describing his mental and physical state after each and every chemotherapy session he underwent or a night spent in solitude at a hospital room.
His writings that mirrored life were doused with bouts of existentialism and his language was a hybrid of prose, poetry and everyman’s language, which would explain his appeal to Jordanians.
Born in Karak in 1957, Tommaleih wrote five books: Jawlet Arak (A Round of Aniseed liquor) (1980), al-Khaybah (The Disappointment) (1981), Molahazhat ala Qadia Assassiyah) (Notes on a Primary Case) (1981), al-Awghad al-Motahamsoon (The Enthusiastic Rascals) (1984), Elayha Betabi’at al-Hal (To Her Naturally) (2007) and Yahdoth Lee Duna Sa’er al-Nas (Happens to Me of All People) (2004)—in association with Emad Al-Hajjaj—in addition to the hundreds of pieces he wrote over a period of 20 years for local newspapers like ad-Dustour and al-Arab al-Yawm, where he continued to write since 1997 until his death.
Tommaleih had previously issued two satirical newspapers Qef (Stop) and al-Raseef (The Sidewalk) that he edited. He also worked for the satirical newspaper Abd Rabboh.
“We not only lost a special writer but also a literary figure with a unique creative output and a delicate personality,” ad-Dustour’s responsible editor-in-chief wrote in his editorial bidding farewell to Tommaleih, “Tommaleih always made sure to be a pioneer not an imitator. He was dubbed by many as the father of satirical writing, which is something he used to poke fun at as he only wanted a space, his thoughts and his style.”
Whether it was divine intervention or pure coincidence, I found Yousef Gheishan, a Jordanian satirical writer, standing outside Abu Ali’s Culture Kiosk in al-Balad (downtown Amman) where within its narrow space that was lined with books we talked about Tommaleih. “I wish there is a photocopier within reach so that I could give you a copy of a speech I am going to deliver about Tommaleih at a women’s,” Gheishan told The Star, as he rummaged through a folder he was holding.
“What can I say about Tommaleih except that he prodded us into thinking about life’s precious moments and constantly reminded us that we are alive! Our loss is great but we—his colleagues and readers—are still to feel the brunt of his death,” continued Gheishan, affirming Tommaleih’s title as the father of satire in Jordan, “he started a satirical column entitled Eyewitness at ad-Dustour in 1983 and its first piece was entitled The Sultans of Corridors. Tommaleih was also the first to launch satirical newspapers.”
Gheishan describes Tommaleih’s writing style as being unique and hard to imitate. “We always tried to imitate his style of writing but we never got close [referring to other Jordanian satirists] to his style that was closer to literary writing peppered with sarcasm,” Gheishan explained.
A day earlier Gheishan wrote in his column at ad-Dustour that he won’t request from the audience at a lecture he was holding on satirical writing to stand a moment of silence for Tommaleih. Why? “He most probably would laugh at us,” Gheishan laughingly stated before disappearing in a wave of people streaming by the kiosk.
What is bizarre is the disappearance of Tommaleih works from bookshops and book kiosks in al-Balad after his death was announced in local newspapers. “I don’t have a single volume. People probably are realizing the value of his words and writings, which would explain why there are no books left,” the Kiosk owner Abu Ali told The Star.
“I wept at his family home. His brother made me cry. Muhammad is part of me and it is hard to describe him. Mohammad is a playwright, a moviemaker, a poet and a storyteller. In my opinion he is the best there was in Jordan and the Arab world. He was an avid reader and a prolific writer,” Abu Ali, who knew Tommaleih since he was a student, said adding that he hopes that Tommaleih’s family would soon start reprinting his books that are now in demand as they were when he was alive. “There are no words to describe his words. He loved Jordan and he was loved by everyone, and I mean everyone.”
After my inquiry, Sami, another book kiosk owner, whipped out his mobile and called up his store so as to ask about books by Tommaleih. “Not a single copy. We have to re-order them,” he exclaimed before saying that many people have been asking for his books.