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  • Welcome to ALT Magazine & Press: Hazawi Prize Announces 2023 Shortlist: (Sana'a, Yemen) - The shortlist for the 2023 Hazawi Prize for Yemeni Literature has been revealed, announcing the ten writers who have been selected as finalists for this prestigious award.
  • Now in its second yearly round, the Hazawi Prize recognizes exceptional contributions to fiction in Yemeni literature. Organized by the Hazawi Cultural Foundation, this annual prize aims to promote Yemeni literature and support creative writers.
  • This year's shortlist features both emerging and renowned Yemeni authors. The ten works advancing to the final round of judging are:
  • - Abdullah Faisal shortlisted for his novel, Spirits and Secrets.
  • - Aisha Saleh shortlisted for her novel, Under the Ashes
  • - Farouk Merish shortlisted for his novel, A Dignified Stranger
  • - Ahmed Ashraf shortlisted for his novel, A Painful Belt
  • - Ghassan Khalid shortlisted for his novel, A Sky that Rains Fear
  • - Hosam Adel shortlisted for his novel, The Lord of the Black Dog
  • - Asmaa Abdulrazak shortlisted for her novel, Shrapnels
  • - Abdullah Abdu Muhammad shortlisted for his novel, The Road to Sana'a
  • - Najah Bahkeim shortlisted for her novel, The Final Decision
  • - Samir AbdulFattah shortlisted for her novel, What We Cannot See
  • The winner will be revealed at an award ceremony in Sana'a later where they will receive $1,500 USD. Second and third prizes of $1,000 USD each will also be awarded. All shortlisted works are celebrated for chronicling Yemen's rich culture and wartime experiences. This prestigious prize continues highlighting the nation's thriving literary community.

Fragmented Identities: Postcolonial Alienation and the Exilic Imagination in Sameer Abdelfattah’s “Empty Box”


Hatem Al-Shamea

Assistant Professor of English Literature

University of Reading, UK.

Fragmented Identities: Postcolonial Alienation and the Exilic Imagination in Sameer Abdelfattah’s “Empty Box”


In the enigmatic modernist short story “Empty Box,” Yemeni author Sameer Abdelfattah skillfully encapsulates the psychic dislocation and fractured subjectivity of exile. Abdelfattah’s avant-garde narrative offers insight into what postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha terms the “unhomed” condition, where one inhabits an ambivalent “in-between” space that generates “anxiety and psychic uncertainty” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 299). Through fragmented vignettes and surreal dream imagery, the story provides a vivid portrait of hybrid identity and alienation born of colonialism’s ruptures. For the diasporic Yemeni subject, these fissures emerge from both the history of British occupation and the country’s ongoing internal conflicts and tribal divisions. This analysis will examine how Abdelfattah’s literary techniques, nonlinear structure, tropes, and motifs work to capture the complex postcolonial self, suspended between worlds.

Historical Context

To appreciate the backdrop of Abdelfattah’s tale, it is useful to understand Yemen’s long experience of colonial subjugation and resulting social strife. Britain occupied the port city of Aden in present-day Yemen from 1839 to 1967 (Willis, 2012, p. 145). This imposed colonial rule had a deeply disruptive impact on traditional social structures. As scholar Isa Blumi notes, the British “dismantled regional systems of knowledge and reconfigured technologies of managing populations” (Blumi, 2002, p. 2). Yet at the same time, the nationalist anti-colonial movement also generated upheaval as it worked to overthrow oppressive power structures.

Following independence in 1967, North and South Yemen separated along ideological lines, with lingering conflicts. After unification in 1990, civil war and factional fighting continued, creating divisions along religious, tribal, and regional lines (Willis, 2012, p. 289). The 2011 Arab Spring protests further destabilized the country. This complex legacy of colonialism and internal dissent generated much displacement, rendering exile a definitive facet of the contemporary Yemeni experience. Abdelfattah’s story gives voice to this unsettled condition.

The Uncanny and Surreal

The surreal, dreamlike quality of the narrative aligns with scholar Shu-mei Shih’s observation that the postcolonial experience itself takes on “an aura of uncertainty” (Shih, 2004, p. 790). Literary critic Julia Kristeva argues that the strange spaces of exile give rise to feelings of the uncanny. The uncertainty over what is real generates anxiety in the subject (Kristeva, 1991, p. 170). In Abdelfattah’s story, familiar motifs take on eerie, phantasmatic qualities, like the birds that seem to lift the protagonist away. As critic Vilashini Cooppan notes, these magical realist elements make “the unfamiliar emerge within the familiar” (Cooppan, 2000, p. 37). The surreal passages convey the alienation of the diasporic condition where one inhabits an uncanny space between two cultures.

Nonlinear Fragmentation

The postmodern, nonlinear structure marked by abrupt shifts between scenes and motifs further exemplifies the ruptured identities born of colonial displacement. The narrative jumps from fragment to fragment with no central plotline, mirroring the uprooted condition of exile. Scholar Simon Gikandi argues that formally experimenting with discontinuity allows postcolonial texts to capture the fissures of History writ large (Gikandi, 2001, p. 629). The disorienting gaps subvert colonial narratives of coherence and control. Moreover, as critic Abdul JanMohamed notes, nonlinear forms can resist the binary of homeland and exile by remaining suspended in between (JanMohamed, 2005, p. 97). Abdelfattah’s modernist experimentation lets the narrative perform the liminal space. 

Hybridity and pastiche

Abdelfattah synthesizes diverse influences to generate new postcolonial aesthetics, in what critic Peter Brooker terms “a hybrid poetics” (Brooker, 1992, p. 201). He blends modernist stream-of-consciousness techniques with magical realist motifs and experimental surrealism. Such hybridity stems from the heterogeneous cultural collision born of imperialism (Ashcroft et al., 1998, p. 118). The flowing lyrical prose evokes the oral storytelling tradition in Arabic literature, while certain motifs reference Anglo-European modernists like Kafka, Eliot, and Conrad.

As scholar Simon Gikandi argues, postcolonial writers creatively appropriate the colonizer’s traditions, merging them with indigenous forms (Gikandi, 2001, p. 619). This inventive fusion forges what Homi Bhabha calls a “Third Space” of new cultural meaning that resists totalizing colonial narratives (Bhabha, 1994, p. 296). Abdelfattah’s lyrical experimentation exemplifies this postcolonial pastiche, synthesizing diverse influences to convey the liminality of colonial aftereffects. 

Metaphors of Loss and Disconnection

Several motifs threaded through the disjointed vignettes illuminate facets of the protagonist’s postcolonial condition, particularly the loss accompanying exile and migration. The central image of the empty mailbox signifies a void, the lack of identity or stable community outside one’s place of origin. As theorist Stuart Hall argues, identity forms relationally through interactions; thus displacement severs this process, leaving an absence (Hall, 1990, p. 393). The unanswered letters further this disconnection.

Scholar Craig Calhoun notes that the rise of the nation-state imposed categorization and official state identities, often at odds with fluid communal ties (Calhoun, 1994, p. 20). The passport and stamps marking the protagonist metaphorically capture this reductive labeling. By contrast, the birds represent the transcendence of such boundaries, suggesting imaginative flight offers liberation. Ultimately, the text evokes both the rupture of exile and the creative possibility of hybridity born of mobility and cultural mixing.

The Postcolonial Double

The doppelganger figure that haunts the protagonist epitomizes what critic Abdul JanMohamed terms “death-bound subjectivity,” the fractured selfhood resulting from colonial dislocation (JanMohamed, 2005, p. 63). As scholar Adam Barrows explains, the shadowy double signifies repressed aspects that cannot integrate into a coherent identity (Barrows, 2010, p. 51). This motif ties to Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny double, reflecting fears and desires that cannot be consciously processed (Freud, 1919/2003, p. 142). The cryptic ending implies the protagonist must acknowledge this otherness within himself, rather than flee, in order to become whole again.


Through his lyrical modernist experimentation, Sameer Abdelfattah adeptly captures the liminal condition of postcolonial exile in “Empty Box,” giving form to anxieties over unstable identity. The nonlinear structure, uncanny motifs, and hybrid mixing of influences convey alienation, social fracture, and the unintegrated self that legacy of colonialism engenders. Yet the surreal imagery also suggests generative potential, new “third spaces” that transcend binaries and open imaginative possibilities beyond borders. Abdelfattah’s story provides a poignant crystallization of the complex subjectivity produced in the interstices between cultures.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (1998). Key concepts in post-colonial studies. Routledge.

Barrows, A. (2010). The continental exotic: Exile, migration, and the poetics of displacement. Legenda.

Bhabha, H.K. (1994). The Location of Culture. Routledge.

Blumi, I. (2002). Rethinking the late Ottoman Empire: A comparative social and political history of Albania and Yemen, 1878–1918. Isis.

Brooker, P. (1992). Modernity and Metropolis: Writing, film and urban formations. Palgrave Macmillan.

Calhoun, C. (1994). Social theory and the politics of identity. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Social Theory and the Politics of Identity (pp. 9-36). Wiley-Blackwell.

Cooppan, V. (2000). The ruins of empire: The national and global politics of America’s return to Rome. Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 33(2), 220-246.

Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny (D. McLintock, Trans.). Penguin Books. (Original work published 1919)

Gikandi, S. (2001). Globalization and the claims of postcoloniality. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 100(3), 627-658. 

Hall, S. (1990). Cultural identity and diaspora. In J. Rutherford (Ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (pp. 222-237). Lawrence & Wishart.

Jan Mohamed, A. R. (2005). The death-bound subject: Richard Wright’s archaeology of death. Duke University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1991). Strangers to ourselves. Columbia University Press.

Shih, S. (2004). Global literature and the technologies of recognition. PMLA, 119(1), 16-30.

Willis, J. (2012). Making Yemen Indian: Rewriting the boundaries of imperial Arabia. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 44(1), 145-147.

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