The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer
Banipal 53, summer 2015
Zakaria Tamer is a Syrian short story, considered one of the best short story writers in Arabic. I have no way to know if that is true, but Banipal 53, the magazine of modern Arab literature, has dedicated an entire issue of its magazine to him. It is filled with effusive praise from his translators across the world. In every case they described him as an economical author of very short stories that both stretch story telling and the Arabic language, but are playful and darkly humorous. After reading the 27 stories, Facebook posts and children stories included in the issue, I would have to agree with their assessment.
He has had a long career, if troubled career. He has lived in exile in England since the 1980s. The Syrian government didn’t like what he had written in the state funded literature magazine he edited. Some of his work addresses life in a police state, not directly, but through fables and little incidents in daily life that the best writers can use to illustrate a larger point. The Arab Prison best illustrates the former approach. In it, the narrator returns home from a three week stay in a jail. All his neighbors ask him leading questions, hoping, though it is not said, that he will describe the terrors inside. The narrator, instead, describes everything as pleasant—to a degree, as if he wants to tell stories but he just can’t quite shake the truth:
Then the interrogator let the burly men who were with him and whose hobby was to collect autographs of celebrities, request my autograph. However, I couldn’t hold a pen, so I had to dip all ten of my fingers in ink and plant their imprints on their notepads.
It’s obvious that his hands have been broken, but the narrator is a story teller, both as our narrator and also as someone who is known to create his own stories, so he takes different approaches to story telling. In a typically Tamer move, he ends the story by telling little fables. After the narrator’s mother has left the room, his little brother wants to hear a story. The narrator tells him three stories about kings. In each story there is a threat of violence and loss and the fables do not end well. In the final, for example, a man tells the king he has too many prisoners and if he releases them he will be cured of a milady. In anger he puts the man in jail and later the milady goes away. There is no settling of accounts. Those without power end up at the mercy of those without power.
In the brief Cold Night, Tamer examines the common place cruelties that neighbors are willing to live with. A husband and wife are in bed and they hear their neighbor scream. She is alone and someone might be trying to rape her. The husband says “we’re not the only neighbors […] Someone else will help her.” This kind of indifference has been explored before, but then Tamer goes a little father. The wife describes what she thinks is happening and the husband becomes aroused and wants to make love. The story ends there. It is unclear what has happened, but Tamer has in one page described not only neighborly indifference, but a delight in suffering living just beneath the surface. Cold Night is a perfect example of his precise style.
Tamer is also quite playful. In New of the Sheep he writes 10 on paragraph stories the might be called the disaster of sheep, each describing the well-intentioned naivete of sheep that always turns out bad:
A well-fed lamb believed in the idea of peace between lambs and wolves and devoted all his energies to preaching and advocating it. The wolves fell upon him and gave him the highest honor by cooking his tender, firm flesh in the most innovative ways.
As the translators note and from the stories I’ve read, the darkness isn’t a pessimism, but a reality that is too easily glossed over.
Along with the short stories, most of which have not appeared in English, the children’s stories which have never been published before, and the reflections of translators and critics, there is a lengthy interview with Tamer that is excellent and will give you an insight to his writing process.
If you are interested in the short story I think this issue of Banipal is a must. I plan to read some more of his stories as soon as I can. There are three books in translation:
Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other Stories
The Hedgehog-A Novella.
You can read one of his stories at Arabic lit in English. There is a good review of his recent public appearance in London at Arabic lit also.