12 ‘Impossible’ and ‘Rebellious’ Stories Translated from Arabic to Serbian to English

The European Cultural Foundation has made an English translation (of the Serbian translations) of 12 Impossibles: Stories by Rebellious Arab Writers available online:

downloadAccording to the book’s introduction, by Milena Dragićević Šešić, this book has been in the works since the 1980s, when Serbian translator Srpko Leštarić began collecting short stories “about patterns of resistance throughout the Arab world.” But because Leštarić likes numbers, the 12 stories were actively collected over a period of 12 years and published in 2005 in Serbian.

Šešić writes in her introduction that as Leštarić “gained the trust” of Arab writers:

…who saw in him a guarantee that their censored words would somehow reach an audience, Leštarić also gained access to the most dangerous information and texts and eventually saw in them the potential to create a unique book – a book of provocative, meaningful stories of dissent.

The twelve “forbidden” stories in the collection are paired with nine chatty essays, of varying lengths, in which Srpko talks about the fate of the authors, their texts, and how he came across them. The book, according to Šešić, thus “can also be read partially as an ‘action story’ about smuggling texts across borders, spreading messages and transmitting ideas to the world.” Although, that said, it doesn’t seem that any of the texts were smuggled, and all were taken from magazines or published collections.

Some of the writers are very widely known — Salwa Bakr, Zakariya Tamer — and others less so. The other stories are by Abdulah Hakam, Idris al-Saghir, Mohammed Mesud al-Ajami, Abdul Sattar, Nassir, Adil Kamil, Hadiya Hussein, and Fakhri Qaawar.

From the original Serbian translation, the twelve stories — along with the rest of the material — have now made their way to English, trans. Edward Alexander, and were made freely available on the European Cultural Foundation website.

It’s a somewhat strange project — translating Arabic stories into English through Serbian — and much of the prose loses its distinct stylistic flavor, such that Zakariya Tamer sounds flat. The charm of this short book’s English version is less in the stories and more in the sometimes overly chatty discussions of how Leštarić found the stories, his choices while translating them, and what he was able to learn (or wasn’t able to learn) about the authors. Because the collection was published in 2005, it misses out on some of the later developments, such as Zakariya Tamer moving to Facebook to share his short stories. But it’s still an interesting journey.

The stories are interconnected: Leštarić is interested in Idris al-Saghir because the author reminds him of Abdulah Hakam; Abdul Sattar Nassir was married to included Iraqi short-story writer Hadiya Hussein, who was herself dismissed from her position as cultural editor of the Baghdad daily Jumhuriyyah for publishing Adil Kamil’s “The City of Silence.” One of Salwa Bakr’s stories, “How the Peasant Woman Kneads Her Dough” has references to Zakariya Tamer’s well-known “Tigers on the Tenth Day.”

It’s hard to call the stories “impossible,” and certainly not all of them were censored. Consequences for publishing the stories varied.

As to Hadiya Hussein’s story, for instance, it was taken from her 1998 collection Right Beside Me. Leštarić writes that, “As the work was to be published, the printing had to be halted due to the censors expressing concern that one of the stories, ‘The Blizzard,’ was defeatist, directed against the righteous war efforts of the Iraqi nation and that, as such, it should be deemed a public disturbance. Time and a little friendly cajoling of authority figures, over numer-109 ous cups of lime tea in the famed Hasan Ajami’s coffeehouse, eventually did the trick, the book finally being released two years later without any changes whatsoever.”

You can read the stories — and the stories about the stories — on the European Cultural Foundation website, or apparently you can fill in a form to order a print copy.