Banipal 53, with its focus on Syrian short-story Zakaria Tamer, is perhaps the strongest edition the magazine has yet issued:
It includes more than a dozen stories by Tamer, most in deft translation by Jonathan Wright, Ibrahim Muhawi, Roger Allen, and others; an extensive Q&A session between Tamer and Dima Alchukr; several interesting critical essays on aspects of Tamer’s work; a short biography; and a section focused solely on Tamer’s stories for children, edited and translated by Clayton Clark.
The material could have been organized differently, and the essays could’ve been organized to better elucidate different themes and aspects of Tamer’s writing: exploring gender in his work; examining the stories’ structural relationship to fables; or tracing his influence on the Arabic short story. Indeed, young Jordanian short-story writer Hisham Bustani recently singled out Tamer as one of those to have introduced “new sensitivities” to Arabic writing.
But, as a whole, Banipal 53 gives a strong overview of the range of Tamer’s work and his place in Arabic short-story writing while bringing many short stories into new translation. Indeed, it demonstrates the need for more big works that celebrate, criticize, comparativize, and otherwise nose around Tamer’s stories.
A blacksmith’s schooling
As we hear at several points in the 53, Tamer was born in Damascus in 1931 and left formal schooling in 1944, at the age of thirteen, to work as a blacksmith.
“A hasty analysis would make it seem that my dropping out of the school system at an early age had left negative influences,” Tamer said in the interview with Alchukr, “but what actually happened with me had the opposite effect on me because when education is of low quality it creates cumbersome chains.”
Indeed, although Tamer has said in previous interviews that he was a voracious child-reader, he was not chained to the usual short-story forms when he began writing in the 1950s. His stories are solidly grounded in a fairy-tale imagination, with often surprising gestures toward poetic reverie, realism, sarcasm, and the plot twist. As Subhi Hadidi writes in his essay:
“In the mid-1950s…it was neither familiar, nor indeed commonly accepted, for Arabic literature to witness a short story which did not tell a tale, seize a moment, depict an entity, dramatize an experience, develop an anecdote, convey a political message, or any such [thing].” At a time when poetry was moving toward prose, Tamer’s stories were also moving toward poetry — and yet retained an essential identity as story.
In Hadidi’s view, Tamer’s stories intensified “an individual, or even a universal, imagined nightmare.”
Tamer does this, as Serbian scholar Srpko Lestaric writes in the 53, by building his works “out of typical symbols verging on the cliché.” Indeed, this is a game of which Tamer is aware. As he said in the interview with Alchukr, “I realized from the beginning that reality itself was continuously changing so that a Damascus street one year would be different the next, and I decided that, from the artistic point of view, it is better to present the content without the façade[.]”
Yet behind and around these fairy-tale-like archetypes, Tamer’s usually dark stories take surprising turns. In the story “A Cold Night,” from the collection Sour Grapes (2000), an undistinguished married couple, Abdullah and Bahira, hear what sounds like their neighbor, Wafiqa, shouting for help. Bahira suggests her husband should go help Wafiqa, but he says first that someone else will likely help her, and later that her voice has, after all, stopped crying out.
The end of the story, in Jonathan Wright’s translation:
“Maybe the strange man has stopped her shouting and now he’s ripping her clothes off,” said Bahira.
Abdullah held her tighter and said: “Don’t stop. Go on describing what’s happening.”
Bahira began to describe what was happening but her voice started to shake until gradually she couldn’t say anything that made sense. Meanwhile, the wind howled outside the room down dark deserted lanes.
‘The most difficult form of literary expression’
Tamer started writing his stories fourteen yeras after he left school, in 1958, “but had a real terror of the short story,” he said in the Alchukr interview, “for I saw it as a skyscraper whilst I was an ignorant construction worker hardly able to attach one stone to another.”
Now, Tamer said, “I am proud that I write the short story, which I consider to be the most difficult form of literary expression[.]” Indeed, many of Tamer’s stories excel at the dense word-love of poetry as well as the puzzle-like aspect of short stories, making for a difficult literary genre indeed.
Tamer began writing in a fertile period: It was also when Syrian poet Mohammad al-Maghut was helping pioneer a new poetic movement that was closer to prose. The two later worked together, as Tamer notes, taking turns writing a column for Teshreen.
Tamer’s first collection, The Neighing of the White Horses, was published in 1960, by the publishers behind the ground-breaking Shi’r magazine. Palestinian critic Salma Khadra Jayyusi apparently brought this first collection with her to Beirut and submitted it for consideration, Tamer told Alchukr:
Two weeks later I contacted Salma, who had just returned from Beirut, and asked her about my stories. I was really surprised when she told me that had she stayed one more day in Beirut she would have brought me a copy of my published book.
Tamer also wrote for children and edited the popular Syrian children’s magazine Osama. The links between what interests him in writing for children and writing for adults are evident, and surely ripe for more exploration. Both attempt an accessibility in language if not in “message.”
But in Tamer’s children’s stories, by contrast, he allows himself happy endings. Clayton Clark writes, in the 53‘s introduction to the section of children’s works, that, “It is intriguing to me that a man who wrote so clinically about the brutality of humankind would spend so much creative energy directed toward children[.]” In his interview with Alchukr, Tamer doesn’t address why he wrote for children, although he surely must have enjoyed it.
As the 53 biography notes, Tamer has three collections in English: Tigers on the Tenth Day, edited and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, Breaking Knees, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, and The Hedgehog, edited and translated by Brian O’Rourke.
And, although Tamer could certainly now rest on his laurels, he continues to write. His latest work (in Arabic) is a new collection of essays titled The Land of Misery, and he has also been publishing short stories on his Facebook page, Al-Mihmaz, a number of which have appeared in translation.
Although Tamer also writes essays, the short story remains his form. Hadidi wrote, in his essay, that Tamer was once asked why he didn’t write a novel. “As if they would go to a baker, he answered back, and ask him why he doesn’t sell roses!”
Get a copy of Banipal 53
“Silent Ones,” Zakaria Tamer, trans. Ibrahim Muhawi
Five Texts by Zakaria Tamer, trans. Marilyn Hacker
“For Every Fox, An End”: By Zakariya Tamer, trans. Robert J. Farley
Stories from “The Hedgehog,” Zakariya Tamer, trans. Marilyn Hacker