Sunday Classics: Samira Azzam, Whose ‘Relative Obscurity Today Is a Grave Injustice’

All through Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), we’ve been profiling classic works by Arab women writers in translation:

Adania Shibli’s widely acclaimed Minor Detail appeared this May in Elisabeth Jaquette’s tightly controlled English translation. Shibli, when asked back to recommend an Arab woman writer back in 2015, said that, “a writer who influenced my life is Samira Azzam, especially her 1963 The Clock and the Man.'” She has said elsewhere that: “Actually [The Clock and the Man] contributed towards shaping my consciousness regarding the question of Palestine as no other text I have read in my life had done.”

Azzam has also been claimed as an influence by Palestinian novelist Huzama Habayeb.

Born in Acre in 1927, Azzam began working as a schoolteacher in the Greek Orthodox school in Acre at 16, according to a Jadaliyya profile. She held the job through 1945, when she began publishing in local newspapers under the alias “Coastal Girl.” She was forced to flee her home in 1948 and, after that, moved between Baghdad and Beirut.

As Joseph Farag writes in “Samira Azzam’s ‘Man and His Alarm Clock,’” it was in Beirut that Azzam would “emerge as one of the first and pre-eminent Palestinian literary voices in the wake of the Nakba of 1948.”

Azzam wrote prolifically, and the first of her six short-story collections was published in 1954.

In 1957, at the age of 30, Azzam moved to Baghdad. There, she wrote for the Iraqi newspaper Al-Shaab, where Badr el-Shakir el-Sayyab was one of the editors, and also for Iraqi and Kuwaiti radio. She also worked as a translator; she translated East Wind, West Wind and Pavilion of Women by Pearl Buck, Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, Collected Short Stories by Somerset Maugham, Candida by Bernard Shaw, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Short Story in America 1900–1950 by Ray West, and Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, among others.

Azzam was also intensely concerned with Palestine. In May 1964, Azzam participated in the First Palestine National Congress, one of eight women to represent Palestine at that event. According to Kathyanne Pisell in “Samira Azzam: Author’s Works and Vision,” throughout the 1960s, Azzam was also drafting a novel titled Sinai Without Borders. She reportedly destroyed it after the June 1967 war.

She died of a heart attack in August 1967, just 40 years old.

Suheil Idris, a prominent writer and a literary critic, described Azzam’s writing as “vital, bright, solid, musical and temperamental.” In his obituary of her, Ghassan Kanafani addressed her as “my teacher and instructor.”

Azzam is perhaps most well-known for her collection The Clock and the Man, in which “Man and His Alarm Clock“ was published. It has been translated to English by Nora Parr, Michael Beard, and Wen-Chin Ouyang. The story has also been turned into a short film, directed by Ghazi Abu Bakr.

You can also read Azzam’s “Bread of Sacrifice“ online, published in the anthology Modern Palestinian Literatureed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, translated by Kathie Piselli and Dick Davies.

In a discussion about the texts in his “Palestinian Literature and Film” course, Joseph Farag said of the relative lack of translations of Azzam:

“I should first say that I am a great admirer of Azzam and her work, and, as I’ve lamented elsewhere and on multiple occasions, her relative obscurity today is a grave injustice. She was a pioneering and seminal figure in post-1948 Palestinian literature who has yet to receive her due, particularly when juxtaposed with the notoriety of her younger contemporary, Ghassan Kanafani. I would love for her entire corpus to be translated, particularly given that what little has been so far is highly unrepresentative of her overall body of literature.”

Read: Adania Shibli, “Out of Time”

Previous #WiTMonth Sunday classics:

Safynaz Kazem’s ‘Romanticisms’

Erotic Surrealist Poet Joyce Mansour

The Fearless Zaynab Fawwaz (c. 1850-1914)