9 Short Stories by Syrian Women, in Translation

As far as we know, there is not an anthology of work by Syrian women writers, in English translation:

There is the collection Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, ed. Malu Halasa, Nawara Mahfoud, and Zaher Omareen, and there is Timeless Tales, ed. Zulaikha Abu Risha and tr. Serene Huleileh, an anthology that collects 21 folktales told by Syrian refugees (some of them women), available online in English and Arabic. Although there are more recent anthologies about Syria and Syrians, there does not seem to be an anthology focused on literary work by Syrians — this, despite the country having some brilliant short-story writers. A handful of short-story collections by Syrian authors have been published in English translation, notably by Zakaria Tamer, Osama Alomar, Ghada Samman, and Shahla Ujayli.

For most twentieth-century Syrian women writers (Colette Khoury, Nadiya Khust, Ulfat al-Idilbi, Najiya Thamir) their work seems to be available only in print anthologies, if at all. There are also key short-story writers, such as Widad al-Sakakini (who was born in Lebanon but spent most of her life, 1913-1986, in Syria) who don’t seem to have been translated. However, there is a wider variety of work in translation by younger Syrian writers, particularly Rasha Abbas and Shahla Ujayli.

Here are nine short stories, all but one (at the end) online. The last is because we would be remiss not to have a story by Ghada Samman.

King of Cups,” by Rasha Abbas, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette

It was 2008 when the celebrated Rasha Abbas published her first short story collection, Adam Hates the Television, which was awarded a prize for young writers during the Damascus Capital of Arab Culture festival. In 2014 she contributed, both as a writer and as a translator, to Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, and her short story “How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile” was also shortlisted for the ArabLit Story Prize, and there are a number of other Rasha Abbas stories available online, including Statement of Absolute Hatred,” translated by Alice Guthrie. A full-length collection of Abbas’s work is forthcoming in Guthrie’s translation.

“King of Cups” opens:

I shuffle the deck of tarot cards and deal three of them onto the table

More by Abbas, in Guthrie’s translation: The Gist of It,”  “Statement of Absolute Hatred,” and “Falling Down Politely, or How to Use Up All Six Bullets Instead of Playing Russian Roulette.”


“و,” by Colette Bahna, tr. Robin Moger, from Issue 17 of The Common magazine

Bahna writes short stories, novels, plays, television scripts, also works as a journalist; in an interview for The Common, she said of her story “Waw” that “I wrote this story based on an old memory that stuck with me from the 1980s when I worked at a media institution. Back then, I was aware that every time I picked up the phone, there were a “thousand ears” listening to me, which seemed obvious given the sensitive position of the media establishment.” It opens:

Once I’d been stripped and forced to stand naked before the gaze of the military medical examination board, for the purposes of identifying any defects that might prevent me receiving the honor of being conscripted, the examiner seated on the right-hand end of the bench rose, approached me, and circled me three times, inspecting every inch of the body before him, then turned back to his fellow board members and, stroking my ear with a disconcerting delicacy, said, “Sound. Big ears.” 


I Will Leave, without Lying Down on the Dewy Grass Even Once,” by Noor Dakerli, tr. Alice Guthrie, published in Words Without Borders

Dakerli is a Syrian writer, currently living in Lebanon. His short story collection Al-Takhareef Kingdom received the Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity in 2014, and his other writings have been published in magazines in print and online. This story opens, in Guthrie’s translation:

“So does this mean I’ll leave this world without lying down on the dewy grass even once?”


Dead Man’s Hand,” by Shahla Ujayli, tr. Sawad Hussain, published in Bed for the King’s Daughter.

From Ujayli’s Almultaqa Prize-winning collection, about which Hussain was told, in several rejections: “Too short.” “Too experimental.” “Not enough sense of place.” “Not Arab enough.” Although the collection won a major prize, and The Common magazine published the opening story in the collection, “The Memoirs of Cinderella’s Slipper,” Hussain said she was told, again and again, that short-story collections were “just too hard to sell in today’s market.”

Eventually, however, Hussain’s persistence won out. “Dead Man’s Hand” opens:

I was driving my steel-gray Honda Civic toward the free morning clinic where I work. The clinic is on the main road that goes from Na’ur to Um Al-Basateen village. In front of me was a white van that looked like an ambulance, but with a green light on the roof instead of a red one, and large windows making up most of the vehicle’s body. Once, I drove out in front of the van; another time it overtook me. I wanted to edge out in front of it, free myself of the stench of death engulfing the road that morning, a morning that seemed otherwise serene. But the van’s driver didn’t give me a chance to do so. When it sidled up beside me at the traffic light, I turned and saw a coffin through the side glass panel.


Dance,” by Widyan Almasarani, tr. Basma Ghalayini for Adda magazine.

Almasarani was born in 1982, studied veterinary medicine, and started writing children’s stories after the birth of her daughters Laila and Alma. Her “Dance” was translated by Ghalayini and moves between hate and love, hope and regret: “A wish that becomes more of a burden with each passing year like a drowned corpse being dragged to the bottom of the sea. ‘Here’s hoping that Ziad will be back by the next one’.”

It opens:

You are my prison, you are my prison and my freedom, you are the one I hate and the one I love.

Fayrouz sings as Suha scrolls through her friends’ posts on her Facebook page the day before, on her birthday. Repeated words press on her neck like a noose. The same words each year, over the past five years, carrying the same wish. A wish that becomes more of a burden with each passing year like a drowned corpse being dragged to the bottom of the sea.


He Put Me in a Bubble,” by Marwa Melhem, tr. Basma Ghalayini for Adda magazine.

Melhem studies civil engineering, writes short stories and poetry, and also translates. Her “He Put Me in a Bubble” was translated by Ghalayini, and is a story of multiple imprisonments: “He imprisoned me in a big bubble – not one of those soft, transparent bodies that changes colour with light and float, but a black encasement with flexible walls that smelled of exhaust fumes and rancid cooking oil.”


Live Broadcast from Jerusalem,” by Ola al-Jaber, tr. Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

Al-Jabr was born in Damascus in 1987, although her family is from the occupied Golan Heights. Both of her collections have a variety of short and short-short stories, which al-Jabr characterizes as “political, realistic…and sometimes satirical.” As her collection was released, she spoke with Ahmed Salah al-Mahdi about how she got her start writing, why she writes short stories, and the books that have formed the substrate of her fictional consciousness, which, she said, include works by Roland Barthes, Amin Maalouf, Edward Said, and Jacques Derrida.

This story, in al-Mahdi’s translation, opens:

He stood in front of the camera, holding the microphone.

He adjusted his collar and cleared his throat, to make sure that his voice would be loud enough.

Then he said: “Three…two…one… Go.

“Here is Jerusalem, Al-Quds. Here is the capital of… the capital of… excuse me… the capital of…”


Fatima,” by Haifa` Bitar,” tr. Taline Voskeritchian and by Tania Tamari Nasir, published in Words Without Borders

Bitar was born in Lattakia and is a novelist and short-story writer; her collection The Fallen (2000), received the Abi Al Qassem Al Shabbi prize in Tunisia. This story opens:

Fatima did not capture my attention simply because she was a beggar-child. Alas, I was rather accustomed, in spite of myself, to the sight of children begging, pestering passersby in alleyways and on streets, reminding me each time how vile the taste of life could be. But something in Fatima, who could not have been more than ten years old, I thought, crippled my thinking and provoked my emotions, and each time I met her, or when she came to my office, I felt the eruption of a muted scream tear at my heart.


“Beheading the Cat,” by Ghada Samman, tr. Issa Boullata, published in Square Moon and republished with permission in the CATS issue of ArabLit Quarterly

As we wrote in the introduction to that issue: “Cats are even more disposable in Ghada Samman’s “Beheading the Cat,” where a man must behead a cat on his wedding night to prove he can dominate his wife. As Layla AlAmmar explains in her essay ‘A Guardian for the Untamed,’ this maxim came to Samman’s story from Persian, Bengali, and Pakistani traditions, as in a Persian proverb that suggests, ‘One should kill the cat at the nuptial chamber.’ (But don’t worry: No cats are harmed either in Samman’s ‘Beheading the Cat,’ translated by Issa J. Boullata, or in Alammar’s ‘A Guardian for the Untamed.’)”