Adania Shibli on Samira Azzam: ‘Out of Time’

This week, we are launching our first community-supported translation: Ranya Abdelrahman’s translation of thirty-one selected stories by the great cult-classic Palestinian writer Samira Azzam.

Thanks to our supporters on Patreon and elsewhere for making this happen.

You can find the book on Amazon (US, UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, UAE, etc.) and Gumroad. On Gumroad, the book it as a 20% launch-week discount, set to end December 9. It is also coming to other platforms and bookshops, as well as launch events in the new year.

To mark the release, we’ll be celebrating Samira Azzam and her work all this week on ArabLit.


By Adania Shibli

My little watch is the first to sense the change, going into and out of Palestine. On the way there I notice it on my wrist, counting the time down to the second, waiting for the moment when the wheels of the plane touch the runway, and I set it to local time which it counts with an infinite familiarity. Then, as soon as I leave Palestine, my watch advances listlessly, taking its time parting with the local time there, which only vanishes when the plane touches down elsewhere.

It may seem to some that I’m slightly exaggerating what I’m saying about my watch, especially as it is a very tiny watch. People are often amazed that it can tell me the time at all, being so tiny. I myself would have shared their doubts had I not found out about watches and their secret powers, as I did.

It goes back to primary school, during one of the Arabic literature classes. The curriculum back then was, and still is, subject to the approval of the Israeli Censorship Bureau, which allowed teaching texts from various Arab countries, bar Palestine, fearing that they would contain references or even hints that could raise the pupils’ awareness of the Palestine Question. Hence, Palestinian literature was considered unlawful, if not taboo, similar to pornography. Except for one text, “The Clock and the Man,” a short story by Samira Azzam, which the Censorship Bureau had found “harmless.”

The story, published in 1963, is about a young man getting ready to turn in the night before his very first day at work. He sets his alarm clock for four in the morning so as to catch the train in time to get to work. No sooner did the alarm go off the next morning than there came a knocking at his front door. When he opened it, he found an old man in front of him. He had no clue who this man was and he did not get a chance to ask him, because the man turned and walked away, disappearing into the darkness. This was repeated day after day, so that the young man no longer set the alarm. It was only several months later that he discovered who the old man was, after a colleague told him this man went knocking on the doors of all the employees in the company. He would wake them up in order for them not to be late for their trains and meet the same fate as his own son. His son had arrived late at the station one morning, just as the train was leaving. He held onto its door, but his hand betrayed him and he slipped, falling under the wheels of the train. 

At first glance, this story might seem simple and safe, especially to the censor’s eyes. But it contributed to shaping my consciousness regarding Palestine as no other text I have ever read has done. Were there once Palestinian employees who commuted to work by train? Was there a train station? Was there once a train whistling in Palestine? Was there ever once a normal life in Palestine? So where is it now, and why has it vanished?  

The text engraved in my soul a deep yearning for all that had been, including the normal, the banal and the tragic, to such an extent that I could no longer accept the marginalized, minor life to which we’ve been exiled since 1948, when our existence turned into a “problem.”

Against this story and the possible ways of existence it revealed to me, stands my little watch. And my watch is more like that old man in Azzam’s story than a Swiss watch that its primary concern is to count time with precision. Rather, just as that old man turned from a human being into a watch in order for life to become bearable, so did my watch decide to turn from a watch into a human being. 

So it is not unusual that, in Palestine, my watch often stops moving. It suddenly goes into a coma, unable to count time. On my last visit there, I set it, as always, to local time the minute the plane touched down at Lydd Airport. It was ten-to-two in the afternoon. I headed toward passport control. There weren’t many travelers and the line I stood in was proceeding quickly. I handed my passport over to the police officer and she took her time looking at it. Then more time. Suddenly, two men and a woman appeared, a mix of police, security, and secret services. They took me out of the line and began a long process of questioning and searches. Everything proceeded as usual in such situations: an exhaustive interrogation into the smallest details of my life and a thorough search of my luggage. Afterwards, I was led into a room for a body search and, while one woman walked away with my shoes and belt to x-ray them, another stayed behind with my watch, which she held in her palm, contemplating it with great intent and devotion. After a few minutes, she looked at her watch, then back at mine. And again at her watch, then at mine. When the first woman came back with the rest of my belongings, she hurried over to tell her that there was something very strange about my watch. It was not moving. Five minutes had passed according to her watch, whereas according to mine, none had. They called the security chief and my heart started to bang violently in my chest. 

I don’t know how much time passed before my watch, then I, were cleared of all suspicions and allowed to leave. But I discovered when I reached home that it was nine o’clock in the evening, while my watch was still pointing to ten-to-two in the afternoon. Perhaps my watch was trying to comfort me by making me believe that all that search and delay had lasted zero minutes. That nothing had happened. Or maybe it simply refuses to count the time that is seized from my life, time whose only purpose is to humiliate me and drive me to despair; a suspension of time that is intended for the obstruction of oppression.

Contrary to this malfunctioning in Palestine, my watch has not once stopped outside it. It is never late when counting every second of this other time. In fact, it often moves faster than it should, to a point where it seems to lose track of time altogether. It moves fast as if wanting to shake off this other time from the dial, one second after the other, in order to catch up with the time in Palestine. 

In the end, no matter where I am, my little watch leads me out of time, only to comfort me.


Adania Shibli was born in Palestine in 1974. Her first two novels appeared in English with Clockroot Books as Touch (tr. Paula Haydar, 2010) and We Are All Equally Far From Love (tr. Paul Starkey, 2012). She was awarded the Young Writer’s Award by the A. M. Qattan Foundation in 2002 and 2004. Her acclaimed Minor Detail appeared in Lissie Jaquette’s translation in 2020.