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, starting with this brief introduction to Azzam and her work.
ON THE ROAD
By Samira Azzam
Translated by Ranya Abdelrahman
There goes the bell. I’ve been waiting for so long! I quickly pull my hand from the tub of water where the empty bottles are piled up, ready to be washed and refilled with beer, then loaded up and taken to the city’s bars and nightclubs. There, they’re poured straight into mouths whose thirst will never be quenched. They soon come back to me, empty, waiting to be washed.
I look around with restless eyes, searching for a rag. Finding one, I begin to dry my fingers, which are wrinkled from the long soak. I dry them finger by finger, noting where the gold ring is missing from my hand. All my life, I had dreamed of wearing a ring—any ring. One with a shiny red stone, like the ring I used to see in the jewelers’ window. I dreamed of wearing it on the ring finger of my right hand. Once, I saved up some money and promised myself the gold ring with the red stone. I didn’t know, then, that my father would die, and that I would give the money to my mother and grieve terribly for my father, not allowing myself to think about the ring.
But I have one now: an engagement ring. A simple yellow band that I wear around my finger. He gave it to me when he said, “You shall be my wife.” And I was happy—I will be his wife, and I will wear the ring. I longed for him to give me a second ring, along with this yellow band, one with a bit of red on it. But he didn’t. He’s poor, like me, and he couldn’t afford anything more than the engagement ring, a blue silk dress, and a bottle of perfume, which I haven’t yet opened.
I reach into my pocket and remove a small leather bag, from which I pluck the ring; I had hidden it away, afraid the soap and water would make it lose its shine. I put the ring on and look around me, realizing that the other women who work here have already slipped away to their nearby homes. Perhaps they are sitting down now, to a warm meal, or lying back in bed. My feet are killing me, but I still need to wait a while in front of the factory, in case he comes by and gives me a lift in the factory truck. I can’t bear the thought of walking back to the city on this cold rainy night. Yes, he’ll pick me up, along with the crates full of bottles. He can take me home and then make his rounds to deliver the beer. I’ll definitely wait. I’m tired, and it’s enough that I walked the whole way this morning. I passed so many things: the still-shuttered houses, and people walking to work half-asleep, their eyes full of dreams that hadn’t yet faded. I saw women, too, selling eggs and milk, and clouds of smoke forming above the houses’ chimneys. And I walked. I walked such a long way to get here—it feels as if the owner built his factory at the ends of the earth. It reminded me of the train I saw as a child, which I always thought was on a journey that went on and on forever, all the way to the ends of the earth. I finally arrived at the same time as the other women who worked at the factory, but I had left home more than an hour before them. My house is far away, in an ancient part of the city. It’s where I was born, and where I’ve lived ever since, and I’m not leaving till I’m married.
Yes, I’m getting married! I have a ring, and a man I love is going to take me home with him. I’ll live like a lady—I’ll never wash bottles again, nor will I wake up before the roosters, and there will be no more trips between factory and city to make my feet bleed. My man is poor, but he’s strong and kind. And I’ll look strong beside him, so I won’t feel small, the way I do now when one of those elegant, perfumed women walks by. The blue dress he gave me is beautiful, and he’s going to buy me another. And he—he’s strong and handsome, that’s what the girls at the factory said about him. A lot of them were jealous, but some girls wished me well: “You’ll be done with all this drudgery,” they said the day we got engaged.
One sly girl told me I was such a clever hunter to have snared one of the workers, and barely two months after I started at the factory. I heard it, but I didn’t hate her. Perhaps she wished she could find someone who would ease a few of her burdens. She had a right to wish for that: why shouldn’t she and I—and all of us—be like those spoiled women who sit gossiping and drinking coffee on their balconies, raising their coffee cups to their lips with plump, ivory-skinned, shiny-ring-adorned hands, and laughing at us whenever we walked past in our ancient clothes?
The road is deserted. The night is muffled by fog. Rain drizzles onto the woolen scarf that I’ve wrapped around my head. And the truck carrying him and the bottles isn’t here yet! Why is he late? Did he leave the factory earlier than usual? Did I miss him leaving in the whirlpool of moving people and machines? I begin to feel afraid. I have a long, long road ahead of me to the ends of the earth, where our ancient house waits, with my silver-haired mother and a pot of soup on the fire. Plus, I’m hungry, and full of longing for my mother and for him. The three of us will sit around the fire and talk about things that look nothing like beer bottles or factory smoke, and dream about things that our lives have never known. Has he passed by without seeing me?
The sound of a car disturbs the night’s silence. Perhaps it’s him? The glowing eyes appear from afar, and then slowly, slowly come closer. No. It isn’t the big truck with its annoying creaks and rattles. It’s a rich person’s car, nimble and sleek, and he’s driving it. But he doesn’t stop. Why doesn’t he stop? I’m sure he saw me: the car’s eyes cut through the dark night, and I stood in its way until I thought it would hit me. And as he drives past, I shout as hard as I can, so he stops. I run to him and he opens the door, but just as I am about to lift my foot, I flinch, sensing the stare of two ugly eyes that bore into me from behind black-rimmed glasses. Who is that? I don’t know! Perhaps he is the manager, whom we know only by name. Shifting restlessly in his place, he leans forward a bit, looking me up and down as he asks, “And who the hell is this?” He says nothing more, just waves with his huge cigar for me to move away. And what does the man I love, and who loves me, do? The man who pulled me close and said, “You shall be my wife”? He pushes me away from the door and shuts it in my face—gently or hard, I don’t know.
The car drives away, leaving me alone in the storm. A flood of tears boils down my cheeks and a wave of hate surrounds me. Images dance in front of my eyes. Everything seems enormous, unattainable in my weakness, arrogant and haughty, out of reach for people who crawl on their bellies like me. They are all gigantic: houses, people, trees, cars. Even the empty beer bottles are—to me—as tall as giants. And in the middle of this world of towering figures, I see myself with him, with the man who gave me a ring and said, “You shall be my wife.” We are midgets, creeping close to the ground. No matter how high we stretch, we can’t reach the manager’s finger, the finger that, with a mere flick, has pushed me away from the car and left me to the storm.
Samira Azzam was born in Acre, Palestine in 1927. After completing her basic education, she found work as a schoolteacher at 16, and was later appointed headmistress of a girls’ school. She was still in her teens when her stories began to appear in the journal Falastin under the pen name Fatat al-Sahel, or Girl of the Coast. When Azzam and her family were forced to flee Palestine in 1948, they went first to Lebanon; in the years that followed, Azzam would work as a journalist around the region. Azzam was also an acclaimed translator, bringing English-language classics into Arabic as she published the stories that have since appeared in five collections. In her brief life, she translated works by Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, and others.
Ranya Abdelrahman is a translator of Arabic literature into English. After working for more than 16 years in the information technology industry, she changed careers to pursue her passion for books, promoting reading and translation. She has published translations in ArabLit Quarterly and The Common.