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 ArabLit Staff, with Ranya Abdelrahman
For the story “EVERYTHING WAS SILENCED”: Django Reinhardt’s “Double Scotch”
This story is about music that the protagonist can’t bear; a new cafe opens up near Abu Makhoul’s old and tattered one. The owner, a “Frenchified Beiruti,” has a record player that “kept on howling, record after record” until it had driven all Abu Makhoul’s customers away — or else attracted them to the new establishment.
The music, which we hear through Abu Makhoul’s ears, doesn’t get a very lyrical description.
The music howled, and dreadful screams fell like sharp knives onto the broad canopies that stretched out from the tops of the parasol pines. It felt as if the trees were rejecting the music. They shook their branches in a determined refusal that could never have been mistaken for swaying in time with that rabid howling. The howls had been blaring out from the café since noon that day—and since every noon, of every day, since that shameless idiot had opened his café, and this beautiful place overlooking the valley had been condemned to being an attraction for those young men and women. A person couldn’t tell one from the other because all of them, men and women alike, wore tight pants and colorful shirts, and had lanky hair hanging in clumps over their foreheads.
Although it sounds like Abu Makhoul is describing death metal, that’s unlikely, as this cafe was started by a “Frenchified Beiruti” in the middle of the 20th century. We might imagine they were playing French music from the same period. In honor of the women in the story who “held their sinful yellow drinks in full view, the foam bubbling and spilling over onto their twisted necks and scrawny, emaciated, sun-crisped bodies,” Django Reinhardt’s “Double Scotch.”
For the story “THE AUNT’S MARRIAGE”: Reem Kilani’s “يا ريم الغزلان”
This story centers on the matchmaker and “news machine” Umm Youssef, who is being purposefully estranged from Naija, as her brother and his family don’t want to see her married. In this story, Umm Youssef’s company and a possible future marriage represent a liberation for Naija. And according to Reem Kilani, “Sprinting Gazelle” is a song for weddings. She writes that she asked a group of women “spanning three generations, beginning with the one that left Palestine in 1948,” about the song, and, “When I asked when they sang this song, they said: ‘at weddings!’”
For the story “THE IRONING MAN’S APPRENTICE”: Fairuz, “هيك مشق الزعروره”
Rizk — the ironing man’s apprentice — has a narrow life centered on running errands for the ironing man, although also a vivid imagination, in which he imagines he might some day be master of his own ironing establishment. In the narrow confines of his life, even when he’s locked into the shop at night, Fairouz brings him a little joy:
Stuffing the paper bills into the cloth bag he kept tied to his waist, Rizq walked over to the cardboard box that had once held a radio set, which he now used to store his meager belongings. From there, he took out a suit he’d bought for a whole lira at the hawker’s market, intending to use it as bedding. He spread it out near the door, where noises that leaked in through the crack would keep him company: the footsteps of passersby, or the radio from the nearby falafel store—Fairouz might even sing him his favorite song, “Hayk Mashe’ el-Zaaroura.”
For the story “THE PASSENGER”: Umm Kulthum’s “أفديه ان حفظ الهوى”
As the narrator of this story waits at the airport, she watches an expatriate leaving Lebanon for Brazil and imagines what his life might be like abroad, filling his memory with music by Umm Kulthum that his Brazilian wife doesn’t understand.
Maybe Farahat had married a woman from there who didn’t understand why her husband cried every time he sat down with his children at the Eid table, or at his friend’s house when he heard a record, where the scratches were muffled by Umm Kulthum’s voice singing, “I’d give my life for him, no matter what. Whether he cherishes our love or gives it up.”
For the story “NIGHT OF RIDDANCE”: Yusuf Islam (then Cat Stevens)’s “I Love My Dog”
In “Night of Riddance,” Umm Saad has one friend left in the world: Shadow, the dog her son left behind before leaving to move abroad for his studies. Her daughter-in-law is constantly threatening to get rid of the old dog (and, she hints, the old woman as well). Umm Saad wants nothing more than to hold on to Shadow for a little bit longer. When something happens to Shadow, Umm Saad feels: “She had to do something for Shadow, for the sake of their old age spent together.”
For the story “THE ROC FLEW OVER SHAHRABAN”: Sanaa Moussa’s “سفربرلك“
This is a song sung by mothers whose sons were taken into compulsory military conscription by the Ottomans, just as happened to Radi in Azzam’s “The Roc Flew Over Shahraban.” As Sanaa Moussa writes on YouTube, “The first two verses were narrated by Latifa Samaan, who learned them from her mother, Hawwa Giries Samaan from the village of Somhata in Upper Galilee. The other verses were narrated by Watfa Mohammad Mousa from the village Deir Al-Asad in Upper Galilee.”
For the story “ANOTHER YEAR”: Haya Zaatry’s “رهوان”
The album “Rahawan,” named after the artist’s grandmother, Nazira Rahawan, is centered around four generations of women from Zaatry’s family. As Christina Habzoun writes, “The journey begins in Damascus, the birthplace of Zaatry’s great-great-grandmother, who was the last member of the family to be able ‘to roam this land free.’”
This song’s plaintive refrain echoes Umm Abboud’s desperate desire, in “Another Year,” to cross borders and see her daughter Mary:
“Hey, you,” she says, grabbing a villager standing in front of her by the hem of his robe. “Step aside! I want to see Mary—Mary, my daughter, who’s coming from Nazareth. If you hear anyone asking for Umm Abboud, lead them to me. If it wasn’t for this basket, I would have squeezed through to the front of the lines. Who can bear to wait when Mary, her husband, and her three boys are right behind the barrier?”
For the story “‘NIGHT VISIONS”: Rim Banna’s “ستي العرجه”
This is a fun folk song for children, so we wished very much that the main character in “Night Visions,” who lives in an orphanage, might be able to listen to it. Here, the orphanage earns money by having the children attend funerals, and the children go often: “Two or three times a week, maybe more. We go whenever we’re invited because the management charges money for it. How else would they pay our bills?” But we like to imagine this young girl, starved for both fun and affection, finds a way to listen to the fun, rocking “The Grandma With a Limp.” It might help her night visions.
Find the whole playlist (minus “I Love My Dog”) at ArabLit’s YouTube channel.