Receive Our Newsletter
For news of readings, events and new titles.
Why Did the River Stop Talking?
and other stories
Translated by Clayton Clark
Illustrations by Abigail O’Brien
Why Did the River Stop Talking? by Zakaria Tamer is a collection of fifty-two very short children’s stories – flash fiction or vignettes – published in 1973. A number of the stories are published here. The stories are composed of concise and straightforward language, and they tend to have plots of one or two events. The fable is evoked, and often the world is highly imaginary or set in a bygone age of kings and kingdoms. A number of themes cycle through the collection, including: injustice, war, the idiot or evil despot, growing up, oppression, the police, ma?ali? (personal interests), violence, and occupation of land. The stories, as anyone familiar with Tamer can see, are strongly linked to his adult fiction in both style and content.
Despite the number of stories Tamer wrote for children, and despite the depth and power of some of them, little to no focus has been paid to Tamer’s works for children, and translations are almost nonexistent. References to Tamer might include a sentence saying, “[He] is the foremost author of children’s stories in Arabic,” without any concrete reference to the works or their importance . It is intriguing to me that a man who wrote so clinically about the brutality of humankind would spend so much creative energy directed toward children, only sometimes writing stories with heroes.
It is moving that a man would send such hard messages. Tamer attempts to deal with hard realities in a way accessible to children, as if he is trying to tell a five-year-old that people will not always like you, they have ma?ali? and will only appreciate you when you serve those interests. This is an incredible feat, and these stories are important and moving because of this transaction between writer and child.
Yet, it is as if Tamer was conscious of a secondary reader as well, as if, while writing, he realized adults would engage with these stories. Thus, he created parables rich with layers of meaning, some accessible to children and some much darker layers directed towards adults. If at first the secondary readers were parents, now they are readers of Banipal. And this is my invitation to you, to engage with these stories at each layer of meaning and see the importance of a man deeply concerned about injustice.
Why Did the River Stop Talking?
Long ago the river could talk, and he loved to talk with the children who came to drink water and wash their faces and their hands. He would joke: “Does the earth go around the sun, or the sun around the earth?”
The river was glad to water the trees, making their leaves green. He gave his water generously to the roses, so that they would not wilt, and he invited the birds to drink his water for strength for their migrations.
He would play pranks on the cats who came to drink – splashing them and laughing as they shook out the water.
Then one day a stone-faced man carrying a sword came. He did not let the children or the trees or the roses or the birds or the cats drink from the river, claiming that it belonged to him alone.
The river was angry and yelled: “No one owns me!”
An old bird said: “No creature can drink the river’s water all by himself.”
But the man with the sword did not pay attention to the yelling of the river or the words of the bird. His voice rough and hard, he said: “Whoever wants to drink water from the river must pay – to me – one gold piece.”
The birds said: “We will sing for you the most wonderful songs.”
The man said: “I want gold, not music.”
The trees said: “We will give you our first fruits.”
The man said: “I will eat your fruit whenever I want anyway – no one can stop me.”
The roses said: “We will give you the most beautiful rose.”
The man scoffed: “And what good is a beautiful rose?”
The cats said: “We will play cute games for you every day and watch over you at night.”
The man said: “I hate your games, and my sword is the only watchman I trust.”
The children said: “We will do anything you say.”
The man said: “You are useless, you don’t have strong muscles.”
At that, confusion and sadness overcame them all. The man kept talking: “If you want to drink from the river, pay me what I demand in gold.”
A little bird was so thirsty he could not bear it, so he took the risk of drinking from the river. The man rushed over, snatched the bird, and slaughtered him with his sword.
The roses cried. The trees cried. The birds cried. The cats cried. The children cried. For none of them owned any gold, and none of them could live without water, but the man carrying a sword would not let them drink water from the river. The roses wilted, the trees dried out, the birds left, and the cats and the children left too. The river was angry and decided to never speak again.
But soon men came who loved children and cats and roses and trees and birds, and they drove out the man who carried the sword. The river was free again to give his water to everyone for free, but he still did not speak. He trembles always, fearing the return of the man with the sword.
Published in Banipal 53 - The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer
Back to Selections from Banipal 53 - The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer
Click to go back to Banipal 53 online contents page