Margaret Obank

Editorial of Banipal 53 – The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer

Summer 2015

This summer’s Banipal has indeed been a labour of love, with its main focus on the great Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer and his short stories.  This time, when the Arab world is in major upheaval and turmoil (though some of us wonder if it has ever been otherwise), is indeed the time to turn to an author who has given so much in pursuit of freedom of expression, human rights and liberty through his inspiring and inimitable writings – Zakaria Tamer.

From its first issue Banipal published one of his stories , and others in several issues over the years. Now – again a first – with The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer we present the most comprehensive feature we have ever published on a single author.  Tamer’s contribution to contemporary Arabic literature cannot be underestimated – in his language, his style, his topics and above all his satire and black humour.  His writings refute every stereotype held about the Arab world in the west, and have therefore not proved popular with mainstream Anglophone publishers. There are but two slim collections of his work in print in English, and in German language the same number. Though the short story by writers in English is celebrated with festivals and books, English-language readers are missing out on the genre’s Arab authors because of the paucity of translations, and the concentration on novels.

The translators, writers, reviewers and editors, who have come together in this feature, have taken a major step to putting right the lack of recognition of Zakaria Tamer’s contribution to world literature.  There are 16 stories from a number of Tamer’s collections, including the title story of his first collection, “The Neighing of the White Horse”, stories from other early collections first published in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s; also translations from his recent works, his 2000 collection Al-Hisrim (Sour Grapes) and from stories published in newspapers in 2014,  from his Facebook page Al-Mihmaz; also 13 stories for children from the collection Why Did the River Stop Talking?, wonderfully illustrated by Abigail O’Brien, and reviews of his collections in English and German translation.

Translators of Tamer into German, Turkish, Serbian, Sardinian and English, fellow Arab authors and critics were keen to contribute to this banquet of short stories à la Zakaria Tamer. Srpko Leštaric, who has translated nine of Tamer’s collections into Serbian, writes about the sharp blade of his satire that “slashes our harsh reality in two” and how ”his sentences are quick and clear as teardrops”.

Alessandro Columbu relates that Zakaria Tamer’s works “make him a perfect literary companion for those who wish to discover Syria” and that he has translated the Breaking Knees collection into his mother tongue of Sardinian, the first Arabic work ever to be published in Sardinian. Mahmoud Shukair, Fadhil al-Azzawi and Ismail Fahd Ismail all recall meeting Zakaria Tamer in the early years. Hartmut Fähndrich, Denys Johnson-Davies and Mehmet Hakki Suçin write about translating and publishing Tamer in German, English, and Turkish respectively. Arab literary critics Subhi Hadidi and Abdo Wazen write about how different Tamer is from other short story writers, “dissident” and “unconventional”, creating a “theatre of fantasy, shadows and faces”.

An important part of the feature is an interview by Syrian critic Dima Alchukr with Zakaria Tamer that ranges from his childhood and starting to write in 1958, even though he had a “real terror of the short story”, which Tamer considers to be “the most dificult form of literary expression, to his latest work, a series of satirical essays, directed, as he says, “against oppression and oppressors”.

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Also in Banipal 53,  excerpts from new novels by two Iraqi authors, Ali Bader and Shakir Noori, and poems by two well-known Lebanese poets, Charbel Dagher and Jawdat Fakhreddine.

Margaret Obank


Published in Banipal 53 - The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer

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