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Zuhair Sabri met a woman like a red flower on a green branch and she told him in a trembling voice that she loved and could love no one else but him. He said to her that he cared about nothing except his future, but was startled by a painful slap on his neck. He looked around, but did not see who had slapped him.
He was slapped again when he told a rich man he was the greatest man the country had brought forth, and again did not see who had slapped him.
He was slapped a third time when he reverently kissed the hand of a man with a long, flowing beard and asked to be blessed, but he still did not see who had slapped him.
Zuhair Sabri was slapped a lot on a daily basis without ever seeing the unknown slapper. He never spoke to anyone about all those secret slaps so that no one would mock and accuse him of being insane. And he was certain that everyone else was being slapped just as he was being slapped but were also keeping quiet.
Kahlid al-Hallab managed to forget his humiliating wait all morning in front of the harsh judge who had ordered him to clear out of the rented house in which he had lived from childhood. He was filled with humility and joy when after the noon prayer he heard someone quote the saying that paradise was the ground under the feet of all mothers. When he returned to the house he brought a pick and a spade and started digging under the feet of his mother, who was sitting in a wooden chair in the hall, her painful moaning not ceasing for a moment. He dug for many hours, but when he found nothing except moist earth he threw the pick and the spade away in anger. He gave his mother a cup of tea mixed with sugar and a large quantity of sleeping powder. His mother went to sleep in a few minutes, and he put a rug and two pillows down in the hole. He lifted his mother, lay her down on the rug, then sat down in her chair panting with fatigue and drank the rest of her tea. He lay down in the hole next to his mother, clutched her hand, and closed his eyes praying for the darkness of the grave to come quickly.
The hammer sitting on the anvil began to complain, but the anvil said: “Keep quiet. Relax, and make it easy on all of us.”
The hammer said: “I won’t shut up because I’m so fed up with this life and this shop that I want to see it destroyed.”
The anvil said: “You have a right to what you feel and what you feel like doing, and nothing has prevented you from exercising your rights except your laziness.”
When Abdulmajid, the smith, opened his shop early in the morning, to his utter surprise he found everything smashed, except his hammer and anvil. Almost in tears, he sat contemplatively on a wooden chair with short legs, feeling sad and stunned, his eyes wandering about the room.
The hammer then said to the anvil: “The stupidity of this smith bores me; he never tires of working even though the more he works, the more miserable he is.”
The anvil said in return: “Your boredom with this tireless smith is one of your legitimate rights.”
The blood of Abdulmajid the smith then splattered over the hammer and anvil. The anvil condemned the incident, stating to the police that his role was merely that of a spectator, but they paid him no heed and did not catch the killer.
Translated by Ibrahim Muhawi
Published in Banipal 6, Autumn 1999
These stories have been selected from Zakariyya Tamir’s latest volume, Al-Hisrim (Sour Grapes). To me, a lover of folktales, the economy of Zakariyya’s narrative art resembles that of the folktale. You will not find any tedious descriptive passages here. Exactly as folktales do, Tamir, a master of Arabic style and narrative rhythm, always goes to the heart of the matter. To those not familiar with his art, this fiction might appear strange at first, but all truth is stranger than fiction and Arab truth even more so. As much as the English language will allow, I have in my translation tried to maintain his narrative rhythm, and to reflect the lucidity of his style and the complexity of his satirical tone without sacrificing meaning.
On the surface Tamir’s books of fiction appear to be collections of “short stories”, but each book has its own distinctive title and (if we look hard enough) its own thematic unity. The present volume, his eighth, centres on a neighbourhood or square, to which Tamir has given the strange name