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Samira Azzam: A Palestinian Scheherazade Out of the Shadows

by Ibrahim Fawzy

Reading Samira Azzam’s short-story collection Out of Time is a walk down the streets of Palestine, its homes under occupation, and its refugee camps. The collection, so elegantly translated by Ranya Abdelrahman and published by ArabLit Books, bears multiple re-readings. Through thirty-one stories, the reader delves deep into the makings of resistance literature, the complexity of human experience, Palestinian identity, societal structures, class hierarchies, the role of women, as well as Palestinian narratives in the diaspora.

The late Palestinian writer, journalist and radio broadcaster Samira Azzam (1927-1967) was born in the seaside city of Acre to a middle-class Orthodox family. Under the pseudonym, A Girl from the Coast, she contributed to the then-widely-read newspaper Filistin. Later, when expelled from Palestine along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, she moved between Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus.

Azzam was a prolific short story writer. Egyptian critic Raja’ al-Naqash called her ‘the princess of the Arabic short story,’ and academic Joseph Farag described her as ‘one of the first and pre-eminent Palestinian literary voices in the wake of the 1948 Nakba. She authored five moving collections: الظل الكبير (The Great Shadow), الساعة والإنسان (The Clock and Man), أشياء صغيرة (Little Things), and العيد من خلال النافذة الغريبة (The Feast Through the Western Window). She also translated more than eleven titles from English, including works by George Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, W. Somerset Maugham, and Edith Wharton.

The defeatist psychology spurred by the events of 1967 deeply affected Azzam. Grappling with the aftermath of an overwhelming loss, she found that her writing had lost its meanings as well, prompting her to tear up her first, and ironically-titled novel, Sinai Without Borders, of which she had published only a chapter in Al-Adab magazine.

But Azzam’s life was short lived. At the age of 39, she went on a summer road trip to Amman with friends to interview war refugees, and died suddenly of a heart attack. Eulogizing her, Ghassan Kanafani wrote, “Azzam’s works have surpassed women issues to the more comprehensive human issues, including the Palestinian cause. She was my teacher.” Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli seconded Kanafani in her foreword to Out of Time saying, “[Samira’s work] contributed to shaping my consciousness regarding Palestine as no other text I have read has ever done.” In her introduction to Out of Time, Marcia Lynx Qualey writes, “After [Azzam’s] death, her work fell into a half-shadow, in which she was acknowledged as great, but not quite canonized.” Quoting Palestinian critic, Faisal Darraj, she adds, “Azzam has not yet received the accolades she deserves,” despite her wide popularity in the 1940s and 1950s.”

Reading Azzam’s works now allows one can surmise that she might have slipped into the shadows due to a premature death, or Arab readers wanting more explicit political literature at the time, or because scholars considered poetry, not prose, the Diwan of the Arabs. However, one can also confidently say that her Palestinian short stories, crafted between 1948 and 1967, are indeed the Diwan of the Palestinians, since they managed to portray the Palestinian plight before and after the Nakba.

Azzam favored the short story over any other genre because of its close proximity to people’s lives and concerns. In عام آخر (Another Year), the home in the main character’s memory, as well as the collective memory, is not a single home but Palestine itself; the short story, زغاريد chronicles the grieving process during the first years of exile; في الطريق إلى برك سليمان (On the Way to Solomon’s Pools) reasserts occupation as an unequal battle; and لأنه أحبهم (Because He Loved Them) investigates the correlation between land and dignity.

Azzam had a profound understanding of the power of words; she believed that a word is faith. To write is to have faith that you’re not alone and that someone out there is listening. Through her writings, she demonstrated that the human experience is complex and multifaceted, and that there is no space for reductive dichotomies when attempting to capture reality. She was aware of the impact of language on ordinary people’s lives and was particularly able to fully relay the sufferings of women, their desire for freedom, for work, and for food. The female protagonist of أريد ماء (I Want Water) embodies the idea of endurance against suffering. حكايتها (Her Story) interrogates the social injustices against the female protagonist as central to Palestine itself; and in أشياء صغيرة (The Little Things), Azzam draws comparisons between the female protagonist’s mundane struggles and the larger conflict with time and space.

Deceptive in their simplicity, Azzam’s short stories are in turn gripping, heart wrenching, and thought-provoking. Her stories need further literary examination as they don’t narrate specific events as much as they capture the essence of daily life. Still, her analysis of the human psyche is nothing short of masterful, with multi-dimensional characters ready to exist beyond the page in all their profound and subtle shades.

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