Zakaria Tamer (b 1931 in Damascus) has been in exile from his native Syria in England since the early 1980s where he continues to spin his stories in a sort of fairy-tale realism about the despair, and sometimes the hope, of the human condition. Always, they are set in the particulars of Syria or the wider Arab world, sometimes of today, sometimes in the unspecified past,  sometimes the two spun together, as when Genghis Khan invades a city where automobiles are driven because horses have not yet been discovered.

Books Tigers on the Tenth DayTigers on the Tenth Day (1978; Denys Johnson-Davies English translation 1985,) his fifth of some eight volumes of short-stories, is made up of 34 very short pieces, all fables in a way, drawing from fairy tales, folk stories and magical thinking about the powerful and the weak, the wealthy and the poor, the oppression of men by men and of women by men. Many of them swirled in sex and violence.

Some, like the title story “Tigers on the Tenth Day,” are readily understood. A simple tale of reducing the tiger from its wild and magnificent state to one of obedience and self-delusion by controlling its food (as the grass he was being fed begins to taste pleasant, ) turns in a single, closing sentence to an analog of the human race.

The second story, “A Summary of What Happened to Mohammed al-Mahmoudi,” is quite transparently a story of the reach of the secret police as they enlist a dead man to spy on the living from his grave beneath a cafe where they gather. The police conversation with him, even though he is dead, happens as naturally as with any other informant.  Without authorial comment  a bit of sly levity piques the story.

One of the best in the volume is “The Water’s Crime,” in which the king, suspicious of why the river is trembling, orders it imprisoned. As in many of the stories this initial thread is let go and a new story begins, this one told by a bird to the river telling of the beginning of the first arms-race:  a brave young man disarms a sword wielding stranger and just as he’s about to throw the sword — the first ever seen–into the river, he realizes its possibilities.

“Since that day, the stealers of swords increased.  Then some of them were forced to take up the making of swords as an occupation, and the number of swords and kings, and of slaves and slave girls grew greater.”

Several are plainly written, with no slight of hand, no shifts into dream or tall-tale.  “Sheep,” about a college woman who does not dress acceptably will frankly, not improve your impression of Arab men.  We assume that is Tamer’s aim – to hold up a mirror some might see themselves in. I don’t know. It’s likely to me that, reading the story, such men would say, “Yes, of course. That is deserved.”

Not all the stories are so clear or easy to interpret. Perhaps in the English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies cultural cues are missing, sometime unavoidable even with the best of translating talents. [Does “927,” the number of men slept with in one year, have some resonance with Arab speakers?]  More than a couple of the stories involve forced sex — in exchange for a piece of bread, by an older man on a child, in a prison by interrogators.  What is strange, to my eye, is that the attitude towards this is not always quite clear.  In the prison story, yes.  “The Death of the Jasmine,” however,  in which first grade boys act like teenagers, smoking and making sexual comments, and finally groping their young female teacher – as she apparently enjoys it, left me baffled.

Similarly, “The Smile,” in which a blindfolded man before a firing squad hallucinates seeing his naked mother beneath a strange man, or perhaps its a young boy having seen his naked mother who hallucinates being before a firing squad — in any event, the linkages are missing for me; understanding does not pop.

The problem with obscurity, or bewilderment, in short fables is that they disrupt the magic of the spare, naive presentation; expecting the quick and clever we are not inclined to re-read and puzzle. Maybe the next one will be more in form.

We assume, through the stories we do understand (most of them, ) and Tamer’s own statements, as well as those of Arabic readers, that his general story-telling persona has to do with laying bare the tyranny and oppression of the weak by the powerful.  He does not stop there, however. Ordinary folks do not always get off lightly.  A good many tell of everyday cruelties, and of human folly in general.   He himself has said of his writing.

“It seems to me,” he said, “that the short story resembles a knife, which a bad writer uses to peel potatoes whereas a good writer uses it to kill a tiger.”

A fellow writer sees his writing as a continuation of his early youth, as a blacksmith, pounding at, and sometimes breaking, the norms and rules and behaviors of men.

For readers in English — despite the occasional puzzlement– the stories reward.  In Denys Johnson-Davies’ translation some striking images appear, startling and memorable, unique to this writer.

“Perhaps she will be able to kill the hedgehog that weeps in my blood.”

“Her mouth was some small obscure animal of scarlet color; somehow it seemed to the man that it was the one and only mouth.”

“…you talk on and on, until the ceiling sweats.”

” [He] fell in love with the gentle girl chosen to be the mother of all the children yet to come.

“…wheat had long ago become unavailable, the earth not having answered man’s cry for help.”

The at first startling juxtaposition of the brutal realism of a street scene with a talking bird becomes familiar, the expected sound of his voice. That a donkey can sass Genghis Khan is part of the nature of things. As he himself has said:

…my stories attempt to refuse to concede to any boundaries between different worlds; there are no boundaries between life and death, illusion and visualization, dreaming, imagination and the harsh reality. This eradication of such boundaries, in my opinion, is one of the most important things I have achieved in my stories, because it is the most sincere style to depict the hidden depths of the human beings that live upon the surface of this Arab land.  here

Not all of Tamer’s output is short-stories. He has edited a children’s magazine and written children’s stories which, unlike his grown up tales, are allowed happy endings.

He has written no novels and seems unlikely to. When asked why he has replied,

“As if they would go to a baker … and ask him why he doesn’t sell roses!”

He also writes essays, satiric and otherwise,  and for some years into his exile, contributed to Arabic language newspapers.  In his latest forays he has taken to FaceBook where he posts short fictions, and jousts with readers.  In fact, his comments on the medium are as right as any I’ve seen:

“I have to admit though, Facebook blindsided me, it made me feel as if it is a land that is not for me, that I am an old dignified bearded man in a turban who’s being invited to a loud wild party packed with drunks and drug addicts, for there are worthless, vulgar and trivial pages that are very popular with many fans. However, there are other pages that deserve respect and recognition, pages that express the luminous beautiful side of the Arab people.”

Facebook introduced me to wonderful new friends that I cherish and it currently helps me know people, their opinions and feelings. This knowledge is indispensable for any writer, for they are the feed and the fuel. As for the comments on my writings, most of them are still hasty, giving me a sense that I am in a bona fide hospital for the lunatics, where it is easy for people to tell you that you are the genius of your era, but it is similarly easy for others to say that you are a traitor who sold his soul for a bunch of dollars.”  here

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Although his move to England in 1982 was motivated in part by censorship and the need for literary freedom, the trigger was something more, straight out of a possible phantasmagorical tale:

” a bloody battle erupted near my home between men of the Intelligence Service and a wanted man of the Muslim Brotherhood, and when his ammunition ran out, he blew up his body with two hand grenades. His remains laid scattered there on the street for two hours, and I saw some kids playing with the shredded pieces of flesh, kicking them about. At that moment I felt that I am living in a world that I could not understand and I am disconnected from, and the best thing to do was run away from it. Hence, that is what I did without regret or sorrow. from

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It looks like three  volumes of short-stories are available in English:

Tigers on the Tenth Day, 1978, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, 1985

Breaking Knees, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi, 2008  [a few samples, here.]

The Hedgehog, xxx, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies and Brian O’Rourke, 2009

And two children’s books:

The White Pigeon, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, 1985

Locusts in the City, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, 1985

 

For a good interview with Tamer in 2012, on the Free Syrian Translator site, including his long opposition to the government, go here.

Banipal, the indispensable Arabic literature in translation site, features Tamer in this issue with a short bio here.