art of resistance, Syria

Zaher Omareen: A Bedtime Story For Eid.

I recently wrote about the Hama massacre, marking thirty-three years since it had happened. This month, to pay respect to the victims of that horrible event that took place in February of 1982, I am sharing one more story. It is Zaher Omareen’s tale A Bedtime Story For Eid. Zaher Omareen is a Syrian writer who is currently completing Tales of the Orontes River, a collection of short stories drawn from the collective memories of the 1982 Hama massacre. A Bedtime Story For Eid is one of those stories (translation by Alice Guthrie).

pop/Hama massacre, photo via NPR/

—So he gave you a kiss, and wished you a happy Eid, and said ‘Send my love to your Mom?’ My God, what a good memory that guy’s got! Yeah, those guys used to live over at al-Tawafra, right near al-Kaylaneya. You know where I mean, don’t you? Al-Tawafra was your grandparents’ old neighborhood, actually.

—Yeah, I know—but al-Kaylaneya? Where’s that?

—Hmm, al-Kaylaneya, you kids are too young to remember it, aren’t you? Well, it’s like—where would it be now? It was more or less that whole area from where the Afamia Hotel is now, all the way across to the street on the right of the bridge, yeah—opposite the Saba’ al-Arab family orchard. You know that bit of scrubland where you all play football? That used to be part of the al-Kaylaneya neighborhood.

—What, were there houses there before, then? Was it not always empty?

—Of course there were—there was a waterwheel there, too, and the al-Kaylani family palace, and one of those old zawiyas, you know, a traditional tomb shrine—but all that’s long gone, it’s just bare earth there now . . .. And no one dares build on that land—it was seized by the regime and became state property. Your Granny’s dear friend Um Omara used to live right by there. That poor woman’s got such a story: during The Events they came for her kids, they took all three of them—and those boys were all so lovely, such beautiful lads . . . One was in high school, one was just about to graduate from the Faculty of Business at the Uni, and the eldest was a mechanical engineer—his name was Omar.

—The one we read al-Fatiha for at the cemetery today? Was it his grave we prayed over?

—Yep, that’s him, that’s Omar. That man’s really got a story . . ..  After The Events happened, Um Omara nearly lost her mind, trying to find out whether her sons had survived or been executed; of course in those days absolutely no one dared to ask the authorities what had happened to their children, or where they were. A few years after The Events, news reached Um Omara that her two younger sons had passed away in al-rush—someone had been there when they were martyred, had seen it all happen, and told her about it . . .  so she knew it was definitely true.

But she wasn’t able to find out anything at all about her eldest son, Omar. Now, Um Omara, may she rest in peace, was a God-fearing woman! I still remember—I must’ve been about fourteen then, I would’ve been in the ninth grade or so—she used to come round to your granny’s a lot, and I remember how she always used to say to her, ‘My heart doesn’t lie, Hajja: I can feel it—something tells me Omar’s still alive.’ She had this sense about it and it didn’t let her rest.

Anyway, eventually some kind people put her in touch with this man who supposedly had proper security force connections—he was meant to be getting news of people’s kids for them, apparently, letting them know where they were being held, maybe even how they were doing and all that. So she went to meet him and asked him about her son. He said to her ‘For 200,000 Syrian pounds I can tell you if he’s dead or alive.’  Um Omara was a widow in her fifties: she was hard up, she had always lived off her relatives. But—ya haram—a mother’s heart . . ..

She sold her house in Bashoura, in the Old City, to raise some cash—but she only got peanuts for it, you know, this was some time in the mid-nineties; she bought a tiny flat in the suburbs to live in, and then gave that guy all the money she had, the whole lot, so he’d get news of her son for her. And from then on he started getting more and more money out of Um Omara—she sold off all the furniture from her old house, which was that proper original pearl inlay stuff, real quality, and then she sold her gold jewelry, and then when all that was gone she started borrowing money to pay him, running up debts….

But he just kept on stalling, for ages, until in the end she found out he was nothing but a crook, some security services bullshitter with no inside access to prison records at all—and eventually he disappeared: no one ever saw him again.

Time passed, seasons came and went, as they do; after several years—I don’t know how many—a little group of prisoners were let out. Now, as you know, the custom, whenever someone was released from prison, was that everyone in Hama would go and see them, to greet them and welcome them back and all that—offering their blessings, really, on their return—but also, of course, to ask them about their disappeared children: Had they seen them? Were they incarcerated with them? Where were they being held? Are they OK? Are they alive?

One of the prisoners released in this particular little group told Um Omara that Omar had been held with him for a while in Tadmor prison, but that he’d been taken out of their cell two days before The Tadmor Events. He said they’d taken Omar away naked . . . This guy had managed to keep Omar’s shirt the whole rest of the time he was in prison, and he had it with him. He said to Um Omara ‘I think your son must have passed away . . .  because that was right before they shot hundreds of prisoners right there in the yard, my God, I don’t even know how many . . .’ And sure enough he handed her Omar’s shirt, and she just knew straight away it was her son’s—a mother’s heart, you see, Son? There’s nothing like it.

—Really?

—Absolutely. She didn’t doubt the news for a minute. And so the next day she opened up her house for three days of mourning, with her son’s shirt on display for everyone to see. I’ve never forgotten the sight of that tattered, faded blue shirt hanging from the middle of the sitting room ceiling on an old wooden hanger. The women all poured into the little flat for the wake, praying for Um Omara’s sanity, saying things like ‘God protect Um Omara from what her mind must endure.’ Anyway, after the three days of mourning, Um Omara took the shirt to the Sreheen cemetery and buried it and had a proper stone tomb made, with flower beds and a headstone and everything. She wanted somewhere she could go to remember her son, poor woman, she was heartbroken, destroyed, really . . .. And from then on she went to that grave every single Thursday and read the Quran over it, put flowers on it, and watered the plants growing there . . . until, about a year or so later, the force of her grief and pain overwhelmed her and she passed away.

She’d only been dead a year when another batch of prisoners were released—and guess who was let out with them this time?

—Who?

—Omar!

—What are you talking about?!

—It’s true, honestly—he came out alive! And they let him out after he’d done something like twenty years inside. It turned out that when he was moved out of that cell the other prisoner’d told Um Omara about, just before The Tadmor Events, they actually took him to the Palestine Branch of the Security Services.

—And then what? What happened to him after that?!

—I’m getting to that, hang on! That poor man . . .  when he finally got let out it was the middle of the night—cos they only ever used to release anyone from prison in the small hours, the real dead of night. The state security agents took him back to his old family home and dumped him there outside the door. Poor old thing, he sat there on the doorstep for hours, until the dawn call to prayer sounded—he didn’t dare knock at the door and frighten his family. When the azan sang out, the new owner of the house got out of bed to go to the mosque; when he opened his front door he found a stranger sitting there on the step. He thought he was a beggar, and he gave him five Syrian pounds. But apparently at that Omar just burst into tears and cried like a little child. So the man asked him his name, and he knew straight away who he was.

—How? How come he knew about him?

—Son, everybody knows everybody in Hama—and everybody knows everybody’s stories! You know how the old saying goes. ‘Mother gathers the family together and keeps them close.’ Well, in Hama it’s more like ‘Misery gathers the community together and keeps them close.’ But also, when Um Omara did that full mourning ceremony for the shirt, everyone talked about it, even more than usual—she became an exemplar of suffering, somehow.

So anyway, the owner of the house rang Omar’s relations right away! And the aunts and uncles, whoever was left of his extended family by then, all came to get him and took him to their place and bit by bit they filled him in on what’d happened to his family. Eventually he had to take in that the old house in Tawafra was gone, his Mom was dead, his brothers were dead—and that even he, himself, was supposedly dead!

Well, as usual, the good people of the city really rallied round—someone found him a place to live, someone sorted out a job for him, someone helped him with his medical stuff . . .. My auntie Um Ibrahim used to really love Um Omara, God rest her soul, and she had a young daughter called Samiha—she got pregnant with her when she was already quite old, actually—and anyway she offered Omar her hand in marriage.

And you see, thank goodness, how life moves on, Samiha bore Omar a lovely little daughter who they named Rajaa, after his mother—but everyone in the neighborhood and all the relations always just call her Um Omara!

And poor old Omar, bless him, once things were a bit more sorted out and settled for him, he started doing what his mother used to do: every Thursday, still, he visits his mother’s grave, and puts myrtle on it—and as he’s passing, he waters the plants on his own grave, too.

—And where is he now?

—What do you mean ‘Where is he now?!’ He’s that guy who gave you a kiss today, in the cemetery, and told you to send his love to your Mom. He still remembers me—he used to walk me and my sisters to school when we were in primary.

—Oh, I see! But wait, why do they call his Mom Um Omara, as if she was the mother of a woman called Omara, which isn’t even a real name? Shouldn’t they call her Um Omar?

—Well, according to your granny, when Omar was born, he was such a beautiful little baby that everyone thought he was a girl! So his mother got called Um Omara instead of Um Omar, and it stuck . . ..

Right, come on now love, bedtime, yalla, off you go—tomorrow’s the second day of Eid and we’re going to your Granddad’s for breakfast.

• • •

For more on Zaher Omareen and this story, go to Words Without Borders.

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art of resistance, Egypt

Yusuf Idris: An Aimless Sort of Running (The Aorta).

Yusuf Idris was a great Egyptian writer of short stories, plays and novels. Here is an excerpt from his short story The Aorta (the story can be found in Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East). It was translated from the Arabic by Trevor J. Le Gassick.

Yusuf_Idris_portrett/Yusuf Idris, photo via wikimedia/

It wasn’t important that there was running; what mattered was that it was happening all over the place as if Doomsday itself had come. A very peculiar type of running it was, not like someone in a hurry, or fleeing in terror, or racing to save a life. No – an aimless sort of running, as if those doing it were trying to find some spot from which to actually begin their running and hurrying.

And so no one knew the goal or purpose of the others, all being in a state of watchful anxiety, concerned that one of them would find his own point of beginning which would then, no doubt, define their own. That’s why you saw people running so madly, crazily, and trying so desperately yet unsuccessfully to watch where the others were heading. Whenever anyone appeared at all hesitant and slowed down, or became more purposeful and increased speed and so seemed about to discover his goal, then dozens would rush toward him, hoping to arrive before him, to be the first to set off after a clearly defined objective.

This whole activity made the place, if viewed from high above or far away, seem to pulsate with sudden throbbings that then dispersed and subsided, it all happening at more than one place at a time. You would have thought the square paved with smooth veneer, if it had not been for those sudden pulsations occuring here and there that alone gave signs of life. You would have thought it all veneer of stone, or the human b eings gathered there lumps of multicolored rocks. No one knows whether blows were struck or not. Well, actually, I personally was struck by more than one blow, vicious painful blows. But it was impossible to know who was doing the striking because one had no constant neighbor and the continous fluid movement prevented you getting so much as a glance at the hundreds passing you or whom you were passing. In any case there were, most certainly, blows struck.

And what a surprise then! How could I ever have guessed that turning next moment to the person right beside me – the very first close neighbor whose features I had been able to properly examine – I would find, to my shock and amazement, Abduh!

But even as food Abduh was completely unappetizing, disgusting even; he was thin and weak. He never showed a glimmer of defiance, never faced up to anyone else to assert or defend his own existence.  He was ‘good’, that weakly, negative sort of goodness, as if he had a double hernia or something, and he sang sweet songs when by himself. He seemed ‘foreign’, out of place wherever he was, as if he’d never found his own country. When things got too much for him, he’d cry. His eyes would suddenly fill with tears. But there’d be no redness in them; the flush would gather into his nose, which would seem to swell and fill with the secretions.

Yes, for three whole days, morning, noon, and nights, I’ve been looking for you, Abduh, turning over the pavement stones in Cairo, breaking into houses, asking, demanding, pleading for help in finding you, searching every road, every street, every alley. My strength finally sapped, I fell asleep only to wake up in a rage of despair at finding you: my dream, my nightmare, and the pain of my hours awake or asleep is the thought of truning around sometime and finding you there, Abduh! 

‘Where have you been, Abduh, and where did you hide the money?'”

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art of resistance, Palestine, Syria

Zakaria Tamer, The Master of (Children’s) Stories.

Zakaria Tamer (born in 1931,Damascus, Syria) is an influential master of the Arabic-language short story. Tamer is one of the most important and widely read and translated short story writers in the Arab world, as well as being the foremost author of children’s stories in Arabic. He also works as a freelance journalist, writing satirical columns in newspapers Al-Quds Al-Arabi and Al Tawra.

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Tamer was forced to leave school at the age of thirteen in order to help provide for his family.He was apprenticed to a blacksmith as a locksmith in a factory in the Al-Basha district of Damascus. At the same time, as an autodidact, he spent many hours reading various books, became interested in politics and was encouraged by contact with intellectuals to continue his education at night school. He began his literary career in 1957, when he published some stories in Syrian journals. His first manuscript was noticed by Yusuf al-Khal, the poet, critic and editor of the magazine Shi’r (“Poetry”).

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Tamer’s volumes of short stories are often reminiscent of folktales, and are renowned for their relative simplicity on the one hand and the complexity of their many potential references on the other. They often have a sharp edge and are often a surrealistic protest against political or social oppression and exploitation. Most of his stories deal with people’s inhumanity to each other, the oppression of the poor by the rich and of the weak by the strong. The political and social problems of his own country, Syria, and of the Arab world, are reflected in the stories and sketches in the satirical style typical of his writing.

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Tamer’s first stories were published in 1957. Since then he has published eleven collections of short stories, two collections of satirical articles and numerous children’s books. His works have been translated into many languages, with two collections in English, Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other stories(translated by Denys Johnson-Davies) and Breaking Knees: Modern Arabic Short Stories from Syria, published in 2008.

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Tamer was also the editor of several cultural periodicals, including children’s magazine Usamah. In 1980s he left Syria and moved to London (he did so after being dismissed from editing the periodical al-Marifah, published by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, as a result of the publication of extracts from Abd al-Rahman al-kawakibi’s book, Tabai al istibadad – “The Characteristics of Despotism“, 1900 – in which the author denounced tyranny and called for freedom).

tumblr_l8ofa7LuwL1qd3smho1_1280 /all photos above are from the book The White Pigeon, written by Zakaria Tamer, illustrated by Adli Rizkallah, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davis, published by Dar al Fata al Arabi./

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/La Casa (“Home”) Italian translation of Tamer’s book. Written by Zakaria Tamer, illustrated by Mohieddin El Labbad, published by Dar al Fata al Arabi, 1979./

The text could be translated as:

The chicken has a home. The home of the chicken is called a chicken coop.

The rabbit has a home. The home of the rabbit is called a burrow.

The horse has a home. The home of the horse is the stall.

Even fish have a home. The home of the fish is the river, the lake and the sea.

The cat roams around day and night. But even he has a home that he can go to.

The bird has a home in the trees.

His home is called a nest. Everyone needs a home.

All humans need a home that is secure and peaceful.

Today, the Palestinians do not have a home.

The house and the place where the Palestinians live is not their home.

Where is the home of the Palestinians? Today, the Palestinians do not live in their homes. In their homes live their enemies. Who are the enemies of the Palestinian? Those who have occupied their homes.

How are the Palestinians going to retake their homes?

The Palestinians will fight an armed struggle to take back their homes. Someday the Palestinians will return to live in their own homes.”

For more on Zakaria Tamer and his works – visit Goodreads, and see Tamer’s facebook page The Spur (Al-Mihmaz).

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