It takes a certain level of skill to encapsulate the plight of an oppressed people, the nostalgia of distant and forgotten days, and the inexplicable heartbreak of generational trauma in short stories – there is simply barely enough space to attain that sort of depth – but those in ‘Out of Time: The Collected Stories of Samira Azzam’ somehow achieve that.
Published by Arablit Books, the book’s 31 stories range in storylines, but all express the daily concerns and lives lived by people interconnected in the same web of injustice and reminiscence. Rather than explicitly and grandly focusing on the big picture of occupation, disenchantment and exile, they draw attention to the experiences and realities lived by various players in society itself.
When reading Azzam’s short stories, it is difficult for the reader not to feel a heavy sense of melancholy – it pours out of the pages and seeps into the heart while, at the same time, providing lessons in perspective and thought-provoking questions. This is made all the more possible with Ranya Abdelrahman’s translation, which strives to capture the essence and feeling of the stories.
Many of the perspectives provided in the stories likely emerge from the author’s own life and experiences, with Azzam being 21-years-old at the time of the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) of 1948, when an estimated 700,00 Palestinians were uprooted from their homes, properties and land by the Zionist occupation forces and expelled from their historic homeland.
She was subsequently forced to relocate to Lebanon with her family, before moving to Iraq and working as a teacher, journalist, author and radio broadcaster. In August 1967, after tragically watching her homeland, once more, change and fall under complete occupation that year, Azzam went on a road trip with friends to Jordan, where she had intended to interview Palestinians who had been exiled there, when she suffered a heart attack and died close to the Syrian-Jordanian border. She was aged just 39.
Although many stories circulate around the daily struggles of people, not only in Palestine or amongst the Palestinian diaspora, but also in other areas such as Iraq during World War I, they progressively become more political as the book goes on, while maintaining the subtlety that characterises them.
The story ‘Zagharid’, for example, recounts a mother’s sorrow at being unable to go to her son’s wedding as she lives in Occupied Palestine, while he lives in Lebanon. While Beirut lies only around six hours’ drive away from her, the political circumstances and restrictions result in such limitations that make it impossible for her to attend his wedding or even for her to likely see him again.
As Azzam worded it, while her son was one amongst the Palestinian diaspora who shared an entirely different life from their relatives back in the homeland, “she stayed on with the others who had stayed, being force-fed humiliation and living on the memories that came to her with each new surge of emotions that circumstances surged up.”
The story titled ‘Another Year’, too, lays out the long, rare and difficult process of scattered Palestinians in the region being able to finally reunite. The elderly mother in the story makes the trip across Syria to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and then to Jerusalem in order to meet her daughter and her family. Despite that struggle, the daughter is unable to make it and sent a message hoping for the reunification the following year, leaving the elderly mother distraught and laden with the gifts she had meant to impart.
“If I live another year, I’ll crawl here on all fours to see her,” the mother said. “And if God takes me before then, I’ll die with grief in my heart” over her longing for Palestine and for her daughter.
One of the most heart-wrenching stories is probably ‘On the Way to Solomon’s Pools’, which tells the narrative of a father and husband who leads the defence of the Palestinian village of Battir against the onslaught of Jewish Israeli invading forces – either in 1948 or 1967 – who swept throughout the historic land, spreading and strengthening their occupation.
As the village’s defence force runs out of ammunition, many are forced to flee to the nearby area of Solomon’s Pools where they could seek shelter. The protagonist resistance fighter is amongst them, and with his wife and young son, they flee in the night until rocket or mortar fire strikes close by to them.
In the end, all the man’s efforts to fight for his family and son are in vain, as he is forced to bury his boy’s bloodied corpse in the ground – hiding the fact away from his wife – under an almond tree nearby. The moment is one that is not only shocking and emotional, but seems to encapsulate the entire plight of the dispossessed Palestinian people and the losses they face along the way.
Azzam also imparted upon the reader a sense of the humiliation suffered by her people, stating in the story that “he felt that nothing made a man more impotent than facing a barrage of fire”. That is, perhaps, a fitting sentiment for what Israel is especially imposing on the Palestinians of Gaza today, as the Occupation continues to bombard and strike the Strip while cutting off all electricity, water, food, fuel and aid supplies to the territory, as part of a wider brutal campaign to take over the entirety of Gaza and exile its millions of Palestinians into Egypt’s Sinai desert.
The book is an intriguing, nostalgic, melancholic and easily-digestible read for all ages, readers and contexts, but is especially relevant for the tragedies of 2023 which may yet see a second Nakba.