Always subversive

Photo montage: Syrian author Zakaria Tamer / Cover of the Arabic edition of Zakaria Tamer's "Sour Grapes"
Humans who become hyenas and sparrows that become warplanes: Zakaria Tamer delights in changes in form and strange transformations between life and death. "Tamer's characters can have a light, humorous day and yet see torture in their dreams," writes Lynx Qualey (image:

Playing with language in his short-short collection "Sour Grapes" – now in English translation – Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer doesn't hesitate to employ the winking humour, quick reversals and archetypes that are a part of his wide appeal

By Marcia Lynx Qualey

One of Sour Grapes' central projects is upending notions of honour and respectability, especially as understood in the Syrian cities where Tamer spent the first fifty years of his life. The collection was originally published in Arabic in 2000. Now – more than two decades later – it is available in Alessandro Columbu and Mireia Costa Capallera's English translation

Tamer is a largely self-taught litterateur. Born in 1931, he left school in 1944, at the age of 13, to help support his family. He always loved to read, he said, and he began sending his stories to literary journals in the late 1950s. His first collection, published in 1960, created an opportunity for him to leave his job as a blacksmith and go to work as an editor. 

His early, folktale-like short-short stories were critical of state power, but elliptically. Still, this did not keep him out of trouble with the regime, and he was dismissed from an editorship in 1980 after publishing extracts of Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi's The Characteristics of Despotism. He moved to the UK in 1981 and has lived there ever since.

Yet his beloved stories, including those in Sour Grapes, never left Syria. The stories in this collection depict an imagined Syrian neighbourhood while employing both sophisticated surrealism and broad humour; indeed, these stories often seem to be in two places at once.

Cover of Zakaria Tamer's "Sour Grapes" (published by Syracuse University Press)
"Sour Grapes" is a collection of fifty-nine wry, satirical short stories loosely connected by a cast of rotating characters living at society’s margins. Tamer captures their everyday lives, weaving the attendant cruelties and ironies of living under an oppressive regime with the residents’ irreverence and small acts of defiance (source: Syracuse University Press)

Rough men and shameless women

Many of the stories in Sour Grapes are set in the Queiq neighbourhood, which, the opening story tells us, was notorious for its ill-gotten wealth, ungovernable children, rough men, and shameless women. And yet while honour often looks like a pathetic conceit in these stories, dishonour doesn't protect anyone. 

Nothing in these stories is static: those who appear powerful are brought low in a sentence or two. Umm Ali swaggers onto stage in the first story, "The Quarrel", but is soon "just a flaccid chunk of meat that couldn't stop moaning and rattling, stumbling through the streets of Queiq with wandering glances, her back bent and her head dangling between her shoulders, indifferent to her neighbours' malicious looks".

Khidr Alloun is the man who effected this change, by killing Umm Ali's beloved grandson. In the next story, Khidr loses his knife and starts chatting with the pre-Islamic poet Antarah ibn Shaddad about their shared love of weapons. Khidr is then goes out for a walk, and, "suddenly a fast car hit him and ran him over. He was taken to a hospital nearby, but he died at dawn the day after".

These first two stories evoke not only the fragility of power, but also the way in which one era bleeds into another. In "Death of a Dagger", Khidr Alloun swaps thoughts with a warrior-poet from the sixth century. In the next story, "The Night Singer", the barrier between present and past also thins. 

When the night begins, musician Shafiq al-Kawa is singing for a decidedly unappreciative crowd when he announces that, unless the audience stops mocking him, he will leave. The host tells him, "You know where the door is, right?" 

Back at home, Shafiq begins to sing in front of a mirror and is visited by a messenger from the Caliph, who begs him for a private performance. At this point, we seem to be inside an ancient tale. But just as the Caliph asks Shafiq to become his personal singer, there is a knock at the door. It is a police officer, and suddenly we are back in our own era, where the neighbours reported a man "crying for help in sheer agony". 

The story ends with a wink at the reader about the lonely, caterwauling Shafiq. But it also leaves us with a persistent strangeness, as though we too have become slightly dislocated in time.

The slipperiness of time

Time slips in other ways. When one morning, prison inmate Shukri al-Mubayyid is shaving his beard, the razor slips and he – by accident, the story has it – rips his throat from side to side, and is soon dead. After his body is placed in a sturdy bag, a driver goes in search of his family. Yet so much time has passed that "his father was arrested for vagrancy and begging". 

His brother was being prosecuted for stealing state funds. His mother was imprisoned for verbally violating the honour of the most respectable women, and his sister had been detained because she deliberately doesn't express her joy or sadness". 

Even his cousins are gone, and his friends are no longer his friends. The twist at the end is that the deceased Shukri al-Mubayyid sneaks away from the guard and goes back to his family home, where he waits for his relatives to return and bury him. 

There are many such strange transformations between life and death, as well as changes in form: humans who became hyenas and sparrows that become warplanes. Tamer's characters can have a light, humorous day and yet see torture in their dreams. 

The collection has a more difficult relationship with gender. A critique of honour and respectability will certainly need to address sex and chastity. And yet the critique here feels not fully thought through, and there are a few stories that seem to boil down to a "take my wife…please" joke, and more than one where the surprise ending is that a woman enjoys her rape.

Sour Grapes concludes with an ultra-short story about the art of fiction, fittingly called "The Last Story". Like the audience in "The Night Singer", the cafe-goers in this tale complain that their storyteller has become boring. 

The storyteller promises to tell such a wild tale that his listeners fall silent. And then, as he speaks, not only his listeners fall into a deep sleep, but all the inhabitants of planet Earth, including the storyteller himself. 

So was the story that powerful, or that boring? Or perhaps, we're left wondering – as in many of the brief stories in Sour Grapes – was it both of these things at once?

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© 2024

Regular contributor Marcia Lynx Qualey is this year's winner of the 2024 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature.