A Dialogue with Zakaria Tamer

By: Ziad Majed

Posted on: June 5, 2012


“Before my departure from this world, I hope to sit in a Damascene cafe and swear at the top of my voice at all the Syrian officials without feeling intimidated or fearing arrest.”

Born in Damascus in 1931, Zakaria Tamer lived in its traditional working class neighborhoods, where he worked from a young age in blacksmithing and hand crafts, through which he came to know his society and people, the circumstances of their lives and their varied mentalities.

In 1957, he decided to enter the world of writing and chose short stories as his literary genre.

From 1960 until 1978, and between 1994 and 2005, several collections of Tamer’s short stories were published, including the “Neighing of the White Horse”, “A Spring in the Ashes”, “Thunder”, “Damascus of the Fires”, “The Tigers in the Tenth Day”, “Noah’s Calling”, “We will Laugh”, “Sour Grapes”, “Knee Busting”, and “The Hedgehog”. In addition, he published children’s stories, most notably “Why the River went Silent” and “The Rose said to the Sparrow”.

Most of Tamer’s stories dealt with social and political (and humanitarian) issues of relevance to both the Syrian and Arab realities in a breathtaking narrative style, a sarcastic language, an amazing stock of imagination, and without imitation. Perhaps the late poet Mohammed al-Maghout’s description of him best sums up part of his ongoing work; he said “Zakaria Tamer started his life as a ferocious blacksmith in a factory, and when he embarked from the neighborhood of Bahsa in Damascus with his famous cigarette and cough to become a writer, he never gave up his original profession. He remained a blacksmith and ferocious in a country made of pottery and he did smash everything, leaving nothing standing, nothing stopped in his way but the graves and prisons, which were well protected!”.

Last January, Zakaria Tamer, a resident of Oxford in Britain since 1981, decided to venture into “Facebook”,  creating a page titled “The Spur” (Al-Mihmaz) where he commenced posting daily texts continuing his literary journey (with its political and cultural dimensions), joining the Syrian Revolution in a splendid way.

The following text is a dialogue with him that was published in French in the L’Orient Littéraire supplement.

Ziad Majed


Z.M.:   Your writings and short stories with their literary style, language and symbolic dimension express clear positions on issues of freedom, justice, equality, power and dominance while abstaining from direct preaching and being “judgmental”. You might be aware, that the story “The Tigers in the Tenth Day” has become a teaching material in many school curriculums in several countries, in addition to being the topic of research dealing with matters of repression, taming, citizenship, normalization with submission, and “the habit”. How did you balance your work between the artistic level and humanist commitment? And why did you choose this literary genre?

Z.T:     Whoever wants to invent anything new in the field of science should be aware of all innovations accomplished by scientists, so he would be able to add something new; that is if he was a creative innovator.

I claim that before starting to write I have read most contents of the Arabic Library including books written in Arabic or translated from other languages, not restricting myself to literary books alone. I read books on various subjects, such as politics, intellect, economics, and military. I have not even neglected subjects relating to agriculture and its issues. In fact they are of great interest to me. But my reading was that of a person who has a sound stomach able to digest all the food that reaches it and transforms it to a substance for strengthening and developing the body. Everything that I read was the solid foundation that I sprung off to put on paper my vision of humanity and life, trying to express my own voice and not to be the echo of others, believing that an author who is a mere echo loses the justification of his existence as an author and his continuation in writing would be a sort of an unsavory boldness not devoid of impudence and stupidity.

            When I started writing stories, I never tried to imitate or submit to the prevailing styles. I wrote what I aspired to say believing that what is thought to be unrealistic is in fact realistic. For example, when writing a story, I used to enjoy a freedom that is lacking in the world of daily life. Hence, 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.

Z.M.:   Six months ago, we gladly discovered a Facebook page titled “The Spur”, dedicated to your writings that are in line with the Syrian Revolution and the Syrian Freedom Spring. Why Facebook? And how do you view your experience in this virtual–real world where you interact with readers–friends, events and photos, and receive comments and “likes”, and occasionally reply to them?

Z.T:     Once computers and internet started to gain popularity in the Arab world, I was quick to take up their use. Yet my use of computers was limited, restricted to writing, reading newspapers and magazines, researching information and keeping up with the latest news. I never came close to blogs, Facebook or Twitter; on the contrary, these modes of communication repelled me because of the way they were used in the Arab World, being transforming into arenas for exchanging nonsense and going too far with pure trivialities.

When the Syrians took to the streets demanding freedom and change, I had no contact with any media outlet, and was never contacted by any newspaper, magazine, radio or television station to inquire about my opinion and stand on what is happening. I was also ignored by petition addicts and was never presented with any petition to sign. It got to the stage where I started believing that there was a meticulous execution of a carefully assembled plan that aims at associating certain people with the Syrian Revolution, while sidelining the positions of key Syrian figures in the fields of culture, literature, arts and politics.

In short, I found myself deprived of every chance to express my position supporting the Syrian revolution, which I regard as the obvious position, and an extension of my fifty years of writing. Therefore, my only escape was resorting to Facebook, which I took-to very quickly. Yet I never used it for chatting or discussion, I used it as a tool to publish my writings whether long or short, as if I am dealing with a newspaper or magazine. Now, every morning, I feel like I am issuing my own little newspaper, in which I publish whatever I want without the censorship of any censor and without being exploited by any entity.

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.

What really makes me happy is that most of my friends on “The Spur” Facebook page are young ones.

Z.M.:   What does the Syrian revolution move in you? Does it surprise you? Does it change your relationship with Syria and its people?

Z.T:     My answer to this question might sound contradicting, for the Syrian revolution surprised me, but it did not at the same time. This contradiction is due to my belief in the non-existence of a Syrian citizen that supports this brutal regime. However every Syrian citizen has a dual personality, one a covert personality that hates the dominant regime blindly, despises it and wishes its swift demise, and the other personality is overt, publicly supporting the regime, heaping praise on it and obeying all its directives. The Syrian revolution was successful in uniting both personalities in one extremely solid individual, ready to die for what he/she believes in, and has no demand but freedom and salvation from tyranny. It is for sure that my relationship with Syria will witness some invisible change after the Syrian people, with all their sacrifices, proved that they are paranormal people, which an innovator would not be blamed for being proud of belonging to.

Z.M.:   You told me a while ago that tigers remain tigers. Do you think that today an eleventh day would be added to the tigers’ ten days?

Z.T:     I would imagine that adding a new day to the ten days would weaken the story as it would be explaining the story and offending it artistically. What would be said in the eleventh day has already been said in the previous ten, when the tiger was appointed the hero of the story. A tiger in the world of circus is the untamable beast and every success in taming it is merely temporary.

Z.M.:   Would you want to go back and live in Damascus if tyranny is overthrown? And do you fear the rise of political Islamic movements?

Z.T:  The apparent reason for me leaving Damascus is that I was prevented from publishing in Syria and abroad, but the deeper, fundamental reason is that 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.

It is not important whether I stay in Oxford or go back to Damascus, what is important is for Syria to be liberated from this brutal regime that maimed human beings and corrupted them in an unparalleled way.

As for the Islamic movements, I do not fear their rise as long as the people have chosen them, and if they chose wrongly, they will suffer the consequences of their choice.

Z.M.:   What do you wish for in the forth coming days?

Z.T:     I have always been a man who lives without wishes and is content with living every day without plans, but today, at 81 years of age, I wish that Syria is allowed to be liberated from the tyranny and horror that have controlled it for fifty years. Before my departure from this world, I wish to sit in a Damascene cafe and swear at the top of my voice at all the Syrian officials, every single one of them, without feeling intimidated or fear of arrest.


Ziad Majed’s Blog

30 responses to “A Dialogue with Zakaria Tamer

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  2. قام بإعادة تدوين هذه على A Girl On A Quest وأضاف التعليق:
    Really interesting interview with one of the most prominent intellectuals of today’s Arab World. Good reading for everyone interested in Arab literature as well as the Arab World itself

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