“My mother went to visit our neighbour, Umm Bahaa, but refused to take me with her, on the pretext that women visit women and men visit men. So she left me alone, promising not to be gone more than a few minutes. I told my cat I was going to strangle her, but she paid no attention and continued grooming herself with her tongue.”
Thus we meet the five-year-old narrator of The Hedgehog – my stop-off in Syria - who introduces us to his world: his house (with the djinn girl who lives in his bedroom), his garden (where he wishes to be a tree), and his best friend the black stone wall. This tightly told novella confirms that Zakaria Tamer remains at the height of his powers into the 21st Century (having published his first stories in 1957). The twenty-seven short stories that follow were first published in the collection Tigers on the Tenth Day. Economical and controlled, they deal with man’s inhumanity to man (and to woman) and showcase the author’s typical sharply satirical style.
The stories are full of childish reasoning, as when he is asked what he wants to be when he grows up and he explains he wants to become a thief:
I'll steal from the poor and give what I steal to the rich so that everyone will become rich, and not a single poor person will be left.
And when he finds his older brother's stash of magazines with pictures of nude women (the wall told him where they were hidden ...) he wonders why his brother pays for magazines to see: "what I see for free when I'm at the public bath with my mother."
The remaining stories in the collection are much more varied, describing often harsh conditions and circumstances, but generally with a somewhat satirical edge. Some are very blunt, as in the effective allegory, 'Tigers on the Tenth Day', which describes how a tiger is tamed and concludes devastatingly:
On the tenth day the trainer, the pupils, the tiger, and the cage disappeared -- the tiger became a citizen and the cage a city.
In 'Death of the Jasmine' a woman becomes a teacher, but her class of seven-year-olds are preternaturally (and predatorily) adult - even while retaining elements of their childishness; it ends creepily with them pulling her clothes off as she lies on the floor and:
a frenzied sense of alarm suddenly seized her as the small teeth began gnawing her flesh and striking against solid bone.
Though the stories are short they tend to be very dense, too, and it often isn't clear from the start where Tamer will wind up going with his tale. Violence - political and personal -, sex, and politics mix in many of them, often to surprising effect. A story such as 'The Smile', in which a boy walks in on his mother having sex with a stranger and also imagines being executed is a typical impressive riff in the space of a single page.
Often unsettling, and rarely with anything like a conventional happy ending, Tamer's stories are weightier than most, and give an interesting, personal, sense of the traumas and tribulations of a wider Syrian society. It is timely that the inevitable outcome of such a repressive regime, in the form of public revolt and lethal government crackdown, is playing out daily in Syria on TV screens across the world as I read this book… it also shows that Syrian culture goes far beyond the stereotypical images of Middle Eastern conflict that we are shown via the media.
From Syria I travel to another country that has had it’s fair share of trauma (as have most in this region) – that of Lebanon, with the memoir “Beirut: I Love You” by Zena el Khalil.
For this trip I decide to take the quicker (and cheaper!) option of going overland. I head to the taxi station in Damascus and pick out three other people who look like they are waiting to head across to Lebanon.
The Syrian taxis that ply the 127-kilometer route between the two cities are almost all 1974 Dodge Coronets painted yellow. Some shine with new paint, others look like they're falling apart, but either way, ingenuity has kept them on the road.
The shared taxi costs a mere $10 and the trip over the mountains takes about 2 hours…the border stop off - where I get my Lebanese visa and pay my $10 Syrian exit tax - is surprisingly quick and easy, and in no time I am in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.