Samira Azzam, Journalist, Broadcaster, and Short Story Writer

Samira Azzam

Samira Azzam (September 13, 1927 – August 8, 1967) was a journalist and broadcaster who left her mark on Palestinian literature. Her numerous short stories reflected the Palestinian experience of the 1950s and 1960s.

She was born in Acre (in what was then the Palestinian Mandate and today is Israel). Acre is located on the Mediterranean coast, often known locally as Akko.

Had she lived today, she might have been a social media influencer, as she started writing reviews and essays for the newspaper Filistin, signing them “A Girl from the Coast” while still a teen. Azzam was apparently a dedicated student: she became a teacher at the age of sixteen.


A Life on the Move

 While she was born into a middle-class family of Orthodox Christians, Azzam had great insight into the lives of people forced to make difficult choices due to poverty.

When Azzam was about twenty-one, in 1948, she and her family went to Lebanon as a result of Israel’s forced displacement of about half the population of Palestine, an event known as the Nakba, or Catastrophe. The rest of her short life would be deeply affected, like the lives of the people around her, by the conflicts and political upheavals of the region. 

As a writer and social critic, Azzam took part in the literary community of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. She wrote short stories. As Ranya Abdelrahman explains in the introduction to her translation of a collection of Azzam’s stories, Out of Time, Palestinian literature of this era focused on short stories because they could be published inexpensively and read aloud on the radio.

Azzam’s professional life had her moving about. Two years after her family relocated to Lebanon, Azzam went to Iraq. There she taught and may have been the headmistress of a girls school. It was also while she was in Iraq that Azzam began working for the Near East Asia Broadcasting Company where she wrote for the program “Women’s Corner.”

Azzam moved back and forth from Beirut to Iraq in the late 1950s, as regime changes in Iraq affected her ability to work as a broadcaster from Baghdad. In Beirut she was the host of a popular morning show.


A Writer of Short Stories

While in Iraq, Azzam wrote for an Iraqi newspaper, and published two collections of short stories in the 1950s, Little Things (1954) and The Big Shadow (1956), and began translating works from English to Arabic. Her translations included works by George Bernard Shaw and Pearl S. Buck.

In 1959, Azzam married Adib Yousef Hasan and together they briefly lived in Iraq before, due to the political climate, moving the back to Beirut, where she began publishing and wrote for two women’s magazines—Sawt Al-Mar`a (Women’s Voice) and Dunia Al-Mar`a (Women’s World).

She also worked for the Franklin Institution for Translation – work that continued bringing English-language works by writers such as John Steinbeck and Edith Wharton to Arabic. In 1960, she published another collection of short stories — And Other Stories.

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Samira Azzam Out of Time

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Out Of Time

Her short story collection The Clock and the Man was published in 1963. The title story of that volume has become one of Azzam’s best-known works, partly because of an essay by Adania Shibli, author of the much-translated novel Minor Detail (2017), about the impact of that story on her own sense of her Palestinian identity.

Explaining that it was one of the few Palestinian stories to escape being cut from the school curriculum by Israeli censors, Shibli, who was born in 1974, describes her surprise at reading it in her primary school. It is a simple story about a man who takes it upon himself to act as an alarm clock, knocking on doors to wake all those in his neighborhood who work for a certain company and thus must catch an early train.

The narrator eventually learns the reason for the man’s behavior: his son was killed trying to catch the morning train and he wants to save others from that fate. For Shibli, however (whose essay “Out of Time” appears at the beginning of the Out of Time anthology), this short story was evidence of a world she had never known. She wondered:

“Were there once Palestinian employees who commuted to work by train? Was there a train station? Was there once a train whistling in Palestine? Was there ever once a normal life in Palestine? So where is it now, and why has it vanished?”


Last Years

Through the 1960s, Azzam began working on her first novel, Sinai Without Borders. Azzam helped found a Palestinian radio station and increased her political activism in this period. In June of 1967, she was a co-founder of the Committee of Arab Ladies.

The organization was created to aid Palestinian refugees fleeing territories captured by Israel in the Arab-Israeli or Six-Day War. Israel’s victory in that war was said to be a great shock to Azzam.

She destroyed the manuscript for her novel, and she died of a heart attack a few weeks later on August 8, 1967 at thirty-nine years old.  Following Azzam’s death, two more collections of her stories were published: The Festival Through the Western Window(1971) and Echoes (2000).

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Opening the Gates

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Narrative Techniques

In 2022 ArabLit published of Out of Time, a collection of thirty-one of Azzam’s stories. Ranya Abdelrahman translated the collection. Prior to this, only a handful of English versions of Azzam’s stories were available. Before they were only available in anthologies such as Arab Women Writers (2005) and Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (1990).

Unfortunately, the stories in Out of Time, which clearly span Azzam’s career, are undated as to their original publication. 

The stories in Out of Time as well as those in the other anthologies are a pleasure to read. Truly short (some as little as two pages), they present a range of experiences. Many of the stories have a first-person plural narrator, a technique that creates the sense of a communal voice. 

For example, “The Inheritance” begins, “We have to confess that Abu Naseef’s family was impatient for him to die,” while “The Aunt’s Marriage” opens with “It was only natural, since Umm (Mother) Youssef was visiting, for us to loosen our tongues and delve more freely into the affairs of neighbors, both near and far.”

And yet another example, “The Roc (a legendary bird of prey) Flew Over Shahraban,” starts with “Slowly, we raised our heads as hellish cries echoed in our ears, and we looked up in awe and fear.”


Women With Difficult Choices

Many of Azzam’s stories portray women faced with difficult choices. One of those stories, oft-cited in essays about Azzam, is “Her Story.” Narrated by a woman forced into prostitution to survive, the story offers the impassioned tale of an orphaned girl tricked, seduced, and exploited who begs her younger brother, filled with shame after he discovers her occupation, not to kill her for both their sakes. 

But not all her stories portray women in brutal conditions. “A Silken Dream” tells the story of Souad, a young woman who longs to buy a dress she can’t afford to impress her new suitor’s family the first time she meets them. When he assures her that his clothes are cheap, “her face relaxed, and contentment made its way back to her features. It seemed to her that she had never seen Mansour more manly, or more elegant than he was at that moment in his cheap khaki shirt.”


Psychological Insights

Many of Azzam’s stories portray with powerful psychological insight the struggle by both men and women to maintain pride in the face of poverty and oppression. “No Harm Intended,” a two-pager, is another of those narrated by “we,” in this case the daughter of a family who owns a candy store.

She describes how she and her brother mock a man who comes begging for sweets, how they are reprimanded by their father who pities the man, and how, after their father prepares a little gift for the beggar to celebrate Eid, the beggar refuses the gift and never again returns to their shop. 

Some commentators explain Azzam’s lack of visibility today by claiming that her stories were not political enough at a time when Palestinians were grappling with one political crisis after another. And yet in stories like “Zagharid” (a word referring to the trilling ululation made during weddings and other celebrations), Azzam portrays the pain of a woman in Jaffa unable, due to political restrictions, to travel to Beirut to make her own zagharid at her only son’s wedding. 


A Modern Perspective

Some of Azzam’s stories are quite modern in their outlook. “A Virgin Continent,” translated by Arab Women Writers, is five pages long and written only in dialogue between a woman and her male partner.

As they discuss prior relationships, resentments and jealousies escalate and the woman notes that her partner needs to see himself as “the discoverer of a virgin continent” in imagining her as having had no history before she became involved with him. 

In yet another story, “The Passenger,” a very urban and accomplished woman, awaiting a flight in the Beirut airport, is overcome by the grief of a peasant family bidding farewell to a relative about to become the first person in their family to travel on a plane as he prepares to board one for the first time in his life.

This story skillfully exhibits Azzam’s ability to cross class lines and embrace the emotional world of her fellow Palestinians, whatever their circumstances.

Contributed by Lynne Weiss: Lynne’s writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review; Brain, Child; The Common OnLine; the Ploughshares blog; the [PANK] blog; Wild Musette; Main Street Rag; and Radcliffe Magazine. She received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has won grants and residency awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. She loves history, theater, and literature, and for many years, has earned her living by developing history and social studies materials for educational publishers. She lives outside Boston, where she is working on a novel set in Cornwall and London in the early 1930s. You can see more of her work at LynneWeiss.

Further reading

Khalil-Habib, Nejmeh. “Samira Azzam (1926-1967): Memory of the Lost Land.” (undated) 

Hakeem, Mazen, trans. “Samira Azzam: A Profile from the Archives.” Jadaliyya 27 April 2014. 

Fawzy, Ibrahim. “Samira Azzam: A Palestinian Scheherazade Out of the Shadows.” Rowayat, A Literary Journal, #6. (undated) 

Jalal, Maan. “Palestinian author Samira Azzam’s short stories translated into English for new book.” The National, March 21, 2023. 

More about Samira Azzam

 Collections of Short Stories

  • Little Things (1954)
  • Big Shadows (1956)
  • And Other Stories (1960)
  • The Clock and the Man (1963)
  • The Festival Through the Western Window (1971)
  • Echoes (2000)

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