📖 🇸🇾 #50: Stories of displacement from Syria

A short story collection by Dima Alzayat

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’ve found your way here from Book Riot, welcome! If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.

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Dima Alzayat’s debut collection, Alligator & Other Stories, comprises nine short stories that focus on themes of social injustice, racial violence, and global migration. Many of Alzayat’s stories are based on real life events and most of them centre around characters who, in one way or another, find themselves on the outside: a young woman navigating sexual harassment in the workplace; a religious man reckoning with his sexuality; a Syrian family losing its name.

The collection’s titular story, Alligator, is exceptional. Taking the true story of an immigrant couple from Syria who were lynched in Florida in 1929 as its launch pad, the story collages historical records, newspaper clippings, and witness statements before imagining the futures of the victims’ children as they are rehomed and assimilated, thus erasing their Syrian identity. It’s a stylistically complicated story, which contextualises the lynching with violence experienced by the Seminole people and the Black community.

Another story based on real life events is Disappearance. Starting with the 1979 disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz, Alzayat explores how it felt to be a child cooped up indoors during a hot summer in which parents were too afraid to let their children play out. Other highlights of the collection include Daughters of Manāt, in which a woman is assaulted, only for the abuser to get off with community service because the district attorney and judge cannot agree on how to classify the crime (“Domestic battery demanded an intimate relationship. What constituted intimacy?”) and Only Those Who Struggle Succeed, in which an intern tries to climb the corporate ladder of a film production company at the same time as being propositioned by her boss.

Alzayat is particularly good at representing children’s perspectives. In A Girl In Three Acts, a Syrian girl in America is passed between foster homes and families in the aftermath of her father’s death. And in Once We Were Syrians, an aunt responds to her grand-niece’s school report on the Syrian Civil War: “There used to be a time when our names mattered,” she says, “when being Syrian meant something else.” The story opens with the aunt’s monologue and closes with the school report she is responding to.

I was particularly taken by the range of this collection: Alzayat’s prose changes with each story. Had I come across these stories individually, in magazines and journals, I doubt I’d have realised they’re written by the same author. So much of this book is brilliant—on racism, intergenerational trauma, displacement. I’m looking forward to reading more from Alzayat.

Alligator & Other Stories by Dima Alzayat (Picador, 2020)


More books by Syrian authors:

Here’s a list of other books that were recommended to me this week:

  • The Crane by Halim Barakat, tr. Bassam Frangieh and Roger Allen

  • Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet by Ulfat Idilbi, tr. Peter Clark

  • Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, tr. Leri Price

  • Sun on a Cloudy Day by Hanna Mina, tr. Bassam K. Frangieh

  • Farewell, Damascus by Ghada Samman, tr. Nancy Roberts

  • The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami, tr. Anthea Bell

  • The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!