help_outline Skip to main content
Add Me To Your Mailing List

News / Articles

Samira Azzam

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 11/10/2023

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Author’s Note: This article has been edited to remove sources and language that are, or are strongly perceived to be, antisemitic in nature. In my efforts to address the dehumanization of Arabs and Palestinians, it is crucial that I do not then contribute to the dehumanization of Jews, Israelis, or Israeli Jews. Of the quotes and sources that remain, readers are encouraged to put them in the context of the individual or organization and the perspectives/biases they may have. I have provided sources I personally deem credible. You may disagree with my assessment. – KSG, May 2024

In the short story “Another Year,” an old woman named Um Abood travels to Jerusalem. Along the way, she tells the driver all about her daughter Mary. They’re going to meet in Jerusalem at the Mandelbaum gate, she explains; she’s not hugged her daughter in seven years. Mary has had three children in that time. Um Abood has heard that Mary has gray hair. 


The journey takes them through multiple checkpoints where police inspect them, their belongings, and their vehicle. She packed a basket for Mary and she worries each time its contents—“Boiled eggs, date-filled cookies, pine nuts, and coffee”—have been meddled with. 


Why are the eggs boiled? asks one police officer. 


“The old woman curled her wrinkled lips into an ancient smile and said, ‘I was thinking ahead. I told myself that raw eggs wouldn’t make it there in one piece. With all the shaking and rattling, they’d break and leak onto the cookies and the pine nuts and the clothes. They say clothes are pricey there, Son, have you heard that, too? And there are no eggs to be found at all, that’s what I heard from the people who went to Jerusalem last year. And meat is hard to come by, too. I would have liked to bring her some meat, but I was afraid it would rot. It doesn’t matter if food is scarce, Son, it’s being safe and healthy that counts. And as long as Mary and her husband and children are well, I thank God a thousand times. We’re better off than others, and there are others better off than us. Money can be replaced, and homes can come back to us as long as our men are still standing. As for the tyrants, their day of reckoning will come.’”



Samira Azzam grew up in the Acre district on the coast of Mandatory Palestine in a Christian Orthodox family. She was born Sept. 13, 1927, in a land already in upheaval. 


“The idea of a mandatory nation, using the common definition of the word, is an odd one: a country that’s obligatory, something that can’t be missed without fear of consequence,” wrote Noah Rayman for Time magazine in 2014. “But the entity known as ‘Mandatory Palestine’ existed for more than two decades...The word ‘mandatory,’ in this case, refers not to necessity but to the fact that a mandate caused it to exist.”

That mandate was largely a formal adoption of an older document called the Balfour Declaration. On Nov. 2, 1917, foreign secretary for Britain, Arthur James Balfour, wrote a brief missive to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a prominent member of London’s Jewish community. In it, he conveyed a royal message: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."


This letter is referenced in the second paragraph of the 1922 Palestine Mandate created by the League of Nations. The League finalized a 28-article document formalizing Britain’s rule over large areas of the eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine, for a period of 25 years. The goal, ostensibly, was to rule until the region was stabilized and self-sufficient. Article 2 specifies that Britain “shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble ... and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.”


Al Jazeera in a 2017 article noted that Britain “essentially vow[ed] to give away a country that was not theirs to give.” Palestine became Mandatory Palestine in 1923, just four years before Samira was born.

Palestinian author and activist Samira Azzam

The goal of a Jewish national home, while also safeguarding the rights of Palestinians, was a more complex prospect than the sentences assuring it would imply. The demographic reports of the time show the Muslim population was six times larger than both the Christian and Jewish populations. The Jewish population, however, now had the support and endorsement of the ruling British government.


By the year of Samira’s birth, 1927, United States newspapers reported frequent confrontations and violence in Palestine.


Samira attended public school in Acre, then a Christian high school in the nearby Haifa district. Her life was, wrote Kathyanne Piselli in “Samira Azzam: Author's Works and Vision,” “fairly typical of an educated Palestinian of the middle class.” During Samira’s school years, the Great Palestinian Revolt, also called the Arab Revolt, raged in Haifa, fueled by the poverty and displacement of Arabs that resulted from the mandate’s promotion of Jewish immigration to Palestine.


At age 16 in the early 1940s, Samira started working as a teacher at the Greek Orthodox School in Acre. In her free time, she was a frequent contributor to the newspaper Filastīn, writing under the alias "Fatāt al-sāhil,” meaning “Girl from the Coast.” Rawaa Talass of Arab News, wrote that Samira “taught herself English through a correspondence course, [and] translated the writings of George Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, W. Somerset Maugham, and Edith Wharton into Arabic.” She also had a column in al-Hawādith, a Beirut-based periodical.


In 1947, the British Mandate was nearing its end. In anticipation, the League of Nations, now the United Nations, drafted the Partition Plan to divide Palestine into distinct Jewish and Arab states. The City of Jerusalem was “established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations,” according to the UN’s Resolution 181. It became a city neither Jewish nor Arab but formally neutral and in consideration of both.


In the segmentation, Samira’s home was in an Arab state, and the Haifa school she attended in the Jewish one.


Arab activists rejected and immediately began protesting the partition plan. Zionists, those who advocate for a Jewish national home, expressed support. Voting members of the United Nations found themselves targeted by intense pressure from lobbyists and political groups. In the months between the plan’s proposal and its official vote, thousands were killed or injured in clashes between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine. By some estimates, nearly 100 people died each week. On Nov. 29, 1947, the UN held its vote. The partition plan was passed with over 56 percent of the disputed land becoming part of the Jewish state. 


On May 14, 1948, Jewish Agency leader David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel and the new country was quickly recognized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman. On May 15, 1948, the mandate officially terminated. A Mandatory Palestine ruled by Britain was no more.


The next step for the fledgling country was Plan Dalet, a formal outline for the Israeli War of Independence. It details the stages and contingencies for expelling the Arab population from the now-designated Jewish states, including, “Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.” Bridges should be destroyed, the Plan says, roads seized, and transportation, energy, and resources controlled. 


Under subsection C. Deployment in Major Cities, number 3 reads: “Occupation and control of all isolated Arab neighborhoods located between our municipal center and the Arab municipal center, especially those neighborhoods which control the city's exit and entry roads. These neighborhoods will be controlled according to the guidelines set for searching villages. In case of resistance, the population will be expelled to the area of the Arab municipal center.”


Next, number 4: “Encirclement of the central Arab municipal area and its isolation from external transportation routes, as well as the termination of its vital services (water, electricity, fuel, etc.), as far as possible.”


“The ideological premises of Plan D are to be found in the very concept of Zionism,” wrote Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi in “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine.” “The nineteenth century Zionists of Eastern Europe shared characteristics with many other nationalists of the time. But unlike the other nationalist movements, Zionism did not then possess a land it could call its own ... The land that the Zionists were looking for was one which they wanted to possess and unmistakably stamp with their own image. But what if this land was already possessed by others? The Zionists had to face this dilemma from the very beginning. And we know that as early as Theodor Herzl [father of Zionism, 1896] they had decided that the answer was to be found in the theory of ‘the lesser evil’: in other words, that any hardship inflicted on the indigenous population of the land chosen by them was outweighed by the solution that the Zionist possession of the land offered to the Jewish problem.”


Palestinians call this time “an-Nakbah,” an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe.” In an article titled “The Nakbah Did Not Start or End in 1948,” Al Jazeera reported, “Though displacement of Palestinians from their lands by the Zionist project was already taking place during the British Mandate, mass displacement started when the UN partition plan was passed. In less than six months, from December 1947 to mid-May 1948, Zionist armed groups expelled about 440,000 Palestinians from 220 villages. ... Some 150,000 Palestinians remained in the areas of Palestine that became part of the Israeli state. Of the 150,000, some 30,000 to 40,000 were internally displaced. Like the 750,000 who were displaced beyond the borders of the new state, Israel prohibited internally displaced Palestinians from returning to their homes.”


Twenty-year-old Samira was one of these displaced Palestinians. In 1948, she and her family traveled northeast to Falougha in Lebanon. Then they moved out to the coast, settling in Beirut. Samira journeyed back inland to Iraq where she taught in a girls’ school for two years. In 1952, she found work as a radio broadcaster with the Sharq Al-Adna/Near East radio station, an Arabic-language, British-owned station that itself had to relocate to Cyprus (which was still under British control) after the mandate terminated.


“She is familiar to many Arabs simply because she was heard so often on the radio,” noted Kathyanne. “She later worked for radio stations in Iraq and Kuwait and taped material for the Jordanian station and the Voice of Palestine in Cairo.”


During these years, Samira also began to write short stories. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the short story was highly popular in the Arab world. Literary shorts were easy to print, publish in magazines, and read aloud on radio broadcasts. 


“Though very few researchers have written about Samira Azzam, two distinct disciplines of interpretation of her work have appeared,” explained Palestinian writer Nejmeh Khalil-Habib in her essay “Memory of a Lost Land.” “The first sees Azzam as a purely Palestinian revolutionary writer; her writing in its entirety revolved around, was informed and inspired by the people around her and their common as well as their individual tragedies. The others saw that Azzam was incapable of feeling and expressing the suffering of Palestinian refugees because she had found herself a social status that cast her above the common refugee. She was an editor and a broadcaster in The Middle East radio station, she lived (or was perceived to live) an easy life and her concerns were seen as womanish.”


Few of Samira’s short stories reference Palestine directly, but she often explored themes of separation and anguish. She frequently depicted class divides, writing tales of the poor and marginalized finding ways to survive. In “Her Story,” Samira wrote the letter of a sister to her younger brother. The boy she once raised now rejects her for having been sexually assaulted and forced into sex work. The sister tells her brother how much she’s struggled for what little comfort she has; she tells him about her anger at the injustice in the world.


“My Dearest Brother,” the story begins in the translation by Ranya Abdelrahman, “I wish I was still unknown to you. I wanted you to carry on as you were, without a sister whose existence tortures you so much that the mere mention of her name makes you hang your head in shame, wishing she had never been born.”


“[T]he persecution of Azzam’s protagonist,” said Nejmeh in her essay, “clearly draw[s] on the persecution of the Palestinian people, who share the same tragedy with the protagonist... Furthermore, Palestinians were blamed for losing Palestine in the same manner that the protagonist was blamed for losing her virginity. Both feel bitterness toward the ill-treatment they received from their own ‘family’ (the brother in the story and other Arab nations in the real world).”


In “Another Year,” the story which opened this article, “Azzam depicts the excitement of a mother on her way to meet her daughter after being separated from her after the 1948 occupation.” Nejmeh wrote, “In order to understand the story, we should understand the social and political context in which it was written. This was a time when the Palestinian family unit was dismembered; this is exemplified in Um Abood’s predicament. The Israeli government had also given permission to Christian Palestinians to visit the holy places in west Jerusalem once a year. Many refugees saw this as an opportunity to visit their estranged relatives. The story follows Um Abood’s journey from Lebanon to Jordan.”


Samira published her first book of short stories, Little Things, in 1954, at age 27. She also continued publishing Arabic translations of English-language authors like Pearl Buck, Alice Hazelton, and John Steinbeck. On Dec. 24, 1959, she married Adib Yousef Hasan. The couple briefly lived in Baghdad, but soon left, fleeing the upheaval of Iraq’s collapsing monarchy and violent birth of a republic. By some accounts, she was banished for voicing her opposition to the new regime.


Again in Beirut, Samira began working at the Franklin Institution for Translation and Publishing. She became more politically active through the 1950s and ‘60s. She began contributing articles to Dunia Al-Mar`a (Women’s World) and Sawt Al-Mar`a (The Woman’s Voice), a Sudan-based progressive magazine. While her short stories gained popularity, she also started writing a novel.


In her essay, Nejmeh outlined how Samira’s writing evolved along with the larger Palestinian political sentiment. “Azzam’s literature was never uniformly despairing,” she said, “[I]n the later years a new sprit was beginning to emerge in her work, deriving from the passion and hope instilled in her throughout the sixties, due to the emergence of an organized Palestinian liberation movement.”


Samira worked diligently to form connections and resisted “the prevalent belief among some people that Palestine could only be liberated by the hands of Palestinians,” according to Nejmeh. Instead, she saw it as a cultural responsibility, one that should be held by all Arab states. “She was a pioneer in the political world, establishing a secret resistance organization (The Liberation Front for Palestine) spreading from Lebanon to Jordan.” She was part of the General Union of Palestinian Women, an organization specifically focused on advocating for the women of Palestine.


In 1967, Samira—like many displaced Palestinians—avidly followed the developments with Egypt’s controversial new president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who wanted to unite Arab nations and vocally opposed Israel. Here lay a chance to return to Palestine.


Samira watched as the second Arab-Israeli War of her lifetime, the Six-Day War, ended with Israel invading the Sinai Peninsula and occupying the cities of Rafaḥ, and Al-ʿArīsh, and Gaza. Her hope for Palestine had been lost once again.


As she and other women activists in Beirut organized to help the refugees from the Sinai Peninsula, Samira destroyed the novel she’d been writing. “Its title must have seemed particularly tragic in the wake of ’67: Sinai Without Borders,” wrote M Lynx Qualey in the introduction for a collection of Samira’s short stories.


Despite this renewed heartbreak, Samira continued working for Palestine. She and other members of The Liberation Front for Palestine headed for Jordan; they needed to regroup and adapt to the new situation. In 1967, at just 39 years old, Samira died of a heart attack in a car along the way. She was laid to rest in Beirut.  


It may have been the lack of explicit reference to Palestine that allowed Samira’s stories to endure. In her foreword, Palestinian author Adania Shibli recounted her first experience reading one of Samira’s short stories. 


“The curriculum back then was, and still is, subject to the approval of the Israeli Censorship Bureau, which allowed teaching texts from various Arab countries, bar Palestine, fearing that they would contain references or even hints that could raise the pupils’ awareness of the Palestine Question,” she said in 2022. “Hence, Palestinian literature was considered unlawful, if not taboo, similar to pornography. Except for one text, ‘The Clock and the Man,’ a short story by Samira Azzam, which the Censorship Bureau had found ‘harmless.’”


And yet that story, by having recorded the mundane existence of a train, awakened young Adania to a Palestine she’d never known. “Were there once Palestinian employees who commuted to work by train?” she marveled. “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?”



At the end of the short story “Another Year,” Um Abood waits for her daughter for hours amid the crowds at Jerusalem’s Mandelbaum gate. She watches the hugging, crying, and kissing of other loved ones reunited. She waits so long that she grows faint with worry and anticipation. She’s awakened later by man. Her daughter Mary sent him, he says. Mary’s husband has fallen ill, so she can’t come to Jerusalem. But she will come next year. They will meet next year.


“Give her my greetings,” a tearful Um Abood replies, “and tell her I said that, if I live another year, I’ll crawl here on all fours to see her. And if God takes me before then, I will die with grief in my heart for only two things: grief for my country and grief for Mary and the kiss I ached to plant on her cheek.”



Arab Lit Store: Out of Time: The Collected Short Stories of Samira Azzam

Nejmeh Khalil-Habib: Samira Azzam (1926-1967): Memory of the Lost Land

Jadaliyya: Samira Azzam, A Profile from the Archives

International Journal of Middle East Studies: “Samira Azzam: Author’s Works and Vision” by Kathyanne Piselli

Time magazine: Mandatory Palestine: What it Was and Why it Matters

Lillian Goldman Law Library: The Balfour DeclarationThe Palestine Mandate

United Nations: The Question of PalestineThe Partition Plan

Wikipedia: Samira AzzamDemographic History of Palestine

Office of the Historian: Creation of Israel, 1948

Jewish Virtual Library: Israeli War of Independence: Plan Dalet

Journal of Palestine Studies: “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine” by Walid Khalidi

Al Jazeera: The Nakba Did Not Start or End in 1948 Arab-Israeli WarsGeneral Union of Palestinian Women