IT is a sign of the stature of the Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer within Arabic literature that Garnet Publishing of the UK chose his short story collection “Breaking Knees” as one of the first titles in its new Arab Writers in Translation series.
The stories in “Breaking Knees” take the reader into a world at once entertaining and appalling: a society of seduction, corruption, rumors, illicit liaisons, false paternity, polygamy and jinns, ruled over by dictators and a state apparatus of torturers, interrogators and crooked officials.
Tamer lifts the lid on society’s conventions, taboos and political structures and explores power relations, whether between men and women or between citizens and a regime. At the same time he shows his characters’ dreams and escapes into fantasy. He often turns the status quo upside down and explores the resulting crazy situation.
“Breaking Knees” first appeared in Arabic in 2002, under the title “Taksir Rukab”. It is the tenth collection of stories by Tamer to have been published since he made his debut in the genre with “Neighing of the White Stallion” in 1960.
Tamer was born in 1931 in the Al-Basha district of Damascus. He had to leave school at the age of only 13 to help support his family, and he subsequently educated himself. He has written in a variety of forms, from satirical newspaper columns to his many childrens’ books, and has been translated into many languages. But the genre for which he is best known is the very short story (“al-qissa al-qasira jjiddan”). The fact that there are 63 stories in the 162 pages of “Breaking Knees” indicates the brevity of the stories.
Publication of Tamer’s stories began in magazines in the late 1950s. He eventually became editor of Al-Ma’rifa, published by the culture ministry, but was fired in 1980 for publishing pro-freedom content. He decided to seek exile, and left Syria for the UK.
“Breaking Knees” been meticulously translated by the Palestine-born scholar and translator Ibrahim Muhawi, who studied English literature at the University of California and was from 1997 to 2002 director of the Master’s Program in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His other translations include “Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales” and Mahmoud Darwish’s “Memory for Forgetfulness”.
In his illuminating introduction, Muhawi presents a persuasive case for translating an entire single collection of Tamer’s stories rather than selecting stories from several volumes. He argues that Tamer wishes his books to be read as artistic units, which is why the stories in “Breaking Knees” are given numbers rather than titles.
A detestation of dictatorship runs through “Breaking Knees”. In a searing story an old woman goes to a park to glare at the statue of the man responsible for the killing of her sons and husband. She stands before “the immense stone statue of a tall man with a stern face, his right hand raised in a gesture that inspired awe and respect, as if blessing his invisible minions kneeling there.” The old woman is filled with fear, and feels as if she is shrinking. Everything around her shrinks until nothing remains except the statue “and the birds whose pleasure it was to crap on it”.
In another tale a woman sees a man about to be hanged in public for killing an entire family in revenge for the murder of his brother. When she returns home and tells her husband what she has seen, he casually remarks: “He who kills only ten people is a criminal to be hanged. But he who kills hundreds of thousands is a hero among heroes.”
In story 56, a man wakes up after several years in a coma and finds that while he has become old, and his former friends from the arts sphere are dead or have abandoned their callings, the president and ministers are still in their positions and remain unchanged: indeed the president has become even more youthful and healthy. The old man closes his eyes and tries unsuccessfully to escape back into his coma.
The absurdity of internecine strife is depicted in the tale of two feuding neighborhoods, the Inner and Outer. The differences between them escalate to the point where none other than the UN Secretary General arrives to broker a peace agreement.
There are often elements of magic realism in the tales. The new-born baby of a widowed mother has the power of speech and starts cursing the hospital and its staff. When his mother tells him to keep quiet and not to say a word, the baby retorts: “You’re now talking like our leaders.” The baby mocks the society around him, and a pompous old preacher.
It is a cat that has the ability to speak in story 51. The narrator of the story is a writer who discusses his work with his cat. He tells the cat he is trying to write a story about Hitler and Abla, which the critics will see as “a portrait of the clash of European and Arab cultures.”
In story 53 a man who has bought a green apple and a red apple to eat on a park bench is warned by each of them in turn not to eat them. He anxiously questions the apples about their political connections. In another tale characters from TV programs start to emerge from a new TV set being watched by a young man. They argue with him, the climax coming when he sees news of soldiers firing on a demonstration of children.
In several stories the central character is arrested. A police interrogator says to a man who has confessed (falsely) to killing his wife: “All of us wish to get rid of our women, but some of us are brave while others are worthless cowards. Please allow me to express my admiration of your manliness, for our prisons are full of people who deny all they did, claiming they are innocent victims.”
In another instance a man is arrested for refusing to be bribed, but he insists he comes from a well-known family of people who are bribed. He tells his interrogator that bribery is “the adornment of life on earth”. Despite his praise of bribery he is tortured, and is released only after he offers the interrogator a large bribe – which to the interrogator proves his innocence.
“Breaking Knees” is a satisfying collection of stories told with humor, poetry and a good dash of fantasy. At the same time the stories are revealing of social and political conditions in some sectors of the Arab world. This translation of the collection into English may well appeal to a considerable readership.