Breaking Knees: Sixty-three Very Short Stories from Syria

by Zakaria Tamer, trans. Ibrahim Muhawi, Periscope Books, £9.99 (softcover)

By Fi Churchman

Breaking Knees: Sixty-three Very Short Stories from Syria, by Zakaria Tamer. Published by Persicope

The Arabic term qissah refers to a narrative, its etymological root – qassa, meaning to recount a story – found in the Quran. In the past it has been used to describe a short, dramatically penned nonfictional account, but in its modern interpretation (propelled by the development of presses during the nineteenth century, and subsequent frequency of publishing in magazines and newspapers), the Arabic fictional short story has gained popularity as a means by which to place particular socio-political and religious aspects of life in the Arab world under scrutiny. The very short story, al-qissa al-qasira jiddan, has been favoured by the writer Zakaria Tamer since 1960 (when his first collection, Neighing of the White Stallion, was published), for the literary form’s ability to present a prism of specific themes through which the refracted tales of many different characters shed light on contemporary Syrian culture.

Although the stories in Breaking Knees (first published in Arabic in 2002, almost a decade before the Arab Spring) can be read individually, they work best, in the way Tamer intended, as a whole, presenting back to the reader a microcosm of Syrian society, one that Tamer treats with an elegant cynicism. Once the editor of al-Ma’rifa, the culture ministry’s magazine, Tamer was fired from this role in 1980 for publishing pro-freedom (from Hafez al-Assad’s regime) content. Story 54, a mere paragraph, is about a statue whose stony presence (undeniably that of Assad) cows an old bent-backed, grieving widow, and which, according to Tamer, is worth only seven sentences and ‘the birds whose pleasure it was to crap upon it’. Political dissent is evident in the later tales, but it is a focus on the defiance of women that threads its way through the collection: their subversive acts and reclamation of their own sexuality delivered with a derisive jab to the rib of a traditionally male-dominated society. A woman frightens away a rapist’s attempt with her enthusiasm; some wives mock their husbands’ lack of natural ‘gifts’, finding comfort (and pleasure) in other men’s beds; and other women are puppeteers, manipulating family ties. In short, Breaking Knees is a compelling collection, at points hideous and hysterical, leaving no doubt as to who exactly is being kneecapped. 

From the Winter 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia