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Syria is in the news, unhappily.  Citizens are fleeing the fighting and overwhelming the resources in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The deaths are numbered in the tens of thousands.  Perhaps it’s not the time to speak of other things — that there is much more to Syria than what we know from today’s headlines. Perhaps Zakaria Tamer‘s stories are too light for the moment.  Even if so, we should know of him.  He is said by some to be one of the greatest of modern Arabic writers.  His themes of repression, political authority, corruption, sex (often sex), and religion are current always, and always make up the currents of the world.

Breaking Knees at AlibrisRather than review “Breaking Knees,” let me just share a couple of his very short stories with you, as translated by Ibrahim Muhawi.  You’ll want to have the volume near at hand.


The rains were scant. People appealed for help to a saintly man whose prayers were often heard, and a strange heavy rain fell as had not been seen before. One drop falling on a man made that which men have but women have not, grow bigger.  And one drop falling on a woman made her breasts and buttocks swell.  Women were happy , for the real thing was not like the artificial, and cosmetic surgery was very expensive.  Men celebrated this correction , which made a trunk out of a branch, but some were not content with what they had got for free.  They asked for a rain that taught proper manners to any man stupid enough to think that size exempted him from having to rise for a woman.

Women prayed for a sudden rain that would make them pregnant and able to give birth without men.   Men became idle, and found only dismissal, contempt and derision wherever they went. Women then fell upon women and men upon men.


Though many of the stories are sexual in nature, and some are, shall we say, not politically correct, others take off in a black, dreamlike humor at the state of the world.


The director of the government hospital did not let anyone know he was starting his nightly rounds.  He went into one of the rooms and found that a male nurse had a female patient on the floor and was lying on top of her.  The nurse said to the director in a welcoming tone and without stopping, “Do come in, doctor.”

The patient had closed her eyes out of shame or pleasure, or maybe she had fainted.  The nurse noticed the director’s look of astonishment and said without stopping, “There’s no need to wonder.  Unlike many others, I don’t like beds.”

The director left in shock and went into another room, which was larger and lined with metal beds painted white.  He was surprised to see that many patients had surrounded a young man of twenty and were setting on him with slaps and blows, saying the whole time, “Talk!  Admit it!”

But the young man was crying without shame, letting tears flow down his face and swearing in a pleading voice that he was suffering from cancer, that he was going to die in four weeks and had nothing to hide or confess.  The patients then informed the director that the young man was not sick but had been planted by the police in order to spy on them and discover their political leanings.  Puzzled, the director left the room, only to see in the corridor two female nurses who had pinned to the wall a young doctor with a fair complexion and blond hair and were feeling him with wanton fingers. One of them said to the frowning director, “This poor fellow is a patient who hasn’t said what’s wrong with him, and we’re examining him.”

The director muttered some vague words and hurried down the corridor.  He went into the first room he chanced upon but was immediately struck by a strong and disgusting smell that came from an old man who was lying motionless in a bed, his eyes glazed in a fixed stare and his ashen face contorted by a searing and unbearable pain.  The director hurried out with frightened steps.  He did not finish his rounds and wanted to scream in reproach until his voice went hoarse.  He went into a room set aside for physicians, but found four doctors drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.  They did not stand up out of respect, nor did they seem to have taken any notice of him but kept staring avidly at the television.  He stood for a few moments in a state of speechless confusion.  Then he sat in a chair facing the television set and, with eyes wide open, he saw the most modern jet fighters dropping huge sacks full of wheat and sugar on top of ancient mud houses scattered over a barren landscape.  Every time a sack landed, it brought the roof down on its dwellers and buried them in rubble covered with mountains of wheat and sugar.  The jets hit their targets with precision, and the doctors cried out in admiration at the skill of the pilots while the director muttered “God is Great!” in a subdued and terrified voice.”


An old woman whose back was bent went into a park whose trees were bare.  She stood in front of the immense stone statue of a tall man with a stern face, his right hand raised in a gesture that inspired awe and respect, is if blessing his invisible minions kneeling there.  The old woman was filled with an overwhelming fear that made her weak in the legs.  She wanted to look daggers at the man who had killed her sons and their father, but her gaze was incapable of letting go of its usual sadness and humility.  The old woman felt as if she were shrinking.  She continued to shrink until she disappeared, and everything around her — the buildings and the people– also began to shrink, until they too disappeared.  Nothing remained but the statue, and the birds whose pleasure it was to crap upon it.


So there you are.  Don’t stop now, read on….