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Breaking knees, taboos, and the borders of language

  • By Elisabeth Jaquette
  • 5th February 2016
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On 8 February 2016, Syrian author Zakaria Tamer launched a collection of very short stories here at Free Word Centre. Ahead of his visit, Elisabeth Jaquette, a translator from the Arabic, discussed a selection of contemporary fiction from the Middle East. In the article below, she explores how it interacts with the culture and customs of the region through folklore, landscape, politics and society.

“It seems to me that the short story resembles a knife,” said Zakaria Tamer last autumn, “which a bad writer uses to peel potatoes, whereas a good writer uses it to kill a tiger.”

If short stories are like knives, then Tamer’s possess the slenderest of blades: they are sharp, concise, and deftly find their adversaries among traditional society, politics, and gender relations. Tamer is a prolific author whose work spans short stories, satirical essays, and children’s books. Yet he is best known as a master of the qissa qasira jiddan – the very short story – and for his profound influence on the genre.

The very short story has a long history in Arabic literature. It combines elements of fable, poetry, and allegory, often blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined, life and death. As Tamer’s translator, Ibrahim Musawi, writes in his introduction to Breaking Knees, these stories evoke “the animistic and mythological world of the folktale… where everything has a voice and can speak, where time is indeterminate, and space has flexible boundaries.”

In Breaking Knees, animals speak to people, the dead interact with the living, human beings turn into walls, and lovers follow each other into one another’s dreams. Perspective moves fluidly from one character to another, and from character to inanimate object: in one story, at the moment a man becomes a murderer, the narration shifts from his thoughts to those of the knife in his hand. Reversal of gender roles is a common theme, and the numerous ribald scenes often foreground women’s desires and sexuality. Many stories take place in the bedroom, a natural stage for sex, dreams, and sometimes even death. There, the action switches between dreams and waking life, which can often be stranger than the dreams.

Tamer’s stories have a strong fable like quality to them, where the plot twist at the end serves as an unspoken political, social, or gender-related moral. Yet they are also a clever inversion of the fable: here, the moral satirizes society’s norms and preconceptions instead of upholding them.

Readers seeking more of the genre are in luck. A few other collections of very short Arabic stories have been translated into English in recent years, including Fullblood Arabian by Osama Alomar, and Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani. Like Tamer, Alomar is a Syrian author living in exile, whose writing also features shifting perspectives and a political edge. Among the shortest stories in Fullblood Arabian, translated by C.J. Collins, is ‘Tongue Tie’:

Before leaving for work I tied my tongue into a great tie. My colleagues congratulated me on my elegance. They praised me to our boss, who expressed admiration and ordered all employees to follow my example!

Hisham Bustani’s stories in Perception of Meaning are even more abstract and surreal, characterized by what the Jordanian author described in correspondence as “a departure from the oppressive linear approach to events, characters, time, and space.” In their succinctness, his stories seem condensed around their twists. They lie somewhere on a drifting border between short prose and poetry, an element Thoraya El-Rayyes’s evocative translation recreates beautifully:

Behold the flowers sprawled out over the fields:
white, red, yellow, lavender.
How naïve,
they do not know the concrete is coming.

Readers interested in the mythical aspects of Tamer’s stories might turn to Ibrahim al-Koni’s novels. Al-Koni, who was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize last year, is a Libyan author and native Tamasheq speaker who learned to read and write Arabic when he was twelve. The Sahara desert, where he spent his childhood, features strongly in his work. In Gold Dust, elegantly translated by Elliott Colla, a man and his beloved prize camel flee through a desert filled with prophecies, dreams, and the dimension-crossing appearances of ghosts and jinn.

Arabic literature has a notable tradition and skill in challenging social and political realities, and two contemporary dystopian novels do so particularly well. The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss, is a funny, sexy, maddening novel about Syrian bureaucracy and regime control. Contained within 24 hours and driven by strong narration, it follows a censored writer rebutting dictatorship with irony and his own disengagement from the political circus. The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, in my translation, strikes at authoritarianism with political allegory and satire. The protagonist was injured in a failed uprising, and is forced to wade through endless bureaucracy to seek treatment. Meanwhile, his doctor struggles with the choice between following protocol or risking his career to save the man’s life.

Translation uncovers surprising pleasures at times, and among them are unexpected resonances. Sirees and Abdel Aziz’s contemporary novels have much in common with older dystopian literature in English, and Tamer’s short stories share a great deal with contemporary microfiction. In addition to interplay between genres in one language – the very short story’s blend of prose and poetry, for example – translation enables further cross-pollination, across both form and language.

Must read: 5 books of contemporary Arabic fiction

Gold Dust by Ibrahim al-Koni

Fullblood Arabian by Osama Alomar

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees


Elisabeth Jaquette is a translator from the Arabic. Her work has been published in The Book of Gaza (Comma Press, 2014), Life from Elsewhere (Pushkin Press, 2015), the Guardian and Asymptote, among other places. She is also the Arabic reading group chair for publisher And Other Stories, and a judge for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize. Her translation of Basma Abdel Aziz’s debut novel The Queue, which received a PEN Translates Award, is forthcoming with Melville House in 2016.

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