Meet your neighbours at Buchhandlung Pfeiffer
The fifth evening in Munich’s "We’re doing it – meet your neighbours” series took place on 6 September 2016 when Syrian poet and journalist Yamen Hussein presented a few of his texts and spoke with the Munich author Fridolin Schley about life in Syria and Germany as well as writing in times of war.
Yamen Hussein is young. His dark hair is tied back in a bun; his gaze is alert and open. The information he discloses, seriously and extensively, is punctuated with flashes of fine irony, and you can immediately picture him as writer of committed, trenchant journalism. In his hometown of Homs, he was expelled (from his maths degree!) aged 20 for writing his first critical article in 2006 and spent a few days in prison. He says these measures, designed as deterrents, were in his case “counter-productive”, as he continued writing to earn a living.
He started working for a radio station in 2011, the year of the revolution, but didn’t stay long as he found the propaganda repugnant. This made him unpopular among Assad’s Alawites. Although an Alawite himself, Yamen had to leave Homs and fled to Damascus where he worked in a secret group of opponents whose members demonstrated and rebuilt schools in the destroyed areas. Yamen also wrote texts criticising the regime. The group made him feel strong; it was “an area of freedom”. But in 2013 he appeared on the militia’s blacklist and a few friends were imprisoned. Danger came from several sides – the secret police, but also from an Islamist group – reflecting the complex relationships in Syria. Yamen hid for several weeks in the mountains and made his first attempts to flee via Lebanon and Turkey.
From Yamen’s poem Exile:
2. At the airport – Atatürk is annoyed for the third time
I will love you – tomorrow – when I’ve passed the security
check and cleared passport control, looking into the small
I go past the detector – as upright like a king, as
weightless as a gull that fearlessly snatches a morsel of
food from between even a hunter’s teeth.
I stretch my arms out like a scarecrow, like Jesus on the
cross, so that they can frisk and scan my body. Legs
spread, like a dog peeing. Let them find the ammunition I’m
hiding in my scrotum, the hand grenades between my kidneys.
I’d rather not take off my shoes, as that might make me feel so light
that I simply make a dash for it and hug all the passengers
The floor tiles were cold and shone like your face on a
morning in winter. But Atatürk scowled darkly, and sent me
In December 2014, he finally made it to Munich legally via PEN’s Writers in Exile programme. He talks positively about his new home. To familiarise himself with the city, he took long walks with his camera, often without a map or electronic tools to guide him, which meant he had to ask passers-by for directions to find his way home.
The difficulty and ambivalence of Yamen’s stay emerges repeatedly in the discussion with him, even though the Writers in Exile programme makes his current situation secure. His concentration in his daily German class is regularly interrupted by worries about the family back in Homs and the latest news from Syria. He uses mainly Skype for communication purposes, as his family was threateningly informed by the secret police that social media and telephone calls were monitored. With dark humour, he asks how on earth the security police find the time to spy on every single refugee, and he points to the “lack of relevance to security of people’s contact with each other”. He laughs as he gives examples: “My mother sends me recipes showing me the right way to make certain Syrian dishes. My father encourages me to learn German quickly.” It’s an attempt to maintain some semblance of everyday life: things that are important to us are still important in exile.
Another extract from Exile:
5. Skype session with my mother
Yesterday, she remembered that she’d once hit me because of
a bad grade in maths. She’d done it because she wanted me
to try harder in future.
She cried on Skype and asked God to break the hand she’d
once raised against me in punishment.
It ripped my heart apart.
I swore by her grey hair and her tears that I didn’t
remember and wasn’t angry.
How can I get her to understand
that I bear no scars from her
apart from my navel?
One moment Yamen says he found particularly strange was the call he received from his mother on the day of shooting spree in July 2016; he was at Marienplatz and she was in Homs worrying about his safety in Munich. The direction of concern had done a 180-degree turn, and everyone who experienced that day in Munich will find it easier to imagine what it’s like to have to live with the uncertainty – day after day and from afar – of what is happening to the people close to you.
Asked by Fridolin about the importance of writing in times of war, Yamen says it helps you to process things, and that it’s also a form of documentation. He says it isn’t possible to have a direct impact on politics through writing, but you can nonetheless see that the regime is bothered by the views in its reactions to them. He emphasises how much he values the freedom that exists in Europe to be able to express your own opinion, Charlie Hebdo included. Yamen’s texts don’t just deal with war and the wounds it leaves in the countries and people affected, however. He reads from a letter to a Syrian friend, a female. It’s melancholic but also funny. They laugh about their “snooty criticism of two refugee authors” who see German talent being in philosophy, classical music and car manufacture rather than modern visual art.
Looking at current media debates, Yamen finds it a shame that refugees are all too often lumped together. A more differentiated perception would help newcomers to process their own experiences and start afresh. On the AfD’s recent electoral successes, he says he knows only too well from his homeland how fear is used as cheap propaganda and that nothing good comes of it.
Yamen is convinced that Syria needs a revolution, presumably with help from outside, and then a new start. “Every day under Assad is another day of death,” is the way he sums up the on-going catastrophic situation there.
If his application for asylum is accepted, Yamen would like to stay in Munich once his scholarship has ended. His dream is to be able to work as a journalist here, so the current priority is to learn German. At the end of the discussion, he switches spontaneously to his new language (the questions had already given an indication of how much German he already understands) and, quoting Sophie Scholl’s final words, says: “Die Sonne scheint noch.” (The sun still shines). Here in Munich, The White Rose is a personal point of reference for Yamen in relation to people’s experiences of systems of oppression in different eras. Geschwister-Scholl-Platz has become one of his “places of hope” alongside the English Garden and the café where he drank his first coffee on arrival here. These are places where he finds new strength – when despair threatens to become overwhelming.
A few of Yamen’s poems will appear in a PEN anthology next year while Weg sein – hier sein. Texte aus Deutschland (Being away – being here. Texts from Germany), a collection of texts by 19 authors, 17 from Syria, including Yamen himself, will be published by Secession for the upcoming book fair.
I’m looking forward to more texts by Yamen, in translation and then maybe also those he has written in German himself. And I’m grateful for another evening that introduced a particular person, and his history and talents, and which treated the audience to new impressions straight from the horse’s mouth.
The Buchhandlung Pfeiffer bookshop in Hohenzollernstrasse was more than full: a few of the around 50 eager guests had to sit on the floor. Franziska Sperr from Germany’s PEN Centre, who had established contact with Yamen, was in the audience, as was Peter Tarras, who had translated a large number of the poems Yamen read out. The Tunisian Marwa Amara, who is studying Law and Political Science at the the LMU, acted as interpreter. And thanks to the hosts Dorothee Luther, Dominika Hirschler and Michaela Kube for water, wine, a fresh-air break and the friendly atmosphere.