Writing after escape

What moves displaced authors in exile and how might a literary analysis of one’s own history look like in the new cultural home? These questions were explored at the event Weg sein – hier sein (To be away – to be here) at the Haus für Poesie (Poetry House) in Berlin.

von Tanja Dückers

Aref Hamza, Galal Alahmadi, Kenan Khadaj, Widad Nabi and Claudia Kramatschek. Photo: gezett.de
Aref Hamza, Galal Alahmadi, Kenan Khadaj, Widad Nabi and Claudia Kramatschek. Photo: gezett.de

Galal Alahmadi, Aref Hamza, Kenan Khadaj and Widad Nabi have one thing in common: they all fled to Germany. They come from Syria and Yemen and now live in Berlin, Cologne or Buchholz in der Nordheide. And they write – poems, prose and journalistic texts. In their home countries, they attracted a great deal of attention before war and terror forced them to escape not only their geographical homeland but also their cultural home.

On 17 January 2017, the Haus für Poesie in Berlin invited the four authors to a bilingual reading (Arabic/German). The room was so full that additional wooden chairs were needed at the front. The well-known Berlin literary critic and cultural journalist Claudia Kramatschek who is heavily interested in extra-European literature hosted the event.

Widad Nabi, a Kurd born in Kobanî in 1985, began the evening with a furious and very personal text about loneliness, proximity and distance in new encounters in Germany. All the readings were relayed in two languages and Nabi’s feisty, enthusiastic reading of Küss mich kurz vor dreißig (Kiss me shortly before thirty) in Arabic seemed to increase the temperature in the packed Haus für Poesie even further. Many of Nabi’s Arabic-language poems have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including in French and English translations. Her volume of poetry Zeit für Liebe, Zeit für Krieg (Time for Love, Time for War) was published in Aleppo four years ago. She also looks at the war in her new book Syrien und die Sinnlosigkeit des Todes (Syria and the Futility of Death), which is due to be published in Beirut in 2017. Nabi lives in Berlin.

The next recital came from the journalist and short-story author Kenan Khadaj from Swalda, Syria. He too had showed great stage presence. It was silent in the room as he read his allusive short story about a teacher’s hate for his pupils. Khadaj, who is 27 years old, has a long migration history behind him. The increasingly unstable political situation in the country forced him to abandon his economics degree in Damascus. He got involved in various help projects for war-damaged children. He fled in 2014, reaching Germany via Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.

Kenan Khadaj at his reading. Photo: gezett.de
Kenan Khadaj at his reading. Photo: gezett.de

Rather than dealing with the traumatised Syrian population or the trauma of being in a foreign place, the physical longing for a loving opposite, Galal Alahmadi’s poems portray universal paradoxes of human existence in condensed miniatures. Themes such as remembering oneself ten years ago (Auf dem Markt für alte Bücher / On the Old Books Market) or waiting for a person at the train station when all possible painful events – associated with the fear of maybe never meeting the person you’re waiting for – bolt through the brain:

“I think I was here once before,

in another country


as raindrops

or a train.”

29-year-old Galal Alahmadi has an amazing feeling for unusual but nonetheless harmonious images and will hopefully attract great interest as a poet in Germany.

Aref Hamza’s performance seemed to be the highlight of the evening, at least for the Arabic-speaking members of the audience. His departure from the stage was met with numerous calls of “Bravo”. The Syrian, the only one in the group aged over 40, studied law at the university in Aleppo before the war and has already published numerous volumes of poetry in Arabic. Many of them have been translated, including into Spanish, French, English and German. He won numerous awards in his home country, including the prestigious Mohammed Al Maghout Prize for Poetry. The titles of volumes he has published so far make it clear that his poems don’t beat about the bush euphemistically when it comes to describing experiences in his home country: Das Leben aus Sicht eines Scharfschützen (Life form the Perspective of a Sniper) or Amputierte Füße (Amputated Feet) leave nothing to the imagination. He would like to see dignified interaction with newcomers in their new homeland. He doesn’t want to be – and wouldn’t like to be ­– degraded to a beggar, as he puts it in the poetry volume Ich möchte nicht gerettet werden (I don’t want to be saved). In the long poem Wie der Tropf an ihrer Hand (Like the Drip in your Hand) that he recited at the Haus für Poesie, he speaks from the I-perspective about his experience of flight, violence and arriving in the new homeland. His language is implicitly poetic, the images brief, powerful aphorisms: “I will not return to my country as a Syrian citizen / if the war stops / Nor as a Kurd or Arab / I will return as a refugee.”

In ironic comparisons full of profound humanity, he amuses himself with the self-reference of some Germans he has come to know: “I am lonely. I no longer have a country. My neighbour has become lonely. She know longer has a dog.”

Between the readings, Claudia Kramatschek talks to the authors delicately about arriving in Germany, about being foreign and looking back on their own countries, about their respective literary goals and about native languages as an abstract homeland.

Director of the Haus für Poesie Thomas Wohlfarth closed the proceedings by stressing his hope for more reading events. It is also intended to continue the Versschmuggel project, in which many of the authors were involved. Initiated by the Haus für Poesie, Versschmuggel sees authors engage in mutual translations of their work, supported by interpreters. Authors don’t necessary need to be able to speak the other’s language. They meet with an interpreter and in discussion with each other attempt to understand, word for word, what the other author intended to express. This is how I was able to translate poetry by Galal Alahmadi into German, with the help of an interpreter, and in doing so learn that Arabic has seven different words for ‘sky’. Thomas Wohlfarth’s wish for more such events also ties in with the publication last autumn of the anthology Weg sein – hier sein. Texte aus Deutschland (2016, Secession Verlag). The anthology includes 19 texts from displaced writers. It is a high-quality hardcover publication with photos of all the authors. Definitely recommended reading!

beitrag3_weg_sein_anthologie_buchWeg sein – hier sein. An anthology of writing from Germany, by Rasha Abbas, Ayham Majid Agha, Pegah Ahmadi, Galal Al Alahmadi, Ramy Al-Asheq, Assaf, Alassaf, Mohammad Al Attar, Lina Atfah, Daher Ayta, Khwala M Dunia, Aref Hamza, Yamen Hussein, Noor Kanj, Kenan Khadaj, Amer Matar, Widad Nabi, Nihad Siris, Raed Wahesh, Rosa Yassin Hassan, published by Secession Verlag in October 2016. With a foreword by Sherko Fatah and 19 portrait photos by Mathias Bothor.

Translation of text and poem: Katy Derbyshire

You can find more information about the reading at Haus für Poesie Berlin here.