Beyond the hackneyed Syrian refugee trope [en]
Engage with our work, not our biographies
Since 2015 there has been a surge of interest in Syrian writing in German translation. In this series of interviews, writers, poets, publishers, and artists in Berlin talk about their experience with the publishing industry in Germany and beyond. By Mari Odoy
Over the last five years, there has been a «boom» of Syrian literature translated into German that has been noted by numerous writers, translators, and publishers. While no concrete data about the scope of this boom exists, this intense interest in Syrian writers is felt across Berlin.
But what limitations have come with this interest? Ramy Al-Asheq, one of the more well-known Syrian poets in Berlin, said that demand for his work has definitely increased in the last four years, but, «The problem is that they’re not really interested in the literature or in the Arabic language, but in certain countries where there is conflict, and where there are sexy stories.» Many authors cited a pressure to relay «current events» rather than craft a work of literary merit. In Al-Asheq’s words:
People say, ‘show us how much you are suffering on the way to Europe, and how much Europe is good’ – they want to know about [the Syrian conflict] because it is something happening now, so it’s not about the literature, it’s about events. I don’t find this really progressive. Because… the problem is that a lot of authors… started writing what the Europeans expect and what they want to read.
An uncomfortable conflation
Writers describe this pressure to write about the Syrian crisis, whether through fiction, poetry, or personal narrative, as a central part of being a Syrian writer in Germany. Beyond this, conflation of the author’s lived experience as a migrant with their literary work appears to be ubiquitous within the industry. This was forcefully expressed by writer Yassin Al-Haj Saleh:
You are writing a paper, and you can hide behind your work, and your analysis; I cannot hide behind analysis. I am always there, and even when I am not there and I’m not writing about my story, and there is no ‘I’ in most of my work, still, in a way, it is ‘my story’ … I feel as if I am not read closely, or critically. I want the content of my work to be read, not the biography on the back cover.
Many scholars have noted the conflation of Arab women authors with their fictional work, where Arab women’s literary voices are seen as representative of the experiences of the group (Amireh, Booth). The same is true of stories of Syrian migrant authors and the wave of Syrian literature being published today. As Al-Haj Saleh said, «I am famous now because of what happened to me, but it is always an exaggeration.» His story is packaged to be consumable for an audience hungry for these «sexy stories of suffering».
For Al-Haj Saleh, being taken as representative of a survival narrative, without being able to extend beyond this narrative, is, in his words, «racist». A university-educated doctor and political scientist in his late fifties, he observed that while he tries to provide political analyses in his works, they are often reduced to testimonial literature, saying that «we can be witnesses, we can give our own stories, but in a way audiences are thirsty to listen to our stories as testimony, as a low level of knowledge. It is not at the level of theorising or conceptualising about phenomena.»
«The Europeans believe they are the ones who give theories, who have epistemological agency,» Al-Haj Saleh remarked, and, he says, no one questions this academic supremacy or superiority. In his words, «the Europeans say who is evil and who is good. Between a fascist with a shaggy beard and a fascist with a necktie, they prefer a fascist with a necktie. It is quite an apt definition of racism. Until now there has been no real dialogue about this.»
In terms of the current dynamics in the field, Al-Haj Saleh says that Syrian literature translated into German is mostly lower-quality testimonial literature written by «young people». After voicing his disdain for the current works being published, he added:
I don’t mean to say that all of the Syrian writers are bad, many of them are decent and really creative, but some of them, some young people and some others, produce things that have a sort of readability for circumstantial conditions in the country… I’m afraid that things that are translated into German are not very interesting. They are by young people, and…. not great works.
He went on to say that «good writers should prove that they can write good literature, even if they come from a poor country that is exotic – and there is something exotic about the idea of [Syria], that it is very violent, Muslims, Islamists, out of control.» At first, Al-Haj Saleh attributed the boom of Syrian migrant literature in translation to young Syrian writers, but he later added that the publishing industry, giving into the «Orientalist» desires of the Western reader, was the real culprit.
The fetishization of refugee stories
Other writers also commented on their inability to escape the position of the victimised Syrian subject. Yamen Hussein, a younger poet who has lived in Germany for four years, said of the topics of his poetry:
The thing that is written about the most in Arabic poetry is love… alcohol, love, all those topics. Until the links with politics and the revolution, there was not this type of eagerness for poetry of victimisation. There are many, many poets of victimisation, saying ‘I am poor, I am a refugee,’ and this is a bad thing… because you will always have this role of victim.
Khaled Barakeh noted the same phenomenon, saying that if a Syrian author writes a love story, or writes about «something random», it will still be seen as relating to the refugee crisis and will be read through an «Orientalist lens». He said these essentialist narratives not only effect what he can create, but also effect his lived experience, adding that refugee stories are «fetishized to the maximum extent» on and off the page.
Barakeh told a story of how he once went out to dinner with a few of his roommate’s friends, and what unfolded when he mentioned he was from Syria:
They had on this kind of pitying face, and then they asked ‘what’s your story,’ because of course they expect everyone to have the same story, because the media always brings up the most dramatic sad stories, and they expect everyone to have crossed the Mediterranean. So I connected all the sad stories I had ever heard and mixed them – there were many holes in the story, you know, and they were smart, but they actually started crying. This was really funny… and then I told them, sorry to disappoint you, but I just came by plane. Very boring. I just bought a ticket online, and the plane landed in Berlin.
While humorous, this anecdote exemplified what Barakeh called «the impression of colonisation» that still exists about Syria and the Arab world generally – an impression of violence, backwardness, and suffering that is perpetuated through the work Barakeh and his peers are pressured to produce, and an impression that is preserved through narrative-altering translations.
Al-Asheq also mentioned the generalisations that plague his daily life as a public figure, saying that «when some terrorist attack happens, I need to say something, I need to say I’m sorry – but why should I say sorry, I mean, it’s not my fault. But yeah, you always have this gaze that the Arabs, those are your people.»
Caroline Assad, executive manager of the non-profit organisation WIR MACHEN DAS, said that, while she isn’t an author herself, as a «non-German person, I feel like I am pushed into a certain corner, and definitely have to encounter migration debates. It’s very difficult to be completely indifferent towards it or detached from it.»
Assad said that one project – Weiter Schreiben – run by her organisation seeks to «shift the consciousness» of European readers who have these internal biases, asserting that she wants German audiences to come to readings and «expect a story about a migrant who came here through the Mediterranean, but then see an author who is actually an artist, and who is completely different than they imagined.»
Encountering the «other»: What’s the draw of Syrian literature?
Why are Western readers drawn to Syrian migration stories? I asked in the interviews why these authors thought Western readers wanted to consume their work, and reactions ranged from sympathy for the well-meaning and undereducated reader to anger about Orientalist motives. Al-Asheq expressed frustration with Western audiences’ lack of awareness of the Arab world:
There is much more ignorance about Arabic and Arab literature and Arab countries than the ignorance of us about the rest of the world… Here there is no excuse for [Europeans], because the information is there. How can you be ignorant, and how can you be participating in a huge problem and say that you don’t know?
Others, like Assad, saw the Western thirst for Syrian stories as a well-intentioned engagement with the conflict and the region, despite its harmful effects:
I think one part of it is this very well-intentioned… I think this is part of the reaction in Germany, by Germans themselves, trying to educate their fellow Germans. But as you know, there is also this fetishism of how poor and sad it is somewhere else, and that this might make us feel a bit better. But I think there’s also a genuine longing to understand, and a need to encounter this crisis and the ‘other’ in a more sincere way.
While there is a certain degree of fetishism in the consumption of Syrian stories of «suffering» today, there have, in the past, been various politically affiliated waves that shifted the direction of German literary translation, including events such as the Lebanese civil war and U.S. involvement in Iraq.
As translator Marilyn Booth wrote in «The Muslim Woman’ as Celebrity Author and the Politics of Translating Arabic: Girls of Riyadh Go on the Road», when chronicling the «saving Muslim women» translation boom in the United States, «aesthetic grounds have rarely been the basis for choosing [Arabic] texts for publication; rather, domestic political concerns and economic interests have been paramount in this particular literary marketplace.»
Currently, Yasmina Jraissati is the sole Arabic-language-focused literary agent with an agency that works to connect Arab authors with European-language translators and publishers. In her experience, interest in Syrian literature in Europe has «definitely increased» as a result of the Syrian civil war.
She primarily credits publishers, saying that various presses will come to her asking for «a big relevant Arabic book» and that, as of late, Syrian migrant narratives have felt the most «relevant». In his interview, Yamen Hussein suggested there was a time when Iraqi authors were most in-demand for translation into German:
In the end there are names always gaining attention… because they are presented well [by publishers]. Today, there is unfortunately a boom of Syrian literature – this boom came about beforehand with the experiences of the Iraqi refugees, and there were many ‘writers and poets from the Iraqi world’. And after that a sort of phenomenon began of many Iraqi writers – but now I can only remember the names of two Iraqi writers.
So where do Syrian writers in Germany go from here? Jraissati suggests that, «the life of this is going to be short, because it’s not a real literary incentive. « After a while, she said, «people will get bored, because it’s repetitive after some point for people who are not in it for literature, they’re just looking for the story – after a while they will feel that they know what [the conflict] is all about.»
Jraissati believes that this phenomenon has a good side, because it creates an opportunity for some new books to emerge, but «in the long run, it will not make Arabic literature live; so right now it’s the Syrian wave, but I’m already seeing how it’s starting to decline.» This interest in conflict «is not real interest in the region [or language]; maybe it will eventually make people interested, maybe it will open doors. But it’s not guaranteed.»