Syrian-German novelist Rafik Schami discusses liberty, storytelling, language and exile.

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I’ll start with something large: freedom. Sophia, your latest novel, seems to have forms of freedom – personal, national, religious, political – at its centre. How do these forms of liberty interact?

Sophia is a novel about freedom and its oppression under a dictatorship. It’s less about abstract debate than about the fate of people: freedom shapes people and empowers them to perform higher tasks; their oppression deforms them and reduces their goals to bare survival. But freedom is indivisible. One cannot be politically free if one is religiously or nationally unfree. One can pretend or imagine that one is free in an unfree society because of one’s wealth, but one is, ultimately, a slave of the oppressors. One can lose all rights and wealth, and find oneself, the next day, in prison.

These interactions are realised through formal, generic ones. Sophia is, at bottom, thrilling, novelistic storytelling: it’s driven by plot, epic forms, and it’s readily readable and consumable. But it’s also deeply ideological (or, perhaps, ideocritical). You write about heavy things via lightness, and I want to ask how the parts of your self – the political thinker and the storyteller – combine in the act of writing?

With this question, you touch upon a very important decision I have made for my writing. Many literary critics will wake up only in the next century, and understand that it is possible to tell complicated stories with lightness and to avoid boredom and moral preaching, even when the content or subject matter is heavy. My hope is completely fulfilled knowing that my readers love my books. Of course, as a political person, I fight for dignity, freedom, democracy and the preservation of nature, and against racism. And I believe that the more committed you are, the more exciting your writing will be. 

What good will it do me if my readers throw down the book after three pages? But your question goes even deeper. I have always to put my humanitarian views aside in the development of the characters to ensure they remain credible and believable. This the case in Sophia: Salman is a complicated person, and at times appears as a swindler engaged in fraud. And that’s how he should appear. You can’t write a good novel with all the characters being angels.

Readers of this conversation are receiving it in English. What’s your relationship to language – to German and Arabic? It strikes me as significant that you write in German, but that you founded Swallow Editions, a press that brings new Arabic voices to anglophone readers.

I have a strong love affair with language. As a child, I spoke Aramaic with my parents, Arabic on the street and at school, and French in the Lebanese monastery (it was my father’s dream that I become a priest). Later, English was added (unfortunately taught by an unqualified teacher). So German became my fifth language. Arab publishers rejected my novels, so I decided to learn literary German and make it my language. It took me years to master it.

My aim with Swallow Editions is to introduce the work of young, talented Arab novelists to the English-speaking world. Because the novels published under Swallow Editions are translated into English, they can reach a much wider audience. But I am also happy that all the novels are published in German language, too.

Translation’s virtue rests in its ability to share contexts and narratives across national and linguistic borders – to foster understanding and exchange. But I want also to discuss the risk that carries. Political and military exchanges and interventions between Western Europe and the Middle East have been accompanied by certain (often problematic) narratives. Does literary exchange carry risks of imperialism and homogenisation? If so, how do we avoid them?

Translation is a great – but underrecognised – art. The translation must reinvent the story, make it understandable to readers of another culture, without causing any loss of original substance. Unlike military intervention, which always destroys something, translation is an attempt to build a very delicate, sensible bridge. But, as soon as the translation puts the host country’s own national interests above the original language of a work, the bridge collapses. The damage remains small because it concerns only this one translation of the novel. If the original novel is a piece of art with enduring value, it will be discovered and translated correctly.

For twenty years, I have rejected all offers from Arab publishers to publish my work, because they always want to make changes and censor my work. In my experience, if the translator censors or changes a work, they become a henchman of the dictatorship. However, after a long search, I found my current publisher, Manshourat al-Jamal of Camel Publications, who does not censor a word I write.

In other interviews with you which I’ve read, the conversation has turned quickly from the literary to the strictly political. I’m aware that’s what I’ve just done, but I want to ask how you find that tendency – to talk to you as a writer, first, but hastily to ask you instead, as a Syrian in Germany, about the situation in Syria?

Thank you for your very sensitive wording. I sometimes find it frustrating that some journalists come to their own conclusions or statements without having done their homework. Instead of taking their own stand against the dictatorship, they expect it from me. That is the reason why I reject many interviews. And this is also the reason why I only conduct interviews via email, which I can check very carefully. I often send the questions back unanswered. I have written a lot about, and have been very vocal against, dictatorship, but making myself a source of information for journalists who are unwilling to take the time to do proper research is a disposession of my literary work.

And so, finally, to submit fully to that tendency, I want to ask about exile and return. I think of Salah Al-Hamdani, who also left the Arabic world for political imperatives in the 1970s, settled in Western Europe (France), and wrote about the country of his birth in the language of his adopted home. He frequently discusses his one return to Iraq, to see his family. This is something you’ve not been able yet to do. In 2011, you said that, should the Assad regime fall, you would ‘go back, but as a visitor’. How has this hope for return shifted in the last eight years?

My answer remains the same: if I returned to the places of my childhood, I would only do so to see them again and share them with my wife and son. But after eight years of tragic war, the hope for a peaceful development has faded away. Sophia describes the impossibility of return. I have sewn all the experiences of my friends in exile, all my feelings, desires and fears, dreams and nightmares into the novel, and sent Salman on the journey that I always wanted and feared.

With this novel, I return to Damascus. I don’t return physically, but with my longing. That’s what I’ve been doing for forty years.

Rafik Schami was born in Damascus in 1946, came to Germany in 1971 to study, and stayed on to become a leading German novelist and a pivotal figure in the European migrant literature movement. His novels have been translated into over 40 languages and have received numerous international literary awards, including the Hermann Hesse Prize. His translated works published by Interlink include Damascus Nights, The Calligrapher’s Secret, A Hand Full of Stars, and The Dark Side of Love, which was a 2010 Winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

Photo credit: Arne Wesenberg

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