Rasha Abbas, the ‘King of Cups,’ and How Literature Lags Behind Music

Genre-crashing Syrian writer Rasha Abbas — who currently makes her home in Berlin — is one of those writers who it’s hard to believe doesn’t yet have a book translated into English:

Abbas just completed a one month residency at The British Library as part of Shubbak Festival 2017, and has a new Arabic collection coming soon. Many stories in German translation also appeared in Die Erfindung der deutschen Grammatik (“The Invention of German Grammar”) in March 2016.In an interview with the Goethe Institut, Abbas said: “The readers I primarily had in mind when writing the book were people living in Germany: Germans and Arabs alike. But a lot of stuff in my stories will be pretty mystifying to people in the Arab world who don’t know Germany. Which is why I’ve reworked the Arabic version for publication by the Lebanese chapter of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Besides, when addressing Arab readers, you can make very different kinds of jokes using expressions or images that are well known in the Arab world.”

Also, on crushing/crashing genre: “Literature lags behind music and the arts when it comes to using new technologies as a medium and not just as subject-matter. Only in literature have we been using the same media for centuries now. We need more radical experiments, digital books just don’t go far enough. Like “wikinovels”, for instance, structured along the lines of Wikipedia entries, or “SMS novels”. Literature becomes far more vibrant when it sets out to invade new media.”

It was 2008 when Abbas published her first short story collection, Adam Hates the Television, which was awarded a prize for young writers during the Damascus Capital of Arab Culture festival. In 2014 she contributed, both as a writer and as a translator, to Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, and she has since participated in a number of residencies and festivals, including a Jean-Jacques Rousseau Fellowship.

This story originally ran on the Shubbak Festival blog and appears here with permission, in celebration of Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth).

King of Cups

By Rasha Abbas

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

I shuffle the deck of tarot cards and deal three of them onto the table.

The first one has a drawing of the Nine of Cups, reversed. Not reassuring. The second has a drawing of the Three of Cups, reversed. Not the best card either. The third is the King of Cups. They say the King of Cups excels at concealing his feelings. I find it difficult to explain to people why I’m as interested in studying these cards as I am in the timeline for the novel I’m working on. It’s set in the United Arab Republic period.

There are lots of Arab shops on the next street over. I wait for my food at a Lebanese pastry shop.
“We’re not here to fight about politics, we want to see your cheery face and eat your good food,” a customer says to the shop owner.

I go back to the boat I’m living on while in London, and scroll through an album of images I’ve collected, examining faces of people from that era, with a cold heart and no judgment. I just want to touch the missing storylines of a relative of mine who lived through that period. I try to guess, staring into a photograph of one of his contemporaries, who was a killer and who was an ally.

Soon a photo will appear emerge of one of the men responsible for the reign of terror in the country. Typical, classic features of a military killer from the fifties. That smile, those frightening good looks.

I try to take a break from the theoretical part of my research on Arab identity and the history of nationalist ideology. In a little garden, two women are sitting on either end of a semicircle bench. I invite myself to sit between them. I listen to part of their conversation.

“Of course not. Plenty of people think I’m Arab cause of how I look. And because I’ve got an Arab name. I work at an NGO.”

“Sorry, I don’t know what NGO means.”

“Sorry, of course, a non-profit governmental organization… they work, they work in development… usually in countries in Africa or the Middle East.”

More from Abbas:


    1. Indeed!

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