Caroline Assad: ‘We’re Hoping to Achieve a Shift to a Wider Conciousness’

Caroline Assad is the executive manager at WIR MACHEN DAS, a non-profit organization that hosts the Weiter Schreiben/Writing On project, in which authors from conflict zones living in Berlin are partnered with German authors to continue to write, workshop, and publish their work. They work with writers from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. This interview is part of a series on the production of Syrian writers living in Berlin.

By Mari Odoy

Photo of the WIR MACHEN DAS team. Caroline is in the red shirt in the middle. Photo credited to Juliette Moarbes.

Can you tell us a bit about WIR MACHEN DAS and Writing On? 

Caroline Assad: The organization WIR MACHEN DAS was founded in 2015 by a group of 100 women in the arts and cultural scene. I personally came to the organization one year ago, in June 2018, and am the executive manager of the organization. We have many different projects, and the literature project “Writing On” is one of them. 

The idea of the literature project came from Annika Reich and Dr. Ines Kappert, the founders of the project, they were in contact with a lot of Arab writers and poets. When they came to Berlin, she asked them how she could help, and they said that the most important thing was to continue their profession. This is why “Writing On” is the name of the project — we give these writers a platform to get published and to be read. We have a group of German and Arab author tandems: each Arab author or poet is partnered with a German one, and they both collaborate together and create texts together. They translate back and forth. And, through this collaboration, it is a lot easier for many to gain entry into the German literature scene and get book contracts.

One of the first levels of impact is that, hopefully, authors get to continue writing here and to get good contracts and continue their profession. We want them to write about whatever they want to write about, and not feel pressure to write about their experience with conflict. This is one of the things that was very difficult to fight against, and is still very difficult to fight against. Because a lot of people come to the literature [of Syrian writers] through the lens of events, and they’re expecting to hear a certain story. Even on panels, a lot of moderators ask these kinds of questions like, “How did you come here?”, which they would never ask a German author. So I think this is one of the biggest challenges: that audiences and certain agencies or book contracts are expecting a certain narrative. But I mean, a lot of the authors that we work with are really successful now on their own. Ramy al-Asheq for example — he totally managed to shift the game and create his own space and decide what he wants to write about. So yes, this first level of impact, of preserving the livelihood of writers, is easier to achieve. 

The other level of impact that we were hoping to achieve is to affect the German awareness about the topic of migration. A lot of Arab authors know a lot about English literature and German literature, but that’s not the case the other way around. Many people here don’t know anything about Arabic literature. So our idea is that if we translate more and more Arabic works, this idea of the “other” will get deconstructed by literature and different texts. In our events with writers, we’re always hoping that people come and see something that they didn’t expect. Oftentimes, they come expecting a story about a migrant who came here through the Mediterranean, but then they see an author who is completely different than they imagined. So we’re hoping to achieve a shift in this wider consciousness — but this, of course, is a much harder goal, and is a lot harder to assess in terms of impact measurement. But this is one of the most important goals of the organization itself.

What are typical topics the authors write about, and do you think they feel a pressure to have their writing rooted in the migration experience?

CA: I’m not an author myself, so it’s hard to tell. I mean, as a young professional in Germany, it’s also very much the case that as a non-German person, I feel like I am also pushed into a certain corner, and have to be framed by these migration debates and stereotypes. You can try to take it and own it and then make something different out of it, or just ignore it — but it’s very difficult to be completely indifferent or unattached to it.

From what I see on our platform, there are all sorts of topics. I hope that, when working with Writing On, the writers do not feel pressure at all to write about these things. It’s definitely rare in this space that anyone writes directly about their experience with migration.

What is the publication experience generally like for the authors?

CA: Well there’s a very rigid editing procedure here in Germany, which is very different from writing and publishing in the Arab world. This idea of an editor who changes your text is not something that we have in many Arab countries, so a lot of our authors definitely have difficulties with accepting this idea of their text being changed. We have an amazing Arabic-speaking curator [Dima Albitar-Kalaji]; she’s a native Arabic speaker and was an editor for journalists in Syria. And she’s aware of this cultural gap. In terms of publications, as of this year [2019] about five of our authors have book contracts. But I think the momentum is really starting now. 

What is the translation process like?

CA: There are definitely many success stories, and others that didn’t work out that well. We now have a number of translators who are really trustworthy and we’ve selected them as our main translators. Some are native German speakers and others are native Arabic speakers. By now, I think each author that we work with has a favorite translator. The authors and translators have a very close relationship, and they talk about the texts; they negotiate word choice and things like that. That’s the ideal scenario, and I think we achieve that in most cases. And then we have a German curator who works on the texts again after they’ve been translated. This whole process does take a lot of time, communicating between all these different people — but it’s really important to take the time for these things, because otherwise the authors won’t feel respected.

What types of texts are usually most appealing to publishers or audiences?

CA: I think that some of the authors really understand the German market, and they know how to play it a lot better than some others. I hate to say this, but an observation I’ve had is that some of the older authors have a harder time arriving here and carrying on this profession. In Germany, literature is very much a business, and not everyone understands this idea of literature being so capitalist. Especially in Syria, literature is regarded as an art, you can make a living as a poet and be successful. Here, most German poets that we know and work with are really prominent — but unless you’re like 50 years old and have been writing poetry all your life, and are so appreciated that you’re invited to the president’s house or something like that, chances are you have another job besides writing poetry to earn money. And this isn’t something that all the older writers understand about living in this city. To remedy this, we have workshops where we invite different speakers from agencies and from editing and publishing houses, and German authors will talk about their experience of how difficult it is, even if you’re a German, to write and get published and make a living. But yes, I definitely think some of the younger authors are very successful in the way they present themselves to German audiences and publishing houses. 

What are the trends across gender in this program, in terms of how many men and women? Do you notice any gendered content being more prominently featured in the work of women?

CA: First of all, this is a feminist organization. It was founded by women, and it is always our aim to support female writers; if we can support a woman then we’re going to do that, because men have it so much easier here. I mean, even with all the shared aspects of not speaking the native language of this country and being Arab, within this group we see in our project that it’s kind of hard not to have the men dominate. Even though we’re an explicitly feminist organization, and we are trying our best to support the women and be empowering towards women as much as we can, we still see that the men have a much easier job being regarded highly by audiences and publishing houses. But there are definitely a couple of women who fully understand the game and are doing an amazing job and are just so self-confident. And we definitely have a very progressive group of authors; I don’t think any of our authors have discriminatory ideas about women.

Is there pressure on the women writers to present their narratives in a certain way, or be translated a certain way, to align with the idea of a “liberated” Arab woman in the west?

CA: There is to some extent, and there are ways this is pushed that are so subtle that you barely even notice it. For example, there’s this Afghani author that we’re working with, and she has this amazing story of having gone to an underground school in Afghanistan, and I definitely see her constantly being asked this question of how it is to be here, and of course there’s always this expectation that she feels so liberated being here in Germany. But from what I can see, it isn’t the case that they’re pressured to present this idea in the books or texts they’re writing, at least with us. 

 Why do you think Europeans are so interested in reading Syrian literature right now?

CA: It definitely has something to do with the so-called “Refugee Crisis.” I don’t like this term — I think this phrase is problematic, because in Europe it was really more of a bureaucracy crisis of the European Union than anything else, but this is the term that got stuck in the mainstream media and is how most people understand the situation. But this newfound interest is really complicated. I think one part of it is 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.

From your perspective, how is the community of Syrian creatives in Berlin? Do you think the community of Syrian writers is unified and works together, or is more isolated from each other?

CA: I think there is a very solid community, and there is definitely a community of Syrian intellectuals living in Berlin who are very active. However, and it’s the same in Egyptian circle that I’m in, I feel like right now the main thing many people are involved in is their own individual professional careers and just trying to survive. I suppose the survival struggle for academics, authors, poets, managers, or whatever, is not as bad as if you came here without an education or don’t understand any German or English, but there is still this high-pressure life when you’re a Syrian writer. I think that a lot more could be possible if we were not constantly so involved in needing to prove ourselves, and our abilities and value, to German society.

Of course, there is a lot of resistance to this idea of full integration with German culture, but at the end of the day a lot of us are trying very hard to be accepted by German society, and if that’s not integration I don’t know what is. And integration is definitely understood as a one-way path, with us needing to do the work. So it’s very difficult to build a real, stable community. In terms of diasporic activities of connecting with other authors and intellectuals in our countries, there isn’t much work done here; everyone is just so involved in bridging to the new culture. But I would hope that at some point, as things get more settled here, we can work to put more energy into this, and bridge the other way around.

What is your perspective on the fact that this Arabic literature is being created in a physical space outside of the Arab world, that so much Arabic writing is now being done in exile?

CA: It’s really interesting because a lot of the books that Arab authors are publishing here are actually being published in German first. And this is really weird for a lot of the authors, because they write these books in Arabic, but they’re only available to German audiences. I think that is a huge loss for Arabic literature. There’s so much brain drain from the Arabic speaking region, especially now.

But Arabic-speaking academics, authors, and intellectuals have such a long history of writing in exile, take Edward Said for example. In the ideal case, at some point one would be able to re-establish connections to their own region of origin, and translate their work back into Arabic. But for now, in Berlin, it seems too early for this. 

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Mari Odoy is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department researching modern diasporic Syrian literature in translation.