Fady Jomar is a Syrian poet, songwriter, and journalist. He wrote a libretto for “Kalila wa Dimna,” which was performed at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and he has written lyrics for many Arabic songs. He published his first collection of poetry in June 2019. This interview is part of a series on Syrian writers living in Berlin:
By Mari Odoy
When did you start writing, and can you tell me about your experience as a writer in Berlin?
Fady Jomar: It’s not my decision to write; I have written everywhere I’ve been. I keep writing in every city I live in, everywhere I’ve been since I’ve left Syria I’ve written. It’s my world. So I didn’t make a conscious choice to keep writing in Berlin — it’s just the way I am.
In fact, Berlin actually pushes me away from writing in some ways; it doesn’t encourage me in any way to write. I have to do other work to survive. There’s this idea that, if you are a writer, then you’re not actually working. Many of us thought it would be different here from in Syria, but it’s the same as a writer everywhere. Of course, I’m speaking only about writing literature — if you’re talking about the press or writing articles that’s it’s own whole industry, has its own politics and financial games. So I always prefer to find another way to earn my money, far away from writing.
Even when I wrote plays, at least I was free to write whatever I wanted. I don’t want to say as a fact that it’s impossible to make a living as a writer, but for me, I don’t want to be forced to write certain things for income, to say something that I don’t want to. So I choose another style of work alongside my writing.
In fact, I’m sorry to say it, but Berlin gives me nothing. I made a great effort to move to Berlin, but because of German law I had to find work, so now I work as a cook. When I moved to Berlin, I thought that once I arrived, there would be open doors, that I could write, that I could find new work — but no, I work in kitchen after kitchen. The most important thing that I’ve done was in France. I wrote an opera, and the second one was produced this year  after me working on it for twelve months. And my next project is also in France. So, for now, it looks like I should cook in Berlin and eat in Paris!
How did you find the connections to produce your opera in France? Was that from living in Berlin?
FJ: No, it wasn’t from Berlin at all. The institute in France chose a musician from the Arab world who they had known for many years to compose it, and they asked him to choose a writer. I had worked for him many years before, so he chose me. And, the next year, after they saw the work, they decided to ask me to write again.
I asked about the connection because I’ve been talking a lot with others about the networks here in Berlin.
FJ: For me, there are a few important points about what Berlin gives you. First of all, the way people deal with you, or the way they deal with what you produce, dealing with it through the lens of your situation, is horrible. Being a refugee, or being Syrian, or being black, or being a criminal — in my opinion, all of this has nothing to do with the text you produce. The text is something independent; you should read it and decide if it’s good or not, and if it deserves to be published or not. But they deal with things a different way here in Germany. This idea that, “Oh, let’s make a book of refugee writers,” it makes me sick, it really does.
That’s why I like what’s happening in France: They chose me, I wrote a play, and that was that. Sure, they were looking for an Arab writer because they wanted an Arabian-feeling play, but it was just about the language. It had nothing to do with my Syrian nationality. The team was from six or seven Arab countries, and we also had French people and Turkish musicians, but it all depended on the skills we had. Here, people think they have bigger chances in Berlin. We are writing, we are publishing, we are dreaming — but they give us 200 Euro for the reading, and that’s horrible money. It would be a disaster after a while, just being a writer with this amount of money. And when this wave of caring about “refugees” stops, it will be an even bigger problem. Then, these Syrian writers will find themselves without work, without people interested in them, and doing nothing with no career left. I hope I will survive when this interest ends.
Can you talk more about this “wave” of interest?
FJ: It’s a disaster. The problem is also that most of the events and readings don’t depend on the real values of writing and of good texts. They publish a lot of garbage, seriously. And I don’t like that, because that makes it look like Syrians don’t know how to write, and that’s not true at all. A lot of the translators also have tight control of everything. That’s the biggest problem — it’s not even about them changing things in translation, it’s that they depend on relationships and friendships with writers they know fit their narratives, and it has nothing to do with whether they’ve written a good text. It’s really a disaster. I get angry when I talk about it.
So you’re currently publishing a collection of poems [as of July 2019]. What has your process been writing and publishing the collection? Have you felt pressure to present a certain image of yourself?
FJ: First of all, I refuse to talk about being a refugee at all. I absolutely refuse. And if there is any question of this — even if we are in public, not just in my writing — if someone asks me about the journey to Europe, I say directly, “It’s your government that prefers people to die in the sea.” I never feel like I have to be polite.
Sometimes, there is this kind of pressure and I can’t control it; sometimes, you find your name and your text listed somewhere. But also, to be honest, living here makes me feel careless. I know this collection is nothing, it’s not going to help me. I’m losing the feeling I used to have about writing — in Syria, I would never write something if I didn’t believe in it. But here, things are going differently. I’m not sure if writing is interesting to me in the right way anymore — it’s exhausting.
Tell me a bit more about your work.
FJ: I write poetry in the Syrian dialect. In every big city, especially in Damascus, where people came to the capital from all sides of the country, you find a new accent, a mixing of all the people of Syria. This is what I use in my writing. In Beirut, Cairo, Amman, you have the same type of phenomenon, it represents the language of the whole country. There’s no one else doing this that I know of.
I’m not talking about writing in the accent exactly, but about writing poetry and plays in this accent. I like the field of theatre because it doesn’t depend on refugees’ struggles; you can work with musicians from everywhere and singers from all around the world. It’s a much better field for me, it makes me feel stronger and more comfortable, and like I am seen for my skills and not the labels attached to me. There is also more hope for a continued career.
With musical theater and opera, people are also used to reading subtitles — so it is not unusual for them, even though the language of the play is Syrian Arabic. Italian isn’t a common language, and people are okay with reading subtitles. So writing this kind of work in Arabic, it’s less special or interesting because it’s Arabic, you’re just part of this traditional format without it feeling political. That makes me a lot more comfortable than the special treatment I would get writing other types of literature.
What is your opinion of the community of Syrian cultural producers in Berlin? Do you feel like it’s united and communicative, or more isolated?
FJ: Even in Syria, I wasn’t very involved in this community. Of course, when I was in Syria I was a lot younger. My uncle happened to be one of the older famous writers there, so I had the chance to connect with a lot of famous writers and sit with them, but I never enjoyed it. Because I’m working as a cook, I’m fairly disconnected from those groups. I have very sharp political views; people don’t like me and I know that. I say what I think, directly, and a lot of people don’t like me saying certain things in public.
The Syrian community is also very disconnected. I’ll put it this way — if a Lebanese writer published something, or made a movie, or whatever, you would find every Lebanese person in that field supporting that person and writing to support their work. But in the Syrian community, it doesn’t happen like this.
Do you feel like you’re creating “Syrian” literature in the diaspora, or an entirely different type of cultural product?
FJ: How can you decide if my work is Syrian, or German, or Swedish, or Egyptian, or anything? Is it according to the language? If I, as a Syrian, wrote something against the army, would that still be Syrian literature? It’s all very complicated. I think you should judge the idea, not the language.
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.