Ramy Al-Asheq: We Need ‘A Place We Can Represent Ourselves’

Ramy Al-Asheq is a Syrian-Palestinian poet, journalist, and curator who is based in Berlin. He has published five poetry collections in Arabic, and his texts have been widely translated and published internationally. Before arriving in Germany in 2014, he lived in Syria and Jordan. This interview is part of a series on Syrian writers living in Berlin:

By Mari Odoy

Ramy Al-Asheq

Ramy Al-Asheq: I have many poems translated in anthologies, and I have a full book in Polish, in German, and three in English.

What has the translation process been like, in terms of the relationship with your translators? I know translating poetry is always an interesting process.

RA: It’s always hard. Luckily, I speak a little bit of English and can communicate with the translator. My translator is really amazing — I haven’t even met him [in person] yet, we only communicate through email, but we make a first draft together, then I comment and he comments back. I do the same with German translations, but not with Polish translation because I don’t know the language, so I just trust the translator and how he translates it.

I was doing some reading online about your work with Monika Rinck, a translator who doesn’t speak Arabic, but listens to the sounds of your work in Arabic. Do you think that’s an effective way to translate poetry?

RA: It is. Of course. It is just a more stylistic and artistic approach. The translator of my German book also doesn’t speak a single word of Arabic. She translated based on a translation into English, and also a rough draft into German, and then I helped her make it stylistic in Arabic, and I tell her when it’s referring to the Quran or whatever. It worked well.

Do you have a different audience in mind when you are writing in Arabic versus crafting a translation?

RA: Basically, I trust the suggestions of the translator. I trust when there is something they’ll need to adapt for it to make sense to the reader, and I did the same type of thing when I translated some of Monika Rinck into Arabic. I mean, there is a lot of stuff that if you just translate it literally you lose a lot, but when you try to adapt it then you earn something. This is Monika Rinck’s whole argument when she wrote about what we find in translation, and not what we lose.

Do you think there is an increase in European and German interest in reading Syrian stories right now?

RA: Yeah. It’s totally existent, it’s totally increasing. But the problem is that they are not really interested in the literature, in the Arabic language, but in certain countries where there is conflict, or where there are sexy stories. Like, show us how much you are suffering on the way to Europe, and how good Europe is, and yeah — they want to read that, 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 this interest will go, afterward. It won’t stay for a long time. And the problem is that a lot of authors follow this way of writing, and they started writing what the Europeans expect and what they want to read. Which is something I really don’t like.

 Do you think you write what Europeans want to read?

RA: Not at all. And I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to think about it. But sometimes when I write a text, especially to a European audience, this is in my mind. When I write something especially for a newspaper, or for a project that’s only published in German, then I consider that. But normally I write to my audience, to my first people who read Arabic. This is a very rare thing, it’s only for specific projects; but I have to address certain audiences.

Talk a bit more about the reception of your work.

RA: My book, I mean, I was surprised — last month I was traveling and reading in different cities all the time, and even my German friends who are authors who were published at the same time were surprised at how much I have been reading. I’m a bit active now. But still, I cannot judge if it’s just because of the interest, because I’m an Arabic-language author who’s published something in German, or because it’s good — I have no idea. I don’t think it’s good, but I think it’s something interesting. That doesn’t mean that the literature I’m writing is really good, I think it’s bad. I really hate it, when I publish it here I really hate it. I only feel happy when I’m in the process of writing. When I publish it I start hating it.

What is your experience being a writer in exile in Jordan versus in Germany?

 RA: I never thought of that, I never thought of comparing the two places. Because my first book was published in Jordan, and so for me Amman is the hometown for my poetry. And Amman has a lot of publishing houses, a lot of publishing houses for Arabic literature. My main publisher is still in Amman. And it was a bit strange for me there — I was illegal in Amman, so that means I couldn’t be in public a lot. But I was really following the cultural movement of poetry and political literature in Amman. I missed it in Damascus, and I’m not talking about the quality, I’m talking about how often there are readings. Almost every day there is something. I got to know a lot of authors. In Amman, there are a lot of Jordanian ones, and also Palestinians. 

But it’s totally different here. There, no one can live from his own literature or art, so they do something else and when they are free they make literature, they produce. Here, I don’t do anything else, I don’t work in a restaurant. Basically, I work as an author — and this is very special, to work at something you are really into. Of course, the language there is more comfortable because everyone is communicating with my language, and I can show my work to many more people there than here; here, I always need assistance from a translator or I need to be onstage speaking a third language. This is very difficult. But the scene here is much better.

Have you felt pressure to explicitly change anything in the translations of your poetry?

RA: With my publication, not at all. Especially here in Europe, and in the Arab world I never felt it that much. Well, perhaps once — I wrote prose between Auschwitz and Berlin. And this was a problematic text because of the topic. Because I am a Palestinian-Syrian, it’s always sensitive. And so for political reasons the Germans were really afraid to publish it. The text wasn’t critical at all, I made it very literary, and I just was talking about a victim in Auschwitz, drawing a parallel between how all the Jews were tattooed, and how the Syrian victims they killed under torture they had their numbers. So I just made a connection, I gave the same number to two victims. It’s not about comparing, it’s not about who’s more victimized, it’s just about how they are both victims and they are both the same number. But this was a big problem, and I was really offended when they told me I was not allowed to write about that. The most interesting thing is that it got refused by the Germans and by the Arabs . . . Seriously. The Arabs, the Syrian editor-in-chief, he told me, “Why are you writing about the Holocaust, you should write only about the real Holocaust,” referring to the Nakba. This is very — I don’t know, it’s like a competition of who is more victimized. And the Germans, they said “No you are not allowed, you are not Jewish so you cannot write about that,” even though there are a lot of non-Jewish authors who have written about the Holocaust. But the interesting thing is that there is a British Jewish director who put it onstage in a theatre. It was amazing. In three languages: German, Arabic and English. Yeah. And now it’s been translated into Polish, so I’m going to read it in Poland also, because it’s connected to the place.

Tell me more about being a Syrian writer in Berlin, what that means to you.

RA: I mean, you cannot really say that, “This is the experience of being Syrian,” but in my experience I really find it difficult, like I need to explain myself all the time. And I need to always give an opinion, for instance, 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. I feel sorry for the victims, but not because I’m guilty.

But yeah, you always have this gaze that the Arabs, those are your people. This is not an all-the-time thing; I mean, there is a normal life, and there are a lot of friendly people here. But the system is not helping, the system is making these kinds of discrimination bigger. In the cultural scene, this attitude is less frequent, because artists are open-minded, but you’ll find it in the street, and that’s something that’s not easy to live with. I’ve started hating this place; really, I’ve felt like there’s no hope for change. As an immigrant you always need help, and you are always “less” than the other people.

Also, there is much more ignorance about Arabic and Arab literature, and Arab countries, than the ignorance of us about the rest of the world. We have dictators, we have a stupid education system, but here there is no excuse for them, 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 anything about it? It’s the same problem of all the Germans who say that they don’t know what is happening. They had no idea what was happening during the Nazi time. And here it is the same, they invest in weapons companies. It’s a big problem, really, and I don’t think I will stay here for a long time. I have nowhere else to go, that’s the problem. I am stateless. I have no passport. I have no nationality. I am not Syrian, I am not Palestinian. So there is nowhere to go now. I’m waiting.

I’m curious, is there a place that you think has a better community?

RA: I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Of course the Arab world is not the place, totally. But sometimes, I don’t know, the stuff you know is better than the stuff you don’t know. There is stuff there that I know how to deal with, I understand it. There is stuff here that is totally new, and you need to create your own mechanisms to start fighting it.

I think that there are more than 150 Arab authors in Germany right now, but the problem is that they don’t work together. We have a lot of conflicts. Yeah, unfortunately, you find groups, but you don’t find everyone. Also because we are recently exiled, and because we are recently defeated societies, so this is kind of a defense mechanism, I can’t understand it. But I hope that someday there will somehow be a league or a union of writers in Berlin.

I’m also interviewing Khaled Barakeh of the Syrian Cultural Index for this project. Do you think that the SCI will be something that connects this community?

RA: I’m still interested. But then we need a place we could meet, a place we could discuss stuff, a place we can represent ourselves. It shouldn’t be people scattered here and there, and if someone succeeds then we feel defeated. But when we are all a united body, we can grow together.

Even with all the difficulties of this place, I write more now. I mean I published one book in Jordan, and now I have five books altogether. So in four years here in Germany, I have five books. In three years in Jordan I only had one book. It’s not inspiration — I feel safe, in a way, because I’m not here illegally. I feel physically safe so I can write more. I feel free more in comparison to Arab countries — there is freedom of speech, somehow. You need to remove some topics, but otherwise you can say whatever you want. And I don’t only feel like I need to write about Syria. It’s a big part of me, but I also do other things.

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 Yassin al-Haj Saleh: ‘We, As Syrians, Are Allowed to be ‘Witnesses’

Yasmina Jraissati: ‘For Now, It’s the Syrian Wave’

Khaled Barakeh: ‘I Want Us, the Whole Community, To Own It’

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.