Yamen Hussein: ‘You Will Always Have This Role of the Victim’

Yamen Hussein is a Syrian poet and journalist who has been living in Germany since 2014. His volume of poetry, 3429 km: Scars Except the Navel, consisting of verse he wrote in Damascus, Beirut, Istanbul and Munich, was recently published in German and is currently being translated into English. This interview is part of a series on Syrian writers living in Berlin:

By Mari Odoy

What languages have your poems been translated into?

Yamen Hussein: I write only in Arabic, but my books of poetry have been translated into German, and they’re in anthologies in French, English, Czech, and Spanish.

How have your translation experiences been?

YH: It’s been different depending on the translator; each has a different process to get to a translated text. In general, I’ll talk with the translator about a few specific symbolic details, or whenever a word has multiple meanings and should be translated in a specific way, but otherwise they have a vision.

When did you first start writing poetry?

YH: I was a journalist in high school, so I wrote a bit then. When I was a child, I wrote lots of short stories, and then I went to college and studied math. I wrote stories about adolescence and my life in college, but they were just for me personally. I came to writing poetry through two doors: first, the door of mathematics, because I really enjoy the formulaic nature of poetry. I also came through the door of journalism, thinking about the “who, what, where” of different experiences in my life. For me, poetry is very important to the development of self.

Do you think there’s a large demand for Syrian writers and Syrian stories in Europe right now?

YH: Writings by refugee writers are definitely demanded. Sometimes there is solidarity between us as writers to resist this label, but sometimes these demands are met by organizations whose job it is to help refugees. There is actually a group of poets who refused to go to events and readings under the category of “refugee” because literature is universal, and are totally against the classification of “refugee poetry” or “Syrian poetry.” Thomas Mann was a refugee, but we don’t remember him as a “German writer” or a “refugee writer.” The classification is problematic. Unfortunately, when you are under these organizations, there is not much space for criticism of this label. We need to be more unified when making these critiques. 

In the end, there are individual names that gain attention, not because of the revolution and not because they are poor or refugees, but because they are presented well. Today, there is unfortunately a bubble of interest in Syrian writers, and this bubble came about beforehand with the experiences of the Iraqi refugees, and there were many “writers and poets from the Iraqi world.” And after that a sort of phenomenon began — but now I can only remember the names of two Iraqi writers.

What is the community of Syrian cultural creators like here in Berlin?

YH: There are multiple groups where writers exist together. I prefer to stay away from many of them. In Syria, there were not many successful unions or political groups, and assembling in groups of more than two people was a threat to security. Because of this, after the revolution I don’t enjoy finding groups of authors that much, because whenever you’re in a group representing “Syrian writers,” there are always bound to be these deep personal differences. In terms of the quality, there are many good Syrian writers, but there are many differences and competing personalities.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you write?

YH: This question is very difficult. I don’t know if I write for a general reader, or for an Arab reader specifically. I don’t know, I don’t have an intended audience. Frankly, I write to myself.

The thing that is written about the most in Arabic poetry is love — alcohol, love, all those topics. Until the links with the changes and the revolution, there was not this type of eagerness for poetry of victimization. Now, there are many, many poets of victimization, saying “I am poor, I am a refugee,” and this is a bad thing, because you will always have this role of victim.

What topics do you primarily write about?

YH: I write about all sorts of things, but often I write about cities. Old cities, new cities, my city of Munich that I’ve lived in for three years. I write about the river there. I write about Paris, Berlin, and I write also about personal experiences, and memories with my family. It’s been many years since I’ve seen my family. My mother is always present in my poetry. I don’t know — freedom, death. All these things.

How was your experience with different organizations in Berlin aiming to work with Syrian writers, like the PEN project?

YH: This experience was truly amazing, because they didn’t work with me as a person who was poor or who was a refugee — no, they treated me and my writing with respect. As a political refugee, I have no choice in the matter, I didn’t choose to be a refugee. But in this organization, there were writers from all over the world, including German writers. I loved writing as equals. Unfortunately though, some other organizations have a big role with the problem of labeling writers as “refugee.”

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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’

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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.