Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, intellectual, and former political prisoner currently living in Berlin. He primarily writes analyses of Syrian society and politics, and his book The Impossible Revolution was published in English in 2017. This interview is part of a series on Syrian writers living in Berlin.
By Mari Odoy
Have you noticed an increase in Syrian writers in Berlin in recent years? And have you noticed an increase in community here in recent years?
Yassin al-Haj Saleh: Yes, I have. Syria has been in the news for many years, and with that has come a big interest in Syrian writers. But now that Syria is no longer in the news in the same way, I feel there is more of an opportunity for Syrian literature as opposed to just stories of personal experience. I don’t mean to say that the Syrian writers who first got published are bad; many of them are decent and really creative, but some of the younger people produced things for readability and circumstantial interest in Germany. Now that this interest is waning, writers from Syria have the chance to prove that they can write good literature, even though they came from a country that is in the news.
But yes, Syrian stories about migration are definitely read now more in German and in English. However, I’m afraid that what is being translated into German isn’t always very interesting. It’s survival literature, and it’s written by people who may be talented but it is not yet of good quality. I would like to see more things translated that are not about politics; everything now is about politics, not wider things like philosophy, religion studies, culture, and sociology.
Why do you think European readers like to read Syrian stories?
YS: I think it is related to the political situation and to the Arab Spring. However, I’m not sure if these readers are aware that there is something quite different about the situation in Syria, that it’s a bit more long-term and frightening. The European readership is interested in hearing about survival, and less interested in our answers to the big questions that should be asked about the Syrian conflict. This is because of their academic supremacy and superiority; the Europeans think they are the ones who can give theories and the ones who monopolize epistemological agency.
We, as Syrians, are allowed to be “witnesses”: we can give testimony, we can tell our own stories, but it is always at a low level of knowledge, below the level of theorizing or conceptualizing about phenomena. In my work, I try to challenge that. But even when we are not presenting testimony, denied agency is still there. I’m always asked about the Islamists and so on. Many people here prefer we have a fascist with neckties rather than fascists with shaggy beards. Things move on superficial levels of appearances and symbols. Ethical agency is equally denied. In many ways, Europe sets the agenda for who is evil and who is good for us, which always happens to be what is good and evil for them. I think this denial of agency is a good definition for racism. And until now, there hasn’t been any real dialogue about this.
In terms of labels, do you feel a pressure to identify with the term “refugee” or “migrant” so readers are more attracted to your work?
YS: Without a doubt. The variation in terminology is interesting. In Germany, I feel like I am “in exile.” From my perspective, there is a time limit on being a refugee. One is a refugee in the first few months or years of one’s displacement, but one is no longer a refugee after, say, five years. He or she is now in “exile.” It is also a matter of distance. Those in the camps in Greece or Turkey, or in Lebanon and Jordan, they are refugees. They just sought refuge in the first safe place, closer to their homes. But when you come to Germany, or Sweden, or the Netherlands, you are truly exiled because you are far away and not planning to return soon.
Do you feel restricted in the content you produce, as a Syrian writer in exile?
YS: No, I usually don’t feel restricted. When I get to write about what I want to in Arabic, I am passionate and desperate. However, some of my work is available now for international readers, mostly in English, but some also in German and French. But all my articles and my analysis pieces are written in Arabic first, and they are my most passionate work.
Do you have a target audience in mind when you write?
YS: Many people complain that my style is difficult, but I do not do that on purpose. However, there is one good thing about “difficult” style: it makes identification harder. Of course I want to be read by many, but more than that, I want to be read better. Still, I am known now for the wrong reason: for what happened to me rather than for what I say. You, for example, are writing a paper and can hide behind your work and your analysis; but because of what happened to my loved ones and friends, which is one big and recurrent theme in my work, I cannot always hide behind analysis. And even when I am not there, and I’m not writing about my story, and there is no “I” in most of my work, still it refers in an indirect way to “my story.” I feel as if I am not read closely, or critically. I want the content of my work to be read, not the biography on the back cover.
What is the community of Syrian writers like in Berlin? Do you feel it is cohesive?
YS: Not quite. The interesting thing about Germany is that there isn’t one central city, like Paris in France. In Germany, there is active cultural life in Cologne, Hamburg, Munich, and Berlin; and this applies to us Syrians, in a way. Besides, even before we are in Germany, we Syrians have a history of division behind us, from before the revolution. So we cannot talk about the cohesive “Syrians” or a community. Refugees and exiles are seldom formed in cohesive communities. Many of us live in isolation, on our own small islands, writing stories or poetry about our experiences.
What would you like to see change?
YS: We don’t have an Arabic publishing house here, or a real bookstore, or an institution to organize ourselves. There have been some ideas of building a Syrian cultural center, but we would need funds and a space; the vision is there, but I’m not sure if we can do it. It is also vital to have a real bookstore with books from the Arab world; there is an Arabic library here in Berlin, but they don’t sell books, and their books are not very new. It’s very important for us to have a space for lectures and exhibitions, and perhaps a cafe or something. This will really build community, really strengthen Syrian culture in the city. It is good for Berlin as well.
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.