The Berlin-based writer from Syria Rasha Abbas – a fellow of the Jean Jacques Rousseau fellowship program at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2014 – was awarded a residency at the OMI Art Center Translation Lab in Ghent/New York in November, together with her British translator Alice Guthrie. There, the two worked on translating some of Abbas’ works from Arabic into English. Initially intended as a discussion of her work, our email exchange took on a different tone as, on the night of November 13, terrorist attacks in Paris were carried out. Immediately after, 31 states in the U.S.A announced in response that they would not accept Syrian refugees. – A talk about dreams, writing in times of war, and false fears.
Clara Herrmann: After having your visa first refused, it was finally granted and you can now start the residency at the OMI Art Center Translation Lab in Ghent/New York. What are your plans for this residency?
Rasha Abbas: I just arrived last night. The residency house is in the middle of the woods. This morning, I was able to explore the surroundings a little bit and talk to the other fellows, who were all tired yesterday from traveling long distances to get here. I’m now planning to do some writing over the next few days and discover the local transport plans nearby, even though I want to make full use of this isolation and avoid going back to real life before the residency ends.
»Since yesterday, all I’ve been thinking about was how this whole poisoned atmosphere is killing any passion – if indeed there is any passion left in the first place.« –Rasha Abbas
CH: What are you working on? Are there any specific topics or works you brought with you?
RA: Currently, I am working with the translator Alice Guthrie on translating the short story collection I wrote in Arabic. I wrote these stories while I was a resident at Solitude last year. Right now, we are reading the whole book again in Arabic and will then choose stories to work on separately as a next step.
CH: How are you?
RA: I felt terrible after I heard yesterday’s news from Paris. Since yesterday, all I’ve been thinking about was how this whole poisoned atmosphere is killing any passion – if indeed there is any passion left in the first place.
RA: I was able to work a little bit with Alice.
I don’t actually know how to describe the type of stories I’m writing at the moment or how to classify them. Alice once wrote in her readers’ report that they are »psychedelic,« and I liked that.
CH: In what way are they psychedelic?
RA: What I guess she meant by psychedelic is that the stories have a dream-like nature. I usually try to follow a dream’s logic to build a story. One part of this is the experience of playing with the visual material that surrounds me, and the other part is trying to reproduce reality, its aspects, its elements and relations.
CH: Each culture has a specific way of dealing with dreams, their meaning and interpretation. Does this »dreams-like« style you describe have a cultural or historical background.
RA: Of course dreams have always been present in the Arabic culture, both in religious texts and in fictional works. This will certainly leave its marks on you, even if you’re not a religious person or a keen reader of ancient literature, because the topics and ideas from both sources overlap with daily social life. Dreams appears a lot in the Quran, usually as signs given to prophets. The famous dream interpreter Mohammed Ibn Sirin wrote a book in the eighth century which functions as a sort of lexicon for interpreting dreams. The Arabic practice of searching for messages in dreams is based on different elements. Sometimes they are related to the similarity between different words, for example seeing a jasmine flower in a dream can be explained as despair – something you’re either presently experiencing or will experience in the future – because the word for jasmine in Arabic is yasmine and for despair is ya’as. Sometimes the interpretation is related to events and even conflicts which have happened in the past. An elephant in a dream, for example, is a sign of a foreign king, which means you will be honored by a foreign power, unless it’s attacking you, in which case it could signify a danger coming from outside. In Arabic history, elephants were always used by foreign enemies in warfare, like the Ethiopians in the sixth century and the Persians in the seventh. As a person who believes in a collective subconscious, I think old symbols like these can still find their way into the complicated processing of dreams today, along with other elements from our lives and suppressed thoughts and fears. That’s why I find dreams an astonishingly rich source for images and stories that can be used in fictional writing, even in their interrupted sequence and logic.
»As a person who believes in a collective subconscious, I think old symbols like these can still find their way into the complicated processing of dreams today, along with other elements from our lives and suppressed thoughts and fears.«–Rasha Abbas
CH: Can you describe one of those stories?
RA: One of the stories we worked on has the title Rain Factory. It takes place in an imaginary town, where a teenage girl is sent as a punishment by her parents after she was caught stealing. Her mother chooses the town because it is where her family comes from, and she thinks her daughter should go there because she isn’t thankful for what she has, so she should go back to her origins. In the town, the daughter takes part in a traditional religious ceremony that is held during times of drought to bring the rain.
CH: How does this work relate to your writing in general? There seems to have been a break in your work and style of writing since 2011, when the war in Syria broke out.
RA: From 2011 until now, I have rarely written directly about what’s happening in Syria. Firstly, because I think documenting and direct forced message can easily spoil a literary text; the situation surrounding a text will appear in the background. In the language itself, there’s no need to say everything. But the main reason is that I think that we can’t compete in writing with what is happening right now as a reality. That’s the main reason I choose this dreams-like style to deal with what I want to write in a story.
CH: What was your work as author and journalist like before 2011?
When I look at that time now, it seems so weird, as if it happened in another life. As a writer, I was sort of in a phase of numbness. The horizons around me were so limited. But against that, I think I had an destructive inner power which was very much alive in me and is reflected in the first book of short stories I wrote in 2009. I can feel that strongly when I compare the first book to the stories I wrote after 2011, when everything around me changed: the huge hopes of ending the epoch of tyranny in Syria in the golden era of 2011, then the beginning of the frustration when matters turned out badly, and then fleeing the country, first to Lebanon then to Germany. The paradox here is that when life around me was so normal and even limited and boring, I had more vitality in what I wrote; the texts were sharper and more intense. But when I went through these huge changes and lived close to a situation of war, I was exposed to more open spaces. I felt the rhythm of the texts start to become calmer and more delicate. In terms of working in journalism, it was a profession that I honestly never did with any special passion before 2011. It was more like a job, a way of making a living. I even saw it as a joke mostly. My relation to it improved after 2011, the year of these big hopes and aspirations. But after that it was on and off, and even now I’m not sure whether it’s the thing I would like to do the most.
»When I look at that time now, it seems so weird, as if it happened in another life. As a writer, I was sort of in a phase of numbness. The horizons around me were so limited. But against that, I think I had an destructive inner power which was very much alive in me…« –Rasha Abbas
CH: How did you meet your translator? How do you work together?
RA: I met Alice when she was working on the book Syria Speaks. Art and Culture from the Frontline, in 2014. I contributed a piece to the book called A Plate of Salmon not Completely Cleansed of Blood. The work I’m doing now is different than my usual writing routine because it’s based on reviewing the translations with Alice. However, it has helped me greatly in putting the final touches to the Arabic original version. During translation, I might become more aware of some parts of the book that can be changed or edited again.
Alice usually reads the story in Arabic and asks a few questions about it. Then she makes a first draft in English which lets her be more specific about questions concerning the words and sentences she is not sure of, for example the sense and tone, or the language a certain character uses. In this way, she can make sure that the final draft is the best English equivalent of the original text in Arabic.
CH: When do you think the first English translation will be available? What will happen after the residency? Do you have any upcoming projects?
RA: The translation will hopefully be ready by spring 2016. I have another project in progress with Mikrotext Publishing in Germany. I’m almost finished with another book, Die Erfindung der Deutschen Grammatik, translated by Sandra Hetzel. It contains humorous texts about my life as a newcomer to Germany, who is trying to find a place in this new home and learn the language …
CH: Can you give a short impression of these experiences of living in Germany as a newcomer which you wrote about?
RA: The language part was the hardest, or maybe the only hard part. Most of the text is about this struggle with the language, especially since I started with the idea »I can learn German from the school of life,« for example through websites, talking to people, and listening to the radio. That turned out to be an illusion in the end. I finally surrendered and registered in a real school. I have reached the dative case so far. I hope I can soon partake in a dialog in German without reverting to sign language, as I have been doing up until this point.
CH: I just read To go in or stay out again, the talk on military intervention in Syria between you and the Libyan journalist Salah Zater, which was published by the German newspaper Die Zeit in a special issue on the refugee movement. You also worked as a journalist in Syria before 2011 as well as after, when you were living in Lebanon for two years. What are your experiences of journalism in Western society?
RA: It was a little participation in the special issue of Die Zeit with an ironic comment about learning German under the title Babylonisch high and in an interview about the foreign interventions in Syria. How journalists work here is so different, and it was a chance for me to experience this closely. I was impressed by the way Die Zeit covered what’s happening in Syria. It’s so accurate and fair, far from the usual mainstream point of view, which I have seen a lot in the West. I was really happy I collaborated with them.
»Either intentionally or unintentionally, we connect with people who are similar to us. The hard work is trying to reach the other people, those who could write a comment online under such news demanding a wall be built at the borders, or those who would be freaked out if a person with Middle Eastern features sat next to them on the metro.« –Rasha Abbas
CH: In terms of your experiences as an artist-in-residence in Germany and the USA, would you agree that artist residencies play a role in foreign affairs and help build bridges between different cultures with regards to living, thinking, and working together?
RA: I agree partially with that: It’s true that those residencies can be a good bridge between different cultures, but I think the effect can still be limited in terms of political content or foreign affairs. The reason is that when we are invited to art residencies, we come primarily to meet people who are like ourselves. Most of the key people in the international culture organization share similar values concerning humanity and culture, and welcoming the »other.« So we are dealing with people who are on our side from the very beginning. But this also means that we have changed nothing. The hardest mission is trying to enter the more closed circles, where there’s resistance to accepting and communicating with others around the world.
While I was on a visit to the U.S.A, the attack in Paris happened. After that, 31 states in the U.S.A announced they wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees. Did I feel this hostility to foreigners while I was visiting? Of course not. All I experienced was people welcoming me warmly. A native American woman I didn’t even know sent me and my friend a small present just because she knew my story, that I’m a Syrian woman who was hardly able to get an American visa after it was refused the first time. She said she wanted to welcome me to the U.S.A with this gift.
A very good friend I made here sent me a very touching e-mail to make me feel better after the attacks in Paris were broadcast. Either intentionally or unintentionally, we connect with people who are similar to us. The hard work is trying to reach the other people, those who could write a comment online under such news demanding a wall be built at the borders, or those who would be freaked out if a person with Middle Eastern features sat next to them on the metro. Of course, it goes both ways; I don’t believe in blaming others. We, for our part, should also review ourselves and locate the elements of our own culture which might cause concern, especially for example issues connected to religion, the factors which can generate hate speech, violence, and extremism.
On Nov 23 Rasha Abbas traveled back to Berlin/Germany.