Bacchus and Bombs

“How to conceive what is outside a text?”
– Jaques Derrida, Différance (in: Margins of Philosophy)

“[N]one of us is completely free from the struggle over geography.”
– Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

“Beirut sometimes looks like what you’d get if you put Paris, Miami and Baghdad into a blender and pressed PUREE.”
– Michael J. Totten, Can Beirut Be Paris Again?

Prologue – The Kurdish Cookie

The Kurdish cookies on Azad’s living room table, and the fact that I did not taste them, although I wanted to, all of this represents my attitude towards my own Kurdishness. Also, I asked myself how Azad deals with his Kurdishness, especially since his people(!) has been persecuted and betrayed by the Kurds. Surely, if history is governed by war, the wretched of the earth will not join in and sing the International. Of course, it was nothing but cookies on a table, however those were the kind of cookies, my mother always claimed, “only the Kurds know how to bake.” So, were the Yezidis actually Kurds? And why should this question mean anything? I could describe the effect this short pastry has on me in much detail, the effect of this pastry that is stuffed with dates and walnuts and has a surface shiny from egg yolk and covered in sesame seeds. The very personal vantage point from which I view these faintly yellow and constantly crumbly cookies would have to include and classify the feelings and memories they entail – marginalisation in Syria, isolation in Germany, and the longing to speak the language. It would be necessary for me to describe all the small instances, in which I had to make a decision – in which I had to go for one identity or another, and then I would have to go further still and delve into the deepest recesses of a relationship between mother, father, and daughter. I just couldn’t eat them, as this would have meant facing up to the conflict – a conflict expressed by my clumsy way of eating them, of spilling crumbs all over Azad’s carpet, of forgetting what I came to ask him, or of being unable to say it out loud. I would have covered my mouth with my hands and smiled sheepishly, and Azad would have responded with a smile. I passed on it. It was just too tiring – as it is tiresome to go far afield in order to build cultural bridges between Syrians and Kurds and Kurds and Yezidis, and that against the background of the present, uncertain situation, and finally, as I write in German, having to explain it all to a German audience.

Phase one – A halfway point

Thus I began my descent into the city, the city with yellow arms and a grey veil that only a blue sky may lift. I went down and past its conveyances that are as manifold as humankind itself. The high-rises make way for a slope. A Range Rover passes. A wedding shop appears. After this a bureau de change, Western Union – knight in shining armour. This is followed by a medley of fashion boutiques, bars, sushi bars, some specialist shops selling curtains, picture frames, and dummies, then another bar, a burger bar. A cross street breaks up the façades. The electricity building sits on eight struts. It is ten storeys high. Window upon window upon air conditioner upon window. I wonder what is more likely – a second civil war or the end of all power cuts? While I ponder this, a little girl comes running up to me, her arms wide open. I try to avoid her. A shop for office furniture exudes the odour of religion – incense, incense, incense, so much of it that all whose noses do not believe in the Trinity are well advised to steer clear of this shop. My nose is itching. A new bar has opened. I pass a wide range of faces, white, P.o.C.[1], and black, eyes round and almond-shaped, black hair and hair dyed blonde, headscarves and beards and belly tops out for a jog. 

This city, its houses built by Syrian traders and covered in graffiti stating “Go away, Syrian traitors”; this city with its taxi drivers complaining, “the railway company employs 155 people.” The railway has ceased operations in 1975; the rails start somewhere in Mar Mikhail, yet, after only a few metres, they end – and they only recommence near the border with Israel. Yes, the railway company still has 155 employees. In case of an emergency – like, if we’re stuck in a traffic jam. Laughter is haunting Beirut. It is the laughter of those who pocket the money while laughing all the way to the bank. I mention this to Ahmad. Ahmad responds by saying, well, at least they have something to laugh about. He is the second-born of a family from Zahle, near the border with Syria, where, every time it rains, they imagine the thunder is the sound of bombs raining down. A car cuts us off while we’re discussing religion. Only now, he tells me, has he grasped what being Shiite means for him and what Hizbollah is all about. Also, that Nagib Mahfus has hit the point with his parable about the world’s religions. We talk as if we couldn’t understand one another but, as a matter of fact, we do agree, and the urgency is beginning to fade from the way we express ourselves, as does the surprise to meet someone who is not in disagreement.

We come to a major intersection at the lower end of Gemmayzeh Street. To our left is the ocean. It’s just there with a few yachts moored in the harbour. Below our feet is the decumanus maximus, and to our right is Martyrs' Square. At its centre is a statue, a memorial for the uprising against the Ottomans, which was erected during the French colonial period. At the end of the square is the radiantly blue dome of the Al-Amin Mosque. Its shiny yellow stone gives weight to the claim that it’s been here for 200 years, while, actually, it is barely eight years old. It is a replica financed by Rafic Hariri, whose mausoleum is right next to it. Every piece of this square is contested, which is why most of it is unpaved. It is framed by parking lots and construction cranes. It is in a constant state of becoming. We are traversing history, and we do so at a rapid pace. For 30 years this square represented the boundary between East and West. Today, the downtown area shines in new splendour, shines in tones of Ottoman yellow. One stone at a time the Solidere construction company has renovated this space, in order that Saudi tourists may spend untroubled holidays here. We pass the parliament building. The entrance is blocked off by barbed wire, and armed soldiers function as watchdogs, the watchdogs function as warning signs. Ahmad explains why: In 2014 there was an attack on the minister of justice – or was it the minister of finance? – he can’t remember which. On the other side of the street we walk past the former souq, with dresses, jewellery, and chocolates on display. I <3 Beirut in human-size letters, an attraction for selfie-takers.

I have to keep up with my acquaintance – we do have an appointment. Now the monotonous Ottoman yellow is replaced by another construction site. The following intersection could be somewhere in New York – or in any other modern city with skyscrapers made of glass. Ahmad points to a steel skeleton, no windows, just holes. Over this, he says, they fought for two years. No hostages were taken and everyone left the battlefield a winner. It was The Battle of the Hotels with a bank vault as jackpot – a side conflict within the bigger conflict. Now, the plan is to build a Civil War Museum somewhere around here.

Ahmad says, “you’ll like my professor.” We turn a corner, walk up a slope, and continue until we get to Bliss Street. Here, one fast food restaurant rubs shoulders with the next and, now and then, with one of the few that still aren’t part of a franchise. On the other side of the street is a wall with a very inconspicuous entrance area. Through a small, symmetrical building, flanked by towers and with a curvy, ornamental gate we enter the campus of the American University. Flags are flying, celebrating its 150-year anniversary. The surprising amount of green and the wide descending stairs emphasise the difference between the outside – the chaos – and the inside. The flags display the motto, “We make history.” Ahmad’s professor, a philosopher, greets us with a “Welcome to my garden.”

We introduce ourselves: I, an intern with a German NGO, born in Syria, grew up in Germany, and arrived here a week ago. “Oh yes, I’ve been there myself, as a young student. I used to live on Mondscheingasse.” He leads us past the library and to the Oval Garden, a verdant lawn ringed by buildings – Ottoman chic, French colonial, as well as neofuturist design by the recently deceased Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. From one side, her building resembles an elongated, old-style computer screen, from the other a police whistle. Of course there is also a Rafic Hariri Building. Half an hour later we’ve walked past the sports fields and many trees; we have drawn our battle lines. “That won’t do. Once I’ve walked past here with a colleague, and, rather bewildered, he asks me why there are so many students out on the lawn, and whether that signifies that they have finished reading all the books in library. – You pay and you receive your exam. The people are lazy, sloppy, allow despots to rule over them, and they never think for themselves. They can’t even park their cars properly.” I reply: “Europeans aren’t great parkers either.” – “Oh, so you believe in Edward Said. Not that he’s wrong, they do construct an image of us but, as the saying goes, the relation between cliché and reality resembles that between the Lebanese and confessionalism. No-one wants to be responsible; the system, however, stays in place, ya adamiyyeh.” He thinks I’m a do-gooder, naïve and misty-eyed, and he, to me, is a typical Arab intellectual, a know-all infatuated with Europe. I leave Ahmad with the professor and take a service.

Inside of it is an older woman, and she is observing me. “Aren’t you afraid, a Syrian woman, to run around like this at night?” – “I always hope for the best.” – “Where are you from?” – “I’m, well, from Aleppo, but I’ve been living in Germany for the last 15 years.” The woman shakes her head. Her silk headscarf reflects the light of the streetlamps. “Westernised,” I hear her say before she exits. “Don’t let yourself be bothered. Some women, they are funny. They seem to think, that if they’re forbidden to do certain things, then the same applies – and even more so – to others. Sometimes they are stricter than we men.” The service driver is shaking his head. “For how long have you been in Lebanon?” – “One week.” – “What do you think?” he laughs. We drive past a petrol station and head for the city motorway. The yellow streetlights vie with concrete dystopias elsewhere. The walls of the countless tunnels are clad with grey particulates. The tunnels perforate the city, and the infinite number of ramps may easily be seen as a metaphor for the many parallel societies. And then I see it. The first shot-up house; it is covered in countless bullet holes. Pockmarked, freckled, a cliché unto itself. On one side a street artist has left his mark. Small red animals or monsters perch on top of the holes, or they use them as steps, as mouths, ears, or eyes. “Pretty little critters, right? But look at the other side.” A giant angular oval on concrete stilts. Some parts are blackened, in other places the concrete has crumbled and the rusty-red steel struts spring up like bleeding palm trees. The building is half whale, half submarine. “This is the egg. Used to be a cinema. No one dares to pull it down; no one wants to refurbish it. Next to it is the United Nations. For years, their witnesses in the Hariri case have been dying off.” This, of course, is a glass building. At the electricity building he lets me out. “You take care!” I take a closer look at the building. In one of the windows I notice a whole stack of dossiers. They are dusty, as if no one had entered this office in a very long time. The dossiers remind me of my last trip to Syria – of when we applied for our passports. The people were pushing and shoving towards the officials who were seated at their desks like schoolboys. Towards them they held out important documents or they waved them in front of their faces, depending on their approach. Whenever the official selected someone, their information went into one such dossier.

I walk down Armenia Street. Next to a kiosk is a small table with jewellery, rings and bracelets intertwined into a chaotic collection of individual pieces. Earrings and chains are dangling from the wall, all in dull gold. I pick up a chain. Its pendant is a circle fused with a triangle, the texture rough and uneven. “Sch'ad?” I ask the dealer. “Say that again.” – “How much?” – “Where are you from?” – “From Aleppo.” – “Really? Please say more. It’s been such a long time since I’ve heard a voice from Aleppo.” – “Sch'ad haqo hada toq?” He laughs. “For you it’s only 10,000 lira,” and he gives me a hug. “Please, keep on talking.” – “About what?” – “Where are your parents? What do they do?” – “My father is Kurdish and from al-Hasakeh, and my mother is Arabian and from Aleppo. They live in Germany.” – “God will recompense the Kurds for supporting the right side. We had everything. It is so hard to keep quiet these days.” I cock my head. “Well, today a human being without rights is not a human being, yet he can make a living. What are we today? Less than numbers.” I want to argue with him but realise that this would be futile. My words would lack rhetorical conviction. I say goodbye and walk on, just walk on. I turn left and in front of me appear one of those very long flights of stairs this district is famous for. While I ascend the stairs, 94 colourful steps, a community effort to brighten up the neighbourhood, I realise, half way up, that my speech is canned speech. My mothers’ vocabulary is my vocabulary is a mutation.

Phase two – Nude Descending a Staircase No.2

Slowly, the water is heating up. Small bubbles ascend, then condense before they reach the surface. An implosion, a collapse, audible only as a subdued swishing sound. Gradually tiny bubbles of vapour appear. More and more of them enter the square, as if they had been waiting for the right sign. They hold up pieces of cardboard and they have flags wrapped around their necks. Some carry children on their shoulders that supervise what’s going on. Someone chants: “Al-Sha3b | yourid | isqat al-nizam.” Someone else shouts: “Woahid, woahid, woahid, al sha3b as-suri woahid.” – “Suria bida …,” and some respond by shouting “…hurriyyeh.” I stand by the side and try to shape words: Syria wants freedom. One. One. One. The Syrian people are one. The people demand the overthrow of the system. The words, when I say them, begin to lose their shadows; in translation they become slack, their power to rouse dissipates. Someone makes a speech. I only understand half of it. In the background are the statues of Martyrs’ Square. A female bronze statue holds up a torch. Next to her is a man disfigured by bullets and missing an arm. Below rests another one, his arms stretched out towards the woman or the torch. More and more people gather in the square. The microphone is passed around, and a new person intones a song: “Yallah ir7al ya Bashar!” The crowd reaches boiling point. They form a circle. In the middle a flag is unfurled. The people surround it, everyone grabs a piece of the cloth, and together they start moving it. The hands move up and the hands move down. The flag is undulating. The formation has changed. The podium has disappeared. The protest has reached the centre. I take out my phone and begin recording the chants: “Yallah ir7al ya Bashar!” Children play hide and seek underneath the flag. I join in: “Shove off, Bashar.”

A friend, a journalist, whispers in my ear: ”Don’t turn around! The bloke behind us is writing down all the chants. And next to him a Hizbollah guy is recording everything. – And see that bloke up in front? Black shoes, jeans, leather jacket. Funny, isn’t it – they all look the same everywhere. He’s taking close-ups. See how he’s using the zoom? Unbelievable. I’d really like to smash in his face good.” A little girl approaches the microphone. She sings: “Give me back my childhood. Give me back my safety.” Around 150 people have dared to come here today, on the fifth anniversary of the Syrian Uprising. They applaud and then they intone a different song. It is a song in praise of every town and city that has participated in the protests. A man behind me is arguing with his neighbour: “Peace can’t be our utopia. Peace always comes in the end, that’s for sure. Every war must take a break, must cease, in order to begin anew. Our utopia has to be to live in peace – and we have to shape it accordingly. It’s about our ideas, about how we want to live. Values are not meaningless; they are more than just words. It’s about values that have been brought into focus through the experience of war. Whenever we talk about freedom, we need to know what it means – and what it doesn’t mean. Whenever we talk about equality, we need to know what it means – and what it doesn’t mean. Whenever we talk about solidarity, education, equal rights … Maybe that’s too optimistic – but isn’t the worst behind us? Isn’t there hope that the worst has already happened and that, from now on, everything will get better? How horrible would it be to dismiss this as sheer optimism.” The singing is tripping up, with different voices in different places, some already in Homs, others still in Dar’a. Then we notice men with clubs on the other side of the street. The singing abates as if someone had suddenly extinguished the fire. A woman says into the microphone, “the police have just informed us that there is a threat against our rally and that they are unable to avert it. We will not allow this to happen.“ I look over to where the police are. The officers look bored; they lean against their cars. One is resting his head on his shield. Someone else says, “all who exit the square, please do so in groups, especially those carrying flags. Be careful – you know what I’m talking about.” A small group is trying to rekindle the enthusiasm of those that are left, but now the only thing audible is the sound of cars passing by.

I walk down the square for a little bit, then take a service towards Tayouneh. We follow Damascus Street, the former Green Line. Over the period of 15 years, when this street formed a boundary, nature had reconquered the terrain. On old photos you will see the trees that once grew on this street. With the end of the war, however, nature retreated. Today, there’s few green spots left, most of them square overgrown plots in between two houses. The Tayouneh roundabout is a single flat space framed by buildings – a frame full of gaps. In 2014, on the other side of the roundabout, across from the Douwar al-Shams Theatre, an attack occurred, and while a crowd watched Cameroon play Brazil in the World Cup the lives of 200 people were saved. A customer says to a grocer, “your son’s a hero!” The grocers’ eyes are still red. His son thwarted the attack, and he was the only one killed, except for the suicide bomber, probably a Syrian. Some eyewitnesses claim to have seen a shattered brain near the site of the attack, one even talks about finding fragments on his balcony.

I get out of the service and enter the theatre. It is very inconspicuous with its stage below ground. Initially, I thought this was because of the bombs but I was told it is because, that way, the acoustics are superior. It is a large auditorium with red seats, and it is filled close to capacity. The lights are dimmed. Syrian nationalism in five acts:

Act one. About 1820, on Mont Liban. The cotton production is going well. A class of traders emerges. They are shuttling between the mountain, Beirut, and Damascus. From Beirut, the cotton is shipped to Europe. Follows the first identity crisis of Arab Christians, who can neither afford to lose the goodwill of the Europeans, nor that of the hinterland. Syrian nationalism originates; memories of the pre-Islamic age; conservative but also progressive.

Act two. In 1916, Mark Sykes, a British politician, designs the colours of the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. Pan-Arabism has not even been born, yet it has already been invested with the colours of the four great Islamic dynasties, black for the Abbasids, white for the Umayyads, green for the Fatimids, and red for al-Andalus and the Maghreb. The Great Arab Revolt doesn’t win popular support, and, at the same time, Sykes and Picot meet and divide up the Middle East. As soon as the Ottoman Empire disintegrates, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq become British, while Syria and Lebanon are turned into territories mandated by the French. Briefly, King Faisal tries to revolt, but he fails in spite of British support.

Act three, colonialism. France governs according to the principle of divide et impera. Borders create minorities. The French, of course, are there to protect their brothers and sisters, the Christian minority. They, however, are also Arabs. The Kurds and Circassians are Sunnis, yet no Arabs. The Alawites, Druze, Ismailis, and the Shiites are Arabs and Muslims, yet no Sunnis. The Assyrians do not belong to either group. The Armenians are Christians, yet no Arabs. It is one great big mess, and the initial definitions of minorities are no help either. Although the French award a few military commissions to the minorities, the call “Europe must go!” gets louder and louder. Then, in 1945, Europe has actually gone away, and this is followed by 25 years with 15 different governments.

Act four, Pan-Arabism. Finally there’s a saviour, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Not only does he say, “Europe must go!” he says, “now it’s going to be cool again to be Arab.” Some reforms prove this, yet the devastating defeat in the Six-Day War shoots it all down, never mind all the political prisoners. Enter Hafiz al-Assad: Yes, we still believe in Pan-Arabism, believe us, we do still believe in it, we believe in it very firmly – and we believe in us, and so do you, and those who don’t believe in us will believe in nobody, such a person is a nobody, and no-one’s interested in a nobody. And if we’ve learned something from the French, it is divide et impera for sure.

Act five. In 2011 a few school children run around Dar’a. They scrawl something on a wall. What happens next is history – and we are still faced with it now. Divided and ruled. Enter the post-colonial trinity – Edward Said, Homi Bhabham, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Edward Said comes forward and points out that he was right. Homi Bhabha comes forward and points to the positive power of hybridity. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak comes forward, points to the role of the subaltern in the Damascus suburbs, to those without a voice, and demands a strategic essentialism. However, one character doesn’t get to make his entrance, because all he would say is, “the muscles of the colonised are always tensed.” Someone from the audience shouts: “Get over your colonial shit!” The end.

I stagger out of the theatre to meet the authors. Hadil says: “For me, personally, the war is the best thing that happened – ever. Otherwise, I would have never escaped this miserable country. And what kind of life would I be leading there? I’d be married with two children. This war has pointed me on my way – further away.” Hanadi says: “Why shouldn’t one recount this war from a fictional point of view? No-one, not even the people on the scene, believes what they see anymore.” Hiba says: “What’s the point of building a scale model of reality? That can’t be our topic – everybody sees what’s going on, and there’s no need for me to repeat what everybody already perceives and knows.” Dania adds: “When we fled from Syria you always heard, ‘the Syrians, they have gone through hell.’ I’m Palestinian … so what did I experience?”

Sari is now next to me. I ask him, “what does it mean to you, to be Syrian today?” He laughs. “You’ve heard about the census mishap, right? Officially, I’ve only been Syrian for the last five years. Before that I had no passport. I was considered to be neither Syrian, nor Kurdish, nor did I consider myself to belong anywhere. That was a rather daft situation. – Sorry, what was your question?” – “What it means to be Syrian today.” – “I don’t take it very seriously, this being Syrian. I still haven’t become used to it.” – “But as a Syrian you experienced the war.” – “Yes, but that’s a personal experience.” – “I, too, have only been officially German since five years ago. What I’m wondering is, how has this experience influenced your writing? After all, you had a reason to write about Hama 1982.” – “I really only wanted to point out that the massacre that happened back then still resonates today. I didn’t write about who killed who – you can read up on that elsewhere. I only wanted to point out that something happened back then, and in what ways this has lead us to where we are now.” – “OK, but the reason I’m asking is that everybody seems to rather dismiss this. And the curious thing about it is, that the Germans are the same.” – “Really?” – “Yep. WW2.” – “I don’t know … I guess it never meant very much to me. I dislike it when people pity me because of that.” – “I think, this should be matter for debate.” – “For me, it’s different. I can’t help being Syrian. Some benefit from being Syrian; some are afraid because of it. The first few months of my stay here I didn’t tell people that I’m from Syria. Then I said to myself, fuck it!” – “But, Sari, without your history you wouldn’t be the one you are today.” – “Maybe it does affect my writing. Maybe it means that you bear some kind of responsibility. Maybe there’s no such thing as a collective sensation of impotence, of loneliness. I don’t know, no idea.”

Phase three – The food is great … why are they fighting? Or, I still can't speak my language fluently.

“We were outside Beirut, in the mountains, in what little is left of the forest. You take the coach up there and then you abscond from your tour group. We were walking through the forest, then left the path – and, for the first time, it was really quiet. You could hear the birds chirping and the air was crisp. We walked on and came upon five young people. They were shouting something into the trees. We walked on, then later bumped into them a second time. They invited us. By the side of an artificial pond we shared our first joint. The pond seemed absurd. Like a work of art stuck between a piece of forest and the grey rock it posed the question of how human action affects nature. I was already somewhat stoned. We had a second joint at their home where we had gone to play cards. They conversed in Arabic, and I could only grasp at the surface. I did grasp the individual words, yet couldn’t connect them. I knew, there was an invisible plane outside my reach, a gap I couldn’t bridge. When my boyfriend sat down on the floor, one of them remarked to the other, “finally he’s letting go.” I didn’t get the meaning. I got scared. I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that I was in danger. These five young people, the cool dude, the sexy girl, the wacky girl, the show-off, and the quiet giant, they were living between Bacchus and bombs, and they told us how they partied in Mar Mikhael, that they’d finished their degrees, and that, last year, two Germans had vanished there, in the Dark Forest. Like in a film they appeared to be characters devoid of content. I told my friend that I was afraid, that every feeling, every word, every action here seemed to be overly familiar and just like out of a horror movie. I laugh while I tell him that I’m aware that what I say sounds crazy but that I’m absolutely convinced that they are going to kill us, and that I’m truly scared. I could hardly believe myself, and I had to recognise that everything was true and untrue at the same time. It was a strange experience, at this very moment, to grasp how relative truth truly is.”

This is what I tell Sari. He laughs at me. He says, “you shouldn’t get overexcited by such things.” I agree. “How about your memories? Do you need them for your writing?” – “My memories. That’s complicated. They are somewhat mixed up, full of holes. Occasionally, something will come back to me, a detail that will grip me. I’ll read something to you, maybe then you’ll understand.” He opens a file on his desktop. While he is reading out, a second soundtrack runs through my head: “I am the cause the problem, I know. Yet I can’t change what’s happened. And because I’m working towards a solution, however this would mean for me to go back into the past to what has been before. It is as if you would enter a vehicle that carries you through time you entered a time machine that will carry you off to back then. It carries off takes your breath away in a certain way in just the flick of an eye. Then you’re looking at paintings like those you see scattered along the sides edge of a cave. From in the murky margins of your eyesight your point of view you notice a large shadow that is following you. I’m afraid that I may petrify. My sweat dries off. I embalm mummify transform into a Titan Titanide Titanis. I move my wings to spend in order to advance make headway, in order to scram run away, but I can’t.

I almost forgot that I’m unable to fly. Half bird, half metamorphosis mutation monster. Half my life is spent over and it is time to leave recommence begin all over again. My recollections memory sustains me … numerous some memory memories, and I begin to pour my shadows into the walls around me and how many walls there are onto most of the other walls. I suffocate hold my breathing my breath and the so-called jars of water my tears. I close my eyes and set out on my way from the end. I have to dig through the mountain, on my own. On my own, no matter how much sand, wind, water, and sun … working towards erosion and stripping when erosion has ended, that’s all. Didn’t he once say so during a geography lesson?! I still remember the foggy weather playing across my our teachers’ face – he was a huge, tall teacher of geography. Owner of The skin he wore was burnt. He spoke the language of the Bedouins, as if hish-hishing the sheep.”

In my mind, I translate the words, and then retranslate them; they repel one another. While he is reading, the sound conveys a semblance of meaning. I understand what he’s saying, but whenever I pause to investigate a word for what’s hidden inside it, it will blur. I try to repeat his words. They sound flimsy, flat, uneven, and weak. Reduced to a few syllables, I try to drag them across the bridge, roll them up the side of the mountain, and with every metre they increase in weight. They won’t obey me. They repel one another. It’s like a pendulum – at the very moment that it reaches its apex, it is drawn to the other side. Sari continues: “I come up from in front behind, confident whether no one’s near. Smiling. Manipulating. Corrupting. Manipulating. Fibbing. Damned. Laughing. I get closer to him with a look a knowing look on my face that we met before. Before I He stops me He pre-empts me and says: ‘We will spend a bit of time together. Once you’ve grown You’ve grown, and this is the hour of the battle encounter of the fight. ’We look at one another, for a second, maybe a minute. Maybe for longer or maybe for fewer less. No matter. As if we were talking to one another and listening without

I break the silence. “I was seven years old, I believe. It was shortly before we went to Germany. It was summer, very hot. I had pushed up my T-shirt and was pressing my tummy against the cold stone floor. Next to me, my mother was resting on her back.” – “Did you really just say mtshat7a for ‘resting’?” – “Yeah. Is it wrong?” – “One could think you left Aleppo only three days ago.” For a brief moment I consider playing this role – of being a visitor who will leave and return home in a few days time, return to Aleppo, that I really went through all of that. Everybody would nod their heads, shrug – nothing to it. And this is the strange thing about this city, Beirut, about the people here. First thing, they’ll nod – nothing to it. “What’s this obsession, always talking about your childhood?” – “Don’t know. Maybe an attempt to create some continuity between two phases of my life. And then, somehow, it’s also a proof of identity – people will believe you.”

I change scenes. I’m back in the theatre, in Abdullah’s office. I ask Abdullah, “How is it possible to write without feeling guilty?” – “The shahid, the martyr used to be always Palestinian – a Palestinian meeting a stranger, that is, an Israeli. Today, he’s Syrian. Some adore him; some think he’s a criminal. This detail makes it possible to address a topos in an ambivalent way, a popular topos that used to be interpreted in a very one-sided way.  It’s the same with death; in the past, death appeared in almost every play authored by a young Syrian writer. Death, at the time, signified that one rejected the status quo, it signified rage against one’s parents, or rage against society. Today’s plays, on the other hand, are about life. Death is so omnipresent, so boring and without merit that it has shed any metaphorical meaning. Now, death only takes place in history. Finally, there’s sexuality as a breach of taboo. Today, people look to the body, the maltreated, tortured, fragmented body. It is a downright obsession. I can’t say why that is – this would require a lot more research. What are the means for telling Syria’s history, also regarding presentation and representation. How to write without feeling guilty? I don’t have a conclusive answer. However, this is why I haven’t been writing these last three years.”

I turn around towards Omar and observe his body. Everything he’s writing he will witness and authorise with his body, his memories, his name. Talking to him is like reading Primo Levi – and this comparison is misleading. Abdullah says, “the Shoa shouldn’t be used to back up any type of political position.” I am reminded of Döblin who once said, “I feel the urge to take stock of my whole life, to balance the accounts as if I were about to die.” A state of shock, autobiography, and authenticity are means of fashioning the self, and all depends on how they are being applied. There is a reason why I have come to this city that is constantly talking about itself. It keeps on and on because it is afraid that, otherwise, it will hear the silence between two gunshots. I breathe deeply.

I have to take stock; I have to be hard on myself. I own 46 slaves; that is what a website calculated for me. How do I justify that? No response. How come, I was quicker to say hello to the Arab security guard than to the Indian valet? Again, no response. How come, I spend more time with the cute baby animals at the pet shop than with the Indian valet? No response.

I ask Omar, “do you think an author has to start where the people are?” – “How many theatres are there in Berlin?” – “Fifteen, maybe.” – “In Damascus there are two, and every five, six, or nine months they will stage a new play. To be honest, the theatre has to be brought to the audience – no metaphor intended. They don’t know it, and they don’t care about it – and they are right not to.” – “But if that’s the case, then why would you want to attract them to the theatre?” – “It is a beautiful art form. At least, they should give it a try, before they get bored and turn their backs on it. This doesn’t mean that theatre should be more straightforward, but we can’t start with sticky floors – and no one knows why – with bowed heads and stage smoke.” – “Do you think that’s your responsibility?” – “When I studied at the University of the High Arts,” he laughs to highlight the irony, “I only thought about how to best spit people in the face. It’s a very arrogant attitude – arrogance born from hurt. But once I got around to understanding that life’s not so simple … I grasped that the whole thing is interactive. You offer something, and they respond to it – and you develop, and so do they. And then I learned that, if the theatre has no audience, I’d have no food on the table. My job is to keep my profession alive. Therefore, I have to act in a way that will attract an audience. I know, this is very pragmatic. Today, I believe everything at the same time: You have to spit the audience in the face – only be prepared, it may spit back at you. There has to be interaction because, otherwise, you can chuck the theatre in the dustbin. And, finally, I do have to be able to make a living from my work.” – “What did you learn in prison?” – “Prisoner and prison guard resemble one another more closely than most would believe.” – “What do you mean by that?” – “When you witness how a 16-year-old is beaten up in a cell, while 80 other people only think about how to gain more space for themselves and their big toe, then … Of course I won’t compare the victim to the perpetrator, as this would mean that even Assad is nothing more than a human being who, because of the circumstances, had to do what he had to do – the way he does right now. Still, you can’t put a warden, who’s nothing but a tool of the powerful, on the same level as a prison director or a minister. Power creates a certain kind of consciousness – this is why the warden believes that he is part of the power structure and not just another victim.” – “Do you view yourself as a victim?”

Act four – What is the background noise of a text?

Is it natural to have a country one calls home?
And is being in exile an exception?
Is exile the negation of home?
What is the meaning of having a “home country” as opposed to having a “home”? What feelings do you attach to it? Or is it memories? How do you realise that you don’t belong, that you have no memories of foreign lands? When was the first time you sensed you don’t belong? Isn’t unfamiliarity a writer’s point of departure? How can you create familiarity? How did unfamiliarity enter into your texts? Did you try to capture it, to convey it, or just to portray it? Why do you write at all? Is writing a luxury? Is writing something that creates interconnections, or is it about recording something? Has it always been one or the other, or does it alternate? When did you first perceive that you had to write – and why? When did you perceive you could not write (anymore) – and why? What did you do in this situation? What other things do you do while you’re writing? Who or what are you thinking about? Have you ever felt afraid of one of your texts? Do you find it easy to delete sentences? Why do you delete a sentence? Are you trying to conceal something in your texts? What is the interplay between contents and form? Which of the two has the greater influence on your writing? What other texts are reflected in yours? Is a text a mirror and, if yes, who is reflected in it? How does gender figure and how does cultural background figure for the writer and the reader? Do you try to counteract such influences? Is language a tool or an organism? Is a text a tool or an organism? What do other languages mean to you? What are the opportunities and what are the limits of the unfamiliar/new – and how about the familiar/old? Are those false opposites? Do your texts contain quotations and, if yes, why? Are you texts nothing but quotation? What are the limits of writing? How is writing affected by lines on a map? Are you able to write with such lines running through your head? What is your motivation? What is the meaning of contradictions for your work? Is writing work? Is it hard work? How much do my questions frame the answers? Do they box you in? Do you need liberty to be able to write? Do you need a public sphere to be able to write? What is the value of a word? Would you sell it to your enemy? Do we need context? Are these questions too general in nature? What has changed you the most? What has changed your writing the most? Do people still use pen and paper? Is this a political question? Is writing political? Or does this apply to the context? Is writing dangerous? Or does this only apply to the context? Is it safe to write now? How close does one have to be to the reality one is writing about? How much fiction is permissible in war? Is it at all permissible – or is it necessary? Does it have to be a lie and illusion only because it provides solace? Is it good enough if literature offers hope or entertainment? Are your aspirations for writing different today? And how about language? Is it necessary or possible for literature to change things? Do you apply different standards to your writing than to the writing of other authors? What difference comes to mind? Why should people read you? What is the relationship between your writing and the marketplace? If you write for material purposes, then how can your writing have non-material purposes? Is it justifiable to utilise suffering? Isn’t writing self-exploitation of your own inner self? Doesn’t writing about Syria exploit the notion of “home”? Is it justifiable to write about Syria? What subjects / what people are off-limits when writing about Syria? In what language (parole) may we write about Syria? Do we need a new language, one sans ideology? If the answer is yes, then how may this be achieved? We are faced with a complex situation; how do you stay on top of things – in order to be able to write about them? What are the conflicts you run into? What conflicts do you run into in Lebanon? Are any of them new to you? If writing is therapy, the writer is a victim; is this an issue for you? What roles are you trying to shed? What roles are you trying to embrace? What vexes you when people talk about Syria? Can Syria still be home to people? Isn’t “home” a superannuated category?

I can’t ask you questions about writing in times of war, as I lack any clear idea thereof. Still, is your writing different when you’re in Lebanon? What exactly has changed? Are you trying to depict these changes, to cover them – or to cover them up? Where are you, while you’re writing?

With special thanks to the great authors who let me encroach on  their time for great discussions and interviews: Dania Ghanayem, Hadeel Sahli, Hanadi Al-Shabta, Hiba Mree, Abdullah Al-Kafri, Sari Mustafa, Omar Gbaee, Mohammad Dibo, and Aboud Sawu.


Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann


[1]     People/Person of Color is a self-designation of people who are not white. It underlines that those who are not white are confronted with certain forms of institutional and structural racism and discrimination.