From Aleppo to Berlin: Writing in Exile

Widad Nabi and Nihad Sirees: two Syrian writers who have found their way from a war-torn country to the cafés and bookshops of Berlin. In our interview they talk about writing in Syria and writing in exile.

Nihad Sirees and Widad Nabi in Berlin. © Christian Jungeblodt / Amnesty International

Widad Nabi, how did your work as an author change in exile?

Widad Nabi: Writing is the same in every place. Lately in Syria, I had been writing about the same topics that I write about here: war, death, the daily destruction. Here, I started writing about my escape from Syria, about longing for home, longing for all the places that we left behind. Continue reading

Advertisements

The White Man’s Burden

I am sorry, but if you are a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is.”

adichieNot everyone would agree with Chimamanda Adichie’s statement in a video circulated on social media recently. Who gets to define what racism is? How far away from ‘white’ should you be to have a say? How much discrimination do you have to experience for your opinion to be valid?

Don’t try to answer any of these questions, because they are total nonsense. The real question is: why are people even arguing about what is and is not racism? I often come across highly emotional discussions about whether or not racism – and other types of discrimination – are widespread problems or not. Mostly, these arguments involve a white or otherwise privileged person trying to assert that they are not part of the problem, or that things really aren’t that bad after all.

The last time I witnessed this, was at Amnesty International’s panel discussion on racism in Germany. I attended the event to learn more about institutional racism and the rise of openly xenophobic positions in German society. I had expected all participants to agree on the fact that a problem existed in the first place.

Not Stephan Mayer of the CDU/CSU. He confused the panel discussion with a platform for political campaigning. Sure, he said, there is right-wing extremism in this country… but there is also left-wing extremism! And Islamist extremism! “Germany is a pluralist country! Germany has proven to be very cosmopolitan and tolerant!” Empty phrases. It immediately became clear that Stephan Mayer had a very limited understanding of racism – and he had no interest in expanding it.

Racism is not just the fact that there were more than 1000 attacks on German refugee camps in 2015. Racism also means feeling less safe when passing by an Arab looking man on the street at night; being kind of surprised that your doctor is black; asking a German citizen where they are really from, just because they have a darker complexion; calling a Roma ‘gypsy’, because “for me that is not a negative word”; assuming that Chinese have a different understanding of hygiene than we do. Continue reading

Arab Hip Hop – from Local Inspiration to Global Revolution

Hip hop ain’t dead, it never died, it just moved to the Middle East, where the struggle’s still alive.

(Arabian Knightz – Uknighted State of Arabia)

Arabian-Knightz-in-the-Arab-hip-hop-festival-in-QatarThe message from the song “Uknighted State of Arabia” by Egyptian rap crew Arabian Knightz, featuring 29 musicians from all over the Arab world is clear: hip hop artists from the Middle East and all over the world need to unite to bring back the spirit of hip hop music and talk about the different struggles against totalitarianism, occupation, poverty and oppression. Arab hip hop can be a great inspiration to the global movement, considering its important role in voicing the different revolutions that took place across the Middle East in recent years. As rapper Karim from Arabian Knightz—known by his stage name Rush—explains:

Guess what, they’re all pointing at us right now. They’re like, ‘Listen, when they had a revolution, these guys were talking about it, and when we have riots you guys are talking about ass and tits? Where is us, where is our problems?’ Hip hop is about the struggle, so we’re actually putting a bunch of them on blast without even doing it purposefully.

But how does hip hop fit into Arab culture? Is it an American invention or something authentically Arab? Does hip hop have the potential to unite different struggles in different national and social contexts? And is that aforementioned struggle a crucial part of hip hop culture or just one of many possible approaches? These are some of the topics that I talked about with Karim. Arabian Knightz is an Egyptian rap trio – composed of artists Rush, Sphinx, and E-Money – that formed in 2005 and employs a mixture of English, Egyptian Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic in their songs. All following quotes are by Karim, unless labeled otherwise. Continue reading

Sisyphus in the Arab Prison

Night was no longer night, since there were no more days, no more stars, no more moon, no more sky. We were the night. We had become nocturnal: our bodies, breathing, heartbeats, the fumbling of our hands moving effortlessly from one wall to another in a space shrunk to the dimensions of a tomb for the living, although whenever I say that word, I should use “surviving” instead, yet I really was a living being, enduring life in extreme deprivation, an ordeal that could end only in death but that seemed strangely like life.“

(The Blinding Absence of Light)

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel „The Blinding Absence of Light“ is an attempt to describe the agonizing experience of former Moroccon prisoner Azīz Binbīn… an attempt that can only fail, because how can one describe 18 years without ever leaving a 4 ½ square meter cell, without ever standing up straight, without a glimpse of light, without medical care, and without a single word to and from the outside world? How can one imagine to sleep standing in order not to freeze to death, to live in a tiny room with a hole for a toilet not eating anything but beans for six thousand six hundred and sixty-three days, to pull out one’s own decaying molar with a piece of wood, and, finally, to not only survive such a horrific ordeal, but to stay human all the while?

When reading some of the numerous accounts by and about prisoners in secret desert prisons of Morocco, underground torture facilities in Syria, or other unfathomably cruel prisons throughout the Middle East, my mind often reached the limits of what it could – and wanted – to imagine. Continue reading