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

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The Great Rebellion of our age: thoughts on the Paris terrorist attacks

History repeats itself. As simple as it sounds, it never ceases to surprise me how the exact same thing happens over and over again and we choose not to learn from it.

Around the same time the killings in Paris happened, I read an article about the “Great Rebellion” or “Sepoy Revolt” in India, 1857, when 300 Sepoy—local soldiers recruted by the East India Company—insurged against their British officers, rode to Delhi and massacrated each and every Christian citizen, men, women and children alike. What followed were countless brutal battles and finally the victory of the British troops that invaded Delhi and on their part slaughtered thousands of civilians.

The roots of the revolt lay in the British imperialistic violence and their ruthless invasion of Indian soil since the beginning of the 18th century. Lord Wellesley, a cunning rhetorician, with the help of the conservative media, had managed to portray the Indian Mogul Tipu Sultan as an evil Muslim monster, a raging fanatic, a cruel enemy, to convince the British Parlament of an expensive and controversial crusade, aimed at demonstrating power over all European rivals, as well as striking preemptively against potentially hostile Muslim empires. Thus, British presence in India had developed from an economical partnership to an exploitative occupation, that not only annexed two thirds of the territory, but also portrayed the Christian colonizers as liberators, that were to free the Indians of their dark backwardness and bring them salvation. However, the Indian population’s fear of the missionaries had fueled resentment toward British rule and boosted the rise of Islamist groups eager to end the kāfir (unbeliever) regime on Indian soil. After the rebellion had been put down, the Mogul emperor, who had cooperated with the Sepoy—most of whom were Hindus—, was accused of partaking in an international Muslim conspiracy. Instead of questioning their own foreign policy, the British found the reason for all bloodshed in Islamist fanatism. As always was and until today has remained the case, the Western imperialists refused to understand that forcing a racist and hegemonial regime onto a foreign land must have two effects: to turn the population against the intruder and to offer a breeding ground for any type of extremism.

Without wanting to justify any kind of violence no matter what its history may be, I will link the bloody events of Delhi to those of Paris in two senses: (1) that the violence we have seen in Paris twice this year, in New York’s traumatic 9/11 attacks, and in various other Western cities, rose from the ruins of Western Imperialism; and (2) that the way violence is dealt with in the media and in society in Europe and the USA is something that we as the civil society urgently need to challenge. 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