Exile That Enriches
The Cultural Achievements of Iranian and Arab Authors in Germany
In order adequately to acknowledge the cultural achievements of Iranian and Arab immigrants in Germany we must first explore the historical and social context in which immigration to Germany must be seen. As you are aware, Germany was not a major colonial power. Unlike in France and Britain, there has not therefore been immigration to Germany from former colonies, and the German language is limited to the German-speaking countries of Central Europe: Germany, Austria, Switzerland. By contrast, the majority of Arabs in France learned French from a very young age in school in their (North African) homeland, and are completely fluent in it. The Iranians and Arabs who come to Germany, on the other hand, have to learn the language as adults, i.e. with greater difficulty. Furthermore, German is undoubtedly a language that is harder to learn than French or English. A further difficulty is that the German-speaking countries are not traditional countries of immigration like the United States, Canada or Australia. Nonetheless, since the 1960s there has been a continuous rise in the numbers of Arab and Iranian immigrants in Germany.
Let us begin with an exception: Cyrus Atabay, who was born in Berlin in 1929, the son of an Iranian doctor and one of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s daughters. After the Second World War he went back to Iran. However, as he did not speak the language properly he returned and studied in Germany. Later he lived in other places, including London. He wrote his poems in German and was well acquainted with numerous German writers, including Gottfried Benn and Elias Canetti. He also translated poems by Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam into modern German prose. He died in Munich in 1996.
Study in Germany
Where do these people come from, and why do they come to Germany?
After the Second World War, people came to Germany primarily for the purposes of study. To this day Germany remains a very popular place to study, not least because university in Germany is free. In this context it is worth mentioning the division of Germany after the Second World War, as many people did not study in West Germany but in the Communist East (GDR). This was particularly true of the students who came from those countries that had declared themselves Socialist (mostly in the form of Baathism or Nasserism), so above all from Syria and Iraq.
Other intellectuals from the same generation (and most Iranians) went to study in West Germany. From Egypt came Nagi Naguib (1931-1987), who was one of the first to translate modern Arabic literature, and for this purpose founded the Edition Orient in Berlin, which still exists today and also publishes Persian literature. From Lebanon came the poet Fuad Rifka (1930-2011), who studied in Heidelberg and wrote his Ph.D. on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He subsequently returned to Lebanon. This, incidentally, is true of many Arabs of his generation who went to study in Germany at this time. If political circumstances in their homelands allowed them to do so, they returned.
Already in this generation we can observe three typical career paths:
1. Those who, after a certain time, usually after finishing their studies, return home and become mediators of German culture in their homeland, or write their own work which is influenced by German culture. These are mostly Arabs, whereas many Iranians remain in Germany for political reasons, such as opposition to the Shah.
2. Those who remain in Germany and
a) write primarily in German and translate Arabic literature into German.
b) write primarily in Arabic and translate German literature into Arabic.
We find the same characteristics in subsequent generations, although it is apparent that the number of those choosing to stay in Germany and write in German increases. The number also increases of those who do not come of their own free will, but for reasons of political persecution or (civil) war.
The generation of those born in the 1940s and 1950s was particularly affected by the political crises in the Arab world in the 1970s: the Lebanese civil war, the seizure of power by Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, and the Iran-Iraq war. Let us take Rafik Schami as a representative of this generation. Rafik Schami (a pseudonym – his real name is Suhail Fadhel) was born in 1946 and came to Germany in 1971 to study chemistry, but soon began to write in German. Nowadays he is one of the most successful and best-known authors in the German language. He sells more books than the majority of German writers. We will take a closer look at his literature later on.
SAID, born in 1947, came from Iran to study in Germany and was active in the opposition movement against the Shah. Since the 1970s he has written his poems in German. Later he also produced numerous essays and short stories. From 2000 to 2002 he was the president of German PEN, and has campaigned on behalf of many persecuted Iranian authors.
Bahman Nirumand, born in Tehran in 1936, has played and continues to play a particularly important role in Germany. His book Persien. Modell eines Entwicklungslandes [Persia: A Model of a Developing Country] was highly significant for the German 1968 movement. One can dare to say that he remains to this day the most influential Iranian author in Germany. He is still politically active and has published numerous books about Iran. However, he is also active in the realm of literature, particularly as a translator. He has translated works by, among others, Sadegh Hedayat and Mahmoud Doulatabadi.
Later on, some writers came from Iraq, particularly in the late 1970s. They were fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Iran-Iraq war. Among them was Hussain al-Mozany (b. 1954). At first he wrote in Arabic (including the book Der Marschländer [The Marshlander], about his experience of fleeing Iraq); today he writes in Arabic and in German, and publishes his books in both languages. He has also translated German literature into Arabic, including The Tin Drum by the Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass (under the title Tabal as-Safih). Another writer who came to Germany from Iraq was Khalid al-Maaly. Al-Maaly (b. 1956) came to Germany as a political refugee in 1979. Here he founded the publishing company Manschurat al-Djamal. He wrote poems in Arabic, but also translated Arabic poems into German in collaboration with German friends, including myself. This publishing house currently has the largest quantity of German literature in Arabic in its list, including works by Navid Kermani.
At this point we should also mention Shahram Rahimian. He was born in 1959, came to Germany to study in 1976, and now lives in Hamburg, but still writes in Persian. Abbas Maroufi is another of the best-known Iranian authors in Germany who write in Persian. Since the mid-1990s he has lived in Berlin, where he runs a Persian bookshop. Many of his works have been translated into German and have been enthusiastically received by the critics, above all his novel Symphonie der Toten [Symphony of the Dead].
The younger generation
Finally, I would like to speak of the younger generation. Almost all of them write in German, as for example the German-Persian poet Farhad Showghi (b. 1961), who now lives in Hamburg. He not only writes his own poems in German, he also translates Persian poems into German, including a book of poetry by Ahmad Shamlu (Verlag Urs Engeler, Basel, 2002).
Navid Kermani, born in Siegen in 1967, also writes in German. He holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies, but regards himself first and foremost as a German writer. In his most recent book, the 1200-page novel Dein Name [Your Name], he deals not only with Iranian themes such as the story of his grandfather in Iran or that of his parents, who emigrated to Germany, he also writes a lot about life in Germany. Kermani is also renowned for his essays and reportages, and is one of the most prominent authors of Iranian origin in Germany.
Among the Arab authors in Germany today, three in particular stand out. One is Hamid Abd al-Samad, born in Egypt in 1972. He came to Germany in 1995 and has an established academic career. He initially attracted attention with a self-critical autobiographical book, also critical of Islam, that he wrote in German and Arabic (the Arabic edition was published by Dar Merit; the title of the German edition is Mein Abschied vom Himmel [My Farewell to Heaven]). He has also published two political works of non-fiction about Islam and the Arab revolutions. He is very well-known as a result of numerous appearances on talkshows. Another representative of the younger generation is the Iraqi Abbas Khidr. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he came to Germany in 2000 as a political refugee. He writes his poems in Arabic, but since 2008 he has written his novels in German. These in particular have had great success with German literary critics. Finally, we must not forget Sherko Fatah, a Kurdish-Iraqi author who speaks and writes German as well as he does his mother tongue, and whose books have also been highly praised by the critics. He was born in East Berlin in 1964, and thus belongs to some degree to the so-called ‘immigrant generation’.
What do the authors mentioned above write about? What effect does exile have on their writing, and to what extent do they enrich German or Arab/Iranian literature?
The first thing one notices is that the majority of Arab writers take as the theme of their work not Germany but predominantly the Arab word and its problems, or their experiences in their homeland. One could almost say that these writers, from a thematic point of view, have not arrived in Germany. There are, however, exceptions, and we can say of the Iranian writers in Germany in particular that they really regard Germany their home and often write more about Germany than about Iran; Navid Kermani is one example, but Cyrus Atabay and SAID, who has frequently written about the feelings of being an exile, have done so too.
Some Arab authors, especially those who write in German, also take as their subject the flight itself, or the difficulties of settling in in Germany, or of getting on with Germans (often in a humorous vein, as with Rafik Schami, or a grotesque one, as with Hussain al-Mozany). However, the fact that the majority of Arab authors cling thematically to their origins, even in Germany and even if they write in German, should not in my opinion be regarded as a defect or deficiency. For German readers this has the advantage and the great attraction of introducing them to foreign worlds, to foreign lives and stories. Even if there is sometimes an element of occasionally trivial exoticism in it, the readers do however always become acquainted with an authentic Arab voice. So it is that Arab writers in Germany are often asked their opinion on current political issues. Thanks to them, the Arab world has a voice in Germany (although of course it must be made clear that Arab authors in Germany do not speak as representatives for Arabs or Arab writers as a whole, nor do they wish to do so).
A linguistic and stylistic examination of the works of Iranian and Arab writers in Germany is of interest for our purposes. Here, however, we must make a distinction: in what language is the author writing, and who is his audience? Most Arabs who write in German have a very good command of the language, but it is seldom perfect, which is to say that it is generally not as good as that of an educated native speaker of German. But this is seldom a disadvantage as, firstly, there is always someone at the publisher’s who corrects the language, and because the authors usually write in a simple and thus very accessible, easily readable voice. As a consequence their books are often open to a very wide readership, not just to educated readers and intellectuals (like the books of Alaa Al Aswany, which are also written in very simple language).
This is conspicuously not the case for the writers of Iranian origin in Germany. Their German is generally as good as their mother tongue, whether it be because they were born in Germany or because they were very young when they came to the country to study. Their literature, however, is often less popular. Whereas someone like Rafik Schami is an easy read for the ordinary reader, the literature of Navid Kermani is aimed more at an educated audience.
The ‘Sheherezade effect’
This linguistic feature is of course no longer relevant with regard to the Arab and Iranian authors whose books must first be translated into German (e.g. the Iranians Abbas Maroufi or Shahram Rahimian). Yet these books are also often very successful in Germany, often for another reason, which they share with Arab books written in German: many Oriental authors write with a great love of storytelling, of spinning tales, of extravagant stories. It sounds like a cliché, but one could describe this as the ‘Sheherezade effect’. (I do not wish to claim that there really is such an effect, or such a peculiarly Arab love of storytelling – but I do notice that this is how German readers and critics see it.) One of the reasons why Rafik Schami, for example – who, unlike Najm Wali, writes in German – is so loved by his readers is because his style is so close to oral storytelling. At times it is even reminiscent of a storyteller in a coffee house. This characteristic of Schami’s becomes especially apparent in his public readings. Rafik Schami does not read aloud from his books like other authors; he stands in front of the audience and tells them the story from memory. You could almost say that Schami is a performance artist. This is something completely new for German readers and in German literature.
Through the characteristics mentioned here, Arab literature (unlike the Iranian, which is generally speaking closer to the German) contrasts in a positive way with German literature, which is often written in a very restrained, intellectual style that does not take special delight in the narrative per se. Germans therefore profit not only in terms of subject matter but also from the style and narrative form of the Oriental writers living in Germany.
Which begs the opposite question: what does Iranian or Arab literature gain from the authors who live in Germany? What repercussions do their experiences in Germany have on their homelands? As mentioned above, many of them have not yet put down roots in Germany as far as their subject matter is concerned, so the thematic aspect is not relevant in the case of Arab literature. With only a few exceptions, Arab readers do not discover from these authors what life is like in Germany or among the Germans. Iranian readers, on the other hand, insofar as they are able to read the books of Iranian writers in Germany in Persian, certainly do discover a great deal from them about life in Germany, especially from the books that are written in German. Those who have continued to write in Persian, on the other hand, often continue to cling on to their homeland.
However, if what the German critics write is true, namely that the Oriental authors distinguish themselves above all by writing in a ‘typically’ Oriental fashion, i.e. with Oriental delight in invention and love of storytelling, then Oriental readers would notice very few stylistic idiosyncrasies or new, as-it-were ‘German’ influences in these works. Whether or not this is the case I do not know. No scholarly literary studies have been done on the subject, unfortunately. We will have to ask the Iranian or Arab readers themselves.
The influence Arab and Iranian authors in Germany have on their homelands is, I suspect, in areas other than narrative literature. It is, with the Arabs in particular, firstly in the work of these authors in the field of translation. Secondly, with the Arab authors, it is in the field of lyric poetry. This is illustrated again by the examples of Fuad Rifka and Khalid al-Maaly. What distinguishes all these authors is that their poetry, in comparison with other Arab lyric poetry of their generation, does without traditional rhetorical devices. They write poetry that is simple, clear, and short. It is the school of Goethe, Hölderlin, Benn, Rilke, Brecht, Celan. In this respect one can speak of a true amalgamation of Arabic and German poetry.
Finally, I believe that the German influence is above all philosophical and political in nature, and this is also true in particular for the Iranian authors in Germany, who are often politically active. We can see this influence of political and philosophical culture in Germany on the Arab intellectuals who live here, in the fact, for example, that the majority of Iranian and Arab authors in Germany are very critical in their opinions about religion and tradition in their homelands; that they adopt with particular intensity the body of thought of the philosophy of the Enlightenment (Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel) and the political freedoms that we currently enjoy in Germany. And in the fact that they allow this philosophy to influence their political essays, articles and public statements. In this way, too, these authors also have an effect on their homelands.
And so we see that the cultural exchange between Germany and the Islamic world, especially Iran and the Arab countries, is currently more intense than at any time in history. But if we want to comprehend it correctly, we must see it in a nuanced way: on the one hand, from the different perspectives of the German, Iranian, or Arab reader, and on the other in its wider philosophical and political context. Only when we do this will we understand how fruitful this exchange really is.
This article is based on a lecture given by Stefan Weidner at the conference of the literary magazine Al-Arabi in March 2012 in Kuwait on exile literature.
is the Editor-in-Chief of Fikrun wa Fann / Art&Thought.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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