Losing One's Country
The Shock of Reunification
I was twenty-five years old when I came to Leipzig. I have turned seventy three this year. Cities in which one lives for such a long time are like biographies of their own. Both city and biography grow together and become one. It is not possible simply to discharge oneself from either one or the other. My biography is marked by two cities, Damascus and Leipzig, and has grown and become one with them. Down through all those years, I have given voice to my intimate relationship with both cities in poems, essays, and interviews. At readings in many cities around the world after German unification – whether in Hamburg, Munich, New York, Toronto, Helsinki, Lisbon, Cairo, or Damascus – I repeatedly had to explain why of all places I chose to go to Leipzig and why I stayed there.
On one occasion, after a reading in Stuttgart, a lady approached my wife and said to her, full of sympathy: ‘Oh you poor thing, you have wasted forty years of your life.’ Wasted forty years of her life? Life, every life, is in itself so precious that no life, neither that of a highly civilised person nor that of a person in the depths of the rainforest, can be wasted. However, in the event of major upheavals in history, people often tend to confuse biographies with superseded systems of government and to make generalisations. The people in both the East and the West should have told each other their biographies in a more relaxed and less prejudiced manner. If they had, maybe a number of aspects of German unity would have turned out differently.
‘The biographies of poets can be read between the verses of their poems. Sometimes the pages of their books resemble palimpsests: new verses written over old ones,’ wrote Heinz Czechowski in his afterword to my volume of poetry entitled If Damascus Did Not Exist. Over time, old letters start to reappear from behind my new texts. These overlapping texts, on the basis of which I now try to reflect on Leipzig, permeate each other and may become legible again in another way.
‘If Damascus Did Not Exist’ was one of the first poems that I wrote directly in the German language in 1965. It contains the following lines:
‘Outside my window / Stands a tree / Inhabited by birds / Familiar their greeting in the morning / Contemplating the soft, white snow / I sit at my desk / Secure in warmth / … Many faces are friendly to me / Familiar like the greeting of the birds / And if you, Damascus, you / My wild, my tender city / You salt and water on the brow / Rose in the heart / Oh / If you did not exist.’
Exactly twenty years later, in 1985, I was awarded the Art Prize of the City of Leipzig. I made an acceptance speech at the award ceremony, which was held in the venerable ballroom, so steeped in tradition, of the old town hall. I began my speech with the following words: ‘A short time ago, the editor-in-chief of an Arabic magazine published in Dresden made me a lucrative offer of work. I turned down his offer, explaining that I was not in a position to emigrate once again. And if I were to emigrate, the only place I would emigrate to would be Damascus.’
I concluded my speech by reading the eponymous poem from the volume At Home Abroad, which had been published the previous year. The poem ends with the following lines:
‘My two countries and I / We are wed / Until death do us part / And now I am here among you / With you / And I will not let go of myself / and of you / In this country / Here / To which I came / With green dreams around my forehead.’
Was this a profession of faith? Yes, it was, although the poem contains other lines such as the following: ‘I am not here to collide every day / Short of breath / With the bullet-proof jacket of the air / In this city to spread out / My roots only / From Böhlen to Espenhain / Nor am I here to lie in every bed that is / Made with curses and a bitter face / At best for me / Am I Michael Kohlhaas? / I screamed until my throat was raw / Against windmills / And deaf-mute eyes.’
Just as it is now, it was a profession of faith based on a claim, not on something that actually existed. A profession of faith in a place, a city, a chapter in my biography that is as contradictory and changeable as any other biography. And I confess to my mistakes and am, to quote Brecht, in the process of preparing new mistakes. Even if some of my green dreams became nightmares in the 1980s, even if in later poems that I wrote but never published I was only conducting ‘dialogues’ with myself, and even if writing fulfilled a ‘psychotherapeutic function’ in my life, I found out that the word solidarity is taken seriously by many, many people. And to this day I cannot with a clear conscience hide the pride I feel for having been awarded the Art Prize of the City of Leipzig all those years ago. After all, my teacher at the Literary Institute, Georg Maurer, the great humanist to whom I owe so much and the man who made Modernism accessible both to me and to many of my then young poet colleagues, received the award before me.
Four years later, when Kurt Masur – who was in the audience at that ceremony, sat in the front row, and shook my hand at the end of it – read out the famous appeal for peaceful demonstrations on Karl-Marx-Platz, I stood on the steps of the Opera House and watched the silent, incredibly tense sea of humanity. I heard people call out: ‘We are the people and we want out.’ Then I joined in the chorus of voices that replied by shouting out: ‘We are the people and we’re staying here!’
In his profound essay ‘Thus Spoke Abdullah or The Current Suffering of the New K.’, Werner Heiduczek wrote: ‘I admit that I stand here moved by such a huge desire for integration. And if I once answered the question as to whether one can live with two countries in bigamy with a resounding “no”, I am no longer now so certain. Maybe the soul of a person can become large enough to embrace meridians without tearing itself apart in the process. It is all down to the intensity with which one loves.’
Heiduczek made a conscious decision to use the word ‘loves’, not ‘lives’. But is it really all down to the intensity with which one loves? Or is it not also sometimes an attitude of defiance, self-protection, dreaming, that the foreigner adopts – and in some cases must adopt – if he is willing to embrace meridians, all the while being reminded again and again that he will always remain foreign. Could not the intensity of the love become even more deadly as it intensifies if it is not reciprocated? After all, we are as foreign as another person makes us feel.
‘What good does it do me to tell the young man who roars “Foreigners out!” into my soul that I have been living in this city longer than he has and that I am probably a little more familiar with his German Goethe and Heine, Hegel and Bach, and so on and so forth, than he is! He’s just going to go on roaring “Foreigners out” into my soul, and I will come up with excuses for him to prevent myself from going mad. Ignorance, I will say, and provincialism maybe, and unemployment, and sensationalist television programmes that boost ratings and foster mistrust.’ I wrote these lines in my essay ‘Rhapsody in Grey’ in 1991.
And today? What am I supposed to say to the nice young policeman at the airport who picks me out from all the other passengers and shows me, in the form of a strip-search, that my skin colour or my name are in themselves suspicious? And what about those who selectively and irresponsibly abuse their freedom of speech by publishing horrendous caricatures in order to provoke equally horrendous, exaggerated reactions? It seems to me that fundamentalists on both sides are passing the ball back and forth to each other across the net. I admit that it was momentarily very difficult for me to speak of hope in such a heated atmosphere and to release this text for publication. But then I said to myself: now more than ever! No, I have absolutely no intention of giving up the dream of embracing meridians. At least not in my heart. There have been and will always be ‘dark times’ of the kind to which Brecht referred; it is only the intensity of their darkness and the vantage point from which each individual experiences them that change. And, regardless of what Brecht said, there will always be ‘conversations about trees’ without this being ‘almost a crime’.
I spoke these words in 1992 on the occasion of the presentation of the Chamisso Award at the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. Today, the air is a little fresher and the snow in front of the house is whiter. Our eight-year-old granddaughter is now twenty-one years of age. She is completing the first year of her law degree in France. Her mother, our daughter Salma, works in the German parliament. I have since gained three new grandchildren with German/Arab first names. My great-grandfather, who emigrated to Damascus from a Kurdish village in southern Turkey, left many Syrian descendants in Damascus. My son bears the name of his grandfather, born in Damascus of Turkish descent: Suleiman, the Arabic version of the biblical name Solomon; while his son, Adel Falk, bears the first names of both his grandfathers. What names he will one day give his daughter, or my granddaughter her son, is still written in the stars.
born in Damascus in 1936, left Syria for political reasons and came to Leipzig in 1961 via Lebanon and West Germany. He still lives in the city. He studied literature and theatre studies in Leipzig and wrote his doctorate on Brecht. He is a bilingual poet, essayist, and translator.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to