Cultural scene

The German-Iraqi Author Abbas Khider – Troubadour of Confidence

Abbas Khider; © Jakob StedenIn 2000 Abbas Khider, already a grown man, came to Germany without knowledge of the language. Today he stands in the front rank of German novelists.

When Abbas Khider came to Germany, the land of poets and thinkers, he knew no more than three words of the language: “Hitler”, “Scheiße” (Shit!) and “Lufthansa”. Now the man from Baghdad is one of the authors chosen by Germany’s most important literary critics to be placed on the SWR list of the best writers. Thanks to his cheerful nature and his confidence, he has survived imprisonment under Saddam Hussein and the hard life of a refugee without papers – and today these enable him to breast the setbacks suffered by the “Arab Spring”.

A turbulent life by God’s grace

Khider was born in 1973 in Baghdad. As a young high-school graduate, he distributed leaflets protesting against the regime; shortly thereafter he found himself in prison for the first time. He was to be arrested altogether six times on charges of political agitation and spend two full years in the prisons of Saddam Hussein. In 1996 he succeeded in fleeing to Amman, where he began his years-long odyssey through almost the entire Mediterranean basin, a time that he has treated in his novel Der falsche Inder (The Fake Indian) (2008)

The cover of „Der falsche Inder“ (2008); © Edition NautilusFor four years the young man struggled along as a sans papier in Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, Greece and Italy. He kept his head above water working in a variety of jobs: as a waiter, a construction worker, an Arabic teacher, a carpet layer, a garbage sorter and a cleaner, even as a teacher of the Koran in Chad. During this time he slept wherever he could find a place to lay his head: under bridges, in tunnels, at construction sites, in a brothel. When you meet Khider, you are at first amazed by the relaxed serenity and apparently indestructible joy that he radiates. Perhaps this is the joy of a man who has learned that he can lose everything from one minute to the next, and for that very reason keenly feels every minute as a manifestation of grace, a gift of God.

Distance through language

The cover of „Die Orangen des Präsidenten“ (2011); © Edition NautilusFor his literary debut Khider was awarded the 2010 Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, which is given to authors whose first language is other than German. With his second novel, published in 2011, Khider made the leap to the top. Die Orangen des Präsidenten (The President’s Oranges) is an Iraqi prison novel whose descriptions of suffering and cruelty shock the reader. At the same time, Khider manages to weave a glimmer of humanity into his somber prison prose, acknowledging human traits even in the sadistic police interrogators and torturers.
Thanks to the simple artistry of its language, Khider’s style never gives the impression of being artificial or contrived. His prose is part of an art that is interested in human beings, that is constantly striving to bring out something special in the simple, to reflect the joyous in the tragic and the tragic in the joyous.

As, for instance, when he presents the father of his hero Mahdi as a carefree fool, who dances about cheerfully during air raids in the Iraqi-Iranian war, finds everything “exciting” and looks forward to finally being able to “try out” the new air raid shelter. Or when he describes how the prisoner Dhalal who, in his despair, loses his mind and takes to tormenting two bedbugs in a plastic bag: “They are my two enemies, Islam and Communism. I torture them”.

The incredible happens

In early 2011, even before Die Orangen des Präsidenten began to achieve success, Khider was working on a new book about the depressive hopelessness of Arab intellectuals when, suddenly, the Arab Spring erupted. At once, the new resident of Berlin made his way to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and plunged into the fray of the democratic uprising.

Abbas Khider; © Jakob Steden“There was an incredible harmony” says Khider, euphoric. “I had the feeling that these people in the Al-Tahrir Square together formed a poem that everyone could feel and read and be witness to and co-write. It was really like a wedding party for freedom.”

He saw men, he says, whose eyes were already dead, men who had gone mad with despair and had sat idly for decades in their flats, suddenly begin to live again and, witnessing the uprising against autocracy and oppression, laugh like small children. Some of those days in Cairo, he says, were among the most beautiful in his life. “It was like a rebirth.”

The need for confidence

Abbas Khider; © Jakob StedenEven the hangover after the high, the sobering prospect of the coming Herculean labors necessary for profound social change, have not shaken Khider’s confidence. He sees the imagining of change as nothing less than necessary – because, he says, without this first step, change will never be realized.

“For what seems like endless years, the Arabs have been prisoners of history, prisoners of colonialization, then of Arab dictatorships and Western policy, prisoners of the Israel-Palestine drama, prisoners in their own countries, prisoners of their lack of pride in themselves.” Today many Arabs think it possible to free themselves from all these prisons: that, says Khider, is of course an illusion. But, he adds, “illusions can change people. That happens in love, and it also happens in revolution. The Arab Spring has succeeded in changing people. At last, they are dreaming of a better future. Before 2011, none of us could imagine this. And now, after liberation from the dictatorships, it is possible to dream of even a 'cultural' revolution. I dream of one. That, too, is now a real possibility.” Not only for this reason, but also because of this resolute optimism, Abbas Khider is an extraordinary figure and an enrichment of the German literary world.

Lewis Gropp
works as a free-lance journalist, editor and translator in Cologne.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
January 2012

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