Writers in Exile Offering Refuge to Authors

In the Goethe-Institut library: Najet Adouani is pleased about her first book published in German
In the Goethe-Institut library: Najet Adouani is pleased about her first book published in German | Photo: David Weyand

Writing can be perilous; it is sometimes life threatening. In many countries, dissident authors are faced with repression. Many of them end up fleeing for their lives. PEN and the Goethe-Institut support writers in German exile like Najet Adouani from Tunisia. By David Weyand

Flowers grow and wilt in the poems by the Tunisian writer Najet Adouani. Jasmine symbolizes the Mediterranean, it stands for beauty and peace. “The roses are my tears and the blood of the people who fight for their rights,” she explains. And the scent of flowers reminds her of her mother’s garden. But instead of enjoying its blossoms, this early summer the author is meandering under grey clouds through an oasis in Berlin. The little piece of earth between a roundabout and blocks of flats is called Prinzessinnengarten or Princesses Garden.

A young woman with a peacock’s feather in her hat is guiding a group from the Goethe-Institut through the neighbourhood garden. They come to a halt in front of a beehive. Adouani, dressed in dark colours, with a black braid and sunglasses perched on her head, asks in hesitant German, “What do they eat in the city?” A few metres on she points at white, earth-filled sacks. “And why do you plant the seedlings in there?” she asks softly. “I’m interested in details; they are important for my writing,” the poet explains. Adouani was born in 1956 and should not have even gone to school because she was a girl. But she began winning literary prizes in her teenaged years, later studied journalism and worked for newspapers and the radio.

Her entire life has been shaped by language, but now she’s back at the beginning, learning German at the Goethe-Institut. At the end of their course, she, her teacher and 15 other language learners from Chile, England, the United States, Taiwan and Turkey visit the Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. Najet Adouani is not only older than most of them, but is also here for a different reason. While others want to study or work in Germany, she was forced to flee here from Tunisia three years ago. It was not the first time. Between 1982 and 1997 she lived in exile in Baghdad, Beirut, Yemen, Prague and Cyprus.

After the Tunisian revolution, Adouani’s words in favour of women’s rights, liberty and peace also incensed the new government. “The coffee is black, even the rosebush is in mourning. The spring forgot to come to my balcony, it was dispersed by the storm of the Arab Spring, leaving bare the twigs and branches,” she wrote in the summer of 2012. Recently, selected prose works written by her between 1982 and 2012 were published under the title of Meerwüste (Sea Desert) by Lotus Werkstatt. It is her first book to be translated into German.

In order to protect her three adults sons who stayed behind the author will not speak of how, when and where they threatened her or what she fears. She fled in October 2012 at first to Weimar, where she received a Friedl Dicker Scholarship. As thankful as she is for the time she was able to spend in Weimar, she was nevertheless happy to be accepted for the Writers-in-Exile programme of the PEN-Zentrum Deutschland in April 2013 and to move. “I feel more at home in Berlin. I like the art house cinemas, I can get North African food, and the graffiti reminds me of the murals painted during the Arab Spring.”

“Language is the key to integration”

The German students move on from the community garden to the nearby Oranienplatz. “Last year, refugees demonstrated for their rights here,” explains their teacher. A woman passing by squawks at her, “You don’t know a thing, all lies!” The students’ faces show bewilderment, but the teacher smiles. “That’s called Berliner Schnauze (Berlin lip); we already talked about that.” This is Najet Adouani’s third language course. Her favourite words are Freiheit, Demokratie, Gesundheit (freedom, democracy, health).

Two years ago, Bernd Zabel, consultant in the Literature and Translation division of the Goethe-Institut and member of the executive committee of the PEN-Zentrum Deutschland, made sure that exiled authors could take free German courses. So far, six of them have taken up the offer. “Language is the key to integration,” says Zabel. The PEN programme has been in existence since 1999 and receives 370,000 euros in funding annually from the State Ministry of Culture. It allows imperilled writers from countries like Azerbaijan, China, Iran, Colombia, Syria, Togo and Vietnam to live and work in Germany safely for up to three years. The programme presently has three scholarship holders.

The author Liu Dejun: “I can write whatever I want” The author Liu Dejun: “I can write whatever I want” | Photo: private One of them is Liu Dejun. The 39-year-old human rights activist and blogger from China was kidnapped, mistreated and imprisoned a number of times. His friend, the dissident Ai Weiwei, made a film about his story. After travelling abroad, Liu did to return home and has been a guest of the German PEN-Zentrum since November 2013. His best experience: “I can write whatever I want in social media and my blog.” His Chinese website was censored and he now writes from Nuremberg on www.freeinchina.org about human rights issues in China. He even has written some articles in German, which he learned at the Goethe-Institut in Schwäbisch-Hall. He now wants to study law, “to be better able to advocate for human rights in China.” Liu would like to return home; he misses his ailing parents. He has been blacklisted, however, he says, and it would be too dangerous.

Persistent fears and traumas

Mansoureh Shojaee is in a similar situation. In 2010, after her third jail term in the infamous Evin prison in Tehran, the Iranian feminist and journalist travelled to Germany to visit her sister. She wanted to recuperate from the exertion, reach out to women’s rights activists and then return to Iran. Then the regime arrested her lawyer. Shojaee protested and gave interviews and charges were again brought against her. She made the decision to stay here. She was also a recipient of the Writers-in-Exile programme from 2011 until late 2013. She remembers it as “a wonderful time in a compassionate, safe and friendly atmosphere.”

The feminist Mansoureh Shojaee: five years in exile The feminist Mansoureh Shojaee: five years in exile | Photo: private She did not take a German course, however. “I would have liked to take the opportunity to understand the language of Goethe and Grass,” she says, “but I was trapped in an indeterminate situation: I wanted to return to my country and missed my son, political allies and activities.” Bernd Zabel understands it well, explaining, “We must be very sensitive with the participants who are burdened by fears for their families and friends, but also by memories and traumas.” In addition to safety, accommodations and language courses, the Writers-in-Exile programme also provides the writers with information about the German country and people as well as social and professional contacts. Najet Adouani was able to meet German colleagues at readings and writers’ conferences in Augsburg, Hamburg and Leipzig and was able to read her work to an audience for the first time. “Those were great experiences; sometimes I feel like a celebrity,” she says.

She reaches the final stop on the tour of Berlin: the river Spree. They learn where the Berlin wall ran and that East German citizens were often shot when border guards caught them trying to escape. Najet Adouani gazes at the other shore, her heart-shaped earrings dangle as she shakes her head. She sighs, “How horrible. Why do people do things like that to other people?”