Interview with Björn Luley
“Revolutions happen elsewhere“

Goethe-Institut Damascus in Exile
Goethe-Institut Damascus in Exile | Goethe-Institut e.V.

The Goethe-Institut Damascus was one of the first institutes worldwide. It closed in 2012 due to security concerns. Many people were forced to leave the country and are now living in exile in Europe. The Goethe-Institut is creating a symbolic place for cultural encounters – “Goethe-Institut Damascus | In Exile”. The director of the Goethe-Institut Australien, Sonja Griegoschewski, spoke with the former director of the institute in Damascus, Björn Luley. A conversation about the impact of culture, life in Damascus and the current situation of Syrian artists in exile.

The Goethe-Institut Damascus opened as one of the first institutes worldwide in 1955. What relevance did Syria have for the German cultural exchange at that time? Why Damascus?

After World War II and the division of our country, the young German Republic was seeking out new allies in the world. Amongst former colonies like India, Syria and Indonesia the reputation was that Germany was “anti-colonial”, as it had fought against former colonial powers such as England and France. Back then, Syria had only been independent from French paternalism for seven years and was a modernizing secular country. The Goethe-Institut in Damascus was the result of a lectureship of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) at the university and was well frequented by young people.

Important Places for Cultural Exchange

With the beginning of the “Arab Spring“ many new cultural and educational projects were brought  to the region, many special funds. With these funds came great expectations. How realistic would you say – with your current perspective – is the possibility that the Goethe-Institut has actual influence in such a phase? What was particularly relevant, and where were we naïve or on the wrong track?

Political change is created during revolutions in the streets and squares – not in the facilities of foreign cultural institutions. One should not be under the illusion that the creation of a Tahrir-Lounge at the Goethe-Institut Cairo for instance, had any effect on the course of the Egyptian Revolution. Foreign cultural institutes are certainly important places in which young, open and secular people with a certain educational background enjoy hanging out, discussing issues and finding inspiration. Revolutions however, happen elsewhere. For example, shortly before the Syrian uprising began, on the day of the funeral of the extremely significant documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay, we were screening his regime-critical film A Flood in Baath Country without government consent at the Goethe-Institut Damascus in the evening to a full house. This resulted in a strict reprimand and the threat of my deportation (of which I was very proud!), and great recognition amongst artists and the critical youth. But no more than that!

Sonja Griegoschewski and Björn Luley Sonja Griegoschewski and Björn Luley | © Jochen Gutsch As director of the Goethe-Institut in Damascus you opened a branch in Aleppo in November 2010. The German press was enthusiastically writing about the city of four million people with a blossoming art and cultural scene. Only a few months later everything was different. What memories do you have of this time in Syria?

Trying to open a Goethe-Institut in Aleppo – where there had already been a so-called lectureship of the Goethe-Institut back in the early sixties - dates back to efforts during my first appointment in Syria, in collaboration with the local lecturer of the DAAD. The authorities had shown an interest but wanted to control access to the Goethe-Institut – which was unacceptable for us. This is the reason why we didn’t choose the offered space at the university when the endeavour was taken up again right at the beginning of my second Syria-appointment. Instead, we decided on a space in the old town that we had tediously negotiated with the city council. It was in an old school that had been renovated by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) which also housed the Aga Kahn Foundation and an old town restoration office of GIZ. Most importantly for us though was the fact that everyone had free, uncontrolled access and we could contribute to the rejuvenation of the historic old town of Aleppo at the same time. What aided the tedious negotiations was that in autumn 2010 an acquaintance of mine – the theatre director and author Riad Ismat- became the new Syrian Minister for Culture. His assurance to attend the opening of the new Goethe-Institut in December simplified things.

The Goethe-Institut Damascus and its branch in Aleppo were closed in 2012 due to security concerns. What remains? Is there still contact between both cultural scenes? Where do your former Syrian colleagues live, and work today?

Many of the artists and intellectuals that we collaborated with in Syria are now living in exile – many of them in Germany. When we buried the sadly departed Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-Azm in Berlin in December 2016, I met many of the people who I still knew from my time in Damascus. A few have deliberately stayed in Syria and of course I’m still in touch with them as well.

“Most want to return home“

You were involved with the original project “The Goethe-Institut Damascus | In Exile” in Berlin. By now, many Syrian artists, musician and filmmakers are living there in exile. To offer them a platform, a “living space” was one goal of the project. At the same time, we are haunted by the terrible images of the conflict in Syria. What important message did you take away from the Syrians that were involved with the project in Berlin?

As with anyone in exile, they pay close attention to developments in their home country and have regular contact with family and friends who have stayed behind. Almost all of them want to return home as soon as the situation allows them to. They want to be involved with the rebuilding process – but only when the criminal Assad-Regime is well and truly in the past. 

After many years working for the Goethe-Institut, Syria was your second last appointment. As a Goethe-employee in your position one must relocate (often with family) to a foreign place approximately every five years. One gains many interesting work-related contacts but also finds personal friends. From personal experience, I’m aware that one can get especially attached to so-called ‘difficult posts’. In what way to you still feel attached to Syria? What impact did your time there have on you?

I’m not only still in touch with many artists from Syria, but also with my former colleagues – they are the backbone of any institute’s work. And that isn’t only true for places that are deemed ‘difficult’, but relates to all my posts (Calcutta, Tokyo, Kyoto, Damascus and Aleppo and Nicosia). Because if one takes their work seriously, any station is ‘difficult’ in some regard. Unless, one doesn’t care about their work, but that was never my thing!

Thank you for this conversation.