Interview with Rasha Abbas “Comedy is the best way”

Rasha Abbas
Rasha Abbas | ©Heike Steinweg

Syrian writer Rasha Abbas used to write in darker tones. A year and a half after immigrating to Germany, she has now published a collection of satirical short stories about the pitfalls of everyday life in her new country.

When Rasha Abbas, who was born in the coastal city of Latakia in northwest Syria and grew up in Damascus, published her first collection of short stories, Adam hasst das Fernsehen (“Adam Hates TV”, 2008), she was still working as an editor on Syrian state television. Three years later, shortly after the revolution broke out, she turned her back on her state employer, joined the democratic movement and had to go into exile in Beirut the very next year. In 2014 she won a Jean-Jacques Rousseau fellowship for a three-month residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. She proceeded to write 15 short stories in Arabic about arriving and settling into life in Germany, which were translated into German and published under the title Die Erfindung der deutschen Grammatik (“The Invention of German Grammar”) in March 2016.

How did your new collection of stories, which clearly breaks with your previous work, come about?

Now and then I’d write on Facebook about funny things that happened to me in Germany. Sandra Hetzel, a translator and the founder of the literary collective 10/11 for young Arab authors, had the idea of putting them together into a whole book. It was a bit of an adventure for me since I had no idea how to write a humorous book. My writing is normally more on the dark side, more depressive and psychedelic. This change might be the result of the sensitive situation we find ourselves in at the moment. My stories are about what it's like being a refugee in Germany.

In your short stories, you poke fun at German as well as Arab culture. How much courage does that require?

Naturally, a lot of stuff in this book doesn’t reflect how I really see things. For a joke to be funny, it always has to be a bit harsh and exaggerated. It is fun to write this way, partly because it’s provocative. Lots of people are very touchy about stuff like that . . . and I don’t mean just us newcomers, but also some of the European activists who work with us. There is another idea that drives me crazy: some people think they should present a “positive image” of Arab culture and show its good intentions. But all that does is keep us from speaking openly about things. This is why comedy is the best way to reflect on culture.

The German translation of your stories came out before the original in Arabic. Who are your main readership?

The readers I primarily had in mind when writing the book were people living in Germany: Germans and Arabs alike. But a lot of stuff in my stories will be pretty mystifying to people in the Arab world who don’t know Germany. Which is why I’ve reworked the Arabic version for publication by the Lebanese chapter of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Besides, when addressing Arab readers, you can make very different kinds of jokes using expressions or images that are well known in the Arab world.

How does it work, seesawing between languages like this?

It’s interesting how personality and language are connected. In Arabic, for example, I write and talk according to Arabic logic. But for an article in English I never write it first in Arabic and then translate it. I write the article in English according to the logic of the English language. Arabic is a very rich language in which you can go on and on describing things with adjectives and adverbs. In German you have to take a more pragmatic approach. One word I think is funny is geradeheraus: you have to speak plainly and get straight to the point.

Your book was first published online by Mikrotext and then in print by Orlanda Verlag. What are the advantages of digital publication?

Literature lags behind music and the arts when it comes to using new technologies as a medium and not just as subject-matter. Only in literature have we been using the same media for centuries now. We need more radical experiments, digital books just don’t go far enough. Like “wikinovels”, for instance, structured along the lines of Wikipedia entries, or “SMS novels”. Literature becomes far more vibrant when it sets out to invade new media.

Rasha Abbas’ next book, The Gist of It, will be published in Arabic by the Milan-based Italian publisher Al-Mutawassit this autumn.