A Portrait of Sherko Fatah

Reality Is an Adventure

The German-Iraqi writer Sherko Fatah spent his first childhood years in the GDR. The son of a Kurd from Iraq and a German mother learned early on to step back from his experiences and reflect on his own point of view. A portrait by Volker Kaminski

Sherko Fatah is a wanderer between the worlds. Even as a child he experienced how widely disparate cultures and languages collide. Fatah was born in 1964 in East Berlin, where his father, a Kurd from Iraq, had moved because of a translation grant. But their life in the GDR was not to last. In 1975 the Fatahs left East Berlin and moved to West Germany by way of Vienna.

This departure – naturally with no possibility of return – was a profound caesura for the ten-year-old boy. He had to leave behind his friends, and he was confronted with new schoolwork that taught a picture of history and humankind completely different from the one he had known before.

On top of it all, Sherko Fatah accompanied his father on several long stays in Iraq, where he was witness and onlooker to a dictatorship much worse than the GDR. To this day he regularly visits Iraq, where his father has now returned for good.

Radical literary turn

Sherko Fatah, author of four critically-acclaimed, prize-winning novels – most recently, his novel "The Dark Ship" was shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair – describes his existence as an intellectual and cultural double life.

After studying philosophy and art history in Berlin he took a radical turn in terms of his literary themes. Fatah had begun to write early on, but initially his studies had no influence on his literary work. The young student concentrated on Wilhelm Dilthey's philosophical hermeneutics and Heidegger's linguistic analysis.

Now – inspired mainly by the 1980s craze for the great South American novels of Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, etc. – Fatah discovered his fundamental themes: the experience of life between cultures, the difficulty of arriving in an alien environment, the effort to cope with the circumstances of dictatorship.

He is stimulated by the act of "jumping into a stranger’s head", as he puts it, reflecting the stranger’s experiences in the form of a novel.

Difficult processes of adjustment

Not only in his novels is Fatah a fascinating storyteller; in conversation he describes his experience of the cultural roller coaster both vividly and analytically.

Listening to him, one realizes how much strength and imagination it takes to keep changing one's point of view, forced to make exhausting moves to cope with difficult processes of adaptation.

Though his progressive parents surely gave him an advantage over those forced to struggle from the outset with prejudices and rigid religious strictures, Fatah knows what it means to orient oneself and find one's way in unfamiliar circumstances.

One difficulty, he says, is when initial expectations are too high and one does not make the necessary effort to actively assimilate new things. The danger of "becoming complacent" is great. Nonetheless, Fatah believes in integration, even if immigrants are always left with a feeling of otherness.

"Cultural otherness does not speak against integration", he says, arguing that "multiculturalism can thrive in Europe". As Fatah points out, the coexistence of minorities has always been a historical reality in Europe, despite the horrific experience of National Socialism.

​​German "genre snobbery"

To give literary form to his view of the world, Fatah draws on the genre of the adventure novel, one that is largely ignored in German literature, with a few exceptions, or relegated to the category of the thriller or penny dreadful.

Wrongly, as Fatah believes. The adventure novel plays a major role in English-language literature, for instance – as in William Golding's famous novel "Lord of the Flies". It is narrow-minded and wrong, argues Fatah, to look down disparagingly on a genre that is capable of describing major aspects of our modern life.

Every day in the newspaper we read stories of dangerous voyages, for instance, voyages that are a matter of life and death for stowaways. "Why should a genre that tells of mercenaries, pirates and refugees fleeing around the world be left entirely to television or film?"

However, Fatah believes that a literary turning point has come – ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which brought a much more global shift in its wake.

Since then, he says, it has become clear how many things are worth writing about, and a new look at biographies has become possible. At least since September 11, 2001 everyone realizes how fragile and vulnerable our world is.

Against this background it is unhelpful to hamper literature with restrictions and prohibitions. Fatah, for one, is familiar with the distancing gaze with which one observes and attempts to understand the circumstances of one's life in a constantly changing world.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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