Beyond the hackneyed Syrian refugee trope

Engage with our work, not our biographies

Seit 2015 ist das Interesse an syrischer Literatur in deutscher Übersetzung stark gestiegen. Künstler*innen, Übersetzer*innen und Verleger*innen erzählen von ihren Erfahrungen – und darüber, wieso der Hype für sie nicht nur förderlich ist. Von Mari Odoy

Over the last five years, there has been a "boom" of Syrian literature translated into German that has been noted by numerous writers, translators, and publishers. While no concrete data about the scope of this boom exists, this intense interest in Syrian writers is felt across Berlin.

But what limitations have come with this interest? Ramy Al-Asheq, one of the more well-known Syrian poets in Berlin, said that demand for his work has definitely increased in the last four years, but, "The problem is that they’re not really interested in the literature or in the Arabic language, but in certain countries where there is conflict, and where there are sexy stories." Many authors cited a pressure to relay "current events" rather than craft a work of literary merit. In Al-Asheq’s words:

People say, 'show us how much you are suffering on the way to Europe, and how much Europe is good' – they want to know about [the Syrian conflict] because it is something happening now, so it’s not about the literature, it’s about events. I don’t find this really progressive. Because… the problem is that a lot of authors… started writing what the Europeans expect and what they want to read.

An uncomfortable conflation

Writers describe this pressure to write about the Syrian crisis, whether through fiction, poetry, or personal narrative, as a central part of being a Syrian writer in Germany. Beyond this, conflation of the author’s lived experience as a migrant with their literary work appears to be ubiquitous within the industry. This was forcefully expressed by writer Yassin Al-Haj Saleh:

You are writing a paper, and you can hide behind your work, and your analysis; I cannot hide behind analysis. I am always there, and even when I am not there and I’m not writing about my story, and there is no 'I' in most of my work, still, in a way, it is 'my story' … I feel as if I am not read closely, or critically. I want the content of my work to be read, not the biography on the back cover.

Syrian poet Ramy al-Asheq (photo: Rashad Alhindi)
Writers under pressure to cater to the lowest common denominator: "People say, 'show us how much you are suffering on the way to Europe, and how much Europe is good' – they want to know about [the Syrian conflict] because it is something happening now, so it’s not about the literature, it’s about events," says Asheq

Many scholars have noted the conflation of Arab women authors with their fictional work, where Arab women’s literary voices are seen as representative of the experiences of the group (Amireh, Booth). The same is true of stories of Syrian migrant authors and the wave of Syrian literature being published today. As Al-Haj Saleh said, "I am famous now because of what happened to me, but it is always an exaggeration." His story is packaged to be consumable for an audience hungry for these "sexy stories of suffering".

For Al-Haj Saleh, being taken as representative of a survival narrative, without being able to extend beyond this narrative, is, in his words, "racist". A university-educated doctor and political scientist in his late fifties, he observed that while he tries to provide political analyses in his works, they are often reduced to testimonial literature, saying that "we can be witnesses, we can give our own stories, but in a way audiences are thirsty to listen to our stories as testimony, as a low level of knowledge. It is not at the level of theorising or conceptualising about phenomena." 

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