A life in limbo
For anyone without a personal history of migration, the feeling of being torn between two homelands and the desire to somehow harmonise the two cultures is difficult to understand. The yearnings and conflicts that arise from having a double identity pervade Rasha Khayat's debut novel, "Weil wir langst woanders sind."
The book tells the story of Layla and Basil, siblings with an Arab father and a German mother. Not only does the author share this in common with her two protagonists, but she also spent much of her childhood living in Saudi Arabia.
Layla has made a decision that no one in her German circle of friends can understand. She has chosen to return to the land of her father and marry an Arab. Isn't Saudi Arabia the country "against which I sign online petitions every other week on account of political conditions there," muses Basil, the narrator of the story, before flying off to Jeddah for his sister's wedding.
The difference between Basil's shared apartment in the Hamburg district of St. Pauli and the polished domicile of his uncle Khaled, in which he has now set foot for the first time in years, could hardly be greater.
The feeling of being annexed
Rasha Khayat's book is animated by such contrasts, which she vividly describes, thereby upsetting our preconceived notions. Khayat is a literary scholar and translator. Since 2010, she has been publishing a blog called "West-ostliche Diva," a play on Goethe's West-Eastern Divan, designating the site as a "German window to Arabistan."
Khayat was born in Dortmund and grew up in Jeddah. When she returned to Germany in the late 1980s, she encountered deeply rooted prejudices. Through her protagonist Layla, the author relates her confrontation with frequent clichés, the sort often found in popular novels such as "Not without my daughter."
"I know the feeling of being annexed all too well. As soon as someone uttered a xenophobic comment, it was frequently followed by the disclaimer, 'But of course, I didn’t mean you!'" recalls Khayat. "This is completely absurd. How do I differ in that moment from the intended target of the insult, the supposed faceless horde of barbarians?"
Life can be deeply complex in bicultural families, as Khayat illustrates through brief flashbacks retelling the story of Basil's and Layla's parents. Their mother spent her childhood in a conservative household in "the dullness of the post-war Ruhr region," while her father grew up as the son of a tailor in a large family living in Mecca.
When Layla finally introduces Basil to her future husband – half Arab, half British – she says succinctly: "He is one of us, Basil. Also a half measure." Layla, more so than Basil, is fed up with being constantly perceived through filters and always being forced to talk about Islam. And so, ultimately, she decides to give up her greater freedom as a woman in Germany for the feeling of being accepted and not feeling as if she were being endlessly interrogated.
Also a portrait of Saudi Arabia
As such, her book is also a portrait of Saudi Arabia, which Khayat often depicts from the interpersonal perspective of conversations and encounters. Yet, it is also a country in which arch-conservative precepts collide with modern lifestyles, as depicted in the scene where a boisterous group of teenagers is suddenly surprised by the religious police.
"My relationship to Saudi Arabia is sometimes complex, even for me," admits Rasha Khayat. Nonetheless, beyond the retrograde political conditions, she has observed changes in the country during her last visit. "I see that young people in the Saudi population strongly desire change in their country and to make a contribution to society. For example, there are now exists a very small, but sophisticated circle interested in art and film," relates Khayat.
The 37-year-old has strong feelings about Saudi Arabia, especially on account of the many memories she has of her father's country. Her relationships to friends and family living there, especially that to her uncle, who frequently spends time in prison on account of his work as a journalist, have left a deep impression upon Rasha Khayat. In contrast to Layla, Khayat cannot imagine living in Saudi Arabia and feels at home in her adopted city of Hamburg.
"The question of finding our place in the world constantly looms over us"
Khayat presents Layla's story to nonetheless show that there are also other ways to resolve the dilemma. She thereby questions a widespread self-assuredness based on the assumption that a young woman like Layla would of course choose to live in the greater freedom offered in Germany. Her characters Basil and Layla stand for two alternative life paths, whereby the author refrains from passing judgement.
"The question of finding our place in the world – and the uncertainty of a life in limbo – constantly looms over us. Whether it is an open or a latent issue depends on the individual," says Khayat. Her stimulating debut novel poses this question so successfully that one can only hope for many follow-up novels.
© Qantara.de 2016
Translated from the German by John Bergeron