Portrait Sudabeh Mohafez

Building Bridges between Teheran and Berlin

The stories in the volume "Wüstenhimmel, Sternenland" ("Desert Sky, Land of Stars") by the German-Iranian writer Sudabeh Mohafez are a poetic reflection of life in a strange world full of violence. Katrin Matthei profiles the stories and their writer.

Sudabeh Mohafez

​​These days, when the issue of migration is discussed in Germany, the talk is of "integration" and "parallel societies." The terms claim to represent reality, but, in fact, they cement a division: on the one side, the Germans, on the other the migrants—either integrated or living in parallel societies.

The biographies of the people involved are usually more complicated than that: they often carry the parallel societies within themselves—or, as the German-Iranian writer Sudabeh Mohafez puts it, "two interior geographies."

In one of the stories in her first volume "Wüstenhimmel, Sternenland" ("Desert Sky, Land of Stars") she's found a highly poetic image for this condition.

Mount Damâvand as a mirage in Berlin

Mount Damâvand, Iran's highest mountain, huge, majestic and covered in snow, lords it over the Iranian capital, Teheran. Like a mirage, it suddenly turns up in Berlin, lording it over the River Spree—at least in the mind of the narrator in Sudabeh Mohafez's story "Sediment."

Like a slide show, the mountain and the Iranian capital superimpose themselves on the young woman's consciousness. The two contrasting capital cities blend together into a single world of experience. Her sober German environment reacts with incomprehension, it can't transcend its need for a cultural "either/or."

Like the protagonist of her story, the 41-year-old writer carries both cultures within herself. She grew up in Teheran as the daughter of a German mother and an Iranian father. The family moved to Berlin in 1979, just before the Islamic revolution.

Coming to terms with life in Germany was hard for the then sixteen-year-old Sudabeh Mohafez: she was expected to conform, to commit herself to one culture, the German rather than the Persian. Now, 25 years later, her writing is exploding the idea that there can be any finality as far as cultural realities and commitments are concerned.

Integration as a matter of power relations

Mohafez is particularly critical of the current German debate centred on the term "integration." She considers "integration" is a term which excludes the foreigners who live in Germany from the debate:

"The term refuses to recognise that we're already here in all our variety," she says. "It suggests a power relationship, in that I should go somewhere, enter something, fit in somehow. I find that a problem. It ought to be: I'm here, you're here, let's see what comes out of that."

She finds the prevailing attitude not pluralistic and varied enough: "It's not inquisitive enough towards the different cultural influences which one could experience here in Berlin, for example, if one were prepared to be open," she says. "What we have here is a treasure, it's amazing!"

Mohafez exploits this treasure in her story "Sediment." The narrator's point of view combines in one figure the experience of both a specifically German and a specifically Iranian reality.

The second major thematic issue in the stories in this volume is the literary treatment of the experience of violence. For example, in the story "Before the throne of Allah", Nâhid, an Iranian cleaning lady in Teheran, tries to save a German boy from abuse by his father.

The consequences of violent relationships

In "The Only Valid Perspective" Mohafez describes the thoughts of a son following the death of a brutal father, as he tries to find a new perspective for his life after the end of a violent relationship on which he was dependent.

Mohafez had daily contact with the consequences of physical and psychological violence in the course of her previous work as the head of centre for abused women. "Abuse destroys," she says. "It destroys the course of people's lives, it destroys talent, and it makes a real difference whether and how far someone must experience and suffer violence."

But for Mohafez that's not the end of the matter. It's just as important for her to ask what happens to victims after the violence. "How do I get out of it?" she asks. "And if I get out of it, what do I do then? It's not as if the absence of violence on its own means happiness." So a decisive question for her is: how can people find happiness after violence?

For that reason, Mohafez avoids any description of the violence itself; those who carry out the violence are only marginal figures in her stories. She's currently working on a new novel—for which she has a scholarship from the Berlin Department of Culture—which deals with the ability to live happy after abuse.

One of the characteristics of her stories is their style. With simple sentences she develops sensitive and distinctive images and moods.
Another characteristic is the open end to her stories: it's often far more important to her to ask the right questions than to offer the right answers:

"There are very rarely answers which are generally valid since every individual has to find his own answers," she says, "but there are often questions which are generally valid, and it would be inappropriate both for the people involved and in literary terms to try and find answers for those questions."

Sudabeh Mohafez lives and writes in Germany and Portugal. She says Portugal offers her the compromise she needs between her two interior cultural identities.

Katrin Matthaei


Translation from German: Michael Lawton

"Wüstenhimmel Sternenland" ("Desert Sky, Land of Stars"), Arche Verlag, Zürich 2004, ISBN 3716023329, bound, 123 pages.

You can find out more information in German about the volume of stories "Wüstenhimmel Sternenland" here.

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