"There is no right to hate"
In his critically acclaimed novel September. Fata Morgana, Thomas Lehr lends a voice to two families – one in the US and one in Iraq – on 9/11 and its consequences. To do so, he embarked on an intensive study of Islam and the Middle East. Katy Derbyshire read the book
September is a highly sophisticated work of literature. Thomas Lehr abandons almost all punctuation and lets his characters tell their stories in a long flow, digressing, reliving positive and traumatic moments, weaving in their own poems and literary quotes.
Yet the strong rhythm of his narration perfectly matches his four narrators' desperate state of mind. The characters enter into a literary dialogue, even though they never actually meet. Or do they?
It is these lovingly drawn characters that carry the entire book. The first of them is Martin, a German-American academic who loses his daughter Sabrina and his divorced wife in the plane attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
Sabrina herself is another of the narrators, alongside her contemporary Muna in Iraq and Muna's father, Tariq, a doctor with strong western influences. The metaphorical bracket that holds together both the two men and the novel itself is this: Tariq also loses his wife and daughter in a terrorist attack, this time on a Baghdad market square in 2004.
Research into Islam
Thomas Lehr might not be the first writer who springs to mind when it comes to intercultural dialogue. Born in the historical town of Speyer in 1957, he studied biochemistry and started his career as a programmer. He has been writing full-time since 1999 and is known for his complicated and linguistically sophisticated novels, which often link science and philosophy.
After 9/11, however, as Lehr told an interviewer from Deutschlandradio, he dealt with his shock by collecting material on the subject, which later extended to the Iraq war.
The Islamic scholars Stefan Weidner and Angelika Neuwirth gave him advice and reading material and he visited Syria and Jordan (Baghdad, Thomas Lehr explained elsewhere, was too dangerous). The most important source of inspiration, he told me, was regular meetings with Iraqis in exile in Berlin, which led to a close friendship with the great Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi.
Evading the traps of Orientalism
With this material in hand, Lehr devoted three years to writing a sensitive and moving dual portrait of two families in the USA and Iraq, between September 2001 and September 2004, which enabled him to write a novel that evades all the traps of Orientalism in an exemplary manner.
The two daughters have a mysterious connection: as a girl, Sabrina conjured up an imaginary sister, an Arabian princess, whom the real-life Muna initially embodies.
Each character tells his or her own story in alternating chapters, with Muna opening the novel with a sparkling 1001 Nights-inspired fantasy. She fabulates about lying under her grandmother's bed while her older sister is seduced by a major on her wedding night. Yet Muna is brought down to earth as the novel progresses – this very affair lands her sister in Saddam Hussein's torture chambers.
Lehr consciously plays with western images of an exotic Orient. He lays out his clichés as bait for the reader, only to drag us kicking and screaming into the violent reality of Baghdad – before, during and after the war.
Towards the end of the book, this violence takes on a terrible form once again, with Muna ending up between the fronts of Shi'a–Sunni conflict.
Human suffering prompts critical thought
Violence soon finds its way into Martin and Sabrina's lives too. Almost like an omen, the student Sabrina meets a young man when an explosion goes off in her neighbourhood. On the way to spend a few weeks with him in California, she visits her mother at her office in the World Trade Center on the early morning of September 11.
Her father Martin is plunged into a crisis by the attack, thinking a great deal about how it could have happened. In conversation and his own desperate thoughts, he imagines the hate-driven "boys" who murdered his daughter and thousands of others.
He looks for solutions, sheds light on the turbulent history of American-Iraqi relations, researches Islamism, but finds no certain answers – other than that he has "no right to hate".
Tariq in turn has a clearer but more cynical view of life than his daughter Muna. To begin with, he treats his patients as best he can under the conditions of the embargo and later counts up the victims of Saddam Hussein and the American bombings.
Tariq shows us a society "berberised" by the war and its consequences – families huddled together, looting and kidnapping – although he had hoped the American occupation would bring improvements.
Prerequisites for intercultural dialogue
It is by adopting these four very different perspectives that Thomas Lehr lends his book its dialogue qualities.
"Only through expanding our own narrow mental confines and cultural perspectives do we have a chance for dialogue," he said in an interview. "The moral of the book is taking the other view. I want to give the reader the feeling of what it might be like to be on the other side."
Thomas Lehr also drew inspiration from both cultures. From American poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson via Goethe's West-Eastern Divan to Hafez and Omar Khayyam, all the way back to the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epos, the text is dotted with fragments of poetry, raisins in a literary pilav.
September is a novel of great respect towards both American and Iraqi culture.
It closes with a series of dreamlike scenes in which the characters meet by chance – perhaps in real life, perhaps in a kind of fata morgana. And with the sobering words of an inscription in a former meeting place of cultures, Granada's Alhambra: "There is no victor but God."
© Qantara.de 2010
Thomas Lehr: "September. Fata Morgana", Hanser Verlag, München 2010.
Redaktion: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
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