In 2011, author Ramy Al-Asheq was forced to flee Damascus after writing about the Syrian revolution. Today, as a refugee in Germany, the “Weiter Schreiben” project helps him and other exiled writers continue their work.DW: You’re taking part in the “Weiter Schreiben” project (“Continue Writing”), which launched on Monday. The aim is to publish texts by authors who were forced to flee their homeland and now live in Germany – just like you. You escaped Syria and now live in Cologne. How important is it for you to be able to publish your work?
Ramy Al-Asheq: This is one of the most important things for me as an author. I don’t know how to build a house or how to open a restaurant. The only thing I know is how to write. Everything I do is related to my language. I think, I write, I publish – everything in my language. I said in one poem of mine: “You were a bird migrating to a country/That does not fathom the language it chirps.” So for me, the most important thing here in Germany was to continue to write – “weiterschreiben,” just like the project says. And to be translated.
Your first text for the project is titled “Fatma trägt zwei Wunden in der Hand” (“Fatma bears two wounds in her hand”). It’s a poem about a woman, Fatma, who follows the path of many recent migrants from the Middle East and North Africa: she tries to flee across the Mediterranean in a boat. Why did you pick this story for the start of the project?
Fatma is my mother, so this poem is very special for me. It’s very personal, but at the same time, it’s about a very common experience among refugees. When I wrote the poem in 2015, I didn’t know if Fatma would survive. I was traumatized, waiting for news. Everyone who has ever waited for someone knows this kind of emotion. The good news is: Fatma survived. She now lives in Mülheim an der Ruhr. But I also like the poem for another reason: it’s very rhythmic, and I hope also in German!
You had to flee Syria after you covered the demonstrations as a journalist at the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. You also wrote lyrics for a number of revolutionary songs. How has politics influenced not only your life, but also your writing?
Everything has an influence on my writing: death, refuge, home, politics and war. But actually, I don’t write about them, I use them as an author to build a good text. So the question is how you use it. If I write about politics, then I do this as a journalist. I have a critical mind – also about Germany. But with poems it’s completely different. Literature needs to wait until the emotion dies down. I do both journalism and writing as an author.
When I wrote the song lyrics I was still in Damascus, in the midst of the demonstrations. Now I’m no longer there, and I don’t like these lyrics any more. But when I consider the situation, I know they’re OK. It’s very different if you’re inside or outside the situation.
Fear changes everything, also in your writing. My mother, for example, was much more afraid waiting outside the prison than I was inside. Now that we are in exile, we are more afraid than those people still in Syria. I ask myself, what could literature do in these horrible times? Destruction is real. The blood is real. Reality is today stranger than fiction.
You grew up in the Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus. One could say you were born a refugee, even before the war in Syria. What does the term “refugee” mean to you?
I am a refugee – I was born a refugee, my father was born a refugee. I am not ashamed of being a refugee. But it is a shame for the world that we have 65 million refugees worldwide. I don’t believe in borders. I am not Syrian, or Palestinian, or German. I don’t have a problem with the term refugee, but this is not my identity. I am an author. My situation is a refugee. This is why this project is important. It doesn’t deal with us as refugees, but as authors.
The idea behind the Weiter Schreiben project is to form a team of two authors – one German, and one who was forced to flee his home. Your partner is Monika Rinck. What does it look like, this experience of working as a two-author team?
This is really the most interesting part of the project, the tandem, not only the publishing. When I sat down with Monika, I didn’t expect that she would immediately begin work. I thought we would first chat a bit, discussing the publishing, literature scene and so on. I thought: Are you serious? I also wrote about this experience with her.
By our second meeting, we sat together and she translated one of my poems [from English to German] and we had a discussion about the images and the meanings. We also read together, and she explains how it is to work as an author in Germany. This exchange is very useful. It gives me the opportunity not only to be the one who needs help, but also to give something. The idea of the project is not to help refugees, but to consider people on the same level and try to do something for both sides.
Ramy Al-Asheq (@ramyal3asheq) is a writer, poet and journalist. At the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, he began covering the demonstrations for various media outlets and wrote lyrics for a number of revolutionary songs. In July 2011, he was arrested by the Assad regime. Upon his release, he went into hiding and, the following year, fled to Jordan.
During his time in Amman, Al-Asheq published his first book, “Walking on Dreams.” He subsequently earned a fellowship for writers from the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, which allowed him to move to Cologne in November 2014.