Exiled in Europe: An Interview with Three Women Writers

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has often examined the question of exile in essays and articles. Exile is indeed a place, he has written, a desolate space where one must confront the question: “Is there a moment when you know intuitively and accept that you have now truly arrived in exile?” He also suggests that a writer’s temperament is that of “a creature in a permanent state of exile,” since his or her real vocation is the eradication of the barriers of reality. For writers, says Soyinka, the goal is to help readers cross imaginary borders—between people, nations, languages and cultures.

Samar Yazbek, a Syrian journalist, writer, and activist who became known in the West following the publication of her book A Woman in the Crossfire, a diary of the beginnings of the revolution in Syria for which she won a PEN Pinter Prize, has lived in Paris in political exile since July 2011. She tends to agree with Soyinka’s notion: a writer is always in exile, she said, this is what pushes him or her to write. “It doesn’t have to be geographical [exile].”

Yazbek is referring in part to her Alawite origins. Like her compatriot the author Rosa Yassin Hassan, in opposing the Assad regime, both women have entered into conflict with and become exiled from their own communities, which have generally backed President Assad, also an Alawite.

Yazbek said her identity is her writing. “Home is my language, my country, my soul, and my life is in my text.”

Because of the “nightmarish phase” Syria is going through, however, Yazbek feels she is now in exile in all senses of the word.

Before the revolution I wanted to come here, it was the only way I could imagine developing my art . . . now I think exactly the opposite. The only place I can go is Syria. It is my one destiny, but of course I cannot go.”

The notion of exile that writers evoked in the past has now changed with social media, explained Yazbek: “Today there are instant means of communication. Exile in the sense of nostalgia is no longer. You are in a place where the smells and noises are not the ones of your country, but you can communicate constantly and this makes it worse, you can’t simply disconnect.”

Rosa Yassin Hassan, whose third book, Hurras al-Hawa (Guardians of the Air), was long listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, fled to Germany two years ago with her son; her feelings about being in exile are understandably conflicted.

“I left Syria but it hasn’t left me . . . it’s not easy to leave behind your memory, even if you would like to. In just a few minutes we find ourselves like uprooted trees far from our country, the people we love and the details of our life . . . We are surrounded by security and stability yet worry at the same time . . . the relationship between the exiled and his or her country of refuge is defined by an intensifying feeling of powerlessness.”

That said, there are positive aspects to her exile, said Hassan, which will undoubtedly influence her writing: “Perhaps my perspective has widened—being far away has allowed me to see details that I could not when I was near them. I’ve gotten to know new and different cultures from up close. This has brought me a form of hybridity, which is always enriching. My conviction in the importance of writing has grown even greater during my exile. This has allowed me to plunge more deeply into writing about different characters and the social, political and religious struggles in our Arab societies. My hasty departure made me realize that we were prisoners of a series of established beliefs that we had inherited without examining, and this had a negative influence on our evolution as individuals as well as in democratic and secular groups.”

But what of writers who have been in exile much longer, before social media existed, and who have watched their country unravel from afar, no longer able to find the country they left?

Inaam Kachachi, an Iraqi journalist and writer, has lived in Paris for thirty-three years—longer now than the time she spent in Iraq. Unlike Yazbek and Hassan, she did not flee under political pressure; she came to France to study, and her children were born in Paris. She remained as the situation in Iraq worsened and because, “I was born with a wish for freedom. I can’t live in Iraq as a free and independent woman.”

Yet for decades she felt that she still lived in Iraq in spirit. “In my head I’m still Iraqi. I would always say “chez moi,” meaning Iraq, and once a woman here said to me “c’est ici chez vous!” [Your home is here!]. It was so strange to hear that.”

But the notion of living in Iraq in spirit has changed for Kachachi, in particular with the rise of extremism. “To be exact, it’s not me that still lives in Iraq. Iraq still lives in me. The Iraq that lives in me is the real and civilized Iraq. The Iraq that we see on TV today is not the one I was raised in and lived in. It’s like Noah’s Ark. The millions who left, not only for political reasons but in order to have freedom, took a little bit of Iraq with them and preserved it.”

Kachachi always worked as a journalist, and only began to write fiction ten years ago, when she felt “a big shout inside of me as a reaction to what was happening in my country, something that couldn’t be transmitted by journalism.”

The Iraq that she knew was collapsing and “dispersing like sand running through your fingers. Because as a journalist I know so many things about real life, I have a duty to tell the new generation. When my children look at my photos taken at university they don’t believe that it was real: that there were love stories and social clubs and literature clubs.”

Her first novel, Sawaqi al-Quloob (Streams of Hearts), was about five Iraqi exiles living in Paris and their bond to each other and their country. Kachachi continued with the theme of exile in her next two novels, The American Granddaughter and Tashari, both of which were nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. But she had already been fascinated by the theme of exile in her journalistic work and researched the writings of five Iraqi-born Israeli writers: Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael, Samir Nakash, Yitzhak Bar-Moshe, and Naim Kattan.

“They left Iraq so young and half a century later they were still writing about Baghdad. I sent them questions and read their books. I never imagined that I would walk in their footsteps. I always knew there was a country I could go back to. Now I feel that I can’t go back and find things as before. Even the exiles who were political opponents and fled the country under Saddam don’t recognize the Iraq they left thirty years ago when they return.”

Kachachi, Yazbek, and Hassan all focus in their work on giving a voice to those who don’t ordinarily have one—very often women. They are all deeply concerned about the rise of extremism in the Arab world. Kachachi’s latest novel, Tashari, recounts the story of a woman gynecologist, a Christian, who lives and practices in a predominantly Shiite city for twenty years. She also published a collection of interviews with Iraqi women, and in 2004 made a documentary film about Naziha al Dulaimi, an early Iraqi feminist who became the first female cabinet minister in the Arab world.

“I’m not a historian,” said Kachachi, “but history was always written by the authorities. You don’t read much about people. And even less about women.”

Both Yazbek and Hassan were involved in women’s rights in Syria and in their work have broken taboos, writing of women’s sexuality and even gay relationships.

“I paid a very high price as a woman by confronting religious, political, and social authorities,” said Hassan. “I dreamed there was a place in my country where a woman could live freely with all her rights, her head held high. Things are taking a frightening and worrying direction . . .. I do not want this dream of democracy and freedom that Syrians had and for which they sacrificed so much to be transformed into terrorism and fear and a horizon with no perspective. I don’t want our daughters to live lives without a future and without hope.”

Yazbek and Hassan both decided on exile first and foremost for their children, even if Yazbek’s daughter, already a teenager, didn’t appreciate the gesture at first. Says Hassan, “In the end the burning torch of life is always in the woman’s hands and she is the one most insistent to keep it aflame. For me personally, my son’s life and safety were the main reasons for leaving my country.”

To have the necessary conditions and concentration to write and get published while one’s country of origin is engulfed in violence is far from easy. For Kachachi, having her fiction translated into French made her feel established in her adopted country.

“When you write in your language it’s difficult to find a translator or a publisher. You have to be able to impose your text. It was important for me to be translated because I live here, my children live here, I have neighbors here, I have to give them proof. For years my son saw me writing first by hand, then on a computer, then on a tablet, and when he saw my books in French he realized [what I had been doing]. When my neighbors saw my book, their behavior toward me changed. It’s like you exist, you are not just an immigrant living on welfare; you work, and are someone who has his place in society.”

Paris has given Kachachi openness and space so that she can evolve as a writer and search her memory for the Iraq she wants so fervently to resuscitate.

“France gave me a big chance to live an enriching life as a woman and as a modern person . . .. Living in Paris is a privilege. Even if you have nothing to eat or drink you can sit on a bench and the world passes in front of you. Paris is a big melting pot for all sorts of cultures, and this is reflected in my writing; now I write with lots of freedom. I can say things the way I want to say them; I’m free of the classical form of Arabic. I dig very deeply into memories from Iraq: details, songs, smells, and tastes—I want to create a whole atmosphere. Sometimes I feel like I’m a medium who brings ghosts back from the past. I have a very good memory and things that happened fifty years ago come back very clearly.”

Samar Yazbek’s time in Paris has been interspersed with trips abroad, conferences about Syria, and the occasional clandestine trip back to Syria. “I haven’t had time to settle . . . my most recent book is nonfiction, I haven’t yet written fiction here. To write fiction you have to be able to focus. I have started to write my new novel. But I don’t know where it’s going, in which direction. These last two years, literature was very far from my mind because I was so focused on bearing witness and starting my [civilian women’s] association in Syria.”

Yazbek is very conflicted about being in exile. “I am fighting for justice and truth and I feel extremely guilty because I feel like I have let people down by being absent.” In order to “justify” her exile, she is intent on being a spokesperson for a peaceful revolution. “If Bachar falls I will go back immediately,” said Yazbek.

For now, she has decided to concentrate on learning French and will travel only once a month. “I want to focus on my novel. It’s a strange story that takes place in Syria in 2011.”

“I can write anywhere,” said Rosa Yassin Hassan. “I’ve written in very difficult conditions—all I need is a computer and a cup of coffee. Writing is the most important thing in my life and I live for writing.”

Hassan recently finished a novel set in Syria between 2011 and 2012.

“It’s called ‘Those Who Were Touched by Magic.’ I wrote about Syrians who are not mentioned in the press, people that no one knows, people who live and die in obscurity. I wrote about those who are for and against the regime, about revolution, about love and death and all its contradictions.” All of Hassan’s previous novels have been banned in Syria, and she thinks her new one, which will be published in Beirut, will have the same fate.

Writing, for Hassan, is “to extract that which is secret. To find what has been made to disappear, to say what is unsaid or hidden. All these things that are buried in the deep interior of people and at the heart of society . . . I think writing, besides being an aesthetic art that pleases the reader, is above all a method to ask questions, to provoke and to oblige us to think in a different manner. Writing does not offer answers during one’s life but it creates questions. I don’t believe that literature consists in creating an imaginary world into which one can plunge. The novel, in particular, is the secret history of humanity because the official history is a great lie written by the conquerors and the rulers.”

The first time Kachachi realized that she was truly in exile was at the time of the American invasion of Iraq. “I wanted to finish my life in Iraq; I wanted to get old beside an old date palm. It seems now I will no longer be able to.”

With thanks to Bassem Snaije for translations

© 2014 by Olivia Snaije. All rights reserved.