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Meeting Rabab Haidar

By Ulla Lenze

Shortly after Rabab Haidar had come all the way from Syria to Germany, a filmteam suggested that Rabab and I be featured in a short documentary on the project Weiter Schreiben. The shooting started at my place very early in the morning. Rabab was 1,5 hours late. Of course, the filmteam had reached an advanced state of nervousness. Finally, though, she arrived (and yes, Berlin is a big city). We sat and had coffee, I learned that Syria had banned googlemaps, so she didn't have it on her phone yet, and Rabab, gesturing wildly with her arms while talking, threw the entire cup of coffee on my persian carpet, an heirloom I inherited from my great-aunt Änne.

There is something about Rabab that makes you take even this with laughter, almost gleefully, as if everything you encounter with Rabab is great, while with anyone else you would have already lost it. I don't know Rabab's secret yet.

One thing I can say, Rabab herself is very tolerant. After a year of long-distance contact between Damascus and Berlin, we finally met in person when Rabab was granted the prestigious Heinrich-Böll-Stipendium in Langenbroich. It was autumn 2018, and we met in Berlin, at the Berliner Dom. From there, we took a walk towards Tiergarten. We passed the Brandenburger Tor, turned left and faced the Holocaust Mahnmal, the Memorial to the murdered jews of Europe, a big field of rectangular blocks of concrete that call to mind tombstones. I myself was wondering, as I suggested we enter, why on earth I would invite someone who just escaped war to this place? Rabab in her poised way, said it was great that the Germans put a memorial of their dark, ugly past right in the center of their capital. And a moment later she added: „In every city on this planet we have to have some kind of memorial, because our history repeats itself.“

We silently walked through the maze of stone, tourists and children crossing our paths, both of us deep in thought. "I want to come back here when it is empty, no people, and just be here alone“, she said, when we left. It humbled me how elegantly she dealt with my strange form of sightseeing.

She later told me that she did return to that place, indeed.

Even before we were officially connected through Weiter Schreiben, our paths had crossed indirectly, through literature. Rabab Haidar's first novel, "Land of pomegranate," was published by an old friend of mine, Osama Esber (a nephew of Adonis). Osama was my partner in the literary project „Midad“ in 2004, which allowed me to visit Damascus as a writer-in- residence. The city impressed me deeply: its beauty, its historical significance, and most of all the friendly, welcoming Syrian people. My first novel, "Sister and Brother," found a Damascene publisher and then its way onto Rabab's bookshelf. But how exactly that happened is a great story that Rabab must tell herself.

Rabab quickly became a dear colleague and friend. This is due to our mutual trust, something that was present from the very beginning in an almost magical way. We are both curious about each others’ thoughts – and each knowing our own culture, but not identifying with it too much, allows us to engage in conversations that are open, free, and, if I dare say it, often fun. In our exchange of thoughts we are never shy or guarded. We tend to find ourselves diving directly into the heart of things, at the risk of having to alter our own views.

Rabab's free spirit is also reflected in her writing. I hope one day I will have the chance to read Rabab's novel, "Land of Pomegranate," in German. I already admire Rabab's powerful, poetic prose on ZEIT ONLINE (10 nach 8), where she offers an abundance of perspectives on all kinds of topics, whether she is exploring the mythological landscapes of men and women ("cooking a wolf's heart"), eloquently analyzing phenomena like conspiracy theories, or depicting wartime sceneries that go far beyond what we can learn from the usual newspaper reports. I recommend that everyone read Rabab Haidar, one of whose gifts is the ability to open our eyes to new and different views of the world outside--and give us a new perspective on our own world, as well.

 

This text was first published in the online magazine of the Solothurner Literaturtage 2020. / Dieser Text erschien zuerst im Mai 2020 in dem Online-Magazin der Solothurner Literaturtage.

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