By Rabab Haidar
It was the fourth year of the war in Syria. After failing in our daydream revolution, we watched as our lawful, civil demands were stolen by corrupt politicians. Global circumstances; offinancing the radicals and neutralizing the civilians; having our heads in the skies filled with unrealistic dreams—none of this was helpful.
It was not a logical time. War brings with it a different concept of time, and a different feeling of life. It is like an entirely different dimension of the same reality!
The designer of my book cover, Bassem Sabagh, had become my friend. He and I were living in the same dimension of the estranged reality of war in Damascus, and as a remedy for my exhausted brain, he gave me couple of books. Among them was “Sister and Brother”, a book by a German writer. Her name was “Oolah Lisah,” and the book, my friend explained, was about a Western pilgrim in India, and his sister, who follows him there. I thought, “Great, another western point of view of the imaginary east!”
Bassem insisted, ”No, this is different, read it!”
With the impatience and bitterness that years of war implant in one’s mind, I was insistent. “I do not need another thing that will make me angry,” I said.
Bassem said, confidently: ”The translation is bad, but you will understand it, take it.”
Despite a very disappointing translation, my English as a second language helped me through; the book, to my surprise, became my companion, and its elements kept living in my memory after I finished reading -- joining other elements of other books, poems, writers, neighbors, fragments of memories, etc.
I was embarrassed to realize I had assumed that a German writer in India would definitely be prejudiced, clichéd, and so on. I was the one who had acted upon stereotypes, and approached the book with ready-made accusations and mistrust!
You see, you can be prejudice for many reasons. One of them is to be blinded by bitterness, fear, the betrayal of the heavens, as well as the betrayal of man…it was the fifth year of war!
But life goes by. Cut to a different time, one year later: in an internet café in a third world country splattered by rumors of civil war and full of uncertainty, I sat waiting for a call from my partner in the project called ‘Writing On / Weiter Schreiben’ in Germany.
A couple of months before that, someone had published a text of mine in a German newspaper. He had also given my name to a German project that supports writers in conflict zones, as well as writers who had found refuge somewhere outside their country, yet were not yet adapted their new homes, in order to make it possible for them to continue writing, despite all the odds!
And the odds are so many, and can be very severe in turbulent times.
I became part of this project, through which I received a partner, a writer from Germany. Together, we were going to discuss writing, exchange ideas, build a support system, and share intellectual theories.
My main interest in having a support system. And what I needed most was mental support, a lifeline coming from a safe place, a voice from the outside. Now, I would have people in Germany who could deliver my message, in case I died, or worse, if I was arrested!
So in front of the screen, through Annika Reich, inside a skype window, Ulla Lenze and I were talking. And we connected right away.
And Ulla had been to Damascus!
“I am in Damascus!” I told her. “I live there! In the old city! The heart of the ancient capital”, as I was proud to add. I asked her. If she had come as a tourist.
No, she said. “I was there as a writer. I have one novel translated to Arabic, it’s called “Sister and Brother.”
“Oh, great!” I said. “Good for you… oh, wait! Sister and Brother, about the guy who went to India?”
“Yes, yes!” Ulla replied, in surprise.
“This is you, Ulla Lenze! Not Oolah Lisa!”
“Who is Oolah Lisa?” Ulla was shocked on the other side of the screen.
“Oolah Lisa is the bad translation of your name!”
“I loved the novel,: I told her. “They are still with me, your characters, I mean! The old Indian woman, the house, the driver…”
“God, I cannot believe it!” Ulla said, almost screaming. “Did you visit India?”
“Yes, yes, I used to go to an Ashram in Madras!” I screamed right back.
“Noooo!” Ulla replied.
“And Delhi!” I added.
“Yes, yes!” Ulla was laughing.
One year and several months later I came to Germany with Heinrich boel Stiftung for writers, and still writing on with Weiter Schreiben. Ulla and I met in Berlin and continued our discussion that was established via skype and through texts in Weiter Schreiben. Her openness and logic that exceeds the geographic boarders is so present in her books and in the portrait of her characters.
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.