Six years ago , when I was living in Beirut, I used to watch soap operas produced in Syria. They regularly took displacement and exile as their theme, which wasn’t surprising given that half the Syrian population have been forced to leave their homes in the last decade. I remember one show in which a Damascus housewife meets an expat on Facebook and dreams of joining him in Austria. The man sends a video of the streets and markets in an Alpine town. ‘There are no Syrians or Arabs,’ he tells her in a voice-over. ‘It’s the sweetest life. But it’s not home.’ In another episode, a fishmonger’s son calls his father from Germany to request a DNA sample for a reunification application. ‘DNA? What’s this DNA?’ his father, still in Damascus, shouts over traffic. The shows were melodramatic, but also funny. When I moved to Germany in 2018, I saw the other side: a torrent of workshops, conferences, exhibitions, anthologies and film festivals about ‘migration and art’, ‘the refugee experience’ and so on. Even theatres in provincial cities such as Ulm and Osnabrück were putting on plays about asylum. But German perspectives on the crisis were sober and often self-congratulatory. They rarely spoke to the negotiations and absurdities of leaving one’s country.
This carnival of well-meaning had a fetishistic quality that wasn’t lost on Syrians. In a series of interviews with Arab writers in Germany, published in 2020 by the journal ArabLit, nearly all of them complained about being stereotyped. The Syrian poet Fady Jomar said that he now ‘refuses to talk about being a refugee at all’. Ramy al-Asheq, a Palestinian-Syrian poet and journalist, said that Europeans gravitated to ‘sexy stories’, that they wanted refugees to ‘show us how much you are suffering on the way to Europe and how good Europe is.’ Yamen Hussein, another Syrian poet and journalist, said some colleagues wouldn’t join events with the word ‘refugee’ in the programme: ‘Thomas Mann was a refugee, but we don’t remember him as a “refugee writer”. The classification is problematic.’
Two novels published in English last year reject the paradigm. The Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s Voices of the Lost came to attention after winning the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019. It consists of five loosely intertwined narratives, related in haste by unnamed exiles from an unnamed Arabic country living in Europe (or what we assume to be Europe – it’s never quite spelled out). Each letter is abandoned by its writer and discovered by the next, who then begins his or her own account. This technique sidesteps a central weakness of migration narratives: that one person’s story is supposed to stand for the plight of many. A Kurdish lawyer from Aleppo living in Hamburg and an Arab housewife living in a tent in the Bekaa Valley can’t be represented by a single narrative (though it would be interesting to see a writer do both).
The characters in Voices of the Lost have already left their home countries and now occupy spaces familiar to many exiles: hotel rooms, cheap apartments, airport terminals, shelters, underpasses. Their movements are circumscribed by the documents they are issued or denied. The first narrator, writing to a former lover, describes being sent into exile at the age of eight or nine. His mother lifted him onto the train carriage ‘as though I were a sack of rubbish’. Reduced in adulthood to ‘a miserable room in a block of flats where pimps rent space for the prostitutes’, he recounts his fury at the former lover when she fried garlic in his kitchen. The smell – and its associations of domesticity – confirmed what he had been unwilling to admit: ‘I’m here and I’m staying.’ He spends his days dodging labour permit inspectors and taking whatever work he can find. At the end of his account, high on cocaine and convinced that he’s being watched, he hides the letter in a hotel room, between the pages of a telephone directory.
Barakat’s narrators aren’t particularly sympathetic and she doesn’t try to exonerate them. One describes his torture at the hands of soldiers – beaten, defecated on, raped with bottles and clubs – until he agreed to work for them. He went on, he admits, to take pleasure in inflicting misery on others: ‘When you can overturn people’s lives and make them into different people … you become Fate itself. Fate, to which you used to supplicate on hands and knees.’ He feels no remorse; he simply took ‘the most natural path to follow: a person wakes up at dawn and goes back to whatever he was doing yesterday.’ After things shift again, and he is forced to flee, a former victim spots him in a refugee camp and denounces him. (This has happened more than once in Germany, most notably in the case of the former Syrian intelligence officer Anwar Raslan, sentenced in January to life in prison for crimes against humanity.) To avoid deportation, he starts an affair with an older local woman – an echo of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), with its ambiguity over who is exploiting whom.
The other narrators are vulnerable in different ways. An ageing woman waits for a Canadian man she met many years ago when he was a tourist in her country, knowing he may never arrive. Another woman recalls how she fled to Europe partly to escape a marriage forced on her when she was thirteen. After working as a maid, cleaning ‘sixty lavatories … before 10 a.m.’, she becomes a sex worker, because ‘what is the difference between one kind of humiliation and another?’ A young gay man struggles to reconcile with his father, who considered his sexuality ‘a curse from heaven, a pathology’. Towards the end of the book we see the would-be recipients, waiting for messages that will never arrive, and then a postman at a post office, stranded by war. He sorts and reads the letters that have amassed, ‘like the piles of dead leaves spilling over the kerbs at the corners of deserted streets’.
Hassan Blasim’s God 99 is a less disciplined undertaking. Like Barakat, who left Beirut for Paris in 1989, towards the end of the Lebanese civil war, Blasim isn’t a recent arrival to Europe. He was born in Baghdad and moved to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2000 to escape persecution for his work as a documentary filmmaker, eventually settling in Finland in 2004. His experiences on the road informed his short story ‘Truck to Berlin’, published in The Madman of Freedom Square (2009). The story gained new readers after the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015, which it seemed to foreshadow, and Blasim’s name began to appear on festival line-ups and reading lists alongside Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
A similar moment of celebrity is the engine of God 99. The book is a series of short stories, framed as interviews between the narrator (also called Hassan) and other Iraqis, most of them exiles. The narrator’s project received funding after ‘disaster struck and vast numbers of refugees flooded into Europe, bringing about a small miracle’: Europeans realised that ‘the migrants or refugees might have voices, faces and stories to tell.’ (God 99 was published in English by Comma Press with funding from English PEN and Arts Council England.) The narrative, such as it is, jumps back and forth between a rather bleak realism in its depictions of suffering and something more picaresque. Blasim’s narrator uses the grant money to travel around Europe and return to Iraq, often struggling to stick to his project and at times appearing to lose track of it altogether. He spends his time getting drunk, having sex and reading Emil Cioran and Italo Calvino. He holds forth on the nature of pavements (‘raised platforms on the side of streets, set aside for people to walk back and forth on … murderers and sheep’).
Blasim’s deranged energy is what makes the stories such compulsive fun. In one, a boy designs a video game in which the object is to move across the globe while a Donald Trump-like ‘Mr Rubbish’ deploys sharks, wolves, walls, border guards and racist mobs to stop you. In another, an Iraqi character resettles his family in the northern Finnish village of One, where the authorities permit just one of everything. Because he’s a journalist, and One already has a journalist, the man decides to become ‘the only lazy person in the village’. He lives off benefits and then sets up an organisation called ‘Traffickers without Borders’, which shuttles illegal migrants across frontiers for free. He is later convicted for an arson attack which, it’s suggested, may have been carried out by smuggling gangs embittered at their loss of revenue.
The stories never quite give in to humour. ‘In the Dark Room or on the Branch of a Tree’ features two migrants lost in the mountains of northern Iran. They watch a plane fly overhead, its passengers ignorant of their arduous journey: ‘We were just animals crawling over the mountains.’ In another, the interviewee describes his arrival in Europe with a group of refugees. A Nigerian woman is dragged away screaming by Bulgarian soldiers who sexually assault her. ‘We had carried the woman on our backs throughout a cold and dismal night, just so a modern army could rape her.’ At times, however, Blasim seems less indignant than resigned. One place is as bad as another. When a Moroccan friend complains that Finns ‘drink too much and they’re miserable and they don’t talk’, the narrator thinks of his former life in Iraq: ‘I drank too much, I was miserable and I didn’t talk.’ Dislocation is not itself inherently tragic. ‘Home is people … whether they live in the lovely fridge of Finland or in the lovely furnace of Iraq.’
Striking the right tone in these translations can be tricky. Sampsa Peltonen, who translated God 99 into Finnish, told ArabLit that the experience reminded him of parkour, an activity ‘often practised in urban places that smell of piss and fast-food and where you need to watch out you don’t step on broken glass or used condoms’. He pointed to one scene in particular, in which a workshop owner repeatedly rapes his young, male employees. The scene ends with the boys sneaking onto the roof with the man’s prized pigeons in a bedsheet. They throw the bundle over the side of the building, releasing a ‘barrage balloon full of feathers’ into the night air. The sheet descends on the river below. Jonathan Wright (with whom I worked briefly at Reuters in Cairo) keeps the ribaldry of these moments alive in his English translation. Likewise, Marilyn Booth captures the starkness of Voices of the Lost, in prose stripped of almost all sensory details and anchoring references.
It isn’t surprising that two of the most interesting authors to write about the migrant crises of the last ten years were subjects of earlier waves of displacement. In a recent interview, Barakat describes her characters as ‘wanderers in the desert’, who have ‘fled poverty and violence and dictatorships and collapsing societies … but haven’t reached a safe place’. The post office section of Voices of the Lost is, she claims, her attempt to show ‘the death of a world that used to believe in connection’. Blasim is more optimistic: he echoes Edward Said’s conclusion that exiles also manage to ‘cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience’. If migration can sometimes incite ethnonationalism, it also offers an antidote. Said was fond of the saying, attributed to the 12th-century monk Hugh of Saint Victor, that ‘he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.’ Blasim nods to this sentiment: ‘What is love, home, country? … I wouldn’t say that I love Finland, with its history, its geography and the five million people who live here, but nor do I have any special feelings for the history, geography or people of my own country. Such attachments cannot give pleasure to my senses or my mind, because as far as I am concerned they’re just delusions.’