Born in Iraq, novelist and poet Abbas Khider now lives in Germany. This year, he won a Chamisso promotional prize for his first novel “Der falsche Inder” (“The Fake Indian”). The Chamisso prize rewards exceptional work by writers working in German as a second language. When we asked Abbas if he’d like to recommend a book to our readers, he was about to embark on a nerve-wracking journey back to his homeland. After his return to Germany, he sent us this uniquely moving account of his long ago dreams of Europe, of the sobering reality and of a German poet who had to leave her home and seek a place for herself in the world of poetry…

Abbas Khider: “I dreamt in those days, at the time of the dictatorship, of Europe and the rest of the world.” | Photo: Abbas Khider
A faraway homeland somewhere

During the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 almost the entire Iraqi population was strictly forbidden to travel (except for the dictatorship’s henchmen). After the first Gulf War in 1991, people were once again allowed to go abroad, at least officially. But in the sad reality of the trading embargo which was now in place, while already the most meagre meal seemed a joyous feast to the poverty-stricken people, the ordinary Iraqi citizen was still a prisoner in his or her homeland: the state demanded a pile of cash for a passport and on top of that there was hardly a country in the world which was prepared to issue a visa to an Iraqi. So nothing remained but people’s dreams full of longing, which they kept hold of in spite of the dictatorship, in spite of war and hunger. These dreams cost nothing but hope and a bit of imagination, after all, and so long as they remain private and aren’t talked of out loud, they aren’t dangerous to a republic. “Only in the deepest darkness do we come to realise the beauty of light,” said the ancient Arabs, and the German poet Hilde Domin makes a similar claim in her poem “Songs of encouragement,” as if she wanted to tell the Iraqis that every ruin contains a mysterious precious stone:

Our kisses are wet
with the tears
of distraught dreams.

But again there climbs
from our empty
helpless hands
the dove, upwards.

I dreamt in those days, at the time of the dictatorship, together with two friends whom I’ll call A. and B., of Europe and the rest of the world. B. wanted to become a philosopher and make his name as a great thinker in Italy. A. saw his future as an artist in France, who would stand on Paris bridges, capturing beautiful women on his canvas. My wish, on the other hand, was to live somewhere in the world as a poet. I didn’t care where, the most important thing was that I would at last be able to write freely and safely. We always had a particular wish to celebrate New Year 2000 together in Rome or under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A wish which we protected like a young dove which was not yet fully fledged and which we had to feed up gradually so that it would be able to survive and fly far away. And so when each new year came, and whenever we felt bad or when the streets of Baghdad emptied in the rain, we went outside and danced like crazy. “As if we were in Rome!” shouted B. “Or in Paris!” replied A. We danced and danced, until we were conquered by the rain or by our bitter tears.

Growing dreams
are frightening
as if there were no wings
to fly
over these walls.

Scream for
a hand, a door,
of flesh, of wood.

Abbas Khider’s journey began in Baghdad. The photo shows the National Museum of Iraq. | Photo: copyright free

In 1996, after two years in prison, I left my homeland for political reasons. Or rather, I fled from the murderers who had transformed my beloved Iraq into a land that was ever more foreign to me. Years passed, in which I moved between villages and towns in the Arab countries of Asia and Africa, changing places the way other people change their shirt. I didn’t actually know what I should do. The life of an illegal refugee is the most horrible type of survival. What was I even doing on this planet? Where should I go? At the beginning my only aim was to save my skin and get as far away from the claws of the dictatorship as I could. In spite of that, I didn’t think immediately of far away Europe, because my possibilities were very limited. Even crossing a single country in constant uncertainty and mainly on foot was as exhausting, disturbing and dangerous as a trip around the world, across every country on earth. I thought I’d be able to hide long enough in Iraq’s neighbouring countries until the dictatorship was over and I’d finally return to my family. But the years passed as slowly as if someone was letting all the sand of the Sahara trickle through a tiny hourglass, and the dictatorship had survived like an adaptable virus, and gradually I gave up hope that the country and the people would ever recover from it. Meanwhile, life in the neighbouring countries was getting ever worse, because I had to discover the bitter truth that here, too, people were at the mercy of the rulers and their arbitrary omnipotence.

I always think
of the birth of a deer
how it sets its feet on the ground.

There was only one thing left for me: I had to become like a little deer, to find my feet somewhere in Europe and the courage for a new beginning. But what did this far away “Europe” mean to me at that time? Was it anything more than a name, a word in the dictionary, a geographical collection of states? Europe is, for many non-Europeans who live in poverty and suffering, the sum of their longing. They imagine a legendary Europe and embed it in a mythology which is born out of their wishes, as a heavenly, yet earthly counterpoint to their actual world. And I too believed firmly in that mythology, just like so many of my fellow sufferers whom I met on the way.

I sleep in the shelter
of my sorrow.
Suffering, just like happiness,
builds walls.
I, homeless,
always in the shelter of this wall,
where the war
stands still.

Where I’m dying
of the wound
from the chest feathers
of a dove.

For most Europeans, their continent is just a place where a large number of culturally and historically closely connected states are found in the closest geographical proximity to one another. Mostly, people tend to think in terms of nation states, and the concept of Europe only goes as far as holidays in Spain on the Costa Brava or skiing in Switzerland. Many people see the increasing integration of European states as a necessary evil and feel disenfranchised by the decisions of the European Parliament and the Commision. They’re spoilt by security and wealth, so that they dream of adventures in exotic Africa, of the freedom of alternative lifestyles in drop-out colonies on some island in the Caribbean, of a land of unlimited possibilities. But for me, as a refugee, Europe was like a divine beloved, with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life from then on and with whom I wanted to live happily ever after, till the end of my days. How naive I was, and how little I knew about the dangers of blind dates! When I finally saw my beloved with my own eyes, I realised that there was a deep chasm between dream and reality. The Europe “whom” I actually got to know, and with whom I’ve now been living for years, unmasked herself as a stubborn, cold and prejudiced character. But when I got to know her better and – most importantly – when she finally accepted me and gave me a chance, she revealed herself to be a reliable and faithful woman, rich in variety, who gave me a safe home.

Yet without the courage
to hold a hand in our hand
without the courage
to be completely here
every day we become
poorer.

Today I wonder how it was for the poet I so admire, Hilde Domin, whom I unfortunately couldn’t get to know personally. She fled Nazi Germany for Italy, because she was a Jew. Once the Italian race laws targeted Jews too, she sought asylum in Great Britain and later, in 1940, travelled via Canada to the Dominican Republic. How did Hilde see Europe in those days? As a continent of hate or as a lost, idealised homeland?

Do not grow weary
but hold out your hand
quietly
to the miracle
as if to a bird.

After 22 years in exile, Domin returned to Germany, became famous as a poet and died happy in the arms of her poetry in 2006. It was in that very year that I – a guy from Iraq who had been on the move for years in Asia, Africa and Europe, who had fled countless wars, seen the inside of numerous prisons in the East and the West and was tortured by many memories of corpses – it was in that year that I discovered Hilde’s poems and fell in love at first sight.

That’s a song
in which the dead are afraid.
Cologne_1945

Hilde Domin was born in Cologne, but fled Nazi Germany for Italy, later moving to Great Britain and finally to the Dominican Republic. The photo shows the devestated city of Cologne in 1945. | Photo: copyright free

Is Hilde a specifically European poet? Of course not. For her, poetry and love are important. Her homeland is somewhere inside poetry. In her poems, which I recommend to anyone who likes great literature, I find a melancholy mixture of light-hearted romance (romanze) and profound wisdom – a combination which is seldom to be found in one place. This is the strength which secures a permanent place for Hilde in the heart of poetry. As a poet she has, without realising it, many literary mothers, fathers and children like me, whom she has never met. We are all connected by the ideal concept of a pure poetry which can be found somewhere between this world and the next. Whether a poet comes from Europe, from Asia or from Africa, it is the shared love of poetry which connects us, the longing for that mythical place which we try to reach by writing. Europe for me and for Hilde is the Europe of poetry, not the one in which weapons dealers negotiate with dictatorships, not the one where politicians are prepared to have refugees drowned in the sea, while they greet the torturers of those refugees with a comradely handshake, not the one where new racist authors categorise people as genetically stupid and not the one where even now, Roma are being treated like criminals and deported.

And with that I opened up the hill
the next hill
of the many sharp hills by the sea,
and went inside
and had a home
with the roots
of the flowers.

Now I think about the Iraqi friends of my youth: A. and B., who have stayed in Baghdad until today. In 2000 I really did “celebrate” New Year in Rome as a poor refugee and cried from the bottom of my heart because they couldn’t be with me. Years later, I heard that B. had not become a philosopher, but a famous counterfeiter of documents, and that A.’s art did not lie in painting pretty French girls, but in guarding the prisoners in a state prison. And thinking about that, I sing with Hilde Domin, a little sorrowfully:

People will read of us in later times.

I never wanted, in later times
to arouse the pity of schoolchildren.
Never in that way
to be part of a textbook.
We, condemned
to know
and not to act.

Our dust
will never return to the earth.

Translation of Abbas Khider’s original German text, including quotations from Hilde Domin’s poems: Lucy Duggan

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