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June 23, 2011

Internationally acclaimed author Rafik Schami has been banned from his home country, Syria, for 40 years. As he turns 65, Deutsche Welle talked with him about cultural oddities in Germany and his love of Damascus.

Photo of Rafik Schami
Rafik Schami still finds some German customs strangeImage: picture-alliance

Rafik Schami is passionate about storytelling. His repertoire includes pretty much everything other than traditional book readings. When he gets on the stage - generally in front of a large audience - he speaks freely for what he calls "story time."

Born in Syria, Schami has been living in exile in Germany for more than 40 years. He wasn't even allowed to return to his home country to attend his parents' funeral. He has a German passport and writes in German. He has received numerous literary prizes, including the Nelly Sachs Prize, which promotes understanding between peoples, in 2006. He turns 65 on 23 June.

Deutsche Welle: Rafik Schami, if you invited me to a party and I brought a bowl of pasta salad along with me - that's what we normally take to parties in Germany - what would you think?

Rafik Schami: (Laughs) I would laugh. I would say that you haven't read my story called "The Fight Against Pasta Salad." I found it so funny that if you invite 10 Germans to a party, around three of them, normally five, bring a pasta salad. So I asked: Why pasta salad? That's not German. What's going on? And then I realized that you can't go wrong when you make a pasta salad, especially those ugly types which are made with mayonnaise and little sausages and peas from a tin which don't taste of anything. You can do your make-up and get dressed with your right hand while stirring and mixing the salad with your left hand. It tastes horrible. The Italian type (without mayonnaise) tastes better.

Is there anything other than pasta salad which you still find strange after living in Germany for 40 years?

Yes - mannerisms, like leaving a bit of food on your plate to be polite. I can't stand that. Five Germans sit around a table and they all look at the last chocolate or biscuit and everyone really wants to eat it but politeness, combined with their upbringing, forces them to leave the food on the plate. The Arab and German cultures are very different in this regard. For us, that is almost impolite - it's like saying "that tasted horrible." You have to eat everything so that the host knows everyone found it delicious. You shouldn't leave anything.

Front cover of Rafik Schami's book "The Calligrapher's Secret"
"The Calligrapher's Secret" recently came out in EnglishImage: Hanser Verlag

Do you have German glasses, in the sense of a German viewpoint, through which you can detect other cultural oddities now?

Definitely. Everyone who visits me from Damascus says, "You've already become German." They notice, for example, that I take everything seriously. Apparently they don't take everything seriously in Syria. They notice that I'm always on time. They find that quite funny. If someone says I should arrive at seven o'clock, I arrive at five to seven.

The idea that you don't change when you have lived in a society - be it German, French or American - for 40 years is an illusion. You are not an island and neither is society. You live here, you feel at ease here and you keep to your deadlines here. I very much like being married to a German lady; I live here with her and our son had to go to school here. So it's not only the glasses with which I see the world that have become German - a part of my eye has become German too.

Your pseudonym Rafik Schami means "Friend from Damascus," one of your books is called "Damascus in my heart and Germany in my sight," and the novel "The Calligrapher's Secret" (2008 in German, 2011 in English) is set in the Damascus of the 1950s. What is the Damascus that you describe and that you have in your heart like?

I lived in Damascus for a long time - for 25 years. And people say if you live in Damascus for seven years, the city lives in you. So you can imagine how far beyond hope I was. The city did not only live in me for 25 years - it also possessed me. I lived for it very intensely. I had a bicycle very early on - it was a present from my father - and I discovered the town alley by alley. I found it incredibly interesting, with its winding alleys and its stores of spices. The Syrians feared war and occupation so they always stored their most expensive products - pistachios, sesame, thyme, cinnamon and coriander - in the town center. This meant the town was a tapestry of different smells. I wanted to discover it for myself. It was fun to find out how an alley smelled and what noises could be heard there.

Your books give readers a sense of that…

Yes and that's why I became a Damascus writer, if you like. Apart from Germany, I only write about Damascus because I am, as people say, in love with this city. And I detect some beautiful qualities in it, like the feeling of security, the unusually beautiful structure of the alleys and the very gentle people.

Spice stand at a market in Damascus
Schami's Damascus is rich in colorImage: Stefanie Markert

You don't do any conventional book readings - you do "story time" instead. What exactly is that?

There's no word for it. A reading involves reading off something which is written down but I tell stories because I want to revive the culture of oral storytelling. I believe in this culture. I believe that the idea of "responsible citizens" has something to do with the mouth. A citizen who speaks out is important for democracy, unlike a citizen who stays silent. And I find it very entertaining to tell stories.

I'm lucky enough to live in a country where I am paid good money to have the pleasure of standing on a stage and turning the adults who listen to me into children for one and a half hours. And when I ask, "Shall I stop?" they all shout, "No, no, tell us some more." And then I continue telling the story and I then employ the trick of narrators in Damascus, who leave the story on a cliff-hanger so that people come back to the coffee house again the next day.

Your works have now been translated into more than 25 languages; however, your works weren't translated into Arabic for a long time. What is the case nowadays?

It's very nice nowadays. One of my novels is translated nearly every year now. They're generally translated in Beirut, a city which has maintained its liberalism, even in times of civil war. So they're translated and printed in Lebanon and from there they find their way, be it legal or illegal.

Does that mean people in Syria know you as a storyteller now too?

Some people have heard of me there but not many. People know about me from tourists. The ambassador told me, "Two thirds of the tourists want to come to Syria because they have read your works," so the tourists there tell others about Rafik Schami. But Syria won't always be a closed society: Revolution broke out on March 15 and things are changing in the Arab world.

In the last couple of weeks you have frequently spoken to the German press about the situation in Syria. Are you currently in touch with your Syrian friends?

I keep in touch with friends but not so much with my family because I know that our calls are all tapped. My friends can phone my mobile number from Lebanon. You're not as free to phone from Damascus, but Beirut is only 90 kilometers (about 56 miles) away from Damascus, so you hear the news on the same day.

A second option, which is better than phoning on a private line, is YouTube. YouTube is a revolutionary development. You sit at the computer and you can see the demonstration that is taking place at the time because it is transmitted by satellite and mobile phone. We can then spread the news here among friends and also through the press and journalists.

Interview: Gabriela Schaaf / mm

Editor: Kate Bowen