Arab-German literature in German doesn’t have the broad, 19th- and early-20th-century roots of Arab-American or Arab-French literatures. But it is a vibrant and growing space, surely to grow much more in the coming decades.
Certainly, there were individual Arab texts written in German in the 19th century. There was Emily Ruete (Sayyida Salme)’s Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin, published in 1886. But for the most part, according to Iman O. Khalil and Jeannette Iocca, Arab-German literature has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, Khalil and Iocca point to pioneers Jusuf Naoum, Suleman Taufiq, and the best-known among them, Rafik Schami. All three writers began to attract attention in the 1980s, with a literature that was then called “Gastarbeiterliteratur,” or Guest-Worker Literature, according to Khalil and Iocca.
In the former GDR, meanwhile, the Syrian poet and writer Adel Karasholi gained an audience in German starting in the 1970s.
Most prominent Arab-German writers who write in German are still first-generation, and most have written in Arabic at some point in their career. However, according to scholar Mohamed Esa, there is a growing second generation. He names Halima Alaiyan, Sherko Fatah, Anise Hamdeh, Raid Sabbah, Jamal Tuschick, and Abdellatif Youssafi.
Note: The initial five below were all male writers, with a request that readers add Arab-German women writers, who write in German, below. German translator Katy Derbyshire has added the first — we’re still looking for more.
1) Abbas Khider (see main photo)
Abbas Khider is perhaps the best-known up-and-coming Arab author who writes in German. Khider was born in Baghdad in 1973 and sought asylum in Germany in 2000. After he published his first novel in German in 2008, the funny and moving Der falsche Inder, he was a runner-up the Adelbert von Chamisso Förderpreis in 2010.
That year, Khider told Today’s Zaman that “I’d never thought to write in German.” But then:
One day, students at the university came and told me that I wrote poems but that they couldn’t understand a word since they were in Arabic. So they told me to write in German. I replied, ‘Why should I write in German, why don’t you learn Arabic instead?’ Later on I thought about this and I wrote a story in German and sent it to seven friends of mine. I wanted them to say one of two things: either ‘Abbas, go on writing in German’ or ‘Abbas, stop writing in German.’ They all gave a positive answer. So, I wrote my first novel.
A translation of this first, epic-comic novel by Donal McLaughlin ( in English as The Village Indian) was published by Seagull Books in 2013. An Odyssean journey, the novel follows Rasul Hamid as he describes the eight ways that he fled Iraq and found a new home.
Khider has since released two more novels in German: Die Orangen des Präsidenten in 2011 and Brief in die Auberginenrepublik in 2013. He was further recognized by the Hilde Domin Prize for Literature in Exile and the Nelly-Sachs-Preis.
The Nelly-Sachs is not for a single novel, but for a writer’s overall impact on literature. The jury called Khider “a laconic and humorous chronicler, as well as a master of comic situations and a born narrator.”
2) Rafik Schami
Rafik Schami — a best-selling author and well-known in Germany — is the other Arab author to have won the Nelly-Sachs, back in 2006. Born in Syria in 1946, Schami studied in Damascus and began writing short stories in Arabic in the mid-1960s. But he left Syria in 1970 and moved to Germany, where he continued his studies in chemistry. In 1978, Schami published his first German novel. In 1980, he co-founded a literary group in Germany.
He’s since published more than two dozen novels.
He’s been recognized by a number of prizes, including a shortlisting for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010, along with translator Anthea Bell, for Dark Side of Love. He won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award in 1991, along with translator Rika Lesser, for the English translation A Hand Full of Stars.
3) Khaled al-Maaly
Khaled Al-Maaly, born in al-Samawa, Iraq, in 1956, is known in Germany as a poet, although he’s also an important Arab publisher.
Al-Maaly wrote and published his first volume of poetry in Baghdad in 1978. He left the country soon after, ending up in Cologne, Germany in 1980, where he founded the publishing house Al-Kamel Verlag in 1983. He writes poetry in Arabic and German, and has translated works by a number of Arab poets.
His first German work, Gedanken über das Lauwarme, was published 1989, and he has published both poetry and prose.
In any interview, with ArabLit, al-Maaly said his poetry would’ve been much different had he stayed in Iraq:
I said that because the poet is a child of his place and his time, and because I had to leave Iraq for compelling reasons — in addition to my trips to other cities, different cultures and landscapes; my being imbibed with other cultures. All these reasons have resulted in my writing differently than I would have if I’d stayed in Iraq. Had I done so, my voice would have probably remained a muffled or slavish one, because of the reality of the situation. Had I stayed in Iraq, my writing would have been completely different.
4) Ghazi Abdel-Qadir
Ghazi Abdel-Qadir was born in the seminal year 1948 near Nazareth, in Palestine. He went to school first in Jordan, but later studied in Germany. After spending time working as a translator and lecturer, Abdel-Qadir devoted himself to writing novels, and is celebrated as an author of works for children and young adults, having won a number of literary prizes.
His first book, Abdallah und ich, was published in 1991, and he’s pulished more than a dozen more. One of his most well-known is Die sprechenden Steine, or The Talking Stones.
Although his works have been translated into more than two dozen languages, they seem not to have been translated into English.
5) Sherko Fatah
Sherko Fatah was born in East Berlin in 1964 to Iraqi and German parents. Of Kurdish heritage, Fatah sets his books around Kurdish areas and characters. Although born in Berlin, he spent time in Iraq as a child.
Fatah has won a number of awards, starting with the Aspekte-Literaturpreis in 2001, and most recently the Adelbert-von-Chamisso-Preis (2015) and the Stadtschreiber von Bergen (2016).
In a 2014 interview, Fatah talked about why he writes about boundaries:
First of all, the nature of the boundary itself. In my experience, border regions are always wild and uncontrolled. This is particularly evident in Kurdistan in Iraq, which is now falling apart, which was the subject of both my first novel and also the subsequent ones. What’s more, these boundaries were drawn completely arbitrarily. In other words, breaklines emerged there that could only be prevented from drifting apart by the exercise of force. Now, we are watching this drift take place.
Translator Katy Derbyshire writes:
One of my favourites is Rasha-Khayat, a second-generation woman of German-Saudi extraction, who also translates from English and Arabic. Her intelligent debut novel WEIL WIR LÄNGST WOANDERS SIND is set mainly in Jeddah:http://www.dumont-buchverlag.de/header-menu/lizenzen-foreign-rights/lizenzen-foreign-rightstitles-nonfiction-fiction/books/book/Buch/showforeign/khayat-weil-wir-laengst-9783832198145/
She also blogs at http://www.westoestlichediva.com/
Rasha was writer-in-residence at the 2016 BCLT Summer School, so some short extracts in English should be available online soon.