Rasha Abbas’s Short Stories and the Project to Reinvent Exile Literature

By Johanna Sellman
Submitted to Session P5564 (Contemporary Arabic Literature and Theatre in Northern Europe, 2019 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This presentation focuses on the literary narratives of Berlin-based Syrian author Rasha Abbas. Specifically, it considers how her work on migration and border crossings displace and reinvent 20th century notions of politically committed exile literature to arrive at an exploration of the personal and the speculative. Rasha Abbas is among a younger generation of Syrian writers and artists who, following the mass displacements of the Syrian war, are making a home in Berlin. Active among numerous writers, filmmakers, playwrights, and other artists in the city and beyond, she is part of a large and rather vibrant diasporic Arabic-language literature and arts community in northern Europe.

In this presentation, I focus on the stories in Abbas’s 2017 short story collection Mulakhas ma jara (The Gist of It). The discussion of these stories will emphasize the way that Abbas is re-writing notions of politically committed exile writing that flourished in the latter half of the 20th century. In the place of al-qadaya al-kubra (“the great issues”) and the literary discourses that would place literature in the service of political causes, Abbas’s writing insists on the personal and the artistic autonomy to explore topics such as migration, closed borders, and war in ways that emphasize creative play, the subjective, the humorous, the mundane, and even the fantastic. In addition to Mulakhas ma jara (The Gist of It), Abbas has written a humorous account of learning German in Kayfa tamma ikhtira’ al-lugha al-Almaniyya (The Invention of German Grammar) (2016). Her forthcoming novel Sab’ Ku’us (Seven of Cups) uses tarot cards as a starting point to narrate the short-lived union between Syria and Egypt (1958-1961), a product of Arab nationalist ambitions but also a reminder of how rapidly borders can change. Although her texts resist categorization as “refugee literature” they are creating alternative narratives of place and mobility and, like many other contemporary Arabic literary narratives of migration, are forging new narrative modes in the process.