WRITING IN EXILE, Interview with Fouad Samier Yazji

Fouad Samier Yazji is a writer from Homs, Syria. His religious criticism felt in his texts led to a political persecution and later to his escape. In 2015 he came to Germany on a scolarship. In Passau, the now 62 years old is writing a new novel about Religion and love. Topics that have always concerned him the most.

Schreiben im Exil

Fouad Yazji was born in 1959 inside of a Christian-Orthodox family in Syria, which is dominated by Muslim-Sunni Muslims.

At the age of 20 he decided to become an Atheist. Since then he has been interested in Religion, and after studying education and successfuly participating in chess competitions, he began to write.

Yazji wrote texts about the Arab Enlightment, questioning God and Alla. The autor had to escape from Syria and ended up in exile. First for two and a half years in Cairo, where he worked as an English teacher, but that just wasn’t right for him.

In desperation, Yazji contacted Germany’s Goethe institute, since he had a special connection to Germany: The thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche has always been a great inspiration for him. So much that he even wrote a novel about the philosopher: “The Blue Volga”, it’s about a painter whose life is drastically changed by Nietzsche’s work. Not only the life of his protagonist, but Yazji’s life itself has changed drastically.

The Goethe Institute responded to his Email and actually brought the author to Germany with a grant.

From 2015 to 2018 he was part of the “Writer in Exile” a program of the German PEN Center (“Poets, Essayists, Novelists”).

In the PEN anthology “Refuge in Germany – Texts by persecuted authors” Yazji published the text: “Religious skepticism and Atheism in the Islamic world- A Sketch”.

Yazji wrote other novels, which were published in Syria and translated after in German: “The dead Man’s Teeth”;  “A change for the Mirage” his latest work “Love and the Revolution” and “The Seven Prayers of Love”. It reached a lot of people and the author also gained an enthusiastic number of follwers on Facebook.

You always have a small notebook with you for spontaneous thoughts.
What’s the last thing you wrote in there?

When I stand on the edge of my grave I will say: One day I loved.

What do you need for your writing?

In fact, I’m not the type of writer who sits at the table with a cup of tea and paper.
The words come over me like a captivating inspiration, and I can barely breathe. Sometimes I pass out from exhaustion after writing a text amazed by how happy I am. So I always have a notebook with for whenever I feel like to write. And at some point I will put all of these texts together in a novel.

When are you most creative?

When I’m alone in the fresh air.

Standing there, fascinated by the sea, the forest, or the snowstorm. I feel a strange, worrying call from the depths of my soul and a dangerous, mysterious wave washes over me.

I feel like someone is looking after me. I’m trying to track down that person, but somehow we can’t find each other… So I run unsuccessfully from the end of this void to the other.

I lunge towards the water or the trees and spreed my arms, but nothing than an illusion holds me. Nobody comes to me, and I embrace nothing but the echo. Even if I’m very close, my five senses can’t grasp anything. Neither I nor my heart can recover from this madness until tears appear in my eyes.

You were born in a Christian Orthodox family. How did you end up becoming an Atheist at the age of 20?

At that time, my friends were communists.
Personally, the Proletariat’s dictatorship didn’t appeal to me, but it got me thinking that God is a big lie… I was intrigued. I was always into reading and I read a lot of different things.

So, I started focusing on works that question the existence of God and two big questions took my attention: “If God exists, where did he come from?” and if the Torah, Bible and Koran are writing are so comprehensive, why is not even one line in any book that says: “God exists and the proof of that is…”?

Do people just need to believe, even if there is no proof that God exists?

Yes. Religion brings out the primitive thoughts of people. And hat has increased over time. People have the need to be “tricked” to be happy. Then everything is just a pure illusion.

Your inspiration were Nietzsche and other Atheist works (like from Rumi, Maárri and Rawandi). That was probably very unusual for someone who lived in Syria? How did you come to read all of this?

Yes! In fact, just a few others have read these texts. Reading was put into my cradle. When people ask me why do I read like others eat, I answer: I inherited my digestive System.
Also, I felt overwhelmed that I knew things that others didn’t know. I liked that, and it opened my eyes to true, great love.

But, the most important was my deep desire for the truth. And I felt that reading enlivens the soul and enlightens the light. “A house without books is like a body without soul.”

Buddha said: “Whoever builds a house becomes a door and a window”, it means that one who thinks only materialistically becomes material himself.

Kazantzakis said: “Whoever builds a house will not have God as a guest”, that means if someone who spends the whole day behind walls, windows and doors, will they have tender feelings?

I had the feeling that with knowledge I could conquer the world. But now, 40 years after, I feel the entire world is triumphing over me and I don’t even have one cent in my pocket.

Which book from someone else would you have liked to have written yourself?

From Youhanna Jazji great-grandfather. Now known as Patriarch John X of Syria.
He was one of the most famous authors in the Arab world. He was a Greek-Orthodox and part of the Arab Enlightnment (Nahda) in the 19th Century.

His name was Nassiv Jaszji, we used to read his books at school, generation after generation.

He wrote a book about a very well-known Arabic poet, Al-Mutanabi. But he couldn’t write the whole truth because Syria in that time was occupied by Ottomans.

This poet, admired by hundreds of millions of Arabs, was an Atheist and said that he could write better than the authors of the Koran. “He who claims the prophethood for himself” – I would like to rewrite that book.

Before you came to Germany, you thought your book “Blue Volga”, which is about Nietzsche, would be snatched out of your hands and translated immediately.
When did you realize that most Germans don’t know Nietzsche that good?

When I came to Munich, I was participating in chess clubs, libraries, exhibitions, readings and going to concerts. When I talked about Nietzsche I thought everyone would be crazy about him, that he would be “their wine and bread” like he was for me and that I would find a translator for my book very fast.

But when I found out that most people only knew him from school, I was surprised! To the point of exhaustion. I always said to everyone: “This is your prophet!”.

But then I remembered Nietzsche’s words: “Don’t make your thoughts public. Only ordinary people are in public”. So I kept my mouth shut. I was crazy.

Did you feel like you were in an Exile?

One hundred percent!

How do you feel now when you think about Syria? Hope, Sadness, Anger…?

I used to think that Syria could never be good again, or that all these ruins could never be rebuilt. But when I think about the small renaissance that happened in the last century, I think that’s because western technologies came to Syria, like Machines, Medicines, Airplanes, Cars, Cell Phones (…)

This and much more will continue to happened in the future because science in Europe and America is developing rapidly. In fifty or a hundred years, Syria will experience another renaissance.

If only there wasn’t a war happening, would you want to go back to Syria?

I would starve there.

My father’s house was destroyed, the car was stolen, the money was gone. There is no electricity, no gas for heating, no work, no love, nothing sweet.

You are currently writing a book about love in times of was and terror.
What do you think: In those times, is there more or less love?

No one listens to the hymn of the little brook when the storm speaks. But I’m sure there are lovers whose hearts are open to love, even when the season of flowers had passed and the meadows of love shrouded in ruin.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to write about but haven’t had the opportunity or enough inspiration to do so?

I really want to write about Mohammed’s Life.

And I mean his real story, not all the tales of Dinns, Satans or Demons that you hear in Koran.

Also, not about him being a prophet of God. Muslims deprived him of his good deeds for example, he is the one who wrote the Koran, but it is said that those are not his words but words of God. He was a great military leader, but his victories are said to be the victories of God… so is he just a machine controlled by a remote.

The problem with writing a book like that is that no publisher would ever publish it. And even if a publisher did, no library would put it on their shelves. And if they did it, extremists would blow up the library… But such a book could make a good (non-religious) movie.

This article was first published in German and translated into English by Cátia Caldas Cunha

Schreiben im Exil: Fouad Samier Yazji


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