Student Corner

We are proud to feature the excellent contributions of our students which you can read below.

If you’re a student and would like to contribute (in English or German), please get in touch — we’d love to hear from you!

Language and Trauma in Iraqi Diaspora Literature: Najem Wali and Abbas Khider” by Dina Khadum (former student St John’s College, Oxford)

Eine Analyse des Kolonialismus im Bildungssystem: Alice Hasters, Was weiße Menschen nicht über Rassismus hören wollen, aber wissen sollten (2019)” by Martha Davies (Third Year at Somerville College, Oxford) 

“Unserdeutsch und sein Verhältnis zum deutschen Kolonialismus” by Asher Sandbach

Language and Trauma in Iraqi Diaspora Literature: Najem Wali and Abbas Khider by Dina Khadum

As a British citizen who was born in Germany to Iraqi parents, one of whom had fled persecution in Iraq in the 80s, choosing to study German and Arabic at university was not just a practical choice; my degree was effectively a reflection of my life. The opportunity, therefore, to spend my final year researching and writing about a topic which connected these two halves of my degree, was one which I approached with excitement and indecision. At first I considered going down the more obvious classical look into Goethe and his West-östlicher Divan, before my tutor (Prof Barry Murnane) kindly and thankfully suggested I took a look at more contemporary literature, thinking it might prove a little more fresh and exciting to me. Before long I settled on the Iraqi-born authors Abbas Khider and Najem Wali, both authors whose books I had already read in German but, oddly enough, had never really struck me as being intersections of my interests or even my identity. Over the course of the year, my research ended up taking me further than I expected to go, expanding on matters of migration, trauma, and how these Iraqi-born individuals created space for themselves in their new home of Germany. I eagerly explored the question of how foreign-born authors came to admire Germany, its language, and its culture, and yet took wildly different approaches to how they wrote their novels and entered the contemporary German literary scene.

Both Wali and Khider fled from Iraq to Germany, in the 80s and 90s respectively, where they received political asylum and subsequently undertook studies of German literature at university. Soon after, they both began to publish novels, with one crucial difference; while Khider writes in his non-native German, Wali continues to write in Arabic. I could find no translation of Khider’s works into Arabic, while it was quite the opposite for Wali. I was fascinated by this difference in approach to remembrance of lives which had ostensibly taken very similar routes. Through exploring trauma studies and linguistic associations, I came to understand that many people cannot divorce the trauma in the homeland from the language of the homeland—figures like Khider, for example, cannot rid themselves of the traumatic associations of their mothertongue. The well-established Turkish-born author Emine Sevgi Özdamar was best able to make this sentiment clear through her assertion in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that, to her, Turkish had fallen ill due to its brutal use in the perpetuation of and reporting on atrocities (Minkmar, 2004), explaining perhaps some of the reason why she chooses to write in German instead. Interesting, too, was the idea that Khider’s choice to write in German was not just a push against his traumatic associations with Arabic, but also a pull to German in particular. Academics have argued that it is specifically the German language and culture which can offer sympathy and comfort to those fleeing past trauma, for its culture has the financial resources and impetus to support such projects, as well as the creative linguistic possibilities offering an attractive flexibility for those writers who struggle to express themselves in their ‘home’ languages (Anderson, 2017, p. 198). Khider often notes that, while word compounds make for comically multi-syllabled and astonishingly specific words, they serve a significant purpose to writers seeking new ways of expression. The German language seems so open and free to him to learn, use, and develop as he sees fit. Where Arabic is inflexible and has negative associations, German offers him a flexible and creative means of expressing the specific and complex sentiments in his writing.

It is then interesting to consider Wali’s total rejection of this method for his own writing, being able to fathom writing his novels—all of which are similarly centred on Iraq-specific topics—in any language but Arabic. As much as he admires the German language and culture, he maintains that his novels and characters are Iraqi through and through, in ways which would be impossible to write in the German. He uses the German verb ‘nachdenken’ as an example of this, noting that he could never write ‘Er saß in einem Café in Baghdad und hat nachgedacht’ about one of his figures. To Wali, the process of character and world-building in his writing is so closely linked to his language—he argues that ‘im Irak, kein Mensch nachdenkt’, because to him this word describes an exclusively German way of thinking and expressing oneself. This is not to say, however, that he rejected his writings being of any interest or value to German-speaking audiences. Although he initially writes and publishes in Arabic, almost every one of his books is translated into German, published by the notable Hanser and Suhrkamp publishing houses. In line with his ideas about the difficulty of rendering his Arabic-based sentiments and descriptions in another language, he actually works in collaboration with a publisher-appointed translator in order to ensure a true-to-meaning German translation of his works. While he rejects writing in German, he is nonetheless keen to have his works available to a German-speaking audience.

This question of how one reckons with one’s traumatic past is in itself a sensitive discussion which opens up a hugely complex conversation, but the matter of forced migration and a foreign ‘host’ country makes it all the more complicated. While it is ultimately a matter of what the individual is comfortable with, it is comforting to see that not only the German language but also its publishing world are providing opportunities for foreign-born writers to express themselves and establish themselves firmly as part of contemporary German literature. Terms like ‘Migrantenliteratur’ are slowly but steadily (and fortunately) slipping out of our vocabulary as DACH countries make way for a more inclusive and less prescriptive approach to literature. The language of writing may be different for Wali and Khider, but the end-result is not so dissimilar; that of German-speaking audiences accessing unique and diverse storylines in Iraq.

Primary texts

Khider, Abbas. Die Orangen Des Präsidenten. Munich: btb, 2010.
Wali, Najem. Die Reise nach Tell Al-lahm. Munich: dtv, 2010.
———. Tell al-laḥm. Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2001.

Further reading

Anderson, Katherine. ‘Foreign Writing Agency: Abbas Khider & María Cecilia Barbetta. Writing Towards Catharsis in German as a Foreign Language After Trauma’. (PhD diss., The Pennsylvania State University, 2017).
Baser, Bahar, and Amira Halperin. ‘Diasporas from the Middle East: Displacement, Transnational Identities and Homeland Politics’. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 46, no. 2 (2019): 215–21.
Hron, Madelaine. ‘The Trauma of Displacement’. In Trauma and Literature, edited by J. Roger Kurtz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Khalil, Imam O. ‘Arab-German Literature’. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (1995): 521–27.
Minkmar, Nils. ‘Wir wohnen in einer weiten Hölle’. Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 21 December 2004.
Pflitsch, Andreas. ‘Violence from a Distance: Trauma in Iraqi-German Literature’. In Conflicting Narratives: War, Trauma and Memory in Iraqi Culture, edited by Stephan Milich, Friederike Pannewick, and Leslie Tramontini. Wiesbaden: Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2012.
Rösch, Heidi. ‘Migrationsliteratur’. In Grundthemen der Literaturwissenschaft: Literaturdidaktik, edited by Christiane Lütge. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019.

Seyhan, Azade. Writing Outside the Nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Stan, Corina. ‘Novels in the Translation Zone: Abbas Khider, Weltliteratur and the Ethics of the Passerby’. Comparative Literature Studies 55, no. 2 (2018): 285–302.
Sturm-Trigonakis, Elke. ‘Contemporary German-Based Hybrid Texts as a New World Literature’. In German Literature as World Literature, edited by Thomas Oliver Beebee. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.