Tag Archives: exile

Our Brass Bed

Home AwayBraunau am Inn | Geretsdorf | Salzburg, Austria, 7 p.m.

You are like me. You feel safer on the right side of the road, sitting on the left in the car, changing gears with your right hand, looking over your right shoulder to reverse. The little white Daihatsu was an unexpected gift from your father; he bought it for peanuts and renovated it so that you could have a car of your own. You should actually sell it now. Ever since your move to Cape Town, you drive it only during occasional visits to your parents, at most a few weeks every year. For the rest of the time, the reliable little car loiters in the yard gathering dust. It is much smaller and less comfortable than the respectable Mercedes you and your husband share at home, yet you feel safe in it. The idea of parting with it is painful to you, even though you know this would be the sensible thing to do. It’s what your father urges you to do every time you come to visit. He sees no point in keeping it. But no matter how hard it is to admit, even to yourself, you see it as another loss of part of your life. You have experienced too many losses; you can’t reduce it to an ordinary transaction of exchanging money for an object. This object is too special. The car and you share a history.

You have always been an intrepid traveller, and the Daihatsu has taken you to many remote corners of Europe. It has never let you down. When you were at university, you drove it to Salzburg every day, fifty kilometres each way. You would rather have it stand around and rust in the backyard of your parents’ house than sell it to a stranger. The thought of returning to it is always comforting. There was a moment when you seriously considered having it shipped to South Africa, but you soon realised that the transfer costs would have exceeded the car’s worth. It was a silly idea.

Your plane landed yesterday. You travelled from Cape Town to Munich via Amsterdam, and took the train from the airport to Simbach, Braunau’s twin, where your brother Krystian picked you up from the station. Nowadays, with the borders in the European Union abolished, the two towns are divided only by the Inn River and the usual neighbourly mistrust. For many years you lived in Braunau am Inn, Hitler’s Austrian birthplace, until your parents decided to move to the countryside and bought a house in the nearby village of Geretsdorf. Still at university, you moved with them because you had no other choice. All your life you had little say in the places you learnt to call home. Until now, that is. You moved to Cape Town because you wanted to – a traumatic liberation.

You do not visit your old house in Braunau any more. You went once and it broke your heart to see the building modernised, its small fairy garden replaced by a standard lawn, all the trees reduced to stumps. The old staghorn sumac which leant on the garage wall and in whose branches you used to read was gone. So were the deceptively straggly-looking plum trees which bore baskets of fruit every second year. Worst was the complete disappearance of the tall emerald arborvitae hedge which surrounded the entire property and gave your family privacy in the densely populated area. The place looked stripped and exposed. You felt just as violated.

You remember the time when you moved into the house after living in the States for more than two years. It was small and dilapidated, but with combined effort your family quickly turned it into a home. Here you listened to your brother dream-laugh in the bedroom next to yours; your mother filled the house with the smell of plum jam in autumn; your hard-working father fell asleep on the kitchen bench every evening after supper. This suddenly became the place where all your journeys began and ended. Even today returning to Braunau feels like a homecoming to you; it was the longest pause in your itinerant life. Nine years may not seem long, but it meant nine years of certain stability you had not experienced before.

In the early nineties, Braunau became a place of safety, in spite of its many contradictions. As an Ausländer – a foreigner – you had to stay at home when thousands of neo-Nazis descended on the town each April to celebrate the Führer’s birthday. But on other days you took your friends and visitors to the front of the house where he was born to have a look at the monument placed there. Brought over from the concentration camp in Mauthausen in 1989, the stone commemorates the victims of fascism: Für Frieden, Freiheit und Demokratie. Nie wieder Faschismus. Millionen Tote mahnen. (For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. Millions of dead warn.)

It is not a warning the generals of the former Yugoslavia took to heart when the wars broke out in 1991. You remember watching the daily media reports from the region just across the Austrian border and translating for your grandma who was staying with you at the time. The images brought back her own memories of war and displacement; it was the only time you heard her speak about that distant past. Every day she wanted to know how many more aid trucks with medicine, blankets, food and clothing had left Austria for the conflict zones. Thousands and thousands, you assured her. Somebody pointed out to you that it was not only a humanitarian gesture, but also a way of keeping the flow of refugees into Austria under some kind of control. Many came anyway. For a few months of high school you ended up sitting next to a tall, dark-haired girl whose face you still see but whose name escapes you. She told you in broken English that she didn’t know where her father and brothers were, whether they were still alive. She’d escaped only with her mother. You did not dare imagine the horrors she must have seen, the courage it must have taken to flee, what and whom they’d had to leave behind. Your own refugee past – escaping communist Poland in the late 1980s, going through refugee camps, and migrating through the world for four years – was insignificant in comparison. Your life had never been in danger. Staying at home on Hitler’s birthday to avoid creepy looks and verbal abuse from neo-Nazis hardly seemed relevant.

Earlier today, with history on your mind, you passed the Mauthausen stone monument on your way into town. The medieval Stadtplatz, the main square, was bustling with activity. The place had first been mentioned as Prounaw in an official document from 1120. As you drove into the centre, it struck you how ancient all these buildings were in comparison to the place where you lived now. Your Victorian house or even the Castle in Cape Town seemed like toddlers when compared to these Methuselahs.

In August, the light is still bright in the evening, but you had to hurry before the last shops closed at seven. Your flat in your parents’ house in Geretsdorf had stood empty for a couple of months. All day long you swept, vacuumed and dusted; then you unpacked your heavy suitcase and rushed to town to buy a few essentials. Suddenly, German was all around you. You feared to open your mouth, afraid that nothing would come out, the language you’d been speaking most of your life somehow forgotten, engulfed by a terrified silence. In the chemist, you carried a tube of your favourite toothpaste and panty liners (you always schlep both to Cape Town because you cannot find satisfying local substitutes for them) to the counter and tried your luck: Ich möchte bitte mit der Bankomatkarte zahlen. (I want to pay with my debit card.) The words flew out of your mouth, automatically. You remembered the pin code for your Austrian debit card. The woman at the counter looked familiar. At Billa you bought some Leberkas, the traditional Austrian sausage meatloaf, and a few bottles of Uttendorfer beer from a local brewery. You would have one in a hot bath later.

Now, driving back from Braunau to Geretsdorf, you think how easy it is to return, to go unnoticed, to pass as one of the locals again. The Daihatsu slides through the Upper Austrian landscape, surreally lit by the setting sun. With your right hand you smoothly shift the gear to accelerate for a takeover manoeuvre. Just as smoothly your mind shifts into a narrative mode and you describe the surroundings to yourself in your head. The kitsch pastoral scene, suddenly outrageously beautiful in the setting sun, demands some concentration: The ink-smeared horizon, the bruised horizon, dotted with eerie clouds, punctuated by clouds, glowing orange, blushing orange, from the touch of setting sunrays … The words swirl in your mind like candy around a child’s tongue. Shocked, you spit them out as you drive on and stare at the sun setting over the barley fields, the grand square, white farmsteads, the small herd of cows, and you force yourself to describe the scene in German: Der Himmel, der Horizont, blau, die Wolken, die Sonne, orange. Individual words and their particles come to you, but they refuse to turn into smooth, peppermint-sweet images. You are startled.

***

Once you’d mastered all three, you divided your languages into favourites. Polish for speaking. German for writing. English for reading. Since your move to Cape Town you have been assimilating Afrikaans into the mix, for socialising. Driving towards Geretsdorf, you recognise that a shift has taken place. The carefully ranked categories no longer apply. English has taken over.

It shouldn’t surprise you. You lived in the States for over two years, continued learning English at school in Austria, and later you studied English literature at university for twelve years. Since 2005, you’ve been living in Cape Town where it is the lingua franca. You and your husband speak English to each other and you are at home with it; it is at home with you. English has inadvertently become the language you work in, as a critic and finally – yes, finally – as a writer. You know that this last shift is the crux (even if at this very moment you have to look up the exact meaning of ‘crux’ in a monolingual dictionary to make sure that it is actually the word you mean).

English has become the language of your creativity; your intimacy with it derives from living in South Africa. But you’ve only just realised it now, on this road from Braunau to Geretsdorf. It unsettles you, this shift of paradigms which has happened so automatically, so unconsciously, and you need time to take it in; you need to think it through. In English. You recall the Chinese-Canadian writer Ying Chen speaking in Lyon about her mother tongue and the tongue of her fiction; she compared one to an arranged marriage and the other to a love affair. You can identify with the idea of English as your lover.

You arrive in Geretsdorf enlightened, in love, park the car in front of the house, and do not lock the door. At home in Cape Town, long before you get to the garage you have to start checking whether you aren’t being followed. In Geretsdorf, there are no security bars on your parterre windows, no alarms, no terrifying daily Neighbourhood Watch reports, no stories of friends’ hijacked cars, no neighbour arriving at your gate with knife wounds in his face, no phone calls from your stepdaughter traumatised after an armed robbery, no funerals of murdered family members, no foreigners burnt alive in the streets. At least not since 1945.

You derive pleasure from the unlocked car door. You enter the house with a smile and open the terrace door wide open to celebrate this sense of freedom, and to let in some fresh air before the sun sets completely. The only reason to lock up later will be to keep the mosquitoes out of your bed tonight.

From upstairs your mother calls that dinner will be ready at eight. You have a while to relax, to settle further in to one of your many former homes where everything is still so familiar. You moved into this flat after your return from a student-exchange year in Wales, and lived here for four years before you decided to make South Africa your home. It was in this very study, on this desk in front of you, where you’d planned your first journey to Africa, on a research grant for your PhD on Nadine Gordimer’s post-apartheid work. Most of your books, travel guides and maps are still here, now filed away with the photographs and study materials you’d brought from South Africa in 2004; the defended and published thesis added to the collection in 2008. There is also the photograph of you with your future husband and other participants from the ‘South Africa in Perspective’ Symposium you helped to organise at the University in Salzburg at the end of 2004. Next to it is a postcard of the picturesque Schloss Leopoldskron, where the last event of the symposium took place and where you fell in love with the man who would become your husband, even though you did not dare admit it at the time. You and your husband have returned time and again to Salzburg, the city you both love so much, the city that brought you together, with its centuries-old architecture, dignified opulence, and mummified socio-historical structures, all glossed over with gold and red for Sound of Music fans descending in their thousands, clicking away pictures in tourist-crowded alleys, stuffing themselves with grilled chestnuts or oven-baked potatoes topped with sour-cream and chives, buying useless gifts at the rustic Christmas Market, gathering next to the cathedral around the handsome Russian balalaika player, drinking hot chocolate or iced coffee at Tomaselli, ascending in cable cars to the medieval fortress that squats on top of the miniature mountain (which sometimes reminds you of another that you can see every day from your stoep in Cape Town), attending endless music concerts, trampling on the roses in the Mirabell Garden where Copernicus sits wondering whether he is German or Polish. And yes, yes, Mozart! Mozart is everywhere, more golden and reddish than anything else in the famous city of Salzburg, reclaimed covetously by a place that never wanted him during his lifetime.

You know there is more to Salzburg; it’s hidden, quiet, small, a little grey – yours. Alone, one January evening before midnight, you walked the fog-veiled streets of the old town and decided to leave Salzburg, Geretsdorf, Austria – for good. The final link in a long chain of events which began in 1999, when Edwin Hees (now a dear friend), arrived in Salzburg to share his passion for the arts of the Beloved Country and brought your whole world to a standstill. After his lecture, you rushed into the departmental library with burning cheeks and a famished mind and tried to absorb everything possible about South Africa’s past and present. You were overwhelmed by the intensity of the historical moment only five years after the first democratic election. You were moved by the promise of a new future, by the vibrancy of the emerging post-apartheid literature. History was happening then and there, at the multilingual tip of the foreign continent; it was not something confined to outdated school books. It was a time of chaos and possibility.

Travelling to South Africa for the first time in 2004 only confirmed all you’d learnt and hoped about the country in the five years since Edwin’s first lecture; strangely, you felt instantly at home in this distant, foreign, multitudinous place. No wonder that a year later, you had come home for good. South Africa was a forge, shaping history as you watched, shaping you as you lived. You abandoned the shadow of a medieval fortress, unchanged for centuries, and exchanged the crystallised reality of Europe for the muddle of a lived present. Its complexity finally tipped you over the edge of impassivity and allowed the creative impulse that you’d been harbouring for years to emerge onto the stark white light of a published page.

Now, on this visit to your parents, you sit in your old study in Geretsdorf and stare at the books that represented South Africa before it became your home. On the desk is a little pile of presents you brought for your family, among them a collection of short stories which includes one of your own. You take up a pen and dedicate the book to your parents and your brother, relieved that the content has nothing to do with them. The story is about rape and domestic violence. As one of the lucky ones, you have never experienced anything like it in your own life, but it is part of the reality of your new home, and you constantly feel the need to confront it in your writing.

South Africa is in constant flux. Positive and negative forces of change are entangled and nothing is clear-cut or easy. You sometimes think that living compartmentalised lives is the only way to survive in this fractured place. But you still want to have coffee with your gardener on the stoep while discussing the rain clouds and the mole invasion. Surely that shouldn’t be so much to ask for? Yet you know the mere suggestion makes the poor man want to sink into the nearest mole hole. (Madam?) And no matter how hard you try to explain this to your European mother, she doesn’t understand. You foolishly thought you could apply your straightforward idealism to a country that was anything but ideal. South Africa is far from unique in this respect, but this doesn’t make anything right, just more desperate. This society’s vibrancy comes at a high price. You aren’t going to change the world. The world is changing you. To try to understand, you write.

You live in a country at war with itself. It’s not paranoia, or some obscure statistics; it’s reality. Daily, thousands of people are dying around you, of preventable diseases, preventable crime, preventable poverty and, most recently, preventable xenophobia. You realise that this time the keyword of hate speech had been makwerekwere. What if the next time it is whites; will you burn to ashes in the streets with bystanders watching you helplessly or, worse, with joy? But you need not even think that far. Every day, other words are pronounced with hatred around you: baby, woman, HIV positive, privilege. There is always somebody too vulnerable for their own good. And the disquiet, the omnipotent force of history – ironically – is gathering to pounce again. But you do not stand up and fight, nor do you leave for safer shores; paralysed, from a vantage point of relative safety on your private island, you watch the ongoing catastrophes around you as if in slow motion, hoping it won’t happen to you, knowing precisely that you might be next.

Waking up from nightmares, you sometimes indulge in daydreams of fleeing, and think about the old Victorian brass bed you share with your husband, with its soft, duck-down pillows (a Christmas present from your parents), fresh linen with cream-and-yellow flower patterns (a wedding gift from your Aunt Zosia), and the luxurious, snow-white duvet cover (a token of gratitude from your Italian friend Michela).

***

Selma. Her name was Selma. You remember. The tall, dark-haired girl from Yugoslavia. What a coincidence; she shares an initial with the heroine of Slavenka Drakulić’s As If I Am Not There, the 1999 novel that has been haunting you for weeks, ever since you saw the photo of the man burning in the street.

It’s a simple, cruel story: “S. is a teacher in a Bosnian village; twenty-nine, gentle, clever and pretty, with a love affair and an apartment of her own. Until one spring day a young Serb soldier walks uninvited into her kitchen and tells her to pack her bag, and her life is interrupted. As the sky turns black with smoke behind her, S. enters a new world, where peace is a fairytale and there are no homes but only camps: transit camps, reception camps, labour camps, death camps.”

Still in her kitchen, at first S. is too shocked to do anything but offer the soldier a cup of coffee. She had known something terrible was about to happen, all the signs were there. There was time to flee, but she’d clung to a hope that it wouldn’t be necessary. She didn’t want to give up her familiar, ordinary, happy life.

S. ends up in a camp where she is repeatedly raped and tortured. She falls pregnant. After liberation, in exile in Sweden, she gives birth to a child whom she decides to keep and nurture. Slavenka Drakulić’s novel is fictitious; it doesn’t tell the story of any particular woman, but it is the story of thousands of women in the Balkans, of women all around the world. In your nightmares, it is your story.

***

Under extreme pressure, you imagine how relatively easy it would be to return to Geretsdorf or Salzburg, to make a new-old life for yourself and your husband there. In these visions you see yourself taking him by the hand, grabbing your passports, putting your cats in their transport cages and taking the quickest route to the Austrian consulate or directly to the airport. In your mind, you are ready to pack and go anytime. You’ve done it in the past, as an Eastern European refugee, moving from one place to another, always in a hurry, hardly ever allowed to take anything with you. You know you can survive.

***

Ultimately, nothing can happen without loss. Two things represent all: a language and a bed. You fear the necessity of having constantly to negotiate between a husband and a lover. You have made your bed, and now you want to sleep in it. The affair is too passionate and precious to end. You do not want the practicalities of living in a German-speaking world to invade this space. You fear your adulterous mind, knowing how flippantly it had switched before, making you dream, think, live in another language. But it had never been as creative as in English, in this turbulent, divided country that you call home.

Yes, you choose to continue waking up from nightmares next to your husband and your cats in your old Victorian brass bed – this silent witness to over a century of marital bliss, estrangement, passion and loneliness. This is the place where your family gathers, where you sleep, make love, eat, watch rugby on TV, read, laugh, talk, pick your way around the cats. Where you listen to the sounds of the house and the constant low hum of the city at night, fearing malevolent footsteps.

Should you ever decide or be forced to leave, the bed – and almost everything else – would have to stay.

***

You aren’t good at dealing with this kind of loss. You grow instantly attached to objects. You surround yourself with charms, dream-catchers; Rudolf, your small, plush guardian angel, never leaves your side; hundreds of books (As If I Am Not There among them), clothes (the black top you found in Aberystwyth), mugs you collect (the tall handmade dark-blue one from the Norwegian island Ona), furniture (mostly bookshelves), a few jewels (the silver peacock brooch with turquoise stones from your grandma), photographs (of you with your husband and Madiba), shoes (the beige slippers from Paris), paintings (a Jan Vermeiren commissioned by your husband for your twenty-ninth birthday), mirrors (the one that waited a year for you at the Naked Truth in Stellenbosch), a laptop (with your creative output saved in it), cameras (both from your father), the camera bag from your mother, the stuffed rag rat your Aunt Iwona made for your namesday when you were fourteen, the circle-of-friends candleholder from your best friend Isabella, the Swatch your father gave you fifteen years ago, the Winnie-the-Pooh eraser from your brother, and the white lace tablecloth from your great aunt. These items are worthless, but priceless. Like your small Daihatsu, standing unlocked in front of your windows, you want to keep it all, to collect it even in writing.

But whereas you don’t have to worry about the little car or anything else you own in Austria, all these precious possessions are in danger in Cape Town, if not of being stolen (who would want you great aunt’s lace tablecloth?), then of being left behind if worst comes to worst. The mere idea of it makes you ache inside. You want to curl up somewhere safe and not think about it. Throughout your migratory childhood and youth you didn’t allow yourself to grow too attached to people; it was safer to grow attached to the few things you could carry.

The Victorian brass bed in Cape Town embodies your new-found creativity. The thought of losing it fills you with a dread greater than the fear of finding a soldier in your kitchen. You understand S., even though nothing about all this is rational. You are a bundle of intuitions and anxieties. Split in half, you know you should be leaving, and yet you insist on staying on your island, hoping against hope, against all facts, against the statistics of the reality around you. Instead you dream, love, laugh and put your creative energies to good uses. Every day, you stand on your stoep and look up at Devil’s Peak and know you will never want to trade it for a medieval fortress. And in the small hours of the night, you lie awake in the brass bed, waiting for your soldier to come, to serve him coffee.

***

Dziecko, kolacja gotowa.’ (Child, dinner’s ready.) Your mother calls from upstairs and you look at your Swatch; it’s eight. You get up from behind your desk and, hugging the dedicated book to your heart, you close the terrace door with your right hand to keep the mosquitoes out at night. It is almost dark, the sky the colour of spilt ink. Your Daihatsu looks grey in the twilight. The emerald arborvitae hedge your parents planted around their new property is almost as tall as the old one in Braunau, but you can still see the lights going on in your neighbour’s house across the street. After dinner you will call your husband at home and wish him goodnight. You will miss him and the cats for the next ten days of your visit. You will have a bubble bath with an Uttendorfer. The practical IKEA double bed you have in Geretsdorf will seem empty and cold, even in the middle of summer. You will read before falling asleep, marvelling at the silence of the countryside around you. You will be preoccupied with the corrections to an essay about the recent xenophobic attacks in the country; there will be no foreign footsteps invading these thoughts. When your light is off and the silence absolute, nobody and nothing will disturb your dreams about your old Victorian bed in Cape Town.

***

I am like you. It’s terrifying.

First published in Home Away, edited by Louis Greenberg (Zebra Press, 2010).

A Miracle Worker from Baghdad

Saad Eskander1It took four flights and twenty-seven hours for Dr Saad Eskander to reach Molde, a coastal town in Norway, home to the annual Bjørnson Festival. Arriving late on Friday, he is to give a lecture the next day and embark on the same, tiring journey back to Baghdad, his home, on Sunday morning. To add to the strain, the two nights he spends in Molde, he hardly sleeps. “I cannot sleep longer than half an hour at a time when staying at a hotel,” he tells me. He has come to Molde as a guest of the festival, asked to speak about his work as director general of the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) in Baghdad. His lecture, entitled “Rising from the Ashes: The Destruction and Reconstruction of INLA (2003-2008)”, is one the highlights of this year’s Bjørnson Festival and is preceded by a moving poetry reading. The poet, Nada Yousif, lives in Norway in exile with her husband Thamer A.K. Al-Shahwani, a musician, and their small baby. Accompanied by her husband’s clarinet, she recites the original verses in a deep voice full of pain. English translations of her work are given to us before the lecture. She begins with the poem “The Last Flower” which ends with these telling lines: “My dwelling is now a tent at the borders / And my homeland… / A cemetery”.

Nada Yousif’s poetry reading sets the mood for Saad Eskander’s lecture. “The story I’m about to tell is a sad story, and it is always difficult to tell a sad story,” he admits and reminds his audience of John Milton’s remark that the destruction of books equals the destruction of reason. Throughout the history of humankind both have been constantly under threat. In this respect the fate of the INLA has not been unusual. During Saddam Hussein’s reign the library, like other cultural institutions in the country, served the dictator, not the nation. The regime was hostile towards any forms of creativity and did not participate in any rational planning to preserve the rich cultural treasures of Iraq. A small budget, shortages in acquisitions, ancient equipment, denial of access for scholars, unbearable working conditions, isolation from the international community, and censorship, contributed to the gradual demise of the library and archive holdings. Undesirable items were either removed from the institution or made inaccessible to the public. Constant surveillance by secret agents placed in the ranks of the library’s staff spread fear and intimidation. With salaries amounting to US$ 3 per month corruption thrived; quick and efficient access to the INLA became impossible without bribery.

The regime’s downfall in April 2003 put the INLA in an even more precarious situation. The institution became a target not only for the arsonists of the defeated regime wanting to destroy any criminal evidence, but also for professional thieves hunting for goods to sell to private collectors, and for ordinary looters who plundered the already minimal furnishings and equipment of the INLA. The cultural losses were enormous. With sixty percent of the archival materials and twenty-five percent of the institution’s publications, including rare books and periodicals, looted and destroyed, some of the remaining holdings scattered, ruined and lost, the events of the time can only be described as a national disaster. The building of the INLA itself was terribly damaged by fires, bombardments and vandalism.

The Coalition Provisional Government (CPA) of the time (2003-2004) did not prioritise cultural matters and failed to implement any goals for the INLA. The institution seemed doomed until the appointment of Saad Eskander as director of the INLA in December 2004. With a PhD in international relations and history from the London School of Economics and coming from a family known for its political integrity, Eskander was well-equipped to do the job. A former Kurdish fighter, after thirteen years of living in the UK he decided to return to his home country with a group of exiled Iraqi artists and intellectuals after the 2003 invasion to help with reconstruction. From the group, he was the only one to remain in Iraq permanently. He became well-known for the diary he wrote about the terrifying time of the civil war in Baghdad. The diary was made available worldwide through the British Library’s homepage where it was published.

Although he was told to wait with any plans and actions for the INLA when he took over the library as director at the end of 2004, he decided to open the institution without any help from the Ministry of Culture. There was literally nothing in the building to work with: no electricity, water, furniture, or security. With the help of some volunteers he organised looting parties and plundered specifically targeted buildings for some equipment and furniture. One of those targets was the club of Saddam Hussein’s son. All these actions were illegal, but they proved highly successful. The INLA opened officially after only a few weeks of preparations. The working conditions were appalling at first. The building was dark, cold and situated in a very dangerous neighbourhood. The people trying to restore the INLA had to overcome many obstacles and placed their life in danger to fulfil their task. Eight people died in the process, dozens of others were injured or displaced.

Those who persisted had to confront the rubble heaps covered by soot and dust that constituted the library. Eskander is full of praise especially for the women who got involved in the project: “Women are good leaders, they immediately took initiative and set to work.” From the beginning, democratisation of the INLA’s inner life and gender equality have been strongly encouraged under his policy. Knowing that corruption was one of the greatest challenges to be dealt with, he immediately curtailed his own power (his own people have the power to fire him anytime) and substituted the former culture of taking orders with a culture of initiatives. Women have formed their own association within the library’s governing structures and publish an independent journal. New people from all sections of the population – Kurds, Sunnis, Shias – are employed and skilled permanently.

The Czech Republic and Italy were the two nations first to offer their assistance to the INLA (funding, equipment, skill-exchange). Some of INLA’s staff members travelled to these countries to be trained in restoration and preservation of materials on the most modern equipment available. Other countries and NGOs followed suit. Eskander’s work has been recognised abroad. He was awarded the Archivist of the Year Award at Columbia University in 2007. The same year he also won the MESA Academic Freedom Award of the Middle East Studies Association of the University of Arizona. But his greatest achievement remains the look of satisfaction on the thousand of people’s faces visiting the INLA, hungry for knowledge. Access to the INLA’s holdings and to online resources is free for all.

Today, the INLA’s staff counts four hundred employees. The average salary is about US$ 300. The building of the INLA has been almost completely renovated and all working conditions tremendously improved. Self-sufficiency and resistance to all forms of censorship are high on the INLA’s agenda. When, in 2007, the INLA refused to be turned into a military base, the Iraqi army invaded the institution as punishment. They soon realised the futility of the action and retreated. However, the headquarters of the US forces remain opposite the INLA building. The coming and going of helicopters can be heard in the background at all times. Sometimes a misguided bullet or shrapnel finds its way into the library, reminding the workers and visitors of the constant threat and instability of the outside world. And even though the worst seems to be over, the INLA continues to face innumerable challenges.

In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, Eskander explained his motivation of taking up the job, “I thought I could help Iraqis understand their past and build their future.” Not a small task, but one he seems to be the perfect person to attempt.

During his lecture at the Bjørnson Festival in Molde, with obvious pride, he tells the audience about a file recently discovered in the INLA’s archives, portraying historical events unknown until now. He knows how crucial these and other findings are for the understanding and interpretation of history. As he ends his presentation on a very uplifting note, sharing with us some recent photographs of the beautifully renovated library, full of busy employees and engrossed visitors, most of us are moved to tears by Saad Eskander’s story. I do not manage more than a simple thank you and a handshake after his lecture.

In this context, it is a disconcerting anticlimax to hear the announcement of the next speaker, Vigdis Moe Skarstein, who will be talking about Norway’s National Library and the challenges of digitalisation the institution is facing. There will be no talk about security threats, blackouts, stray bullets, corruption, people displaced or killed – the everyday hardships of all the people working with Eskander to keep the library and archive going from on a daily basis.

Saad Eskander2Before he has to leave the next day, Eskander joins a few of the festival participants for dinner, even though it is very late and he is not used to eating at this hour. While we others enjoy the local specialities, he sips some wine and patiently replies to our endless questions. We all want to know whether he believes Barack Obama can bring about change in Iraq if he is elected president of the United States. Eskander does not seem optimistic. “No matter who is elected in November, the US foreign policy will continue on its own terms,” he says.

During our conversation we discover a lot of similarities between present-day Iraq and South Africa. The challenges of diversity seem all too familiar; both societies are trying not only to come to terms with their multiethnic, multilingual and religiously diverse makeup, but also to profit from the opportunities it offers.

At the end of the evening, Eskander shares a personal tragedy with us. Three days before his departure for Norway, a dear friend of his who served as the Advisor to the Minister of Culture was assassinated near his home. “Kamel Shayaa’s death shocked everybody in Iraq, as he was an exceptionally nice and gifted person. He spoke four European languages and had an MA in philosophy. Like me, he returned from exile (Belgium) to Baghdad after Saddam’s downfall.” Immediately after the funeral, Eskander boarded the plane to Norway only because he had given his word to the festival organisers that he would attend. “I did my best to conceal my sadness,” he writes to me after his return to Baghdad.

As we say goodbye after the dinner, we wish him a safe journey to that place which he, in spite of all, chooses as his home. A place I knew previously only through the horrific images of war and destruction favoured by the world media. Through the stories Saad Eskander shared with us, Baghdad became a place of hope.

First published in New Era on 3 October 2008 and an edited version in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008.

For updates see:
Wikipedia
Interview with Saad Eskander (2013)

In 2012 during Open Book, I spoke about Saad Eskander with the amazing Anne Nivat, who was on her way to Iraq. Watch her documentary in which she meets up with Saad Eskander:

First steps

Invisible Others is making her first steps in the world. These are some of the questions I have been asked about the novel during the launch last Tuesday (interviewed by S.A. Partridge) and during the Woordfees event (interviewed by Ingrid Winterbach) on Thursday. A rough reconstruction of my replies follows.

How does it feel to hold the novel in your hands?
It still doesn’t feel real. I think it will take a few weeks to sink in, to properly realise that something that has lived on in my head for so many years is finally out there, contained in an object that has turned out to be so beautiful. I am grateful for all people involved in the production process of the physical book, especially Hanli Deysel and Danél Hanekom, whose ideas, designs, guidance and the willingness to cooperate were exceptional. It isn’t a given that an author is included in the decision-making pertaining to this part of a book publication.

How did the novel begin?
As a short story, and with a single image. For a long time I’d thought of myself a short story writer, but I was curious whether I could write in the longer form. To test myself, I went to a writer’s retreat in Calvinia and began writing my first novel there. In the course of my stay in Calvinia I realised that I could do it, but the story I was writing (a more typical first novel about growing up) was too autobiographical, too close to the bone, and I was not prepared to share it with an audience, at least not yet. So the manuscript ended up in my drawer. I then picked up an unfinished short story I was working on at the time. It began escalating into something longer and eventually resulted in Invisible Others. But it all started with an image of a woman and a man having a picnic in a park I knew in Paris. That scene is still in the novel. I knew that they were somehow trying to reach out to one another, but it was not easy for them to connect. The novel became an exploration of the reasons behind this difficulty.

Will there be another novel, or are you returning to the short form?
I am working on a YA novel, and I have a half-finished speculative fiction novel waiting on the backburner. But I love short stories and will continue writing them. I am intrigued by the challenge of the short story, of having to make every word and gesture count. Sometimes I feel that everything I write is about gestures, tiny imperceptible things like a glance or a twitch of a finger can change the course of a story. Capturing these moments in fiction fascinates me.

How does an academic background inform your writing?
I am aware of trends, patterns, some theory which is a good and a bad thing. As a writer, I would like to build on existing developments, but not be trapped by them. Having a very individual and specific migratory background, and yet being thoroughly shaped by my knowledge of local literature, I believe I can contribute something different to the scene. At the same time, very often being aware of what is happening can be limiting and discouraging.

Carolina's park

Carolina’s park

You write about Paris with a clear sense of place. Do you know it well?
I wrote about a deeply personal side of Paris – the spaces I know and love in the city, like the Polish Bookshop or some of the restaurants and parks mentioned in the novel. But I don’t want to claim that I know Paris well. It is a city which constantly eludes me no matter how eager I am to grasp it.
I was also very much aware of the fact that Paris is one of the most written about places on the planet, and that I did not want to compete with such a significant body of work. Trying to do justice to the setting, I concentrated on a few familiar, intimate spaces. I worked from memory, but also took photographs, drew little maps, made many notes, and used Google Maps for verification. But there was a moment where imagination took over and the descriptions in the novel do not always correspond 1:1 with reality. Also, I discovered that during the time it took me to write the book some places I used as settings had changed: a restaurant I mentioned disappeared completely; the bookshop changed its layout and expanded. In that sense, the Paris of the novel is at times a purely imagined space.

Both Cara and Konrad find refuge in Paris – why Paris as a runaway place?
For Cara, the reason why she chooses Paris becomes obvious as the novel progresses. For Konrad, it is a place that is essential to his research. From the first, Paris was always part of the story. The story chose it. On the one hand, I persisted with the setting because I liked the idea of it being an unusual place for a contemporary English-speaking South African to emigrate to. It used to be much more obvious for Afrikaans speakers to travel to Paris in the 50s, 60s and beyond. A whole generation of Afrikaans writers were shaped by their Parisian encounters. On the other hand, I did not want to write another novel about an exiled South African returning to the country of their birth. Cara and Konrad do not emigrate because of socio-political or historical circumstances, but for purely personal reasons. I wanted to write about a different migratory experience which reflects a different aspect of the reality of our globalised world – one where people migrate and choose to stay or even move on, but do not return to their country of origin. In that sense, I wanted the novel to defy expectations.

What about other research?
My characters know a lot more than I do about art, history, typesetting or geography. They have different passions and fears from mine. I wanted to make things which originated in my head come to life for others. I had to read up enough on all these subjects in order to make them believable.

And national identity?
There are two ways in which I wanted to engage with issues of identity in the novel: as an everyday experience without necessarily political or historical connotations; and an academic pursuit where these connotations matter strongly, but are nearly entirely confined to the research Konrad does, they do not spill over into his own lived experience. But on the whole, I wanted to remain on a rather superficial level while handling these issues by concentrating on the nostalgia for one’s country of origin in daily life which manifests itself in preferences for certain food, music, art, reading, drinks, proverbs, or customs. It was important for me to show that despite these obvious and natural longings, like so many people in today’s world, Konrad and Cara can make a home for themselves away from the places of their birth.

In the novel, you come across as an authority on art. What is the role of visual art in your life?
To be honest, I know very little about visual art apart from my own responses to some artists’ work. I have a deep love for beauty and objects. There is something about the timelessness and reliability of an object which fascinates me. I surround myself with objects which have meaning for me, some of these are art pieces – hardly ever of any general value, but always of enormous personal value to me. One of the reasons I fell head over heels in love with The Book of Happenstance (by Ingrid Winterbach) is the portrayal of the relationship the main character has with her collection of shells. It is one of the most, if not the most, accurate description of what I often feel for objects which matter to me, and what their loss means to me.
I am a huge fan of Siri Hustvedt’s work as a novelist and as an observer. Her books on art and looking at art are inspiring and moving. The theory is just as important as the response, and the clarity of her presentation of both is astounding.

Which artists, if any, inspired the art in Invisible Others?
These might seem like completely incompatible influences, but for Lucas’s work I thought of Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele and Tamara de Lempicka; for Dagmar’s work I thought of William Kentridge and Renée le Roux. But no specific real image inspired any of the imagined paintings which appear in the novel. It was more like the combined mood of these oeuvres that I tried to capture in the art featured in Invisible Others.

Invisible Others is a timeless story where technology takes a backseat – was this a conscious decision?
Very much so. It also reflects my own life and attitude towards social media, media in general, and the internet. I love the opportunities technology and media offer, but I have also become very cautious in using them. The internet provides us with enormous advantages; it can enrich our lives, but it can also be a dangerous tool with a sting. The exposure to media nearly destroys Cara’s life. She consciously tries to hide from it all. Konrad is weary of the pitfalls of the internet and yet can’t resist its temptations. To his credit, instead of speculating, he tries to keep an open mind and find out what he needs to know from the only person who can tell him the truth about what happened.

Why the attraction of love triangles and dysfunctional relationships?
When we are honest with ourselves, most of us will have to admit that there are many things – essential things – in our relationships with others which we cannot articulate – such as our fears, desires or passions. I have always been fascinated by this inability to communicate between people, and personally, I have worked all my life in my relationships to conquer it. But often instead of communicating, we end up falling into triangular relationships – not necessarily with other people, a hobby or work can be such an escapist third party – to satisfy what cannot be brought to light in the relationships which truly matter to us. We are mostly suckers for suffering. We need to suffer to feel alive. There aren’t many people out there who are happy without drama, who can appreciate the simple, good things in life.

Do invisible others doom relationships before they even happen?
They do. For better or worse, we carry around the memories and ghosts of people who have shaped and influenced our lives and very often we are either unaware of their presence or not courageous enough to admit to it or face it. These invisible others can interfere with our present relationships if we allow them to haunt us. Finding a way to see and understand these spaces and figures makes relationships possible, or not, if we fail. This is where fiction comes in for me: writing is often an attempt at trying to penetrate those spaces.

What drives Cara into the affair?
A powerful attraction. She falls for the wrong man and persists in the relationship. It seems to me that we often stay in relationships because we believe that we have already sacrificed so much for them, we simply have to make them work, even if the only sensible thing to do is to cut one’s losses and walk away.

Why should the reader identify with her?
I hope readers will travel a journey with Cara similar to my own. When she appeared to me in that picnic image in the park, she started off as a puzzle, a mystery, one I did not particularly warm to, but one who intrigued me. I wanted to understand her, to see what made her tick, and almost inevitably I started caring for her in the attempt. Cara defied me. She showed me that sometimes people do terrible things not because they are terrible people, but because they can’t help themselves. One can appreciate or forgive a lot as long as one understands the reasons. This is part of what Siri Hustvedt refers to as “a call for empathy” and the reason why I chose the passage from one of her essays which explains this phrase for the epigraph of Invisible Others.

The ending of the novel was puzzling – can you comment?
The ending somehow surprised me as well. It has everything to do with the fact of how Cara took over her own story, how she did not allow me to leave her entirely in the lurch (as I was keen to in the beginning). It is an open ending. It is wonderful for me to see how some of my readers are beginning to interpret it. Deep in my heart I can feel what happened to Cara, but I still want readers to decide for themselves.

In the novel, Cara turns to reading for solace or guidance. What would you like readers to take away from this novel?
I suppose a bit of both, but mainly solace – I don’t feel that I have the right to guide anybody. But if readers find a moment of truth or revelations in the novel which penetrates their own invisible others and inspires them to explore, communicate, understand these spaces, the magic of fiction would have happened, and that would be more than I would dare to hope for.

You are married to one of the most important contemporary South African writers with an overwhelming oeuvre to his name. Isn’t it a bit intimidating?
Not at all. In the beginning, when I started getting to know André I was a bit scared of his creative process. I know that for many it can be a process of solitude and exclusion and I did not know how I would fit into, or around, it. But then I discovered how open to sharing André was, how generous and supportive, and I relaxed completely. Our studies are at the opposite ends of a passage in our house. There is a lot of communicating going on between them, and invitations to tea.
André’s body of work is enormous, and I am its greatest fan. It doesn’t intimidate me because I have no intentions of competing with it – that would be ridiculous. My writing is very different, the stories I want to tell are my own. I am grateful for all of André’s support and expertise, but I also know that it works both ways. I offer the same to him. There is no room for intimidation in our personal and literary relationship.