By Olivia Snaije
Syrian writer Rafik Schami has been in political exile in Germany for 40 years. Best known in the English-language world for two recently translated novels, The Dark Side of Love, dubbed “the Great Arab novel” by The Independent, and The Calligrapher’s Secret, Schami has written his numerous novels and plays in German. He began writing in German, he said, because “for a long time I thought I could write for an Arab publisher, but most were affiliated with a political regime and they knew I was in exile so I wouldn’t get published.”
Ultimately, writing in German became something positive for Schami: “It freed me from self-censorship — the type of thing where you don’t write about family or the government. In German there were no red lines for me and it’s been very productive.”
Now Schami has founded Swallow Editions, with the aim of finding and helping young writers from the Arab world to get published in English. Swallow is structured as a not-for-profit organization and is run by London-based Arabia Books and Haus Publishing. Schami and Barbara Schwepke, Haus and Arabia’s founder, provided the start-up capital and they are hoping for UK Arts Council Funding. Profits from book sales and rights will go to Swallow, which is ring-fenced by Arabia and Haus (watch our video interview Barbara Schwepke).
Schami has been thinking about such a project for 20 years, and now with the advent of the Arab Spring and the collaboration of Haus’ publisher, Barbara Schwepcke, who brings out Schami’s books in English, everything fell into place.
Swallow Editions first novel, Sarmada, by Syrian journalist Fadi Azzam, was published last Friday. The novel follows the life of three women in a Druze village through the political changes of the 20th century. Schami has not yet met Azzam, whose writings he found on the Internet. Schami said he read over 50 manuscripts before he chose Azzam’s and that his intention is to be a reader who ferrets out manuscripts for his publishing house with a Western eye.
“My secret plan is not to talk to any of the writers, I only want to read them,” he said. “I don’t want to be introduced to them either. If you speak to an author and they start to say, ‘I was in prison’, or ‘I have four children to feed,’ then you feel bad if you reject their work. I can’t be like Amnesty International, I’m interested in literature.”
Swallow Editions will publish two to three books a year in order to be able to devote a maximum amount of attention to each manuscript. Schami works on the Arabic version, which is then translated into English.
Barbara Schwepke explained the process: “In the case of Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada, the translator Adam Talib worked very closely with the author, as some of the book was full of Syrian colloquialisms — so in a way, Adam became the second editor. We then engaged a bilingual editor who worked on the translation, making sure that it was as close as possible to the Arabic original and as free as necessary to make it a good English text — the usual challenge for a translation.”
Schami said collaborating with Azzam was symbolic of a whole new generation of Arab writers: “It was like a revelation, it was such a pleasure to work with him, he is highly intelligent . . . this new generation is able to resist; the internet liberated it. The [Arab] governments underestimated how clued in this generation is, it smells freedom through the Internet. They were afraid at first but when they learned that they could be quicker than the secret service they lost their fear, and when people lose their fear then it is dangerous for a government.”
Should the Syrian regime fall, Schami will make his first trip back to Damascus since 1971. (He wasn’t allowed to return for his mother’s funeral.) “I will go back,” he said, “but as a visitor.”