European Literature Days 2016: Review of Rasha Khayat by Beat Mazenauer

Between Two Cultures

The favourite prediction about the ‘conflict of cultures’ is an ideological construct that quickly loses obvious meaning when applied to everyday life. Rasha Khayat concentrates on this theme in her debut novel Weil wir längst woanders sind. She immerses us in a world of ambiguities in which our fixed ideas and opinions become muddled. The author, who spent part of her childhood in Saudi Arabia, tells the story of living between two cultures.

The siblings Basil and Layla know all about this balancing act. Their mother is German and their father was a Saudi doctor who died prematurely, and as children they lived for several years in Jeddah (close to Mecca) while later they attended schools in Düsseldorf where they make their home. They have studied, travelled around the world, lived in shared accommodation, enjoyed smoking and drinking alcohol.

Then suddenly Layla decides to return to Saudi Arabia to marry a man whom she hadn’t met up till then. While Barbara, her mother, refuses to participate in the wedding, Basil cannot find any excuse. He flies to Jeddah because he’d also like to find out from Layla why she is giving up life in Europe to be locked in the corset of Muslim tradition.

Rasha Khayat’s novel narrates Basil’s journey to his childhood home; she describes his irritating impressions in this world of countless ambiguities where plenty of things are allowed if only they remain hidden and out of sight. As soon as he arrives he personally experiences a transformation. He finds it surprisingly easy to utter a genuine “Inshallah”, even though he doesn’t know “when I last spoke about Allah”. Soon afterwards, Friday prayers pose a new test for him which he passes by silently murmuring the song “Der Mond ist aufgegangen” to himself, instead of praying. When he can finally ask his sister “what the devil we are getting involved in here”, she is able to give an astonishingly clear answer. She already decided back home in Germany “because I simply no longer want to be here where nothing happens and nothing fits”, as she records in a farewell letter.

The foreign country awakens memories of childhood intermingled with stories about various relatives. They create an equally vivid as well as painful tension that this novel thrives on. Nothing is clear, not even for Basil, who doesn’t want to give up his life in Germany at any cost. Layla finds her peace with her family in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Omar, a cousin, who returned from the USA years ago, says to Basil, “You are really lucky, ya Basha. Life is good in Germany. And I advise you one thing: don’t get mixed up in marriage.” Nothing is easy.

Rasha Khayat gives an insight into a life caught between two inwardly divided cultures. Her narrative device is that she allows a man to travel “back home” to the patriarchal society to obtain answers from a woman who freely volunteers to become subordinate to this society. These answers are more complex than the European standpoint would care to accept. And that makes this a fascinating book.

By Beat Mazenauer

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

  This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 20 October 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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One comment

  1. This short, enthralling novel has been one of my favourite reads during 2016. The writing style is smooth and calm, allowing Basil to narrate events with love and yet also objectivity. The book came to me as a reader report request from a highly respected publishing house for whom I regularly write. This was the first time in a long time I had felt able to be able to write wholly positively about a book but they have decided not to run with it. Publishers always have their own, valid internal reasons for these decisions and I have since written to a couple of others about the book. Having done the report, I do know the book inside out and have myself lived in both Germany and the Middle East. It really says something to me. The dilemmas explored are for everyone, and the issues could not be more current. If you read German, do take a look at it. We need someone to buy those Rights and get it into English.

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