Samuel Shimon left his native Iraq nearly four decades ago with the aim of reaching Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a filmmaker. Instead, he ended up in Paris and wrote a book.
It was journey that took in Damascus, Amman, Beirut, Nicosia, Aden, Cairo, Tunis and the French capital, before he finally settled in London.
Speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in an engrossing and philosophical panel discussion on Arab writers in exile; Shimon explained that leaving Iraq for purely non-political reasons wasn’t enough to stop the hand of repression at the Syrian border.
“I was arrested for two reasons. On one hand they are police states and dictatorships. The second reason was that this was 1979, Iraq was booming country at the time and that was enough for the Syrian police to be suspicious about my motives about leaving the country,” he said.
“I was tortured for a few days and once they found out that I was a Christian and not a Jew they let me go. Then I went to Jordan and I was arrested again because I was in Syria.
“When I eventually sought asylum in Paris, I thought, well maybe I can’t be a filmmaker, so instead I would write a novel.”
While the endearing An Iraqi in Paris (2011) is a novel, Shimon says the sense of dislocation he experienced resulted in the episodic nature of the book – an unintended creative benefit of a life in exile.
While Shimon found whimsy and bleak humour in his life away from home, poet and essayist Mohamad Abdul Moula said he writes to keep “my Syria alive”. He describes leaving his home city of Homs as a scar that refuses to heal. “The last memory I have of Damascus, when I left Syria to seek asylum in Mexico in 2001, was that it was raining and my clothes were wet,” he said. “In a way, I feel like I haven’t been dry since.”
As director of Museums and Antiquities in Homs from 1991 to 1996, Moula recalled how he would collect and store early poetry detailing the city, despite never writing about his home himself. "Then as I saw how Homs was being destroyed by tanks and air strikes, similar to how German cities were left to rubble during the [Second] World War, I became frightened that I might lose my memory. So I began to write – it was a way to revive my dying city through language."
Ashur Etwebi is optimistic about the creative riches that could be unearthed from the rubble of the Arab Spring.
The poet and essayist, who left Gaddafi’s Libya to resettle in Norway, said it was important to hold a broader perspective when it comes to assessing the effect the region’s turmoil had on Arab writers.
“History proves that life is full of crossroads that effect all spheres of life, and that includes literature and culture on both an individual and collective level,” he said.
“What we experience in the Arab Spring is really an important turning point in history. One of the results is the deck of cards have been completely reshuffled and totally new orientations have been produced, and one of them is literature.
“As a result, some authors have become reactionary and are fighting for human rights.”
But there is a price for such advances, Moula countered. After residing in Mexico City before settling in the German city of Hannover, he said that while he was thrilled at being able to write freely and have his work translated into several languages, he missed the direct interaction with his Arab readers.
“It is a beautiful feeling to have your work published. But so is the reaction. When the book goes out I wonder how people back in Syria or in the Arab world think about it – a writer’s work needs reaction.”