OUR 1ST INTERVIEW EVER: Katy Derbyshire meets Rasha Abbas

Translator Extraordinaire Katy Derbyshire interviews the great Rasha Abbas.

I have the honour of being the first visitor to Rasha Abbas’s new flat, on a mid-August day. It’s fully furnished and a delightfully calm place, apart from some rather disturbing framed black-and-white nature posters on the wall. Apparently, the landlord really likes them, but Rasha is thinking of sticking her own pictures over the top and whipping them off if he comes round. There are some Japanese cat paintings too, though, which make up for it. We sit down with the fan on and mugs of chilled water.

A gentle opener: How did she come to start writing? Rasha smiles. She was working as a news editor and journalist at a TV station in Syria, and contrary to expectations, that’s actually a rather boring job with a lot of time spent sitting around. So she began writing short pieces just to fill up her time at work, including the story “Adam Hates TV”. Damascus was Arab Capital of Culture in 2008. Was that a Unesco thing? We both think it sounds like a Unesco thing. And they were running a short-story competition, with a generous prize. So Rasha submitted her work.

Meanwhile, she’d been a student for years but hadn’t been attending lectures. So one day she went to the university to check whether she was still enrolled. They chuck you out if you don’t attend, you know? I do know, I tell her, because it happened to my sister. And true enough, they had indeed chucked Rasha out of university. So she was sitting there, feeling despondent about her life, sitting on a… on a… what’s the word? We both know what she’s talking about but we can’t find the word in any of our common languages. A plinth? The wall at the bottom of a fence? So she was sitting there, feeling despondent, boring job, chucked out of university, when her phone rang.

It was a jaw-dropping phone call. The person said their name and Rasha answered, “What, THE XYZ, the famous Syrian writer who must remain anonymous for the purpose of this interview?” And the person said, “Yes, that’s right! I’m calling because I’m one of the judges in the short story competition! You must never tell anyone about this phone call…” – Katy: Wait, can I write about this in the interview? – Rasha: Hmm, better not mention the person’s name – “You must never tell anyone about this phone call, but I just wanted to say I really love your work and you must keep on writing, keep going even if you don’t win the prize.” What a generous gesture! And then she did win the prize, and decided to become a writer. She just hasn’t become the kind of writer who can give up her day job, at least not yet.

I ask Rasha where she finds the material for her short stories. And it turns out those day jobs have come in handy, after all. She did a lot of shitty jobs when she was younger: selling cosmetics door-to-door, working as a secretary for a company selling thoroughbred Arabian horses. Big money! I say, to which Rasha replies drily: But not for the secretary. The work brought her into contact with all sorts of different people and their stories. The horse-selling job was particularly interesting, apparently, with a mixture of wealthy clients. Some had grown up with money for generations, and others had come to it through corruption and were looking for status symbols. We talk about the perils of not having a day job, only meeting other people from the cultural sector, sipping nice wine at parties and mining each other for stories. If only there were a middle way, because of course it’s much more pleasant to live on grants and sip nice wine at parties… It just doesn’t give you much to write about. Horace Engdahl said as much a couple of years ago, Rasha tells me: that many writers from Asia and Africa are still in touch with society, having to earn a living as waiters and taxi drivers, and that makes them more exciting to read than western writers. For him, at least.

So it’s real life, then, that provides Rasha with raw material, and also dreams, which she tries to write down to help retrace the strange connections within them. It’s noticeable, in fact: Some of her stories do have a very dream-like quality to them. The ones about coming to Germany are taken from her own experiences, obviously. Rasha also had a job for a sensationalist magazine that was all about crime, actual crimes committed in Syria. As a trainee journalist, her grasp of storytelling outweighed her desire to spread the truth and nothing but the truth, and she enjoyed making up news items. There was one about a cat burglar so good at scaling walls that the police nicknamed him Spider-Man. The designer was even shittier than the journalists, she tells me, and illustrated the piece with… a stock photo of Spider-Man. Rasha also made up the horoscopes and most of the personal ads. No, they weren’t Lonely Hearts ads; this was Syria after all. They were more like people looking for friendship. Or not, in fact, because the magazine wasn’t very good so it didn’t get many letters.

So what is she working on now? I ask tentatively. Is she happy to talk about that? Yes, she’s happy to boast about the two projects she’s working on, says Rasha. There’s a comic project, for which she’s looking for the right artist to work with. It will be a story about a guy who tries to get rid of his mother during the Syrian war. You know, he tries to get the secret service to arrest her, or ISIS to kidnap her, that kind of thing… but the mother always wins. I nod. So it’s a black comedy, then? Ohhh, yes. The war’s more in the background; the real deal is the guy’s disturbed relationship with his domineering mother. Of course.

And the other project is a novel. It’s inspired by a missing story in her family, about her grandfather. He was a diplomat for the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958-1961), in Venezuela and then Germany. And then he simply stayed on in Germany and more or less broke off contact with the family back in Syria, remarried and then got Alzheimer’s and his story was gone. By this point, it’s clear to me that Rasha is a consummate storyteller. It must be really frustrating to have lost this fascinating story, then? It’s certainly a challenge. He was a really interesting character, a boxer and a gambler and a drinker, an army general. We talk about Syrian army generals, and army officers in general. Rasha tells me there was a conflict between the military and more religious groups within Syrian society. So obviously, drinking and gambling were the ultimate rebellion. Her grandmother wasn’t particularly religious but she didn’t like drinking, and she and her husband would argue over that. “Have a drink, woman! This is a diplomatic reception, you’re embarrassing me! Everyone’s drinking!” Even if they weren’t. I don’t know much about the military, but my image of it is that drinking and gambling is pretty standard behaviour internationally. Maybe it’s the boredom, sitting around waiting to fight, with nothing but a pack of cards.

And cards will play a structural role in the novel, too – tarot cards, each one revealing a secret as the story unfolds. It sounds like a great literary device for divining lost stories. Right now, the novel is still at the research stage, though. I’m looking forward to it.

Does your whole family have a story-telling culture? I ask Rasha. Actually, no, she says. The family is rather distant; they don’t talk much, they’re cautious about physical contact. But in a way that has stood her in good stead – it has given her a thick skin, made her able to cope with having to leave Syria for Lebanon and then Europe, made her capable of moving around a lot, finding new homes without collapsing psychologically. Maybe all the boxed-up trauma will come out one day but for the moment it’s a good thing. I’m not given to ups and downs either; I talk about friends whose lives are emotional rollercoasters and how I don’t envy them the lows, but maybe the highs. That’s what drugs are for, though…

Rasha’s not hugely into drugs, she tells me, because of the horrible comedowns. She tried some out and she had the best party of her life, danced for six hours solid until her friends had to drag her off the dancefloor. But then she spent the next day utterly depressed for no reason. She was sitting outside a café getting some breakfast, she says, and she cried into her scrambled eggs for an hour. People were giving her these very concerned looks but she couldn’t very well say, “Don’t worry, I’m fine – it’s just drugs.” So now she’s sticking to alcohol. That’s kind of how I feel after public appearances, I say, once the adrenaline wears off. Rasha’s different, though. Once the stress of going on stage is over she’s instantly relaxed and feels happy for days. Nice.

That seems like a good note on which to end an interview. A quick look around the lovely new flat – I hope it becomes a place of joy and inspiration. There’s a Thai restaurant next door, so Rasha hopes it doesn’t become a place of mice and cockroaches, attracted by the kitchen waste. Either way, I suspect there will be plenty of material for more stories.