Rasha Khayat ‘We’ve Long been Elsewhere’


And they’ve always told us, that everything is fine like this, that we have the best of both worlds, that there are only advantages, since we know two different cultures. img_0013But most of the other people you meet always want you to choose a side, they never tell you that they’re just looking to confirm what they already know. Nobody ever tells you that this divide has no end, will never heal over and that you don’t rightly belong anywhere.


In this book,chosen for the Roman De Rochefort prize and read for German Literature month, Basil the son of a Saudi Arabian doctor and German wife comes back to his apartment in Saint Pauli to discover that the sister, Layla, that he is so close to has left Germany without warning to go back to live in Saudi Arabia where they had last lived as young children. When the book begins Basil is preparing to fly to Jedda for his sister’s wedding, passing by his mother, Barbara’s apartment, on the way to the airport. She thinks that this is one of Layla’s stubborn decisions and refuses to attend whilst Basil is really only going because it’s his duty. Everything seems clear.

As Basil arrives in Jedda we slowly get to know his and Layla’s large and noisy Saudi family, with each part of it living on a different floor of their large apartment block and things seem to become more negative as Basil meets Layla’s soon to be, and arranged, husband who seems only interested in his phone. But as the book moves on we get the feeling of the genuine sense of togetherness and love holding his uncles’s family together. We find out of their family tragedy, the death of Basil’s father of a sudden heart attack soon after moving back to Germany with his family after the children had begun their schooling in Jedda. Their then staying, naturally, with Barbara. Basil even agrees to go to the mosque when his cousin Omar explains to him that his devout uncle, Khaled, feels responsible for the whole family since his brothers death and assuring that they will all be reunited in the next world.

One evening after the others have gone to bed Layla tells him of her feelings, illustrated in the opening quote. Which also helps the reader to look at this tale of two cities with a little more distance. Then onto the stag night, out in the desert, smoking shishas and shooting at tin cans which Basil can’t come to terms with.

Soon after comes the day of the wedding, full of action but at the same time so strange to a western mind:


soon the other women head for the beauty parlour, and, as Omar explained , my only responsibilities for the day were to pose for the photos and then to lead the bride into the room. The party will then, as with everything else in this country, will be celebrated separately, the women in one place and the men in another.


“at sometime we drove to Omar’s” I said and the thought of it made me smile. “And played with a PlayStation. At three o’clock I was in bed and slept like a log. Imagine I should tell anyone that weddings here are celebrated playing video games!”


By the end of this story, Rasha Khayat has shared some of the nuances and contradictions of this country with the reader.

First Published in German as “Weil wir längst woanders sind” in 2016 by Dumont Buchverlag
Translated into French by Isabelle Liber and published as “Notre ailleurs” in 2019 by Actes Sud
*** my translation

The quotes as read in German before translation

Und dass sie uns immer erzählt haben, das sei alles ganz toll so, dass wir das Beste aus beiden Welten bekommen, dass wir nur Vorteile hätten, weil wir zwei so verschiedene Kulturen kennen. Aber dass die meisten anderen, die man trifft, immer wollen, dass man sich für eine Seite entscheidet, dass sie immer nur suchen, was ihnen bekannt vorkommt, das haben sie uns nie gesagt. Dass dieser Graben nie endet, sich nie schließen wird und dass man nie irgendwo richtig hingehört. So was sagt dir niemand.«

die anderen Frauen sind bald zum Beauty-Salon aufgebrochen, und, wie Omar mir erklärt, besteht meine einzige Aufgabe heute darin, später für die Fotos zu posieren und danach die Braut in den Saal zu führen. Gefeiert wird getrennt, wie immer hier im Land, Frauen für sich und Männer für sich. »Vierhundert Frauen«, sagt Omar. »Mütter, Schwiegermütter, Cousinen, Tanten, Angeheiratete, Freundinnen. Mach dich auf was gefasst.«

»Wir sind irgendwann zu Omar gefahren«, sage ich und muss bei dem Gedanken daran grinsen. »Haben PlayStation gespielt. Um drei war ich dann im Bett und habe geschlafen wie ein Stein. Wenn ich das jemandem erzähle, dass hier mit Videospielen Hochzeit gefeiert wird!«

The quotes as read in French

“Et qu’ils veuillent toujours nous faire croire que tout était si formidable, que nous avions le meilleur de deux mondes, qu’il n’y avait que des avantages à connaître comme nous deux cultures si différentes. Mais jamais ils ne nous ont dit que la plupart des gens qu’on rencontre veulent toujours qu’on fasse le choix d’un parti, qu’ils ne cherchent toujours que ce qui leur semble familier. Que ce fossé n’avait pas de fond, qu’il ne se refermerait jamais et qu’on n’était jamais nulle part chez soi. Personne ne te l’apprend, ça.”

Layla et les autres femmes sont parties pour l’institut de beauté et, comme me l’explique Omar, ma seule tâche aujourd’hui consistera à poser tout à l’heure sur les photos, puis à conduire la mariée jusque dans la salle de réception. Comme toujours ici, les festivités se déroulent séparément, les femmes d’un côté, les hommes de l’autre. “Quatre cents femmes”, dit Omar. “Mères, belle-mères, cousines, tantes, pièces rapportées, amies. Tu ne vas pas en croire tes yeux.”

“On a fini la soirée chez Omar, dis-je, incapable de retenir un sourire. On a joué à la PlayStation. À 3 heures, j’étais au lit et j’ai dormi comme un bébé. Tu imagines, si je raconte à quelqu’un qu’ici on célèbre les mariages en jouant à des jeux vidéo!”

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