Abbas Khider

by David N. Coury (Volume editor) Karolin Machtans (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection X, 228 Pages


Abbas Khider (b. 1973) has established himself as one of the leading literary voices of refugees and marginalised communities in Germany today. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Khider was at a young age a vocal critic of Saddam Hussein’s regime, during which he was jailed and tortured before fleeing the country. As a refugee, he crossed many countries before arriving in Germany, where he was eventually granted asylum. His own life experiences have served as a departure point for his novels, which similarly explore the refugee experience and the challenges that migrants to Europe face. This volume represents the first collection of essays devoted to Khider’s works to date. The contributions analyse his narrative works and probe important questions relating to political, cultural, and linguistic identity in Germany today. While his works explore what it means to be an immigrant, they do so with a wry sense of humour and an insight into the human condition that also reflect on the political situation in Germany today. His award-winning novels, including Der falsche Inder (2008, The Village Indian, 2013) and Ohrfeige (2016, A Slap in the Face, 2019), which have been translated into English, are discussed in detail. Additionally, an original interview with the author offers insight into his writing process and influences.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Works by Abbas Khider
  • Abbas Khider: Introduction (David N. Coury and Karolin Machtans)
  • Interview with Abbas Khider (Karolin Machtans, Trans. David N. Coury)
  • Productive Ruptures: Trauma as Both a Disruptive and Generative Force in Abbas Khider’s Der falsche Inder and Die Orangen des Präsidenten (Katherine Anderson)
  • Portraying the Refugee as a Transitional Figure of Plurality: The Performance of Gender and Ethnicity in the Post-migrant Narratives of Abbas Khider’s Der falsche Inder and Ohrfeige (Markus Hallensleben)
  • Islam and the Image of God in Abbas Khider’s Der falsche Inder and Ohrfeige (Warda El-Kaddouri)
  • The Transience of Prisoners’ Memoirs in Abbas Khider’s Die Orangen des Präsidenten (Carolin MÜLler)
  • Refuge and Refuse: Waste Imagery in Abbas Khider’s Die Orangen des Präsidenten and Ohrfeige (Sabine Zimmermann)
  • ‘[W]enn die anderen rausbekämen, dass ich eine Mannfrau bin’: Grotesque Physicality and Carnivalesque Subversions in Abbas Khider’s Ohrfeige (Jara Schmidt)
  • ‘German Is My New Tongue’: The Role of (Foreign) Language in the Construction of Identity (Beate Baumann and Corinne Puglisi)
  • Multilingual Aesthetics in Abbas Khider’s Deutsch für alle: Das endgültige Lehrbuch (Karolin Machtans)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

←vi | vii→


The editors would like to thank Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang for her assistance and patience with this project. The series editors, including Julian Preece, provided important guidance and support for the volume as well. Karolin Machtans is grateful to Connecticut College for its research support and its generous financial support with the publishing costs. She would also like to thank Abbas Khider for taking the time to meet with her for the interview in Berlin. David Coury would like to thank the Frankenthal Family and their endowed professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which made research on this project possible.

←viii | ix→

Works by Abbas Khider

Der falsche Inder (2008) = FI

The Village Indian, trans. Donal McLaughlin (2013) = VI

Die Orangen des Präsidenten (2011) [The Presi-dent’s Oranges] = OdP

Brief in die Auberginenrepublik (2013) [Letter to the Au-bergine Republic] = BiA

Ohrfeige (2016) = OF

A Slap in the Face, trans. Simon Pare (2019) = SiF

Deutsch für alle: Das endgültige Lehrbuch (2019) [German for Everyone: The Ultimate Textbook] = DfA

Palast der Miserablen (2020) [The Palace of the Wretched] = PdM

←x | 1→


Abbas Khider: Introduction

Born in Baghdad in 1973 to a poor and illiterate family, Abbas Khider is one of the most celebrated writers with a migrant back-ground in Germany today. As a teenager, he started reading religious books owned by his parents: ‘That way, I actually discovered literature, given that the language of religious texts is often metaphorical. It helped me to read and understand poetry. I thus discovered the world anew.’1 Supported by his sisters and brother-in-law, the Iraqi literary critic Salhe Zamel, Khider discovered the world of literature and felt encouraged to start writing himself: ‘For me, reading was a kind of excursion and refuge. I fled to Germany with Kafka, to Russia with Pushkin and to France with Baudelaire. It was this love of reading that made me write texts of my own.’2 As a high school graduate, Khider distrib-uted flyers protesting against the regime of Saddam Hussein and was imprisoned for two years on charges of political agitation – an experience that left a profound impact on him as a writer: ‘Even after you are freed from prison, the experience accompanies you everywhere you go. The struggle and the pain continue. Over time, that struggle takes on other dimensions and affects language, religion and literature too.’3 In 1996, he fled Iraq and spent several years as an undocumented refugee in Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, Greece and Italy before finally being granted asylum in Germany in 2000. In Germany, he studied literature and philosophy in Munich and Potsdam and soon after began his publishing career.

←1 | 2→To date, Khider has published five novels and a ‘grammar book’ in German. In 2008, he debuted with Der falsche Inder [The Village Indian, 2013],4 a series of vignettes narrating the protagonist’s flight from Iraq to Germany in eight different stories, framed by a narrative that engages with questions of traumatic memories and the process of accessing and writing one’s own life story. In 2011, he published Die Orangen des Präsidenten [The President’s Oranges], dealing with the cruelty and suffering in Iraqi torture prisons. In 2013, Brief in die Auberginenrepublik [Letter to the Aubergine Republic] was published, telling the story of a love letter written in Benghazi, Libya that passes many hands, but never reaches its intended recipient in Baghdad. The story is told in seven chapters by seven different first-person narrators (a narrato-logical trope that is common in Khider’s storytelling), providing insights into the narrators’ everyday lives in Libya, Egypt, Jor-dan, Syria and Iraq at the end of the twentieth century.

It was, however, Khider’s 2016 novel Ohrfeige [A Slap in the Face, 2019] that led to his breakthrough. The overwhelmingly positive reception of the novel must be seen in the context of Germany’s ‘long summer of migration’: the arrival of more than one million refugees in Germany in 2015 and 2016, following Germany’s ‘open bor-der’ politics and Chancellor Merkel’s optimistic slogan Wir schaffen das! (We will manage!). While Merkel did not, in fact, open the borders, as many have since claimed (in reality the Dublin Regulation was suspended, allowing refugees and asylum seekers to move on to Germany despite having entered the EU in an-other country), the willingness of the German government to help re-settle so many asylum seekers in such a short period of time trig-gered a crisis of sorts. On the one hand, enthusiastic pro-refugee ini-tiatives were organised by thousands of volunteers (Germa-ny’s proverbial Willkommenskultur5) and were supported←2 | 3→ by the tabloid Bild’s campaign Wir helfen, while on the other hand, growing anxieties and outright hostility towards immigrants and refugees resulted, especially in the former GDR.6 This spectrum of competing responses to Germany’s ‘refugee crisis’ is the context in which the reception of Khider’s novel must be seen. The term ‘refugee crisis’ itself is obviously problematic – not only because it stigmatises refugees as cultural others threatening the status quo of Germany’s national identity and overlooks the failures of the global North to respond to the humanitarian crisis, but also because it reduces forcibly displaced people to the level of a nat-ural catastrophe, thus dehumanising them and denying them agency.7 Seemingly in response, Khider’s novel Ohrfeige tells the story of an Iraqi refugee in Germany in the early 2000s who ostensibly slaps his case agent in the face when she informs him that his asylum status has been revoked, ties her up, and forces her to listen to his story. Critics overwhelmingly highlighted the fact that Khider had finally given refugees in Germany a literary voice and celebrated Ohrfeige as ‘the book of the hour’ and ‘a portrayal of refugee life’.8 There can indeed be no doubt that the narrative is more than timely. However, it is important to note that despite being published in February 2016, at the height of the so-called European ‘refugee crisis’, the story itself takes place at the beginning of the new millennium, thus dealing with a very specific←3 | 4→ moment in Germany’s history of migration. During the 1990s, shortly after German reunification, the arrival of asylum seekers from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugo-slavia resulted in a public discourse and media rhetoric about ‘floods’ and ‘waves’ of refugees, leading Germany’s two main parties, the CDU/CSU coalition and the SPD, to amend Article 16 (the so-called Asylkompromiss [asylum compromise]) of Germany’s Basic Law.9 The original intent of the Article was to atone for and help in the process of coming to terms with Germany’s antiimmigrant and fascist past. Article 16a declares certain countries sichere Herkun-ftsländer [safe countries of origin] and states that asylum seekers who have crossed a sicherer Drittstaat [safe third country] on their flight to Germany have to return to that safe country and cannot claim asylum in Germany.10 Complicating matters, two million Aussiedler (people from Eastern European countries who could demonstrate German ancestry and had not been expelled after the Second World War) arrived in Germany during the 1990s. These Aussiedler – unlike many guest workers and their de-scendants who had lived in Germany for years – were considered Germans (not immigrants), based on Germany’s then-citizenship law and its emphasis on descent, rather than place of birth. The recent arrival of these diverse groups of immigrants sparked a heated debate – the so-called Asyldebatte [asylum debate] – about an assumed Asylmissbrauch [asylum abuse] as well as broader questions of German identity, belonging and na-tionhood.11 Despite the growing diversity of German society and the new Ausländergesetz [foreigners’ leg-islation] from 1990, which granted guaranteed residency and limited voting rights for those living in Germany without a German passport and made the acquisition of German citizenship possible for guest workers and their children, violent attacks against foreigners, asylum reception centres and accommodations←4 | 5→ continued throughout the 1990s across Germany (especially the former German Democratic Republic), and conservative politicians held on to their denial of Ger-many being a country of immigration.12

The situation changed with the 1998 elections and the So-cial-Democrat/Green coalition’s rise to power under Chancel-lor Gerhard Schröder. The Schröder government officially recognised Germany’s status as a country of immigration and promoted integration and participation of immigrants. Most importantly, the 2000 citizenship law reform, recognising the principle of jus so-li, made it possible for children born in Germany to foreign par-ents to acquire German citizenship at birth in addition to the foreign citizenship of their parents, under the condition that at least one of their parents has been a legal resident of Germany for at least eight years and has a permanent right of residence at the time of the child’s birth. However, by their twenty-first birthday, these children were required to choose between their German citizenship and that of their parents (Optionspflicht). This development was far from uncontroversial: CDU politicians like Robert Koch in Hes-se and Jürgen Rüttgers in North-Rhine Westphalia ran political cam-paigns against the broadening of the citizenship laws, greater social inclusion of immigrants and a new skilled immigration law, all issues which inevitably complicate the odyssey of Karim Mensy, the protag-onist of Ohrfeige.

Furthermore, Khider’s novel responds to the 9/11 at-tacks in 2001 and must therefore be seen in the context of a growing Islamophobia and a ‘Muslim turn’ in Germany and worldwide.13 It also includes references←5 | 6→ to the 2003 Iraq War, a conflict which the German government opposed, and its devastating effects on the lives of ordinary people in Iraq. Hence, Ohrfeige – as well as Khider’s other texts and public statements – must be read as interventions at particular moments in Germany’s dynamic history of migration, responding to specific debates about cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious forms of difference and diversity. At the same time, his interventions are timeless, since refugees, especially those who are not granted full protection, still find themselves in a precarious situation in Germany, despite recent developments such as the German citizenship law re-form in 2014 or the relatively new ‘immigration courses’ that provide access to language courses financed by the German government.14 As witnessed by the success of Thilo Sarrazin’s infamous 2010 book Deutschland schafft sich ab [Germany Abolishes Itself], Pegida’s antiimmigration and anti-Muslim protests, the NSU murders and the rise of the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland, questions of national and cultural belonging, integration and (post)migration continue to remain highly contested.15

In 2020, Khider published his novel Palast der Misera-blen [The Palace of the Wretched], telling the story of Shams Hussein, a young male protagonist who grows up in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War and whose family moves from the South of Iraq to the slums on the outskirts of Baghdad, struggling to survive. Shams discovers his love for literature and, together with his friends, forms a group (named ‘The Palace of the Wretched’) that secretly meets to talk about literature. According to critics in the German feuilletons, Khider succeeds with his unique laconic voice←6 | 7→ in painting a realistic portrait of daily life in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror – a life marked by extreme social inequalities, war, despotism and torture. Furthermore, the novel highlights the role of Iraq as a ‘playground’ of competing world powers and the effects of world politics on the country’s inhabitants’ private lives, thus pointing to the role of individual stories for an understanding of historical events.16 For Khider, writing means to ‘engage with history, with time and with lies’. His role as a writer provides him with a public forum and enables him, as he has argued, ‘to go on the offensive’.17

Although a native speaker of Arabic, Khider writes in German, the language that he acquired when he arrived in Germany at the age of 27. The German language, as he has stated in interviews, provides him with the necessary emotional distance to his subject and allows him to approach a traumatic past that would be too painful to write about in Arabic: ‘Whenever I tried to write in Arabic, all the suffering was still in the text. It was only when I started writing in German that the suffering←7 | 8→ turned into literature.’18 Psycholinguistic research confirms the connection of memories with the language in which they are encoded. As Jacqueline AmatiMehler and others have argued, the foreign language serves as a ‘ “safety barrier” against the tumult of primitive emotions that would immediately have been evoked by the words of [the] mother tongue’ (xi).19 Furthermore, by writing in German – and not in Arabic, his first language – Khider highlights the existence of multiple linguistic and cultural attachments, thus deconstructing ‘the illusory stability of fixed identities’, to use Rosi Braidotti’s words.20 Neither languages nor cultures are clearly demarcated entities, as Khider playfully hints at in his German ‘grammar book’ Deutsch für alle: Das endgültige Lehrbuch [German for Everyone: The Ultimate Textbook, 2019].21

For his literary works, Khider has been awarded numerous prizes and grants and was appointed writer-in-residence for the city of Mainz in 2017 and patron of the Körber Stiftung’s ‘Hamburger Tage des Exils’ in 2018. Among the many awards he has received are the Adelbert von Chamisso Promotional Prize (2010), the Hilde Domin Prize for Literature in Exile (2013), the Nelly Sachs Prize (2013) and, for a second time, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for his complete works to date (2017). Khider was, in fact, the last recipient of the Chamisso Prize before it was discontinued, as the Robert Bosch Foundation argued that the prize had run its course and reached its goals and that now such works formed a natural part of German literature, suggesting a ‘normalisation’ of literature by non-native authors. First established in 1985, the award was initially given to writers who had immigrated to Germany and who wrote in German. In the 1980s, such works were still considered ‘guest worker literature’ [Gastarbeiterliteratur]←8 | 9→ or ‘migrant literature’ [Migrantenliteratur], but soon, because of the marginalisation associated with such terms, it became known as ‘Chamisso literature’.22 This term, while still referencing the prize’s origins, seeks to encompass what has also been called trans- or intercultural literature, literary works that straddle multiple cultural traditions and destabilise a hegemonic cultural discourse without being defined by the nationality of the author.

Khider’s novels have contributed to an ongoing debate over what constitutes ‘German literature’ that perhaps first arose in 1991, when Turkish born writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar was awarded (somewhat controversially at the time) the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. The question of both personal and literary identity is one that is important for Khider and is central to his works, as he has explained in interviews:

[I] war, als ich jünger war, Iraker. Später, als ich Irak verlassen habe, war ich jahrelang Flüchtling. Ich kam nach Deutschland und dann war ich Ausländer. Ich habe die Aufenthaltserlaubnis und die Staatsangehörigkeit bekommen und dann wurde ich Migrant. Jetzt habe ich verschiedene Bezeichnungen: Deutsch-Irakischer Autor, Deutsch-sprachiger Autor, Deutsch-schreibender Autor, oder Deutscher oder Iraker.23

[W] I was younger, I was an Iraqi. Later after I left Iraq, I was for years a refugee. I came to Germany and then I was a foreigner. I received a residence permit and citizenship and then I was a migrant. Now I have different designations: German-Iraqi writer, German-language writer, a writer of German, or German or Iraqi.

As someone who has experienced flight and exile, Khider uses literature as a means of examining himself and trying to understand who he is in relation to his past and his present circumstances. However, while the topics of exile, flight and expulsion are at the centre of his work, his novels ←9 | 10→should not simply be reduced to a naturalistic de-piction of ‘the refugee experience’. Rather, Khid-er’s work deserves much more careful attention from scholars not only in German studies but in a broader European framework for what they contribute to an understanding of a multicultural, cosmopolitan Europe. In his novels, Khider explores the gendered nature of power systems, the Kafkaesque dynamics of bureaucracy and the Agambian notion of the refugee as a biopolitical subject over which the government exercises sovereign power. Taken together, Khid-er’s body of work explores what Lyndsey Stonebridge has re-ferred to as the spectre of rightlessness that has prompted debates over place, belonging and the rights of refugees.24 Skil-fully blending the tragic with the comic, however, as well as the gro-tesque with the ordinary, Khider highlights the role of laughter as a means of resistance.


X, 228
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (August)
Contemporary German literature Refugee studies Migration studies Abbas Khider David N. Coury Karolin Machtans
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 228 pp.

Biographical notes

David N. Coury (Volume editor) Karolin Machtans (Volume editor)

David N. Coury is Frankenthal Professor of the Humanities, German, and Global Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. Karolin Machtans is Associate Professor of German Studies at Connecticut College.


Title: Abbas Khider