- The Magic Lamp
Rafik Schami, born in 1946 into a middle-class Christian-Aramaic family in Damascus, Syria, is one of a number of writers from Arabic-speaking countries who came to the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s and early 1980s after having spent their childhood and youth in their home countries. In Damascus, he was a member of a religious minority. Early on, Schami showed an interest in storytelling and began telling tales in the streets of Damascus, which is the setting for many of his narratives. Thus, previous to his moving to the Federal Republic of Germany, he had been active in literary culture. Even before he began writing fairy tales in 1965, he had written shorter prose texts, songs, and theater pieces. He credits the stories of the Arabian Nights, which he had heard as a child on radio, as having had a significant influence on his narrative style. From 1965 to 1970 he served as editor of a local newspaper (Al Muntalek) that was posted for public reading in the old city of Damascus. Because of the threat of censorship, his pacifist stance against war and military service, and his desire for more freedom of expression, he felt a need to leave Syria. Lacking the financial means necessary to receive a student visa for France, Schami applied in 1971 for a stipend to study in the Federal Republic of Germany. He received three offers to study there and decided to accept the scholarship to study chemistry in Heidelberg. After having completed his doctorate in chemistry in 1979, he worked for a number of years in industry and used his free time to pursue his literary interest. Torn between his interest in chemistry and his desire to write, Schami gave up the profession as a chemist totally in 1982, and since that time he has devoted himself full-time to his career as a freelance writer. Between the years 1981 and 1996, Schami gave more than [End Page 84] 1,200 public readings from his works, an activity in which he is no longer engaged. Not included among these readings are those done at seminars and on radio programs.
Along with the Italians Gino Chiellino and Franco Biondi, and the Lebanese Jusuf Naoum, Schami founded in 1980 the literary series Südwind Gastarbeiterdeutsch (Southwind Guest Worker German), whose purpose was to publish the writings of so-called "guest workers"; however, as early as 1983, it was renamed Südwind Literatur (Southwind Literature) because many of the writers who contributed to the series were not "guestworkers," among them Schami himself. In 1980 they also founded the organization Polynationaler Literatur- und Kunstverein or PoLiKunst (Multinational Association for Literature and the Arts), whose stated goal was to bring the literary and artistic interests of all foreign migrant communities under one umbrella in an effort to express their solidarity as an ethnic minority in German society. Both the publication series and the organization became defunct a few years after their founding; Südwind Literatur published its last volume in 1985 and PoLiKunst disbanded in 1987.
Since becoming a freelance writer in 1982, Schami has written twenty-seven books in German, among them fairy tales, children's books, satires, novels, and several theater pieces, all dealing with themes growing out of his experiences in Damascus and in the Federal Republic of Germany. Schami is well known outside of Germany, as attested to by the fact that his works have been translated into more than twenty languages. He has won numerous literary prizes in Germany and in other countries, including the Jugendbuchpreis from the city of Zurich (1987), the Dutch Smelik-Kiggen Preis (1989), the American Mildred L. Batchelder Award (1991), the Adelbert-von-Chamisso Prize (1993), the Hermann Hesse Preis (1994), and the French Prix de lecture à deux voix (1996).
Schami's fairy tales, fables, satires, and fantastic stories are represented in works such as Das letzte Wort der Wanderratte (The Last Word of the Brown Rat), Der erste Ritt durchs Nadelöhr (The First Ride through the Eye of the Nee-dle), and Das Schaf im Wolfspelz (The Sheep in...