Category: Fiction

Sherko Fatah
Das dunkle Schiff
[The dark ship]

Review

In a dark clay hut called the blood house, men cut up street dogs that have been shot, in order to eat them or to use them as explosives. “Kerim and a few other boys (…) were sent there with the dog cadavers. They squatted in the dim light that fell through the narrow windows, cut open the animals’ bodies and removed the entrails. They made sure not to take out too much, so that nothing would be visible later from the outside.”

Brutality, terror and darkness. These are the dominant themes in Sherko Fatah’s novel Dark Shipch made it onto the short list of the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair and the German Book Award in 2008. Darkness plays the main role, it is palpable in almost every word. Fatah tells of the journey of Kerim, a young Kurdish man from Northern Iraq. It takes him from his family to the holy warriors, to a lonely island and ultimately to Berlin. Contrary to Kerim’s hope, Germany is not a safe paradise for him, instead it surrounds the asylum-seeker with darkness as well – until his dark history catches up with him. For Kerim was a warrior. He committed barbarous murders and accompanied young suicide bombers on their last missions. There is no escaping such a past.

In spite of the darkness that is spread over the novel like a cloak, Kerim’s story does not seem gloomy. This is due to Fatah’s language: it is clear, straight-forward, simple – and yet full of magic. The author, born in East Berlin in 1964 to a Kurdish father from Iraq and a German mother, narrates calmly from a distance. He does not judge, explain, or interpret. He leaves all that to the reader. A wise decision.

The power of his words becomes apparent immediately in the prologue. The opening scene is one of equally terrifying and fascinating beauty: on a summer day in the mountains of Northern Iraq, old women in colorful dresses are gathering herbs and chatting, and young Kerim watches the scenery intently. Suddenly, a noisy military helicopter descends, the women get in and wave to the boy, who would have liked to fly with them. “And indeed, the machine came closer, its thundering got louder and louder until he covered his ears. With his head tilted back, he saw the women. And then they fell, one after another they fell through the hatch, with their arms spread wide they sparkled in the light, and the wind tore at their clothes as if to stop them.”

Fatah is a master of powerful images. But the reader never learns what exactly happens here, not to mention why it happens. As with most of the incredible events of this adventure novel, the author provides no explanations. The only obvious thing is that the country is at war. In the 80s, during Saddam Hussein’s terror regime, random acts of murder were common. Kerim grows up with a constant war in his own country, sometimes waged in another region, sometimes right on his doorstep. Kerim’s father, an Alevite cook, who remains silent like the majority of the population and tries to go unnoticed, suddenly cannot take it anymore. When a secret service officer who has stopped at his small restaurant on the road south boasts of playing football with the head of a spy, Kerim’s father slams the plates down in front of him and his colleague. But these are not times for provoking a secret service officer. A few minutes later, the father is dead.

And thus, Kerim’s odyssey begins. The fat boy, who had only helped his father occasionally in the kitchen before, now has to take on the responsibility. However, the role of the family patriarch is too large for him, the other family members do not take him seriously. However, this state does not last long; Kerim is abducted by holy warriors. Not because they are interested in him – they just want his car. But what to do with the lethargic, fearful hulk? This is the moment when Kerim looks death in the eye for the first time. Questioned about his abilities, he answers: “I can do anything, because I can learn everything.” This answer saves his life.

From then on, he shares the sparse, ascetic life of the holy warriors, experiencing the feeling of belonging for the first time in his life. He admires the leader, whose missions and views he accepts unconditionally. The fat teenager turns into a lean, tough young man. One holy warrior scares Kerim, but on the whole, he enjoys the camaraderie among the men, who are not portrayed as brutal and fanatic murder machines, but as a heterogeneous group of talented individuals. That is the essential point of the novel: it is not about Islam, but about extremism in its various guises. How does someone turn into a radical holy warrior? This is the question Fatah examines as he traces the individual fate of Kerim.

Before his turn comes to become a martyr by carrying out a suicide attack, Kerim realizes that he is unable to destroy himself in the name of faith. With stolen money, he embarks upon his escape to Germany.

This begins with a long journey in complete darkness. The holy warrior becomes a stowaway passenger who experiences mortal fear and has to find his way in the darkness of a ship’s belly. During this voyage, the inspiration for the novel’s title, he is discovered by the ship’s crew and marooned on a tiny island together with another refugee. This Robinson interlude is followed by the long trek to Germany, where the endless journey continues in the bureaucracy of asylum-seeking.

In Berlin, Kerim’s story takes a surprising turn. Although he has fled from the holy warriors, religion and faith catch up with him again. He misses the sense of belonging to his culture, and for the first time, prayer fills him with a deep calm and power. The former warrior turns into a religious fundamentalist. Kerim’s inner conviction grows without moral indignation or grand gestures, but quietly, almost by the way, which makes it understandable. Among strangers where he cannot and does not belong, he withdraws further and further into himself. This taciturnity makes him attractive to others. A man, average so far, acquires an exotic aura. Kerim has never been particularly handsome, charismatic or wise, but he is not stupid either. He is a decent cook, but otherwise he has no special talents. Suddenly, however, he develops a dark attractiveness, to which a young student and a radical Arab gang leader succumb. The latter is to decide Kerim’s fate.

The Dark Shiphas five parts. While Fatah’s narration is chronological and straightforward in the first two, the remainder is full of flashbacks and changes of perspective. This allows the mosaic parts of Kerim’s personality to emerge gradually. It is the image of a man whose terrifying strangeness seems to hail from a parallel world. The open mind, precise words and detailed scenes with which Fatah makes his protagonist’s actions plausible are the real achievement of this story. They make The Dark Shipsuch an oppressive and political novel.
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By Christine Fehenberger, 01.09.2008

Translated by Alexa Nieschlag