Last week, we were privileged to be invited to the Goethe Institut in Sofia, Bulgaria, to run a workshop for refugee writers in collaboration with Caritas Sofia. After a year of lockdown and semi-lockdown here in Bulgaria, it was a genuine pleasure to be getting back to working with people face-to-face.
We were in the Goethe Institut’s beautiful new library space, working with a talented group of writers from Iraq, Palestine, Kurdistan, Somalia and elsewhere, exploring the stories that make us, and that power that creative nonfiction has to build connection and friendships, and to change the world.
It’s always fun running writing workshops in multiple languages. So we wrote, told and shared stories in Somali, Arabic and English (with a smattering of Bulgarian), all with the help of Sophia, the brilliant and tireless translator from Caritas.
What we loved about the stories the participants told was how varied they were, how in a few brief hours we mapped out the vastness of human experience: we had funny stories and sad stories, everyday stories and stories about extraordinary events.
Here’s are three extracts. All these stories were first written in Arabic. They were translated into Bulgarian, and we’ve made versions in English to give a flavour of the workshop.
One day it rained heavily and hard. I usually like to look out the window when it’s bathed in the rain, but it was raining so hard, I couldn’t see anything. The rain drops ran down the glass, flowing along with the dust, and I decided the windows needed washing. I looked all over the house for the towel I use to clean the windows, but I couldn’t find it….
Here’s the beginning of another piece that was hugely moving.
When the war started, like many others, I had to decide whether to leave. I am glad I made this decision: if I hadn’t done what I felt was right, I wouldn’t be the person I am now. Now I can look after my children, raise them and give them education and opportunities. When a decision is made, you must follow it, regardless of the difficulties in the path ahead…
And finally, there was a tale of an apparently dying father pressing his son to marry. Here’s how the story started.
I was around eighteen years old. The story I’m about to tell you is actually very funny. One day while I was in military school, my dad called me and told me he was very sick. This rocked me hard internally. He asked me to go see him. I went straight away, and he said to me: “Look, I’m not feeling well, I don’t know how much longer I have to live. But please, for my sake, so my heart can be calm, I want you to marry…”
And, at the risk of giving spoilers, several decades after this story took place, both father and son are still alive and well.
Stories and friendship
We ended the workshop by talking about stories and friendship, and how exchanging stories helps us make deeper, more human connections. Through telling and hearing stories, we can find points of connection with those whose experiences differ from our own. And, to use a phrase we love from the scholar Wendy Doniger, we can skim closer to the ground of the human heart.
Image: © Goethe-Institut/Ilian Ruzhen