A daughter estranged

Novelist Sherko Fatah
In "Der große Wunsch", Sherko Fatah has produced a magnificent novel that deals with explosive political material in a language that is calm and epic, writes Volker Kaminski in his review (image: Christian Charisius/dpa/picture-alliance )

In his new novel "Der große Wunsch", award-winning author Sherko Fatah tells the story of a father whose daughter meets a supporter of IS and follows him to the Syrian war zone

By Volker Kaminski

The novel begins abruptly in the border zone between Turkey and Syria. Under a clear, starry sky, Murad wanders through a mountainous no man's land and quite literally stumbles through faeces and mud in the vague hope of finding someone who'll take him to a border village on the Syrian side. Once back in Mardin, he realises this approach won't get him anywhere.

Through a friend in Germany, he establishes contact with traffickers who charge him money to obtain information about Naima. A young driver takes him to the places and locations where he can meet his contacts. Before long, he hears rumours that Naima is in Raqqa, a city at the heart of the "Daesh" region (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State).

Naima is over 18 and left for Syria months ago with her French boyfriend. Neither Murad nor his ex-wife Dorothee know how long she's been there. They've received no news and as time goes by, Murad realises his relationship with his daughter broke down long ago; he didn't notice how much she'd changed.

Cover of Sherko Fatah's novel "Der große Wunsch"
A touching father-daughter story set against the backdrop of the conflicts in the Middle East: Sherko Fatah was born in East Berlin in 1964 to an Iraqi Kurd and a German mother. He grew up in the GDR and moved with his family via Vienna to West Berlin in 1975, where he studied philosophy and art history. He has received numerous awards, including the Grand Berlin Art Prize from the Academy of Arts (source: Luchterhand Verlag)

Gruelling wait

During the long period of time he spends waiting in his landlord's small garden shed, Murad undergoes a slow process of realisation. He searches for answers to the estrangement between himself and Naima, but also to his own position between West and East.

As a journalist and filmmaker in Berlin, he has dealt intensively with the Middle East narrative, but now Fatah's protagonist encounters his own roots in a very different way. He remembers coming here with his father once and feels keenly aware of the importance of his origins: "Ultimately, this is what he was also doing when he was looking for Naima: returning to a starting point".

While Murad looks for answers and the novel's storyline almost grinds to a standstill as the protagonist gets stuck in a loop of recurring thoughts, information about Naima's situation flashes up periodically in the prose like torch beams, creating a feeling of suspense.

The messengers' and smugglers' work is producing results and they soon supply Murad with voice messages from a young woman who is either Naima, or sounds a lot like her. Photos that also emerge show a woman wearing a veil, which makes precise identification difficult. 

Murad is suspicious and not only doubts the authenticity of the images, but also whether the voice in the audio files is that of his daughter.

Latent threat

In this state of uncertainty, Murad – and the mother Dorothee in Berlin – live through many anxious weeks that force him to imagine the worst. Will he ever see Naima again? Will he be able to convince her to return, or has she been so radicalised that all she sees in him, and in the West, is an enemy?

Leaving these questions open and an ever-present latent threat give the novel its dark, melancholic flavour. The messages that reach Murad via the traffickers – diary-style voice notes recorded by a young woman – reveal a rapid deterioration in her predicament. After a short period of initial euphoria in a group of like-minded women, she now feels isolated and fears for her life.

The young IS fighters are at war, commit murders, execute their opponents on camera. The young woman experiences all these atrocities at close hand and talks about them in her audio messages. As readers we can empathise with Murad, we sense that he's on the brink and desperately searching for a way to reach Naima.

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Fatah has produced a magnificent novel that deals with explosive political material in a language that is calm and epic. He cleverly links his protagonist's existential distress with the major geopolitical upheavals of the present day and the unresolved conflicts in Arab nations and their neighbouring regions.

As well as Murat and Dorothee, there is also a series of interesting secondary characters also drawn with Fatah's sure hand. It is well worth staying with the storyteller over the course of the novel's 380 pages as he describes things, landscapes and long car journeys with fascinating precision and allows his protagonists to enter into extended dialogues uninhibited by plot constraints. 

Volker Kaminski 

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