My name is Anis Hamdoun. I’m Syrian, 35 years old, living in Berlin, Germany. I’m a director and writer, and I teach acting in several different places.
I come from the city of Homs, and Homsis have no idea how special they are! Homs is a place full of witty men and women, a place defined by the joke that goes, “Since they are from Homs, there’s no need for them to live outside of Homs.” I find this so funny, and I see Homs as a place full of theatrical characters.
I left for Germany following the Syrian uprising, and chance brought me to a city called Osnabrück. It has a population of about 170,000 and isn’t considered very big relative to other German cities. I arrived there at the end of 2013, and I call it, “my German city,” that is, this is the city I come from. This story has been developing over all the time I’ve spent in Germany, which is now over seven years.
When I arrived in Osnabrück I spoke only English, and there happened to be a British theater troupe there who put on plays in English—something quite rare in this Northwestern part of Germany. Two weeks after my arrival the troupe was holding rehearsals, and I was strongly reminded of the international theater troupe in Homs that was founded by my maternal grandfather, Farhan Bulbul, in 1973.
With time I learned German and found work at a number of different places. I used to hate the German language, I hated its music and melody, especially compared to Italian, Spanish, and French. But I arrived to this country having made the decision to learn its language. I wanted to work after all, and as a director I wanted to pursue my writing, my teaching, and my ability to move about freely. As the days went on my relationship with the city evolved until I began feeling that it was my alternate homeland, my alternate Homs. And when my German improved and became very good, I was able to communicate much better with those living in this area, where people are extremely friendly. This city has a story: they call it “the city of peace” because it’s where they negotiated the peace at the end of the Thirty-Years’ War in 1648. So there was a historical dimension to the city that reminded me of Homs. Then my parents came to visit and settled down here, and it transformed completely into Homs. I remember that during a television interview I even referred to it as “impenetrable Osnabrück” to recall “impenetrable Homs,” which was impervious to attackers, or so the people of Homs say about their city.
My sense of belonging to Osnabrück grew stronger when I worked at the city theater training actors during a time when gaining entry there was actually quite difficult. There was a woman who worked at the theater and when she saw that I was working on a film treatment told me, “come put it on here.” We were trying one another out. We put the play on and I won an award for best screenplay and best German-language performance in a category that also included Austria and Switzerland. We toured the play in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich, and as a result I became quite famous in Osnabrück. At some point I transformed from a mere inhabitant of the city to one of its celebrities. Walking down the streets I’d return greetings from people I didn’t know, but they knew who I was very well. Until today, when I go back to visit Osnabrück, people come up to me in restaurants or cafes to say: “Hello, Herr Hamdoun, my name is so-and-so, I’ve seen your work, thank you so much and good job.” And so that’s how I developed a strong relationship with the city, when I worked at the central theater. I also worked on a program for local TV and taught at a school there—I even taught German at one of the city’s secondary schools.
Essentially, I became famous in Germany and Europe because I’m the writer and director Anis Hamdoun, or, in other words, an artist in a small city. The bigger paradox is that when my uncle, Nawwar Bulbul—who is also a famous director and writer from Homs’s illustrious ranks of people—went to study at the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts in Damascus, he’d come back every weekend to Homs. Even though he settled in Damascus and married there, his return to Homs rejuvenated him; he was energized by spending time with his family and old friends. When my parents came and settled in Osnabrück, and then I had to move to Berlin for practical reasons, I began to feel very clearly that Osnabrück was Homs and Berlin Damascus.
Berlin is like Damascus in that it’s the city you enjoy, but your roots on your mother’s and father’s sides, and your childhood friends are all in Homs. Likewise, I have German friends I’ve known for 7 years who call and ask when I’m coming to Osnabrück (which I refer to as Homs). They want to know when I’m coming to meet up for a coffee…or a beer…or else! “Anis, we miss you,” they say. Automatically when I say Homs I mean Osnabrück or vice versa: impenetrable Homs, impenetrable Osnabrück. For example, next week I’m going to “Homs” to see my mother and father and my sisters and their kids. I’m also going to see Katrina, a very dear friend of mine and her husband, both of whom I’ve known since 2014. Like she sent me a message recently saying, “Anis, you haven’t visited your parents for a long time…” and she meant that I should come visit my parents as well as her and her husband.
My neighbor is the city’s mayor; I met him by chance when he came to watch my play. We were introduced to one another quickly when I was putting on shows at the city theater and receiving awards for them. So at one point living in the city I was acquainted with the mayor, and one day I was getting on the bus and when I showed my pass, which had my name on it, I was told: “Hey, you’re Homsi, you’re an Osnabrücker, we know you, there’s no need for any passes here!”
I have a beautiful relationship with this city and I have very tender feelings toward it. Sometimes I’ll have been in Berlin for two months and suddenly I’ll have this feeling that I should return home. By that I mean my parents’ home, which is no longer in Homs but in Osnabrück.
Maybe it’s just an attempt, maybe I am so fully convinced that I’ll never be able to go back to Homs again for political reasons, for revolutionary reasons, for the reason that I’ll be putting myself in danger, and therefore it is Osnabrück that has transformed itself, not me, into a small Homs, into a German Homs, into a Homs that I can’t see, into the Homs I can feel when I am feeling suffocated by Berlin and its congestion, when the first place I think of is Osnabrück, like, hey, why don’t I give my parents or friends a call, you need to find me some work there so I can come home to you. This is impenetrable Osnabrück, this is my relationship to Germany.
I am Anis Hamdoun, writer and director, and this was my story.