by Zaher Alajlani
The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight, and Resilience in the Middle East. Written by Andreas Knapp. Translated by Sharon Howe, Plough Publishing House, 2017.
If you are looking for a book that further enforces the us-and-them narrative and antagonizes those of other faiths, this book is not for you. But if you are looking for a book that does justice to the complex reality of the Middle East and humanizes the suffering of all its people, then look no further. Andreas Knapp’s The Last Christians features stories of mostly Aramaic-speaking Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria who resettled in Germany, as well as the account of the author’s trip to Iraq to attend a funeral. Through it all, Knapp displays an impressive understanding of the complex relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity, often highlighting the sociocultural and political circumstances that have rendered Middle Eastern Christians habitually persecuted and voiceless.
Their age-old tragedy, as the author makes it clear, is exacerbated by Western indifference, neglect, and military adventures in the cradle of the Christian faith. Sadly, this is not something recent related only to modern Western interventions in countries like Syria and Iraq. Knapp explains how German propaganda efforts during the First World War resulted in the revival of jihadism in the Ottoman Empire, which had a disastrous impact on Eastern Christians, resulting in genocide, displacement, and destruction of ancient churches.
That said, the author does not absolve Islam altogether, as he is very aware of the fact that hardline Islamism is the main culprit and that anti-Christian sentiment had historically occupied a prominent place in radical Islamist discourse. Nevertheless, Knapp does not antagonize Muslims, deny their humanity, or take their suffering lightly. He rightly acknowledges that “many Muslims have been at the receiving end of Islamist terrorism,” adding that it is outrageous when good “Muslims become victims of blind Islamophobia” (68).
The book dispels the myth about the suffering of refugees ending once they arrive in their new homes. Apart from the physical violence and emotional abuse inflicted upon them by some radical Muslim refugees in German camps, those fleeing Eastern Christians (the protagonists of the book) had also to adapt to a different lifestyle, culture, language, and complex bureaucracy. Integration in Germany, while essential to their daily survival, Knapp implies, still carries the risk of their ancient language and beautiful liturgical traditions going extinct.
In northern Iraq, near the areas controlled by ISIS, the infamous terrorist organization, Knapp witnesses both unmeasurable suffering and immense beauty. Displaced Christians live either in the open desert, crowded monasteries, or makeshift camps, struggling to attain the very basics: running water, functional sewage, etc. The shortage of food and medical supplies only makes their terrible plight worse. The admirable thing, however, is the strength of their faith and their willingness to put Christ first when faced with the choice to either embrace Islam or die. It is under such fetid and squalid circumstances that one’s trust in Christ is not only needed the most, but is also thoroughly questioned. Impressed, Knapp writes:
Whenever I hear stories like this and meet Christians of such courage, I can’t help but wonder: How much is my faith worth to me? How high a price would I be prepared to pay? (141)
The above passage is an example (out of many) of the hue of subjectivity that colors Knapp’s narrative throughout the book. But even from a scholarly point of view, such subjectivity is commendable because it doesn’t come from a confirmation bias or a rigid perspective. Not at all. It is simply the way he explains to the readers how deeply the suffering of others affected him. Knapp does not go to Iraq or Syria as an ‘explorer,’ but as someone with deep appreciation for the East. His respect for the culture grows, even more, when he sees the spiritual fortitude of Eastern Christians.
Knapp is a great storyteller. In a testimony to his background as a poet, he exhibits a remarkable ability to describe places, characters, and interactions and skillfully conjures up the ambiance of his journeys and encounters. For example, he recalls his 1995 trip to the ancient Syrian Christian town of Maaloula, vividly painting a picture of the “mystical twilight penetrating the interior through the domes” of the Convent of Saint Thecla. The “incense clouds,” he continues, “hovered on the air, making the light visible and filling the space with a heady, exotic scent” (168). It is in such passages that the reader encounters the bard in Knapp.
Such artistic language is not only of aesthetic value, nor is it utilized solely when describing exotic places. Knapp uses his poetic gift to narrate even the most mundane interactions he has with Eastern Christian refugees in his neighborhood in Leipzig. Their hopes, fears, and anxieties thus strike us as all too palpable. Since the book is translated from German, one must give credit to the talented translator, Sharon Howe. She gave English-speaking readers the chance to take part in Knapp’s journey and learn about the suffering of Eastern Christians, the strength of their faith, and the depth of their commitment to peace.
Zaher Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator living between Romania and Greece. His stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Infinite Sky, Revista Echinox, Active Muse, Bandit Fiction, The Creative Launcher, Visible Magazine, The Journal of Romanian Literary Studies, Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory, The Experimental Museum of Literature, Masharif, and Tadween. In addition to reading fiction submissions for Bandit Fiction (UK), he is a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory (Romania). Zaher is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca and speaks English, Arabic, Romanian, and Greek.