German author Shida Bazyar’s Sisters in Arms (translated by Ruth Martin from the original Drei Kameradinnen or Three Comrades) dives deeply into the immigrant experience in Germany. Bazyar is not too specific about places, names and origins. And in doing so she attempts to be more general about that experience. In particular, Bazyar is interested in the different experiences of non-white Germans who are the children of immigrants, particularly from the Middle East, but really anyone of colour. All of this is set against the context of a rising wave of neo-Nazism.
Sisters in Arms revolves around the lives of three very different women in their 20s, friends from childhood. Kasih, the narrator, still unemployed despite having a sociology degree, holds the middle ground. Hani is the most conformist of the three – she has a job, keeps her head down and tries not to rock the boat. And then there is Saya, the firebrand, who travels the world and encourages people to stand up against racism. The three come together in an unnamed city (almost certainly Berlin) to celebrate the wedding of another old friend. At some point in time there has been a fire in an apartment building and Saya has been blamed as an extremist. The novel is Kasih looking back on the days leading up to that event, the small and large moments of explicit or implied racism but also a reflection of the lives of the three friends growing up in Germany.
Sisters in Arms is a fairly polemical work. From its opening anecdote about the way a woman in a chador is treated on a plane through to current stories of Kasih’s job hunt, to the story of how the bus route to their suburb was cancelled when they were children. And behind it all the ongoing trial of a group of neo-Nazis accused of killing immigrants, a trial that Saya is obsessed with to the point of getting into a debate with a nationalist blogger using a false identity.
It is clear who the target is of this work – often during the text Kasih will address “you white people”. All of which makes the whole work a little problematic. There is a risk that Bazyar is either preaching to the converted (immigrants, people of colour or any other minority that has experienced these forms of discrimination) or alienating the people she wants to try and convince.
Here is just one of many examples of this:
I know how white and sheltered your lives are, how free of violence, how free of fear. I know you’re definitely white people with no history of migration or religious affiliation worth mentioning, because otherwise there’s no way you could have been oblivious to this story.
This lead in is partly to set up for some necessary exposition about the cases against neo-Nazi groups, which is particularly helpful for non-German readers (otherwise there is no reason for Kasih to explain it in writing). But moving to the second person in this way also potentially serves to alienate many of those readers with its accusatory tone.
And none of this is helped by the fact that Kasih constantly admits to having made details of certain stories up or, in some cases, made up the whole story about a person she only met in passing. In some ways this is trying to imply the universality of the experience. And yes, this is fiction, but once a narrator outs themselves as unreliable, how can a reader trust or believe anything they say?
Sisters in Arms is based on the very real anti-immigrant sentiment not only in Germany but other parts of Europe that expresses itself in both overt expressions of racism or the real tyranny of hidden discrimination and the privilege of whiteness. But the way in which Bazyar tries to tackle this issue, while occasionally getting to some of the nuance, come across as a little too heavy handed. And trying to lighten this through the technique of having the author essentially say: I just made these details up to see how you would react, only serves to undermine the message she is trying to sell.