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Atieh Asadollahi recommends ‘Silence is My Mother Tongue’ by Sulaiman Addonia

“Reading saves me from the pressure of everything. It’s an escape, but also a way of empowering and encouraging. When you don’t receive enough encouragement from people in the real world, books indirectly tell you it will be alright.”

Illustratie van Levi Jacobs voor 1 Stad, 19 Boeken (2021) © Muntpunt
Name Atieh Asadollahi
Occupation / function / organisation
(what do you do in daily life?)
I am doing a second Master's in Cultural Studies in KU Leuven after
having done the first in English Literature. I am also teaching English.
Municipality Ixelles
Nationality Iranian
Age 35
Member of the Flemish Brussels library of Ixelles
Favourite reading spot in Brussels Parc de Woluwe, somewhere facing its pond
Favourite drink while reading Hot coffee


One of her short stories won a prize in the United Kingdom and in Iran she translated a novel for the first time. Reading ambassador Atieh Asadollahi (35) finds encouragement in reading, isn’t afraid to be subversive and loves to establish dialogues with books. “I scribble in the margins, draw lots of hearts or dislikes, and underline the sentences I love. I have notebooks in which I rewrite sometimes up to a third of what I read. This way, I feel I have had my own reading of the book. You should try it sometime.”

Silence is My Mother Tongue tells the story of Saba and her mute brother Hagos, who flee from their country and end up in a refugee camp. What did you think about the book?
I really enjoyed the vivid depiction of life in the refugee camp. But sometimes it got too intense and I had to put the book aside and do something ordinary like doing the dishes. The parts about politics and how people respond to modernity touched me the most, because I could find so many similarities in my own life. The way Sulaiman Addonia treated the topic of sexuality and gender was though less familiar to me. That is why I cannot say I’ve liked how he has treated gender and sexuality. It was rather a perspective that made me think rather than something to like.

Also, the structure of the book proves to be so thought-provoking . The first chapter doesn’t depict the beginning of the story, but the trial of the main character Saba. Only in the second chapter does the story of their journey begin. In a beautiful way Addonia shows us that we always face the tendency to judge first, before knowing people’s life story.

Why did you choose this book?
I immediately knew I had to read it. I was really fascinated by the issue of this story, displacement. Struggling to find where you belong. This sense of belonging had kept me thinking about it for some time, even before I moved from Iran to Brussels. That’s why I also translated a novel from the Arab-American writer Susan Abulhawa called Mornings in Jenin in Farsi. It deals with the same issue.

Why were you so determined to translate Mornings in Jenin?
In fact it was not me who chose this book. It was the book which chose me. It’s a story about Palestine but next to what Palestine is through eyes looking at it from outside, it is a story of what it means to be Palestinian and writing it by oneself. I did want more people to read it. That is why I translated it.

Why is reading so important to you?
Reading detaches me from MY world and helps me focus on the World in general. I mean when I read I am not the centre of the world anymore. It gives me a better understanding of what is going on in the world out of me. It is also a way of empowering and encouraging. When you don’t receive enough encouragement from people around you in the real world, books indirectly tell you it will be alright.

Because of this novel, I now am much more interested in the works of African authors. Two of my favourite writers are Toni Morisson and Alice Walker. I have also always been attracted by Harlem Renaissance writers. But these are African-American authors. Sulaiman Addonia has gotten my ears and eyes to be more sensitive to East Africa and countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea or Sudan. I am sure the next time I hear the names of these regions, I will listen or read more attentively.

You moved from Iran to Brussels and are now doing a second master’s in Cultural Studies. What do you think about the literary landscape in Brussels?
People always tell me “Atieh, you must feel so free here, reading and writing without any censorship.” I do not deny that I do feel freer, but I do not feel as free as I expected to. I believe if art is not courageous enough to be subversive when it finds something wrong, it is mere entertainment. Here, they approve of the subversive art, but within a certain framework. Out of that, it is not tolerated.

Do you have a favourite reading spot in Brussels?
Nature truly stands out in Brussels. The parks and the woods are so amazing and even if you live downtown, they never let you miss life before industrialization. Reading while facing the pond in Woluwe Park is something to make your day. But actually it is not the parks or the woods that excite me personally. I need and enjoy spaces where I can feel I am involved. I like to get to talk to people and see more of culture. That is why I would answer this question in this way: Sans Souci Library, KU Leuven University, and Parents-Teacher Association at my daughter’s school are the best spots to feel engaged in Belgium.

Text: Freya De Coster

Stilte is mijn moedertaal / Sulaiman Addonia
Silence is My Mother Tongue / Vertaling Irwan Droog
Uitgeverij Jurgen Maas, 2021
272 pagina's

> Zoek dit boek in de bibliotheekcatalogus

Dit interview is deel van 1 Stad, 19 Boeken (2021) – een project van de Brusselse bibliotheken en Muntpunt.