15.09.2009Interview"I Tried to Find Another Way of Expressing Myself"Mr. Al-Maaly, is the Al-Kamel publishing house an import from an Arab country, or did you first establish it in Germany?
Khalid Al-Maaly: I formed the company in Cologne in 1983. But I have to add that I had no experience of the publishing business - editing, proofreading, typesetting, making books, etc. All I had was a modest level of experience as a writer and journalist. My first published works date back to 1974, and I brought out my first volume of poetry in 1978, in Baghdad.
Why does Germany need an Arabic publishing house?
Khalid Al-Maaly, Foto: privat Al-Maaly: I didn't form the company for Germany's sake, but simply because I suddenly found myself living here. Then came the war of 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. That was the deciding factor for me; after this invasion, we - the young generation of Arabic writers - seemed no longer to have any prospect of publishing our work in the Arab countries. At that time, I just wanted to bring out the texts and poems that I'd written myself, as well as a few Arabic books that can't normally be published, both classics and modern works. So in 1983, I started up, with one little Arabic typewriter.
But Lebanon wasn't the only country producing books at that time; surely you could have published your books in some other Arab country?
Al-Maaly: For us, Lebanon is the country we dream of. Every Arab writer or artist used to fantasise about living and working in Lebanon, because there was a certain amount of freedom there before the invasion. And there still is, despite all the new laws. But after the invasion, the country was occupied, and I made the emotional decision to form a publishing company here in Germany. When the dream of Beirut dissolved, I simply tried to find another way to express myself.
As regards the work of publication, what makes Lebanon different from other Arab countries?
Al-Maaly: When a book is published in Lebanon, any Arab in any Arabic country can acquire it. But if a committed publisher in Egypt, Morocco or Tunisia brings it out, it won't reach all the Arabic readers, because the publishers are hampered by problems with distribution. In Lebanon, however, the publishers know no limitations - apart from censorship. But provided it hasn't been forbidden, any book published in Lebanon will at least appear at every Arabic book fair. For this reason, I too now have my books printed in Lebanon, and from there I can distribute them throughout the Arab world.
Where does the main focus of your publishing programme lie?
Al-Maaly: The emphasis is on modern Arabic literature, poetry as well as prose. In addition, we publish critical Arabic classics, books that can't necessarily be brought out whenever one feels like it. We also produce books on taboo subjects, matters that can't be treated or talked about in Arab countries...
Was your decision to found a publishing house in Germany also motivated by the desire to avoid the kind of censorship prevalent in Arab countries?
Al-Maaly: Partly, yes. But we also publish modern essays by both Arabic authors and non-Arabic writers in translation. We have a large number of German-language authors on our list.
How do you manage to sell books on taboo subjects in the Arabic world?
Al-Maaly: If a book can't be sold in Saudi Arabia, for example, people can simply buy it in Bahrain or Egypt, or in the Emirates.
So each country has its own "forbidden" topics?
Al-Maaly: Yes. For example, the Saudis used to be very strict, now the Kuwaitis are very strict. The works of the mystics Hallaj and Niffari are banned in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but not in Egypt or the United Arab Emirates. Other books are forbidden in Kuwait, but not in Saudi Arabia. Then we have certain Islamic classics, books by Islamic judges such as Sheik Nafsawi or by great Islamic scholars like As-Suyuti, Islamic erotic literature, etc. - these books are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, but in Tunisia they're among our most successful publications; they're the "hits" at the annual book fair. Or take the memoir of childhood written by Sayyid Qutb, which has nothing to do with his later teachings. It's a purely literary work; but because the author's name is Sayyid Qutb, the book is strictly forbidden in Tunisia. Yet you can buy it in Saudi Arabia, even though his other works are banned there.
Let's go back to the German authors on your list. Who have you published so far?
Al-Maaly: We have a lot of German prose writers on our list: Nicolas Born, Ingeborg Bachmann, Christa Wolf, Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Barbara Frischmuth, Rainer Maria Rilke...
Are these all translations from the German?
Al-Maaly: Yes, we translate only from the German. We also have poets on our list, such as Paul Celan, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Christian Morgenstern, and we publish scholarly works by Heinz Halm, Josef van Ess, Annemarie Schimmel...
All of them German Orientalists...
Al-Maaly: Yes, there's a great demand for scholarly studies of Islam, including and especially those written by German Orientalists. They have a very good reputation in the Arab world, because they weren't involved in colonialism. And then we have sociologists such as Ulrich Beck or Christa Wichterich, and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Jürgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk.
So you also commission new translations of authors - Kant and Hegel, for example - who had previously been translated into Arabic from a third language?
Al-Maaly: Yes; up to now the German philosophers have usually been translated from the English or French. With a single exception, we have always commissioned translations from the original German. We've now started work on the complete writings of Nietzsche. The first book to appear will be "Ecce Homo", followed by "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". We plan to produce the first Arabic translation of the complete works from the original German.