15.09.2009"In the Beginning Was the Dialogue"The Yemen Centre for Studies and Research, headed by Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Muqalih, invited German writer Günther Grass to visit the Republic of Yemen between December 3 -13, 2002. He played a key role at the cultural conference that was held under the motto, "In the Beginning Was the Dialogue."
Günther Grass’ visit to Yemen was unusual, both on his part and the Yemenis who invited him. He went to Yemen to explore its history, its present state of political, intellectual and social affairs, and to talk to Yemeni and Arab writers.
Günter Grass im Jemen, Foto: ap Contrary to what several Arabic newspapers reported, he neither intended to assume the role of lecturer, nor did he have any defined ideas he wanted to convey. He just wanted to listen to others and to express his thoughts and opinions on what was presented to him. The Yemenis were perfect hosts and provided the right setting for a cultural conference and a successful visit.
Grass and the delegation that accompanied him (German writers and Arab writers living in Germany and Switzerland) visited Sanaa, Aden, Taiz, Wadi Hadhramaut and Menakha. He was amazed by the by the clay buildings and other historic sites that had been preserved for thousands of years. He lamented the shortage of masons and consequently declared he would found a charitable organization and donate ten thousand euros to set up a vocational school of traditional masonry.
He read verses of his poems and listened to the translated versions.
Between the President and the Writer
When Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh received Günther Grass, he made sure the welcome was a friendly one. He highly praised the German writer's masonry school endeavour and also decided to support and promote the project. He announced that he was going to award Grass the highest order of merit in the arts and sciences. Before accepting the award Grass touched on a topic that he had always had in mind, a writer's freedom. He said he had heard about the Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal’s difficulties when his novel, "Qawarib jabaliya" ("Mountain Boats") was published. Radical conservatives ran a malicious campaign against him, and he fled Yemen in fear. Grass asked the President to show a sign of appreciation towards the right to creative expression by offering the writer more personal protection, regardless of the novel’s quality or subject matter.
The President of Yemen kindly agreed to fulfil this request, although he was surprised that the writer had fled Yemen. He felt that Wajdi al-Ahdal should have shown courage and stayed in Yemen. The President kept his word and Wajdi al-Ahdal returned to Yemen. Grass felt that the Yemeni President had bestowed two forms of honour on him, the second one having been the protection of human rights. This incident alone shows that Grass’ visit to Yemen was successful.
Politics Overrule Literature
Although Adbulkareem al-Iryani, Secretary General of the People’s Congress and political advisor to the President of Yemen, stressed the importance of the cultural dialogue in his opening speech at conference, most participants preferred the political issues to the literary ones in the lengthy talk rounds .
Günther Grass is clearly involved in politics and is an active member of the Germany's Social Democratic Party. More importantly, the Nobel Prize winner is a man cultural icon: poet, playwright, sculptor and painter. Nobody, however, asked him about his literature or art. During the political discussions, Grass expressed the thoughts and opinions which he has been known for in Germany in the past.