15.09.2009"In the Beginning Was the Dialogue"Beware of Generalization
Grass dismissed the term "clash of civilisations", which he attributed to Western and Islamic fundamentalists who exploit conflicts for their respective purposes. Grass reminded participants of the contrasting views and cultural aspects but also pointed out that that opposing cultural characters could complement and enhance each other through cooperation. He mentioned that part of German literature was a literature of exile. A culture that shuts out others is in danger of exhausting itself. Arabs needn’t be afraid of the impact of Western culture. After all, Western culture has embraced Arabic cultural elements in the past and has still maintained its character. Grass warned that it was dangerous for Arabs to over-generalize their view of the West and see it a single-faceted entity. He pointed out that the sharpest critiques of American politics have been expressed in Europe and in the United States itself, even by Jewish intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky.
Friendship with Israel and Arabs
Some of the participating Arabs were not capable of understanding how Günther Grass could be a friend of Israel and Arabs at the same time. Grass reminded the participants of the events in recent German history, especially the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Günter Grass im Jemen, Foto: ap These consequences of past actions led to the establishment of the State of Israel and also reminded everyone of the Germans’ guilty conscience towards Jews. Nobody in the entire world, not even in the Arab world, could demand an abolition of the state of Israel, which had an substantiated right to exist.
Grass, however, explained that his friendship to both Israel and Arabs did not keep him from exercising his right to criticise if necessary. He condemned Sharon’s current politics and furthermore, called for the removal of the new settlements on the West Bank and the Palestinians' right to establish an independent state. Grass stressed the necessity of coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis for the benefit of all involved in the situation. At the same time, he condemned the Palestinian suicide attacks aimed at Israeli civilians, since every single victim, on either side, was a terrible loss.
When asked about his opinion on Iraq, Günther Grass said he did not like dictator Saddam Hussein nor did he support him and that he hoped his regime would come to an end. At the same time, however, he objected to the USA's interference in internal Iraqi matters because it was up to the Iraqi people and the Arabs to to start pushing for the establishment of a democratic and just Iraqi government.
It seemed as though the subject of politics overruled literature during the talks, and even the the topic that came closest to literature, "Censorship and the Freedom of Expression" was also related to politics. The Yemeni writers told Grass that they feared the intrasigent, conservative forces in society more than state censorship. Grass reminded everyone of his first literary experiences with his novels, "The Tin Drum" and "Cat and Mouse", which inadvertently triggered a wave of protest in German. At that time, conservative groups accused him of libertinism and heresy. This did not discourage him from writing, nor were any of his books confiscated, nor did he go to prison. He added by saying, "the personal censorship some writers impose on themselves from time to time is the worst kind of censorship."
And in the End the Dialogue Prevailed
Although the political discourse outweighed the literary, talks were constructive. They provided adequate opportunities to clear up ambiguous ideas and perceptions and to guarantee the freedom of expression. The German writer discovered many facets of the "Arabic personality", and vice-versa, even though the approaches only took place on a political level. There were enough Yemeni festival organizers who were eager to maintain a frank dialogue, in the hope that Günther Grass would enjoy his stay and the talks in Yemen. Grass stated that he would like to take the opportunity to visit Yemen again.
Fares Youwakim, Translation: Martina Häusler
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