19.05.2011In Dialogue: Khaled Al-Khamissi – Stefan WeidnerThe Arab Spring
Istanbul, 19 May 2011
Many thanks for your detailed and unreserved answer to my letter and my questions. Your post finds me in Istanbul, where I am spending the next three weeks. I'm trying to press ahead with an old beloved project of mine, for which I'd never really found time until now: introducing Turkish poetry in translation to German readers, especially older Turkish poetry – from the Ottoman era. I don't know how familiar you are with Turkey. It's a very interesting, exciting country. But it's also a very torn country. Or perhaps I might say: a fractured country.
As I write these lines, I think to myself: What nonsense! In truth, every country is fractured, especially Germany but also France, the USA, Russia – every one. The reason lies in what you hinted at in your letter: there are no "countries" in the original sense, no nations any more. This is not only, or not even mainly down to the cultural, economic and political globalization everyone is talking about. Globalization is just a buzzword.
I believe the actual reason lies in the fact that the concept of the nation, of nationality, of the (ethnic, linguistic and religiously homogenous) people and state has always been nonsense. Unlike the ideas of freedom, justice, human rights, the idea of nationality really was a European one, and in my opinion one of the most terrible of European ideas. This idea was very fashionable for some 200 years and made its mark on the world (in the dual sense of the German word zeichnen: both drawing a picture and leaving a scar). Many of our current conflicts are based on the nonsensical borders drawn up by the colonialists, between Afghanistan and Pakistan for example, between Pakistan and India, in the Arab world, on the Balkans, in Palestine.
In the 21st century, we will have to learn to think of freedom of the peoples without "the people". And the idea of democracy without a strictly defined "demos", i.e. without a people defined in ethnic, linguistic or religious terms. The fact that we have to learn this, however, also means admitting that it's not at all easy to start thinking in this way. We're not used to it. And we may be scared of what comes afterwards. If the intellectuals still have one task that the mass media have not taken off their hands, then it is this: finding a mental place for the individual without restricting it to religion, ethnicity and language.
And this brings us back to my Ottoman poetry project. In a certain sense, Ottoman poetry is (like most superior literature, incidentally) a poetry that gives the individual a mental place without tying them down in terms of religion, language or ethnicity. The Ottoman language itself (just like many other languages) was nothing other than a synthesis of many other languages, particularly of Arabic, Persian and Turkish. And modern Turkish still has very many Arabic and Persian elements, no matter what Turkish nationalists may claim.
Yesterday it rained strongly here, and the umbrella salesmen popped up out of the blue on every street corner. And do you know what they were shouting? "Şemsiye, şemsiye!" None other than the Arabic word for umbrella still used to this day. Whereby the funny thing is, as I have to explain to our readers who don't understand Arabic, that this Arabic word for umbrella contains the word for "sun", and originally referred to a parasol.
Most modern-day Turks know nothing of all this, because they were cut off from their cultural roots by the abolition of the Arabic alphabet in 1928. Just imagine: hardly any Turkish people can now read the script in which all classic works of Ottoman Turkish literature were written! More than that, in fact: even if these works are reprinted today in Latin script, only specialists can still read them, because Atatürk arranged a kind of linguistic holocaust by attempting to replace all Arabic and Persian words with those considered originally Turkish.
The word şemsiye proves that he did not succeed. All that he achieved was that the Turks have forgotten where the word comes from and what it actually means. That is why the Turks have a fractured national identity to this day, just like we Germans and no doubt the Egyptians too. And I say: thank goodness for that!
But if you or our readers ask me what this alternative mental place is that Ottoman poetry reveals to us, I can give a clear answer, albeit one which may sound rather sentimental: love! Love, understood not only as affection towards another individual, as worship of another individual – but love as a state or a condition that enables us to honour or worship the entirety of existence, both in the here and in the beyond. It is almost a religious state, but a religious state without denomination, without restriction to a certain religion, a certain god, a certain set of rites – a state close to the mystics' ecstasy; but also a state of which even the most sober of individuals has at least an inkling.
By no means, dear Khaled al-Khamissi, would I regard literature as tied to nations or geography, bearing all this in mind. James Joyce was a European and 1001 Nights was written in the Orient. But what would James Joyce be without the European literature before him! And what would European literature before Joyce be without 1001 Nights? Or without Homer, whom our narrow-minded modern understanding of the nation would classify not as a Greek but as a Turk! And what would Homer be without the ancient Babylonian epos of Gilgamesh? If world literature has a beginning at all, then it has it, seen from today, in Iraq and ancient Egypt!
But back to the role of the intellectual for a moment. Do we not have to come to terms with our lack of power, in the face of the developments you describe, on which we as people of words, of signs, of symbols, can have no direct influence? I have the feeling we are veritably forced to be always one step ahead of our time (like you were with your book).
In the time itself, in the present, we only feel our own lack of power, with the result that we grow either frustrated or more radical. Literature, or art in general, enables us to leap out of our own time, into another consciousness. It makes no difference whether this consciousness is one of the past or the future, because there is always something to be found in the past that can be made fruitful for the future, as in the example of Ottoman poetry.
All this does not mean, of course, that we should sit back and do nothing for the present day. Just yesterday, I signed a petition for solidarity with the Syrian protest movement. But for our actual, deeper changes of consciousness, we will have to have a very 'long wind', as we say in German.
With best wishes from a still rainy Istanbul, still flooded with salesmen calling "Şemsiye, şemsiye".
(To read Khaled Al-Khamissi's reply click on "4" below)