Christoph Peters′ short story collection ″Selfie mit Sheikh″

Closer to the unknown

With great attention to detail and understated humour, Christoph Peters′ new short story collection revolves around Western Europe′s well-known longing for wisdom and spiritual experiences from the East. By Volker Kaminski

Christoph Peters′ heroes are no inexperienced newcomers to the Muslim world. They are educated and knowledgeable and don′t stick to the metropolis like tourists; their wanderings make them more reminiscent of the classic explorer type. Alongside the country′s art and architecture, their interest lies in the Sufi masters and wise sheikhs. They are visiting academics at art schools, touring lecturers invited by foundations, people who love and collect Arab and Turkish antiquities.

No matter which story you start with, you are immediately captivated by the precision of Peters′ observations. All the details he describes feel authentic and completely believable, as if these were autobiographical experiences. And in fact Peters is well-versed not only in Eastern philosophy; over the years he has also made frequent trips to parts of the Islamic world. As he said at this year′s Berlin International Literature Festival, with a hint of mischievous humour, he himself can′t remember now which stories are autobiographical and which are fictional.

The episode that plays out in Cairo during the Arab Spring gives us a close-up view of the euphoric, optimistic mood of the time among Egyptian intellectuals. In the offices of Emad Gamal Publishing, a few activists have gathered around the publisher to write a protest resolution. There is a German in their midst, the first-person narrator, who now has to examine his conscience: does he dare put his name to it and risk the authorities preventing him from travelling home? With a few strokes of his pen, Peters conjures up a politically overheated scene, dominated by a movement full of unrest and confidence, which almost feels as if you can reach out and touch it.

A distance from the rites and customs of the place

Yet, however close his heroes come to the holy sites of Sufism, they always remain at a distance from the local rites and customs. The protagonists plunge deep into a country′s day-to-day life, introduce themselves as Abdel Haqq or Yussuf, visit Mecca and breathe in the lovely perfume of the walls of the Kaaba, eat rose petals with other believers in a holy shrine and spend hours with a dervish in a mosque, sitting with him and sharing his meal.

Cover of Christoph Peters′ ″Selfie mit Sheikh″ collection of short stories (published by Luchterhand)
"Instead of coming a step closer to inner enlightenment in Mecca, Karachi or Istanbul, Christoph Peters' heroes remain pragmatic melancholics, who in the search for the spiritual are mainly confronted by their own weaknesses," writes Kaminski

But in the end, there is nothing more than a selfie with a taciturn sheikh. Another story sees a protagonist being tested on his knowledge of the Koran by a Wahhabist guardian of the faith. Afterwards, he is released with a perfect Islamic goody-bag: a CD-ROM and DVD, along with brochures on the true faith.

It is particularly in the stories about love affairs with young local women that the inner contradictions between the protagonists′ spiritual ambitions and their limited possibilities become clear. The young men are filled with a genuine longing for meaning and fulfilment and lasting relationships with the women they love, but instead of being able to choose a life with them, Peters′ protagonists are always just confronted with their own weaknesses and feelings of guilt.

They respond to the lure of the foreign, greedily seeking out all kinds of experiences (drug-taking also plays a role here) and are alert and self-critical in registering how different they are from the country and its people.

Thus a clear contrast emerges between the seriousness of the German ′explorer′ and the many young people he meets on his travels, who are nonplussed by his search for meaning and – as they are all over the world – more interested in using their phones.

The fact that alongside these themes, the collection also seeks to shed light on modern political events like terrorism, 9/11 and the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein seems a little over-ambitious. Or at least these stories, in which lonely Germans sit at home in front of the television, fearing the outbreak of a third world war, don′t match up to the fascinating and bizarre episodes in foreign lands.

Brotherliness between distant cultures

When one of the "seekers" visiting Karachi finds himself in conflict with an anti-terror unit in broad daylight, is held on the street for hours and has to face an embarrassing interrogation at the police station before his personal details are finally cleared up and he is released with a telling-off, you follow the story holding your breath.

The protagonist′s uncertainty, insecurity and panic as he simultaneously tries to convince himself he is not in any real danger, is depicted in minute detail – and not just in this story. Such passages show almost incidentally the courage it takes to confidently stand your ground in a foreign country, when you sense the desire to get closer to the unknown.

Peters emerges as a true master of detail – whether it is muttering sheikhs whose intentions we cannot glean, furious "rangers" in a "red zone" area, or those mysterious giant birds of prey in the sky, circling above sacred sites like unholy vultures. But the thing that comes across most clearly in the crystal-clear prose of this short story collection is a desire for connection and brotherliness between cultures far removed from one another.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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