Khaled Al-Khamissi (left) and Stefan Weidner (photomontage: Susanne Schanda/DW)
In Dialogue: Khaled Al-Khamissi – Stefan Weidner

The Arab Spring

The Egyptian writer Khaled Al-Khamissi, whose novel Taxi anticipates the revolution of 25 January in literary form, and the renowned author and literary critic Stefan Weidner debate the revolution on the Nile and its knock-on effects on other Arab states

Cologne, 26 April 2011

Dear Khaled Al Khamissi,

Stefan Weidner (photo: private copyright)
Stefan Weidner, born in 1967, studied German literature, philosophy and Islam studies in Göttingen, Berkeley and Damaskus. He works as an author, translator, literary critic and editor-in-chief of the magazine for cultural exchange, <em>Fikrun wa Fann</em>

​​I am delighted to have the opportunity of writing to you in this way! There is so much to tell you that I hardly know where to begin.

Most of all I want to tell you about the feelings of enthusiasm and support with which I, and many of my German and Arab friends, have followed the Egyptian revolution. Your revolution was also a revolution against our prejudices and our self-satisfied complacency, that is, against the opportunism of the West in its dealings with the Arab world.

Your revolution also gave the lie to the idea that Arabs are not interested in democracy, that they willingly tolerate despotism. Such opinions after all have been much too prevalent in the media; even from people one would have believed were more intelligent: professors, historians, respected journalists. You have really shown them! Well done! And it is my belief that if the so-called "western values" are being defended by anyone nowadays then it is by the Arab peoples, who are now freeing themselves from the yoke of despots to whom the West, where it has not openly supported them, has too often and for too long turned a blind eye.

I would, therefore, be very interested to know what sort of attitude, what sort of commitment it is that Arab intellectuals, and indeed the ordinary people too, would like to see from us in the West. Objectively speaking, it is very difficult to form a clear opinion on events in which one is not directly involved and consequently to come to any serious decisions.

Take Libya for example. I, unlike the German government, was in favour of military intervention in Libya, and of the no-fly zone, and the fight against Gaddafi and his militia, from the beginning. I am convinced that he has no broad popular support and that it would be a blessing for the region were he to disappear.

The same, of course, goes for other dictators who resort to shooting their own people when any opposition to their rule arises. But what can we do? I am convinced that in order to know where we need to do something, whether it makes sense to intervene, or not, we need to work closely with you, exchange opinions, discuss matters. I no longer believe in unilateral decision-making, nor do I believe that opinions should be formed on the basis of a one-sided perspective. I do not believe that one side can do without the other.

And as I write this, today, Tuesday, 26th April, I am watching the news on al-Jazeera showing a report from Deraa in Syria, with Syrian soldiers laying siege to the city like a colonial army, just as the Ottomans did during the First World War when the Arab army of Emir Faisal liberated Deraa from Turkish rule, a story also later told by Lawrence of Arabia. But a united Arab army no longer exists and Lawrence, too, is long gone (in the latter case in particular it may be just as well!).

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are many Arab governments whose behaviour towards their own people reeks of colonialism (and the support given to most of these governments by the West supports this presumption). Your revolutions are a kind of second, and hopefully final, decolonisation. Only now, I believe, are you really bringing an end to foreign rule.

However, I do not want to talk only about politics. To be honest, I much prefer talking about literature. What an amazing coincidence that the German translation of your book "Taxi" was published in February of this year! Even though it was written earlier, it really is the book of the revolution. Why is it the book of the revolution? Because anyone who wants to find out why the Egyptians overthrew their president-dictator need only read your book. One comes to understand much more about the situation than would be possible by reading newspaper or magazine articles or watching television programmes. Your book does what all great literature has the ability to do: to explain the world to us, allowing us to see things from a perspective we had not been aware of before.

Another thing I like about it is the way it "extends" the concept of literature. I mean, in your book literature is not simply fiction – it is both fiction and documentary. It possesses many voices: not merely the voice of the author, but also those of the taxi drivers and others. The mixture of the two is what makes the book so great. But I also think that many readers, and in particular critics, make the big mistake of reading your book as if it were merely a collection of interviews with taxi drivers. I believe it also contains a great deal of you and of your own thoughts. I could also say, of your wisdom, your political insights, and your analysis.

With warmest regards to you in Cairo and looking forward to your answer.

Yours,

Stefan Weidner

***

(To read Khaled Al-Khamissi's reply click on "2" below)

Cairo, 8 May 2011

Dear Stefan Weidner,

photo: Susanne Schanda
Khaled Al-Khamissi, born in Cairo in 1962, studied political science at Cairo University and the Sorbonne. He works as a journalist for various Egyptian newspapers. In his novel <em>Taxi </em>he gives a voice to taxi drivers from Cairo, who denounce the political injustices of the Mubarak regime

​​Many Egyptians have regarded "the West" as an enemy for decades. By that I mean the USA and the European colonial states such as Britain and France, but one could also include Germany because of its unconditional support for Israel. This rejection was accompanied by an even more deeply rooted aversion: the Egyptians' hate of their government. With the defeat in the June 1967 War, the Egyptian people grew alienated from the political project, and this feeling intensified with the policy of economic liberalisation that Sadat introduced in 1974.

It was at this time that the organised looting of Egyptian and Arab resources began. While the people spent their days in a vale of drought and heat, the government and a gang of businessmen lived in a vale of prosperity, cooled by American air conditioning. I think another reason for the hostile attitude to the West was that we understood that the West felt sufficient unto itself and took an arrogant stance towards others, forgetting that history moves in cycles: at one point we create knowledge and culture, at another we consume them.

I agree with you, dear Stefan, that there was a feeling before the revolution that we were occupied by the USA and that the Egyptian government was collaborating with this occupation and serving US financial and strategic interests in the region in return for billion-dollar payments.

This American-European-Arab project of comprehensive looting and destruction also financed and supported the project of a worldwide political Islam, while combating the revolutionary project of Arab secularism (from the mid-1970s on, for reasons too complex to list here). This was planned so intelligently that the assaults on the secular Arab project managed to undermine it to a major extent. The project of secular culture of which I speak had begun in the second half of the 19th century in Egypt and continued for almost a century.

Europe's stance of supporting the kleptocracies and thereby bolstering political Islam has led to an ambivalent attitude to the continent among many Egyptian intellectuals. On the one hand we understand that the future of humankind and the planet Earth depend on us standing together against regimes that make themselves accomplices to the stupidity, short-sightedness and greed of the multinationals. On the other hand, we see that these regimes now have unprecedented power to influence public opinion. Berlusconi is the prime example of how low a democratic system can go.

The Arab revolutions we are experiencing today are not taking place because people have lost patience, but because our cultural project has recovered strength and the citizen inside every individual is reawakening. This is coupled with a worldwide feeling that the planet Earth is threatened by one and the same colonial project. Not by the colonialism that once enslaved the Africans and wiped out indigenous populations or forced Catholicism onto "backward" cultures, but by a colonialism that threatens the entirety of humankind – by destroying the planet on which we live.

What, then, must we do? I believe we should uphold the values of rationality and reason, the values of culture and science, at the same time highlighting which cheap "culture" – including the media – is involved in propping up the rich. And we should be very critical of ourselves as we do so.

The Arab revolutions have opened up the possibility of forging a new friendship with Europe and the entire world. We can turn over a new page in human history and raise ourselves above the phase of oppression – of bleeding dry our planet and our Arab resources – by leaving the swamp of the past and entering a new terrain.

Dear Stefan Weidner, you mention in your letter those who defend the "Western" values of freedom, justice and solidarity. I would like to ask you in turn: are freedom, justice, solidarity, democracy and liberalism Western or European values in your eyes? Is the novel the European form of creative writing? What do you think?

I don't believe that's the case. You see, it is difficult to trace an idea back to its beginnings or to pinpoint the hour at which a principle was born. The human dialogue began in primeval times. How can I speak of solidarity without looking back at ancient Egypt, at Confucius or ancient Babylon and other early civilisations? How can I speak about the form of the novel without looking at all the prose ever written? How can we speak about democracy without going back to the beginnings of political systems, thoughts and principles, to philosophers who expressed their ideas thousands of years ago?

You too were doubtless an African a million years ago, you too are influenced by ideas of Arab-Islamic civilisation; without them, Europe would be inconceivable, and without the Greeks there would be no Islamic culture, and without the ancient Egyptians there would have been no Greeks. And perhaps I was a German, four hundred years ago. I believe we have to rethink many of these concepts. And that includes the term "Middle East", which has no meaning for me. I am in favour of abolishing the term.

And now to your question: What do we Egyptians expect of the West? My answer is quite simple: We expect genuine cooperation with Egyptian civil society, which stands for a spread of culture. This is precisely what collaborating Arab regimes are attempting to prevent, trembling in the face of the revolutions because they threaten their continued existence. They spend huge sums of money on destroying our simple dreams and Egyptian culture and on propagating outmoded ideas. Our part here is to fulfil our task. I genuinely believe that we all have to work together right now to start a new chapter.

With every sympathy,

Khaled al-Khamissi

***

(To read Stefan Weidner's reply click on "3" below)

Istanbul, 19 May 2011

Dear Khaled,

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".

Yours,

Stefan

 

***

(To read Khaled Al-Khamissi's reply click on "4" below)

Cairo, 18 June 2011

Dear Stefan Weidner,

Today really was a day for a sunshade! The Cairo sun excelled itself, blowing burning hot air into our faces; the world like a frazzled morsel of dry cooked meat, shrivelling below its merciless blast. I had the forlorn hope that perhaps I might somewhere find a vendor selling sunshades, but, unfortunately, here in Cairo, there is no such thing. We are quite used to being hard on ourselves, to putting up with more than we can bear and then asking if there is not more to come. We have always made fun of ourselves, too, as though addicted to self-torture. But now that we have had a revolution and proved to ourselves that we are capable of overthrowing those responsible for our torment, the joking has stopped.

I was fascinated to read of your interest in Ottoman poetry. I, too, love poetry, it is everything to me, its music the rhythym of my life. But these days, somehow, I don't feel very poetic. I find myself almost unable to listen to music. My soul fears the cries and clamour that surround me. At the moment, demagogic rhetoric dominates everything in Egyptian society. I am convinced, however, that the achievements of our revolution cannot be undone and that a new and more humane system will arise from the ruins. Are they somehow linked, the demagoguery and the burning sun? Is this something one should think about? Even thinking is beyond me at the moment.

On the one hand, we are now experiencing something that we had always hoped for – a mass culture, a consumer culture, the opening up of the education system to large sections of Egyptian society. That is wonderful, but the Egyptians are not really learning anything. Then there was globalisation that brought large sections of the lower class into the middle class and created a populist culture as the revolution in information technology coincided with a population explosion in the Arab world.

The use of "free time" also needs to be discussed. The failure of the economic and social policy meant that a new semi-literate, semi-rural generation suddenly found itself in an era of communication technology that was awash with images. Since finding work abroad was practically impossible, and jobs in Egypt almost nonexistent, they turned to the only thing left available to them – to cyberspace, where it was at least possible for people to express themselves. For the first time ever they had the freedom to write, to say what they wanted, even if, due to their poor standard of education, it was expressed rather clumsily. There was no authority to prevent them from doing this. In the era of globalisation interaction is horizontal, not vertical.

The Egyptian Revolution had no leaders, no particular ideolgy. As one of our writers has said, it was a revolution that gave genuine expression to a postmodern world. Just like the death of the author in literature, the Egyptian Revolution was a revolution that marked the death of the leader. And just as the postmodern world rejects ready-made ideologies, the Egyptian Revolution, too, had no special ideology. It restricted itself to general demands, but these demands still meant a great deal to millions of people.

In response to your question about the role of the intellectuals in contemporary Egytian society, undoubtedly they are playing a crucial role, but I have the feeling that their voices are not being heard. It was Brecht in "In Dark Times", who said, "they won't say: the times were dark. Rather, they will ask: why were the poets silent?" Our poets have not remained silent, though they are out on the margins. But does that mean that they are unimportant, or is it a conscious choice to stay out on the edge, spoiling the party for others?

The battle for a new political system in Egypt is underway, and our anguished cries are always heard more loudly than our dreams. But our cries impair our sight every bit as much as the blinding sun. So if you should happen to find a sunshade in Istanbul, please send it to us. Maybe it will protect us a little against the demagogues and the clamour. Lies, ugly press campaigns, the army and reactionary Islam are the disseminators of a discourse that is lacking any reasonable or rational basis and one which, as usual, contents itself with impressive sounding but meaningless slogans.

As alternative to this we have a revolutionary force that lacks experience and which attempts to curry favour with the lying press, the military and the reactionary Islamic and Christian groups because it believes that by doing so it can gain popularity. The real intellectuals have been slow to react. We need another revolution – and I need poetry that can offer me some refuge.

Khaled al-Kamissi

(To read Stefan Weidner's reply click on "5" below)

Cologne, 25 June 2011

Dear Khalid,

I would, of course, be very happy to send you my umbrella, but unfortunately I am now back in Cologne, and at the moment it is raining here as if it meant never to stop; so you see, I need my umbrella every bit as much as you do, but just for the opposite reason. If it were only possible, I would send you the rain clouds themselves; that would be of more use to us both than the very best umbrella. But here's a thought. Maybe you have not realised it yet, but the heat in your country is quite a financial asset! We – that is German industry – already have our eye on your sun, and very soon it is going to be as coveted a resource as Arab oil.

You don't believe me? Just take a look at the sun-seeking tourists who come to your country searching for the very thing you are complaining about. Then there is the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who really has his hands full at the moment saving the euro from the spendthrift Greeks, who now have to begin saving their money and at the same time getting their economy into gear.

According to Schäuble, the best way to save the Greeks now would be to buy their sunshine. This would also constitute a gesture of inner-European solidarity. The Greek euro-sun is of course much more expensive than the Egyptian pound-sun, particularly at the present time, when your economy is also on its knees. Schäuble, however, just mentions the Greek sun – a blatant case of Euro-centrism, if ever there was one!

In order to make things clear, I now have to explain to you just why it is that we need the southern suns. Have you heard? We have decided to "get out" of nuclear energy (within the next ten years)? I know this sounds almost as if nuclear energy were a train or a taxi that one could get out of, and which then continues on its way without us. Well, actually, that is pretty much the case. The Germans are "getting out"; everyone else is staying on for the ride. So, we will soon need to find more energy than the others, and where better to find it than in the Greek sun!

Brilliant, is it not? The Germans save the Greeks, the euro, and, indeed, all of Europe, just by turning their backs on nuclear energy. One might almost believe they were doing it for the good of Europe. The truth is rather different, however. They are getting out a) because they are afraid and b) because they are clever.

I am not being the slightest bit ironic when I say that the Germans have done the right thing. They have acted reasonably, in the strictest sense of the word. They have learned the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima. One can mock this decision, as I have done here, but it is a truly Utopian policy, not the usual application of political realism that by definition is always rather short-sighted.

Interestingly, it is also a populist policy. Nuclear power is unpopular in this country, so much so that we are willing to pay a high price to get rid of it and replace it with other forms of energy.

I believe that this is one of those rare cases where populism is not primitive, where a populist policy is also an idealistic one; one that is aimed at the future and at benefitting future generations rather than offering quick-fix superficial advantages (if anything, it will bring short-term disadvantages) that pander only to current selfishness.

Perhaps a policy such as this is only possible in a land of plenty, a rich, sated country such as Germany. But the fact that it is possible to unite populism and reason at all gives us perhaps some grounds to hope for the future of Egypt, which, if I understand you properly, is currently very much in the grip of a particularly crude and extremely short-sighted populism.

Dear Khalid, you asked me for a poem. I have one for you. It is very short, but it does have some relevance to our topic, energy. It is, in fact, a rather moving poem on the unlikely subject of coal.

Coal

At first huge mountains buried us
A thousand years
A hundred thousand years we were not worthy of mention
Then they sought our warmth.

The poem is by Fazýl Hüsnü Daðlarca (1914–2008), the grand master of modern Turkish poetry. It is so short, yet says so much. The coal is all of us: the forgotten poets, who one day will be rediscovered; the oppressed peoples, who one day will be free once more; the intellectuals, to whom no one now wants to listen, or wanted to listen to earlier, when they were warning of the dangers of atomic energy. And now, all of a sudden, their warnings have become popular…

However it is interpreted, the poem gives consolation, it is itself the coal. Let it be a source of warmth to you, and I hope you like it, even in your present state, when you might be rather more in need of an air-conditioner than extra heat.

We have come full circle, back to the weather. There is so much that I wanted to say, but I am afraid that the readers will have had enough of my chatter, so I will content myself with waiting for your reply.

Regards,

Stefan

***

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