"In the Beginning Was the Dialogue"

The German writer Günther Grass visited the Republic of Yemen in December 2002. He played a key role at a cultural conference. The discussions were mainly focussed on politics.

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
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.

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
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.

Iraq

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

© 2002, Deutsche Welle

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