Interview

Two Cultures and Everyday Life

"I knew nothing about the Middle East," admits Michael Kleeberg. Abbas Beydoun taught him about the complexity of the Arab world. During the visit, Beydoun went out and experienced everyday life in Berlin. This is about an intercultural encounter with literary ambitions.

Abbas Beydoun, after six weeks in Germany, what have you learned about this country that you didn't know before?

Abbas Beydoun: For me, the time in Berlin has been a little adventure. I've encountered a great deal I knew nothing about. It's been a very special kind of adventure. I adapted to the people, the rhythm and the climate. I got to know the cultural life of the city, and its everyday life. And I made the acquaintance of Michael, which has been a very valuable personal experience. I trust to chance, and the meeting with Michael was a very lucky accident.

Michael Kleeberg: The whole thing has been an adventure for me, too. I may be a bit of an outsider in the German literary world, because I've spent 17 years of my life abroad. As a result, I've had more to do with non-German intellectuals than with their German counterparts. This project interested me because I know how useful such an exchange is, and how much of an enrichment it can be. And above all, I was interested because I knew absolutely nothing about the history, culture and literature of the Arab world, the Near and Middle East. Previously, I had a certain kind of ignorance and a set of prefabricated views; but these weren't my personal opinions, merely a cultural mindset that derives quite simply from our position and our history here in Germany: our self-image as part of Judaeo-Christian culture, and of course the specific fact of the Holocaust. I had a huge interest in finding out more out more about the Arab viewpoint, the perspective of a culture I knew nothing about.

Abbas Beydoun, is there a big difference between everyday life in Germany and in Lebanon?

Beydoun: The everyday life of any individual differs from that of any other individual. The experience of a normal day reflects the ideas and values that have survived and flourished. And that's precisely what interests me: to see how a German writer lives.

Kleeberg: To me too, deepening one's understanding means experiencing everyday life. For all thought, all logic comes from the cosmos of everyday life. Quotidian existence is also the foundation of all literary experience. It's not a matter of big ideas, of me explaining Hegel to Abbas, for example. In any case, Abbas knows his Hegel better than I do.

Beydoun: I experienced Michael in his own home, met his wife and his little daughter, saw his house, his dog, his garden. It interested me greatly, also from a literary point of view - to see how a German writer lives, how he writes. We talked a great deal about German history, and I think Michael has a talent for letting history flow into his writing. For him, it's all one inseparable whole. He helped me to see how Berlin has developed over the course of the centuries; and I could observe how a German writer sees this process, and how his view of the world crystallises out of this history. For Michael, history is lived life; it lends his literary work a certain kind of depth, a vision of the world.

Abbas Beydoun, what surprised you?

Beydoun: It was interesting for me to gain some real insight into the difficulties involved in German unification, problems I had known about in a vague, theoretical way, but hadn't understood concretely. I found it interesting to see how Germans talk about this, how they discuss it. We also spoke about the difficulty of developing a European identity, about the problems faced by young German writers, and about the dominance of American culture in this country. None of these problems are unknown to me; I can easily draw parallels with my own situation. What's happening here is also happening where I come from. We have certain experiences in common, for example as regards the issue of identity: Arabs are seeking their identity, and Germans have perhaps rediscovered a part of their own. Our discussions showed that there is a certain universal level.

Michael Kleeberg, has your attitude to the Arab world changed as a result of your encounter with Abbas Beydoun?

Kleeberg: Yes, the discussions with Abbas and other Arab intellectuals produced a detailed and highly nuanced picture. What I've come to understand is that the Arab world is shaken by terrible contradictions, and that Arabs seek their identity in a mythical past. But it also became clear to me that the Arabic world has immense cultural potential, which can't come to fruition because of various political problems. Yet this is also due to a lack of self-confidence. Abbas put it very well: "It's the Westerner in the Arab that prevents him from finding himself". It's the Westernisation of the Arab world that blocks the development of something productive and specifically Arabic. And in this, I see a parallel to the situation in Germany: in order to accept and absorb another culture, one has to have a certain measure of self-assurance. And that's lacking here, too.

Abbas Beydoun, in January Michael Kleeberg is going to Lebanon for six weeks; what will you show him when he's there?

Beydoun: I'm sure we'll leave plenty to fate and to the whims of everyday life.

Interview: Edith Kresta; Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

Source: die tageszeitung; © 2002 Edith Kresta

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