Interview with Thomas Brussig

An East German Represents the West

Thomas Brussig, one of Germany's most successful young authors, has recently been writer-in-residence in Cairo. Brussig admits to seeing the city through the eyes of a Westerner and being burdened with prejudices. Interview by Julia Gerlach

Thomas Brussig (photo: thomasbrussig.de)
In a discussion in Cairo, with two local authorities on Islam on the subject of tolerance, German author Brussig was baffled at how the discussion was constantly referring back to the Koran, which to him seemed one-sided

​​How do you like Cairo?

Thomas Brussig: I have been here for 10 days and I have to say that the city grows on you. It just takes a bit of getting used to, mainly because it is so dirty. And the traffic is unbelievable. What you see on the streets is mostly scrap metal on wheels. Yet, all this is made up for by the warmth and sense of security you experience here. It is just incredible how secure you can feel in a city of this magnitude. Just today, for instance, I attended a soccer match at the jam-packed national stadium.

And how was it?

Brussig: A little bit like a trip back in time. German stadiums are so full of technology that you don't even feel the atmosphere of the game any more. The sound system here was so old that you could hardly understand the announcer. The spectators were the ones making all the racket – and in an orderly fashion. I also didn't expect to see that a quarter or more of the spectators were women.

What other unexpected things have you discovered in Cairo?

Brussig: It's clear from the start that when a German author travels to an Arab country as part of the Midad project (an exchange program by Germany's Goethe Institute), he or she has come to observe and comment on the "clash of civilizations" and offer opinions on what is or is not appealing.

I really didn't know, for instance, that there is a large Christian minority in Egypt and that this co-existence functions quite well. It doesn't merely mean living side-by-side, but truly with one another. In this respect, things are much further along than in Germany. We tend to regard Islam as something foreign, exotic, and somehow suspicious. Co-existence in Egypt, on the other hand, is much more relaxed. This is something I didn't expect.

The first time I came to Cairo, I observed more evidence of extremism. I heard a sermon on the radio given in such a frenzied tone that Goebbels might have seemed like a teddy bear in comparison. I have been spared such experiences this time around. Yesterday, I took part in a discussion at the book fair about the first entries in my Internet diary. I had decided to go ahead and write, despite the risks. The discussion was amiable as it remained objective and never became impassioned.

It focused on the following remark: "There appears to be a consensus here that everything of significance is to be found in the Koran, and that which isn't mentioned in the Koran isn't important."

Brussig: This thought occurred to me after attending a panel discussion with Jutta Limbach, the president of the Goethe Institute, and two local authorities on Islam on the subject of tolerance. I was simply astonished at how the discussion was so one-sided, constantly referring back to the Koran. This was something I hadn't expected.

Have you personally experienced clashes with Egyptians?

Brussig: Sociology unfortunately shows us that good people living under bad conditions create destructive societies. The Egyptians that I have met are exceptionally friendly people. However, I also see problems facing this society, such as poverty and over-population. People are now expressing a little bit of hope, though.

Why are Egyptians hopeful about their future?

Brussig: Because there have been some signals pointing in the direction of democratization.

What is your opinion of the people you've encountered?

Brussig: I've been pleased to find a great deal of open-mindedness. There is an immense interest to show me things and to free me from my prejudices.

You have even posted your mobile phone number on your Internet page. Has anyone called?

Brussig: No, but I did get an SMS with some suggestions on reading material. From Andrea. I haven't a clue as to who Andrea might be.

What has been your experience with writing a diary?

Brussig: Strictly speaking, a diary isn't written to be published. In this case, I know while writing that my words will be made public. I also know that they could evoke a response. When I write anything else, I revise it many times before publishing. Apart from that, I usually only write about matters of which I consider myself to be an expert. Here I am a layman and the publication of dilettante thoughts is something new for me.

Apropos experts, I have frequently heard people from East Berlin comment that Cairo reminds them a lot of the former GDR. Perhaps it is something about the smells, the way that people have constructed balconies on their houses, or the improvised nature of things. Do you share similar impressions?

Brussig: Let me put it this way – life in the GDR was never this extreme. The dilapidated state of affairs here reminds me somewhat of East Germany, but I think that people in the GDR looked after things much better. Is there an Egyptian word for body shop? I don't think so! It would seem that there aren't any such establishments here. Today a convoy of big shots drove by and even their cars were covered in scratches and dents.

I feel quite comfortable in Egypt because I am regarded as a representative of the West when interviewed here. In Germany, I am always seen as an Easterner. Now I find myself roaming around the world in an attempt to find East Germany.

Yesterday, I heard someone comparing the phenomenon of re-Islamization with that of the current wave of nostalgia for life under communism. I found this very interesting. This nostalgia for all things East German is really quite harmless, so now I also try and regard re-Islamization as something harmless and simply forget about the clash of civilizations. Let's see how far I get with this hypothesis.

Interview: Julia Gerlach

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Thomas Brussig, on commission of the Goethe Institute, has been keeping an Internet diary to record his impressions of the metropolis on the Nile. The Goethe Institute published the diary on its website in German and Arabic (see below).

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