Iraqi-born writer Hussain Al-Mozany has been living in Berlin since 1980. His latest novel is the story of an Iraqi living in German exile who feels threatened by the foreign culture and ends up by carrying out a radical act of rebellion. Interview by Volker Kaminski
Al-Mozany's latest work tells the story of the odyssey of Sirhan, a German Iraqi whose world is thrown into turmoil by divorce and by the sudden death of his best friend. When a visit to Cairo fails to provide any solutions he returns to Germany, and there, in a rather surprising twist, becomes a murderer. The above-mentioned meat baron Klimp – who simply happens to be sitting in the seat in front of Sirhan during a theatrical performance – becoming the victim.
Mr. Al-Mozany, how does this bloody act come about?
Hussain Al-Mozany: I don't want to comment on the murder at the end of the novel just yet. I would prefer first of all to give a more general answer. Sirhan regards Klimp as a competitor; he simply reduces him to a hostile other. His life in Germany, he believes, has delivered him into the ranks of the dispossessed and he feels himself compelled to annihilate this other – the meat baron Klimp in this case.
Nevertheless, the brutal murder comes as a surprise. Sirhan is an educated man, he thinks about things, asks himself questions about religion and politics and casts a critical eye on the doings of his fellow man. How can he commit so cowardly an act? Klimp has done nothing to him after all.
Al-Mozany: As we know, intellect does not preclude criminality. We need only recall the shadowy bureaucrats who oiled the wheels of the Nazi regime. Or recently, the case of the two doctors in Glasgow, highly intelligent specialists, yet capable of carrying out a suicide attack.
But Sirhan does not appear to fit the pattern of the suicide attacker; he is neither an ideological nor a religious fanatic. There is no profound hate or deep religious motive behind his act. He seems more like a madman, a desolate, forlorn figure.
Al-Mozany: I believe – in fact I'm convinced, that there are plenty of people out there, perfectly normal, nice, everyday people, who under certain circumstances are capable of carrying out such acts of revenge.
Is Sirhan mad? He keeps referring to a conspiracy, which he thinks is directed against him.
Al-Mozany: Sirhan is certainly overwhelmed by what happens to him. He is surrounded by symbols of wealth and power. He has become disillusioned by the experience of his divorce, on the one hand, as well as by the circumstance of his being an Iraqi. An Iraqi who has lost everything. His homeland has been destroyed, his country is now occupied …
But on the first page of the novel he seems to say that it is he who is responsible for what he has done and that the deed cannot be undone. He is clearly aware of the pointlessness of trying to find justification for his deed. Murder is murder, he realises, however he might try to colour it. Would you exonerate Sirhan of any guilt?
Al-Mozany: No, I certainly wouldn't exonerate him. He is a murderer and does not deserve forgiveness. He has killed an innocent person. He is misguided. He believes that by doing the deed he can free himself from the oppressive German identity that seems to be suffocating him.
This takes us on to the mysterious illness that Sirhan apparently suffers from: namely his ever-increasing "germanisation". It's a notion that appears several times in the novel. How should we interpret this?
Al-Mozany: Well, I wanted to find a way of expressing very clearly the German influence on him. In the end this is something that is very difficult to analyse. I am writing a literary work, not conducting a study on Sirhan, I try to illuminate his character by literary means. However, from the many, many discussions I've had with immigrants with Islamic or Arab backgrounds, I've reached the conclusion that they are very discontented.
But what exactly are you getting at with this idea of "germanisation" what is so bad about this condition?
Al-Mozany: These people are determined not to give up their identity. They want to cling on to something that is fundamentally insubstantial. The vast differences between the Arab countries and the developed countries of modern Europe represent such a gulf that for many people there is nothing left but to make a choice between holding on to their "false" identity or abandoning it entirely.
How long has Sirhan lived in Germany?
Al-Mozany: There are no precise details on this in the novel. He has studied in Germany, and been living there the whole time, maybe thirty years…
But still doesn't feel like a German?
Al-Mozany: No. That is, what he feels is "germanised".
The main part of the book is set in Cairo. But in Cairo, too, Sirhan is out of luck. He finds himself in the clutches of the Egyptian secret service, is accused of spying, interrogated and tortured. Would things not have been the same for him anywhere?
Al-Mozany: Perhaps. But the fact that it is the Egyptian secret service that finds and interrogates him is not just coincidence, it shows the differences there are between life in Germany and Egypt. The kind of questioning Sirhan is subjected to in the book is something I have personally experienced.
Although I was not tortured, I was interrogated twice by the Egyptian secret service for no reason whatsoever. And I have met people who have been tortured simply because of some suspicion or other on the part of the Egyptian authorities.
This is what happens to Sirhan. He has done nothing wrong, yet he becomes a victim of the secret service…
Al-Mozany: It's a remarkably easy thing to do in the Arab world, to suddenly find yourself a suspect and delivered into the clutches of the secret service. I lived in Cairo for a year and a half, and I too found myself on the receiving end of this kind of random treatment. When I complained to the German embassy, I was told: "If you want to live here, you have to put up with the secret service."
By focusing on a personal tragedy, my novel also becomes an indictment of the conditions prevailing in a country such as Egypt and of the deplorable injustices perpetrated by police states throughout the Arab world.
The novel is written in the first-person and concentrates very much on the central character. The other characters seem to fade a little into the background by comparison. Shouldn't at least the story of his failed marriage have been given a bit more prominence?
Al-Mozany: I chose the first person narrative consciously because I wanted to achieve an intensity of involvement with Sirhan's viewpoint. Sirhan's view of things is very exclusive, he lacks objectivity, and makes himself the God of all things. He gives himself the ultimate power to decide over life and death.
Despite the single point of view, the novel actually tells two stories. On the one hand there is the story of how Sirhan becomes a murderer, on the other, of his attempt to begin a new life in Cairo, which after all – had it succeeded – would have prevented the later murder. In what way do you see these stories as connected?
Al-Mozany: I believe that life is in the main a random process. If Sirhan had chanced to meet another woman, who knows, maybe things would have worked out differently for him. It's also a novel about missed opportunities. In Egypt, too, no one helped him, his friends deserted him.
The novel draws a very sombre picture of the life of a German Iraqi. Does it in any way correspond to your own attitude towards life here?
Al-Mozany: No, definitely not. I consider myself fortunate to live in Germany. I have the opportunity here to talk to lots of people about the sorts of things that I like to talk about, such luxury is not possible everywhere.
I meet women here with whom I can talk about philosophy, art and history, something that is accepted as quite normal here and taken for granted. In the Arab world this is either not possible at all, or possible only to a very limited extent.
Interview by Volker Kaminski
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Ron Walker
Hussain Al-Mozany was born in 1954 in Amarah, southern Iraq. He grew up in Baghdad. In 1978 he moved to Lebanon, where he worked as a journalist. He has lived in Germany since 1980. In Munster he studied Arabic language and literature, Islamic studies, German studies and journalism.
From 1991 to 1993 he was engaged in novel research in Cairo. He has published numerous stories and novels in Arabic and translated Bachmann, Benn, Grass and others into Arabic. The novel Der Marschländer was published in German in 1999.