"A Room in the House of War"

The German Autumn Comes to Egypt

In his new novel, German author Christoph Peters takes a look at militant Islamism in Egypt - and draws a daring comparison to German left-wing terrorism that shook the Bonn Republic in the autumn of 1977. A review by Daniele Raffaele Gambone

View over Cairo and the Nile (photo: dpa)
In Christoph Peters' novel, Germany's ambassador to Egypt and a German militant Muslim convert debate the use of violence as a means to incite social and political change

​​When a series of assassination attempts on statesmen shakes Egypt to its very political and economic foundations in 1993, an Islamist terrorist commando finds that the time is ripe for the decisive strike against the Mubarak regime.

After converting to Islam, Jochen Sawatzky, a German ex-junkie, takes the name Abdallah and is ready to sacrifice lives for his convictions, including his own. He joins the terrorist cause. But the plan to carry out an attack on visitors to the temples in Luxor runs into trouble.

Betrayed by one of its own members, the group is trapped in a well-organized ambush. One of the few who survive is Sawatzky. He ends up in a high-security prison, where he is tortured as he awaits his execution.

Many-layered radicalism

Now it's up to Claus Cismar, German Ambassador to Cairo, to obtain an extradition order to Germany for the convicted terrorist, against the will of the Egyptian authorities.

​​After several meetings at the prison, the trust between the two men grows. A high-level dialogue develops between the enlightened, but remarkably pallid diplomat, a child of the sixties, and the fanatical Islamist, now rendered powerless. They talk about terrorism, violence and religion.

This communication between the two generations stands for two different brands of what is ultimately German radicalism. The enlightened West meets traditional Islam – two cultures exemplified by their most extreme excesses. They square off, pitting their disparate ideologies against one another. This forms the heart of the novel and the greatest challenge for the author.

Christoph Peters, born in 1966 in Kalkar, Germany, says he worked on "A Room in the House of War" for some ten years. And one can actually sense page for page how well Peters knows Egypt, where he has spent a great deal of time, and how well versed he is in the Koran and the standpoints defended by the Islamic world, from moderate to radical.

Detailed knowledge of Islam

Almost in passing, Peters reveals his in-depth knowledge of the religion, backing his statements with quotes from the Koran, always blended seamlessly into the narrative. The author himself speaks in this connection of the "attempt to find such convincing arguments for the Islamist position that we in the West have to use all of our energy to refute them."

While the text profits greatly from this strategy, the credibility of his main characters suffers. Despite their representative function, Peters tries to equip them with idiosyncratic biographies, which however fails to give them a more defined contour. It is thus inevitable that, as the story progresses, the positions become increasingly disassociated from the persons who represent them.

Claus Cismar is a born diplomat. By turns open to compromise or characterless to the point of seeming not to have an opinion at all, he has had to make several sacrifices in his life. He has sacrificed the ideals of his generation to his career. The love of his stunning French colleague Francoise to marriage with a pretty, but politically ignorant, wife, Ines. Finally, he sacrifices his health to his challenging lifestyle, which results in constant stomachaches.

The German Autumn and Mubarak's anti-terror campaign

One might almost presume that, by making so many accommodations, he simply wishes to fade into the background – but that would be to underestimate him. Cismar is a professional, and he consistently pursues his own course. Neuer Link However, his mind can't help turning again and again to the parallels between the situation in 1993 in Egypt and the German Autumn, the high point of RAF terrorism in 1977. Once, he even remarks that "the embassy grounds are as heavily guarded as Stammheim."

Making a believable character out of J. Sawatzky is even trickier. As the sole representative of violent Islamism, he sometimes gives the impression of having been left in the lurch by the author. The son of an overweight tax collector mother and an American father who doesn't know he exists, he grows up to become an outsider with a penchant for New Age pastimes and hero worship.

He drops out of high school and embarks on a drug career, including the incidents of small crime typical of the milieu. Meanwhile, he also works as an informer for the criminal investigation department in Koblenz and clumsily tries to attract the interest of a Muslim girl. This leads him, and the reader, into the inner circle of worshippers at a Frankfurt mosque, followed by rapid immersion in Arabic and the Koran. And out comes Abdallah.

Thanks to C. Peters' storytelling skill, we see the characters' lack of real depth not so much as a weakness in the plot, but more as an occasion to search for the truly brilliant passages elsewhere.

For example, when we accompany Cismar on his strolls through a Cairo that has been "freed" from the usual streams of tourists. Or when we are able to follow how, little by little, suspicion and betrayal crystallize out as the novel's leitmotifs. Betrayal of one's own goals, of those one loves, of oneself.

Daniele Raffaele Gambone

© Qantara.de 2006

Christoph Peters: Ein Zimmer im Haus des Krieges. Verlag btb, Munich 2006. 320 pages, 19.95 EURO.

Qantara.de

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