In the Province of Germany: Exile and New Direction

Some Arab writers living in Germany no longer write in their native tongue, but in German. Many of these writers can finally express themselves without the pressures of politics and censorship.

In his novel "Rückkehr nach Tarschisch" [Return to Tarshish], Hassouna Mosbahi confronts his alienation from his homeland. After ten years' absence, the protagonist, Abdulfattah, returns to Tunis - or Tarshish, to give the city its ancient Arabic name. The capital makes a sad impression on him, and the whole country, he feels, is on the road to ruin. Former friends have joined the secret police or become conformist servants of the state, while others have succumbed to resignation and hit the bottle. But life in exile has left its mark on Abdulfattah, too. The author explains: "I'm also dealing with the paranoia that befalls both intellectuals and workers when they live abroad. Cut off from their roots and their native language, many start to feel they're surrounded by enemies. I myself am afflicted by fears of this kind. If a waiter is unfriendly, for example, I start to wonder, 'Why is he treating me like this? Is it because I'm an Arab, because I'm foreign-looking?' In fact, the waiter's unfriendly to everyone. But in Europe, every Arabic intellectual I know is burdened by such feelings to a greater or lesser extent."

Mosbahi has been living in Munich since 1986. The loneliness of an Arab intellectual in a big German city is something he's gone through himself. In his stories and novels, such experiences crop up again and again. If a man lives outside his home country, outside his language, outside his traditions, how does he deal with his environment? After years of exile in the West, hearing a different language and a different music, even an Arab with a strong consciousness of his mother tongue, his personality and his traditions will undergo radical changes, says Hassouna Mosbahi. Though the Arab's face may remain brown, he's no longer the same person he used to be: he loses his identity. (Even his name is pronounced differently.) Nonetheless, Mosbahi doesn't see Germany as some kind of provincial outpost; for an intellectual, he says, the word "provincial" is meaningless; after all, he points out, the renewal of Arabic literature at the start of the 20th century began with the work of writers who had emigrated to North or South America. And the distance between Munich and Beirut or Tunis today is nothing compared to the gulf that separated Beirut from New York or Buenos Aires 80 years ago.

Some might look with envy to Paris or London, where renowned Arab writers, scholars and poets have settled, and where Arabic-language newspapers and publishing houses are well established. Much of this activity dates back to 1975, when civil war broke out in Lebanon, forcing many Arab intellectuals to flee what had been the liberal refuge of Beirut. They moved to France or England, two countries with a colonial past that provided a bridge between the Arabic world and the francophone or Anglo-Saxon civilisations. Arabs who knew French or English had an opening into the cultures of France or Britain, and could in turn function as "carriers" and interpreters of their own cultural heritage. Certainly, German civilisation, especially German philosophy, had had a strong influence since the 19th century, beginning with Marxism and continuing via Nietzsche and Heidegger to the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Habermas. Yet the works of these thinkers became known in French or English translation, or else they were translated from one of these languages into Arabic. "German culture and literature has had an undeniable influence on the Arab world, but this influence is not as widespread as it deserves to be", says Asad Khairallah. Born in Lebanon, Khairallah spent many years as a lecturer on Modern Arabic Literature at the University of Freiburg. He describes himself as an idealist, having come to Germany because he had dreamt in his youth of German literature and art. He points to the Lebanese poet and Hölderlin translator Fuad Rifka as another idealist, who keeps coming back to Germany despite receiving more lucrative offers from the United States. Yet Asad Khairallah goes on to claim that the overwhelming majority of Arab immigrants to Germany are here because they have failed in France or England, or because they can't speak any Western language. Though this may sound hard, he says, that's simply the way it is.

When talking to some Arab intellectuals, one realises that Asad Khairallah is not so very far off the mark. Hassouna Mosbahi, for example, arrived in Munich as a result of pure accident. Erdmute Heller, a German Orientalist who lives in Munich, had suggested he come and work on the Goethe Institute's Arabic magazine, "Fikrun wa Fann". Even at that time, the Tunisian had forebodings about living in this big German city; nonetheless, he chose to distance himself from Arab intellectual circles. Yes, he says, there are hundreds of Arab intellectuals in Paris or London - but an individual can easily feel stifled by their infighting. And though his Munich apartment may be cramped, Mosbahi talks of his desire to "find himself" here.

When the Iraqi poet Khalid Al-Maaly left his native country 24 years ago, he intended going to France. As things turned out, he ended up in Germany instead; and in the early days, he often lamented this fact. Today, however, he says he has no regrets. He has found a place where he can put down roots, even if only provisionally. His contact with the German language has played an essential role in this, for it enabled him to engage in a process of mutual exchange, of "giving and taking", as he puts it. Specifically, this means translating Arabic poetry (including his own) into German, and German poems into Arabic. For Khalid Al-Maaly, alternating between the two languages has been an intense and highly productive experience: nowadays, he says, it's sometimes impossible for him to choose between the original Arabic version of one of his poems and the German translation.

Suleiman Taufiq is a Syrian journalist, poet and translator who lives in the German-Dutch border town of Aachen. He provides another example of how an Arab intellectual deals with life in German exile. Originally, he planned to return to his native land after completing his studies in Germany. Instead, he stayed; and today, he describes German as his intellectual language. He is now part of an international cultural scene that has emerged in the last few decades as a result of immigration from Italy, Turkey and various other countries. In this milieu, Arabs form only a tiny minority.

Taufiq admits that he has grown away from his home country and his mother tongue. He is now doubly foreign, both geographically and intellectually - and the former condition can be dangerous for those who fail to build up a new identity. Suleiman Taufiq has found his identity in the German language, in which he now moves quite freely. For him, it's become a medium of emotional expression. Though he remains an "outsider" in both his native and his adopted idiom, this alienation has become indispensable to him. It releases his creativity and allows him to experiment. And although a certain fear remains - of perhaps never being able to acquire a complete mastery of German - Suleiman Taufiq is sure he has something to offer this society, and this language.

It's a conviction shared by Hussain Al-Mozany, a Cologne-based novelist and translator who decided some years ago to start writing in German. This decision came after years of exile, and was a recognition of the fact that he had put down roots in his new home country: "Naturally, I don't write like a German who's aware of all the subtleties and nuances of his mother tongue. But I do know the techniques of writing. I've studied them, read German, lived the language and gathered experience. Now I have to discover something new in the German language, to write in an innovative way." Al-Mozany's reorientation is also prompted by the writer's desire for direct contact with his readers. Although he has already published both a novel and a volume of short stories in Arabic, there was very little reaction, never mind recognition, from the Arabic-speaking world. This motivated him to change tack. Nonetheless, the confrontation with the two languages remains a constant element in his work. Thus, he translates German literature into Arabic (Grass, Rilke and Musil, for example), and his second novel in German developed out of a short story he had written in his native language. "Mansur oder der Duft des Abendlands" [Mansur, or The Scent of the Occident] follows a deserter from the Iraqi army who sets out to prove that his ancestor Aischa was married to a German - approximately one thousand years ago. Aischa's husband is reputed to have been in the Orient as a Crusader; and if Mansur can trace his ancestry back to this extraordinary couple, he'll be eligible for German citizenship today... The book is full of grotesque situations, and serious issues are presented to the German reader in a form that manages to be light and even entertaining. We experience everyday life during wartime in Iraq; we are shown the unbearable lack of breathing-space in the asylum-seekers' home, where people from utterly different cultures are forced to find a way of living together; and we are confronted with the baffling complexity of German bureaucracy and the German courts of law.

Al-Mozany's decision to swap languages appears to have been rewarded: he is this year's winner of the Adelbert von Chamisso Award.

Yet wherever they may go, Arabic writers are haunted by censorship and self-censorship. Hassouna Mosbahi cites the example of his novel, "Rückkehr nach Tarschisch", which contains a description of the brothel in Tunis - a unique world, as he says, and one that fascinates Europeans. Yet it's something Tunisians themselves are reluctant to write about, and Mosbahi is convinced that he could not have done so in Tunisia without facing questions and perhaps even prosecution. In his Munich apartment, however, he had total freedom to recollect in detail the way the prostitutes talked. The novel appeared in Morocco minus the description of the bordello, for the censor would have raised objections. Not wishing to risk remaining unpublished, Hassouna Mosbahi allowed his Moroccan publishers, Tobkal, to remove the offending passage; but the fact that he wrote the book in complete freedom is of great importance to Mosbahi. Incidentally, when the German edition came out in the year 2000, it won him the Tukan Prize for the best new publication by a Munich author.

Khalid Al-Maaly sees a further problem in the Arabic language itself. In his view, contemporary Arabic writing is stylistically overblown and stuffed with repetitions, and no real texts are being produced. He adds that this only became clear to him after he began to work in German. For him, this sparked off a learning process, and translation into German has now taken on the function of a control mechanism.

Writing in Arabic presents certain difficulties, for the language is riddled with taboos. For Suleiman Taufiq, this is a challenge he has no desire to accept. By writing in a foreign language, he is free of such encumbrances; and while he admits he's evading a conflict, he also feels incapable of grappling with Arabic. As he sees it, this is a task for Muslims, since the Arabic language is intimately linked with the Koran; and Taufiq is a Christian who writes mainly for a German audience. Though he's happy to see his works appear in Arabic, it's a matter of only secondary importance to him.

Asad Khairallah has a metaphor for the way German society treats the creativity of the Arabs (and other foreigners) in its midst. They're like a beautiful pot-plant, he says: left in peace within their limits, but forbidden to touch the earth, to take root, flourish and grow. He contrasts this with the situation of francophone Arabs such as Amin Maalouf, George Chahade or Tahar Ben Jelloun, who have won the most important literary prizes in France. Naturally, the situation here also has to do with the lack of any shared history; but he still feels German culture has shown little eagerness to open up. Even so, Asad Khairallah remains optimistic. He believes that borders have become obsolete in the age of global networks. So when can we expect the first foreigner to collect Germany's most prestigious literary award? That, however, is a question Asad Khairallah can't answer.

Mona Naggar,; Translation from German: Pat Lanagan

© 2003

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