"I Tried to Find Another Way of Expressing Myself"

Twenty years ago, the Iraqi poet and publisher Khalid Al-Maaly founded Al-Kamel, a publishing company, in Cologne. On the occasion of the anniversary, interviewed Al-Maaly about the difficulties of Arabic publishers and the reception of German literature in Arabic countries.

Mr. Al-Maaly, is the Al-Kamel publishing house an import from an Arab country, or did you first establish it in Germany?

Khalid Al-Maaly: I formed the company in Cologne in 1983. But I have to add that I had no experience of the publishing business - editing, proofreading, typesetting, making books, etc. All I had was a modest level of experience as a writer and journalist. My first published works date back to 1974, and I brought out my first volume of poetry in 1978, in Baghdad.

Why does Germany need an Arabic publishing house?

Khalid Al-Maaly, Foto: privat

​​Al-Maaly: I didn't form the company for Germany's sake, but simply because I suddenly found myself living here. Then came the war of 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. That was the deciding factor for me; after this invasion, we - the young generation of Arabic writers - seemed no longer to have any prospect of publishing our work in the Arab countries. At that time, I just wanted to bring out the texts and poems that I'd written myself, as well as a few Arabic books that can't normally be published, both classics and modern works. So in 1983, I started up, with one little Arabic typewriter.

But Lebanon wasn't the only country producing books at that time; surely you could have published your books in some other Arab country?

Al-Maaly: For us, Lebanon is the country we dream of. Every Arab writer or artist used to fantasise about living and working in Lebanon, because there was a certain amount of freedom there before the invasion. And there still is, despite all the new laws. But after the invasion, the country was occupied, and I made the emotional decision to form a publishing company here in Germany. When the dream of Beirut dissolved, I simply tried to find another way to express myself.

As regards the work of publication, what makes Lebanon different from other Arab countries?

Al-Maaly: When a book is published in Lebanon, any Arab in any Arabic country can acquire it. But if a committed publisher in Egypt, Morocco or Tunisia brings it out, it won't reach all the Arabic readers, because the publishers are hampered by problems with distribution. In Lebanon, however, the publishers know no limitations - apart from censorship. But provided it hasn't been forbidden, any book published in Lebanon will at least appear at every Arabic book fair. For this reason, I too now have my books printed in Lebanon, and from there I can distribute them throughout the Arab world.

Where does the main focus of your publishing programme lie?

Al-Maaly: The emphasis is on modern Arabic literature, poetry as well as prose. In addition, we publish critical Arabic classics, books that can't necessarily be brought out whenever one feels like it. We also produce books on taboo subjects, matters that can't be treated or talked about in Arab countries...

Was your decision to found a publishing house in Germany also motivated by the desire to avoid the kind of censorship prevalent in Arab countries?

Al-Maaly: Partly, yes. But we also publish modern essays by both Arabic authors and non-Arabic writers in translation. We have a large number of German-language authors on our list.

How do you manage to sell books on taboo subjects in the Arabic world?

Al-Maaly: If a book can't be sold in Saudi Arabia, for example, people can simply buy it in Bahrain or Egypt, or in the Emirates.

So each country has its own "forbidden" topics?

Al-Maaly: Yes. For example, the Saudis used to be very strict, now the Kuwaitis are very strict. The works of the mystics Hallaj and Niffari are banned in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but not in Egypt or the United Arab Emirates. Other books are forbidden in Kuwait, but not in Saudi Arabia. Then we have certain Islamic classics, books by Islamic judges such as Sheik Nafsawi or by great Islamic scholars like As-Suyuti, Islamic erotic literature, etc. - these books are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, but in Tunisia they're among our most successful publications; they're the "hits" at the annual book fair. Or take the memoir of childhood written by Sayyid Qutb, which has nothing to do with his later teachings. It's a purely literary work; but because the author's name is Sayyid Qutb, the book is strictly forbidden in Tunisia. Yet you can buy it in Saudi Arabia, even though his other works are banned there.

Let's go back to the German authors on your list. Who have you published so far?

Al-Maaly: We have a lot of German prose writers on our list: Nicolas Born, Ingeborg Bachmann, Christa Wolf, Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Barbara Frischmuth, Rainer Maria Rilke...

Are these all translations from the German?

Al-Maaly: Yes, we translate only from the German. We also have poets on our list, such as Paul Celan, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Christian Morgenstern, and we publish scholarly works by Heinz Halm, Josef van Ess, Annemarie Schimmel...

All of them German Orientalists...

Al-Maaly: Yes, there's a great demand for scholarly studies of Islam, including and especially those written by German Orientalists. They have a very good reputation in the Arab world, because they weren't involved in colonialism. And then we have sociologists such as Ulrich Beck or Christa Wichterich, and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Jürgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk.

So you also commission new translations of authors - Kant and Hegel, for example - who had previously been translated into Arabic from a third language?

Al-Maaly: Yes; up to now the German philosophers have usually been translated from the English or French. With a single exception, we have always commissioned translations from the original German. We've now started work on the complete writings of Nietzsche. The first book to appear will be "Ecce Homo", followed by "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". We plan to produce the first Arabic translation of the complete works from the original German.

What about literary prose? You mentioned Grass and Handke, but do you also have younger authors on your list?

Al-Maaly: No, but we did try it once with Christa Wolf. She's a very well known author, but in the Arabic world there's very little interest in her work. I don't know why. I've also written about her, and given lectures on her writing, but it's never had much effect. A book has to speak for itself. She simply isn't read very much. The only exception is her novel "Cassandra", which is bought occasionally. I used to wonder why. Only later did I understand the reason: a Mexican soap opera called "Cassandra" was very popular in the Arabic world, and people thought this was the book of the TV series. So these things take a lot of time, it can't be done overnight. I had a very different experience with a French author, Gilbert Sinoué. He wrote a book called "Avicenne ou La route d'Ispahan", which has also been translated into German and was very successful here. Strangely enough, it was also a success in the Arabic world; a second print-run is currently underway. You have to realise that in Arab countries people don't read much - very little, in fact. There is no organised market for books, there's censorship in every country, and there is no normal system of sales and distribution. If we print a thousand copies of a book by Christa Wolf or Günter Grass, we regard it as a success if we can sell them all within three or even four years.

In September 2002, Günter Grass was in Yemen with some other Arabic and German writers, and the Arabic press gave the visit quite extensive coverage. Has Grass's new contact to the Arabic world had a positive effect on sales of his novel, "The Tin Drum"?

Al-Maaly: No, not at all. If Grass goes to Yemen or Habermas to Egypt, it has no effect whatsoever. When Habermas was in Egypt, I really thought, 'Now sales of his book will take off' - but no. There was certainly a lot of talk about his books, but hardly any copies were sold. On the other hand, some books turn out to be bestsellers without anyone even mentioning them. For example, almost nothing was written about Gilbert Sinoué's book, but people still buy it.

On the whole, as I say, people read very little; yet it also has to be said that there's a lot of interest. I notice this very strongly when I'm in Tunisia, for instance; or in Kuwait, or Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, two places I visited recently for the first time. There, I saw how hungry people are for certain books. Or take the book fair in Riad: it's visited mainly by men, because women are only

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allowed in for a total of eight hours in the course of the whole ten days. There are moral guardians there who never stop shouting at people, and every two or three hours there's a call to prayer, which has to obeyed. How is one supposed to work under such conditions? Yet despite all this, I sold more books there than anywhere else. And the people who bought these publications weren't just browsing; they knew what books they were after. Which means they read them. And the same applies to Syria and Tunisia; neither country is rich, but people there always ask for, and buy, the interesting books. Then there's Morocco; my publications sell very well there too.

But intellectuals in Morocco all speak French, so they have the option of reading books published in that language.

Al-Maaly: Well, so people say, but my experience tells me another story. People there also want to read Habermas in Arabic, and indeed translated directly from the German. Maybe the situation used to be different.

In the Arab countries, how well known is German literature, as compared to the literatures of other languages?

Al-Maaly: Sadly, it has to be admitted that German literature isn't very well known. Günter Grass is a prominent figure; even I read about Günter Grass while still at school, and I kept on reading about him during the whole period before I came to Germany. Then I went on to publish him! At one time, only a few of his short stories had been printed; his political writings were a little better known. But Hermann Hesse has been much translated, and many people read his books. Thomas Mann, however, isn't much read. A lot of German plays used to be translated.


Al-Maaly: Yes, Brecht, but also Peter Weiss. I myself saw one of his plays in Iraq - "Marat/Sade".

Your company is named "Al-Kamel". "Al" is the Arabic article, and "Kamel" means "camel" - an animal that's often associated with Arab people, and not always with positive connotations. Why did you choose this name?

Al-Maaly: The camel is a patient beast. It carried the Arabs through the desert for thousands of years. It's part of them, part of their environment.

This year, you're celebrating twenty years of Al-Kamel. Which books have sold best in the last two decades?

Al-Maaly: All told, Arabic erotic writings - classics, most of them by Islamic sheikhs. We have a series, which is not yet complete, but it's still selling very well.

What's the best-selling work by a German author?

Al-Maaly: "What is Globalisation?" by Ulrich Beck, and the poems of Paul Celan.

And what do you have coming up next?

Al-Maaly: The collected poems of Friedrich Nietzsche, and "The Man Without Qualities", by Robert Musil.

Interview: Larissa Bender,; Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

© 2003

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