Grass Grows in the Desert

What's the Nobel Laureate doing in Yemen? And why has he brought young literary figures Ms. Hermann and Mr. Schultze along with him? Nils Minkmar of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung went in search of the answers

photo: AP
Günter Grass

​​Young German literary stars Ingo Schulze, Kathrin Röggla and Judith Hermann are seated under a portrait of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih and a banner bearing a lengthy message in Arabic. They look as if Colonel Gaddafi had just paid their ransom and freed them from long captivity.

We are in the Arabia Felix Auditorium at Sanaa University, where the first-ever reading by German authors is being held. The yellow, oil-painted walls shine in the glare of the TV spotlights. The table is decorated with a multitude of pink flowers; behind the bouquets are the microphones, the water bottles and – strangely enough – several cans of Red Bull.

It is midday, and very hot. Even in here, we can hear the muezzin's call to prayer quite clearly. Around 100 people have turned up, and the room is far too small for them all. The door keeps opening and shutting, as if we were in a Marx Brothers movie: here comes another TV crew… another group of black-clad students… a few more excited boys. The three German writers begin their reading: strong, short texts about life in the West, urban disorientation, life in the hyped-up world of dotcom start-ups, and the sales drive conducted by a fast-food company specialising in fish.

The students' reaction is hard to assess. To judge by their silence, they're completely nonplussed. When the discussion starts up afterwards, the Germans also have a few questions for their audience: Why, they ask, are their listeners studying German? One of the students, who's wearing a suit, a traditional headscarf and a Yemeni curved dagger, gives the most succinct reply: "Because Germany's a rich country."

The role of the writer

Then come the kind of questions these German writers will hear so often in the course of their travels through Yemen: questions about the writer's mission, his calling, his function as the conscience of his country, or indeed as a medium for his homeland and all mankind. In Germany, people don't talk about writing – or about anything – in these terms. Here in Yemen, the Minister of Culture says things like: "You German writers are like bolts of lightning, casting your light across our horizon." The Dean of the University says: "This room is small, but our hearts are opened wide to you."

How does one respond to such words both politely and honestly? Ingo Schulze seeks a gentle and personal way of describing his feelings for a country he's only just getting to know. In doing so, he also mentions the things he doesn't like about Yemen: that homosexuality is an offence punishable by death, and that women are not permitted to decide for themselves whether or not to wear the veil. The astonishment is audible, and the atmosphere is charged with expectancy. People are fascinated by what Germany and German literature have to offer; and they are filled with the hope that their lives might some day improve, and not just materially.

As literature has an entirely different function in the Arab countries, these dialogues are fraught with difficulties, whether taking place at the university or at the German-Arabic Writers' Congress. In Germany, a free press, the political parties and the law of the land take care of many things. In a host of countries from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, such tasks fall on the shoulders of writers such as Hasan Ibn Uthman or Gamal al-Ghitani.

While German authors are able to decide what topics they write about, and how vehemently to treat those topics, their Arab counterparts are obliged to "pump up the volume". Not just because their readers expect it of them, but also because this is the best way to ensure their own safety. From the government to the army, from the Islamists to the writers' own extended families, there are enough sources of potential trouble; so it's no wonder that the dignity of the writer's calling has to be invoked with such pathos.

Grass in action

While Schulze, Röggla and Hermann are busy at the university, President Salih is greeting Günter Grass. The author of "The Tin Drum" had already been here once before, in 2002, and now he's about to inaugurate something that was at that time no more than an idea: a centre for the advancement of Yemeni adobe architecture. This traditional building style produced the breathtakingly elegant houses of Hadramaut – and it's worth noting that these are the domiciles of the poor.

Last year, Grass called on the Yemeni government to guarantee the safety of an exiled writer. This year, he also has a concern to address: the environment. Grass requests that the development of tourism on the wild island of Socotra be carried out carefully. The President informs him that he has just issued an edict to that effect; the motorway on the island will only be a very short one.

Grass is an influential man. Pierre Bourdieu once said that the symbolic capital of the autonomous literary field is the basis of such influence. Grass administers and increases this capital, and he intends to pass it on as best he can. This is not the least of the reasons why he has brought young writers with him. One simply has to have witnessed Günter Grass in action! When visiting the president of the Chamber of Commerce in his gigantic marble palace, Grass needs only three sentences after a brief exchange of greetings: "I am worried about the art of adobe architecture in Yemen. It's important for this country. We're looking for support, and not merely verbal support."

"Grass always sounds like Grass"

Naturally, the President promises a decent-sized cheque in support of this worthy cause, and Grass is able to enjoy his meal. That the pipe-puffing Grand Old Man of German literature should visit Yemen is manna from heaven for a country with a truly awful public image. This is one of the world's poorest countries – so poor that there are Yemeni economic migrants in Ethiopia. To think of Yemen is to think of Al-Qaeda, landmines, abductions and a great deal more.

Grass, however, remains tight-lipped. He has fallen in love with Yemen, and his feelings are passionately requited. When he goes shopping in the Old Town of Sanaa, the goods he buys are wrapped in newspapers containing large photos of the writer himself. This is not merely because Günter Grass is so famous; all foreign guests enjoy an overwhelmingly hearty reception in Yemen, simply because people are so pleased when anyone comes at all.

Grass has now come up with a standard answer to unremitting inquiries about the security situation in Yemen: "I feel as safe here as in the lap of Abraham." He has to keep thinking up responses like these, for he can't take a step without being asked his opinion. Three German camera teams accompany him on his trip. Sometimes he says nothing; but when he does make a remark, it's always appropriate. He never disappoints. Whatever Grass says, it always sounds like Günter Grass.

Sideswipes against Germany

photo: AP
Sanaa, Yemenite capital

​​There's another reason why this visit is so successful: he doesn't want to lecture anyone; he is simply determined to enjoy his time in Yemen. He says he likes the people, their quickness, their diligence, their self-assurance; he likes the fact that there are so few beggars here, and that the inhabitants of such a poor country are so cheerful and positive. That's a dig at the whingeing in the rich country he comes from. He enjoys jibes like these. At the inauguration of the Günter Grass Centre in the province of Hadramaut, he expresses his pleasure – and remarks that no school in Germany has yet been named after him.

Ingo Schulze is a little queasy at all this diplomatic ballyhoo: "I don't want to travel through this country and look like the French delegates who used to visit the GDR, saying how wonderful they found everything, while we were barred from ever visiting Paris." And so he stresses the paradoxes of Yemen: its beauty and its cruelty, the material poverty of the country and the graceful elegance of its people.

Yes, it's a complicated country. Travelling through Yemen is like taking a trip back in time to 16th-century Europe: the state is weak, the tribes are strong, religion is erratic and unpredictable, law and fair dealing are entirely dependent on the specific situation. There is no traffic code whatsoever (not even a ruling on who has right of way) and there are no addresses. Here, though, it is possible to live well, and to take charge of your own life – if you're among the fortunate ones. But for those who get into difficulties – pregnant unmarried women, men denounced as homosexuals, anyone who challenges the wrong people – life can be very risky indeed.

Women are freer than in Saudi Arabia

She is a university lecturer, but all I can see is her eyes, for the rest of her is hidden behind an intricate system of black veils. Her voice is a whisper as she tells me that everything has got much worse for Yemeni women in recent years. In the 80s, she says, when South Yemen was still a socialist country, women studied and took up professions as a matter of course. Now, the influence of the mullahs is so great that she is frightened, and worried about the future awaiting her daughter; and as she speaks, she keeps turning her head to see if anyone's eavesdropping.

Then there are others, who say that women in Yemen are better off than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia. There are many female writers, journalists, scientists and scholars; and as soon as a woman is safely married, she can move through life self-confidently, making her own decisions – as long as the family gives its consent. In Yemen, you just have to be lucky.

Many questions remain

Things are in motion here, or so it's said. The West is hoping for reforms. Sixty percent of the population are under the age of 20, which is enough in itself to suggest matters will not remain the way they are now. It's hard to keep up, and the discussions one hears don't make it any easier. Arabs, Germans, friends, enemies, Palestine, Iraq, September 11... It's all strange and familiar at the same time, and quite dizzying. Grass keeps his course, defining and clarifying the various positions, condemning this standpoint or that one, demanding reforms, and reminding his listeners of the need for patience. He does all this in his own quite inimitable fashion; but some day, perhaps, the young German writers will grow to match his authority in the role.

When yet another Yemeni asks to have his picture taken with the great writer, Grass growls ironically to the other Germans: "You can see the burdens I carry for you…" And before anyone can reply, he disappears, exclaiming "Cake!" and wandering off, happily munching, to his next encounter with an Arab. We're left behind in his wake, with a host of questions remaining: Should more tourists visit Yemen? Have we witnessed a real dialogue between Arabs and Germans? Is there any hope for all the young Arabs? And what can literature do about it all?

After a week in Yemen, only one answer comes to mind: Definitely maybe.

Nils Minkmar
Translation from German: Mark Rossmann

Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 18 January 2004
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