|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 Feb. - 6 March 2002
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photos: Randa Shaath
Profile by Youssef Rakha
When Volkhard Windfuhr, head of the Arab office of Der Spiegel, the renowned German magazine, last week received the German Cross of Merit, the highest official award, for "services to furthering German-Egyptian friendship," he accepted the honour with typically modest pride; and he is eager to point out today, in endearingly disjointed constructions, that his role in the magazine has little to do with it. Intercultural cooperation -- rightly, after all -- seems far more important to him than journalism. "No, no, no, not Der Spiegel," he insists. His Arabic is impeccable; yet there is always a straining, a well- meaning enthusiasm to make it classically eloquent and invest it with rhetorical flourish. Through the duration of the conversation -- conducted amicably in his remarkably busy Mohandessin office, the walls of which bear testimony to his journalistic exploits -- he picks up the phone and speaks fluently -- in German, Arabic, English, even Turkish. And one can tell from his intonation alone that he is an admirer of opera. "The ambassador will give me the award for my contribution to the friendship between the two countries" -- his two countries. "You must know it is this that I'm being honoured for."
For 12 years the head of the Foreign Press Association in Egypt ("which," he asserts importantly, "with 700 members, is now the fourth largest such association in the world, ranking higher than Paris and Rome"), he is the informal chief of the foreign correspondents' tribe. He is also the founder and president of the Association of Friends of Arab Railways and the person who established (and continues to head) the first Arab office of Der Spiegel, first in Beirut, then in Cairo. A medium- built, broad-shouldered man who looks younger than his years, Windfuhr dresses formally and has an indelibly charming manner. In large measure he has adopted the insouciant warmth of the East, which he incorporates into a naturally civilised European bearing. Ahlan is his most frequent catch phrase, and there is about him the same engaging hospitality and humourous eagerness to please that characterises the vast majority of Egyptians. His movements are jerky and abrupt, as if there is always a little too much on his mind. "I apologise for being so late," he intones on arriving, panting. "It is not my habit." His face assumes an expression of deep regret, yet in no time at all it lights up again: "I am at your service."
Born in 1937 in Essen, he left Germany in 1955, accompanying his mother to Egypt where she was to teach at the German School. His father, he recounts, had "been martyred" (Windfuhr aptly uses the indigenous term istushhid) in "Hitler's war;" and they had come not on an Orientalist vacation but to earn their bread. When she returned to Germany, however, "I stayed on." The reason? It is not entirely clear, though the veteran correspondent speaks of the "spirit of revolution," of a fascination with Nasser, of the absence of any significant obstacles in his way to establishing a life here in Cairo. "There were no difficulties," he reiterates. "No culture shock to speak of. At that time Egyptians could enter Germany without a visa -- and vice versa, yes, of course. Nobody went on planes then," he digresses -- a constant feature, it turns out, of his conversation. "Everybody boarded ships; and transport was always to and from the cities and ports of the Mediterranean." Windfuhr picks up the phone again, though this time it has not been ringing. "What will you have to drink?" he insists, even though, as we told him, we have already had coffee while waiting. "Well, we have not run out of coffee either, you know!"
'I had an Egyptian wife, she passed away a long time ago and I decided to marry journalism. No children. I love classical music and opera, as well as some music by Umm Kulthoum, Abdel-Halim, Fairuz... My three extracurricular passions: history, geography and music'
He studied Oriental languages at Ain Shams University, specialising in Arabic. And during his school and university years, he remembers, "there was extraordinary cultural activity." The "spirit of revolution, especially in its early years" aside, "we all eagerly await the resurgence of such great book series of the time as the Silver Book, the Golden Book, Iqraa..."
Agricultural reform was only just being implemented, Windfuhr notes, "and what I noticed most often was how incredibly high unemployment rates were. People were sleeping on the streets, very large numbers of them. And we believed" (here he assumes his well-deserved Egyptian identity) "that the July Revolution would bring about a significant change for the better. If you visited the countryside, for example, you could see the injustice right there in front of you. How the feudal lords treated the fellahin. It was terribly saddening, a travesty, incredibly unjust -- so much so that the extent of it is next to impossible to describe. So agricultural reform was more than welcome. The class differences especially were utterly enormous, dire. And yet, even before the reforms started having an effect, there was a spirit of goodness, an all- embracing goodness" that took him in. "And the excitement," he recalls, "the hopefulness and activism were astonishing." Windfuhr implies that, in historical terms, at least, he came to Egypt at the right time.
"The one thing to which people paid the most attention," in the 1950s and 1960s, "was culture. Sadly, and for obvious enough reasons, everything in the Middle East is tied up with politics. But at the time culture predominated. I was deeply influenced by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, so much so that, until a few years ago, I would actually have described myself as a Nasserist. But there was much literature and art besides, inspired by the liberation and the future. Some of my greatest Egyptian friends I made at that time: Tharwat Okasha, who was among the best ministers of culture to assume this post in Egypt; Dr Mursi Saad El-Din I got to know very early on, he was so active in such circles, so welcoming and amiable; Tawfik El-Hakim was my neighbour, and I translated two of his plays into German. I also made friends with Mahmoud Taymour, who is deservedly known as the dean of the Arabic short story, and translated his work. I met and befriended many authors; and I must have translated some 200 short stories during those years. I also supervised the dubbing of many Egyptian films. So you could say I actively participated in the cultural scene, a very rewarding experience. Oh yes," he gasps, "those were the days."
In 1970 -- significantly, the year of Nasser's death -- he went back to Germany to work in the German radio's Arabic service. Already he had acquired not only a perfect knowledge of Arabic but a broad and expansive understanding of the dynamics of life in the Arab world. He stayed for only four years, however, joining the staff of Der Spiegel and opening the Beirut office in 1974. Does he miss his homeland? "But I go there a lot," his tone is reassuring. "Three or four times a year I go. Last year I also bought a house near where I was born, in Cologne -- because I wanted to have a home in Germany. Although I don't occupy it for most of the year, I don't rent it out either. When I go it is there for me, and this is all I want." What is the difference between Egypt and Germany, in his view? For a moment he looks flabbergasted; he is at a loss. "Many differences," he gestures helplessly, "too many. But," he reconsiders after a pause, "I suppose the most significant thing is that there is more economic buoyancy in Germany, a higher standard of living. If you think about it, this explains everything; the differences are more or less consequences of the higher standards of living that Germans have often enjoyed.
"The experience of the EU," he goes on parenthetically, placing his remark, characteristically, in the wider framework of world affairs, "is something I admire. One can only hope that the Arab states, or at least some of them, will follow the example of the EU. They are even more worthy of unity than the states of Europe," among which the differences are more pronounced. "Speaking of which," Windfuhr declares in a grave tone, "I believe in the inevitability of the connection between the two sides of the Mediterranean, too. The sea links, it does not separate: this is my creed. And if you review history you can see how Europe learned from the East and how the East, more recently, learned from Europe. Unity is good and I am all for unity," he repeats, "while taking into account the necessity of preserving each country's individual character, of course. I feel it is like the [Cairo] red bus, on which large numbers of different people stand side by side as they progress through the same journey, getting on and off at the stops of their choice." This image, equally applicable to a railway journey, is among Windfuhr's most treasured.
His own first stop, after "the three- year spell" in Germany, was painful and hazardous; by the time he left, the Lebanese war had left an indelible scar. "There was an abduction, yes." He has already mentioned it in passing. "But I don't like to talk about it a lot. It was after I was released that I relocated to Cairo." Many stops were to follow: "I remember," he says repeatedly. "I remember everything. All that I witnessed and covered, I remember." Lebanon was "disastrous, horrible: six per cent of the population were killed in the course of a year and a half;" but there was also the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, the Libya-Chad War, the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the massacres of Sabra and Shatila: "all this, and a lot more, I covered." Within Egypt -- his principal forte -- Windfuhr remembers the Suez War ("I was on the tram on the way to my house in Faggala, and as soon as we reached the church on Galaa Street I could see the explosions perpetrated by the English to announce the impending attacks"); the nationalisation of the Suez Canal ("I was in Manshiya"); the 1967 War ("the whole of Egypt was very angry with the army, and veterans whom I met told horror stories"). "The Student Movement," Windfuhr goes on with his list, "and when they laid the High Dam foundations and Khrushchev came to supervise the Soviet contribution. As soon as the project was underway, Abdel-Halim [Hafez]'s voice was everywhere joyfully proclaiming it. I remember... The Iranian Revolution I covered from the start, returning to Tehran on the same plane as Khomeini; and in 1973 I had the honour of accompanying Osman Ahmed Osman in the first Egyptian helicopter to fly over the Bar Lev Line..." Since 1990 the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has preoccupied him more than any other topic: "I accompanied Yasser Arafat on his historic journey from his exile in Tunis to the Andrews base in the US," he remembers happily. "And again when he entered Palestine through Rafah, I was there with him."
About his private life, in the end, Windfuhr says little: "I had an Egyptian wife, she passed away a long time ago and I decided to marry journalism. No children. I love classical music and opera, as well as some music by Umm Kulthoum, Abdel-Halim, Fairuz... My three extracurricular passions: history, geography and music," not to mention the languages of the East. And his political orientation? "I am all for social justice and the freedom of the people," he asserts. "The rest, I feel, is in the end mere detail, irrelevant and unimportant."
In 1997, Windfuhr recounts on a lighter note, he founded the Association of the Friends of the Egyptian and Arab Railways, thus "realising a childhood dream." Here again, rather than waxing lyrical about actual train journeys, he places this hobby in its wider context: "We work very closely with the German-Arab Chamber of Industry and Commerce, of whose board I have become a member, organising seminars and seeking the support of major German and Arab figures. We call for developing and improving the railway networks of the Arab world. And with the direct endorsement of President Mubarak, following the Luxor massacres, we set off the first 'peace train' on previously abandoned tracks from Safaga to the eastern mountains. This is a luxury train designed for tourists who, in the course of their journey, have the opportunity to explore Ancient Egyptian monuments throughout the area. Every year a 'peace train' sets out from Safaga; and this is our contribution to the struggle against terror and the challenge of presenting the world with an appropriate image of this country, displaying its treasures." This country? His country, as Windfuhr consistently implies. And as he bids us his warm farewells, seeing us out all the way to the lift, smiling and saying Ahlan the while, it is hard not to agree.
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