Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 September - 6 October 2004
Issue No. 710
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The politics of culture

Opening this week, the Frankfurt Book Fair has prompted much commentary on Arab culture in the German media. Rania Gaafar, in Frankfurt, scans the recent German press and the Internet for resonances of the event

The German press has been reporting extensively on the Arab participation in the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, the event having provoked increased post-11 September media attention to the Middle East. Yet as the opening of the fair approaches, there seems to be a shift away from political and religious agendas -- and the questions of Iraq and Palestine -- towards Arabic literature and culture. For the first time, perhaps, there is wide-ranging awareness of the long-term consequences of colonialism. Scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies, formerly on the margins of cultural debates in Germany, are now in the spotlight.

Germany's weekly newspaper Die Zeit was among the first to broach the issue last week, providing, along with reviews and reportage, the answers of four Arab authors to the question, "What can Europe learn form the Arab World?" These reflect the importance of literature in the state of the Arab world today, and in opening up new directions in political as well as cultural thinking. The Lebanese-American Etel Adnan, for one, stressed the diversity of the Arab World in terms of its inherently "nomadic character" and social mobility, describing this quality as a "restlessness by birth". Not only does Arab hospitality provide the basis of social life in this part of the world, she added, but also the condition for cultural diversity and pluralism -- qualities that are necessary and valuable. "Resistance to foreign occupation," she said, "has always been part of Arab life since Abdel-Qader (1830)."

Habib Tengour, Algerian born writer, was more pessimistic. "It is a long time since Europe has learned from the Arab world," he pointed out -- a condition from which Arab culture has yet to recover. The past will continue to be a source of confidence, more than a nostalgic memory to which contemporary Arabs aspire to return. The current state is one of disorientation, Tengour went on to explain, regional antagonism, humiliation, bloodshed and loss. The need to learn from Europe, an Other both desired and hated, becomes increasingly pressing as a means to heal the wounds inflicted on Arab identity. Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun demonstrated the other side of the same coin, urging Arabs to "remember their heritage" and spread knowledge of poets like Abu-Nuwwas and Al-Mutanabbi in the West, to engage in self-reflection and to reassess their legacy: "It would seem appropriate to suggest that fundamentalists or others interested in political Islam rarely engage in the study of cultural heritage."

There is no reason Arab culture should view itself as a copy of Western culture, however, or consider the West the starting point of its move towards modernity -- tendencies with which Europeans "can only expect to see their lessons returned to them". Beydoun views cultural exchange in a context-bound, transitory framework that transcends mere assimilation. Foreign influences are necessarily adapted to specific needs of contemporary Arab society, besides which suffering and patience can lead to creative strength. "Arab culture will remain for all time a key to Islam," Beydoun adds. "And Islam can only be understood in the history and culture of mankind if one returns to Arab history and language."

One of the more interesting essays published last week on the perception of Arabic literature in Germany was by the Berlin- based assistant lecturer Andreas Pflitsch, author and co-editor of books about modern Arabic literature and Oriental Studies. "Awarding Naguib Mahfouz the Noble Prize has had a ripple effect," he wrote. "Since then the number of German translations from Arabic clearly increased. Still, the marginal presence of Arabic literature [in Germany] stands in stark contrast to the omnipresence of the Arab world in the media." Knowledge of the Arab world in Germany, he went on to point out, is characterised by a "shameful superficiality". Germans, he indicated, "are over-newsed and under-informed". Romanticised clichés of "a Thousand and One Nights Orient", both positive and negative, stand in the way of unbiased encounters as publishing houses cater to the Western audience's demand for Oriental exoticism, providing book covers with striking images of "palms, camels, or veiled women". "Exoticising the Arab World is a form of positive discrimination," Pflitsch remarked, expressing criticism of "the assumption that Islam is a fundamentally backward religion" and that this has become "a hardly questioned certainty".

An insight into Arab culture, Pflitsch argued, requires a departure from the "eurocentric" perspective. He also criticised the kind of social and political evils -- the lack of freedom of expression -- forcing many Arab writers into exile. "Most Western commentators can learn from the complexity and sophistication of Arab intellectuals and authors discussing relations between cultures," he added. Briefly analysing the narrative techniques of Elias Khoury, Edwar El-Kharrat and Habib Tengour, Pflitsch went on to identify "the serious political claim" made by contemporary Arabic literature as the principal difference between it and the postmodern writing now undertaken in the West: "Arab authors always provide an impressive combination of both, a profoundly political claim, and postmodern theory and aesthetics... Contemporary Arabic literature," on the other hand, "must be dragged out of that foreign-exotic cocoon and brought into the light, to be esteemed alongside world literature. It has what it takes."

Other articles tackled book censorship across the Arab world, stressing the drive to protect Islamic values. Censorship now appears to be a tiresome anachronism. Thanks to the Internet and coffee shops, journalists pointed out, Arab readers can relish the forbidden. Western feminism and Islam continue to be at odds, many indicated. The author of one article, Monika Frommel, used a review of a recent German publication entitled Die Frauen und die Scharia, Die Menschenrechte im Islam (Women and Sharia, Human Rights in Islam), written by two German scholars of Islamic studies, as the basis for voicing her view that Islamic traditions are incompatible with life in the West. Since they insist on revaluing state duties in terms of Sharia (Muslim law), she argued, teachers, police women and judges who refuse to remove their headscarves can only be seen as "fundamentalist", not merely "religious". She warned against inappropriate and erroneous implementations of the concept of tolerance -- which could lead to legitimising domestic violence against women and girls, for example. "Only secular concepts can harmonise with human rights," she said.

German institutions have launched Internet projects on Arabic and German literature, besides. The German Federal Centre for Political Education, the Institute for Foreign Relations (ifa), the Goethe Institute and Deutsche Welle have collaborated to promote an online magazine in German, Arabic and English to support dialogue with the Islamic world and "cross bridges" as the e-zine's (Arabic) title reflects: <> The e-zine publishes interviews with writers and intellectuals, portraits, reviews and articles on politics, society and arts as well as the latest edition of Fikrun wa Fan (Art and Thought), a cultural journal published by Germans in Arabic. It also includes a special dossier about the participation of the Arab world in this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, which provides an insight into German thought and public opinion on the Middle East and the Islamic world. The views of Arab German scholars and those interested in German literature, on the other hand, can be seen on <>, a Web page published in both German and Arabic. Excerpts from latest German literary publications are offered in translation, and the focus is on translating German literature into Arabic. More than anything else, it is hoped that discussions of Arabic literature will continue long after the book fair -- that the event will not end up being a short-lived adventure into the heart of Arabness.

Tongue in cheek

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