Bernd Erbel: Germany's moment
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is stopping by Egypt on Saturday. And it is the pleasurable obligation of Germany's Ambassador to Egypt Bernd Erbel to make her 23-hour stopover as comfortable and fruitful as possible. Merkel will be accompanied by the German Minister of the Economy Michael Glos and a large delegation of businessmen; her visit comes at a time when her country is basking in the brilliance of its international standing.
Egypt has a tremendously powerful emotional association for Bernd Erbel. The country has multifaceted associations for this most genial German Ambassador to Egypt, all nostalgic. He returns to the Egypt he loves dearly at a most opportune moment.
Germany assumed the European Union (EU) presidency on 1 January 2007, the very date Europe's economic powerhouse also entered upon the presidency of the Group of Eight (G8) -- the world's wealthiest and most highly industrialised democracies. The refinement, exactitude and assurance of the Germans will be demonstrated, no doubt, at the G8 summit scheduled to be held on 6-8 June in the elegant Baltic seaside resort of Heiligendamm, in the former East German lander of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Christened "The White Town by the Sea", the historic city of Heilingendamm promises to be a showpiece of a prosperous reunified Germany, triumphantly emerging from a decade of economic slackening and social malaise.
The Federal Republic of Germany has held the G8 presidency on four previous occasions, the most recent of which was in 1999. Ambassador Erbel, an accomplished Arabist, stressed that Germany would take the opportunity of heading the EU and G8 in 2007 to cement its already excellent working relationship with the rest of Europe, on the one hand, and Egypt and the Arab world on the other. Erbel explained that Germany intended to do so "by shaping our economic, social and ecological future."
"This", he extrapolated further, "covers issues of common interest to Europe and this region such as energy and energy security, the environment and a better protection of the global climate, as well as the support of research and development under the 7th EU Scientific Framework Programme."
By sheer coincidence, 2007 has been declared "The German-Egyptian Year of Science and Technology", an unprecedented happening. "Germany is proud to pioneer such a venture with Egypt," Erbel beamed with boyish gratification. Egypt, after all, is a leading recipient of German development assistance.
A big and burly, down-to-earth, amiable man, Erbel's impeccable command of the Arabic language and his long-standing marriage to a Lebanese belle, May Rizq, have proven to be an invaluable boost to his diplomatic career, which has centred on the Arab world. He served as German ambassador to Iraq (2004-2006) before assuming his current ambassadorship in Cairo. He has a deep affection for this part of the world.
Erbel is a man you immediately warm up to. He is a large man, with a broad, expressive face. He is admirably suited to his profession, having the intrinsic temperament of a trained diplomat. Simply incapable of being dull, Erbel sometimes intentionally cultivates a ponderous dignity that those who do not know him well are often cowed by. However, at heart he is a practical diplomat with a keen sense of humour. He readily agreed to be interviewed -- Merkel's visit furnished a golden opportunity, and I instantly knew that I could expect no casual encounter.
Erbel was raised in trying times, but he learnt at a tender age how best to face up to them. Germany had lost its Wehrmacht (army), including its fabled Luftwaffe (air force). It had also lost its Fèhrer, too. The German nation had no voice, nor even a will of its own. The economy was in shambles. Moreover, the country was under occupation (American, British, French and Russian). Ironically, these former foes are, today, Germany's closest political allies.
Erbel was born in the sleepy provincial town of Simmern, south of Koblenz in the then French-occupied zone of Germany. His parents hailed from the Sudetenland (Sudety in Czech and Polish), a rugged, historically disputed territory inhabited mainly by the Sudeten Germans, and an inseparable part of the Czech Republic. The Sudeten Germans were deported en masse from what was then Czechoslovakia in 1946. His family fled the Soviet Red Army's swift advance across what was then German-controlled Eastern Europe. The Erbels settled first in Simmern, but then they moved to Koblenz, the provincial capital, a city severely destroyed during World War II, when Erbel was barely five. He remembers playing with his brother amidst the ruins of Koblenz. They would construct toy houses with bricks from the rubble all around them.
His family was frequently on the move. "Even at that early stage of my life, being a refugee from the east, I suffered from a sense of alienation. I lacked the security and self-assurance that comes naturally with a strong sense of belonging to a particular place. There is no place in Germany that I can truly call home."
Perhaps, that is why Erbel is touchingly sympathetic to the plight of refugees -- the Palestinians in particular. He is genuinely disconcerted to find refugees and displaced people aplenty in Iraq, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen and other parts of this region. He recounts his furious, albeit confused, feelings on seeing those who fled the fighting in southern Lebanon in the wake of wanton Israeli aerial bombardment.
"My family and I visited Lebanon last October, immediately after I vacated my post in Baghdad. I was shocked by the sight of destroyed bridges and other infrastructural damage done by the Israelis. It instantly reminded me of my childhood in post-war Germany," Erbel mused. People from Germany's Rhineland have something of a reputation for being incurable romantics -- the breathtakingly beautiful surroundings of the gently meandering River Rhine, most probably has a prominent part to play in such feelings.
Erbel met his wife, May, three weeks after his arrival in Beirut, his first diplomatic posting abroad (1977-81). It was love at first sight and they were married within three months. Her family, although Maronite Christian originally from Ghalboun, perched high on a valley nestled in Jebel Lubnan (Mount Lebanon), northeast of Jubeil, was as familiar with cultural specificities of both the Sunni and Shia Muslims of Lebanon as they were with the culture of the Christian heartlands of the country. May grew up in the predominantly Muslim surroundings of the Lebanese seaside city of Sidon, the largest city in southern Lebanon and an ancient Phoenician settlement.
After serving in Beirut, Erbel was transfered to the German Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen (1981-84) and onto Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1987-90). By now May had given him three children: Ralph, the eldest, born in 1979, followed by Anja in 1981, were both born in Beirut. Mark, the youngest, was born in Bonn in 1984. They all speak Arabic fluently -- the classical language of the Quran, as well as the Egyptian and Lebanese dialects. Ralph, an economist, works in Jordan. And Mark has just passed the Abitur, the German baccalaureate. "We try hard to visit Lebanon regularly -- at least once a year," he grinned gingerly.
Erbel and his family had no choice but to get used to constantly changing residences. "We bought a house in Bonn only three months before the federal capital was moved to Berlin in 199 , " he chuckles. "Of course we promptly sold it and moved to Berlin. We lead a nomadic existence. When I retire, I am not sure which German city we will end up residing in. I suspect we will end up in Berlin where most nomads congregate," tears streaming down his face with laughter.
I was first introduced to Erbel when he was deputy-head of mission at the German Embassy in Cairo (1994-1999) and we took an instant liking to each other. His return to the country as ambassador was cause for celebration. "I have more personal friends in Cairo than I have in Berlin," he is fond of reminding his acquaintances. He first visited Egypt in 1964 during a summer vacation when he was only 16. But those six weeks he spent in the country left an indelible impression on him, and he developed a deep interest in Egypt, things Egyptian and Egyptians. He produces a photograph of a gaunt youth nervously mounting a donkey. "It is difficult to believe now that this lank lad is me," he beaks into hearty laughter.
The photogaph was taken in 1970 at the hacienda, 'ezba of his friend near Mansoura in the Nile Delta. His schoolmate, Professor Adel Megahed, is typical of the long-stanging close relationships he treasures with Egyptians of all walks of life. The country was still reeling from the traumatic repercussions of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. They were both students and best buddies then and have remained close friends ever since. This sort of loyal and mutually affectionate bonhomie is characteristic of Bernd Erbel's relationships.
"The poor donkey was utterly useless, so they nicknamed him Sukhoi, like the antiquated Soviet warplanes that were no match to Israel's American manufactured fighter jets," he squeals with laughter.
Almost imperceptibly, the ambassador veers to another subject dear to his heart -- the unique genius of the Egyptian silver screen, especially that of its golden era in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
"I met Faten Hamama the other day, purely by coincidence. I was invited to a dinner at Daisy Bahaa El-Din, the widow of the late major journalist-writer Ahmed Bahaaeddin. [The doyenne of Egyptian cinema] Faten Hamama happens to be her neighbour, and I was most fortunate to be seated next to the legendary Egyptian actress at the dinner table."
Everyone was in fine appetite, and Erbel was transported into expansive mood. He took the opportunity to exchange views about the Egyptian film industry with the veteran Egyptian actress. "Faten Hamama told me that my all time favourite Egyptian film, Doaa El-Karawan (The Call of the Canary), was also her most memorable and precious performance," he laughs heartily.
"Egyptian films mean a great deal to me. You can review, through watching movies, the different expectations of successive generations of Egyptians. Social and political changes can be observed through film. Films show different aspects of the Egyptian experience."
Size notwithstanding, Erbl nimbly climbs the steps leading up to his office in the German Embassy in Zamalek. His secretary pops in, announcing the arrival of a visitor. He shakes his head as if he is flicking off beads of sweat. Then he flicks his wrist and frowns at his watch. Yet another visitor. His was a busy schedule for the day. "I have to meet the Archbishop," he says apologetically. Germans are supposedly fastidious about time and sticklers for detail and precision. Yet, we all know Germans who diverge from this generalisation, and Ambassador Erbel is most certainly one of those.
Merkel's visit will surely go down in the annals of German-Egyptian relations as a defining moment. The German Chancellor's visit will focus on renewable energy and German investment in Egypt.
President Honsi Mubarak visited Germany three times last year, his last visit to date was on 10 December 2006. Mubarak is a frequent visitor to Germany, both for political purposes and to recuperate and relax in the southern German spa resort of Baden Baden. There are persistent rumours that Mubarak visits Germany exclusively for health reasons. Ambassador Erbel vigorously denies the charge, insisting that Mubarak considers Germany a critically important economic and political partner. "As far as I can tell, he only visited Germany once in the summer of 2004 for treatment of a slipped disc," Erbel noted. In any case, the German Ambassador believes that it is a singular honour that Mubarak implicitly trusts the professionalism of German medical practitioners. He had, after all, undergone surgery in Munich before.
But, beyond the burgeoning bilateral relations between Egypt and Germany, the broader problem of determining the precise nature and potential of the wider European-Arab relations remains unresolved. Germany, as current president of the EU, plays a pivotal role in the shaping of EU foreign policy towards the Middle East. The EU is part of the so- called Quartet which also includes the United States, the United Nations and Russia. So far, the Palestinian crisis continues to defy efforts by the Quartet to reach a political settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite fundamental disagreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Germany is determined to see the end of the Middle East conflict. "Why emphasise our differences. Let us highlight, instead, our common humanity, our common interests," Erbel demands. "Let us turn to the question of a proper response to this long-standing crisis and examine how best we can resolve it."
"Egypt holds a very special place in my heart," the ambassador says. "I first visited the country as a teenage student. It was an unforgettable trip. I returned to Egypt in 1970. I returned several times in the early 1970s. And, again for my honeymoon in 1978.
"It was May's first visit to Egypt. Her father had visited Egypt years before. He was a distinguished writer and teacher. He lived in a pension in Hoda Sharawy Street, downtown Cairo. She loved it."
But while the Erbels have a unique attachment to Egypt, they also cherish their sojourns in other Arab lands. However, for security reasons, Erbel's wife and children did not accompany him to Iraq. They stayed behind in Berlin. However, he has fond memories of Iraq, too. Baghdad was an especially difficult post. "At first, I was under the impression that things will improve in a matter of days. Later on I discovered that it was much tougher than I originally thought it would be," Erbel remembers. "Our embassy was destroyed, and looted soon after the US-led invasion. We had to make do at a flat of a staff member," he explained. His fluency in the Arabic language and amicable nature endeared him to many ordinary Iraqis under occupation.
Erbel's office was doubled up as his home. It was one of the few Western embassies outside the so-called Green zone of Baghdad, in the suburb of Al-Mansouriya. He considers himself extremely fortunate, though. Some of his diplomat friends, including the late Egyptian Ambassador to Iraq, Ihab El-Sherif. "Incidentally, we attended a dinner party a few days before he was kidnapped and brutally murdered". He survived Iraq unscathed.
photo: Pierre Loza