Johannes Ebert: A mandate to dialogue
Right before the termination of his term in office -- this week -- the outgoing head of Goethe Institute Egypt spoke about five years of cultural activities on the shores of the Nile
By Sherif Abdel-Samad
Johannes Ebert loves a good laugh. Yet bring up a sensitive cultural issue and his face will immediately become dead serious, his eyelids narrowing with concentration. This is all the more interesting in the light of a real, as opposed to hypothetical or remembered, cultural sensitivity. And there was no shortage of those over the course of the last year. The controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, and the German opera Idomeneo, which showed the beheading of religious leaders including the said prophet, are but two examples. Commenting on such matters is a very delicate business, for even an innocent act or statement, perceived as provocative, will spread like a bushfire across this increasingly tight-knit globe. Ebert seems to demonstrate the need for utmost sensitivity, which is the most advisable course of action at any rate.
Then again, Ebert is no stranger to the Arab world. He studied Arabic language and history and travelled all around the region in his youth. He even studied in Damascus for a year. Before he joined the Goethe Institute, he worked as a journalist in Germany. The next stop was Moscow. He came to Cairo from the Ukraine. The Goethe Institute headquarters rotates its top management in a never-ending cycle through the years: they reach one country after another, always with the intention of doing culture; but there are guidelines for each region, and the emphasis shifts from one region to another.
There are 142 Goethe institutes around the world. They offer German courses, organise cultural events, present information on Germany; most have a German library for the general public. This Goethe Institute is hidden behind some trees right in the heart of Cairo: Tahrir Square. What used to be a former villa was transformed into the German cultural centre in the mid- 1950s. It now hosts a German library and is also the headquarters of the programming department, responsible for Goethe's cultural activities. There is another building in Misaha Square, Doqqi, which offers German courses to Egyptians and organises regular workshops and seminars for German teachers in Egypt. It is the biggest Goethe Institute in the region, but it is not the only one in Egypt. Apart from the Goethe Institute in Alexandria, the Upper Egyptian town of Assiut has witnessed the inauguration of a German cultural centre in cooperation with the University of Assiut. And all of them were supervised by Johannes Ebert -- whose position as regional director for the Middle East and North Africa required it.
For Egypt, Goethe's mission statement reads, "the Goethe-Institute supports and promotes the understanding of the basic democratic values of our European society in our encounter with specific forms of society in the Middle East and North Africa." But does this mean that its mission is to set an example of democracy, demonstrate democratic values, as it were?
"No," says Ebert. "Certain principles and values underlie European societies, and we believe that they stand and try to make them accessible to everyone. But we do not seek to convert anyone! It is not like we are saying we have the best system. I believe we also try to maintain a certain level of self- criticism."
Ebert arrived in Egypt only six months after 9/11 -- troubled times during which the Goethe Institute thought a change of policy might be in order. "Our strategies changed a little," he elaborates, stretching his hands as if he was re-ordering books on a shelf to demonstrate. "We felt we had to intensify cultural and educational exchange between both sides. We started to focus more on personal exchange programmes, particularly between younger generations. In our view, physical encounters between representatives of the two sides are very important, they help eliminate the stereotypes and clichés."
Success along those lines has included the literary exchange project Midad, the launch of a young people's website for Germans and Arabs, Li- Lak, and the establishment of the House of Dialogue (Dar Al-Hiwar), a cultural initiative that brought together young artists from Germany and Egypt. "But there were also some smaller projects that I consider particularly effective," Ebert adds, "like workshops in various fields for example. Another event which moved me personally was a pop concert we organised with Egyptian pop icon Mohamed Mounir and Austrian singer Hubert von Goisern -- in Assiut, only five months after 9/11. Some 15,000 people, mostly students, showed up. We hadn't expected it, particularly at that time. It was a very positive experience."
Still, it is Germany's presence as guest of honour at the 2006 Cairo International Book Fair that was the institute's most ambitious project in recent years. Even the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier granted the book fair a special visit on the occasion. In collaboration with other German organisations -- the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German Embassy in Egypt and the Deutsche Welle -- Goethe organised more than 55 cultural events in just two weeks.
Unlike the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Cairo Book Fair is not only an intellectual show but also a focal point for ordinary Egyptian citizens, who go with their families to spend a day on the fair grounds. The German organisers did not restrict their programme to intellectual discussions but resorted to outdoor activities like a huge fireworks display and outdoor performances.
"We wanted to take some activities to the streets, the way we do in Germany. To us, it is a means of democratic expression. Art is a particularly important tool of free speech. The problem was that the whole event coincided with the African Nations Cup. Entering the fair grounds on days when Egypt was playing was very difficult. It was the battle of books against football," Ebert jokes. "Of course, the books won in the end."
And Goethe was so resourceful it managed to merge football with culture. To mark the occasion of Germany hosting the World Cup in the same year, Goethe organised several football- related activities. They flew in the legendary German woman footballer Tina Theune-Meyer and a women's football team from Germany to confront the Egyptian women's national team. A Goethe bus went on a tour across Egypt, stopping at universities and schools to introduce German football expressions to Egyptian youth -- an attractive and entertaining way into the German language. And the strategy seems to have worked. The number of Egyptians taking German courses has noticeably increased in the last months. Does cultural dialogue pay off?
To its critics, cultural dialogue is a long dead concept; the term is worn out, they say, the outcome of activities vague at best. Some Egyptians are sceptical, a few see it as a Western conspiracy; in Goethe's own experience, indeed, several activities emphasised unbridgeable differences: a discussion between Islamic scholars and German academics, for example, reduced to we- are-better-than-you showdown, with the Muslims taking issue with the decline in values in Western society and the Germans slamming social fundamentalism. By the end neither side was satisfied, and neither had communicated much to the other. Is it just a question of "agreeing to disagree"?
"I think this event was nevertheless an important experience," says Ebert. "Differences have to be clear so that we can deal with them, even if at times it seems very difficult."
For Ebert, disappointments regarding cultural dialogue are due to unrealistic expectations. "We have to concede the fact that activities could never resolve political and economic conflicts -- what dialogue facilitates is an exchange of beliefs and values. It strengthens innovative groups and individuals and so diversifies and enriches a society, thus laying the groundwork for democratic structures. Look at the example of German-French relations. For years relations between these two countries had been vexed. This changed after World War II. Joint cultural initiatives have drawn the two countries closer together."
Nevertheless, the success of cultural work will always be difficult to quantify; its effectiveness is the subject of an ongoing debate, and not only in Egypt. In Germany, for example, there was a heated controversy about whether some Goethe-Institutes in Western Europe should be closed down to expand activities in the Middle and Far East. In the end Germany chose not to sacrifice Western Europe, but the argument demonstrated that as a country Germany is placing more weight on its more distant relations than before -- the Gulf states, China and particularly India. One Goethe representative has been sent to Sudan to the assess the possibility of resuming cultural work there, but the institute is also venturing into countries where it has never been, with a Goethe- Institute Liaison Office for the Gulf Region established in Abu Dhabi two years ago.
"The cultural crises that erupt every now and then show that the road of dialogue is indispensable for dealing with our different perceptions," says Ebert, who was particularly impressed by television preacher Amr Khaled's initiative in the wake of the Danish cartoons. "He realised that this conflict sprang from a gap of misunderstanding between the two sides and decided to venture into Denmark while the iron was hot to seek dialogue with the Danish people."
But did Ebert notice any changes in Egypt in the last five years? "It seems to me that there is more freedom of speech. You see more demonstrations now. Alaa El-Aswani's Yacoubian Building [a German translation of which had just appeared in Germany] symbolises that change. It is very open and deals with actual social problems."
In the end, Ebert seems content with the achievements the Goethe Institute made during his term. He is now excited about going to Russia. "It is quite a change of culture -- and climate," he laughs. There he will be responsible for the region of East Europe and Central Asia. And he will still have some contact with the Islamic world through Central Asia.
His successor is the outgoing programme director of New Delhi, Heiko Sievers. He brings his own suitcase of experiences along, but has to conform to Goethe's guidelines of course. And dialogue will go on despite Ebert's departure, uneasy though it may remain.