Rashid al-Daif brings "the German back to his Reason" and Joachim Helfer directs to him "the fatal blow"

Al Hayat

Two authors, a Lebanese and a German in an unbalanced "duel"

By Samir Dscharis (translated from Arabic by Hisham Ashkar)

In the aftermath of 9/11 events, the German project "west-east diwan", which aimed for a dialogue between German authors and their colleagues in the Arab world, Iran and Turkey, saw the light. We get knowledge of the "diwan" after several Arab authors and their German colleagues exchanged visits, and seminars were held in Cairo, Beirut, Rabat, Berlin, Munich and Stuttgart. The project, till now, gathered well known names in the Arab world (Edouard al-Kharrat, Abbas Beydoun, Rachid al-Daif, Abdallah Zreiqa, Mireille al-Tahawi … ) and less famous ones in Germany (Martin Mosebach, Michael Kleeberg, Joachim Helfer, Ulrike Draesner, Marica Bodrožic … ). And regardless some minor exceptions, we notice that all Arab participants are older -sometimes 30 years difference- than their German associates. Did the organizers found only young Germans enthusiastic enough for the project? And how can a literature dialogue be done in the absence of translated texts? On which subjects would the authors exchange their views? Answers to these questions, the Arab reader may find them in Rachid al-Daif's book "the return of the german to his reason" (Riyad el-Rayess, 2006) in which he tells about his experience in the "diwan" and his meeting with the young novelist Joachim Helfer (the homosexual).

Joachim Helfer had the opportunity to read "Dear Mr. Kawabata" in German, or "To Hell with Meryl Streep" in French, while Rachid al-Daif had to content with a chapter from one of the young German author's novels, translated into Arabic especially for the "diwan". And because the literature text was not the basis in the cultural exchange, nothing was left but interests in the person, his life, tendencies and basic instincts. That's what al-Daif wrote about in "the Return of the German to his Reason".

No doubt the book honestly tries to approach the homosexuality subject, which is still a taboo in our conservative Arab societies, and what is nice in the text is that al-Daif doesn't issue moral judgment, nor condemns, but tries to understand and to discover this totally strange world for an author whose society "celebrates masculinity and glorifies it". The Lebanese author keeps on questioning his capability in "reading" his associate, with his "alphabet" of which he knows it differs from the German's "alphabet". But what is annoying in "the Return of the German to his Reason" is the text's restrictedness, starting with the title, on Helfer's sexual tendencies, and then of the return of "reason" to him after having an intimate relationship with a female German journalist in Beirut. Although the "madness" came back to the German on his way back to Berlin, al'Daif saw in this Beirut experience "a turning point in the German author's life" and that's why he was enthusiastic to write about it. Al-Daif's text frankly discuss some widespread stereotype judgments on homosexuals in the Arab world, but, and throughout 90 pages, he didn't mention one word related to his colleague as an author and novelist, he never talked about literature or intellectual discussions they had. Joachim Helfer was reduced to "the homosexual" who had no other dimensions. It appears clearly in one of the book's scene, when al-Daif meets the Egyptian intellectual Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid in Berlin, and talks about the "diwan", and when Abu Zeid asks for the name of his associate, al-Daif answers in just two words: "homosexual author"!

The reader can't see in al-Daif's text as a frank attempt to accept Helfer as he is, but notices an overwhelming joy with "the Return of the German to his Reason", which pushes the Lebanese novelist to celebrate his colleague and prepares him a wedding dinner-party after he had met a woman. The book wasn't totally enlightening, but it was honest, and he didn't hide his prejudgment nor his society's stereotype images.

When Joachim Helfer red the translation of al-Daif's book, he decided to respond, well the book, first and last, is about his person; also sex is a main issue in both authors' writings. But the German novelist wasn't innocent at all in dealing with his Lebanese colleague's text. His intention was hypocrite, when he chose the form, in which the book was recently released to the German public under the title: "Homosexualisation of the World" by the famous Suhrkamp publishing house. Helfer didn't want to leave al-Daif's text as it is to reply on it, but divided it into paragraphs, and commented on each paragraph. He always had the final word. Was the German book -in this way- "the most serious contribution in the ethical conflict between east and west", as acknowledged the poet Joachim Sartorius in his annotation?

Starting from the first sentence, Helfer in his response uses a sarcastic tone nearly mocking his colleague, considering what al-Daif did was merely "to fulfill his task", since the project requires from participants to record their impressions and thoughts about the journey. Despite that: let us consider the book as a dialogue, or a debate, or even a duel. Among the basic rules that should be available is to give both sides an equal opportunity to talk, respond and comment. Joachim Helfer deprived al-Daif from this right. He took his text and cut it into pieces as he liked and then responded at it. Helfer's response was elaborated, usually longer than the original text, and the response mainly tended to generalize and to lecture the retardation of the "traditional" view on the "sexual identity". The German author started his conversation based on a unique reference, the European cultural reference, which Helfer believes is universal, while al-Daif's text was "open", and constantly questioning. Helfer answered in a definitive way. And his response is full of condemnations and generalizations. Rachid wrote with compassion and love, and Joachim ridiculed and taught. The book turns to an East-West conflict over homosexuality, and the attitude of "Arabs" and "Arabic culture" towards it. A subject is important, indeed, but requires a real dialogue, not lectures given with superiority from an author that doesn't leave the chance for others to respond. Helfer's text is full of contemplations and details worth to be red and discussed (unfortunately, the option of reading the book and discuss it, will not be available for the Arab reader, it's too much "daring" for our current culture to handle).

Another problem in Helfer's text is his tendency to confirm the image of the "retarded virile Arab", "the oppressor of homosexuals and women", the Arab who hates culture (the Lebanese author in Helfer's text is loathing museum visits as it makes him exhausted, as for listening to classical musical it bores him, and he only talks to his colleague about sex!) Helfer also confirms -consciously?- the image of "the anti-Semitic Arab". In one of "the return of the German to his reason" paragraph, al-Daif mentions visiting the Jewish Museum with Helfer, his colleague was hesitant, he didn't accept al-Daif's suggestion to have dinner together, then he accepted, but he went home immediately after dinner. Al-Daif explained what happened, he didn't pay attention to the fact that his colleague is in a "marital" relation which has its exigencies, and that he should have taken this issue into consideration, and the reason for his forgetting was, that an "intimate relation between two men, in my spontaneous education, should be in secret not in public" (page 60 al-Daif's book) to this paragraph, the German author replied in this way (page 145 and beyond, the German text) : truly he was disturbed that day, but the reason was al-Daif's behavior in the Jewish Museum which "thrives" from an "unbearable illiteracy". Why? Because al-Daif while he was standing in front of one of the paintings asked for the number of Jews killed during Nazi time, and when Helfer answered: 6 millions, al-Daif wondered, and asked his colleague about the number of Jews in Germany at that time. Helfer answered: around 600 thousands (in both Germany and Austria). Al-Daif found it odd to speak of 6 millions, especially that a large number of them immigrated to Israel. No doubt, that this issue particularly should be discussed thoroughly between a son of the "perpetrators generation" in Germany and one of the Arab authors who suffered Israel's wars on them. But instead of a mental argumentation, Helfer escaped to emotional images, and talked of his Jewish boyfriend and what he suffered from oppression - then he added: "if this is the historical, political consciousness (of Rachid al-Daif) it's better to talk with him, the rest of our meetings, about subjects that hurts no one , like sex!" like this, no discussion, no arguing, but accusations and a "fatal blow" directed to the Arab author in the heart of Berlin which lies underneath the heavy weight of the historical guilt towards Jews.

The question suggesting itself when someone finishes reading "Homosexualisation of the World": why the Lebanese author was content with this form? On this question, al-Daif answered, in Berlin, that he was surprised by the book being under publishing, so he accepted against his will, and the agreement was to publish the comments after the whole original text. Helfer didn't commit to the agreement, so why al-Daif accepted? And does a German author accept the publishing of his book, translated in Arabic, and being commented in this manner? And does the book in his German version really serve the "dialogue between cultures"?