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The Arab Spring - In Dialogue: Khaled Al-Khamissi – Stefan Weidner

By Stefan Weidner

Cologne, April 26, 2011

Stefan Weidner, born in 1967, studied German literature, philosophy and Islam studies in Göttingen, Berkeley and Damaskus. He works as an author, translator, literary critic and editor-in-chief of the magazine for cultural exchange, Fikrun wa Fann

The Egyptian writer Khaled Al-Khamissi, whose novel Taxi anticipates the revolution of 25 January in literary form, and the respected author and literary critic Stefan Weidner debate the revolution on the Nile and its knock-on effects on other Arab states.

Dear Khaled Al Khamissi,

I am delighted to have the opportunity of writing to you in this way! There is so much to tell you that I hardly know where to begin.

Most of all I want to tell you about the feelings of enthusiasm and support with which I, and many of my German and Arab friends, have followed the Egyptian revolution. Your revolution was also a revolution against our prejudices and our self-satisfied complacency, that is, against the opportunism of the West in its dealings with the Arab world.

Your revolution also gave the lie to the idea that Arabs are not interested in democracy, that they willingly tolerate despotism. Such opinions after all have been much too prevalent in the media; even from people one would have believed were more intelligent: professors, historians, respected journalists. You have really shown them! Well done! And it is my belief that if the so-called "western values" are being defended by anyone nowadays then it is by the Arab peoples, who are now freeing themselves from the yoke of despots to whom the West, where it has not openly supported them, has too often and for too long turned a blind eye.

I would, therefore, be very interested to know what sort of attitude, what sort of commitment it is that Arab intellectuals, and indeed the ordinary people too, would like to see from us in the West. Objectively speaking, it is very difficult to form a clear opinion on events in which one is not directly involved and consequently to come to any serious decisions.

Take Libya for example. I, unlike the German government, was in favour of military intervention in Libya, and of the no-fly zone, and the fight against Gaddafi and his militia, from the beginning. I am convinced that he has no broad popular support and that it would be a blessing for the region were he to disappear.

The same, of course, goes for other dictators who resort to shooting their own people when any opposition to their rule arises. But what can we do? I am convinced that in order to know where we need to do something, whether it makes sense to intervene, or not, we need to work closely with you, exchange opinions, discuss matters. I no longer believe in unilateral decision-making, nor do I believe that opinions should be formed on the basis of a one-sided perspective. I do not believe that one side can do without the other.

And as I write this, today, Tuesday, 26th April, I am watching the news on al-Jazeera showing a report from Deraa in Syria, with Syrian soldiers laying siege to the city like a colonial army, just as the Ottomans did during the First World War when the Arab army of Emir Faisal liberated Deraa from Turkish rule, a story also later told by Lawrence of Arabia. But a united Arab army no longer exists and Lawrence, too, is long gone (in the latter case in particular it may be just as well!).

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are many Arab governments whose behaviour towards their own people reeks of colonialism (and the support given to most of these governments by the West supports this presumption). Your revolutions are a kind of second, and hopefully final, decolonisation. Only now, I believe, are you really bringing an end to foreign rule.

However, I do not want to talk only about politics. To be honest, I much prefer talking about literature. What an amazing coincidence that the German translation of your book "Taxi" was published in February of this year! Even though it was written earlier, it really is the book of the revolution. Why is it the book of the revolution? Because anyone who wants to find out why the Egyptians overthrew their president-dictator need only read your book. One comes to understand much more about the situation than would be possible by reading newspaper or magazine articles or watching television programmes. Your book does what all great literature has the ability to do: to explain the world to us, allowing us to see things from a perspective we had not been aware of before.

Another thing I like about it is the way it "extends" the concept of literature. I mean, in your book literature is not simply fiction – it is both fiction and documentary. It possesses many voices: not merely the voice of the author, but also those of the taxi drivers and others. The mixture of the two is what makes the book so great. But I also think that many readers, and in particular critics, make the big mistake of reading your book as if it were merely a collection of interviews with taxi drivers. I believe it also contains a great deal of you and of your own thoughts. I could also say, of your wisdom, your political insights, and your analysis.

With warmest regards to you in Cairo and looking forward to your answer.


Stefan Weidner