In Other Words

Very, Very Lost in Translation

How the Egyptian literary czar who wants to lead the world's top cultural body got caught up in his own country's rabid anti-Semitism.

To say that Farouk Hosni doesn't much like Israel is putting it lightly. According to the Anti-Defamation League, he has called it "inhuman," and "an aggressive, racist, and arrogant culture, based on robbing other people's rights and the denial of such rights." He has accused Jews of "infiltrating" world media. And in May 2008, Hosni outdid even himself, telling the Egyptian parliament that he would "burn right in front of you" any Israeli books found in the country's libraries.

What's shocking is not just that Hosni has said these things, but that he is Egypt's culture minister -- and even more scandalous, that he is the likely next head of UNESCO, the arm of the United Nations sworn to defend cultural diversity and international artistic cooperation. Less surprising but also sadly true is that Hosni's opinions about Israeli culture are par for the course among Egypt's intelligentsia, for whom 30 years of official peace with the Jewish state, the longest of any Arab country, have done virtually nothing to moderate its rampant Judeophobia. If anything, the opposite might be true.

This affair has sparked protests from prominent intellectuals and politicians in Israel and around the world. And the only reason Hosni even has a shot at the UNESCO job, which he'd be the first Arab to hold, is because, in a major reversal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently lifted his country's opposition to the Egyptian's candidacy. How this came to pass remains shrouded in mystery. All that's known is that on May 11, Netanyahu met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and was convinced not to block the culture minister's candidacy in return for some unpublicized conditions. A few weeks later, Farouk Hosni penned an apologetic article in Le Monde, retracting his statement on book burning. Soon after that, he pledged that Egypt's culture ministry would translate literary works by two Israelis, Amos Oz and David Grossman. This seemed like a significant concession because official Egyptian policy mostly bars translation from Hebrew to Arabic -- or at least any dealings with Israeli publishers.

But what appeared to be signs of positive change in Egypt's literary elite were actually just reflections of its deep-seated hostility to Jewish and Israeli culture. Hosni was quickly and widely attacked as "courting Zionist influence" by his fellow members of the Egyptian intelligentsia. In fact, Gaber Asfour, the head of Egypt's National Translation Center, immediately denied any link between the translations and Hosni's UNESCO campaign. He clarified that there would be no translation of the Israeli authors from Hebrew at all, but rather from existing European translations, so as not to have to actually deal with the Israeli rights-holders themselves. Although there are certainly a lot of books about Israel on the market in Egypt -- most of them full of conspiracy theories or tendentious views of Jewish history -- Egypt's head translator said he wanted to publish more, if not directly from the Hebrew. For his justification, he quoted an Arabic proverb: "Who knows the language of a people is safe from their evil."

This whole imbroglio only serves to highlight the Egyptian literati's generally hateful and hidebound views of Israel, which are often more virulent than those of the Egyptian public at large. To this day, Egyptian cultural figures and academics are professionally barred from contacts with Israelis. Even the faculty senate at the American University in Cairo passed a resolution urging a boycott of Israeli scholars and schools. In July, the longtime management of the Atelier du Caire, the main gathering place for the city's artists and writers, fell to a coup mounted by a group of disgruntled members; the charge was incompetence and catering to Israelis. And Egypt's greatest modern writer, the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, was nearly expelled in 2001 from the Egyptian Writers' Union simply because many of his books had been published in Israel.

Indeed, this only confirmed what Mahfouz once told me in the early 1990s: "The intellectuals who grew up under Nasser will never accept Israel," he said. "They imbibed hatred of Israel with their mothers' milk -- it is deep in their blood."

So why do Egyptian intellectuals fear Israeli influence so intensely? The constantly invoked explanation is that Egyptian intellectuals, the self-styled conscience of the country, cannot accept Israelis in the absence of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, and especially not as long as Israel "oppresses" Palestinians. Although this rationale usually includes a pro forma reference to "occupied lands" and "Israeli aggression," what most of them mean is that Israel's existence itself is the barrier to peace in the region. Few Egyptian intellectuals (unlike many ordinary Egyptians) acknowledge Israel's right to exist, and even Mahfouz, whose books and films were banned in many Arab countries because of his support of peace talks with Israel, admitted he originally did so because he realized that military victory was not likely (though he greatly admired Israel's literary culture, technology, and its democracy -- however flawed).

The Egyptian generation that has grown up under Mubarak -- who has worked for peace while often fostering resentment of Israel with his rhetoric at home -- may be just the same. Then again, most of these Egyptians are not listening to Mubarak, but are following those in the media trained under Nasser or inspired by the semi-tolerated opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in al Qaeda and beyond, even the militant Lebanese Shiites in Hezbollah.

These more extremist influences might seem to sit uneasily beside other equally popular ones. There is, for example, a lingering euphoria among Egypt's cultural elite from U.S. President Barack Obama's June 4 address in Cairo (though tempered, of course, with irritation at his references to the Holocaust and his reaffirmation of America's bonds with Israel). Seeming incongruities like this one can also be seen in the many Egyptians who mourn Michael Jackson while downloading chanted Koranic verses for their cellphone ring tones, and who watch racy clips of Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe while cheering on Hamas. But these apparent contradictions shouldn't lull anyone into thinking that the Egyptian cultural elite is thawing in terms of Israel. Indeed, the Hosni brouhaha is just the most recent demonstration of the extreme paranoia against Jews that exists in Egypt.

Should Hosni's bid to be head of UNESCO succeed, as is likely, it could obscure the truly virulent prejudice that passes for cultural understanding among the Egyptian intelligentsia. Despite his apology for offering to burn books, Hosni told the Egyptian station Dream TV in July that he will oppose normalization with Israel until "two states exist" and the "Palestinian people get their right." And whatever the United Nations decides in the end, his gut feelings about Israel and the Jews are not likely to change.


In Other Words

The Berlin Fall

Germany’s great skeptic looks back in scorn on 20 years of reunification.

On a cold winter morning in late 1989, when a young man approached Günter Grass at the central train station in Hamburg and accused Germany's most famous living writer of being a "traitor to his fatherland" (Vaterlandsverräter), he was expressing a nasty form of what was then a common sentiment. The Berlin Wall had fallen only weeks before, the reunification of the eastern and western halves of the country was on the horizon, and the public was enthused by the tides of history that finally seemed to be turning in its favor. Grass, however, wasn't just abstaining from the national celebration; he was doing his best to dampen it, arguing in speeches and articles that East Germany would do better to maintain its independence for a while, rather than rush into the arms of the West. For many Germans, this call for caution was an act of betrayal.

Twenty years later, Grass's journals from that fateful year, published in January under the title Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland (Journeys from Germany to Germany), elicit a different response. Throughout the book, Grass assumes the mantle of Cassandra, his dissenting voice opposed—or simply ignored—by a society giddily riding the crest of historic events. Today, however, Grass is no longer charged with treason when he recounts his efforts to slow the march toward reunification. Regardless of which part of the country he is in, his public readings are now accompanied by nods of recognition.

Indeed, the national consensus on reunification has met Grass's skepticism more than halfway, and it's worth noting the great distance it traveled in doing so. That reunification would be a triumph was the conventional wisdom both in Germany and abroad. With a united Germany on the horizon in March 1990, the cover of Time magazine asked, "Should the World Be Worried?" British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not hesitate to answer that question in the affirmative: In addition to her public efforts to halt reunification, she privately gathered the English-speaking world's most prominent German-history scholars to discuss how Europe should prepare for the renewed expression of Germany's war-making national character. The prevailing opinion throughout the West was that the new Germany would quickly surmount any economic hiccups and that the real challenge would lie in ensuring that the strengthened country remained cooperative on the international stage.

Enter Grass, a natural candidate to puncture those predictions. Grass won the Nobel Prize in 1999 for his work as a novelist, but in Germany he's more readily identified with a parallel career as his society's moral truth-teller, the self-styled embodiment of its national conscience. In his 50 years of public life, Grass has exposed his fellow citizens to countless jeremiads, targeting everything from militarism to acid rain, from mistreatment of immigrants to the exploitation of the working class.

Grass's literary sensibility, psychological acuity, and sensitivity to moral cant have helped him look clearly at his country's many self-delusions. His early critique of Chancellor Helmut Kohl now seems especially farsighted. In a 1990 essay, "A Bargain-Basement Deal Called East Germany," Grass argued that Kohl's government was encouraging Westerners to see the East not as a polity in need of justice but as an undervalued property to be bought low and, presumably, sold high later. Even at the time Grass was writing Journeys, evidence against Kohl was accruing: The one-to-one currency exchange that he offered won many votes from Easterners whose purchasing power suddenly multiplied, but it also multiplied the debts of Eastern industries, condemning many of them to immediate bankruptcy. As Grass notes in his journal, many Easterners quickly regretted the votes they cast for Kohl's plan, some even fatalistically pleading that they were too ignorant of the laws of capitalism and democracy to avoid succumbing to the allure of Kohl's promised shortcut.

Grass's criticism extends to Kohl's heavy-handed mechanism for codifying reunification. The West German government arranged for East Germany to be annexed under the West's existing constitution, dispensing with a reunification produced through cooperation by equal parties. Instead, the East was made to conform overnight to the West's laws, standards, and regulations. The process left no political room to articulate a defense for any positive aspect of life in East Germany, though there were plenty of arguments to be made in favor of the East's education and child-care systems and its fostering of gender equality. Grass shows a Federal Republic of Germany that is comfortable displaying nationalist swagger and materialist entitlement—a dismaying portrait.

Most of all, however, Grass bristled at the lazy triumphalism of his fellow citizens. This was not simply an aesthetic judgment. Grass was sure that the giddy public discourse cultivated in 1990 was incapable of addressing the weighty issues confronting the country. The refrain in those days was that "the train has left the station"—reunification was beyond anyone's control to stop. In a February 1990 letter to the editor of Der Spiegel, Grass pointedly asked whether anyone else had noticed the foreboding quality of the metaphor. "A train that can't be stopped, that can't respond to signals," Grass wrote, "is destined for a catastrophic accident."

Today, Germany finds itself picking through the wreckage of the accident that Grass saw coming. East Germany's landscapes have not "bloomed," as Kohl promised. Instead, its economy is stagnant, its prospects are precarious, and its mood is foul. The region is trapped in a downward spiral of residential and commercial flight westward. East Germany's shrinking cities have proven a boon not only for the urban planners charged with managing their slow-motion collapse, but also for the extremist neo-Nazi groups and neo-Communist parties that have amply recruited from their stranded populations.

It's not that the German government hasn't tried to spark the economy of its Eastern annex. For the past 20 years, West German residents have transferred about 5 percent of their annual national GDP to their fellow citizens as part of the stimulus-cum-infrastructure project dubbed "Building Up the East" (Aufbau Ost). And the infrastructure throughout the former German Democratic Republic is now indeed first-rate: The four-hour car ride from Hamburg to Berlin that Grass took in 1990 over uneven East German roads has been replaced by a 90-minute high-speed commuter rail line.

But Grass's argument that reunification was motivated by the West's desire to flip the East like a dilapidated apartment building has now become a damning truism, unwelcome as it was at the time. Indeed, the East's continued lag in economic development has less to do with the quality of the area's concrete or currency than with the country's straining solidarity. Today's East and West Germans harbor deep mutual suspicion. The stereotypes are deeply ingrained and readily conjured: "Ossis" are racist, lazy, and self-pitying, while "Wessis" are self-centered, money-obsessed, and arrogant. Statistics show that Germans from opposite sides of the former border rarely marry, and they sometimes seem to make efforts to avoid mingling socially. As the German parliamentary president admitted in 2007, "The fact of the matter is, ‘Ossis' and ‘Wessis' can't stand each other."

It shouldn't have to be this way. Easterners are fortunate that among the few symbols testifying to the potential of their region is the country's current chancellor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in Templin, a town in the countryside of the former East. Even beyond Merkel's election to the chancellorship—which for East Germans had something of the meaning that Barack Obama's election as U.S. president had for African Americans—former East Germans have more than earned the respect of their fellow citizens for their very real accomplishment 20 years ago in peacefully bringing about the end of the dictatorship, contributing to German history its only example of a successful democratic revolution.

Despite these opportunities for creating a narrative of mutual respect and reconciliation, Grass has not tempered his critique; if anything, the sold-out speaking tour he has undertaken around the two Germanys this year for the book (which Grass's publisher says has sold well for a collection of journal entries, if nothing on the scale of The Tin Drum) has reinforced the apocalyptic prophecies he made two decades ago. His only concession is that his judgments might not have been pointed enough: "Sometimes I ask myself if I should have been clearer with my criticisms," he said at a reading at a university in Munich in April. Here, Grass's judgment shows signs of being faulty: Although they accord him respect for his intellectual courage and his demonstrated prescience, few Germans are clamoring for a less restrained Grass. The country is aware that Grass's political judgment can sometimes be carried away by his moralism.

Eventually, someone will have to take the lead in fostering a conversation about reunification that moves past the black and white of Kohl's bluster and Grass's baiting, beyond the back-and-forth accusations of treason and imperialism. If Grass isn't the person to drive that train, however, he's at least the one who brought it to the station.