"The first thing I saw when I came out of the airport in Stuttgart, on the other hand, was an old, single-line tramway very reminiscent of the Alexandria tram. That was shot number one. It was a deeply heartening start"
parent page (21 - 27 October 2004, issue #713
Two of the world's greatest automobile factories and a penchant for order give Stuttgart a reputation much like Domiat's; so Ibrahim Farghali, 37, found out during a month-long stay in "one of Germany's more remarkable cities". Its industrial superiority notwithstanding, Stuttgart is stereotyped in much the same way as its Nile Delta counterpart, he says: a small, spotless town supposedly inhabited by a conservative coterie of rich people who contrive to work more and spend less than their average compatriot. Partly as a consequence, he goes on, few Germans think to visit that "circle of habitable hills with a rebuilt centre, so quiet it drives you crazy at first".
But while Domiati traits like pathological cleanliness, hard work and widespread wealth are all there, according to this observant non-German, at least, there is neither miserliness nor conservatism. Many of the stereotypes traditionally ascribed to the Germanic race -- stoutly built, butch women, for example -- are applied unthinkingly to this "most typical of German cities", yet having engaged with social and, Farghali emphasises, personal life in the birthplace of Mercedes, he insists that, all things considered, nothing could be further from the truth. "The women are very petite," he breathes, "and remarkably aware of their femininity..."
Truth being akin to beauty, however, it may not be unfair to suggest that the beholder in this case had a favourably predisposed eye from the start. Of Egypt's five participants in the Goethe Institute's Internet-based initiative, Midad (in Arabic the word means not only "ink" but any kind of refill), Farghali was the one selected for participation in the exchange programme Ruwat Al-Mudun (City Narrators), an opportunity for younger German and Arab writers to spend time in a foreign (respectively Arab or German) city, sharing a daily journal of their impressions and reflections on the Internet. (Midad also endeavours to introduce some 70 Arab authors to German Web surfers, while providing a full bibliography of German literature in Arabic translation.)
Farghali was eager to embark on the project, he explains, because it offered both "a potentially life-changing encounter" and a methodological challenge. "Once you arrive at your surrogate city, you really have to produce every day," he points out. "I was interested to find out what would happen when I wrote under the pressure of time and the pressure of first impressions. And it really was very rewarding, on both the technical and human levels. I've been saying since my last few days there, I am no longer the person who arrived in Stuttgart. And it fascinates me how varied in style my texts are, when I read them now, how much the style changes from one day to the next." Nor can bias explain away the relish with which Farghali embraced the experience; he speaks of Stuttgart with the love of, if not a devoted native son, then a stranger who sought -- and found -- an intimacy.
Indeed one wonders whether he would have responded so positively had he been stationed elsewhere in Germany. "Stuttgart must be the smallest of the cities on the programme," Farghali says, "and it's really very beautiful. Only on the depression, the hollow bit that was destroyed in the Second World War, do you see modern architecture as such. In a way it's the quintessential German town, yet no German city is like it, I'm told. And the two cities I did see -- they're very different, much less German in their way. Berlin, which I visited for three days while there -- I did two three-day trips, the other to the Black Forest, and those were the only days on which I didn't write, promptly, come hell or high water, before going to sleep -- well, bits of it are reminiscent of the Gulf, Dubai; other bits recall Nasr City and various parts of Cairo. There are beggars on the streets, dirt and cosmopolitanism. Frankfurt is all spiritless skyscrapers and modern urban planning -- a cold, grim prospect.
"The first thing I saw when I came out of the airport in Stuttgart, on the other hand, was an old, single-line tramway very reminiscent of the Alexandria tram. That was shot number one. It was a deeply heartening start. In Stuttgart there are very few bikes; I guess one of the things you could say about the city is that everyone there owns a car. The municipality takes pride in the streets and so there is very little disorder or dirt; yet somehow there was this incredibly familiar feeling about it. When my brief stay in Berlin was over and I was on my way back to the kunstiftung (art house) where I stayed, it felt exactly like going home," he smiles. "That's how familiar 'living' there became."
Another piece of evidence suggesting that Farghali's assessment is unbiased: the journal, 13 entries of which have been published in Arabic and German at www.goethe.de/midad (the process of translation and posting, he explains, was interrupted by the Frankfurt Book Fair), is unlike anything the writer has produced, whether as a journalist or one the Nineties' prominent voices. Aside from variations in style, the entries display an accessible vitality, a willingness to experiment, that defies categorisation. Farghali is eager to emphasise the fact that, "apart from the censorship one exercises against oneself, one of the most rewarding aspects of this project is that the texts go straight to the site, there is no intervention of any kind", but it is equally the lack of literary mediation, the spontaneity of Farghali's responses to Stuttgart and the almost Proustian momentum they gather as they gradually integrate into a whole, that gives credence to the notion of a daily journal written under unusual constraints, with no time for revision or rewriting.
"They drew up a cultural programme for me," Farghali elaborates, "but I devised my own social programme as well, associating with people who had nothing to do with the project in order to watch a football game, for example, or attend the beer festival. This allowed me to observe society from within, as it were. I was often late coming home at night, but I never fell asleep before writing. And it's interesting to watch how my responses progressed from genuine surprise to an increasingly intimate familiarity. Some texts, like the one I wrote after visiting Herman Hesse's house in Calv, 50 km away from Stuttgart, are rather more evocative than descriptive, in the sense that, even though I saw and registered a lot, I described very little of what I saw, attempting to evoke the state it inspired in me instead."
On more than one occasion contact with individuals proved more significant than sense of place. Some days taught Farghali something about the difference between "Arab" and "Western" culture; others acted to reveal a hitherto hidden aspect of the self: "Over here we daily re-enact a set of lies about ourselves; our sense of humour, our kindness -- qualities that we don't normally associate with Germans. Yet the friends I made in Stuttgart, though not as clownish as most Egyptians, were extremely funny people whose sense of humour I had no difficulty appreciating. More generally, I realised how much we hate each other here in Egypt; Germans treat each other with such consideration, such delicacy; there is just so much sincerity and affection and fellow feeling among them."
Significantly, the experience facilitated the dissolution of predetermined frameworks of perception -- not only of Stuttgart -- a process that spoke to Midad's very raison d'être, and to which the journal bears as much testimony as Farghali's reports. The writer's prejudices against a Western country gave way before the realities through which he lived: "I'd always thought of Germans as cold, but I encountered such warmth in the people I met I felt almost ashamed of myself. I asked to visit the Porsche plant, mainly to see if the claim that Germans are uncreative, very square people," Farghali used the English word, "was justified. I went straight to the design department expecting to see lots of foreigners, since Germans as I imagined them could not be expected to develop such stunning new designs -- everyone was German. The square, conservative, cold, mean stereotype is certainly something of which Germans of my generation seem aware, they make fun of it all the time. So perhaps it did exist at some point in recent history, since it stays alive in the collective memory. But one thing I learned in Stuttgart is to what extent it has been transcended."
Conversely, Farghali often had to "sit down and slowly explain the difference between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia". To the average German, he reports, the Arab world remains a largely undifferentiated mass, a uniform space in which a woman's appearance on the street, for example, is always the same no matter which part of it you happen to be in. "The thought of a Lebanese woman wearing a mini skirt was staggering," he says. "I had to tell them that the sight of a camel was a very, very infrequent occurrence in Cairo. They were the ones who had camels, in a sense, not us." The them-and-us discourse plays but an insignificant role in the outlook of this all but apolitical writer, however, and difference seems to have figured only marginally in his inward journey of discovery.
He even took his cue from Jose Oliver, the first (German) participant in the nascent version of Ruwat Al-Mudun (the project was as yet one-sided, with only Germans in Arab cities), and the acquaintance who first tipped him off regarding his being selected. Overwhelmed by Cairo, Oliver had decided to write about himself in Cairo rather than the city per se -- a strategy that caused an uproar in the German press, with journalists accusing him of revealing, not the city, but his ego. The misfortune proved propitious, Farghali says, in that it drew attention to the project as a whole. "But I had to seek a balance between journalism and literature," he adds, "with Jose's experience at the back of my mind." The entries had to be accessible and positive, while at the same time conveying Farghali's unique literary standpoint -- that striking combination of verisimilitude and fantasy on which rests his reputation as one of the more promising contributors to the gradual rise of a home-grown magic realism -- perhaps the next major development in the modern Arabic novel.
Farghali's magic realism relies on neither Latin American sources nor local, "provincial" mythology, but rather, simply, on receptiveness to the irrational and "increasingly unbelievable" to the possibilities of life in an urban setting. In Stuttgart there was no need to consciously incorporate the incredible into the fabric of a documentary text, he implies, since the complex and often euphoric process of coming to terms with cultural difference provided a sufficiently absorbing pursuit in itself. An effective understanding of such difference, Farghali suggests with no ideological agenda in mind, may well be the key to social development at home. The experience has left him a changed man, he insists, "but not to the extent of directly interfering with ongoing literary projects", and certainly not to the extent of altering the course of his writing altogether.
A new stylistic proficiency is one obvious benefit, but the more lasting effect has more to do with a deeper, more complicated sense of self, at both the individual and collective levels. In broaching the nightlife and socio-sexual arrangements of Germany -- "male couples, female couples", for example -- Farghali noted that, "while we have the same things here, we tend to be hush- hush about them, whereas there everything is out in the open"; he cherished the transparency, which renders life "less laboured, less repressed and ultimately less oppressed". Yet it was the elevator in the literaturhöus (house of literature) in which he reported on arriving in Stuttgart that Farghali found most impressive: "The contraption was in continuous motion, it never stopped. You had to position yourself precisely and basically jump in or out at just the right moment, in order to waste no time. If you fail to be in the elevator when you need to, it doesn't stop for you, you can't summon it back. It keeps going."
AL AHRAM WEEKLI 21 - 27 October 2004
Issue No. 713