Helmuth A. Niederle · Austria

The asymmetry of the dialogue between Arab world and Europe


The demand is often made. The call to promote cultural dialogue in different fora in global talks is constant. Many public officials often talk about how much they do in this regard. The objective for this demand is repeated tirelessly. We need dialogue. We are told that one of the most urgent tasks is to promote dialogue between cultures especially when it comes to understanding problems such as violence in society regardless of its causes. We are also encouraged to notice that violence can increase because of cultural misunderstandings or the ineptitude to discern how best to make people not just integrate but belong wilfully. Miscommunication also occurs. For example, when stereotyping entire societies, communities and their traditions and religions is seen as normal and the reason given is the experience of contemporary organised terrorism.

No one doubts that dialogue is key for that is clear. This is particularly true in the special current situation. Every opportunity should be used to initiate and continue organised talks between Africa and Europe, and in particular between the Arab countries and the EU countries. This dialogue should spill into different activities that make cultures easier to understand and in this regard Literature is outstanding. A deep dialogue should be as a result of synergy and strategic interactions that effectively promote more than shallow curiosity about ourselves leading to mutual understanding.

Dialogue happens best when there is the provision of world views from different cultures so that others can see the complete picture or try to. Taking books that are produced in different regions seriously and juxtaposing them in reading books produced in other regions is a kind of deep touring of our psyches. This process should be progressive.

However, when one examines what really happens in this field, one cannot fail to notice that the call for dialogue is just rhetoric. One queries if a genuine desire for dialogue really exists. If it does, the issue that needs to be first and foremost clarified is how to eliminate the asymmetry that exists between the potential interlocutors. Yet one can certainly doubt the very existence of this desire to have cultural dialogues and with reason.

I quote Aminata Dramane Traoré, politician and essayist, born in Mali: “The rich countries are afraid of our presence if we cannot enrich them, they fear our otherness when it becomes evident. The new shipwrecked are useless, when they are herded together in weak boats trying to reach mainland Europe. Invisible are the desperate, who cross the hell of the desert. Undesirable are the people who are sent back in handcuffs to their home countries. But the African continent is humiliated not only by the violence to which we, the West has become accustomed. Africa is humiliated, when Europe does not want to understand what happens there. For the old confrontation here, the Europe of values and progress, an Africa of darkness and evil is no longer valid. […] We have to face the challenge and design even the future prospects by and for the people. It’s about the re-appropriation of our life projects based on our languages, our fixed orientations and familiar societal and cultural values.”

In these few lines are most of the dilemmas inherent in the so-called dialogue starkly clear. Let us choose to concentrate on just the following sentence: “Invisible are the desperate, who cross the hell of the desert…”.

These people made so invisible that their dying in the public eye is not an issue. Their constant plight of drowning in the seas does not make for a media story with any lasting dominance. Europe has other things of much greater ‘importance’ to handle.

I know my example is not without irony – their story cannot even compare to the reports on one royal child. Such royal news of birth, sickness or travel, will be repeated in almost all electronic and print media. We get all the details. When the child is born, we learn of the length and the baby’s weight, as if this were so important. These messages dominate TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. The readers are imprisoned by them. It is almost impossible for them to escape. The trend is merciless. It spills onto celebrities. Then they land on poverty in Africa as a theme sometimes and again, they become the story and the people stay on the fringes. We may appreciate the music, but then, where does the dialogue disappear to? Surely it is supposed to be a permanent story that tries and worries the globe? Surely, this is the story that should keep us awake and imprisoned in trying to work out solutions through a rich dialogue. It cannot remain a close door affair if there is to be a real dialogue. Critics frequently point out that the action is one sided.

Aimé Césaire, addressed this asymmetry, and I quote: “You told me about the progress of ‘services’ of healed diseases, far above the original level high standard of living. But I’m talking about societies that have been emptied of their history, of trampled cultures of hollowed institutions of seized land of murdered religions of annihilated Arts of extraordinary opportunities that have been suppressed. […] I’m talking about millions of people whose gods are snatched from them, their earth, their customs, their life, the life, their dance, their wisdom. I speak of millions of people who have been sent into the tremor, the genuflection, the despair, the slavery.”

It‘s hardly possible to put the loss of traditional lifestyle more clearly. The finely woven cultural and spiritual networks were destroyed and replaced by the deficient term ‘civilization’. Between the North and the South a huge gap still reigns. Just think of the huge gap in standards of living. That most of the Southern world is not heard to participate in the growth of medical solutions for which its population travels across the globe seeking for since it is unavailable in most parts of the South. Consider that those who can do that are the rich few, usually, the political, upper and middle class.

Let us focus again on Césaire’s thoughts on how cultures were destroyed. This includes the outright denial of the achievements by African peoples, which makes the contrast even more dramatic. Two historians Joseph Ki-Zerbo and Djibril Tamsir Niane describe a period prior to the introduction of slavery, before the time from the 12th to the 16th century in these words: “Never before had relations between the African peoples been so much influenced by the exchange of cultural goods. In the cities of the Niger trading books flourished. The kingdoms of Abyssinia, Borno, Hausa, Songhai and Mali developed an independent Literature with a focus on theology and history.

Who considers the assessment of the Western world or – geographically seen – of the northern hemisphere over the southern hemisphere will soon more or less see: the continent situated to the south of the Mediterranean Sea is NOT recognized rather than a collection of regions where different stages of lack of culture are to be found. This has not yet been overcome, as readily can be seen in the daily news.

The vast majority of Europeans share one opinion that these are countries without history, these lands were and are inhabited by barbarians. And this lack of insight and knowledge is not improving in the age of the Internet which also divides concerns and contacts are based on languages spoken, geographical borders etc. The walls in the mind remain. In an Austrian newspaper one could read in the 80s of the 20th century that only at gun point could Africans be forced to wear shoes. It was necessary to point the gun at them. The German officer August Bosharts formulated in 1900: “The Negro is a bloodthirsty, savage predator, who can be obtained only through the eye and the whip of the tamer. Through Bible distributions and blessings there had been nothing achieved with him. Never and nowhere“.

I can contribute to the fact that I have heard an Austrian Viennese elementary school teacher complain that an African boy in her class embodies the typical nature of Negroes. This does not only hinder the teaching or education of the boy, but is also for the development of the whole class quite harmful. The derogatory remarks about people from Arab countries are sometimes no less dramatic.



We move from such crass ignorance to throw some light on what we need in order to read and know one another better. To engage in a dialogue on an equal footing at all, two things are necessary: an open mind and heart which opens up to the economy and translates work into figures to see what kind of impact is made. Is that possible?

In education, there are resources including staff that support real education. That sounds like a truism, but whoever considers the production of German publishers, will find quite easily that the large trade publisher does not really have an interest in contemporary Arab literature. The last noise was made in 2004 in the Frankfurt Book Fair and since then, there is a silence. We find smaller publishers who seek to publish contemporary Arab literature as for example: Lenos Verlag, Union Verlag and Donata Kinzelbach, Edition Orient. A few others share in this but they are small publishing houses which face one and the same problem. While the big publishers have the opportunity to advertise in the print media or pointing by organizing venues for the authors on new releases, this is hardly possible for small publishers. Print runs are so small that they can never cover the cost production. Therefore subsidies of publishers and translators are needed. Unwittingly, we have entered a new problem area. The publishers are promoted for publication, no money is left for translations. When translators are not paid, their efforts drop into the area of hobby. But a hobby is something you can pursue if you can afford it. This means: those who can translate literary works from Arabic into German, do this only if their livelihood is secured. And there is a big difference between literary translation or interpreting a fast said sentence!

From what has been said it follows that publications of Arabic literature are niche products. This now requires targeted support for the translators and they must find a publisher who is willing to bring out a book that has little chance on the market. This leads most publishers or program managers to refrain from publishing these products.

The dismissive remark of many publishers, “why should I publish a book that if never done, the translator would not have been promoted?” probably rings in the ears of all translators, who deal with literature that is not attributable to the mainstream. Apart from the stigma of low interest of German readers for Arabic Fiction in translation, poetry does not find its way more easily to readers. It is even more complicated. Numerous poetic images are completely inaccessible to the reader or these images mean something very different in the originating culture from the target language. Not quite disregarded should be the special development of literature within the German-speaking countries, deep traces of the Shoah and Holocaust still have a very strong impact: a distrust of the stability of the language has remained. Summarized with one sentence: the prevailing language is the language of the rulers that has to be smashed because it is an instrument of oppression. To identify related ideas in Arabic, which correspond to the considerations in German-speaking countries, is almost impossible. Arab experimental literature in translation is very difficult, if at all, to be found. No one will reasonably have believed that this dialogue is conducive in any way. On the contrary.

Ibrahim Farghali, writer and cultural journalist who was invited in 2004 as a town clerk to Stuttgart, came to the following findings in matters of dialogue: “I have long perceived the decisions of juries and publishers in good faith and with special appreciation for those institutions in the West, who strive for the translation of a world not particularly popular literature. But now, I get but the question of whether it really is an interest that Arabic literature is transferred into foreign languages; and whether the quoted prices of the dissemination of Arabic literature on the language boundaries are actually relevant. And I fear that the answer to both questions is clear and distinct “no”. Because much of what is today awarded and received in the West as Arabic literature, is not an adequate level of literary production in the Arab world. And in the meantime it is not anticipated that this situation will change – with one of the most serious problems being that there are no institutions on the Arab side that systematically and energetically support the translation and distribution of our literature“.

In his criticism lies not only the asking allegation whether there is indeed an interest in Arabic literature. One would have fairly to add that it does not exist these “Arabic literature”. The differences between the Maghreb and the Gulf region are considerable. Only in the awareness of the average citizen educated in Germany and in Austria and Switzerland, do these cultural differences not exist. The traditional Orientalist stereotypes make no distinction between culturally inaccessible desert states such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is just a projection surface, of age-old civilizations such as Egypt or of the Francophonie countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

The Arab world seems to be a fairly uniform geographic region, backwardness, violence (within the company and in particularly for women and beyond to non-Muslims groups) are common. Traditionalism is predominant. These stereotypes are reinforced by the war coverage in the media, pictures of the suffering of refugees in the news and political leaders, who are represented as power-hungry despots in headlines.

The second accusation that Ibrahim Farghali raises, is, in the West the essential Arabic literature is not published and he mentions names he considers to be important: the Tunisian Slaheddine Boujah, the Kuwaiti Ismail Fahd Ismail, the Algerian Tahir Wattar, the Syrian Kurdish author Maha Hassan, the Egyptian authors Youssef Rakha, Nael El-Toukhy, Tariq Imam and Sad Makkawi. It can be ascertained that since the publication of the article not a single book by any of these authors was published in translation in German. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung is one of the most influential daily papers in the German speking countries. So when articles in this periodical move nothing, you need not worry any more about the influence of smaller magazines. You do not reach the general public, more than an insider group whose members jointly lament the lack of discourse capable material. In the attribution made by Ibrahim Farghali he also referred to Mustafa Zikri, from a book published in 2004. The newspaper article in the NZZ was unable to increase interest in his work.

Since 1983, the Kritische Lexikon zur fremdsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur [Critical Lexicon for contemporary Literature in foreign-languages] is published. The articles are listed according to the alphabetical order of the authors. The articles are divided into biography, essay and bibliography. The biographies provide an overview of the life and literary awards of the authors. In detailed essays the individual works of each writer are thoroughly analysed and evaluated for their business relationships and poetological basics. The extensive bibliographic information recorded all original editions and all translations into German and the most important secondary literature. Currently about 650 articles are based on the original language work and reflect the writer’s respective cultural and social backgrounds. In addition, introductory articles about the literature of individual countries provide an overview of the history of world literature in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Lexicon has reached 15,000 pages, but only authors are listed, whose works have been published, at least partially, in German. It is therefore not possible to use this lexicon as a basis to search for clues as to whether one or the other work of an Arab author has been translated into another European language, which is an art.

What has been said should not create the impression that nothing has been translated into German or is on its way to be translated. Besides the older literary voices such Nawal El-Saadawi, the Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfouz, Sahar Khalifa, Assia Djebar, Ghassan Kanafani, Adonis, Fuad Rifka, Fatima Mernissi, Suleman Taufiq and Mahmoud Darwish, to name but a few, younger authors like the Egyptian Miral al-Tahawi have indeed been translated into German. My aim is to point out and lament, as already pointed out, the lack of continuity of which it set itself the objective of any collection of literature, to be as complete as possible. To translate the literary work in a continuous tradition and to include information on those parts that need adequate and competent footnoting, because otherwise, they cannot be understood by those who lack proper knowledge of the historical and socio-cultural background. Our aim is to complain that a generation of contemporaries are not published side by side since some are left out. If that were done, it would facilitate the understanding of individual historical phases significantly.

To clarify let us have a look at some figures, as it is with the orders of magnitude in book production. One must start from the assumption that some 100,000 new books per year are produced for the German-speaking market. For Germany, some key figures:

The total number of books published in Germany in 2014 was significantly lower than in 2013. Summing up initial and editions together, then 87,134 items are put on the market – the lowest level in a decade. In 2013 there were 93,600 titles. Most novelties (= first editions) went back in 2014 to the account of Fiction, which contributed 19.1 percent of total production, which are all in all 14,111 titles (2013: 15,610 titles). Number 2, the German language literature, which will be shown separately traditionally follows (although it is likely to be some overlap) and, unlike the purely fiction category, bundles among other literary titles. It provides with 10,487 titles accounting for 14.2 percent.

In this context the proportion of translations is interesting:

In 2014 10,812 works from other languages were translated into German or were relaunched. That is 750 less than in 2013. The proportion of translating books (first and reissues) of the total number is 12.4 percent. Native languages of translations 2014: English (6,527 titles), French (1,008 titles), Japanese (673 titles), Swedish (283 titles) and Italian (280 titles). The translations from other languages (from Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and the countless so-called minor languages) are significantly lower.

In Austria, whose population accounts for about one tenth of the population of Germany, in 2009 10.253 new publications were registered in the Austrian bibliography of the year, of which 9,449 with a location in Austria in the first place (9,449 Austrian and 804 non-Austrian titles, which is a distribution of 92.16 percent to 7.84 percent yields). What is interesting is the share of translations. Consider the figures for 2008: There 527 translations from 30 languages have been counted, the languages of origin are as follows: English: 65.84 percent; French: 7.59 percent; Swedish: 4.74 percent; Spanish: 3.61 per cent and 26 remaining languages: 18.22 percent.

This makes it clear for a dialogue which could lead to a beginning, the translated books are missing. And if readers think all important and most discussion-determining books will be or are anyway translated into German, then this may be true for the English-speaking world, but can already not be said for the French-speaking world and then in all other languages it does not apply at all. It‘s getting worse. I dare say essential books, not only from Arabic, but also from the numerous Indian and African languages reach the German readers and speakers only in exceptional cases.

Let‘s have a look at the statistics again. Around 105 million people in the world speak German as their mother tongue. Worldwide 185 million people speak German. German ranks in tenth place among the most widely spoken languages in the world.

Worldwide over 300 million people understand Arabic, for 240 million, it is the Mother Tongue. Arabic is the official language in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Eritrea, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Comoros, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Chad, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Western Sahara. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

The literature of around 206 million people reaches the German-speaking world by chance. This is negative. I would be inclined to speak of a tiny trickle that continuously runs the risk of drying out.

Translation should be a two-way street. How many German-language books have been translated into Arabic? The in 2012 published study Kultur und literarische Übersetzung – Eine Wechselbeziehung [Culture and Literary Translation – A Correlation] by Peter Krois identifies the following numbers:

For the period from the mid-1970s to 1980, 12 works have been translated into Arabic, three by Bertold Brecht and two by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Over the next decade, there were 41 works, of which four by Goethe, three by Friedrich von Schiller and each time two written by Brecht, Franz Grillparzer, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hermann Hesse. From 1990 to 2000 there were published 49 works, including five by Hesse. For the years since 2000 Franz Kafka led with four followed by Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig with three translations. As the new millennium starts from the assumption that 330 books per year are translated into Arabic. This includes all languages and refers not only to the German-speaking countries. This corresponds to about one-fifth of the number of books that are translated into Greek yearly. In Spain there is per year the same number of books translated as during the last 1,000 years into Arabic.

When the distribution systems would work in a large area of Arabic countries, in which a common written language is used, translations into Arabic could sell. Even worse is the situation for literature and translations only in sub-Saharan countries.

The Arab Human Development Report 2005 identifies three problem areas for the Arab world: isolation from the free exchange of ideas, lack of political freedom and oppression of women. In serious literature these are exactly the main topics.

To support the critical and literary voices in Arabic countries, Europe has to face a moral obligation to: It can publish books that fall victim to censorship in many Arab countries. But it is not only censorship that bothers the authors. A native of Oman Author Hussain al-Abri said: “I imagine that in the head of each writer there is a guard sitting, which prevents him from writing about certain subjects – subjects about which one is silent in our country.” Self-censorship. He lists as taboo subjects violation of religious feelings, the questioning of the unity of the country, and criticism of the Sultan. Sometimes the restriction of artistic freedom is greater by society than by the state. He cites writing about an illegitimate love affair. Before the law that would not be a problem at all, but the social ostracism would drive him into ruin. A similar argument applies for other literary themes.

How great the fear in quite a number of Arab states against the literature, the free word is, shows the lists that are published twice a year by the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. It is not the place and not my talk about these numbers. Therefore, only this: Even the work of these dissidents is fragmentary known in translation and often outweighs the political statement so that aesthetic standards are not likely to apply. But the commitment of fellow writers in the West or the North for persecuted writers is not a dialogue, but an important, even necessary practical solidarity.



What to do? A master plan of cultural initiative that transmits literature is a good place to begin. Literature, which corresponds to the standards to which art should be measured and not books that have been selected in view of market conformity.

It is not too difficult to determine which books belong in the canon of a society, a culture, a community. This could be financed by the EU, as well as by the OPEC and by UNESCO. Besides the printed editions, which have to be so inexpensive that they can be purchased by people whose purchasing power is limited for books. Such books would, moreover, as much as possible, be integrated into the syllabus and set up in the school libraries. As virtual library books they should be available so that access to literature, both here and in the Mediterranean can easily take place. If you wish, this could be a kind of Marshall Plan for the dissemination of literature.

The fact that such initiatives should not only be applied to the Arab world, but also for sub-Saharan Africa or developing the Indian sub-continent and other regions, is obvious. The translation into Arabic of the classic German authors: Goethe, Grillparzer and Schiller in the 20th and the 21st century is meritorious, but the discourse in the German-speaking countries is now somewhere else. Classical German literature is only partly felt of powerful effect. It is part of the syllabus in our countries, but very few people read it, when they do not have to read it. There is a domination on the book market of bestsellers and they have very often little in common what we name literature.

A native of Algeria, author and specialist in francophone studies, Zohra Bouchentouf-Siagh, found in Austria a new home. She said in her speech in Fresach 2015 on the occasion of the International Tolerance Conversations: “When I see the images of starving and thirsty refugees on the oceans to which someone throws ridiculous food packages from helicopters and simultaneously it is prohibited that they go ashore, then my mind can‘t bear it. The terms “zero tolerance” and “selective immigration” stem from a political rhetoric that Herbert Marcuse called in 1964 as the “universe of closed language”, to which the “One-Dimensional Man” is exposed. “Zero tolerance” is nothing more than “intolerance” – and suddenly it returns in the “Newspeak” of George Orwell (“1984”), in which a term means its opposite. If one wants to question the term “tolerance” overused by certain politicians and takes it too seriously to examine the hidden meaning to a semantic analysis, I’m sure, we would encounter a large shadowy realm of the unsaid, yes on wayward, irrational fears. Therefore my “respect” as the meaningful phrase appears. Respect towards others – neighbours or strangers – compared with their culture, the exercise of their religion, their clothes, respect for their skin colour. This word balks at the semantic monster birth: there is no “zero respect” “.

If we do not want the mindtaking “Newspeak”, we need dialogue. Not the asymmetric one, we need one which is built on respect, which strives for knowledge in order to strengthen the humanity.

Europe has to choose her priorities and commitments more carefully then. Has to choose where money for printing news is going and what returns, there will be if cultural dialogue is not treated like royalty. If we shun the warning voices of Cesaire, Traoré and others who were hardly studied before they were shunted aside despite their loud relevance today. [1]

[1] Sources: Aminata Traoré im Gespräch mit Letizia Cravetto am 2.4.2008 in Paris; Aimé Césaire (1968): Über den Kolonialismus (Discours sur le colonialisme, 1955) Berlin Wagenbach.; Ki-Zerbo, Joseph/ Niane, Djibril Tamsir (1991), Histoire générale de l‘Afrique, IV, L‘Afrique du XIIe du XVPe siècle, Paris, Présence africaine/Edicef/Unseco; Ibrahim Farghali: Die arabische Literatur hat mehr zu bieten. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 20. 08. 2012; Peter Krois: Kultur und literarische Übersetzung – Eine Wechselbeziehung. Österreichische und syrisch-arabische Kontextualisierung von Kurzgeschichten Zakariyya Tamirs. Wien-Berlin, LIT Verlag. 2012; Hussain al-Abri: Grenzen der Meinungsfreiheit. In. Neue Zürcher Zeitung. 29. 12. 2010; Zohra Bouchentouf-Siagh (2016): Positionen einer “dekolonialen” Moderne im afrikanischen Denken der Gegenwart. In: Wie weit geht Toleranz? Wie weit geht Europa? hg. von Helmuth A. Niederle. edition pen im Löcker Verlag. Wien 2016.