Berlin, mid-1990s: The House of World Cultures (an institution dedicated to exposing residents of and visitors to the German capital to intellectual, literary, musical and artistic productions from around the world, with a special focus on non-European cultures and societies) announced a forthcoming reading of the poetry of Nizar Qabbani. The poems would be accompanied by a German translation of the recited works and music by a small oriental music group. The announcement lauded the late Syrian poet as an exponent of Arab romanticism, an advocate of women's rights and gender equality, and a courageous defender of secularism, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of intellectual and literary creativity unhampered by religious or traditional fixations. The cleverness of this publicity lay in the fact that it ran counter to the preconceptions of the Arab world that prevailed in the West at the time, because Western media was constantly bombarding its audiences with images that fed the widespread impression of an Arab world made up of suicide bombers, maltreatment of women and spreading fundamentalist fanaticism. The effect of the announcement, therefore, was to draw quite a respectable turnout of German citizens to the poetry reading, in addition to the expected audience of Arab residents in Berlin.
If memory serves me correctly, over a thousand people attended. It was certainly standing room only. And judging from outward appearances and snatches of conversation I heard before the reading, the audience featured quite a composite of social, intellectual and professional backgrounds. As the room filled, I had no inkling whatsoever of the disaster that would strike.
Before reciting his poetry, Qabbani delivered a short speech to welcome his audience. He spoke of the great esteem the Arabs have always had for Germany and German philosophers, intellectuals and poets. He also spoke of Arab admiration for how the German people managed to rebuild their society after the ravages of two world wars. Then, what followed next I still remember to the letter. He said that such was the Arabs' admiration for Germany that they rooted for the German football team in the World Cup finals and they cheered its victories as enthusiastically as they cheered the German army as it swept across Europe in World War II. This elicited a sudden outburst of groans of disgust and angry protestations, after which no less than a third of the German members of the audience left the room. Yet in spite of the evident discomfort of the German organisers of this event and the remaining audience, no one interrupted Qabbani, who completed his welcome address along the lines of the previous themes. The poet then recited several of his works, but neither the German translations, as eloquent as they were, or the delicate strains of oriental music could now persuade the remaining Germans in the room that the person who had been introduced to them as an exponent of Arab romanticism was as sensitive and broadminded as he was billed. (For how could he be if he admired Nazi crimes and the violence of the Nazi armies?)
Beirut and Cairo, Summer 2010: In Al-Hayat, political editor and columnist Hazem Saghieh commented on the scenes of celebration in Beirut by supporters of the German football team following its victory over Argentina in the World Cup finals. Many of the jubilant fans that paraded through the streets of the Lebanese capital sported Nazi flags and emblems and performed the Nazi salute, prompting the German embassy to lodge a protest with the Lebanese Foreign Ministry. Saghieh explains, "Since the end of World War II, the Germans have steadfastly purged their society and their consciences of the Nazi past. They conducted this drive at all levels, from educational curricula and cultural production to the rehabilitation of society as a whole."
I, too, was a supporter of the German team during the World Cup finals. Some of the congratulatory letters I received from friends and relatives in Cairo and quite a few of the commentaries I came across on the websites of Egyptian and Arab newspapers expressed admiration for that Nazi past, its campaign of "liquidation" of the Jews and its "sweeping victories" over the Jews and the forces that support them.
In Beirut and Cairo, the German football team fans who cheered the German victory by cheering the Nazis and their actions have no appreciation whatsoever of the depth of the German collective sense of guilt and desire to cleanse itself of a past that, in German public space, bears the headings "Nazi brutality" and "Nazi crimes against humanity". As Saghieh rightly points out, the Germans' acknowledgment of this past is frank and open, and translated institutionally in the educational system, the media, cultural and intellectual production, and in the constant refutation of Nazi beliefs and apologetics. The Arab celebrators -- who I do not suggest represent a prevailing trend in our societies -- are also blind to the racist creed that the Nazis promulgated until their defeat in World War II and that German society has come a long way to uprooting, to which testify the multiethnic and multi-faith composition of the German team that took part in the World Cup finals this year.
What Nizar Qabbani's introductory remarks at the House of World Cultures in Berlin in the mid-1990s and the way some pro-German football fans cheered the German victory in the World Cup in Beirut and Cairo in 2010 have in common is a deranged way of expressing their admiration of another (Germany) by reducing that other to a set of actions, symbols and ideas that they interpret as victory or revenge against the party that inflicts harm on the collective Arab self. That party is generalised as Jews, global Zionism, Zionist gangs and other such expressions of which there is no lack in the Arabic lexicon. The consequence of this perverse form of admiration is not to draw the object of admiration closer and win its affection but rather to alienate it and arouse its condemnation (as occurred when the German embassy protested the use of Nazi emblems in Beirut and a third of the German audience walked out on the Qabbani poetry reading). There is an equally strong tendency to reduce to the other solely to those actions, ideas and symbols that stand for that other's support for the perpetrator of collective Arab suffering and its promotion of Israeli superiority over the Arabs. Needless to say, this is essentially how a broad swathe of Arab intellectuals and laypeople read the US.
The Arabs need to take serious pause to reconsider their reductionist views of the other. In the process, they might examine the German experience in purging itself of its collective guilt for the Nazi phenomenon and its systematic dehumanisation of Jews, which paved the way to the holocaust and other horrors. The German experience in how it has since fought to eradicate the ideas, attitudes and socio-political mechanisms that foster racism might also offer the Arabs some useful lessons.