Amal al-Juburi has big plans to revive Baghdad’s battered cultural life. The Iraqi national, who sought asylum in Germany in the 90s, plans to open a German school and a center for East-West dialogue.
In an orphanage in the heart of bombed-out Baghdad, 21 Iraqi girls between the ages of six and eight struggle with their first German sentence: "Mein Name ist... (My name is)." It isn’t easy, the foreign words sound even more alien in the incongruous surroundings.
But Amal al-Juburi is convinced they’ll pick up fast enough to be students at the first German school in the Iraqi capital, slated to open early next year. Voluntary German literature students will serve as teachers to start with.
An Iraqi translator and poet, Al-Juburi has a practical explanation for wanting to open a German school in Baghdad. "We don’t have a German school here though thousands of Iraqi families, most of whom seek political asylum, live in Germany," she said. "Most of them have children in German schools there. But now when they come back, they have to find a German school."
East-West dialogue on a divan
But a German school isn’t the only project on Al-Juburi’s ambitious agenda.
A former political asylum-seeker in Germany herself in 1997, a year ago Al-Juburi founded the German-Arabian cultural institute, "West-Eastern Divan" in Berlin. The aim was to promote meetings between German writers and counterparts from Arab countries, Iran and Turkey and in turn an understanding of Middle Eastern literature in Germany and vice versa. The institute also publishes a literary journal twice yearly in Arabic and German.
But the collapse of the Saddam regime got Al-Juburi thinking of what once would have been considered impossible. "After the fall of the regime, we wondered in the West-Eastern Divan in Berlin about what we could do," said the 36-year-old. "And it was always my dream that Baghdad should be the headquarters of the institute in the Arab countries."
Hunt for the right house
Shortly after U.S. troops moved into Baghdad after ousting Saddam, Amal Al-Juburi went back to Baghdad, for the first time in six years, to scout around for appropriate accommodation to house her cultural projects.
War, and not just the recent one, had destroyed many of the houses in the Iraqi capital. But Al-Juburi discovered a few relatively intact villas built at the beginning of the 20th century on the centrally-located Haifa street. She rented two – complete with verandas and terraces overlooking a courtyard -- from the city administration.
The German Foreign Ministry gave Al-Juburi €40,000 from a special Iraq fund to restore the two villas, whose walls and ceiling are leaking and in need of urgent repair.
Orient and Occident under the same roof
One of the houses, which will be called "Orient" will house the German school as well as a German library. Amal al-Juburi hopes that the Goethe Institut, Germany’s leading language and culture institute, which still hasn’t got its own building in Baghdad, might move in too. "They’ve shown a huge interest. That’s why we’ve already reserved a room and an office for them under the "Divan" umbrella."
The other villa, "Occident" will house Iraqi intellectuals. "We mainly want to concentrate on Iraqi intellectuals, who suffered under the regime, who remained here," Al-Juburi explained. "They need help. I think they’ve earned it. We want to publish their books."
A printing press has already been promised to the West-Eastern Divan from Germany as a donation.
The indefatigable woman hopes to renovate the two villas by February next year and to invite German intellectuals such as vocal Iraq-war opponent and author Günther Grass and maybe even war supporter and writer Hans Enzensberger for the opening.
"Those who know themselves and others will recognize here that Orient and Occident cannot be separated anymore," said Amal al-Juburi.