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Goodbye Goethe

November 23, 2009

The Iraqi German scholar Muthanna Al-Bazzaz loves the German language. But when he was able to return to Germany after a 30-year hiatus, he couldn't quite trust his ears: Which language was everyone speaking?

Wooden letters
Al-Bazzaz says Germans should take better care of their languageImage: Illuscope

Old and young, they all angrily weep:

"Here I'm not German, here I'm not allowed to be,

Here I have no language, and that's not at all fine with me!"

You'll have to excuse my rather loose appropriation of these lines from Germany's most famous poet (Goethe), but what can I say? Who can understand what it's like for a people so dear to me to neglect their language enough that it almost makes my heart bleed?

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Understanding Germany's literary greats, like Goethe, is essential to preserving its culture, says Al-BazzazImage: ullstein bild - Paul Hauke

I love the German language - after all, I grew up in Germany and lived and studied there for over fifteen years. I still have many German friends, and I have even been able to maintain these contacts despite being unable to visit the country for 30 years. The wars in Iraq, embargo and occupation prevented me from returning. When I got the chance to come back to Germany last year, I took it - and there was a big reunion. Even though we had all grown older, I still felt as though we had never separated from one another.

A reunion and a spiritual defeat

In terms of the language, though, the trip represented a kind of spiritual defeat for me. Lately, Germany speaks and thinks "globally." Anglicisms and "Denglish," combinations of German and English, are considered modern, and people who think of themselves as intellectuals make sure to spout a few English phrases. For instance, nothing "hat Sinn" ("has sense"); instead, as in English, things "macht Sinn" ("make sense"). I could hardly understand the young people on the street, and for papers like Spiegel or Die Welt, I practically needed a German-English dictionary. In the stores, people talk about "sales" and "service," the coffee is served "to go," and lunch is available "to take away. Poor Germany!

What should I tell my students at the University of Baghdad when they ask me about the significance of the German language? In Germany, the language doesn't seem particularly important anymore. But how can young people learn German in other countries if Germans don't even preserve their own language?

From Kant to Siemens

Muhanna Al-Bazzaz
For three decades, Al-Bazzaz was prevented from coming to Germany

Traditionally, the German language and people are highly regarded in Iraq. Young intellectuals are often very taken with German philosophers and writers. Those who consider themselves serious scholars often study the texts of Kant, Luther, Marx, Engels, Nietzsche, Lessing and Goethe - all the way up to Boell and Grass. Literature isn't the only German export that's in good standing here, though. Brands like Daimler, Siemens and Bosch also have good reputations. Many of my students hope that German companies will finally begin investing in Iraq once again, and some hope for a job at one of them.

Prior to the war, there were more than 700 students enrolled in the German department at the University of Baghdad, including students taking early morning or night courses. Today, we only have around 150 German students. However, the drop in students doesn't reflect a loss of interest in the German language. Instead, it shows how difficult the war has made every part of our lives. Attending night courses is too dangerous due to a security situation that remains precarious. Furthermore, many parents are no longer in a position to finance their children's studies. Their sons and daughters have to contribute to the family income.

I hope that more young people in Iraq will once again study and learn the beautiful German language. But I especially hope that Germans will do something about their language. If the coming generations can no longer understand Goethe and Schiller, then Germany can say farewell to its language, culture and history.

Muthanna Al-Bazzaz, born 1951, teaches German at the University of Baghdad and is the head translator at the German Embassy.


Editor: Kate Bowen