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Najem Wali irakischer Schriftsteller
Image: Imago/Sven Simon

Iraqi author Najem Wali on the role of Arabic intellectuals

Interview: Sabine Peschel / eg
November 24, 2015

The Iraqi writer and journalist discusses with DW about the responsibility of intellectuals in the Arab world and the inspiration for his books, explaining why the poet Adonis does not deserve a peace prize at all.


Born in 1956 in the town of Basra in Iraq, writer and journalist Najem Wali fled the country in 1980 after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. He has been living in Germany for 30 years, first in Hamburg, and now in Berlin, where he freelances for major Arabic and German newspapers. His novel "Baghdad Marlboro," which portrays the Iraqis' collective trauma, won the Bruno-Kreisky Prize for a Political Book in 2014.

DW: Were the Paris attacks against our European, Western values?

Najem Wali: No, they were acts of terrorism against humanity, against universal human values.

Does the 14-century old dispute between Arabs and Persians still determine the fate of people in the Middle East?

The dispute between Shiites and Sunnis has become highly instrumentalized, but the majority of Muslims are not involved in it. Still, the Middle East hasn't found its place in civilization - it seems to stand outside of history. It is incredible that in the 21st century, we are still discussing there whether a woman can drive a car or not.

How can we strengthen the powers of moderates who want to develop a future without fighting?

Copyright: DW/R. Mokbel
The goals of the Arab Spring were deviated by religious powers, claims Najem WaliImage: DW/R. Mokbel

This is the task of the intellectuals in the Arab world. It is our job enlighten the population. However, it is difficult to publish anything in Arabic because all media outlets are controlled by petrodollars. With perhaps two exceptions, I cannot write anything criticizing Saudi Arabia or Qatar in any Arab newspaper. All television channels and all the papers are in the hands of those two countries. But I will not give up: I publish articles online, and they are read by many young people interested in seeing change. Still, we have a long fight ahead of us.

What is left of the goals of the younger generation that was out protesting four years ago?

Saudi Arabia has robbed the revolution of its meaning. The Arab Spring began spontaneously in Tunisia with people taking to the streets. But Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were paying attention because they didn't want it to spread further.

When young people were demonstrating on Tahrir Square in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood suddenly invaded the country, a movement initially financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Doctors with beards distributed water bottles and free food. They turned the revolution to their advantage.

When young people in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets, they didn't have an ideological agenda. They wanted to reclaim dignity, new perspectives, freedom and human rights. They weren't interested in religion and the conflict with Israel. They were simply protesting for things that youth are interested in. They wanted to end corruption.

For these young people, it's a desperate struggle, but I don't think they've given up. No matter what happens, we'll see new waves of protests, such as those that have gone every Friday since July 30. They aren't launched by the mosques. To the contrary: they are demonstrating against religion. The first slogan that emerged in these protests was: "The thieves have robbed us in the name of religion," a slogan which rhymes in Iraqi. This shows that they've had enough of religious parties.

You once wrote that you broke your ties with Baghdad for decades. Now you've written a nonfiction book, "Bagdad: Erinnerungen an eine Weltstadt" (Baghdad: Memories of a World City), released in August 2015. What took you back to the Iraqi capital?

In 2004, I went back to Iraq for the first time after 23 years to see my parents. My mother showed me old postcards she'd found in my grandmother's trunk. She cried because the cards reminded her of her youth. My father had sent them from Baghdad, where he worked while we were living in Amarah, about 400 kilometers southeast of the city. I could still remember when those beautiful postcards came. My mother would always show them to me.

Last year, when my novel "Baghdad Marlboro" came out, I wanted to do something new. At the same time, I felt the urge to deal with Baghdad once last time. Then I remembered the postcards and thought of all the details associated with them. It started a whole movie in my head.

I also wanted to give back something beautiful to the people of Baghdad. They love their city. Every day a car bomb explodes somewhere there, but people still hang on to this city - just like I hung on to my first love. I wanted to show how the city used to be and how it lives on in people's imagination. Baghdad is a place of longing, even for people in the West. That might come from "1,001 Nights." It is perhaps the only city in the world that remains forever in the imagination and in the minds of people. I also love this city, so I wanted to contribute something to this.

Your book "Baghdad Marlboro -Novel for Bradley Manning" won the Bruno Kreisky Prize for the Political Book in 2014. What is the title about?

"Baghdad" and "Marlboro" are cigarette brands. The book is about an American prisoner of war and his Iraqi captor. The two soldiers are alone at night in the desert. The Iraqi happens to be a poet, and they both quote Walt Whitman, one in English and the other in Arabic, which helps them spend time together without thinking about war and enmity. They also exchange cigarettes. The American has Marlboros and the Iraqi smokes Baghdad cigarettes - it was a cult brand when I was in college, but it has disappeared since. I wanted to depict how, when you are alone in the desert, you manage to forget the war and simply think about life.

The novel is not only dedicated to Bradley Manning - now Chelsea Manning. He's also part of the novel's plot. The novel wouldn't have become what it is without this character.

Every day in Baghdad, dozens of people die. Sometimes it can be over a hundred when terrorists plant a bomb. Yet we hardly notice it in Germany. During his opening speech at the Munich Literature Festival, the Syrian poet Adonis accused Europe of having an inhuman attitude, ignoring these acts of terror when they do not target citizens of their own countries. Do you feel the same way?

I share this opinion. Before the attacks in Paris, we had terrorist attacks on the Russian aircraft and in Beirut, and afterwards, there was the hostage crisis in Mali. Not to mention that in Iraq, nearly 10,000 people died in 2014 due to IS terrorism - all civilians.

The Paris attacks may have opened the Europeans' eyes. It's time to recognize that terrorism affects us all. And if we come to mourn all the victims of terrorism worldwide - and not just our direct neighbors - then we will manage to abolish terrorism.

You have clearly positioned yourself against awarding the Erich Maria Remarque Prize for peace and democracy to Adonis.Why shouldn't the famous poet of the Arab world be given this award?

Adonis has two faces. With one of them, he praises the West, and with the other, he demonizes the West in the Arab press. In 1979, he wrote a poem that welcomed the Iranian Revolution and proclaimed "the death of the West's face." He saw the Revolution as a reaction against the arrogance of the West.

Adonis, Syrian Poet, Copyright: dpa - Bildfunk
Many consider Adonis to be a modernist who criticizes Islamic religious values and traditions, but his positions are ambivalentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Ochando

That was 36 years ago. Has he changed his position since?

That wasn't a misjudgment of his youth. Adonis was 49 years old at the time. In his youth, he was a member of a semi-fascist party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. He has never denied this. On December 7, 2013, he even said in an interview with the Lebanese magazine "An-Nahar" that he was a proud member of that party, whose logo is similar to the swastika. Assad allowed the party to exist again in Syria, and it has offices in Damascus. In Beirut, it supports Hezbollah.

In 1983, he and his wife wrote a book about Sheikh Muhammad Abd al-Wahab [Eds.: 1703-1792], founder of Wahhabism - the ideology of the state of Saudi Arabia - and father of all Salafists. He has portrayed him as an innovator and a reformer, which is deceptive.

Today Adonis is neither a follower of Khomeini nor a Salafist, but he never explained those texts. In his biography, he mentions neither the poem nor the book. He should discuss this publicly and give explanations.

Adonis has never been involved in a reform movement and has never taken action for imprisoned authors. Not even for Rushdie. As intellectuals, if we plead for the separation of religion and state, then we should also act consequently.

The Erich-Maria-Remarque Prize is a political award. Does Adonis have anything in common with Erich Maria Remarque?

Remarque spent his life fighting against the terror of war. His book "All Quiet on the Western Front" was banned and burned by the Nazis in 1933. He was expatriated in 1938. This is unbelievable. Germany posthumously reinstated him by creating this award.

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