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Dossier: Challenge of the Religions

A discussion between Hubert Knoblauch (from the Technical University of Berlin) and Detlef Pollack (from the University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder) about the supposed return of religion more more



The Sheikha's Book Club

By Ulla Lenze

Ulla Lenze is the first German writer to be invited to the literary salon of Sheikha Shamma in the United Arab Emirates, to answer question about her book.

Does the Orient dream of the Orient too? Or is this a speciality of an Occident weary of civilisation and reason, which has long projected its needs for mysterious and meditatively abstemious serenity onto the eastern regions of the world from North Africa to China? In the Romantic period, India was singled out as the ultimate "fernwehland" [the longing for faraway places, an antonym for Heimweh or homesickness] the opposite pole to the goal-oriented rationality and early capitalism of Europe, although - or perhaps because - its admirers never went there. Novalis, Jean Paul and Goethe needed no more than the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads to believe in and feed the myth of Arcadian Indian wholeness. Today the huge success of Ayurveda and Yoga travel industry suggests that the myth lives on.

But what does an aristocratic Muslim woman from an Emirate dynasty, a Sheikha, think about such European dreams and longings? This question arose when I found out that the Arabic translation of my first novel, "Sister and Brother", which deals with a journey to India and its psychological consequences, had landed in the hands of the Sheikha Shamma. The Sheikha had forty copies of the book delivered from Damascus and distributed to the ladies who meet once a month in the oasis city Al Ain at her literary salon. All academics, many of them university professors in the Emirates.
What had interested the Sheikha in my book? Perhaps she's interested in Far Eastern teachings and yoga. There are artificial ski slopes and ice arenas in the Emirates, I've seen them with my own eyes. In the Emirates, you just fly in authors whose books you've just read, so that you can clear up any unanswered questions. They've been doing this for three years now, and I was the first German to be invited. The Sheikha is at least as mysterious for me as India was for the Romantics. She never shows her face in public, which is why I could find no pictures of her in the Internet.

What does she look like? I don't want to put this question quite so directly to her assistant Waed, who with her blow-dried hairdo and black, but low-cut coat seems looks somehow like a streetwise combination of many worlds. I only inquire into the most important points of courtly etiquette. The appropriate form of address is "Your Highness" but "Doctor" is a possible variation (the Sheikha has a doctorate in "political peace") and as soon as she stands up, we should do the same. If her mother is present (which the black mask covering her face makes slightly difficult to determine especially if a second woman wearing a mask is present) she must be greeted first. But things are always very relaxed and friendly with Sheikha Shamma.

It feels like the night before an exam, when the car comes to pick me up from my hotel and drive me to the palace. The heat that hits one in the short distance between the air-conditioned buildings and cars feels like something artificial. I spent the entire day with Waed but we were almost always inside closed rooms. The National Museum for example, which - once again I realise everything is possible - was opened specially for me (my otherwise highly competent guide informed me that the Queen of Cologne was a recent visitor). And in the Sheikha's Cultural Centre where, I noticed, only women worked – "otherwise the Sheikha could never go there."

In Al Ain, the streets are also empty at night; no one on foot, few cars. We glide through smooth clean streets, past elegant, cream-coloured new buildings, as if we were steering through computer-simulated architectural designs. Finally we reach a long wall, turn in through the entrance gate where the palace comes into view at the far end of an avenue of palm trees. Glowing in the sunset, it's a magnificent two-storey, sand-coloured building, its horizontal impact softened by tall, slim, rounded arches and elements of monarchic fantasy. The perron leads up to a raised pavilion on which empty woven garden chairs sit facing each other – a strange silence hovers around them, perhaps because of the feeling I get that that no one ever sits on them.

There is a similar sense of untouchedness to what is revealed when the doors open, which couldn't be described as a hall, because its central nave and side aisles, its arches and steps make it more of a basilica. A basilica of white, polished marble in which the contents of several exquisite antique shops are on display. We weave past classical statues, rococo armchairs, sofas draped with damask and brocade, Chinese vases, angels, palm trees and everything glitters and sparkles, and oil paintings gleam under their lights. In the middle is a raised altar-like platform, framed by cushion-filled sofas, where the Sheikha, a bit dwarfed by the surroundings, stands smiling, in a warm but somehow queenly, serene way.

So here she is. She's must be around forty. Wearing neither Chanel nor chador, but an elegant Oriental leisure suit with soft cork-heeled shoes. Utterly confidence-inspiring and likeable. Between my "great honour" and "grateful" and "Your Highness" I receive kisses to the cheeks and hear her beautiful laugh for the first time. And as we all sit down simultaneously on the sofas, she uses both hands to secure the thin, loosely draped shawl covering her hair, which she wears down and which reaches to the back of her knees. And we immediately launch into the first round of what will turn out to be a three-hour ceremony, which in turn is but the entree for the gala buffet lying in wait next door. A female servant appears at ten-minute intervals to offer tea, coffee, fruit juices, fried, candied or baked goodies by turns or to wave incense in our faces. She is trailed by a second servant offering paper serviettes and clearing up the empties. The faces of those taking part in the conversation are continually hidden and revealed, but it doesn't matter much as everything is in Arabic anyway and I basically only have to follow what the translator sitting next to me is saying.
And while we're chatting (the Sheikha is often in Cologne to buy art and antiques and she loves the cathedral) I try to suss out potential pitfalls which might be lying in wait for me during the discussion to follow. Will the ladies sympathise with the "poor" India that one of my characters looks at through - admittedly rather lite - post-colonial eyes, or is that the way they see things too? And will they show understanding for the character who experiences the simple, pared-down life in India as salutary?

Perhaps I should tell them something about myself. How I lived in India in a simple mountain hut, where I had to fetch my water in jugs from the stream at the bottom of the valley which meant every shower had to be justified beforehand. How this made me conscious of everything I used, from electricity (which constantly gets cut), to water and candlelight. There's plenty of electricity in the Emirates. Alright, perhaps it's not such a good idea to sing the praises of the simple life in a palace.

By now everyone has assembled and the thirty-odd ladies come equipped not only with a copy of my book, but with pads and pencils as well. I notice that the Sheikha's copy is full of hand-written notes. Literature is obviously not taken lightly here. And neither is a discussion. Because every question has be prepared in advance and it is taken in turns to ask. With huge engagement, I should add.

Some wanted to have the "meaning" of the novel explained, the professor of English literature astounds me with her gender theoretical critique, others make suggestions for the plot. But things only get unsettling when my translator turns a one sentence German reply into what sounds like ten Arabic ones. What's happened? She had to explain to the women what a "sehnsuchtsland" is (a country one longs for) and what "fernweh" is (see above). Is there no word for this in Arabic? No. People are happy and feel at home where they are born. (Doesn't this explain why we deeply conflicted westerners so long for exactly these countries?)

But soon the conversation starts to revolve around a fundamental problem: the Arabic translation. I had already had my doubts about its reliability when I noticed that "handy", the German word for mobile phone, had been left untranslated. The Indian "Kingfisher" beer, the translator at my side informs me has morphed into a fish dish. And from this point on, since none of those present can now be confident of how much of this book and its many oddities is actually the fault of the writer, they venture criticism of my far too negative description of India, while at the same time placing the blame squarely with the Syrian translator after all, who clearly has not fully understood the meaning behind the words. Because why else would one write about something one didn't like? Luckily, the ladies are confident that I would never do such a thing. And at the end they make me promise to write more positively about the Emirates. And I do so gladly.


This article originally appeared in Germany in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on July 3, 2007.

Ulla Lenze (German homepage), born 1973, has just published her first novel "
Schwester und Bruder" (Sister and Brother).

Translation: lp

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