A Good, Cowardly Choice

Awarding Boualem Sansal with the German Peace Prize is in fact not as courageous as it seems, writes Stefan Weidner: the Algerian author is one of those critics of Arab-Islamic conditions who make it easy for us to follow him, Weidner says

By Stefan Weidner

The positive commentaries are coming flooding in: How courageous, how non-conformist, how pioneering the decision was to award the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to the Algerian Boualem Sansal. He is being hailed as a passionately critical author who gives us an understanding of the suffering on the part of the Arabs that led them to revolution. Did he not even predict it?

Uncompromisingly, the pundits say, he denounces the conditions in his home country and even dares to break with a key tenet of Third World ideology: that colonialism is to blame.

Everything being said about Boualem Sansal is true. On the surface. One can well imagine how the peace prize committee, with an understanding of world literature that appears deeply Eurocentric, might want to shake off this image at long last. Wouldn't it be nice, in the Arab Spring gradually turning to an Arab fall, to honour an Arab writer? But which writer?

Arab writers not yet popular in the West

Boualem Sansal, winner of the German Peace Prize 2011. Previous winners include: David Grossman, Orhan Pamuk, Jürgen Haberma, Assia Djebar

​​Although dedicated publishers have been bringing Arabic literature to Germany on a lasting basis for over ten years, albeit in small print-runs, the general public and the booksellers have only taken notice of very few writers.

Sansal, published by the small house Merlin Verlag, is not necessarily one of them. As such, the committee's decision was indeed courageous, if doubly inconsistent.

Had they chosen Tahar Ben Jelloun, Rafik Schami, or best of all Amin Maalouf, they might not perhaps have polished up their image as great discoverers, as with the award to Assia Djebbar in 2000. Yet they would have honoured writers whose work is already well received, as is so often the case with such decisions.

With the slight blemish that all these authors are only half-Arab, in as far as they don't write in Arabic and it is not the difficult Arabic book market that made them famous and supports their work.

To this day, the peace prize committee has not managed to honour an author writing in Arabic, or indeed any writer who does not work in the major languages of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

"Image of obstinate Eurocentrism": The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is given yearly in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main. It has high symbolic value

​​The image of obstinate Eurocentrism will thus remain attached to the prize, particularly as many Arabic writers are now available in German translation, with just as much or little presence on the German book market as Sansal: the Egyptian Alaa Al-Aswani, the Palestinian Sahar Khalifa, Elias Khoury from Lebanon, Ibrahim al-Koni from Libya, the Syrian Adonis.

No risk involved

On closer inspection, the committee was not in fact courageous – it was cowardly. It steered clear of risky decisions. Who would they be inviting to the illustrious awards ceremony in Frankfurt's St. Paul's Church if they picked Adonis, al-Koni, Khalifa, Khoury or Al-Aswany, the prize-givers may have asked themselves fearfully.

Weren't Adonis and al-Koni recently accused of somehow supporting the repressive regimes in their home countries, or even being in cahoots with them? The two writers' real positions on the revolution were sadly of no more interest once a rapid-fire school of denunciatory journalism had first floated its suspicions.

A more authentic choice? Alaa Al-Aswani writes in Arabic, and he is a straightforward critic of the West, Stefan Weidner points out

​​Sahar Khalifa? Too controversial – a vehement critic of Israel, and if there's one taboo in the highly symbolic St. Paul's Church, it's criticism of Israel. The fact that Khalifa also happens to be a vehement critic of Islam
ism and Palestinian-Islamic machismo is of no further interest.

The same goes for Elias Khoury and Alaa al-Aswani: as much as they criticise conditions in their countries of origin, once they start dispensing disapproval then we in the West get our fair share too.

The choice of Boualem Sansal guarantees that precisely that will not happen. Or at least nothing in his previous work indicates as much. He is one of those critics of Arab-Islamic conditions who make it easy for us to follow him, because he always absolves us of any guilt or involvement.

Most clearly, possibly, at the very points where he points out the continuities between Nazism and Arab-Islamic anti-colonialism, as in his most recent book, The German Mujahid. For no matter how Eurocentric our thinking may be – God knows we Germans are certainly not Nazis any more!

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de