Gender Questions

    Poetry’s Advocate
    In Praise of Fuad Rifka, Recipient of the Goethe Medal

    Fuad Rifka at the German Orient Institute in Beirut © Stefan Weidner Viewed superficially, it isn't at all difficult to praise Fuad Rifka – for his poems whose translations into German attract as many enthusiastic readers as the originals, and for his Arabic versions of poems written in German, which were for many years the only such translations and are still unique of their kind. We could extol him as a university teacher who introduced his students to the classics of German philosophy, or for the fact that he remains a staunch advocate and mediator of poetry and a poetic view of the world. Wherever we meet him he encounters us as such an advocate; and anyone who has spoken to him, anyone who was fortunate enough to attend one of his readings, or had the even greater good fortune (as some of us did yesterday) of sitting together with him can confirm that. It is difficult to distinguish between Fuad Rifka himself and all that he has written and translated. As if incidentally he demonstrates the falsity of our prejudices about the Arabs and Arabic. To generalise somewhat: it isn't only Bin Laden who deploys the language of the Koran; there is also … Fuad Rifka! For Germans the gulf between good and evil in the course of their history was at least as great.

    No matter how easy it may seem to be enthusiastic about Fuad Rifka, I must go deeper to make clear to you how truly significant he is. We can only understand this significance in its historical context. For a long time receptivity to European literature in the Orient was dependent on efforts by the Western colonial powers, with an initial emphasis on French, then on English, and finally Russian. As is well known, Germany had no colonies in the Islamic world and during the First World War was allied with the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East (except where it was divided between England and France), a dominance hated by Arabs. The starting-point for an Arab receptivity to German culture could thus hardly have been worse.

    Later, Arab sympathy for Germany during World War Two (in fact only short-lived) was of course a result of the fact that Germany was at war with England and France, the powers that had ruled the Arab world after the First World War – rather than being the outcome of any positive identification with National Socialism as Islamophobes like to maintain. So this episode too was of no significance with regard to receptivity to German culture and literature. Well into the 1960s, if German writers were read at all in Arab countries it was in English, French, or in Arabic translations based on those languages. That was the case first with Goethe and then later with Kafka and Brecht.

    It goes without saying that justice couldn’t be done to poetry in such a roundabout way. That was all the more critical since in the Arab world poetry was the most important art form until well into the twentieth century. The renaissance of Arab poetry in a modern form, according with contemporary social and intellectual interests, that got under way in the late 1940s learned from T.S. Eliot and Byron, from Rimbaud and Paul Éluard, but not from the Germans. The most ambitious of Arab modernists, mostly born in the Twenties and Thirties, wrote in the metropolises of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut, and finally came together in Shi’r [Poetry], the literary magazine established in Beirut in 1957. They all had an educational background influenced in some way by the West. This was also true of Fuad Rifka, who was born in Syria in 1930. As a child he moved with his family to Lebanon and later studied at Beirut’s American University. He quickly made contact with the young intellectuals associated with Shi’r.

    When he went to Tübingen at the end of the Fifties to work on a doctorate, it must have seemed an unusual decision. Wouldn’t it have been much simpler to go to East Germany? The Eastern Bloc countries courted Arab students, offering generous scholarships, in order to strengthen the Socialist camp. Perhaps here in Weimar I may venture to say that many well-known Arab authors studied in the GDR until the Eighties, and have many remained in eastern Germany. Allow me to mention three of the most important: Fadhil Al-Azzawi from Iraq, and Adel Karasholi and Nabil Haffar from Syria. At the Leipzig Book Fair this spring the latter was awarded the first Arab-German Translators Prize, instigated by the Goethe-Institut.

    Gift for integration

    So even before the first Goethe-Instituts could set to work in the Arab world, and a further lifeline for German-Arab cultural exchange be established by Annemarie Schimmel and Bernd Theile in 1961 when they founded Fikrun wa Fann (Art&Thought) – which is still flourishing – as a cultural magazine in Arabic, Fuad Rifka went to Germany and from that time onwards himself became such a lifeline, as can still be seen today in archive editions of Shi’r. Alongside poems by Fuad Rifka and other avantgardistes (such as Adonis, another Arab recipient of the Goethe Medal), the magazine also published works by Trakl, Novalis, Rilke and Hölderlin in Arabic translation. Rifka has continued such mediation up to the present day in the form of many books devoted to individual poets and anthologies of poetry in German – most recently in 2008 with a selection of twentieth-century German poetry. Fortunately, Fuad Rifka is no longer as alone in his endeavour as he was in the 1960s. He has found many pupils and successors among the generation of Arabs who grew up in Germany, or who studied and in many cases found work here, so that in the Arab world German literature is now on an equal footing with that of the rest of Europe.

    This is all splendid and would in itself be more than sufficient justification for today’s presentation. However, please allow me to interpret this event differently – and probably also in accordance with Fuad Rifka’s intentions. In such an interpretation, his achievement as a mediator and (if I may say so) in the life he has led is not just the sum of its parts – is more than the enumeration of his translations and volumes of poetry. What is special about this man and his oeuvre is rather his gift for integration. With Fuad Rifka, Arabic and German poetry are no longer two separate elements that must be mediated. They are one, as if out of two languages and cultures a new, third language and culture had suddenly emerged. However mystical that may sound, any reader can convince him- or herself by comparing original and translation. Rifka’s own poems lose nothing in translation, nor do the German poems he selected and translated into Arabic. This is because Rifka transforms them into texts whose essential aspect unfolds beyond the linguistic sheath and form. If a universal language of things exists, then we could say that Fuad Rifka is one of the very few people who has mastered it, who can even mediate it and communicate it to any receptive reader. If ever a poet intuitively and at the same time ideally implemented the fragmentary poetics outlined by Heidegger, then it is probably Fuad Rifka (who met the German philosopher and wrote a doctorate on his aesthetics). But we don’t need to invoke the controversial Heidegger. Instead we can also quote Friedrich Rückert, who is still the most important translator of Oriental poetry into German. Rückert introduces his adaptation of Old Arabic poetry, known as the Hamasa, with the following verse:

    Poetry in every tongue
    is just one language for the chosen one,
    the language that echoed throughout Paradise
    until it became debased in the wilderness.

    For Fuad Rifka, and in his oeuvre, poetry in all tongues is a single language (and by no means ‘just’ a language!). So I can say without exaggerating that today we are honouring a chosen one.
    Stefan Weidner (b. 1967)
    lives and works as an author, translator of Arabic, and literary critic in Cologne and Berlin. His book publications include the ‘narrated essay’ Mohammedanische Versuchungen [Mohammadan Temptation], the travel report Fes (including 21 photographs taken by the author), and the intentionally controversial Manual für den Kampf der Kulturen. Warum der Islam eine Herausforderung ist [Manual for the Clash of Civilisations: Why Islam Is a Challenge].

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    January 2011

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