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Navid Kermani
From Schwerin to Isfahan

Navid Kermani’s latest book is as much a description of his travels through a variety of places and countries as it is a journey to their people, and into their heads and hearts – and of course into the past. In the end, it is also a very personal travel diary.

By Holger Moos

Entlang den Gräben - Navid Kermani © Verlag C.H.Beck The Cologne-based writer and orientalist, born to Iranian immigrants in 1967, calls his collection of reports Entlang den Gräben. Eine Reise durch das östliche Europa bis nach Isfahan (Along the trenches. A journey through Eastern Europe all the way to Isfahan). His travels follow in the tracks of the 20th century with all its tensions and catastrophes – from Schwerin to Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine all the way to Chernobyl, the Chechen Wars and the many local Caucasus conflicts hardly anyone has heard of.

Trenches – many meanings

Kermani uses the German term Gräben, trenches, in all its ambiguity. He means quite specifically the trenches of past and current wars. But he also means the pits, the mass graves that have been dug all over Eastern Europe for the countless mass executions by firing squad.
Finally, for Kermani it’s also about the deep trenches in people’s heads that have been, and still are, the basis for racism and worse. And when he finally travels to the Caucasus and on to Iran, he also encounters the trenches dividing Europe and Asia.

“There are no monocultures anywhere”

Kermani formulates his credo as he travels along the Black Sea Coast. He describes history and culture as one big “hodgepodge”: “There are no monocultures anywhere. There are only peaceful and non-peaceful ways of living together, provided you’re not prepared to wipe out one another.”
Often enough, people were and are pushed into hatred against the “other” by those in power. Kermani relates an Azerbaijani taxi driver’s take on the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia: “The war was waged by those in power. We only contributed our dead. […] The war didn’t break out because of hatred, hatred broke out because of the war.”
Just as interesting is a conversation with Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, whose grandparents were killed in the Armenian Genocide in 1915/16. He says: “When we understand that, whether we like it or not, life consist of losses, then coming to Armenia as a refugee child was the best thing that could have happened to me under the circumstances. It was the best loss.”

Erudite and humane

Kermani writes in a very erudite yet at the same time very humane manner, providing insights into different mentalities and inspiring readers to think about questions of (national) identity and history, and to question supposed certainties.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, Kermani calls for more respect for national differences, and for embracing uncertainty: “These days, I think we need more flexibility – more elasticity, more consideration for historic differences.”

“There is no better world”

Kermani visited the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus region for news magazine Der Spiegel. The last place he writes from is his parents’ hometown of Isfahan. This is his most personal travel report. Spending four weeks in the place of his childhood, he experiences a country whose oppression and lack of freedom are as terrible as the incompetence of its rulers who ruthlessly exploit its resources. Iran, he writes, has a “leadership that set out to rule for eternity yet only lives for the moment, because apparently not even that leadership itself is counting on still being there tomorrow.”
The Isfahan of his childhood used to have a river, but the city lost its water because it was needed elsewhere. For most of the year, there is only a dry riverbed, symbolic of the ruthless exploitation inflicted by the country’s spiritual and political leaders. Kermani visits it every morning, even though he is saddened by the sight. The only thing that can appease him again is the view of the striking dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque: “There is no better world,” he writes.

Cherry Picker Kermani, Navid: Entlang den Gräben. Eine Reise durch das östliche
Europa bis nach Isfahan (Along the trenches. A journey through
Eastern Europe all the way to Isfahan)
München: C.H. Beck, 2018. 442 p.
ISBN: 978-3-406-71402-3

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