With Iman Humaydan in Melk by Peter Zimmermann

An October morning in Melk is a good time for reflection. Under overcast skies the ‘executive suite’ of the Benedictine Abbey rising in its pastel yellow above the town gives a quiet impression of people living and working in the old town’s quaint tiny houses. If you dim its basically alert spirit (or what you imagine this to be) to half-light you can observe yourself as you saunter through a film backdrop back into the days of the corporate state, as time stands still, having turned to stone over the decades. Here, Austria is still intrinsically Austrian, Catholic and ideal for representing history for the tourism trade. But this is only a backdrop and behind lurks the modern reality of glass fibre cables, satellite dishes and cashless clearing systems that have suspended cultural barriers and connect Melk with Manila and Manaus. In the ‘Heimat’ film from the 1930s to 1960s the horizon was the limit of the world. Everything across the horizon remained like a distant star and was also beyond the power of imagination. That wasn’t true even back then, but in popular culture the illusion of ‘Heimat’ (‘home’) could be conjured up as a closed space.

Japanese tourists with face masks and selfie-sticks are not the world, but they are an outcome of globalization. Shintoists and Buddhists and presumably also atheists are guided through a former powerhouse of the Christian West – Melk’s Benedictine Abbey – because they are consuming a journey when they tick off cultural and culinary consumer goods like they do at home with their shopping list. Like all tourists, they are registered as consumers, then statistics are compiled about how much time they stayed and where, and how much money they have spent per day. The good foreigner is a source of growth, and if it has to, the tourism association hosts etiquette courses for foreign guests who encounter basic adjustment problems. That’s not in Melk, but in Zell am See.

Migration also has to do with globalization. However, via the legal route migration is no money-earner in the short term. Over the longer term every society, every nation and every culture is a product of migration flows. Yet the demographers tell us that societies become non-dynamic after reaching a certain level of prosperity. Nobody leaves, and why would they? People are living longer because they’re leading healthier lives. Fewer children are born because personal happiness is more attractive than shared happiness. Europe is shrinking, and the demographers also know that, and nobody can fill the loss other than people who are immigrants. If it were only so simple. Because migration is only sensible if the immigrants are integrated, and while integration means making adjustments it doesn’t mean assimilation. Cultural differences should be experienced as differences. Things come to a head here, and all the more so the more cosy and comfortable the home which people fear having to share.

At Melk Abbey Grammar School I am partner in a discussion with the writer from Lebanon, Iman Humaydan. About forty pupils in the seventh class are sitting there, and anyone who, like me, hasn’t seen a school from the inside for a while is quite astonished at the seriousness and – yes, even discipline of the young people. No sign here of dumbing down because of excessive media consumption! In my day, that is back in the 1970s, during the two hours there would have been chatter, laughter, people would be kicking, snorting and rolling their eyes. And even more so because Iman Humaydan and I couldn’t lead an entertaining discussion. The focus was civil war, corruption, a weak state, the war in Syria and the humanitarian situation in the refugee camps on the Lebanese side. The only thing to do is to talk about this in the most interesting way possible; you can try to find out what gets through to seventeen-year-olds, but there are no punchlines for throwing about. Fortunately, for Iman Humaydan, anything to do with ideology is alien. This may be linked to the fact that she is at home in Beirut and Paris and can weigh up the benefits and disadvantages of both worlds and provide objective arguments. Plus, she avoids any victims’ rhetoric both in her books and in conversation. At the start I thought that at the finish I would read one of my short stories entitled “Wie ich ein Klassiker wurde” (How I Became a Classic). The idea was simply to offer something to laugh about because this story is about my tragicomical and much too long career as a school pupil. I decided not to read it. It would have been a far too cheap end in view of Humaydan’s accounts. Her report of failure in times of full prosperity. Perhaps they wouldn’t have even understood me or else found my memories so silly, like I always found Heinz Rühmann ridiculous in Feuerzangebowle (The Fire-Tongs Punch Bowl). Iman and I then drove back in the car from Melk to Spitz and admired the colours of the turning leaves. That wasn’t really comical either – but it was beautiful. Almost sublime.

By Peter Zimmermann

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 23 October 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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