Geschwister-Scholl-Preis 2017 - Hisham Matar

Dankesrede von Hisham Matar

Ladies and Gentleman, good evening. I am both moved and surprised by this award.

‘Intellectual independence’ is an interesting criterion for a literary prize. By making it the central quality you have diagnosed a significant danger; for isn’t it indeed unsettling how any artistic, political or moral position remains vulnerable to influence. Perhaps it is not a coincidence then that you chose to place the value of intellectual independence in direct conjunction with literature. It is a characteristic central to the art. A book must always sing its own tune. It is what many of us go to books for: to encounter an expression that is independent. I mean this not only in the obvious sense, of a literary work being uncorrupted by the need to adhere to a message, but also one free from a known outcome, free even of its own author’s intentions. So here the idea of intellectual independence is also, and perhaps more crucially, not only from popular currents or causes, from what we might call the mania of our time, but also from being employed for a specific purpose, marshalled toward a prescribed outcome. We go to literature, I think, in part to encounter a human consciousness, an intellect and spirit that is, paradoxically, caught unawares; to meet men and women embroiled in their own meditations and observations, running against their own hearts, and whose expressions extend their command. I don’t know why we do this: perhaps because it offers us a glimpse of our true nature. I don’t know if art makes us better. I believe it makes us more imaginative and therefore perhaps more tolerant. And perhaps tolerance and the imagination are connected to this idea of intellectual independence; that we cannot have one without the other. One thing I am sure of is literature’s singular ability to express the unsayable, to depict and sustain human contradiction and doubt. If I have been judged by you to do this in some small way then please know that this truly warms my heart.

Please know that the association that this prize makes between my work and the memory of Hans and Sophie Scholl touches me deeply. I hold the siblings, those spirits of conscience and integrity, in great regard. I am amazed by the extraordinary moral insight they had, together with their faith that the future belonged to them, that the Germany of tomorrow would be truer to their values than those espoused by Nazism. We need to remember their fearless steadfastness and faith in humanity. They and their fellow students, as well as some professors at the university, stood up when it truly counted. Their courage was matched by a gentle confidence that neither faltered nor was ever arrogant. Germany’s mature and self-critical engagement with the horrors of its past, that long and serious project which started after the fall of the Nazi regime and continues till today, has some of its roots in the Scholl siblings and the other young men and women of the White Rose group. Their actions went beyond their time and beyond the boarders of Germany. The siblings, who themselves were inspired by the example of others before them, gave heart to many of those around the world who resisted dictatorship. Thirty years after Hans and Sophie, university students in Libya were also writing and distributing leaflets critical of the Qaddafi dictatorship. They took great risks, and some also faced imprisonment and execution. They appear, these leaflets, in my first novel, IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN, and are glimpsed through the sensitive and confused gaze of a nine-year-old boy, Suleiman el-Dewani, growing up by the sea in Tripoli.

Somebody, a traitor, was printing leaflets criticizing the Guide and his Revolutionary Committees. They came in the middle of the night and placed them like newspapers on our doorsteps. I say somebody, but there must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of men. The boys and I took turns staying up, hoping to catch sight of one. We imagined them to be all in black, masked and very fast. Ali claimed he saw one. Masoud whacked him across the head and said, 'If you lie about such things again I'll tell Baba.'

Everyone feared these leaflets and made a point of tearing them up in full view of their neighbours. Others, like Mama, took them inside only to watch them burn in the kitchen sink, then ran cold water over the ashes.

The morning before [our neighbour] Ustath Rashid was taken the boys and I were so bored we took the leaflets the traitors had left during the night and tossed them over the garden walls, where they immediately became, officially, inside people's houses. We only did this in neighbouring streets, where we didn't know anyone. We tied their light paper bodies to small stones and hurled them over the high walls like the way grenades were thrown in war films.

Let this occasion of my receiving the Geschwister Scholl Prize be a modest commemoration of Hans and Sophie Scholl and all those, known and unknown names, past and present, who have stood up to injustice and bigotry; all those who have a faith, greater than my own but to which I aspire, in human decency and compassion; those who believe in the power of the imagination to find common ground even with an enemy, and who are in constant remembrance of the basic and yet profound fact that the worst amongst us remains our brother or sister. 

I would like to thank everyone at my German publisher, Luchterhand: particularly Georg Reuchlein and Christine Popp, who have stood by my work right from the start and have indeed become over the years dear and treasured colleagues. This prize is also recognition of their work. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my German translator, Werner Löcher-Lawrence, for his talent, rigour and persistence. The book and I owe an immeasurable amount to my family and small circle of friends. No one has helped me more during the years I was travelling through these pages than my wife Diana. Her intellect and sharp eye knew when to offer encouragement and when to be unsentimentally and insightfully critical. And, of course, I thank the board and the judges of the Prize. I accept it with the deepest humility and gratitude. Thank you.  

Es gilt das gesprochene Wort.


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