Opening speech by Najem Wali: Travelling into Narrative

Najem Wali's keynote talk for th opening of the European Literature Days 2021 – Travel Routes. On the Road to Be Free?

Travel existed before borders were formally marked and countries were established. Setting out and departing, being exiled and taking flight. Travel is as old as pain, like the urge to let-go-of-everything and having-to-leave-everything, born of the consciousness of the pain of existence.

This was a known fact even for those who were never inclined to leave their ancestral city, like the Alexandrian Constantine Cavafy, the “the wise old man”, as Lawrence Durrell called him in his Alexandria Quartet. Cavafy, who until his death lived for 70 years in his cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, was a travel sceptic because he didn’t see the necessity of travel to somewhere. He wrote: “Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.” And yet he didn’t always waste his life in the same place and waiting for its destruction. After all, he made two trips to Paris, short excursions to Athens and Constantinople and bequeathed us his wonderful poem Ithaka, which demonstrates for us the meaning of the way that we embark upon to reach a destination.

The beginning of every journey demands our submission to the call of distance because distance is as infinite as the heart. There is no law and no rules, neither in the past nor the present, which order us when, where and how we should travel. Travel is a temptation; it’s the willingness to surrender to the call of the heart and to set out for a new place, to discover something unknown there.

Travel is the fount of wisdom and the home of wonder. Anyone who cannot travel directly to the place travels in time, back to the past In Search of Lost Time like Marcel Proust, into the present Amerika like Kafka, or into the future like H.G. Wells in The Time Machine or in Invisible Cities like Italo Calvino; or heading overseas on the deck of a large ship to catch the legendary fish called Moby Dick, or climbing Africa’s highest mountain, snow-covered Mount Kilimanjaro. And anyone who cannot sleep, because of bitterness or malice, sets off on a Journey to the End of the Night like Céline.

Whoever cannot depart from a place, travels into the narrative. Anyone who shares a cell, measuring twenty square metres, with sixty prisoners and is vulnerable to moths, lice, despair and gallows humour, as we were in the winter of 1980 in the military intelligence police cell in the building of the defence ministry in Baghdad, will find no other way of leaving his captivity than to tell his fellow prisoners stories in pain and desperation. Our stories are a way of overcoming the consciousness of pain and of resisting the longing for death.

What would the stories from One Thousand and One Nights be without travel? The genial narrator, Scheherazade, wove a carpet of stories to survive and so enticed the murderous King Shahryar out of his world to a new place: into her stories. And just as everyone fares on his return to the place, which he departed from and reconciles with it, so too Shahryar found himself changed in the thousand-and-first night and buried the women’s killer in the past.

On the trail of countless days and nights, journeys originate with the spirit of storytelling, being a source of wonder among listeners and readers, and paving the way to a new world. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote after extensive travel, abductions and time in prison. This Don Quixote, who provided the basis for the modern novel, is not only a narrative about a knight’s journey roaming across Castilla de la Mancha with his Sancho Panza and fighting windmills, it is the outcome of a newly born tradition: the novelist’s passion for travel.

Dostoevsky fled from his patrons from one city to the next, and without this departure we wouldn’t have read some of his immortal works: The Gambler in Baden-Baden, Demons in Dresden; Heinrich Heine wrote A Winter’s Tale in Paris; also in Paris, Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons, Gogol worked on Dead Souls in Rome; Georges Büchner wrote Danton’s Death and Woyzeck in Zurich; Roman Rolland wrote about France in Switzerland; Rilke wrote Letters to a Young Poet in Viareggio, Rome, Paris and Sweden and completed the Duino Elegies in Switzerland; Henrik Ibsen wrote about Norway in Germany; Strindberg wrote about Sweden in France; James Joyce wrote about Dublin and its inhabitants in Trieste and García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in Mexico City.

I am certain that all these kindred fellow writers could not have created their immortal titles without indulging in the temptations of travel in the mind and in reality, while savouring this adventure in all its forms. You have to set out to arrive somewhere. All writers knew and know that. No matter where we land, when and how we arrive and what we do finally to find the place where we discover our golden key, which maybe was always before our eyes at the edge of a shining rainbow. Whenever we find something that opens up a new horizon for us, this is the key leading us to buried treasure in front of our eyes.

As a child I found my treasure in Baghdad. It was a distance of 360 kilometres between Baghdad and Amara in southern Iraq, where we lived. But whenever my father travelled to the capital city, which happened frequently, as I fell asleep, I imagined that I was carried with him by two small birds and walked through the streets and districts of Baghdad. During the summer nights – we slept on the roof of our house – I gazed at the countless stars in the sky and imagined it as a canvas. I drew on it my own map of Baghdad, a small map, which was the walking radius of a child who I was back then. I no longer know how long my fantasy tour lasted, because usually I quickly fell asleep. In the summer, my eyes grew tired on their journey from star to star, while in the winter they wandered back and forth over the ceiling of the room through the streets of Baghdad. I don’t know how close my fantasy city came to the city that I hadn’t set foot in yet back then. I only know one thing, now I’ve already been in Berlin for so long, about those nights, which are meanwhile as far away as Baghdad: I was like an architect, laying out streets in mid-air in the empty room, and the tales that I heard about Baghdad always fed my tours with new fantasies.

When I grew up and wasn’t yet twenty years old, on 14 July 1976, I climbed the steps of an Iraqi Airways plane at Baghdad Airport to land a few hours later in Paris with just six hundred dollars in my pocket. I intended to study filmmaking here. When I returned penniless to Baghdad several weeks later, I was still happy. Although I hadn’t been able to fulfil my childhood dream of studying film, I had seen Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and more of their existentialist-gang sitting in the Café du Fleur. That alone was enough to amaze my young intellectual friends in Baghdad.

It wasn’t until 40 years later that I recognized my real spoils of this failed trip, when I drove to Idomeni in summer 2016 to volunteer as an interpreter to help the refugees there. I remembered then that I had already been on the way, namely in September 1976, travelling this route by bus. However, back then I wasn’t escaping but on the return journey from Paris; I had nothing else in my pocket other than a failed childhood dream. But you can easily smuggle dreams across borders, no matter which country you set out from.

In April 2016, I travelled from Germany to Idomeni. The meetings with exiled people and those fleeing and stranded here, the conversations about their dreams, diverted my attention to a time when Europe, South-West Asia (Asia Minor) and the Middle East were newly defined. I found out that along the West Balkan Route – from South-West Asia to Europe – since Babylonian times there was an exchange among the peoples. They lived in peace, as long as they traded with one another. The cities along the route functioned as veritable melting pots and formed the basis of the region. When this co-existence was placed in question and came to a violent end, the region transformed into a zone of death and devastations, until well into the 20th century.

The migrant routes and mass migrations, exile and migration, bring together past memory and the present. In 2016, it was disturbing for me to see how history apparently repeats itself. Almost nine-hundred years ago thousands of crusaders had marched along this route with the aim of finding the promised Eldorado in Jerusalem. Some rich knights had sought out a different route with the same goal: they made a sea voyage to the promised land. What an irony of history, I thought then: in the year 1095, the fortune seekers set out with their weapons from North to South, while in 2016 the unarmed fortune seekers were moving from South to North. For many of them, Idomeni was the final destination in 2016.

I travelled along this route in 1976 with an Iraqi passport back to Iraq. In 2016, I arrived with my German passport, and I belonged to those charitable people from the North who cannot resolve the misery, but at least try to alleviate it.

So, is travel only a different form of escape? A motion that we undertake to gain knowledge, riches and people? Perhaps. One thing is certain that the so-called Balkan Route is a two-way street, a road for exchange and meeting and – like the Silk Road – one of the world’s important cultural and trading routes.

My years in my early twenties were a time of temptation, as well as years of searching and marvelling at everything new. How richly rewarded is the protagonist of a turbulent period who from a young age was already devoted to the passion of travel, who roamed about the world and to this day is a Marinero en tierra, a sailor on land. He is like Sindbad whom nothing can stop from setting one foot on dangerous ground. Sindbad once found himself on a small island in the middle of the high seas; he felt saved and built a fire to keep warm. At this moment, he didn’t imagine that he was sitting on the back of a giant, sleeping shark that was woken by the heat and would plunge him into danger.

I have also played with fire when I embarked on a Journey into the Heart of the Enemy. I visited Israel and wrote a book about the people who met me there, even though I knew that, for an Arab, a journey to Israel, into the enemy’s country, was similar anytime to playing with fire. Besides, it is never allowed to depict the “enemy” as a person who longs for peace, just as we do, and who is afraid of war.

Somebody who risks such a journey endangers his life. Not only in today’s world. In his book The World of Yesterday, which is very close to my heart, Stefan Zweig describes his journey into the “enemy country”, to Belgium, to meet Romain Rolland and to compose a declaration with him against the impending First World War. The hostility, which he encountered from his fellow countrymen because of this, did not deter him from meeting Roland for a second time. This time it was in a hotel in Zurich that was full of spies.

The most beautiful gift of life, for me, is travel, which twins us with ourselves and the place whenever we leave it or return. The way that we travel from one place to the next enriches us and connects us with unfamiliar people.

So, blessed be every strange fruit, every railway that gleams, every balloon in the form of a sphere, every atlas and every suitcase that is displayed in a show window, and entices us to faraway places. And welcome to every peculiar drop of wine, every irritating newspaper article, every incomprehensible book and generally everything that provokes settled travellers and promises them an encounter with the unknown.

Let me express this with a few lines from Cavafy’s wonderful poem Ithaka*:


“As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery. (…)

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.


Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.


Thank you.


(*   Translated by Edmund Keeley)


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