The Angel’s Trail: Seven Swiss Encounters
By Youssef Rakha.
“Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to emigrate therein?”
— Quran, 4:98
“For it is often the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their own narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free.”
— Amin Maalouf
“Where what isn’t taboo is de rigueur…”
— Jill Alexander Essbaum
I. Amr Moussa
At Vienna International Airport the queue is so long no matter how you look you cannot see where it starts.
The man behind me is from Berlin; his day has gone horribly but he is resigned. A whole flight cancelled? I am starting to sound outraged. Well, he all but snorts, shit happens!
At that moment, standing stock still on the travelator, the high-profile diplomat Amr Moussa goes past. A TV-famous face in Cairo, paraded here with excruciating slowness – completely unrecognised. For a few seconds I make eye contact, but once he realises I am not fan-ogling him he looks away.
I don’t know what it means: for my connecting flight to be interrupted so that, while queuing up to be placed on an alternative plane, I meet Amr Moussa for the first time. I don’t know why the journey from Cairo to Zurich couldn’t be a direct flight. I don’t know why I am here.
What is clear is that I can never reach Zurich in time for the train to Leukerbad, where I am due tonight for the international literary festival.
(Indeed, by the time I arrive in the mountain town the next afternoon, it will have been such a long and tiring journey I’ll mistake Leukerbad’s hot springs for shrines, the figures in white bath robes tramping around them for pilgrims. Nor will that be such a shock. In daylight, on the way, Zurich will have felt like a Borgesian synthesis of European cities – fragments of Paris, Berlin, Rome – familiar but mysterious. It will have come across as the kind of metropolis of the mind that you pass on a sacred or psychedelic journey.)
But already, panicked about being stranded, intimidated by German, scared of the exchange rate, to bump into Amr Moussa alone and unknown while being berated by a Berliner feels like a moment in a dream.
Some libidinal super-being must be whispering obscenities in the airport’s fetish-prone ears, however, because as well as being aware of my body – its flab, its friendlessness, its fatigue – I now remember that I am going in the opposite direction to Carl Gustav Jung’s lover and student Sabina Spielrein.
In David Cronenberg’s 2011 A Dangerous Method, Sabina eventually travels from Zurich to Vienna to meet Sigmund Freud, by then her ex-lover’s archenemy; she abandons analytical psychology for psychoanalysis.
But not until I am holding my new boarding pass do I fully understand the significance of the memory: Jung’s God-hungry and myth-obsessed thinking made use of archetypes; and these have always felt more relevant to me than Freud’s clinical, all-is-sex unconscious. It is from Vienna that I have to reach Zurich, to fully appreciate the fact; not Cairo.
An angel hovers over Zurich’s train station; it is fat and blue, with golden wings. It is twice or three times the size of a human being. Its limbs are thick and bulbous, one leg effortlessly bent in flight.
I don’t know if angels are supposed to be gendered, but this one is clearly female. The cakes of her breasts are decorated with schoolgirl motifs: a red clover leaf, a green and pink heart. Her head is tiny; she does not have a face. Like the Tarot’s Angel of Temperance, she holds a chalice in each hand. At night pink rays of water can sometimes be seen floating out of one into the other.
To a far greater extent than Rodin’s Gates of Hell, the black version of which I will see at the famous Kunsthaus, this sculpture is typical of the kind of art which, Dadaism notwithstanding, I half-consciously associate with Helvetia: light, colourful, irreverent; almost plastic in its unpretentiousness.
Her French-American creator’s gift to Switzerland’s largest city, The Guardian Angel is meant to be protecting the city’s Hauptbahnhof (or, to translate literally: the Headtraincourt). But she belongs with an irreligious tribe.
She is one of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas (in its French slang origin nana is a sexist term for “woman”). According to Niki’s granddaughter Bloum Cardenas, these colossal plastic dolls are “an army of women coming to take over the world… breasts in your face, they are curvy, they flaunt their sex in your face…”1
Powerful and themselves, says Cardenas. The Nanas’ body shape actually recalls an early genre of Ishtar statue. In it the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, love and sex appears as a heavy woman with enormous haunches and indistinct facial features; she is always cupping her breasts.
Goddess as well as angel, then – Gaia, matriarch, Everywoman, a Nana is herself a manifestation of the psyche.
Like C.G., Niki trades in archetypes.
Ruined by the Depression, Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle moves from the outskirts of Paris to Manhattan to manage the family bank’s American branch.
At eleven, as she described it to her daughter, Niki unwittingly becomes her father’s mistress. At eighteen, she elopes with one of his friends. At twenty-three, already a mother, she enters an insane asylum. Painting becomes part of her therapy.
“Daddy was a church goer, said God could not be dead,” so goes one rhyme in her 1973 cinematic exorcism, Daddy, which she directed with Peter Whitehead, “but his taste was not so Catholic with the girls he took to bed…”2
At thirty Niki abandons Daddy’s former friend Harry Mathews and the children she had with him. She has been impressed with the work of Paul Klee. The man she begins to collaborate with is Jean Tinguely, another Swiss artist. Niki and Jean will stay together for over thirty years.
During that time, Niki becomes not only part of Nouveau Réalisme and other prestigious groups but also a commercial success when she wants to be. She becomes a prodigious figure in creative expression and feminist self-assertion: an authentic precursor of pop and performance art, civil and sexual rights.
Over fifteen years, in a dedicated space in Tuscany, she is able to create a Tarot Garden with all twenty-two cards turned into Nana-sized statues. Living there inside the Protective Mother, she says art has enabled her to transform her rage, through melancholy, into joy.
But first – her initial moment – Niki must express that rage in her “vision to make a painting bleed by shooting at it: real bullets would pierce the plaster reliefs and hit the cans and bags of paint embedded inside… It was not only exciting and sexy but tragic, as though one were witnessing a birth and death at the same moment”…3
To get to Leukerbad from Zurich you change at Visp. Once you arrive in Leuk you take the bus. On a narrow, spiral path it climbs 1,402 m above sea level; the Alpine scenery is so breathtaking it feels Photoshopped.
Back in the shadow of Niki’s angel, I struggle with the ticket machine; when it comes to buying train tickets, human interaction is not an option. Wondering about the rest of my journey, I scan the railway itinerary printout that I obtained at the hotel:
Zurich HB ab 11:02
Visp an 13:02
Visp ab 13:05
Leuk an 13:19
Leuk, Bahnhof an
Leuk, Bahnhof ab 13:38
Leukerbad an 14:09
At Visp I have exactly three minutes to get off one train, locate the right platform and lug my baggage onto the other. Is that even physically possible?
Punctuality, says Jonas Lüscher, the novelist who having spent time in Cairo through no intervention of mine decided nonetheless to bring me here. I am to be his Pro Helvetia literary exchange partner; to help me meet my end of the bargain he is dedicating two whole days to being my interpreter and guide. His wife, the German actress and director Ulrike Arnold, will read the German translation of my essay at Leukerbad, too. (And how to adequately express gratitude?)
Jonas regards the Swiss watch’s global prestige with appropriate irony, but still he can be seen running through the streets to catch a train that departs every ten minutes. Perhaps there really is a non-stop mechanism within every Swiss nervous system, which keeps the mind oscillating without rest, without even the possibility of a rest, counting seconds…
As it turns out three minutes is plenty of time to change at Visp – but only, I suspect, because I’ve applied myself to the task with life-and-death determination.
At my normal Cairo pace the process might have taken thirteen, thirty minutes, with a cigarette or toilet break, a moment of lethargy – but then no one would expect you to move so fast; neither would any train be so precisely on time, come to think of it – and is that such a bad thing?
The pace you instinctually fall into as you walk from one place to another: it seems a trivial thing, but it just might hold the key to European predominance since the Industrial Revolution.
“Escapement” is defined as the mechanism that, by stopping and releasing it at regular intervals, allows the central device in a clock or watch to keep time. An ingenious feat of mechanical engineering, it is a kind of disk with teeth in which the pendulum or balance wheel continually catches – ticking to a halt, having “escaped” the space of a second or a minute or an hour – the friction keeping both disk and timekeeping element in motion.
In recent centuries the Swiss have given the world many things: muesli, the computer mouse, Dada, DDT, absinthe, white chocolate, cellophane, velcro, LSD, the immersion blender, the Pascal programming language, aluminium foil, laudanum, DNA, Voltaren, bank secrecy…
But perhaps it is their invention of two indispensable kinds of escapement – the constant escapement and the cross-beat escapement (with the remontoire) – that is most in character.
Punctuality, says Jonas: another cliche that is true. A Berner who spent the first ten years of his life in a village nearer Zurich than Bern, Oberwil-Lieli, Jonas has lived in Munich for sixteen years, but he says he will never become even an honorary Bavarian like his wife. (Ulrike’s parents are from elsewhere in Germany, which apparently disqualifies her from being a true Bavarian even though she has been in Munich all her life.) Jonas recently did become an EU as well as a Swiss citizen by acquiring German nationality, however.
At forty – my age, and the Prophet Muhammad’s age when the Message was revealed to him – Jonas is making his break in the German-speaking world, but he has not lost the writerly gift of being able to look at everything he takes for granted critically reflected in a textual mirror – and stay in one piece.
He says that although by the acknowledged, material measures the Swiss should be much happier than the Egyptians, he does not feel they are.
He says that people here have enough peace of mind to be tormented by questions of meaning and the purpose of life; suicide rates are high, and many are happy to translate their angst into fear of immigration and blackness.
He says that life in Switzerland is so precisely organised and sanitised, everything cleaned up and accounted for, that he finds the dirt and disorder of Egypt liberating.
He tells me about the competitive urge, the Protestant work ethic, the dual bind of absolute individual independence – direct as opposed to conventional representative democracy, for example – and the sense of being constrained by mores and morals with which there is no room to differ.
Then he says that every time he makes a generalisation he feels bad.
Switzerland ranks in the world’s ten highest GDP per capita rates, I find out. At three percent it has virtually no unemployment. Though high on Forbes’s list of countries with billionaires, its welfare system leaves no one hungry, ill or, in the beautiful German-English expression I’ve heard so often here, unalphabetical.
Wherever you look, there is a paradoxical combination of insular conservatism and Geneva Convention progressiveness.
Unworked-for wealth in the GCC states or undeserved entitlement under formerly Soviet-style Arab regimes: all this seems part of a system of privilege Helvetians know nothing about. Here, even those who are born rich can have no respite.
If the Swiss own Switzerland and Switzerland is a prize – a paradise, that is because, unlike the Egyptians, with the ticking of their clock and the sweat of their brow, the Swiss have been paying the price. Nothing is unearned here, the Reformation dynamos more entrenched and extreme, it seems to me, than anywhere I have been in Europe.
Fortunes are accumulated quietly, I find out, through hard work and conformity; they are never bragged about. With eighty percent of the population proudly joining officially organised trade apprenticeships rather than go to university, classism is a shameful anachronism.
If they’re not contributing palpably to the GDP or somehow working with their hands, it is progressive intellectuals – “lefts” who are likely to be maligned.
One afternoon in the dreamlike town – wherever you look, snow-speckled peaks in brown and green, the clouds an infinite cloak of constantly varying transparency – a journalist named Anne-Sophie comes to see me.
I gather she found out about me while interviewing Jonas the week before. She has read the text I am presenting at the festival, a long essay on homemade Arab pornography4, and she wants to know how, coming from a society where sex is taboo, I could end up writing about that topic.
She also wants to know how the rise of “radicalisation” in Europe should be dealt with, what the prospects are for democratisation in the Arab world and whether immigrants should undergo a compulsory assimilation programme before they are let into European society.
Such a programme, I gather, would not only reduce the chances of religiously motivated mass murder but also teach the newcomers how to treat women.
Anne-Sophie is completely unironic and, being earnest, well-meaning. But I also gather she is less interested in either literature or Egypt than something I should know more about than I do, which she calls the New Year Cologne Attacks.
On New Year’s Eve, 2016 at Cologne city centre – in and around the station, but also in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, Bielefeld – darker young men who could not speak German threw firecrackers at crowds of revellers, then robbed them and ran. They did not disappear.
In groups of up to forty they began to circle local women, one or two at a time. Addressing her in an unknown tongue, or perhaps not bothering to address her, they would form a ring around their prey to hem her in, packing mass around her, more and more inviolable. Once they felt safe enough they would proceed to strip and paw the white flesh, biting and drooling.
Some 1,900 victims were counted; five cases of outright rape were reported to the police. A bad dream from the east, in other words: one of the ugliest demon archetypes imaginable was suddenly, inexplicably made flesh.
The phenomenon was eventually identified as taharrush jama’i (or “mass harassment”) – a form of sexual violence that in Egypt has taken place at outdoor gatherings, notably on feast days, since 2005 – which victims have been known to describe as “the circle of hell”; it was completely unknown in Germany.
At first the police played down the incident, apparently to avoid inciting racial hatred. Whistleblowers and the media eventually revealed the majority of the perpetrators were illegal immigrants or asylum seekers from Morocco and Algeria as well as elsewhere in the Arab world: passengers of the death boats. Out of an estimated 1,000 suspects, in the end no more than 153 were apprehended.
The Cologne police chief was replaced. Women demonstrated. Immigrants were assaulted by vigilantes. The slogan “Refugees not welcome” began to make the rounds.
Jonas tells me there are those who believe that if you are black you can never be German.
The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is not especially racist, but it thrives on a clannish idea of Swissness. It is currently the closest thing to a majority party in a country so decentralised it does not have a legal capital; so thoroughly governance-divested it has a seven-man cabinet with a rotating chancellor in place of a president or prime minister; and so ultimately small, at around eight million its population is three quarters that of Cairo.
The SVP has risen in the ranks since the nineties largely by spearheading the movement against immigration and safeguarding the non-EU status quo. More recently, since the Arab Spring, its members have garnered popularity and influence by speaking out against refugees.
Jonas explains to me how, led by the SVP, in 2009 the Swiss people voted for introducing a ban on the construction of minarets in the constitution through a “federal popular initiative” (a referendum held on the basis of a large enough petition that can take place at the level of the municipality or the canton as well), even though the government and parliamentary position was against the amendment.
Unable to legislate against freedom of religion, society discriminated against architecture instead.
That day in Leukerbad, I cannot help suspecting that Anne-Sophie sees me less as a writer than a spokesman for demons. Perhaps that is all I can be among the Swiss: the literate face of something frighteningly other and eternally inferior; an endless swarm of fanatical and criminally horny murderers clambering to get in as they try to knock down the doors; a breed from the other side of the wall, called Islam.
There was – is a total of three minarets in Switzerland, but the vote, all things considered, was not unjustified.
“The former Imam of a mosque in Geneva, Hani Ramadan, a Swiss citizen by the way, publicly justified the stoning of adulterers or the punitive amputation of the hand of a thief,” Daniel Amman explained in the Huffington Post at the time. “Media reports about forced marriages, female genital mutilations and ‘honor killings’ of Muslim women… came as a shocking surprise. A university professor [suggested introducing] elements of the Sharia, the Muslim legal system, into Switzerland.”5
(In the time it takes me to start writing, what is more, Muslims including refugees have attacked and killed people in Nice, Munich – Würzburg, Reutlingen and Ansbach as well – and Normandy. On the latter occasion an eighty-six-year-old priest had his throat cut while conducting mass inside his own church. Now, contrary to what I told Anne-Sophie – that jihadis and rapists are individual criminals who represent only themselves – it’s this that being a Muslim in Europe seems to be about: if not killing civilians on the pretext of holy war then having civilians killed in your name while you become more and more isolated and reviled.)
“No response to Charlie Hebdo seems aware of the existence of Muslims to whom the idea of ‘avenging the Prophet’ is nothing more than a jaded joke,” I remember writing in January 2015, for my own part. “Muslims exist [who] routinely satirise the orthodox dogma with which they are forced to live, let alone Wahhabi and Salafi excesses… Surely they can’t be expected to apologise for their failure to publicly renounce the culture into which they were born?”6
Still, facing a journalist in Leukerbad – invisible, even before terrorist attacks have taken place, I feel some such renunciation still somehow is expected of those Muslims.
The day he comes to read at my hotel, I am not sure who Eliot Weinberger is; I decide to stick around simply because this is one of the rare events where there will be some English. But then – serendipity.
It’s been a long time since I came across non-fiction I could fall in love with, and it is sheer delight to hear an older New Yorker’s voice declaiming this incredibly beautiful text on Lacandon dream interpretation, among other things:
If you dream of a house, you will see a wild boar.
If you dream of a beard, you will see a wild boar.
If you dream of a broom, you will see a wild boar.
If you dream of a radio, you will see a wild boar.
If you dream of a poet, someone will cry…7
Eliot, being an essayist, calls it an essay; everyone else thinks it’s a poem. But being a translator of poetry from Spanish too, he concedes that, like much of his writing, it errs on the side of the prose poem.
He calls it an essay because it is meticulously researched; not a single piece of information in it is made up.
He calls it an essay because – out of dedication or humility – that is the genre he has chosen to work with all his life, eschewing fiction, poetry, journalism.
He calls it an essay because that is what it is, or what remains of the form after he cracks it open “in as dramatic a way as Ezra Pound cracked open the poem in the early 20th century”; so says Forrest Gander in his review of An Elemental Thing: “Everything Weinberger has learned from a lifetime’s obsession with poetry he brings to bear on the essay.”8
In person, Eliot has a quick, self-deprecating humour and an astounding knowledge of world affairs. For as long as it’s allowed, he smokes cigarillos.
He talks about ISIS in Bangladesh. He talks about Donald Trump’s deeper motives. He talks about Giulio Regeni, the Italian Cambridge historian sadistically murdered in Sisi’s Cairo. Dinner is at his hotel, where we rejoin the others; and for a good quarter of an hour, while we’re eating, he harangues the Mumbai-based novelist Samrat over Narendra Modi.
Nothing moves me as much as something he said at the reading, which I briefly bring up again: the fact that, instead of disgorging a large and rough first draft which he goes on to prune and perfect over time – the way most writers seem to work – Eliot slowly constructs a text, putting it together one small, more or less perfect portion at a time, letting it reinforce itself as it grows.
It’s the first time I’ve come across a celebrated writer who admits to what I suspect is the way I’ve always worked, whether in Arabic or in English. It is doubly significant in the context of creative non-fiction, because it was bringing poetry to forms like reportage and travel writing that made it possible for me to return to literature after a six-year hiatus at the start of my career.
In Leukerbad Eliot’s books are only available in German. Not until I’ve obtained a copy of An Elemental Thing do I realise quite how serendipitous this encounter has been.
Caught between the angel of the Hauptbahnhof and the demons of Köln, unable to defend Islam, I realise my newest literary acquaintance wrote an essay-poem about the Prophet Muhammad.
For a hundred and twenty-four thousand years before the creation of the heavens or the earth or the empyrean or the throne or the table of decrees or the pen divine or paradise or hell, God created the Light of Muhammad… The Light of Muhammad radiated from the index finger of Adam… It was with Ibrahim when he was cast into the furnace of Nimrod, with Nuh on the ark, with Yunus in the stomach of the fish, and on through the generations…
At twenty-five, Muhammad married a wealthy widow, Khadija, who was forty… For twenty-four years and a month, until her death, he married no others, and his future wives had to accommodate themselves to his nostalgia and grief… His second wife, Sawda, was sixty-five and a widow. Afraid of being divorced, she turned over her regular allotted night with Muhammad to his third wife, Aisha… He married Aisha, known for her learning and wit, when she was six, and consummated the marriage when she was nine; she was the only virgin among his wives…
Buraq was an animal of paradise, larger than a donkey and smaller than a camel, with a human face, hooves like a horse, and a tail like an ox… On a certain night, guided by the angel Jibril, Muhammad rode Buraq from Mecca to the temple in Jerusalem, to the heavens and hell and the empyrean and Bayt al-Mamur, the mosque in the sky directly above the Kaaba… He saw an angel of immense size, and half his body was snow and half fire, but the fire did not melt the snow and the snow did not quench the fire…9
Denuded of both its presumed sanctity and the average European’s wary view of it, the Prophet’s biography not only turns into something universal and fantastic (as opposed to exotic). It also serves as an example of the kind of Islam a spokesman for demons might want to present in paradise, to improve our standing: light, colourful, irreverent; an American magician’s humorous and lyric reverie.
“Muhammad” is gleaned from original sources, the apparent madness of which it preserves; so it feels less like an official or educational call than a libidinal pilgrimage of the kind I am on. In contrast to Cologne’s New Year’s Eve horror story, more importantly, here is something that angels might countenance.
VI. The Two Hanses
But angels do not live in paradise; Swiss people do. Their cooking is not as exquisite as Italian or French cuisine. Brexit notwithstanding, their capacity for multiculturalism does not compare to London’s.
They also suffer from worse-than-German workaholism and almost-Scandinavian interpersonal detachment; and there probably is something to the claim that theirs is less of a country than an efficiently run and profoundly amoral business. (Never mind the Bahnhofstrasse, Europe’s most expensive high street. You only have to remember Davos to feel you’re in the control room of global hunger.) But still!
Whether in terms of prosperity or security, the landscape itself or the sheer cleanliness of the air and water, Switzerland is paradise – and not just for skiers, CERN physicists and members of the Bilderberg Group.
My left-leaning informants cite the influx of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in the nineties, for example: their dark, unfamiliar faces initially aroused suspicion, but since they proved to be hard workers – the one true condition for effective integration into Swiss society – they swiftly acquired a good reputation; they now have Swiss nationality and are in no way discriminated against.
Invisible though I am, I myself feel welcome enough in paradise when, the festival over and the descent back to Leuk complete, Jonas and I leave a Munich-bound Ulrike at Zurich HB and proceed to one of the city’s notoriously overpriced hotels in the old town.
To research a short piece of reportage about the refugee debate in Switzerland – this contribution to the exchange project is the main reason I have been in Switzerland – Jonas takes me to his birthplace in the canton of Aargau.
A more or less homogeneous farming and commuter housing community, Oberwil-Lieli is a 5.4 sq km merger of two villages, home to 2,222 people. Boasting a few examples of the country’s distinctive half-timbered facade, it is 58 percent farming land and 27 percent woods.
For many it has become an alternative to “the Goldcoast”: the evening sun-bathed northeastern shore of Lake Zurich where millionaires like to live.
Today most of Oberwil-Lieli’s residents have considerably higher real incomes than the average when Jonas’s parents moved there in the seventies. But that is not the reason we have settled on it as my case study.
This year Oberwil-Lieli has been in the news, often under incendiary headlines: “Inside the only village in Europe where migrants are BANNED”10; “‘We need to help refugees nearer to their homes’”11; “Swiss village pays hefty fine to bar refugees”12.
All over the world the place has been spotlit as the super rich, super selfish Swiss village that chose to pay an annual fine of approximately €200,000 in order to keep out exactly ten refugees, its federally assigned quota.
In reality Oberwil-Lieli is neither the first nor the only municipality in Switzerland where, for various reasons not necessarily including racism, the residents voted to pay “the exemption tax”: an option afforded by the EU’s Dublin Regulation on asylum seekers, of which Switzerland is a signatory. Nor was the 51-49 percent vote consistent over time.
A budget including the exemption tax had been drafted by the mayor, SVP federal parliament member Andreas Glarner, who went on to make outrageous public statements on the topic: “Switzerland should have its green border fenced with barbed wire”13, and “When a ship with immigrants sinks in the Mediterranean, that’s good news”15.
Following an appearance on German television in which Glarner said he would turn down even a Syrian mother carrying her baby and pleading at his door to be let in – he would tell her she’d made the journey for nothing, he said coolly – many in the community began to take the issue personally.
Johana Gündel, a student whose family runs a large organic farm, started an “interest group” which, by persuading enough members of the community to vote against it, promptly managed to block the budget. To the relief of half the village, the point was made that Oberwil-Lieli actively wanted refugees. But little later, the mayor and his camp managed to reverse the vote once more.
The issue quickly rent the community asunder. One man handed out pamphlets warning of the sight of black babies in pushchairs all over our village. Neighbours argued. People lost friends.
Hans and Elisabet Widmer’s house in Oberwil-Lieli was designed by the famous architect Justus Dahinden. Positing an urbanotopia in place of the Orwellian megalopolis15, Dahinden used a modernist idiom to emphasise not only the environment surrounding a building but also the human emotion to be experienced inside it.
Though far more modest than it could’ve been considering the Widmers’ wealth – more evident in the glorious lunch perhaps – the house exudes a subtle luxury. Dahinden’s spirituality comes through in the way the geometry on the outside translates to cosiness within.
The space is one of two twin structures, each recalling a hollow Rubik cube with the middle layer turned 45 degrees. They are built at the edge of a field across which, as you step out of the french windows into the garden, you can see the wooded crests of the Lägern.
Hans points east. Far enough in that direction, he says, is the Black Forest; he does not mention that Lake Constance is in the way.
A humanist philosopher as well as a legendary manager and property developer, the former MIT nuclear engineer has a friend’s sympathy for Andy – as he calls Glarner – whose businesslike style of governance he admires despite sharply disagreeing with his politics.
By way of a response to the crisis, the Widmers (who have their own orphanage in Kenya) had taken it upon themselves to obtain an apartment in which to house a Syrian family immediately at their own expense.
When the New Year Cologne Attacks took place, however, the apartment owner got cold feet. By then Glarner had torn down the only unoccupied residential space in the village; no other options were forthcoming.
Hans-Ruedi and Ursula Riener, a more typical middle-class couple, are not as well-disposed to Glarner, though they seem to agree with the Widmers that he makes provocative statements for effect, not because he means them. Ten newcomers would not be a problem, Hans-Ruedi says, though there are always practical and legal questions about employment and integration.
Hans-Ruedi is a corpulent man, happily retired, with a ginger moustache and a warm smile; he towers above the compact figure of his intense, down-to-earth wife.
His attitude to what he sees as an unavoidable possibility under direct democracy is less emotional, though it is he who shows me the name of a book he is reading by the Egyptian-German writer Hamed Abdel-Samad: a renegade Muslim Brotherhood member now advocating a liberal “Islam Light”16; Hans-Ruedi tells me he finds Abdel-Samad’s views very interesting.
Ursula, by contrast, is upset with Glarner. It pains her to think how he polarised the community; it enrages her that people should be under the impression that everyone in Oberwil-Lieli thinks like he does.
He is using the village to further his federal career, she says.
But how? I catch myself wondering; then I remember:
People translate their existential angst into fear of immigrants, which is why the discourse of xenophobia ensures a politician’s success. Factor in “forced marriages, female genital mutilations and ‘honor killings’”, not to mention the jihad and the behaviour of non-jihadi asylum seekers, and Glarner’s barbed wire will soon begin to make sense.
Of course, Ursula adds as an afterthought, it is also important to help the refugees themselves.
My contribution to the exchange project was to be a short piece about the refugee debate in Switzerland, with Oberwil-Lieli as my case study.
But, inspired by Eliot Weinberger, I have ended up writing this series of mini-essays instead.
I haven’t written on the refugee debate in Switzerland because I don’t believe there is one. Actual debates have nothing to do with the disinherited seeking greener pastures on Allah’s earth, as it were. The issue is to what extent the owners of a given piece of that earth should allow others to share it with them.
No one questions the arbitrary distinction between political and economic asylum, for example. It’s as if destitution is a less valid reason to flee than homophobia, say. Differences of opinion might make emotions run high, but the discussion remains one of legal concepts, not human circumstances.
(Indeed, with its own team competing alongside a similarly globalised if purely nominal Palestine in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, unlike Illegal Immigrant, Refugee has become its own nationality; yet another prepackaged identity to be celebrated by “liberals”, feared by “conservatives”. The disinherited seeking greener pastures is no longer a phenomenon with which to empathise or a reason to wonder about the way the world is run; it is something for those who are running the world to acknowledge and argue about.)
Hans Widmer and Ursula Riener both said that members of Johana Gündel’s interest group are motivated primarily by solidarity with others who take in refugees. They are less interested in embracing difference than confirming their idea of themselves as Helvetians: industrious pacifists, as compassionate as they are efficient, liberal to the core.
Nothing wrong with sticking to your valley, Eliot had said half-jokingly of the Swiss. Now Jonas spoke of a more elaborate archetype: the man who, rather than jumping into the fray of history along with his peers, thought he could sit it out and watch.
I am thinking how ironic that, in the guise of all the so called world organisations headquartered in Geneva, this man was to turn into his peers’ principal enforcer, in time.
For, more than anywhere else in the world, Switzerland feels like the campsite from which a capitalist paradigm that benefits and protects only its original designers is imposed. It feels like the padlock by which the giant prisons into which colonialism and multinational finance have turned non-Western countries are kept shut.
So long as those boats keep sinking…
The journey home from Zurich is a direct flight; it involves no chance encounters or unforeseen complications. While queuing up to board, however, I have this uncanny feeling that I am still stuck at Vienna International Airport, skulking about picturing Michael Fassbender spanking Keira Knightley – Carl Jung having therapeutic sex with Sabina Spielrein.
For a few seconds I am absolutely convinced: the past ten days have been an extended daydream. I quickly realise this is not the case, of course, but then an even more unsettling thought descends on me:
Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian writer; he has been in Switzerland to attend a literary festival and write about refugees. But what if Youssef Rakha doesn’t actually exist? What if in reality I am a Syrian refugee separated from my family – unsure of my future now that my hometown has been gutted and unable to step in Syria without incurring the wrath of war lords – stranded indefinitely in a German-speaking European airport: in Zurich, Vienna, perhaps between the two?
What if I am whiling away the time and soothing my anxiety by imagining I am an Egyptian writer named Youssef Rakha who having spent ten comfortable days in Switzerland is now safely returning home?
Only then do I remember the most powerful encounter I have had on this pilgrimage – ascension…
It was plastered on random surfaces like advertising, and it stopped me in my tracks: a series of messages in movingly simple standard Arabic, addressed “To all refugees”:
We apologise for the mess we made.
We apologise for the mess we make.
We apologise for pretending it’s not our mess.
We are sorry we didn’t learn anything from history.
We apologise for letting you suffer.
We apologise for looking the other way.
I came across the posters by the banks of the river Sihl near the Theaterhaus Gessnerallee, after bidding Jonas goodbye and, stopping to read them, I nearly wept.
In my utter naivety I had supposed this was an official or semi-official gesture on the part of the powers that be, however, at least a civil society initiative.
We apologise for waiting too long.
What are we waiting for?
Later that evening I was no less emotional to discover this was a Europe-wide conceptual project by the Belgian artist Sarah Vanhee, called “Absent Images”. Exactly…
As the plane takes off and I am reassured of who I am, a deep gratitude overcomes me, not just for my time in Switzerland and for Sarah Vanhee but also for the historical circumstances that, while making me a demon destined to knock in vain at the gates of paradise, have at least so far spared me the hell of being an asylum seeker.
We apologise for being interested in you only when you have resources.
We apologise for portraying you merely as victims, perpetrators or profiteers.
We apologise for oversimplifying your realities.
We apologise for indulging in our ignorance.
We apologise for not respecting our own laws.
We apologise for not treating all humans equally.
We apologise for not speaking up.17
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Youssef Rakha is a Cairo-based Egyptian novelist, poet and essayist who writes in Arabic and English. He edits The Sultan’s Seal, a blog of literature and photography, atÂ yrakha.com
1. Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Artist provocateur: Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective at Guggenheim Bilbao”, The Guardian, 27 Feb, 2015
2. Sarah G. Wilson, Tu es moi: The Sacred, the Prophane and the Secret in the Work of Niki de Saint Phalle”, Niki de Saint Phalle (Catalogue), Tate Liverpool, 2008
3. André Blas, Niki de Saint Phalle: Instrospections and Reflections (Video), 2002
4. Youssef Rakha, “Arab Porn”, 60Pages.com, 2016
5. Daniel Amman, “The Real Reasons Why the Swiss Voted to Ban Minarets”, Huffington Post, 12 Jan, 2009
6. Youssef Rakha, “One Muslim’s Charlie”, Al-Ahram Weekly, 15 Jan, 2015
7. Eliot Weinberger, “Lacandons”, An Elemental Thing, New Directions, 2007
8. Forrest Gander, “The Poetry-Transfigured Essay”, Harriet: A Poetry Blog on the Poetry Foundations web site, 10 Sep, 2008
9. Eliot Weinberger, “Muhammad”, An Elemental Thing, New Directions, 2007
10. Mail Online, 27 May, 2016
11. RT, 6 Jun, 2016
12. SBS, 30 May, 2016
13. Tages-Anzeiger, 3 May, 2016
14. WOZ, 7 Jul, 2016
15. Biographical Note on Justus Dahinden, greatbuildings.com
16. Hamed Abdel-Samad, “Und es gibt ihn doch – den Islam!”, Tagesspiegel, 5 Jan, 2010
17. The text of Sarah Vanhee’s “Absent Images” is available for download through vooruit.be.
All images © Youssef Rakha
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 15th, 2017.