Language is the real home

German-Egyptian journalist Annabel Wahba reveals her family’s dramatic story between Upper Bavaria and the Nile Delta. In her animated book “The Chameleon” she narrates different ways of adapting to the new environment.

AZ: Mrs. Wehbe, the narrative framework of your book is very sad, your brother’s death.
Annabel Wahba: This experience was the reason for writing “The Chameleon”. My brother was the only one of us out of four who was born in Cairo and never returned to Egypt. Before he died and survived cancer, he wanted to go to Cairo with all of us. But the political situation was really complicated. When he died unexpectedly quickly, I was so sorry we didn’t make the visit together. I had the urge to make this journey at least in my mind and that’s how the book came about. My brother is one of the brothers who come to Germany constantly. He really adapted perfectly in Erding and became the managing director of the local CSU branch there.

“I found Cairo incredibly stressful, but also incredibly wonderful”

You described your visit to Tutankhamun’s exhibition at Haus der Kunst in 1981 as a personal waking experience.
That’s when I first realized, as a young girl, what it means to have Egyptian roots. I felt a little proud and generated enthusiasm for the topic. At the time, my parents bought the catalog that I kept reading. I found the topic incredibly interesting.

So why did you only go to your father’s country for the first time at the age of 17?
We couldn’t go there before because my parents left Egypt on their heels in 1968, had witnessed the Six Day War and were worried about a new one. At the end of the fifties of the last century, my father had received a government grant to Germany and then had to work in Egypt. He really shouldn’t have left the country, Egypt was socialist at the time. My parents used a loophole, a holiday visa, to leave the country and then didn’t come back for long. When I was there for the first time at the age of 17 it sparked a lot inside me because relatives welcomed us very enthusiastically. I found Cairo incredibly stressful, but also incredibly fascinating.

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Did you feel like a stranger in Erding when you were a kid?
No, but in the end, while writing and thinking about my childhood, I noticed things I didn’t notice at the time. We looked different from the other kids, but we didn’t feel any different because we didn’t want to be different either. For example, I never learned Arabic. My older siblings in Germany made a conscious decision not to speak Arabic anymore, or else the other kids would look very funny. I chose the title “Chameleon” for the book because everyone in my family always adapted, including the German part. It all started with my mother in World War II, when she was brought from Munich to Steinkirchen – a Bavarian village – and had to adapt completely. In my case, it was an unconscious adjustment process, and there were no other models in my Erding environment that I could use as a guide. At the German School of Journalism in Munich, when I was 20, I first met someone who was half German and half Arab like me.

“In my opinion, the term homeland is excessive”

You go further with exciting stories from the lives of your ancestors in Bavaria on the one hand and the Nile Delta on the other. It takes some time to tell about yourself.
I wanted to write a family novel showing that German families today are not what they were 50 years ago. We are simply a new German family that grew up on two different continents. I believe that German identity cannot be determined solely by parental origin. I wanted to write how the leads met, and how my mother met a young Egyptian in Munich in the 1960s and raised a family with him in Egypt. Originally I didn’t want to write much about myself, but more about my family, but at some point there’s no other way, you’ll just find yourself.

How important are the terms of origin or home to you?
In my opinion, the term home is overrated. I couldn’t even say where it should be. From the gut feeling, it’s probably Bavaria after all, it’s the mountains in particular, I always feel at home there. I once traveled around Southeast Asia for months speaking only English. Six weeks later I met a German woman and we talked day and night. I believe that language is my true home, it gives me my identity.

But where did I come from playing a role, I realized when you were living in Tel Aviv with your Israeli friend at the time.
My time in Israel brought me very close to my Egyptian identity. If you are half Arab, you will be treated differently when entering and leaving the country and will have to answer many questions. And of course the conflict with the Palestinians is omnipresent in the country, and it is inevitable. It was then that I realized that I often sit between two chairs.

Why do you call your family history an autobiography?
I usually work as a journalist. In my reports, I portray reality and I am committed to the truth. Although my novel is largely inspired by my experiences, many of the scenes are fictional. For example, children from the early childhood of my parents in the Nile Delta. In fact, as I write in the book, he fell seriously ill and his mother had to sell her jewelry to pay for the doctor. But I didn’t know more than that, every ornament then becomes a fantasy.

Annabelle Wahba will present ‘The Chameleon’ (Eichborn Verlag, 286 pages, €23) on October 13 at the ‘Herbst-Mix’ with authors Kerstin Brune and Simon Schwartz at 8pm at the Literaturhaus. Tickets on the phone 01806700733

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