What Makes a Man? Sex Talk in Beirut and Berlin

By Tobin, Robert Deam | German Quarterly, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

What Makes a Man? Sex Talk in Beirut and Berlin


Tobin, Robert Deam, German Quarterly


Al-Daif, Rashid and Joachim Helfer. What Makes a Man? Sex Talk in Beirut and Berlin. Trans. and ed. Ken Seigneurie and Gary Schmidt. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 2015. 266pp. $30.00 (paperback).

In 2003, the Lebanese novelist Rashid al-Daif came to Berlin under the auspices of a program called the West-Eastern Divan, which paired authors from the Middle East with authors from Germany. Al-Daif's partner was the German novelist Joachim Helfer, who-he quickly learned-was a gay man with a partner 38 years his senior. In Berlin, al-Daif learned more about Helfer's lifestyle and approach to sexuality; when the two saw each other again in Beirut, things took an additional unexpected turn, when Helfer met and fathered a child with a German woman he met there. Confronted with "a narratable event" (49), al-Daif published a lightly fictionalized version of the story in Arabic, called How the German Came to His Senses. Helfer republished a translation of al-Daif's narrative with his own extensive commentary, nearly doubling the length of the original piece, which appeared in German in 2006 as Die Verschwulung der Welt [The Queering of the World]. Ken Seigneurie and Gary Schmidt have now translated both texts, from the Arabic and German respectively, publishing them together with five additional scholarly essays, in an entertaining, enraging, informative, and thought-provoking book, What Makes a Man? Sex Talk in Beirut and Berlin. Given the tensions surrounding the recent influx of more than a million refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Germany, this collection of texts is more important and relevant than ever.

The new collection of al-Daif's original piece and Helfer's commentated version, along with the scholarly pieces, adds layers of meaning that were unavailable to those who had read only the Arabic or German editions of the work. Al-Daif's How the German Came to His Senses by itself reads-as Gary Schmidt observes in his thoughtful essay in the collection-like a novella. The "unheard-of event" is not, as one originally suspects, that Rashid's interlocutor is gay, but rather that the gay man has a child with a woman he meets in Lebanon. The title, How the German Came to His Senses, is ironic, for al-Daif's tale is not one of the prodigal gay man returning to conventional heterosexuality. Rather, as Ken Seigneurie writes, Rashid undergoes a kind of Bildung in his acceptance and tolerance of homosexuality (181). Especially at the beginning, outrageous and offensive stereotypes about homosexuality pepper the prose, but the ending is a utopian vision of new forms of family and community: Joachim is the acknowledged father of the child and stays in close contact with the mother, but continues to live with his older lover, while also developing relationships that are both sexual and intellectual with younger men.

Helfer's Queering of the World tears apart al-Daif's fantastical novella. He is at times annoyingly pedantic and self-righteous in his critique: as Andreas Krass notes in his essay, while al-Daif treats male-male desire as a joke, "Helfer was definitely neither willing nor able to laugh at it" (246). Nonetheless, Helfer frequently provides incisive analyses of the gendered presuppositions about sexuality that anchor the text. In the German text, there is an unfair power balance between the two texts, because Helfer gets the last word, speaking in a tone of "fact" and "truth" that overrides al-Daif's fictional account. In What Makes a Man, however, one reads al-Daif's text twice, first by itself, then with Helfer's commentary. In this English-language version, the reader has more opportunity to reach their own conclusions about al-Daif's text. Moreover, it is easier to understand "Rashid," the narrator of al-Daif's How the German Came to His Senses, as a fictionalized bumpkin, less sophisticated than the author or the reader. Helfer's posture of "setting the facts straight" makes it more difficult to understand the interventions of "Joachim" in The Queering of the World as literary conventions as well. …

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