Is there anyone from Hyderabad - Dialogue with the Islamic World

​​You spent four weeks as a town clerk in the Indian city of Hyderabad during the summer. At the end of your journal entries, write that you want to come back. Why?

Guy Helminger: I was very excited. I used to like to travel, I haven't been doing that lately. For me this was an opportunity to go "abroad" again. That's what actually excites me.

Italy and Spain are countries that I would also like to see, but they don't have that degree of strangeness where you feel like you're swimming a bit like a board in the middle of the sea. This is what i'm looking for. You get the feeling that you are learning a lot more about yourself, how to behave. You deal with people very differently.

Almost half of the population of Hyderabad are Muslims and the other half are Hindus. How is that manifested? For example, are there Muslim neighborhoods?

Helminger: Yes, there are different neighborhoods. Hyderabad was founded as a Muslim city around the Charminar mosque - a mosque with four minarets. This whole neighborhood is Muslim, you can tell immediately. You can tell by the black clothing of the veiled women as well as the clothing of the men.

I also had the feeling that a poorer population lived there. It is of course not that the Hindu population is not poor, there are thousands upon thousands of homeless people everywhere.

But when you stroll through Charminar, you have a completely different feeling, the alleys are very narrow compared to the rest of the city, which is relatively large, with very wide streets and a lot more traffic. Working life on the street is also different. The craft also seems to be much more visible in the old town than in other quarters.

It is also said - although it will of course be difficult for me to determine in five weeks - that the coexistence of the Muslim and Hindu populations in Hyderabad is very harmonious. At the moment there is a resurgent Hindu nationalism in many regions - including Hyderabad. Of course, this will lead to further clashes, and one can only hope that things will continue to go well in Hyderabad.

There are also great bazaars in the old town, as we know them from Arab countries. You are also asked much more directly to buy something there. I can't say whether this has something to do with the Muslim population or simply the fact that there are a lot more tourists showing up there.

Also noticeable were the children, who were much more aggressive, who pulled on one, as I know it from Egypt, that didn't exist in the other quarters at all. As I said, it can of course have something to do with the fact that there are more tourists there, and tourists have money.

You were not there as a tourist, but as a town clerk, and you wrote that you would rather get to know the life of a vegetable woman than what you can read in travel guides anyway. Did you succeed? Did you get in contact with the population?

Helminger: In part, I think so, because I had the opportunity to establish relationships through the Goethe-Institut. For example, one of my wishes was to visit hospitals and they are guarded ...

Why hospitals of all places?

Helminger: If you walk through the streets at night, you see thousands of homeless people, one sleeping next to the other, there are begging children. On the other hand, there is also the much-touted boom in India, for example through the IT revolution. Of course, only a certain part of it earns from it, and it is getting richer and richer.

On the other hand, there is a strong rural exodus, and these people live on the streets, some of them sleep on islands. This difference between rich and poor is also reflected in other ways.

I then thought about what actually happens in this insane traffic when someone is hit. I also asked people, many say we just keep going. There are no health insurances, you even get into a mess if you, for example, as a rich man, drive up to someone and then pick them up. Then one is asked: 'What do you have to do with that?' The police will be called in immediately.

So I said to myself that there must be hospitals for the poor. When I asked, they took me to a hospital for the rich, where the standard is like this, and then to one for the really poor people. There are huge rooms with up to 60 beds, which run counter to our ideas of hygiene, light, and brightness in a hospital. Nevertheless, most of them recover in it.

At a press conference, an Indian asked you why foreigners always describe India negatively. How does this impression come about?

Helminger: There are several points: since we do not have this type of transport, pollution, homelessness in Europe, it is so obvious that people tend to mention it first. Of course, that bothers the people who live there and know completely different aspects, because they don't just hear it once, but a hundred times. I can understand that too.

On the other hand, I have to say that it might get on my nerves, but it is there too. Not to mention it would be bad.

The second thing is that, with the emergence of Hindu nationalism, this silence is wanted by various people and it is seen as a bad thing for culture, which of course it is not.

Which clichés did you throw overboard during your stay?

Helminger: Of course, I didn't have the clichés that I thought I would run into an elephant or a cow there every step of the way. But it is true that these ideas that one have are very rudimentary.

Of course, I knew the difference between rich and poor. But I didn't know what it would look like in the end. For example, entire quarters are being created for people who work in the IT industry. Incredible houses are being built by other people who live in a self-made hut all the time.

When the bungalows are up and people move in, the workers tear down their huts, go to the next construction site and put the whole thing back together out of wood and plastic. This is insane.

You wrote a great deal in your diary. Will your stay be implemented differently?

Helminger: Yes, that's what I originally thought. I would lock myself in the hotel every three or four days and then just write. I still have a lot of material and now I'm thinking about writing the diary in more detail and bringing it out as a book with photos.

So not a novel about India?

Helminger: No, I plan to do something like my last book, where the stories are all connected, where a character becomes a main character in the next story, where something is forgotten that shows up again in the next story. I would like to do something like that with Hyderabad too.

So how do you rate the town clerk project like that?

Helminger: Writers will not revolutionize the world. For me personally it made a lot of sense. I got to know part of a country and new people. It's easy to overlook something here, but if you're a stranger somewhere, you jot down every little thing. This is a fund from which an author can draw unbelievably.

On the other hand, I started reading a lot of Indian literature. Of course, one cannot say that a huge bridge is being built between two countries. This is a beautiful utopia that lies behind it, but which cannot be realized immediately.

But how do you approach a country? It starts with some people wondering what this country is all about, and I think it's good that I've been encouraged to think about it.

Interview Larissa Bender

© 2006

Interview Thomas Brussig
The Ossi as a representative of the West
Thomas Brussig was a city clerk in Cairo at the invitation of the Goethe Institute. In an internet diary he noted the impressions the metropolis on the Nile made on him. Julia Gerlach spoke to Thomas Brussig.

Ulla Lenze in Damascus
Another kind of culture shock
As part of the Goethe project "midad", the young Cologne author Ulla Lenze, who has received several awards, traveled to Damascus to write an internet diary. Larissa Bender met her there.

José Oliver in Cairo
"One more eye on the road"
"midad", in German ink, is the name of a project by the Goethe Institute that aims to promote the exchange of literature between Germany and the Arab world. This also includes the German and Arab town clerks who publish their diaries on the Internet. Abdul-Ahmad Rashid spoke to the city clerk from Cairo, José Oliver.