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The meaning of beauty and of life itself

A dialogue between Rabab Haidar and Ulla Lenze


One winter day we went for a walk in the Berlin’s Rehbergepark, from there emerged a series of discussions which continued over many months. We talked about “Eastern” and “Western” aesthetics, minimalism in art and as a lifestyle, modernism as a (not) global movement. At the end it was not “East meets West” but two individuals trying to figure out the meaning of beauty and of life itself.###

It all started with a discussion of Ulla’s fourth novel, The Endless City, which had recently been released in Cairo. She was puzzled by the new bookcover that the Egyptian publisher had chosen - dazzling green background and in the middle there was the head of a model-like woman with high cheekbones, and from her crown grew, yes, a city.

“No, this is beautiful!” Rabab argued.

“Ok, why do you think it’s beautiful?”

“I mean compared to your German cover!’

The cover of Ulla’s new novel The Radio Operator is a black and white photograph from the 50s, showing a man in a suit walking towards the photographer, who probably sits behind a window, since there are mysterious spots on the picture –they may be stains, patina on the glass – covering the man’s mouth. Ulla and the publishing house were thrilled, when the agency came up with this cover, for its dynamism, its poise, its mystery. Even after Ulla explained the fascination – and also agreeing that maybe it was not beautiful in the sense of the beauty of a flower - Rabab stressed that no, she would not put it on her wall!

Rabab: “We are applying our discussion to book covers, which are advertisements of the concept of the book, yet light black extended with shades of gray to nameless white, pale and gloomy, I would not put it on my wall.”

We already know each other quite well, by a series of strange connections, before we even met in person or worked together, through certain cities and places, mutual friends and Ulla’s first novel. There is mutual respect for each other’s intellect affirmed through many conversations and arguments, and we know now that the other one has interesting, good reasons for her judgments. So we were intrigued to find out what makes each feel that something is beautiful, and something not.

Ulla: “Could you specify what is the problem with nameless white, and layers of grey, why is it that what I find mysterious and interesting doesn’t trigger the same feelings in you?”

Rabab: “I do not look at the meaning and indications of the picture, but at the forms and colours. I do not try to translate the picture, but to feel it. I do understand the layers of gray, yet I would love to enter a maze of colours and shapes.”

Ulla: “When you say you do not look at the meaning and indications, you are saying that you put aside the reflective part in the aesthetic experience in favor of a direct experience?”

Rabab: “I would not call it direct experience or reflective thoughts. The sense of beauty is of the conscious and subconscious intellect, as much as of the conscious and unconscious motives; if you look deep into what you find beautiful, you see traces of hidden personal nostalgia as well as intellectual interpretation, between them layers of political and social movements of thoughts.”

Ulla: “So let’s try this and look at your book cover.”

Rabab’s novel has a cover with a black and white picture of a pomegranatecracked open to show red seeds, and Arabic calligraphy.

Ulla: „It is indeed a nice cover, but maybe a bit harmless; I would miss an element of disruption, like the real world has.”

Rabab: “The disruption is in the colour red, contrasting the black and white. The calligraphy adds another dimension, vague letters that might or might not form a word, but open a window to a different level, a bridge to an oriental concept.”

Ulla: “Interesting. It helps me look differently at the cover. But does it actually mean I need you as my guide? Or let me ask like this: we both agree that aesthetical sensations are individually as well as culturally shaped. Is there a specific experience from your cultural background that shaped your views?”

Rabab: “When you went to Damascus, Istanbul, or India you did not need any one to make you feel the aesthetics.”

Ulla: “On one level, yes, there is always a spontaneous understanding. But a lot of things you only understand or even notice after learning about the cultural historical context. I was wondering if, like in case of our book covers, our slight difference in judgment is a matter of individual, as well as of cultural, perspectives (not saying that this can be clearly identified always). For example I find calligraphy very beautiful and impressive, but I cannot be sure that I catch all the subtle meanings like you (probably) do.”

Rabab: “I do not claim to be a representative of ‘the Orient’, nor are you a representative of the West, or the German! Yet we both agreed that aesthetics are culturally and socially structured. In Berlin one can follow the political, economic and environmental changes that affected the architecture from Weimar era to Bauhaus, till modern sustainability. On the other hand, the Oriental repetitive geometric shapes in a continuum, the oriental taste of beauty is well preserved and protected by the designs of sacred shapes that forever live in our sacred places of worship, and is guarded carefully by social norms.

Those sacred geometric shapes create a continuum, representative of Sufi philosophy on understanding the mechanics of this Universe. All make the sense of a maze, a psychological, more like a theatrical psychological maze of colors and shapes. All is reserved by religion, culture, as well as social norms.

Ulla: “This sounds fascinating. And yet, I do feel I would appreciate you as my knowledgeable guide! Our conversations on aesthetics made me wonder whether straight, functional forms are a particularly German preference. For example, the New Objectivity, that emerged as a style in Germany in the 1920s, in contrast to the romantic tendencies of Expressionism. New Objectivity still seems to be an aesthetical ideal that influences modern architecture around the globe. Designs that are too accommodating are usually frowned upon.”

Rabab: “How do you subconsciously react to your apartment for example? The minimal, objective, and practical furniture in Berlin?

Ulla: “I admit that I prefer emptiness. There is so much already going on in the world and inside me, I can’t handle too much decoration. Though I am very interested in art, while I am in a creative process myself, I need to stay away from other people’s art. Maybe that is why my place is quite simple; but important for me is sunlight and high ceilings. What is your idea of housing?”

Rabab: “I have to point out that I love your concept of colours and shapes. Onetime we were talking about oriental decorations, and you said: it is too loud for me. That made me think: Do colors have noises, voices?”

Ulla: “Yes, some items, some colours can be loud.”

Rabab: “Colours give different vibrations, that means different sounds; they even allow different space– like music- that might trap you in a certain dimension. Let’s take blue, different shades of blue: the dark blue, and the neon blue, and the light blue – they all have different waves that give different vibrations, sound spaces, and even different time! In this sense, white, for me, is so loud, I dare to say it is even hostile! And yes, I do agree that the different shades of abstract, minimal, practical off-whites allow you more freedom. Still I find it more interesting to connect to Sufi concepts around me.”

Ulla: „Yes, I think some items enhance experience, others are blocking experience.”

Rabab: “I would love to ask you: What is the connection between art and beauty for you?”

Ulla: “A sunset can be very beautiful, but usually not a picture of a sunset, that would probably be “kitsch” or hokum. Art has in some way to do justice to the complexity of the world, otherwise it quickly feels delusional. Plain beauty has a tendency to feel obtrusive. A famous phrase by Friedrich Schiller says: “Beauty is freedom in appearance.” I prefer art that reflects the vulnerable and messy world and which allows different interpretations and truths. Maybe that explains the success of minimalism, as it promises an absence of manipulation. The viewer is free to explore and see by him or herself.”

Rabab: “Manipulation is a very interesting word! I do like to manipulate my brain into different directions, maybe the maze I talked about is other kinds of manipulations and illusions for the mind to play with…With the question of minimalism, how do you connect to it?

Ulla: “Well, minimalism started in architecture and art, and today it is a life style. Life-style-minimalism promotes the idea that through reducing material stuff you return to the essence, to that which is meaningful or even pure. I like it, but I am certainly open to other styles too. How about you?”

Rabab:“I do feel it is not mine. Because I believe, culturally influenced most probably, that it is a blessing from the universe to have not only what you need but also what you feel that you might want, or like to look at… it means that you are in harmony with the abundance and lusciousness of the universe, of nature. God, the Universe, or whatever power you believe in, that loves you, gives you all those things.”

Ulla: “This is so interesting, because I know this concept from Hinduism – f.e. Lakshmi is the Goddess of wealth and beauty, and being wealthy means you are blessed by God. Whereas in Christianity living modestly is – at least in the official line - considered a virtue. I can connect to that, though I am also a huge fan of comfort or even luxury, if I run into it. But for creativity I prefer space and simplicity.”

Rabab: “You don’t have to be owned by the objects around you.”

Ulla: “No, but it easily allows you that space when you free yourself from unnecessary stuff. Does that make sense to you?”

Rabab: “I can understand it, but I cannot connect to it. It is not that you belong to those objects or are owned by them. It is using those objects and not letting them enter your mind. Being a minimalist sometimes it means rejecting the “material world”, yet sometimes rejecting something emphasizes the thing itself.

Ulla: “Yes, that is true too. One shouldn’t get rigid about it, that makes one unfree again.”

Rabab: „We are not talking as representatives of something, but you asked earlier: Is this a German thing? Or a 20th century thing? Or is it personal? The answer; it is very relative. You cannot put a one-line theory behind what you think”

Ulla: „I totally agree. And yet the moment I travel, I can feel who I am, or where I come from. Remember when you came to Germany 1,5 years ago you were puzzled by the interiors of German houses (also your Heinrich Böll-Stipendium residency), hardly any decoration, white walls, and you felt lost in them. But then that changed?“

Rabab: „Yes, it changed a little bit. But I cannot connect with it really. When you go to other countries, is it because of discovering the other only?“

Ulla: „Yes. In the beginning I seem almost to dissolve in the experience of another city, it’s language, smells, sounds, culture. But when I am away for a longer time I start remembering elements of my origin. When I went to India at the age of 16, first I completely embraced the other culture, but after several months I realized I was missing myself.“

Rabab: „In these areas you can see yourself in different lights actually, through communicating with the other perspective.“

Ulla: „Yes, it enriches you, expands you, at the same time you also deepen your understanding of where you are coming from. Rabab, you too went to India. We both love India, but cannot agree on how we like the bright colours, right? I love them.”

Rabab: “For you it is entering a new world, that’s why you can accept it. For me it is my world, but exaggerated.”

After a long day of discussions, this time in Kreuzberg, we again looked at each other’s bookcovers, and we realized, that our acceptance had grown. We actually assured each other, that the covers were „not that bad after all“ (but we still wouldn’t put them on our walls).


This text was first published in the online magazine of the Solothurner Literaturtage 2020. / Dieser Text erschien zuerst im Mai 2020 in dem Online-Magazin der Solothurner Literaturtage.



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