Navid Kermani on German literature, the Qur'an and Neil Young

Eleanor Wachtel speaks to novelist Navid Kermani in the third part of our series "At the Centre of Europe: A Changing Germany."
Navid Kermani was born in Germany to Iranian parents, but says "identities are more complicated than passports."
Listen to the full episode51:33

What does it mean to be German? Who belongs? How are these questions addressed by Germans of foreign background — both immigrants and those born within the country? This episode is the third in a four-part series: "At the Centre of Europe: A Changing Germany."

Navid Kermani is a German novelist, poet, essayist and scholar whose work has led him to be recognized as one of Germany's leading writers and thinkers. The son of educated and pious Iranian immigrants, Kermani was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and become a doctor, but the call of theatre, philosophy and Oriental studies was too strong for him to ignore. He is an admirer of both German classical literature and the Qur'an. Last October, Kermani became the first German Muslim to be awarded the Peace Prize — Germany's leading book award — for his commitment to creating an "open European society, which provides protection for refugees and space for humanity." God Is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur'anis a groundbreaking academic book that grew out of Kermani's doctoral dissertation. His first literary work, published in 2003 (but not available in English), is called The Book of Those Killed by Neil Young.

Navid Kermani spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Cologne, Germany.


I have three older brothers, so I grew up with the music of their age — 10 or 15 years older than myself — rather than my own. Neil Young, the Rolling Stones — this is the music that was present in the house. So it was the sound of my life. My daughter had colic when she was a few weeks old and she cried every evening. We were absolutely desperate. One time, just by accident, we switched on the CD player, and it was Neil Young's "The Last Trip to Tulsa," and with the voice of Neil Young, she got quiet. It's a 12-minute song, and not an especially soothing song, but when the song stopped, she started to cry again. I switched it on again and she was calm again, so I learned that in three hours you can listen to "The Last Trip to Tulsa" 12 or 13 times! I wrote [The Book of Those Killed by Neil Young] about the songs that my baby listened to. 


I grew up with German literature. If you look at the German literary tradition before the Second World War, you'll see it was a religious tradition. It was not so much about society; 19th-century Germany did not have this phenomenon of the big social novel. German literature is preoccupied with metaphysical questions. Jean Paul, Kleist, Büchner, Goethe, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse — all of them looked into the sky. The sky got more and more empty, but they still looked at the sky. So from my first access to serious literature, I grew up with these metaphysical questions. And, you know, many of the 19th-century German writers were the sons of priests. They grew up with the Bible. So if you don't know about this religious background of German literature, you cannot understand it. It's more the existential questions than the social questions.


Hearing the Qur'an sung in Cairo was truly an aesthetic experience. It was not through the meaning, but through the sound. I grew up in a very anti-aesthetic environment, where religion is about meaning, telling you that you should do this or that, or God is this or that. I thought that was what religion was — teaching you to do the good things and not the bad things. In Cairo, though, religion was practiced in the streets, with interaction between the person reciting it and the audience. The audience shapes the recitation, like in a jazz concert. I went to this recitation in Cairo, and it was an Arab Christian friend who took me, not because he thought it was true, but because he thought it was beautiful. I knew some poets, and they liked the Qur'an not because it's religious, but because of the structure of the text and the music of the text and the singing. I was a young student at the time, and this opened my mind. I couldn't find any books about this, so it became a topic which I have written about for many years.

Navid Kermani's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Down by the River," composed by Neil Young, performed by Neil Young with Crazy Horse.