Dürrenmatt’s visit

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 31 May 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said uses a famous Swiss play to analyse unfolding international relations


The Visit of the Old Lady is perhaps the best known play by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), most of whose works, according to experts, can be classed in the tragicomedy genre. As a young woman, the protagonist, Claire, falls in love with Alfred who jilts her after she becomes pregnant. She brings a paternity suit against him, but he produces two false witnesses which leads the court to rule in his favour. Claire vanishes, returning fifty years later, immensely wealthy and with a coffin.

Her native village fetes her return, but it has fallen on hard times and its officials appeal to her generosity. She pledges to help it out with a generous donation, but on one condition: the townspeople must kill her former lover.  They are shocked, but they begin to make expensive purchases on credit in anticipation of the forthcoming windfall. Alfred grows increasingly paranoid. He pleads with the police chief and mayor, but they ignore his concerns. He turns to the priest who also can not help. The townspeople, in turn, ask him to commit suicide so they can receive Claire’s gift, which leads him to resolve to live as a recluse until he dies. 

The play was highly successful, translated and performed in many languages and adapted into the film, The Visit (1964), starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn. As often happens with artistic and literary works, critics projected political and social issues onto it. When the film came out in the 1960s, some critics saw the visit as a metaphor for the US military involvement in Europe in World War II, after which the US injected vast sums of money through the Marshall Plan to engineer a post-war Europe tailored to US interests.

This reading of the play bears the marks of a leftist outlook with its deep suspicion of self-serving ulterior motives driving the rich to spend money, such as a long-harboured thirst for vengeance or a megalomanic lust for hegemony and the trappings of power and wealth. The interpretation is still common and has been used in all or part by Vladimir Putin and segments of the European left.

What made me think of that play now is the news that US President Joe Biden is planning a visit to the Middle East before the end of June. It is no secret that the elderly American leader, unlike his predecessor Trump, believes that America has a mission because it is armed with American democracy, the political system best suited to solve the problems of societies, states and regions, whereas no good can from countries he classes under “autocracy” and other such labels.

Following the announcement of that news, US officials, mostly from the Pentagon and State Department, have been calling in on various Middle Eastern capitals, and many officials from this region have reciprocated. But all this movement is taking place against a complex backdrop that we need to consider. 

The first and most salient factor is the dual war: Russia vs Ukraine /Moscow vs Washington and NATO. Whatever its political and strategic implications, that war’s economic repercussions have cried out the loudest given their global impact. This puts energy, oil and gas in particular, high on international priorities lists due to inflation and rising prices.

The second factor is Washington’s declared intent of withdrawing from this region, which it is acting on as it focusses its energies on Russia and China, its declared adversaries and rivals. As for those it identifies as its friends, among whom it sees the greatest available economic opportunities, they are to be found in East and Southeast Asia. Thirdly, no issue in the Middle East merits American attention more than the nuclear agreement with Iran, while terrorism and anarchy are matters best left to the region to resolve. But Washington has its own take on such matters, one that leads it to lift the terrorist designation from the Houthis in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other terrorist organisations, though not the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, yet. 

A fourth, crucial factor is domestic. The “visit of the old man” to this region will take place as the US is gearing up for midterm congressional elections. If the Republican Party achieves its electoral goals, it will be in a position to stymie the Biden administration for the rest of his term until the next election in which Biden’s Republican challenger will most likely be Donald Trump or someone similar.

Fifthly, this region’s response to all the foregoing is to rely on itself. After some Arab countries concluded the “Abraham Peace” with Israel and since the AlUla Declaration adopted in the last Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, the process of cooling down regional political temperatures has picked up momentum. Channels of communication and windows of diplomatic opportunity opened with Iran and Turkey, severed relations were restored and more and more steps were taken towards bilateral and multilateral understandings.

Perhaps we should take into account other developments in the region and the world. Whatever the case, the particular significance of the forthcoming visit is that the elderly leader comes from what is still the world’s leading superpower, regardless of what we might say about its decline. His aim will be to win advantages and gains proceeding from the premise that his economic problems are our problems too. The oil-producing Gulf countries must be frank with him. They must make it clear that whatever they do, it will be to benefit global economic and welfare and that they do not like being pressured when energy prices rise only for their problems and concerns to be ignored when prices go down. 

With regard to the problems of the Middle East, the people of Mecca are best acquainted with Mecca’s roads and passes, as the saying goes. Every time the US interferes in the region, the decision-making ends up in Washington, inducing other powers, such as China and Russia, to claim a share of the decision-making pie. If Washington is worried for Israel, the current reality points to many avenues for assimilating Israel into the region. In addition to the peace agreements and establishment of direct relations, we have the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and other types of understandings in the northern Red Sea region. 

The main obstacle to the comprehensive assimilation process is ongoing Israeli settlement expansion in Area C in the West Bank, discrimination against Palestinians inside Israel, and persistent violations by Jewish extremists or by the Israeli government itself against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim rights in Jerusalem and against the Al-Aqsa Mosque. All of these matters can be handled in direct regional formats such as those that led to various positive developments in recent years. But there does remain a crucial concern. Iran can not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon. In this regard, I believe it would be useful to encourage an old proposition, namely to make the whole of the Middle East a region free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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