Helene Aecherli

About me

People often ask me, why I got interested in the Middle East. It  is a good question, as the answer isn't quite obvious: born in Luzern, in the central part of Switzerland to a Swedish mother and a Swiss father, I grew up embedded in Swiss-Swedish traditions - rather far away from the Middle East.

I guess, the urge to peep beyond the borders of my hometown, country and continent must have come from my father. Being a passionate traveller himself, he used to spend hours with me and my two sisters reading from  books, whose big, colourful pictures told us stories from far away. Books about the Americas, Oceania - and about Arabia. I remember very well how I insisted on diving into the images of Arabia again and again, then we started to study the world map, and as soon as I was able to read, I skipped the conventional children's books and plunged into the telling of adventurers exploring the Arab world. This was it.

Sure, a big part of the fascination could be accredited to my juvenile passion for adventure and my already then almost pathological curiosity. But the urge never eased. When I finished my degree in English and Scandinavian languages and literature at the University of Zürich, I immediately started to work as a journalist and deliberately dedicated a solid part of my writing on issues concerning the Middle East and North Africa. My juvenile passion has turned into something much more: Life with a focus on this region.

Two reasons are the driving forces behind this:

First, the region has rather complex dimensions: It has been intertwined with Europe for centuries, both have influenced each other socially, politically, religiously and culturally. Nowadays, the revolutions in the Arab world and growing religious fundamentalism make Europeans aware of the importance of defending their own democratic and religious values. On the other hand, democratic ideas and the struggle for equal rights between men and women have gained ground in the Middle East and some European institutions and ideas may be of use to these aspirations. For example, the system of federalism might inspire countries like Yemen in their search for a new political framework. And in arts production, graffiti has become a tool of Arab protest movements. This constant interchange requires interest and understanding from both sides to fathom and grasp what is taking place - here as well as there.

Second, travelling to Yemen, Egypt, Oman, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, I have realized, that these countries challenge their visitors in a special way: With every step you take, your ideas, assumptions and prejudice are being questioned. Things turn out to be better or worse or just totally different – but hardly ever as you expected them to be. This has forced me to be clear about who I am and what values I  stand for to be able to be open to others. I have found myself constantly engaged in a balancing act between being true to myself and adapting to my surroundings. This challenge is a gift.

As I get lyrical about food and become grumpy if I don’t get my daily amount of coffee or at least strong black tea, I love to meet people sitting around at a table. And the more people I get to know, the more tea and coffee I drink and the more Salta, Babaganoush, Manakeesh, Foul Mudammas, Hummus and Fondue I share, the wider and more intricate the understanding gets. And yet there is always more to learn. Knitting the web of knowledge is thrilling – and like learning the Arabic language (which I started some years ago) – it is a life-long project. This website is part of it.