"Arabic studies isn't an exotic niche subject'" - an interview with Leibniz Prize winner Friederike Pannewick
Arabic studies professor Friederike Pannewick is one of eleven researchers to be awarded the Leibniz Prize on 27 February 2012. The Leibniz Prize is Germany's most important research award and the most prominent form of individual funding provided by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The prize recognizes outstanding scientists and academics for achieving excellence in their research. This Leibniz Prize for Friederike Pannewick is the first ever for Arabic studies. It celebrates a scholar who has been instrumental in advancing the interdisciplinary reorientation of her field, as well as Near Eastern studies in general. BMBF-online speaks with the Marburg professor about the boom in Arabic studies, new interdisciplinary engagement, and social responsibility.
Professor Friederike Pannewick Professor Pannewick, you teach modern Arabic literature at the Centre for Near and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Marburg. The Leibniz Prize you've been awarded is the first one for the field of Arabic studies entirely. Does this mean the field is gaining importance? Isn't Arabic studies a rather exotic niche field - an "orchid subject"?
Yes, Arabic studies is often labeled an "orchid subject," but these rare flowers bloom in a tremendously wide field of research: language, culture, society, and history of the Arab world, from Mauritania to Lebanon, from Iraq to Oman, and each of these spanning from the seventh century to the present day. So in terms of the object of research, Arabic studies is a huge field. Its significance has steadily increased over the last ten years. Since September 11 at the latest, and then under new auspices throughout the course of the so-called Arab Spring, public perception of the problems and opportunities of the Arab world, along with its interdependence with Europe, has increased.
In what ways do you notice this at your university in Marburg?
The Centre for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the Phillips-Universität Marburg, where I currently work, was opened in 2007. Its foundation took the recommendations of the German Council of Science and Humanities into account, aiming to strengthen regional studies in Germany through interdisciplinary, transregional, and methodologically based networking. Individual professorships for Near and Middle Eastern studies from across Hessen were gathered in a single location in order to develop common perspectives in education and research.
And the students?
The money invested in this centre has borne fruit: the CNMS has been able to accept over 300 students majoring in Near and Middle Eastern studies between its opening in 2007 and today, and with the utilization of teaching capacity at approximately 70 per cent, we're doing just as well as a field like Romance studies. One can no longer really speak of it as an "orchid subject." The number of students is constantly increasing at other locations as well, particularly at the FU Berlin, in Leipzig, or Hamburg.
You've already mentioned September 11 and the Arab Spring. Is Arabic studies a current fashion?
Only partially. Certainly no news programme has aired in the recent years without reporting on the crisis zone of the Near and Middle East. This has aroused a desire in many young people to better understand the problems and visions of this part of the Earth, to learn about possible resolutions, and to think critically about the clichés of these countries that exist in their own societies. New approaches in the relevant departments of German universities have also contributed to the boom in Near Eastern studies. So too has the self-identity of Arabic studies changed substantially in the last ten years - away from a purely philological study of classic texts towards a multidisciplinary engagement with current social, political, economic, and cultural developments.
This sounds like area studies - do your students still need to learn Arabic?
It's precisely the activities that deal with contemporary history, politics, and current social questions that have now become mass events. As soon as Arabic becomes a requirement, we would see a clear decrease in the number of students. After all, learning this language requires a great deal of time and engagement - it's nothing like English or French. Nevertheless, there is a growing willingness to take on this challenge because nowadays the target careers in political consulting, journalism, cultural management, publishing, developmental services, and intercultural education are only available to individuals with active language skills. For this reason we try to integrate as much spoken Arabic as possible into the Bachelor programme - which is still an exception at German universities, unfortunately.
No other researcher in Germany is as engaged with contemporary Arabic literature as you. Above all, you're interested in Arabic theatre. Yet, you're the kind of humanities scholar that has no fear of interacting with political scientists and economists. How important is this social context for you?
I understand my work, the educational mandate of my field, as absolutely political in the sense of social responsibility. My area of research is literature as well as cultural and intellectual history. This area can't be viewed separately from social, religious, political, and economic developments. Art reflects the surrounding society and reality, but at the same time, it's also a product of this social reality, and artwork can lastingly influence and shape the human mind. Films and novels often express points that strike a nerve - points that in day to day life, or in public, are kept quiet, repressed, and denied. For this reason aesthetic forms of expression are worth a closer look - understanding art here as the seismograph of a society. This is a discipline that is highly relevant and that can make a substantial contribution to the analysis of political processes.
The humanities can help explain the world - can enlighten. Do you see yourself as a bridge builder?
Yes, I think my discipline has a definite intermediary function. Our perception of the Arab world is clouded by many misunderstandings. As opposed to many Arab intellectuals, who have detailed knowledge of the European history of thought, we generally have a shameful ignorance of Arab intellectual and cultural history. This is all the more tragic since the foundation of so-called occidental culture touches considerably on the scientific and philosophic achievements of the orient. The essence of Europe is tightly interwoven with the intellectual history of the Arab world. Intercultural processes of exchange aren't the exception - they're the rule. Understanding the Arab world means understanding Europe. As a Near Eastern scholar, I see it as my task to mediate here, and to work towards making a genuine, unbiased, and inquisitive look at the Near East possible in my own society.
You are one of the winners of the Leibniz Prize 2012. How important is it for you that the German Research Foundation and the Federal Ministry of Education support your research?
Literature - and Arabic literature even more so - is often viewed as something beautiful, but ultimately marginal. A programme based purely in the study of literature is often viewed as insufficient, as opposed to studies in economics, politics, history, or religion. Even as a student this irritated me and spurred me on to make sure Arabic literature received the academic recognition it deserves. That the Leibniz prize has honoured these efforts makes me immensely happy, and it provides me with even more encouragement, particularly in an interdisciplinary context, to continue along this path.