The desk of Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz displayed at his museum in the al-Azhar district of Cairo. Photo: AFP / Khaled Desouki

Among the artifacts in the Goethe Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, is a page of script that begins with one of the most oft-repeated sayings in the Arabic language, “Bismallah al-Rahman al-Raheem,” or in English, “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate.” More than two centuries old, that sheet of paper captures the essence of cross-cultural exchange.

Muslims recite this phrase at the start of any surah in the Koran. By writing it at the top of a page before continuing in his native tongue, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest figure in German literature, was following a common custom at the time in parts of the Muslim world and revealing his fascination with Arabic and Persian poetry.

That fascination – Goethe particularly loved the works of the great 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz – resulted in the publication of the “West-Eastern Divan” in 1819, a collection of life-affirming and sensual poems that literary critics describe as a reconfiguration of European poetry.

That was then, but what about cross-cultural exchanges today, not only in literature but in science and other fields? The fascination with, say, 1001 Nights remains, and it continues to be revisited by writers from around the world. But there is nothing on the scale of the cross-fertilization of ideas that went on between medieval Europe and the Arab and Muslim world.

Countries such as the United Arab Emirates are good at bringing together artists from different cultures to collaborate and build bridges of understanding and tolerance. But it is fair to say that in the age of global digitization, the distinction between East and West is becoming ever more blurred amid fears that Arab identity and culture is being subsumed by Americanization.

For instance, the first original Arabic series on Netflix, the supernatural teen drama Jinn, made its worldwide debut this summer to much fanfare. Filmed in Jordan, it follows a group of teenagers on a trip to Petra, where they accidentally summon a figure from the spirit world and must then try to stop it destroying the world. But the series was widely condemned in Jordan for “lewdness” and “un-Arab” values. It was said that Jordan’s top prosecutor even asked the Ministry of Interior to stop the show being broadcast.

The supposed lewdness that provoked such outrage would not even raise an eyebrow in the West. But that is not the point. In all cultural exchanges, there is a balance to be struck; both sides should add to and gain from the collaboration.

Around the world, the homes of great writers, painters, musicians and even a pope are preserved to keep alive their legacy for succeeding generations. But while there are many museums in the Middle East and North Africa, hardly any are dedicated to an actual individual and his or her work. For all the wealth of Arab poetry, I know of only one proper museum dedicated to an Arab poet.

That is in Bsharreh in Lebanon, the birthplace of the world-renowned Gibran Khalil Gibran, which is now home to a museum containing his private library, manuscripts, personal belongings, 440 original paintings, and the contents of the New York studio he worked in. The museum is in the 7th-century Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius) hermitage and receives many Western tourists paying homage to the author of The Prophet.

The 10th-century poet Al-Mutanabbi is considered one of the greatest and most influential practitioners in the Arabic language. Yet there is no museum honoring this famous literary figure, whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages. A house in Aleppo where he is believed to have lived for nine years was in the process of being restored as a museum when the war in Syria intervened.

The many messages in Arabic left by visitors to the Goethe House museum are testament to the mutual esteem between the 18th-century German writer and the Middle East, whose poetry and culture he so admired. Goethe would surely love the fact that around the corner from the house where he was born is today a café much patronized by Arabs.

The same kind of museum should celebrate the lives and works of great Arab writers, not only to preserve their work for new generations of Arabs but to introduce them to the Western world and inspire a new, much-needed love affair between East and West.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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Rym Tina Ghazal

Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.

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