Interview with Anna Parzymies: Antidote to the “Clash of Civilizations”
Founder of the first Polish publishing house to specialize in Arab/Muslim civilization, Anna Parzymies is one of those people who find nothing abstract in the notion of different cultures coming together. The ‘Dialogue’ publishing house that she directs has a catalogue of over 200 books it has published revealing various aspects of Muslim culture to Polish readers. She was also a founder member of the Department for European Islam Studies at the University of Warsaw (Poland). This year she shares the 2009 Sharjah prize for Arab culture with Iraqi calligrapher Ghani Alani. This is timely recognition for her contribution to the development, dissemination and promotion of Arab culture throughout the world.
Interview by Jasmina Šopova
You are Polish, born in Bulgaria. Where does your interest in Arab culture come from?
In the 1960s, Eastern European countries strengthened their relations with recently independent Arab states, helping to awaken genuine public interest in Arab culture. Very often, specialists, doctors and academic researchers who had been working with Arab countries published books when they came back that told of these far-off places. The translations of books by Nagib Mahfouz, Yousouf Idris, Al Ghitani and Ghadad as-Simman enthralled their readers. In the meantime, interest in Islam was growing. The first Polish-language edition of the Koran, translated by Professor Jozef Bielawski, founder of the Department for European Islam Studies at the University of Warsaw, turned into something of a cultural event, with people queuing outside bookshops to buy it!
Fertile conditions, then, to foster the curiosity of a young girl like me. I began by studying oriental philology in Sofia (Bulgaria), from 1958 to 1962, and then left for Tunisia, where I stayed from 1962 to 1968. This is how my passion for Arabic language and culture started. Having finished a Masters on the Tunisian Arabic dialect and published a book on Tunisia, I went to Algeria. That is where I worked on my doctorate on family names of Turkish origin, which I submitted on my return to Poland, before starting an academic career at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Warsaw.
In 1992 you started the publishing house, Dialogue (Wydawnictwo Academickie Dialog). What was behind this?
Following the regime change in Poland, the state publishing houses were bought up by private publishers, who, often, did not have the money to carry on the previous activities and had changed their editorial policy to meet the new demands of readers, eager to learn as much as they could about what the “free world” had to offer. As a result, my colleagues and I found it increasingly difficult to publish our research work, popular articles and translations. Having stepped up efforts to attract the attention of publishers, I realised I was fighting a losing battle and decided to start a publishing house that would allow us to continue our activities. I started from scratch, or almost, with a lot of help from colleagues and, above all, support from UNESCO, which funded the computers.
To date we have published over 200 books on Arab/Muslim civilization and the Muslim world in general, notably with grants from the Polish Ministry of Education and the University of Warsaw.
In 1998 you founded the Department for European Islam Studies at the University of Warsaw. How did this idea come to you?
In 1987 and 1988, I had an 8-month fellowship in Aix-en-Provence. It had been over 10 years since I was last in France and I discovered, to my astonishment, a very different population of North African immigrants to the one I had known in the 1970s, which had mostly been manual workers doing their best not to attract attention. I discovered the existence of an educated community, working in private-sector companies, the civil service, in universities. I saw emancipated young women, studying, with careers. I saw a well-organized cultural and religious life.
At the same time, I noticed a certain unease, stemming from a mistrust of Arab/Muslim culture by the French people, as well as an ignorance or incomprehension of French culture within the immigrant community. I had the feeling that, on both sides, people were basing their ideas on outdated clichés. That is when I decided to learn more about the status of immigrants and their working and living conditions.
At that time, Poland was not a destination for immigrant workers. Apart from Arab students, Muslims in Poland are very largely indigenous, of Tartar origin, and have been living in the country for 600 years. They speak Polish and are well integrated into Polish society. But it was not hard to imagine that once Poland joined the European Union, it could become a destination for immigrant workers from Arab countries. It seemed to me that a more informed understanding of the history of Islam in Europe and of European policies regarding Muslim immigration could help us to be better prepared. Apart from this practical aspect, I thought that studying the development of Arab/Muslim immigration within the context of the multiculturalism that characterises Europe today could only enrich our vision of the world. When I returned to Warsaw I put forward a proposal to create a research department on Muslims in Europe. The project was immediately accepted, both by the Rector and the University Senate.
Are Polish students interested in studying this subject?
Their interest turned out to be much greater than I’d hoped. It must be said that events like the Gulf War, 9/11, the war in former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Near-East greatly increased interest in Islam and Arab culture. And, because our courses were not restricted to students in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, the lecture theatres were often full. Students from other faculties, journalists and young civil servants in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs now participate very actively.
What is the main thesis of the book, Islam and Terrorism, you wrote in 2003?
The book aims to present the causes and the history of terrorism and, especially to explain that its sources are not linked to the Muslim religion, and that a distinction has to be made between terrorism and Islam. I wrote it after 11 September 2001, when the ‘war on terrorism’ declared by President Bush changed, for some, and in the media, into a war on Islam, against Muslims. I also set out the sources of anti-American feeling that had grown in Arab societies.
What does the idea of ‘cultural rapprochement’ evoke for you?
Knowing and understanding, above all. But also accepting the fact of cultural diversity and, from there strengthening intercultural dialogue. In a word, the antidote to Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’, which considers that hostility between civilizations is natural.