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DFG/David Ausserhofer/Freie Universität Berlin

Beatrice Gründler: ‘Literary text can help us understand Europe better’

'Consider languages in their shared context.' That is the message of Professor and Arabist Beatrice Gründler, who will receive an honorary doctorate from Leiden University on 8 February. ‘I would like people to learn that Arabic history has a close connection with Europe.’

As daughter of a script specialist, from a young age Gründler came into contact with languages other than the German with which she was brought up. ‘I learned hieroglyphs when I was little,’, she says. ‘I loved them so much, I almost studied Egyptology, but at age fifteen I saw Arabic script. Being an alphabet script, it’s easier to write than hieroglyphs, but what I mainly fell for is its aesthetics,’ she recalls.

Poetry as political tool

Behind the beautiful image there is a world that still fascinates Gründler today. After studying Arabic, she earned a PhD in premodern Arabic praise poetry. ‘That wasn’t a very popular topic back then,’ she recalls. ‘The flattery of the poems was considered outdated and tasteless, but I had the idea there had to be something more to it.’ She immersed herself in the subject and discovered that the poems were used as a political strategy. ‘They were a political and ideological tool to portray rulers in a positive light, and at the same time they were considered great art. In that sense, you can compare the poets to Western portrait painters who painted their rulers; sometimes these artists were even diplomats, but they also produced great art.'

Exchange between languages and cultures

Changing how unknown or ignored texts are looked at has become a common thread in Gründler's career. ‘It’s in the nature of our field to neglect texts,’ she explains. ‘We have to, because it’s a huge field that covers fourteen centuries and only the big universities have professors to research it.’ And then she herself has contributed to a significant expansion of the field by looking not only at Arabic in her research, but also at the relationship texts have with writings in other languages. 'Because Arabic was so widespread, it came into frequent contact with other languages and cultures.'

'Because Arabic was so widespread, it came into frequent contact with other languages and cultures.'

There is, for instance, the famous example of Aristotle's Poetics, which was all but forgotten in Europe after antiquity, but actually caused a furore in the Arab world. It is therefore eventually the Arabic commentary  by Averroes that is translated back into Latin. ‘The translator translated it with all the Arab poems and references that Averroes added in it. It created a form of global literature.’

This exchange between languages and cultures can be seen even more emphatically in another genre that interests Gründler: wisdom literature, in which statements are compiled to teach the reader something about ethics and virtue. ‘I wanted to present one of these works in a course on global literature, but there wasn’t a proper translation. There couldn’t be, because almost every manuscript contained major changes. I already knew there was a tradition in oral retelling, but these texts were rewritten by coppiist. That was new, so I wanted to understand what happened.’ That meant Gründler had to explore a network of more than 40 languages, from Syriac to Icelandic and Malay. ‘Some manuscripts changed very slowly, but some copyists made their own optimised version by combining what they found.’

We live in a global world

To her new Leiden audience, Gründler hopes to show how important such language and text networks are – even today. ‘We live in a global world, where Europe has become home to people with an Arab background and Islam is now a religion. If you know the literary culture of the more diverse population of Europe, you can interact better with a more cosmopolitan Europe and make people feel more at home.’

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