Interview with the president of the Goethe Institute

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Kitabistan is our imaginary country (translation: Kitabistan means country of book readers). We study the cases of developed countries of the world and present them to Azerbaijani readers in the form of books and researches. We started studying Germany from Immanuel Kant, Martin Luther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller. But we do not consider our work finished with that. In order to learn more deeply, more comprehensively, we must also study German culture, literature, philosophy, institutional framework, academic research, think tanks, and linguistic foundations. After that, we can make a more effective and thorough contribution to intercultural dialogue and cultural exchange. Let's start with a German-specific feature.
German mindset makes decisions about a field and determines the next steps only after studying the field completely and mastering it with scientific methods. This positive feature is one of the reasons of the fundamental development of the German people.
At the end of May, I was very pleased when I got the news that the president of the Goethe Institute, Dr. Carola Lentz, would come to Azerbaijan. In fact, I had the intention of inviting Dr. Lentz to Azerbaijan to give a lecture at "Kitabistan Talks" event. Because I was familiar with Dr Lentz's extensive scientific works, and we wanted to arrange her meeting with our audience to listen to this great knowledge live. We immediately requested an appointment for an interview and received a kind positive response from Dr. Lentz. 
Our interviewee is a social anthropologist, senior research professor at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, and president of the Goethe Institute Dr. Carola Lentz. We present to you our very interesting interview.

-  As a specialist in social anthropology, your opinion is interesting. Where do you think we should start for the cultural integration of the peoples of the South Caucasus, as well as the integration of the South Caucasus into Europe as a whole?

-   This is my first time in South Caucasus, and so I have not enough background knowledge to answer your question. As anthropologist my first task would be to stay a longer time to better understand the local and regional dynamics, and then perhaps share some of my observations. But currently, I am not in any position to give advice. More generally, social anthropologists see themselves as learners, not advisors. But maybe we can talk on examples that I know better from my research in Ghana and West Africa. And then it is up to Azerbaijani people or also to Georgians to say if that experience is relevant for them or not.

Maybe one of the biggest differences is that most African countries are multilingual and multiethnic. In Ghana, for instance, there are 200 languages. And of these languages maybe twelve or fourteen are spoken by a larger number of people. People understand each other because everybody grows up with two or three languages, even those who do not know how to read and write. Furthermore, the state promotes in Ghana an active cultural policy of depoliticizing ethnicity. It tries to avoid that cultural identifications are used as a basis for separatism or secession or generally political movements. This is, of course, not always possible, because sometimes people use cultural identities to struggle, for instance, for land rights or other resources. So, we do have ethnic conflicts in West Africa that are based on resource conflicts, for instance, conflicts of herders versus farmers, or there are oil-producing international firms that are polluting the Delta area in Nigeria and people are strongly protesting. In these mobilizations, cultural identifications play a role.

More generally, I think that as an anthropologist I always try to look first at commonalities and shared perspectives, not differences. Actually, you will never share all characteristics with a group. You may share your religion with some people, your language with others, your eating habits with still others. Such cultural differences may intersect and overlap, but it is very difficult to find that people are living in, so to speak, culturally defined boxes and that these boxes are clearly separate from each other. So, I think one of the issues is to look for common experiences, for common roots in history or in present times. At the same time, respecting differences may be important because they can enrich us with a variety of perspectives. However, I am not naïve, and of course, as soon as cultural differences become politicized, connected with resources, people may want to fight on that basis, and coexistence can become very difficult. And once you have violence, it is very difficult to get back beyond that.

-  Since 2020 November, you are the president of the Goethe Institute. To summarize, what is the activity of the Goethe Institute?

-   It is a big cultural institute, indeed Germany’s largest institution of cultural exchange abroad. We work in 98 countries with roughly 158 institutes and have more than 4,000 employees worldwide, most of whom are locals, that is, citizens of the guest countries where we work. There are three main pillars of our work. One is teaching the German language and providing training for German teachers. The second is cultural exchange in the broadest sense. And the third is giving information about German society and cultural life in Germany. Sometimes these three aspects of our work are going together, sometimes they are a bit separate. So, language teaching, for instance, is of course not only about language. For teaching you use materials like books that also transport information about Germany, and students learn about German everyday life and a style of living or doing politics etc. that is perhaps different from their own country. Concerning cultural exchange, we try to not export German culture as such, but to create networks and promote exchange, not only bilaterally, but also in a wider sense. I think the exhibition “The hunger artist” that we open tonight is a good example: there are three Azerbaijani artists, one from Kazakhstan, one from Georgia, two from Germany, and one from Brazil. And many of them have not known each other before coming here. So, Baku provides for them a meeting space, and beyond presenting their works to the public, they are interacting among themselves, they are already thinking of new joint projects. For instance, the Georgian artist may wish to continue to work with the Azerbaijani artists, or they may have further exchanges with the German artists. So, the Goethe Institute wants to promote such platforms and possibilities of exchange.

-   In the globalized world, we witness cultural clashes, the disappearance of some cultures and the emergence of new ones. What is the role of German culture in the globalized world?

-   I don’t think cultures disappear. I don’t think cultures are persons who have feet and walk away. So, I don’t believe that they disappear. I think it is people who live in societies, who have cultural practices, and these can change, of course, they can evolve, they can be transformed, they can take on influences from other people whom they meet and so on. I don’t see culture as a box, and thus it is not one culture and another culture and a third culture that are separate. But if you wish to speak of “German culture”, I believe that as long as the language is alive it will not disappear. But it could maybe become more Azerbaijani if we invite more jazz musicians (red. laughs). There are all these wonderful encounters of jazz musicians from Azerbaijan. Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, for instance, lives in my German hometown Mainz. Her children are in school in Germany, I believe, so, they will necessarily interact with German children and learn from them. And maybe these German friends are then invited to her house, and they will get to know some new cultural aspects and develop new ideas… Or take these wonderful carpets that you have in Azerbaijan. Culture is perhaps like a carpet, where you weave different patterns, bring in different colours, and develop new techniques. I went to the Haydar Aliyev Center today and yesterday to the Carpet Museum. And I saw some beautiful new carpets that take up old traditions but develop them in quite novel ways. So, I don’t really think cultures as such disappear, but they transform. They evolve.

Sometimes, of course, there are conflicts about such transformations. We have people in Germany, for instance, who say, that we should not use all these English terms, but stay true to our original language. Or there is a debate about gender forms, and some people complain that these forms are corrupting the purity of the German language. We need to be open, but it is not always without conflict. However, as long as we manage to interact with each other...

“I don’t see culture as a box, and thus it is not one culture and another culture and a third culture that are separate”

- When I think of German culture, I think of Luther, Humboldt, Max Planck, Johannes Gutenberg and, of course, Goethe. Although they were in different directions, the appeal or research of each of them was human. If we start from here, we can actually come to the conclusion that the creation of fair competition is important and typical for German culture. It is interesting for me. On what criteria does the Goethe Institute choose the partners to cooperate with?

- I think it is probably a mixture of thematic interests and personal networks. It is necessary to have trusting relationships. So, sometimes it is difficult to go through an open call for a particular project or programme and then decide by objective criteria that we are going to work with this or that person. If you don’t have any other reference, it may be difficult to know if that person will not disappoint you, embezzle your money or whatever. We do have some programmes with an open competition and a call for applications, like for scholarships, for residencies etc. And sometimes through these open applications, Goethe-Institut directors meet people whom they had not known before and who are very talented, well organized, and they may eventually work with them in a longer term. In Baku, for instance, Alfons Hug is retiring at the end of this year and a new person will come in. And I am sure the new person will seek his advice, ask him with whom he has collaborated, who was helpful, who was inspiring. But the new person will also start developing new networks and set up open calls. So, I think it is this mixture of curiosity, openness for new ideas and people, and trusted personal networks which you need. In principle, we are always seeking to enlarge our networks, to bring in more people, to look for. But of course, this also depends on our resources, and right now, we have severe budget cuts in Germany with respect to cultural work abroad. So, that affects our work. Still, with the little money, we try to make as much as possible.

- In the end, I want to ask you our traditional question. What book would you recommend to Azerbaijani readers?

- One novel I have recently read and really enjoyed was written in German but it is a Georgian book, by Nino Haratischwili who lives in Berlin and writes in German. It is called “Das mangelnde Licht”. It has just been translated into Georgian and will soon be published in English. It was published in Germany a year ago, and it is a wonderful novel about four girls who lived through the period from 1987 to about 2017, first in Georgia and then outside of Georgia. It is tracing the biographies of four women in this turmoil of warlords, corrupt regimes, new opportunities, war, different revolutions etc. So, they have had to find their way. 800 pages, written in German, but also part of Georgian literature. So, you can see that I personally really love to read world literature.

- Thank you very much for the interview, and for answering the questions.

- Thank you for asking.

Malak Hajiyeva