18.11.2005Cultural ExchangeGetting Rid of the Stereotypical Image of the "Other"Germany has increased efforts to build up ties with the Arab world. As part of these efforts, the Goethe Institute and the University of Alexandria initiated a student exchange program. Amira Elmasry, one of the participants, recorded her experience
A knot in the barrel - During the seminar, students from Egypt and Germany discussed the issue of political violence in western and Muslim societies When I first learned about the German-Egyptian student exchange programme, organised by the Goethe Institute in collaboration with the University of Alexandria, I did not know what to expect. The proposed discussion plan entailed topics like "Political Violence", "Terrorism and Resistance" and "Politics and Religion", which all sounded at first like mere clichés.
Before the arrival of the German group the members of the Egyptian group began to meet to prepare for the workshop, and I became more aware of the sensitivity of the subjects; especially since the members of our group had had some heated discussions, which revealed some of our internal differences.
Starting our with a cautious attitude
All the same, the first days we spent in Cairo with the German group gave us a chance to break the ice and exchange views on a friendly basis. On our first session here in Alexandria we were all still watching our steps, and we started out with a cautious attitude.
After a couple of minutes, though, ideas and objections began to pour in. The differences in points of view between the members began to emerge, which, unlike what I had anticipated, encouraged more people to participate.
The discussion between us became richer and more interesting, and it became more than just a debate between two groups, a European one and an Arab one. It was made clear for everyone that each Egyptian member and each German member had an individual stance, which may as well differ or agree with the rest.
This helped everyone to get rid of the stereotypical image of the "other". For, although the topics were of sheer political concern, each one of us got to explain how the big political picture influenced our own individual experience. This made the discussion more real and vivid and less clichéd.
We did not always manage to adhere to the plan of discussion, for the curiosity and eagerness to exchange views, on both sides, sometimes dominated.
Vivid "political brainstorming"
At the end of the workshop some students complained that we never reached a final resolution. My answer was that this was never the purpose of our project, at least not for me.
The mere fact that each group had an immediate access to how the "other" thinks, away from the framing of ideas and the priming of emotions propagated by the mass media, made it possible to clear many of the already existing misconceptions and preconceived notions.
People were not necessarily persuaded into something or dissuaded from another, but at least we were made aware of the assorted aspects of an issue and it was up to us to choose what to think. At the end I was really happy with the "political brainstorming" I had experienced for the past few days, which certainly gave me a new outlook on things.
I was also looking forward to the second part of the programme, in which the Egyptian group gets to visit Germany and continue the dialogue.
© Qantara.de 2005
Within the course of five days, students of the University of Alexandria, Egypt, and of the University of Essen/Duisburg, Germany, discussed the issues "political violence in western and in Muslim societies".
The first part of the project, which was initiated by the Goethe Institute Cairo/Alexandria and financed by Germany's Federal Foreign Office, took place in Alexandria in April 2005; the second part took place in Duisburg in July. The aim of the project is to discuss political violence as a problem shared by both western and Muslim societies.