The Polish media has shown a great deal of interest in the 2011 Arab Spring and the events that took place in the aftermath of the revolutions. On Polish television, newly minted experts on the Arab world compete for airtime. Eager to sift through and analyze the region’s complexity, they often seem to misunderstand the realities they are witnessing. Unsurprisingly, this surge in uninformed interest has produced hackneyed theories framing Polish debates on Arab culture and society. The result is a strange blend of native Polish misconceptions, combined with stereotypes and perspectives on the Middle East borrowed from the West.
Indeed, understandings of Arab culture in Poland tend to ape Western conceptualizations and choices. This has much to do with the lack of cultural intercourse and exchanges between Poland and the Middle East. For example, it is very difficult to create interest among Polish publishers and newspapers in the works of Arab writers or intellectuals that were not previously picked out by the Western media. Without original coverage of events and circumstances in the Arab world, Poles currently only learn about the region through the West and its pervasive culture.
Somewhat similar problems exist when it comes to Arab understandings of Poland. Arab countries are interested in strengthening connections with Poland in the field of culture. There is also appreciation for Polish literature and art in the Arab world, thanks in large part to the pioneering work of Hanna Abdel Fattah Metwally, an Egyptian translator of Polish literature. But, there are few opportunities for people in the region to learn about Poland’s rich culture and artistic traditions directly from Poles.
Current Attempts at Cultural Exchange Are Failing
That being said, diplomatic attempts have been made to create ties between Poland and the Middle East. In 2013 and 2014, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski visited the Persian Gulf with a government delegation to discuss potential cooperation between Poland and regional states. During the trip, discussions touched on cooperation in the fields of art, archaeology, culture, and higher education. The Polish Minister of Culture, Bogdan Zdrojewski, even revealed that meetings featured conversations about translating Arabic and Polish literature.
Since then, however, there have been few exchanges between Poland and the Middle East, especially of the state-to-state variety. At the moment, there is no institution that coordinates activities related to cultural cooperation between the Arab world and Poland. Any event related to Polish culture in the Arab region that does not fit within the pre-existing cultural programs of the Polish embassies must be facilitated by foreign parties. Literary translations, from Polish to Arabic and Arabic to Polish, lack a broader vision and policy. They are a product of ad hoc personal choices and the inability to secure European grants.
Poland should seriously examine its cultural intercourse with the Middle East, not only to overcome these logistical hurdles, but also to develop a vision for cross-cultural communication with the region. Poland should not rely on a chaotic web of individual projects, nor let itself be absorbed the Western “post-colonial narrative.” The time has come for Poland to actively engage with the Middle East through a formal institution that promotes Polish culture and supports artistic and cultural exchange with the Arab world.
The Challenges Ahead
There are various challenges to promoting Polish culture in the Middle East. Polish artists have few opportunities to display their work in the region, except via occasional invitation from Polish embassies in the region. At times, after making preliminary agreements with artists, local institutions will withdraw support for various (sometimes unclear) reasons.
Other countries have, however, managed to surmount these problems and foster a vibrant cultural presence in the region. Italy and Hungary are both engaged in a rich assortment of cultural activities in the Arab world. For their part, the United States and France have professional, state-sponsored translation programs that promote their literary and intellectual tradition in the region, in coordination with Arab countries.
There is no reason why Poland cannot take similar measures. In the past, Poland has built Polish Institutes to foster cross-cultural cooperation in places like Israel, India, and Japan. By building a Polish Institute in the Middle East, Poland could potentially become a bridge between the Arab world and Central Europe and achieve a positive relationship based on mutual understanding and respect.
Cairo seems like a natural headquarters for such an institution, both because of its strategic location and vibrant cultural history. Cairo is a city of festivals, with more than a1000 year history, and a multitude of theaters and museums. It is also a leading academic center, with dozens upon dozens of universities and research institutes, the University of Al-Azhar, and various impressive libraries. Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there are more than fifteen foreign cultural centers in Cairo and nine others in nearby Alexandria.
Establishing a Polish Institute in Cairo
If a Polish Institute in Cairo is created, it can and should work on organizing cultural events (seminars, lectures, publications, exhibitions) and cooperate with other institutions in the Arab world. It should foster academic exchanges, encourage the study of Polish culture and language, and fundraise for joint art projects. The Institute should not only focus on promoting Polish culture in Cairo, but also in neighboring countries. The institute should also involve the large Polish community living in resorts around the Red Sea in its efforts.
In particular, the Polish Institute should prioritize literary translations. At the moment, there are very few Polish works translated into Arabic. In a report for the Next Page foundation, Marcin Michalski found just six examples of Polish to Arabic translations in the last 24 years. Offering Arab readers a decent number of valuable Polish titles would be the first step toward creating a market for Polish literature in the Arab world. The Polish Institute could encourage translations by promoting Polish authors and presenting books at festivals and book fairs in the Middle East, which is something that is currently lacking.
Of course, none of these objectives can be realized without a qualified staff that prioritizes cultural affairs and focuses on working directly with local populations.
Developing meaningful cultural activities connecting Poland with the Arab world requires a focused, intentional strategy. If the Polish government really cares about fostering interconnections with the Middle East, it is high time it started taking sensible actions. Only through direct contact and knowledge sharing can these two parts of the world really communicate with one another, and come to understand the true realities of their respective regions in ways that are not dependent on Western intermediaries.