LOCB - How did you start to study Semitic languages, and when in particular did the notion of“Orientalism” come in?
prof. dr. W.J. (Wout) van Bekkum - After finishing my Gymnasium-Alpha in 1972 and after intensive study of Latin and Greek for six years six hours per week, I wanted to do something with languages. First of all, for the sake of a good job, I wanted to become a teacher in Modern English, but I was always intrigued by foreign scripts, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit. I was drawing characters at the age of fifteen without knowing what they meant. My parents suggested that I would explore the possibility of studying Semitics at the University of Groningen. So I did in September 1972, the only Semitist amidst 40-50 theologians, a remarkable position. Semitics started with four languages and grammars: Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac-Aramaic, Akkadian (Mesopotaminan cuneiform texts). After two-three years I specialized in Hebrew and Arabic in all linguistic stages: classical, medieval, pre-modern and modern standard.
No, there was no notion of Orientalism in those days: the methods of teaching and learning were scholastic-humanist; there was much going on in the dialogue Judaism - Christianity, later entirely superseded by the importance and relevance of Islam in the Netherlands.
LOCB- Would you present us some essential steps in your education?
Gymnasium classical and modern European languages, Semitics in Groningen, one-year student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1977-1978), summer courses in Cairo and Cambridge, but also assisting in psychiatric hospitals. In case of not finding a job I would like to become a nurse. See also my link for more details:
prof. dr. W.J. (Wout) van Bekkum - How is it seen Romania from Groningen ? Does it have some oriental element?
No, Romania was perceived as a Communist country, behind the Iron Curtain, friendlier than other Eastern European countries, satellites of the Soviet Union. There was great sympathy for the 1989 revolution, and no one deplored the disappearance of the Ceauşescu's. Common idea now is the arrival of stealing gypsies from Romania. Positive is folklore and music from Rumania. Dutch people as an average have little awareness of what is going on in modern Rumania - no paper is writing about mental or societal progress.
prof. dr. W.J. (Wout) van Bekkum - What’s behind the discourse about Orient? Is it a verisimilar description?
The discourse about (the) Orient started with Edward Said and the perception of our own studies of the Middle East. I learned a lot about self-definition of academic Oriental studies and research. My favorite angle is the theological and later colonial attitudes of the Leiden scholars of Arabic and Islam from the days of Josephus Justus Scaliger to the period of Dozy and Snouck Hurgronje, what a different world!
LOCB - What are the limits of knowing and understanding “the others”?
prof. dr. W.J. (Wout) van Bekkum - The limits? Difficult to tell: for me as a romantic classical philologist studying the foreign languages and reading original sources is most helpful to approach the others. Mental history is a new subject to address. And for the rest, really personal tolerance, mutual understanding, and trying to understand your own complex Dutch western society amidst swift developments in politics, economics and certainly globalization. And also, preserve interest in Dutch history, literature, culture, society throughout the centuries without glorification or depreciation.
LOCB - How do you see the relation between specialization and general culture in the activities of an scholar?
prof. dr. W.J. (Wout) van Bekkum - A scholar is always in service of general society. No ivory tower isolationism and no selfishness and privileges. Non scholae auc academiae sed vitae discimus = we learn for life and not for school or university. I am most eager to offer public lectures but refrain from daily Middle East politics. On the other hand, I may be consulted for views and opinions on the Middle East in any perspective. Culture, yes, first literature, poetry, philosophy, and then actuality, politics, clash of cultures between immigrants and locals.
LOCB - What is in your opinion essential for the improvement of a scholar?
prof. dr. W.J. (Wout) van Bekkum - Openness to the world, eagerness to build knowledge and experience, applicability of science and research, the message of your studies, obligation to teach and to learn to teach; taking your students and assistants entirely serious and subscribing to their ideals and aspirations, defying academic arrogance and compartmentalization, humor and sarcasm and definitely no slaves of subsidies granted by governments and companies, a dangerous trend in modern times. Scholars need training courses and should not take themselves for granted in management and in dealing with colleagues and wider audience.
LOCB - What is the place and the role of the scholar in the contemporary period?
prof. dr. W.J. (Wout) van Bekkum - Social involvement is needed without becoming to much focused on money and success. Not all academies are Harvards and Oxfords, and do not need to be. Scholars in Humaniora should be defenders of culture in any national or international sense, leading to..... true civilization and true brotherhood and sisterhood of man/woman. (very romantic, isn't it?)