30 September 2013
After disappearing for one year, the Middle East Society of the University of St Andrews is back with a new committee. We asked the newly elected President Vincent Förster about his ideas, plans and opinions concerning this resurrected project.
The Interpreter Magazine (TIM): Could you introduce the reborn Middle East Society to us and tell us about its history?
Vincent Förster (VF): As far as I know there was a Middle East Society two years ago. It was very successful and popular among the students, but apparently nobody wanted to run for a committee position in the following year and the society somehow died out. I was a member of the Arab Society last year, but there is no Arab Society this year, because the AGM never happened. There were a couple of people including me who were saying: “Well, we need something that is related to the Middle East, because there are many people from the Middle East who come here to study and also many people studying Arabic, Persian and Hebrew. They are interested in this region, so why not reviving the old Middle East Society?” Our aim as a society is not only to focus on the Arab world, or not only to focus on Persia. We want to include the whole region from Morocco to Iran, and from Yemen to Turkey. Including Israel, obviously. We are trying to organize a lot of different events that mirror the diversity of the region.
TIM: You said “obviously” including Israel and Iran. Do you think it will be that easy to unite these different groups together into a student society?
VF: That is an interesting point and an important issue for the society itself. I don’t think it’s impossible to do it and I think it is very important that we try. We, as a society, see us contributing to the St Andrews student community regardless where people come from. I guess there will obviously be tensions. As far as I know there were tensions between the Middle East Society and the Jewish Society two years ago. What we will try to do is to have talks or film screenings with films from Israel or Iran. That might interest people who for example study Hebrew or are from Israel. We will try to have discussions afterwards which are not necessarily led by political opinions but also by artistic and cultural impressions. We do not want to be a political society, but it is a lot about focusing on how diverse culturally the region is. One important aspect is that people gather together, enjoying themselves, having food and chatting with each other, without forgetting that there is a political dimension.
TIM: So you will talk about Politics?
VF: We will. Because it definitely matters in the region. Not only does it matter to us, when we talk about the region, but it also matters to the people in the region itself. It is an everyday issue for them. We want to represent this constant debate about politics: Where is the so-called Arab spring going? What will happen with the rise of Political Islam? These are topics that we want to try implement in our activities. But we want to show that that the Middle East is not only all about conflict and violence, hatred and intolerance but that the opposite is true as well.
TIM: What do you think can be done to reduce tensions in the Middle East?
VF: It is a lot about tolerance. Trying to understand each other, listening to each other. Being able to compromise without saying that there is just one way you’re ready to go. If we think about Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood made that mistake, the Military is making it now as well. The Israeli Government is making that mistake and the Palestinian Authority is not moving forwards either. I think, what we can witness at the moment happening between Iran and the US is the right thing to do. We should not be too positive about it, but it is the right direction.
TIM: You’ve been elected President of the Society, could you tell us more about your link to the Middle East?
VF: I lived in in Alexandria in Egypt for a year before coming to St Andrews. I worked at the German school there. It was in the transitional period after the revolution. I witnessed the first free parliamentary elections, the first anniversary of the revolution and also the first presidential elections. I was pretty fascinated by what was happening and by the people’s thoughts and also their language. Because I worked at a school, I had a couple of holidays to travel around the region and went to Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and also to Turkey. I was very surprised how diverse culturally, religiously, culinarily and also politically the region is. I think, because of my experience I have a different view of the Middle East than most people have, which is not necessarily to blame on them. Obviously there is certain picture generated by the Western media, that is very one sided. All the people in our committee are very enthusiastic about the region and try to correct this one sided image. In Egypt I also made a documentary because I met so many people whose stories touched me a lot. They provided me with an insider view of the revolution and its stagnation, talking about everything that should be or could be done, but is not being done.
TIM: Why should one join the Middle East Society?
VF: Everybody should join the society because we will have a wide range of exciting events and activities. For example, on Monday, our first big event, a dinner, with a lot regional dishes. This is not only about having great food but also about meeting new people, establishing a dialogue. Then we will have conversation cafés where people who study Arabic, Hebrew and Persian get the chance to practice their oral skills outside classes in a casual way. There will be film screenings, which are worth attending as many of them do not make it into western cinemas, but are very relevant to us in the West. We also do not want to forget the political aspect and will organize talks, panel discussions and debates. There is a wide range of events and subjects.