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The Two Chairs Exchange

hafis-goethe-denkmal_in_weimar.jpg dscf4470.jpg Community encounters in Coventry.

This Two Chairs phase of the project drew on my work on the Hafez-Goethe Monument in Weimar, Germany, which responds to the inter-cultural encounter at the heart of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan (1819 ff) through a public monument of two giant stone chairs: the monument implies a meeting of two cultures in a dialogical moment preserving the difference and specificity of each, though the chairs, fashioned form one piece of stone, imply underlying connections and continuities between those positions. The choice of chairs, rather than statues of Goethe and his chosen Muslim counter part, Hafez of Shiraz, also allows the public to engage with the monument and, indeed, move between chairs, faiths and cultures.

Building on this open-ended quality of the monument, an invitation to participate, the Two Chairs programme brought diverse groups of people together in educational and community spaces, facilitated open dialogues about cultural and religious difference, enhanced teaching and learning, kick-started collaborative arts projects and promoted cross-community dialogue and practices of empathy between Muslims and non-Muslims across the UK.

Working with secondary teachers, we created a programme of lessons around the Two Chairs concept that enriched the delivery of Modern Languages (German) and Religious Studies teaching. These lessons were co-delivered by myself and teaching staff on campus, in schools and were also placed online for use by teachers nationally. We also ran a national creative writing competition, which invited entrants of all age groups and background to respond to the idea and image of the chairs, was judged by prominent literary figures and attracted over 130 entries.

Additionally, we ran two community focused events. The first, in collaboration with the Woking People of Faith Interfaith group, used the Two Chairs story to facilitate an encounter event between group members and members of the Syrian refugee community in Woking, Surrey, attended by over 50 people. The second event, in collaboration with the Coventry United Nations Association, used fixed concrete chairs in the city centre (see above photo) to encourage local residents to engage with people within their local community that they would normally walk past. Participants in the event sat across from a stranger in silence for two minutes, before engaging in a guided conversation that encouraged them to consider their own preconceptions about difference and use the space provided, and the trust engendered.