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Connecting two cultures: Different chapter - same complex story

Arabic script

James Hodkinson is an expert in German literature and history. No, not that bit of German history. His focus is on pre-20th Century Germany’s relationship with Islam.

“I spend a good proportion of my time explaining that there is plenty of German history other than the two World Wars,” explains Dr Hodkinson. “Modern German culture is remarkable in its ability to look its own difficult past in the eye, and to try to grapple critically with the legacies of things like Nazism and the Holocaust. But Germany has a different history of engaging with cultures other than its own – and we can all benefit.”

One of the main sources for Dr Hodkinson’s research is the work of poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His collection of poems, the West-Eastern Divan (1819), not only imagined a dialogue between the Christian European and Islamic worlds, but also sought to break down of rigid cultural divisions between them. In his epic work, Goethe imagines a trans-historical encounter with the 14th-century poet Hafez of Shiraz, and visualises sitting with him and talking about shared ideas, beliefs and experiences.

Dr Hodkinson explains: “Goethe arguably tried in those poems to move beyond a notion of a predicable dialogue of cultural differences and beyond the 'them and us' models of cultural encounter, towards a model of shared world literary heritage.”

Two chairs

Goethe’s work was memorialized in 2001 in the German town of Weimar. The Hafez-Goethe Monument - the Hafis-Goethe Denkmal – is a public artwork consisting of two chairs, facing each other and cut from the same piece of granite.

Dr Hodkinson explains: “Reflecting Goethe’s vision, the chairs imply a meeting of two distinct faiths, though, as the chairs are cut from the very same stone, the monument also implies an underlying commonality connecting the two cultures. The key point is that these connections do not overwrite all differences: the chairs allow us to be different and yet connected all at once. This seems to be an essential insight for anyone working in a multi-cultural environment.

“Over the years artists and groups have taken this monument and added to it. A quick internet search will present you with a wall of photographs showing how the two granite chairs have been added to or modified. Artists have contributed further layers of temporary installation, whether it’s the woven raffia boat that bound the two chairs together as if on a common journey headed in some third direction, or the arrangement of cushions which made the chairs a site of multilateral community dialogue.

“Then there was the ‘Cultural Sounds’ installation of 2015 by Martin Recker and Paul Hauptmeier, two students of Weimar’s Franz Liszt University of Music. Theirs was an immersive montage of recordings from Germany and Iran, set over an ambient soundscape and played to audiences live at the monument. The piece included sound components (recordings of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, and the sound of traffic in a modern city) only to disconnect them from the Eastern and Western contexts with which many listeners would tend to associate them, by shifting their physical position in the listening space. By the end, all the sounds could equally be from ‘everywhere,’ and in realizing this the audience were meant to become aware of the limitations of their own cultural preconceptions.

This is all highly creative and powerful stuff and marks a worthy tradition of attempting to take so-called ‘high’ culture into the city and to the general public. I love this kind of work and it speaks to me on many levels. But let’s face it, I am a white, male academic with artistic inclinations - it's going to reach me. I started to think about how I could help these ideas speak to other, more important communities.”

And so began Dr Hodkinson’s mission to take the Two Chairs Exchange idea to real communities –working in schools and with inner city groups to bring the idea of cultural exchange and shared heritage to life.

James Hodkinson in the classroom

“I have begun working with schools all over the country using the Two Chairs as a sort of meme, reflecting a more fluid way of thinking about cultural identity. Once I have given the students the background, explained my research, Goethe’s work and the memorial in Weimar, it becomes a springboard from which we can have all sorts of discussions and bring in many aspects of the curriculum.

“One school used it as the basis for a communication project with their German exchange school. Their conversations took place over email or video conferencing and allowed them to have more in-depth, modern, meaningful conversations about themselves and meant they learned more deeply about their counterparts.

“A drama group at another school produced a Two Chairs story by way of a drama project that took the simple idea of two physical chairs on stage, and elaborated from this a string of scenes covering issues such as gender, relationships, race, and immigration. They took their production to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.”

The next chapter

Now Dr Hodkinson has launched a competition for writers, based on the idea of exchange between two cultures inspired by Goethe and the monument.

He explains: “This creative writing competition is open to everyone. It asks you to consider the two stone chairs of the 'Hafez-Goethe Monument' in Weimar. The chairs were left empty by the sculptors so they do not only represent Goethe and his Muslim counterpart, but allow anyone to occupy them, or even to ‘swap’ chairs and see the world from the ‘other’ perspective.

“I wanted to get people to write around this key idea - that we can be connected to people of other cultures, mixing and intertwining with them, without losing our own identity. I want writers to use this idea in their compositions, using personal or imagined experiences of encountering or crossing different cultures to produce the piece.”

The competition is open until March 2018 when entries will be judged by a team of poets and writers including British-Somali poet Momtaza Mehri, performance poet, writer and national treasure, Ian MacMillan, and British-Muslim writer Hanan Issa.

For now though, Dr Hodkinson continues with his work on intercultural communication using beautiful words from Germany’s past to inform our present.

Dr Hodkinson summarises: “In these anxious times, where our modern media are finding the most divisive stories, I find my job is to help tell a different part of this complex story.”

The Two Chairs Exchange: Creative Writing Competition

  • Open to all
  • You can write in English or in German
  • Your piece can be a poem, short story or piece of prose no more than 1000 words in length
  • The entry categories will be under 18s and over 18s, with a piece in English and in German picked from each (four winners in total); prizes will be £250 each.
  • The final date for entries is 2 March 2018, 5pm.

For full details and entry instructions click here

Competition entrants and winners will also be invited to attend a prize giving ceremony and live performance at the amazing Holywell Music Rooms, Oxford, on Wed 9th May 2018 and the winners in each category will attend writing workshops with our panel of renowned judges.

7 December 2017


Dr James Hodkinson is Associate Professor in German at Warwick. He is a specialist in eighteenth and nineteenth-century German-language culture, though he teaches a wide range of undergraduate courses, supervises research at postgraduate level and holds a number of key administrative roles in German Studies and within the School of Modern Languages and Cultures.

He blogs on his research here:

Watch Dr Hodkinson talk about his research here.

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