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Obituary for Katja Brinkmann

‘Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open’

Candid co-founder Katja Brinkmann (1969-2017).
Candid co-founder Katja Brinkmann (1969-2017). Photograph: Private

Katja Brinkmann was an Arabist who explored the Middle East of all ages. She hoped that, one day, she could write another history of Syria. We mourn our dear friend, colleague and co-founder.

When Katja Brinkmann was a teenager, she wanted to be an archaeologist, to approach the contemporary Middle East by way of its antiquity – just as they used to in the early days of Arab and Oriental studies. The forerunners of this new profession would read the Bible first, before setting out to discover the legacies of Solomons and Salomés. Quite accidentally, they approvingly encountered Arabic manuscripts in the Near East, were fascinated by the language, and then at some point landed in modern times.


But in doing so all these respected scholars had to suffer one thing: a sense of how glorious, gruesome and glamorous the Orient’s distant past was, and how bothersome, boisterous and debauched its present. Even towards the end of the twentieth century many Orientalist professors dissuaded their students from travelling to the Arab world. There they would expose themselves to the slang of Damascene street hawkers and spoil their arduously learned classical grammar.


Of course subsequent generations of Arabists planned to do it differently. They wanted to study the Arab world of the present day, and preferred to rely on Foucault rather than the Bible, the Koran or the Epic of Gilgamesh. Why should someone who wants to understand Ba’athist Syria or everyday life in Aleppo need to know about the Code of Hammurabi?


Katja, by contrast, roamed through the ages. If you were to look at the well-thumbed books in her library you would be convinced at how evenly her interest was spread across different eras: the ancient Near East, late Byzantine antiquity, pre-Islamic history, or the centuries before the Mongol invasion, often considered a golden age, as well as the colonial period, the modern era and the present.


And this in an interdisciplinary manner: including archaeology, history, historiography, theology, poetry and prose. One could surely attribute to Katja the “flexibility”, as the polymath Friedrich Schlegel once described it, required “to transfer ourselves into the peculiarities of other peoples and epochs, to experience them as it were from in their midst”. Her many years’ tenure as a tour guide to the Arab world stood her in good stead in this regard.


She began her studies in 1989 in Göttingen. She initially wanted to learn Sanskrit, but expert advice recommended she dedicate herself to Persian first. And if she was going to pursue it seriously, then Arabic would be indispensable. Just before the Wall came down Katja moved to Berlin to pursue Arabic studies at the Freie Universität (FU). She wrote her Master’s thesis on one of the classical commentaries on Antarah ibn Shaddad’s poetry. It may seem like dry scholarly material, but it is crucial to recognise that many Arabs remain linked to this pre-Islamic figure even today: he is the Arab Siegfried, only smarter and more cultivated, a fighter, daredevil, lover and poet. Even today young Syrians can recite his verses by heart, powerfully and eloquently.


Later Katja travelled regularly to the Arab world – among other places she was taken with Oman and Syria. She studied Arabic in Cairo and elsewhere. In 2005 she married Naseef Naeem, a Syrian-born expert in constitutional law, through whom she also encountered the network of zenith Magazine. Her only daughter was born in 2010.


As part of a research project at the FU, Katja began a dissertation on the fourteenth-century Damascene jurist Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. It is actually a contemporary topic, as old Ibn al-Qayyim, i.e. ‘the son of the principal’, is still invoked as a point of reference by many Salafists and ultraconservatives today.


Katja analysed the rhetoric of his argumentation and in 2016 defended her dissertation, which was awarded magna cum laude, before her assessors Renate Jacobi and Birgit Krawietz in the Arabic Studies seminar at the FU.


A guide to a country that will never be as it was


Whoever has guided a group of sophisticated, well-paying German tourists through a country like Syria will know what it means to think of everything without losing sight of the essential.


With her expertise as an Arabist, her unflagging enthusiasm for the Arab world and her management skills, Katja was a much-desired member to the founding team of the Candid Foundation, which a number of zenith editors and Middle East specialists created in the summer of 2014. As co-founder of the Candid Foundation – an independent, non-profit think tank and a laboratory for innovative projects involving societies across the Mediterranean – Katja developed and oversaw the foundation’s projects as well as the research and consultancy group zenithCouncil, which also emerged from the zenith network.


“Keep your eyes and ears open,” Katja recommends in her book, Syrien, which despite being published only in 2011 can already be considered a historical document. It is the most up-to-date German-language guidebook on Syria, a country that Katja loved and that no longer exists in the form in which she describes it.


The book appeared in a year when cultural tourism was booming in Syria, but since then a brutal six-year war has dashed all hopes of it continuing. The author lectured on the sites of Syria’s cultural heritage, which took a battering in the war — through the plunder of antiquities, among other things — and later became a target of the destructive rage of the so-called Islamic State. They were places that Katja knew and remembered in detail and to which she hoped to return with her family.


Observations from the book’s preface will stand the test of time, even though they will be read differently in future. Syria, she writes, is “an important field for observing the coexistence of numerous religious and ethnic parallel societies, the handling of continual immigration and emigration, and the dealing with religious and political radicalism”. The country, she continues, has wrongly been the “great unknown” among Mediterranean nations. In a 2013 interview with zenith, she said she wanted to rewrite the book, this time as a success story.


Our dear friend, colleague and co-founder Katja died suddenly on the night of Friday, September 1, 2017. She was 48 years old.

Daniel Gerlach