Wednesday, 22 January, 2020
Urdu's German friends

Urdu's German friends

“‘ADMI ki khubsurati uski zaban main hai’, I can’t forget the joy of being able to read this beautiful phrase when I was in India,” recalls an excited Verena Trautmann. Trautmann, who introduces herself in surprisingly fluent Urdu, opted for the language for a deeper understanding of India and Pakistan, her focus areas of studies at Bonn University. Though she knew Hindi but learning Urdu proved harder, not due to its Perso-Arabic script but due to its grammar. However, this didn’t dampen Trautmann’s passion for learning the South Asian language that helped her connect better with the historic Hauz-i-Khas in Delhi and its locals. “What I found more overwhelming about my Urdu skills was the emotional outpouring I received from South Asian people. It is beyond words.”

For the Urdu-speaking world, ‘Gul-o-bulbul’ are a thing of the past. But for Julia Thienhaus, who with her seven classmates learned Urdu during her masters in Asian Studies at Bonn University, the words have a peculiar Asian ring to them. Thienhaus’s awe of the Urdu language grew further when she watched Bollywood movie Anarkali. Romanticism of this legend evoked a great desire to visit the bazaar in Lahore named after the Moghul courtesan. Sadly the university administration had to postpone a planned trip due to security challenges in Pakistan. Thienhaus, now an employee of a Swiss NGO engaged in Pakistan, still wishes to visit Pakistan and use her knowledge of the Urdu language.

“It is a shame that such Urdu enthusiasts aren’t warmly welcomed by Pakistani authorities, rather society chastises them for their dress or ‘hidden motives’,” says Bushra Malik, an Urdu-language teacher at Bonn University.

Teaching Urdu in Bonn for many years and promoting the language through a small but old literary circle, Yaran-i-Adab, Malik blames the declining enrolment in her Urdu class on a deficit of cultural policy in Pakistani diplomatic quarters. “Indian ambassadors engage with their scholars and universities while Pakistani officials suffer from a protocol syndrome.” To get patronage for cultural Urdu forums in Germany, Malik has sent dozens of recommendation to a heedless Pakistani consulate and embassy.

In the past, according to her, the German Urdu Academy with the coordination of the Pakistani embassy during the Pakistan Peoples Party government used to be a hub of cultural events. However, the increasingly religious bend of diplomats made Urdu an instrument of Islamic preaching in Germany.

The conservative approach of linking language with identity politics turns the learner of modern foreign languages away from Urdu while attracting them to Hindi. Both Thienhaus and Trautmann opted for Urdu after exposure to Hindi and Bollywood. “In the Hindi class, we would write from left to right and in Urdu we would write right to left, which was quite funny,” recalls Thienhaus.

Prof Dr Carmen Brandt, junior professor for Contemporary South Asian Studies at Bonn University, says that German interest in Indian economy in particular and India in general is one reason for Hindi being preferred to Urdu at her department. The Urdu language is more often becoming of interest to those pursuing Islamic studies. This religious affiliation of Urdu, Malik observes, has made it a second language of Islam that is understood as far as Africa. But she doesn’t find it much reassuring for the development of the Urdu language as a cultural entity. German students of the Urdu language like Thienhaus find the influence of Arabic on the South Asian language also confusing, as sometimes it is really difficult for them to know what to use — Kitabain or Kutub.

Though Urdu literature remains relatively unexplored here, research in relation to Islamic studies is thriving at places like South Asian Institute Heidelberg, Max Planck Institute of Human Development, Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies at the Free University Berlin. “Pakistani immigrants often teach Urdu to their children for orientation of Islamic values. In Germany, plenty of available Urdu material, for example lecture series of Farhat Hashmi, serves no purpose other than this,” says Malik.

Academics like Dr Christina Oesterheld have invested considerable effort in keeping Urdu alive in Germany. From her research study on Qurratulain Hyder to reviewing works of Mirza Ather Baig, to co-authoring a model handbook Urdu for Beginners, Dr Oesterheld and other academics at Heidelberg University are fostering research in Urdu. The German translation of the Urdu novel Rohzin, published by Heidelberg publisher Draupadi, has recently stirred a conversation about Urdu books.

For learners like Thienhaus and Trautmann, learning material is neither enough nor conversational nor updated. Thienhaus once tried to impress her Pakistani colleagues by asking, “Apka ism-i-sharif kiya hai?” which caused them to laugh out loud.

Both academics believe that knowledge of Urdu or Hindi, which works even in Nepal and Sri Lanka, comes in handy for researchers and development based in South Asia. “Although most German students, unaware of South Asia, want to learn Chinese or Japanese, but due to globalisation, South Asian culture or languages are gaining attention,” says Trautmann.

Urdu might not be useful for Trautmann’s current job, yet “learning a language is a lifelong learning experience that connects you with the people who speak it.”

Both academics consider a sentimental rapport with South Asians as the biggest takeaway of Urdu learning. As per Trautmann’s personal experience, “If you’re in South Asia, just speak Hindi or Urdu and people will adore you.” Speaking of which German Ambassador to Pakistan Martin Kobler, with his Urdu tweets, is followed eagerly by those German Urdu lovers who think he’s doing a wonderful job as an ambassador not only by sending beautiful postcards from Pakistan but as a German fan of Urdu.

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