In its edition from 8 August 2021, the newspaper from Sibiu Turnul Sfatului published an interview with Fawzia G. Rehejeh focused on the initiative to create the Arabic Cultural Center of Sibiu and the non-profit organization’s activities. We reproduce below the material, which was originally published with the title “The Leader of the first Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu: ‘I Believe the People of Sibiu Accept Difference and Respect Diversity’” (Turnul Sfatului, 8 August 2021). The questions were formulated by Ștefan Dobre.
Is there a large Arab community in Sibiu? Do you know each other, do you meet often – I try to understand where does the need come to set up an Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu?
There are Arabs in Sibiu, but we can’t really talk about an “Arab community”. According to my estimates, more than one hundred Arabs live in the city. Many of them are medical students. There are also physicians, such as my father, who is a family doctor. Others are businessmen with their families. Some of them are also immigrants. But for the time being, not all of them form a “community”, in the sense of forming a collectivity of people who know each other, help each other, and carry out common activities. The Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu aims, among other things, to bring these people together, to provide them with a framework for interaction and, in the long run, to contribute towards developing a community of Arab people in Sibiu.
What activities will this center have, what will it do? Do you have institutional support (headquarters, funding)?
The Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu was legally established this year as a non-governmental organization (NGO). The objectives of the Center are multiple: (1) we intend, as we stated earlier, to bring people of Arab ethnicity together and to develop an Arab community in Sibiu. Secondly (2), we aim to promote intercultural communication, by facilitating an open dialogue between Arabs and Romanians. Thirdly, (3) another objective would be to fight stereotypes about the Arab world and its people and to promote the genuine Arabic culture, the one beyond cultural prejudices, religious anxieties, and fears about the terrorist threat. Last but not least (4), we aim to facilitate the socio-cultural integration of immigrants of Arab origin in Romanian society, more precisely in the culture and local community of Sibiu.
Therefore, I must emphasize that the Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu is not addressed exclusively to Arabs. The Center sets out to become a space for intercultural dialogue, mutual knowledge, and social integration. Thus, it is addressed to both Arabs and Romanians living in Sibiu and beyond, who are interested in everything that Arab culture and the Middle East means.
In terms of institutional support, the Center does not benefit from a funder and is not associated with any state. From this point of view, the Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu is a non-governmental organization, but it is also non-political and trans-Arab, in the sense that it does not promote the policy of any Arab state, but aims to bring together all Arabs, regardless of their nationality. We are, instead, part of a network of NGOs and we will establish several partnerships with other foundations and associations that are active in the field of migration and intercultural dialogue.
In order to finance the Center’s activities, we will initiate efforts to obtain funds from local sources, such as the Sibiu Cultural Agenda, as well as sponsorships from local economic agents. Regarding the headquarter, we do not have a specific location yet. More important are the activities we intend to carry out, and not the specific headquarter of the organization. At the same time, until the situation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic is clarified, it is premature to think about a physical location.
In the years you spent living in Sibiu, I am sure you have noticed that there is a conservative side in Sibiu’s community. Aren’t you afraid that this center will be received reluctantly? In any society there is a faction of the population that is conservative and traditional. Undoubtedly, there are people in Sibiu who adhere to their traditions and identify with the customs they practice, which is not a bad thing. On the other hand, Sibiu is a multicultural city, anchored in the past but oriented towards the future, which has constructed the image of an open and innovative city. Personally, Sibiu had welcomed me with open arms. This makes me believe that we will find openness for such a cultural center, which will make the city even more diverse and colorful
From this point of view, have you ever felt a hostile attitude in Sibiu?
Since I settled in Sibiu in 2016, I have never felt a hostile or repulsive attitude from the people I interacted with. On the contrary, wherever I found myself, I managed to establish friendships and collaborations, even if it was very difficult for me to learn the Romanian language. Especially during my university studies, colleagues and teachers supported and encouraged me, and at work I met the same welcoming and benevolent attitude. Perhaps the people around me were intrigued by the fact that although I am an Arab woman, I do not conform to the cultural stereotype of “the Muslim with a hijab”. I do not know if my experience would have been the same if I wore a hijab, but I want to believe that the people of Sibiu are people who accept difference and respect diversity, including when it comes to an article of clothing with religious significance.
Do you think that in the coming years we will see an increase in the population of Arab origin in Sibiu and Romania? Or they will continue to avoid Romania on their way to Western Europe…
Sibiu is an attractive city for Arabs, especially because of the Faculty of Medicine. Some of the graduates of this faculty may stay in Romania and settle here. But overall, refugees from war-torn Arab countries (such as Syria) prefer to go to Western European countries, especially Germany. There they receive financial support from the state and can integrate more easily into the labor market, because there is already a community of Arabs and Turks. I have many childhood friends, with whom I grew up in the same neighborhood, who are now refugees in Germany and the Netherlands. I know that German language courses are held in Syria, so that those who leave there have a language base.
Do you think we could have a mosque in Sibiu sometime in the future? I mean, we have churches of different denominations, we have a synagogue, why can’t we have a mosque?
As a non-practicing Muslim, I believe that every religious community has the right to its own place of worship. Indeed, Sibiu is a multicultural and multi-confessional city. Given that there will ever be a substantial community of Muslims in Sibiu, I do not see why they should not be able to practice their religion in a mosque. However, the subject is a sensitive and intensely politicized one. This is because for some Romanians, the mosque is seen as an attack on the Christian identity of the country, as was the case of the failed project to build a mosque in Bucharest. For them, the construction of a mosque is seen as an act of Islamization. In Constanța, for example, there is a mosque, without it becoming a center of Islamist fanaticism. But in Dobrogea we are talking about a special case, because there has long been a community of Romanian Muslims living in this region.
I would like to insist that the Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu does not follow any religious agenda. The Center is non-religious, but people of any religion are welcome. It should be emphasized on this occasion that being an Arab does not necessarily mean being a Muslim. It is true that most Arabs are Muslims, but there are many Christian Arabs, even Jewish Arabs. It is even more absurd to put the equal sign between Arab, Muslim and terrorist.
What about new investments, could an Arabic Cultural Center attract money to Sibiu?
The Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu, as a non-profit organization, does not carry out economic activities. Therefore, attracting investors from Arab countries is not part of the Center’s objectives. However, promoting the city as a welcoming place for business and as an open intercultural space could facilitate investments by Arab companies or businessmen. But, once again, this is not what we intend to do through the activities of the Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu.
To draw a conclusion, when the new Arabic Cultural Center will become operational, what is its purpose and what activities will the people of Sibiu be able to participate in?
The first activities of the Arabic Cultural Center in Sibiu will start in the fall of this year. As previously mentioned, the Center is addressed to both Arabs in Sibiu and Romanians living in the city. In order to facilitate intercultural communication, we plan to organize gastronomic workshops in which to prepare traditional Arabic dishes. For children from families with Arab parents, we will offer Arabic language courses, to which Romanians interested in discovering the Arabic language and calligraphy are invited. Arab students and immigrants from Arab countries will benefit from Romanian language courses. We also intend to organize screenings of films with topics related to the Arab world, followed by discussions. For those who will need it, we will also offer legal advice, through our collaborators. We will also develop a magazine of the Center, the first issue of which will be published in September.