x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Man who loves stories passes on his passion

At a young age, the German academic at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi fell for the romance of history, myth and adventure.

Dr Perlwitz has entered a brave new world in Abu Dhabi, where culture is based less on recorded history than on oral tradition.
Dr Perlwitz has entered a brave new world in Abu Dhabi, where culture is based less on recorded history than on oral tradition.

ABU DHABI // As a boy, Ronald Perlwitz was fascinated with the classic tales his mother would read to him from ancient mythology and history.

"My big hero was Hannibal," Dr Perlwitz says. "He started his journey in Tunisia. Even with many less troops, he still beat his enemies. He was a great general."

Such heroes would also inspire his interest in opera at the age of 9.

"I started listening to it at home with my parents and then began to read the stories, which I liked very much," Dr Perlwitz says.

"I always loved to read history books because I loved adventure. I also loved adventure books like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick."

Now 40, Dr Perlwitz lectures on romantic literature at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. He has been at the French institution since the campus opened five years ago, longer than any other academic.

Fluent in five languages including Sanskrit and Hindi, he has come to spread his passion in a very different landscape from that of his native Germany, where literature is an embedded part of the culture.

Dr Perlwitz has entered a brave new world in Abu Dhabi, where culture is based less on recorded history than on oral tradition.

That move was probably made easier by the oral history provided by his grandmother, who died last year at 103 after living through two world wars. He was captivated by the adventures she related.

"She taught me to be a good human being," Dr Perlwitz says. His students describe an easy-going teaching style that draws them effortlessly into literature.

"Dr Perlwitz never even gave us homework," says Bader Al Meqbali, a former student.

"There were always things he'd ask us to do but he never made it feel like we had homework."

Mr Al Meqbali, who studied with Dr Perlwitz as part of his degree in international language and business, says the lecturer was more like a brother.

"The door was always open," he says. "He broke all the rules and it made us work harder."

Dr Perlwitz explains: "The job in university isn't to just teach and go home but to participate in the students' personal development, to help them become more mature personalities and enhance their general knowledge, raising their awareness to different kinds of culture.

"I like that it's a small university and you can really influence things. Here I do courses about German opera and you can really get the students into it, take them to concerts. I like the freedom of teaching I have here."

His passion for moving stories had clearly emerged when he was 7. His father's work with the airline Lufthansa required the family to move to Tunisia for four years.

"My big passion was Roman mosaics," Dr Perlwitz says. "It was an area where there weren't really any toys so I found a love for Roman mosaics. There was a big museum and I knew all the stories by heart."

He became so well versed in these tales that the German embassy asked him to give tours of the museum to some of its guests. From Tunisia, he and his mother moved to France for four years to continue his education.

At university, his parents felt he should not follow his passion of literature but focus on something more practical. They encouraged him to study business.

He earned his bachelor's degree in business studies at the European Business School in Germany, then did his master's degree in management at the same school, but at its Oxford campus.

There Dr Perlwitz was reacquainted with his passion.

"You had plays in ancient Greek and students that really knew everything about literature, and at the same time [it was] a very working-class environment," he says.

Having earned another master's degree in German literature, history and philosophy, he achieved his doctorate at the Universite de Picardie in France with a thesis on the author ETA Hoffmann and his depiction of the Middle Ages in his novels.

From there Dr Perlwitz lectured in Poland, France and eventually the UAE in 2006.

He will enter the next phase of his career in October, training to become a professor at Hagen University in Germany.

The executive director at the Paris-Sorbonne campus, Prof Jean-Yves de Cara, says Dr Perlwitz's presence at the institution has been vital for its growth.

"He has developed the business and languages department with great success," Prof de Cara says. "He is very flexible and has adapted to this society with great charm."

mswan@thenational.ae