A-Z Night #8. Narratives of Migration
Since 2015, 1.5 million refugees have arrived in Europe. It has become very clear that migration is a subject we can't ignore. But what are the stories that we tell? And what language do we use to tell them? These were some of the questions raised during the A-Z night #8, held in Hasselt, Belgium on November 6. Jozefien Van Beek looks back and reflects on the main ideas, illustrated by the live drawings of Wide Vercnocke.
When he was still a teacher, Professor of Political Science Aladin El-Mafaalani – who was himself born in Germany as the child of highly educated Syrians – introduced the term ‘pupils with an international story’ because he wanted to avoid the negative connotations associated with the concept of ‘migration background’. The young people with a ‘national story’ were offended: they felt as though they were now less interesting. Over time, Aladin El-Mafaalani noticed that most of the pupils started exploring the history of their German ancestors, looking for something ‘international’. This is a fine example of the importance of language in the debate around migration, and how formative it can be.
Architect and researcher Merve Bedir likewise underscores the importance of language. She immediately clarifies what she means using a very simple example: “we talk about climate change”, she says, “even though it is a serious crisis that requires an urgent response. Conversely, recent events are always described as a migration crisis. If we were to talk about it in a different way, we would also perceive it differently.” This idea is also described in the book Liquid Fear by Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, in which he describes how fear is magnified via rhetoric, and how that fear becomes xenophobia.
Stories about migration are thus determined by our choice of words, and this interests Bedir, who obtained a doctorate at the Technical University in Delft and is a member of the transnational women’s collective Matbakh-Mutfak in Gaziantep and the founder of MAD (Center for Spatial Justice) in Istanbul. Our attitude toward refugees begins with the words that we use to describe them. In Turkey – a country that has historically welcomed many newcomers from a variety of conflicts – the term ‘guest’ is often used. This inspired Bedir to start asking questions about the rules of hospitality in Turkey, and the inherent hostility that is embedded in the English word. Strangely enough, the step from ‘hospitality’ to ‘hostile’ is quickly made. Bedir, therefore, argues in favour of a better understanding of the vocabulary used around refugees. She considers this to be a necessary first step towards a better refugee policy.
Bedir presents a close reading and history of the word ‘hospitality’ and refers, among other things, to Of Hospitality, a collection of two lectures by Jacques Derrida, who was himself an Algerian migrant in France: “The foreigner is first of all foreign to the legal language in which the duty of hospitality is formulated, the right to asylum, its limits, norms, policing, etc. He has to ask for hospitality in a language which, by definition, is not his own, the one imposed on him by the master of the house, the host, the king, the lord, the authorities, the nation, the State, the father, … This personage imposes on him translation into their own language, and that’s the first act of violence.”
Bedir argues that the fact that the host imposes a foreign language on guests when they arrive is the first form of violence committed against them. Solidarity is only possible when the difference between guest and host disappears completely.
Product designer Emma Ribbens makes a similar point. It is only when distance disappears, when anonymous stories become concrete, that genuine rapprochement can occur. She experienced this personally when working on her graduation project Nomadlab, for which she won the Wanatoe Prize in 2017. She wanted to design a toolkit for children in refugee centres and camps to create modular toys from refuse materials. With a limited number of elements, it is possible to create an infinite number of play possibilities, enabling children in child-unfriendly situations to strengthen their resilience through collaboration, creativity and play.
Initially, Ribbens thought that she could solve the problem at her desk, and it was only in the field that she discovered the seemingly endless complexity of the situation. “Making climbing frames is forbidden, for example”, she says, “because governments are afraid that temporary camps might become permanent if they draw in more people. Another difficulty: if you have to choose between using wood to build a playground or to make a fire and keep warm, the choice is quickly made.” Ribbens only discovered these concrete limitations when she visited the refugee camps in Duinkerken, Istanbul and Lesbos. She was shocked by the degrading, inhumane conditions and she could not believe that this was possible in Europe. “Playing is very important in situations like that”, Ribbens says. “Because it gives children the opportunity to be children again, even if only for a moment, amidst all the misery.”
When Ribbens wanted to make a documentary about her project with filmmaker Clara Braeckman, she was faced with a series of new possibilities, dilemmas and ethical questions. Her reflections resulted in a whole series of questions: How can designers be relevant and ask the right questions? What are the responsibilities you have as a designer and how do you ensure that your good intentions do not have unwanted negative consequences? How do you ensure that you don’t create false hope? You are only on site temporarily, so how do you make yourself dispensable? How do you show that refugees are people too, without depicting them as passive victims? And finally: How do you tell a story that is not your own? Ribbens is a young, privileged white woman. She wonders why she has the right to tell this story. But it seems very important to attempt to tell it nonetheless.
Somebody who tells stories in a different way is filmmaker Sahim Omar Kalifa, who does have his own history to tell, but whose films are not autobiographical. In 2012, De Standaard ran the headline ‘Kurd survives for days as stowaway in trailer’. This was the first time that the name Sahim Omar Kalifa appeared in Belgian newspaper archives. The second time was ten years later: ‘Flemish short film wins in Berlin’. Omar Kalifa’s short film Land of the Heroes won the Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the Berlinale, as well as numerous other awards. Bad Hunter and Baghdad Messi were likewise very successful on the festival circuit.
Before he came to Belgium, Omar Kalifa was an accountant in Zakho, a city of 200,000 inhabitants in the north of the Iraqi territory of Kurdistan, on the border with Turkey and Syria, only a few kilometres from the mountains where the PKK separatists were holed up. But after three of his brothers were murdered and his parents fled to Belgium to escape the Saddam regime, he followed them. Part of his experience – the horrific days spent in the trailer of a lorry – became part of his feature-length film Zagros. But he emphasizes that the film is not autobiographical otherwise. “It is not about my own life. I made a combination of stories that I heard while I was working as a translator at an asylum centre.” But even more importantly: “This is not a story about refugees, it is a universal love story. Fleeing is the background of the film, but I don’t want to focus on it. Artists cannot provide answers. But they can ask questions.”
In his recent non-fiction book Wanneer het water breekt, Chris De Stoop highlights that the current influx of refugees is by no means the first. Today, boat refugees arrive across the Mediterranean Sea. In the 1970s and 80s, they fled from Vietnam via the South China Sea. De Stoop wrote the story of one group of people of flesh and blood in one boat, and thus appeals to our empathy. He offers us insight into how such a story can mark a person for the rest of their life. The Italian author Natalie Ginzburg likewise underscored this point inimitably but sadly in her book The Little Virtues. In the story ‘The Son of Man’ she writes: “There has been a war and people have seen so many houses reduced to rubble that they no longer feel safe in their own homes which once seemed to quiet and secure. This is something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by. True, we have a lamp on the table again, a little vase of flowers, and pictures of our loved ones, but we can no longer trust any of these things because once, suddenly, we had to leave them behind, or because we have searched through the rubble for them in vain. (…) Those of us who have been fugitives will never be at peace.”
It is high time that we collectively come to realize this.
A-Z nights is a series of undisciplined talks, co-initiated by Z33. It’s an assemblage of hands-on inspiration, out-of-the-box thinking, remarkable perspectives and insights on the artistic practice of the future. For & by makers, thinkers and students from the creative industry. Every night is captured in both words and images. For more info on the upcoming nights, see a-znights.be.