300 Metres

A few months ago, I was fortunate to be invited to speak at a conference in Budapest. Organised in the context of a European project with partners in Greece, Spain, France, Hungary and the UK, the event used art to open up dialogue about migration, and especially with migrants. There was a wide range of practice, experience and ideas, but everyone shared a fundamental belief in human dignity and equality.

This video captures the spirit of the occasion.

The Ariadne Project is now complete, and the partners have just published a handbook for artists, educators and trainers interested in the role of art in intercultural dialogue.

In their own words, ‘It contains some theory about art and adaptation, case studies about implemented art workshops for migrants and in the final chapter some games and exercises that we used during the project.’ It is available in digital format in five languages here.

Two days before the start of the conference, a Hungarian MP, Marton Gyongyosi, had called in parliament for the state to draw up a list of all Jewish citizens. His far-right party, Jobbik, is currently the third largest in terms of parliamentary seats.

I remembered the poignant memorial to the Jews who were drowned in the Danube in 1944: a line of empty shoes along the bank.  It is 300 metres from the Hungarian Parliament, where Gyongyosi spoke. That is how far we have come in 70 years: 300 metres.

Shoes on the Danube Promenade - Holocaust Memorial (Photo Nikodem Nijaki)
Shoes on the Danube Promenade – Holocaust Memorial (Photo Nikodem Nijaki)

I was asked about those events, among other things, in an interview after my conference speech, and an extract from that video is now online too.

Across Europe, people face unemployment, falling living standards and uncertainty about the future. Now we shall learn whether the historic efforts at reconciliation and reconstruction since 1945 have inoculated enough of us against the simplistic answers of demagogues.

I know which Europe I want to belong to.

Engaged writing

A Night in Tahrir Square - Jacopo Quaranta (Time)
A Night in Tahrir Square – Jacopo Quaranta (Time)

Manuel Castells‘ account of the  networks of outrage and hope that have emerged since the economic collapse of 2008 is as inspiring as it is instructive. I’ve been learning a lot about the world today as well as seeing  connections with the community art movement of 1970s. In explaining why and how he has written this important book for a non-specialist audience, Castells describes the task of an engaged writer:

‘Without pretending to achieve objectivity, I have tried to present the movements in their own words and by their own actions, using some direct observation and a considerable amount of information: some from individual interviews and some from secondary sources that are detailed in the references to each chapter and in the appendices to this book. In fact, I am in full accordance with the basic principle of this leaderless movement of multiple faces: I only represent myself, and this is simply my reflection on what I have seen, heard or read. I am an individual doing what I learned to do throughout my life: investigate processes of social transformation with the hope that this investigation could be helpful to the endeavours of those fighting, at great risk, for a world we would like to live in.’

Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope2012

The long-promised account of what Regular Marvels is about is progressing, but more slowly than I’d expected. There is so much to try to explain, in theory and ethics, method and politics, art and language. So for now, I wanted to share this brief statement of intent by Manuel Castells: it is at least something to aspire to. And in a world undergoing historic change, that is already a big thing.

A final word from Albert Camus, in his  Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

‘Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.’

Albert Camus, Stockholm, December 10, 1957


African inspiration

‘I had to get out of the country without permission, which means I have to cross my fingers when I get to the airport that nothing happens to me. And when I get to the passport, the customs agent that was there was a friend of my brother and played music too, and he froze when he saw me. He said ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘I gotta leave.’ He said ‘OK, I’m not stamping your passport; I’m gonna turn my back and you leave, just rush to the plane’. And we leave around midnight from Benin and arrive in France at six o’clock in the morning. So I took that flight and I sat in that plane holding my handbag, praying that no military people walk into this plane to get me out. I was shaking. I was frozen.’

Angélique Kidjo, BBC World Service, 14 May 2013

Listening to Angélique Kidjo’s wonderful interview, I heard so many echoes of the artists whose stories appear in Bread and Salt: the growing impossibility of staying at home, the risks of leaving and the hostility on arrival. The courage, resilience and hopefulness of the human spirit is extraordinary.

Angelique KidjoNow living in New York, Kidjo has made a unique career as an African artist on the world stage. Her music slips gleefully past cultural borders to knit styles and sounds from many cultures: she sings in Fon, Yorubá, French and English. Her Batonga Foundation is helping educate thousands of girls in Benin, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Mali. But it is the joy in her voice that is so impressive, so infectious.

And there’s equal joy in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’s new novel, Americanah, alongside some powerful writing about race and relations between Nigeria, Britain and the United States. This has been widely and rightly praised: it’s a great story that does exactly what Adichie called for in her Commonwealth Lecture:

When we read human stories, we become alive in bodies not our own. Literature is in many ways like faith: it is a leap of imagination. Both reading and writing require an imaginative leap and it is that imaginative leap that enables us to become alive in bodies not our own. It seems to me that we live in a world where it has become increasingly important to try and live in bodies not our own, to embrace empathy, to constantly be reminded that we share, with everybody in every part of the world, a common and equal humanity.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2012 Commonwealth Lecture

With artists like Angélique Kidjo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and many others, Africa’s diverse people and cultures are telling their own stories on their own terms. Globalisation has many dangers, but when it provides new platforms for those stories to be heard, some of those may be reduced if we remember our common and equal humanity.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bread and Salt: First words

My old friend Dave and I are doing the final proofs of the English version of Bread and Salt: it will go to print on Monday, for publication on 21 June, in Utrecht. Then we will have the challenge of doing the proofs for the Dutch translation, without a word of Dutch: fortunately our friends in the Netherlands will do the proofreading. In the meantime, in what is becoming a tradition for Regular Marvels, here is the opening section of the book.

Pâine şi sare

ReceptionThey are waiting for us at the top of the path, in front of the museum: the mayor, in jacket and tie, the curator and a few other friends and supporters. To one side stand two young people in Romanian costume, red and black and white, crisp as fresh linen in the pale morning sun. They hold a golden loaf and a dish of salt: pâine şi sare. Handshakes and introductions; then I’m invited to take a piece of bread with a few grains of crystal. A glass of clear palincă and a toast to health and long life.

A hundred yards off, some Roma labourers pause briefly to observe the welcome ceremony, then turn back to repairing the road.

This is Transylvania, the land beyond the forest, where Scythians, Saxons, Magyars, Vlachs and many more have lived successively and together over centuries. After the First World War, the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the territory to Romania, which had sided with the victorious Allies. Transylvania was then home to three principal ethnic groups: Romanians, Hungarians and Germans, each with their own language and culture. Since the revolution in 1989, most of the last have left to claim the right of return as Auslandsdeutsche, Germans abroad, but about 20% of Romanian citizens in Transylvania are still Hungarian.

I came to know southeastern Europe through cultural development work with Belgian and Swiss foundations. Over the years I have visited many villages and small towns in Romania, Albania, Bulgaria and what was once Yugoslavia. Sometimes, we have been three or four visitors to see how the work is going; more often, it’s been just an interpreter and me. But whatever the circumstances, I have been welcomed everywhere with warmth and generosity. Tables have been set with burek, the traditional cheese pie made with filo, and zelnik, its spinach-based cousin; with salami, cured ham and meatballs. Tomatoes and plums have been brought in from the garden, and there has been yoghurt, ‘national’ coffee, black tea and every kind of homemade fruit spirit. And, always, bread.

No one is in a hurry. There are introductions and rituals to be observed as we get to know one another over the course of a morning. There is much to present and explain, and not only what has been achieved through the project. There is a church or a mosque, old houses, an archaeological site, a museum; sometimes the young people perform a local dance or song. It is people’s culture that is being presented, as a valuable gift. Man does not live by bread alone.

And then there is time to talk, round a table in a shady garden, or in the mayor’s gloomy office that hasn’t seen new paint since Tito’s day, to talk and get to know one another a little. It is a human exchange that will linger in the memory.

I am under no illusion, though. This courtesy is done not to me personally but to the donor whose, representative I am, for now. And here, as in other poor places in the world where work has taken me, I am also, and inescapably, a representative of the world’s rich and powerful nations. I have in my pocket a bank card and the European Union’s burgundy passport.

Days later, transferring between flights in Munich, that identity document takes me into a different line, past the returning Gastarbeiters and others hoping to enter the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, without the protection of a right of return. A bored policeman flips my passport across a scanner, barely glancing at me before sliding it back under the glass. Further down the hall, the line of non-EU citizens has not moved.

Bread and Salt: Stories of Artists and Migration will be published on 21 June 2013, by Vrede van Utrecht. Digital versions, in English and Dutch, will be available for free download from this site from that 22 June.