I was invited to attend a EUROMED meeting in Lyon, France, last month to talk about the champions of migration. (Extract key note Euromed meeting Lyon, France,16 september 2014.)
EUROMED is a project focused on the fostering of cooperation on migratory issues between the EU countries and the non-EU countries around the South and East Mediterranean region. The project addresses different aspects of migration including legal migration, irregular migration and not least migration and development. The EUROMED Migration meeting in Lyon where I was invited to, specifically targeted the topic of highly successful migrants and assessed, and reviewed, their possible impact on development.
My first thought was that it was indeed quit refreshing to talk about migration in a good way, as a human condition that can affect us all in a positive way and can bring the world into movement and ultimately to progress.
Migration is too often put as a threat to an orderly organized society where everyone knows what their social role is and where we all have the same set of values and beliefs. Migration is seen as a threat to that utopia. Because in the mind of many, migration stands for brutal changes in society and people tend to believe that change endangers the uniformity of norms and values. It unleashes chaos and insecurity by defying the status quo. It is everything we are not. That is of course a stereotypical approach of migration. I believe that it is because of those who are different from us that we can take the next step, evolve, and it is our capability to live with this diversity and to cope with change that will determine our success as a whole.
I asked myself the question whether it would be possible to shift that paradigm of fear by focusing on the good things of migration? And wasn’t there another danger if we made it clear that we love the champions in migration and not all the rest?
Isn’t there the risk that we give the message that the only thing that will save us from stereotypes and prejudices is a continent with only those migrants who are excellent in everything? The smartest and the richest? What about those who are having a very hard time to make ends meet, who struggle? What about the right of humans to move, even if they are not brilliant? What about those migrants who flee for political reasons? Do we consider them less? What kind of attitude are we reserving for them? When I think of my own father for instance, he came in the sixties to Belgium because Belgium called desperately for him and thousands of others like him. He was a man who couldn’t read or write but he was strong and healthy and in the decades after world war II, Western-Europe was in need of strong hands to build bridges, metro lines, to work in factories and in the coal mines. At that given period in Belgian history, my father was considered a champion and no questions were asked about competences and talents. We now live in an information and knowledge era and the needs and demands in the Western world have changed and so a country like Belgium is no longer interested in unskilled hard workers. This is something to take into consideration and the question whether someone can only be considered a champion if he is able to fulfill the needs that exist at a given moment?
And of course there is also the problem of definitions, because definitions are like small boxes where there seems to be only room for one single vision whereby I strongly believe in plurality and complexity. And migration, like so many other human conditions is complex. It is not one thing or the other, it is a story of winning some and losing some. You may win economic welfare as a migrant, climb the social ladder and gain security and freedom of movement, but you will lose family ties, you will lose languages, traditions and the feeling of belonging. And that loss is inherited by the next generation, the children of those migrants.
Stories in between
Migration is not a story about winners and losers, it is something in between. My father came in the sixties to Belgium where he worked in the steel industry as a factory worker. But when he left his village in the Rif region in Morocco, his migration path led him first to Algeria where he worked in the agriculture. My father felt the necessity of moving, of leaving a country to go some place where he had far more chances to make a living. He had no clue of where he would end up, what kind of people he would meet, what language he would have to speak nor what kind of changes he would undergo as a result of living in a strange country. There was a lot of uncertainty and the path of his journey was paved with coincidences. He could have ended up anywhere in Europe, from South of France to the Netherlands.
He took us to Belgium in the seventies where I have been living since then. I went to school in Flanders and I I’m Dutch-speaking.
I studied law, became a lawyer but consider myself to be a writer. If anyone asks me what I do for a living I answer that I‘m a writer, I don’t mention the lawyer part although I work four days a week as a lawyer. When I was asked to participate at this seminar, my first thought was also to participate as a writer and not as a lawyer. But then I started to ask myself what could possibly be my significance, as a fiction writer, in a debate about migrants who can have an impact on development in the receiving as well as in the country of origin?
You could say that for the lawyer part you could, if you wanted to, measure my work, define its effect even if it is only on a micro scale.
But what about my work as a writer of fiction?
Does it have any sense? Especially in this time of crisis where some politicians advocate to put art on hold until the more serious issues and problems are solved like the financial crisis, unemployment, gender inequality, climate change.
Can I measure the economic value of my novels and plays? And if the output of the literature and the theatre that I write is not tangible, does it have any ethical effects on humanity? For instance, is reading a novel capable of altering our vision of the world? I believe it is.
Can art save the world?
Before I became a writer, I was a reader and as a reader the literature that I read influenced my vision of the world, shaped my ideas. Academics who know so much more about the theory of literature and ethics, such as the Jewish-American academic Martha Nussbaum, claims that reading literary fiction is about debating norms and values.
Reading fiction has an ethical effect on the reader. So literature can save the world then? Of course not.
But neither can economy, science, philosophy or religion.
Because change is made by humans, not by books or disciplines. But if people use philosophy, sciences economics, art and even religion, together in a positive way, we could get somewhere. The combined forces of all these disciplines could lead us to a better world. A world with less fear and more empathy.
There is another academic named Dorothy Hale and she says something fascinating about writing fiction and reading fiction. ‘When a reader opens a novel’, she says, ‘the reader opens up to a type of decision making that is itself inherently ethical. The first question a reader has to answer is if he or she is willing to submit to the alterity that the novel allows. Reading a novel is a training in the honoring of the otherness.’ And then she claims something astonishing. She says that ‘reading novels is a crucial pre-condition for positive social change’. Let me repeat the conclusion of Dorothy Hale; ‘Reading literature is an essential pre-condition for social change.’ I like this idea, I like it a lot.
So it is only by knowing each other, that we can put ourselves in the place of the other and make positive change possible. Perhaps you think now; ‘we know who the other is, we are well informed, we don’t need fiction for that’. But I strongly believe that we do not know each other, despite the fact that we live in a global world where everyone is interconnected with everyone, there is so little known about the others.
Yes we are informed by the news, but what kind of image of the other is created there? It is a black and white picture, we think that we know each other because of the stereotypic images we have from one another from the dramatic headlines in the news.
But literature gives us an inside story of the lives of the others. It makes it possible to give an inside story of migration if you have literature that is written through the lens of migration and post colonialism. Literature gives us the opportunity to become involved in the experiences of other people, regardless of time, space, language and even gender. And when that happens, there will be empathy, you will no longer think of yourself as the center of the world, because you look through the gaze of the other. And then it is possible to have a dialogue. Not only a dialogue between writers and readers, but also between readers and readers. About all kind of subjects. Things that are still difficult to debate openly.
In Belgium we have finally a few writers with a migration background that emerge and the themes that they address are very diverse but because it’s written through the gaze of the other, we have a debate about the idea of belonging and citizenship, identity and nationality.
Bringing back the balance
So two years ago I decided to use old classics from the Muslim world to make children plays, theatre for children in Belgium. I have been working on a play based on a text called ‘The case of the animals against the humans.’ written in the tenth century in Basra by a collective of writers called the pure brotherhood of Basra, a group of philosophers, scientists and theologians. They were Muslims with a very eclectic way of thinking, their mantra was ‘examine everything and keep the good things’. The case of the animals against the humans is a meticulous examination of the moral values and the behavior of the humans. It is amazing that in the tenth century you had, in the region of Basra, savants who questioned the so called natural order that dictates that men are standing above animals and that they have the power over them. They wrote such modern things as the importance to give space for different visions and opinions, they examined the rights of every living being and asked themselves crucial questions such as ‘what responsibility do you have if you have the power? And how do humans justify their power over other living beings?
It is thanks to these kind of stories that we can contest the shallow and stereotypical images that are constructed around Muslims and Islam.
So that is what I do, I tell stories, because although we live in a high-speed, high technological and virtual world, we will always need stories to really get to know who we humans are. Fiction can open a world and can create reality. Fiction is a lesson in democracy and can help us to live an enlightened life. So yes, literature is important. It has a role to play in the development of humans and the realization of Utopia where we all have the potential to become champions.