Borders Are There to Be Crossed
The International Book Fair in Torino, the second largest Book Fair in Europe, has announced that Saudi Arabia will no longer be the guest of honour in its 2016 event. Instead, next year’s fair will focus on Arab Literature more broadly. This move breaks with the fair’s long tradition of hosting a different country each year, in close collaboration with the embassies and the ministry of culture of the guest countries.
It was almost midnight in Sydney and about 4pm in Sambuca in Sicily, when the Italian newsagency ANSA launched the news: “The organizers decided that the International Book Fair in Torino would not have an honoured guest next year, but would shift from a geopolitical to geo-cultural criteria” (ANSA, 6 October 2015). The press launch almost echoed the open letter that we, Lucia Sorbera and Paola Caridi, co-wrote on 30 September 2015, and published on Paola’s blog, Invisiblearabs. In forty-eight hours, we mobilized about two hundred people around the world, from Italy to Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Middle East. A diverse group of individuals enthusiastically supported our call, from scholars and activists to intellectuals of different generations, and, most importantly, those who were supposed to be the main audience of cultural events: the literature lovers and culture-mongers, whose professions are not related to the literary field.
The discussion about the 2016 International Book Fair in Torino goes back to May 2015, when Saudi Arabia being the fair’s guest of honor was first announced. At that time, Paola commented on her blog: “The real news will be the shelves of the presumably huge stand of Saudi Arabia, the guest of honour of the next International Book Fair in Torino in 2016: will there be books on those shelves?” (Invisiblearabs, 18 May 2015). The post, which directly addressed the issue of censorship and freedom of expression, circulated widely amid social media; however, her voice seemed to remain isolated among academics and mainstream intellectuals.
Meanwhile, as the summer went by, along with the tragedies taking place around the Mediterranean, the already precarious situation in the Middle East deteriorated: in particular, the Saudi war in Yemen escalated and the Syrian population was under multiple attacks. Four years after the first democratic demonstrations in Daraa in March 2011 and their brutal repression by the Syrian regime, the Islamic State (IS) continues to persevere in Syria, and the US and Russian military operations are exacerbating the proxy war for geopolitical hegemony in the region. In Jerusalem, a new intifada is starting while the most prominent activists of the Egyptian Revolution remain in jail, in exile or, “pardoned” in the name of a “military democracy” (Acconcia, 2014).
Under such circumstances, the concerns that local politicians and administrators had about Saudi Arabia being the fair’s guest of honor was not a surprise. However, the decision did not seem to be related to the questionable regional politics of the country. Instead, it seemed to respond to the campaign that international human rights organizations launched in support of Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, the young Saudi man who was convicted and sentenced to death at the age of seventeen for participating in a demonstration during the 2011 uprisings.
As Arab studies scholars, our first concern was that our criticism of the Saudi Arabian government—among others in the Middle East—especially in regards to human rights, would not translate into a silencing of creative and independent voices from the Arab world. We did not want our call to be used as a discursive weapon against Arab people or the new generations of Arab-Italians. In other words, this call was against both the spread of racist stereotypes nourished by Orientalist and neo-Orientalist visions of the Arab world and the silencing of progressive, democratic Arab voices. These voices had been double-silenced: they were silenced by the Arab authoritarian regimes and their recourse to securitarian-driven policies, and by Western neglect, which makes the democratic and progressive Arab civil societies invisible (Caridi, 2007).
We did not want the exclusion of Saudi Arabia from the book fair to turn into an opportunity to promote, once again, the Orientalist idea of “the Arab” as a violent man riding a camel and holding a scimitar, an image that Hollywood has perpetuated for decades (McAlister, 2001). As writers and academics who spent almost half of their lives traveling to the Middle East, we, a growing diaspora of Italian intellectuals, felt a responsibility to “speak truth to power” (Said, 1994). Not surprisingly, our call to transcend national borders initiated a debate on how to look at the non-institutional spaces where literature is produced, read, and analyzed. We invited the broader community of readers, writers, artists, and intellectuals to express their ideas on the profound entanglements between culture and politics. The call was indeed a new way of conceiving cultural events and building cultural exchange beyond nations.
Literature Beyond Borders
The shift from a geopolitical to a geo-cultural criterion is certainly a timely one, and it is appropriate to begin with “Arab literature” as the first theme, or rather the first “non-national subject,” to be the guest of honor at the International Book Fair in Torino. The capacity of national institutions to deal with contemporary challenges—migrations, wars, climate change, and poverty—is widely debated in the current scholarship. This has profound implications on the way we understand the relationship between the nation and cultural production. More broadly, it has profound implications on the very notion of “nation.” Through our call, we claimed that while nations need literature, literature transcends national borders. Italian literature existed long before the Italian state was born and, today, there are a number of non-national subjects who contribute to its blossoming: Italian migrants and their descendants shaped world literature and, in twenty-first-century Italy, there is a new generation of Italian writers such as Igiaba Scego and Amara Lakhous, among many others, who have reinvigorated the Italian cultural field, producing new historical narratives and new visions of Italian literature and its relationship to the world. Literature transcends the national canon, and at times when borders are more the problem than the solution to social and political crisis, it is important to highlight non-canonical visions and narrations of history.
The idea of transcending the national canon fits particularly well in the Arab cultural field, where the Arabic language and Arab literature are a homeland to dissident, exiled and migrant intellectuals. As the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Sheikh states: “When you leave your country you become a real wonderer. You never belong to the other country you have adopted. I don’t belong here and at the same time I don’t belong in Lebanon, so I belong here and there and, why not, because not only me…many writers when they decided to leave their environment, their culture and their country, they created a new country for themselves, which is in writing, and this is how I am. My country is my writing, and it is fine to go everywhere, and I should be very lucky that this is my situation, that I could live everywhere” (in Palabra de Mujer, by Silvia Ponzoda, 2004). The notion of writing as a country is not specific to the Arab world but as Edward Said reminds us, it is also part of the European experience (Said, 1984), and especially of Adorno’s thought, which is permeated by the idea that writing is a home for the exiled.
Exile, absence, loss, and belonging are inherent to the human condition, and have been explored by Arab writers and intellectuals in relation to other public debates, connecting migration (as in the notion of “double absence” formulated by Abdelmalek Sayyad, 1999) and political exile. Said’s vision breaks the dialectic between nationalism and exile, and it suggests that we see exile not as a privilege, but as an alternative to the mass institutions that dominate modern life. In her artistic work, Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum further elaborates the notion of “the entire world as a foreign land,” and conveys the state of the mind of the exiled as someone who is constantly in a context of homelessness: “I enjoy moving in and out from one to another culture” stated Hatoum in Measures of Distance (1988).
Said’s notion of movement as a form of intellectual pleasure continues to be meaningful in the unfolding of the 2011 uprisings. Egyptian-Canadian writer and academic May Telmissany connects Said’s understanding with Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphorical notion of nomadism (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980) to ascertain the actions and forms of multiple belonging of transnational intellectuals. In Telmissany’s formulation, nomadic citizens are intellectuals who challenge the absolute power of the majority and are in constant movement across borders, standing, if necessary, against their own group. In a public lecture that she gave at the University of Sydney in April 2015, Telmissany argued for a reformulation of the relationship between the citizens and the nation state. Suggesting new formulations of the notions of diaspora, migration, and exile, she outlined the concept of nomadic citizenship as a form of resistance. We find Telmissany’s metaphorical notions of nomadism and her call to transcend borders extremely fruitful to understand the contemporary Arab cultural sphere, and how it resonates with the contemporary global challenges.
Our call, which aims at crossing national borders for understanding the history of literature, raised by the search for a common ground or, in the words of Ahdaf Soueif, a “Mezzaterra … a spacious meeting point with avenues into the rich hinterlands of many traditions” (Soueif, 2004), a search that permeates Arab literature and resonates with the human condition. The transnational transcends the national and it is the language of our time, wherein people negotiate multiple identities and look at the world from multiple perspectives, and it is these very intersections that we want to explore. We do not view “the Arab world” as a monolithic and a-historical entity. Rather, we are interested in the entanglements between the Arab world and the rest of the world for unfolding history. Our approach entails a rethinking of periodization through a consideration of counter-narratives that aim to transcend borders between disciplines.
Arab Literature: Whose Homeland?
Crossing borders might be a banal routine for neo-cosmopolitan elites, yet everyday chronicles show that it continues to be a death-defying journey for political and economic refugees. In such a context of growing inequality, the call for transcending national borders through literature and for adopting the visions of transnational nomadic intellectuals could sound elitist and utopian. This is not the case. New subjects are emerging as key actors in the transnational cultural sphere, and their micro-histories are producing alternative narratives of historical events. However, some issues should be addressed: Which borders could be crossed through literature? Whose subjects could actually cross those borders?
These questions entail a discussion on the ongoing shift in the definition of the cultural and the intellectual fields in the Arab world. In her current research, the Egyptian scholar Randa Abu Bakr investigates the shift from canonical—both modern and postcolonial—to non-traditional and unconventional conceptualizations of the figure of the intellectual in the Arab world. Abu Bakr notes that the traditional conceptualization of intellectuals, particularly the committed intellectual—a concept that in the Arab world evolved in the 1940 and 1950s—was closely linked to French existentialism. The traditional function of the intellectual was to raise consciousness and to educate the people (Jacquemond, 2002). The intellectual was also in a paradoxical position, at once calling for decolonization and being part of the colonial educational system. In addition, most of the intellectuals who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s were part of state institutions. They were simultaneously scribes et écrivains (Jacquemond, 2002), becoming representatives of a hierarchical system and of the state hegemony. Abu Bakr notes that the emerging generation of creative artists and cultural producers, who became visible especially after the 2011 uprisings, are “a new stream of intellectuals” that questions these modern and post-colonial conceptualizations (Abu Bakr, 2015). They are more involved with everyday struggles of the people, and they use a more colloquial language. They are producing a more egalitarian cultural field and they do not operate within state hegemony.
These are the figures with whom we would like to engage in conversations regarding the current challenges that the global civil society faces today. We believe that these new streams of Arab intellectuals flowing since the experience of the 2011 uprisings are well positioned to convey new visions of the challenges that the world faces, and we know that it would be impossible to meet them if we do not cross the borders that state institutions impose.
“Our hearts are broader than borders,” stated the Palestinian-Italian filmmaker Khaled Soliman al-Nassiry at the Sydney premiere (13 October 2015) of the documentary-comedy On the Bride Side (Del Grande, Augugliaro, Al-Nassiry, 2014). A conversation is ongoing about the need “to change the aesthetic of the frontier” (Del Grande, 2014). This broad cultural process also transcends disciplinary borders, and it entails, alongside literature, new theoretical elaborations. We are witnessing the production of a new culture, which is both innovative and post-colonial/post-globalization. The art and the culture of the generation that propelled the 2011 uprisings should be showcased in Italy and in Europe, in order to ensure a profound understanding of the long historical process in which the 2011 uprisings are inscribed: a revolution is happening in literature, contemporary graphic design, and music. The entanglements between these spaces deserve the attention of scholars and broader audiences.
The history of humanity shows that borders are there to be crossed. The decision to cross them through the sail of “Arab literature,” home to those who have chosen not to have a homeland, will position the Torino Book Fair at the vanguard of a new way of conceiving cultural events.
Paola Caridi and Lucia Sorbera, Sambuca di Sicilia and Sydney, 9 October 2015