[This article is one of six contributions to the Jadaliyya roundtable launching the Latin East Initiative. Click here to read the introduction or read other contributions by Amal Eqeiq, Rania Jawad, Ali Mirsepassi, and Ella Shohat.]
“The Politics of Art: Readings, Reflections, and Refractions,” covered a range of issues and presented a variety of approaches to thinking of Latin America and the Middle East comparatively.
Sinan Antoon’s article, “Reading César Vallejo in Arabic: On Poetic Affinity and Solidarity,” offers a close reading of poems written by Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus in which the Peruvian poet César Vallejo and his poetry are referenced. The article pays attention not only to the ways in which both poets are similar but also to their differences thus providing a rich and complex reading of the intersection of the poetic and the political at two different moments in the 20th century.
Where Antoon’s discussion of Latin American influences was circumscribed, Lena Meari’s, “Reading Che in Colonized Palestine”, along with Ismail Hamalaw and Houzan Mahmoud’s, “The Latin Boom in Iraqi Kurdistan” was expansive. Both of their articles delineate the political influences that the Latin American left had on the Middle Eastern left. These are influences that can be traced back to the height of internationalist solidarity movements in the mid-twentieth century and that continue to be revisited in times of national strife. Contrary to the title, Meari does not only deal with Che Guevara’s influence but also speaks of the larger influences of the Cuban revolution, the Sandinistas, and the Tupamaros as well as such transnational militants as Antoine Daoud and Patrick Argüello who were active in both Latin America and the Middle East. Similarly, Hamalaw and Mahmoud trace the influence that Latin American Marxist literature and guerilla techniques (from Che Guevara to the Sandinistas) had on a generation of Kurdish freedom fighters.
The variety of texts and ideas that circulated in the Kurdish and Palestinian contexts is breathtaking. However, as I read, I found myself constantly wondering whether in such spaces of transnational or international solidarity one could truly argue for a unique connection between two regions (in this case Latin America and the Middle East) over any two others. In fact, in Meari’s article, for instance, one interviewee was quick to point out that “We were fascinated with the Guevarian path and it affected our thinking. It constituted an inspiration— yet, we were aware of the limitations of its applicability in the Palestinian context. The Palestinian topography is limited, as we do not have mountains.” Though it seems that in the Kurdish context these strategies were more directly applicable, is there a truly unique connection between Latin America and the Middle East that distinguishes it from other “successful” contexts such as Vietnam or South Africa? In the world of transnational and international solidarity, is it useful or warranted to look for such unique national or regional connections?
In addition to surveying Latin American political influences in their article, Hamalaw and Mahmoud venture into the literary in order to discuss Magical Realism’s appeal to Kurdish writers and artists. The draw of a style that transcends the limitations of Realism is understandable. In fact, a lot has been written about the problems with Realism as a narrative mode. However, I found the enthusiastic and uncritical employment of the term to be naïve. There are many pitfalls to reimagining World Literature labels such as Magical Realism as purely South-South with no triangulations with the North especially when one realizes that the reasons for the emergence of such terms are inextricably linked to the power dynamics at play in the Global market. To ignore these power relations is to not question the world system that makes direct South-South connections difficult if not impossible.
Rania Jawad sensitively highlights some of those issues in her article “Trajectories of Travel: Augusto Boal’s Liberatory Theatre Practice in Palestine.” She outlines the fraught ways through which the “Theatre of the Oppressed” was introduced into the Palestinian theatrical scene and examines the problems and challenges that take place when a foreign concept is adopted without paying attention to how it evolved in its original context. Like Hamalaw and Mahmoud, Jawad engages with a term associated with Latin America that was introduced to the Middle East after garnering international currency in World Literature. Unlike them, she treats it with caution.
Vallejo in Arabic, Magical Realism in Kurdish or the Theatre of the Oppressed in Palestine, are all mediated through gatekeeping editorial and translation decisions taking place in the European and American North. Such triangulations speak to the power relations and global market networks that determine everything from where to export local goods to which second language to study. So what to do? Are direct South-South, and more specifically Latin American-Middle Eastern interactions possible today? Is a Latin American-Middle Eastern or any contemporary South-South collaboration bound to fail due to the language barriers?
Roosbelinda Cardenas and Hiba Bou Akar offer one provisional solution in their article, “Writing about Violence: A Joint Reflection From Latin America and the Middle East”. Their paper gives us insight into a promising model of collaborative teaching and writing that can help bridge the linguistic barriers referenced. I truly enjoyed reading about their experience thinking through such issues as “political graffiti and street art in Cairo and Bogota, the state’s role in Brazilian favelas and West Bank refugee camps, drug wars in Mexico and Afghanistan, the tactics of Zapatista and Kurdish women’s resistance movements and diasporic influences in popular music in both regions” in their classes. However, the parts of the article that deal with their respective research projects quickly moved from the “we” to the “I”. Thus, I was left wondering, in what ways does research on Colombia’s Internally Displaced Persons help enhance our understanding of the Lebanese post-Civil War context? How can research on Lebanon’s contested geographies and sectarianism help deepen research on Colombia’s Civil War? Etc. More direct engagement with the divergences and convergences of these two case studies of violence would, I believe, yield theoretically generative work.
But both Cardenas and Bou Akar are collaborating and writing in English in the academy of the North. And the two terms, “Middle East” and “Latin America” are constructs of the North. Hence the persistence of my questions, can direct South-South collaboration exist without any triangulations with the North? What are the implications, liberatory or otherwise, of thinking about Latin America and the middle east comparatively from the North? And can we think of other ways to comparatively study the two regions beyond the confines and limitations of networks?