Invisible Maps


A desecrated immigrant grave in Strasbourg, France.

A desecrated immigrant grave in Strasbourg, France.  

IF the abbreviation EU has the meaning and connotation of a forum where different European countries stand unified on the basis of certain policies both economic and cultural for a non-European, EU could have many more issues in common for the involved European country itself; one of the major issues could well be the "other", i.e. the "immigrant". Asylum grantees, guest workers, refugees ... give them any name, from Algeria to Turkey through Sri Lanka, people of different colour and faith have found a life in many European countries. Each country has a different reason to find them inside their land and play host and their laws concerning the immigrants, their status, access to housing, health care etc., are also very distinctly different.

While the flavours of each of their distinctive cuisine and the sounds of their music has mingled with the atmosphere of many of the European cities and is being consumed and appreciated by the host populace, especially the youth, the double-edged conflict of the "self" and the "other", the "host" and the "guest" keeps on erupting in different zones, periods, and surfaces in varied forms ranging from street fights, shoot-outs to economic-policy debates and Asylum laws in Parliaments. Decades back Max Frisch wrote "we are happy to get cheap labour to do the jobs that we don't want to do, but we should remember we are not just getting labour but also human beings." The "other" has been making the presence felt both in the positive and negative strains thereby forcing the host to take note of them as human beings.

In the social fabric and artistic sphere, the interactions among different cultural entities has created an eclectic milieu and a distinct body of work in film; literature has emerged from the "immigrant" artist addressing the world of the "Self" and the "Other"; however the real worth and merit of such work often rests on the fact that it has transcended the personal to the universal, even as it had retained the specific self. Therefore it looked more than appropriate when the Osaka International House Foundation had, in collaboration with the British Council, Goethe Institut, Alliance Francaise d'Osaka and Flanders Centre organised a colloquium titled Europe, "The Living Diversity — The Effects of Immigration on Culture" on May 8, to celebrate the EU-Japan Friendship week. Azouz Begag, Zafer Senocak, Jamil Shakely and Hanif Kureishi, writers from Europe were the Colloquium discussants and Prof. Shoji Hiroshi, of National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka was the chairperson; even as one kept wondering what would/ could be the relevance of this beyond academic concerns to Japan which does not seem to have the experience of having the "other" or being the "other", the presence of Chung Kapsu (Korea-Osaka) an activist as one of the panellists and his views on the life of Koreans in Japan filled the gap to some extent.

When the panellists/writers presented their personal narratives mapping their migration and life in their migrant/naturalised status, they became evocative accounts of our times, rather a slice of social history of a little more than a half-century. Azouz Begag's concluding remarks that in the whole Algerian shanty near Lyon (France) from where he comes, many were not even lettered and remain labourers, that his mother stays glued to the Algerian TV channel to feel at home and is not able to speak French and therefore does not know his writing which is in French drew an astounding parallel with that of Senocak. He shares a commonality with Begag as a writer of foreign origin writing in German language but with a starkly contrasting background as the son of a journalist father who had fled the country for political reasons. He also made a passing remark that his writing has to be translated for his mother. The remark made one realise that the interest in the literary worth or the content which could well provide a reflection into the world of the "other", has to be in the word of the host country. Because there is a whole body of literature from Sri Lankan writers which eloquently states the duality of the state of exile of the here and home; two immediate references that surface to the memory are Kalamohan's (France) quest to understand/ deal with his refugee situation through a simultaneity of stark existentialism and sensuality by constantly making visitations to the world of the "other" marginalised around him which allows the reader to enter the realm of the "other" beyond the material planes and that of Jeayabalan's (Norway) poetry which poignantly graphs the inner loneliness through an essaying of landscape where he comes up with such stunning phrases as "neer-p-palay" (water-desert) as he looks at the breath-taking and unending expanses of water as it is only a desert for him away from home.

Jamil Shakely's was a case in point; in comparison to Senocak or Begag who had grown up in their host countries, Shakeley had landed in Belgium in 1990 and learnt the language from children's books and children's TV programmes. Born in Kurdistan and currently living in Belgium, he started off with the accounts of displacements that happened for him within the home country and finally his migration to Belgium. He raised pertinent questions on "home" and wondered why one still has this craving and homesickness, even when the real "home" was not a safe and a free place. "According to my passport I am a recognized Belgian. In my phone book there are lot of numbers from my Belgian friends. But my homesickness remains as a heavy burden on my shoulders. In Belgium there is an invisible wall between my surroundings and me. I am yearning for my country and culture. My dreams are often about heavens full of stars, the mountains in my country, crying children who are anxiously searching for a place to hide. Now and then I can hear a shepherd in the distant mountain who is singing an old Kurdish song. My bedroom smells like the morning breeze blowing through fields of flowers and it is too small for all those beloved guests. But when I wake up, my bedroom is again too big for my lonely spirit and smells like my own morning breath."

Well-known novelist, playwright and screenplay writer Hanif Kureishi represented the U.K. Even as he recounted his childhood memories of being the "other" concluded that much has changed for the better, it left one wondering if one knew the reality. Whether Kureishi, a writer accepted and recognised into the inner circle by the establishment and also not really an outsider or a migrant, made such a right representation in this colloquium. One couldn't help thinking about those like Benjamin Zephania. While Begag brought out his passionate concerns and optimism about turning geographical spaces inhabited by equally shared and mutually representing societies without losing identities and strongly advocated the need to continuously address the children and young adults in a witty, sharp and intimate manner, Zenocak's presentation could easily be titled "the poetics of the immigrant politics", revealing the academic aesthetics of the Frankfurt school. As against Begag who strongly supported the view that social behaviour decreed by the State (scarves, prayer in public spaces) has to be respected and obeyed, Senocak opined that such submissions could slowly lead to the erasure of individual identities.

Senocak chose to graph his lines of home in the land of the other through his travel with the language. As a child the linguistic borders were fluid and interchanging yet creating stark borderlines with Turkish spoken inside and German among the playmates. With the advent of a TV box inside the house, speaking German as against the radio which brought the sounds of Turkey, the aesthetically produced German books as against the poor print quality of Turkish books, his joy of discovering the Ottoman "divan" poetry through the help of a Persian dictionary and at the same time being drawn to Paul Celan, Senocak looked at the shifting notions of identity. He moved on from the personal to the political by quoting and reflecting upon the statement of Otto Schilly (A minister from the SPD Govt.) to a leading German newspaper: "I don't want to see any bilingual street signs.... don't want a homogeneous minority developed whose first language is Turkish. The Turks among us need to grow into our cultural space. Everyone's native language must be or become German; the best form of integration is assimilation..." Zafer Senocak who was constantly raising an alert whenever the words "integration" or "assimilation" surfaced during the discussions, continued to reflect upon Schilly's remark, "the invisible border at the threshold of our home, where I was allowed to play as a child, has in the meantime hardened into an unyielding boundary in German society, at which everyone must declare themselves for one side or the other. It's rather difficult to exchange your own mother for another, so your mother must be careful to speak the `correct' language. Would she do that? Who could force her to do that? There are countries in the world where such a thing is possible. As far as I know, Germany is not one of them. So let the signs on the streets be monolingual, so that no one gets lost on the way home, including a one-eyed person. But what is really happening on those very streets? In the heads and hearts of the people, on their tongues? Is it possible that not any bilingual street signs are undesirable, but also bilingual people? The question of the street signs reminds me of the nameplate on the door of our house. Shortly after we moved in, my father had it taken down. `We don't want anyone to know that foreigners live here,' he explained. But behind the door we continued to speak Turkish and I wrote my first poem in German."

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