Ahdaf Soueif: 2019 Princess Margriet Award acceptance speech
3 Oct 2019
Your Royal Highness, distinguished guests,
The film you just watched began and ended with passages from the preface to my collection of essays, Mezzaterra. When we were recording the last passage I kept stumbling, and I was only able to read properly when we inserted the line: “Living in the Mezzaterra today is painful”. But perhaps what was actually painful was having to read out my own words, written in 2004, in defence of the Mezzaterra, the common ground that I would not have imagined would become as shrunk as it is today.
This why I have to thank you, the European Cultural Foundation, for your vision and for your work. Your project, the project of imagining Europe as a common ground is key to the future of Europe and of true democracy.
It is a great honour that you’ve chosen me as one of the Princess Margriet Award Laureates for this year. A choice that means that you are thinking of Europe as part of a broader space than those ten million square kilometres ratified by the EU.
Because a Europe hiding behind its borders, however democratic and inclusive – will not work in today’s world. The problems the world suffers from are global – and they demand a global vision. The European Cultural Foundation’s core values – Democracy, Diversity, Trust, Solidarity, Interdependency, Freedom – are a mockery if the right to live by them is not the right of all humanity.
And Europe has – as we all have – a responsibility to all humanity.
When Europe extended itself beyond its boundaries – as a colonial project – it did massive – and unrectifiable harm – to the world. Not least of it was the construction of “race” as a concept we’re still burdened with today.
Today, as Europe talks the talk of human rights – universal human rights, presumably, it supports and does deals with and arms the dictators who squeeze their populations so that so many of them hand themselves over to smugglers and traffikers, invest whatever trust they have left in the sea or the desert, in a desperate attempt to find a life.
They come to Europe, not in retribution but in search of respite. They come to Europe because – despite knowing the role Europe plays in their predicament, they also believe that Europe – democratic, free diverse Europe – will give them a chance to collect themselves. A place of safety until they can go home, to rebuild a broken world. In this space, and in the brief moments I had to walk around this neighbourhood today, hearing all the languages being spoken, I got a glimpse – a glimpse that Europe has shown us already – of that safety.
We must fight for this world, we must not give up ground that we have already won. This world could be what many humanists across time have urged. Erasmus, in his gentle way, not even foreseeing the urgency of today, writes: “That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all.”
Yet Europe responds by shutting the would-be migrants out. By paying dictators to shut people in; to shut them off from possibility, to shut them up and to shut down their dreams.
What an ugly word “shut” becomes!
In Arabic, though, “shut” is a comforting word. On the other side of the Mediterannean “Shut” is the water’s edge. Shut eskendereyya – “The beach of Alexandria” – a song by Fairuz which dappled a whole generation’s teenage image of romance, shut el-ba7r the shore of the sea where you stand and look towards the other side, the other shut that you know is there even though you can’t see it. Shut, the location from which, in one story, Europe got her name, and shut el-aman, the shore of safety; the most common use of “shut” as metaphor in Arabic: to arrive at shut el-aman is to be no longer in danger.
Shut el-aman was what Niknam Masoud was trying to get to when he set out – perhaps from Ostend, to swim across the English Channel at the end of August. Mr Masoud was one more migrant, halted in the middle of his migration. He had made himself a life-jacket of empty plastic bottles, and he had a 5lipper on one foot. He had that constant companion of the poor and the displaced: a plastic bag very carefully sealed and tied with his papers inside it. None of that stopped him drowning in the cold English channel.
What are these borders, my friends? What are these borders that money and material can cross but people can’t? And even if you’re not 5leeing war or terror, since when has it become wrong to be an “economic migrant”?
And on the other side, the other shut of our shared Mediteranean is Gaza. Reflecting fortress Europe back at itself. The same technology: the surveillance, the walls, the barbed wire, the patrols, the drones, the administrative bureaucracy, all designed by Israel, implemented with Egypt, sold to Europe.
The deadly opposite of the mezzaterra inflicted upon Gaza, a city that was a fertile common ground. An ancient resort where Egyptians, Sumerians, Phoenicians, Romans summered in ancient times, a mediaeval port city where merchants from Malabar and Europe traded, a city whose people are among the most diverse, the most active, resourceful, productive on earth. Now pushed inch by inch into destitution by Israel and Egypt with Europe and America at their backs.
Ladies and gentlemen, nothing can atone for the past. But the real, ongoing power of the past is in how it affects our present and our future. What we can do is shape a future history into which we consciously and deliberately carry with us only the best of our past.
We need to liberate Europe from the confines of received geography, of constructed race, and allow her to expand into the best and richest part of her history. In her history, Europe has never stood alone, wars have waxed and waned, but legitimate exchange, trade and cultural influence have flowed steadily. Language bears the marks of that, and so do painting and sculpture and music and architecture and fashion and cuisine.
You in the European Cultural Foundation see Culture as a force for positive change – let that change be to recognise and expand the common ground. Think of the common ground as a massive Venn diagram. Its basic assumption is that people are not identical. Its other basic assumption is that there will always be areas where humans will overlap: areas of their experience, their ambition, their skill, their passion, their sorrow. Art and culture recognise these areas, expand them, and even work to create empathy with those outside them too.
What is at stake here is saving human life on this planet. I, personally, will not be around to live either the extinction or the salvation. And yet I care. Not just about my grandchild, not just the tug at my heart as I watch the millions of schoolchildren defending their right to exist on this planet. When I let images stream into my mind I see cobbled streets and mellow buildings and pretty bridges, I see huge old-style cinemas and covered marketplaces – images from cities that I’ve loved, the footprint of humankind forming itself into societies on this earth.
Listen: على هذه الأرض ما يستحق الحياة
The word “ard” means “this specific land”, but also the earth, and the whole planet. In this line by Mahmoud Darwich the ard is Palestine, the earth and the planet.
على هذه الأرض ما يستحق الحياة
“On this land on this earth, there is that which deserves to live.”
© Ahdaf Soueif, 2019
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