I have had to call many places home over the years. As a result I have thought a lot about what that word means. Home: a place where you feel welcomed. All that I am, I want to be able to be freely in the places that I call home. They are scattered around the world but I am ever so grateful that I have them.

Dreams of Shahrazad: Personalizing the Arab Spring through the art of storytelling.

South african filmmaker Francois Verster is no stranger to social consciousness. His most recent project “Dream of Shahrazad” follows the lives of various individuals in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey as they come to terms with the events we’ve come to know as the Arab Spring through the art of story telling.

Shahrazad becomes omnipresent in this film through various incarnations. We meet an impassioned Turkish conductor running a two week rehearsal program for a youth philharmonic orchestra’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade suite. He uses the orchestra as extended metaphor for democratic participation, reminding the students of their role as agents for change. An Egyptian theatre troupe uses traditional storytelling methods to bring to life the testimonies of mothers who lost their sons on the January 25th revolution. A visual artist with a lifelong obsession with the 1001 nights finds himself re-inspired to create and share his art through a new friendship with a Shahrazad-esque storyteller and a young Lebanese actress begins to heal from the effects the horrifying images of war she witnessed during the political instability in her country and emerges a popular internet activist.

Heavily inspired by the 1001 nights, the documentary is sectioned into four “books”: Once upon a time, Story of change, After the battle and The future of the Sultan of Shahriyar. It becomes a loom, weaving together different stories to form the rich tapestry that is the middle-eastern story telling tradition. Verster applies Shahrazad’s cunning story telling philosophy, never ending stories and starting new ones each night, to his cinematography. He cuts between frames of protest footage, beautiful paintings, silhouette animation and a kaleidoscopic collection of engaging artists as they use their work to rebuild their various nation’s moral though the power of narrative. The eye behind the camera is always silent – it graciously accepts its role as observer presenting us with images free of personal commentary hence allowing us to determine their meaning for ourselves.

The value of a voice is put into focus, drawing allusion to post-colonial studies pioneer Gayatri Spivak’s notable essay “Can the subaltern speak?”. Echoing Aimé Césaire, another influential african intellectual, a potential solution is presented to the members of the youth philharmonic orchestra urging them to  “channel all [their] ambition, all [their] rebellion, into [their] songs” and “let [their] voice and songs be the weapon of those without a voice.” The authenticity of this voice is also put into question. One of the troupes actors makes an interesting observation on the americanization mainstream acting in the country; after witnessing protesters’ raw yet eloquently expression of emotion in Tahir square and reflecting on their acting’s current form, he notes sadly: “we can neither express ourselves nor the society we live in”. Thus the troupe’s desire to create a new form of theatre that embodies Egyptian culture.

None of the film’s subjects are introduced by name – the stories they carry take the foreground. We have grown used to Arab world as object, it is always spoken off in most media outlets. In this documentary it speaks to us for itself. Verster entertains a wide array of interesting issues. Chief among those is the transformative power of storytelling. It allows all the artists to take pain and loss and turn it into harmony. Bound by shared trauma, the inhabitants of these nations now posses a new kind of consciousness: war brings the need to be reminded that one is alive, that they matter so they speak to ears now that are more open to listening because they too need the strength these tales carry, if not a sense of recognition and understanding in the other.

Originally published on Dynamic Africa for the Encounters 2015 documentary festival.

I think I love my thoughts too much to reduce them to aphorisms – more precisely my thoughts rarely appear in such conveniently condensed packages, usually taking the form of multiple interconnected streams that are better suited for long form or in some cases, non-verbal medium. I prefer to present my thoughts in whatever form suits them best as opposed to bending them into a space they were never meant to occupy in the first place. This is the real reason I think I feel the need to master as many modes of communication as I can.

Global migration: Moving away from mainstream narratives

In the wake of recent and tragic drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean sea, news headlines have once again put this crisis and the issues surrounding it in the spotlight. However, despite the heavy spotlight placed by global news agencies on this matter, it is not a new and emerging event but part of an ongoing chronic issue that affects both the African and European continents. In the West, the hypocrisy of European governments is appalling yet not surprising. As they continue to pillage Africa for resources, using revised colonial relations often with the consent of African leaders, as they actively contribute to the conditions that create poverty and conflict in these migrant producing regions.

migration DA

As NGOs and humanitarian organizations continue to exert pressure on European governments to act, one cannot stress the importance of coming up with long term  solutions that address all sides of this issue. It is important not to focus on one side of this story as the bulk of current media coverage does. To reiterate the words of Senegalese writer and critic Fatou Diome, the dynamics of immigration and the relationship between the African continent and Europe show a failure in policy and leadership on both sides of the Mediterranean. In this clip where she appeared on a French television show, Diome shared her frustration with this by illuminating some of the nuances of this issue that western media fails to critically interrogate. I felt compelled to provide a translation of one particular segment not only because her words challenge current narratives, but because I believe it is important for Africans to continuously engage in conversation with each other. As diverse as we are, and with equally diverse points of views concerning the conditions that see Africans from various parts of the continent embark on the same perilous journey, it would do us good to share them with each other for the sake of our development:

fatou DA

[Translated segment from 2:22 – 4.45]

“When someone sets off, it is as if he is elected, chosen – perhaps the most resourceful one of them – and there’s an entire clan or a whole family that pins their hope on this person. [she addresses the previous speaker] Sir, today I can see that you well dressed and well fed. Suppose you were starving at home, it wouldn’t be too farfetched for your family to hold on to the belief that you could go off somewhere and make enough to provide a source of livelihood for those left behind. In essence, this journey become an act of solidarity. You let someone go and you count on them. [previous speaker attempts to interrupt her] You will let me finish.

[Here she references a point the previous speaker made about how the Schengen area’s passport policy creates porous european boarders that can be exploited. Note that Diome is a French citizen and therefore benefits from said policy] Sir, your quote unquote Schengen now allows me to be invited to the Netherlands and give lectures in your universities. We [as immigrants] are only worth something to you when you find our brains suitable for your purposes. It bothers you to welcome my brother who, though not has qualified as me, may also want to work in these same buildings. Your countries have split personalities. You can just sort people out like that with nonsense categories like useful immigrants and nefarious immigrants.

I also want to touch on a second point. There is so much focus put on Africa to Europe immigration – we are constantly being made aware of this movement. On the other hand, little notice is given to the movement of Europeans into other countries. Now this movement is that of the powerful, those who have money, those who have the right passport. So you go to Senegal, Mali, you go to any country in the world, Canada, the U.S., everywhere I go – and I travel all the time – I meet people from France, Germany, the Netherlands, I meet them on every corner of this earth because they have the right passport. So Europe has arrogated a unilateral concept of exoticism to themselves; it’s alway the other, the non-european who is exotic meanwhile, for someone from my village, there is nothing more exotic than someone from Amsterdam.

The continent has now done the same thing with the concept of the foreigner and modern travel in the wake of globalization. When the poor come towards you “There are waves of immigrants we must block!” But when you, with your passport and with all the pretensions that come with it, when you land in third world countries, in your mind you are in conquered territory. So we see the movement of the poor but we do not see that of the rich who come can make money off our land. Africa is developing at a rate between 5 and 10%. This is past progress and on to overdrive. But when third world countries are developing and don’t have the means to manage this excess growth, all of a sudden we need engineering economics, we need training, we need people to install a democracy. You need us to stay subjugated so you can use this excess growth help sustain European industry. So let’s stop with the hypocrisy – either we’re rich together or we’ll all drown together.”

Diome’s final words in this clip seem harsh but express a sentiment many of us a familiar with.

The focus, in regards to migration, is largely on disenfranchised and marginalized individuals that emigrate from Africa to Europe – rarely the other way around, if at all. We are constantly reminded of this movement, often in a negative perspective, by European media and politicians alike. Considering the heinous legacy of European colonialism, not just in Africa but worldwide, it is no wonder that the neocolonial privileges of Europeans, and other Westerners, continues to be swept under the rug. In this list of the most powerful passports in the world, based on which nationalities have the most visa-free access to nations around the world, no African country is in the top 20. Even in situations of travel and visa-facilitated movements, there is discrimination against citizens of African countries.

The hypocrisy and double standards that exists surrounding conversations on migration are a stark and concerning reminder of the power relations and racist systems that have remained unchained for centuries, despite African states achieving their independence from European colonists. The real concern, however, lies not in whether or not European governments will shift their attitudes to reflect a standards and instil policies that are in line with basic values of humanity and human rights, but in whether or African leaders will finally step up to the plate and acknowledge the humanity of their citizens.

Originally published on Dynamic Africa, artwork by Jacob Lawrence.