Letter to Europe

  Letter to Europe I will start this letter by explaining a few things which should help to clarify its purpose. The first is that I am writing from Egypt; that is, from an African country, located on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, connected with the northern coast from time immemorial by caravan and shipping routes that brought goods, travellers, pilgrims, ideas and invading powers. At times this exchange took the form of a give-and-take; at other times force or seduction were used, war or peaceful means.
Secondly, I am writing this letter (which you will read as a translation) in the language of Arabs: an ancient language that conveys the experience of a community whose roots and branches extend from the Atlantic Ocean – from Mauritania and Morocco – to the Persian Gulf and the East of the Arabian Peninsula; from the Taurus mountain range in Asia Minor to the deep heart of Africa in Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti. Arabic is the majority language of this vast corner of the world. It acts as a vehicle for the people’s stories, culture and experiences, which are now steeped in a sadness mixed with the consciousness of past achievements, filling the spirit with pride but also confusion in the face of present defeats, repression and humiliations.
And thirdly, I am writing in complete awareness of the time in which I write: the dawn of a new millennium which sees the United States of America attempting to dominate the world and consolidate its status as an omnipotent empire, monopolising the legal and moral criteria governing life on the planet. In this thirst for domination, the United States has given a new specific relevance to Arab and Muslim countries, against which it has waged two consecutive wars in two years (Afghanistan and then Iraq) employing the human mind’s latest innovations in the development of weapons of partial and mass destruction. And this is without taking into account the third, ongoing war which the United States has not undertaken directly, but has incited materially and spiritually. I mean the war in which Israel – with U.S. support – systematically represses the Palestinian people. Such conflagrations are reinforced by a media-oriented war, intense and far-reaching, based on a mystification of the image of Arabs and Muslims, who are presented as ‘the enemy’ – the supreme enemy of human civilisation.
And in the midst of this flurry of military, political and economic expansion, the United States extends its arrogant and disdainful view of the peoples of the world to Europe also. So they call it ‘old Europe’, using an ambivalent adjective that means antiquated, expired, but also old with a weakness of body and mind which impedes it from acting correctly and consciously. Both meanings suggest that Europe’s moment is over and we are in the era of a new empire, with the United States as the world’s policeman and lawmaker.
I also write against the backdrop of tens of millions of people all over the world –and especially in Europe – having taken to the streets to demand that the war be stopped, that the world be a less brutal place, one corresponding (even as a mere aspiration) with what we call ‘humanity’. Those millions who filled the streets in London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Athens and other European cities had learned from the horrifying destructiveness of two World Wars which had left millions dead and completely changed the appearance of their cities. They also understood something of the misery, ugliness and cruelty of everyday life under the yoke of capitalist exploitation (now called ‘globalisation’ and ‘new world order’).
This thought introduces the most complicated issue regarding my letter to Europe: Whom to direct it to? To Europe as a whole, with all that’s good and bad about it? The Europe of achievement whose great writers, artists, and scientists have given us their philosophy, aesthetics, discoveries and techniques? The Europe of revolution and resistance? Or the Europe of colonising tradition, whose writers and scientists incubated racism and Nazism as a doctrine and as a practice?
A fourth and final consideration. This letter is written in full consciousness of our shared responsibility to the planet which sustains us and which we sustain: a delicate sphere, small and threatened. It is up to us to decide whether to conserve or destroy it.
Perhaps these preliminaries represent an attempt, on my part, to cover up the enormous anxiety caused by the material and psychological violence to which we Arabs are daily subjected: the bombing of cities, the sieges and incursions, the humiliation of the people, destruction of homes and uprooting of trees; all those future generations wounded by war, all the disabled, the victims of pernicious diseases; the media portraying the dead as executioner, the victim as beast. All of this is happening to us at this moment in Palestine and Iraq. How can anyone reason calmly when subjected every day, every hour to such violence? Letter to Europe It was we who bore the brunt of the colonial invasion of old, with all its consequences, and we who must bear the brunt of today’s invasion, with its machinery of war and its ideological arsenal. We are afforded no respite, have no platform for expressing ourselves amid this tumult of asphyxiating physical and psychological violence. When we are at war on all fronts, how can free and sensible thought be possible?
And, in spite of all that, I am able to look beyond the battlefields, and I see and understand that we live on a unique, small planet, where our shared human destiny and our need for one another bring us close. We have no choice: we must stay unified and tolerant if we are to preserve the planet and ourselves. In doing so, we aspire to justice, to equality, and to a dialogue between peers.
For centuries we have been the ‘invisible man’, the servant whose masters recognise only servitude and the knowledge necessary to keep us enslaved. Invisibility is violence and also evil. It carries with it a despotic negation of the humanity of the other. It is a time bomb that threatens all. Dialogue, coming together on a plane of equality, implies the presence of both parties, with all their experience and their distinctiveness, their knowledge and their vision. What I mean is that each party brings its complete historical baggage, which constitutes its way of relating to history and its significance within it. There can be no dialogue between the visible and the invisible, or between the present and the absent. There cannot be dialogue between the wilfully blind master and the denigrated, the ignored, the overlooked.
We must acknowledge that the material and intellectual violence of European colonial domination combined with the experience of the migrant sons and daughters of the former colonies (today’s workers and refugees in European countries) pose certain considerable difficulties. New wounds are opening every day over ancient scars. Europe, continuing to drag, tied around its neck, the disgrace of its colonial past like the dead albatross in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, needs to act. The emigrant children of the colonies are not like Santiago’s fish in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: they are not there for Santiago to call them his brothers while he thinks he must fish them and feed himself with them in order to live. With the world now better known, more accessible and varied, smaller, we understand that it is Prospero and not Caliban who eats human flesh; and that the marriages of Othellos and Desdemonas do not transgress the laws of the universe, but rather the abominable assumptions of racists.
The sons and daughters of the colonies, either living in their own countries or as immigrants in European states, have taken a surprising step towards Europe. They learned its languages, lived with its cultures, contributed to its arts, and mixed without objection. They took and they gave, proved useful and benefited themselves. And despite all this, Europe reacted largely with suspicion (based on Orientalism or exoticism), and regarded the other as a circus sideshow freak; or else it reacted in a spirit of primitivism, adopting a certain artist for his painting or sculpture. Few have sought to know us for ourselves. A striking example of one who did was the great French poet Louis Aragon. At the end of the 1950s, wishing to proclaim his solidarity with the Algerian revolution, he did his utmost to learn the traditions of Arabs and Muslims – their history, their poets and philosophers, their love stories and legends – and so was able to produce a text as beautiful as Le fou d’Elsa. The example of Aragon as a writer who trustingly approached the other, attempted to see the other, continues to be a singular exception that, far from disproving the rule, confirms it. We invite the old Europe (and I do not use this expression in the sense given it by the American administration, but rather to indicate an accumulated understanding and experience) to make an effort to participate in a constructive dialogue with the children of the former colonies, with the immigrants. We invite it to meet them, to learn some of their languages, to realise that their cultures have value, to interact with them, and to enrich itself with their presence. In brief: I invite Europe to see them.
Albert Memmi once said that the colonising experience moulds the coloniser and turns him into that racist and evil being. And I would add that the efforts to create a more fair and humanitarian world – with more justice, more equality – will bring knowledge and experiences to Europe which will enrich it through the cultures and lives of peoples it would otherwise never have had the chance to meet, through a true understanding unadulterated by colonial blindness or the invisibility imposed on the colonised, through an understanding between peers.
I believe that Europe is now at a crossroads. One road leads to alliance with the American empire; to the continuation of its history of colonisation; to the revival of a relationship based on economic exploitation and racial discrimination, both in its policies regarding the former colonies and in its treatment of the colonies’ sons and daughters who emigrated and integrated themselves into European societies.
There is the road of maintaining the essence of the colonial relationship: a relationship between exploiter and exploited; labour and capital; those who command and those who are commanded; the rich and the poor; those whose dominating discourse is known and the ignored and outcast, those who have no voice, those who – being invisible – look at the other who cannot see them and does not want to see them.
In the spirit of the new millennium and a new order in which humanity would live in justice and equality, the other alternative road is that being constructed by the anti-globalisation movements, the pacifists and other groups opposed to exploitation, racism and war, inspired by radical authors past and present. Increasingly, this intellectual, cultural and combative endeavour is helping to curb imperialist thought in European societies and the relations that embody it. Even so, there is still a divide between these movements and the dominant powers with their justifying discourse. There is no better example of this than the millions of people who took to the streets in England, Spain, the United States and Australia: although they were unable to prevent their countries joining the coalition forces which launched a war against Iraq, they did show us the possibility of a different future by holding out their hands in friendship and collaboration, for the creation of a more humane future which involves us all as equals.
At the beginning of the new millennium, we hope that Europe will change its relations with its immigrant children, those who emigrated there, who today inhabit its cities, are employed in its factories, drive its trains, sweep its streets and even (although fewer in numbers) produce exquisite examples of its literature, art and scientific research; those for whom, perhaps tomorrow, new doors will open up, enabling them to fulfil their potential, without reference to blood or social class.
In its day, Europe came to us and we welcomed it with an ‘ahlan wa-sahlan’ (the Arabic expression which means ‘you came as part of the family and as such we took you into this home’). Either we turn to Europe without fear or distress (the fear of the poor and the distress of the humiliated), without the prejudices of those who feel inferior, who feel the pain of wounds that have never healed; or else we arrive with the confidence of those who know that they are equals because they can both give and take. And this second option would mean that we could live in peace, close, walking together, fighting against misery, fear and the dangers awaiting all of us on our small, delicate planet.
Cairo, 1 September 2003 © Radwa Ashur

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