Workshop report — Refugees in Literature, Film, Art, and Media: Perspectives on the Past and Present

Guest blogpost by Lida Amiri, workshop organizer:

Writing on the Wall festival, Interdisciplinary Workshop and School Reunion “Refugees in Literature, Film, Art, and Media: Perspectives on the Past and Present”

The international workshop, held on 17 May 2018, was not only a major academic and artistic event, but also a key date for the global Afghan Diaspora: two secondary school friends, hitherto deprived of any reunion, met again for the first time. At this interdisciplinary event, part of Liverpool’s annual literary festival, all delegates shared the moment, when Atiq Rahimi and Wali Ahmadi, former students at Lycée Esteqlal, Kabul, saw each other for the first time after approximately 40 years.

Former asylum seeker and current University Liverpool PhD candidate, Lida Amiri, delivered the workshop’s welcome speech, a captivating piece entitled ‘I was a refugee before I was born’. It was appropriate that the event took place at the Kuumba Imani Millenium Centre, where Chief Executive Officer Michelle Charters introduced delegates to the ambitions of this community centre located in one of Liverpool’s most diverse districts. There was further local engagement with asylum seekers through SOLA ARTS, the leading refugee arts organisation on Merseyside, introduced by Managing Director Adele Spiers and Tony Luna, who spoke of their work with individuals who have survived traumatic experiences and also presented their annual festival, FESTIVAL 31. The local STAR group, part of the nation-wide ‘Student Action for Refugees’, was introduced by Deputy Director Emily Crowley, who shared the charity’s ambitions to raise awareness and change the asylum system. The Writing on the Wall co-director Mike Morris underlined the necessary focus on migration as the rationale behind this year’s festival theme ‘Crossing Borders’.

The diversity of disciplines included in the event allowed a dialogue between different contributors, from artists to academic scholars, on the representation of refugees across a variety of media. Internationally acclaimed Franco-Belgian photographer Frédéric Lecloux shared his recent work, in which he revealed the atrocious living conditions of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar, raising concerns about crimes against humanity amongst this globalized workforce.

The first academic panel chaired by Prof. Charles Forsdick (Liverpool University), included papers by Dr. Dominic Davies (City University, London), Dr. Emma Bond (University of St. Andrews), and PhD candidate Catrin Evans (University of Glasgow), who introduced cultural production beyond literature (comics, performance and digital media), vividly addressing the discrimination and perilous journeys of asylum seekers. In the second academic panel, which was chaired by A/Prof. Wali Ahmadi (University of California, Berkeley), PhD candidate Caterina Scarabicchi (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Dr. Michael Perfect (Liverpool John Moores University) presented their readings of refugee representation in literature. While both panels explored alternative refugees’ experience, embracing a heterogeneity of ethnic groups and religious beliefs, Daniel Trilling responded to academic studies with his experience as an acclaimed investigative journalist. Not only did Trilling detail the in-depth research underpinning his publication Lights in the Distance. Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe, a work that seeks to counter dehumanizing discourses relating to refugees, he also explained the difficulties of reporting against persistently sensationalist storylines in much of the media.

Writer and chairperson of ‘Afghan Community & Cultural Association of Ireland’ Nasruddin Saljuqi offered revealing insights into Afghanistan’s art and literature, which painted the war-torn society in a different light. This overview of the country’s historical and cultural context served as the ideal introduction to the work of Prix Goncourt-winning author and cinéaste Atiq Rahimi. Rahimi delivered the event’s outstanding and moving keynote ‘Ecrire l’exil’ in its original French version, whilst audience members could read along a projected English translation, ‘Writing Exile’, provided by the event organiser, Lida Amiri. In his speech, the award-winning author addressed figuratively, and at times humorously, his journey from Afghanistan to France and its implications for him as an artist.   

In the post-keynote discussion, the audience was able to engage with the author, whose responses were interpreted from French and Dari/Farsi into English by Lida Amiri, who also offered additional cultural information and amusing instances of codeswitching. Part of the final panel was a discussion with Rahimi’s school friend, Wali Ahmadi, who has studied Rahimi’s literary work and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity the panel afforded him to direct his questions on language and creativity at the author personally. This final panel connected a refugee’s journey, characterized by on-going uncertainty of belonging and other profound challenges of living in the diaspora, with the persistent significance of artistic interpretation. Atiq Rahimi responded to audience questions about how being multilingual influences his writing and personal life while also addressing intriguing concerns such as: in which language does a multilingual person dream?

Note:

This interdisciplinary workshop was supported by the ‘Student Action for Refugees’ society as part of the 2018 Writing on the Wall festival ‘Crossing Borders’. It was sponsored by the University of Liverpool, the Centre for the Study of International Slavery and the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme.