Report from the AHRC ‘Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community’ consortium (part of the Open World Research Initiative): Documentary screening of Africa is You. The Somali-Dutch Community in Birmingham, UK
Hosted at SOAS (University of London) as part of the public event: ‘European Day of Languages: Languages of Europe’
To coincide with the official European Day of Languages, the IMLR and Cross-Language Dynamics project collaborated with SOAS’s World Languages Institute at a public event aimed at highlighting the rich linguistic diversity of Europe. The event emphasised the importance of including the languages of individuals and communities who have migrated from all over the world, with the aim also of questioning the arbitrary divisions often imposed between terms such as modern, European and community languages.
In addition to a poetry and translation workshop led by staff at the IMLR, the Cross-Language Dynamics project contributed to the day’s programme with the invited screening of a documentary on the Somali-Dutch community in the city of Birmingham (Africa is You. The Somali-Dutch Community in Birmingham, UK, directed by Linde Luijnenburg, Ahmed Magare, Dennis Mulder and Anna Van Winden, BrollB Productions 2016). Through the voices of individuals who had migrated in and through Somalia, the Netherlands and England, the documentary highlighted shared feelings of belonging but also the multiplicity of experiences which cannot be reduced to a single ‘community’ story. As a multilingual community with ties and attachments which stretch across multiple sites and countries, the documentary also drew attention to one of the key questions underpinning the CLDRC project, that of whether and how the languages we speak define the communities we align with.
The screening was followed by a Q&A session with two of the documentary makers, Linde Luijnenburg and Ahmed Magare, as well as Mohammed Artan who founded and manages the Looh Press publishing company. Addressing the reception of the film within the community, Luijnenburg and Magare suggested that, while in no sense uniform, community members were able to recognize shared experiences highlighted in the film. Artan echoed that watching the documentary he could recognize elements connected to his experiences in the Netherlands and the UK, particularly from his adolescence, but also differences in viewpoints from his own.
Aisha Ali Mohamud followed the initial discussion by reading a selection of her poems which reflected poignantly on her experiences of growing up in multilingual contexts of migration. While also born in Somalia, Mohamud had no direct contact with the Netherlands, but had grown up surrounded by multiple languages such as Italian and, after her reading, she reflected on her attachments to these languages. In particular, while she highlighted the personal importance of wanting to transmit aspects of the Somali language and culture to her future children, she also challenged the common discourse that her multiple ties and connections were related to a form of ‘identity crisis’. All of the speakers emphasised that while they may have different relationships with the languages they spoke, and associated feelings of belonging, these were not seen as oppositional or as creating conflicting identities.
Luijnenburg also highlighted the fluidity of the term ‘language’, asking whether the medium of filmmaking should also be considered its own language in the sense of offering a unique way of experiencing and understanding the world. Magare equally emphasised how poetry was a uniquely powerful medium to reflect on his own diasporic experiences, with the potential to bring the wider Somali community together to heal from traumatic experiences. As a publisher of texts translated between Somalia and the UK, Artan also explained the importance of circulating and disseminating these texts in order to explore, as well as critique, historic and contemporary representations of Somali culture and history.
Closing the discussion, Luijnenburg emphasised that the documentary is not intended as a definitive representation of Birmingham’s Somali-Dutch community but rather forms part of an ongoing dialogue and posing of questions, as reflected in the rich and insightful discussion between the panel and audience. To close the event Magare performed a selection of poems from his recently published poetry collection, When Heroes Hide Behind Curtain Ropes, exploring the theme of diasporic belonging in a moving and compelling final performance.
Naomi Wells, IMLR