07 JAN 2017 Article in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant
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Abdinasir Ahmed’s Dutch Community in the Midlands
Shirin Ramzanali Fazel’s Far From Mogadishu
How this project came into being, and some reflections
A colleague of mine organized a conference on literature of the Horn of Africa with a strong focus on the diaspora of that area of the world, and particularly on the English, Italian, and French languages. This project had a Eurocentric perspective, not only in linguistic and geographical terms (it was organized in Belgium which explains the French language focus), but also in historical terms, since these countries were former English and Italian colonies. When he mentioned this conference to me, I wondered about the Dutch diasporic literature from that particular part of the world. After some research, I discovered that, even though there had been more attempts, merely three authors from the Horn of Africa had been able to publish in the Dutch language with a Dutch publisher. These were exclusively Somali people. This is partly explained by the fact that, compared to Ethiopians and Eritreans, there were and are many Somalis in the Netherlands, since it was one of the first countries to welcome Somalian refugees after the beginning of the Somali Civil War in the beginning of the 1990s.
I talked to these three authors and it became clear to me that some of them had suffered something that I would describe as a loss of language since Dutch publishers – having to take into account a rather limited group of readers, since the Netherlands is a small country – expected of them to write in a language that the publishers considered to be the ‘correct Dutch language’. Any kind of ‘accent’, as, for instance, Lulu Wang has become famous for in the Dutch literary context, was considered to be un-Dutch. Some of the Somali-Dutch authors felt that they had had to give up some of their specific literary language (metaphors, poetic usages of specific words, etc). I wondered if similar problematic situations occurred in other European contexts.
After I moved to the UK, I therefore asked my friend Somali-Italian author Shirin Ramzanali Fazel if she could introduce me to people from the neighborhood of Small Heath, Birmingham. Together with the city of Leicester, Birmingham has the largest Somali community in the UK. She brought me in contact with Abdinasir Ahmed and his organization. Through him, we met many other people in the neighborhood of Small Heath.
Even though only three Dutch-Somali people had been able to publish their stories in Dutch, the people I met in the Netherlands and in Birmingham had a lot of stories to tell about their experiences in Somalia, the Netherlands, England, many of them having travelled through other (mostly European and African) countries as well, such as Kenya, Denmark, and Sweden. My aspiration was to have a conversation with them, closer to their strongly developed oral culture, which eventually led to a documentary project. I contacted Dennis Mulder and Anna van Winden as we had had a positive collaborative experience in making a short documentary after a documentary course at the Univerity of Amsterdam.
Artist and poet Ahmed Magare and I met each other at the writer’s workshop Writing Across Languages, which ultimately led to the project of Familiar Strangers. He decided to join the documentary project by introducing and concluding the documentary with his poem My Sleeping Queen.
For the detail-oriented viewer, Dennis and I are both visible in the documentary, and there is a mention of us being the only two White people in the neighborhood of Small Heath.* Abdi-Dani, at one point, takes over the camera and introduces his friends and neighborhood to the viewers himself. However, in the final edit, all of the filmmakers are more or less invisable, with the exception of Ahmed, who has produced the parts of the film in which he recites his own poem. The decision to exclude three of the four makers almost entirely from the documentary was hard to make since this approach has proven to be unpopular in recent years, but we based it on the recognition of these stories as stories on their own. They were personal stories of which we believed, together with the individals sharing them with us, that they needed to be told by the ones who had lived them. Having said that, we realize the potential Eurocentrism of the approach, in a way eliminating our subjective White selves while in most cases in the film it is we who were holding the camera and who cut large parts of the final version of the documentary.
We hope to collaborate more and in many other forms and contexts with Somalis and Somali communities, in England, in the Netherlands, and in other places in the future. This project seeks to trespass borders, first of all, in terms of traditional geographical (empire) borders, since all people involved traveled through Somalia, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, and other countries, and speak various languages. Secondly, in terms of medium: the project started with a literature project, and includes music, poetry, and oral culture. We are working on several projects and ‘spin-offs’ that include music, debates, and poetry. It started years ago and hopefully will continue to exist for a long time.
* Lori L. Tharps argues in an article in the New York Times that, when referring to Black people, one should use a capital B, since we are not referring to a color, but to a culture. The same would consequentially count for White, which is why we chose to capitalize White when referring to the people, and not the color.
Lori L.Tharps, ‘The Case for Black With a Capital B’, in The New York Times, 19 November 2014.