It is a great pleasure to be in Tunisia again, for the third year in a row, to attend the Euromagreb Meeting of Writers.
Thank you, Your Excellency, for imagining such a meeting, not just once, but now three times, and for creating a space for writers to meet one another, to reflect on ideas, and we hope to bring meaning and new understanding at least to one another, here, and then to transfer, to translate what we have considered here when we return home, because for most of us, this is a two-way journey, and our responsibility as writers travels with us.
Thank you especially for bringing the students from Manouba University into our meetings. We welcome their perspective on our deliberations.
It is again an honour to be in Tunisia, and as others have said to be here at this moment in time, in the shadow not only of the very recent acts of terror, in the streets of Beirut, Paris, Ankara, and over Egypt, but also in the shadow of acts of terror here in Tunisia, in the past year, on the shores of Hammamet Gulf, on the other side of this peninsula that we overlook here in Sidi Bou Said, and also in the Bardo Museum, where we will go tomorrow.
The purpose of such acts is to throw up borders between individuals, to create walls of fear and distrust, to make the crossing of borders chaotic and to replace curiosity with timidity, to cause us to lock our doors and pull the shades and stay home, to make fortresses of our houses and cities and nations. To shy from making eye contact or shaking hands with strangers, and then of course, as we have seen, to resurrect the machinery of security and surveillance, in the name of anti-terrorism, for government leaders to place their hands on their hearts and march in the streets with everyone else, while at the same time, creating new rules and procedures for taking away rights and freedoms.
At such moments we are ourselves, The Other, contemplating travel to destinations that we are conditioned more and more to fear, to demonize, and to imagine as dark, bloodied sites of destruction. But instead we come and are welcomed here to a site rich in history, culture, beauty, where the traditions of communication and travel across the great Mediterranean Sea are entrenched and visible. And where, in the face of the most egregious challenges to civilization and democracy, this small country has moved with care and strong commitment to human rights and principles, towards a stronger democracy, an act of collective courage and determination recognized in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize this year to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—which should also be recognized as a remarkably artistic name for a co-operative exercise in civil society.
We were invited here to contemplate literature and borders, or frontiers—and even in the titles a linguistic challenge is thrown up, because as one of our colleagues noted, the translation of “frontiers” into English introduces very different ideas, not only of borders, walls, fences, but also that of the frontier, what in America is or was the wild west, the territory beyond borders, which at best is to be explored, possibly settled, and yes, then too often, unfortunately, conquered.
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An actual physical border is my starting point for thinking about such matters. More than 25 years ago, I wrote a book called Walking the Line, Travels along the Canadian/American Border. It was known to us then as the “longest undefended border in the world,” more than 8000 kilometres from east to west, over land and water. It was in reality not actually “undefended,”—although permeable then; in fact it was precisely marked, with thousands of monuments, except of course over the waters of the Great Lakes. The beginning of the line was set out in 1783 as “a yellow birch tree…hooped with iron” in an eastern swamp, and the border was drawn westward from that point over many years, first on maps, and then literally on the ground, by surveyors who erected a parade of monuments and markers, very close together in populated areas, and distant from one another on the prairies and in the mountains of the west, where the rule is that every monument must be visible from the previous one and the next. And there also, precisely marked and cleared, by the International Boundary Commission, is the closely regulated No Man’s Land, exactly three metres on each side of the border. Encroachments like lilac trees and the unruly undergrowth of the forests and swamps are cut away every summer, to create “the vista” and “the line”—as it’s known to locals and officials—is resurveyed, and the monuments painted or whitewashed.
It now seems such a quaint and naïve version of a border. But it has defined the beginning and end of Canada and the United States virtually unchallenged except in minor skirmishes over fishing territories, for more than 200 years.
Even twenty five years ago, you could, if you knew where and how, cross the line illegally and undetected; there were of course the formal border crossings, with posts and guards (back then the Americans carried guns and the Canadians did not), but there was an informality about this particular border, with purposes specific to each country—the Americans wanted (and still do) a border that keeps out people; the Canadian officials mostly want to keep out things like cheap cars and refrigerators. Canadians, if asked, like having a border between Canada and the US; Americans would happily get rid of the border, but only if they could create a continental perimeter that would include Canada. (There are also Americans who would build a wall the entire length of the American border with Mexico to the south.)
This border still exists, but it is no longer permeable. Surveillance mechanisms now lurk on the line itself, and of course the real surveillance functions happen elsewhere. When you drive across the Canada/US border now, you must have a passport, even without the funny little pieces of paper that we all still fill out at airports all over the world and submit to officials on arrival and departure; I wondered—as I flew here the other day, and handed my little card to the official and he tore off the bottom and handed it back to me— why we retain these quaint vestiges of passing from one country to another, when the real documentation is managed elsewhere by much more sinister and sophisticated technology. Real borders in this century are no longer checkpoints.
How ironic that, as we heard yesterday, more than 25 walls have been erected since the Berlin Wall was torn down, and that countries and citizens of Europe, and the expanded Europe of the European Union, themselves scarcely a generation away from the most profound and intricate tyranny of two world wars and a Cold War, now enter so quickly and seamlessly into the business of building new walls, both real and bureaucratic.
But even though, as we heard these past several days, some of the functions of national borders are redundant, having been replaced by larger economic and political jurisdictions, borders still contain us. They give us pause, alter us somehow, even if it’s nothing more than a long queue that makes us impatient. Whenever you approach a border, you wonder what it is you will be asked, what you will say, which identity will define you, how will you be seen, marked, accepted or rejected. Once you are old enough to possess a passport, you learn these conventions.
And this is to assume the best of all possible worlds, that many of us still enjoy— unimpeded travel, or travel held up only briefly by having to get a visa. We can barely imagine the experience of being unwanted, being refused, being illegal, being without papers, wanting first to leave home because home is no longer bearable, and secondly hoping to be permitted to stay somewhere, to settle. That desperation leads to acts of bravery and folly—taking one’s own life, and that of children into one’s own hands. Swimming across rivers, hacking deep into jungles, boarding small boats and trains. And the hurdles for immigrants, but especially for refugees, have become almost unsurmountable. Dangerous, expensive, interminable, a series of examinations and tribunals, long separations from families…and those are the fortunate ones, who survive the journey itself.
In the process of writing that book, I learned a great deal about the reality of one border, at least, and there are two notions that I would propose myself in this current discussion about borders:
The first is the idea of a border as a shared territory of respect and responsibility, as the place where neighbours can negotiate principles of protection and care of people and the land itself. So a line that does not divide, but joins.
The second is related but is a slightly different model, one understood by the aboriginal people of North America, which is one of overlapping territories with layers of uses and resources and practical applications. These territories both predate and transcend the overlay of boundaries decreed by conquering and occupying nations, which don’t understand or accept them. But they could and should be resurrected and utilized.
Much of our discussion over these several days was about metaphorical borders, limits on the imagination, literary boundaries we should challenge and transgress. But our physical journeys to and from Tunisia were defined by and marked at real borders, over which we as writers have no control.
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We spoke of many ideas of borders in relation to literature. Here is some of what we heard from one another, in French, Arabic and English.
It was proposed that it is our task as writers to erase borders and to question borders (those of nation states, those of genres); we were challenged to “get rid of borders created by traditional readings” and traditional forms…We were reminded of Victor Hugo: Literature is an assault on borders and frontiers.”
We were reminded of our shared and deeply damaging history of colonization, of a “history based on violence and the imposition of language” and imperialist management and regulation, a history that wreaked deep havoc on distant continents and left behind deep scars and ghosts.
It was suggested by several that borders, and the mentality of borders have directly created the horrors of trafficking and repression. We should “only fight for one border, the one that separates humanity and horror…we are all on the same boat, united by willingness to live.” This metaphor was echoed later, in the description of the Mediterranean as “the sea under me, where so many are dying…” and the related image of the people hiding under the tables on trains, crossing borders, united in their desperation to get into Germany.
Globalization: an irony in this context, because it is shorthand for the untrammelled movement of money and commodities, but it also sees the movement of human beings only as commodities.
Visas: a form of institutionalized racism, as are many refugee protocols and processes; we were reminded that a number of states appear to be moving towards a barely coded notion of welcoming “people like us” meaning Christians. This notion recently was introduced quite explicitly into the rhetoric of the American Republican Party’s election campaigning.
A border merely hides another border: the geographic border is “superficial” and the real borders are linguistic, cultural, religious, whichever identity is required for definition and discrimination.
But we might also recognize a more generous definition of a border, like that of a shared wall of a house. And, as one writer obliquely reminded us—only its banks are what prevent the river from becoming a swamp.
We were told about the specific perspectives of Tunisians and Tunisia—a country which has itself embraced more that two million refuges from Libya, but whose citizens are prevented from travelling with the ease that northerners enjoy; and a culture deeply informed by and implicated in the larger world, but where to write and read is inhibited by the vagaries of translation and publication.
We were reminded that outside Europe, borders and attendant nationalism have actually been liberating, and also the very thing that Islamist militants wish to destroy, in order to create a boundless caliphate. For countries like Algeria and Tunisia, nationalism has been a form of release and does not have a negative connotation. In fact, borders are sometimes necessary; the destruction of Libya, for example, brought about in part by Europe, has created situations of great danger on its borders with Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt.
In literature, borders can be re-imagined and redrawn. But in reality, borders define national sovereignty and the right of peoples to choose their own leaders.
And then we were taken into the more metaphorical border landscape of literature as transcendent and liberating, where the writer inhabits an internal, borderless country, where the writer is open to the infinite.
But is it also the case that “Diderot’s dream has become Goya’s nightmare…”
We were asked to imagine the end of nation states and conglomerates like the EU, and to consider instead, “what if…” we inhabited only emotional empires, just three continents, with many cities, and a world where loyalties were “rightly” to language, literature, culture, not to nation states.
In looking for solutions, we considered the fiction of borders, creating cultural apartheid, building walls around class, ethnic and gender differences, and again we were urged toward openness to the other. It is the role of literature to propose alternate visions, to challenge and to ask questions, to keep a distance from those solutions provided by tradition. (There was a lovely quote about how “nice” books don’t put people to sleep, but make people rise up in their pyjamas and boxers and knock on the door of the writer.)
We were reminded of the moment of euphoria, in 1990, when it seemed that the new century had begun early: “…Half a year later, following the declarations of independence of Croatia and Slovenia, the Balkan wars began…. And from then on there was one war after another….And meanwhile a new Iron Curtain was gradually going up along Europe’s outer borders – one that was now welcomed by the very European countries that had just escaped from its predecessor. They did so because its purpose was not to shut people in but to keep others out.”
We were reminded of the shameful political game that has overcome countries of the EU, the shunting of refugees (again, the trains…) and the new realities: there is no longer any legal means to enter Europe, and it is clear that you only get asylum if you almost drown.
Dehumanization: the transformation of human refugees, people, into torrents, floods, to be managed by floodgates.
And the strategic re-labelling of people into a hierarchy, as refugees, or as victims of subsidiary events, and as economic migrants.
It was argued that Europe wouldn’t “go under” if it took in 2 million refugees, but it would go under if it failed in its humanitarian responsibility. And that the solution is integration, not ghettoes and refugee camps. Because “this is just what the holy warriors of Islamic fundamentalism want: to drive a wedge between the populations of Christian and of Muslim descent.”
When there is no room in the inn for Muslim immigrants, [citizens and politicians] become “the living proof that the West is conducting a war of cultures, and that when it talks of liberty it means only its own freedom and not that of others.”
We heard from several writers about the act of redefining themselves in cultural circumstances that deprived them of necessary borders. One writer spoke about his “moral confusion and detachment” because he wrote about religion in a way that was unacceptable in a “patriarchal and collectivist culture” in which “a Moroccan is primarily Muslim. A Christian or a Buddhist Moroccan is not a real Moroccan.” This sense of denial of self in a culture where borders are blurred and individual choices unacceptable resonated with the declaration of a young Tunisian poet who asked about who it is that defines her, the father, the first lover, the husband, poet critic, publisher. About how she transgressed boundaries, moving from poetry to drama to novels, “seeking a place for myself.”
Our gathering considered the role of translation and translators, first as an art, and secondly as the means by which literature can cross national and linguistic borders, through publication. Translation, we were told, is “l’espace frontalier par excellence…” We were invited to consider the ethics of translation, translation as a transgressive act, in colonialization, for example, as a form of linguistic appropriation. The many roles of the translator were laid out for us—the responsibilities of the translator to text, language, the writer, and culture. Translation alone cannot ensure that a literature comes alive in a foreign language. Translation must be nurtured by a culture that acknowledges contexts and traditions and the relationship between literature and daily life. Translation as a corporeal act : ‘my body feels the text.’
This discussion of translation as a literary discipline informed the subsequent discussion among Maghreb and European publishers about their roles and responsibilities described elsewhere.
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Once, once upon a time, it seemed, crossing the border for a traveller was a liberating act of imagination…we were reminded yesterday of the travels of Kapucinski, who wrote about his own early journeys:
I wouldn’t have dared to say something like Paris or London and frankly they didn’t really interest me; I couldn’t even imagine them. This was only about crossing the border—somewhere. It made no difference which one, because what was important was not the destination, the goal, the end, but the almost mystical and transcendent act of crossing the border.
The modern border is no longer a mystical and transcendent act. It is at best, a bureaucratic interruption of a journey, but at worst, it is what should be an unimaginable tragedy, one which has become the fact of life, and death, for millions of people.
This is the understanding of the border that I hope we take away with us and articulate and attempt to repair or erase. It is the border of fear of the other; we know and understand that as writers. And I hope we can embody not only some fearlessness but also use our capacity for imagination and the articulation of a better world to embark, individually and collectively, on a journey towards compassion and understanding.
POSTSCRIPT: On 24 November, in the week after our meeting in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia was once again violated by an act of terrorism, in an attack on the Presidential Guard on Mohammed V Boulevard in Tunis that resulted in 12 deaths and the declaration once again of a national state of emergency. Those of us from Europe, Canada, and elsewhere in the Maghreb were all safely home by then, but we experienced this particular act of terrorism from a perspective of empathy with Tunisians whose grace and hospitality and openness we had come to know. We had become, I think, no longer the other.
Marian Botsford Fraser · Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee