Rejecting Europe is rejecting culture

If the UK’s political class was largely in favour of remaining in the EU, the cultural sector was overwhelming so.

Across the country, people working in the arts were devastated, disoriented, bereaved by the referendum result. In the cultural sector, the European project is deeply admired and loved – loved because of its idealism because it is fundamentally about an openness to the Other.  It generates new channels of communication and intercultural dialogues, building empathy, understanding, a sense of common humanity – and peace.

These are also the great virtues of the arts and culture themselves. These are the reasons why the European project is at its heart a cultural project, and why culture has to be at the centre of all the EU does. And they are also the reasons why culture is so fundamental to the great challenge currently faced by the continent around migration and refugees.

This year, renegade Britain has been commemorating the fourth centenary of the death of William Shakespeare – whose theatre, even now in the 21st century, remains the model for truly inclusive, transformative and politically impactful cultural practice. Shakespeare’s theatre was called The Globe – it was not called The Island – and it was emphatically about creating an open space in which people from a huge range of backgrounds could come together and encounter people who were different from themselves. He puts into public space the elderly, the mentally ill, gay people, transgender people, the homeless, the displaced, Africans, Muslims, Jews. And in every case, he invites us to see beyond the simplistic label and into the common humanity that we share:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

If Britain really wants to celebrate Shakespeare, then it needs to celebrate the European, the humanitarian, the dangerous border crosser. If we reject Europe, we reject culture. If we reject culture, we reject humanity. And if we reject humanity, then we will reject the refugees.

My friend and associate Rosanna Lewis and I have both been working on projects that run counter to this deeply disturbing trend. Rosanna works with the British Council and has been one of the driving forces behind “Queens of Syria” a theatre project that brought a group of Syrian refugee women to the UK where they were able to tell their own, very personal stories of displacement and loss.  On 21st October, I will be opening a pair of new plays jointly produced by my company Border Crossings and Palestine’s ASHTAR Theatre – plays that feature alongside professional performers from the UK and the Occupied Territories a community chorus of refugees. The plays, called This Flesh is Mine and When Nobody Returns: Plays of Love and War, are based on the founding myths of European culture – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. So the first play is about what it feels like to be caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of violence – and the second play is about what happens in the wake of war: post-traumatic stress, families rent apart, displaced people on the sea. At the very source of European culture, Homer speaks to the refugee experience of the current moment:

“If any god has marked me out again
for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it.
What hardship have I not long since endured
at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.”

The testimonies of refugees from European conflicts – quite recent ones – like those in the former Yugoslavia, are a very important resource in dealing with the current crisis. We need to listen to them when they tell us “The moment it all went wrong was when people started saying ‘Let’s segregate all the Muslims’.” If we allow the new citizens of our continent to be othered in this way again – and it has already started to happen – then we could be looking at another Bosnia. The great symbol of the Balkans conflict is the destruction of the beautiful 400 year-old bridge at Mostar: a bridge of no real strategic importance but of great symbolic, cultural value – because it was built by Muslims, and because it was a bridge – a means of connection across a chasm. Fear and hatred destroy bridges: our role as artists and as cultural policy-makers is to build and re-build them.

Cultural rights are human rights, and if people feel that their culture is somehow being rejected - that they are being asked to adopt a completely different way of being – they are likely to resent that. Research has shown that it is a sense of cultural rejection that fuels radicalisation: conversely, people who feel that they are accepted in a community for who they are - are not going to blow it up. And so we also emphasise the importance of cultural and artistic initiatives to introduce the migrants and refugees, their cultures, their stories and their sheer humanity, to the existing European public.

Building bridges. Narrating voyages. Embracing Globes.

Work of this kind is not just about generating the conditions in which new citizens can be accepted and included in European societies. It is also about enriching those societies. Throughout our history, cultural Renaissances have happened when existing cultural traditions come together, and people see all the exciting things that other people do – their imagery, their music, their dances, their poetry, their food. And so we must look at the potential for art and culture to catalyse positive social change in the context of migration; to affect real transformations in peoples’ minds, hearts and lives; and even to create new policy.

In fact, I would say that only culture can do this – because culture is the only space where we can meet our new neighbours on an equal footing. Because politically – there is no equality. And economically – there is no equality. And socially, perhaps educationally, certainly in terms of health and wellbeing – there is no equality. But in the sacred space of art and culture – there everyone has a voice. So it is in the cultural space that we must begin.


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