Healing together - about the photographic project "mateneen"

Corina Ciocârlie

I am not a refugee… Life is a dream… Apparences, more than ever, are deceiving. Reading the descriptions of the projects developed under the banner ‘mateneen’, conveys the – perturbing – impression that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Each one invokes solidarityresponsibilitytolerancetransparencydialoguecohesionadaptationIntegration is inevitably civiccomprehension always mutualexchange necessarily interculturalencounters invariably participative, and empathy forever reciprocal

In this ode to the joie-de-vivre-together, kindly listening rhymes with welcoming atmosphere and awareness goes hand in hand with accompanyingaccepting differencesbuilding bridgesemphasising the richness of diversitypromoting communicationfacilitating access to workstrengthening psychosocial well-being, in short, creating a better world (these endless optimistic and poetic terms contrast at times with the mundane paucity of the established terms, ‘DPI/BPI’ applied to asylum seekers/beneficiaries of international protection and ‘Dubliners’ – people affected by the Dublin III Regulation concerning the reception of asylum seekers ...).

Whether related to employment or culture, education or psychological support, the titles of the projects supported by ‘mateneen’ inflect in every language the joy of togetherness: Tandems citoyensWelcome to ParadiseZesumme liewenMove TogetherNice to meet youMatenee Brécke bauenEqui-TableTerre solidaireMa’an ! Ensemble ! ZesummenWings for Women – it would take little more to believe being in a Land of Plenty or in Alice’s Wonderland ...

Furthermore, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland speaks volumes about this subject. Lewis Carroll’s heroine is, at heart, a refugee before the word was coined: after her endless fall, this daring girl ventures – at the bottom of the White Rabbit’s burrow – into a so-called ‘host’ country that is not ready to embrace her arrival, a true false Wonderland whose codes and customs she is unfamiliar with. In spite all of her efforts, Alice never has the right size, is never in the right place, and never asks the right question... As proof, when the Dodo and his companions fall into the pool, they judge that the best way to dry their feathers and fur would be to run a Caucus-race: "‘What is a Caucus-race?’ said Alice. ‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it’."[1]

“The best way to explain it is to do it.” Similarly, the best way to explain what is humanitarian is to practice it, all together, ‘mateneen’ without fear of getting one’s feathers or shoes wet. If Luxembourg is neither a Wonderland nor a Land of Plenty, and even less the Paradise on Earth evoked in the project descriptions, it is enough to draw up a list of the concrete initiatives proposed by various – associations, mutual assistance services, artists, volunteers – to realise the importance of doing, rather than merely saying: photography classes, film projections, plays, music therapy, cooking workshops, artistic improvisation, capoeira and Hip Hop classes, community gardens, village/neighbourhood parties, book lending, bicycle availability, computer refurbishment, production of a Farsi-Luxembourgish dictionary, introduction to the Latin alphabet, preparation of a cover letter, internships, writing a diary/life story, etc.

This energy, coupled with inventiveness and humour, is beneficial because it cuts short the temptation to speak for speaking’s sake, to package threats or unease in gift wrapping paper... The risk run by any solidarity project is one that Jean Baudrillard analyses in his scathing essay on extreme phenomena: "Otherness, like everything else, has fallen under the law of the market, of supply and demand. It has become a rare commodity. Hence its extraordinary value on the psychological stock exchange.” With a sense of the method that he is known for, the author of The Transparency of Evilproudly brandishes the banner of integration in order to attack humanitarian and charitable fear that ranges from the Native American reservations to ‘30 Millions d’Amis’: "The other is no longer there to be exterminated, hated, rejected, seduced. He is there to be understood, liberated, pampered, recognised."[2] According to Baudrillard, humanitarian ecumenism aims only to elaborate, at little cost, an altruistic ‘understanding’ that would find its match only in the contempt it conceals. "We respect your difference", implies: "You who are underdeveloped, it is all that you have left, do not get rid of it (hints of folklore and misery are good indicators of difference).” [3]

Why take the other hostage? Why domesticate, disguise, censure, integrate, naturalise him? The best explanation for the phenomenon is undoubtedly provided by Jacques Derrida, in a conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle, based on two Latin derivations: the foreigner (hostis) is simultaneously welcomed as guest and as enemy. "Hospitality, hostility, hostipitality."[4]

However, the indisputable strength of ‘mateneen’ is precisely to reveal the other side of the filigree, beyond the well-considered and enticing catchphrases, beyond the conditions highlighted by Baudrillard and Derrida, a non-negotiable reality, consisting of fear, fragility, endurance, mourning, nostalgia, post-traumatic stress, the courage to confront prejudices, the difficulty of speaking, writing or counting in the language of the other... This is why the real challenge is to heal, or, to use the words of Maylis of Kerangal, to mend the living.[5]

Most disturbing is the fact that the need for otherness is reciprocal, since everyone feels threatened – welcoming and welcomed – by this indifference magnified by inconsistency that has become a hallmark of our post-postmodern era. Alter & Ego, one of the 90 ‘mateneen’ projects, serves as a reminder, by way of its title’s symmetry, that the desire to share and to forge bonds also finds its source in the insidious fear of dissolving into the mass of the Same. Willingly or not, Alter & Ego – the ‘others’ and ‘us’, smugglers and smuggled, we find ourselves on board the same raft.

With ‘mateneen’, proximity is sought and complicity is self-evident. Because a volunteer is someone who means well, who invites you to share his meal, his home, his neighbourhood, to mix with his children, to cultivate his garden. Someone who, if necessary, is ready to sink with you. Eugène Ionesco, a migrant himself – Romanian by birth, Parisian by adoption – suggested this in a play less absurd than it appears upon first impression: "A conscientious doctor must die with his patient if they can't get well together. The captain of a ship goes down with his ship into the briny deep, he does not survive alone.”[6]

Be that as it may, the unifying feature of this common adventure is the flow, the movement, the momentum of what has started up and is not ready to stop. Migratory and maritime flows, body and emotional flows, are caught in the same tidal wave that has caught all of us up day after day, season after season, year after year. Each with his own means, photographers, filmmakers, sociologists, learners and teachers, civil society and refugees, examine what – through words and images, beings and their foolish dreams – migrate, depart, pass, go back and begin again elsewhere... In a co-written poem/essay entitled Passer, quoi qu’il en coûte[7], the philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman comments Niki Giannari’s text which, in turn, is read as a voice-over in a film co-realised with Maria Kourkouta concerning the refugees at Idomeni, Greece, near the border with Northern Macedonia[8]: it speaks of "those beings from elsewhere [...] our gaze on whom – from the not too distant borders of Europe to our street corners – can do nothing other than notice their perpetual passage and obstinate return."

What really matters in order to ‘heal together’ is to realise that, at any moment, everything can change: a great day, who knows, the view point will change, the point of focus will shift, the balance of power will reverse. The one who looks will in turn be looked at, the judge will be judged. This is the lesson within Birds, Patrick Galbats’ project when he invited refugees to take their place behind the camera eye enabling them, with complete freedom, to surprise with their perspective of scenes of everyday Luxembourg life...

Collective work, consisting of interwoven words and views, ‘mateneen’ is born from this observation, this reciprocal need to be part of the fluctuating, the moving, the living, in their permutations and capacity for interchange. To share – yes, it is not a hollow term – a world of doubts, anxieties, aborted dreams, solitude in the midst of the crowd, but also of daring, originality, hope, the need to put one foot in front of the other and start again, again and again, with the obstinacy so well summed up by another migrant, become master of the absurd in Paris, the Irishman Samuel Beckett: "No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still. […] No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.[9]

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994, p. 33.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, La Transparence du Mal. Essai sur les phénomènes extrêmes, translated from French by Robert Frankle, Paris, Galilée, 1990, pp. 129-130.

[3] Ibid., pp. 137-138.

[4] Jacques Derrida, Anne Dufourmantelle. De l’hospitalité, translated by from French Robert Frankle, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1997, p. 45.

[5] Maylis de Kerangal, Mend the Living, MacLehose Press, 2016.

[6] Eugène Ionesco, The Bald Soprano, in the “Bald Soprano & Other Plays”, translated from French by Donald M. Allen, New York, Grove Press, 1958, p. 11.

[7] Georges Didi-Huberman, Niki Giannari, Passer, quoi qu’il en coûte, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 2017, p. 31.

[8] Maria Kourkouta, Niki Giannari, Des Spectres hantent l’Europe, translated by from French Robert Frankle, 99 minutes, France/Grèce, 2016.

[9] Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, New York, Grove Press 1983, p 8.

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