All cultures are formed from elements with a travelling soul; that is, they have been migrating from one people to another so that each one adapts them according to their environment and their own characteristics. Food, music, words or art in the broadest sense cross borders without a visa and provide ground for bringing peoples and cultures together. Similarly, the migrant who travels following the natural tendency of man to move must not be seen as a threat but rather as a person who can enrich our own identity in a very valuable way. The creative potential of migrants who adapt to a host land contributing elements from their land of origin is endless. Because, just as reading and travel make us discover new worlds different to ours, which we consider unique and irreplaceable, is this not exactly what immigration teaches us?
Life is an ongoing movement. A stagnated world would end by suffocating in its own waste. Certainly, wars and conquests have shaken societies and obliged them to move on, but they have done so with tempests and poisonous winds. The imprint of death and destruction they have left has polluted the human soul with hatred, rancour and endemic fears. Powers have always sought to take advantage of these illnesses both to segregate the society they govern and to isolate it from others. Intercultural congresses and meetings are necessary to cushion these effects and open ways for constructive interaction. The efforts of people and well-intentioned organisations fighting throughout the world to find a remedy to these endemic evils are also necessary. However, I believe that the true cure should be found in the benign fruits of this atavistic and natural movement that we call immigration.
Man has migrated since his origins, thereby populating an uninhabited planet. When there is not an inch of land left without borders and marks of ownership, man, a migrant by need and by instinct, has been forced to stealthily enter the terrains of others. It is quite normal for these incursions to provoke initial mutual uncertainty, both in the new arrivals and the locals, and for the judgements to tend to be more subjective than objective. It is also legitimate that the two parties act with caution and reserve before fusing in a new and solid amalgam. The natural tendency of man to move is crucial to invigorate societies and all of us together should disregard the imaginary prejudices, the result of our insecurities, which the interests of the powerful and their manipulative machinery try to magnify and present as actual threats. Blaming the migrant for one’s own misfortunes is an easy and miserable excuse used by those who seek to divert attention from the real problems and their causes.
We should not be afraid of immigration making us lose our identity. We should remember that gold is fragile and does not shine in its pure state and that the dust of copper, silver or lead turns it into the king of metals. Moreover, identities, whether ethnic or religious, are relative and circumstantial facts that do not respond to free choice. They are simple feelings conditioned by the native place and environment. Thus, patriotism is no other than the substitute identity of those societies without enough ethnic or religious uniformity to group the whole population together. A Catalan friend of mine sent me an email asking me whether, ethnically, I considered myself an Arab, an Aramean, an Assyrian or a Kurd. My answer was: “To my Iberian – Phoenician, Egyptian, Roman, Latin, Arab and Catalan – friend. I don’t know who I am, but I feel Assyrian-Chaldean.”
Languages are splendid by nature, interact with and complement each other, and live by feeding each other. Hence, isolating and caging them means sentencing them to a slow death
A migrant is not a mere individual in search of new opportunities but rather a ship loaded with valuable merchandise in search of a port. Once moored and sheltered, once the fears and mutual mistrust are overcome, the simultaneous process of enrichment of the new arrival and the local begins. Both gradually discover that they are not as different as they thought. Observing, contrasting and comparing, both gradually find out that their cultures have been forever drinking from each other. The new awareness is essential to understand one’s own culture and can become a fabulous motor for all types of creation. It is true that today, with the means of transport within our reach, we move from one place to another easily and quickly, but not even the greatest transporter we are able to build can transport what a person can transport. A removable disk, the size of a coin, can contain an incalculable amount of information, but an illiterate person can conceal enough emotions to shake the whole world.
Personally, I was already passionate about languages and their history when I landed in Barcelona from Iraq. Here I devoted many years of my life to searching for words of a Semitic origin, mainly Arabic or Aramaic, in western languages. I was determined to show how much the East had given to the West and I celebrated the new discoveries that supported my thesis as additional proof of the debt that the West owed to us. I often came across words that we had transmitted disinterestedly and I was convinced that they were ours, but I discovered that we had also taken them from Sanskrit or Persian. We had been, therefore, a mere vehicle of transmission. Meanwhile, I kept discovering a great number of words that we had borrowed from western languages, both in Antiquity and in recent times. I marvelled at how words slipped from one language to another with the subtlety of the air and water, and how they settled in their new home, enriching, strengthening and helping it to face the challenges of the new times. Meanwhile, I was gradually convinced that languages are splendid by nature, interact with and complement each other, and live by feeding each other. Hence, isolating and caging them means sentencing them to a slow death.
My other great passion, cooking, revealed to me that fruits, vegetables, pulses and grain left their birthplace and travelled through the world to enrich peoples’ diets. The biography of something as simple as a carrot or an aubergine revealed a life of passionate adventures comparable to that of our most illustrious travellers, since the times of Gilgamesh and Ulysses. Moreover, cooking recipes have also travelled from one place to another and have adapted to the tastes and circumstances of the new lands. When I thought that we were the only ones capable of preparing and eating a determined dish, I discovered that others could make it as well as, or even better, than us. I found out that the variations between cultures when using the same ingredient were mere adaptations to their own natural environment and climate. Even the apparent divine interventions in diets can limit the number of ingredients or their combination but do not alter the process. It is enough to think that we could not enjoy the emblematic dishes of many peoples, such as tomato bread, paella, moussaka or macaroni, if the tomato, rice, the aubergine or wheat did not have a migrant soul.
In 2004, I participated in the Barcelona Universal Forum of Cultures as a chef and they asked me to represent the non-European chefs in the press conference of the Forum opening. One of the journalists asked me about the importance of cookery in interculturality and I answered spontaneously affirming that cookery and words are like the air that crosses borders without a visa, without police permission, and that this potential turned them into solid ground for bringing peoples and cultures together. A musician friend of mine who listened to my words asked me: “Don’t you think that music has also travelled in the same way?” “You’re right,” I said after a few minutes of reflection, “in fact, art in its broadest sense has also travelled freely.”
I found out that the variations between cultures when using the same ingredient were mere adaptations to their own natural environment and climate
Some years later, the Egyptian Alaa Al Aswany came to Barcelona on the release in Catalan of his novel Chicago, which I had translated from Arabic. After the press conference, we went to a restaurant to eat with the editors. The conversation that accompanied the food was relaxed and the contributions of the great author gave it a special aroma, as if we were finding new pleasures in an everyday meal. One subject followed another politely and gently. Alaa Al Aswany’s previous novel, The Yacoubian Building, which I had also translated into Catalan, had been published in around thirty languages. The author explained to us that during his trips to attend the presentation of the book in several European countries, many editors had told him that the contributions by migrants that choose to write in the language of the host land were like breaths of fresh air that revived the local literature. The author wished to encourage editors to open the doors to these adventurers who, while discovering a new culture, enriched it with their own.
I myself had begun to write an autobiographical book in Catalan and I feared the challenge of writing a literary work in a language which was neither native nor academic. I confess that Alaa Al Aswany’s comment encouraged me to continue writing. My book, Arrels nòmades [Nomadic Roots], was finally published and was sufficiently well-received to motivate me to continue writing in this language. But, at the same time and in the same way as my musician friend’s comment, Alaa Al Aswany had opened my eyes to one of those obvious things that you never see until you are shown. Literature also had a travelling soul. Soon after, the Barcelona Association of Pharmacists asked me to deliver a lecture entitled “From Sumer to the West”, with the aim of exploring the uninterrupted transmission of knowledge. My research in preparing the lecture showed me that mathematics, geometry, architecture, alchemy, astrology, medicine, literary genres, musical notes, legends and the gods themselves had travelled from people to people until reaching us. I understood that all living existence not only needs to move to stay alive but renews and enriches itself while fluttering from one place to another.
My second book was a novel, El dol del quetzal [The Mourning of the Quetzal], and in the presentation press conference, a journalist asked me if I had found it easy to change genre: from describing real situations and characters to inventing them. The question amazed me. In my view, I had invented nothing. I had simply changed the place of things and combined them again. This was my answer, and I kept thinking about what I had just said while the second question came to me as a distant murmur. What else can invention and creation be but this displacement of things? I wondered. Making something appear out of the blue, that is, a miraculous creation, is a matter for the gods and genies of the lamp, but men can only create based on what we have. Even the most unlikely imaginary is just a bunch of particles of reality combined in usual or not so usual situations. The wider and more embracing reality is, the further our imagination can navigate, and the more varied the combinations we invent can be.
It has always been said that reading broadens the horizons of thought, and travel makes us more receptive and tolerant individuals. I suppose that this is so to a great extent, because reading and travel make us discover new worlds different from ours, which we believed unique and irreplaceable. Is this not exactly what immigration teaches us? That there are other ways of combining ideas and elements to construct a new society; that each group chooses the combination that most suits its natural environment; and that it is in fact this choice that leads us to being different rather than our will to be so or divine will, as those who call themselves spokespeople of God often make us believe, thereby contradicting his equitable and just work when creating us based on a unique offspring. In fact, sea, mountain, desert, wild forest, heat and cold are elements that have made us different.
Making something appear out of the blue, that is, a miraculous creation, is a matter for the gods and genies of the lamp, but people can only create based on what we have
Can you imagine a landscape where all these elements come together?
Can you imagine the new forms of life, art, music, literature and fantasy that might emerge from that place?
When we realise that water does not surround islands to separate them but to unite them, and when we see the migrant as the sea that seeks refuge in the mountain, the desert that seeks the shade of the wild forest and the heat that embraces the cold, immigration can make this rich and creative landscape real.