Joumana El Zein Khoury on the value of Difference


Joumana El Zein Khoury, the new director of the Prins Claus Fund, partner of the Voice4Thought Festival, was one of the guests of the opening event of this year’s edition. Joumana gave a special contribution to the opening by reflecting on the meaning of being in motion starting with her personal life experience as a person in motion herself. Here you can find the full version of her speech.

Joumana

I know that there are people in the world who feel threatened by difference, who are fearful that too many migrants will come with different habits and different values and change life in the Netherlands. But it’s clear: life IS changing and WILL change, with or without migrants.

There is plenty to be worried about in the world today, but difference per se is not one of them. Difference must not be equated with threat or violence, for instance, which is intolerable, whatever your background or birthplace.

 

“People in Motion. It’s a theme that is close to my heart…and close to my life. From Mirjam’s kind introduction, you know that I am the Director of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. It’s a wonderful Fund and I’ll talk about what we do – and how it relates to the theme – in a bit.  But I’d like to start today by telling you a little about myself, and why this festival speaks so much to me.

I was born in Lebanon in 1975. Before I had my first birthday, war had broken out. My family fled to Saudi Arabia. It was peaceful in Saudi Arabia, but after a few years, my secular parents began to worry that I was developing conservative religious ideas when I criticised my mother for wearing bathing suits. It wasn’t their idea of the place to raise an independent young woman. My brother and I were sent to boarding school in London.  But splitting up the family was also not ideal, so in 1985, the whole family moved to Paris. That’s where I got my bachelor’s degree which was then followed by a 2 year Master’s degree in the United States.

By 2003 I was back in Paris and married to a Lebanese man with a similar nomadic background. It looked peaceful in Lebanon and we had just about decided to go back to Lebanon and start our family there when another war broke out in 2006.

Since then, we’ve lived in The Netherlands. We have three kids, but the rest of our extended family are all back in Beirut, so we go to visit often, and they come visit us – a regular stream of aunts and cousins and assorted others.

So my life started out as a refugee. But a refugee with privilege. I can also say that I am an economic migrant. I came to Holland for work. I actually feel more like a traveller or a nomad, although being settled ten years in the Hague doesn’t have quite the same romance…

When people ask me ‘what nationality do you FEEL?’ I say “I’m Lebanese”.  That’s a simple answer, but the truth isn’t simple. When I go to Beirut, I realise the lives of my family there are very different from my life here.  I’m not Dutch, but I’ve become Dutch in many ways. I think people like me – and I suspect many of you in the audience will have a similar experience  –  absorb the habits, perspectives, values in each place we’ve lived. Growing up in a household of Arabic politeness, I was shocked at first by the famous Dutch bluntness. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate how direct Dutch people are. What you see is what you get. What they say is what they mean. And I have become much more direct myself. I value that honesty. It saves time and avoids confusion!

My intellectual formation is largely French – Cartesian thinking!  But I am a totally Lebanese woman when it comes to hospitality. There’s always enough food in the house for extra friends and unexpected guests.

I know that there are people in the world who feel threatened by difference, who are fearful that too many migrants will come with different habits and different values and change life in the Netherlands. But it’s clear: life IS changing and WILL change, with or without migrants. There is plenty to be worried about in the world today, but difference per se is not one of them. Difference must not be equated with threat or violence, for instance, which is intolerable, whatever your background or birthplace.

The differences I’ve encountered in the places where I’ve lived have enriched my life. Some things I’ve rejected, some I’ve embraced, but my identity now is a complex mixture of many cultures. And I wouldn’t want it to be otherwise. My children’s world is very large. They like friets and hagelslag as well as labneh and warak einab. They speak four languages. They are proud of their ‘foreign’ friends. They take travel for granted.  I don’t even need to mention internet. I think this larger world is the future.

And this is the world as the Prince Claus Fund understands it. The Fund was established to honour King Willem Alexander’s father, the late Prince Claus, who was a diplomat. Prince Claus was a passionate believer in the importance of art and culture for human existence and as an essential element of development.  He believed that pride in one’s own culture, one’s own identity is essential for a person’s survival in any situation. Our culture – that mixture of beliefs, experiences, traditions that each of us build up, is part of us no matter what and is the basis for our healthy development no matter where.

For the past 20 years, the Fund has been supporting artists, cultural practitioners and organisations around the world, particularly in places where possibilities for cultural expression are limited, either because of a lack of resources or due to political repression. Artists have always known the importance of ‘people moving’ and how enriching exposure to other thought and culture can be.

And for the past 20 years, we have witnessed first-hand the transformative power that people on the move have. How their experiences, their understanding and linking to different, foreign contexts can help change them and their contexts, as well as the societies they touch, in positive ways. We have witnessed the positive effect of mobility and migration.

At the Prince Claus Fund we have so many examples. I think of a workshop that brought together Cambodian and Rwandan dancers and how dancing together with their different styles and different perspectives helped them find new ways to understand and express the genocides that afflicted each of their countries.

I think of the Iraqi drama group called “The Impossible Theatre Company” that initiated a series of workshops around the country. Their aim was to get people from different denominations in Iraqi society talking together through a form of wordless, physical theatre. Despite all the sectarian conflict in Iraq, the workshops were well attended. They trained young people to create their own ‘impossible theatre’ performances. And they were so successful that they were invited to give workshops in Turkey, Tunisia, Japan and South Korea.

And then there was a photographer from South Africa, Alexia Webster, who travelled through different refugee camps around the continent with her mobile studio offering to take portrait photos. She gave refugees, who had left everything behind, a sense of their own dignity, material proof of their resilience, an affirmation of their existence, their memories and their present lives.

The Fund has a variety of means to support and promote people and cultural organisations that are working to make their communities better in some way. I will not go into further detail here about our different programmes as you can find all the information on our website.

But what we know and promote at the Fund is that we need to talk to others, to people who think differently. That collaborations not only offer the most relevant expertise and crucial financial help, but also and just as important, collaborations and networks share values and offer encouragement and moral support.

I could go on and on about all we do, but I want to keep this fairly short so you can all get started. It’s just that, given my own background, I feel passionately about the discussion we’re having today. And at the Prince Claus Fund there is so much that we do that relates to the benefits – and challenges – of people ‘on the move’.

I want to leave you with a quote from a Martinican philosopher, Edouard Glissant. He believed that our future lies in the relationship between two human beings. Glissant spoke about the possibility of (quote) changing by exchanging without losing oneself (end quote).

That captures for me the movements in my life that have left me proud of where I came, proud of where I am, proud of this strong identity that I have built that is still changing, through exchange.

It is important to have this discussion today, to recognise that for new migrants to Europe, there are enormous challenges adapting to a new culture. We also need to make it clear that for us who are comfortable in Europe, the challenge is to embrace them, and to convince our reluctant neighbours that difference can be enriching and a larger world can be – should be – a wonderful one!”

 

 

immagine“Based on the principle that culture is a basic need, the Prince Claus Fund’s mission is to actively seek cultural collaborations founded on equality and trust, with partners of excellence, in spaces where resources and opportunities for cultural expression, creative production and research are limited and cultural heritage is threatened.”