Diversity is here and everywhere!
It’s all about diversity; book launch in Stockholm
By Sarah Hamed
Last month I attended a presentation by the Sudanese writer Dr. Abakar Adam Ismail about his recent book The Dialectic of the Centre and the Margin; A New Reading of the Sudanese Struggle. Dr. Abakar was born in the Nuba Mountains in the western part of Sudan. He studied dentistry at the University of Khartoum. He moved to Canada in the early 1990s where he studied anthropology as well as gender, race and class. He is an author of a number of works of poetry, short stories, books and articles in which he tries to reflect the power struggle in Sudan. His most famous books are Dreams in the Land of the Sun and The Road to the Impossible Cities as well as The Other Shore. Dr Abakar is known as a political activist working against Sudan’s current regime and constantly trying to high-light the struggle of marginalised groups in the country.
Sudan, my country of origin, is an African country with an ancient history going back to 1070 BCE, diverse cultures, languages and religions. After its independence from British colonisation in 1956, the country has faced political turbulence with periods of military dictatorship; the longest being the recent regime which has lasted for more than 25 years. It is a country crippled by poverty and extended periods of vicious wars with some ethnic groups facing genocide at the hands of the current regime. One of the areas facing genocide is the Nuba Mountains where Dr. Abakar is from. Sudan as a nation is very much the product of colonisation.
So what about Sudan?
So why am I talking about Sudan in a welfare bricolage project in Sweden, Germany, Portugal and the UK? Well if you bear with me, you will find out why I think that what Dr. Abakar proposes in his book is relevant to superdiverse neighbourhoods in Europe. Dr. Abakar uses a cultural analytical framework to analyse the situation in Sudan. The cultural diversity in Sudan gives rise to what Dr. Abakar terms the dialectic of the centre and margin, which is created when different cultural groups with different histories are forced to live together in a single setting framework, as in the case of Sudan. He argues that cultural groups create a system of privilege within this framework which then develops into structural barriers in regards to the power of the privileged groups. This dialectic is in itself uneasy and unsettled due to the fact that it constantly reproduces itself, to ensure the continuity of privilege, by recreating problems and struggle. It then reaches a point where it can no longer reproduce and a crisis situation is created. Political and economic forces of globalisation increase the complexity such that Dr Abakr argues that the struggle in the country can only be resolved if the existing structures are correctly analysed and changed. This change comes about through a deep understanding of the history of the area. He states that the history of the area is unrecognised and some of its aspects avoided especially when it comes to the national slave trade. Therefore, the book is also a historical book since it covers events in Sudan from 1821 which the author established as his starting point. The reason for that is that the establishment of Sudan as a nation started after the Turkish colonisation in 1821 which marks the beginning of the struggle.
The centre and the margin in Sudan and Europe; is there something in common?
The centre holds the privilege and in the case of Sudan, the privilege is in the hands of the so-called Arabic Islamic culture while the margin constitutes the other cultures and ethnicities. With the spread of Islam in the area, some groups in the country adopted the Arabic language as well as some elements of the Arabic culture which created what we refer to in Sudan as an identity crisis for these groups. This group is privileged when it comes to ownership of land and wealth, cultural privilege in terms of language (Arabic is the official language in the country) and other cultural aspects as well as political power. The privilege of these groups was emphasised and encouraged by colonisation, both Turkish and British, as some of these groups collaborated with colonial forces which favoured them in comparison to other groups. This resulted in a flourishing of the slave trade. The slaves were captured by the merchants of the privileged groups from the other cultural groups in Sudan especially from the western and southern part of the country. Dr. Abakar argues that although Sudan has had two revolutions against dictatorship regimes in 1964 and 1985, the country continues to struggle due to the continuity of the structures of privilege.
There are parallels between the description of the struggle in Sudan and European countries which are not just becoming diverse but superdiverse. The two superdiverse neighbourhoods that we are working on in Sweden are two suburbs that are constructed as problem areas, as uncivilized and most importantly as non-Swedish.
The suburbs in Sweden are very much like the margins that Dr. Abakar describes and the centre is in this case the Swedish privileged culture which holds the wealth and has the power to decide what is civilised and what is not. Swedish culture becomes the superior culture that constantly tries to affirm its superiority in comparison to “other” cultures through the creation of a distinction between us the civilised and them the less civilised.
I wonder then, if the centre in Sweden is trying to reproduce struggles to establish the structural barriers and thus its privilege. Is the depiction of the issue of migration as a crisis, immigrants as problematically dependent a way to reproduce a struggle? If migration were to be seen as an asset then the immigrant “others” could be civilised enough to actually be an asset, but this would not benefit of the system of privilege by reinforcing its centrality.
With increasing diversity in Europe, the discourse which views immigration as a crisis is becoming stronger and the anti-immigration parties are gaining more votes and support. In Sweden three refugee shelters have been burned down this month and the police have reported the incidents as arsons. A 21 year old Swede has also attacked students and teachers with a foreign background with a sword. Two have died and two are in a critical state at the hospital.
Is focusing on diversity and cultural exchange for a richer Europe one of the solutions then? Is a shift in discourse necessary to change the structure of privilege in Europe and strengthen the voices of the others?