sila – a term in Turkish that refers to the feeling when someone, after a long period of absence, finally returns to the person or place he loves (without a real equivalent in Croatian or English)
"Migrations follow us from birth to death, and the result is that our roots do not grow in the places where we live"
– Tony Saghbini
In a previous article, we spoke with Ahmed and Kristina, participants of A Sea of Words 2021 competition. Given that the theme of last year's competition referred to the phenomenon of migration, we wanted to present two more young authors' voices and their stories that secured them the award. Alara Tuğçe Egesoy from Turkey and Mahmoud Jamal Mikdadi from Jordan joined our conversation.
Alara, please tell us more about yourself.
I’m a working student in Germany who moved here from Turkey a couple of months ago. I’ve got a huge interest in psychology and behavioural science. Recently I’ve been mostly busy with my studies in the field of Early Childhood Research and work which lets me focus on building and strengthening team culture and relations. In fact, even though I thought I was good at writing before too, I have to admit that I wasn’t reading or writing so often, but attending the A Sea of Words competition inspired me so much. I’ve actually started writing a story about our experiences with different places based on the feelings they create. I hope to publish it in the near future. Currently, I read a book called Delusions of Gender which I can also recommend for anyone to think about gender-based biases they or their society might have and how much they actually reflect the reality.
Can you briefly describe your experience at A Sea of Words competition?
When I learned about the competition and the theme, I immediately knew what I could write about. I think it was a great chance for me to share my personal experience with youth mobility, as well as my views on how similar we actually are and how much we can share, even with people that our society has so many prejudices about. My experience in Barcelona was perfectly parallel to this view. I got to meet people from different countries and we spent such a short time together, but still created an amazing bond. I can actually talk about it for hours because the experience was really intense. We shared and talked about a lot of things and discovered that our struggles are actually very similar and, at the same time, got the chance to question so many things too. Even though I would consider myself an open-minded person and I try and see people as individuals rather than a member of a group, it still pushed me to think that we all are inclined to think in categories, because of our imperfect minds that find it easier to store information that way. Then I think getting to know even one person from “another” group that we don’t feel familiar with is enough to show that we all are so unique and different, yet so similar in so many ways. The political borders cannot really define anyone.
What did you focus on in your story ‘Gracias My Friend’?
My story was rather a hopeful and positive one, as opposed to the biases our society has about the people from different countries. Greece is one of them. I know that so many people living in Turkey think that Greeks hate Turks, or they see Greeks as enemies themselves. We had many problems in the past and keep having political debates, yet I think the way our societies think is too subjective and focuses only on one side of the story, and ignores the human element when thinking about a country. It’s actually ironic that most of the time the people who say they hate another country or its citizens are the ones that never got to meet someone from that country, so it’s only based on prejudices. I got to spend some months in Greece a few years ago and really felt like home, thanks to the hospitality and warmth that they showed me. With my story, I wanted to show how wrong we might be when it comes to our thoughts about people we don’t know. Once we are open to doing it, there’s always a lot to share and the bond can be stronger than we ever had before.
What can you say about migrant literature and themes in Turkey? What do you think about writing in English?
It’s hard for me to talk about writers focusing on migration, either because I don’t know about them or there are really a few. Even when I search for it, I actually find scientific articles written on immigration and I think it’s actually quite interesting. We have a lot of immigrants and refugees in Turkey, as well as Turkish immigrants living in different countries, mainly in Germany but I think very few people tell their stories about it. In fact, even if there was, it would be difficult to recommend a book since very few books are translated from Turkish to English, as much as I can see. When I talk to my friends from different countries, I mostly hear about writers like Orhan Pamuk or Elif Safak that they know, but these are exceptionally famous ones in Turkey. For less famous writers, it is not very likely to have their books published in other languages. It is an option to write in English, which I consider too sometimes, but it’s quite a challenge for many reasons. It requires that one is able to do localization and think very well in another language, and know about different ways of expressing something. I think it’s much easier to play with words, give deeper meanings, and express something more strongly in the native language. The structure of the Turkish language is really different from English and it is quite difficult for a Turkish writer unless they get really used to the use of English, both in daily life and literature.
Did your trip to Barcelona affected your views on policies and laws relating to the refugee crisis and the treatment of refugees in general?
There are so many Syrian and Afghan refugees in Turkey. When people talk about these people both in the public and media, they talk like “Syrians are like this” or “An Afghan man did this”, which I find somewhat problematic, as if the hidden agenda was to alienate them. Due to a lack of resources and opportunities, people in Turkey complain that the refugees “steal” their jobs, get money from the government, or get admitted to universities more easily. I think there is a lot of misinformation about refugees and their living conditions. Media coverage is also hard to trust. We don’t really know or understand what they’ve been or are still going through, but we all have an idea about them. During my Barcelona trip, I got to meet some amazing people from Syria and could get a little bit of understanding. I actually felt ashamed that I also had no idea about their situation. Despite the high number of refugees in Turkey, I only heard about them but never heard anything from them.
As you mentioned, it is important to get to know somebody. What do you think we can do to help to shine a light on the problem of immigration?
It’s important to tell their stories. As I’ve said, there are different articles on immigration or refuge, but numbers and facts do not reflect their inner struggles. They don’t really go beyond the academic field and reach our society. Literature can be a strong tool to educate our society and open another viewpoint in our minds, one that is not one-sided. We all have struggles and literature can make it possible to relate so that we can possibly change our approach, start respecting and be more inclusive, instead of seeing them as others. I believe that when someone is not in their safe place (their home, country etc.), the attitude of people around them makes a huge difference. With literature, we can change our attitude towards others.
Mahmoud, for introduction, please tell us a few sentences about yourself.
I am Mahmoud Jamal Mikdadi, born in 1994 in Saudi Arabia. I live in Jordan, and I hailed from a village called Abbasiya in Jaffa, Palestine. My grandfather fled the village in 1948, fearing for his family because the Zionist groups controlled the village. I studied political science at a public University Al Yarmouk. I graduated in 2016 with first honours in the department, but I haven’t found any real job yet. Usually, I try to pass the time by writing. I always look for competitions. Currently, I am writing a novel about orphans and people of unknown parentage, and my writing speed is equivalent to that of a turtle. As the days passed, my ambitions began to wane. I am no longer interested in the future. I became addicted to the lottery and want to get rich quickly. I went digging for gold in remote caves and valleys with some of my friends. Our fear is divided between the police discovering us, the cave collapsing on us, and the jinn, the keeper of the treasure. My focus is now on returning to Europe and staying there. The trip to Barcelona caused a shock inside me. I live in a random area, and everything is in poverty, chaos, and quarrels between people. I regretted so much that I came back.
What are your impressions after the competition and your trip to Barcelona?
The idea of the competition is genius because it brings together Europeans and Arabs. This is an opportunity that many competitions do not offer. On a personal level, I can say that the three days I spent in Barcelona were the most amazing days of my life. The theme of youth and mobility was very relevant to me. They have chosen a lively and constantly evolving topic. As an Arab person, almost every day I follow on television the news of immigrants who lose their lives in order to reach the unknown, to escape the hell of their homeland. I remember writing the story in one sitting. I was like a child full of tears, and all he had to do was shed them.
In Barcelona and in the Literary Book Workshop, language stood in my way. I do not speak English very well. I also wanted to communicate with the locals, but I don't know Spanish either. Honestly, this was my first time travelling. It was like a dream to go to Barcelona. Perhaps the competition should allocate money, at least to the European winners. I think that the Arabs are satisfied with the trip. As I mentioned earlier, traveling to Barcelona is like a dream for an Arab person. Europeans will not see traveling to Barcelona as important, because they can travel at any moment. Perhaps the competition should motivate young people with financial and gifts in kind. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I'll take the risk, it would be amazing to turn the stories into cinematic works. Sadly, these stories remain among the folds of a book that no one may pay attention to. Maybe then they will be shown to producers and directors, and one of them will transfer them to the world of cinema.
Whatever the case, these initiatives remain a wonderful opportunity for young people. Whoever has a talent for writing, will find a suitable stage to display his skills. For those who are not interested in writing, these initiatives may tempt them to turn to the world of writing and literature, as they will be a major factor in adding new interest to their personal world.
Can you describe what happens in your story ‘Letters Unwritten’?
As I mentioned before, we are constantly following the tragedies of immigrants on TV. In addition, I have an Algerian friend. This friend lost many of his friends and neighbours during their attempt to emigrate in the "death boats". His talks were very inspiring to me, and after learning about the topic of the competition, I quickly remembered them. I imagined a person who wanted to emigrate in a boat crowded with people. During his journey he imagined writing letters to his mother, explaining his experience, which extends even after his death. As I was writing, I was reminded of the words of the Italian writer Umberto Eco, "Every story has two authors, the first tells it, and the second writes it."
Through my story, I wanted to make clear that these immigrants are not lawless, or chaotic, but rather weak people whose ambitions have betrayed them and who are looking for a decent life in other places. I also wanted to convey the idea that all humanity realizes at a certain point that their suffering is common, but there is an invisible hand that sets laws and instructions, imposing on them roles they are forced to play. In the end, there was a dark idea, but I see it as the most realistic, that the suffering will not end except with death.
It is difficult to limit immigration to a specific definition. Perhaps it is a loose relative topic. The immigrant will say that it is an attempt to search for freedom and a decent life. The law will say that it is lawlessness and crime. Residents of the countries to which we immigrate will say that it is a theft of their goods and opportunities to work. For me, immigration is a topic that will never end. Perhaps if we review history, we will not see a period without immigration. The only difference is in the regions of migration. Interestingly, humans are now looking into the possibility of migrating to Mars.
How did you feel when you read your story in English? What do you think about translating a literary text?
It is common knowledge among literary people that translation kills the spirit of the text. Everyone agrees that the original text of the work is the best. However, translation remains a "necessary evil" due to the large number of languages. When I read my story in English, it sounded like a pianist trying to follow the notes with fear and caution. There is a difference between someone who plays the piano with all his senses, and his fingers follow the keys with his eyes closed, and who tries to align his focused eyes in a note book, while his fingers search for the keys. The original text is created by the heart, and the translated text is made by the mind.
Migration is not a literary subject in Jordan. The state of Jordan has an international peculiarity. It is close to Israel and the great powers need to keep Jordan safe so that Israel's security is not endangered. Also, here we do not have a sea on its other bank, Europe. The main theme of literature in Jordan is the Palestinian cause. But I should note, that the literary movement in Jordan is weak, and it has not yet risen to the level of true literature. I think they are very few who could write in another language. On the Arab level, I remember Muhammad Shukri and his novel The Barefoot Bread, which he wrote in French, as I remember. But writing in the mother tongue will certainly remain the easiest and most honest.
Unfortunately, you have a particular migrant experience. What do you think about policies and laws relating to the refugee crisis and the treatment of refugees in general?
It is funny to be asked about the conditions and suffering of immigrants, and I am currently striving to be one of them. Perhaps instead of asking about the laws and the way immigrants are treated, we should ask why they emigrated. There are a lot of young people emigrating from Jordan, but most of them go through legal ways. With the Syrian war, some Jordanians began pretending to be Syrians, in order to obtain asylum in Europe. When I went to Barcelona, all my friends advised me not to come back. They told me to ask for asylum, pretend I am gay, or that I left Islam. This gives an indication that most young people want to emigrate. When my friends found out about my return, they were very angry with me, and said that I did not deserve the opportunity that came to me on a plate of gold! I told them I was going to sleep on the street, and they replied “Their streets are better than our homes”. Can you imagine?
I am truly sorry to hear that. But we must remain hopeful and keep pushing forward to eliminate that kind of suffering. Do you believe literature can make a change?
I have always wished for literature and writers to have the ability to change reality, but politics and economics still have the upper hand in managing things. Literature may strike a jolt in society, like with The Catcher in the Rye, but its influence remains limited. What is the weapon of literature? Only paper and pen. But politics and economics have the military, the food, the buildings, the health, the education. They even have the directions they make us write about. There is a touching scene in the Spanish movie The Platform, when the hero approaches starvation and tries to eat the novels he brought with him. Literature can change reality in one case – if those who are in charge of politics and economics become literary and start to appreciate literature.