The complex linguistic identities of migrants to Europe are constantly denied recognition. We must renew the language of hospitality, in which equality rather than homogeneity dictates our borders.
According to the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the relationship between hospitality and immigration should neither be a one-way street that imposes rules of assimilation and acculturation onto the Other, nor should it simply be the occupation of one’s space by the Other. For Derrida, hospitality has to be negotiated at every instant, to be invented at every second with all the risks involved, and without pre-given rules.
But the act of welcoming the ‘stranger’ has always been intensely contested, and only deepened with accelerated forms of globalisation. The current practices of welcoming the ‘stranger’ in the Netherlands, for example, are steeped in traditions of imposing pre-given conditionalities that are never really negotiated but rather imposed, such as visas, integration exams, citizenship tests, ‘Dutch’ as the language of asylum, and so on.
Based on our interactions and negotiations as part of Stichting Gast, a local support organisation for ‘undocumented migrants’ based in the Netherlands border city of Nijmegen, we try to think through the notion of hospitality as an everyday practice of negotiation. Taking the critical question of “When two people who don’t speak the same language meet, what should they do?” posed by Derrida as a starting point, we reflect on our experiences to rethink language, hospitality, and the borders of nation-states.
Border voices from a cafe
Each time we enter the weekly cafe meetings of Stichting Gast, it feels like we are entering an island. This is because the dynamics of interaction inside the cafe are so starkly different from interactions just beyond the threshold of the cafe, whose location is nevertheless at the heart of the city of Nijmegen. The intimacy and proximity of people coming together in a small café, who nevertheless are here for reasons often not fully of their choice, pushes one to search for a common language.
I use language in a broad sense: not only verbal language, but also the power of body language, gestures, habits, and the role of objects, in facilitating interactions. It is never the same group. There are always new faces and new languages. It is akin to the feeling of being on a journey, in an airport waiting room or a train, where people you develop a friendship with are getting off or new people are boarding.
The cafe is run out of a voluntary kitchen and so the rituals of making, serving and drinking tea, coffee and soup often helps to create an environment in which the roles of who is welcoming whom are blurred or left to improvisation, as opposed to spaces such as embassies, asylum centres and visa offices, where it is quite clear who has the power to welcome or not. The lack of a common verbal language pushes one to look for common gestures of body language. It is a space full of frustrations, misunderstandings and disappointments as much as a space for communicating solidarity and friendship.
But the challenges of translation lie on both parties who are communicating, rather than on a single one, unlike integration exams and asylum procedures, in which both the choice of language and translator is determined the state. The lack of a common verbal language also allows for each of us to be confronted with all the paradoxes, contradictions, pains as well as joys of communicating across difference, leaving the process of translation to be constantly negotiated.
Once a month, a physiotherapist volunteers to give a free session to teach members exercises for relaxation and dealing with stress. Although she asks for their preferred language – either Dutch or English – most of those present are following her instructions in spite of not understanding either of those languages. So the challenge of translation, of finding a common language, lies with all of us present then and there. However what is even more difficult to translate is embodied difference: the difference in our relationships with our bodies.
For instance, the physiotherapist instructed us to “swell our stomachs like a baby belly” and then to “let go”. As we were following this, there was suddenly a loud thud. One of the older women from Somalia had fallen to the floor. Most of us who did not know her very well because of the language barrier were taken aback. Indeed the assumption behind the physiotherapy sessions is that many migrants are stressed, and subject to traumatic conditions of displacement and rejection. But on closer inspection we realized that she had fallen down from uncontrollable laughter, finding the very exercise hilarious and absurd. The instructor used this episode to explore how laughter, too, can be incorporated into stress-relief. The starting point of searching for a common language allows for negotiation and accommodation of the Other without suppressing difference. This lies at the heart of a Derridean notion of hospitality.
Thinking beyond ‘one state, one language’
The power of nation-states and the geopolitics of borders as lines in the sand are produced not only in visible strategies of walls and fences, and immigration and citizenship policies, but also in their ability to capture common-sensical imaginations. As Benedict Anderson famously argued, nation-states are most importantly ‘imagined communities’. Yet the most challenging barrier to cross is often a mental threshold, or thinking out of the frame within which one is often used to.
Nationality in Europe is attached to an oppositional discourse, linked to language. It is a challenging threshold to cross despite the territorial borders of Europe’s nation-states themselves shifting across time and space (such as expanding colonial networks and decolonisation, and more recently the formation of the European Union, and the EU’s enlargement and neighbourhood policies, to name some). However the box of ‘one language, one territory, one nation, one state’ is increasingly contested.
A friend of ours recently shared her story of asylum in the Netherlands with us, a process made tortuous by errors of mistranslation in immigration interviews and the exclusionary language of “you are in the Netherlands, you should speak Dutch”. Hospitality continues to be seen by the state as a one-way process imposed onto the Other, mostly understood within the framework of nation-states. The expectation of “you are in the Netherlands, you should speak Dutch” denies the possibility of searching for a common language of hospitality, thereby producing integration as a fixed process rather than as something to be negotiated.
The asylum system is also built on stereotypes of ‘asylum seekers’ as the ‘illiterate Other’, understood to be speaking ‘distant’ languages that require translation. This is blind to the lived reality of an asylum seeker’s ability to speak fluently in English or another common language that might not fit neatly into the pre-determined languages of nation-states.
The complex linguistic identities of migrants to Europe, rooted in intertwined colonial networks and histories, are denied all recognition in the space of the asylum interview. We need to think through hospitality and the language of asylum as a negotiated process, beyond the borders of nation-states and homogenous linguistic identities. This is the starting point for a renewed language of hospitality that acknowledges the diverse transnational conditions of migration and asylum today. Most crucially, we must renew a space for translation and negotiation in which equality rather than presumed superiority dictates our borders.