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Is Emmanuel Macron's long arm sowing discord at a Hague Literature Festival? Just barely. (But should we all speak French again someday?) #wu18

Leïla Slimani, the Moroccan-French author who, with her novel A Gentle Hand the prestigious Prix Goncourt, has cancelled at the eleventh hour for Winternachten. The reason was not Thursday's storm. THE reason was personal. But could also be due to something else. Indeed, the chief guest of the International Literary Festival in The Hague, Alain Mabanckou, and Slimani are somewhat at odds over something that has hardly caused a stir outside France, but is playing up quite a bit domestically. The renowned author, known here for his novel Prince Pepper, in fact, heartily refuses to cooperate with an Emmanuel Macron project that aims to make French the first language of Africa, and perhaps the world making. A project of which Slimani has been appointed unofficial ambassador.

That ambitious project, launched by the French president in November 2017, is wholeheartedly supported by Leïla Slimani. Alain Mabanckou revealed just the week Winternachten began that he sees it mainly as an outgrowth of ongoing colonial oppression by France from the African continent. The festival might thus have become the scene of a sibling dispute. Officially, by the way, Slimani's cancellation has nothing to do with this. It is something internally French, so why export this? 

Fifth place

But of course, this argument is not so internal. There is, of course, something megalomaniacal about Macron's drive to elevate French from fifth place (after Mandarin, English, Spanish and Arabic) to second, or preferably first, among the world's languages. And it is indeed reminiscent of colonialism, so Mabanckou may well be right. That could have made for nice debates. Too bad we miss them, because that there is something at play with language and world peace is clear.

Indeed, the festival's undisputed other chief guest, Mohsin Hamid, had a lot of interesting things to say about language in his conversation with Margot Dijkgraaf. He made a strong case for multilingualism. 'It won't be long before everyone in the world speaks some form of English,' he declared. 'The internet will only accelerate that process. But that process will not make people's own language disappear. People will always continue to speak their own language alongside English.'

World Citizens

Multilingualism makes you take a wider view of the world. 'Every language is a description of the world in its own conceptual framework, which is quite limited,' he argued. 'By describing the same world with the words of another language, you find out that there are other, weird ways of describing that same world. That increases your sensitivity to other views and puts your own view into perspective.'

Mohsin Hamid dreams of a diversified global citizenship. 'In a few hundred years, people living then will really look back on this era with horror. People will find it inconceivable that people cannot now travel between Lahore and Paris as unrestricted as they can between Amsterdam and The Hague.' Hamid envisions a future where the primacy lies with cities rather than the nineteenth-century concept of the nation-state.

Fragile utopia

It is unfortunate that the movement of we-ness is exactly opposite to the desired developments. Nationalism and racism are growing everywhere. This makes Hamid's dream an increasingly fragile utopia, but he refuses to become pessimistic. 

At the end of the stirring Friday evening, the final chorus of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sounded over 50 times. The music was performed in different variations by singer Jole de Baerdemaeker, accordionist Oleg Lysenko and cellist Elisabeth Sturtewagen over and over again. In between, a procession of young poets performed, each with their own response to this 'Ode to Joy'. This was sometimes hard-hitting. The Palestinian poet Ghayat Almadhoun took the crown with a poem in which he perfectly expressed the love-hate relationship with Europe as both instigator of misery and bringer of enlightenment.

A lot of water will have to flow through the Rhine, the Danube or the Loire before we are all brothers. But in the meantime, that quest does produce beautiful poetry. That is quite a consolation.

Good to know Good to know
Experienced: Friday Night Unlimited during Festival Winternachten in The Hague. 

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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