The Cultural Weapon 2 Feb 2011

I should have seen it coming then.  In 1993, when I first visited Egypt.  With my new wife.  We were on honeymoon.  (Or rather, I was invited to a conference soon after we were married, and she got the spouse discount.  Hey, I was working for NGOs back then too!).  The locals ignored me.  They obviously thought that I was from the region, and they kept inviting Janet to “their leather shops”.  I tagged along as minor insurance against her being spirited away to some rich dictator’s harem.

By then, I’d done a fair bit of international travel. I got used to being one of those whose passport was more thoroughly scrutinised, whose reasons for travelling to the said country were treated with more suspicion by unsmiling passport officials trained not to greet, and whose luggage was sniffed by eager hounds or searched by zealous customs officials.  In fact, at one stage, I went through the ‘Goods To Declare’ section, declaring that I had ‘Nothing to Declare’, but since I was going to get stopped anyway, we should just get it over with.

I accepted that it was my fate to match the lookalike profile of whoever or whatever group was considered to be the latest threat to international stability.  But that was in the eighties, and I came from apartheid South Africa where one’s race did in fact determine everything about one’s life.  So I was used to it. Racial profiling.  Back then, it was an irritant, but a small price to pay to have some space and time away from a country that offered “high school teacher” as probably my best career prospect.  I was often more anxious about returning to South Africa than leaving it, especially after a particular exchange visit landed my passport an entry stamp to Nicaragua.  But that never proved a problem on re-entry (although later, it was a problem in another context, but that’s another story….).

Fast forward to our post-Berlin Wall, post-Soviet Union, post-apartheid, post-Cold War, living-happily-ever-after world, and I have good memories of a period when there was no need for my weekly “Passport Control Support Group”.  Until 9/11 in 2001 reminded us that the communist/capitalist divide was not the only one in the world.

Then it was back to the passport control lines that (might as well have) said “EU Passports Here”, “Terrorist Suspect Passports There”, surly immigration officers with their “Go Home” expressions, and metal detector heavies who smiled wryly only at the prospect of “body searches”.  I resigned myself to the regular humiliation, the stripping of one’s dignity, the denial of one’s humanity, deemed by some to be necessary for their safer, more secure world.  And I still wonder, every time, what makes them think that humiliating people actually makes them safer?   

My elder son, born on the eve of the 1994 elections, and who has only experienced “the New South Africa”, accompanied me on a trip to Europe recently, and after we had been through the Schiphol “What-do-you-want-in- Europe?” Inquisition, he asked “Is it always like this, dad?”.  Talk about out of the frying pan…. But then, it is “like this” for many fathers, brothers, sons who have a certain “I-could-be-wearing-a-suicide-vest” look about them.

A black Dutch comedian joked that he hates Arabs because now no-one is scared of blacks anymore.  

Which is why I should have seen it coming in Egypt in 1993 when even the Egyptians thought that I was, well, Arab.

In the last two weeks, I was first part of a trio that included Ismail Mahomed of the National Arts Festival and Sticks Mdidimba of ARTSCAPE who were guests of a leading Polish theatre with the aim of building partnerships that would introduce African theatre makers to East European theatre audiences on a consistent basis.

This project would give concrete expression to UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions that promotes cultural diversity and trade in creative goods from a diversity of nations.  After Poland, I continued to Quebec for the Assembly of Francophone Parliamentarians, a gathering of politicians from more than 30 French-speaking countries.  Their conference was to focus on this UNESCO Convention, and there was much self-congratulation on the fifth anniversary of the Convention as Canada had been its key driver given its proximity to Big Brother, free-marketer apostle, the USA.

I’d experienced the usual Frankfurt surliness and checking and rechecking of my passport and visa on entry to Europe, but it was when leaving Europe for Canada, a land whose citizens hate being mistaken for Americans and being associated with their bad press, that I was most surprised by the racial profiling that went under the euphemism of “security check”.

“What were you doing in Poland?” asked the Air Canada steward as I was about to board the plane. 

I politely responded when I really wanted to say “I was learning to Pole dance.  What does that have to do with you?”

“You live in Cape Town, but you’ve just been in Poland and now you’re on your way to Canada”. 

“Er, yes, so?”

This was obviously a problem for the air steward.  (Who would have thought that air stewards would one day be at the coalface of “the war on terror”?)

“What’s your ID number?”

I spat it out.

“What are you going to do in Canada?”

And so it continued.  In a tone worthy of an apartheid security policeman.

It didn’t matter that I had a valid visa, and that all the basic security checks had been done by their Embassy in Pretoria.  It didn’t matter that I’d been invited by a semi- government agency, attached to the Quebec parliament.  Who I was as a person – my job, education, family, history – none of these mattered.  What mattered was that I looked a certain way, had a surname that didn’t match the racial profile, had travel documents from a country with a Home Affairs department that leaked passports, and so I constituted a potential security risk.  (If I wasn’t one then, she’d done enough to turn me into one!).

It’s not like I even particularly wanted to go to her country!  Why go to minus-13 degree temperatures, to yet another conference, and run the risk of not being able to leave because of weather threatening flights?  (The things we do for the arts!)

Quite clearly, it does not matter that Canada spearheaded the convention promoting cultural diversity.  It doesn’t matter that the wealthy countries of the north have signed the Convention as a bulwark against the USA .  The poorer nations of the south were just voting fodder at UNESCO to have the Convention approved in order to protect the audio-visual markets of the likes of Canada, France and Germany.

The Convention promotes the opening up of northern markets to the south and encourages international cultural collaboration and artists’ mobility.  But in a world where security – of the north – trumps everything, artists from the south should be aware that building markets in the north will come at the cost of being treated like third class world citizens.

The views expressed in this column are entirely the views of the author and are not necessarily those of any of the institutions – or their partners – with which he is associated.

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent.  He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector.  He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

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About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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