Dante in Motion: Sharing Refugee Experiences
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Dante in Motion: Sharing Refugee Experiences

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Credits: Dr Jennifer Allsopp

International refugees and academic experts have contributed to a new book examining the resonance of Dante’s thought. Divine Comedy with today’s migrants fleeing unrest in their home countries.

Dante in motion is launched in Rome today (Thursday 11th (July) and was produced as part of a research project Reading Dante with Refugees Led by the University of Birmingham and Trinity College Rome, it features work by people from Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Ukraine, the United States and Venezuela.

Mohammed, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq who contributed to the book, survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean in which many people drowned. He said: “Reading Dante’s work gave me a new language to tell my own terrible story of loss after surviving a shipwreck to reach the safety of Europe. Divine Comedy Dante shows how terrified he was of crossing borders, but he lived to tell his story, and so do I. In Dante, refugees have an ally and an inspiration.

Professor Jennifer Allsopp, Birmingham Scholar and Visiting Professor at Trinity College Rome Campus, said: “From refugee camps to detention centres, Dante’s words on the pain of exile draw immediate thematic parallels between the 14th-century canonical text and the stories of today’s refugees. Dante in motion This message has been brewing for a long time, but it seems particularly poignant given the anti-refugee policies of Italy’s current right-wing government and on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.

“Dante speaks with a timeless quality of the many experiences of people forced to flee, confronted with foreign food that is both unfamiliar and unpleasant; the indignity of being at the mercy of one’s hosts; the turmoil of knowing that the place one once loved has been corrupted and made unfamiliar; the anger and frustration of not knowing whether one is moving forward or backward.

“This book is a testament to the incredible talent of our contributors. Whether they are exchange students at Trinity College or refugees, it shows them ‘on the move’, providing a glimpse into the diversity of paths they boldly take in life as they move towards a brighter future.”

The anthology has been divided into three sections, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise to reflect the three parts of Dante’s work. Divine ComedyIn each part, the contributors focus their research on specific themes that emerge in those chapters of Dante’s work.

Inferno addresses hellish journeys, beginning with Muhammad’s account of surviving a shipwreck in the Mediterranean, juxtaposed with scenes of Dante crossing the River Styx and Odysseus’ final voyage. Inferno also contains reflections on the cunning and power of language. “You have taken the pen from my hand because you are afraid of my knowledge,” writes Melila, an Afghan poet. Meanwhile, Sara and Sijie reflect on the painful experience of attempting to express themselves in a foreign language, drawing out Dante’s sensitivity to language with their own “wandering words.”

In Purgatorio, Zahra explores the theme of merging the influences of Eastern and Western learning with her depiction of a Persian Purgatorio. Sanaz and Will reflect on the power of art to move us while Anna reimagines Dante’s realism through music. Alina examines how contested cultural legacies can cause harm with reference to Gogol.

In the final section, Paradiso, several contributors imagine encountering, in the manner of Dante, people they admire in their own lives—for Sanaz, her late grandmother, and for Anna, the Ukrainian opera singer Solomiya Krushelnytska. Mihal stages an encounter with Simon Bolivar, while Sabera imagines conversing with the Buddhas of her native Bamiyan Valley before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Contributors also draw on other muses in their work, including Cortez, Gandhi, Greta Thunberg, and Hafiz.

Sanaz Alafzada, a refugee student from Herat, Afghanistan and contributor to the anthology, commented: “Contributing to Dante in motion was a profound experience that allowed me to come to terms with my identity and journey, both as a student of global humanities and as a refugee seeking safety in a new world. By engaging with Italy’s greatest poet, I gained new perspectives, metaphorically moving from my own mental health hell to Heaven. As I sat reading the Divine Comedy In the asylum seekers’ reception centre in Rome, surrounded by violence and frankly terrified, I found myself in Dante’s words, something I would never have expected as an Afghan woman. I chose to reimagine Dante’s encounter with his own ancestor Cacciaguida in Paradise where he receives his prophecy of exile. I rewrote it as an encounter between myself and my late grandmother. I imagine her giving me advice and encouragement on my path, while warning me, as Dante’s ancestor did, of the pains of exile. Developing this text helped me heal a personal trauma, while sharing it in the book allows me to emerge as an artist and human rights activist, marking the beginning of my true work.

“Working with other refugees and allies to explore what Dante means to us today has been particularly illuminating. The solidarity within our group of co-authors has fostered a sense of peace and purpose that counters the all-too-present racist agenda of contemporary politics. Today, inspired by Dante’s works, I have a deep understanding of the true meaning of exile and success and am ready to move forward. Dante heals.”

ENDS


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