Hospitality is the Foundation of Interculturalism

Rustom Bharucha, former IRC-Fellow and Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, joined the conference Open City – Towards an Intercultural Social Center that was held from 13 until 15 October 2016 in Zagreb, Croatia. On this occasion, Rustom Bharucha was interviewed by Ivan Hromatko, journalist at Kulturpunkt, a non-profit web portal that is part of Kurziv – Platform for Matters of Culture, Media and Society, a non-profit organization working towards the development of a critical and analytical discourse in Croatia.

In this interview, Bharucha elaborates on the ideas and challenges of interculturalism and how those could be made productive not only for the idea of a cultural center in Zagreb but also for the challenges arising with the current migration into Europe. We publish parts of the interview here on Textures – the full-length interview with Ivan Hromatko can be read on the Kulturpunkt website.

You are known for your critique of interculturalism as performance practice. Have you been “othered” yourself because of it?

Well, the critique began, as you know, with my readings of some of the most prominent Euro-American productions in the field – for example, productions like Peter Brook’s The Ik and The Mahabharata. Instead of engaging with the substance of my critique – relating to diverse forms of Orientalism and the ways in which universals are used to camouflage Eurocentric forms of hegemonic power – I got the impression that I was critiqued because I dared to question the humanist credentials of an iconic figure like Brook. This kind of awe of an iconic figure is not particularly productive, to my mind, for critical thinking. After my critique of Brook’s production of The Mahabharata circulated, I felt that I was being marked as Brook’s Other. I really resisted this kind of “othering” of myself in the academic world. Today I am proud that I did not fall into the obvious trap that many younger scholars would by continuing to polemicize a certain point of view. I realized this was a big trap because publishers and some academics wanted me to hold on to that position which they all wanted to hear but didn’t have the guts to articulate themselves. I was very clear that I was not going to enter that “game”.
Apart from being “othered” at an academic level, there are, of course, more virulent forms of “othering”. In today’s increasingly xenophobic and racist world, you can be “othered” for reasons that have to do with your religion or resemblance to a specific community. In the second chapter of my book on Terror and Performance, I deal with the phenomenon of Islamophobia through diverse forms of “passing as a Muslim”. Even as I am not a Muslim, I pass as a Muslim in the Western world, and this can get me into difficult situations.

How are you being “othered” in that sense?

It could be something as simple as the way I cut or shave my beard which makes me “look” like a Muslim/terrorist. In this scenario, one has no other option but to circumvent the possibilities of misrecognition. Everyday life becomes a kind of performance. When you are positioned in front of an immigration officer, for instance, a certain kind of performance unfolds and one has no other option but to participate in it.  But then again, the Other is a huge term in postcolonial theory. I feel it would be wonderful if we didn’t have to imprison people (and ourselves) within this narrative of the Other. There would be more fluidity in the way people perceive themselves and others and the communities around them. Sadly, this does not materialize as the fear and hatred of the Other intensifies.
The Other can also be commodified. This is one of the complications of the neoliberal economy. Stigma can become a source of fascination and it can lead to new marketing possibilities around new narratives of the marginalized. So, we have to be wary of the multiple ways in which the Other is constructed. I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be “othered”. No one should allow themselves to be “othered”. Your difference should be recognized – yes. But recognition of difference should not lead to “othering”, but hopefully, towards greater understanding and respect.

This brings us to a point that connects your experience as an othered traveler with one of the current urgent subjects – the European migrant crisis and its implications for interculturalism.

Yes. That’s a very big question because migrants are explicitly “othered”. They are severely and savagely “othered” and divested of their humanity. In Agamben’s terms, you could say that they are reduced to “bare life”. They are identified as “victims” or “marauders” or “encroachers” or “infiltrators”. Their “illegality” is perceived in juridical terms but with no respect for the norms of citizenship and, basically, no recognition of rights. They are not, strictly speaking, perceived as “human”. In the process of being “othered”, they have been denied their humanity and that is a deeply degrading way of treating people in a state of distress.

How would you go about dealing with this on the practical level? Can simple intercultural practices that you’ve mentioned, like hospitality, be a “solution”?

Yes. Hospitality is one of the missing links. That is precisely what is absent in the mindsets of right-wing politicians like the former Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, who took on that eerie, inhumane, magisterial position of denying the right of entry to boat-people and refugees. Basically, by saying “we will decide who comes to stay in our country”, politicians like Howard almost flaunt their denial of any humanitarian recognition of people suffering in distress. It is a profoundly anti-intercultural position. Significantly, it has been countered by different readings of embracing the pain of others which one finds in Aboriginal/Indigenous readings of hospitality. These readings show us not just how to deal with the stranger but how to live our own lives in a broader holistic context of land, ecology and the universe. Indigenous world views affirm the need to reach out and embrace whomever is in need and how that is part of one’s larger enrichment. Indeed, this embrace is not just a matter of choice or desire; it is one’s duty as a human being.

From the perspective of Aboriginals, who are also being “othered” within their own country, it is our duty to be hospitable?

Yes, it’s our duty, it’s not just a choice. We have a lot to learn from indigenous communities worldwide. As Gayatri Spivak would put it, we have to “learn to learn” and also, I daresay, to unlearn what is preventing us from being intercultural.

Returning to intercultural performances, were there any such examples of learning from indigenous cultures?

Not really. However, Peter Brook’s The Ik, which was a hit production on the Euro-American festival circuit in the 1970s, is an example of how indigenous cultures can be distorted in intercultural productions. This production was staged in a rather chic non-verbal representation of the Ik tribe in Northeastern Uganda who had been violently displaced from their habitat and reduced to a state of misery and violence. The actors playing the Ik babbled a nonsense language while the anthropologist character (based on Colin Turnbull, who has written a problematic study of the Ik) spoke in English or French. In the program note of the first production, it is said that “as far as anyone knows, the Ik still exist”. This was pointed out by the drama critic Kenneth Tynan. So, on the one hand, Brook and his actors assumed the right to represent the Ik, but they hadn’t done the basic work to find out about their present living conditions. This was one instance of the kind of bombastic universalism to be found in intercultural practice masquerading and disguising Eurocentricity in diverse forms. That was an obvious problem. I was also troubled by the very non-reflexive methods of decontextualizing cultures; taking elements in cultures out of their context, transporting them and using them in different ways. This often resulted in forms of exoticization.

What do you mean by exoticization?

Playing into the spectacle of non-Western cultures, highlighting their color and pageantry, without dealing with their socio-economic and political contexts. Exoticization plays into cultural tourism of different kinds. You land up “selling” difference. It could be argued that none of these features of intercultural performance practice has much to do with today’s emergent understanding of interculturalism as a political principle involving issues around social inclusion. But I think there are some linkages which would need to be worked out on a case to case basis. I think all the things I was reacting against at a performative level in the early stages of intercultural performance practice have possibilities of shaping intercultural policy today. If one is dealing with social inclusion, for example, how is this to be achieved? This is a big task. So, one way would be through rights of citizenship and not just constitutional rights but also rights as they get played out in the public sphere in everyday activities, access to social and cultural institutions, the right to participate in public discussion, the right to dissent. One of the tasks, I see, for interculturalism is how it can reach out to the widest section of the population as a policy with ‘real’ manifestations in everyday life. Not just to people who are living, let’s say, in Zagreb, but also in suburban and rural areas as well.

So there is an additional layer of questions related to being inclusive and intercultural outside of the urban areas?

I think that many theorists of multiculturalism have indicated that, basically, multiculturalism “works” in the cities. It doesn’t really resonate outside the metropolis in a socially inclusive manner. Take London, which is a thriving and throbbing global city of multicultural diversity. Taking the underground or walking around public spaces like Waterloo Station, you can sense that multiculturalism has worked in the mingling of diverse individuals and communities sharing the same space and amenities. But move out of London to Bradford, Oldham or Nottingham or any of the smaller cities and suburbs, you will not find the same kind of multicultural sociality. I think policy makers have to be mindful about the fact that if policies do not have a wide outreach, this can generate considerable resentment among sections of the population that do not have access to the benefits of interculturalism or multiculturalism, either perceived or real.