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Interview: Alison Phipps academic, linguist, artist

15 January 2021

‘I’ve now got quite a bit of language. You’d be amazed where you end up when you show people that degree of respect’

I’ve been Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Glasgow for 25 years, and designated UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts since 2017. The designation is given by UNESCO, but the funding comes through the University of Glasgow. It’s a privilege to have two world-class sub-Saharan artists working with me.

I respond to requests, give a keynote talk, perform a piece, write for the media, do a broadcast, iron out problems in HR, or address the latest Home Office iniquity. Pre-pandemic, I often travelled to the global South.

Some days, I’m working with glue and glitter; other days, I can be addressing the European Parliament. Some days, I’m involved in spiritual ceremonies with elders and chiefs; others, I am working to ensure asylum status and support for colleagues.

The Migration Inequality and Development Hub (MIDEQ) is a £20-million project funded by the Global Challenge Research Fund and led by Professor Heaven Crawley at Coventry University. I am a co-director, with my two professors in Ghana and Haiti. I lead a strand of work on arts and languages, looking at where around 85 per cent of the world’s migration actually occurs, in the global South.

CUSP is a new project looking at cultures of sustainable peace and Sustainable Development Goals 5 and 16, relating to empowering women and girls, and promoting peace, justice, and strong institutions. It considers how women are involved in cultural work in civic organisations and in contested public spaces across countries such as Zimbabwe, Gaza, Morocco, Mexico, and Ghana, as well as Scotland.

Eighty per cent of migrants are from the global South and are received in the global South; so we can learn from countries like Ghana, which has received refugees over many years, and similarly from Zimbabwe. We also learn from Maori-indigenous hospitality, and how refugees offer hospitality to other refugees in places like Palestine. These projects were set up to enable refugees and migrants and indigenous peoples who have been displaced to educate us in the global North, and to give us resources to support their work, leadership, and knowledge.

It’s a decolonising work, honouring research and knowledge other than Western-centric academic work, and entering into sensory, visual, embodied knowledge and language, which are local repositories and repertoires. It’s vital, but impermeable to Anglo-centric and often monolingual Western scholarship and privileged, secularised knowledge.

For example, our partners in Gaza, who have a predominantly refugee background, have set up a project with us to teach Arabic from under siege, with graduates of the Islamic University of Gaza, who then teach students around the world from a Palestinian perspective.

Then there’s the work of the artists-in-residence in my team: the poet Tawona Sithole, and the musician and filmmaker Dr Gameli Tordzro. It mixes genres, and allows for a melding of forms and approaches from the global South through the diaspora.

I’m on record as being highly critical of the UK’s official policies and increasingly its willingness to break the law with regard to its own official and unofficial attitudes. There’s incalculable suffering caused by a system which is necropolitical — “the politics of death” — based on death camps and colonialism, and lethal in its consequences, be it through deportation, destitution, or detention. The common trope of “Britain has a proud history of welcome” is just a fig leaf covering historical sins and present-day cruelty. The consequences of this cruelty visit me every day. They’ve become much worse during the pandemic.

That said, refugee community organisations and lawyers working to uphold the rule of law affirm to me that there’s always a goodness at the heart of humanity — planted more deeply than all that is wrong.

The Minerva Medal is granted by the Royal Philosophical Society, acknowledging the work done by a scholar in arts and humanities. It’s a humbling honour for me to have received it.

I’m a poet and dramaturg, a performer and knitter. I played bassoon, and now sma’ pipes, and am learning Mbira, which fits in my hand luggage. And I sometimes play the calabash. I’m learning Gaelic, Tigrinya, and Te Reo Maori.

I learned French and German in the entente cordiale of the 1980s and loved them. I was really interested in people who work in the hospitality industry; so I learned Portuguese and a little Italian as a way of understanding how people try to be good guests when they’re on holiday. With refugees, I needed Arabic, and learned Tigrinya as I was fostering my Eritrean daughter. In the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi, I’ve committed to speaking Maori when I’m in New Zealand. I’ve now got quite a bit of language that you need to meet, greet, and eat with people. You’d be amazed where you end up when you show people that degree of respect.

You should always encounter people in humble love. When you’ve been brought up in the Anglophone-dominant world, it’s very unusual to speak others’ languages. I don’t insist that everyone is transparent to me: I try to be quiet, wait, listen. I speak some languages, though a professor, with a level of incompetence that makes people feel at ease with themselves.

Neither the arts nor languages can be learned without many mistakes. You have to take risks to use them well, with subtlety. These fields of knowledge humble us and help us live with our frailty and vulnerability.

Arts and languages are not adequately taught. They’re often marginalised in the curriculum. As extra-curricular activities, they can flourish, but only if they’re properly funded and supported.

My grandparents took in refugees from Eastern Europe; and I believe that peace-making needs arts and translators. I was inspired most of all by my foster daughter, Rima.

I’m a member of the Iona Community. It began as a peace and reconciliation movement outside church structures — the rebuilding of the common life, through the hard common task of rebuilding Iona Abbey. Its rule of life is part of my commitment as a member. It’s not that I keep the Rule: the Rule keeps me. The membership is a fearsome thing, in full song and full cry for justice and for joy. It resources me in my work more than anything else.

I grew up in Norton, Sheffield, alongside the rundown estates of Jordanthorpe and Batemoor during the Thatcher years. The suicide rates in my secondary school were very high. Languages were a solace, as was the Church.

Home is now in Glasgow: a home open for over 15 years now to asylum-seekers, refugees waiting for Home Office decisions, and those passing through from Iona.

My first experience of God was as I was being knitted in my mother’s womb — and in the blanket my mother made to wrap me.

I still knit. I find prayer grows as I make, and write, and play and perform, and move. But I have become more and more of a contemplative over the years. I find God’s presence in incarnational experiences, a greatness of spirit in dance, in other encounters with refugees and indigenous people who have suffered a great deal.

As I’ve become more contemplative, and to address the trauma of refugees and my daughter and its effects on me, I’ve had to take care of myself. Knitting was my way of doing something beautiful with my hands, instead of shredding them in self-harm.

I’d like to go to Eritrea with Rima and our grandchildren, in safety, and fluent in Tigrinya. Rima came to us when she was 16, and we knew at once our relationship was different from other refugees. She was taken into detention, and we had to run a very public legal campaign to get her back. Now she has her own children: our grandchildren. It’s the most incredible blessing.

I love the sound of my granddaughter shouting “Abay!”, which means “grandmother”, in Tigrinya.

The indefatigable spirit of the Eritrean and Palestinian people, in particular, gives me hope for the future.

I pray most for justice, mercy, and water for the regions of drought and fire.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d want it to be with the late great Ian Fraser of the Iona Community. He died aged 100 — a man whose whole life was prayer and mischief. He’d twinkle, and we would all be held well.


Professor Phipps was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.haorchestra.comTawona Sitholé: poetry performance

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