European Angst From Brussels, with Fears!

European Angst - debate with Slavoj Žižek
European Angst - debate with Slavoj Žižek | Photo (detail): Caroline Lessire

Over 40 selected students took part in the prestigious “European Angst” conference in Brussels. For Dana Nawzar Jaf from Iraqi Kurdistan a trip to Europe is anything but a matter of course. For him the conference was a new and special experience.

I do not know about you, but it happens to me a lot that my first encounters with new concepts, places, people and experiences are the best. To give few examples, by the time I was 20 years old, I had not travelled outside Iraqi Kurdistan region, but when I did, it was a 45-day exchange programme to the United States. Most of the times, these ‘big shifts’ come unexpectedly, with no preparations or prior work. The exchange programme, which took me on my first trip outside Iraq, for example, was a surprise. When I knew about the opportunity to apply for the programme, which is running and is called Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Programme (IYLEP), the time for applications had passed. Interestingly, I was one of the two students in the entire class that had not known about it. Being a competitive scheme, many students had chosen to apply in silence and keep it as secret as possible. So, when one night, while working on an essay at American University of Iraq Sulaimani’s old campus, a friend told me to apply to the programme, I answered with ‘dude, the deadline was two weeks ago.’ He tried to explain, but when I feel I am certain about an information, I tend to be very stubborn. Fortunately, turned out that we both were right. The US Department of State had another scheme under the same name and for the same programme but with a different deadline. However, the deadline was in 12 hours. So I had to write three long essays, fill the application form, and get to academic references in 12 hours. I did everything in that time limit. Surprisingly, no one in the entire class except me was chosen for the programme. I would not like to give it a moral labelling by saying it was karma against being greedy with letting friends know about opportunities, but it seemed if I had applied through the other scheme, I would not have been accepted. That also is the exact definition of destiny for me: we need to do what we should do, but what might happen is not our business; it is destiny.

Similarly, my encounters with Europe were very limited. I had been on a week business trip to Budapest in 2014, but that was pretty much it. However, I got to visit the capital of the European Union, discuss some existential problems threatening the existence of the idea of Europe as a political entity and talk major issues with some of its key thinkers at the first conference I got to attend in Europe. And when in my visualization of Europe, I tend to exclude UK. I have been a student in the UK since September 2016, and have attended conferences, but UK’s Brexit vote and the fact that as a person with Iraqi citizenship I have to get Schengen visa to enter all the other European countries despite having UK’s student residence permit, I cannot be see UK but as a different entity from Europe.

I downloaded Uber, and put my first order for a taxi to take me to Durham’s train station. I had to go to Newcastle to fly to Amsterdam and then Brussels to attend the European Angst programme. Uber taxi drivers tend to be more talkative and helpful than normal taxi drivers as I believe there is a feature which enables customers to rate them. The taxi driver started asking about my feelings about Durham and purpose of the trip. When I said I am going to fly to Brussels, he asked jokingly, are you going to get some chocolate or invoke article 50. We laughed together. When I told him that I am going there to attend a conference on racism, he said in a typical Durham accent, “I cannot understand how people can become racist in 2016.” That was exactly the main question of the conference, which by the end of the final day of it, Slavoj Žižek said there is not solution for it.

At the airport in Amsterdam, I had an interesting exchange with the passport officer, which was basically him asking questions and me laughing. When he asked me about the reasons of the trip, I forgot Turkish comedian Cem Yilmaz’s advice and instead of simply saying ‘tourism’ I said I am going to attend a conference on racism in Europe, to which the officer said ‘there is racism in Europe?’, and I answered with a short laughter. I am not sure if it was the right answer, but it was right given the time we did not have.

After a very short flight, shortest I had by that time, which involved a talk about retail business in Bangladesh with a young Bangladeshi businessman, I arrived in Brussels, the capital of the European Union. It was late night but the good guide provided by the organizers of the event helped me find my way to the hostel where we, the students, were staying. The few people I saw in the neighbourhood, which later I knew had been a target of a terrorist attack a year ago, were mostly Arab-looking young Belgians. When trying to find my way to the hostel, a delivery car driver came and offered help. He was speaking in French, which I do not speak, and I spoke in English, which he did not get. I guessed his being Arab from the looks and started talking Arabic. His Arabic was not very good but better than my French and his English. It was helpful enough for me understand that the hostel was alongside the river. 

I did not have so much sleep that night as I had to wake up early morning for the conference. I met some of the other student participants for first time at the breakfast time. I met, talked and laughed with Aleksandra from Polland, David from Portugal, Diana from Georgia, Ermin from Finland, Anna from Germany, Breno from Brazil, Lena from Austria, Judit from Hungary, Anabella from the UK, Muhammed from Pakistan, Daniel from the States, Velislava from Bulgaria, Pjotr from Holland, Pauline from France, Marketa from Czech Republik, and Else Christensen-Redzepovic, a lovely lady who was our main contact with the great organizers of the event. We then headed to the European Parliament’s building.  It was a modern building home for 751 members and staff. We were given a lecture and a tour on the parliament, its composition and functions. After the tour, we headed to the Goethe-Instiut in Brussels where I witnessed once again the bright minds my young friends possessed. This was admittedly the first time that I was attending an event whose participants were at its level. The students, girls and boys, were coming from a wide range of educational, social, cultural and political backgrounds. Most could speak two languages or more. They surprised me with their knowledge of Kurdistan. Everyone of them knew about Kurdistan, some knew more. We all had a very good level of harmony and interaction. In couples and in groups, we had many intellectually stimulating conversations. Seriousness aside, everyone was also in Brussels to enjoy as well.

The two-day conference was divided into four panels. In each panel, a group of 10 students from the 42 was on stage with the speakers. The opportunity was huge as it was first time for many of us to be on stage with such known European names such as Herta Müller, Slavoj Žižek, Didier Eribon, Sonya Seymour Mikich and others. I was lucky enough, for example, to have been allocated for the last panel which had Slavoj Žižek and Elif Shafak as speakers. I knew both and was good to be with them on stage discussing some urgent matters. Almost all students throughout the two days of the conference made significant contributions to the debates going on stage.

The panel I attended was the final one and was supposed to be about solutions, however, Žižek ended it by saying there might be no solution. Žižek is an interesting man, both when I met him backstage and later stage. He was modest, funny and eccentric in his behaviour. We had some funny exchanges on the stage.  Later, after the debate, he was surrounded by people, young and old, to get his autographs, take selfies with him, or argue with him. One man approached me and whispered into my ears, this is how philosophers were in the past, they were among the people.

Žižek was definitely the most interesting among the speakers, but he was not the only one with good insights. Elif Shafak made some very constructive comments on how to tackle populism in Europe. She simply believed that a humanist movement is needed with new perspectives on the global stage which faces populism and advocates the liberal values. This point was articulated in different ways by almost all the other speakers except Žižek who had his own way of doing things, and Łukasz Warzecha, Polish journalist who was on stage to argue against the liberal arguments labelling right-wing movements as populist, but he ended up being booed. His comments and the way he expressed them proved once again why bigotry is weak in logical and dialogue. However, it seemed like we needed in the conference a live example of xenophobia and racism. The guy was proudly saying that immigrants from ‘alien cultures’ were not equal to those who were from similar cultures. He went far to say the picture of the Kurdish toddler Aylan Kurdi was staged and exaggerated. It was one of the few moments at the conference were the audience interrupted the speakers, booed or raised voice. The moderator, Beppe Severgnini, a famous Italian journalist and winner the European Journalist of the Year, who was already having his own difficult time handling a ‘generational injustice’ argument with one of our friends on stage, did a good job in controlling the flow of the debate and giving less and less time for bigotry to be expressed in the name of free speech.

Invited to the conference or not, it remains a bitter reality that populist discourses maintained by xenophobic islamophobic racists in Europe are getting more ground in some European countries. The conference was an attempt to understand the causes, the different aspects of this rise and the solutions. 

One very important aspect of the event was how it was organized. This was a new ‘event’ by all standards. It was new for me as well. As I was told, it was not a norm for young people to be on stage when ‘big’ speakers talking about ‘big’ issues. The presence of young students on the stage was obviously a shift in the way conferences like that were being held in Europe. However, given the context of the conference, it was only logical for young people to be included in the debates and not only as curious minds with questions, but with people who had a perspective of their own. Although some of the speakers, including the Dutch sociologist Paul Scheffer and Žižek, opposed a generational dichotomy in which the young are more progressive and old are less, it remains a hope that the political participation of the young can be a factor in changing the dull picture.

The use of social media was also another interesting aspect of the conference. Behind the speakers on stage there was a big screen in which all tweets with #EuropeanAngst would appear. I did contribute to it with some tweets, but the most interesting were those that were making fun of a moment on the stage. Sometimes, if not most of the time, the audience would be busy checking the tweets rather than listening to the speakers. I would say it did not go out of control, although sometimes hear big laughter while the speaker said nothing funny. It turned out someone has posted something funny and it appeared on the screen. For example, while we were on stage, people began to laugh. I looked back at the screen, and there I saw a tweet with a picture saying how would one feel when he speaks and Žižek takes notes. They would have laughed more if they had seen Žižek’s notes. It was basically a very complicated sketch of lines and words, just like himself.

I took a small European tour after the conference in Brussels. After one night in Amsterdam, I went to Germany to visit a friend in Nuremberg. I had not planned it for being the city where the biggest Nazi rallies were held as well as the trials for the Nazi criminals. I had a tour of the Nazi Documentation Centre. One aspect of the museum-like centre was very interesting. It talked about how most people who were on ‘let’s wait and see’ helped Hitler became who he was. Therefore, we need to take racist populists in power very seriously. I hope Europe does not forget what racism, xenophobia and populism can bring to Europe and the world.