Although he's written both film and television scripts, he is best known as celebrated as a novelist. Moris Farhi now makes his home in London, and in 2001 he was awarded an M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to literature.
Death by Deracination, or Writing in Tongues
Many years ago, whilst collecting material, in Ethiopia, for a novel, I met an Italian octogenarian in the Eritrean port of Assab. Tio, "Uncle", as everybody addressed him, referred to himself as an insabbiati. The term means "fish caught in the sand". It was coined for those Italians who, having participated in the invasion of Ethiopia, in 1936, chose to stay on after Italy's defeat at the end of World War II.
Over the years, many of these expatriates, increasingly pining for home, became disillusioned and bitter. Not so Tio. Though he barely eked out a living - at the time of our meeting, he was working as a receptionist in Assab's only tourist hotel - he relished his dislocation. For he had been captivated by the beauty of Ethiopia's diverse peoples, particularly of their women.
Tio and I spent many days and nights drinking and being entranced by these lovely women.
During sober moments, he showed me his considerable stamp collection and recounted how he had managed to procure some very rare specimens. (Months later, in London, a philatelist informed me that Tio's collection of Ethiopian stamps was incontestably unique and worth a sizeable fortune.)
Most of the time, Tio and I talked about our tribe, that of "the other" - of exiles, refugees, immigrants, displaced people, outsiders, outcasts, strangers, wanderers - a subject that had preoccupied us both much of our lives.
Tio kept offering the image of "fish caught in the sand" as a trope for us. An ill-starred species condemned to shuttle between life and death or, if lucky, to live both life and death at the same time; creatures that were incompatible with their native matrix - or never had the chance to become so - yet strove to survive, and sometimes even succeeded to thrive, in unknown and, invariably, hostile environments.
Since then I have been guided by the image of the insabbiati. It helped me fight off the depression of exile - in my case, self-imposed, but even so, exile - the harsh realities of displacement, and the inevitable feelings of exclusion and worthlessness. In particular, it supported me through many years when, painfully and fruitlessly, I pursued a literary career by defying the truth that writers - indeed, all practitioners of the seven arts - become, irrespective of the quality of their work, members of the displaced world of "the other".
Some years later, whilst searching through folkloric material for another novel, I made a discovery which caused me to reinterpret the symbolism of the insabbiati. I came upon myths of strange fish that regularly surfaced at a country's seashores and proved to be either monsters that devoured its people or benevolent creatures that fed multitudes by replenishing themselves continuously.
(I have a suspicion that the Bible writers who mention monstrous "leviathans" may have seen - or heard of - the existence of such fish. And probably, at the other end of the spectrum, so did the Evangelist, Mark, who, in his Synoptic Gospel, tells us of the miracle of "loaves and fishes".
And you will remember Melville's white whale, Moby Dick - a metaphor for man's pride, greed and aggression - born from the collective unconscious of the Nantucket whalers.
These fish are real even if they don't exist. For nothing is more real than imagination.
For the purposes of this talk, I'll put aside the monstrous leviathans. They are with us all the time. Often, they perch on our shoulders and monitor our breathing. We clash with them incessantly. They are leaders and governments in military, religious and politicians' attires that have neither morality nor wisdom and who, like Captain Ahab, obsessively pursue power and devastation. They are not insabbiati, though often they pretend to be so, but marauders.
The real insabbiati, as I see them, are always benevolent. In fact, in the main, they are the very victims of those immoral and brainless regimes. They are people who find themselves banished to distant shores simply for wanting to enjoy their inalienable rights as human beings. In Jefferson's eloquent words, they are the guardians of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". That is true even of those, like me, who, on the pretext that new horizons have a romantic appeal, ride their cowardice and run away.
Alas, many of these insabbiati barely survive. They are invariably unwanted by the people upon whose shores they have landed. This happens despite the fact that bringing fresh and different visions and, not least, an insatiable appetite for work - mostly menial and low-paid - they always raise the wealth and welfare of their hosts. But no matter what they do and how well they do it they can never escape their hosts' prejudices. The labels they accrue - "aliens", "strangers", "foreigners", "outsiders", to name a few - serve as perfect ammunition for the xenophobes in military, religious and politicians' attires, and for unscrupulous, populist media. These xenophobes enjoy an open field. They know that lies are not only easier to tell but also sound more credible than the truth. Thus the insabbiati find themselves accused of anything and everything. Some are charged with being benefit seekers who seek to usurp the country's wealth - "economic migrants" as a British minister called them. Others are indicted as sexual perverts hell-bent on sullying the nation's pure blood. Yet others are branded as aliens from satanic worlds who, unless exterminated, will exterminate us.
And the people, having less and less access to the truth because the establishment and the influence-greedy media increasingly control all communications, eventually swallow these lies.
And the insabbiati suffer. They endure deprivation in their unrewarding jobs. They are crushed by unimaginable psychological stress for being unacceptable. Multitudes wither from heart-break and loss of identity. Many, reduced to feelings of soullessness, either impatiently wait to die or take their own lives. Yet others, seeing that so many of their kind have been extinguished, turn to murder. Only a few manage to escape their lightless life by feeding themselves off themselves.
That is the tragedy. And it is as old as time itself.
But tragedies wane as generations come and go. Eventually, other, better, realities emerge.
The children of the insabbiati grow up determined to honour their brave parents. By investing their myriad gifts in the host country, they accelerate its development. Instead of sullying the blood of their "hosts" by mixing their blood with it, they strengthen and revitalize the nation. Thus, the fish that replenishes itself becomes a reality. Their begetters can note from their unquiet graves that their offspring are feeding multitudes as they were born to do.
That, as I see it, is the perennial story of the "the other".
But my brief is to be more particular and explore the situation of the exiled and banished writers.
As I said earlier, all writers - all artists - are fated to be insabbiati simply because they see - or endeavour to see - the world differently. (It is for us and, indeed, for future generations, to judge whether their vision has worth.)
Exiled writers "caught in the sand" have an even harsher fate.
But we can help them.
The first condition we should always remember is that writers are wordsmiths. Language is their only tool. Unlike other artists - painters or composers who may be able to create their art anywhere - displaced writers face an unenviable choice. They must either continue writing in their native language in a foreign land or learn to write in a new and totally unfamiliar language, one steeped in its own traditions.
Either option, particularly if the displaced writers are of a certain age, is a Sisyphean task. Those over 35 will have arrived at the host country cooked in the splendour of their native literature and in the fine nuances of their mother tongues. Moreover, because of their mature age, displaced writers would find it virtually impossible to master a discipline as complex as a language foreign to them in every sense. (I managed to surmount that difficulty only because I came to England when I was still a youngster. But imagine a Sudanese writer who has never heard English spoken nor ever encountered the Latin alphabet, trying to adapt himself to living and writing in London or Oslo or Berlin.)
Consequently, in most cases, displaced writers will be forced to continue writing in their own mother tongue. You might say that, in a manner of speaking, is precisely what a painter or composer does, so why not the writer?
The answer is simple: language is what philosophers would call "hyle", a quintessence - and a living quintessence at that. Though in its basic confection, it remains the same, a language evolves day by day. It constantly nurtures itself either through the perpetual flow of its people's innate poetry and vernacular or through influences from other languages. Sometimes a language even incorporates foreign words. Consequently, when writers are banished from the land where their language continues to evolve, they find themselves more and more alienated from that language. Soon they start losing the fresh nuances of their mother tongue and fail to comprehend the etymology, even the logic, of the new words. Thereafter it's a fall into the void. They lose their mastery of their mother tongue. That loss erodes their confidence. Thence, aware that what they write no longer carries the pedigree of their former work, they either cease to write or, bravely and desperately, try to learn the host language. Since in the latter case, they more often than not fail, they disintegrate. They become invisible even to themselves.
A note here, if I may. This process of death from deracination is precisely the objective of tyrannical regimes. There were times, not so long ago, that a majority of these regimes, would have put those writers, artists and intellectuals they considered dangerous to the continuation of their rule, into jails and throw away the keys. (Some governments still do that.) But when world-wide campaigns on behalf of these imprisoned writers from such organizations as International PEN, Amnesty etc. created adverse publicity for those regimes, exile became these regimes' preferred policy. If exile did not guarantee death by deracination, it certainly guaranteed, in most instances, the marginalization of those writers' voices. Because even if those writers managed to write in exile, their works, with very few exceptions, never reached their readership. Thus those who had not withered from the loss of their roots became unheard voices, severed from their destiny and finally silenced.
This brings me to the great importance of organizations such as ICORN. In the first instance, by offering refuge to those writers who face death sentences - or death threats - or long prison terms, it ensures their safety. As the Jewish saying goes: "saving a life is like saving the world". This aspect alone makes ICORN's existence imperative.
Yet, the problem I referred to above, the and marginalization of exiled writers, are, in some ways, more complex and more difficult to resolve.
For a start, we need to provide them with publishing facilities in their own languages.
Secondly, a milieu needs to be created where the exiled writers can not only imbibe the changes in their language, but also meet a readership - both fellow-expatriates and members of the host country - who, in turn, can disseminate their work.
Thirdly, efforts must be made to enthuse the writers to learn the language of the host country and to familiarize themselves with their culture. I believe this is of the highest importance. Cultures need intercourse with other cultures in order to fulfil their potential. An isolated culture would amount to a literary form of inbreeding and, therefore, deprived of new blood, would be in danger of losing its health and strength.
(An example, if I may: 10 years ago when I went to Poland to do some research for my novel, Children of the Rainbow, I heard many Polish writer-friends bemoan the fact that, having lost almost all its very sizeable Jewish population to the Holocaust - at the time there were no more than some 5000 Jews left in the country - Poland was in the throes of a cultural crisis. One disastrous result of this absence of "the other" was that they could no longer produce writers of the calibre of Bruno Schultz and Bashevis Singer - writers who expanded the horizons of Polish literature by injecting it with the particularities of their own tradition. Consequently, some of the new generation of writers had started to study Yiddish literature. Indeed, they had even established, in Krakow - a city once with a huge Jewish population - a Yiddish theatre where the cast was entirely Polish.)
In terms of exiled writers, this intercourse can only come about by encouraging them to speak and write in tongues. And this intercourse would not only benefit the exiled but also the indigenous writers. If further proof be required just look at the contribution Asian, African, Caribbean and other immigrant writers have contributed to British literature.
I should like to end with Martin Luther King's immortal words. ‘I have a dream!'
And the dream is Towers of Babel.
You all know the story of the Tower of Babel. Being built by the peoples of the world, it was meant to reach the Heavens. But God, deciding that, mankind, being evil, was building the tower not to glorify him, but to glorify themselves, stopped the building by confusing the people's tongues. Thus making sure that peoples would not be able to understand one another, He dispersed them to different parts of the Earth.
I have never been enamoured by the God of the Bible. A true God should have only one wish for us: that we engage in the pursuit of life.
And that is my dream: To create Towers of Babel in every country. And within these towers to speak our many tongues so that we intertwine with each other perfectly and ascend the Heavens.
When that time comes, all the cities of refuge in the world will become obsolete.