From 9 to 11 March 2017, the Catholic University (Universita Cattolica dell Sacro Cuore) of Milan held a special three-day conference on the interaction between Arab and European and cultures titled "The Arabs and Europe: Fusion of Cultures."
During the conference's third annual edition, Egyptian lecturer on Arabic studies and a founder of the conference Dr. Wael Farouk said that the initiative aims to promote intercultural dialogue and highlight shared world heritage. Farouk especially focused on the Arab contribution to European culture and vice versa.
Farouk has been working for three years not only as an academic lecturer, scholar of intercultural studies, and public speaker on topics of interfaith and cultural dialogue, but also as a cultural activist.
He has played an essential role in promoting cultural understanding and exchange after the souring of relations between Egypt and Italy in 2016 over the killing of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo early that year.
Farouk, who is a perfect model of inter-cultural diplomacy, has taken it upon himself to open a channel of dialogue that transcends political disagreement and racial conflicts.
With the support of an extremely prestigious academic institution like the Catholic University, Farouk managed to create with the conference a unique representation of Arabic culture in Milan and have it last for three consecutive rounds.
Those who are familiar with the current shifts in Western cultural politics, with the incredible rise of right wing conservative politics, will know that Farouk has achieved a miracle, one that is bound to survive due to the huge success it has brought year after year.
Even those who have no clue about current Western cultural politics can still recognise the scope of the achievement made with the conference just by reflecting on the design of the programme, the diversity of activities, the prominent Arab contributors, and its profound concept of digging deep into a history of cultural fusion and interaction.
The conference is an intense dose of Arabic literature; a sort of a compact course covering all literary fields related to intercultural understanding.
Khairy Doma of the Arabic language and literatures department at Cairo University presented a paper on the earliest translation of 'Robinson Crusoe.'
Doma, winner of the award for the best book in criticism at the Cairo International Book Fair, delivered a new perspective on translation, arguing that comparison between the original and the translated version is not the only thing that matters, but rather tracking the operations of cultural appropriation.
It is this appropriation that matters because "there is no origin," as the brilliant poetess and philosopher Safaa Fathy stated so clearly in her session on "The Multitudes of the Self," where Samuel Shimon (Banipal & Kika literary magazine/UK) and Elias Farkouh (Azminah Publishing House/Jordan) also contributed with personal testimonies.
I could not stop thinking how the continuous reference to an "origin" repeatedly reflects an assumed hierarchy of knowledge and the concept of "pure cultures" that later transform by encountering other societies.
Fathy is completely correct in claiming that no culture is pure, that each culture is a hybrid, and the examples of this are ubiquitous.
After attending each session of the conference, I asked myself, why we can we not have such vivid presentations and discussions in Egypt? Why has it become common to have conferences that are boring, without audience, too academic and void of spirit?
The conference in Milan was anything but stagnant; it was full of debates every day.
Iconic figures of literary studies in the Arab world Salah Fadl and Mohamed Berrada contributed to the opening session and followed every single event of the conference.
Egyptian poets Ahmad Yamani, Safaa Fathy and Emad Fouad gave two readings to a full-house audience, something that would rarely happen anywhere in the world.
Every scholarly session was a mini-conference on its own.
The sessions covered the images of the Arab in the media, inter-cultural relations, translation of literary works and the literature of travel, to name but a few.
The conference – which included a book exhibition, a concert, a film screening and a photography exhibition – was a live event with all the necessary potential to grow beyond the university into the public sphere of cultural activities in Milan.
I believe that with this concept and vision, the Catholic University can contribute greatly to the representation of cultural diversity in the city of Milan.
In a city of over 3,000 immigrants – mostly from North Africa – it would be a shame not to have such cultural celebrations at least twice every year.
Before the conference ended, something incredibly miraculous happened; the president of Italy mentioned Dr. Wael Farouk in his speech, lauding Farouk’s call for support of the right of children from immigrant parents to obtain Italian nationality.
I felt a rare kind of pride in seeing an Egyptian mentioned in such a presidential speech after just three years of work. Farouk is a hard worker, a dreamer, a pioneer of special calibre.
It is exactly this type of talented and charismatic person who can change the world and influence the harsh politics of today.
I wonder if Farouk could have the same impact in his own homeland. Sadly, I think that Egyptian society is becoming more and more averse to seeing new cultural leaders, and restricts arts, literature, knowledge and creative production to an elitist sphere.
The gathering of novelists, poets, critics and scholars in Milan was nothing less than a powerful demonstration of literary and artistic excellence, mutuality and solidarity.
Transcending stereotypes, labels and post-colonial cultural structures, the conference opened a path for exploring our shared identities. It explored scholarly works, stepped into the magic of poetry ("The Anthology of the Egyptian prose poetry" by Emad Fouad) and ended with the transcendent universe of music and song.
"The Days of Arabic Language and Cultures" is more than meets the eye; a unique recipe to understand our complex identities in a world of growing oppression, racism and fundamentalism: a place where ends meet.