The compassionate imagination of Basem Al-Nabriss

«Poet and journalist, Basem Al-Nabriss, accumulated five years in prisons of Israel. When he returned home to Gaza, his journalism, critical with the Hamas regime, also lead to serious consequences, culminating with a bomb at his home. The city of Barcelona and Catalan PEN welcomed him in 2010 through the ICORN’s international network 'hosted writer' programme. In 2018, Basem has published a book of short-stories and life pictures titled The white shirt and other stories.


'The white shirt and other stories', by Basem Al-Nabriss.

In 'Melancholy', Basem narrates follows the gaze of a defeated man who feels even more depressed by the beauty of the young bodies he sees on the beach where he spends his nights. The next morning, whilst walking, he gets invited to play petanque, suddenly making him feel welcomed by his neighbourhood. But kindness reminds him of the fact that he is uprooted, sinking him even more into melancholy.


One after another, in the most honest way, those short stories of marginalized people create an extraordinary image of Barcelona, seen from the eyes of a refugee.


When Wisława Szymborska received the Peace Nobel Prize in 1996, the New York Times Magazine sent the American poet Edward Hirsch to Krakow to interview her. Hirsh was friends with another great poet from Krakow, Adam Zagajewski, and asked for him to come along for the interview. On their way, Zagajewski would explain the wonders of the neighbourhood around Szymborska’s house; telling stories of neighbours and parks where important artists had once walked too. Despite the country being exhausted after the communist era, and the fact that the beautiful Krakow had been decimated by the momentum, Zagajewski would see in its streets and in its centuries of history, everything that the city could have been instead. Was it just a wish? And yet, passionately wanting for something is the way for it to start to exist.


When the interview was published in the New York Times Magazine, Hirsh described Szymborska’s neighbourhood as 'proletarian' and 'nondescript'. Zagajewski exasperated: Hirsh didn’t grasp the charm of the parks or the stories of painters and artists who had walked the streets for centuries. But finally, exasperation gave way to understanding: there were two ways of seeing the reality. Zagajewski could see what the city might have been, had it not been swept away by the ugliness of the Nazi occupation and the communist regime. He knew how to fill that gap of reality with stories and tales of everything that could have been and was still possible. Zagajewski would call it 'compassionate imagination'.

Basem Al-Nabriss at the Palma Book Fair, with Miquel Àngel Llauger, poet and Vice-President of PEN Català in the Balearic Islands.

I remembered it because the way in which Basem Al-Nabriss look at Barcelona’s edges is exactly this: compassionate. In this case it is the exiled person who has pity on us and illuminates the city. When I first read The white shirt - knowing its author - I thought that all its characters were foreigners, exiled, refugees, uprooted; until I understood that it was just my own personal prejudice: nothing in the story says that the characters are all foreigners. On the contrary: they are described with such honesty that they could be any of us.


When I finally became aware, I reread the stories and I easily recognized my old neighbour from the time when I was living in Aragó Street, those two brothers who would swap

working at the kiosk of the corner, my brother at the wheel of a taxi, the albino girl who every day would go for a walk with a black Doberman in Letamendi square. And me myself, who took advantage of that one lazy morning to play petanque and feel the friendship gestures from the other players, who would welcome me in my Barcelona, making me feel completely country-less.


Country-less and being regarded with compassion by an exiled writer».


I read the above text at a panel of UNESCO's Creative Cities Network, organized by the cities of Krakow and Katowice, in June 2018. At the end of it, the mayor of Katowice announced that its city had become a member of the ICORN network, and would start receiving writers in exile the following year, like the rest of ICORN cities.

This post is in English:

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#AnNabriss #UNESCO #ICORN #Poland #Katowice #Barcelona #CatalanPEN #Palestine #writer #refugee #exile

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