Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
A Deeper Project?
I believe in the brotherhood of man, but I don’t believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn’t want brotherhood with me (Malcolm X 1963: n.pag.).
Farouq initially supplies the ethical engagement which has been lacking in the narrative; his passionate defence of the realisable possibilities of transnational interaction provides a pragmatic approach to Julius’s abstract aestheticism. According to Carool Kersten, both ‘cosmopolitanism and cultural hybridity’ are ‘useful heuristic tools’ for analysing how ‘contemporary Muslim intellectuals [... ] come to terms with globalization’ (2009: 92). Farouq’s cosmopolitan outlook is evident in his ‘two projects’: the practical aim of becoming a translator, and the ‘deeper project’ regarding ‘the difference thing’, which entertains the idealised belief ‘that people can live together, and I want to understand how that can happen. It happens here, on this small scale, in this shop, and I want to understand how it can happen on a bigger scale’ (113). Farouq’s ‘deeper project’ has echoes of Sandercock’s proposed development of a ‘ cosmopolis: cities in which there is acceptance of, connection with, and respect and space for “the stranger,” the possibility of working together on matters of common destiny and forging new hybrid cultures and urban projects and ways of living’ (2003: 127). In striving for a vision of cosmopolitan urbanism, Farouq displays the ways in which migrants may assume new allegiances and subjectivities to reflect their diverse cultural heritage. As Timothy C. Earle and George T. Cvetkovich point out, cosmopolitanism is ‘a useful strategy for managing cultural conflicts because it takes culture to be an open, future-oriented process’ (1995: 96). In confronting the challenges of cultural liminality and exclusionary politics, Farouq performs a progressive inclusionary discourse which accommodates alternative modes of cultural creativity to create a cosmopolitan vision of transnational association. Hallemeier perceives in Farouq’s multilingual skills, bolstered by his study for a Masters in translation, the ‘promising means of pursuing his deeper project of cosmopolitan community’ (2013: 245). By forging conversations ‘outside the purview of Anglophone liberal literary culture’, she claims their dialogue creates a ‘literary cosmopolitanism that bridges linguistically diverse audiences’ (2013: 245, 246). Farouq’s subsequent criticism of collective terms for cultural assimilation: ‘melting pot, salad bowl, multi- culturalism [... ] I reject all these terms, I believe foremost in difference’, therefore reflects a desire to interrogate and improve social structures beyond merely racial divisions (114).
Farouq’s ethical nature, however, is called into question during a political discussion in which he favours the radical philosophy and fundamentalist aggression of Malcolm X over the liberal goodwill of Martin
Luther King. He claims that while Malcolm X ‘recognized that difference contains its own value, and that the struggle must be to advance that value’, Martin Luther King’s calls for empathy, tolerance and integration are too passive: ‘[t]his is not an idea I can accept. There’s always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has the noble ideas; I disagree with this expectation’ (105). For Farouq, attack is sometimes the best line of defence in protecting marginalised perspectives. His argument regarding integration has its merits, identifying that the receiving society often determines the form integration takes. A more cosmopolitan approach would be for immigrants to determine the cultural attachment to which they feel allegiance, while attempting to involve themselves with contrasting cultures and ways of life, as difficult as that may be. Julius perceives in Farouq’s political rhetoric ‘a cancerous violence’ that can only be avoided by ‘having no causes’, and momentarily questions whether this solution was ‘not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?’, before ultimately retaining his original suspicion of those who ‘wished to rally people around a cause’, and determining that the ‘cause itself, whatever it was, hardly mattered. Partisanship was all’ (107, 28).
Farouq nonetheless struggles in maintaining his cultural difference in Brussels, attempting to avoid being subsumed by multicultural group aesthetics. Unlike Julius, he does not wish to live in the US, remaining fearful of the monolithic trappings of identity politics, racial persecution and the politics of assimilation. As Julius acknowledges:
‘ I, too, would not have wanted to visit the United States as a solitary North African Muslim with leftist beliefs’, briefly perceiving himself through Farouq’s eyes and recognising his own position as ‘the dark, unsmiling, solitary stranger’ (126, 106). Subsequently, he later reevaluates his cultural position as an ‘other’ in the racially-charged cityscape of Brussels, deciding to restrict his late-night walks. And yet, Julius’s conversation with an acquaintance, Dr Maillotte, questions the relevance and necessity of difference to the construction of transnational communities, suggesting that perhaps a form of homogeneity is not antithetical to cosmopolitan connection: ‘[w]hy would you want to move somewhere only to prove how different you are? And why would a society like that want to welcome you?’ (143). The narrative therefore struggles against Farouq’s idealised deeper project, resisting the notion that a non-exclusionary cosmopolitan vision can materialise from within systems of global inequality and cultural marginality.
Further, the encounter with Farouq introduces a marginalised Muslim discourse to the cultural flows of transnational assimilation. In coming to Europe, Farouq hoped to find a sense of belonging and a form of intellectual freedom but was soon disillusioned by what he perceived to be warning signs of political oppression and Islamophobia: ‘Europe only looks free. The dream was an apparition’ (122). That being said, not even Farouq’s initial disillusionment results in the emergence of a reactionary stance - arising from an opposition to Western globalisation and reflecting exclusionary positions and emancipatory rhetoric - that perspective emerges through his best friend, Khalil. While resistance to this underlying oppression manifests itself in Khalil as a form of radical antiAmerican endorsement, Farouq chooses to convert his disillusionment into a renewed faith for religious and socio-cultural tolerance, evident in his ‘deeper project’. Farouq thus incorporates his religious ideology into his ethnic identity. This repositioning of Islam in the narrative supports Karen Leonard’s argument that cosmopolitanism ‘features religious engagements and interactions that are more open to reconfigurations in new contexts’ (2009: 177). Rather than formulating an oppositional stance to the Western cultural discourses of exclusion and marginalisation, from which he himself has suffered in Belgium, Farouq’s religious beliefs point towards a cosmopolitan reformulation of Islamic ideology itself, via the positioning of Sharia as ‘the harmonious functioning of a society’ and Islam in general as a worldly reflection of ‘the way we live in the world, with day-to-day life’ (127).
Khalil, on the other hand, tends towards Appiah’s notion of ‘countercosmopolitans’, who value religious fundamentalism and universal truths over tolerance for cultural difference and pluralism (2006: 137). Through his counter-hegemonic discourse, Khalil emphasises to Julius and Farouq that transnational citizens often bring with themselves transnational politics. Julius’s detachment during the conversation is evident, maintaining his resistance to political dogma. During a discussion of Palestinian rights, however, he definitively identifies with his American citizenship over his Nigerian origins: ‘there’s also the perception that we share elements of our culture and government with Israel’ (118). Julius’s polarised and mercurial stance throughout the conversation creates a dichotomy between East and West that is antithetical to the requirements of cosmopolitan paradigms. The trio move onto a discussion of the events of 9/11, a cultural event which raised cosmo- political questions of inclusion across local, national and global scales.
Khalil reveals: ‘it was a terrible day, the twin towers. Terrible. What they did was very bad. But I understand why they did it’, leading Julius to immediately label Khalil ‘an extremist’ who fulfils the very role of ‘how Americans think Arabs think’ (120). Yet Julius recognises his own indignation to this extreme declaration to be in itself manufactured, the effect of playing a cultural role he fails to identify with: ‘I was pretending to an outrage greater than I actually felt [... ] it was a game, I was meant to be the outraged American’ (120). Unsurprisingly, following the events of 9/11, nationalistic discourses gained traction, while race became a primary articulation for practices of both solidarity and exclusion. Khalil’s dialogue enables the mobilisation of a symbolic repertoire which both defines his transnational status of difference and operates in opposition to (what he believes to be) the hegemonic fold ofAmerica. Even Farouq, the more progressive of the pair, is angry at the cultural inequalities which he admits have affected his personal life. For his previous MA thesis, on Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, he was accused of plagiarism due to ‘world events in which I had played no role. My thesis committee had met on September 20, 2001, and to them, with everything happening in the headlines, here was this Moroccan writing about difference [... ] That was the year I lost all my illusions about Europe’
Although Donna Rifkind argues that Cole, through Julius, ‘transplants the European flaneur tradition to the post-colonial world’, Open City clearly moves beyond postcolonial paradigms to anticipate both the banal aesthetics and actually existing realities of the cosmopolitan condition (2014: n.pag.). The merits of such an aesthetic cosmopolitanism, however, are constantly under scrutiny. Following his conversations with Farouq, Julius decides to send him a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, a cultural text espousing ethical ideals which Julius does not himself repeat in practice. Appiah’s text underscores the necessity of obligations to others in a contemporary environment, demonstrated by an everyday participation with other individuals’ practices and an engaged dialogue concerning cultural beliefs. His cosmopolitan ethics therefore promote the idiosyncrasies of local cultural differences over any homogenisation of the global community (inherent in traditional cosmopolitan paradigms) in confronting ethno-political realities. That being said, Robbins criticises conceptions of cosmopolitanism which rest upon a romanticised and ‘aesthetic spectatorship rather than political engagement’ - a superficial posturing of which Julius himself is constantly guilty (1999: 17). A cultural text, for Julius, implies a form of conversation in a way social engagement does not. In his mind, the literary text is integral to the envisioning of cosmopolitan discourse and circumvents the need for actual engagement. Julius and Farouq thus embody two competing ideologies of cosmopolitanism; on the one hand, a liberal aesthetic ideology that fails to necessitate interaction, and on the other, the challenge of cultural engagement. While posting the book to Farouq, Julius is once again forced into conversation, this time by an African postal worker who tries to engage him on issues of racial identity and suffering, initiating a cosmopolitan discourse centred on the concerns integral to Appiah’s text. Ironically, Julius merely reminds himself to avoid frequenting that post office again, demonstrating an indifference to the ideals of aesthetic cosmopolitanism that the text advocates.
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