“Hosting is power and by having power you become visible”
The Palestinian architect and artist Sandi Hilal on the power of hosting, true integration, and the role of the living room in Arabic culture.
Why is this, your living room, a good place to talk about your project and the exhibition Public Luxury?
Sandi Hilal: “The living room project first began when I moved to Sweden from Palestine, where I was born. When I was 18 years old I left Palestine to study architecture in Italy, where I then spent more than a decade and continued to be referred to as an “extracomunitari”, meaning someone outside of the community.”
“I remember a very interesting moment in which I was sitting in a bus with an old Italian lady in Rome. Having written my PhD in Italian I had arrived at a point where I spoke the language so well that you would need to speak with me for a long time to understand that I was an extracomunitari. So , sitting with this lady in a bus, we would either be going for a long ride or we would be crossing a bridge on foot, and she asked me: “Would you cross the bridge with me?” I said “of course!”. At the middle of the bridge I asked her why she needed me to cross the bridge with her. I wanted to know what she was afraid of. She explained that she was afraid of the extracomunitari. I looked at her, smiled, and said that you are crossing the bridge with an extracomunitari. Her immediate response was that I didn’t look like “one of them”. So there certainly is a “them” and “us” – a complete lack of identification.”
“When I came to Sweden I brought all of this with me, and I feared that I would become an extracomunitari again. We speak about integration as if it is something that would arrive sooner or later but, from my own experience, integration in the way it is understood is almost a race toward something, a perfection that few can ever attain. I decided not to run that race and to explore other ways of understanding and practicing integration and this was one of the main questions posed by the Living Room project. In other words: is there others way to understand integration beyond the impossible task of imitating someone else’s culture and behaviour?”
So your ambition for the project has been to challenge the perception of the refugee?
“If you think about the lives of refugees you can both see them as victims or as heroes. What refugees have gone through in their own lives is impossible to imagine for many of us. Through their journey they have decided to proceed with their own lives so they have a certain political agency that we have a tendency not to see, or to even exclude. We can have the notion of them as being victims alone. So, again, I came to Sweden with the intention of finding ways for myself and maybe others with me to be an active member of society and find ways to contribute. I don’t want to come here and only receive from Sweden but I want to insist on a reciprocal contribution. So is there a way for a newcomer like me to be a political subject and active member of society in Sweden without waiting for a few generations to pass?”
“Even though I arrived in Sweden in a very privileged position, I identify with so many things that refugees are experiencing. What does it mean to have a new life in a new place? What does it mean to be a foreigner and still insist on your right to be an active participant in society? What does it mean to have access to the Swedish public, and to have a feeling of belonging amid highly loaded codes?”
Do you mean that Sweden is more loaded with codes than other countries?
“Certainly. Coming to Sweden as a foreigner you are constantly reminded that you should behave in the right manner in the public space, and if you are to be accepted in Sweden then you need to learn the Swedish codes and follow certain norms and regulations. It is very clearly described as if there is only one way of life that we all must subscribe to, and that there is a way of using the public space that we all need to follow. What worries me with this attitude is that people are not able to contribute to their full potential. If we want to be productive and look at the crisis of refugees not only as a crisis but as a potential then we should ask the question: How =can we encourage newly arrived to contribute to Sweden as soon as they arrive without waiting many years, sometimes for generations?”
“As a newcomer to and a guest in Sweden, I feel that very strongly. It’s one of the first things that you notice: the need to conform. It’s so clear that you don’t need anyone to tell you about it. Turning private spaces, such as the living room, into social and political arenas, is often a response to a limitation of political agency in the public realm. This then turning back to the private space can be quite problematic if these spaces remain invisible and closed. The Living Room project is an attempt to understand how we might give visibility to many invisible collectivities. If they are not able to open themselves to others then you have segregation.”
Do you mean that refugees aren’t really encouraged to take a more active part in Swedish society?
“This does not apply to refugees only, but to all who are not finding ways and means to belong to the public regardless of their citizenship. The only way that we are encouraged to belong to the public is by being invited to behave all like one. I tried for fifteen years of my life in Italy but I was never able to become completely Italian. The equation is basically that your are a guest until you will be cured from your temporary disease of being a guest into becoming a full citizen and learn how to behave as a good one.”
“In this context hospitality becomes crucial as a conceptual framework. The moment I decide to host you I have the power of the “host”; I decide if we sit on the ground, if we sit at the table, what we eat and so on. Hosting is power, and by having power you become visible. Becoming visible is a way to demand political subjectivity. The project is investigating the possibility of being a guest and a host at the same moment. What I’ve enjoyed the most in these first years in Sweden is to have the complete fresh look at society, through the lens of foreigner. I knew that this would end as soon as I began to learn more, so in that sense there is something super nice about being a guest and of being taken by the hands and shown other cultures. But if we accept becoming permanent guests then we are passively accepting the fact that will not to be full members of our own habitat.”
Why do you talk about the right to host rather than the ability to host?
“For me there is a big difference between ability and right. I speak about right because I see this as a very political action. I don’t see this as simply having a coffee. Maybe it is a very political way of seeing how the world works. I can transform this living room into a space through which I can influence a city, such as Stockholm. This is me demanding my rights to be seen and to be visible as a host.”
I came to your home with a set of questions about the theme of the exhibition and public space. But isn’t your project more about culture than politics?
“The project has both cultural and political dimensions. It is also dealing with architecture and space very clearly. The living room is exactly this hybrid between the private and the public that has the potentiality to subvert the role of guest and host and to give different political and social meanings to the act of hospitality. In that sense, hosting is not an abstract moral act, but defined by certain architectural spaces that are at the very core of this project.”
“The project is also bringing back and redefining the concept of the Madafeh from the Aarab world. As Al-Madafeh is in Arabic the living room, the room dedicated to hospitality. In the Arab world, the living room is a space that is constantly maintained and always ready with fruit, nuts and black coffee for the unexpected guest, who may knock on the door anytime during the day. Even in refugee camps, where space is extremely scarce, the living room remains the most important part of the house. In the absence of the state, the living room represents an available social and political space regardless of the general precarious conditions. Paradoxically, it may be the room that is used the least and yet is the most symbolic, curated and cared for area of the house. What inspires me with the concept of the Madafeh in the Arab world is that it still functions as the space for self-representation. Turning private spaces, such as the living room, into social and political arenas, is often a response to limited political agency in the public realm. This action of claiming my own private living room in the museum can be seen almost as an attempt to expropriate the public. I want to be a part of this public, but in my own way.”