I came from Egypt on foot

I came from Egypt on foot

I came from Egypt on foot

By Dr Anna-Louise Milne

The work of the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression took a fresh turn this autumn with a series of new translation laboratories running throughout the months of October and November with refugees and migrants living in camps in and round Paris. Led by the University of London Institute in Paris, the material created in these translations workshops was subsequently brought to London and became the focus of a number of events for the festival entitled Down and out in Paris and London, which included an exhibition workshop using writings from the translation labs. These posts were written as diary entries by Dr Anna-Louise Milne during her visits to the camps to facilitate the translation laboratories. 

Diary entry: 08.10.16

The desert, the sea

The word ‘workshop’ keeps spinning and flashing in his cascade of words

Invalides. The word was suddenly cumbersome, heavy with its historical meaning which the habit of French pronunciation and daily passage through its turnstiles usually kept at bay: “Invalides,” I said in English, trying to keep my voice down though the difficulty of getting over this key nugget of information was prompting me to shout into the phone. “Invalides, line 13, Invalides. It’s a metro stop, after the river – Ah, Invalides.” You stressed the final syllable, “desse,” and the word again shed all its military bearing. “You see it? Okay great, two o’clock. Call me if you can’t find it when you get there.”


Of the fifteen or so people who had joined the first makeshift workshop, eight crossed town to the unlikely address of the University of London Institute in Paris, perched on the edge of the great empty Esplanade in front of Napoleon’s gold-domed hospital for wounded soldiers of the Empire, now a museum, in an area of museums, and palaces and ministries. All had crossed the desert, the sea, found their way past the administrative and security obstacles that make the continent of Europe an increasingly distressing place, to Paris, but the chances of them getting to the right place in the 7th arrondissement seemed slim to me as I stood under its broad, bright sky, looking out for the conspicuous appearance of young black men. But those were my own doubts speaking, my own doubts about what the right place for this sort of encounter would be. Your focus on even the slightest opportunity to gain some ground in this long battle to have a life would see you through the disorientation of a teeming city and its ambient hostility to young black men. Like reaching for a branch as the current is pulling you out and down. The University of London in Paris: for the first time, perhaps, in a number of years the possibility of that combination struck me, all that might hang on the idea of the University of London for a Sudanese student fleeing Darfour, but here in Paris, and not there, beyond the ever more impenetrable barrier of Calais, its fences and jungles, and the sea again beyond those.

Diary entry: 10.10.16

Here I am, there I go

Meeting with refugees and migrants passing through Paris, or more aptly, endeavouring to pass through city of Paris en route to the UK, the team began in the North East of the city inviting participants to join a project that will evolve ways of “translating” their stories and experiences by drawing on cultural expressions that many in Europe will recognise and cherish. Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Jules Vallès, the Rosetta Stone… What happens when “texts” such as these become a starting point for working in a multilingual group of people whose life and educational horizons have been destroyed by war?


The work of these sessions is to find ways of hearing the stories of their participants from within a European tradition, while also thinking about how that tradition is reshaped and enriched through this process. So far it has given rise to pieces written or transcribed in a multiplicity of languages – making use of whatever means we can muster to allow their creators’ stories to find new resonance, beyond both the burning intensity of their immediate space of expression and the complete extinction of that intensity in the categories of administrative or news-media speak. Every story is different, but they are stories that cannot be heard unless there is a horizon for their reception. Our shared horizon, as the cliffs of Dover have become an increasingly impossible frontier, has been to look to what literature can offer.

Diary entry: 02.11.16

While “the jungle” burns…


Through these last days of October, before the days have shortened abruptly and autumn has bristled and rustled with its final flourish, we have watched fires blaze across the dunes near Calais, and seen bulldozers clear tents from the streets of Paris. I’ve heard people express incomprehension, disgust, disorientation, distress, and determination, still. Many registers of response in the face of an operation carried out with unfaltering singleness of intention. They form a chorus of indignation and alarm for the work we have been doing since the beginning of October with a small group of asylum seekers, some of whom have spent time in Calais, and all of whom know the vulnerability of life in the streets and camps of Paris. Our work has been quiet and protracted at times, with considerable linguistic obstacles to mutual understanding and also the difficulties of travel and keeping up with a group project when you are subjected to the vagaries of a state that leaves you without a roof over your head at 24-hrs notice, or places you in a centre miles from any public services with almost no public transport access. And it has been rich and vital too, with moments of shared animation when we’ve discovered connections between our respective languages that have sent us off on word riffs, and moments of stunned silence when one person summons the means to say some of the situations through which he has survived to find himself struggling, for weeks and months, to get a foothold in France, while remaining still deeply attached to his intention to get as far as England, and so contending too with the closing down of that horizon.

Images relating to the London exhibition are available to view here. The slideshow below contains some of the material created during The Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression translation laboratories with asylum seekers living in France, currently unable to complete their intended journey to the UK.


Created with flickr slideshow.