Istiqbal Istiqbal: Go out, face and welcome the Future

It was the last one within a series of four workshops in the context of “RE:Imagining Work” – as part of WorkUpsideDown, a project by Centrul Cultural Clujean which was in various ways the most challenging and demanding. All of them have been keeping us busy. The first three sessions had various interconnected themes: value and transformations of work for artists; people working in cultural contexts and creative entrepreneurship; the advantages and disadvantages including precarity and/or leisure from automation and digitalisation. These required thorough development and adaptations of playful, engaging methods and exercises developed for each specific session.

Nevertheless, the last one needed more, something different, something extra, something else. It asked us to significantly widen and transform our understanding of approaching possible futures. Obviously it was yet not diverse enough for reflecting, thinking and empathising about futures of the very basic, often dire work reality that dominates the everyday life of Roma communities of Pata-Rât in Cluj.

The Roma community of Pata-Rât has been exiled to live around the town dump in three waves of deportations from the city center. Nonresidents rarely visit, the levels of toxic waste in the air, water and soil exceed any safe or sane level. We were invited to talk with them about questions of informal work. This refers, we understand, to the day labourer work many undertake in the rubbish dump, working as the underpaid rubbish sorters for the city and beyond. Other parts of the community are involved in sex work, drugs and other areas of the semi-(il)legal end of informal work.

These are the people who see few reasons to reject the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” cry and we anticipated that we might be running headfirst into a wall even daring to talk futures with them.

Meanwhile, the workshop process was reduced, refined and stripped to its essentials. Talking futures needs some fantasy and this is in short supply when you live day to day, hand to mouth, on the outskirts of society. We reduced our process to three rounds of questions, interspersed with discussions and an offer to answer any questions the participants had of us. We feel that if we are asking them to bare themselves a little, it is only fair for us to bare ourselves a little too.

Step One was making clear from the outset that we were not here to “solve” anything. We were there to imagine and dream with them, in a playful, open-ended and hopefully enjoyable way. We started off with a work-related (but somehow work negating) question, asking what they would do if they did not have to work in order to keep themselves alive. We formulated this as a dream, in order to better escape the burdens of reality. What would you do if your time really was your own? A surprising and wonderful spectrum of responses came back, starting with the everyday pleasures of family time, travel and better housing, meaningful conversations, reading, music and being able to continue the work they already do in the community. We were reminded that women who are mothers do not dream any more. Then we had the more open ambitions, a budding airline pilot and a restaurant owner, a Pulitzer Prize aspirant and someone who wanted to take the local kids for a holiday at the Black Sea.

Moving on from dreams to wishes, we discussed their wishes for themselves, their community and the world. With a spectrum of personal wishes including health, wealth, spare time and a quiet home, it was clear that these wishes lived, to a large degree, in the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Moving to their wishes for the community, the same wishes arose again; it was clear that these wishes were not just for themselves but were desires that they wished for all. In the community, they also wanted to see respect, rights and responsibilities. Moreover they wishes for changes in community perception, they wished that their children did not experience the exclusion and resulting shame that they experienced in the wider community. Their children, unable to understand the fear that many in the wider community feel towards the Roma, felt ashamed for their heritage and themselves. The lively discussion betrayed no indication that these people had no idea what they wished for their communities and their futures. The conversation branched out into discussions of xenophilia replacing xenophobia and larger scale wishes for the world.

There is every reason to understand that the reason we anticipated that there would be no discussion about the future was because few had asked these questions and actively listened. How wrong we were.

We finalised the workshop with an almost simple but hopefully deep question. We broke up into pairs. Question: If you were suddenly leader of the world, what is the first thing you would do? After setting up the field of thought around dreams and wishes, the imagination of actually having power was the next step. What would our participants do as esteemed leader? The participants were not from a socio-economic stratum that has ever had much to do with wielding power. As a traditionally nomadic and non territorial folk, their power structures are flat and have more to do with familial organisation, flexible cooperation and power-with than any form of power-over. The reluctance of many in the community to receive a Covid-19 vaccination is part of this lived experience and perhaps best understood in this light. From even before Empress Maria Theresia’s attempts at re-educating Roma children in a 18th century as a form of what is known as the Stolen Generation in Australia, the Roma communities suffered pogroms and murders. It is estimated that 25% of the Roma population died in Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Forced sterilisations and other forms of genocide continued after the war. No wonder they distrust authority and power.

Given power, the imaginations of the group focused, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the eradication of racism and violence. This focus, surprisingly strong, reflects perhaps most deeply the experiences of the community. They did not want power-over, and they wanted not to be overpowered.

There is a word that has come to our attention, the name of a Bulgarian Roma organisation and journal from the early 20th century. The word has forms in Urdu and Arabic, Bengali and Persian. We cannot find any confirmation that it is an actual Romani word. Istiqbal means many things. Going out to meet and greet someone. Facing someone or something. And it means future. So perhaps the one message we can take away is Istiqbal; the future is something to face, something to go out to, to meet it and to greet it.

This work is part of Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA) a artbased research project from the Institute for Design Investigations at the University of Applied Arts Vienna und Time’s Up. It is supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) from Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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