News Release

Dante on the Move: Refugee’s share experiences through the lens of 14th century poet

Book Announcement

University of Birmingham

Front cover of Dante on the Move


Front cover of Dante on the Move

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Credit: Dr Jennifer Allsopp

International refugees and academic experts have contributed to a new book examining the resonance of Dante’s Divine Comedy with today’s migrants fleeing the troubles in their home countries.

Dante on the Move is launched in Rome today (Thursday 11th July) and has been produced as part of a research project Reading Dante with Refugees led by the University of Birmingham and Trinity College Rome. It features work by people from Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Ukraine, the USA and Venezuela.

Mohammed, a Kurdish refugee from Iraqi and contributor to the book survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean in which many people drowned. He said: “Reading Dante’s work gave me new language to tell my own terrible story of loss after surviving a shipwreck to get to safety in Europe. In the Divine Comedy Dante shows how terrified he was too of crossing borders, but he survived to tell the tale and so did I. In Dante, refugees have an ally and an inspiration.”

Professor Jennifer Allsopp, Birmingham Fellow and Visiting Professor at Trinity College Rome Campus, said: “From refugee camps to detention centres, Dante’s words about the pain of exile lead to immediate thematic parallels between the 14th-century canonical text and stories of today’s refugees.  The idea for Dante on the Move has been germinating for a long time but it feels especially poignant given the anti-refugee politics of the current right-wing government in Italy and on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.

“Dante talks with a timeless quality about many experiences faced by people forced to flee, being confronted with foreign food that is at once unfamiliar and distasteful; the indignity of being at the whim of your hosts; the turmoil of knowing the place you once loved is being corrupted and rendered unfamiliar; the anger and frustration of not knowing if you are moving forwards or back.

“This book is testament to the incredible talent of our contributors. Whether Trinity College exchange students or refugees, it shows them ‘on the move’, giving a glimpse of the range of paths which they are boldly taking in life as they stride forwards towards brighter futures.”

The anthology has been divided into three sections, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso to reflect the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In each part, contributors focus their inquiries on specific themes that emerge in these chapters of Dante’s work.

Inferno grapples with hellish voyages, beginning with Mohammed’s account of the shipwreck that he survived in the Mediterranean - juxtaposed with scenes of Dante crossing the river Styx and Ulysses’ last voyage. Inferno also contains reflections on the trickery and power of language. ‘You took the pen from my hand because you are afraid of my knowledge’ writes Melila, an Afghan poet. Meanwhile, Sara and Sijie reflect on the painful experience of trying to express themselves in a foreign tongue, drawing out Dante’s sensitivity to language with their own ‘stray words’.

In Purgatorio, Zahra explores the theme of fusing influences from Eastern and Western learning with her depiction of a Persian Purgatorio. Sanaz and Will reflect on the power of art to move us while Anna reimagines Dante’s realism through music. Alina considers how contested cultural legacies can cause harm with reference to Gogol.

In the final section, Paradiso, several contributors imagine meeting - in the style of Dante - people they admire in their own lives – for Sanaz, her late grandmother and, for Anna, the Ukrainian opera singer Solomiya Krushelnytska. Mihal stages an encounter with Simon Bolivar while Sabera imagines dialoguing with the buddhas in her native Bamiyan valley before they were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. The contributors also bring other muses into their work, including Cortez, Gandhi, Greta Thunberg, and Hafiz.

Sanaz Alafzada, a refugee student from Herat in Afghanistan and contributor to the anthology commented: “Contributing to Dante on the Move has been a profound experience that has enabled me to embrace my identity and journey, both as a student of global humanities and as a refugee seeking safety in a new world. Through engaging with Italy’s top poet, I have gained new perspectives, moving metaphorically from my own personal mental health Inferno to Paradiso. As I sat reading the Divine Comedy in the asylum accommodation centre in Rome, surrounded by violence and frankly terrified, I found myself in Dante’s words, something I never would have expected as an Afghan woman. I chose to reimagine Dante's encounter with his own ancestor Cacciaguida in Paradiso where he receives his prophecy of exile. I rewrote it as a meeting between myself and my late grandmother. I imagine her giving me advice and encouragement on my way as well as warning me, as Dante's ancestor did, about the pains of exile. Developing this text helped me to heal personal trauma while sharing it in the book allows me to emerge as an artist and human rights activist, marking the beginning of my true life's work.

“Working with fellow refugees and allies to explore what Dante means to us today was exceptionally enlightening. The solidarity within our group of co-authors fostered a sense of peace and purpose that goes against the all too present racist agenda of contemporary politics. Now, inspired by the works of Dante, I have a deep understanding of the true meaning of exile and success and I’m ready to move forwards. Dante heals.”


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