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The role of books is crucial in global understanding says Professor Ash Amin CBE, professor of Geography at Cambridge University and the Foreign Secretary of the British Academy in London. He talks about their importance in a wide-ranging interview with Nasher to mark the call for submissions for this year’s £25,000 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

Professor Amin, who is picture above, centre, with his fellow judges (l to r: Rana Mitter, Madeleine Bunting, Dame Henrietta Moore and Professor Patrick Wright) specialises in the ‘geographies of modern living’ and in the interview stresses his belief in the importance of cultural understanding and the role of books to aid that understanding.

You can read the interview below:

How important is cultural understanding today?

It is crucial, I would say. We are seeing the demise of liberal cosmopolitanism all over the world, which presumed that contact and dialogue between cultures is a good thing, sometimes also wishing for transcultural forms of identity and affiliation. Our times are times of cultural distance and suspicion, as peoples identify more and more with singular and ethno-nationalist cultural moorings. The result is the entrenchment of ‘us versus them’ thinking, which can’t be good for peace and harmony.

What is the role of books in this understanding? 

The role of books is central, as they open up the imagination and emotions ­– through stories, yearnings, arguments and evidence in compelling ways, taking us into new territory, showing us unfamiliar connections and pathways. Books allow us to lead another life in the imagination, and sometimes deeply influence our sense of self and the other. They are openings, and increasingly carry considerable responsibility in enabling cultural understanding, as politics and lived culture close in around narrow understandings of community, nation and culture. The British Academy is immensely proud to be championing the books that shine a light on global cultural understanding through the Al-Rodhan Prize.

Do you think there is a clash between ‘nation state’ thinking and the borderless, global world of the tech companies?

The world of tech companies is duplicitous. It is cosmopolitan to the extent of wanting, and benefiting a single market and cultural base, but at the same time companies work nations in competitive and selective ways. They are culturally open but operationally selective, with the latter often drawing on a ‘home’ nation bias. This said, they are not locked into nation-state thinking, in so far as they wish to operate at the global and international basis, and will often come out against ethno-nationalism, as we are seeing in the US and in Britain under ‘Brexit’.

How do you view some of the nationalist rhetoric coming out of certain countries – and how do books influence it or challenge it?

With anxiety and terror. While I can see some virtues in having strong and confident senses of nationhood, I find xenophobic and nostalgic nationalism dangerous – both to the stranger and to nation itself, for it is a form of refutation of the wonders of cultural mixity, connection and exchange. It narrows down everyday pluralism in a society, and within our own cultural makeup, to monochromatic definitions that we end up defending with vigour and anger, usually to the detriment of curiosity and the open-ended future.

What were some of the themes that you found in the entries last year?

We found a broad range of themes but ultimately the 2018 shortlist of six books all addressed questions of identity and culture in one form or another. Three of the titles explored the Muslim world – The Islamic Enlightenment, The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason by Christopher de Bellaigue; Al-Britannia: A Journey Through Muslim Britain by James Fergusson and I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, by the journalist Souad Mekhennet. Also on the shortlist was Black Tudors in which Miranda Kaufmann uncovers the long-forgotten records of Africans who lived in Tudor England and Tears of Rangi by Dame Anne Salmond, an exploration of the early encounters between Maori and Europeans.

The 2018 winner was Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, by Bulgarian-born writer Kapka Kassabova who not only explores the borderzone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece but also the borderlines that exist between cultures.

What are the main concerns of thinkers today in the field of global cultural understanding?

I would say that a prime focus is to show that people and cultures around the world have a lot in common, that dialogue and exchange are worth pursuing in the name of understanding and tolerance, that there is a long history of mixity between cultures, that most cultures are plural, and that there exist powerful transnational legacies that bind us.  In short, the attempt is to show that there is nothing natural about ethno-nationalism and xenophobia.

In the light of events in the UK, are you expecting more titles on Europe this year?

This is hard to judge, but I would very much like to see more titles, to match the journalistic fervour we have witnessed in the last two years. The Prize champions books that are well researched and demonstrate original thinking and it would be very good to see the non-fiction titles which are certain to emerge on the subject of the whats and the whereabouts of Europe. More generally though, we’re looking forward to hearing from publishers from every corner of the globe, where the books are available in the English language.

Can you name a book that had a profound influence on you?

It would have to be Dante’s Inferno. I studied Italian at university, and had to struggle with Dante’s trilogy, and eventually came to love it, especially the Inferno. In the most graphic ways it tells us about the damnations of not living life with due regard, though what exactly counts as ‘due regard’ is not firmly fixed. I like this ambiguity, for it leads us away from zealotry.

What book would you recommend to today’s global leaders?

Any of the many books that caution against nationalist hauteur and the unthinking mind. Last year’s winner of the Al-Rodhan Prize is a strong contender. In Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kasabova takes us through a fabulous and melancholic Balkan journey, picking up on many of the themes above that we have touched.

The prize was founded in 2013 by the Saudi-born international relations scholar, neuroscientist and futurologist Dr Nayef Al-Rodhan.  The closing date for entries for the prize is 1 April 2019.  To be eligible for entry, books must be works of non-fiction published in English between 1 March 2018 and 31 March 2019. The jury will be looking for books that are rigorous and evidence-based, that demonstrate original research and are likely to significantly advance public understanding and debate. Authors may be of any nationality, based anywhere in the world and working in any language provided that the nominated work is available in the English language.