Tearing down walls

Opinion - Books Monday, 26 February 2018

Ash Amin, chair of the judges of the British Academy's Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, writes about the significance of the prize

On the night of 13 August, 1961, East German soldiers hastily erected a 3.6-mile-long wall in the centre of Berlin, replete with guard towers, turrets, barbed wire, mines and attack dogs either side. Built to divide the USSR in the East and the capitalist, US-led, democratic West, the wall stood for 28 years, two months and 27 days, separating family members and friends for a generation, and serving as an ugly physical manifestation of human hostility and distrust.

Fast forward to 2018, and the Berlin Wall has been down longer than it was up, but the world feels as dangerous and isolationist as at any time in recent memory. Even the leaders of the so-called free world are becoming the spokespeople for nationalist impulses, fired up by an angry populace feeling disempowered by the status quo. Elsewhere, the pressures of war, mass migration, economic hardship and structural uncertainty are causing people to reject globalism, to embrace tribalism, to fear "the other".

Amid this global rise in prejudice and parochialism, it is vital to embrace the historical fact that cultures have always mixed. Through trade, migration and the exchange of words and ideas, we have always relied on each other, always borrowed and improved on each other's precepts. After all, there are common human needs - for example, the necessities of food, clothing, education, a basic income, medicine, and companionship - that we cannot satisfy effectively without cooperation. Put simply, we are all in it together. Unless everybody wins, none of us will win. In 2018, no culture can exist ex nihilo.

That's why prizes such as the British Academy's Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding - which recognises non-fiction books that illuminate the interconnections of culture and identity - are so important. They celebrate and publicise the writing of authors such as Timothy Garton Ash, Carol Hillenbrand, Neil MacGregor and Jonathan Jansen, who most ably and eloquently make the case for a global world.

This year, the Al-Rodhan prize is open for submissions from the public, in a move the Academy hopes will yield the most diverse crop of books yet - such is the urgent need for transcultural understanding and collaboration.

There are those who believe it is human nature to build walls, to hunker down and keep the world out; but so too it is our nature to peak over them, to climb over them, to tear them down. Why not nourish this instinct and replace the politics of hate and suspicion with the politics of understanding and curiosity?

Pursuing transcultural work is not just a wonderful, moral, fun, intellectual pastime. It is a prerequisite to wellbeing and security in our risk-laden globalised world. Walls and isolationism are not the way forward.

The 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding is open for submissions until Wednesday 28 February. Nominations are invited from publishers, Fellows of the British Academy and, for the first time this year, by open call. Details here.

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