Conviviality – reclaim the history and practice

March 20, 2024
By Magdalena Wernefeldt

English speakers might think of an animated dinner, historians of medieval Spain and social theorists of the relation between people and technology. Some of us are left wondering – convivi… what? Literally meaning “living together”, our latest Learning & Exchange webinar embarked on exploring the richness of the word conviviality, its history, and what characterises a convivial life. “This is our history”, said rabbi Rebecca Lillian, “and we should all reclaim it – and we should reclaim the food and music too!”

A World of Neighbours is guided by a vision of conviviality. It is a key word that encapsulates the idea of mutual transformative relationships, leading to social cohesion and in the end peace. It also intrinsically conveys an expectation on the religious community.

“The idea of the session is to engage with this word and to invest it with our meaning and our practice and our wishes, said Aude Sathoud, moderating the conversation”, in her introduction.

Seeking conviviality

Invited to share their perspectives and experiences were Rebecca Lillian, rabbi in the Shir Hatzafon synagogue, Denmark, Rouddy Kimpioka the founder of RAD Music international on Lesbos, Amjid Khazir, founder and director of Mediacultured CIC, UK, all three migration practitioners within A World of Neighbours. The panel was also especially honoured to be joined by Tony Addy, Program Advisor Interdiac, International Academy for Diaconia and Social Action, who for more than ten years has been involved in the process called Seeking conviviality and who has written extensively on the matter.

Tony Addy started by giving a brief overview of the use of the word, first mentioning the period of Spanish history from the Muslim Umayyad conquest of Spain in the early eighth century until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. This period in time was named la convivencia by the philologist Américo Castro, because of the terms of coexistence between Jews, Muslims and Christians at this point in history.


Sharing a meal while sharing ideas

The second example was taken from Paris in the 1800’s were people met to have free unconstrained sharing of ideas, while eating and drinking together.
“In this ‘discussion culture’ it was possible to bring up any idea. Nothing was ruled out of court, and it could lead to the evolution of shared ideas”, said Tony Addy.

Tony Addys own first encounter with the word was through the work of Ivan Illich, and his book “Tools of conviviality”, where he develops his ideas on the relation between people, and people and the environment, and people and technology.
“He was very critical of the way technology and economy dehumanise people, and dehumanise productive relationships”, said Addy.

conviviality offers a kind of a vision as an alternative to the present way of organising things. But it is not a blueprint.

There has recently been a boom in writing about conviviality, said Tony Addy, and the writer that has influenced him the most is a black british writer, Paul Gilroy, who defines conviviality as ‘the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life’.

critique, vision and practice

According to Tony Addy there are three important aspects of conviviality, those are critique, vision and practice.
“It offers a critique of structures that obstruct convivial life. In fact, the structures often negate conviviality. It offers a kind of a vision as an alternative to the present way of organising things. But it is not a blueprint and it is not an utopia. And thirdly, it informs our practice, because it starts with everyday life and relationships, not with professional work, not with intervention in everyday life. So, convivial life together is everyday practice, it recognises that conviviality can’t be planned and it recognises that conflict is an integral part of convivial life together.”

Portrait of a man.
Tony Addy.
Portrait of woman.
Rabbi Rebecca Lillian.

Rabbi Rebecca Lillian grew up in the USA. On both sides her family members are refugees from eastern Europe and Russia. Her first degree was in multicultural communications, fascinated as she was by the question of how to create an intentional multicultural society, meaning that from the time people are children they learn how to live peacefully together.
– I didn’t know the theories of conviviality, but I had this notion of living together in my genetic material, she said.

Rouddy Kimpioka was forced to leave Congo in 2016 and eventually arrived in Lesbos. Living in Moria, Rouddy said he was missing ‘conviviality’.
“I didn’t know about this word and conviviality was not allowed. Refugees are refugees”, said Rouddy.

We must live together – but how?

After some time, Rouddy Kimpioka left the camp and started RAD Music International, an organisation that provides cultural and intercultural support, education and social events.
“It was already conviviality, to start bringing people together. We are trying to live together, people from different backgrounds and communities. We must live together. But how to handle the conflicts, how to resolve conflicts?” said Rouddy, anticipating the conversation of this unavoidable aspect of conviviality.

Portrait of a man.
Rouddy Kimpioka.
Portrait of a man.
Amjid Khazir.

Amjid Khazir was born and raised in northeastern England to Pakistani parents. He started Mediacultured, a social enterprise, out of a need to promote social cohesion and tackle prejudism, xenophobia, hate crimes and racism.
“Conviviality for me is bringing diverse groups together and taking away the differences, celebrating differences, be they theological or social, by providing an alternative narrative. One of the most powerful aspects of conviviality and taking away ‘the otherness’ of different communities for me, comes through storytelling. Films can be an incredible educational tool, telling us we are not that different from each other”, he said.

La convivencia – the golden age

Rebecca Lillan later became a historian, with a specialty in Eastern European history. Commenting on the period la convivencia, Rebecca said, it was the first time after the expulsion of Jews from Israel by the Romans in the year 70 that Jews were not only given basic rights but also the right to education and to own businesses.
“It is called the Golden age of Spanish Jews and that was thanks to the muslims who were ruling.”

it was that you could go into a coffee shop and find your average Muslim man, and your average Jewish man playing chess together.

The interaction between people of different religions during la convivencia is known to have been prevalent in poetry, music, philosophy and the practice of medicine. Even the languages were influenced by one another and a Judeo-Arabic developed. Conviviality also showed in daily life situations, said Rebecca, showing a painting of chess players.
“It was that you could go into a coffee shop and find your average Muslim man, and your average Jewish man playing chess together. They were not just tolerating one another, they were playing chess together and having conversations.”

Rebecca Lillian continued by urging everyone to reclaim history:

“And for those of you who don’t know. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the Jews were invited to Poland and Jews and Christians lived in Poland in peace for a very long time, before they didn’t. So I think that if we look at the entire history of Europe that we as different religious groups or ethnic groups, did live together in peace. This is our history and we should all reclaim it – and we should reclaim the food and music too!”

Stories that need to be told

“Absolutely, Rebecca! Speaking to the truth of the comradery and the common humanity of the Jewish and Muslim community that lived together in Spain. These are the stories that need to be told, these are the experiences that need to be shared. And ultimately, as much as we might be living in an overtly populist time in human history, I am one of hope. By telling our stories, fighting against the system, and interpersonally talking about conviviality, we can hopefully make the next generation’s challenges less daunting. In sha Allah”, said Amjid Khazir.

maybe we should also look together for the ‘horizon of possibilities’

In the closing remark Tony Addy said stories are important as they are connected to our understanding of humans as relational.

the ecological view on personhood

“We are becoming who we are through our relations with other people, with the environment in which we live. And we are also shaped by history. And all this has come out in this conversation. I call this the ecological view of personhood. I was reminded of a very important idea, that when I meet another person, the space between me at that person, I tend to fill it out of my story/previous experience, or I fill it up will my professional concepts, or I fill it up with my professional interests. I don’t allow the liminality of that space, to really influence my relationship with that person. I think I have so much data about this person that I try to fill up the space with data that comes from my biography. My story.”

“It is a very important idea for us to try to experience liminal space, where we don’t fill up the meaning with concepts, ideas and prejudices. Sharing stories is very important, but not just to hear the story of anther person, but that I might change as well. And the third point is that, if we are in a group together and we share our stories, maybe we should also look together for the ‘horizon of possibilities’, and see what it is we can change together.”

Join our next event!

Our next Learning and Exchange will shine spotlight on research and “Theology of Dissent” as an opening for a broader discussion with the practitioners on the role of faith in their practice and contestation. Speaker is Dr  Travis LaCouter is a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven, Belgium and the event will be hosted by Dr Ryszard Bobrowicz, based at Lund University, Sweden, and KU Leuven, Belgium, where he works on projects concerned with migration, law and religion.

Register today!