art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

(Interview) Laleh Khalili | Between War & Commerce.

we-are-the-dream-makers-copy/We are the dream makers, Dubai by Arcadia Blank/

Laleh Khalili is professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge, 2007) and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford 2013), and the editor of Modern Arab Politics (Routledge 2008) and co-editor (with Jillian Schwedler) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (Hurst/Oxford 2010).

Khalili’s most recent research projects deal with the politics and political economy of war and militaries as it intersects with infrastructure, logistics and transport with specific focus on the Middle East.

Your book Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies deals with continuities in counterinsurgencies, with the way tactics of war shifted to elaborate systems of detention and encouraged policy makers to willingly choose to wage wars. Doing the research for this book, what were the biggest discoveries for you personally?

The moment I decided to do the project was one of those great epiphanies. I was doing the final research on my first book, which was about Palestinian refugees. I was talking to a Palestinian man who was raised in Lebanon and served as a PLO fighter during the Lebanese civil war. He was captured and held in prisons inside Israel. Around the same time I was interviewing him, the Abu Ghraib pictures were published. He told me it was difficult for him to look at those pictures because he was also kept naked, and dogs were used to intimidate him while he was imprisoned. It was a surprise for me to hear that.

Why was it surprising?

We often hear about different methods of torture that don’t leave marks used in these prisons, but the fact that there were other things, like dogs and nakedness, really interested me. When I started working on the project, which was originally about the different kinds of detention practices, the more I started to read, the more it became clear to me that this is not random. There is a particular way in which states that claim to be liberal, that claim to be following the rule of law and discourse of human rights, use particular methods of subjugation that seem to repeat across different contexts.

This was as true of the British and the French in the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally to Americans and Israelis nowadays. There are actual channels through which these forms of oppression travel. Finally, what became clear to me was that the more you made the war liberal in situations where people have a democratic say about the conduct of war, the more you fight a “humane” war, the better it is for arguing in favour of war. You can say you’re going to have a nice war, but in the end there’s no such thing as a nice war.

Just last week, more than a thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons launched a hunger strike, demanding better living and medical conditions for approximately 6,500 prisoners. Unlike similar instances in the past, this hunger strike is being reported on by the mainstream media. How did the situation change from the time you did the research for Time in the Shadows, do you think there’s more media space for these issues now?

The media space for Palestinians opens and closes cyclically and it depends on what else is going on in the world. Between the time I began the research on the book and now there has been a space opening up for discussion about the kinds of atrocities that are committed. It’s also important to say that the politics around Israel and conditions of Palestinians inside Israel and under Israeli settler colonialism, and the way the media chooses to portray that have shifted.

This shift has less to do with counterinsurgencies and wars being fought and more to do with the successes Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) struggles have had in trying to find a voice in which Palestinians don’t get sidelined, in which the conditions they live in are amplified in European and North American media. That plays a significant role in us being able to hear about the hunger strike of prisoners.

One of the issues you deal with in Time in the Shadows is what happens when states expand beyond their borders. For the last couple of years in Europe, in dealing with the so-called refugee crisis,  we are witnessing the externalization of borders, not just in relation to third countries, but also within EU member states themselves. How does this re-articulation of border management practices, the formation of new institutions and policies, affect the ideas of nation-states, jurisdiction and sovereignty?

There are particular ways in which forms of control that were used externally are being used on refugees who are within the borders or are trying to cross the borders. The jurisdictional power now attaches to bodies. We get to move around Europe easily because of our citizenship, because of the rights attached to our passport. The absence of rights attached to that passport makes us profoundly vulnerable to different forms of coercion. The border is no longer a line on the map, it’s not a geophysical feature of the territory, but rather something that happens crosses the body of the person. The border ends up being me, ends up being you. That is one of the ways this externalization is being brought home.

What are the other ways?

There’s more of them, and they don’t have to do only with migrants. Domestic policing is being militarized and the kinds of tactics that were used in counterinsurgencies are being brought home in North America and Europe. They are used in counterterrorism operations against both citizens and those perceived  to be outsiders, whether or not they are citizens. Entire communities are subjects of these new kinds of policing, based on their religion, skin color, etc.

Bringing home of the external violence is fascinating – we see armoured vehicles being used in domestic demonstrations. But that is inevitable – when you’re waging big wars, it’s only a matter of time when those war methods and equipment will be used at home. And people of course, a lot of ex-soldiers become police officers and prison wardens.

In connection to what you mentioned before in regard to citizenship, Arjun Appadurai makes an interesting point how most of the citizenships laws we have today are based in the past, in blood, parenthood, etc. For a change to happen, he argues, we would need to think about citizenship based on the imagined future, on aspirations. Do you think there are possibilities for this sort of a citizenship narrative to become a part of the mainstream discussion?

The idealist in me would like to see more space for that, but looking at the way belonging is often used as means of exclusion, limiting access, limiting the ability to dream, it’s hard for me to imagine that sort of citizenship in practice. It’s interesting to think about aspirational forms of citizenship, and the dream of belonging, but I am not entirely sure without actual concrete instruments how to transform it into reality. It’s still important to remember that all forms of belonging draw borders, even the aspirational, future oriented belonging. All dream worlds come with attached catastrophes. It is important to think about what we aspire to, because the aspiration itself is not enough. The content of it is what matters.

In your recent projects you deal with the political economy of war and militaries and the way it intersects with infrastructure, logistics and transport. Your specific focus is on the Middle East. How did you come to this point in your career, where is the continuity with your previous work?

There are two things that brought me here. I was interviewing a US military officer about matters of counterinsurgency, and he said: “Oh, you academics and journalists, you all love everything that bleeds”. To really understand the war, he said, you need to look at military logistics, that’s where all the money is spent. That was the first signal that got me looking in that direction. The vast majority of US military budget around the war is spent on getting the fuel to the fighters, getting food, setting up where they live, getting the uniforms and ammunition. Food and fuel tend to be the biggest logistical expenses. There is an entire machinery behind that.

The second thing was that friends who work for the International Transport Workers’ Federation were interested in finding out more about the Arabian peninsula, and they encouraged me in this direction. It was a combination of wanting to find out more about the role of military logistics, and about the working conditions of people in these maritime settings in the Arabian peninsula. The Arabian peninsula was perfect for this because Kuwait and Qatar were staging grounds for the American war in Iraq, and the UAE continues to be a logistical staging ground for the US war in Afghanistan.

You’re primarily interested in the role of US and British military and oil companies in the Arabian peninsula. In which ways do the policies of these countries affect the infrastructure of the Arabian peninsula, and specifically the working conditions of people employed in the ports and maritime transport business?

It depends on the country. In Saudi Arabia, the role of the US is much more important than the role of the British, while in the smaller Emirates, as well as Oman and Yemen, the role of the British is much more important due to colonial history. Emirs in these countries continue to be advised by the British and to a certain degree the indirect colonial control continues today. The US and GB didn’t only have a substantial role in the structure of these states.

Oil companies and tanker terminals have a different history, but it is very crucial to the formation of these states and their transport infrastructures. The conditions of work that emerged in tanker terminals, the geographic placement of these terminals far from cities, the way they were automated from very early on, in the 1940s and 1950s, have been essential in shaping practices within container industries many years later.

The second thing that has been really interesting is that the oil companies, in order to be able to start extracting oil in the Arabian peninsula, have to bring in all the materials, pipes, heavy equipment.  They couldn’t do that because many of these ports simply didn’t allow for ships to come close enough, particularly in the Gulf area, where the coast is very shallow and tends to be mudflat, with no deep harbours. They had to build new ports and that shows the connection of the cargo history with oil companies.

In your lectures you often talk about the significance of Yemen and the city of Aden as a port, and the changes it went through in the recent history. Why is Aden so significant?

Aden was a British colony from 1834 to 1967. It was originally colonized because the British needed a coaling station in that location, but also the British wanted to colonize that area because of the location close to the Red Sea, and the East African coast and of course to India. With the opening of the Suez Canal in the mid-19th century, Aden became far more significant than it has been before. That’s when it becomes the fourth largest coaling station for ships in the world. There’s a long history of Yemen being on these trade routes, because it was a hub for coffee. Mocha coffee we know today is named after a port there.

After 1950s when the British lost their big refinery in Iran, because it was nationalized, a major refinery was built in Aden. The rise of Aden as a port continues until British are forced to leave by the anti-colonial struggle which begins in the late 1950s. The British didn’t want to give up Aden, it was a major city, cosmopolitan,  of strategic importance, and crucial to the conduct of empire, but later in the 20th century Americans are stepping into the game.

What has happened in the last decades is fascinating because now regional capital is injecting money into Aden, money from Dubai and so on. The deals that these companies are making  are corrupt.  Aden ended up taking Dubai Ports World, one of the biggest terminal management companies, to court and managed to cancel the 35-year container terminal concession with them. Now, when Aden is being destroyed in a war waged by Saudi Arabia and UAE, one of the first things UAE announced once they got the control of Aden, is that they will help rebuild the port. There’s such comfortable traffic between war and commerce.

In connection with Yemen, it is the only country in the Arabian peninsula that has (had) functional unions. Are there any possibilities for workers to organize in other countries?

In the Arabian peninsula, only three countries have unions – Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain. The difference between them is that in both Kuwait and Bahrain unions are not as functional as in Yemen. In Bahrain there are independent unions, but they only cater to citizens, not to the migrant population, and they are only unions of state employees.. The same rules applies to Kuwait, except that it’s even more limited and the unions are practically the arms of the state.

Part of the reason for the existence of unions there and not elsewhere is that Kuwait and Bahrain had far more developed set of industrial relations with the British, and they allowed the creation of unions as ways of trying to channel nationalist and radical sentiments among workers. Unions were never allowed to emerge in other countries.

What makes Yemen a different case?

Yemen is a very different case, because unions there became quite significant for the independence struggle. Reading through the history of Yemen, one finds constant stories of worker mobilization in the ports. They still have a functioning set of unions, although at the moment, with no ports functioning,  workers are are receiving a small amount of aid but they are not working.

The presence of unions there is extremely important because it has meant that there has been far more accountability in terms of the managements of the ports and far more visible sets of protests against unjust policies.  These kinds of protests exist in places like the UAE  but because there are no unions there are no ways to organize them better and make them more substantial and longer-lasting.

Going through the history of protests organized by the port workers, how was the cooperation between different nationalities, because it is factor that can be used to divide the workers?

The response differs depending on the location and time. During times of very heightened nationalist sentiments, the unions tend to act as instruments of ethnic and xenophobic exclusion, and that is much more the case in the Northern part of the Arabian peninsula, than in the South. Yemen is a special case because so many of the workers in the ports were of Somali origin and the unions didn’t have the distinction between Yemenis and others.

The British actively tried to undermine cross-national unity. One of the things they realized is that if the workers in the ports were Arabs, from many different countries, they could be quite demanding in asking for their rights, and they couldn’t be easily pushed aside because their governments could protect them. This wasn’t as true for a lot of the South Asian workers whose governments wouldn’t protect them and they couldn’t easily mobilize together with the Arabs because of the issues of language. It shows how British were good at divide and rule.

Are these colonial labour tactics and structures still present today?

The structures of ports today, particularly the big, mechanized, automated container ports in the Arabian peninsula, still reflect colonial labour structures. CEOs of the ports and the top managers are usually from North and West Europe, mostly British, the next level of managers are European. After that come the administrators, which are usually educated Indians, and then you have a large labour force that comes from the migrant communities working in these cities.

The conditions in which they work are far more precarious then those of the expat communities, European and other. There are differentiated labour regimes operating in these settings, quite familiar from the past. It’s useful to have different nationalities working in clusters, because that way you can separate them and they can’t collaborate with one another and form unions or protest. It also helps to have deportable labour because the moment there are difficulties you can send them out of the country.

In a lot of your lectures and writings, you use literary examples. You often mention two books – Melville’s Moby Dick and Kanafani’s Men in the sun. Why are these books so important for the research you do?

Moby Dick is wonderful because it’s just a wonderful book. There is a really long tradition of reading Moby Dick as an allegory for labour struggle and many other things. It’s also important for all of the information and research that went into it, and the descriptive geography it offers to the reader.

Kanafani’s book came as a surprise to me, because I’ve read it a lot of times and I’ve always seen it as an allegory for the Palestinian condition. But when I read it again recently, it struck me how well researched it is. You can learn all sorts of details about migration routes of Palestinians who went to Kuwait to find jobs, but also about Trans-Arabian Pipeline and its pumping stations and how they were connected to roads and many other logistical features.

There’s also a third book, Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. It’s a wonderful, difficult and dense novel about the coming of Aramco to Saudi Arabia. It is deeply researched and I love it because there are so few memoirs of people who worked in the ports and oil industries in Saudi Arabia in the moment when Aramco came, and Munif is a wonderful documentor of this moment in time and all the changes that happen.

People underuse these amazing literary works as documentary sources. There’s also an amazing genre of fisherman’s songs from Kuwait and Bahrain, and I want to analyze them and see what else can we learn about the transformation from fishermen to industrial communities.

• • •

This interview was also published on H-Alter.

Standard
art of resistance, Iraq

Sargon Boulus | A Refugee Talking.

Part of an installation is pictured at 'Dismaland', a theme park-styled art installation by British artist Banksy, at Weston-Super-Mare in southwest England/photo: Banksy’s Dismaland/

Sargon Boulus is an Iraqi poet and short story writer. He started publishing poems and short stories as a teenager in various Iraqi journals and magazines, and also translated American and British poetry into Arabic. Boulus died in 2007. The following is his poem A refugee talking, translated by Kees Nijland (first published on PIW, Rotterdam, 2007).

A refugee talking

A refugee absorbed in talking
Did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Surprised to be here
After being there – stations, harbours,
Visitations, forged papers

Depending on a chain of details
His future was fibre-like
Laid out in small circles
        An oppressive country
        Afflicted by nightmares

Smugglers, emigration bandits, if you asked me
Commonplace people maybe, hungry sea-gulls
Over a wrecked ship in the middle of nowhere

If you asked me, I would say:
Endless waiting in immigration bureaus
Faces that do not return smiles whatever you do
Who said: the most precious gift

If you asked me, I would say: Human beings are everywhere.
You would say: Everywhere
Stones

He talks, talks, talks
He had arrived but did not enjoy the taste of arrival
And did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Standard
art of resistance

Arjun Appadurai | Aspirational Maps.

patrick_wilocq_refugee_photos_child_labour_119130_save_the_children/photo © Patrick Willocq, Save The Children/

This article, written by Arjun Appadurai, and published last year in Eurozine, is a must-read when it comes to migrant narratives and (future)citizenship. I go back to it all the time.

Aspirational Maps

Forced exits can be created by traumas of environment, economy or national civil war. They produce refugees who are invariably traumatized. Their claims on the hospitality of the nations in which they land are always in a grey zone between hospitality, sanctuary and incarceration, because they are usually in a categorical grey zone that combines features of the stranger, the victim, the criminal and the undocumented visitor.

The trauma of the forced refugee provokes the deepest anxieties of the modern nation-state, which relies on boundaries, censuses, taxes and documentation. The heart of the new traumas that the forced refugee experiences in the new country is that he or she has a plot (a narrative, a story) but no character, identity or name. The challenge of evolving a new form of legal and ethical hospitality is to create a name to fit the plot, an identity to fit the narrative.

The challenge of the modern nation-state is that, whereas its key narratives of identity rely on fixed starting points (blood, language, religion, territory), the forced exit is usually produced precisely by originary traumas of blood, language, religion or location. This raises the question of how to build a new relationship between plot and character in modern nation-states and a world of forced exits, where there is as yet no ethical foundation for seeing traumatic movement as the pivot of a serious identity for some citizens.

Migration and the crisis of the nation-state

After the famous treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the principle of territorial sovereignty becomes the foundational principle of the nation-state, though many other ideas affect its cultural self-imaging and self-narrativizing: these include ideas about language, common origin, blood, soil and various other conceptions of ethnos. Still, the fundamental political and juridical rationale and basis of the system of nation-states is territorial sovereignty, however complexly understood and delicately managed in particular post-imperial settings.

Throughout the world, immigrants, cultural rights and state protection of refugees are growing problems, especially since very few states have careful ways of defining the relationship of citizenship, birth, ethnic affiliation and national identity. The crisis is nowhere clearer than in Europe today, where the struggle to control and manage the intensified wave of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa is threatening to unravel the very foundations of European ideas of full citizenship, asylum and refuge, and expose the exclusionary foundation of European thinking about cultural markers of national belonging.

But in many countries, problems with immigrants, race, birth and residence are becoming problems of one or another kind. Think, for example, of Mexicans in the United States, Rohingya Muslims leaving Bangladesh and Myanmar for other countries in South East Asia, and migrants from the rest of Africa in South Africa.

One source of this problem is that modern conceptions of citizenship, tied up with various forms of democratic universalism, tend to demand a homogeneous people with standardized packages of rights. Yet the realities of ethno-territorial thinking in the cultural ideologies of the nation-state demand discrimination between different categories of citizens even when they all occupy the same territory. Resolving these conflicting principles is inevitably a violent and uncivil process.

Territory can thus be seen as the crucial problem in the contemporary crisis of the nation-state or, more precisely, of the crisis of the relationship between nation and state. Insofar as nation-state ideologies rest on some sort of implicit idea of ethnic coherence as the basis of state sovereignty, they are bound to minoritize, degrade, penalize or expel those seen to be ethnically minor.

Insofar as these minorities (either as guestworkers, refugees or illegal aliens) enter into new polities, they require reterritorialization within a new civic order, whose ideology of ethnic coherence and citizenship rights they are bound to disturb, since all modern ideologies of rights depend, ultimately, on the closed group of appropriate recipients of state protection and patronage. Thus second-classness and third-classness are conditions of citizenship which are inevitable entailments, however plural the ethnic ideology of the state and however flexible its accommodation of refugees and other weakly documented visitors.

Now none of this would be a problem except that the conditions of global economic, labour and technological organization create both dramatic new pushes and pulls in favour of uprooting individuals and groups and moving them into new national settings. Since these individuals and groups have to be cognized within some sort of vocabulary of rights and entitlements, however limited and harsh, they pose a threat to the ethnic and moral coherence of all host nation-states that is at bottom predicated on both a singular and an immobile ethnos.

In these conditions, the state as a push factor in ethnic diasporas is constantly obliged to push out the sources of ethnic noise which threaten or violate its integrity as an ethnically singular territory. But, in its other guise, virtually every modern nation-state is either forced or persuaded to accept into its territory a whole variety of non-nationals, who demand and create a wide variety of territorially ambiguous claims on civic and national rights and resources.

Here we are at the heart of the crisis of the nation-state. It looks at first glance as if the crisis of the nation-state is the fact of ethnic plurality that is the inevitable result of the flow of populations in the contemporary world. But on closer inspection, the problem is not ethnic or cultural pluralism as such, but the tension between diasporic pluralism and territorial stability in the project of the modern nation-state.

What ethnic plurality does (especially when it is the product of sudden population movements) is to violate the sense of isomorphism between territory and national identity on which the modern nation-state relies. More exactly, what these diasporic pluralisms expose and intensify is the gap between the powers of the state to regulate borders, monitor dissent and distribute entitlements within a finite territory and the fiction of ethnic singularity on which all nations ultimately rely. In other words, it becomes increasingly difficult to view the territorial integrity that justifies states and the ethnic singularity that validates nations as seamless aspects of one another.

Migration, memory and media

In my book, Modernity at Large (1996), I suggested that in the era of globalization, the circulation of media images and the movement of migrants created new disjunctures between location, imagination and identity. More specifically, I suggested that in many social locations throughout the world, especially those characterized by media saturation and migrant populations, “moving images meet mobile audiences”, thus disturbing the stability of many sender-receiver models of mass communication. This has many implications for what I then called “the work of the imagination”, and I particularly stressed the new potentials that this situation created for the proliferation of imagined worlds and imagined selves.

Migrants, especially the poorer migrants of this world, are not thriving in a world of free markets, consumer paradise or social liberation. They are struggling to make the best of the possibilities that are opened to them in the new relationships between migration and mass mediation. There is no doubt that migrants today, as migrants throughout human history, move either to escape horrible lives, to seek better ones, or both.

The only new fact in the world of electronic mediation is that the archive of possible lives is now richer and more available to ordinary people than ever before. Thus, there is a greater stock of material from which ordinary people can craft the scripts of possible worlds and imagined selves. This does not mean that the social projects that emerge from these scripts are always liberating or even pleasant. But it is an exercise in what I have called “the capacity to aspire” (Appadurai, 2004).

Muslim migrants from North Africa, Syria, Turkey and Iraq sometimes drown in the Mediterranean as they seek to swim to the shores of Italy, Greece or Spain from illegal boats, as do their Haitian counterparts in the Florida waters; others perish in the containers that cross the English Channel.

It is also true that young women from the ex-socialist republics often end up brutalized as sex-workers in the border-zones between the old and the new Europe, as do Philippine domestic workers in Milan and Kuwait, and South Asian labourers (both male and female) in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Such examples of the brutalizing of migrants can be multiplied: poorer migrants today frequently end up as undocumented citizens, objects of racist laws and sentiments, and sometimes as targets of ethnocidal violence in locations from Rwanda to Indonesia.

But is this suffering the whole story? Does it tell us everything we need to know about how these projects for movement were formed, about what efforts it took to summon the resources to move, of what was made possible by meagre remittances, of how the relationship of men and women is often recalibrated under the conditions of migration, of the doors that are opened for migrant children, and, finally, of the value of negotiating for new opportunities, even in harsh circumstances?

The work of the imagination, especially for poorer migrants, is critical for exercising the capacity to aspire. Without developing this capacity, which may also lead to rape, exploitation and death (for migration is a world of risk), poor migrants will always remain captive to the wishes of the vanguard, to the prison of their own domestic tyrannies and to the self-fulfilling prophecies of those business-class revolutionaries who always know, in advance, how best poor people should exercise their agency and which level of risk is most appropriate to them.

So I insist that the work of the imagination is not a privilege of elites, intellectuals and cosmopolitans but is also being performed by poor people, notably in the worldwide pursuit of their possibilities to migrate, whether to near or far locations. Denuding these proletarian projects of the dimension of fantasy, imagination and aspiration, reducing them to mere reflexes of the labour market or of some other institutional logic, does nothing for the poor other than to deny them the privilege of risk-taking. This is the opposite of what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition”.

The living archive

In this perspective, what can we say about the place of archives, narratives and memory in the building of migrant identity? Here the idea of the living archive becomes especially useful. Migrants have a complex relationship to the practices of memory and, thus, to the making of archives, for several reasons.

First, because memory becomes hyper-valued for many migrants, the practices through which collective memory is constructed are especially subject to cultural contestation and to simplification. Memory, for migrants, is almost always a memory of loss. But since most migrants have been pushed out of the sites of official/national memory in their original homes, there is some anxiety surrounding the status of what is lost, since the memory of the journey to a new place, the memory of one’s own life and family world in the old place, and official memory about the nation one has left have to be recombined in a new location.

Migration tends to be accompanied by a confusion about what exactly has been lost, and thus of what needs to be recovered or remembered. This confusion leads to an often deliberate effort to construct a variety of archives, ranging from the most intimate and personal (such as the memory of one’s earlier bodily self) to the most public and collective, which usually take the form of shared narratives and practices.

Media plays a critical role in the construction of the migrant archive since circulation, instability and the disjunctures of movement always cast doubt on the “accidental” trace through which archives are sometimes assumed to emerge. In the effort to seek resources for the building of archives, migrants thus often turn to the media for images, narratives, models and scripts of their own story, partly because the diasporic story is always understood to be one of breaks and gaps.

Nor is this only a consumer relationship, for in the age of the Internet, literate migrants have begun to explore social media, chat rooms and other interactive spaces in which to find, debate and consolidate their own memory traces and stories into a more widely plausible narrative.

This task, never free of contest and debate, sometimes does take the form of what Benedict Anderson disparagingly called “long-distance nationalism”. But long-distance nationalism is a complex matter, which usually produces many sorts of politics and many sorts of interest. In the age in which electronic mediation has begun to supplement and sometimes even supplant print mediation and older forms of communication, imagined communities are sometimes much more deeply real to migrants than natural ones.

Interactive media thus play a special role in the construction of what we may call the diasporic public sphere (an idea I proposed in Modernity at Large to extend the insights of Habermas, Anderson and others about national public spheres), for they allow new forms of agency in the building of imagined communities.

The act of reading together (which Anderson brilliantly identified in regard to newspapers and novels in the new nationalisms of the colonial world) are now enriched by the technologies of the web, Facebook, Twitter and Google, creating a world in which the simultaneity of reading is complemented by the interactivity of messaging, searching and posting. Thus, what we may call the diasporic archive, or the migrant archive, is increasingly characterized by the presence of voice, agency and debate, rather than of mere reading, reception and interpellation.

But the migrant archive operates under another constraint, for it has to relate to the presence of one or more narratives of public memory in the new home of the migrant, where the migrant is frequently seen as a person with only one story to tell — the story of abject loss and need. In his or her new society, the migrant has to contend with the minority of the migrant archive, of the embarrassment of its remote references and of the poverty of its claims on the official “places of memory” in the new site.

Thus, the electronic archive becomes a doubly valuable space for migrants, for, in this space, some of the indignity of being minor or contemptible in the new society can be compensated, and the vulnerability of the migrant narrative can be protected in the relative safety of cyberspace.

What is more, both new electronic media as well as traditional print media among migrant communities allow complex new debates to occur between the memory of the old home and the demands of public narrative in the new setting. Migrant newspapers in many communities become explicit sites for debate between micro-communities, between generations and between different forms of nationalism. In this sense, the migrant archive is highly active and interactive, as it is the main site of negotiation between collective memory and desire.

As the principal resource in which migrants can define the terms of their own identities and identity-building, outside the strictures of their new homes, the diasporic archive is an intensified form of what characterizes all popular archives: it is a place to sort out the meaning of memory in relationship to the demands of cultural reproduction. Operating outside the official spheres of both the home society and the new society, the migrant archive cannot afford the illusion that traces are accidents, that documents arrive on their own and that archives are repositories of the luck of material survival.

Rather, the migrant archive is a continuous and conscious work of the imagination, seeking in collective memory an ethical basis for the sustainable reproduction of cultural identities in the new society. For migrants, more than for others, the archive is a map. It is a guide to the uncertainties of identity-building under adverse conditions. The archive is a search for the memories that count and not a home for memories with a pre-ordained significance. This living, aspirational archive could become a vital source for the challenge of narratability and identity in contemporary times.

Narratives without identities

Citizenship in modern nation-states, such as Germany, is built on a tight fit between plot and character (or story and actor, or narrative and identity). The legal and bureaucratic origins of the modern nation-state seek to provide a territorial ground for stabilizing and connecting plot and character in verifying legitimate citizens. The story of birth to parents who are citizens is the strongest example of this convergence, for it implies territorial, personal and sanguinary stability.

Legal naturalization procedures, on the basis of marriage, work or investment, produce this stability and convergence between plot and character. These procedures allow changes in the status of an immigrant from refugee or illegal to full citizenship or quasi-citizenship, by “naturalizing” their ties to the national territory.

For refugees, asylum-seekers and almost all other undocumented migrants, the problem is that their stories (however painful and dramatic) come with names (personal names) but no characters, that is, no identities which fit the legal narrative requirements of legitimate migration. This is not simply because they arrive suddenly, traumatically and violently within the new national space, or to a transitional national space on their way to their preferred final destination. It is because, in the eyes of their new hosts, they are truly “nobodies” that is they have no identities that fit their new circumstances.

Here the main problem is that the modern nation-state has no room for narratives based not in the past (blood, birth, parenthood, language, etc.) or in the present (work, marriage, student status, etc.) but primarily on the future: on the aspiration for a better home, a safer life, a more secure horizon. There are no aspirational narratives for refugees, in the way that there are aspirational narratives for work or skill-based applicants for immigration.

The fact is that refugees are today supplicants who wish to become applicants for citizenship in countries like Germany. Their stories of suffering, oppression and violence in their home countries or in the camps which they have elected to leave on their tortuous journeys to their aspirational destinations, are stories of abjection and supplication and these stories are not easy to convert into the narratives of application and aspiration.

Here then is the narrative challenge that goes beyond the policing, administrative and legal challenges that face migrants in today’s Europe as well as their hosts. How do we create stories based on imagined future citizenship in a context where the past (birth, parenthood and blood) is still the currency of most citizenship laws? How can longing be turned into belonging? How can hospitality to the stranger be made a legitimate basis for the narrative of citizenship?

To provide deep and sustainable answers to these questions we can consider two approaches. The first is to help the strengthening and deepening of migrant archives, seeing them not only as storehouses of memory but also as aspirational maps. This might allow us to see the common ground between their aspirations and our own and thus to find a richer cultural road to the legal and bureaucratic solutions currently being debated.

The other approach is to find ways to make migrant narratives and identities a basis for secure citizenship, which will require re-thinking the very architecture of sovereignty in the contemporary world. That daunting task cannot be addressed here today but I hope I have described the conditions that make it an unavoidable challenge.

• • •

First published in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 1/2016 (German version); Eurozine (English version).

Standard
art of resistance, Lebanon

(Interview) Yazan Halwani: Uniting The City.

action_shot_yazan_halwani/Photos: Yazan Halwani (private album)/

Although he’s only in his twenties, Yazan Halwani is a name you will hear a lot in Beirut. For the last couple of years his work is among the most notable ones when it comes to Arab street art. Halwani has adorned walls of Beirut (and cities all over the world) with portraits of the writer Khalil Gibran and legendary singers Fairuz and Sabah, as well as everyday local heroes like Ali Abdullah, a homeless man who died one winter’s night in 2013 and Fares, a 12-year-old flower seller from Hamra street.

I meet Halwani in a quiet cafe in Gemmayzeh, a vibrant area of cafes and small shops in downtown Beirut. He’s relaxed and easygoing, with a big smile on his face, and remains of paint on his fingers. We move from topic to topic, he speeks with ease and eloquence. We talk about the different layers of (street) art, use of graffiti to tell a story, sectarianism and Lebanese identity, and importance of doing things your way.

In your work, you put emphasis on the unified aspects of Lebanese identity. In a society that knows separation, society that is deeply fragmented, you try to focus on the commonalities. In Beirut, different neighbourhoods have different tags on the walls, different posters and flags – the visualization of division is quite present in this city. How do you work around that?

What I am doing is not necessarily trying to tell people that they shouldn’t be religious, that they shouldn’t have a certain identity, not at all. What I am trying to do is creating a unified cultural identity. If you try to answer the question – what does it mean to be Lebanese – you cannot answer it, and that is mainly because of how Lebanon was created. It was a mix of cultures and different religions that were put together in a very random and incosiderable way.

In the beginning it maybe made sense because the identity was formed in relation to the occupier, but that changed over the decades. Although there are some commonalities, the emphasis in Lebanon was always on the religious and sectarian identity.

Why is that so?

The reason for that is that the political parties benefit much more from such divide than from enforcing a citizen or political identity. If you have a political identity you tend to shift, and the political party you support needs to be consistent, it needs to deserve your loyalty. It’s much easier to talk about religion, to continue the sectarian speech, than to address real issues, like corruption.

This sectarian identity is emphasized in the urban landscape. In Geitawi and Achrafieh, you see the crosses, the tags of Lebanese Forces, and in Hamra, a street supposedly run by Syrian Social Nationalist Party, you see couple of guys sitting on plastic chairs, guarding “their” territory. And Hamra is a diverse area where you have a population of tens of thousands of people, and this party is relatively small and insignificant in comparison to that, but they still try to show that they own the area.

They create that impression, and that is what happens in a lot of areas in Beirut. It used to annoy me a lot – that there are certain areas of Beirut marked by sectarianism, instead of more representative images of reality. That is why I focused on painting the figures of people that connect us, instead of all these signs of separation. I painted Fairuz, Sabah, Ali Abudllah. I wanted to show that these streets belong to all of us.

sabah/Sabah/

Talking about identity, you often said how in the beginning your work was very much copy paste of Western style graffiti, which is what you recognized as the right way of doing street art. How did you end up finding your way, your style of doing it?

There are two layers to my work. One is a political, social, a position on certain issues. On the other hand, there is a more artistic one, the cultural layer – which is more about the actual art in Lebanon and in the Arab world. Initially, I thought graffiti was about colors and tagging, things like that. Slowly, I started reading, thinking and understanding more.

When I started developing my own style I didn’t want to copy paste the art of the West, but I also didn’t want to reproduce the old Arab cultural identity, like the calligraphy of the 12th century. I tried to find a balance, something that is true to the reality we live today. We live in a modern world, and although we have a past that should be preserved, it should not come with the cost of denying what we are and how we are today. So I took some aspects of Arabic calligraphy but I also broke away from some other apects of it and adjusted it to the modern times.

How did you do that – what is different in your work in comparison to classical Arabic calligraphy?

Arabic calligraphy is focused on the text, but I don’t use it that way. I use it to paint, to create images. I also use a lot of figurations, which is not that common in the traditional art of this area. You can’t and shouldn’t stay puritan that way, you need to find a way to incorporate and communicate the art in the times we are living in.

I want to create a more universal approach to art in general, so I use calligraphy to paint faces. That way everyone can understand it. I don’t want my art to speak only to people who can read Arabic, but I do want it to show and incorporate a part of Arab culture.

fairuz/Fairuz/

Do you think there’s more (re)thinking like that happenig in the Arab art world?

Yes. More and more Arab artists are comfortable with questioning their identity, expressing the modern Arab world. Identity is not static and uniformed, especially in our country that is so unstable and people have so many different experiences. The truth is that we face many problems in preserving our culture.

Arab public shools are not strong enough, so most of the people who can afford it tend to go to private schools, and private schools are all in French or in English. I went to a French school and I was annoyed by having to speak in French, so I read a lot in Arabic and tried to rebel against it. There is another big problem in Lebanon – we don’t have a good infrastructure to preserve culture. We don’t have good consistent publishing, archiving of books and newspapers, theatres, museums, etc. It creates a kind of volatile culture.

Can you compare the situation to Gulf countries, since you’re currently living between Dubai and Beirut?

Gulf countries are now very conscious about the need to archive their identity, and there’s a lot of efforts there in preserving Arab culture. The contribution of some Arab art collectors in Gulf is much bigger than the Lebanese, but that is also connected to different issues these countries face or don’t face.

A lot of your work is socially responsible, and connected to different social issues. Sometimes, in the art world, that can be considered a lower form of  art. What are your thoughts on that?

If we want to accept this argument, and the reasons for it, we first need to discuss the fact that the art that was at the forefront of the art world in recent times is conceptual art. Concept or the idea is the most important. The reason why they say socially or politically driven work is less of an artwork is that it sometimes doesn’t offer a new concept. The emphasis is usually on the topic, on the content.

In the work I do, there’s always two layers. One is the theme, and the other layer is an artistic one – which is using Arabic calligraphy to change the traditional form of expression. I use the language of calligraphy for reasons other than text. My work is very much socially and politically driven, but it also offers a new concept.

Also, it’s important to say that in today’s world conceptual art is failing more and more. First, because of its inability to create art that is always relevant, to offer new concepts that are evolutionary, and second because the art world itself is becoming more vague so conceptual art is not that important anymore. There’s no longer one defintion of what is the most important form of art.

yazan1/Ali Abdullah/

Unlike many street artists, you try to do things legally. Why is that important to you?

In all art disciplines, there are certain things that are still done but there’s no longer justification for doing them. In your camera on the phone, there’s a clicking sound, but there’s no need for it anymore. A lot of disciplines have a thing like that, and street art is one of them.

Initially, doing things ilegally made sense, there was a lot of value in that. But take Lebanon today – people in power do things ilegally all the time, so many people are doing vandalism, and it doesn’t make sense to me to be doing things that way. Civil war was an extreme form of vandalism, political parties terrorising this city are a much stronger form of vandalism than any street art could ever be.

So there’s no value in doing street art ilegally in Lebanon.

Exactly. There’s no value in bringing the street art where I live and being a vandal. It’s much more dangerous to try to create a unified sense of identity and do it legally. When I started doing graffiti, I did things ilegally and the police didn’t care. But when I started painting big buildings, talking to people about history and culture, getting the permits, officials started asking much more questions, they wanted to make my work much harder.

It’s beacuse doing things that way had much more impact on the city and the people. In my approach to street art, I like to reconsider every aspect of it, I don’t want to do something just because it was done a certain way before. I realized there’s no value in doing street art ilegally in Lebanon and that is why I don’t do it ilegally.

A lot of your work is in Lebanon, but you also painted murals in different countries all over the world. One of them is a mural in Germany, of a young boy Fares, who was a flower seller on Hamra street in Beirut. How do you decide which stories cross borders?

Whenever I go to the some other country, it’s an opportunity, a platform to express something. In the instance of Fares, I was invited to Germany at a time when the talk about refugees was that they are an unwanted addition to the country, how they offer no contribution to the society. This was obviously not true. One of the examples was Fares, Syrian refugee whose cultural contribution to the Hamra street, where he used to live, was much greater than the most of the other people living there.

Me painting Fares was a reference to the fact that refugees are not fleeing an imaginary conflict – Fares died in a bombing when he went to visit his family in Syria. It was also a reference to the contribution of refugees to our societies – when Fares died, his passing away generated so many stories, his personal and cultural contibution to Hamra and Beirut was enormous. To all of those who are saying refugees are a burden, in Germany or in Lebanon, I wanted to show Fares.

fares_mural/Fares/

In conclusion – what guides you in your work, how do you choose the next project?

I always have a lot of ideas, and when one is actually mature enough, I take it out and try to make it happen. I am a big fan of artists who created decisive moments in the art history, because they have been able to question the art in the time they were living in and break away from the tradition. But with good reasons, not just for the sake of doing it. I was not educated in art, I came to the art world as an outsider and that helps me in the approach to some of the art doctrines – it makes me question traditionalism.

When I painted Fairuz, people started noticing my work. That wall became a kind of landmark, although it’s a small piece. People recognized themselves in the work, and that was the first time it happened to me. It happened because I started doing work that makes sense to me, and I think it made sense to others too. I am painting with brush and ink, I have tons of spray cans that are unused for years. I don’t let anyone tell me there’s one way of doing street art. Every painting, every mural is a learning experience.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

 

Standard
art of resistance, Lebanon

Nizar Qabbani | Beirut, The Mistress Of The World.

nizar

*Been in Beirut for a month now. This poem’s on my mind most of the time. One of the first days here I got lost searching for the sea (it’s hard to see, smell or hear the sea due to all of the building/s/ everywhere) and I finally found my way – stumbling upon a little street that took me straight to the coast.

It was the street of Nizar Qabbani. In this city of refuge that needs a refuge, Qabbani shows the way to the sea. I call it hope.

Beirut, The Mistress Of The World

Beirut, the Mistress of the World
We confess before the One God
That we were envious of you
That your beauty hurt us

We confess now
That we’ve maltreated and misunderstood you
And we had no mercy and didn’t excuse you
And we offered you a dagger in place of flowers!
We confess before the fair God
That we injured you, alas; we tired you
That we vexed you and made you cry
And we burdened you with our insurrections

Oh Beirut
The world without you won’t suffice us
We now realize your roots are deep inside us,
We now realize what offence we’ve perpetrated

Rise from under the rubble
Like a flower of Almond in April
Get over your sorrow
Since revolution grows in the wounds of grief
Rise in honor of the forests,
Rise in honor of the rivers
Rise in honor of humankind
Rise, Oh Beirut!

Standard
Algeria, art of resistance

Kader Attia: Square Rocks | Rochers Carrés.

photo3

Kader Attia is a French artist of Algerian descent. He grew where most migrants grow up in Paris – in banlieues, the suburbs of the city. Attia uses his experience of living as a part of two cultures as a starting point to develop a dynamic practice that reflects on aesthetics and ethics of different cultures.

His series Square Rocks (Rochers Carrés)  includes Algerians sitting on huge, jumbled concrete blocks at a beach in Algiers that locals call “rochers carrés” (square rocks). It’s a beach of Bab El Oued, a poor neighborhood in Algiers, where the government had erected these huge concrete blocks to prevent young men and women from taking boats across the Mediterranean sea to Europe.

photo1

Photo installation by Attia presents an actual architectural structure that sets a boundary, a no-trespassing zone. In each photograph, you see one or two young men or teenagers gazing pensively at the Mediterranean and beyond, presumably toward Europe and its questionable promise of a better life.

photo2

As Gregory Volk writes: “One man, viewed from behind, sits on a block’s sharp edge watching as two freighters pass by on the distant horizon. Two shirtless boys standing in slightly awkward teenage postures look half ready to do the impossible: dive into the sea and swim to Paris, spurred by fantasies of money, opportunities and glamour.”

photo6

It’s been seven years since Attia took these photos. Yes, they’re still relevant. It’s hard to imagine they will stop being relevant anytime soon. There are millions of people sitting and waiting, still being allowed to do only that. And there are many Square Rocks, all over the world.

There are so many people still looking out to the horizon, seeing it as space limited, a wall, a boomerang. And yet, those walls, limitations, boomerangs, remain invisible to people looking from the other shore. They do not know, or don’t care enough to know, that the horizon has its ending. Behind the blue line, a square rock and people waiting.

photo4

//all photos © Kader Attia//

For more on Kader Attia and his work, see his official website.

Standard
art of resistance, Syria

Remembering Louay Kayali: Life Is On The Streets.

the match seller/The Match Seller by Louay Kayali/

Louay Kayali was a Syrian modern artist, a brilliant painter born in Aleppo in 1934. He began painting at the age of eleven and held his first solo exhibition when he was eighteen.

Kayali died in 1978, from burns incurred from his bed catching fire, reportedly from a cigarette (he suffered from depression, leaving many to think it was suicide).

Kayali studied art at the Accademia di Belle Arti, and met Syrian artist Wahbi Al-Hariri there – they would remain friends for the rest of Kayali’s life (Al-Hariri became his mentor). Later on, Fateh Moudarress (also mentored by Al-Hariri) and Kayali represented Syrian modern art at the Venice Biennial Fair.

laundrette/The Laundrette/

Kayali graduated in Rome in 1961 and returned to Syria where he started his career as a fine arts professor at Damascus University, where Fateh Moudarres also taught.

Kayali’s artwork changed during his life, he was inspired by various things and made beautiful paintings of still nature and village landscapes, but what moves me deeply when it comes to his work are his painting of “ordinary” people, the way he captured life on the streets.

woman-selling-figs/Woman Selling Figs/

When Kayali made his atrwork about the people around him, people we pass by every day, people that are not often thought of as important, as the ones that deserve attention – that is when his art became so powerful, it became a statement of resistance, a portrait of struggle that cannot and should not be unseen.

His ways of capturing the psychological condition of the people, the harshness of life in the way they hold their bodies, the way they look at you – it is a true skill, it is a way of seeing and understanding people, not just trying to paint them.

In that sense, his portraits of people in the streets of Syria, the relationships he made, can be compared to those of Vincent Van Gogh and the miners he lived with and painted.

fisherman in arwad/Fisherman in Arwad/

Kayali is also famous for capturing the agony and the decampment of Palestinians in his paintings, particularly during the 1967 war.

His painting Then What shows Palestinian refugees, barefoot and disoriented, and it remained one of his most powerful works. You can see the misery, you can feel the despair.

kayai so what/Then What/

In his work, Kayali did not adhere to the idyllic image of national heroes, and his shift towards “everyday” people did not go without criticism. After all of the turmoils and attacks, in 1977 he decided to leave for Italy, he sold his house and left Syria, dreaming that he would work on his art in Rome, in a more peaceful atmosphere.

But he couldn’t do that and he returned to Aleppo, to live in solitude. He died in solitude, but in his work all of the connections he made remain visible.

He cared about people deeply. He was a keen observer of life, a mad person, a genious, a humanist not well understood in a world that is very often so far from humanistic values.

the bread maker/The Bread Maker/

He made sure we remember and notice the bread makers, fishermen, ice cream sellers, corn sellers, match sellers, bead sellers, fig sellers, socks sellers, flower boys, flute players, shoe-shine boys, oud players, cleaning ladies, beggars, refugees, single mothers….

That is why we should remember Louay Kayali.

//all paintings by Louay Kayali//

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Ronit Elkabetz: A Thing Of Soul And Beauty

Remembering Leila Alaoui: The Moroccans

Remembering Mahdi ‘Amel: The Importance of Resistance

Standard