art of resistance, Palestine

(Interview) Jehan Bseiso: This Is Not A Border.

JB by Ahmed Fouda/Photo by Ahmed Fouda/

Jehan Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker. Her poetry has been published inWarscapesThe FunambulistThe Electronic Intifada, and Mada Masr among others. Her book I Remember My Name (2016) is the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. Bseiso is co-editing Making Mirrors a new anthology by, for and about refugees. Her work also appears in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (published by Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

She is currently working on a collection of poems: Conversations Continued, a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Bseiso has also been working with Médecins sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders since 2008.

To me, Jehan’s work embodies the pride, dignity, love, defiance, resistance and bravery expressed in one sentence/thought/sentiment – This is not a border (also the title of an anthology of PalFest). In that spirit, This is not a border entails a vision of a different landscapes of today and tomorrow, a desire and determination to write one’s own narrative and own who you are, it means challenging power and staus quo, and finally – it’s an expression of love. With that in mind, Jehan and I meet again.

Our meeting is not in cafés on Hamra in Beirut, where we hugged for the first time, nor watching the blue horizon stretching all around tiny Croatian islands, which we both keep under our eyelids – but typing e-mails, thousands of kilometres apart – the same way we started talking four years ago, when I contacted her for the first time, intrigued by her poetry. We discuss borders, wars, diaspora, homeland, love…

Just last month, a new Israeli construction plan to cut off Ramallah from East Jerusalem was presented. The project would add 1,100 housing units to the settlement of Geva Binyamin. In his book Palestinian walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, Raja Shehadeh captures the changing landscape of (the idea of) Palestine. How do you personally deal with that landscape?

Before I visited Palestine for the first time in 2012, its landscape was emotional and imaginary, both known and unknowable. Now if I close my eyes I can see the occupation’s determination to violate and violence the land. Only couple of days ago, settlers set farmland on fire near Nablus and Palestinians were prevented even from putting it out, they were forced to watch it burn.

I actually had the good fortune of walking the hills of Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh in May 2016 and 2017 as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature activities. With a group of international writers and artists from all over the world, we walked the hills of Ramallah, reflecting on the way the occupation marks and transforms the lands.

In her poem Gaza Hala Alyan writes: This is diaspora… This is dont change the channel/the least you can do is watch. In your poem Gaza, From the Diaspora Part Two, you write: Dear Diaspora, Boycott. Could we talk about the diaspora experience – its mixture of guilt, loss, misremembering, responsibility, fatal loving –how can one unravel that web?

I think of that beautiful poem by Hala as an alarm bell and a prayer for the diaspora.
The first time I heard the word diaspora, I was in a classroom and the teacher wanted someone to explain it in English and translate it into Arabic. No one could, she singled me out that day and said you should know what it means, you’re Palestinian – Al Shatat. Since then I’ve felt a strange affinity with the word. For me diaspora is a layer of citizenship you can choose to opt out of; when you are physically so far away, you can decide to switch off mentally and emotionally.

There is apathy dust that can settle on the diaspora that I like to challenge; which is why I call on them in some of my poems, asking them to engage, read, listen, ask questions. The thing is, even those who are on the move willingly, for education, for work, for a better future with better prospects are also leaving home and homeland behind. The Palestinian diaspora cannot go back, that’s what the right of return is all about.

In connection to the previous question, I will ask you a question asked by Ghassan Kanafani in Returning to Haifa – what is a homeland, after all?

For refugees forced to flee, homeland is a ball of fire they’re running fast as possible away from. For others, born and raised in refugee camps, homeland is a place beyond the sun, accessible only in dreams.

For me, Home is not a physical place, it’s a warm feeling radiating through all the little details that make our lives worth living. A perfect cup of coffee in the morning, made with exactly the right amount of milk, hearing my mother’s laugh, holding the hands of the man I love as the plane takes off. The truth is that I feel at home everywhere I go because after a certain point you carry all those details with you.

Homeland on the other hand is a very specific shape on the map, often misnamed and misrepresented. As a Palestinian born, raised, and living outside Palestine, homeland is on the other side of the border. It’s in the questions of the private security company contractors hired by the Israeli government at Allenby bridge, it’s the look on my grandmother’s face when she talks about orange fields and blue Gaza waters. Homeland is every time I say “occupied Palestine” when someone says Israel, in the little narrow streets of the old city in Jerusalem.

I often wonder how my children will understand or experience homeland, it’s not like I was indoctrinated by my parents, I was never told or forced to feel anything. I gravitated to homeland in my writing, my sense of grave injustice took me there, my heart travelled first and then my body followed. 

You are one of the authors featured in the anthology I Remember My Name, together with Ramzy Baroud and Samah Sabawi. The book was the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. How did you get involved in this project and how important is it for you to have your work published in collaboration with other poets?

I Remember My Name is the quintessential diaspora project; all of us come from Gaza but Ramzy lives in the US, Samah lives in Australia and I was in Cairo when we started talking about the anthology. Editor Vacy Vlazna and artist David Borrington put their heart into it and when it finally came together we were all so proud.

Until today, I’ve only met David – we went to London together to receive the award on behalf of Ramzy, Samah and Vacy. Having my work in such good company is very important to me, and most recently two of my pieces appear in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (first published by Bloomsbury Press in the UK).

You’ve been working for Médecins Sans Frontièrefor almost nine years. Was it hard to keep it going parallel with  your writing, which is, I assume, taking more of your time and energy? You once beautifully said there’s work in your poetry, and poetry in your work – is that the key?

Yes! That’s my new motto: poetry in work, and work in poetry.
As a literature graduate I was told I have two choices, write or teach. I would love to write or teach full time at some point, but for now I made a different choice by joining Médecins Sans Frontières with whom I’ve been working in places near home like Iraq and Libya but also further away like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somali region of Ethiopia.

When I joined MSF I actually hid the fact that I was a poet from everyone because I wanted to be taken seriously as a humanitarian worker. However, despite all my efforts to choose between poetry and MSF I have so far failed miserably. My poems are about love and war, heartbreak and refugees dying at sea in their attempt to run away from poverty and conflict. Poetry is now a site of intersection that displays the explosive choices i’ve been making as an aid worker and a writer.

How did working for Médecins Sans Frontières change you? Is there a specific MSF moment you will remember – a trip somewhere, or meeting someone?

I met two lovers in detention two years ago, they were criminalized even just for trying to escape war and poverty. They attempted to leave by boat to Europe more than once, they were arrested several times, but they still had so much determination and hope it was amazing. They finally succeeded to get on a boat, and it sank, leaving one of them alive and the other dead. When I think of love, I think of the way they looked at each other in detention, the way he was worried about her when we took her to the hospital because she was ill. Somehow that was one of the most moving encounters I’ve had.

A colleague once told me that the more he travels and works with MSF, the more he realizes how much we all have in common, despite our insistence on all the details that make us different. We all want the same things; love, success, community, a better future, dignity in life and death. 

Nowhere refuge, only refugees, you write. How important is it for you to respond to the burning issues of our time through your poetry – one of them being the crisis of European refugee policy?

The media is reporting about refugee fatigue and compassion fatigue. I find the notion that compassion can be finite truly terrifying. I spend a lot of time looking at facts and figures, and reading “human stories”; I prefer just saying “stories”, because humanity is obvious, once we start having to state that the refugees are “also human-look at them!” we are catering to anti-refugee propaganda even with the best of intentions.

Like many people I can say that i’m haunted by the refugee crisis, and it’s a global one. I’m haunted at my work, by the images of bodies clinging to orange life vests, and i’m haunted at night when I think of how random it is, that it’s not me, not my family.

People must realize as you mention that it’s not a European refugee crisis, but one that is being exacerbated by European refugee policy. It is also a global refugee crisis. For example, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing conflict and famine in South Sudan and seeking safety in Uganda. Few people are aware that Uganda is now hosting more than 1.3 million people, more than any country in Europe at the height of the “European refugee crisis”.

I currently live in Lebanon, a country where one in four is a Syrian refugee, and at least 400,000 Palestinian refugees have been living in camps for more than 50 years – it’s impossible to ignore the refugee crisis, and its political and economic drivers.

You are co-editing Making Mirrors, a new anthology by, for and about refugees. The anthology is challenging the objectified, passive refugee narrative. Can you tell us more about it?

The plan is to offer a volume of poetry by, about, and for refugees, that seeks to connect artistic voices of those fleeing violence from Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, and other war torn countries. I am editing this anthology with US poet and scholar Becky Thompson, and our hope is that Making Mirrors will provide a multilingual interactive, collaborative volume of poems that will be published as a book and also a website.

Among those whose work is set to be included in the collection are prominent poets Naomi Shihab NyeZeina Hashim BeckZeina Azzam, and Hala Alyan. We have received incredibly powerful poetry from first-time writers, in different languages, and we are currently working on holding writing workshops to generate more poetry from within refugee communities. 

In one of our previous talks, you said how women from the MENA region are portrayed either as victims or superheroes, and that is too much of a burden. Just last month, Mashrou Leila put out a new video, for the song Roman. The video aims to “celebrate and champion a coalition of Arab and Muslim women, styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimise them”. Do you feel the victim/superhero narrative is being more challenged nowadays, with efforts such as this one?

I think a lot more needs to be done in order to dislodge Western media’s obssession with the victim/superhero narrative in the portrayal of both men and women from the MENA region; and now you can also add terrorist to that oppressive framework so it’s victim/terrorist/superhero.

I am a big fan of Mashrou Leila; I find their music and lyrics original, subversive and full of heart and mind. That video is like a good poem, it recalls and disrupts images, ideas and narratives from a perspective of expansion; you always end up with more at the end. This is precisely what I love about poetry; freedom of interpretation and play.

You are performing your poetry all over the world and working on a collection of poems, Conversations Continued, which is a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. What has that process been like so far?

I have divided the poems in Conversations Continued into three main chapters; Conversations Homeland is mostly about Palestine and the search for home inside and outside, Conversations Habeebi is about love, its necessity and impossibility sometimes. In Conversations ThawraI write about hope and despair in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Many of the pieces started as incomplete letters, facebook posts, interrupted conversations all distilled into poems.

I am always listening to people talking around me, because I am fascinated by what we call “ordinary” use of language in conversation – I find it actually quite extraordinary.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment, can you share some words/thoughts that have inspired you lately?

In a world that continuously divides and conquers our concentration, lately I have become a reader with commitment and attention span issues. This is why I read more than one thing at a time. Currently I am in awe of Look by Solmaz Sharif; her writing perches at that intersection between politics and poetry, art and life – it’s an important collection of poems, one that needs to be studied not only read. I am also going in and out of Hisham Matar’s The Return and rereading a collection of dark and somber short stories by the inimitable Ghassan Kanafani.

• • •

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

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art of resistance

Playlist: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.

landscape-1444059507-final-ayqa /art by Ayqa Khan/

Someting a little different for this Playlist – slam poetry by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, from this year’s The Last Word Festival.

Featuring new work by established artists, rising talents and works-in-progress from home-grown performers, The Last Word shines the spotlight on themes of home, heritage, mental health, politics and musical journeys.

Manzoor-Khan was the second place runner up this year, with the poem that’s hard to forget – This Is Not A Humanising Poem.

You can listen to her brilliant performance here.

Previous Playlist:

PJ Harvey & Ramy Essam

Basel Rajoub

Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Aynur Doğan

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art of resistance, Syria

Jehan Bseiso | Requiem For Raqqa.

raqqa_bread/Scenes from Syrian War: Raqqa, by Molly Crabapple/

Requiem For Raqqa

4th of July fireworks descend hot as acid,
call it chemical, not white phosphorus,
call it mistake, not massacre.

A doctor in East Ghouta tells me one grave holds his entire family.
(you left me)

A pharmacist sends me a voice note saying there is no more Insulin.
(you left me)

A politician in the US doesn’t know what Aleppo is.
(how could you leave me?)

In occupied Jerusalem, a young man says:
“Syria is the Nakba of our generation.”

(you broke my heart)

Hide in a cafe in Marseilles, order Turkish coffee with lots of sugar.
Go to the library in Alexandria, order lots of books about politics.
Stop reading.

Don’t watch Al Jazeera.
Don’t listen to the BBC.
Make up your own mind, says Beirut graffiti.
(but, you left me, you really left me)

It’s been six years since I slept, Syria.

This poem was first published on Mada Masr.

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art of resistance, Lebanon

Playlist: PJ Harvey & Ramy Essam.

Capture/from the video The Camp/

PJ Harvey and Egyptian artist Ramy Essam have come together to write and record The Camp, and they will donate all net profits from the track to Beyond Association, a national Lebanese NGO which provides access to education, healthcare, and psycho-social support for displaced children in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

The video for The Camp premiered on Guardian today – it features photographs by photo-journalist Giles Duley and was edited by Rick Holbrook.

You can watch & listen The Camp here.

Previous Playlist:

Basel Rajoub

Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Aynur Doğan

Hello Pshychaleppo

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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.

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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

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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).

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