art of resistance, Palestine

Ghassan Kanafani | Letter From Gaza.

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//Photo @Loulou d’Aki , Make A Wish – Gaza//

Ghassan Kanafani wrote the Letter from Gaza in 1956. It was published translated into English in The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine by the Tricontinental Society of London in 1980.

Today, a day after the horrendous Israeli attack on protesters in Gaza, which resulted in more than 60 killed and 2700 injured, I thought it would be appropriate to publish this letter – a look at the continuity of the oppression.

Dear Mustafa,

I have now received your letter, in which you tell me that you’ve done everything necessary to enable me to stay with you in Sacramento. I’ve also received news that I have been accepted in the department of Civil Engineering in the University of California. I must thank you for everything, my friend. But it’ll strike you as rather odd when I proclaim this news to you — and make no doubt about it, I feel no hesitation at all, in fact I am pretty well positive that I have never seen things so clearly as I do now. No, my friend, I have changed my mind. I won’t follow you to “the land where there is greenery, water and lovely faces” as you wrote. No, I’ll stay here, and I won’t ever leave.

I am really upset that our lives won’t continue to follow the same course, Mustafa. For I can almost hear you reminding me of our vow to go on together, and of the way we used to shout: “We’ll get rich!” But there’s nothing I can do, my friend. Yes, I still remember the day when I stood in the hall of Cairo airport, pressing your hand and staring at the frenzied motor. At that moment everything was rotating in time with the ear-splitting motor, and you stood in front of me, your round face silent.

Your face hadn’t changed from the way it used to be when you were growing up in the Shajiya quarter of Gaza, apart from those slight wrinkes. We grew up together, understanding each other completely and we promised to go on together till the end. But…

“There’s a quarter of an hour left before the plane takes off. Don’t look into space like that. Listen! You’ll go to Kuwait next year, and you’ll save enough from your salary to uproot you from Gaza and transplant you to California. We started off together and we must carry on. . .”

At that moment I was watching your rapidly moving lips. That was always your manner of speaking, without commas or full stops. But in an obscure way I felt that you were not completely happy with your flight. You couldn’t give three good reasons for it. I too suffered from this wrench, but the clearest thought was: why don’t we abandon this Gaza and flee? Why don’t we? Your situation had begun to improve, however. The ministry of Education in Kuwait had given you a contract though it hadn’t given me one. In the trough of misery where I existed you sent me small sums of money. You wanted me to consider them as loans. because you feared that I would feel slighted. You knew my family circumstances in and out; you knew that my meagre salary in the UNRWA schools was inadequate to support my mother, my brother’s widow and her four children.

“Listen carefully. Write to me every day… every hour… every minute! The plane’s just leaving. Farewell! Or rather, till we meet again!”

Your cold lips brushed my cheek, you turned your face away from me towards the plane, and when you looked at me again I could see your tears.

Later the Ministry of Education in Kuwait gave me a contract. There’s no need to repeat to you how my life there went in detail. I always wrote to you about everything. My life there had a gluey, vacuous quality as though I were a small oyster, lost in oppressive loneliness, slowly struggling with a future as dark as the beginning of the night, caught in a rotten routine, a spewed-out combat with time. Everything was hot and sticky. There was a slipperiness to my whole life, it was all a hankering for the end of the month.

In the middle of the year, that year, the Jews bombarded the central district of Sabha and attacked Gaza, our Gaza, with bombs and flame-throwers. That event might have made some change in my routine, but there was nothing for me to take much notice of; I was going to leave. this Gaza behind me and go to California where I would live for myself, my own self which had suffered so long. I hated Gaza and its inhabitants. Everything in the amputated town reminded me of failed pictures painted in grey by a sick man. Yes, I would send my mother and my brother’s widow and her children a meagre sum to help them to live, but I would liberate myself from this last tie too, there in green California, far from the reek of defeat which for seven years had filled my nostrils. The sympathy which bound me to my brother’s children, their mother and mine would never be enough to justify my tragedy in taking this perpendicular dive. It mustn’t drag me any further down than it already had. I must flee!

You know these feelings, Mustafa, because you’ve really experienced them. What is this ill-defined tie we had with Gaza which blunted our enthusiasm for flight? Why didn’t we analyse the matter in such away as to give it a clear meaning? Why didn’t we leave this defeat with its wounds behind us and move on to a brighter future which would give us deeper consolation? Why? We didn’t exactly know.

When I went on holiday in June and assembled all my possessions, longing for the sweet departure, the start towards those little things which give life a nice, bright meaning, I found Gaza just as I had known it, closed like the introverted lining of a rusted snail-shell thrown up by the waves on the sticky, sandy shore by the slaughter-house. This Gaza was more cramped than the mind of a sleeper in the throes of a fearful nightmare, with its narrow streets which had their bulging balconies…this Gaza! But what are the obscure causes that draw a man to his family, his house, his memories, as a spring draws a small flock of mountain goats? I don’t know. All I know is that I went to my mother in our house that morning. When I arrived my late brother’s wife met me there and asked me,weeping, if I would do as her wounded daughter, Nadia, in Gaza hospital wished and visit her that evening. Do you know Nadia, my brother’s beautiful thirteen-year-old daughter?

That evening I bought a pound of apples and set out for the hospital to visit Nadia. I knew that there was something about it that my mother and my sister-in-law were hiding from me, something which their tongues could not utter, something strange which I could not put my finger on. I loved Nadia from habit, the same habit that made me love all that generation which had been so brought up on defeat and displacement that it had come to think that a happy life was a kind of social deviation.

What happened at that moment? I don’t know. I entered the white room very calm. Ill children have something of saintliness, and how much more so if the child is ill as result of cruel, painful wounds. Nadia was lying on her bed, her back propped up on a big pillow over which her hair was spread like a thick pelt. There was profound silence in her wide eyes and a tear always shining in the depths of her black pupils. Her face was calm and still but eloquent as the face of a tortured prophet might be. Nadia was still a child, but she seemed more than a child, much more, and older than a child, much older.

“Nadia!”

I’ve no idea whether I was the one who said it, or whether it was someone else behind me. But she raised her eyes to me and I felt them dissolve me like a piece of sugar that had fallen into a hot cup of tea. ‘

Together with her slight smile I heard her voice. “Uncle! Have you just come from Kuwait?”

Her voice broke in her throat, and she raised herself with the help of her hands and stretched out her neck towards me. I patted her back and sat down near her.

“Nadia! I’ve brought you presents from Kuwait, lots of presents. I’ll wait till you can leave your bed, completely well and healed, and you’ll come to my house and I’ll give them to you. I’ve bought you the red trousers you wrote and asked me for. Yes, I’ve bought them.”

It was a lie, born of the tense situation, but as I uttered it I felt that I was speaking the truth for the first time. Nadia trembled as though she had an electric shock and lowered her head in a terrible silence. I felt her tears wetting the back of my hand.

“Say something, Nadia! Don’t you want the red trousers?” She lifted her gaze to me and made as if to speak, but then she stopped, gritted her teeth and I heard her voice again, coming from faraway.

“Uncle!”

She stretched out her hand, lifted the white coverlet with her fingers and pointed to her leg, amputated from the top of the thigh.

My friend … Never shall I forget Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh. No! Nor shall I forget the grief which had moulded her face and merged into its traits for ever. I went out of the hospital in Gaza that day, my hand clutched in silent derision on the two pounds I had brought with me to give Nadia. The blazing sun filled the streets with the colour of blood. And Gaza was brand new, Mustafa! You and I never saw it like this. The stone piled up at the beginning of the Shajiya quarter where we lived had a meaning, and they seemed to have been put there for no other reason but to explain it. This Gaza in which we had lived and with whose good people we had spent seven years of defeat was something new. It seemed to me just a beginning. I don’t know why I thought it was just a beginning. I imagined that the main street that I walked along on the way back home was only the beginning of a long, long road leading to Safad. Everything in this Gaza throbbed with sadness which was not confined to weeping. It was a challenge: more than that it was something like reclamation of the amputated leg!

I went out into the streets of Gaza, streets filled with blinding sunlight. They told me that Nadia had lost her leg when she threw herself on top of her little brothers and sisters to protect them from the bombs and flames that had fastened their claws into the house. Nadia could have saved herself, she could have run away, rescued her leg. But she didn’t.

Why?

No, my friend, I won’t come to Sacramento, and I’ve no regrets. No, and nor will I finish what we began together in childhood. This obscure feeling that you had as you left Gaza, this small feeling must grow into a giant deep within you. It must expand, you must seek it in order to find yourself, here among the ugly debris of defeat.

I won’t come to you. But you, return to us! Come back, to learn from Nadia’s leg, amputated from the top of the thigh, what life is and what existence is worth.

Come back, my friend! We are all waiting for you.

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art of resistance, Iraq

Books For Mosul | Restocking The University of Mosul Library.

//Al Mutanabbi Street by Art Hazelwood//

Once a major center of learning in the Middle East, the library at the University of Mosul was destroyed in 2014.

The Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project (IARP) is holding a book drive for Mosul to restore the library as a credible resource center at one of the Middle East’s most important universities. Community members can donate books or funds for shipping and handling costs.

IARP’s goal is to collect 15,000 books to help restock the shelves of the University of Mosul library and $15,000 to pay for shipping and handling costs. They are collecting good quality university-level books in English and Arabic on the following subjects: engineering, mathematics, humanities (history, art, music, literature, classics, etc.), medical school texts and references, references (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.).

Books can be sent to:

IARP
2021 E. Hennepin Ave, Suite 200
Minneapolis, MN 55413.

You can also donate to support the project here.

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art of resistance, Yemen

Yemen | How To Help.

Mideast Yemen/Photo: CodePink.org/

The crisis in Yemen continues. Near famine conditions developed in many parts of the country. Just this month, UNICEF’s Middle East director, Geert Cappelaere said that 11 million Yemeni children are now in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

How can we help, how can we get involved constructively? Here’s a little list of what we can do, put togehter on PRI + some of Middle East Revised‘s additional inputs.

MonaRelief

Fatik al-Rodaini has been called a hero by Yemenis. He collects funds, buys food from local vendors, and creates batches of food (the term of art is “baskets”) for families who his group has identified as needy. These days there is no shortage of need.

Yemen Hope and Relief

Ahmad Algohbary helps children suffering from severe malnutrition. Families request his help, and he uses donated funds to transport and house them for weeks while their children are treated at nutrition clinics in major Yemeni cities.

Yemen Aid 

This group, founded by a Yemeni American, provides assistance and resources to Yemeni people, regardless of their race, political affiliation, ancestry or religion, in order to positively change, and ultimately save, lives.

Yemen Our Home

The United Nations Development Project set up Yemen Our Home to help people outside Yemen, especially the Yemeni diaspora, support in-country projects.

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)

MSF has nearly 1,600 staff members across Yemen, including 82 staff members from abroad, working in 13 hospitals and supporting 18 more. MSF medical workers have shored up Yemen’s failed public health system and has been instrumental in combating the cholera epidemic that swept the country this year.

INTERSOS

Since the spring of 2015, this Rome-based organization has provided humanitarian aid to thousands of displaced persons and refugees fleeing ongoing clashes and bombings. Some of the work they’ve done has been to provide medical and food assistance, support and organize school and professional classes for children and teenagers, and provide psychological care and protection for the most vulnerable women and children and for the victims of abuse and violence.

Mwatana Organization for Human Rights

This group is headquartered in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. Mwatana programs defend and protect human rights. Its researchers conduct field investigations to detect and stop human rights violations. The organization also attempts to provide support and justice for victims, to hold accountable those in violation of human rights, and to help craft legislation and policies that prevent such violations.

Yemen Peace Project

The US-based advocacy group Yemen Peace Project is dedicated to supporting Yemeni individuals and organizations working to create positive change; advancing peaceful, constructive US policies toward Yemen; defending the rights of Yemenis in the diaspora; and increasing understanding of Yemen in the wider world.

Yemen News Today

A Facebook page which brings daily news from Yemen in English. Started by Judith Brown, activist and aid worker from United Kingdom. Brown worked with refugees in Yemen from 1998 until 2001 and has visited the country every year from 2001 until 2014. (You can read Middle East Revised’s interview with Brown here).

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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, 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, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria

Without Peace, We Can’t Have Women’s Rights.

obey_middle_east_mural_20141202505809/photo: Shepard Fairey, Obey Middle East Mural/

More than a century has passed since the famous strikes of female workers in the American textile industry. For more than a century, all around the world, International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th of March. A century later, inequality isn’t gone. To discuss the issues of inequality and representation in the Middle East, a region often in the spotlight for violation of women’s rights, we talk with female lawyers, poets, aid workers, directors and activists from the region – Jehan Bseiso, Hind Shoufani, Roula Baghdadi, Fatima Idriss and Nagwan El-Ashwal.

In the honor of International Women’s Day, in the name of continuity of the struggle, we’re in discussion with women from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. We tackle the issues for women in general, and in the Middle East particularly. Western media usually doesn’t do justice to this topic and the mainstream discourse on Middle Eastern women is highly problematic. It’s not only about the stories written, it’s equally about the imagery that follows them – in some cases the photographs chosen to accompany the news about Middle Eastern women are less than representational of the story at hand. Let’s change that. The struggle continues, but solidarity continues too!

Jehan Bseiso: Between victims and superheros – too much of a burden

Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker. Her poetry has been published in Warscapes, The Funambulist, The 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. She is also working on a collection of poems: Conversations Continued, a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Bseiso has been working with Médecins sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders since 2008.

In Jordan and Lebanon, women continue to carve out a space across all spheres at home and at work. There is a lot of incredible progress, but also so much work left to do in confronting unjust laws , like the one that lets a rapist marry his victim, permits a brother to shoot his sister in the name of “honor” and forces women to “declare pregnancy” when applying for a job.

I find that women from the MENA region are portrayed either as victims or superheroes, and that is too much of a burden, it needs to stop.  The ordinary is extraordinary and we forget that. Western media is particularly obsessed with the trope of “the oppressed Arab and Muslim woman” to an extent that first it misrepresents that story, and it overshadows any other narrative.

Concerning change – each step, however small, if it’s in the right direction it counts. The struggle for change and improvement of the situation for women in the MENA is historical and ongoing, it predates the “Arab spring” and it must necessarily continue to be allied to any call for systemic change.

Hind Shoufani: Legal system written against women

Hind Shoufani is a filmmaker and a writer, working and living in many cities in the Middle East. She’s Palestinian by blood, born in Lebanon and at heart a Beirut girl, raised in Damascus, but also lived in Jordan and held a Jordanian citizenship her whole life. Shoufani currently lives in Dubai and considers herself from all of these places. She is the founder of the Poeticians collective, where poets from all backgrounds read multilingual spoken word and poetry in Beirut and Dubai. She performed her poetry in various cities in Europe, the US and the Arab world and currently works as a freelance director/producer/writer in the UAE and the Arab region at large. Shoufani is currently making a video art feature length documentary on the sensuality, politics and religion present in the poetry and life of six female Arab poets. 

Aside from the violence against women, issues such as honor killings, assault and abuse that goes unreported and unpunished, women in the Arab world suffer the most from the legal system that is written against them. Whether based on Sharia law or civil rights law, women are never treated equally in the eyes of the law. We do not inherit assets, money or land the same way men do, we cannot pass on our citizenship to our children if their father is from a different nationality, and Christian women can be robbed of their children/assets/money if they marry a Muslim man who either divorces them, or passes away. Lebanon just removed the law that says if a rapist marries the woman he assaulted he will not be prosecuted under the legal system.

There are attempts in various countries to improve the standing of women in society as a legal citizen with rights, but it has not yet fulfilled any equality with men. This is mostly due to religion being the key reference for most arbitration in court, whether its issues of childbirth, divorce, inheritance or marriage in general. The personal status laws in the Arab world when it comes to women are abysmal and need a complete overhaul. Issues like violence against women are international issues and not specific to the Arab world, but our legal system really needs to be completely rewritten. A separation of “Church” and state is very much needed here. Sadly, there are very strong forces in the region who want to see us go back to a thousand years ago, and a massive clash of ideology is currently playing out, to very bloody and sad results.

That being said, a lot of mainstream discourse is offensive to Arab women. No one outside the region quite understands how amazingly strong Arab women are. We defy the odds and persevere every single day, we rise from swamps of hatred, prejudice, narrow minded beliefs, obstacles, violence, a legal system that treats us as inferior citizens, and we make life happen. We are doctors and poets and mothers and cleaners and dancers and teachers and warriors. This holds especially true for the Palestinian women who have resisted such a cruel occupation for over seventy years, and more recently Syrian women who are doing best to hold the sky together for themselves and their families dispersed in camps, prisons, street corners, homeless and refugeed and hated and besieged and starving.

The mainstream media is also missing a massive point. While there are hundreds of thousands of women who are struggling for a better life in the region, there are very large numbers of women who were born free, into educated and progressive and open minded families, who are leading brave and exhilarating lives. Not all of us are fighting oppression. Not all of us are in a camp, attempting to escape terrorists such as ISIS and so on. Not all of us have a brother or father who beats us. I personally know hundreds of women who have university degrees, live on their own, make their own money and are economically independent of their parents, choose their lovers, are lesbians, are artists, are outspoken activists and lawyers and nurses and teachers and poets. Many are atheists, some are spiritual, some Muslim or Christian. Free. The mainstream view of Arab women rarely showcases these stories because they are not considered sexy.

Roula Baghdadi: Without peace, we can’t have human and women’s rights

Roula Baghdadi is a Syrian lawyer. She is a part of supervisor’s legal team In Equal Citizenship Center inside Syria, and works with a legal team which defends abused women. Baghdadi is also currently doing her Master in Public law.

On the International Women’s Day, I am hoping for peace, in all of the world, for all of the people. Without peace we can’t achieve respect and fulfillment of all human and women’s rights.

Women in the region are in the worst situation, by the effects of religion and the Islamic extremism, but also totalitarian regimes. Our women today have to fight the long and strong history of thoughts and ideologies, wars, poverty… They have to deal with all of these problems to reach their rights. I believe women’s rights can’t exist without democracy, social justice, and full respect of human rights in general – in constitutions and laws and society. As a lawyer, I believe laws help societies evolve, but that still needs real development in the region.

In Middle East, women do their best. These issues will still need decades to be resolved, but we are on our path, we reject the old systems of the world – in which there’s discrimination between women and men, between black and white, between poor and rich. We reject the regime of profiling, we reject tyranny. And that is not easy.

Syrian women are sold in the markets and are whipped and are still being arrested and abducted. They are being targeted and used as a weapon of war, raped and sold, forced into marriage – particularly minors. All of the parties in Syrian war agreed to one thing, which is targeting of women. That’s why I’d like to say, once again, on the International Women’s Day – let’s work for peace, peace and peace. For all of humanity.

Fatima Idriss: It starts with people addressing immediate issues of daily life

Fatima Idriss is a general manager of Tadamon Council (Egyptian Multicultural Council for Refugees) since 2009, and one of its founders. In 2013, Idriss published a research booklet on education for refugees, which was mainly written by children and young people. She has participated in many international conferences in Europe and in the Arab world. Idriss has been working in the human rights field since 2001, with different international organizations based in Egypt, including: Save the Children – Regional office Middle East and North Africa as Child Participation officer (2004); or CARE Egypt on an awareness-raising project on SIDA (2006).

It has been proved that women still struggle globally – to be considered an equal human and citizen, and those struggles are not ending, due to multi-dimensional factors preventing women to achieve a decent amount of their basic rights.

In Middle East and Egypt particularly, being a woman is a trouble for the community on a daily basis. Women in Middle East have been heavily torn under the concept of “women rights defenders” by those who declare themselves as protectors of the rights of women, but are full of hostility and hatred for women – they are not happy as long as women don’t complete the form that they want and not what women really want. Every violence against women and sexual harassment is still seen as women’s liability, they are the ones blamed by the whole community.

Freedom is not always about grand political debates. It often starts with people addressing the immediate issues of daily life. When it comes to women controlling their lives, the current mainstream discourse on women is different  – the example of Tunisia is completely different from Egypt, and then there’s Gulf area, which is totally different from the rest. When questioning the current mainstream discourse on women as an act of justice to the reality, the answer is “NO”.

We are witnessing massive deterioration of women’s rights. We’ve gone from taking on the roles as active citizens after the Arab spring to passivity – due to limits of change in the social, economic, and political atmosphere in general. At one level, community members kept back to undercurrent burden of economic situation (Egypt as example), it keeps them so busy with the daily needs. The economic situation got the priority and that created limited space for all citizens to engage in public life – so women have less opportunity to be active.

Nagwan El-Ashwal: The issue of democracy

Nagwan El-Ashwal is from Egypt. She is PhD researcher at the European University Institute – EUI- Florence, Italy and she works on Jihadi movements in the Arab region. Also, she was a visiting PhD scholar at the Institute of International Studies at University of California at Berkeley and the chairperson of Regional Center for Mediation and Dialogue. El-Ashwal was involved with a lot of different organizations related to justice, equality and democracy in Europe and in the Middle East.

The main issue for women in the Middle East today is the issue of democracy and freedom from repressive regimes. Those regimes close the public sphere when confronted with any kind of activism.

I think that women activists in the first years of the Arab spring have enjoyed a lot with the free space where they could take part in all political activities and push society forward to get more rights – in terms of political and economical struggle. However, after what occurred – either in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Libya, women involved in activism are getting back to the first step. The situation is better in Tunisia but it is still dramatically bad in other cases.

• • •

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

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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.

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

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