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Aman Sethi
by
Shuddhabrata Sengupt
People

Aman Sethi carries with him a compass that makes it possible for him to identify the magnetic centre of any reality before him. Neither the dross of received wisdom, nor the fool’s gold of pretended insight detains or harries him.  
I have met Aman in the insurgent forests of central India, on basketball courts in South Delhi, on balconies across the Yamuna, in secret libraries, dives, bars, dinner tables, kitchens and nondescript street corners. But in all his travels, in all his attending to distractions and delusions, I have never met Aman far from his own still centre. In Aman, that is a silent place, a place of listening, memory and fine toned analysis of fables and foibles. It is a place where I have found a wry, tough compassion and a febrile anger that never gives way to rage. It is what anyone who writes the first draft of history must have.

On Refugees

27.10.16
60 min
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60hertz

When the Indian writer Aman Sethi first talked to me about the refugees, he had a very different perspective: He said, think of the people who come to Europe not as weak, don’t fall into the trap of making them dependent upon your help, your jugdement, your jurisdiction for that matter – think of them as strong and self-reliant, as humans who chose to leave the place they called home and come to this country, a brave and uniquely individual decision. One year later, the discourse is different. It is, in Germany and in other countries, a profoundly anti-human-rights discourse, it is the preperation for a post-democratic regime which relies on keeping the people called refugees outside. Aman called them musafir, the wanderer. He has been here forever.

On Refugees

31.03.16
5 min
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Conversation

Dear Georg,
I received your email soon after the attacks in Brussels, Iraq, and closer to home, in Pakistan. What a strange time this is. Stranger still, to learn – from Marina Hyde in the Guardian yesterday– that the London Olympics saw the largest mobilization of British military and security forces since the second world war. In 2012, more British troops were deployed around the Olympic village in London than in Afghanistan.
This summer, Hyde informs us, Brazil will deploy twice that number – 85,000 heavily armed troopers in conjunction with a whole arsenal of military hardware – to stage a sports event to showcase the athletic attributes of the human race. Long jump, high jump, triple jump, and pole vault, all under the watchful gaze of soldiers wearing facial-recognition goggles. So I suppose this is a great time to be in politics, if your primary message is one of fear and besiegement.
I read your account of the recent elections in Germany with great interest. I suppose this rightward tilt is not all that surprising, or is it? I suppose it is part of a wider trend, and so you right ask: how do we counter the successes of right-wing radicals?
This is an interesting question – to answer this, let’s take a short detour.
Yesterday, I watched “The Factory” by Rahul Roy, a film about what could well be a turning point (it is perhaps to early to decide conclusively) in working class struggles in north India’s industrial belt: In 2011, workers in a Suzuki automobile factory went on strike, resulting in a production shortfall of about 83,000 cars in a single financial quarter. The following year – a fracas between workers and management resulted in the death of a manager and parts of the factory were set on fire.
Despite little clarity, and dubious evidence, on the perpetrators of this violence, over 100 workers were kept in jail for 4 years – without bail. In one instance, their bail petition was rejected as the judge felt that granting bail would affect the investment climate in India, and send the wrong message to multinationals looking to invest in the country.
The film sought to capture this battle between labour and capital – but  the filmmaker, rather than focus on the afterlife of the conflict itself, trained his lens on the workings of the legal process. Thus his film ended up being a film about the martyrdom of the working class.
Rather than focus on the Suzuki legal case, if the filmmaker had chosen to trace how the Suzuki strike had lead to more industrial resistance in the hundreds of factories around the Suzuki plant, he could have made a very different film while still speaking of the miscarriage of justice that kept workers in prison at the behest of a multi-national company.
I bring up this example to suggest that focusing on the closure of an event often blinds us to the possibilities on its fringes.
Let us consider what we are seeing before us in Europe:
A radical event has occurred.
Several thousand people fleeing war have found safe haven in Germany. Their living conditions are far from ideal, a backlash is brewing, but at present – several thousand men, women and children, fleeing war are relatively safe in Germany. These arrivals have also forced the global community – which is selfish and mean-spirited bunch – to think seriously about how to end the war in Syria. This itself is an incredible moment that has occurred with a speed that has made it difficult to comprehend and theorize completely.
In a sense, the first round of this seesaw engagement has gone in favour of those welcoming refugees, in the same way that the first round of the Suzuki skirmish went in favour of the workers.
Now, we see an attempt to defuse the potential of this moment. Right-wingers are grumbling, the electorate is uneasy, the government is under pressure. This is all to be expected, as no radical change ever goes uncontested. Over the past year, the various governments of Europe have succeeded in shutting these routes and closing their borders – this is similar to when the Suzuki management leveraged the coercive arm of the state to imprison its workers.
But each agent in history’s long game traverses a finite distance and then passes her dice on to the next player in line. As a friend of mine in Delhi keeps saying, “Focus on the potential of every struggle, not on its depletion.” If the disproportionate punishment handed down to the Suzuki workers was intended to end industrial disputes – it has failed, rather factory occupations have continued apace and in some instances even increased. The forms of resistance have changed from outright confrontation to more subtle forms.
So I think we should see this moment as a victory for the Musafir and seek ways to expand the scope of this victory – i.e. how to continue to push for allowing freer movement and accommodation/integration of immigrants; rather than seeing this moment as a loss and looking for ways to contain this loss.
I’m really looking forward to my visit; I think the future might be brighter that it sometimes seems.
Yrs ever
A.

On Refugees

09.03.16
6 min
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Conversation

Dear Georg,

apologies for this long absence from our conversation. (Also, Thank You! I too am glad of your presence and this conversation which gives us space and time to contemplate the relentless cycle of events.)
I would gladly beam you up, but alas I’m not sure where to bring you. No place seems to be free of nationalist hysteria coloured by a fear of imagined enemies.
The newspapers in India too seem to be from a different time: the president of the student union of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru university has been arrested for “sedition” for  chanting supposedly “anti-national slogans” at a university event. When he was produced in court, he was assaulted by flag-waving lawyers shouting “Long Live Mother India.” Journalists covering the event were beaten up as well.
There is a campaign to instill patriotic values in society; there is a proposal to install national flag, on 207 feet tall flag polces, on campuses to instill national pride amidst the student body.
In Hyderabad, a young man called Rohit Vemula from the historically-oppressed Dalit caste, hung himself from a ceiling fan in the student hostel –  after he was hounded for “anti-national” activities.
He left behind an extraordinary note that offers fresh insights on each reading. I reproduce an excerpt below:
I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.
Over the past two weeks I’ve witnessed extraordinary solidarity between students and teachers in JNU. Classes have stopped and teachers are giving public lectures that unpack and decode this strange thing called “nationalism”. Thus far, the student body has presented a united face to the government and police, despite deep political divisions between various political factions on campus.
In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the student base – many are the first members of their family to clear grade 10, let alone make it to university.
Prior to his arrest, Kanhaiya Kumar – the JNU student leader arrested for sedition – made a speech on campus where he laid out the contours of the ideological battle we are all living through:
What are universities for? Universities are there for critical analysis of the society’s collective conscience. Critical analysis should be promoted. If universities fail in their duty, there would be no nation. If people are not part of a nation, it will turn into a grazing ground for the rich, for exploitation and looting.
If we don’t assimilate people’s culture, beliefs and rights, a nation would not be formed….
I want to know what kind of nation worship they are talking about? If an owner doesn’t behave properly with his employees, if a farmer doesn’t do justice with his workers, if a highly paid CEO of a media house doesn’t behave properly with the meagrely paid reporters, then what is this nation worship?
So it is the worst of times, but also the best of times – in that a generation of students seem to be forging a politics of their own.
They aren’t cowed down by this assault on their universities, rather they seem to be growing in confidence each day; their utterances revealing a subversive humour and political sophistication that is completely lacking in the politicians entombed in parliament. It is all very fascinating to witness.
The news you convey from Europe certainly seems bleak; I just read the latest update that a group of Balkan countries have decided to come up with their own restrictions on migrants without waiting for the EU to come up with a plan. But maybe there are some silver linings to be sought?
On hearing about our correspondence, my aunt asked me when the world “refugee” first entered public usage.
It turns out that the word “refugee” was first used in the context of the flight of the Huguenots from France to England in the late 17th century after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. So the first refugees – in the specific sense of the word – were Europeans fleeing religious repression in France. How can we interpret such coincidences or repetitions without being either cynical or facile?
Of late I have been reading a translation of medieval tales of fantasy, many of which are set in the bazaars of Damascus. Reading the rich descriptions of bazaars stocked with items most wonderous and magical, it seems impossible that such a world could end the way it has.
Perhaps the fate of the Hugenots, and Damascus, reminds us that it is a good idea to provide refuge to strangers as we never know when we might need the kindness of strangers ourselves.
Maybe that is the truly terrifying affect that the musafir or migrant produces: her or his appearance at the door is a gesture towards the ephemerality of our comfort. Could this ever be me? We think, before quickly suppressing the thought. I say this for all of us living in diverse and unequal societies – not just for Europe today.
It is not unlike George Orwell’s amazing insight in “Down and Out in Paris and London”, in the dialogue between Orwell and Boris, the Russian refugee who has taken it upon himself to show the young writer the ways of the street:
‘Do you think I look hungry, mon ami?’
‘You look pale.’
‘Curse it, what can one do on bread and potatoes? It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you. Wait.’
He stopped at a jeweller’s window and smacked his cheeks sharply to bring the blood into them. Then, before the flush had faded, we hurried into the restaurant and introduced ourselves to the patron.
I’ve read Down and Out several times and always find this section the most powerful.
So I hear you Georg, but we beamed ourselves away, we’ll miss our chance to think through this unsettling time.
Look forward to hearing from you, as always, and apologies once more for the late reply.
Yrs
Aman

On Refugees

19.01.16
6 min
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Conversation

Dear Georg
 
Time has quickened its flow along the course of this conversation. The horror of the Paris attack is yet to recede, a fresh round of attacks is underway in Jakarta, and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Earlier this week it was Istanbul.
 
I also read of the attacks on young women in Cologne over the New Year, the inevitable blowback, and Charlie Hebdo’s controversial illustration suggesting Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned en route to Europe, would have grown up to become a sexual molester.
 
The cartoon has drawn the usual reactions from the usual suspects, but it does signal a macabre closed loop of events that you refer to in your mail: the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, the violence in Cologne, and then a Charlie Hebdo cartoon to round things off. As you conclude in your mail – everything is connected to everything else.
 
Thank you for the reference to Zizek’s piece – I had missed in when it came out; and on reading it now – I was struck by an interesting passage towards the end:
 
“When I was recently answering questions from the readers of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest daily, about the refugee crisis, the question that attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, but with a rightist-populist twist: When Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands into Germany, which was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly point out the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate radical opening of the borders: Are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals suspension of—in effect imposing a gigantic change in a country’s status quo without democratic consultation of its population?”
 
Zizek responds, suggesting that Merkel was correct in not seeking popular consultation. He writes:
 
“Emancipatory politics should not be bound a priori by formal-democratic procedures of legitimization. No, people quite often do NOT know what they want, or do not want what they know, or they simply want the wrong thing. There is no simple shortcut here.”
 
I was interested in your perspective on this issue. What do you think about this limited section I have excerpted above?
 
I agree that popular consultation or a referendum would have made it politically impossible to accept refugees – but I instinctively disagree with his tired formulation that “the people” don’t know what they want, and so we need a principled vanguard to lead the way.
 
In many democracies, significant and irreversible decisions are occasionally solved by referendum; but it is interesting that nation states almost never call for a referendum before going to war – an epic and irreversible decision if there ever was one.
 
So I suppose the question is: Will the arrival of 4 million refugees to a continent of 750 million result in what you call a “metaphysical shift” in Europe – the sort of thing that should require politicians to go back to the people for their views?
 
Am I – by virtue of being far away – underestimating the long-term impact of Europe’s crisis ? As the optimistic resident of crowded chaotic city – 24 million and counting – I am inclined to think that we are simply in the initial “shock and awe” stage of this process, which will eventually culminate in some form of compact of coexistence between those already in Germany and the new arrivals.
 
I am in the midst of reading a fascinating new book – Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India – written by Bhrigupati Singh, an anthropologist at Brown University.
 
In his book, Bhrigu offers up the idea of “Agonistic Intimacy” – from the Greek “Agon” or “contest” – to try to understand how “potentially hostile neighbouring groups” might come together to forge a vibrant, yet contested peace by somehow including each other in their respective moral and spiritual worlds.
 
Living together in “agonistic intimacy” involves both conflict and co-habitation, and this subtle balance – Bhrigu reveals – has formed the basis of many human societies across time and space.
 
To extend this argument to the current predicament in Germany: it is possible that Syrian musafirs may not “integrate” immediately and seamlessly; but more likely the communities shall probably forge unexpected and possibly fragile bonds over a long period. Some bonds shall be largely symbolic, influential and fickle – one generation down the line, the child of a Syrian refugee might score a vital goal for the German national team or miss a vital penalty (I suppose here I am thinking of Mesut Ozil). Other bonds shall be less visible but enduring and intimate – like Syrian born workers in factories, Syrian-born nurses and doctors in hospitals. There will also be demagogues – of the likes of Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Nick Griffin, to contest and hinder this process at each step.
 
But is it impossible to believe that, given 20 years, these enduring bonds, prejudices, and encounters, shall converge into a mélange of myth, narrative, and ritual to consecrate the arrival of the musafir and the “recultivation” – to borrow another of Bhrigu’s phrases – of idea of the German identity and people?
 
The problem with Habermas’s “public sphere” – as you point out – is that he assumed that everyone will not just be rational, but will also publicly perform their rationality for all to see. This is demonstrably not the case.
 
A lot of politics, and most of life, is thankfully lived out of this public sphere. We are gradually realizing this in India where every week, a high-ranking government official or minister, says something implausible, violent or outright bigoted, with complete awareness that the national media shall amplify his (its usually always men) statements.
 
I agree that words have consequences, particularly when uttered by seemingly powerful people, but society has a fluid resilience – it coheres even as it transforms. It is this paradoxical resilience that keeps me hopeful.
 
Yours ever
Aman

On Refugees

30.11.15
7 min
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Conversation

Dear Georg,
 
It seems Europe has changed since we last corresponded: Paris is stricken, Brussels is in lockdown and if early intelligence is to be believed, at least one of the attackers in the Paris attacks this November was traveling on a forged Syrian passport and breached Europe’s borders, to use a Maoist phrase, like a fish amidst a sea of migrants. 
 
Islamic State’s use of a forged Syrian passport appears to be strategic – to make it easy for their agent to slip through borders, while simultaneously preying on European fears about Syrian immigrants. In sections of the public imagination, the figure of the migrant/musafir transforms once more: from one who flees terror into one who perpetrates terror. Some in Europe were waiting for this moment – Poland has already announced its intention to seal its borders.
 
France, the country that gave us the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the rights of man and citizens (which didn’t apply in the colonies), is in a state of emergency where many of these rights stand suspended, and the question of citizenship is open to question. Earlier this year, French courts ruled it lawful to rescind the citizenship of dual-passport holders convicted of terrorism, effectively creating two classes of citizen. This interpretation of the French civil code was applied to man originally from Morocco, a former colony.
 
The journey of the musafir has suddenly become still harder. Does this mean, as some have suggested, that the terrorists are ‘winning’? I don’t think so, but let us set that imprecise question aside for the moment, and turn to your vivid account of your visit to the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or Lageso – it offers us some ideas to think with.
 
It is fascinating that the Office for Health and Social Affairs is responsible for the registration of refugees. 
It reminds me of Panopticism, the third chapter of Discipline and Punish, where Foucault describes how transformation of Power’s dreams can be read in the difference in its response to leprosy – which gave rise to rituals of exclusion – and the plague – which gave to disciplinary projects.
 
Those afflicted by leprosy are excluded from society; those with the plague are registered, numbered, quarantined to their quarters and continuously monitored by authority. 
 
In this new form of power, which relentlessly partitions and subdivides itself down to the level of the individual, Focault writes, “The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized.”
 
But what he writes next is even more insightful and beautiful, “Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.”
 
So it is very important to document this process, as you have in your letter. The immigrant – a person who appears and disappears, lives and dies in disorder – is always a troublesome subject for a nation, because she destablisizes the category of the “citizen”. 
Thank you for sharing this, and I look forward to more news and details of your visits to Legeso.
 
You ask, “Aman, how do you see an ideal order? What do you see for the future? What can Europe learn, from India, from other parts of the world?”
 
These are interesting and difficult questions. 
Let’s start with the last one: what can Europe learn from India and the rest of the world? 
 
I’m not sure if this particular email is the right place to delve into this in great detail, but in 1947 approximately 14 million people were displaced when the Indian sub-continent was divided into India and Pakistan. 
 
There were riots, massacres, transit camps and incidents of compassion on both sides of the new border. My grandparents were part of this mass migration – they came from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and settled in New Delhi. In time, in their new surroundings, the shock and horror of the partition lessened and presumably gave way to more banal and ordinary skirmishes, arguments and ultimately some sort of truce. 
 
The memory of partition and the existence of Pakistan continue to inform a significant part of public discourse in India. Of late, supporters of our current government have taken to telling their critics to “go to Pakistan” if they express dissatisfaction with the policies and (in)actions of the ruling party.
 
This insult is often hurled by Hindus, who came from present day Pakistan, at Muslims who actually chose to remain in present day India. It is an interesting dynamic where those who chose to move challenge the patriotism of those who chose to stay: revealing the fragility of terms like “culture”, “migrant”, “original inhabitants” – terms that are used with great frequency, but with little sense of history, in current discourse.
 
My brief description of the Partition is a gross simplification of a long and messy process; but I think the broad lesson is that the current situation in Europe is far from insurmountable.
 
You ask – is the nation state breaking up? I don’t think the administrative frameworks of state-form are in too much danger, but I think the “nation-state” as a lens for understanding the world, movement of capital, interests of “people”, the deployment of labour, the assessment of fair wages etc, is becoming less and less useful. 
 
Populations appear less interested in the nationality question, as is evident from the millions of people from the developing world trying their best to acquire a new passport. Rather than view the march of the musafir as the emigration of Syrians/ Iraqis/ Libyans/ Gambians/ Somalis to Germany/France/Austria/ Greece; let us view this as the march of labour to the citadel of capital in an effort to secure a new deal. 
 
What if we consider this current process as a logical extension of the “Occupy” movements that we have witnessed across the world post “Occupy Wall Street”.
 
If the world is a single, increasingly integrated, economic unit (as we are often told it is), and every person is evaluated on her economic worth as a potential worker in this economy (as is usually the case) – then perhaps this summer was an instance of a global workers revolt, involving workers from Africa and the Middle East.
 
Adopting such a worldview may result in more useful solutions; particularly since the rest of the world is already viewing the migration along these terms.
 
Here’s an excerpt from a news report from the recently concluded emergency meeting on migration between the EU and African leaders at Malta.
 
“African leaders such as Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou say that $2 billion — which comes in addition to more than $20 billion that the EU and its members already contribute to Africa — is not enough. There should be less aid and more investment, they say, and multinationals should pay their taxes. The African Union estimates that the continent loses $50 billion annually through tax fraud and illicit practices by such companies.
“If we could combat tax evasion, that would stop us calling for aid,” Sall [Prime Minister of Senegal] said. “Terrorism is an issue, wherever war is waged people flee — where there’s less development people flee towards development.”
“We have to look at migration serenely, take the drama out of it,” he added.
 
Of course the pronouncement of African leaders reflect their own domestic compulsions – it is easier to explain out-migration from your country (say Senegal) if you can blame it elsewhere (say Europe) – but the suggestion to look at migration “serenely” suggests a realistic assessment of the limits of governance and coercion.
 
I’ll end here with some questions of my own. I am interested in knowing more about West Germany’s “guest worker programme” that saw millions of Turkish citizens come to work in German factories in the post-war boom. Looking back, how did this program play out, and is there any way in which the experiences of the 1960s may inform our thinking of the present?
 
As always, I look forward to your reply
yrs
Aman

On Refugees

07.11.15
8 min
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Conversation

Dear Georg
 
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. These are all very important questions you raise; before I get to them let me share with you a story of musafir who travelled from Somaliland to Germany. It is a complicated story with many twists, but here I reproduce just a small section.
 
Let’s call him Abdul.
 
I met Abdul in 2012 at Berbera, a port along the Horn of Africa that also serves as Somaliland’s sole international airport. I was on assignment for my newspaper.
 
Abdul, who was working with a friend of mine in Hargeisa, picked me up at the airport. We got talking, and to my surprise, he spoke fluent Hindi.
 
Abdul also spoke fluent English, and German, and Arabic, and Telegu and Dutch and a smattering of Amharic. He had lived in Hargeisa, Mogadishu, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Addis Ababa, Tripoli, Basel and three different German towns.
 
He began wandering when he forged a Indian visa in the 1990s and made his way to the South Indian city of Hyderabad, where he worked as an enforcer in a local gang. After five years, he got bored of his life of crime and returned to Somaliland.
 
“But in a few months, I got bored of home and decided to go to Ethiopia,” he said, as we drove along the long straight highway that connects Berbera to Hargeisa.
 
He spent a few months in Ethiopia and then caught a bus from Bahir Dar to Khartoum, Sudan. From Sudan he made his way to Tripoli, and from Tripoli he crossed by boat into Italy where he said he was fleeing Somalia’s endless civil war and applied for refugee status.
 
His papers were processed and he was sent to Basel, Switzerland, where he was assigned refugee housing, given some financial assistance, but was not allowed to work.
 
“But what is the point of coming to Europe if you can’t work?” he said, “and so I started working illegally in an Indian restaurant. The owner really liked me because I could speak Hindi to all the Indian tourists who came to the restaurant, and of course because my salary was low.
 
“I would befriend the Indian tourists and offer to show them around the city. At the time many of the Indian tourists couldn’t speak good English – only Hindi – so they were very happy to find a Hindi speaking guide.”
 
Eventually the Swiss authorities found out that he had been working in violation of his refugee status and so Abdul decided to escape to Germany.
 
“Everyday I went to the Swiss-German border and I observed. The border police, they checked everyone and ask for papers – every car, every truck, every man, woman, child. They check everyone, except sportspeople.
 
“They don’t check the people who are on cycles, who wear cycling clothes, and a small bag on their back in which you can put maybe three pens. Every weekend, these people come cycling from Germany, they cycle all day in Switzerland and they go back in the evening.”
 
So Abdul buys a cycling costume in bright colors. He has no money to buy a bicycle so he buys a screwdriver. At night, he slips the shaft of the screwdriver through the shank of a bicycle-lock and steals the bike.
 
The next morning, he waits on the Swiss side of the border for the German cyclists and joins them soon after they cross the border.
 
Pedal, pedal, pedal pedal, along Basel’s picturesque streets; pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, into the beautiful Swiss countryside.  By afternoon, the cyclists loop back, the border looms, the policeman waves them through without checking for papers, and Abdul is in Germany.
 
In Germany he walks into restaurant, orders a beer and sips his beer till closing time when the owner asks him to leave.
 
“I tell the owner, I don’t know anyone here, I don’t have a place to stay. Will you help me? God will help you.”
 
Ok, says the German, you can stay here for just one night, and locks him into the restaurant.
 
“I don’t sleep. I clean everything: the windows, the floor. I cleaned all, I cleaned well, I wash, I dry. I clean the glasses, I clean everything.”
 
In the morning, the owner can’t believe his eyes.
 
“You are a worker,” the German says, “You stay with me from today and I will pay you money.”
 
Abdul stayed on in the restaurant, he married a German citizen, he had a son; he had marital problems, a divorce, and about five years after he left Tripoli, he came back to Somaliland.
 
“Why did you come back?” I asked
“It is a very complicated story, I had problems with everyone – my wife, Europe, the police, everything.”
 
A few months later, I was speaking with my friend from Hargeisa, Abdul’s boss, on the phone.
 
“How is Abdul?” I asked
“Who?”
“Abdul – the man who lived in India, and Germany and Sudan, and everywhere.”
 
“I don’t know. He is crazy. One day we had an argument and he left the job and vanished from Hargeisa. No one knows where he is.”
 
***
 
My reason for sharing this story is that I feel that the current writing about humanity’s march across Europe has produced the refugee as an abstract figure. In your email you write,
 
“The people who are coming, are reduced. They are no more than what they are. They have nothing more than what they have and if even their dignity were to be taken from them, they would be left with nothing more than a plastic bag with which they have been on the move for months. They are naked existence, devoid of all civilisation. And civilisation responds by pretending they don’t exist.”
 
How have you produced this figure of the refugee? What do you mean when you say they are “naked existence, devoid of civilisation”? Is civilisation a gift of the nation state, that you lose the moment you leave your home?
 
And who, or what, is this “civilisation” that “responds by pretending they [the refugees] don’t exist”?
 
Is Abdul – the musafir from Somalia – a naked existence devoid of civilisation?
 
No, he is an intelligent, ambitious, thinking agent of free will who sees an international border as a puzzle to be decoded.
 
European governments are eager to produce the figure of the helpless and desperate refugee because it suits them. If you are helpless, desperate and fleeing a civil war then you must be grateful for everything that Europe gives you – you must be grateful for a winter-proof tent in a large field with three meals a day.
 
This is the narrative produced by Power across the world; don’t fall for this trap.
 
In India, it is used by successive governments to justify the acquisition of community lands and the displacement of millions of people in the name of progress and development. It is a simple strategy in which a way of life is first stripped off all meaning, joy and value in public discourse. Then the intervention of the state is projected as an act of “humanitarian rescue”, a collective civic sacrifice at great cost to the taxpayer.
This “sacrifice” then justifies everything that follows. Luckily, very few people in India actually expect the state to rescue them from its own depredations.
 
At this point Europe’s governments are still pretending that they can actually control the march of the musafirs; that they can “solve” this “problem”. But there is no solution to the march of history – we can only live through it and hope to alter its course.
 
You ask: “Here we have the question of whether time that runs backward processes all that went before. The modern in reverse – the results, forms and triumphs of the modern age change back into what was there before. However, what would this mean for democracy, human rights, individualism, secularism, nation and state?”
 
I feel we need to stop thinking like the state – these are state-driven categories. They put the state at the centre of the conversation and we are reduced to making appeals to our local representatives.
 
America’s upcoming election is a fascinating example of how even the language used in electoral processes is completely exhausted and devoid of meaning.
 
If you haven’t watched the debates, I urge you to do so – these debates offer us a surreal and hopeful moment to think harder, think better, think sharper.
 
To conclude this email, let me leave you with another image: don’t think of the musafir as a naked existence plodding through a cynical landscape under police escort – this is a figure that doesn’t challenge your view of the world; this figure only produces pity and hopes for rescue.
 
Instead, imagine a young, muscular Somali man kitted out in sleek lycra and spandex, speeding across the Swiss German border on a stolen 7-speed bicycle.
 
He doesn’t need Chancellor Merkel to find a place for him in Germany – he has found it himself. Now how are we going to respond to, think through, and celebrate, his actions, choices, and life?
 
Yours
 
Aman.

On Refugees

22.10.15
5 min
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Conversation

Dear Georg,
I read your mail with great interest. The current situation across Europe is very intriguing, and I look forward to more details on how Germany is engaging with this sudden arrival of over a million people.
This morning I saw this arresting image (attached with this mail) of thousands of men, women and children walking in an orderly file through Slovenia en route to Germany. Clearly we are only just beginning to understand the origins and repercussions of this great migration.
I am also fascinated by the resurrection of old phrases and categories like “Abendland” or “the Occident”, and by this wonderful sentence where you say, “no sooner do I start than the entire vast history of the world washes over me.” It sent me down a digression that may be relevant in our thinking about the present moment in connection with the “new Völkerwanderung”.
You mention that many of the people moving through Europe come from Iraq, Syria, and the Turkish Syrian border, which correspond to the region once known as Mesopotamia – home to one of oldest recorded urban civilisations. The early Mesopotamian settlements traded extensively with the Harappan civilization, the ruins of which were found in present day Pakistan (another country you mention in your mail).
Recently a friend alerted me to historical research that contemplates the existence of a Harappan enclave – i.e. a colony of migrants from what is now called Pakistan – founded in in Lagash, a settlement in present day Iraq, in the second half of the third millennium B.C. It seems that the dawn of urban civilisation as we know it carries within it the seed of migration, and the history of the world is a chronology of struggle between the entropic, or disorderly, desires of people and the negentropic, or order-seeking, impulses of states.
Perhaps Europe’s current “crisis” signals a new moment in our shared histories? Perhaps this moment – when nation states in some of the oldest continually inhabited regions of the world (like Syria and Iraq) collapse – shall result in a re-fashioning of the critical categories of thought and language that we are accustomed to.
There are signs of this re-ordering already, with journalists, politicians and policy wonks wondering how to refer to this tide of humanity – are they migrants, or immigrants, or expatriates, or refugees, or asylum seekers?
Perhaps for the sake of this conversation we can refer to them as “Musafir” – an Urdu word common to Arabic, Persian and Turkish with slightly altered meanings in each language – A musafir is a traveller from a strange land, in some languages she is a pilgrim, a seeker of paths and truths, and in Turkish (I could be wrong here) I think, a musafir is a guest.
But why does this Musafir travel? Here we may consider a wonderful Persian phrase – of the concept of the ashina-zada, which refers to the feeling of tiring of all one’s acquaintances and desiring the company of strangers.
Perhaps this fluid category – of the Musafir, motivated by impulses that are not always obvious – is helpful in alluding to the long journeys taken by these people without diminishing the hardships they have suffered, or pre-judging the reception they will receive in Europe (as you mentioned, in some cases they have been met with violence, and in other cases with solidarity).
Your mail sent me down another line of inquiry, which is the narrative of the desperation of the Musafir – of course I have seen the pictures and read the harrowing accounts of boatloads of people drowning, of death by asphyxiation in abandoned freight trucks; the horror is real, visceral and immediate.
The amplification of this horror makes clear that the only politically feasible way Europe can engage with this situation is through the trope of humanitarianism. This narrative obscures the fact that in the years after World War One, it became a criminal offence to seek one’s fortune in a foreign land. While finance capital moves across the world with ever increasing velocity, we are fettered by our passports. There is, of course, a parallel imperial history of the passport – which we can consider another time: Who is to decide that I am Syrian, or German, and what does the act of name and fixing entail?
The current narrative of “rescuing the desperate” allows European nations and commentators to speak of humanitarian rescue and “European Values” without engaging with the strange, policed landscape that we live in, and accept the eternal policing of borders and residents as normal. What is the process by which it became normal and desirable for BMW to invest in a automobile factory in South Africa, but almost impossible for a young woman in a village somewhere in southern Africa to gather money from her network of friends and family, catch a flight to Germany, walk into a government office and register herself as someone seeking a job without constantly fearing imprisonment and deportation?
I think this “march of the musafir” offers us a moment to reflect on the long shadow of the twentieth century and the strange new categories it presented us with – borders, aliens, people smugglers, camps for those who cross a border without permission. It’s all a bit bizarre isn’t it?
Thank again for your thought-provoking email. I really look forward to this conversation and your descriptions of what’s happening on the ground in Germany. It is these details, after all, that shall help us think further and deeper.
Yours
Aman

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