Cha­ran­preet Khaira

Cul­tural Read­ings on the Refugee Cri­sis

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Cha­ran­preet Khaira

In jeans and a t-shirt, de­murely slouch­ing at the end of a ta­ble of prom­i­nent and im­pas­sioned speak­ers, Has­san Akkad cuts an in­con­spic­u­ous fig­ure. The panel de­bate has an im­pres­sive range of speak­ers, but, as al­ways seems to be the case at such events, it’s a lit­tle un­clear just who’s who. A room at the LSE usu­ally used for teach­ing has been thrown open to the pub­lic, and cir­cum­stances have con­spired to place Akkad at the edge of the room be­hind a lap­top. Ob­scured by the screen in front of him, you might mis­take his hunched pos­ture for that of the tech guy. He cer­tainly doesn’t look like a refugee. Of course, the very idea of look­ing like a refugee is faintly lu­di­crous, but, as Akkad ad­mits, this doesn’t stop lots of peo­ple from telling him so.

What is it that we are look­ing for when we think about a refugee? Is it the un­con­cealed stench of des­per­a­tion, a face that is scared and tired and marked with in­di­ca­tors of what she has been run­ning from? Is it guile and cun­ning, an art­ful dodger’s eyes dart­ing like a scav­enger des­per­ate to take what he can get? It’s a hard thing to de­fine, but it is clear that some­where be­tween his pale skin, quasi-Amer­i­can ac­cent, and quiet con­fi­dence, that ‘it’ is some­thing that Has­san Akkad does not pos­sess.

Akkad’s per­son is dif­fi­cult to match to the fly­away pa­per plac­ard that bears his name, not just be­cause he could pass as white, but be­cause the sheer nor­mal­ity of his im­age does not fit into the neat one-di­men­sional frame in which our po­lit­i­cal dis­course has drawn its pic­ture of the refugee. The ubiq­ui­tous terms of the jour­nal­is­tic hour – asy­lum seeker, un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nor refugee, dis­placed per­son – are face­less. Our imag­ined per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of th­ese words does not con­jure a fig­ure like Has­san, not be­cause our con­cep­tion of the refugee is too di­verse to be dis­tilled in a sin­gle man, but be­cause a sin­gle man is too real – too pal­pa­ble – to fit our hol­low un­der­stand­ing of the term.

The words ‘refugee’ and ‘cri­sis’ have been cou­pled so con­sis­tently by our politi­cians and our news­pa­pers that they can­not be dis­tin­guished in our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion. As a re­sult, the group at the heart of hot pol­i­tics is one that we re­duce to a ho­moge­nous, quiv­er­ing ques­tion mark. And the ques­tion – of what to do with this un­for­tu­nate prob­lem – is all too easy to an­swer with a re­sound­ing re­fusal if we fail to see be­yond this shal­low sin­gle di­men­sion. When Akkad’s turn comes to ad­dress the crowd, they are cap­ti­vated with a hushed awe that none of the other – al­beit ex­cel­lent – speak­ers have com­manded. His power comes not only from his abun­dant elo­quence, hu­mour and charm but also the fact that his story is one that any­body can imag­ine hap­pen­ing to them. Has­san Akkad was a teacher, with friends who liked to hang out and go for drinks on a Fri­day night, an apart­ment, a fam­ily – in short, a life. He dis­agreed with what was go­ing on po­lit­i­cally in his coun­try and so he ex­er­cised his right to protest – this was where ev­ery­thing started to go wrong.

It is not easy to re­ject an or­di­nary man’s story of hard­ship, grief, and sac­ri­fice; Akkad’s story is so im­pact­ful not be­cause he is ex­tra­or­di­nary, but be­cause his abil­ity to show the or­di­nary, hu­man re­al­ity be­hind the per­va­sive news sto­ries is ex­tra­or­di­nary. It is with shock­ing, alarm­ing self­ish­ness, given the im­plied pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of main­tain­ing our stan­dards of liv­ing over aid­ing in the sur­vival of oth­ers’ lives, that the first ques­tion on our lips is what refugees can con­trib­ute to our so­ci­ety. Luck­ily, Akkad has an an­swer. He con­trib­utes aware­ness. Trav­el­ling the coun­try, he gives talk af­ter talk telling his story, talk­ing with per­sua­sive pas­sion about the need for us to lis­ten to refugees with em­pa­thy. This is what Ex­o­dus, a BBC doc­u­men­tary that fa­cil­i­tated sixty refugees film­ing their sto­ries by giv­ing them mem­ory cards, did for Akkad. Of the sixty who col­lected footage, six refugees’ sto­ries were col­lected, record­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences of the gru­elling, threat­en­ing, and fear­some jour­ney away from home. In short, it gave the neb­u­lous, murky, un­palat­able word ‘refugee’ a hu­man face.

Pol­i­tics tips over into cur­rent af­fairs, trick­ling down into the pub­lic con­scious­ness through a sticky, gauzy fil­ter wo­ven by our me­dia and

politi­cians. When some­thing is so preva­lent in the news, on Twit­ter, in the House of Com­mons, and the in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal stage, it re­ver­ber­ates vis­i­bly in our cul­ture. Cul­tural re­sponses to the refugee cri­sis at­tempt to wade through the thick fog of mis­con­cep­tions and prej­u­dices en­com­pass­ing the topic, aim­ing to in­ject some clar­ity into our con­scious­ness. Cul­ture is light, an in­dul­gence of sorts; but it gives us the scope to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing in the world with­out the gen­er­al­i­sa­tions and ex­trem­i­ties in­her­ent in the me­dia’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion. In cul­ture lie the tools to cut through the face­less­ness of facts and fig­ures, jar­gon and click­bait.

It is this face­less­ness that A.A. Gill re­turns to over and over in Lines in the Sand. The es­says form a ret­ro­spec­tive on the great jour­nal­ist’s life, tes­ta­ment to his style, his abil­ity to shift seam­lessly from vis­ceral de­scrip­tion – the type that in­vokes taste, smell and tex­ture through his vivid food writ­ing – to poignant so­ci­o­log­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion, with a sub­tle un­der­cur­rent of po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ment. It is a col­lec­tion show­cas­ing enor­mous range, from the flâneur’s doc­u­men­ta­tion of far-flung cities and coun­tries to ironic re­flec­tions on the sex­ual hic­cups brought by ag­ing. At its heart, how­ever, it re­veals an eru­dite mind on a cir­cuitous life jour­ney that keeps get­ting stuck on the is­sue of refugees. It seems that Gill’s elo­quence come un­stuck here; words are not enough to re­solve the sub­ject, and so Gill can­not stop his re­peated re­turn.

The book is named for the hu­man trails made by th­ese refugees, and th­ese are the first sto­ries that con­front us. Their un­abashed pres­ence in an un­bro­ken se­ries of eight nar­ra­tives causes them to linger long af­ter we have moved onto the lighter tales that fol­low. For some­one usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with life’s finer­ies, writ­ing with cig­a­rette in hand and of­ten of­fend­ing those whose views lie on the side of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, to take up such a gru­elling sub­ject, and to seem un­able to them let it go, comes as a sur­prise. He was a lit­tle sur­prised him­self, it seems, as he tells us in his in­tro­duc­tion: ‘I’m not a Samar­i­tan, never have been, worked hard not to be. Nine times out of ten, I’m on the other side of the street with the clever, rea­son­able, pur­pose­ful folk with sani­tised hands. But my job, my trade, took me to the refugees. And I can’t put their tes­ta­ment down.’

Cross­ing that street, Gill makes clear, has much the same ef­fect as meet­ing Akkad. To see the peo­ple be­hind the words ‘refugee cri­sis’ makes it im­pos­si­ble to con­tinue on our cur­rent track of clear-eyed cold­ness and dis­af­fec­tion. Lampe­dusa, Italy’s south­ern­most ex­trem­ity, is so close to the source of the prob­lem that it can­not avoid in­volve­ment. Gill praises the Lampe­du­sans’ ‘re­mark­able and sur­pris­ing’ care and good­will to­wards im­mi­grants. He claims that ‘the rea­son the Lampe­du­sans are kind and good to th­ese des­per­ate vis­i­tors is be­cause they can be. They’ve met them and they see them; the rea­son we can talk about ‘them’ as a prob­lem, a plague on our bor­ders, is be­cause we don’t see them.’ His project then, much like Akkad’s, is to in­crease the vis­i­bil­ity of the shame­ful sub­ject that we are oth­er­wise so will­ing, with Bri­tish ex­per­tise, to sweep un­der the car­pet.

Gill ex­cels at balancing sug­ges­tion with the more heavy-handed moral repro­ba­tion that could so eas­ily seep into such an ac­count. Not only would a pre­sen­ta­tion of the jour­nal­ist as saviour be nau­se­at­ingly self-right­eous, but also dam­ag­ingly in­ac­cu­rate. In­stead, he is, un­apolo­get­i­cally, a sim­ple ob­server with no mission other than that of look­ing for sto­ries. When a refugee in Jor­dan shouts at him, ‘Where is your NATO? It is be­cause we are Mus­lim they don’t come’, he is sim­ply the mes­sen­ger re­lay­ing events. When an in­cred­i­bly self­less nun in the Congo thanks him for hear­ing their sto­ries, he tells us ‘of course, it’s not re­ally me they thank, it’s you for lis­ten­ing.’ Com­pas­sion is some­thing that well-told sto­ries trans­mit nat­u­rally, by os­mo­sis – they need nei­ther ca­jol­ing nor trite para­bles. On oc­ca­sion, how­ever, Gill looks up at us out of the pages of his book – not to tell us what to think, but just to re­mind us to think – ‘con­sider this’, he’ll say, ‘con­sider what it means to be state­less’ or ‘con­sider how it feels to be this woman.’ It’s a gen­tle re­minder that it’s not just the heart that en­gages us in th­ese sto­ries, but the head; com­pas­sion is as much prag­matic and sen­si­ble as emo­tional.

Gill’s death just be­fore last Christ­mas was fol­lowed by a steady ac­cu­mu­la­tion of ac­co­lades nam­ing him as ‘the great­est jour­nal­ist of our time’, the voice of a gen­er­a­tion, etcetera. He con­jures images of peo­ple, places, and sit­u­a­tions mag­nif­i­cently. But one of his rarer tal­ents is the

co­me­dian’s knack for tim­ing and el­lip­sis, know­ing when to stop, when to hold back. His col­lec­tion is not a cat­a­logue of heart-wrench­ing tear­jerk­ers, spell­ing out the push fac­tors im­pact­ing refugees in a bid to con­vince us that they de­serve our pity. In­stead, Gill points out that most refugees’ sto­ries are mun­dane in their sim­i­lar­ity, obliquely re­veal­ing a sorry state of af­fairs where tales of ut­ter loss and de­struc­tion are, quite sim­ply, rou­tine. He has an eye for irony, de­scrib­ing Bri­tish hol­i­day­mak­ers to Kos as ‘eco­nomic mi­grants’ in par­al­lel with the refugees who pay 20 times the money for the trou­ble of get­ting there:

The joke’s on them though when ‘a mus­cle-bound blond boy, his VW Camper parked nearby, kitesurfs through the float­ing de­tri­tus of ex­o­dus, skip­ping over the spume of aban­doned lives. It’s an im­age of such vain, vaunt­ing solip­sism that it de­fies satire.

Gill’s care­ful cu­ra­tion of tales from refugees around the world re­minds us, too, that the term ‘refugee cri­sis’ is a mis­nomer. He quotes Giusi Ni­col­ini, the mayor of Lampe­dusa – ‘This is not a cri­sis. It is not a cri­sis at all. We have been tak­ing in refugees ev­ery week for 15 years. They are not a prob­lem. They are not the fault.’ The dis­place­ment of the Syr­ian peo­ple is some­thing that has been in our pe­riph­eral vision, but is front and cen­tre only now that we might ac­tu­ally have to deal with it. A quar­ter of Le­banon’s pop­u­la­tion is made up of refugees, a sit­u­a­tion that we have never been con­cerned with deem­ing a ‘cri­sis’ de­spite the fact that, as Gill points out, the equiv­a­lent for us would be ‘the en­tire pop­u­la­tions of Nor­way, Nicaragua, Den­mark and Croa­tia turn­ing up pen­ni­less on the South coast, mostly made up of women and chil­dren.’ Gill widens our per­spec­tive, ex­pos­ing us to the per­ilous sit­u­a­tion of refugees in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo be­cause of rebel at­tacks and the toxic rape pan­demic and the al­most hope­less sit­u­a­tion of the most per­se­cuted peo­ple on the earth, the Ro­hingyas. Only when the refugees reach our shores do we con­sider them a cri­sis, even as we let the ships that carry them here sink, do­ing pre­cious lit­tle to abate the so-called dis­as­ter.

Gill’s pur­pose as a jour­nal­ist, then, is to bring for­ward the refugees’ sto­ries

so that we treat them with com­pas­sion when they knock at our door. Where Gill strives to make the refugees fa­mil­iar, Richard Mosse aims to alien­ate. In­com­ing is his im­mer­sive, multi-chan­nel video in­stal­la­tion at the Bar­bican’s Curve gallery. The con­cep­tual doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher and Deutsche Borse Pho­tog­ra­phy prize win­ner worked with a mil­i­tary­grade tele­photo cam­era pow­er­ful enough to pick up hu­man bod­ies from over 30 km away, us­ing it to record scenes from refugee crises across the Mid­dle East, North Africa and Europe. Scenes of tar­pau­lin-strewn beaches, chil­dren play­ing in refugee camps, women rest­ing un­der foil beaches – scenes that we have seen be­fore in pho­to­jour­nal­ism – are ren­dered haunt­ing and strange un­der the lens of this spec­tral tech­nol­ogy.

Gill de­scribes a refugee camp as ‘a com­mu­nity with ev­ery­thing good and hope­ful and com­fort­ing about com­mu­nity taken out.’ Mosse’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy trans­lates this lit­er­ally, suck­ing the life out of the images recorded. The cam­eras record heat alone, trans­form­ing peo­ple into eerie lu­mi­nous crea­tures with­out race, re­li­gion or creed. Ex­plain­ing his choice of medium, Mosse ex­plains ‘the im­agery that this tech­nol­ogy pro­duces is so de­hu­man­ised – the per­son lit­er­ally glows – that the medium anonymises the sub­ject in ways that are both in­sid­i­ous and hu­mane.’ Peo­ple are re­duced to ghostly, monochro­matic fig­ures, rep­re­sent­ing them the way that they are of­ten talked about by those in power: as life­less en­ti­ties, ob­jects rather than sub­jects. The cruel lens of Mosse’s in­tru­sive cam­era serves as an apt metaphor for a pol­i­tics that treats them as blood­suck­ers that we must fend off; the fact that his artis­tic tool is a mil­i­tary weapon seems strangely fit­ting.

Still, against the odds, there is an en­tranc­ing beauty in the shots. The screens are over­whelm­ingly large, the vi­sions pro­jected upon them trans­fix­ing. Such a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion, shot with this daunt­ing ma­chine, does not seem like an apt recipe for aes­thet­ics. Yet episodes of ev­ery­day life in refugee camps are slowed with dream­like af­fect – a man kneel­ing for prayer be­comes a bea­con of peace­ful respite amid scenes of des­per­a­tion. Com­bined with an elec­tronic sound­track com­posed by Ben Frost, evoca­tive of drones, mis­siles, and dan­ger, the ef­fect is hyp­notic. It is like en­ter­ing into a vision of dystopian fic­tion – the hor­ror is so pro­nounced that it seems

sur­real, which makes it all the more pow­er­ful that it is, in fact, very real.

Tak­ing very dif­fer­ent paths, both Gill and Mosse’s re­sponses to the refugee cri­sis are, at heart, con­fronta­tional. Leave page and gallery alike and find that the images they con­jure have pushed their way into your thoughts, at­tempt­ing to wither the in­dif­fer­ence pro­mul­gated by the mes­sages that we see around us. This, ul­ti­mately, is where the power of cul­ture lies, forc­ing us to re­con­sider the neg­a­tive dis­course sur­round­ing refugees that pours into our ev­ery ori­fice, con­vert­ing the facts into faces, and ul­ti­mately, the per­sonal into the po­lit­i­cal.

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