Who are we?

DoorwayA recent article in the London Review of Books (3 March 2016), Where on Earth are you? by Frances Stoner Saunders along with Tommy Wieringa’s novel, These Are The Names (Scribe, 2012) have provided much food for thought.

Saunders’ article introduces the idea of thresholds that we assume constant, stable; ones that we can anticipate crossing whenever we wish.

“The one border we all cross, so often and with such well-rehearsed reflexes that we barely notice it, is the threshold of our own home. We open the front door, we close the front door: it’s the most basic geographical habit…”

In this vein he examines the plight of the refugee who no longer is able to cross and recross this threshold or indeed does not have the confidence to cross any territorial threshold because he or she has no verified self; that self that is verified by passports, visas and the paperwork that goes toward this verification.

Saunders tells the story of the pregnant woman on a boat with approximately 500 Eritreans and Somalis that sinks just off the island of Lampedusa. She was trapped in the bow of the boat. Her waters broke as the water rose and the boat slowly sank. She gave birth. She and the baby, still attached by the umbilical cord, were found among the bodies. She is nameless and stateless as is her drowned baby. She has no verified self. Saunders points out that “Everyone reading this has a verified self, an identity, formed through and confirmed by identification, that is attested to be ‘true’. There is, therefore, an imbalance between those of us who have and those that do not have a verified self.

We, or the governments that we elect, make decisions based on this imbalance. Those people fleeing their countries, seeking sanctuary in another, are denied that opportunity and labelled “illegitimate” because they are unable to verify themselves or their circumstances.

A recent letter from Peter Dutton written in response to my concerns about Australia’s treatment of refugees and the government’s reluctance to take up an offer from New Zealand to resettle a number of refugees currently detained on Nauru and Manus Islands appeared to refer to them as opportunities or commodities to be marketed by people smugglers. Somehow, their lack of verification appeared to dehumanise them when viewed through the eyes of policy makers. Fat with verification, Dutton has no idea, no empathy and certainly no compassion. The people arriving by boat, in particular, on
Australian shores currently are stateless, homeless and hopeless; they are often unverifiable and, as a consequence, without future.

There is little patience from those who have verification for those that don’t. In a paperful society it is hard to believe that many people may not even have a birth certificate. For those who do have access to paper it is difficult to comprehend that “people fleeing failed or repressive states to seek asylum elsewhere tend not to advertise the fact before walking into a government passport office”. Hence, Saunders continues “the role of people smugglers in the Scramble from Africa (and they might have learned a thing or two from the Scramble for Africa, which generated the biggest people-trafficking operations in history).

This highlights the difference between the have and have nots: whether you can easily cross the threshold of your home as often as you like.

Tommy Wieringa, I think, is also talking about identity, thresholds and what we flee from and where we hope to arrive. He presents two parallel narratives: a group of refugees escaping the chaos, corruption and breakdown of their communities or countries whether it is state based or a result of their own individual action and the story of a police commander, Pontus Beg, keeping order in a corrupt community, trying to honour the responsibility to oversee and enact the law.

Beg is haunted by a Yiddish song that his mother sang when he was a child. He realises when the last Rabbi of Michailopol identifies the song that his mother must have been a Jew, raising for him questions about his own identity. As he commences his own transformation, he begins a crossing to another internal country that provides him with structure and a value system in which he can have faith. Meanwhile the refugees must find a way and a system that will allow them to safely cross the Russian Steppes.

I think that Wieringa is also talking about religion, its genesis, its meaning and how that meaning can hold people together.

The refugees are taken by people smugglers from a town in Russia to somewhere on the Russian Steppes. They are told the border is directly West. They trudge and over the days, weeks and months, slowly starving, transforming into animals driven by survival and hope. Amongst them is an Ethiopian Christian, differentiated by his colour and language, who is unable to communicate with them. Superstitions grow around him and he is killed. Like the Jewish refugees crossing the Sinai carrying the bones of Joseph, the refugees carry the head of the Ethiopian believing that dead, he brings them luck.

They change their direction from West to South and arrive in Mikailopol.
They have crossed no country borders, only psychological ones, just as Beg has done.

Beg “adopts” one of the refugees, a young boy, and in doing so hopes to rid himself of the powerlessness and sadness he feels about a young girl found brutally murdered in a ditch, her body decomposed beyond recognition. There is a photo but no papers. She is unverifiable and nobody claims her.

Our lives and our deaths turn on our ability to be verified. Without verification, like the woman and her newborn, like the murdered girl, like the Ethiopian refugee, we are an official nothing. Beg, I think, wants to break through this and to verify himself to himself; to claim and be claimed. Identity is not just the papers you hold but also who you know you are.

But, of course, as every refugee trying to find acceptance in a new country, trying to find a safe haven, will tell us: that does not count in the scramble for the verified self, the possible passport to a another future in a new country.


Where on Earth are you


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