One cold night in late February, in a barren land surrounded by huge rugged mountains, I stood on a gravel road, like any other road in this rural area. Midnight passed; the whole landscape was wrapped in silence. The road separated Iran from Afghanistan. It was the border. Shrouded in a deadly stillness was the road; one of the most sanguinary borders in the world laid in wait for its next prey. It was a moonless night. ‘Good! The darkness shelters us’, said my smuggler. Indeed, it is not fair for him to be called a smuggler, as it was he who rescued me from certain death in a dreadful war. The gravel road separated two states, defining two sorts of human beings. It was not a road but a wall – according to law – invisible to the eyes.
‘If I take a step’, I thought, ‘I will be somewhere else. When my foot touches the ground on the other side of the road, I will not be the same person. If I take this step, I will be an “illegal” person and the world will never be the same again’. That night I took that step and my odyssey of ‘illegality’ began.
On 25 May, Fatemeh-Kian G.S., a 50-year-old Iranian transsexual, committed suicide in a detention centre north of Stockholm. She had fled Iran because of her sexual orientation and sought asylum in Sweden in November 2001. She had been arrested once by the moral police in Iran and been sentenced to 50 lashes for homosexuality. Her application for asylum was declined by the Swedish Migration Board in the last weeks of 2002 and again by a higher court in February 2004. She believed that she would be severely punished if she were sent back to Iran. Despite her lack of travel documents, the police attempted to take her forcibly to the Iranian embassy in late March 2004, but she resisted and refused to cooperate. She was placed in the detention centre in north Stockholm. A friend testified that the staff at the centre were annoyed by her lack of cooperation. She was isolated and her pleas for medical attention were ignored. Suffering from psychological stress and insomnia, her requests for medical treatment were met with disbelief and indifference. Abandoned and depressed, she attempted suicide in early May, but was saved by other detainees. She was hospitalized overnight and returned to the detention centre the next day, accused of faking suicide. Thereafter her psychological condition deteriorated.
The activists who met her in detention say that Fatemeh-Kian suffered constantly from dizziness and stress. She also had physical injuries. Her friend who saw Fatemeh-Kian’s body in the mortuary photographed her feet, which were badly injured. Fatemeh-Kian asked for help just four days before her death, saying that she was sick and could not sleep. She asked to see a doctor but her request was ignored. On 25 May, the staff of the centre found Fatemeh-Kian dead in her room. Alone and disbelieved, she had committed suicide with anti-depressant pills. It later emerged that there was no documentation of her first suicide attempt and that staff at the centre had not been informed of her psychological condition.
Fatemeh-Kian G.S. who, according to case workers and friends was an atheist, was buried in the Muslim section of a cemetery near the detention centre, and a simple metal grave marker in the shape of a cross was put on her grave. When I visited her grave in January 2007, there was still no gravestone to say who was buried there. The municipal council argued that local tax revenues should not be used for a gravestone for Fatemeh-Kian.
The agony of her life and death, her bodily, sexual, and geographical displacement, her journey for hope and loss of hope in the Swedish detention centre, and finally her displacement even after death – alienhood completed – opened my eyes to the world I live in.
This is about borders and border transgressors. The paradigmatic image of the world today is undoubtedly one of bodies, squeezed between pallets inside a truck. The picture is taken by an X-ray camera on a border between nation-states. It exposes those that are invisible, the people without papers on the wrong side of the border. The X-ray image shows the naked, white bodies on a black background – a silhouette of human beings. Metaphorically, human bodies are also stripped: of their political rights. The image depicts a depoliticized body, in Giorgio Agamben’s words, the homo sacer (1998), personifying ‘the naked life’, which differs from the politicized form of life explicitly represented in the notion of citizenship. The X-ray image testifies to a hegemonic topography of borders.
Ours is a time of the triumph of borders, an epoch of border fetishism. Borders determine how the world looks. The map represents the world as a mosaic of unities, of nations, with clear outlines and distinct in different colours. Borders are constructed to designate difference. Today’s political map resembles, in Ernest Gellner’s words, Modigliani’s painting style: ‘neat flat surfaces are clearly separated from each other, it is generally plain where one begins and another ends, and there is little if any ambiguity or overlap’ (Gellner 1990:139–140). There is no intermission between borders. Borders appear unbreakable as if they have always been there. Natural barriers, such as rivers, mountains and deserts, are used to designate borders, and thereby to naturalize them. In this way, borders are presented as primordial, timeless, as part of nature.
Borders symbolize the sovereignty of states. A nation-state can be imagined (Anderson 1983) only through its borders. The nation-state system is based on the functional nexus between a determinate localization (territory) and a determinate order (the state), a nexus mediated by automatic regulations for inscription of life, individual or national (Agamben 2000:42). In the nation-state system, zoé, naked biological life, is immediately transformed into bios, political life or citizenship. The link between life/birth and the nation becomes obviously naturalized in language. The terms ‘native’ and ‘nation’ have the same Latin root as does the word for birth, nascere.
While borders are manifestations of national imagination, they are also bodily experiences. They are built to be sensed. Borders are constructed in a way to be highly visible with signs, colours, fences, and concrete. Indeed, they are designed to cause pain and hurt bodies. Razor wires cut the flesh of anyone who attempts to go through them. Walls are built tall to cause injuries to those who try to climb them. If not harmed by the border itself, travellers without papers are harmed by border guards. Rape as a border ‘tariff’ for a passage to the other side is a recurrent custom along many borders. Borders have also tastes. Through the deserts of Arizona border crossers sense the border through dry mouths with increasing thirst that cause a bitter metallic taste. Borders are designed to be sensed emotionally as well. The taste of borders for undesirable travellers is a hint of humiliation and shame.
The borders of nation-states have thus come to constitute a natural order in many dimensions of human life (Malkki 1995a:5). Borders are no longer the simple edges of a state. ‘Borders shape our perception of the world ... border thinking is a major component of our consciousness of the world’ (Rumford 2006:166). Borders are the essential reference of communal sense, of identity. They are not only external realities but also ‘colour bars’ situated everywhere and nowhere (Balibar 2002:78).
The national order of things usually passes as the normal or natural order of things. It is self-evident that ‘real’ nations are fixed in space and marked by their borders (Malkki 1992:26). Malkki argues that naturalizing the border regime leads to a vision of border crossing as pathological (1992:34). Displacement – or, in the botanical jargon of the national order of things, uprootedness – is believed to result in an ‘unnatural’ mode of being. Border transgressors break the link between ‘nativity’ and nationality and bring the nation-state system into crisis.
According to this view, violation of the border regime is a violation of ethical and aesthetic norms. If in the nation-state system unidentified asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants represent such ‘a disquieting element, it is above all because by breaking up the identity between man and citizen, between nativity and nationality, [they] throw into crisis the original fiction of sovereignty’ (Agamben 1995). It is not surprising that they are seen as a political and symbolic threat to national sovereignty or purity. In Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas explored how distinguishing purity from impurity is a mechanism for preserving social structure and for determining what is morally acceptable. Undocumented migrants and unauthorized border crossers are polluted and polluting because of their very unclassifiability (Malkki 1995a; 1995b). As ‘transitional beings [they] are particularly polluting, since they are neither one thing nor another; or maybe both; or neither here nor there...and are at the very least “betwixt and between” all the recognized fixed points in the space-time of cultural classification’ (Turner 1967:97).
Through politico–juridical discourse and regulation, this system creates a politicized human being (a citizen of a nation-state) but also a by-product, a politically unidentifiable ‘leftover’, a ‘no-longer-human being’ (Schütz 2000:121). Sent back and forth between sovereign states, humiliated, and represented as polluted and polluting bodies, stateless asylum seekers and irregular migrants are excluded and become the detritus of humanity, leading wasted lives (Rajaram and Grundy-Warr 2004). The modern nation-state has claimed the right to preside over the distinction between useful (legitimate) and wasted (illegitimate) lives (Bauman 2004:33).
These wasted lives are the homo sacer of the present. Agamben (1998) uses the term homo sacer from Roman law to describe an existence and condition of someone who has been stripped of membership in society and thereby of his or her rights. According to Roman law, homines sacri could be killed without it being considered murder. The homo sacer is reduced from a complete political being to a simple biological or natural body, stripped of all rights. In their capacity as homines sacri, irregular immigrants are left vulnerable not only to state violence (through regulations, political arrangements, laws, priorities, and police) but also to the violence of ordinary citizens, without being able to protect or defend themselves (Rajaram and Grundy-Warr 2004:57).
‘Illegal’ border crossing challenges the sacramental aspect of the border rituals and symbols. Moreover, it is seen as a criminal act deserving punishment. The border system is governed by criminalization: as Simon (2007) puts it, ‘governing through crime’ makes crime and punishment the institutional context whereby a criminal population (for example, the poor, ‘illegal’ immigrants, asylum seekers, and ‘terrorists’) is constructed and excluded (see also Rose 1999:259). The justification for governing by criminalization is to protect citizens from the threats of anti-citizens (see Inda 2006). Criminals, poor people, homeless people, undocumented immigrants, and unidentified asylum seekers are all seen as threats to the wellbeing of the social body. Immigration penality ‘constitutes and enforces borders, polices non-citizens, identifies those deemed dangerous, diseased, deceitful, or destitute, and refuses them entry or casts them out’ (Pratt 2005:1). Targeting undesirable non-citizens, governing by criminalization, is done by enforcing harsher external and internal border controls, confinement, and forced deportation. The border is performed by the state on the travelling bodies (Wilson and Weber 2008).
For some people – all kinds of migrants and people who live along borders – crossing borders is an inescapable feature of life; it is a mode of being in the world (Willen 2007). Based on a racially discriminating way of thinking, borders regulate movements of people. While a small category of people enjoy unrestricted mobility rights, most people are caught within borders. The regulation of mobility operates through social sorting that involves sexual, gender, racial and class inequalities. The social sorting of travellers starts long before they reach the border (Wilson and Weber 2008). Travellers from ‘suspect’ nations are subjected to a high degree of control via a stringent visa process.
Borders, however, are also spaces of defiance and resistance. ‘Illegal’ border crossing and borders are defined in terms of each other: the existence of borders is the very basis of this form of travelling (Donnan and Wilson 1999:101). Migration and borders are also defined in relation to each other. Where there is a border, there is also border crossing, legal as well as illegal.
In my years as an anthropologist, I have been astonished at how my informants’ experiences overlapped, confirmed, completed, and recalled my own experiences of borders. Similarities between informants’ subjective experiences and my own blur the distinction between anthropologist and informants. This challenges imposed identities and boundaries and offers forms of meaning alternative to the dominant discourse (Pratt 1992).
Through poetic thinking, one does not focus either on one’s own subjectivity or on the objectivity of the world, but on what emerges from the space between (Stoller 2009). From this space, one can tell the story of those whose history has been crushed underfoot. Like Benjamin in his work on The Arcade Project, though poetic thinking, one becomes a ‘ragpicker’; picking up the refuse of history, gathering all that is disregarded. Following Benjamin, I believe that ‘waste materials are to enter into significant connections and fragments are used to gain a new perspective on history’ (Benjamin 2007:252–253): To collect stories of the ‘illegals’: stateless people, failed asylum seekers, undocumented and unregistered people, those who are hidden and clandestine.
An excerpt from the book ‘Illegal' Traveller by Shahram Khosravi ( Palgrave Macmillan 2010).