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Like a new Titanic

Like a new Titanic

This column examines selected recent works of fiction that focus on refugees from the ‘Muslim world’. In his 2014 novel African Titanics, Abu Bakr Khaal imagines the passage of Eritrean migrants crossing the Mediterranean in an epidemic of collective madness. From the Middle Eastern perspective which is my concern, Nada Awar Jarrar’s An Unsafe Haven will be published in August. Set in Beirut, it is the first novel of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Much refugee literature predates the current crisis but anticipates or even predicts it. One author who represents Muslim asylum well is the Iraqi refugee in Finland, Hassan Blasim. In his Arabic-language short story collection, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009), Blasim depicts the trauma experienced by those who leave Iraq, as well as those who stay, following two Gulf Wars. In one story, ‘The Truck to Berlin’, Blasim sets the tone for his discussion of asylum:

“Obviously you already know many similarly tragic stories of migration and its horrors from the media, which have focused first and foremost on migrants drowning. My view is that as far as the public is concerned such mass drownings are an enjoyable film scene, like a new Titanic. The media do not, for example, carry reports of black comedy.”

Here Blasim prefigures Khaal’s comparison of the refugee disaster with the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic. He also alludes to his own aesthetic endeavour, which interweaves dark humour with horror.

Blasim makes urgent observations about asylum relating to language and performance. The narrator of ‘The Reality and the Record’ confesses that refugees are compelled by immigration law to speak two languages. The first, the story for the record, is a tactical one about persecution and likely death if the refugee does not flee the homeland. The second, or real stories “remain locked in the hearts of the refugees, for them to mull over in complete secrecy”. At the story’s end, the protagonist, after spinning a pungent tale of kidnapping, murder, and duplicity, suffers mental collapse and tells psychiatric workers his real story: “I want to sleep”.

My Name is Salma, the 2007 novel by Jordanian-British author Fadia Faqir, deals with Arab asylum in Britain. Bedouin protagonist Salma struggles with the correct language for an immigrant officer. He becomes impatient when she informs him that she wants to go to “river meets sea”, rather than ‘Exeter’. North African migrants whom Salma meets in Devon are adept at acting and pretend to be French to gain entry to Europe. Salma similarly learns to hide her feelings, and to open conversations with innocuous remarks about the weather. In these encounters, it again becomes clear that asylum-seeking entails performance.

Other shared themes in this literature include the invisibility of these refugees from Muslim backgrounds in a Europe nonetheless dependent upon their cheap labour. In parallel with the experience of the refugee, perceptions of Muslims are entangled with issues of visibility and invisibility (the Muslim refugee doubly so).

Modest Muslim fashion simultaneously conceals the body and exposes one’s religion, in a way that recalls Edward Said’s punning on the word ‘covering’ for both the media’s coverage of, and enshrouding the truth about, Muslims.

Faqir’s Salma claims asylum because she had a baby outside marriage and her brother wants to commit an ‘honour’ killing. Despite initial optimism about Britain, as a refugee she faces exclusion. Yet both Salma and her Pakistani-British friend Parvin (herself internally displaced after escaping a forced marriage) derive some empowerment from their concealment. Unseen during the day, in the evening refugees emerge alongside “homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics”, and other lost souls. Like “moss” they take over the city. Parvin compares migrants to shingles spreading over the body, “invisible, snake-like”. These images of viruses and invasive plant species represent an enabling inversion of the vocabulary of natural calamity so often deployed in discussions about immigration.

Often the refugees depicted in these texts desire to make themselves more invisible by blending into the ‘host’ society. Salma longs to slough off her identity by becoming a white woman. She fantasises about becoming a teenaged Goth or a blonde Englishwoman, and self-destructively considers plastic surgery to expunge her Arab identity. Salma’s wish to become white is disturbed, and she alleges a “severe psychological disorder” to claim asylum. Contrary to Salma’s own belief, this is no bogus excuse. She sees her brother hiding in the shadows with a gun wherever she goes, and is eventually put on medication for her post-traumatic delusions.

The refugee’s exaggerated desire to assimilate and attendant psychological problems are starkly exemplified in Blasim’s story ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’. Its protagonist Salim Abdul Husain moves to the Netherlands from war-torn Iraq. He tries to “bury his identity” by learning fluent Dutch, adopting anti-immigration politics, marrying a Dutch woman, and forgetting his past. Salim assumes the name Carlos Fuentes, taken from a literary magazine, because a friend advises him that it is better to have any other ‘brown name’ than an Arab imprimatur in Europe. His downfall comes when he has a lucid dream and decides to slaughter Iraqis in one of his recurring nightmares so as to recover his untroubled existence in Holland. In confusion and despair, he ends up taking his life. Against his earlier ambitions, he is remembered as an Iraqi who killed himself and was buried in his home country. His highly visible act of self-definition is misinterpreted and erased by the ‘host’ society.

These writers also literalise the burden of traumatic memories that refugees have to shoulder. Parvin describes Salma as “a Bedouin woman with baggage”, and Salma’s heavy suitcase contains an exquisite dress she has embroidered for the baby daughter she abandoned in Jordan. In Blasim’s ‘Ali’s Bag’, the titular travel bag contains the head of his dead mother which refugee Ali al-Basrawi is hoping to bury safely in Europe. During his months of travel Ali refuses to be parted with the bag, talking to his mother’s skull when no one is around. He then literally loses his head in an altercation with border guards in a forest on the Turkish-Greek frontier. Rarely has the issue of migrants’ excess baggage been illustrated so graphically.

Left in Ali’s bag are the rest of his mother’s bones, some grooming products, a Quran, and a picture of Imam Ali. Salma takes similar belongings from Jordan to Britain: “a reed pipe ... a brown comb with a few of the teeth missing, a Quran, a black madraqa, my mother’s shawl”. This suggests that Islam is not viewed in abstract terms by the majority of Muslim refugees, but as a concrete, practical, and indispensible part of everyday life.

While it would be simplistic to impose a pattern on this body of writing because diversity is its strength, certain important themes recur (especially performance, invisibility, and baggage), as having resonance for both refugees and Muslims. What is gained for an understanding of asylum from reading it through accounts of specifically Muslim experience is, firstly, an awareness of the asymmetric number of refugees from Muslim backgrounds in the globally displaced population. Secondly, a glimpse is given of additional layers of discrimination faced by Muslim refugees in the current era of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic ‘coverage’.

Claire Chambers teaches Global Literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988.

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