We imagine our life to be lived through a singular journey in which we are striving for a meaningful existence. The start of this journey is predicated on the foundational idea that there is a basic being, the “self”. This “self” must actively engage with the world out there and accumulate experience so that it eventually assumes an identity. Once we are anchored in a secure space, we seek to stabilise this identity, to fix its position, while consciously or unconsciously proclaiming its coherency to all the other selves. The past, the present, and the future are the coordinates through which this journey is guided, each restored to their proper place, legitimising the next, through a linear conception of Time. This journey, the story goes, enables us to identify and lay claim to our “self” in the external world.
I imagine a different topography of our life: one in which there is no coherent self that becomes something or must be found externally out there, but a self that is continuously constituted by the world, and the world by it, in at every moment; a self whose identity is in constant flux, contested, provoked, thrown at us and thrown back again in different sites of location, the latter constituted by language, actions, interactions with those around, and by objects tangible and intangible. Even Time, in this life, is an imagined space, where the porous boundaries of past, present and future quickly collapse, and where potentially, all human experience can be felt in one infinite moment. It is not in the centre, but on the borders, the margins, the splits, the ruptures and shocks and tremors that break the continuity of life, where we come to feel, collectively, what it is to be human.
A few weeks back, I accompanied my father on the London Underground to the airport, so that he attend a work meeting in Vienna. Upon reaching the final destination, the doors of the train closed too abruptly it seemed, breaking our familiar but ever awkward goodbye-embrace and pats of reassurance. On the journey back to my den in Goodge Street, I thought about the books I had to read in the evening and the tasks to be completed for the next day. I remember incessantly recording the number of stations that had passed and would come to pass, and then mentally preparing myself to change for the District line at Earls Court station. Pushing myself to think that I had a genuine reason to be rushing when there really wasn’t one, I leaped on a train moments before it left the platform, its doors fortunately closing behind me.
“You lost? Have you come from Calais? Homeless are you?” Asked a man who looked like he was about thirty standing right in front of me.
“Excuse me....Calais?” I replied. I forced my chin up so that I could search his eyes. He was wearing a blue Chelsea shirt and his breath had the occasional whiff of stomach-fermented alcohol. Giggles echoed from two of his friends, one behind me and the other ahead of me.
“Oh, you know, Afghan boy, we destroyed your home in Calais. That’s why you 're here.”
Silence. I looked up and tried to identify the faces of all those who stood with me in the carriage. I sought desperately for a witness and a familiar shadow that would unburden the pang I felt deep inside my chest. My eyes caught the gaze of what appeared to be a shy, South Indian couple sharing an intimate moment, their bodies and shadows indistinguishable and their lips gently inviting each other, promising shelter from the tremors all around. Upon seeing me, their eyes fell downwards, fearful of what might ensue. Culture tourists speaking Spanish with their backs towards me were crowded in an impenetrable sphere to my right. My knees shook violently and I felt that I might just topple over, head first. My imagined “self” seemed irretrievable, shattering before me into a thousand shards of mirror.
“Oh this one has nothing to say. He’s homeless. He would live in a shack, even if we paid him twenty quid, I reckon. Dirty fellow. Speak English?”
Silence again. I started to feel dizzy, as when one’s blood sugar level drops upon meeting the harbinger of ill news. The linear outline of objects around me seemed to wobble a little. It was as if all that I saw was an illusion mirrored from a pool that began to ripple faintly.
“He does not even speak English. He does not even know where he’s come from or where he is.”
Silence. Images and thoughts of my past, my so-called “authentic” history, flashed before me; my grandparents leaving India; my parents being born in Kenya, then moving to England; the “respectability” of my English public school education; the sounds and smells of the British-Indian. “Who am I?” proclaimed my silence. As I began to mutter something under my breath, I looked up into his eyes again, becoming conscious of just how fragile these roots are. And then, through me, he revealed all – an awareness of not how different we are but how much we share with all human beings - if only for split second, before the cocksureness of his gaze returned.
“Ha. Can’t be bothered with this one.”
I bowed my head. I had a sudden urge to retaliate and reprimand him but I could not find the courage to do so. There was not sufficient conviction or will in me to use violence because in my contemplation of it, I kept being reminded of the face of Gandhi and his Satyagraha moment. His philosophy espoused in Hind Swaraj, which I had read only two weeks earlier, had become so deeply inscribed inside me that I could only think of meditating in silence as the train clunked its way along. As the next station approached, I hustled through the crowd of tourists - my palms tingling and my body aching for release – and stepped off the train, walking down a few carriages on the platform before getting on again. The doors closed.
Some of you who will be quick to judge this as another unfortunate incident of racist abuse arising from a culture of drinking amongst England’s football testosterone-filled fans or as the inevitable actions of a frustrated, violent individual. Either of these two would miss the point entirely. No, there was nothing exceptional about this man’s racist remarks. He was only jogging my transient memory of something which occurred only two weeks earlier when the French government, with the British government’s delightful nod of approval, violently raided and destroyed another camp set up to provide shelter to a community – a significant proportion of whom are orphans of war- wishing to cross the Channel to legitimately claim asylum in the U.K. Having succeeded in refreshing that brutal image in to my mind, that man ironically forgot to mention one other thing: Afghan refugees have fled a war which the British government has waged against a so-called enemy who not so many years ago was its closest ally in the region during the Cold War. “We are here because you are there” does not seem to ring loud enough in the ears of those that like to blow trumpets for the British state.
There is not one racism but many, and a new, sinister variant has sunk deep into the mainstream culture of Britain: one which centres upon ridiculing and defacing the real suffering of the millions of people who have fled their countries of birth for reasons almost entirely beyond their control. It is a racism strikingly felt in what that man meant (and perhaps in what countless others have remarked or thought of in the cosiness of their living rooms), when he dismissed me as "Afghan boy". This description testifies to the existence of racism(s) from previous eras in the form(s) first of “Orientalism” – that is, where people of an imagined “Orient” are eroticised, casted as inferior, irrational, primitive or dirty – and second, of that age old racism which centres on discriminating on the basis of one’s skin, both of which are alive and kicking today. But more specifically, the enunciation of the term “Afghan boy” fossilizes the image of a someone that is permanently stateless, citizen-less, home-less, someone who does not belong here, without territory, and without face or identity. His imagined passivity, innocence and un-cleanliness is a focus of society’s maybe conscious/unconscious desire to exploit him and then cast him out institutionally so that he is hidden, invisible and erased from our society’s memory. It is the convergence of all these mythical attributes of many racisms - cultural, visual and institutional - which is a very disturbing reality of our times.
Racism and myth are inseparable from each other since racism(s) are a socially engineered system devised by some individuals to establish mastery over others through attributing or negating, imagined characteristics between human beings. In what might be termed visual or cultural racism, characteristics are generalised and in turn attributed to a group of people based on their appearance and behaviour. For example, to call someone “white” or “black” is to use the language of colour of one’s skin to attribute some quality to someone who is “black”, that is apparently different from the person who happens to be “white”. If we emptied the mythical attributes of each of these colours, then “white” and “black” would be no more than a description of the rich shades that our perception of the world is endowed with. This is not to deny the history of all those that have suffered at the hands of racism(s), but to question how far we can exist politically and socially through the idiom of race on the basis of the colour of one’s skin.
The origins of racism can be found at the point of encounter of the colonial project, when the European coloniser voyaged to first explore, and then appropriate the lands and resources of the earth from the 15th century onwards. Although in past millennia, our non-European ancestry did show hostility and prejudice to “foreigners” in distant lands, and in some cases enslaved them, prior to European colonisation, there was no systematic derogation of the “Other” through the artificial coding of an imagined race.
Throughout the ages, racism(s) has not been a stagnant system but has taken on different guises, which have been contingent upon the motives of those who employ racist ideology. The fact that it is undergoing a perpetual metamorphosis can be understood by how victims of racism can quickly become its perpetrators. One of the guys who was laughing at his friend’s commentary, was – albeit under a the shadow of guilt – black, a fact which should neither surprise us, nor lead us to feel that black or brown or yellow people should be more sensitive to racism because they are or have been victims of it. This portrays a shallow understanding of racism because it fails to recognise the wide spectre of prejudices that are weaved out of diverse and entangled threads pertaining to one’s culture, class, religion, sexuality, and added to this list today, institutional racism, which categorises people as inferior or superior according to whether or not they have formal citizenship and thus “belong” to this country. This obliges us to not only be aware of racism’s colour brands but to be ever alert as to the sheer complexity of its location through other articulations involving sights, speech, smells and sounds. Nowhere is the complexity of a real and brutal racism found to be greater than in the myths feeding off the presence of those very brave and courageous refugees and asylum seekers inside and outside the borders of this country.
The asylum seeker, the refugee or the new immigrant still remains today’s Outsider, who is perceived to pose a threat to not only our so-called stable identity, but to the imagined identity of the British State. The State has only just begun, albeit unwillingly, to accept the post-second World War Wind-Rush and commonwealth immigrants into the history of a “multi-cultured” Britain. Now the arrival of these new immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers is just too much to handle because they do not live up to any of the pages in the state’s guide of “how to become a good British citizen” – unless of course you are “high-skilled” or have sufficient funds in your account to deliver to the exchequer. In the past decade, the government’s notion of citizenship has been centred upon acquiring “British values” – as if somehow we derive our identity and values from the state. Yet instead of simply ignoring or banishing these people, the state makes use of them in the most brutal terms by first exploiting them and rendering their real existence invisible from our sight, and second, through creating its own image of them as the “Outsider” - “un-belonging” - which is circulated as part of a narrative to sustain the valour and glory of a British state. In the latter story, the state requires the “Outsider” to continuously renew and regenerate its own identity and affirm its position as a First World Nation against Second, Third, Fourth, “Bottom Billion” worlds outside our sacred borders.
New Immigrants – discounting the economically “skilled” or “productive” – who are either legal or illegal are invisible because they inhabit a “subterranean” economy, without which the open economy that we read about in our newspapers would not survive. The majority of new immigrants have come to the U.K either because there are no jobs back home or because the income at home is not sufficient to ensure the well-being of themselves and their families. Yet, let us not fool ourselves in thinking that they come here simply out of their own choice; it is the underbelly of all the metropolitan centres of our global economy, which together form a network to allow capital to move freely in between, that pulls this labour from various part of the world to feed on. And this “subterranean” economy is invisible because our society refuses to acknowledge its existence; one only has to think about how cleaners in offices are stripped of their humanity, and exist only to the extent that they fulfil a specific function, outside of daylight hours, to make sure our desks and workplaces are clean for the next day. There is no possibility of meaningful engagement of any kind. On those rare occasions when we do meet them, we either ignore them or try to spark up superficial conversation that, deep down, cannot help but express little more than pity for who they are and the work they do.
State exploitation and racism towards refugees and asylum seekers is of a different kind, because it is directly constitutive of the state’s apparatus in administrating and controlling society. The exploitation, however, is arguably the most violent one because the administration surrounding the categories of refugee and asylum seeker is aligned with that ever elusive goal of becoming a “citizen”. The British government invented the category of an “asylum seeker”, the lowest human in the pathway to citizenship, as a physical and psychological barrier that one must cross in order to become a refugee (the second-lowest human). Every individual, who is fleeing persecution in their own country, and who arrives in the U.K to claim asylum enters this no man’s territory of “being” an asylum seeker, where he or she is forced to prove his worth to stay here before attaining refugee status. In this state of limbo, the asylum seeker is uncoupled from the dignity of human will and agency since he is effectively at the mercy of the state; he is ghettoised by being forced to live in certain places and has no means of economic independence because he is not allowed to work, and instead must rely on a meager state income, currently at £35.13 per week. Once he is a refugee, he or she acquires broadly the same rights as UK citizens, but is still not sufficiently a citizen, until he once again proves himself to be socially worthy of it.
The movement of people between and outside of these categories is managed by a whole “professional” class of civil-servants, based at the Home Office. This expanding, feared and revered department epitomizes the impersonal and violent bureaucracy of the state’s administration of society: asylum seekers and refugees are de-faced by its work, to end up as mere files simply to be inputted by professionals into a computer system; entries to be managed and decided upon before being deleted forever. The Home Office’s bureaucracy is legitimised because it is portrayed as a professional, apolitical and efficient means of processing applications; yet to deny someone the right to asylum is one of the most extreme political and personal acts that one can commit.
Whilst the industrial defacement of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers continues, the state’s creative mind is simultaneously at work in an effort to construct the language, image, signs and signals of the “Other” from all these categories as part of sustaining its own identity. Nowhere is this more viciously circulated than in today’s mainstream media which are effectively an "invisible hand" of the state bureaucracy. From all sides of the political spectrum and from high to low brow news outlets, the message of the stories is the same, though communicated in different guises; “British population to grow due to immigrant baby growth”, “ Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe and the World”, and “Britain asylum population grows (or decreases)”. One wonders whether “post-imperial melancholic” Britain will ever come to terms with itself. This will only happen if we start to make Britain reflect more deeply on itself, challenging on a daily basis the existence of the “Other” and speak out against the oppressive treatment of people that are fundamentally no different from you or me.
Ironically, this incidence of racism was not literally meant for me because I am not a refugee nor am I from Afghanistan. The fact that I was its target based on what that individual attributed to my appearance and behaviour is sufficient proof of the falsity of race, and the absurd, self-destructive logic of racism. Beyond discovering what it must feel like to be demeaned and de-faced, as well as the corollary that was the immeasurable solidarity I felt with the refugee from Afghanistan, there was something much deeper to be recognised here in terms of understanding how we come to represent and interpret the world around us. What if I was not able to recognise the lines of association, the divisions embedded in language and action that the racist threw at me? Instead of equally drawing upon the image of the Afghan refugee at the site of reality which the racist exposed me to, what if I existed within a site where this image meant nothing to me, or something completely different? What if my encounter with the racist was located at a different site; a site where the points of our social configuration of reality are radically different, where for example, the notion of state, borders, citizen, racism, the self, refugee/asylum seeker, are non-existent and meaningless? This possibility appears obscure to us because it is incommensurable with all the sites of reality that currently gives sense to the world around us. But that does not mean it is unreachable. If only we start to negate the racist’s configuration of social reality, and start to contemplate the infinite possibilities of different sites of location of our human existence, can our world of irreconcilable differences become reconcilable? We can never know in advance what emerges when a different site of location comes into being because of the sheer complexity of the world around us; but an acknowledgement of the intractability of our current site of location, where racism does have a reality, is the first step towards making the existence of a new site of location possible.
Almost one hour after this racist incident, I was sitting in the Royal Festival Hall, listening to the subliminal music of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and his party, in collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, commemorating the life of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There we were sat, some three thousand of us, bastard children of the British Empire, torn apart from each other through the creation of various countries in South Asia, and yet stirred together by the voices of the sufi, echoing in and out of the strings and beats of an orchestral harmony, the words,
Yeh Joh Halka Halka Saroor Ha This mild intoxication
Yeh Teri Nazar Ka Qasoor Hai It is the fault of your gaze
Ke Sharab Peena Sikha Diya That you have taught me how to drink
Tairay Pyar Nai, Teri Chaah Nai With my desire, my longing for you
It was not a fusion of an East meeting West, but a sound where East dipped into West, and West dipped into East, and where a new vernacular was being born. It was not looking to India or Pakistan or Bangladesh for an “authentic” identity or “calling” for the Mother or Fatherland. It was the sound of life being created here, nomadic - not without home but not a home in borders. A home which is never stable, but is located and then dislocated, in which our actions and those of others are embedded, alive and called upon to be renewed.
Who am I? A British-Asian? South-Asian? Professional? Primitive? Paki? Dirty Afghan? Call me what you want. I was all and none of these. It depends on where you are located, whether or not you give meaning to these quite meaningless words.