The 2022 StAnza Lecture by Mona Arshi.
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This piece was delivered as the 2022 StAnza Lecture on 11 March 2022 at StAnza, Scotland’s annual international poetry festival.
This lecture is about issues I’ve been exploring for many years – as a writer and poet, and as a human rights lawyer. But as we watch the destruction and horror of events in Ukraine, I am very aware of the moment in our history in which I’m sharing these words. There is a word in Hindi, sangam, which refers to the confluence of three rivers – a sacred place, a starting point, a location of rebirth. It feels very much as though, today, we stand soberly at the tip of the angle of the river’s edge.
I want to explore the texture of the idea of the migrant in 2022 – how we have got here, and what the framing of the migrant has meant for our culture, our literature, and our imaginations. Before I do, I’d like to thank two people who have helped me develop some of the thinking around these complex issues over the last few months. One is George Szirtes, a Hungarian poet who arrived in the UK as a child refugee in the 1950s. He was my teacher, and is a writer whose work keenly speaks to ideas of uprootedness and unbelonging – ‘I’ve always felt that my work is like a Budapest tenement on the edge of a British town’, he said once. The other is a lawyer, Raza Hussain QC, for his expertise and guidance on law relating to the Nationality and Borders Bill, which I will discuss in the hope of illuminating the idea of the migrant.
But this is not a lesson in law. It’s more of an enquiry – or, to borrow Ursula K. Le Guin’s phrase, an attempt ‘to learn which questions are unanswerable and not to answer them’, a skill ‘most needed in times of stress and darkness’.
How did we get here?
Some of the provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill would dismantle refugee rights and erode principles that we have taken for granted for decades. The 1951 Refugee Convention replaced previous regimes with a new system. (It’s not difficult to understand why, of course. In May 1939, more than 900 Jewish refugees fled Germany on the SS St. Louis, heading to Cuba. They were refused entry there, and in the US and Canada, because that they didn’t have visas or prior authorisation. They sailed back to Europe, and some 250 people were later killed in concentration camps.) This new piece of legislation effectively reverses the principle that pre-authorisation visas are not necessary. And so I want to ask how we got here – to discuss migration in all its complexities and contradictions, to pick at what Edward Said called its ‘potent even enriching motif of modern culture’, to ask us as writers and poets about the role we play and to look back at that which we have played in the past.
This is not a lecture in law. But linking the law and literature forces us to think about our culture in a different way: if stories are important, then the legislation that is passed expresses the basic values of our nation and culture and it too gives us narratives through which we live our lives; if those legal narrations are out of step with social change, they still communicate a state’s values. A good example is Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, finally repealed in June 2000, which prohibited “promoting the teaching of homosexuality”. These egregious provisions were, in effect, state-sanctioned homophobia, which stigmatised and caused harm to communities. But let’s not forget the narratives that the state was consciously writing at the same time.
In 2003, I was involved in a case representing several refugee and child welfare NGOs. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, had just passed the grizzliest piece of legislation I’d seen, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Section 55 of the Act prevented any government organisation assisting people who had arrived in the UK by irregular means, effectively destituting asylum seekers who failed to claim asylum upon arrival. The Court of Appeal heard the evidence and quickly overturned the legislation, noting that the Secretary of State couldn’t possibly have intended ‘that genuine refugees should be faced with the bleak alternatives of returning to persecution or of destitution’. Blunkett clarified his position the next morning in an interview: ‘no’, he corrected the judgement, he did indeed intend to do so; in other words, the aim of the legislation was to starve out refugees, and the courts were attempting to subvert the will of Parliament. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we are in all-too-familiar territory.
History has taught us that language can be deployed to otherise people and groups; a poem is not a human rights instrument or the pleadings in a court case, nor should it seek to be, but one activity that the human rights lawyer and the poet share is the restless interrogation of language. So what happens as the language of politics becomes untethered from critical reason – from the facts? One thing is that alongside the degradation of language comes a further degradation: the rupture of empathy, which leads us to the bleak realisation that the inviolable dignity of the human is loosening ever more from the table.
And the other thing up for grabs – though it was never really securely fastened to the table in the first place – is migrant rights.
The 2002 Act was the grizzliest piece of legislation I’d seen at the time. But it has been displaced by the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently bouncing between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as the most pernicious I’ve seen. The provisions in clause 11 will, for the first time, criminalise a refugee’s irregular entry into the UK; it will mean that anyone arriving in the UK by an illegal route, such as by a small boat across the Channel, will have their claim ruled as inadmissible. They will be liable to be prosecuted and receive a jail sentence of up to four years; they will have no recourse to public funds; they will no longer have access to family reunion. This legislation will effectively create a two-tier refugee system: “good” people who apply for asylum in the proper way will receive benefits and right to be joined by their family; those “bad” ones will be penalised, criminalised, and – even if they are allowed to stay – not permitted to have family join them. You will have been told that one of the reasons for the Act is to stem the flow of illegal immigration – to create safer passages, thus cutting the supply to people smugglers and those who exploit vulnerable displaced people. You will have also been told that it will be fairer for “genuine asylum seekers” who patiently wait for their turn. What you might not know is that there is no asylum queue. No such queue exists; no such plans for such a queue exist. You may also not know that 70% of asylum seekers are ultimately successful in their claims.
The other important point to make is that refugee status is a recognition, not a grant. Government lawyers are currently arguing that family reunion is not a fundamental part of the fabric of the UN Refugee Convention. Anyone working in the refugee sector will tell you that the reason this wasn’t explicitly articulated in that document is that the drafters could not contemplate any civilised nation not conferring this basic right to recognised refugees.
Movement is the basic condition of humanity. It’s how we’re fundamentally wired. We are human, therefore we move and migrate. We migrate on a cellular and molecular level, even; Dr Pontus Nordenfelt, an expert in infection biology, has observed that T cells are able to migrate to imperilled cells by attaching themselves to a surface, using their fronts to push to exert the force needed to release their rears from the surface, allowing themselves to roll forwards. And this microscopic movement is a part of the movements that are our condition, the condition and idea of movement with which we have been constantly fixated in our language, and which form the very backbone of our literature, the marrow of the bones of our ancient texts.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote the following passage on the condition of exile in which he found himself:
There is a sort of inborn restlessness in the human spirit and an urge to change one’s abode; for man is endowed with a mind which is changeable and unsettled: nowhere at rest, it darts about and directs its thoughts to all places known and unknown, a wanderer who cannot endure repose and delights.
Czesław Miłosz, in his Poetics, articulates the permeable boundaries in which we operate as poets:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person
For our house is open there are no keys in the doors and invisible guests come in and out at will
Every text we read has a journey inside it; every culture has stories that contain the motif of the stranger or the loneliest exile arriving and encountering the host. Our fairy tales and mythmaking are often used to communicate customs to the tribe. And how often they envisage a stranger’s entrance: Hansel and Gretel, starving kids crossing the threshold of the witch’s house; the Cyclops eating at Odysseus’s men when they seek respite from a storm. Will the host hoodwink the arrivant with his odd, tilted hat and that accent, or will they, like Telemachus, fail to recognise their father in rags but still offer comfort and food? The Mahabharata, too, is steeped in rituals of welcome. The Sikh texts are replete with the idea of giving hospitality to the stranger, and it’s manifested in the offer of warmth and food of the langar hall. Jews, strangers in the land of Egypt, the ‘world’s archetypal strangers’, employ the language of hospitality in the Torah and Talmud.
Edmond Jabès, a Jewish poet of Egyptian origin forced into exile by the Suez Crisis, was haunted by the question of place and its loss. In le livre de l’hospitalite,he says:
One day I recognise that what was more important to me than anything else was how I define myself to the degree that I was a stranger I then realised that in his vulnerability stranger could only count on the hospitality that others could offer him just at work just as words benefit in the hospitality the white page offers them all the birds from the unconditional space of the sky.
In many ways, the migrant represents everything that a right-wing ideology despises. It celebrates the ambiguous, a hyphenated identity that’s complex and subject to mutation. Migration cannot be simply reduced to a familiar, banal script of itineraries, maps and attendant tourism. Thought travels; thought leaps. When we empathise for the human we exercise a muscle, a movement. The old adage there but for the grace of God go I perhaps articulates something basic in us that can be triggered – a pull of the imagination that makes us put ourselves in the stranger’s shoes, sometimes heeded as a warning to our children, more often a recognition that we are vulnerable to fate and illness and sheer bad luck.
Looking back at what went before is an ethical position. And we also need to remind ourselves that most narratives prior to the Enlightenment were not linear. The Palestinian writer Adania Shibli elucidates this when she talks the linear narrative as ‘a dictatorship which causes blindness’. Shibli’s novel Minor Detail centres on an event that takes place in 1949: a young Bedouin girl is discovered by an Israeli officer, who brutally rapes and then murders her. The book is in two parts: the first leads us into the mind of the officer, its cool, restrained, sharp narration at counterpoint to the sheer horror of the events; in the second, we meet a modern-day researcher carefully attempting to excavate and make sense of this ‘minor detail’ in history. Why does linearity cause blindness? Because it is beholden to a forward progression that refuses to look back and historicise. But if the present is always haunted by the past, then surely we have an obligation to put that past in this present; if we seek to tell the truth in our poems and in our stories, the past should not be erased.
I thought about this when I was writing my novel Somebody Loves You. The narrator is a young mute girl, Ruby, who has lived under the weather of her mother’s severe mental illness, and who has developed strategies – her wry sense of humour, her sensitive antennae – to help her navigate the world around her. Her story had to be told truthfully, and I could only do so by using different forms of writing. Memories – particularly traumatic or unresolved ones – often act like tripwires in our days; they can be triggered by the smallest, most banal things, and can pursue us like dogs in alleyways. We are so used to writing tidily, with certainty, but life is not this, is it? And Ruby’s life was not this either. If, when we write, we are striving to tell the truth, we may need to leave untidier endings – leave the live cables on the floor for the reader to choose to inspect or leave undisturbed. The Eastern European poets knew this, of course – the poets who deliberately refused to earth the cables because what they had witnessed had made them be left there.
When movement and migration are not desired but imposed, traumatic estrangement haunts the psyche. When I was working as a lawyer, a young teenager came to see me. He was an unaccompanied minor from Iraq who had become separated from his family en route. However hard we tried, we could not trace his parents. ‘I exist here’, he had said. ‘Technically I am breathing and my heart, here, under my shirt, is beating. But I exist only, I do not live’. This almost poetic utterance echoes Said’s painful observations of how estrangement affected his friends exiled and adrift: ‘To see a poet in exile – as opposed to reading the poetry of exile – is to see exile’s antimonies embodied and endured with a unique intensity’. Moving can hurt. Home is a contested term; even if the home you’ve left behind is burning to the ground, even if you are cast off and rejected and exiled like Said’s friend, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, that doesn’t mean it isn’t home. Perhaps, as we begin to criminalise the desperate, we should think about the costs of the stories that begin in the gap, or in the rip of a journey.
The writer Ian Chambers says that ‘the stranger is the ghost that shadows every discourse, is the disturbing interrogation, the estrangement, that potentially exists within us all. It is a presence that persists but cannot be effaced that draws me out of myself towards another’. The émigré, the nomad, the pilgrim, the traveller, the sojourner, the exiled, the refugee, the displaced, the migrant in all its configurations has always belonged, but these versions of stranger are in all of us, and necessarily arouse in us tensions between being at home and being at the point of departure .The stranger that is the ghost makes us plumb our own depths and look at the dark-blue matter in our souls. It also confirms that the migrant-stranger has always belonged somewhere.
All the terms I’ve referred to elicit a different response, and mirror our current narrations about who we allow on our shores for protection, and who we believe is here to benefit economically. The new narration of our so-called “migrant crises” doesn’t tell the truth of our histories – even our most recent ones. The term ‘refugee’ is under severe pressure from new tragedies that were never discussed in the 1950s, when the Refugee Convention was drafted. – environmental damage, the breakdown of regimes that trigger simultaneous political and economic collapse, and so on. Asylum visas are not possible; asylum queues do not exist; carriers will not fly travellers without visas: the whole complex maelstrom of human suffering is put through the tiny funnel named the ‘Refugee Process.’ The chilling reality is that nation-states have put people in impossible situations: in order to exercise a legal right, you must break the law. Persecution and hunger are a deadly cocktail. Would you want your children to drink it? Or, as Warsan Shire says in her poem ‘Home’:
no one leaves home unless
home is in the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
In August 2021, the government airlifted 15,000 Afghan citizens they described as friends of the UK: interpreters, teachers, army personnel, their families. It was genuinely moving watching these images. But six months later the window has jammed shut. The world and the language has moved on, and the same ‘friends’ we welcomed will be criminalised from May this year.
It’s easy for us to empathise with those people that resemble us and our children. How seamlessly we can extend our empathy and compassion to the suffering of Ukrainian families. It hasn’t surprised me that these families are within our orbit of empathy because they are ‘just like us’, ‘resemble us and could be us’ – phrases I’ve lifted from mainstream journalists and commentators. Fundamentally, a failure in our imagination is at stake: it’s a different type of work that’s necessary to empathise with the unknowable human, the stranger; a different sort of activity is required from us, to bring our imaginations to something that feels other. That’s why populations have looked away when rights are eroded from stigmatised communities – why Nuremburg Race Laws and Apartheid legislation are accepted in so-called “educated, civil populations” – because, when a state sets a narrative and passes the laws that criminalise, vilify and attempt to penalise human beings, half the work of rupturing empathy is already done.
What is happening in Ukraine is horrific. And the paucity of our government’s response in refugee assistance is depressingly inevitable: just look at the narrative that has been written by successive governments over the last 30 years.
‘History does not repeat, but it does instruct’, says Timothy Snyder. ‘History does not repeat, but it does rhyme’, say words attributed to Mark Twain. ‘We cannot understand [Fascism], but we can and must understand from where it springs. The difference between knowledge and understanding is key’, says Primo Levi. At the beginning The Book of Dialogue,Edmond Jabès also instructs:
‘The book does not begin’ he replied.
‘All beginnings are already in the book’.
A priori doubtful, interpretation of the book, because, at every turn, it is challenged by the opaque light of some word that might well be the key,
The text is rich where it shares this darkness.
‘To know that we can only penetrate the book after it has been taken from us.
‘That we inhabit only our losses’, he said
Language can do magic. We know this from history. If language can make people disappear, it can make citizenship and our claims to it disappear too. One minute we are citizens, the next our citizenship is conditional and contingent, strings attached. When she was Prime Minister, Theresa May gave a speech in which she threw down the gauntlet: there is no such thing as a citizen of the world, she said; ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’.
In my hands I hold three documents: the British passport I acquired at birth by the virtue of the fact that I was born in the UK before 1981; a document issued by the Indian High Commission that gives me overseas citizenship of India and allows me to travel into India without a visa, which I was able to obtain by virtue of the fact that my parents were born in India and were previously citizens of that country; a small pale-blue document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rights within which all of us are technically entitled to by virtue of our humanity. This last document is small but mighty.
Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, though, which was slipped in as late amendment, has something else up its sleeve. This clause seeks to expand the Secretary of State’s powers under the British Nationality Act 1981 to make an order stripping a person of British citizenship. In effect, the clause confers upon the Secretary of State wide and ill-defined powers to make a deprivation order without notice. The Secretary of State would have to be satisfied that deprivation is ‘conducive to the public good’, provided they are satisfied that they have a reasonable belief that the person is able to become a national of another country. It’s been estimated that 6 million people in the UK could potentially be caught in the provisions. We have been told that “good citizens” need not worry, but these vague and wide powers will remain on the statute books. The people affected are people like me – second-generation British citizens whose parents arrived from on ships with names like Windrush Empire or, in my father’s case, Laureline; children of those immigrants who still remember the packed suitcases on tops of wardrobes ‘just in case’.
Just in case suitcases were in nearly all the immigrant houses I visited growing up. When Enoch Powell made speeches or when the National Front announced their intention to march a few streets away from us, I am sure my mother brought it down and repacked it, just in case. The government has told us that clause 9 will be used only in exceptional circumstances, but trust on issues relating to documentation and citizenship is at rightly low levels after the Windrush scandal, when 83 British citizens were wrongly deported and thousands more denied medical care. Now, in age of uncertainty, following Brexit and a pandemic that has widened and sharpened inequalities, the state has chosen to impose precarity that discriminates. All citizens are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Citizenship ‘is a right to have rights’, says Hannah Arendt, who so often spoke about the fragility of human rights documents. In world where over 4 million people are stateless, her scepticism of this little blue UN document is well-founded; these high-and-mighty rights are meaningless without them being underpinned by citizenship itself. Rights are simply abstract ideals unless they adhere to state backed-systems – how else can they be enforced?
For those without state protections, the future will be even more uncertain, because the government has pronounced their intention to repeal the Human Rights Act. Barely 20 years old, its protections to human beings irrespective of citizenship are vulnerable. The narrative we are told is that the Act, with its distinctly European provenance, is a charter for prisoners, asylum seekers and vagrants. It has nothing to do with you and I – “ordinary people”. There is a call to replace it with a homemade, British, ‘modern Bill of Rights’. But the Human Rights Act is precious and hard-won, giving us rights in step with the European Convention of Human Rights, which was born of the atrocities of World War Two, when it drafted by UK lawyers, with the UK as its first signatory.
In an age of reinvigorated nationalism, what do citizenship and belonging now mean? History’s mouth is dry from all its attempts to say that stories are a form of action, that they are, in Hannah Arendt’s words, the way ‘we insert ourselves in the human world’. Stories are the way we become historical because, as she says, ‘one man will always be left alive to tell the story’.
I was recently stood in front several Francis Bacon paintings in an exhibition called Man and Beast when it suddenly struck me that painters are attempting to do the same thing as poets. A constant tug and pull at the light veil that separates us from the animal; the contradictions that dwell in all of us. That thin flap is almost visible in Bacon’s paintings, but you can hear the rustle of its movement; that rustle is also found in the work of poets who show us that ‘art is spirit seeking flesh’, a phrase coined by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, an exile. And just as the poets translate the world into language, the painters give us a rare gift of knowledge: human dignity is a value that we can’t take for granted; it must be something asserted on a daily basis, something we choose, a flap we smooth down that centres the dignity of the human; it requires movement, a form of commitment to that story.
Poetry needs to continue to strive to make space for itself, to think the unthinkable, put the unimaginable on the page. Poets who have witnessed the degradation of civil society can instruct us in these toxic waters because poems are capable of thinking for themselves.
Democracies are not inevitable. In many ways, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what a democracy might be. It requires something from us; language requires from us an extra vigilance. The story of the migrant is an ancient story, and numbness and indifference to history are how democratic principles fall away. If our poems and stories reveal one singular pattern, it is this.
Mona Arshi worked as a human rights lawyer at Liberty before she started writing poetry. Her debut collection, Small Hands, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2015. Mona’s second collection, Dear Big Gods, was published in 2019 (both books appearing with Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion Poetry list). Her poems and interviews have been published in the Times, Guardian, Times of India and Granta, as well as on the London Underground. She was recently writer in residence at Cley Marshes in Norfolk. In 2020 she was appointed honorary professor at the University of Liverpool. Her debut novel Somebody Loves You was published by And Other Stories in autumn 2021, and is longlisted for the 2022 Republic of Consciousness Prize, Jhalak Prize and Desmond Elliot Prize.
StAnza is Scotland’s annual international poetry festival, bringing poetry in all its forms and many languages to Scottish audiences and worldwide. Since the festival was founded by three local poets in 1998, StAnza has gained an international reputation. In 2021, its achievements were recognised with the Saboteur Award for Best Literary Festival in the UK. 2023’s festival will be StAnza’s 25th anniversary.
The title of this piece is taken from Ingeborg Bachman’s poem ‘Departure from England’.
Photo credit: Karolina Heller