Lesson plan: “You are a refugee”

Wherever you happen to teach there’s a chance that your class includes refugees and/or racists. The point of this lesson is to increase the level of understanding of the plight of the former and encourage the latter to be less so. Linguistically the lesson lends itself to concentrated practice of various conditional forms. In terms of vocabulary, the ‘text’ is quite lexically dense so I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than B2. As you will see, discovery and development of relevant vocabulary is written into the task as it will be repeated various times.

To set it up you will need access to a pc, ideally with an IWB/projector; it also requires that students make use of their own phones.

Procedure

1. As students to write down the name of anyone they know who had to leave their home for a prolonged period, maybe because of war, political instability or a climate catastrophe. If they don’t know anyone personally ask them to think of any famous people who fall into that category, or even any films they’ve seen which depict such a situation. Ss discuss in small groups.

2. Share ideas, obviously sensitively if anyone in the class has had such an experience. In the process elicit, board and clarify key vocabulary: refugee, seek refuge, protection, asylum; escape, flee, run away.

3. Tell ss they’re going to imagine that they’re refugees. Ask them to guess which country they might be escaping from. Tell them they’re going to face a series of dilemmas and see if they’re successful at reaching safety. Point out that the scenario is based on the real experiences of millions of people.

4. Show them this page from  the BBC website and recapitulate the scenario. Point out the vocabulary that has already come up and highlight the words ‘traffickers’ and ‘deportation’. Clarify any misunderstandings.

5. Tell then you’re first going to do the task all together. Decide on the balance of the class if ‘you’ are male or female.

6. Show them the first dilemma: Egypt or Turkey. In pairs, students discuss for about two minutes, then vote as a whole class.

7. Take them through the dilemmas, clarifying vocabulary as you go. If you like, you could highlight the 1st/2nd conditional forms on the board.

8. See how ‘you’ end up. Gather reflections on the success/failure of their route.

9. In the same pairs, ss repeat the task on their phones. Monitor in case they need help with language.

10. After a couple of attempts, gather reflections on their experiences.

Homework: Students repeat their task at home and write the story of what happened in the past simple, first person, adding details as they go to make it more real.

Extension task: in a following lesson you could the videos on the same page to practise talking about unreal scenarios using 3rd and mixed conditionals, eg. ‘If they had paid the smuggler…’, ‘If he hadn’t decided to go to Libya’, etc.

هذا هو!

Film review: ‘The Other Side of Hope’

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How often do you go to the cinema? Probably about six or seven times a day, right? I mean, I’m guessing, but I calculate that someone like you has, over the last, say, four months, likely seen in the region of a thousand films at the cinema, or movies at the moving picture theater if that’s your preference. Until last Saturday we hadn’t been to the cinema in FIVE MONTHS. This is because in January we became the first people in history to have an actual baby. We soon discovered that childrearing and filmbuffery are deeply and highly incompatible. To be fair, five months isn’t very long when you consider that I once met a guy who hadn’t been to see a film since 1972. The guy in question was originally from Iraq and had seven children. I can’t imagine how disruptive having seven children must be, or how hard it must be to persuade relatives to babysit*. As for the cinema, although he skipped all of Woody Allen and is presumably no expert on Kieslowski’s Red, White and Blue trilogy he must have seen a lot of Scooby Doo cartoons.

As it happens one of the protagonists of the film we went to see is also from Iraq, while the main character is from Syria. They are refugees in Finland, a country I know and love, partly through the films of Aki Kaurismaki, of which this is one. It’s the second in a row about people seeking asylum, after Le Havre (2011). Khaled has arrived in Helsinki by default after the traditionally tortuous route via southern Europe and is trying to track down his sister, from whom he became separated along the way. When his application is refused (the Government has decided that his hometown of Aleppo is a safe place to return him to) he escapes from the detention centre and is taken in by the owner of a comically-failing restaurant.

Kaurismaki’s aesthetic is one of out-of-time-ness. In his films pretty much everything is worn and familiar: the actors, the sets, the clothes and the music are all reassuringly dated. His characters are themselves refugees from a world that no longer quite exists, seeking asylum from disappointment in drink, music and small, awkward acts of solidarity. It’s a world of flawed but decent people: terse but charming, brusque and gauche but capable of tenderness. This film also features intrusions of almost cartoon-like evil in the form of some racist skinheads and also official indifference. It’s the kind of film which would piss off Slavoj Žižek, in that it shows refugees as individual human beings complete with hopes and vulnerabilities just like anyone else.

The cinema we went to (the Madison, on Via Chiabrera) is not far from our flat. Not just the cinema itself but also the street itself feels familiar and homely, with a refreshing absence of international brands and cash-for-gold shops. The gelataria we pop into on the way is a very Kaurismaki place, with its staff, fittings and menu seemingly not changed since the ’70s. There was another closer cinema, within five minutes’ walk from where we live, but in some apparently dodgy deal it’s currently being transformed into ‘international standard’ apartments.

Walking along Viale Marconi after the bridge we passed the spot where I recently got talking to a guy from Benin City in Nigeria who was sweeping the street in return for spare change. This is a phenomenon that seems to have started in Milan and has now spread to Rome. Back home he had been a musician; he showed me on his phone the video he’d put on Youtube. It was very professionally produced and really rather good. I was at first inspired to write a piece about him, then thought again: what right do I have, really, to exploit his life story for my own means? I just so happened that a few days later I was in the British Museum, one of whose greatest treasures is the Benin Bronzes. Maybe if I was a proper writer I’d  feel more comfortable about appropriating someone else’s narrative, displaying it as though it were my own**.

I hope he somehow manages to make his way upwards, whether socially or geographically (he wanted to reach London, where he had friends). I hope he manages to stay free. Kaurismaki’s film is a heartbreaking but salutary reminder that pretty much every town and city in the world contains a hidden population of people living in dread of being picked up and sent back to somewhere which can no longer be called home. When we first started coming to Rome I read a series of novels by Amara Lakhous about the local population of Arabs and North Africans whose lives revolve around the acquisition and renewal of their permesso di sogiorno (residence permit). Networks of volunteers which provide food, shelter and advice are continually turfed out and have their resources confiscated by the local authorities. My city and yours have invisible portals leading straight to war and immense danger. It puts things like not having been to the cinema for a while or not being able to find decent hummus into some perspective.

Our daughter was born here in Rome, on January 30th this year. She’s an immigrant from some other celestial realm and has been given asylum in this one. The locals coo at her, welcoming her into their world. No one tells her that Europe is full, that public services are overstretched and that she should go back home. Like any human, she has a right to be here. She’s just now beginning to recognise other people (and even stating to laugh at herself in the mirror). She shows no sign of being able to discriminate between people who happen to have been born in different places from her. As the song says, such things have to be carefully taught.

*As this episode of ‘Thinking Allowed’ discusses and my own experiences attest, Italian society would fall apart in about ten minutes without i nonni.

**There’s also the aspect of potentially revealing to his friends (and fans?) back home that he’s sweeping the streets rather than pursuing stardom.

Why I don’t like the word ‘expat’

expat_immigrant_linguisticpulse1The piece I wrote two days ago (‘A warning to all expats in Rome!!!’was mischievous and frivolous but was also intended to make a serious point. It sought to draw attention to the fact that people who call themselves expats are also immigrants, just ones who enjoy – and, crucially, don’t tend to question – certain privileges. It therefore provoked a furious reaction from people whose status as ‘expat’ is one of the most important aspects of their self-identification.

The post was partly motivated by my genuine surprise at how many people here in Rome wear this badge with pride. I guess (and I’m aware that I am generalising enormously) that Rome has something in common with Paris, in that both cities tend to attract the kind of people depicted in later Woody Allen films: urbane, mobile and well-heeled North Americans and middle class ‘Brits’ attracted by the postcard romance of the place but with little actual commitment to or knowledge of the society they’ve chosen to make home. The prevalence of self-declared expats here contrasts with previous places I’ve lived in. In Portugal the only people who were happy to be called expats lived on the Algarve and played golf or lived in Lisbon and were part of rugby clubs. In a Spanish context I immediately think of monolingual retirees on the Costa del Sol. In Mexico I only heard the word in relation to places like Puerto Vallarta and San Miguel de Allende. Most people I’ve known there and elsewhere wouldn’t call themselves expats. It’s not cool to be an expat and I think there are good reasons why this is the case.

I want to make clear that I know and respect some lovely people who may call choose to label themselves expats. I also enjoy the work of the Canadian graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who depicts beautifully the tribulations and contradictions involved in moving to distant countries with his wife every couple of years. It’s also true that those who try too hard to fit in, disavowing entirely their own background, can be deeply annoying.  While I have little problem with individuals who call themselves expats, when it’s manifested in a cluster, the expat mentality starts to look ugly and sound really quite whiny and arrogant. Facebook groups are rarely nice places to hang out, but anyone interested in how unpleasant the expat worldview can get is well-advised to temporarily sign up to one called ‘Expat Moans’. It’s hard to read more than three posts in such a group without getting a distinct whiff of actual racism.

Does that mean I’m calling all those who describe themselves as ‘expats’ racist? No, of course not. But with the help of this Guardian article, I want to enumerate those things about the category ‘expat’ which make me feel uncomfortable. I must also say that a) I’ve been guilty of several of these things in the past and b) that I’m trying to characterise a way of thinking and behaving. This is not written as an attack on a particular group of individuals. I’m also conscious that some of these criticisms are made of immigrants in general; I hope it’s clear that I am not presenting them here in such a way.

These are the features of the ‘expat’ attitude that I find distasteful:

1. A belief that whiteness and westernness makes one exempt from social responsibilities. Some expats engage very little with what’s going on around them in their host society -paying no attention to local and national news, for example.

2. A failure or refusal to recognise one’s privileged position and its historical roots.

3. A disavowal of one’s status as immigrant, to the point of failing to express solidarity with less privileged foreigners. A lot of so-called expats would not be inclined to express solidarity with the plight of immigrants if they had stayed in their own country.

4. A political identification with local elites, including the taking-on-board of class-based and racist prejudices.

5. A failure and/or refusal to integrate and learn the language. This is particularly prevalent among English-speaking expats. It’s both fortuitous (in terms of finding work) and unfortunate (in terms of encouraging our sense of superiority) that our belief in the primacy of our language is shared by people all over the world.

6. An attitude of being a permanent tourist, continuing to treat the host society as little more than a source of photo opportunities: charming but without substance.

7. Some expats have a tendency to complain about what surrounds them – particularly service and services – but without seeking to understand the social, political and economic context.

8. In a lot of cases, expats live at a distance in economic terms, only frequenting ‘international’ establishments. It is also common for self-declared expats to inhabit a cultural and social bubble in which they only mix with others of their kind. I’m not just talking here about corporate immigrants – the same is definitely true for many who work for international NGOs and the UN. The Green Zone extends far beyond Baghdad.

9. An uncritical attitude towards one’s own country. Expats often think of themselves as enjoying a temporary absence from an unchanging homeland which will always welcome them back. In the case of both Brexit and Trump, this complacency has been cruelly exposed. The post-1992 tide of open European borders is retreating, and it may well leave some long-standing emigrants in EU countries stranded.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I’m aware that in relation to any given individual’s set of circumstances some of it may be unfair. For example, having lived in China and spent time in Thailand, I understand that there are some countries in which immersion in the host society is infinitely more demanding in terms of time and effort. The language is much harder to learn and the culture much more difficult to get to grips with, making it so much more difficult to participate in social life unless one has sent a substantial portion of one’s life there. In other countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, expats are servants of the elite, little more than a caste of privileged servants, and as such are more socially dependent on their English-speaking patrons. Increasingly, many countries have a preexisting infrastructure to facilitate the expat lifestyle. Mike Davis’ book ‘Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism’ reports on the iconic example of modern Managua, where a high-speed road network  whizzes elite citizens and visitors between the business district, the gated communities and the airport, leaving poorer parts of the city untouched and deteriorating. The annual Mercer Survey of the world’s ‘most expensive cities’ is a regularly bizarre read, featuring locations such as Luanda and Kinshasa in the top 10. While life for most people in those cities is certainly a struggle, the survey isn’t about them, but the Randian superheroes who (or whose companies) think nothing of spending $100,000 on a prime apartment in the most desirable areas.

Are people from the Philippines expats? Or from Bangladesh? What about Senegal? In a way, given that so many people from those countries work abroad out of necessity, it would be nice to think they were part of the club. However, it’s hard to imagine the average British financial services worker in Dubai regarding her pool cleaner as part of the same social class. In the case of the Italian expat Facebook groups, the members are almost exclusively white Americans and ‘Brits’. There’s little direct racism but a lot of griping about Italy and the Italians, and little solidarity with African or Arab victims of Italian racism. As for the Expat Moans group, it’s a bit like a vision of what Facebook would have been like in the middle of the 19th century. I know that similar dynamics operate in the French and Portuguese-speaking worlds, and similar attitudes are probably expressed among highly-paid Chinese workers in African countries.

I earlier mentioned the historical roots of expat privilege. If we want to (as we must) make an effort to understand where those roots lie, we have to talk about colonialism and imperialism, that ‘corner of a foreign field’ that is to be regarded as part of the metropole. This is our history as westerners. It’s helpful – indeed, as a white Westerner living abroad, essential – to be aware of the critiques of writers such as Camus, Fanon, and Orwell if we want to be aware of our implicit modes of thinking and behaving in relation to the world around us. We are hardwired to regard poorer societies in a condescending and/or hostile way and to expect that the locals defer to our needs, our values and our lifestyles. For centuries we have been taught to believe that we have an automatic right to be spoilt. As I mentioned earlier, the English language in particular encourages this mentality. It’s common now to hear references to ‘international’ food as opposed to national cuisine, and it’s not implausible that this way of thinking extends to people. Those who call themselves expats aspire to belong to a global elite in a world increasingly divided along lines of mobility, between those who can live and work wherever they want and those whose movement is, by dint of class or birth, infinitely more restricted.

Calling oneself an ‘expat’ encourages a certain mentality and way of behaving, a sense of superiority and entitlement which we have to be vigilant of and challenge in ourselves and others. At a time when immigrants are being scapegoated, locked up and deported around the world, from LA to Rome to London, all migrants – regardless of the colour of our passports – have an absolute moral duty to stand up for one another.

(P.s. Anyone still inclined to think that there is no difference between how the words ‘expats’ and immigrants’ are used is well-advised to do a google image search for both terms.)

I’m proud to be an immigrant

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As I leave the metro station near my work on Tuesday afternoon I see a sticker from a fascist organisation reading ‘Italy for the Italians’.

At work, while waiting for the students to turn up, I read an article via Facebook that says that Theresa May is going to take away the right of EU nationals to settle in the UK ‘within days’.

I’m an immigrant and I’ve been one for most of my adult life. I’ve lived in six countries other than my own. I chose to move to each of those countries of my own free will and no one attempted to stop me. I’m also a second-generation immigrant, because my father was born in Germany but left in 1950 with his mother, who had met a British soldier and emigrated to Guernsey. My father recalls his journey to the UK as an interminable process, with different visas required for each country he passed through. He later went on to work in countless countries, mostly in Africa and the Caribbean, before eventually settling in Sheffield.

My wife isn’t an immigrant now, but she has been one for a total of 13 years. Our brand-new daughter is in a more ambiguous situation, in that she was born to one Italian parent and one foreign one (me). Actually, thanks to a little bit of foresight, my wife now has a British passport by virtue of having lived in London for six years. She had to do an absurd quiz with questions about horseracing, cricket and the Commonwealth, and then she had to swear allegiance to the Queen. I helped her prepare for the test but I didn’t know the answers to most of the questions, and I would have objected to having to paying allegiance to someone just because they occasionally put on a supposedly magic hat.

I’ve always felt welcome in every country I’ve lived in. I’ve never been the object of hostility. On my very first night in Dublin (where I lived for six years) someone in a kebab shop remarked on my foreignness with what sounded at the time like aggression, but on reflection they were almost certainly taking the piss.

In terms of my immigration status I’ve also been extremely lucky. I’ve never had to worry about keeping a low profile or lie awake worrying about possible deportation. I’ve never even had to do a visa run, and my status has never depended on my language skills.

Moving back to the UK in 2006 after thirteen years abroad felt a little like moving to a foreign country. For the first few months in London I kept automatically referring to ‘other foreigners’. It felt natural to spend my time with others who’d lived or came from abroad.

When I went to live in China the paperwork was immense, but it was all available in English. Last year I got annoyed when the Thai embassy insisted on a particular form of bank statement which our narco-sponsoring bank didn’t want to provide. There was a way around it, one which didn’t inconvenience us unduly.

I wanted for a long time to migrate to Brazil, but I basically never had the courage to live and work undercover in a country where foreign teachers are very rarely granted visas. I’d hate to build a life somewhere and see it destroyed overnight. That’s what happened to one of my sisters when she went to work in the USA. She popped over to Mexico for the weekend and wasn’t let back in. Her experience of deportation was extremely distressing.

All the Italian people we’ve spoken to over the last month have been very congratulatory about our daughter. Nobody’s told us the country is ‘full’ or told her to get back where she came from. Nobody would ever tell an actual individual that to their face unless they were actually insane in several important ways; such notions are political abstractions. The fact that our flesh-and-blood child will use up space and resources has never been mentioned.

The stories we’re hearing now from the UK and the US are staggering and heartbreaking. They result from decisions made by people who have no understanding of the risks and sacrifices that human lives entail. Or maybe they do, but they shut their eyes to the implications of what they’re doing. Perhaps I in my examining job have blithely made decisions about people’s language skills which have meant they had to go back to someone else’s idea of where they belong.

I’ve got friends and former students who’ve spent years of their lives dreaming of studying in the UK only to find that large parts of the ‘education’ system are no more than a scam to rip off gullible foreigners. In much the same way, no one travels thousands of miles in the back of a truck to sell selfie sticks outside the Colosseum or roses outside the cinema. Immigrants are useful for other things than political scapegoating.

I’m an immigrant, but an immensely privileged one. In my case, leaving my country was in many ways the obvious and easiest choice. It’s largely by virtue of an accident of birth that I’ve been able to get status and find work. I didn’t get a job in Portugal in 1999 because I was an experienced teacher, but because I have the right accent and passport.  I’ve also benefitted from a favourable historical situation as far as living in Europe is concerned. In most cases, it takes courage and initiative to move to another country.

As it happens, my country’s wealth came in large part from invading other territories and forcing people to migrate. One factor propelling the whole Brexit nonsense is a denial of that history, a resentment at the notion that Britain should and could learn from its past, and a forlorn hope that it can somehow relive the experience. Italy, a country whose cultural richness derives in large part from the ebb and flow of different civilisations, had its own vainglorious attempt at imperial expansion, but fortunately reviving that particular epoch is the dream of a persistent group of loudmouthed oddballs at its political fringes, rather than the historic mission of the most reactionary elements of its political elite.

I’ve tried all my life not to be ashamed I’m where I’m from, to overcome my sense of discomfort at my origins. For me, my unconscious personal project of distancing myself from my roots and trying to be from somewhere else is symptomatic, I now recognise, of a generalised cultural disavowal – there are few things as typically English as pretending not to be. It has also been conditioned by my family background. I have also always enjoyed a certain relief at not possessing any sort of claim to pureblood status or any mooted connection to the ‘soil’. I’m proud to be an immigrant son of an immigrant parent, and it would be absolutely wrong for me for me to do anything other than express my full solidarity with my fellow immigrants all over the world, especially those whose experiences have been less charmed than my own. Of course, that solidarity has to be more than verbal – I need to get involved in specific initiatives to help those less fortunate than myself. Voicing solidarity is easy – it needs to be expressed in actions to have any actual meaning. I believe that in terms of resisting Brexit and Trump, or combatting exclusionary EU policies elsewhere in Europe, helping and supporting (relative) newcomers to our countries is one of the most useful and important things any of us can do.

(This piece was written with suggestions from Andrea, Federica, Federico and Patty.)

Rome: Armed soldiers and homeless immigrants

img-20161224-wa0000-1These are some fairly disorganised thoughts scribbled in a station and on a train on 24th December last year. I have a bad habit of trying to (in the words of my wife) connect the dots and present a complete and coherent picture of an issue. For reasons that will become clear I don’t want to do that here.

There have almost certainly been homeless people in Rome for as long as the city has existed. Similarly the presence of armed soldiers has probably been a constant. Here in and around Termini Station there is an abundance of both, but ordinary life is going on oblivious. On the main concourse there is a Christmas tree with messages and wishes stuck to it. One piece of paper reads simply: Gulio.

Gulio Regeni, whose name has been seen everywhere in Italy this year, was, after a fashion, a migrant, an Italian PhD student in Egypt. He was by all accounts an exemplary human being, the sort of person who quite simply gives you hope for the future. He was murdered by the security services. They saw him as a potential threat: a European in a repressive Middle-Eastern country asking searching questions and sticking up for people whose livelihoods and rights were threatened, and who had no alternative but to stand up for each other and take whatever outside help they could get.

He could have stayed in Italy and helped migrants here. There are lots of good people involved in such initiatives, people from the church and civil society. The Italian Navy has managed to save huge numbers of people from the Mediterranean, but the response of national and local government authorities has sometimes been a lot less helpful. Recently the police in Rome turfed out the inhabitants of a volunteer centre which was housing, feeding and advising homeless newcomers. Lots of people on the streets come from Senegal, Mauritius and Pakistan. They are, despite their religious background and the colour of their skin, the counterparts of the Italians who went in such huge numbers to the Americas a century ago and who now go to work and study in London and elsewhere. Any one of them could be another Gulio Regeni.

In Rome there is huge pressure on public housing. It started before the recent wave of migration. Nevertheless openly racist groups like Casapound have been exploiting the crisis for their own ends. A family of Moroccan origin, who have been here for several years and are now Italian, were prevented last month from moving into the apartment assigned to them by a group of ‘locals’ shouting “we don’t want blacks here”. I came across other migrants online (white European ones, who classify themselves as ‘expats’) who made excuses for the protests.

Homeless people, whether migrants or otherwise, are usually invisible. Armed soldiers are too, albeit in a different way. I’m used to guns, having seen so many of them in Mexico. When we came back to Europe last December they were already everywhere. It’s not just stations and airports and major tourist sites, but also our local metro station. They are there to identify and exclude anyone who might be a threat.

They are there in Brussels too. No-one talks about it, a friend of ours who lives there tells us. It’s become a taboo. Life must go on.

It’s all too complex and contradictory to assemble into a simple picture or a single narrative. The problems are multifaceted, dynamic and interlinked. What’s the proper reaction to attacks like the ones in Paris, Brussels and Berlin? Any response is inevitably partial and incoherent. For several days this month no big trucks were allowed to circulate in Rome. Last month there was a similar prohibition in place because of the pollution. In the first case no one complained. In the second people felt justified in doing so.

Any attempt to describe the future which doesn’t address Climate Change is meaningless and dishonest. Last Christmas someone gave me a book called ‘Sapiens’, which purports to be a complete history of the human race. The conclusion features one reference to the changing climate, and it dismisses the prospect in two lines. Yesterday in Feltrinelli I saw that the same writer has a new book about the future. This time there are three pages dedicated to the environment, on which he argues in a tone of staggering glibness that human beings will probably survive like they always have, probably just in much smaller number.

That’s all fine then.

Migration is one of the most basic evolutionary reflexes. ‘You only leave home/when home won’t let you stay’.

I take a photo of the scene with the tree and like any photo in any public place in Europe right now it could end up being captioned ‘five minutes before the shooting began’.

It’s easy to identify the main ingredients in this stew of fear and resentment: ‘We’ have to protect ourselves from ‘them’. ‘They’ get everything. ‘We’ get nothing. Far-right tricksters, agents of violence and chaos, keep throwing extra spice into the simmering unpalatable mix. We don’t want to accept what they are offering, but maybe after a certain point there will be nothing else to eat. That’s what they and their counterparts in the Middle East want to happen.

In the meantime lots of people are unhappy in their lives. The obvious thing to do would be to stop spending so much, get out of debt, but our mode of existence is based on over-consumption. That’s why Bush came out immediately after 9/11 and told American citizens to get back in the malls. That’s why the implied missing word in the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ meme’ is ‘…shopping’.

The Internet tells us there is no limit to how much we can consume. It’s an infinite resource. It increasingly determines how we regard that other reality, the one that sustains and troubles us so much. Maybe one of our secret thoughts is: Why can’t all these homeless people and migrants just do what we do and take refuge online?

Here’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough: if states are so keen to protect us from the threat of terrorism, why do they do basically nothing to protect us from climate change? Why don’t they tell us to consume less rather than more?

A neoliberal response to any question is that more markets are the answer. In the words of Thomas Pynchon, the real war is a celebration of markets. Perhaps it’s significant then that so many terrorist attacks target markets; generally local ones, as the global one is beyond reach or reproach.

Deaths from terrorist attacks are visible, immediate and spectacular. Terrorists target people like us because they know it will be newsworthy. Climate change will – probably already does – kill many more people than terrorism will, but more slowly and less visibly. It targets people who are more vulnerable than we believe ourselves to be, who do not have the protections that states founded upon and legitimised by liberal values and institutions provide.

It’s strange, or at least illogical, given the prevalence and persistence of climate change denial, that there is no-one (or at least no-one I’ve come across) who tries to get away with claiming that there’s no connection between a bomb exploding in a marketplace and people being killed and injured.

What’s Christmas like in Russia this year? After the massacre of Aleppo are people still sentimentalising the young, are orthodox priests preaching about the need for peace in the world? Are they mourning the ambassador to Turkey? Will anyone around the Christmas dinner table point out that bombing Aleppo to pieces would have consequences?

What are the consequences of me, a British citizen, asking these questions? One of my compatriots once wrote:

‘Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in their turn’.

There is a tension around the issue of belonging, and the line between those who do and don’t belong is fraught. That’s why we ignore armed soldiers and homeless people in our midst. In the words of the great Zygmunt Bauman (RIP), the greatest fear we have nowadays is of being excluded.

It’s the day before Christmas. There are adverts for luxury goods everywhere we look.

If the dead could speak

If I should one day die, and should I happen to be in Rome when such an unlikely event takes place, I’d like to be buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Not because I have anything against Catholics, of course, I may even be one by that point anyway. Possibly. It would just be nice to be laid for eternity next to such characters as Keats, Shelley and Gramsci. If the dead can actually speak I’m sure they’ll have enough to keep us moved, entertained and inspired for the rest of our, er, deaths. (Someone did once say if the dead could speak, we would not be able to understand them, but that’s by-the-by as I’d be dead myself then anyway).

Most of the other residents of the graveyard are immigrants, people who were born elsewhere and made their lives here. It struck me as an important place right now to reflect on migration and particularly on the experiences of those who for various reasons may have had or may be having a more tortuous passage to establishing themselves as foreign-born residents. It seems apt that in the cemetery there are at least two people from Syria – as it happens, ‘If the dead could speak’ was the title of a 2015 Human Rights Watch report into the horrific conditions endured by inmates of that unfortunate country’s torture prisons.

There is a bond that connects all migrants, living and dead, and if the residents of this cemetery, most of whom we might suppose came here in peace and out of their own volition, were to hear the details of the plight of those prisoners they would hopefully wish that their own good fortune, the welcome extended to them, were passed on to others. There is also the possibility that the experiences of migrants today would resonate with their memories of their first days or years in Italy; maybe those in the cemetery went through similar struggles to their those whose stories are quoted below. In any case, I would assume that they would at least want the voices of their living counterparts to be heard, whatever their reasons for coming here happen to be. As I myself am a living human being who happens to be an immigrant (one who has been made to feel very welcome here – and one from a country which has of late been a lot less welcoming than Italy has) those are very much my sentiments. What follows therefore are quotes from a number of sources, including the immigrants themselves, which, if we pay attention, may help us to better understand the current situation and help us to recognise what our own responsibilities as fellow migrants and living human beings are.

dsc_0058“The way people look at you and mutter about you on the bus or train, as though you’re dangerous. That would never have happened in the ’80s. Now if you want to rent a house, you’ll get a viewing appointment over the phone alright, but as soon as you get there and they see you’re black, you’ll either get told ‘it’s already gone’ or quite simply ‘the neighbours don’t want to live next to foreigners’. It’s become quite normal for people to admit they’re ‘anti-foreign’ and talk about it freely. They don’t differentiate between migrants and nationals with foreign parents.” (France 24, 2009)

dsc_0060“In July, in Quinto di Treviso, Northeast Italy, residents and far-right militants broke into flats destined to receive asylum-seekers, took the furniture outside and set it on fire, leading the authorities to move the asylum-seekers to another location.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0053“Akram, a 17-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq, hid under a truck on the ferry from Greece to Italy for 18 hours without food or water. When he arrived in Italy, the police locked him in a small room on the ferry and sent him right back to Greece.” Human Rights Watch, 2016

dsc_0052“Mayor Alberto Panfilio said calm had been restored at the center, where up to 1,500 people have been placed in a facility originally meant for 15 migrants.” (Voice of America, 2017)

dsc_0050“Four Eritrean girls, aged 16 and 17, said that adult men constantly harassed them. Bilen, 17, said men “come when we sleep, they tell us they need to have sex. They follow us when we go to take a shower. All night they wait for us… They [the police, the staff] know about this, everybody knows the problem, but they do nothing.”” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0044“Yodit cupped her hands in prayer as we dialed. Those hands flew to her mouth as she realized that the phone – and her prayers – had been answered. It was the first time she had spoken to her mother since being rescued at sea and taken to Italy two weeks before.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0042“Kaiser Tetteh was from Ghana. He was kidnapped and imprisoned for three months in a makeshift jail in Libya by a smuggling gang. “Kidnapping is normal. If you are in a taxi they will kidnap you, they will take everything from you.” He said he witnessed the killing of 69 people in Libya during an escape attempt from the prison. “All the time you don’t sleep,” he said. “Everyone has guns. Even kids have guns.” Lucky told us he did not mind where he was resettled in Europe. “I’m a beggar, I don’t have any choice. I just want protection. I just need freedom.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0035““It is not easy to live here illegally,” Lisa, one of the volunteers told me. “I don’t know if people really want this, sleeping in the park or not having a job. “We think people are coming here because of war and violence, not because we are kind. We are doing something very human. We tell them where to go, where to eat and try to give them advice. We don’t want them to be illegal.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0029“Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Sunday called for a concerted international effort to block people-traffickers after the reported deaths of up to 700 migrants in the latest sinking in the Mediterranean. “We are asking not to be left alone,” Renzi told reporters after an impromptu cabinet meeting, adding that he wanted an emergency meeting of European Union leaders to be held this week to discuss the mounting migrant crisis. Renzi underlined that search and rescue missions alone were not sufficient to save lives. He said the problem could only be solved by preventing the criminal activity of people trafficking and stopping migrant boats from leaving Libya.” (Reuters, 2015)

dsc_0026“I left Ethiopia because of the political situation. I’m Oromo and in 1991 there was conflict between Tigrinya and Oromo. My grandfather and my father fought for the Oromo. Later, my father was arrested and my brother shot dead at university by the government. In Ethiopia if you are Oromo you can’t do anything. They arrest you and they can kill you. At the time I wasn’t involved in politics. My father and grandfather were part of the OLF party. The Ethiopian police came to question me, asking who was supporting the party. In 2013/14 they arrested me and held me for two months in the prison of Diradawa. They wanted to know where my uncle was. They didn’t give me food, only bread and water once every three days, and we had to do a lot of work in the prison.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0028“About seven months after Osama’s arrest, security officers stopped Firas at the gate of his university. “If you keep asking about your brothers, we will cut out your tongue,” they told him. That day, Firas fled Syria.” (Human Rights Watch, 2015)

dsc_0027“Compounding Italy’s frustration is the fact that its northern neighbours, including France, Switzerland and Austria, have in effect closed their borders to migrants, preventing what had been a natural flow of refugees towards more prosperous parts of Europe.” (Financial Times, 2016)

dsc_0064“A 16 year old, named Djoka, from Sudan reported, “They gave me electricity with a stick, many times… I was too weak, I couldn’t resist… They took both my hands and put them on the machine.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0068“Anti-immigrant Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said Tuesday there would be “mass expulsions” of migrants when the League gained power, after the most recent revolt in a migrant centre in Italy.” (ansa.it, 2017)

dsc_0062“An Afghan migrant travelled 400 kilometres (250 miles) along an Italian highway strapped by leather belts to the bottom of a lorry, according to police.” (Guardian, 2016)

dsc_0054“In an intercepted phone call, Mafia businessman Salvatore Buzzi was heard telling his assistant Pierina Chiaravalle: “Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable.”” (Al Jazeera, 2015)

dsc_0065A Nigerian man who had recently fled to Europe to escape Boko Haram militants was beaten to death on the streets of Italy this week as he tried to defend his wife against racist abuse. (Huffington Post, 2016)

dsc_0039“Syria is burning; towns are destroyed and that’s why people are on the move, that’s why we have an avalanche, a tsunami of people on the move towards Europe… As long as there’s no resolution in Syria and no improved conditions in neighbouring countries, people will move.” (UNHCR, 2015)

dsc_0073High ships come in bearing black strangers

who call over the harbor, Where are we?

Arrivals, it will get worse.
The island is running out of water.

Prison awaits. From some distance,
you saw the steel lintel of Europe’s doorway

standing open. There is no door—
a yellow hello hung with your forefather’s shoes,

a cross nailed from the ribs of your sunk ships,
paper prayer scraps, one million calls

to the wrong God. Be grateful
you wear that fake-fur parka,

the violet, pompomed hat; you drag
that odd wheelie bag, the snow-suited baby.

Among defunct bunkers on this tropical rock
it’s difficult to conceive of winter.

And you, giddy with surviving war elsewhere,
unsure of who you should please,

grin at every white face
and wave wildly down to me

as I shout welcome from a rental skiff.
My job is to learn where you’re from.

I’ve come by water to reach you
before the police. We have seconds.

Ignore my pleasantries.
Demand what my straw hat costs,

how much I pay for my skin.
I don’t say go north. Stay off the train.

(Eliza Griswold)

dsc_0077No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well. (Warsan Shire)

dsc_0066“I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.” Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

Puebla: Clowns, Trains and Antorchistas

dsc_1022In Puebla I have my first ever attack of coulrophobia. The Zócalo (the main town square) plays permanent venue to a group of local clowns, and although I can’t understand everything they’re saying I can just about get the gist and it is uproariously obscene. It’s night time and we are part of a small, appreciative and apparently unoffendable crowd, some older and some very young. Behind us there’s what appears to be a genuinely spontaneous outbreak of live music and dancing. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. We stand and laugh for a while and then go to a nearby bar where a succession of singers entertain us with trova classics, some of which even I’m able to recognise.dsc_0791Puebla is only about two hours from DF (Mexico City). The Zócalo itself is well worth a visit, with its gargantuan cathedral (the second largest in the country) and a vast range of human activities taking place at any given moment. The city centre also has a number of local street markets. My observations in the UK have taught me that one of the functions of the global ‘market’ is to displace and replace such places; it’s always a tragedy to see a well-established one close or go upmarket, because a city should give local people the opportunity to sell things, not just to buy them. Luckily some of Puebla’s markets deal in much more than just the usual Frida-related tourist tat. There are puestos selling books, vinyl records, coins, and ornamientos, which is apparently the Spanish word for nick-nacks. I have an entertaining conversation with one stall-holder about the relative merits of various Iron Maiden live albums. He’s a fan of Rock in Rio, while I’m sticking with Live After Death. To be fair he may have a point, because I haven’t actually listened to Live After Death since I was about fourteen, and I’ve never even heard Rock in Rio. Nor would I want to. Iron Maiden are terrible, but heavy metal never ceases to be kind of funny, especially when you’re conversing about it in another language.dsc_0830

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dsc_0835We take a turibus ride around the city, and when we disembark and go to pay it turns out to have been free because the machine isn’t working. Then, just as we walk away from the bus we see and hear an extremely loud and colourful demonstration coming down the street towards us.dsc_0887

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dsc_0892I’m surprised to see people holding parasoles promoting the Partido Acción Nacional. For anyone out there interested in analogies between Mexican and Irish politics (er…), this is the Fine Gael of Mexico, the substitute party, the one that proved, when in power between 2000 and 2012, to be just as corrupt and violent as the ruling (and staggeringly corrupt and violent) Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Like Fine Gael it allegedly has fascist roots. That’s why it’s surprising to see it mixed up in this protest led by a peasant movement known as the Antorchistas. I’ve seen graffiti advertising their events while travelling down the autopista from Mexico City, usually promoting huge demonstrations on which they promise to take 100,000 of their number to Mexico City. Most of the participants look to me to be indigenous and I see at least one carrying a huge crucifix.dsc_0893The march culminates on a stage in the Zócalo, where they have some speeches calling for justice for Don Manuel Serrano Vallejo, the father of a local PRI politician, who was kidnapped and murdered two years ago. This being Mexico, no-one has been arrested for the crime. There then follows a cultural extravaganza which in its colourfulness, display of dancing skills and juggling of actual machetes far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen the Socialist Worker’s Party put on. In fact, it’s best not to imagine the British Left playing with knives. They would probably end up in other people’s backs even before Mark Thomas turned up to do his turn.dsc_0932

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dsc_0998Later I read up on the Antorchistas and find that for some time they have formally been part of the PRI, and are therefore a lot less radical than their posturing might suggest. Hence today’s demonstration may have been another example of the phenomenon of acarreando (corralling, i.e paying) people to come to major political shows of strength. Estimating just how many people from out of town have been herded onto buses on the promise of a free meal is part of the fun surrounding Mexican Independence Day in September.dsc_0897It’s an idyllic scene. All around us the square is packed with people of all ages walking around with beaming smiles, holding balloons, selling balloons, popping balloons, eating ice-cream, playing music, listening to music, dancing and eating. Which suddenly seems like a good idea. After lunch we wander over to watch the clowns. I have my hood up and I’m hiding because something about them makes me nervous. And sure enough within a few seconds the thing I dreaded, the thing I dread most in the world, actually happens: They see me. Possibly because I’m trying to accomplish the difficult task of hiding while taking decent photos. Immediately the question comes, in English: “Hey gringo, where are you from?”. Dozens of people are now looking at me, laughing and pointing and laughing some more.dsc_0900 I hate being exposed as an English speaker, so just doing the blindingly obvious thing and making myself part of the show is, tragically, not an option. I feel ashamed that other people will think I don’t speak Spanish and am thus some sort of unsophisticated monolingual oaf. I feel challenged. Such situations touch upon a very raw nerve, which is particularly close to the surface when, as now, I’m living in another country. In insisting on speaking other languages I’m making a claim on another identity while trying to shake mine off. I want to join another club, not my own, and I’m scared of being rejected. I feel objectified, seen as a representative of my own culture and country, which is awkward because even at the age of 40 or so I’m still not very clear what my relationship to that country and culture is. But I’m also aware that this ridicule I’m faced with is (apart from the damage I’m letting it do to my ego) harmless. Although these clowns have presumably seized on my presence as a chance to go into a tried-and-tested (and probably merciless) routine about foreigners, I’m very rarely greeted with hostility. I’m not the victim of negative stereotyping and I don’t face any threat of violence. Normally when people address my evident out-of-placeness it’s a friendly, good-natured, genuine interest. Besides, people want to use English. They, like me, want to be accepted as part of another community, in their case the global English-speaking one. The fact that this anxiety is such a constant theme in my life is an irony beyond all measure. I teach English. I examine people on their English. In a very important sense that is why I am here. I am not unaware of these things, but for some reason my subconscious self refuses to accept reality. One of Jacques Lacan’s key insights is that the unconscious is structured like a language. He might also have mentioned that it can sometimes behave like an absolute f*cking idiot.

Fortunately, these feelings do wear off a little when I’ve lived somewhere for a while and my brain starts to accept that I’m just another person among millions who happens to have a silly accent which indicates that they come from another place. In Mexico my claim on a local identity is particularly absurd given that in my life here I’m relatively immune to social and economic pressures and benefit from a level of mobility denied to others, purely by virtue of my language and my passport.  I have come to understand that my fear and anticipated resentment at not being accepted and my terror of being ridiculed are partly related to my national and personal histories. I recognise those feelings when reading Orwell’s story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ – it’s partly a legacy of colonial arrogance/insecurity. At a family level, my father left his own country (Germany) immediately after school and went to live in the UK, eventually serving as a conscript in the British Army. He then went on to work as a chef in countries around the world. Hence my anxiety over being from somewhere else and wanting to be accepted has deep roots. Even in conversation the border between languages is tense – I often get resentful when someone tries to switch into English. Thus, as is often the case, a kind of shyness turns into a type of rudeness.

Hence, when the ‘natural’ thing to do would be to play along with the clowns and to accept the role of the dumb foreigner, I stonewall, refusing to participate in the game. I pretend to be German. I make out that I don’t understand English. This is almost psychotic. English is effectively a national language in Mexico. It has more status and more people speak it than the other 64 indigenous languages. The problem is that if I respond in Spanish people will know I’m a foreigner anyway because of my accent, and there aren’t any foreigners in Mexico who don’t speak English. It would be like a Mexican who doesn’t understand Spanish. There are some of those, but I clearly do not look like one of them. This is excrutiating. There is only one thing left to do: huir, and spend the rest of the weekend steering well clear of The Clowns.

dsc_1045We head away from the centre towards the train graveyard, also known as the National Railway Musem. It has dozens of passenger and freight wagons, mostly from Mexico but also the US. There is a photo exhibition in one of the carriages on some of the now-despondent towns which the train line from Puebla to Veracruz used to pass through. The city of Puebla was created to secure the route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz, so the train line was of vital importance when it was opened in 1873, particularly for the transport of goods. Then, after decades of neglect, in the early 1990s the entire network was broken into four and privatised. The line from Puebla to Veracruz closed, and now Puebla focuses on producing cars. On the way here from Mexico City you pass a huge Volkswagen plant; in the centre of town several street signs have been sponsored by the company. As for trains, the only surviving long-distance passenger line crosses Chihuahua state in the north. It is hugely popular with tourists. dsc_1039

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dsc_1034Then there is La Bestia. This is not a single train but a network of freight trains used by Central American immigrants to get from the south to the north of the country on their way to the US. It is so dangerous that it is also known as el tren de la muerte, the train of death. Since 2014 passengers have been banned from travelling on top of the train, partly thanks to an Obama-inspired crackdown by the Mexican authorities on immigration across the southern Mexican border. The subsequent treatment of those who still try explains the fact that in June 2015 an Amnesty International report called Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for migrants. dsc_0166In the main building of the museum is another exhibition dedicated to the work done by Padre Alejandro Solalinde, who runs an organisation providing Central American immigrants with humanitarian aid and education. In return for his efforts his life has been threatened on several occasions.dsc_1058It puts my fear of clowns into some perspective.

In Defence of People Smugglers

A small group of German women and children arriving in the British sector of Berlin, October 1945 (photo: http://www.kingsacademy.com).
Syrian refugees brave the cold and snow as they walk to a metro station in Istanbul, February 2015 (photo: http://dailyamin.com).

When I was a child I loved reading novels about escape. They were mostly stories of people escaping from areas under Nazi control, being smuggled across borders into neutral countries, or trying to get hold of the right papers, or at least ones convincing enough to allow them to escape from imprisonment, torture and death. Along the way they would meet some people who would help them and some who would betray them — the suspense and drama came from sharing the character’s uncertainty as to whether or not they’d make it, and whether or not the person they’d just met could really be trusted. The escapees, exhibiting bewildering levels of courage and ingenuity, were ocasionally assisted by networks of resistence, anonymous people of staggering bravery who were prepared to face torture and give their lives to save others and to combat injustice. This kind of fiction was everywhere when I was a kid, which was still within the broad cultural aftermath of the excitement and traumas of the war. You could still buy Victor annuals which revelled in imagery of armed conflict — I’m pretty sure the very first phrase I learnt in German was ‘Achtung! Ich bin hit!’. By the time I came into being there had already been a good couple of decades of this stuff. As an adult I read A Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque, a more complex account of the brutalities of the struggle for escape and survival, and also Austerlitz by WG Sebald, which explores the deeper implications of what it is to be rescued and to start a new life elsewhere. They depicted deep, intense psychological and moral battles, in a way conditioned by a profound sense of empathy at suffering and loss.

Continues on katoikos.eu.

Jack Straw, Zizek and UK Border Force

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An article in last week’s Guardian made it difficult for me to take Jack Straw’s liberal posturing on Question Time at face value. A ten-year-old girl tried to hang herself after being locked up for the second time and faced with deportation to Nigeria. She had recently been dragged screaming from her home by a team of UK Border authority officials. The ten-year-old’s attempted suicide was also an echo of an incident in 2005, when an Angolan man said goodbye to his son and then hung himself in the stairwell of a detention centre, in order that his son be able to stay in the country as an unaccompanied minor.

Perhaps when both families were being dragged kicking and screaming from their homes they were being filmed for UK Border Force. This is a Sky One programme, now in its second season, which is presumably made with the full participation and encouragement of the Home Office. It showcases the Government’s policy of sending out teams to hunt down and and round up ‘illegals’ and highlights the ‘tragic stories and challenges’ that they (the immigration officials, not the immigrants) face every day. Raids have recently been staged on a market in East London, dragging off immigrants whose only hope of survival is to work illegally given that the Government not only forbids them from working legally, but is also actively reducing even their most basic means of survival. Presumably in this way New Labour ministers hope to quench the thirst for brutal violence as a solution to the ‘problem’ of ‘illegal immigration’ which is, of course, a mainstay of Jack Straw’s favourite newspaper (see above).

Perhaps the Daily Mail is missing the boat somewhat when it comes to their bitter opposition to further British involvement in and cooperation with the European Union. Slavoj Žižek recounts the case of the Tunisian fishermen who face up to fifteen years of imprisonment for rescuing forty-four immigrants off the coast of Lampedusa. Other fishermen who have beaten off boatloads of people with sticks and left them to drown suffered no punishment. Zizek then quotes what Robert Brasillach, a ‘moderate anti-semite’, wrote in 1938:

‘We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; and the voice of Hitler is carried over radio waves named after the Jew Hertz . We don’t want to kill anyone, we don’t want to organise any pogroms. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual anti-semitism is to organise a reasonable anti-semitism. ‘

I can only presume that this is what Jack Straw et al are up to with their quasi-fascist hounding of immigrants. They certainly don’t want to organise any pogroms, but they seem to think that TV programmes which present pogroms as entertainment might serve as a means of pacifying violent racists, somehow making them less inclined to get off their sofas and round up ‘illegals’ themselves. Attempts to use similar means to combat racism and fascism in the 1930s met with limited success.