The Keepers: Resistance Through Fiction
This text was originally written to a conference I took part in February 2020, and is part of the doctoral research The Keepers: About Flocks and Fog, which I develop anchored in the reading and analysis of the novel Ḥāris al-Tabġ (2008, English edition The Tobacco Keeper, 2011), by Ali Bader. The thesis of which this short brainstorming of considerations is constituent, fundamentally interdisciplinary, unfolds the events of the novel in five chapters with the following themes that are intertwined throughout the research: identity, conflicts, language, music and revolutions. Specifically, this text is a small part of a study regarding the chapter on conflicts brought about by reading Bader's novel.
In The Tobacco Keeper, a ghostwriter narrates the life of a fictitious character, the violinist Kamal. The novel has major intertwinings with history, from where comes the main triggers for the changes in Kamal’s life. Another key aspect of the novel is the complex parallels of the Middle East with the West through the juxtaposition of the character with European elements, such as historical events, European musicians, and mainly, the parallel with the heteronyms of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. In the novel we learn that because of political and religious prejudices and violences suffered by the main character, he is obliged to migrate from the place he lives in order to survive, and that will be the main issue of this paper.
Briefly, Kamal has had other identities, those of Haidar and Yousef, and those three personas of the same musician are paired symbolically to the heteronyms of the poet, as follows: Yousef - paralleled with the heteronym of Alberto Caeiro, who denies all metaphysics - was born from a Jewish Baghdadi family in 1926, and was at all times surrounded by Muslim friends, and was reluctant to close himself into a ghetto. After the Second World War and especially after the creation of Israel, life became impossible for Jews in Baghdad and he was forced to move to Tel Aviv in 1952. Desolated for having left his hometown, he used the opportunity to go to Moscow perform a concert, to escape to Tehran and forge an identity and go back to Baghdad. This new identity though, was of a Shia Muslim, Haidar - who is paralleled with the heteronym of Ricardo Reis, the epicurean. Under this identity he lives until 1981, when the Iran-Iraq War breaks out and makes life for Shia Muslims unbearable in Iraq. At this time, after spending some time in a refugee camp in Iran, he manages to flee to Damascus, where he takes up yet another identity, now of a Sunni Muslim, Kamal - paralleled with Álvaro de Campos, the disillusioned modernist - with which he goes back to Baghdad where he witness all cruelties his people undergo, not only under country's regime, but also for international sanctions, wars, and invasions, until the day of his death in 2006.
Now, I’d like to discuss 3 main issues directly connected to the novel’s plot. First, the migration movements after the Second World War; Second, the rise of a new kind of racism mainly from European countries towards minorities; Third, an overview on the Arabic Literature in the 21st Century, as a way of contextualising the novel I’m working with.
To consider migration movements since the end of the Second World War, I rely on William Spellman's book, Uncertain identity: international migration since 1945 (2008). Spellman first points out that the migration of this period was mainly about labour, once Europe was reconstructing itself and needed some skilled workforce to aid its rebirth. But only a selective few who got language skills, specific training and abilities could get good positions. The other large amount of unskilled migrants who manage to cross the borders were underappreciated and could only get low-wage 3D jobs: dirty, difficult and dangerous (we could also add demeaning); and together with the refugees, they were undesired and faced growing hostility. Spellman also points out that the decades from the 1960’s to 1990’s witnessed a increasing North-South divide due to a huge DGP gap, consequence of an unequal balance of economic development, which led to an increasing immigration, while the “South countries” were assailed by poverty and conflicts, both local and international.
Spellman then marks 3 historical turning points in the way Europe dealt with migration issues. The first takes the Cold War period until 1989, when receiving migrants was a way of western democracies to display power. So, at that time, there were fairly receptive actions and steps towards integration that slowly faded away. The second period is the 1990’s decade, in which the fall of the wall, paradoxically led to an increase of regulation to enter the “fortress Europe” that must be kept safe from outsiders. The third period relates to the time after the 2001, 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led to heightened security concerns, anti-migration political movements, and put specially Muslim and Arabic migrants and refugees under greater scrutiny and vulnerability.
Moving on, on Identity, Belonging and Migration (2011), by Delanty, Jones and Wodak, we learn about the main concern of its authors: the “widespread agreement that racism in Europe is on the increase and that one of its characteristic features is hostility to migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers”. To the authors, this “new” racism is coded, diffuse and pervasive, hidden within the discourse as a way of domesticating the critics it would raise. One of the main features of this “new” racism is to be not overtly expressed, a fact which led to an expressive part of society to adhere to it and support far-right political initiatives and policies of increasing hostilities towards migrants.
What the authors call then, Xeno-Otherism, instead of a direct prejudice to race, religion or skin colour, express social concerns, as the protection of jobs and welfare benefits for nationals, or emphasise cultural differences of migrants, as a supposed lack of cultural competence or resistance to blend in, which is mainly noticeable in terms of language. The authors make clear they are not only talking about individuals, but also about institutions as collective arrangements, and therefore, they pose the concept of Institutional Discrimination, as a definition of general practices of exclusion which reflect the collective failure, both of institutions and individuals, as social practices demand social actors, which entail in both ends, social agency. Xeno-Otherism then, stands also for these internal boundaries and means of exclusion within national borders.
Identity, Belonging and Migration come to a close affirming that “Europe is haunted by a dilemma”, for its colonial past of slavery and genocide are not restricted to history books, but are part and parcel of its current institutional arrangements. As well, the Enlightenment principles of equal rights, universalism, humanism and democracy, which have never been meant and extended for “the others”, perpetuate unequal power relations, enabling oppression and aggression as such we witness today. The authors conclude questioning the idea of cosmopolitanism, which, far from being a stage to be reached, represents the absolute incompleteness, a never-ending process of self-transformation happening along with the changes of society, demanding the imagination of its participants to think new forms of citizenship that go beyond boundaries.
Coming to an end, the 2019 article from Johanna Sellman, A global postcolonial: Contemporary Arabic literature of migration to Europe, presents the readers a panorama on Arabic Literature from the 1960s and 1970s to the 21st Century context. Sellman states that after the 1967 Naksa, or setback - the overwhelming defeat of the Arabic countries to the western-backed newborn Israel - the long lasting as well as mutable idea of Nahda came to an end. The new millennium Arabic literature presents the readers to an universe of Forced Migration which no longer allows the idealisation of exile. Instead, this literature explore ideas of border crossing through violent practices, undocumented migration, imagining belongings and interconnections beyond citizenship, to reflect over the painful exilic conditions of its characters, their struggles of experience, and the risks of individual detachment.
The strategies of these writers converge on the use of metaphors, wilderness, absurd elements and fantasy, which configures a certain kind of “nightmare realism”, in order to emphasise the divisions and inequalities of the current globalisation in the 21st century global context. Finally Sellman calls the attention to the stands of literature, being able to set up a space of transition between realities, allowing the confrontation of ideologies, of the material world to its representation. Being so, the literary narrative would constitute itself as an Ethical Practice, making room to re-imagine concepts of belonging and borders, interconnections and citizenship, in the world at large, a space of overlapping realities and contexts. All that, imply the contemporary Arabic migration literature as examples of Post-Colonial and Global literature, in such a way it can be read all over the world conveying a revision of the realities we live by.
To conclude, I like to consider my reading of the literary narrative fiction of the novel The Tobacco Keeper, as a social practice, in which I consider the multiple identities presented in the book as a display of the different ways of behaving and belonging to this world that the everyday life demands make us forget about. Also I see the parallels proposed in the novel as a suggestion for us to go beyond what we believe we are, and dare to assume the paradoxes of existence, and as well, to resist the reification of identities, nationalities, stereotypes, ethnicity and religion that most of the times we are conformed to. Then, what I like to consider about my research, is to propose a reflection on the standard modes of interaction we live on in a daily basis, as a way to foster a more harmonic sharing of spaces, territories and citizenship, despite the places we come from, or the passport colours we carry around, as if all people had it.
Brussels, London, Oxford
BADER, Ali. The Tobacco Keeper. Translated by Amira Nowaira. Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2011.
DELANTY, Gerard; WODAK, Ruth; JONES, Paul. Introduction: Migration, Discrimination and Belonging in Europe. In: DELANTY, Gerard; WODAK, Ruth; JONES, Paul (Editors). Identity, Belonging and Migration (p.1-20). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011.
KAMALI, Masoud. Conclusion: Discrimination as a Modern European Legacy. In: DELANTY, Gerard; WODAK, Ruth; JONES, Paul (Editors). Identity, Belonging and Migration (p.301-310). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011.
SELLMAN, Johanna. (2018) A global postcolonial: Contemporary Arabic literature of migration to Europe, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 54:6, 751-765, DOI: 10.1080/17449855.2018.1555207. Published online: 08 Apr 2019.
SPELLMAN, W. M. Uncertain identity: international migration since 1945. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.