Can studying religious movements give us new insights into globalisation or even cosmopolitanism? Anthropologist Tulasi Srinivas thinks so.
Antropologi.info book reviewer Tereza Kuldova has taken a closer look at Srinivas’ new book Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement.
Book Review: Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement by Tulasi Srinivas, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010
Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow. Museum of Cultural History, Department of Ethnography, University of Oslo
Tulasi Srinivas draws us with her book into the intriguing world of a transnational religious Sathya Sai movement, a movement that crosses regional, national, religious and cultural boundaries and thus creates something that she labels ‘engaged cosmopolitanism’.
Through the focus on this religious and cultural movement that has its roots in India and that has managed to grow into a huge global movement with millions of followers and devotees, she tries to resolve what ‘cultural globalization’ might mean in contemporary world. At the same time, she addresses the questions of the nature of transglobal economies of spirituality, affect and religio-cultural identity and the meanings and forms of new pluralism, as they can be exemplified through this movement.
Her detailed ethnographic study based on nine years of fieldwork, makes it clear that processes of globalization cannot be perceived in terms of westernization, as some would like to have it. They must be understood in terms of interactions, flows and movement between variously localized cultural centers and in terms of the resulting variously spatially and culturally localized translations of these interactions, images, ideas and discourses. To put it simply, flows are multidirectional (though I would say, this has never been different).
Tulasi Srinivas is throughout her work making an appealing argument for a ‘dynamic ethnography’, which operates with the concepts of mobile description and multi-sitedness. The problem she tries to resolve in her writing is how to comprehend mobility and how to deal with translocal phenomena and that within a discipline so ill equipped to understand them. Hers is a critical hermeneutic study of religious globalization, where concepts such as complexity, relationality, networks, interaction and affectivity play a crucial role.
Even though this type of logic is generally appealing and without any doubt trendy, there is still something that disturbs me in her work. It might be the constant concern with ‘cultural globalization’ and ‘cultural translation’, even after reading the book I still find myself wondering what exactly does that mean, where does one culture begin and the other end, what is borrowed, what authentic, what reinterpreted? Maybe we are just looking here for artificial isles of safety in a sea of constant flux… The question is - can we not do without these isles?
Hinduism-Muslim culture of saints, Christian teaching + indigenous healing rituals
Let me now provide you with a brief sketch of the book and then discuss one of the chapters in more detail.
Throughout her book, Tulasi Srinivas introduces us to the story of the Sathya Sai movement. This movement is sixty-five years old and draws on a Hindu-Muslim culture of saints and mystics and on several strands of religion in the subcontinent, from Sufi mysticism, popular Hinduism, and Buddhism to indigenous healing rituals, Zoroastrianism and contemporary Christian teaching. The movement is centered on the charismatic personality of Shri Sathya Sai Baba (b. 1926).
Sathya Sai Baba. Source: Nebbie2006, photobucket|
Sai Baba was born in a remote village of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh and “after suffering a series of seizures and falling into trances, he declared his greatness at the age of thirteen and proclaimed that he was Sai Baba, a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a Muslim saint from Mahara who had died in 1918” (p. 9). He substantiated his claims by performing miraculous acts, such as materializations of sacred ash that devotees apply on their foreheads. These materializations continue to be central to his practice and are a matter of dispute among the members of anti-Sai movement.
Spiritual travel and “sexual healing”
Tulasi Srinivas maps the way this movement of his following has grown and became popular with people all around the world. She devotes a part of the book to the discussion of the nature of contemporary spiritual travel to the ashram in the village of Puttaparthi and the viewing and experience and magical encounter of darshan (witnessing of divinity) of Sai Baba. She takes us into the world of the global Sai community that stretches from the village of Puttaparthi to Tokyo, London, Hollywood, Mumbai, Bangalore and many other places around the globe and tries to grasp what it means to be and become a part of this global Sai community.
The chapter 4 is noteworthy because of its controversial nature. Tulasi Srinivas poses here the questions considering democracy, transparency and theology within the Sathya Sai Organization and focuses on the discussion of the allegations of ‘sexual healing’ and the ‘strategies of secrecy’ that according to her pervade this organization. In this respect, it is instrumental to read the reactions of the Sathya Sai Organization to her book, and in particularly to this chapter on http://www.saisathyasai.com/tulasi-srinivas/.
This controversy might be of interest to anyone possessing deeper knowledge of the movement and studying it, and it is up to the reader to make any conclusions. However, such critical comments are possibly the result of the fact that Srinivas dared to include the perceptions and views of the anti-Sai movement and did not only restrict her ethnography to the experiences of the committed devotees. On the other hand, how accurate any of the data is, is very hard to judge for anyone outside the movement and without its deep knowledge.
Further, she includes an interesting discussion on the encoded bodily prescriptions in the ashram and the problems they pose to the devotees from different cultures. She understands the failure of certain devotees to abide by the ashram rules as illuminating the “differential understanding of embodiment, salvation, desire and discipline” and believes that it speaks to “problems in cultural translation” (p. 19).
Branding of religious goods
However, the most intriguing chapter is according to me, being keenly interested in material culture, the last one dealing with the paradoxes of the teaching of resistance to the material world on one hand and the excessive consumption of religious objects on the other. In this context, “the material object is rejected as ‘unreal’ and a distraction from the truth of divinity, but the objects themselves become a significant signpost indicating the road to self-transformation” (p. 290).
Tulasi Srinivas shows us nicely how the consumption of these religious objects, be it gifted sacra or bought ephemera, has the power to directly transform the selves and the habitus of the devotees.
The gifted materializations (rings, necklaces, talismans, sacred ash, ambrosia etc.) from Sathya Sai Baba are the most important of the religious objects. “The reception of a materialized object instantly raises one’s standing among the community of devotees, as it is read as a sign of divine favor and an index of one’s active piety” (p. 285).
The materialized objects gifted by Sai Baba are believed to be transformed by the contact with him and thus possess a magical transformative power within them, “capable of transforming people’s bodies and minds from sick to well and from skeptical to devotional” (p. 294). “The gifting of the materialized objects to the faithful is the key element of transformative interaction between deity and devotee, as it is believed to be the material form of the much hoped for transference of the divinity’s grace and power as a blessing to the devotee” (p. 297).
Though gifts are the most important religious items for the Sai devotees, most of them never meet Sai Baba and are thus dependent on the global distributive network of Sai Baba goods, that can be purchased almost anywhere in the world. However, the further from the village of Puttaparthi, the less ‘authentic’ and powerful these objects get.
This chapter thus draws us also into the world of branding of religious goods, and the branding of the movement as such. What began as small business in touristic souvenirs in the 60s was turned into a bigger business in religious souvenirs in the early 70s mostly for spiritual tourists. By the beginning of 80s a huge business in religious objects of international scale, dealing in all kinds of objects, ranging from images, photographs, CDs, books, to jewelry, all featuring Sai Baba, was in place.
After all, the “Sathya Sai movement is known to be the largest faith-based foreign exchange earner for India, earning approximately Indian Rs. 881,8 million (approx. $5 million) for the year 2002-2003” (p. 12). Srinivas draws us also into the intricacies of the trade in the Sai Baba goods, where the SSSO claims to be the only ‘authentic’ source of ‘blessed’ goods by Sai Baba and where the struggle for perfection of the purchased goods is central.
Engaged cosmopolitanism or Hindu superiority?
To conclude, we can contrast the idea of ‘engaged cosmopolitanism’ which Srinivas uses with a statement of one of my informants, a lady who has been a spiritual tourist for the last 20 years and managed to escape her obsession: “After seeing all these babas and the way they treat people, you realize that most of what is happening is about power and money, the one who gives most gets those materialized gifts, the one who pays most gets to sit next to Sai Baba, in the end it is only a huge money-making industry and highly hierarchical one. And what is worse, the whole agenda of this money-making business is not a peaceful message of acceptance and equality of all religious beliefs, but rather the opposite, namely the superiority of Hindu thought and the Hindu dominance in a global sphere, after all India is shining. And magic, they can do no magic, why don’t they treat the lepers waiting outside their ashrams?” (Interview, 18. august 2010).
Engaged cosmopolitanism? Depends on what you imagine under this term.
This book on its all appears to be well-researched and is without doubt well-written, though at times it might seem too chaotic and the arguments unnecessarily literally twisted. A struggle for more clarity would be advisable. That does not diminish the contribution of the author to the studies in transnational religious phenomena. The book would be of interest to any scholar or student of globalization, religious movements, India, and to anyone interested in the methodological challenges posed by multi-sited fieldwork. And I would say, it is a must read for any Sathya Sai devotee!
>> Information about the book by the publisher (Columbia University Press)
>> Review by Peter Berger (The American Interest, 3.8.2010)
>> Interview with Tulasi Srinivas (Lokvani 3.2.2006)
See more reviews by Tereza Kuldova, among others The deep footprints of colonial Bombay and Hindi Film Songs and the Barriers between Ethnomusicology and Anthropology or Colonialism, racism and visual anthropology in Japan: Photography, Anthropology and History and my look at her master’s thesis That’s why there is peace
I’ve stumpled upon a rather new Open Access Journal called Practical Matters. This publication of Emory University is both interdisciplinary and “intermedia", i.e. multimedia.
The most recent issue (nr 3) is called Ethnography & Theology.
In their introduction, Lerone Martin and Luke Whitmore write:
Many scholars of religion who did not begin their scholarly careers as anthropologists now count themselves ethnographers, or at least state that they employ ethnographic methods.
Many scholars of theology have arrived, and continue to arrive, at the view that to better understand how human subjects experience their lives, rituals, and religious/cultural practices “it is necessary to observe people in everyday life and see how cultural meanings are brought by them to bear on their actual, practical concerns.”
This issue aims to push forward the interdisciplinary conversation around the intersections of ethnography and theology.
This issue includes a 12 minutes video by Melissa D. Browning about theologists on fieldwork with a corresponding paper Listening to Experience, Looking Towards Flourishing. Ethnography as a Global Feminist Theo/Ethical Praxis.
Issue 2 focuses on youth and includes an twelve-minute documentary by Sonia Narang that examines how the practice of the visual arts can involve the religious identities of young people.
In the first issue (topic: imagination), you’ll find a lot of photography, for example Imagining Antarctica by Sandra F. Selby or Luther’s Wedding: How One Town is Rebuilding its Convivial Culture through Imagination and Tradition by Barry Stephenson.
I hope we’ll see more journals of this kind. Another innovative journal I wrote about is Anthropology Reviews: Dissent and Cultural Politics (ARDAC)
The limitation of people’s freedom of movement based on their nationality (“global apartheid”) is maybe one of the biggest human rights issues nowadays.
One month ago I wrote about Shahram Khosravi’s auto-ethnography of illegalised border crossing.The Democracy In America blog at the Economist draws attention to a related book: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border by David Spener. The anthropologist spent eight years doing field work on both sides of the border.
Armed with latest technology, the U.S. does everything to prevent people from the South to enter its territory. Because border crossing is difficult, 90% of all illegalised migrants crossing into the United States through Mexico hired a smuggler (also called “coyote"). Human smuggling has become a $6.6-billion industry in Mexico.
The press presents human smuggling as a sinister organized-crime phenomenon. Spener argues that it is better understood “as the resistance of working-class Mexicans to an economic model and set of immigration policies in North America that increasingly resemble an apartheid system.
Publishing a book is not always the best strategy to spread knowledge. Therefore it is a good idea to set up companion websites as Spener has done. Here we find border crossing stories, articles and papers as well as images, maps and sounds.
As the Democracy in America blog reminds us: Even reaching the border is hard. Each year some 20,000 migrants are kidnapped for ransom in Mexico. Victims are made to give the phone numbers of relatives, who must pay upwards of $3,000 or more to get them released.
Migrants from Central and South America are particularly easy targets:
Illegal in Mexico, they must evade checkpoints throughout the country and risk deportation if they report a crime. Women and girls—about a fifth of the migrants making their way through Mexico—face additional dangers. Six out of ten are reckoned to suffer sexual abuse during their migration, according to Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog.
For a global perspective, see the overview by the BBC: Walls Around The World
A bit more than two weeks ago, around 1300 anthropologists from all over Europe left the university village Maynooth not far away from Dublin. Europe’s largest anthropology conference, the biennial congress of The European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) was over.
As usual, hardly any information about the knowledge that was exchanged at the conference, found its way to the public.
Here is what I found.
“As far as I can tell", he writes, “the lecture laid out the ground for a new anthropology of terrorism and human rights". Talal Asad “mapped out the economy of liberal human rights where the reorientation of the concept of ‘just war’ made certain peoples’ deaths necessary to safeguard the lives of others".
Asad’s paper, which his speech is based on, is available online (pdf - download it before they remove it!). Or check also an earlier post Selected quotes from “On Suicide Bombing” by Talal Asad.
Philipp Budka (University of Vienna) is the only one who has written a report about the conference. It focuses on workshops that deal with media (technology). Several bloggers are among the paper givers, for example John Postill, Alexander Knorr and Gabriella Coleman (who blogged a little bit about her Ireland trip).
Stéphane Voell, blogger at Traditional Law in Georgia, is wondering if it was worth organizing a workshop after not more that seven or eight people showed up. It reminded him on the days when he as a 17 year old was playing in his school band (Text in German only).
Finally, Cicilie Fagerlid explains us why she is calling conferences for festivals:
The more anthropology (or other academic genres) I engage in during a 3-4 days period, the more engaging it gets. Listening to debates and commenting on papers during the day, and discussing, chatting and mingling during the night, with too little sleep in-between high-wire the brain in a very creative and inspiring fashion. The first time I experienced it, weeklong camping on rock festivals was still fresh in my memory, and that experience was what an anthropology conference reminded me of.
Are there some blog posts I haven’t seen? Something about EASA 2010 you want to share?
UPDATE (18.10.10): Digital Anthropology: An EASA Workshop (Heather Horst, Material World 13.10.10)
Make Peace. Photo: Danny Hammontree, flickr
“What if they gave a war and nobody came?” is a popular slogan from the antiwar-movement. But nowadays, when USA with their allies go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, people do come. Lots of people enlist in the military, even voluntarily, especially in the U.S. Why?
Anthropologist Sarah Salameh answers this question in her master’s thesis Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue. A Midwest American Perspective on Troops, War and Nation.
She’s been on a six months’ fieldwork in a small town in the upper Midwest, a rather conservative and patriotic area that struggles with deindustrialization, low wages and unemployment. Salameh - an opponent of the U.S wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - describes the six months “as the most interesting and mind blowing time of my life.”
And it is indeed an interesting and well written thesis about “one of the most understudied groups": white middle-class Americans.
She introduces us to a diverse group of military people:
The many settings the reader is introduced to includes an Army recruiting office, a public elementary school, Memorial Day celebrations, the motorcycle group the Patriot Guard Riders‟ missions, and the celebration of a National Guard unit returning home from Iraq. One gets to know people ranging from Army recruiters to the girls they helped enlisting at the age of 17, the concerned mother of a soldier, and a bunch of rather unconcerned 5th graders performing their patriotic duty decorating their town‟s cemetery with Star Spangled Banners.
One of her findings is the critical distance many soldiers have towards the government.
While in uniform, the anthropologist writes, soldiers are not allowed to speak negatively about the President. But in reality, as Robert, one of the soldiers, told her “The troops fight for the people, the American people, not the government. Neither the troops nor the people like the government.”
The official reason for waging a war is not always relevant for the soldiers. Looking at peoples‟ motives for joining the military, Salameh writes, “underlines the irrelevance of government and politics".
Not one person she’s talked to (around 100) claimed to have joined the military because he or she thinks that this or that exact war is especially just or necessary as it is explained by politicians.
Robert is one of them. He did not believe the official explanation of the Iraq war (weapons of mass destructions). At times, Robert claimed the Iraq war is a quest for oil.
But he doesn’t care:
I am going for other reasons than oil. When I was in Iraq, I built schools, and handed out backpacks and paper to school children. I fixed dams so the people could have electricity. I spent two years totally committed to doing stuff like that.
U.S. Army Soldiers in Iraq. Photo: Scott Taylor, U.S.Army, flickr
The research subjects explained and mostly legitimized the US military presence and their own participation, with a reference to themselves as Americans.
Robert places American politicians outside these “American people. He places himself, as a service member, on the side of and fighting for, the American people, not the government.
The anthropologist explains:
People and troops, the government and the people make up two societies that act according to two different value systems; the politicians according to a rather crooked one, initiating wars on unjust premises and ignoring the will of the American people; the American people according to what might perhaps be termed a more American one, expressed in Robert‟s account as focused on a wish to keep his own family and other Americans safe and free, and help Iraqis towards a better life.
Help Iraqis towards a better life? That’s in the eyes of the soldiers their responsibility as Americans. The USA is in their view a positive example for other countries, an example to follow. It seems to me they are on a kind of religious mission.
This religious dimension is interesting. Salameh discusses American nationalism as “civil religion”:
Much of the (…) USA and its military, can be understood within the context of civil religion, wherein the nation is the focus of belief, and its endeavours overseas is the spreading (missionary function) of the values inherent in the „national belief‟.
One of the dogmas of this “civil religion” is the idea that God has a special concern for America, putting Americans in the role of the chosen people, and America in the role of the promised land:
This is connected to the story of the American foundation, taking the form of myth, where today‟s American‟s ancestors came to this promised land and made a covenant with it, still binding today‟s Americans. The covenant has two aspects: to maintain the concept of promised land, basically to keep the USA free, as underlined by for example Robert, as well as to „export by example‟ the American version of freedom.
Indianapolis War Memorial Shrine Room.
Photo: Carl Van Rooy, flickr
She also describes the flag as totem, and blood sacrifice as an American group taboo.
At Memorial Day sacrifice was a central theme. “What soldiers in the Army do is to give up their life for others‟ freedom", an army recruiter explained.
Tony‟s 5th graders stood up, faced the flag on the left side of the blackboard, put their right hand on the left side of their chest and said the Pledge simultaneously with the principal‟s voice. Everybody knew the Pledge by heart and said it out loud: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
But do people in Iraq and Afghanistan really want their help? What about the widespread opposition towards the US wars?
This question is not very relevant for the research subjects. Even if the the people the USA tries to help reject the help, the USA‟s efforts are legitimate.
“It is as if the people on the receiving side of, what by the Americans is presented as „help‟, are not in a position to judge whether what the US presence offers is good or bad", Salameh comments.
This remembers of what Edward Said describes as orientalism.
People in the Orient have frequently been portrayed as more passionate, more violent and barbaric, as well as culturally determined. This „savaging‟ of the Orientals has justified European and American imperialism throughout history, often presented as a civilizing project.
And in the very same act as „the West‟ thus diagnoses other countries as less developed, „the West‟ also categorizes them as passive (they are weak, ill), thus allowing for a paternal role.
For the research subjects, there are “good others” and “bad others” in Iraq and Afghanistan:
There is the „good Other‟ who takes the form of some sort of deprived, but possible, allied and member of the „free world‟; in the accounts above termed „innocents‟, „civilians‟, „the people‟ (of Afghanistan and Iraq), or simply „Afghanis‟ and „Iraqis‟. Opposed to this, exists a „bad Other‟ that cannot possibly be helped, thus only fought. This bad Other carries many different names, among them „terrorists‟, „insurgents‟, „extremists‟, „radicals‟, and to a varying degree also the Iraqi and Afghani „leaders‟ and „government‟ are included.
Although nationalism is important, she stresses that she does not claim it is the only, or the most central factor. There are many individual factors (escaping from smalltown life etc). Economic incentives are often central when people decide to join the military in the first place, and “a thesis could have been written on economy as incentive alone"".
Sarah Salameh is currently turning the thesis into a book where she will include on all those other factors as well (see my short email interview with her, Norwegian only).
The whole thesis is available online.
One of the - in my view - most interesting anthropology blogs, Neuroanthropology, has recently celebrated post #1000 and made a list over their Top 100 Posts - based on page views (there is also a list with their personal favorites).
At the same time, the blog has moved to http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/. They are now part of the new Public Library of Science: PLoS Blogs, “a serious and powerful voice for open-access scholarship and education". Neuroanthropology bloggers Daniel Lende and Greg Downey hope to “act as a voice for anthropology in a scholarly and public forum built around science and medicine".
Neuroanthropology is one of the rather few outward looking anthropology blogs - writing both for fellow researchers and the interested public. There are many in-depth magazine style posts - and not only about neuroanthropology - often regarded as one of the most exciting research fields.
One of the most recent posts deals with the question: How does language affect thought and perception? while others discuss The Pitfalls and Pratfalls of Criminals or The dog-human connection in evolution or the Neuroanthropology of Morality.
Public Anthropology is a popular topic, see for example On Reaching a Broader Public or Glory Days - Anthropologists as Journalists or Student Websites and the Classroom: Anthropology Online.
A lot to explore and learn!
Anthropologists are following in media’s and politicians footsteps: They care less about the floods i Pakistan than for the Tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Katrina floods in the USA and the earthquake in Haiti.
A quick search reveals nearly complete silence. While several anthropologists mention the desaster or call for help, they don’t contribute with any analyses.
The only piece by an anthropologist that deals specifically with the floods consists of rather dubious culturalisations: Cultural wisdom in crisis by Kashmali Khan from Oxford University, published in the Pakistani Tribune.
But while I am writing these lines, suddenly an interview about the flood pops up at the great blog Anthropologyworks. Pakistan expert Maggie Ronkin (who’s recently taught on Justice and Peace in Pakistan and Social Development in South Asia at Georgetown University) interviews Fayyaz Baqir, Director of the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center in Islamabad.
Fayyaz Baqir describes the floods as “the worst in the entire world during the past hundred years". But he is eager to add - and this is the interesting part in my view - that we “are underestimating the resilience, resourcefulness, and capacity of the people to cope with the disaster due to the presence of hundreds of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms that help people on a day-to-day basis.”
This capacity and the will to help is echoed in several stories in Pakistani media.
“In the last 10 days", Zeresh John writes, in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, “I’ve seen Pakistan come together in ways never seen before.” “It is an overwhelming feeling", Zeresh John adds, “when people unite for a cause. When in an instant, strangers no longer remain strangers":
The Pakistani youth has risen and literally stepped out on the streets to help their countrymen affected by the flood. (…) Each day brings a relentless and constant chain of support. Where the monetary contributors stop, there is a group of people ready to take over by running to crowded bazaars everyday to buy food supplies, clean drinking water and medicines. From there yet another massive portion of the population is stepping in to pack those supplies and load them into trucks to deliver them to the affected areas.
As Pakistani authorities failed to provide the necessary leadership needed and with no proper coordination in the relief efforts, the civilian population of Pakistan has taken it upon themselves to do what they can in the face of this crisis; in the process, developing a conscientious society that we’re all proud to belong to.
But these stories are not told by the media, a reader comments:
“I live overseas and this post was quite educational for me. How is it that none of our TV channels are highlighting this spirit ? All I’ve seen so far are stories about corruption, fake camps and immoral feudals diverting the flow of flood waters to their benefit. Our free media seems to be failing miserably by promoting only the demoralizing but sensational stories.”
My favorite story is written by Shabnam Riaz in The News: The Real Heroes (see also cached version). She is also writing about “a spirit-lifting experience in this whole nightmare": Pakistan’s youth, young men and poor laborers who help other people:
Small, scattered groups of young boys and men had formed where the rain was the harshest and was threatening to sweep away cars along with their occupants. (…) They worked in unison, all of them had a single purpose and that was to rescue other human beings. (…) They waved at us, hurriedly preparing to help the next hapless driver who was blindly careening into their path. We waved back with euphoric ‘thank you’ but they had already become busy in helping others.
I was touched beyond words. These young men were poor labourers who were most probably hungry as a day full of rain would not have given them a chance to earn their daily wage. I am sure that none of them were owners of a vehicle either. But their dedication to help the other members of society who definitely had more material possessions than they had, without any contempt at all, told me something. It told me that deep inside they were people of substance. Those individuals who had their moral compasses pointing in the right direction.
It also told me something else; that in fact, these were our heroes. Also, these people who slog from sun-up till sun-down for a meagre amount that could hardly put a decent meal on anyone’s table, are our actual role models.
Here another story about how people help themselves (video by Al Jazeera)
Save Pakistan from the catastrophe is the title of an earlier article where anthropologist Fazal Amin Baig calls for action. Fazal Amin Baig wrote it earlier this year in the aftermath of a heavy landslide that took the lives of 19 people and displaced more than 1,500 people. “The year 2010 witnessed a natural disaster, which did not indicate a good omen to the people of Pakistan.” Unfortunately, the anthropologist was right.
For an excellent example of how to contribute as social scientists, see my earlier post on anthropologists on Katrina.
(update: Pakistan: Netizens In Action Helping Flood Victims. (Global Voices 24.8.2010))
Globalisation means for most people on this planet higher fences and less movement across borders. The new book by anthropologist Shahram Khosravi is an auto-ethnography of illegalised border crossing.
‘Illegal’ Traveller is based on the anthropologists’s own journey from Iran to Sweden and his informants’ border narratives. “Studies of migrant illegality are often written by people who have never experienced it", he writes in the introduction. “My aim has been to offer an alternative, partly first-hand, account of unauthorized border crossing that attempts to read the world through ‘illegal’ eyes:
This book is the outgrowth of my own ‘embodied experience of borders’, of ethnographic fieldwork among undocumented migrants between 2004 and 2008, and of teaching courses on irregular migration and the anthropology of borders. It also emerges from my activities outside academia: freelance journalism, helping arrange events such as film festivals about border crossing, and volunteer work for NGOs helping failed asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Sweden.
Auto-ethnography lets migrants contextualize their accounts of the experience of migrant illegality. It helps us explore abstract concepts of policy and law and translate them into cultural terms grounded in everyday life.
In my years as an anthropologist, I have been astonished at how my informants’ experiences overlapped, confirmed, completed, and recalled my own experiences of borders. One interesting aspect of the auto-ethnographic text is that the distinction between ethnographer and ‘others’ is unclear.
I haven’t found any reviews yet, but what I have found is a fascinating paper by him, published in Social Anthropology three years ago. The title: The ‘illegal’ traveller: an auto-ethnography of borders (
subscription required now open access!).
In this paper he describes his journey from Iran to Europe as “illegal” refugee and theoreticizes about the ‘world apartheid’ we live in according to him and criticizes the ways we think about borders and migration:
Based on a capitalist-oriented and racial discriminating way of thinking, borders regulate movements of people. However, borders are also the space of defiance and resistance.
It is because of this resistance he is still alive. In September 1986 he tried to leave Iran ‘illegally’ for the first time. “I had then just finished high school and I was called up to do military service during the ongoing terrible war between Iran and Iraq. To come back alive from the front was a chance I did not want to take", he writes.
It was a long journey via Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He ended up in Sweden via human smugglers. They saved him his life.
Human smuggling is in his opinion recurrently misrepresented by the media and politicians as an entirely mafia-controlled criminality. One of his helpers was Homayoun, a 25-year-old Afghani man, an undocumented immigrant, who had lived clandestinely in Iran since he was 15:
According to immigration law, Homayoun was a human smuggler, a law breaker and a criminal. But in fact he saved my life in one of the most dangerous places, under the rule of ruthless criminal gangs, corrupt border guards and fanatic Mujaheddin. (…) Homayoun facilitated my escape from undesired martyrdom in a long and bloody war.
Maybe one can say that the smugglers did what the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was supposed to do? Khosravi tells shocking stories about the UNHCR who seems to be responsible for several deaths, including suicides, among refugees. Almost everyone in the refugee community had the same answer: “There is no point in going to the UNHCR". You won’t get any help. Khosravi’s application was rejected as well. In the view of the UNHCR officer, his “fear of being killed in a horrible war was not ‘well-grounded’ enough.
He tells us the story of Henry’s suicide:
Henry, a young Iranian-Armenian man (…) was an activist within a communist militia, Cherikhaye Fadai, in Iran. But the UNHCR did not believe him. The reason was a wall painting in a corridor in the basement of a prison in Isfahan, where Henry had been detained for several months before his escape to Pakistan. In the interview Henry was asked by the UNHCR official to say what was painted on the wall in the corridor, to test his reliability. Henry had not seen such a painting and consequently his application was rejected. How did the UNHCR officer know about the wall painting? How could she or he be sure that there was any painting at all in that corridor?
Henry was desperate and did not know what to do. Just a few weeks before my departure from Karachi, one morning when the UNHCR officials arrived in their dark-windowed cars, he poured gasoline on himself and struck a match in front of the UNHCR.
With a false passport, Khosravi escaped to India. There he found a smuggler with good reputation, Nour:
During my five months in New Delhi I shared rooms with many persons in transit. All are now residents of Europe or North America – thanks to the smugglers.
He finally ended up in Sweden, a country that he at that time was not able to locate on a world map.
The choice of destination was rarely as it was intended and designed. An ‘illegal’ journey is after all arbitrary. Sometimes the migrants end up in a country just coincidentally.
First of all, the destination was determined by the payment. A few hundred dollars could change the destination from one continent to another. Masoud, a roommate, was Nour’s mosafer (client) at the same time as I was. He had US$500 more than me and today he is a Canadian citizen, lives in Toronto and his children’s mother tongue is English. I am a Swedish citizen, live in Stockholm and my children’s language is Swedish: US$500 destined our lives so differently.
Border crossing is, he continues, is in anthropological sense a ritual:
The border ritual reproduces the meaning and order of the state system. The border ritual is a secular and modern sort of divine sanctity with its own rite of sacrifice. Several hundred clandestine migrants die en route to Europe each year. From January 1993 to July 2007 the deaths of more than 8800 border-crossers were documented in Europe. The Mediterranean Sea is turned into a cemetery for the transgressive travellers.
Border crossing can be experienced in terms of honour and shame:
A legal journey is regarded as an honourable act in the spirit of globalism and cosmopolitanism. The legal traveller passes the border gloriously and enhances his or her social status, whereas the border transgressor is seen as anti-aesthetic and anti-ethical (they are called ‘illegal’ and are criminalised). We live in an era of ‘world apartheid’, according to which the border differentiates between individuals. While for some the border is a ‘surplus of rights’, for others it is a ‘color bar’ (Balibar 2002: 78–84).
Khosravi ends his paper with some “final remarks” from 18 years later (2006), when he arrives at Bristol airport, along with colleagues from Stockholm University. He was convener for a workshop on ‘irregular migration in Europe’ at the biannual conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA).
At the immigration control, he is illegalised again in the name of the “war on terror":
After passing immigration control, I was stopped by a security official who let my blond fellow travellers pass. In the middle of a narrow corridor a mini interrogation began which lasted for half an hour.
My status as a Swedish citizen disappeared at the border because of my face. I answered questions about myself, my education, work, purpose of visit to Bristol. Then she asked about my parents, where they lived and what they did. I was not willing to disclose to her any kind of information about my elderly parents, who have been subjected to persecution by the Iranian state for decades. When I refused to answer her questions about my parents, she threatened to detain me first for nine hours and then, if necessary, for nine days according to the Anti- Terrorism Act.
I protested that she had targeted me because of my ‘Middle Eastern’ look and her selection of suspicious persons was racist. She did not even deny it and said ‘you [me and who else?] want to kill us. We have to protect ourselves’.
Khosravi has published some articles in Swedish, see my earlier post - Ikke kall dem for illegale