Migration – Emigration – Fleeing It’s all a bit bizarre

Correspondence | Photo: © Colourbox.de/Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

Dear Georg,
I read your mail with great interest. The current situation across Europe is very intriguing, and I look forward to more details on how Germany is engaging with this sudden arrival of over a million people.
This morning I saw this arresting image (attached with this mail) of thousands of men, women and children walking in an orderly file through Slovenia en route to Germany. Clearly we are only just beginning to understand the origins and repercussions of this great migration.
I am also fascinated by the resurrection of old phrases and categories like “Abendland” or “the Occident”, and by this wonderful sentence where you say, “no sooner do I start than the entire vast history of the world washes over me.” It sent me down a digression that may be relevant in our thinking about the present moment in connection with the “new Völkerwanderung”.
You mention that many of the people moving through Europe come from Iraq, Syria, and the Turkish Syrian border, which correspond to the region once known as Mesopotamia – home to one of oldest recorded urban civilisations. The early Mesopotamian settlements traded extensively with the Harappan civilization, the ruins of which were found in present day Pakistan (another country you mention in your mail).
Recently a friend alerted me to historical research that contemplates the existence of a Harappan enclave – i.e. a colony of migrants from what is now called Pakistan – founded in in Lagash, a settlement in present day Iraq, in the second half of the third millennium B.C. It seems that the dawn of urban civilisation as we know it carries within it the seed of migration, and the history of the world is a chronology of struggle between the entropic, or disorderly, desires of people and the negentropic, or order-seeking, impulses of states.
Perhaps Europe’s current “crisis” signals a new moment in our shared histories? Perhaps this moment – when nation states in some of the oldest continually inhabited regions of the world (like Syria and Iraq) collapse – shall result in a re-fashioning of the critical categories of thought and language that we are accustomed to.
There are signs of this re-ordering already, with journalists, politicians and policy wonks wondering how to refer to this tide of humanity – are they migrants, or immigrants, or expatriates, or refugees, or asylum seekers?
Perhaps for the sake of this conversation we can refer to them as “Musafir” – an Urdu word common to Arabic, Persian and Turkish with slightly altered meanings in each language – A musafir is a traveller from a strange land, in some languages she is a pilgrim, a seeker of paths and truths, and in Turkish (I could be wrong here) I think, a musafir is a guest.
But why does this Musafir travel? Here we may consider a wonderful Persian phrase – of the concept of the ashina-zada, which refers to the feeling of tiring of all one’s acquaintances and desiring the company of strangers.
Perhaps this fluid category – of the Musafir, motivated by impulses that are not always obvious – is helpful in alluding to the long journeys taken by these people without diminishing the hardships they have suffered, or pre-judging the reception they will receive in Europe (as you mentioned, in some cases they have been met with violence, and in other cases with solidarity).
Your mail sent me down another line of inquiry, which is the narrative of the desperation of the Musafir – of course I have seen the pictures and read the harrowing accounts of boatloads of people drowning, of death by asphyxiation in abandoned freight trucks; the horror is real, visceral and immediate.
The amplification of this horror makes clear that the only politically feasible way Europe can engage with this situation is through the trope of humanitarianism. This narrative obscures the fact that in the years after World War One, it became a criminal offence to seek one’s fortune in a foreign land. While finance capital moves across the world with ever increasing velocity, we are fettered by our passports. There is, of course, a parallel imperial history of the passport – which we can consider another time: Who is to decide that I am Syrian, or German, and what does the act of name and fixing entail?
The current narrative of “rescuing the desperate” allows European nations and commentators to speak of humanitarian rescue and “European Values” without engaging with the strange, policed landscape that we live in, and accept the eternal policing of borders and residents as normal. What is the process by which it became normal and desirable for BMW to invest in a automobile factory in South Africa, but almost impossible for a young woman in a village somewhere in southern Africa to gather money from her network of friends and family, catch a flight to Germany, walk into a government office and register herself as someone seeking a job without constantly fearing imprisonment and deportation?
I think this “march of the musafir” offers us a moment to reflect on the long shadow of the twentieth century and the strange new categories it presented us with – borders, aliens, people smugglers, camps for those who cross a border without permission. It’s all a bit bizarre isn’t it?
Thank again for your thought-provoking email. I really look forward to this conversation and your descriptions of what’s happening on the ground in Germany. It is these details, after all, that shall help us think further and deeper.

New Delhi, 22nd of October 2015