In the summer of 2014, while I was in Athens to interview passport forgers as part of my PhD research, I found my way into a housing block. The block was occupied by anarchists a few months before my visit and was then given to refugees in transit. The whole block was completely dilapidated. Many of the windows were broken. In some parts, sheets and other pieces of fabric were used as makeshift doors and windows.
Together with a Greek friend who had accompanied me, we were invited to one of the apartments where my friend knew one of the residents. There it was, a shelter for seven young men who got stuck in Greece on their way to Central or Northern Europe. They had been waiting for various amount of time: three months, two years, seven years or just released from a detention centre after a year.
After being served tea and soft drink, I explained the reason for my visit. As if they knew what was expected of them, without me asking any particular question, they started telling me their individual stories. Apparently, two weeks before, an American journalist had been there, and now, me, a researcher from Sweden. They recounted their journeys, the harassment they experienced from the Greek authorities, the demonstrations they took part in, and their current conditions. Some were hopeful and others felt hopeless. Behrouz was one of them. He remained silent whilst the others recounted their stories. After everyone had finished their stories, he politely asked if it was OK to pose a question that might sound rude. “Of course”, I replied.
Behrouz: When you are writing your thesis, you are going to write it in a way that pleases the Swedish government, aren’t you? After all they pay you to do this research, right?
Mahmoud: Hmm, no it is not like that, there is a level of academic freedom I assume that I can practice.
B: I do not believe that.
I did not have anything to say and just nodded my head.
B: And you said that you are here to know for example how an illegalised migrant would obtain a forged passport to cross the border illegally, right?
M: Yes, that’s right.
B: This is not a good research and that is why I do not believe or trust you. A good research is not the one that shows how I cross the border but rather tells me how I can cross it.
Behrouz was right. He was right ethically, politically and methodologically. He was right because he reminded me of the trap into which many of us researchers fall. The stories we hear or want to hear are framed by our methodologies, which in turn produce certain stories that in practice might be more helpful to the institutions that produce the very same conditions of bordering by which these stories are formed. In the current hostile environment of criminalising migrants, states and police as well as organisations such as UNHCR and IOM, establish and support a regime of enforced storytelling and truth production. This regime monopolises the space in which stories can be told, heard and judged as “truthful” and “reliable”. It thus produces dehumanised and degrading categories such as “bogus” or “genuine” asylum seekers, establishing criteria for those who do or do not “deserve” hospitality. Migrants and refugees are frequently questioned by migration officers, journalists, police, court, researchers and citizens and are almost never believed based solely on what they say. It is so easy to fall into that already limited and established space of hearing and storytelling.
We should remember that what makes an encounter possible between a researcher and a border transgressor is the privilege of crossing borders freely only to arrive at a point, where border transgressors are stuck, where they cannot continue their travel. The stuckness of border transgressors accumulates as they become sources for journalists and politicians to circulate images and discourses of a crisis, but also for scholars and artists producing scholarship and artworks. My encounter in the summer of 2014 was made possible by Behrouz and others’ entrapped condition by border regimes. Yet in the midst of this entrapment was also their hospitality; of having me at their apartment for several hours and their generosity in sharing their stories, struggles and also doubts, questions and criticism.
Behrooz’s judgement and criticisms made me think that “giving an account of oneself” as I tried to do in that moment, is not enough. Tracy Nicholls, based on the works of postcolonial feminist Uma Narayan, argues that giving an account of oneself is not simply a reflection on oneself and of how one’s positions influence one’s opinion and practices of knowledge generation and communication. “It is also the act of offering that analysis to others for them to scrutinize”. This means, “being willing to engage in dialogue and being willing to be judged by those with whom one speaks”. The act of offering the possibility of being judged cannot happen without developing sensitivities and different ways of listening to stories of border violence. This may help us not only to reflect but more importantly recognise stories, struggles and voices that might be seen as irrelevant to our research questions and concerns. Furthermore, one needs to incorporate those judgments in writing through the words and terms one chooses, to whom one chooses to talk, and the space one gives to other people’s accounts, judgments and needs.
However, the gesture of hosting me made by Behrouz and his friends while they also questioned my position and intentions does not take away my more powerful position in hosting their narratives and stories, in writing about that encounter here and in other contexts. Whether one does collaborative research or not, there will be always unequal power relationships between the researcher and those subject to research as the researcher is the one who initiates the encounter and occupies the privileged position of (re)narrating other’s stories. This privileged position brings with itself also the necessity to unlearn conditional hospitality. In academic texts this means unlearning the cartography of what constitutes “relevant” places as decided by the author for narratives and ways of knowing border violence. It also means avoiding using stories for making a point or affirming an argument that the author has already developed or thought through. Rather, we must recognise and think about how stories are in themselves the argument.
If we as researchers are able to do anything to support the struggles and the politics that border transgressors enact in their wills, demands and practices to move and reside freely, it is to use our capacities and privilege to (i) develop listening abilities beyond hegemonic practices of hearing produced by truth finding and enforced storytelling regimes; and (ii) make these stories the basis on which our research practices exist. To host these stories is to make so called “irrelevant” stories—that is those that are unheard, less heard or heard in a single dominant way—audible in ways that can rearticulate and challenge existing knowledge regimes produced by borders and bordering.
Many have written about the conditional hospitality of states, welfare institutions and citizens when it comes to migrants and refugees who cross various borders. If hospitality is a necessary and ethical gesture because borders and bordering divide individuals and communities into hosts and guests and natives and foreigners, then this conditional and finite hospitality can be resisted. It can be resisted by an infinite hospitality of storytelling practiced by border transgressors as a medium to speak back to the hostilities they face. And this is why it is our task, our ethical responsibility to the generosity of border transgressors to enable their voices, judgements and criticism, their ways of speaking back to shape the very foundation and reason for a text on borders to exist and live on.
Mahmoud Keshavarz is Senior Lecturer in Design Studies at the University of Gothenburg and Research Fellow at the Engaging Vulnerability Research Program, Uppsala University. He is author of The Design Politics of the Passport: Materiality, Immobility, and Dissent, co-editor of the journal Design and Culture and founding member of Decolonizing Design. Twitter handle: @mahmoudkvz
Photo credit: Mahmoud Keshavarz