Cultural Readings of the Refugee Crisis

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    In jeans and a t-shirt, demurely slouching at the end of a table of prominent and impassioned speakers, Hassan Akkad cuts an inconspicuous figure. The panel debate has an impressive range of speakers, but, as always seems to be the case at such events, it’s a little unclear just who’s who. A room at the LSE usually used for teaching has been thrown open to the public, and circumstances have conspired to place Akkad at the edge of the room behind a laptop. Obscured by the screen in front of him, you might mistake his hunched posture for that of the tech guy. He certainly doesn’t look like a refugee. Of course, the very idea of looking like a refugee is faintly ludicrous, but, as Akkad admits, this doesn’t stop lots of people from telling him so.

    What is it that we are looking for when we think about a refugee? Is it the unconcealed stench of desperation, a face that is scared and tired and marked with indicators of what she has been running from? Is it guile and cunning, an artful dodger’s eyes darting like a scavenger desperate to take what he can get? It’s a hard thing to define, but it is clear that somewhere between his pale skin, quasi-American accent, and quiet confidence, that ‘it’ is something that Hassan Akkad does not possess.

    Akkad’s person is difficult to match to the flyaway paper placard that bears his name, not just because he could pass as white, but because the sheer normality of his image does not fit into the neat one-dimensional frame in which our political discourse has drawn its picture of the refugee. The ubiquitous terms of the journalistic hour – asylum seeker, unaccompanied minor refugee, displaced person – are faceless. Our imagined personification of these words does not conjure a figure like Hassan, not because our conception of the refugee is too diverse to be distilled in a single man, but because a single man is too real – too palpable – to fit our hollow understanding of the term.

    The words ‘refugee’ and ‘crisis’ have been coupled so consistently by our politicians and our newspapers that they cannot be distinguished in our collective imagination. As a result, the group at the heart of hot politics is one that we reduce to a homogenous, quivering question mark. And the question – of what to do with this unfortunate problem – is all too easy to answer with a resounding refusal if we fail to see beyond this shallow single dimension. When Akkad’s turn comes to address the crowd, they are captivated with a hushed awe that none of the other – albeit excellent – speakers have commanded. His power comes not only from his abundant eloquence, humour and charm but also the fact that his story is one that anybody can imagine happening to them. Hassan Akkad was a teacher, with friends who liked to hang out and go for drinks on a Friday night, an apartment, a family – in short, a life. He disagreed with what was going on politically in his country and so he exercised his right to protest – this was where everything started to go wrong.

    It is not easy to reject an ordinary man’s story of hardship, grief, and sacrifice; Akkad’s story is so impactful not because he is extraordinary, but because his ability to show the ordinary, human reality behind the pervasive news stories is extraordinary. It is with shocking, alarming selfishness, given the implied prioritisation of maintaining our standards of living over aiding in the survival of others’ lives, that the first question on our lips is what refugees can contribute to our society. Luckily, Akkad has an answer. He contributes awareness. Travelling the country, he gives talk after talk telling his story, talking with persuasive passion about the need for us to listen to refugees with empathy. This is what Exodus, a BBC documentary that facilitated sixty refugees filming their stories by giving them memory cards, did for Akkad. Of the sixty who collected footage, six refugees’ stories were collected, recording their experiences of the gruelling, threatening, and fearsome journey away from home. In short, it gave the nebulous, murky, unpalatable word ‘refugee’ a human face.

    Politics tips over into current affairs, trickling down into the public consciousness through a sticky, gauzy filter woven by our media and politicians. When something is so prevalent in the news, on Twitter, in the House of Commons, and the international political stage, it reverberates visibly in our culture. Cultural responses to the refugee crisis attempt to wade through the thick fog of misconceptions and prejudices encompassing the topic, aiming to inject some clarity into our consciousness. Culture is light, an indulgence of sorts; but it gives us the scope to understand what is happening in the world without the generalisations and extremities inherent in the media’s representation. In culture lie the tools to cut through the facelessness of facts and figures, jargon and clickbait.

    It is this facelessness that A.A. Gill returns to over and over in Lines in the Sand. The essays form a retrospective on the great journalist’s life, testament to his style, his ability to shift seamlessly from visceral description – the type that invokes taste, smell and texture through his vivid food writing – to poignant sociological observation, with a subtle undercurrent of political argument. It is a collection showcasing enormous range, from the flâneur’s documentation of far-flung cities and countries to ironic reflections on the sexual hiccups brought by aging. At its heart, however, it reveals an erudite mind on a circuitous life journey that keeps getting stuck on the issue of refugees. It seems that Gill’s eloquence come unstuck here; words are not enough to resolve the subject, and so Gill cannot stop his repeated return.

    The book is named for the human trails made by these refugees, and these are the first stories that confront us. Their unabashed presence in an unbroken series of eight narratives causes them to linger long after we have moved onto the lighter tales that follow. For someone usually associated with life’s fineries, writing with cigarette in hand and often offending those whose views lie on the side of political correctness, to take up such a gruelling subject, and to seem unable to them let it go, comes as a surprise. He was a little surprised himself, it seems, as he tells us in his introduction: ‘I’m not a Samaritan, never have been, worked hard not to be. Nine times out of ten, I’m on the other side of the street with the clever, reasonable, purposeful folk with sanitised hands. But my job, my trade, took me to the refugees. And I can’t put their testament down.’

    Crossing that street, Gill makes clear, has much the same effect as meeting Akkad. To see the people behind the words ‘refugee crisis’ makes it impossible to continue on our current track of clear-eyed coldness and disaffection. Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost extremity, is so close to the source of the problem that it cannot avoid involvement. Gill praises the Lampedusans’ ‘remarkable and surprising’ care and goodwill towards immigrants. He claims that ‘the reason the Lampedusans are kind and good to these desperate visitors is because they can be. They’ve met them and they see them; the reason we can talk about ‘them’ as a problem, a plague on our borders, is because we don’t see them.’ His project then, much like Akkad’s, is to increase the visibility of the shameful subject that we are otherwise so willing, with British expertise, to sweep under the carpet.

    Gill excels at balancing suggestion with the more heavy-handed moral reprobation that could so easily seep into such an account. Not only would a presentation of the journalist as saviour be nauseatingly self-righteous, but also damagingly inaccurate. Instead, he is, unapologetically, a simple observer with no mission other than that of looking for stories. When a refugee in Jordan shouts at him, ‘Where is your NATO? It is because we are Muslim they don’t come’, he is simply the messenger relaying events. When an incredibly selfless nun in the Congo thanks him for hearing their stories, he tells us ‘of course, it’s not really me they thank, it’s you for listening.’ Compassion is something that well-told stories transmit naturally, by osmosis – they need neither cajoling nor trite parables. On occasion, however, Gill looks up at us out of the pages of his book – not to tell us what to think, but just to remind us to think – ‘consider this’, he’ll say, ‘consider what it means to be stateless’ or ‘consider how it feels to be this woman.’ It’s a gentle reminder that it’s not just the heart that engages us in these stories, but the head; compassion is as much pragmatic and sensible as emotional.

    Gill’s death just before last Christmas was followed by a steady accumulation of accolades naming him as ‘the greatest journalist of our time’, the voice of a generation, etcetera. He conjures images of people, places, and situations magnificently. But one of his rarer talents is the comedian’s knack for timing and ellipsis, knowing when to stop, when to hold back. His collection is not a catalogue of heart-wrenching tearjerkers, spelling out the push factors impacting refugees in a bid to convince us that they deserve our pity. Instead, Gill points out that most refugees’ stories are mundane in their similarity, obliquely revealing a sorry state of affairs where tales of utter loss and destruction are, quite simply, routine. He has an eye for irony, describing British holidaymakers to Kos as ‘economic migrants’ in parallel with the refugees who pay 20 times the money for the trouble of getting there:

    The joke’s on them though when ‘a muscle-bound blond boy, his VW Camper parked nearby, kitesurfs through the floating detritus of exodus, skipping over the spume of abandoned lives. It’s an image of such vain, vaunting solipsism that it defies satire.

    Gill’s careful curation of tales from refugees around the world reminds us, too, that the term ‘refugee crisis’ is a misnomer. He quotes Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa – ‘This is not a crisis. It is not a crisis at all. We have been taking in refugees every week for 15 years. They are not a problem. They are not the fault.’ The displacement of the Syrian people is something that has been in our peripheral vision, but is front and centre only now that we might actually have to deal with it. A quarter of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees, a situation that we have never been concerned with deeming a ‘crisis’ despite the fact that, as Gill points out, the equivalent for us would be ‘the entire populations of Norway, Nicaragua, Denmark and Croatia turning up penniless on the South coast, mostly made up of women and children.’ Gill widens our perspective, exposing us to the perilous situation of refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of rebel attacks and the toxic rape pandemic and the almost hopeless situation of the most persecuted people on the earth, the Rohingyas. Only when the refugees reach our shores do we consider them a crisis, even as we let the ships that carry them here sink, doing precious little to abate the so-called disaster.

    Gill’s purpose as a journalist, then, is to bring forward the refugees’ stories so that we treat them with compassion when they knock at our door. Where Gill strives to make the refugees familiar, Richard Mosse aims to alienate. Incoming is his immersive, multi-channel video installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery. The conceptual documentary photographer and Deutsche Borse Photography prize winner worked with a military-grade telephoto camera powerful enough to pick up human bodies from over 30 km away, using it to record scenes from refugee crises across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Scenes of tarpaulin-strewn beaches, children playing in refugee camps, women resting under foil beaches – scenes that we have seen before in photojournalism – are rendered haunting and strange under the lens of this spectral technology.

    Gill describes a refugee camp as ‘a community with everything good and hopeful and comforting about community taken out.’ Mosse’s cinematography translates this literally, sucking the life out of the images recorded. The cameras record heat alone, transforming people into eerie luminous creatures without race, religion or creed. Explaining his choice of medium, Mosse explains ‘the imagery that this technology produces is so dehumanised – the person literally glows – that the medium anonymises the subject in ways that are both insidious and humane.’ People are reduced to ghostly, monochromatic figures, representing them the way that they are often talked about by those in power: as lifeless entities, objects rather than subjects. The cruel lens of Mosse’s intrusive camera serves as an apt metaphor for a politics that treats them as bloodsuckers that we must fend off; the fact that his artistic tool is a military weapon seems strangely fitting.

    Still, against the odds, there is an entrancing beauty in the shots. The screens are overwhelmingly large, the visions projected upon them transfixing. Such a terrible situation, shot with this daunting machine, does not seem like an apt recipe for aesthetics. Yet episodes of everyday life in refugee camps are slowed with dreamlike affect – a man kneeling for prayer becomes a beacon of peaceful respite amid scenes of desperation. Combined with an electronic soundtrack composed by Ben Frost, evocative of drones, missiles, and danger, the effect is hypnotic. It is like entering into a vision of dystopian fiction – the horror is so pronounced that it seems surreal, which makes it all the more powerful that it is, in fact, very real.

    Taking very different paths, both Gill and Mosse’s responses to the refugee crisis are, at heart, confrontational. Leave page and gallery alike and find that the images they conjure have pushed their way into your thoughts, attempting to wither the indifference promulgated by the messages that we see around us. This, ultimately, is where the power of culture lies, forcing us to reconsider the negative discourse surrounding refugees that pours into our every orifice, converting the facts into faces, and ultimately, the personal into the political.


    Charanpreet Khaira works at the Wylie Agency in Bloomsbury and writes freelance reviews and short fiction in her spare time. After spending three years studying English literature at Oxford, she never leaves the house without a book in her bag.