Book review: ″Refugees Worldwide: Literary Reportage″

Hierarchies of the destitute

The fourteen essays featured in ″Refugees Worldwide: Literary Reportage″ delve deep into the nature of refugee status, charting uniquely individual lives and deconstructing the sense of a collective identity. Marcia Lynx Qualey read the book

Syrians appear in the most unlikely places in the new collection Refugees Worldwide: Literary Reportage, compiled by Luisa Donnerberg and Ulrich Schreiber. The recurring presence of Syrians is not apparent from the book′s table of contents – only one of its fourteen literary essays was written by a Syrian. The essays, by authors around the world, explore the stories of Salvadoran refugees in Belize; Haitian refugees in Brazil; Hazaran refugees fleeing Pakistan; Ukrainians seeking refuge inside the Ukraine; and a lone Congolese man who fled to Tokyo.

Yet, in the unlikeliest of paragraphs, we find Syrians. They often don′t appear as individuals, but as a group against which other refugee stories are measured. Syrians become a counterpoint or complaint, or, in one essay, they appear just to emphasise that the refugees depicted are not Syrian.

The first essay, ″Exile is My Identity″, written by Nora Bossong and translated by Kurt Beals, is set in the U.S.. Before Bossong moves on to discuss a variety of exiles, she addresses the U.S. government′s reaction to Syrians, noting that the country hasn′t come close to meeting its share of 10,000 new Syrian residents.

Syrians appear in a far less sympathetic light in Andrea del Fuego′s ″Anthropophagists Still″, translated by Jethro Soutar. In del Fuego′s essay, Syrians are an indistinguishable, privileged and wholly Muslim monolith.

Cover of ″Refugees Worldwide: Literary Reportage″ (published by Ragpicker Press)
In her essay, Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran describes how she feels while speaking at events: ″like a refugee waiting for a piece of bread with a stupid ticket in her hands, I should be ready to perform my victimhood whenever the act is called to the intellectual stage″

Syrians have it easy, del Fuego suggests, as they have established paths to integration in Brazil and have a story known around the world. She goes on to quote a refugee worker who gives unflattering generalisations about all Muslim communities in Sao Paolo.

Yet Del Fuego isn′t the only author to mention the relatively privileged position Syrians occupy in some refugee communities.

In ″Refugees and Migrants at the Nador Border″, Moroccan author Najat El Hachmi paints refugee life as difficult for anyone, but also recognises that most Syrians have it easier than sub-Saharan Africans.

″Syrians can pass by unnoticed among Moroccans, but black people can′t hide the colour of their skin, a colour that means they must endure a specific kind of brutality. ″

This isn′t true only in Morocco, El Hachmi writes, since the wars south of the Sahara ″don′t receive the same prominence as the war in Syria, because they are old, chronic and, probably, because they take place in Africa.″

Syrians don′t appear only in essays set in Morocco and Brazil. Artem Chapeye′s ″Permanent Transit″, translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, is about Ukrainian refugees. And yet Syrians are mentioned – if only to note Ukrainians are not that kind of refugee, the kind Western journalists expect.

Finding the perfect refugee

In ″Nour′s Eyes″, Greek novelist Amanda Michalopoulou writes, in part, about her irritation at visiting Syrian refugees. In the end, Michalopoulou finds a refugee she likes, the titular Nour, a charming, bright-eyed 12-year-old girl. ″When I think of her, I don′t think of her as a Syrian refugee, she doesn′t need that label. I think of her simply as an extraordinary, radiant little girl.″

Nils Mohl is cognisant of the ″ideal refugee″ trope as he writes ″Land of Heroes: Lithuania′s Very Own Refugee Crisis″, translated by Max Reinhold. The essay centres around two men: a Syrian journalist with fluent English and an Afghani refugee, Basir Yousofy, who speaks Lithuanian. Both men are handsome, ambitious and competent – both could be ″ideal″ refugees. Yet only Basir has the right connections to become a star refugee, as he appears in a viral YouTube video and is known to Lithuanian commander Jurgis Norvaisa. The Syrian journalist, meanwhile, is shunted to a small Lithuanian town.In ″Under the Tokyo Skytree″, Japanese novelist Masatsugu Ono foregrounds another ideal refugee, this one from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Massamba Mangala, a teacher and activist, was forced to flee his country. Although he initially has no English or Japanese, he manages to become beloved of a wide network of Japanese supporters.

Syrians appear even in this essay, as Ono suggests Syrians fleeing their country couldn′t possibly have had as difficult a time as Mangala.

Things shift radically in the essay that follows, ″Fragments from the Life of the Spectacular Victim″, a sharply satirical work written in English by Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran. She turns the idea of the ″perfect refugee″ inside out.

Imperfect victims... and those who refused to leave

Temelkuran had intended to profile a refugee in Istanbul. However, that refugee disappeared. Not long after, Temelkuran herself was forced to disappear, fleeing Istanbul for Zagreb. So Temelkuran turns her pen to her own feelings about exile. She notes with irritation that a page on the UNHCR website titled ″Refugees Who Have Made a Difference″ has ″only twenty profiles listed. ″ And what of the millions of others?

Temelkuran writes about how she feels while speaking at events: ″Like a refugee waiting for a piece of bread with a stupid ticket in her hands, I should be ready to perform my victimhood whenever the act is called to the intellectual stage.″

Temelkuran is ambivalent about having fled Turkey, fearing she has done so ″too soon″. Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, meanwhile, writes about refusing to leave home no matter what. In ″The Refugee: Living in a Void″, translated by Jonathan Wright, Khalifa explains why he won′t leave Damascus, even as the city empties of his family, friends and neighbours.

Other essays contextualise other refugee struggles: Mohammad Hanif writes about the Hazara people in Pakistan; Nigerian novelist Abubakar Adam Ibrahim writes about the traps that await those fleeing Boko Haram; Kenyan-Somali reporter Abdi Latif Dahir writes about Dadaab, the ″world′s largest refugee camp″, with a population larger than some small countries; and Salvadoran author Juan Jose Martínez D′Aubuisson crafts a compelling portrait of those fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. Here, the warring groups aren′t North and South, or different religious sects, but the futuristically named gangs MS-13 and B-18.

According to publisher Jethro Soutar, proceeds from the book will be donated to Refugees International. At the launch of the book′s German edition, an event was hosted in Germany. A launch event had not yet been scheduled for the English edition.

″Alas,″ Soutar said, ″I don′t see the subject losing relevance any time soon.″

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© Qantara.de 2017

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