“On the Experience of Migration”: A report

Shail Jha reports on a webinar with Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil as part of Mezzaterra -Conversations Sans Borders in which he talks about the lineaments of the migrant experience.

In Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (2004), the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif speaks of a space where people from disparate socio-political backgrounds, ideological and identity positions, and belief systems come together to shade each other, inspire and create depth and perspectives (7-8). Soueif calls this space “Mezzaterra”. Inspired by this idea of a common shared space, Christ (Deemed to be University), has organised a set of webinars called “Mezzaterra -Conversations Sans Borders”. In the first of these webinars conducted on the 20th of May 2020, Dr. Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil, Assistant Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities (MAHE), Karnataka, spoke “On the Experience of Migration”.

Shafeeq, who has himself lived a migrant experience in the UAE from childhood through his preteen years, began his talk by relating the present condition of migranthood to the precariousness of contemporary life arising from the neo-colonial state mired in a feudal mentality. This precariousness is experienced across classes, including the privileged class. This idea can be demonstrated through panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper in the West at the beginning of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The precariousness of modern living heavily determines host attitude towards migrants and the subsequent experience of the migrants.

Next, Shafeeq talked about migrant representation in literature, films and media. He pointed out that most representations aspire for a realistic portrayal of migranthood. In trying to achieve this realism, which often involves depictions of migrant hardships, nostalgia, and alienation, the subtleties of migrant experience are lost. In the process many subtle and sometimes obvious experiences of migration go unrepresented. One such experience that he spoke on is the dual identity of the migrant. This duality is born out of the inherent disparities of experience in the traditional life of the migrant back home in opposition to an adventurous-explorative experience of a new land and space. This experience begins with the journey. Here Shafeeq, whose focus through the talk was largely on the migrant experience of the Malayalis in the Gulf (with great personal insights), went into the history of Gulf migration from Kerala. There were the voyages of the pioneers in the 70s, journeys in which reaching the destination was not a certainty, journeys in which ships would break down, folks would have to swim miles to reach the foreign shore, and many would be lost at sea. Even in contemporary migrations, the journey is significant, for it is not a simple act of boarding a plane and landing in a new place. In films the migrant takes off from home and in an instant disembarks in a foreign land. The time and space that should occupy the experience of the journey is left out. It would be remiss to not mention one of the anecdotes Shafeeq shared, an anecdote which also epitomises the lost subtleties of the migrant experience in narratives about migration. He shares how in the 70s, people carried a sealed photograph of themselves on their voyages. The photo served a macabre purpose. In the case of the person’s death at sea, the hope was that somebody, a friend or an acquaintance, would find the photo and send or deliver it to deceased’s family. Receiving such a photo carried an unwritten message of the loved one’s death.

Further, Shafeeq helped us find the imprints of the inherent duality in the migrant’s life, in the music of Kerala. He speaks of the emergence of a new genre of songs that replicated letters written between a migrant and his family. These were songs in which a male migrant speaks to his mother or wife, convincing her, and probably himself, of the great bountiful life he has in the Gulf, while in reality he has an atrocious time. The aspiration of the migrant is also reflected in the song. The life he portrays to his family, is the life he aspires to have. The stark contrast in the actuality and aspiration is in fact the duality of the migrant situation. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (2017) is a brilliant example of how the surrealist and absurdist nature of migration is brought to bear on literature.

Shafeeq pointed out that but for certain privileged migrants, it is the migrant’s body that is his/her potential. Typically, the discourse involves the exploitation of the migrant body, but Shafeeq insightfully suggested that although the body is exploited, our focus today must be on the expropriation of the migrant body, for the Gulf uses migrants to fulfil their political and economic desires. He employed Benyamin’s novel Goat Days, to explain both the expropriation of the migrant body and the aspiration of the migrant. Shafeeq states that Goat Days (2008, trans. by Joseph Koyippally, 2012) taken together with Jasmine Days (2014, trans. by Shahnaz Habib, 2018) and Al Arabian Novel Factory (2014, trans. by Shahnaz Habib, 2019) all by Benyamin, engenders a new tradition in how and what of migration and the migrant experience is portrayed, which is that of labour expropriation and political domination. However, the speaker points out, Benyamin suffers from the urge to ‘realistically’ depict.

Finally, Shafeeq spoke about how academia fails to recognise the resistance of the common migrant, for he/she resists through the acquisition or the aspiration of capital acquirement. The migrant therefore resists neo-colonial expropriation through capital. Academia, due to their own inherited prejudices, plays down aspiration as petit bourgeois wannabe-ness, and finds resistance only in illegible signs of working class. The common migrant does not engage with academic discourses on migration for his/her resistance.

The webinar ended with an interactive session between the audience and Dr. Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil, followed by a concluding statement by Dr. Diviya, Assistant Professor at Christ (Deemed to be University).

Shail Jha is a migration researcher at BITS Goa. He can be reached at shailpjha@gmail.com.

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