Sunday 11 April 2021

Writing from afar: memory and reluctance in the diaspora

This essay was published in 2018 in a volume of the series Bayreuth Studies in African Politics and Societies.

Authors often speak of ‘writing block’, a term invented in the realm of psychiatry to describe a breakdown of ‘creativity’ that is amenable to psychological therapy. The condition has been described in the clinical language of disorder and symptoms. Years ago, in my home country of Sudan, I enjoyed the providence of prolific writing, being engaged and passionate at a time of intense political struggle. As I write today, reluctance is the tone, indeterminate and vague. The sharp, decisive pronouncements of yesteryear have been replaced by cautious remarks and often subtle references. Writing takes place in an ecology of purpose and meaning and is transformed by the stripping of habitat that results from dislocation. The tilt of horizon that accompanies dislocation engenders a parallax view that the writer has to contend with as his new access to an old world. This essay is an attempt to comprehend the coil in the mind of the diasporan author and includes a runaway rendition of racial drama in the age of Trump and Aquarius. 
Memory works in unexpected ways, particularly under the conditions of a diasporan existence where home and time are disjoined. Home exists in a ‘frozen’ time dimension, punctured or rather swollen by the seamless continuum of communication with family, friends and colleagues. The frozen time of home is the time of the real from the perspective of the expatriate, while the diasporan existence in a foreign land, actual as it is, has the features of a false dream. It is a time within the tension of ambiguity, one that is accepted as it flows, as the children grow, and the features of age take their toll, the time of domestic concerns as it were. Nevertheless, it is a time that one rejects and fights against, continuously nursing memories of ‘home’. Writing from this perspective, writing from afar, is a struggle against forgetfulness, a struggle to nurse memories of home, to maintain the life that one has left behind or even reinterpret it. Since I have taken more or less permanent residence in Germany back in 2010, writing for me involves to a greater degree a reworking of my own memories of ‘home’, for myself and tangentially for a niche audience of mostly Sudan pundits and postgraduate researchers who for one reason or another are interested in reading an analysis of Sudanese affairs in English.
The diaspora as such is a place and a time; the diasporan, if the word can be justified, is thrown out of joint in both a spatial and a temporal sense and has to reconfigure these dimensions anew as she charts existence and negotiates survival. Disjoined time and place exposes home for the fallacy that it is, an invention that can be replaced by another invention, the first delivered in the realtime of upbringing and habit and the second assembled in the workplace of global labor and mapped by the icy contours of European racism, or to use Mbembe’s more ambitious term ‘nanoracism’. If writing from the abode of home has a cathartic function, phrasing the frustrations with all that is wrong, writing in the diasporan abstinence is a dead-end escape route from the banality of nanoracism to a non-address. Whatever the form or content of writing, somewhere in the subconscious of the text is a message of love draped in irony, a longing, a homage, a reckoning on occasions and a pathetic burst of blame, home why hast thou forsaken me, hurled at an absent addressee. 
From this perspective, I have been bothered mostly by my country’s recent history, in a way also with the forces of history that have delivered me to where I am now. The attempt to answer the question, where am I where I am now, i.e. why am I an expatriate academic servicing one of the world’s most advanced economies when I could theoretically be doing much more personally interesting and even scientifically rewarding work with my alma mater, the University of Khartoum, I am forced to get my head around a web of issues that can be subsumed under the heading of Sudan’s integration into the capitalist world market. This is a process that to my mind continues to unfold as the capitalist penetration of all spheres of life in Sudan deepens, as capitalist relations of production and a capitalist rationality spread and entrench themselves and a consumption culture that operates as a form of chauvinist nationalism with Arabism and Islamism as its elemental features flushes out the array of cultural particularisms of which Sudan’s many peoples are proud. My attempt to understand this process fed my interest in 18th and 19th century histories of Sudan, a long and foundational period of great convulsion, terrible suffering and bloodshed that is reduced in schoolbook accounts to a caricaturist celebration of proto-nationalist heroes. I came to learn something about popular accounts of this history, in folktales, fables, songs and family histories, including snippets of my own family’s history. I am not a social scientist, neither historian nor anthropologist, and I cannot claim any authority on these subjects; this in any case is my running excuse whenever my rumblings on these matters seem amiss. 
My attempt to tackle this central question has forced to me to rethink the way political Islam in Sudan has functioned, initially as an oppositionist idiom and subsequently as a ruling ideology. Sudan’s experience in that regard is probably more relevant today as governments, politicians, observers and academics grapple with the new crop of Islamic militants spread across the globe. Drawing on the Iranian and Tunisian examples, Asef Bayat proposed the notion of ‘post-Islamism’ to account for the social and political condition where, following the initial period of experimentation, the appeal and legitimacy of Islamism is exhausted and Islamists are forced to confront the anomalies and contradictions of their systems of government. A more positive definition involves a conscious attempt to conceptualise and rationalise strategies to transcend Islamism and forge some form of amalgam between political Islam, pluralism and personal rights, a liberal Islam if you like, the type of Islam celebrated in the West when a woman imam leads men in prayer to name a colorful example. Suspiciously absent from this formulation is any notion of social justice, economy or class rendering political Islam in its liberal(ising) formulation a ready tool of neoliberal dogma couched obviously in cultural exception. 
Writing from memory can be a very tedious task. One is often forced to make the memories as it were, to reorder people and events and texts and experiences and distill new meanings from their once assumed natural flow and sequence. This resequencing is an interpretative operation full of surprises at times. Cut off from her source, the diasporan writer has to to develop the skill and wit of recycling and turning water into wine to quench the thirst for meaning. It is the memory of (im)possibilities that haunts the expatriate, all the alternatives missed in the act of ‘shurad’, a precise Arabic Sudanese formulation for the folly of cowardly escape, the primary sin of the expatriate in his daily re-membering of the tragedies of home. Guilt is renewed in the psyche of the expatriate with every communication with home, a communication turned into a stream thanks to digital media. The expatriate monitors and is equally monitored by family, relatives and friends in an incessant flood of messages, calls and shares. A constant refrain in these exchanges is the introductory phrase “Do you remember…?” Memory is here continuously mined for details that sustain the self as it were. 
How do you write under these conditions? How do you write when you are miles away from the actual experiences that nourished your writing if you are not to descend into melancholy, repetition or the assumed wisdom of the distant observer, or possibly even worse, the expert of no expertise. How do you write when you are plagued by reluctance, reluctance to accept that the world you know has changed while you are away, reluctance to admit that the memories you cherish are just that, memories, reluctance to reconcile with your actual status as an emigrant, a status of unsatisfactory in-between. The in-between of the emigrant is not only spatial or cultural. If you like, it is also temporal. The emigrant’s mental calendar does not easily accommodate ‘now’. What it knows best is a past that is irrecoverable and a future of ‘return’, in the wishful thinking to precisely that lost past. Time in the mind of the emigrant is a messy order, all imagination. One route to that ‘irrecoverable’ past is the obituary, a form that I personally find refuge in. You might have noticed that I have shifted from the term expatriate to the term emigrant as I write. It is a status that one only admits with a grudge. In the receiving countries of Europe, one is implicitly expected to express a permanent gratitude. 
Now that I have spelled it out, it is gratitude that is implied whenever integration/assimilation of foreigners in a European country is demanded in public speech and also arguably in many of the private encounters of the emigrant in ‘Fortress Europe’. And here in the eyes of the ‘native’ beholders, the African or Arab or Muslim emigrant, in my personal case a combination of all three, is the inhabitant of the terrains of the savages beyond ‘Fortress Europe’, the lawless prairie of Hobbesian chaos that is transmitted to ‘Western’ (un)consciousness through medial images and fragments, who by act of luck or providence has been rescued, plucked out and delivered to the now and here of civilization. The emigrant is hence expected to assume a permanent condition of gratitude, absent which she is condemned for moral failure. And this gratitude is not only gratitude for opportunities but for the bare fact of life. Western politicians developed the notion of ‘integration’ to convert the expectation of gratitude into official policy. What is integration? The intuitive idea suggests conditions that when integration is complete and thus satisfied, mundane matters such as speaking the language of the host country, surrendering one’s labor to its job market, acknowledging and interacting with its cultural particularities and traditions, renouncing the ‘backward’ behaviors and cultural norms of the mother country and possibly adapting the more exotic versions of the same to Western tastes and possibly their modification into a marketable item (Falafel and hummus..., etc.). 
However, my claim is that integration is actually a space or a dimension where emigrants are parked, not a barrier that they can cross. If the metaphor of barrier seems more attractive, it is a shifting border, a mirage forever displaced. As an emigrant one has to prove credibility for integration with each and every encounter. The voice of the emigrant is perpetually inspected for accent (or the lack thereof), its volume subjected to scrutiny, her physical being is screened for smell and size and proportions in that old art of physiognomy, her dress and attire itemized and immediately fetishized, her movements rigorously examined for impulsivity, crudeness, dullness and lack of initiative, her expressions, gesticulation and mimics inspected and mined for subversive meaning... and so on. The emigrant’s whole being rarely if ever escapes from this solemn gaze, since it is eventually internalised, much like an omnipresent god. Those familiar with Frantz Fanon’s theses on the distraught psychic life of the colonised would readily recognise this line of argumentation. 
How did this ‘Western’ gaze emerge? The answer is readily available in the long and terrible history of Western domination over humankind, it is a product of power. It is power in its most sublime and intricate. How does it relate to medial images of Africa? These I argue are the creations of the ‘Western’ gaze, an ideological construct of power, which in its quest for control can only see Africa and Africans in relation to its commanding demands. Three main figures are readily recognisable as constructs of the ‘Western’ gaze, and they fall rather neatly into categories that only make sense in relation to ‘Western’ demands of Africa: the victim, the ornament and the threat. The first is the product of the humanitarian industry, the second of the tourism industry and the third of the military/security industry. I think these figures and possibly subcategories thereof pervasively structure medial representations of Africa and Africans, often in a manner dramatised as to serve the combined function of informing, entertaining and marketing with the overdetermining accent on the third item. 
No wonder, then, that it is the documentary film among other forms of media representation that has become the favorite genre where Africa and Africans are concerned. The standard documentary of Africa allows the audience to ponder over the plight of Africans, deplore the villains among them, praise the heroes who rise to challenge those villains and admire the scenery against which these life dramas are enacted and eventually make enlightened conclusions about this continent of rich opportunities and tragic disappointments. These operations are performed with the assurance, if not arrogance and satisfaction, of European ‘civilization’ as opposed to the abundant mess outside ‘Fortress Europe’. This, to be very blunt, is the colonial outlook par excellence. The documentary film is the heir of the European travel book, an ideological form clayed with fantasy even when it calls upon witnesses to tell the story just as it is. Stories are burdened with history by their very nature, and value in the age of terror, the terror of capitalism and the futile terror of ‘terrorism’, is none other than marketable value, exchange value to use Marx’ term on his bicentenary. The documentary of Africa, crafted for the only audience with a purchasing power, the Western aka global audience, promises the possibility of retreat from the colonial gaze, but can only fail since what it delivers is often fictional solidarity as a form of entertainment, an ideological exercise of no reward. It is destined to miss its ‘good’ aim. 
The engineered sympathy of the Western beholder is framed in nanoracial logic. As she sympathizes, she condones the ‘other’ into her lesser category with the possibility of communication thwarted by the very attempt at communication. This becomes more acute the nearer the camera moves towards its object. Reports from the ‘ground’, accounts from the ‘field’ and the stories and images of ‘experiences’ collated and processed in Western newsrooms and transmitted to audiences in the enclosure of their living rooms heighten an ‘envy in reverse’ and render it ever more meaningful by providing old evidence in new garb of Western exceptionalism. In this age of the war on terror and migration-angst, the lesson of Africa is to shun Africa, shut it away and escape its ‘darkness’ using all means. The sympathetic report of African women entrepreneurs, to name a favored example, is not situated in a vacuum but in an account of the world as seen from ‘Fortress Europe’, where Western politicians decide to drop a bomb here, drone-kill there and punish all around, erect fences, build walls, evict unwanted bodies and mine the existences of those ‘foreign’ bodies in their ‘national’ realms for signs of treason, a covered head, a bearded face, and that evil, evil burka! 
The friendly report of Africa is a representation, but of whom? Of those who dream of coming here or are already on their way here and hence cannot help but prod what is now the almost instinctive reflex of how to keep them there in a world frantically globalizing and fanatically balkanizing in one and the same instant. In this Trumpian world where ‘pussy-grabbing’ is an electoral advantage, fencing borders a popular demand of ‘democratic’ nations and solidarity an article of political shame and national disrepute, representing the ‘other’ is a tall order, so much so that approaching this question in earnest would require revisiting questions as unfashionable as the conundrum of ‘socialism in one country’. 
To actually see the other and listen to her speech and engage with her writing is to revolt against this world and build a new one. In this ecology, the diasporan author is called upon to plant her proverbial stick in the imperial eyeball, to paraphrase another precise Sudanese Arab proverb whereby an assaulting evil gaze is thwarted by a counterassaulting twig in the eye. What does this mean though? It means that the memory so much cherished by the diasporan author is her desert. There is no escape from the struggles of the world into a memory of the world as wished. Contemplating the world in the mode of memory is surrendering to its dictates, an evil philosophy of the status quo, a ‘shurad’ in reverse. The tilt in the horizon of the diasporan author is not a mental distortion to be overcome but a revealing parallax to be explored. It is from this vantage point that the ‘Moor’ wrote the world to change it. His legendary ‘writing block’, of course, is a matter of world consequence.

Creative Commons Licence
This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.