Undoing the Meaning of the World: Creation and Decreation in Contemporary Refugee Studies

Refugee Hosts and refugee studies are currently pioneering innovative transdisciplinary approaches across the arts, humanities and social sciences. Next year sees the publication of Refugee Imaginaries: Contemporary Research Across the Humanities, edited by Refugee Hosts’ Lyndsey Stonebridge, and Agnes Woolley, Emma Cox, David Farrier and Sam Durant (EUP, forthcoming, 2018), and which includes work by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (Refugee Hosts PI) and Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (Refugee Hosts Writer in Residence). Here Refugee Hosts Co-I Lyndsey Stonebridge introduces the Companion, drawing from our recent work in Hamra, Beirut. For more on this theme, visit our Reflections from the Field Series, and read the selected articles at the end of this piece.

Undoing the Meaning of the World: Creation and Decreation in Contemporary Refugee Studies

By Prof. Lyndsey Stonebridge, University of Birmingham 

‘Emigration does not only involve leaving behind, crossing water, living amongst strangers, but, also, undoing the very meaning of the world…’.

John Berger

Most newcomers agree that Hamra is the most hospitable district of Beirut.  Known for its openness to trade, today multi-national chain stores compete with small businesses, some established for years, many opened by Syrians over the past eight years. The restaurant and ice cream trades are buoyant. Histories of displacement and resistance, living and being, have long been trodden into Hamra’s streets. Its enviable excess of bookshops are testimony to the role that thinking and creativity have played in those histories: collections by the poet exiles, Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, nestle next to translations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; books on Che Guevara and Bin Laden brush shoulders with Donald Trump’s The Way to the Top. World Literature has come of geopolitical age in the bookshops of Hamra as, indeed, have the realities of trying to live in a time where who you are allowed to be is brutally dependent on the caprices of whichever – and whatever kind of – nation state you happen to be born in, forced to leave, barred entry to, detained in, tolerated by, or, at best, welcomed on the most contested and fragile of terms. On the walls in the women’s bathrooms of the politics department in nearby St. Joseph’s University, someone has added to the traditional plea for communal responsibility when it comes to the matter of sharing the work of dealing with our human waste: ‘Laissez l’etat-Nation dans les toilettes oú vous l’avez trouvé’ – leave the nation state in the toilets where you found it.

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“Laissez l’etat-Nation dans les toilettes oú vous l’avez trouvé’ – leave the nation state in the toilets where you found it” – Graffiti in the women’s bathrooms of University St. Joseph, Beirut (c) L. Stonebridge.

In May 2018 a team of researchers from UK-based project Refugee Hosts, including one of the editors of and two of the contributors to this volume, were looking at old photographs of Hamra with a group of young Syrians living there, several of whom were writers and artists. Some of these photos were so old they showed Hamra Street when it was still a cacti orchard.  Others displayed the district in all its French mandate elegance: looking good, but beginning to lose the light of the Mediterranean as it grew. A final set were in the faded colours of the pre-civil war boulevards, fast cars and short dresses, all about to bleed into the shades of smashed concrete and brick that would flicker across TV screens throughout the 1980s. Relative strangers all of us – save for the Palestinian poet, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, who lived and taught in nearby Shatila refugee camp for several years and for whom Hamra is a familiar place – we poured over the images trying to map the past onto the buildings, streets, and vistas we had lately been walking through. Art can do this: it can tell us how histories look through new eyes; how places are made through the perceptual labour and insights of different generations of people, coming from different places, looking sometimes awry but always with the intensity that comes with newness and uncertainty. This is one of the reasons why refugee stories are always more than the histories of those forced on the move – and why Refugee Studies needs to take the patient work of narrative and interpretation, perceiving and feeling, creating and de-creating, seriously. 

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Encountering archive photos of Hamra as part of the recent Refugee Hosts creative writing workshops at University St. Joseph, April 2018 (c.) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

There were several different ways in which it was possible for Syrians to come to Beirut after the war broke out in 2010. You could register as a refugee with UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), but then you would have to agree not to work. If you were rich enough you could buy a residency permit, which would allow you to work, but only with the sponsorship of a Lebanese citizen. Or you could decide that your best bet was to lose your passport at the border, and pass like a ghost into one of the legal and political twilight communities of the displaced that are now a permanent feature not only in Lebanon and the Middle East, but across the world. We have become accustomed to calling this type of existence precarious, but this does not always do justice to just how deeply mass migration has transformed ideas about political and ethical belonging and responsibility not just for the displaced, but for everybody.

Citizenship is the universal mark of belonging somewhere; it is also, as Hannah Arendt once wrote, a mask that we put on in order to be legally and politically visible. When the refugees of the last century first fell through the cracks of the nation state, they discovered that as they fell the masks of citizenship had dropped from their faces too.  Arendt was one of the first to predict that the more the world globalized, the more people would be thrown into an existence where all they had left was their ‘humanity’ to bargain with. Now ‘humanity’, as the legal scholar and human rights lawyer, Itamar Mann, has argued recently, is itself a mask in the world trade in migrants; a cut-price form of citizenship offered, usually grudgingly, to those currently navigating their way through law and poverty, bureaucracy and survival. And, just as most people do not like to be called refugees, not many of us care to be defined as an example of a generically pitiable humanity, no matter that that definition might buy us some minimal humanitarian support. ‘I made’, a Palestinian playwright from Syria insisted at the Hamra workshop, ‘choices’. Yes, agreed a young woman filmmaker who had made her choices too, ‘but there was a war’.

This situation puts pressure on easy claims about the ‘humanizing’ qualities of art, literature, and narrative. When ‘humanity’ itself is a category – the only visibility left to the stateless – then calling on it uncritically and unhistorically is as likely to make those already in the twilight less, not more, visible. At worst, it requires performances of suffering in order to validate not just the humanity of refugees, but of the rights-rich too. ‘Each story I hear from a refugee helps me feel, bone-deep, my immutable connection to its teller as a fellow human,’ wrote the American-Afghani novelist, Khaled Hosseini, after a refugee story-gathering tour of Sicily and Lebanon. By contrast, when we talk about refugee imaginaries in this book, as we explain below, we are talking neither simply of imaginings about people who find themselves in the category of ‘refugees’, immutably human or otherwise, nor only of the imaginings of people forced on the move, but about the whole complex set of historical, cultural, political, legal, and ethical relations that currently tie all of us – citizens of nation states and citizens of humanity only – together.

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Arriving at Rue Hamra, Beirut (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

The thing about black and white photographs of places, we agreed in our workshop, is the way the monotone invites forms of repose that may, or may not, have little to do with the actuality of either when the photographs were taken or now.  The wide, relatively car-free streets of the 1940s, opened up to the light and the air, remarked one woman, made Hamra look like a very safe place.  A war-widow from Damascus with two small children, she knew everything there was to know about keeping your family safe; from the war, from the insane traffic system in Beirut which is every parent’s nightmare, from the pollution, from the suspicious and sometimes hostile looks her hijab attracted. The filmmaker explained that she had used black and white in her own film about Witwet, a small mixed neighbourhood in Beirut, because its minimalism helped mark a pause, a time, in the timeline of now. The film is a group portrait of different generations of men, some creating (instruments (ouds), food, music, drama), some bored, many sad, all made beautiful by their transience.  This delicate transience is achieved as much as by what the film does not do as by what it does. Silences, time lapses, and running scenes in reverse all demand a stillness and attention. Rain falls against the window; tomatoes are chopped in a regular rhythm; a model dervish whirls. The playwright complains that there is no story. The filmmaker replies that there are no heroes in her film. Each character has his own perceptions, his own relationship to her camera. ‘Life in Beirut,’ she later explained, ‘is a living thing in itself.’  Creative work like this, often done on hope and shoestrings, adds to the archive of statelessness that has been growing steadily since the middle of the last century.  More than ever, we need to recognize that this is not so much – or at least not only – work from the margins as from the vanguard of the arts and human sciences, made by people who know at first hand how our current political morality turns on what is seen and not seen. In the words of the filmmaker from Hamra: ‘We spend so much time in life worshipping what we know about living… but what we really know can disappear in a blink of an eye’. 

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References: 

Arendt, Hannah, 1963. On Revolution (London: Penguin, 1965), p.

Arendt, Hannah, 1951. Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 2004), pp. 283-4.

Hosseini, Khaled. 2018. ‘Refugees are still dying. How do we get over our news fatigue?Guardian, 18 August, 2018.

Abu Khalil, Mawra, ‘Witwet’, screened Beirut, April 2018.

Mann, Itamar, 2018. ‘Humanity as Mask,’ paper given at »We Refugees« – 75 Years Later. Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Human Rights and the Human Condition, ZfL, Berlin, March 2018.

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Featured Image: a bookshop in Hamra, Beirut (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 


Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blog:

Harsch, L. (2018) “Historical Photos of Hamra

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Erasure

Greatrick, A. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “The Roles of Performance and Creative Writing Workshops in Refugee-Related Research

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. “My Mother’s Heels

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2018) “The Hands are Hers

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2018) “In mourning the refugee, we mourn God’s intention in the absolute

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “It is a camp despite the name

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “To the Plants is Her Face

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “The Wall

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “There will always be a vendor before and after the picture

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “A daily rhythm inside which time can grow

Rowlands, A. (2018) “Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced

Stonebridge, L. (2016) “Poetry as a Host

Stonebridge, L. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. “‘The New Cavalry’ Outside the Damascus Gate, from the Northern Wall: A Response“, exhibited as part of the Time Machine: Stereoscopic Views from Palestine, 1900 exhibition, Brown University, March 2017.

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