The passport that does not pass ports

The story of African migrants entering the Eurozone by sea is basically indecipherable as it is told in global and national media reports, because they are described only as helpless victims.

Image by Nayal, via Flickr Creative Commons License.

Not long ago I heard the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne responding to a talk given by the literary critic Emily Apter titled “Translation, Checkpoints, Sovereign Borders.” Apter argues against the bourgeois fiction that globalization has turned everybody into ultra-mobile cosmopolitans, a myth that’s proved especially seductive to those involved in the project of writing and institutionalizing so-called “world literature,” with its array of glamorous airport-hopping protagonists. Instead, Apter points to the phenomenon of ever-intensified “checkpointization” (the word “checkpoint” has been creolized into most languages) and the way in which so-called “illegal” residents are harassed and deported even as “multiculturalism” is lauded. A scholar of translation, Apter asked that critical thinking be refocused on “the untranslatable” — whatever cannot cross borders, whether metaphorical or concrete.

Diagne responded by recounting his own experiences of many decades traveling under his Senegalese passport. His passport, he said, is “a passport that does not pass ports” — it is a devalued document whose bearer is generally to be considered suspect. Diagne went on to outline his thoughts on the tragedy at Lampedusa in November.

The story of African migrants entering the Eurozone by sea is basically indecipherable as it is told in global and national media reports, because they are described only as helpless victims, without taking into account the sophisticated understanding they have developed for negotiating international legal frameworks and European state bureaucracies. When you know long before you get there that the Europeans will want to deport you on arrival, it is imperative you do all you can to flummox them.

Baffled reporters describe “abandoned” children, apparently sent away to make the crossing into Europe alone. It doesn’t occur to them that the children have likely been carefully prepared for the encounter with European officials so that, if it comes to it, they know ahead of time that they must at all costs avoid giving any indication of their relationship to any adult on board (a father, an uncle, an elder sibling). An “abandoned” child is un-deportable.

Why risk the perilous crossing? Because if you come by sea there is no single national border across which to expel you.

Why travel without papers? Because that passport won’t pass ports; it will only answer the question of where you should be deported to. Better to come without so much as a scrap of writing on you.

Why stand in silence when questioned by officials? Because the language in which you reply will give them a clue where you may have come from. If you speak a word of French you might be flown “back” to Niger even though you’re from Mali. Say nothing at all and there is nothing to translate.

Further Reading

The entitlement of Bola Tinubu

The Nigerian presidential candidate’s claim of ’emi lokan’ (it’s my turn) reveals complex ethnic politics and a stagnated democracy. Most responses to it, humor and rumor, reflect how Nigerians enact democratic citizenship.

Father of the nation

The funeral of popular Angolan musician Nagrelha underscored his capacity to mobilize people and it reminds us that popular culture offers a kind of Rorschach test for the body politic.

A city divided

Ethnic enclaves are not unusual in many cities and towns across Sudan, but in Port Sudan, this polarized structure instigated and facilitated communal violence.

The imperial forest

Gregg Mitman’s ‘Empire of Rubber’ is less a historical reading of Liberia than a history of America and racial capitalism through the lens of a US corporate giant.

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.

It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.