Two books isn’t enough protection: Britain deports writer Ishtiyaq Shukri

Heathrow Airport Border Control

Many of you who are familiar with South African literature know that writer Ishtiyaq Shukri was detained and questioned for over nine hours at Heathrow Airport in London on the 14th of July 2015, and summarily deported. He also had his British residency revoked, although he had been a resident of that country for twenty years. Whilst held in detention, he was questioned about why he visited Yemen – even though thousands of people do for ordinary, non-sinister reasons, and Shukri’s reasons were no different: at the time, his wife was working there as the Country Director of Oxfam Yemen, one of the UK’s largest international humanitarian aid agencies. But these clear answers didn’t stop UK immigration officials from deporting Shukri. Their official reason: because Shukri’s “last visit to the UK in 2012 was more than two years ago.” Because Shukri knew that how he was treated is “indicative of the increasing heavy-handedness facing African migrants at UK and EU borders,” he stepped forward to make a public statement about his encounter with British immigration authorities.

Anyone who has read his writing cannot fail to see the irony of the situation: Shukri is an author who writes about possibilities for dialogue and understanding between people of different faiths and personal histories; he also includes references to the seemingly irrational, yet quite intentional methodologies through which empire functions and dis-functions, employing petty functionaries whose dismissive judgements make or break the lives of those who are located on the outskirts of empire’s power structures. It was his first novel, The Silent Minaret, that helped me coalesce my own ideas about the ways in which colonial era tactics used to subdue people and control their resources were parallel to strategies employed by both apartheid-era South Africa and the post 9/11 world. His second novel, I See You, makes one question whether it is conceivable for any country to follow its purported democratic ideals, when interests of arms dealers and the possibility of making money and brokering power though war enters the picture.

When Shukri first wrote to say that he had been deported, my thoughts went immediately to the multitude of stories – including my own – that immigrants share about the indignities they face at borders and checkpoints, when their bodies are in transit between nations. Sometimes, we are less aware of power structures, even when they affect us deeply, and in the most mundane ways. Many of us do not even have the language with which to speak about these violent and violating encounters. And that inability to language, that lack of connection to power structures, the fear of voicing a protest in case of consequences, and the general feeling of powerlessness has a lot to do with why violations at borders and in no-man’s lands of airport questioning rooms continue. In these transitory spaces, petty immigration officials have enormous, unchecked amounts of authority that allows them to make decisions that affect the trajectories of thousands of people’s lives everyday. One is not permitted to use a phone and one cannot record a conversation: so the go-to technology checking authority in the 21st century is made unavailable. I’ve resorted to taking extensive notes – once, as I was sitting and writing what I overheard in one of those rooms in an airport as a petty official harangued a Senagalese woman in a wheelchair (“Why are you in a wheelchair?! Why are you in a wheel-chair?!”), someone noticed, and quickly processed me out of there with a friendly smile and a joke about making sure that I did not miss my next flight.

At national borders, especially those of powerful nations, where the boundaries defining one’s personal integrity are made porous and penetrable to authority, one has little recourse over one’s life. There is no boundary of protection around one unless one displays markers of power: a passport displaying that one is a legitimate heir of a powerful country in the geopolitical West, accompanied by Europeannes or Americanness – that means one’s name should align with Algo-Saxonness, Christianness, and whiteness for that “pass” to really work. Otherwise, as in Shukri’s case, no pass will allow you pass automatically, a privilege that Blondie from the North who is in the customs and immigration queue with you most likely takes for granted.

Shukri insists on making “a concerted effort not to observe the ways of the world by race” having grown up “in a society obsessed with race.” He notes,

I always try to look beyond race in my life and in my writing. So, for example, my characters are never described by race. They simply have names. The reader does the rest.

However, his is not some Pollyanna non-racialism; he knows that encounters at immigration distil the fact that the world is equally insistent on deciding people’s fates based on racialised markers:

When I was led into that detention room where three other people were seated, that old apartheid dynamic to assess the world by race took over, and before I could help myself, it struck me immediately that none of us was white. Apart from the immigration officials, there were no white witnesses to our humiliation.

In the detention rooms, Shukri saw quickly that he was meant to be the person with little access to language of power, to be the supplicant who would have no choice but to accept what the immigration officials decided.

In the early stages of the process, there was the assumption that I spoke no or little English. So the officers who come to take me to have my luggage searched spoke in a very deliberate way, slowly, with excessive articulation. I let them do it to themselves until the time eventually came for me to offer more extended answers to their probing questions. I sensed the tables turned then – slightly, when I spoke [….] But they had already committed themselves to a course and line of action, from which they could no longer step back.

What does the arbitrariness of immigration officials do to the personhood of the other, as they attempt to cross national borders – a right that those from politically and militarily powerful nations do as easily as liquid through an open pipe? One prepares, first and foremost, to lay one’s private life bare: to answer questions unimaginable to a First World traveller, to make oneself transparent and porous to authority. To be a supplicant at borders is to prepare to play a part – one knows instinctively to playact harmlessnesss, to display lack of threat, to exude submission, to be a bland, a-political, Yes Sir, No Sir supplicant who knows their place in the geo-political totem pole (for some, it is no playacting – it is truly how they have fashioned themselves in the face of all they’ve been trained to believe about the cultural superiority of the West). The desire for political and philosophical integrity, or even for privacy means that one resents intrusion into one’s personal life – why must one supplicate? But part of how abusive authority works is by testing our desire to be ethical witnesses to life, to maintain personal integrity and privacy. So it is no wonder that many of us, under the enormous pressure of dehumanising circumstances, will lay ourselves down, hoping that authority might not see us, and let us pass by.

Third World immigrants always carry proof of their legitimacy in the form of papers – papers that a white traveller from the geopolitical West would never think to carry: passport, of course. Visa, duh yes. But also: letters from institutions or friends from stating that they are inviting one to come visit, which include those friends’ national ID numbers (to show that they themselves are not illegals), their phone numbers, addresses, and utility bills (to show that they are actually residents at the given residence); letters from employers to show one is gainfully employed; also one’s birth certificate, printouts of bank statements to show that one is solvent and will not become a burden on one’s host country, and proof of health insurance, for the same reason as the former set of documents; then, if applicable, marriage certificates, maybe even deeds to property. That is the burden of the Third World traveller: envelopes of papers and their duplicates, carrying proof of legitimacy. So when you see some Dark Other holding up the immigration queue, shuffling through what seems like unnecessary papers, know that this is what’s happening. Shukri, too, carried many papers (including his “marriage certificate, birth certificate, bank statements, even though I am a permanent resident”) – seemingly unnecessary papers – for what was a simple holiday, a joyful time with family, in a city that was “his”…a place where he completed his first novel, a place where he had friends, love, meals, prayers.

London provided him a home. It was one of several cities in which he made “home” possible, as immigrants often do. Globalisation theorists ushered in the 2000s with a celebration of the “global nomad” who can flit between continents; even those who called themselves “Afropolitans” plucked themselves a bit of that privileged, nomadic cool. But the majority of the world’s travellers can’t imagine travelling without worries about standing in long queues at consulates, filling out intricate paperwork demanding ever more proof of thier legitimacy, adding up the fees necessary for visas. Ultimately, we fear that no matter what one does, that visa for which we applied so carefully will be nullified at the border, scuppering all one’s plans and ambitions. That cool, liquid identity of the global cosmopolitan remains, in reality, accessible to a privileged few.

Shukri is not one to publicise his personal life. In interviews, he typically speaks only about his writing. But there needs to be examples on record. Few of those to whom harassment and deportation happen are as articulate as he, nor will as many people in positions of authority sign a petition on their behalf, as did a list of academics lead by Professor Isabel Hofmeyer at the University of Witwatersrand. A reasoned decision such as his to make a public statement wouldn’t have come without a lot of thought about the unwanted kind of attention and exposure that it will bring. And now, some things about his private life – details about which he never speaks – have been made public. In the news articles about Shukri’s deportation, there are several references to his wife – her life, too, has been made public. It was impossible for Shukri not to mention why he was going to London, to mention that she is British, that they have a home in London, that they have been married since 1996: information that one should not have to supply.

But every Third World traveller knows that immigration is about breaking into one’s personal banks – officials rob you blind, and you are supposed to willingly give. Some of us go into the mode of supplying as much as we can, even when not asked, in an effort to look as though our “banks” are open – a signal of the lack of threat we pose. According to the rules of this game of power, Shukri’s wife is afforded no privacy either; she has to be brought out – partly because her work helps add “legitimacy” to him: because she works for Oxfam, hers is compassionate, important work, and that makes her (and him) appear “peaceful” and not-terroristy. These are the details that help people build emotional ties to him, her, and comprehend the injustice of what happened. And now, her life, as well as his, are going to have to be deployed in order to show that this deportation was illegitimate – because we can see that these are good people who do good in the world. And yet, this exercise in exposure is not enough. The legitimacy that all this work is supposed to weave, creating a system of support for one’s freedom – one’s thoughtful, beautiful, critical, ways of being in the world – none of these things are enough. It is never enough.

Further Reading