We decided to cut our hair. All of our hair. Off. To the scalp.
The reasons for this are not clear, even to ourselves. When we decided to embark on the this project, we wanted to make our bodies more strange somehow. Sister-Strangers. I hear the critique loud and clear, that our white-queer-cosmopolitanism does not bring us any closer to the people we want to learn from.
And yet it felt right, just felt right, as some ideas sometimes do. And to meet people in this way, closer to our strange, queer-bodied selves, wearing dresses, wearing pants, wearing make up, not hiding anything, or assuming that we would not be received well in this way, made it easier for me to present myself, to ask, and to learn, to be present.
We left pieces of our hair behind wherever we travelled, a little here on this beach, a little there in that ruin, clippers sliding across my scalp in the market place, hair lines fixed with a razor, a last minute rush in the hostel bathroom before our journey was over.
We hope to make visible our presence, not hiding behind the mirage of invisible, universal, white subjectivity – the transparent anthropologist, sociologist or ethnographer. And we hope that this process we have begun can be productive and transformative, rather than being simply about consumption – of knowledge, facts, images, text – by a neutral observer.
this is a recommendation of Gambian Dancehall from our friend Demba
Last night, our last night in Palermo, after everything, the whole day of intense concentration, from the recording of Yusuph to the interview at Youth Human Rights Organization, we hang out in Balaro and dance with some of the Africans there dancing and drumming in the street. I’m exhausted but I decide still to call one of the young men we met in the first days. Just to see if there is still a chance to see the place he’s been transferred to—a center for men who have “aged out” of status as minors and are still waiting for papers.
He comes to meet us, a huge welcoming smile on his face and leads us to his place. The guy at the front says we can only enter one at a time. We protest, and then he says, okay, but only maximum five minutes inside. This guy, this person who seems to be a “native” Sicilian, working probably minimum wage labor as night watchman and janitor—stills feels pressure to tow the line. To carry out whatever bizarre set of rules he’s been told to enforce.
We walked down the wide institutional hallway, perhaps the place was an old asylum, or a hospital, or a school. Each room with maybe two guys in it, each with his own cot, like so many of the squats we’ve stayed at. All men. Most of the guys that I could see, from Africa. We spoke to a guy from Ghana, he was the most outspoken, just giving his anger and rage in sarcasm and quick wit. The UN takes all the money. They should place us in jobs, should give us a job. But they don’t.
He tells us that he left Ghana because the president is a very bad man, that the country has resources that are constantly exploited, that people like him work for low, unlivable wages, extracting his country’s resources, and see nothing for it. He wants to return to see his family and he will when he gets his papers—some day. But for now he can’t while he waits. He says, as soon as he gets his papers, he is getting the hell out of there. The others tell me that if it were easier to come to the United States or to Australia, they would, because tis so much better than Europe. I consider it. The idea of being institutionalized, terrible. But more work? “just a job”, and job? Elsewhere? Better work? Hard for me to completely relate to. I really believe that men should just be placed into jobs, that bodies should just be placed into meaningless labor? Its hard for me to completely sign on to that idea, and I wonder how both to advocate for him and to support him as a migrant, as a worker, and still make a larger capitalist critique.
I do believe that bodies should be allowed to move as they want to. I do believe that bodies should be allowed to pursue questions that interest them, passions that drive them. The guy is vey expressive about being poor, tells us that he is one of the poor ones, a laborer, a furniture maker. He doesn’t mince words. He says, “I don’t play cricket, I’m not rich. That’s for the rich guys. I play football.” He’s smart as he tosses me lightly stereotypes in one moment and then tosses at me sarcastically an anti-stereotype with an ironic smile.
We stay much longer than five minutes, listening to a group of guys downstairs in the hallway. There is an area of antique furniture, roped off. Cant sit there. As though a museum piece. The most outspoken guy says the UN is taking all the money, making money off these guys, churning a business. He says they deliver food every day and all they get is pasta. They hate it, they don’t want to eat that every day. Its not the diet they are used to. We tell them a little about our migration situation in Germany. Ours and the people on our block. We tell them about the strict regulation of drug dealers in the park, how many are asylum seekers, he tells me, never do that. Never ever do that. You sell and you get money you sell and you get money but that is stupid because one day you gonna get caught and if you really want to stay in Europe for a long time, they will catch you and send you back. Really really bad, he keeps repeating. It makes me think a lot about different cultural ideas of choice and self policing. What is choice, what is desperation, what drives a person to climb a dangerous boat or cross a wall or a desert. What drives someone to take a job with legal risks, health risks or emotional risks. “Desperation” does not explain every choice, every aspect; I speak for myself. This is about something less dramatic, more naturally human, more subtle and yet more complex.
When I was growing up in Australia, there was a lot of talk in the right wing media about the so-called ‘Aboriginal Industry’, that people were enriching themselves on the back of demands for more rights, better health care, social services, education, and so on for Aboriginal communities. As my lecturer in indigenous studies – black power activist Gary Foley – pointed out, it was true, but that very few if any of those benefiting were Aboriginal. Instead, generations of white bureaucrats, consultants, administrators, health care and social workers came and went, absorbing hundreds of millions of dollars of government funding without delivering much to the communities they were supposedly working for.
The same thing is happening with irregular migration into Europe. “The Italians are making money off us” said one of the guys we spoke to, who wants to work as a football player in Europe. “Every migrant knows this.” And not only the Italians. On every step of his journey from Gambia, he encountered an auxiliary industry making money from migrants. In Libya he was kidnapped both by the police and by criminals. The kidnappers demanded their families wire money. “If you don’t have money they shoot you in the leg” he said, and he began to rub his thigh. With his jailers it was more complicated and in the end he and a group of detainees made a prison break during Ramadan.
Then there were the people smugglers, who take around 1000€ to cram you on board a boat, choosing as captain the passenger with the most sea faring experience. When they arrive in Italy there are the sailors paid to perform sea rescues, the prison operators and then if you are released the operators of the migrant home where you live, those working in the tribunals to hear your asylum case, or whatever grounds you use to attempt to remain in Italy… It is endless.
Corruption runs deep in the provision of services to migrants. I hesitate to talk about the role of organised crime because it sets up a false dichotomy between organised crime and ‘legitimate’ official migration authorities. Nevertheless there are crime syndicates involved, with one senior figure in Rome recorded on a wiretap saying he makes more money running detention centers and migrant homes than they do from drugs.
Last night one man from Ghana said that the UN gives Italy money to take care of the migrants, but the Italians are keeping it for themselves. I haven’t verified this yet. However, from both a large number of migrants and from a meeting with the advocacy group Borderline Europe, we learned that many facilities do not even provide the €1.50 per day allowance that they are legally obliged to pay to those living in migration facilities.
Attitudes among those we spoke to ranges from anger to resignation to a quiet defiance from those who just plan to wait out this inane moment in their lives, to get their papers and leave Italy for good.
There is no uniformity to why people decide to shift from their home countries, though there are some patterns and recurring motifs.
For instance, for most people the final port before Europe – Libya – is the most dangerous part of the journey. I spoke to one young man in Palermo, who is still not eighteen, who told me had been arrested in Libya multiple times, that he had spent six months in prison, that he had been beaten, that the Libyans treat the blacks very badly. Another told us that his best friend was assassinated at random in Libya. And yet this same person spoke kindly of the man who had employed him in carpentry, who paid him on time and, when he couldn’t, secured his passage on a boat to Lampedusa with a people smuggler.
Many of those we spoke to were orphaned or neglected in some way. Sometimes their stories describe immense suffering, but not all are facing certain death, the boys from Egypt and a couple from Gambia describe the desire to travel, to see other countries when asking why they come to Europe. The same reason why I left Australia for Berlin via London.
It reminds me not to develop a cliche about irregular migrants, asylum seekers, refugees in which they are all facing death, rape, starvation and so on because it sets up eligibility criteria for which we will allow black and brown people to freely move outside of their own countries, to come to Europe, to take a train to Paris or Berlin or Stockholm or wherever, to settle, or not settle, to work a little, or to avoid work with the utmost care, to party, or raise a family or all of these things.
The point is not that there is a humanitarian crisis (though of course there is), a crisis for whose victims Western countries should open their gates very briefly before shutting them again very tightly, but that there should be no gate in the first place – certainly not one which locks out people from certain countries while being curiously open to those from others.
I am passionate about free movement, no borders, a collapsing of binaries between a body which is worthy of entry and a body which is not. It is not only a very queer concept, it even rescues queer from its own assimilation into a capitalist discourse where it is perhaps only a genre, a market segment – queer night at the white, hetero-capitalist discotheque. Rights and tolerance enclosed in a circle of white privilege and military frontiers – this is not the same as freedom.