Navigating Death in Migration

Following from Stefania Pandolfo’s discussion of the “barzakh” as a concept to think with in migration, Anna Simone Reumert asks how boat migrants anticipate and navigate death, as encountered in the documentary “Les Sauteurs” and Laila Lalami’s novel “Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits”.

With the recent dramatic uptick in deaths on the Mediterranean and Central American migrant trails, death has become an almost expected event in migration. Whereas in humanitarian law, as defined by the Geneva Convention of 1959, migrating has been conceived as a refuge from the risk of death, in reality migration has increasingly been associated with a surrender to death. Through a close-reading of two accounts of boat migrants in Morocco before, during and after the sea voyage, in the documentary “Les Sauteurs” by Abou Bakar Sidibé, Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner, released last year, and in Laila Lalami’s novel “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” written a decade before, I ask: How does death intrude upon the migrant? In doing so, I think of death less as bodily matter, excavatable facts on the bottom of the sea, than as a potentiality that informs a mode of being for migrants who are forced to navigate in the nearness and anticipation of death while en route or at sea.

With the increase in migration along the Mediterranean route, European border security has been extended across the sea to North African shores, where migrants are stuck in motion midway between their points of departure and arrival. Drawing on anthropologist Stefania Pandolfo’s discussion of the Islamic philosophical concept of barzakh, we may think of the state of waiting for departure as a liminal zone integral to migration, where the risks associated with migrating are heightened. Informed by her reading of Ibn ʿArabi, Stefania Pandolfo defines barzakh as “an imaginal border that joins by separating, such as an isthmus or a bridge, and that is the site of a passage for bodies and spirits; a partition, a screen, between two modalities of being, spiritual and corporeal, widening and delimiting, this world and the other; the site where the impossible can manifest itself in concrete form” (156.) Similarly in the experience of migrating, the zone of waiting operates as a threshold, simultaneously a bridge and a barrier that facilitates and prevents the transit. This begs the question: How is migration experienced when caught in the barzakh? If migration is a ritual of becoming, a process of self-transformation, what happens when the threshold is extended, holding the subject in a state of being neither here nor there?

The Migrant’s Struggle

In Pandolfo’s essay “The Burning: Finitude and the politico-theological imagination of illegal migration”, two young men in Rabat, Kamal and Jawad, discuss the predicaments of migration. Considering the risk of death it implies, is migration by boat a form of struggle against death or rather a surrender to death? Is death by migration an escape from reality or an escape towards life from the social death that conditions their present life?

For Jawad, migration belongs to the same category as dreams and drugs: it makes the subject addictive to imagination, splitting body and mind between here and elsewhere (342). For Kamal, meanwhile, migration belongs to the category of ethical self-work, following Islamic teachings. To migrate from the temptations and social decay of one’s present surroundings is a moral act, he suggests, as it provides an “antidote” to the moral despair of present life (339, 348.) In Kamal’s perspective, jihad is called for as “a struggle for life in a situation in which life is unlivable and a change of conditions is called for” (340.) Present life is associated in his speech with “social death” (333.), life in illness, unlivable. In “Les Sauteurs”, a young Malinese stranded in Morocco narrates his motive for migrating in similar terms: “When I thought about life I got sick, so I left”.

Does death in migration constitute an awakening or a final surrender? Drawing on Islamic teachings on this subject, Kamal and Jawad distinguish in their discussion between egoistic suicide and suicide-as-jihad, jihad, literally “striving in the effort” (331, 336, 342.). The stress on effort implied in this term allows for the possibility of failure; not succeeding does not erase the effort. Kamal describes his present life as a life without dignity, “a life of enclosure in physical, genealogical and cultural spaces perceived as uninhabitable”, to which migration provides a “horizon in the practices of self-creation and experimentation” (133.). By seeking this horizon, Kamal opens himself up to the possibility of life, which he contrasts to suicide as a closing. Pandolfo suggests that hijra, the voyage, is considered a necessary and morally significant endeavour in Islam (337).  The death risk is a necessary path on the struggle for life.

 The distinction between egoistic suicide and suicide-as-struggle has long attracted and, arguably, confused scholars and media rapporteurs of the Middle East. Islamic suicide bombing is often reduced in contemporary Western mythologizing to two motives: The first renders this an egoistic act in pursuit of maximized satisfaction, specifically the fulfillment of his desire upon entering a ‘harem of virgins’ in his afterlife. Notably, migrants are often similarly accused of seeking individual gain, in a humanitarian imaginary that contrasts profit-seeking ‘economic migrants’ with legitimately suffering “refugees”. As a twin reversal of this figuration of the suicide bomber as driven by insatiable lust, the bomber is at the same time accused of lacking appetite for life, specifically the appetite to partake in the meaningfulness of life, as Ghassan Hage suggests in his discussion of suicide bombing, “Comes a Time We Are All Enthusiasm” (78). Suicide bombing is thus imagined as a form of collective self-destruction. In contrast to this representation, Hage suggests that Palestinian suicide bombers do not symbolize a desire to die but rather a “sign of life” in a zone of active social dying (74). As a symbol of Palestinian resistance, Hage suggests, suicide bombing is perceived in Palestinian society as a social mission one is called upon to perform; it serves both as an act of ‘communal solidarity’, in Durkheimian terms, and as a status-inducing act of normative masculine competence (76). He is sacrificed for a cause greater than himself.

Is the migrant who dies in transit killed or is he sacrificed? Kamal translates the notion of jihad to the migrant’s body, invoking the double sense of the word as both external and internal struggle - jihad al-nafs, the struggle to overcome oneself (343). In ”Les Sauteurs”, the men express their fear of death as a fear of dying anonymously.  As his friend says, after informing his comrade’s mother by phone of her son’s death: “May we never become anonymous corpses”. “Anonymous” signifies here both the fate of dying undocumented and the fear of their families not recognizing their sacrifice. Central to this discourse of migration as an act of moral and spiritual sacrifice is the notion of martyrdom, which serves as a form of masculine rite of passage. “Martyr” in Arabic (shahīid) shares root with the word for witness (shāahid). In bearing witness to the hardship on the migration trail, which corresponds to an internal trial, the migrant is martyred. In ”Les Sauteurs”, this emphasis on documenting their sacrifice lays the framework of the narrative, which is based exclusively on footage taken by Abou, the migrant protagonist of the film. Documentation becomes an insurance against dying in vain: “I feel that I exist when I film”, as Abou reflects.

That the men aspiring to migrate are candidates for clandestine migration can be extended to a larger sense of candidature, as the men undergo the passage to enter male adulthood. Articulating a paternal order of things, Kamal defends migration as a way “to make a life for himself, feed his brothers and sisters, and send money to his parents, so that they may have a life and find some strength, a way out of this wretched existence” (341). For the young Moroccans in Lalami’s account, migration is conceived as a temporary preparation for an improved life upon return. The men venture out and hope to return with their baskets full, grown men ready to provide for their future wives. The fear of dying un-martyred, not leaving a trace, is thus laden with the burden of masculine social fulfillment; Murad, a character in Lalami’s novel, worries that he will die without having passed on any stories to his children. In “Les Sauteurs”, the fear of dying anonymously translates as well into a broader fear of not succeeding; “I fear arriving to Europe and realizing it was all in vain”, the protagonist Abou confesses. He recounts a nightmare he had where he woke up in Mali, while all his comrades had made it across to Spain. The nightmare made him feel like a failure, “fini”.

For the protagonists in Lalami’s account, the return does not go as planned. While Aziz does succeed in building a life of sorts in Spain, he feels out of place upon return. The characteristic sounds, smells and touches he missed while away – including the intimate touch of his wife – now overwhelm and disturb his senses. Contrary to his imaginary of arriving in his own car, he arrives by public transportation, without enough savings to provide for his wife, whom he has cheated on while away. He feels disillusioned by his wife and relatives who do not express gratitude for the sacrifice he has made. Meanwhile for Murad, returning from failed migration constitutes repeating his former life as unemployed, living at home with his mother while his sisters have married, avoiding family interaction. Having failed the rite of passage, he remains fixed in boyhood.

Before the Crossing: Becoming Migrants, Becoming Men

As the experiences of those in waiting suggest, the state of barzakh precedes and transcends the passage at sea. At the mere thought of migrating, the young men begin to drift from their present world: “‘Our minds flew away with those distance tracks, our bodies were here, our being over there, we were hayr, beside ourselves, until we dropped out of school’”, as Pandolfo’s interlocutors reflect (351). The danger of being drawn into another world by the thought of migration lurks as well in Lalami’s account, where men begin to disassociate from their social and economic responsibilities in preparation for the departure. As Murad ponders: “He’d been living in the future, thinking of all his tomorrows in a better place, never realizing that his past was drifting” (186). The short distance between the Moroccan and Spanish shores makes the imaginary of migrating all the more tangible. In their evening ritual of surveilling the life in Melilla from the mountain top of their campsite, the men in ”Les Sauteurs” easily transport themselves to the other side.

Yet, among the men we encounter in ”Les Sauteurs”, waiting is not just a state of mind; it demands hard labor. With a military discipline, the men spend weeks preparing bodies and tools for jumping the increasingly securitized fence, where many face death, often at the hands of the police. Every day, new men arrive while others leave. Through this ritualized passaging, the men build an archive of experiences and strategies that they pass on. Migration – both in the actual passage and in the anticipation and retelling of it – provides the connecting tissue between them.

On a mountain top overlooking the Spanish enclave Melilla, the men have organized their campsite like barracks, complete with informal infrastructures and economies. Daily tasks such as importing and selling goods, cooking and rationing food, cleaning and sorting trash, and treating injured bodies are distributed between the men. This system of labor allows for a certain self-fashioning, as people come to identify with their different tasks. As Abou notes: “In the camp, the former mechanic becomes shopkeeper, the shopkeeper doctor, the professional football player becomes cigarette seller, and the law student becomes cook”. This suggests an experience of self-transformation in the process of changing roles; becoming self, becoming other. In anticipation of the final transformation expected in migrating, Abou presents himself: “I am Abou, future European”.

The male-exclusive world in the camp also allows for a certain homosocial role play. In many scenes, we see the men bathing together, comparing bodies. Women are a topic of fixation but spoken of exclusively in abstract terms, as is life in Europe. The two are often conflated: Melilla, as a metaphor for Europe, is feminized in their speech as “ma petite amie”, and when they speak of Europe, they tease one another about the many women they will encounter and who will bathe them and sing for them, like sirens.

If migration is a rite of passage for these men, then life in waiting and transit are here treated as liminal phases associated with a certain social permissibility and self-fashioning that have a fixed expiration date upon the end of passage, when they are expected to graduate as proper men, husbands and providers. This is revealed in the men’s conflation of future heterosexual life at the end of the journey. The fear of staying “too long” in this zone of pre-married male sociality is expressed in Lalami’s account as well, as when Aziz worries about his unmarried friend’s homosexual tendencies. As a pathway to ‘overcome’ his sexual affliction, Aziz encourages him to join the voyage, as if suggesting that he may return as a more ‘complete’ man ready to enter proper male-hood.

The potential for self-transformation within the camp, as a threshold on the journey, also marks its association with danger and unpredictability. The state of waiting on the migration trail contains risk of being drawn into an Elsewhere. The camp is a place where relations are formed but cannot endure. The men warn each other of the many “bad spirits and demons” that lurk around the camp, looking to take residence in one’s soul. Every friend is potentially a thief in the struggle for survival. The men in the documentary constantly accuse each other of betrayal; the shopkeeper is called a thief, the local sorcerer is revealed as a mere trickster, and, in a particularly haunting scene, a comrade among them is revealed as a Judas bribed by the local police. Notably, ‘thief’ is the figure Kamal evokes as a metaphor for lacking moral integrity; better to die with dignity on the sea than living as a thief, he says (340). His image of migration as a salvation from this fate is complicated by the reality documented in ”Les Sauteurs”, where waiting too long for transit has a corrupting effect, as brother becomes enemy.

Similarly in conversation with Pandolfo, Kamal and Jawad associate the transit zones of migration – bus stops, road sites, camps by the water – as spaces haunted by the jinn: “‘I got myself exposed/touched by the jinns because of burning’” (352). The jinn is associated with the sea, as well as the night and foggy weather; times when appearances are occluded, and where “the impossible can manifest itself in concrete form”, as Pandolfo suggests. When the motor on the boat in Lalami’s account collapses halfway across the sea, a passengers exclaims that “this trip is cursed” (7).

The men become displaced from their present life, and yet for many, the future they prepare for never materializes. This is the negative grip of migration that haunts Jawad: For those caught in migration, “there is no landing and no return”, as he warns Kamal (335). In a challenge to Kamal’s association of the migrant’s predicament with the soldier’s struggle in resistance, Jawad interjects: “‘In a war you fight for your country, in the harg you fight for a dream, an illusion.’” (345). In his reflections on suicide bombing, Hage suggests that “Nothing symbolizes social death like [the] inability to dream a meaningful life” (79). Dreaming is here associated with awakefulness, being present. The inability to imagine oneself in the present is what leads Kamal and his peers to dream of life elsewhere. Dreaming of elsewhere, as an abstract sense of migration, is as addictive as drugs, Jawad suggests. Pandolfo suggests that dreaming in this context is perceived as an encounter with death, a departure from the material into the metaphysical world (348). For Jawad, dreaming indicates an escape from reality, an inability to be present.

The original meaning of “hijra”, the Arabic term for migration, is “to abandon”, a severing of ties. This recalls Pandolfo’s definition of the barzakh as both a partition and a bridge; a parting of ways in the departure, separating ties from one community in anticipation of another community to come. Yet there is a risk of getting caught in the crossing. For those unable to complete the journey, either by returning home or by forming a new community, migration manifests as an escape from reality, a departure from one’s social world. Encountering the disappointment in his family’s eyes, Aziz seeks refuge in returning to Spain and a life of hardship and solitude in migration. Having escaped his social responsibilites back home, Aziz’ baggage feels “lighter than when he arrived” (175). Migration has become his sole purpose; a quick fix that offers temporary solace.

All at Sea

In her ethnography of Sufi dreamscapes, Amira Mittermaier associates the barzakh with a liminal space in Islamic eschatology “where the spirits of the dead dwell until Judgment Day” (3). As suggested in this distinction between death as finitude and the hereafter as a state of undetermined fate, barzakh is best understood as a zone where death is present but not yet materialized, always-already on the verge. Indicative of this, the sea voyage, where the awareness of death is most dramatized, provides the dramaturgical center in Lalami’s novel. While in transit and at sea, the migrant becomes hyper-aware of the risk of death, even if death does not materialize. He is literally ‘dead reckoning’, as Naor Ben-Yehoyada has phrased it. Contrary to how the men waiting to cross describe their state of feeling like corpses, dead men walking, death is sensed here as an awakening. For Murad in Lalami’s account, “the shock of the cold water makes his heart go still for a moment. He bobs, gasps for air" (11). The body is alive to every sensory experience - exhaustion, fright, darkness, hunger, nausea. In the overcrowded boat, bodily fluids - vomit, defecation – mix with sounds of crying and prayer.

Migration as a struggle over death translates here as a struggle between who gets to live and who may die, as friends turn to enemies in the near-encounter with death. Those who succeed in making the boat passage are those, like Aziz, who do not look back to check if others made it. This climaxes in the final scene of “Les Sauteurs”, when the men finally cross the fence to the Spanish side, pushing each other down, getting caught by the police and running headfast through the wire, their adrenaline-pumping bodies bleeding, with a manic gaze set on the Spanish shore. The struggle is here at once communal and individual, connecting and dividing. The atmosphere of survival in transit is summed up in Abou’s reflection:

“Being at Mount Gurugu means:

Being yourself / Sharing with your brothers

Being brave / Being disciplined

Being always afraid / Being without hope

Being Machiavellian

Being successful by all means”

As this suggests, transit allows for a double condition of being fully oneself and being beside oneself, afraid, hopeless, always alert, anticipating death. As a zone of vibrant potentiality and unpredictability, the camp is reminiscent of the barzakh. The men may perceive their act as a sacrifice, but once on board or in the act of jumping, the community is elsewhere.

Looking For an Exit

In classic tales of voyaging, from the Islamic hijra to the Odyssey, the voyage is staged as a trial and a rite of becoming, in which the (always male-gendered) protagonist journeys out, experiences a temporary split in the liminal stage of uncertainty and temptation, but returns home, re-integrated and improved. As suggested in the accounts discussed above, migration is imagined similarly as a rite of passage towards adulthood, malehood, dignity and comfort. A migration from the self in the creation of a new, improved self.  Yet as the men journey out, they realize that the migratory trail provides neither a straight line forward nor a return trip. The men change while in waiting, but they do not return as improved versions of themselves. At one point in ”Les Sauteurs”, Abou fixes the camera on a baby donkey who is running around the camp with a manic energy. As if a leitmotif for his own experience of being stuck in motion, the donkey repeats the same steps in circular motion. Once in transit, there is no exit and no way back.

How do I navigate my way out of the barzakh, as an ontological mode, while stuck in a physical threshold, waiting for transit? Perhaps the question is best tackled by recalling the twin meaning of barzakh as both border and bridge, partition and passage. In its multiple faculties, the barzakh at once provides a passage and blocks one from crossing it. Like the sea, the barzakh is a sphere where one easily gets lost attempting to trace invisible routes. The threshold invites for crossing. This is its temptation but also its potentiality. The key is knowing how to navigate it.

Still from "Les Sateurs" (Final Cut For Real, 2016)

Still from "Les Sateurs" (Final Cut For Real, 2016)

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