Borders and belonging for those without a home

Amid aggressive nationalism and a reassertion of rigid borders, the work of artists and writers has become even more important.

September 20, 2022 12:04 pm | Updated 01:57 pm IST

A Rohingya man along with his family stretches his arms out for food distributed by local volunteers in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. File photo

A Rohingya man along with his family stretches his arms out for food distributed by local volunteers in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. File photo | Photo Credit: AP

In 1991 and 1992, military operations against the Rohingya in Rakhine province of Myanmar were given pristine Buddhist names, such as Operation Pyi Thaya, meaning Clean and Beautiful Nation. It drove out over 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, an exodus which escalated in 2017. In Habiburahman’s book, First, They Erased our Name: A Rohingya Speaks, co-authored by Sophie Ansel, he writes that as a 15-year-old, he often wondered if he would ever reach adulthood or if he would be murdered first. With so many young Rohingya men disappearing, Habib tried not to think about it.

From Rakhine to Nagorno-Karabakh

Bangladesh gave shelter to 1.1 million Rohingya, but during her recent visit to India, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that the refugees were a “big burden” on her country, and that she was talking to international organisations like the United Nations to ensure their return to Myanmar. That is easier said than done because the Tatmadaw, or the Burmese armed forces, do not recognise the Rohingya and they had to flee the land for that reason in the first place. What do maps and lines mean for people who are forced to flee, or live in exile, and for whom a land to call their own doesn’t exist?

Migrants — Rohingya in Bangladesh, or Uyghurs, Palestinians, Armenians spread all over the world — are haunted by issues of borders and belonging. Where do they go? Who will take them in? How will they be treated? The search whether such a place of refuge exists took anthropologist Maggie Paxson to a remote plateau of France, in Vivarais-Lignon, where, as it turns out, ordinary people have risked over the years their lives to rescue hundreds of strangers, including Jewish children during World War II.

One of the most poignant accounts in her book, The Plateau (2019), is the story of Lalik, an Azeri girl, who falls in love with Arat, an Armenian boy. Soon, Lalik and Arat are married and live in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, a city surrounded by beautiful mountains. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, their life unravels. The dispute between the two countries is over the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but closely allied with Armenia, and Lalik being an Azeri is to be “feared, hated, distrusted”. 

Explained | What is India’s policy on the Rohingya? 

Because Lalik is Azeri, Arat is beaten, “again and again, sometimes to a pulp”. They flee Armenia, and when Arat has to sell every one of his 2,000 books, “each of which he had read,” he breaks down and weeps. The couple escapes to Moscow, with their two children, but things get worse as they become “stateless people”. The family somehow manages to get out of Moscow and officially requests asylum in France. When Paxson meets them at the French village, they have lost their girl who was killed, and their boy is still in a state of terror. The villagers have brought about a measure of normality to an awful situation, but the family knows no peace till the papers, bumazhki, arrive that will make their stay official in France.         

Letters for help

During her travels in the borderlands of India, Suchitra Vijayan (Midnight’s Borders, 2021) came across the plight of Amir Hakim, a Rohingya refugee who had been held in Goalpara district jail since 2009, for illegally entering India after fleeing the violence in Myanmar. In desperation, he had written to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – the letter was smuggled out by a friend – seeking help. Activists told her that most of the detainees suffered from severe anxiety and depression. The fact that there was no indication of how long they would be held at the detention centres weighed heavily on them. Some wrote letters, others scribbled lines about the home they had left behind, and weren’t certain of ever returning back. 

Perhat Tursun, an Uyghur writer, who was disappeared by the Chinese state, has written a novel, The Backstreets (2022), drawing on Uyghur literary traditions, Sufi poetics, and world literature ranging from Kafka, Camus to Dostoevsky. Translated by Darren Byler who provides the context of the disappearance of both the author and his work, the story follows an unnamed Uyghur man who arrives at the cold Chinese capital of Xinjiang and finds a temporary job in a government office. He wants to escape the pain of the countryside but only faces rejection and indifferent stares. Tursun’s fable about social violence and rejection of diversity is haunting. 

Stories in the terrain

Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh began hill walking in the 1970s, unaware then that he was walking through a vanishing landscape. His book, Palestinian Walks (2007), which profiles seven walks covering a span of 27 years, taking place at different stages of Palestinian history, preserves in words the memory of the hills around Ramallah. His memoir, Strangers in the House (2002), revolves around the story of a father and son relationship, but in the backdrop is the political context, and a trait every Palestinian or anyone who has no right to her home(land) anymore shares: the acute sense of loss.

Is the protagonist’s vivid recollection a way then to preserve a past which is being forgotten or deliberately erased and rewritten? In the Stalin era, the Russian writers mastered the art of offering resilience through memory and imagination. With many parts of the world witnessing aggressive nationalism and a reassertion of rigid borders, the work of memory keepers, artists and writers, becomes even more important.

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