Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai`s Indian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Neha Vora (NV): I have always had an interest in South Asian diasporas, particularly in the forms of identification, cultural production, and belonging that occur as people move from “homeland” to new locales—how they imagine home and how they imagine themselves and their communities in relation to others. When I entered my PhD program in anthropology in 2002, I was searching for a non-Western field site in which to study South Asian migration and diaspora, because I felt the literature was too centered on experiences of postcolonial middle-classes moving to Europe and North America, at the expense of scholarly engagement with longer histories of migration and with South-South migrations. I chose Dubai because it was part of my own personal transnational imaginary of Indianness. As I mention in the very beginning of my book, Dubai is often referenced in Bollywood films; for many Indians, it is a preferred site for tourism and consumption; and many have family members who have at some point in time worked in either Dubai or other Gulf cities.
However, though Dubai was gaining international media attention at the time I started my project, the longstanding Indian diaspora in the emirate was not represented in this larger media attention. Nor were there many scholarly accounts of Indian daily life in the Gulf. I found that Indians and other South Asians, when they were mentioned in scholarly and popular accounts, were either treated as “rational actors” ameliorating their economic conditions through migration, or as helpless victims of “modern day slavery.” Neither of these analytics, as I argue in the book, are able to capture the human qualities of daily life for foreign residents in Dubai, nor do they give us a way to understand belonging and identity within Dubai’s largest diasporic population, one that contains a variety of people: elite businessmen, middle- and working-class salaried workers, families, second- and third-generation children, people who have recently arrived and people who have been there for decades.
The Indian communities of downtown Dubai where I conducted the bulk of my fieldwork, I argue, are not just temporary guest worker communities, but entrenched diasporas. In fact, they are both transient and permanent at the same time. I wanted to understand what this means for Indians in Dubai, and how they belong to the city-state in and through the very impossibilities of permanency that the kafala system of contract-based migrant sponsorship perpetuates. I was very interested in making sure that I understood the ways in which the Dubai context might spur different belongings and exclusions as compared to other sites of diaspora, particularly in the West, where citizenship and permanent residency are possible for some Indians. However, I also wanted to avoid approaching the Gulf and Dubai as somehow exceptional places. In fact, most of what I saw on the ground and heard in my informants’ recounting of their daily lives was not very different from what the South Asian diaspora literature was saying about migrant life in Western liberal democracies.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NV: I would say the book is aimed at building upon, and making an intervention in, three major topics and bodies of literature: 1) current understandings of Gulf cities (and especially Dubai) and the role of foreign residents in the UAE/Gulf; 2) questions of citizenship, state, and governance; and 3) South Asian diaspora studies. I will address my book’s arguments in relation to each of these briefly.
As I mentioned above, I wanted to push against some of the ways migration tends to be represented in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in order to look at how foreign residents, who often spend the majority of their lives in Dubai, do not merely reflect the economic rationales and “push-pull” factors through which their migration is made intelligible to audiences. Instead of assuming that migration is temporary and solely economic, I listened to my interlocutors as they narrated multiple forms of belonging and exclusion in Dubai. Their narratives included the idea that they were primarily economic migrants, but they also “exceeded the economic” (as I describe it in chapter four of my book) to express deeper modes of belonging to the city, such as consumer citizenship, affective ties to community, racialization that happened through their Dubai experiences, urban belonging, and even some political influence in the city (primarily among business elites). In addition, the identities of second- and third-generation children were inextricable from the Dubai context, and mirrored in many ways the second-generation experiences of people like myself, a second-generation Indian-American.
This brings us to questions of citizenship. In the Gulf context, citizenship is understood as formal, legal belonging only—that is, as passport-based. However, citizenship studies as a field has loosened and multiplied how we think about citizenship in order to include informal and affective modes, such as consumer, urban, cultural, and so on. I wanted to bring this rich way of thinking about citizenship to the Dubai context to consider how it is that Indians, though they can really never be formal citizens, are in fact the quintessential citizens of Dubai through their informal modes of belonging. Thus the book’s title, Impossible Citizens. I also wanted to think about how citizenship is made meaningful in and through the specter of the impossible and the exception, that which it needs in order to define its own boundaries. Here, I employ Agamben’s concept of the exception to think about how Emirati citizenship and Indian exclusion rely upon each other to exist, even as the divide between citizen and non-citizen in the Gulf is much more porous than the literature and state discourses would have us believe. Additionally, I wanted to address the ways in which the Emirati state and Dubai as a spectacular city have been exceptionalized by scholarly and media accounts. My argument is that Dubai is not as exceptional as it seems, nor is the Emirati state as illiberal or anti-liberal as it itself proclaims. I focus therefore on how liberal, neoliberal, and non-liberal logics of governance and belonging circulate in various Dubai spaces, institutions, and rhetorics, and how these are interpellated and affected by the Indian presence in the city-state.
In terms of diaspora, both the literature and Indian state discourses recuperate ideas of middle-class (primarily Hindu) postcolonial patriarchal families that settle elsewhere but maintain emotional (and increasingly, financial) ties to “home.” Thus the concept of diaspora, in the South Asian context, hinges upon particular forms of movement and of settling elsewhere, primarily in the West. I wanted to think about how the Dubai experience might complicate that story, and how it might also lead us to unpack what we evoke and what we elide when we use the term diaspora.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
This book is based on my dissertation, so it is my first sustained piece of research. I had done some work during my bachelors and masters programs on South Asian American identity and belonging, but I did not realize it was “anthropology” until I was discussing potential PhD programs with my MA advisor.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NV: I really tailored the introduction to the book when it was in the final stages, after asking myself this question (and with the guidance of my colleague/writing partner, Caroline Melly, who reviews all of my work). At first, I think I was so focused on making an intervention into the available literature on migration and the Arabian Peninsula that I lost track of the greater stakes of this project, which are to explore how a tiny “backwater” like Dubai and the people who live there can tell us a great deal about broader, more global contemporary human questions. What does it mean to belong to a place? What does citizenship mean? What does being transnational mean? How do people navigate complex technologies and practices of governance, capital, and identity? How do people define themselves, and in relation to whom? How do identities shift as people move? I really hope that this book can speak to anthropology, political theory, and migration and diaspora studies more broadly, because I think that a small city-state on the Arabian Peninsula has quite a bit to tell us about how the world functions, and how people understand and make their worlds within larger economic, social, and political systems.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NV: When I was in Dubai conducting my fieldwork in 2006, I interviewed many current and former students from new private universities that were popping up in the UAE at the time. Most of these schools were branch campuses of, or affiliated in some way with, American, European, or Asian universities, colleges, and for-profit educational ventures. These higher education opportunities were allowing young foreign residents who were raised in Dubai to attend college in the region for the first time, often living at or close to home, thus extending their duration in the Gulf (previously, all foreign residents had to leave the country for higher education). These were also spaces where people from different nationalities were coming into intimate and sustained contact with each other, often for the first time, despite living in a multinational city like Dubai their whole lives. The Gulf cities are so segregated and stratified that many of my Indian interlocutors rarely had friends, schoolmates, neighbors, or even at times co-workers who were not also South Asian. The students whom I interviewed were interacting with Emiratis as members of their peer group for the first time, with both positive and negative experiences. I explore this in the last ethnographic chapter of my book, asking specifically what kinds of new identifications and potential politicizations these campuses might engender.
Since finishing that research, I have maintained my interest in the branch campus phenomenon, and in globalized higher education more generally. I have shifted my focus away from the UAE to look more closely at the Education City project in Doha, Qatar. Some of the early questions from this book remain, but I am also interested in how differently situated actors (faculty, staff, and students, both citizen and foreign resident) experience American branch campuses; what kinds of ideas about citizenship, identity, and personhood these campuses export along with their school spirit, pedagogy, and curricula; and how Qatar’s investment in this form of knowledge economy impacts citizen/non-citizen interactions, gender roles, and national identity. My first job out of graduate school was at Texas A&M University, which happens to have a branch campus in Education City. I was able to teach and conduct research there for three summers (2010-2012), and I plan to go back soon for more sustained fieldwork. The book-length project is in early stages, but I have a couple articles from my preliminary research on Education City in the pipeline now.
J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?
NV: I utilize, and believe very strongly in, qualitative ethnographic methods—participant observation and interviews, talking to and hanging out with people in order to understand them better. That forms the core of my methodology. I also think of writing as a craft and a challenge—acknowledging that knowledge is produced means you are responsible for telling the best truth possible about your experiences and about your interlocutors. Their stories are a reality that cannot be captured by top-down theoretical applications or by number crunching. In fact, the dominance of these models in the Gulf literature makes capturing and relaying on-the-ground complexity (including contradiction) even more critical and urgent. I think that ethnography is an excellent way to accomplish this.
J: You focus on middle-classes in the book. What about migrant laborers? What about labor exploitation of the worst kind that happens in Dubai? And what about the repressive state that allows it to continue and even profits from it?
NV: I am neither celebrating nor denying the forms of exploitation that happen within labor camps or in industries that employ primarily low-wage workers from South Asia and other developing countries and regions. What I am trying to do is humanize the face of migration in the Gulf in ways that include all foreign residents, including those we deem “migrant labor.” What the book tries to do, and what my current work is also interested in doing, is to unpack what exactly we mean by “labor” and how the trope of “migrant laborer as slave” relies upon particular erasures that remove the complexity of people’s lives in the Gulf and recuperate Orientalist stereotypes about the Gulf context.
First, in order to believe that labor conditions in the Gulf are somehow worse than in other places, we need to not include in our analyses some important aspects of migration in the Gulf and elsewhere that challenge this trope. These include the various forms of migrant employment that exist in the Gulf, which range from white-collar to blue-collar; the horrible conditions that occur in sweatshops and other sites of “migrant labor” around the world, from the agricultural industry in the US that relies on undocumented migrants from Mexico and Latin America to the “global factories” in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) across Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere; and the fact that as in other places around the world, it is most often the “migrant laborer’s” own compatriots who are profiting from being the shady middle-men and managers of migration circuits, not Gulf Arab citizens (I explore this in more detail in chapter three of the book). Somehow we operate under the assumption that a liberal democracy provides people with more “rights,” but just by looking at labor conditions across the world we can see that this is patently false. The Gulf States and the kafala system present unique challenges for foreign residents who find themselves in situations where they are being exploited, but these are in no way exceptional circumstances under global capitalism.
The other point I want to make here is how certain foreign residents in the Gulf get deemed “migrant labor” while others do not. This requires us to be complicit in racializations, class-based categorizations, and other forms of generalization that actually work to remove the complexity of certain peoples’ lives at the expense of our own. Here by “our own” I mean people like myself and other academics who are themselves “migrant laborers” in the Gulf when they teach or get funded to do research there, but would never concur that their own daily experiences and life choices can be contained within the rubric of “labor.” Reducing these men and women (primarily construction workers and housemaids in the scholarly and media representations) to their labor—specifically to a labor that they are supposedly alienated from—is necessary in order for us to read them as indentured and exploited. Creating a narrative of labor exploitation also requires choosing some anecdotes over others, in effect removing potential positive experiences, forms of belonging, politicizations, and affective ties in the Gulf for Indian working-class foreign residents.
This is not to argue for a celebratory picture of construction worker or other “laborer” life in the Gulf, but rather for an account that is more complete and complex, and thus more humanizing. It is also a call to look at transnational labor migrants not solely as trapped or duped, but as knowledgeable people with certain skills and networks that allow them to become transnational in the first place. The transnational networks of expertise that so-called unskilled laborers tap into in their migration and residency practices push against the ways in which they have been interpellated both in academic and activist literature, and by Gulf State discourses. In order to migrate into low-wage positions in the Gulf, people need contacts with recruiters and others who supply visas and help with job applications. They need to be able to borrow and pool money from a range of familial and community resources. They need to have investigated migration procedures, either formally or through word-of-mouth. They need to make sure the family members they are taking care of back home are able to support themselves. In fact, a host of other knowledges and networks are required to migrate in the first place. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has so aptly put it, those who can become diasporic are not among the most subaltern of the subaltern.
Once in the Gulf, low-wage foreign residents rely on networks to learn geographies, languages, laws, and residency processes. They also develop social and affective ties to others, not only those from the same nationality, and their sense of identity and belonging is impacted by these ties. In addition, many become politicized as a result of the treatment they experience at the hands of employers, the state, and other residents (see Ahmed Kanna’s and Michelle Buckley’s work for more on this). Complicating our understanding of labor—and including the ethnographic experiences of middle-class and elite foreign residents in the story of Gulf migration—reveals how expertise and labor are embodied in different ways by all Gulf residents. It also challenges us as scholars of the Gulf to look more closely at our own interpellation as experts and as migrants, and how we reproduce certain understandings about race, nationality, and class through our own scholarly practices and through our daily existences in the Gulf. These are practices and experiences that include within them forms of labor and geographic segregation that are directly connected to and impactful upon the daily lived experiences of so-called “migrant laborers.”
Excerpts from Impossible Citizens: Dubai`s Indian Diaspora
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have some of the largest noncitizen populations in the world, with noncitizens often outnumbering citizens many times over. The governments of these countries, due partly to the sense of threat their migration demographics represent and partly to the large welfare benefits that come with citizenship, define foreign residents as social, legal, and cultural outsiders to the nation-state. Various residents, as well as scholars, consider this insider-outsider dichotomy to be the structural cause for most inequality in the region and for the legal exclusion of noncitizens from almost all aspects of Gulf society. Why, then, is the concept of citizenship—an impossibility for almost all migrants—so important to this ethnography about Indians in Dubai? I argue that citizenship is defined and solidified precisely through those who mark citizenship’s limits—temporary, transient, transnational, yet entrenched subjects. These subjects participate in the production of shifting legal categories of inclusion and exclusion in modern nation-states, and they rehearse several forms and scales of citizenship and belonging. Indians, as the primary exceptions to citizenship in Dubai and the UAE, are not only crucial to the maintenance of an imagined community of Arab and Muslim indigeneity, but they actively participate in processes of citizenship and governance while simultaneously producing themselves as outsiders to the nation. Thus, their citizenship practices exist within and through conditions of legal impossibility. In fact, the ability for certain Indians to belong as substantive citizens in Dubai and perform governance over other migrants not only works to maintain the appearance of a rigid citizen-noncitizen boundary, but also reifies the effect of a neoliberal economy and a nonliberal state.
As the primary logic of contemporary membership, citizenship frames—both positively and negatively—the social positioning and experiences of all people, including those denied juridico-legal inclusion in illiberal states like the UAE. The experiences of Indians in Dubai highlight some of the assumptions embedded within citizenship as a category of modern belonging as it is approached through anthropological and other scholarship. While Benedict Anderson and others have argued, for example, that nations as ‘‘imagined communities’’ rely on the production of the other to national identity—the exteriority of the nation—citizenship studies remain for the most part about the various technologies, discourses, and practices that produce differentiation within the interiority of the nation-state. It is equally necessary, however, to address how citizenship also occurs in the encounters between that which constitutes the inside and the outside of belonging in modern nation-states. Citizenship is not determined primarily from within individual states, but, more importantly, outsiders to the state also define both sovereignty and the parameters of citizenship as a contemporary logic of membership and as what Hindess calls a ‘‘regime of government.’’ This is particularly true in the case of non-Western and postcolonial states, which are increasingly subject to external definition by unequal systems of global capital and ‘‘development,’’ direct intervention by stronger nations, and NGO-ization. Because the fissures, unevenness, and multiplicity of sovereign power are often more evident and openly contested in these contexts, they are especially vital sites for exploring the contemporary workings of citizenship, sovereignty, and the state. Thus, the UAE, as seemingly exceptional in its state formation and citizenship, is actually a rich ground for exploring citizenship and sovereignty and for challenging the normative analytical frameworks through which scholars have thus far approached these concepts.
Indians in Dubai, both in relation to the Indian state and to the scholarly literature on transnational migration, do not fit easily into the category of diaspora. As Avtar Brah and others have argued, the concept of diaspora is not applicable to every journey, every group that travels, every movement across or within borders. What is notable about diaspora, she says, is that “diasporic journeys are essentially about settling down, about putting roots ‘elsewhere.’” Since that “elsewhere” is usually achieved in the diaspora scholarship through voluntary migration and naturalization in Western countries, liberal forms of citizenship become the ends through which diasporic subjectivity is operationalized. Indians in Dubai challenge this normative understanding of diaspora in many ways. First, they both have and have not “settled.” They have formed specific communities that are and are not distinct from India. They are and are not hailed by the Indian state’s recent efforts to include its diaspora in the nation. They are not a minority population, yet they exist in a racialized and economic power hierarchy with those who are considered native. And, perhaps constitutive of all of these conditions, Dubai is in several ways not “elsewhere” due to the histories of power, migration, and cultural exchange across the Indian Ocean. In addition, two of the hallmarks of diasporic identity in the academic literature—nostalgia and hybridity—are largely missing from the narratives of Dubai Indians. Thus, the scholarly approach to migration as a rupture that leads both to nostalgia for “homeland” and enculturation into “hostland” is not adequate for understanding Indians in Dubai and their experiences.
Indian communities in Dubai are entrenched as well as transitory, maintaining constant connections to India while also thinking of Dubai as home. Indians experience Dubai not as a hybrid elsewhere, but as a space infused with Indianness and not fully distinct from the subcontinent, and this is particularly true of the Indian-dominated neighborhoods in old Dubai. India is generated and lived on a daily basis in old Dubai, as is evident in the texture of daily life within its neighborhoods and in how these spaces are—and are made into—distinct sites of urban citizenship. The movement within and between places in old Dubai constituted forms of Indian community and identity for my interlocutors. In its neighborhoods, residents (including myself) regularly spoke South Asian languages, consumed South Asian products, operated within the unpredictable temporality of what many of us jokingly called Indian Standard Time, and participated in South Asian social and cultural activities. Old Dubai was therefore experienced, despite the state of permanent temporariness in which foreign residents lived, as an extension of India. Its neighborhoods were largely familiar and comforting spaces for the Indians who lived, worked, and socialized there. Dubai’s proximity to South Asia and the ubiquity of South Asian peoples, products, and cultural events, combined with its luxuries, higher standards of living, and increased cleanliness, led many to characterize the city as “a clean Bombay” or “India’s westernmost state.” The narratives, affects, performances, and experiences of Indians in old Dubai produced what Roger Rouse has called “an alternative cartography of social space.” My interlocutors often conflated old Dubai with all of Dubai and the UAE while also adamantly referring to the newer parts of town as foreign spaces, in effect pushing against the recentering of the city that had taken place over the previous ten years. The day-to-day world-making in these neighborhoods both blurred the line between Dubai and India and pushed against the more hegemonic national and international narratives of the cultural, geographic, historical, and demographic nature of the emirate.
[Excerpted from Impossible Citizens: Dubai`s Indian Diaspora, by Neha Vora, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. For more information, or to order this book, click here.]