It was November 2018 when I received an email from fellow medical anthropology colleagues putting the call out to meet the caravan of migrants then converging on the border in Tijuana. I had just learned that I did not have a tumor in my ovary. The temporality of my illness truncated my present, unhinging my psychic boundaries, and the pain I felt at the imminence of death transformed to desire, to need, movement. The blueprints of my life were in the process of becoming radically redrawn and with them, a new, shifting horizon presented itself before me. Move! Avoid either stasis or the incorporation of my pain as a kind of despair. Avoid repetition! I thought about the courage, forged in a context of need and utter desperation, of the people in the caravan currently heading north, who were collectively insisting on and enacting their right to move, to be in motion.
As a Yemeni-American woman, I learned that movement is conditional. Growing up, I experienced the familiar social and economic obstacles to education as a first-generation woman of color. Our only trips abroad were to Yemen. The world was not our oyster. Our families were insular and feared institutional and state backlash as many had witnessed the instability of several civil wars. Moving through space required other bodies to host you. Like the way only when a body dissolves does the ocean elevate it. Moving, giving, and hosting are measured rather than denied.
Charity operates on a radial model in Islam. As a Muslim, you are obligated to give to the less fortunate in your family, then to your extended family, then to your neighborhood, and then to the larger community. This outward radial graduation corresponds to the Prophet’s wisdom that good deeds are incremental, just as good habits. More broadly, good deeds are formed incrementally, thereby curbing the urge to act in ways that are ultimately exaltations or boosts of ego. The key is to act with an ever-generous restraint, thereby avoiding disillusionment on the path toward The Good and The Good Enough.
If I wanted to work with the migrant caravans, then, I had to relocate, move myself. Migrant caravans converging on Tijuana were at that point more proximate to me than those navigating the Mediterranean or traveling through Jordan, Amman, and Turkey in order to land somewhere—a would-be home. What is a home, when land belongs, but we belong nowhere?
Before traveling to Tijuana, questions of migration and refuge had turned my own world upside down, for reasons also beyond my control. When my own return to Yemen to conduct dissertation research on the soul and illness in medicines in Yemen was curtailed, I felt stuck. As war raged in Yemen, I traveled instead to the nearby Jordanian city Amman. My plans had quickly come unraveled, however, during the summer of 2016, when I found myself passport-less after attempting to travel to Jerusalem, which denied me entry. My sudden, personal dip into statelessness and border denial made me newly legible to the refugees I was working with in ways I could not previously have imagined. It is against this backdrop and fear of borders, inhospitality that I found myself traveling, more than a year down the road, to the Mexicali border.
I was nervous to travel to Tijuana, infamous as it is in the popular imagination for being an illicit, party-centric border town. Preparing to go, I thought back to my time in Amman, how I had wondered while I was there how refugees and migrants were managing to secure shelter and sustenance in this city, one of the most expensive cities in the Middle East. There, an influx of refugee and migrant populations coexisted with an air of despair and hopelessness that hung heavy over the city’s residents, as an increase in taxes and soaring unemployment sunk everyone to the ground. Tijuana also serves as a city of refuge, for American deportees attempting to start over, or even, to return to the United States. The weekend I was there, heavy rain had emptied the streets and pushed merchants to close up shop, and the bars and clubs to recede. As we walked the empty and abandoned streets, I asked myself—in a city marketed for medical tourism, with a burgeoning hipster restaurant and coffee scene, and consumer tourism—what are refugees to do? Where were refugees able to fit? Where I fit, for that matter, was also a difficult question, as I failed to articulate exactly what had brought me here.
At the US-Mexico border in Tijuana, I waited in line at the crossing to hear how many people were set to cross. A Cameroonian woman waiting for her number to be called stood by my side. Scratching warts from the bed bugs in the house she shared with other Cameroonians, she explained she was renting a house from a Tijuana resident, unlike the bulk of those in the migrant caravans who resided in makeshift camps. Noticing my surprise that they communicated with each other in English, she explained that they all spoke different dialects and English was a common language. As she hesitated, holding back from broaching the subject of the political and linguistic divisions that had initially displaced the Cameroonians, she suddenly burst into tears and covered her face. I stood still and nervously wrapped my arms around her. Recovering, she expressed a wish to call her family stateside to reassure them.
[Central American migrant reading names of those will cross the border that day from a list managed by migrant volunteers.]
Before traveling to Tijuana, images had been rapidly circulating of US border police tear gassing caravan migrants near the border. For those of us on the other side, both intimately aware and blind to the violence that secures our everyday, these images accompanied a familiar, projected fear: our physical boundaries are in need of reinforcing. (As though this might save us from our own internal, destructive drive). I was struck by the familiarity of the scene: like in Amman, Turkey, and the Mediterranean coastline, migrants in need of urgent aid were being sequestered, moved, relocated whenever they got too close to any one border. Camps were made to be just as uninhabitable—if not more so—than the conflict being fled.
Refugees in Amman found themselves in the same boat. Amman was an unfamiliar space that felt familiar. When I arrived in the summer of 2016, I was perplexed by a city that was at once multinational and isolating. Sidewalks were non-existent. Walking was never an option except in the old city (balad), where one can find old shops and staple landmarks. Very little public space existed, however, outside of the old city. No sight of public parks except the bird park that admits Arab nationals for a dollar—three for foreigners. The park was located in the heart of Shmeisani, a neighborhood which many can barely get in or out of due to recurring, heavy traffic. The blockage is intentional as this was the original neighborhood for upper-class Jordanians. The rest of the city is divided into seven circles that run through old neighborhoods, including Jabal Amman and Jabal Weibdeh. These old mountainous neighborhoods were being gentrified, a change most readily apparent in the hipster cafes and restaurants marketed for expatriates. Neighborhood residents took advantage and started renting their spaces for the extra income. Migrants and refugees, meanwhile, were squeezed out to the periphery near the university and outskirts of the main downtown.
[Sweileh, Amman, Jordan]
Seeking to build relationships and find community, I initially prayed in mosques, but soon stopped, having encountered only the silencing, cold stares of residents. Outside of mosques, there was very little public space where people might gather for a communal gathering. In Amman, I came to learn, community is forged almost exclusively through familial relations and their extended networks.
In search of a space to pray while at the mall one day, I stumbled across what I had been looking for elsewhere, in the elusive public space I was used to. This was where people were gathering to socialize: often unable to afford the exuberant mall prices, they nonetheless escaped cramped living situations by coming to sit together in its cafes, usually after having met in the mall’s prayer halls. Noticing my sulking around, a woman in one of these small circles invited me to sit down. When she recognized my mother’s family name, I was instantly deemed safe to enter their social circle. Even amongst trusted friends, politics were off the table. Women swapped stories about their terrifying housing situations, their inhospitable neighbors, or overbearing landlords. At other times, they exchanged information on the resources available to them, like how to add one’s name to the waiting list for UN refugee agencies. No one disclosed the specificities of where they had come from, as locality would implicate them in the ongoing civil conflict, making them dangerously legible to the others in the circle. Civility in the mall required anonymity, a weak if crucial bulwark against a displacing terror. A hot topic was the Muslim Ban as it was being freshly rolled out. (Would I even be allowed back into the United States? They wondered aloud, concerned for me).
[Mall café in Amman, Jordan.]
In Tijuana, when I introduced myself to Central Americans as Yemeni, they asked if I too were seeking refuge. Not only did they know about Yemen, its current state amidst the conflict (something beyond the awareness of the average American), but extended their sympathy for my family. With every Honduran, Guatemalan, El Salvadorian, Haitian, and Cameroonian I met, I thought of the refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Malaysia, Djibouti, and Egypt hoping to move and expand or even reflect with ease.
[Police clear out Benito Juárez camp.]
As I stood outside of the cramped Benito Juárez camp, my gaze transfixed on the armored trucks and tank looming up before the wall, I sensed how the wall functioned to disarm the former buoyancy of a collective mobility. In its shadow, what was collective now became reduced, atomized, an individual transgression rather than a political act. On guard to thwart any attempt at collective marching, the Mexican border police formed human walls in order to deter the (mostly Central American) caravaners from ever reaching the border crossing. All that was left for the asylum seekers—many of whom had already begun contemplating a return home or a precarious sojourn in Tijuana—was to listen to the voice descending over them from a megaphone, announcing the numbers of those select few who had been chosen to cross over, given the opportunity to enter the country on the other side. Even then, nothing is promised.
[Human wall formed by police prevents Central-American activists from marching to the US-Mexico border.]
What I witnessed in Tijuana was a repetition; I had already seen a close version of it in Amman. While I was there in the summer of 2016, hospitality and its associated practices were dying. I met refugees and migrants who described the experience of hostility and indifference toward their presence as a choking of their nafs, of the self, the soul. This was opposed to the expansion they remembered in prior configurations of neighborly relations, the greeting and hosting of their desires, whether for refuge or a carton of milk. They mourned the loss of a shared space of breath. Many refugees are not seeking to inhabit others' space unbound; they do not want to extend their tentacles to spaces not their own. What they want, rather, is to move beyond the freshly created open-air prisons that await them at the end of their long journeys. Prisons, whose boundaries shift rapidly, mirroring and extending the ones they first fled.
[El Barretel night club facility turned migrant camp after Mexican police transported Central American migrants from the Benito Juárez camp.]
Many Jordanians I met that spring and summer communicated a sense of impatience about the flux of refugees filling Amman from nearby countries (many migrants intended to remain in the city, while others were passing by to reach Turkey or the Greek islands, still others just seeking momentary refuge). There were little neighborhoods filled with Yemeni and Syrian refugees, West Africans, with many struggling to find inhabitable space. (This is in addition to Palestinian refugees, for whom Amman has served as an interim home for many years.) Many refugees’ visa extensions were denied, and some refused to reside, undignified, in the Arab world. These are places that they once considered an extension of home. I witnessed refugees and migrants stranded, feeling unwanted, undesired, and rejected. Locals considered Syrians to be haughty and entitled, while Yemenis were thought to be good and subordinate laborers. Many of the recent refugees that I met, seeking a dignified life, contemplated a return home they knew might end in death.
This willingness to again face the famine, instability, and/or aerial bombings associated with their former homes puzzled me. In time this came to seem less mysterious: it was, after all, the same courage leading them to seek refuge that also allowed them to contemplate a return. The movement of the soul in such times, its constriction and expansion, leads one to evaluate anew one’s position and stasis. The transformations in our own everyday lives that are triggered by our experiences of illness, grief, or socio-economic conditions are only a small, more mundane example of how we agentively reevaluate, make room to expand. Refugees are not passive. They do not seek our pity. In pursuit of expansion, we all move, we all seek refuge, some more than others.
Among the more famous travel accounts by an anthropologist, Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss relays the waning days of the possibility for encounter with the other as a form of transformation, the magic of travel. Lévi-Strauss’s trials in his own fieldwork and melancholic introduction to the loss of bygone days of real journeys, is all the more moving to read in these days of the Muslim ban, and more broadly the rightist monoculture, felt across the globe—which, left unchecked, would deport all the immigrants, end all migration. The very tactics that forged the world we inhabit today, the violence unleashed so that the world could be produced in the image of the civilized, ending the possibility (for all but a select few) of freely roaming this earth in search of self-transformation, are now being turned inward. Having fashioned the world in our own image, we no longer can transform by exposure to the world. We have lost the magic of travel. No longer a matter of movement, transformation is rather understood to work through internal and racial purification.
Lévi-Strauss has an answer for xenophobia: the search for magic.
Under extreme duress, psychic borders unravel, diminishing our capacity to relate to or even excise our own other, that which resides within. While political borders perform the dubious function of demonizing the unknown and placing great value on its casting out, psychic limits are necessary for all, especially for those experiencing extreme violence and barren places. For limits make possible the ability to relate to one’s self or another. Amongst those of us who enjoy immense privilege in traversing various borders, while at the same time acquiescing to keeping others out, they are an essential corrective. Those who are made to flee have had their limits transgressed. The sense of unboundedness and transgressive nature of some, in the name of security and sufficiency, has proliferated the violence of others’ homes. As a result, people are fleeing spaces, seeking new boundaries and new borders to allow their souls to rest and attest, to relate to their desire for expansion. The migrants in these caravans are in search of boundaries and borders where they may breathe, in need of occupying new spaces in order to realize their potentiality.
[Central American migrants singing and recorded 1 December 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico.]
There is nothing romantic, then, about the migrant experience. There is nothing inherently empowering about starting over. It is another struggle of one’s soul for a glimpse at a horizon, fueled by the desire for life, postmortem. We have little to offer those fleeing from violence, but our own lack. What this struggle demands of those not subjected to this trial is a recognition of its ferocity; it demands respect. We have reified the necessity for physical borders, as the looming failure of the state is underscored by the wish for more—taller—walls.
My first visit to the Benito Juárez camp in Tijuana was interrupted by a call from my analyst, which I had scheduled, but forgotten. I began to weep, “I know I have been trying to understand why I am stuck and have not been able to write. I think I understand why these migrants are stuck. It is why I am stuck too.” I stood there explaining to my analyst that just as the migrants’ collective energy brought them north, the presence of the armored truck against the wall paralyzes.
When you block our view of the infinitude of the horizon—that is, beyond the wall—you break our will.