Bordered Imagination

What is strange about the stranger? Do we really see her face or do we only see our own imagination? By using the metaphor of prosopagnosia (face-blindness), this essay interrogates the racialised gaze through a creative focus on seeing and unseeing.

Shahram Khosravi

Asked with various intentions, but always in the same bordering and othering tone. A question that does not require an answer, as it is not a question, but rather, a statement, a declaration; where are you really from?  The question is addressed to one who is already in. Rather than a simple act of exclusion, the question aims to keep the other in their place in terms of the social hierarchy. It excludes the one who is already included. Where are you from! is posed to remind one that one’s foreignness is neither forgotten nor forgiven. It is a reminder that one will not accommodate oneself as just a citizen, a member of society like anyone else. The question aims to measure the degree of foreignness; to evaluate, to calculate, to conclude. It targets those who will never elude being seen as foreigners. As if the strangeness is carved on their bodies. The darker your skin, hair, eyes the more often the question is asked. Not an enquiry about geographical locations, but a declaration of race.  It has no expiration date. It lasts as long as your skin colour.

Where are you from? is an interrogation demanding confession. A confession of the unforgivable sin of being on this side of the border. Are you a refugee? Are you fleeing from the law? Indeed, refugee and fugitive etymologically share same root in Latin, fugere.

This is the question that should be posed by the person who is asked:

Where am I from?

From which part of your fantasy and imagination do I come?

The reverse question discloses the fact that the stranger is always an extension of us. It unfolds the fact that Where are you from? is more about colonising imagination than about satisfying the questioner’s curiosity. Therefore, a politically and morally responsible answer to the question cannot be other than: I am not from anywhere but you.

The other is watched but unrecognised. Rather than being invisible, the other is actively unseen

Prosopagnosia, is a Greek word, a combination of prosopon, which means face, and agnosia which means ‘not knowing’. Also called face blindness, prosopagnosia is a disorder that causes inability to recognise faces, even familiar ones. Those who suffer from prosopagnosia look but can’t see the faces of people. I use prosopagnosia as a metaphor to assert that the gaze involves not an innocent act of seeing but a way of knowing that determines who is seen and who is unseen. One of the most notable aspects of seeing is racial. Those who suffer from face blindness may be able to recognise people based on other cues, such as clothing, hairstyle, skin colour, voice, or accent – in other words, types, stereotypes. A face-blind gaze exposes the other to a gaze that does not see her as an individual but reads her as a type. A prosopagnosic gaze reduces a whole into parts. The other is watched but unrecognised. Rather than being invisible, the other is actively unseen: exposed to a conscious act of exclusion from the domain of recognition. 

I use prosopagnosia metaphorically as a will to unsee. Exposed to the prosopagnosic gaze, the other is made faceless, i.e. denied an individual, personal, unique face. She is deprived of the right to singularity and also the right to political visibility. They are everywhere around us but we unsee them; the homeless, the poor, undocumented migrants, street kids. Needless to mention that unseen-ness has consequences in terms of access to social and political rights.

Otherness is about the senses. To be un/seen and un/heard. Several years ago, I was invited to give a lecture on migration to teachers in a school in a Stockholm neighbourhood. After finishing my one-hour talk in Swedish, I asked the teachers about their thoughts on Swedishness. Suddenly, I was mentioned as an example of a non-Swede. I asked why they did not see me as a Swede. Many agreed with a middle-aged woman who said: ‘Because you don’t speak Swedish.’ I had just given a one-hour talk in Swedish, and yet, my speech did not qualify as a language. Those who do not want to recognise my face as familiar do not hear my words as familiar either. What were those words in their ears? If not Swedish, then it was just noise. Let me compare this scene to another one. Once, on the bus when I was speaking Persian on my mobile phone, an elderly man told me, ‘We speak Swedish here!’ While speaking non-Swedish I am considered awkward, and when speaking Swedish, I am considered as unspeaking. Unlike Emmanuel Levinas, who believed that ‘speech cuts across vision’, meaning that the face is always recognised through language, a Fanonian approach shows that the opposite applies in the context of race; ‘vision cuts across speech’. The other’s face is unseen and thus, her words are unheard.  When one is deprived of speech, what will remain of one’s place in the community and of one’s citizenship?  Racism is the continuum of vision cutting across speech.

What is inexplicably strange is not when the other dies at the border, but rather when she does not. She is not supposed to survive.

Prophets and philosophers claimed that the face of the other engages and obliges. With face comes responsibility. The face of the other calls for an ethical conversation, commanding not only ‘thou shalt not kill’, but also you should not let the other die alone. Once a person is denied a face, her life can easily be turned into death. With no face, life is not counted, not considered lived.

The media representation of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ along the European borders is also based on face blindness. We usually see large crowds of people squeezed together in wagons, boats or makeshift camps. The images show a constant absence of visible faces, and a constant presence of vehicles, tents or boats packed with de-named and de-faced racialised bodies: a mass, a package of bodies, representing crises.

Ironically, when the other is dead, her face is revealed to us. Travellers without papers, robbed of their face while living, become visible to the rest of the world when dead. Death gives bodies washed up on the shores of Europe – suffocated men, women, old and young – a visibility they did not possess when alive. Death qualifies the unqualified. Death re-faces the de-faced.

What is inexplicably strange is not when the other dies at the border, but rather when she does not. She is not supposed to survive. ‘But they did not kill you,’ said a British migration officer to an Ethiopian asylum seeker. The officer wondered why the Ethiopian authorities had not killed him when they had the opportunity to do it. Not being killed indicated a lack of credibility. If they had killed the applicant, he would deserve asylum, but then he obviously could not come all the way to Europe to seek asylum. An Afghan asylum seeker got a similar comment from a Swedish migration officer when he was describing the torture he had been exposed to in prison: ‘But the torture apparently was not very severe because you survived.’ And in an asylum interview in Denmark, an Iraqi woman who was talking about receiving death threats was told by the officer: ‘You are alive now. You have not yet died.’ The burden of proof lies on the asylum seeker who should bring evidence to prove why he or she is still alive.

Tell us exactly why you are not dead!

The regime of looking but unseeing is an old technique to regulate the bodies of undesirable groups.

The other is unseen while, paradoxically (or maybe not), being exposed to a demand for total transparency and knowability. Strangers, be they border transgressors or racialised citizens, are deprived of a human face, while everything about them is screened, simplified, documented and explained. A complex apparatus of illuminating otherness is at work, from bureaucratic paperwork in the form of passport, visa application, or asylum process, to bodily visual documentation in the form of fingerprints, biometric data, dental or bone x-rays for the age assessment of asylum seekers. All to render the other transparent and knowable. The answers to where are you from? are thus crucial to understand; not in the (the sense of sympathising but rather in the sense of grasping, getting hold of. It means to dominate. The other shall stand under. The violence embedded in the question lies precisely in the repressive demand of under-standing. Racial privilege gives the questioner/interrogator the authority to command the other to be knowable. This under-standing is a matter of police and policing.

Tell us exactly how you think!

The desire for standing above the other requires visibility. A horizontally penetrating gaze that demands transparency and nakedness.  The penetrating colonial gaze stretching over time and space, from the horizontal gaze of American drones over the occupied lands in the Middle East, and surveillance by algorithm, to the EU asylum fingerprint database (Eurodac) are all eyes upon eyes to enable the coloniser to penetrate into the lives, souls and bodies of others. Assemblage of eyes upon eyes, creating a monster similar to Argus Panoptes, a 100-eyed monster in ancient Greek mythology, targets blacks, the poor, Jews (then) and Muslims (now). A racialised body should be easily distinguishable, observable, traceable. The regime of looking but unseeing is an old technique to regulate the bodies of undesirable groups. From the Lantern Law in the late eighteenth century in New York, which required all slaves to carry a lighted candle when going out at night, and the red letter ‘J’ on the passports of German Jews in the first half of the twentieth century, to screening every step taken by Muslims in the early twenty-first century – all are more than acts of control. These are, in Simone Browne’s words, techniques for illuminating otherness.

The violence embedded in the demand for understanding is revealed in the terminology. To understand means to comprehend, a verb that is synonymous with verbs such as to apprehend. The word apprehension means arrest and seizure. Another meaning of to comprehend is to realise, meaning to give form and to actualise something. The other becomes ‘realised’ in the process of the demand for understanding. In other words, she becomes a reflection of the coloniser’s own fantasy and imagination.

What are you?

Are you your fingerprint?

Are you your passport?

The Martinican cultural theorist Édouard Glissant has identified the demand of understanding as part of the colonial project for transparent universality. For him, the ideal of transparency is a Western project rooted in modernity, to reduce, categorise, and hierarchise, in order to understand and comprehend the other. Against the coloniser’s demand for knowability, Glissant claimed opacity as the right to resist. The right to opacity is the right to refuse being understood on the coloniser’s terms, to not stand under. Refusing to be under-stood and resisting the demand of transparency, remaining incomprehensible, entails potential for action and offers the potential emergence of subversive subjectivities. Opacity is the weapon of the subaltern. Not answering where I am from, wearing veils, keeping ‘unpronounceable’ names and ‘incomprehensible’ accents, forging passports and visas, destroying passports before arrival, fabricating stories and lying about age or ethnicity in order to get asylum, all are forms of subaltern resistance through imperceptibility. Opacity and the refusal to satisfy the authorities’ demand, generates a sense of paranoia among the colonisers who cannot under-stand, and therefore keep asking:

Where are you from?

How could you arrive? 

Why are you not dead?

The presence of the stranger reminds us of a past we do not want to remember, and of a possible future we do not want to imagine.

Prosopagnosia is not only a strategy for active unseeing, but also for active unremembering. Not remembering faces that morally and ethically should be remembered is an evasion of responsibility and accountability. The presence of the other on this side of the border evokes a sense of the uncanny. In his essay The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud used the German word ‘unheimlich’ which means both uncanny and unhomely, to explore something that is strange and familiar at the same time. The uncanniness of encountering the stranger comes from the fact that she is a part of the self that has been concealed and repressed. The presence of the other at the door triggers uncanniness and unhomeliness because she unearths and unmasks what has actively been unseen and unremembered. 

Early in the afternoon of May the 8th, 2019, people who were in the departure area of the Budapest International Airport witnessed several police officers dragging a woman towards a gate to put her onboard an airplane for deportation to Kabul. She resisted and screamed words, which historicised a potential future for many of us: ‘One day you will be refugees too, like me, and that day you will remember this day.’

The presence of the stranger reminds us of a past we do not want to remember, and of a possible future we do not want to imagine. Facing the face of the other, like the woman at the Budapest airport, makes us imagine a tomorrow that can come true. The annoying uncanniness of interacting with the stranger is because we are then forced to confront the fact that the stranger is no one but us.

Shahram Khosravi is a former taxi driver and current Professor of Anthropology at Stockholm University. Khosravi is the author of the books Young and Defiant in Tehran (2008); The Illegal Traveler: An Auto- Ethnography of Borders (2010); Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran (2017) and the editor of After Deportation: Ethnographic Perspectives (2017), but he prefers to write essays and stories. He has been an active writer in international press and is currently working on an art book on Waiting. He is cofounder of Critical Border Studies, a network for scholars, artists, and activists.

Photograph: Kostas Papadakis