Syrian refugee narratives and post-nationalism in the era of covid-19

Our species has been on the move throughout its evolution. Combined with our ability to adapt to novel environments, it is a key factor in our global success. We truly are all immigrants but we cannot ignore our need for cultural identity. If our main cultural identifier was membership of the swirling stream of humanity the problems of cultural conflict would fall away. This may be a pipe-dream, but unless we move more rapidly in the direction of what has been termed post-nationalism, our species extinction awaits. Sadly the pandemic has seen national borders turned into impenetrable barriers and global consensus appears a mirage. But unless political leaders agree on a global strategy the covid-19 virus will continue to dominate our lives.

The call for international solidarity to combat global heating has been undermined by nationalist arrogance but the more immediate threat of a virus ignorant of borders may add the impetus for a post-national future. As the U.S has discovered, simply banning foreigners from an infected region is not the answer. Arguments over migration, identity, climate change and pandemic control will become more interrelated. Artists may now seek new ways of representing the migrant story although its essence remains timeless and universal: escape, journey and arrival..

Escape

War, famine, poverty, persecution, genocide and disease have always driven refugees from their homelands who take their stories with them. So it is fitting that an artwork offering the most eloquent testimony of this experience does not rely on spoken accounts or any direct images of the devastation. The four minute film, Wonderland (2019) by Turkish artist, Erkan Ozgen presents us with the ferociously energised dumb-show of a thirteen year old deaf and mute boy, Muhammed, whose extraordinary powers of kinaesthetic expression transmit his experiences as a Syrian war refugee with shocking clarity. His urgent desire to recount the traumatic episodes from his past is also conveyed by his intense off-centre gaze fixed on Ozgen standing out of view beside his camera. It is only in the closing seconds when Muhammed’s story reaches is gruesome climax that he stares directly into the lens to confront us with his helplessness and our own complicity. This work needs to be recognised as one the most powerful anti-war statements of the current century.

Journey

The migrant journey has been mined by many moving image artists as is evident in the many blogposts on the site that reference this theme. An interesting take on the issue is presented in Juan delGado’s moving and poetic black and white film, Altered Landscapes. The unseen distressed narrator tells of his ambivalence about leaving Damascus (“this is where I belong”) but he is impelled by the search for a loved one. We share his view of the windswept landscape he is passing through. Littered with detritus, (plastic streamers in the trees, a comb in the grass) these poignant indicators of the transitory and improvised lifestyle of the refugee are arresting because of the absence of the migrants themselves. The images are often fleeting and it is this that packs the emotional punch. The first frame (the only one in colour) is the view of a city at night from the surrounding hills evoking the romanticised Hollywood image of L.A. This contrasts with the final sequence in which archetypes of razor wire and lorries confront migrants and Eurostar travellers alike as they reach Calais. But is this the end of their journey? The second of this sequence in a planned trilogy of films is currently in production. Titled In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun, delGado’s film will track the experience of the next stage, arrival, in the snowscapes of Sweden. Like Ozgen, delGado has an impassioned political purpose to his work which includes the founding of the website, Qisetna dedicated to preserving Syrian culture among the diaspora.

The artist Juan delGado and a still from his film Altered Landscapes (2015). Courtesy of the artist

Arrival

Arrival in the host country is not simply a narrative of resolution. The conflict between integration and conserving a cultural heritage is a common theme. Isaac Julien’s film, The Leopard (2007) inspired by Visconti’s 1963 film of the same name, explores the plight of migrants arriving on the coast of Sicily. It includes two memorable images offering contrasting scenarios of hope and tragedy: the foil covered body of a drowned migrant on a beach alongside tourists sunbathing and an African carried aloft by a group of helpers through the sumptuous rooms of a Sicilian palazzo.

Migrants’ right to move will come under even greater scrutiny in the era heralded by covid-19. Racist paranoia will stoke the myths of foreigners bringing disease. Personal, cultural and geographical barriers may harden as fear of contamination increases while economic and health care inequalities will continue to drive migration. Caught between these conflicting forces, the migrant’s voice will still need to be projected through artworks and campaigns. The charity Global Justice’s graphic information leaflet does this with admirable concision.

With much of the world population under enforced lockdown, we now share the experiences and emotions of the migrant: increased fearfulness, isolation, uncertainty and lack of control. State surveillance and constraints in our freedom of movement are likely to be with us for some time. I can only hope that this communal trauma will enhance our empathy for them.

Image of Muhammed, a Syrian refugee, from the film Wonderland (2019) courtesy of the artist.

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