ANTHROPOLOGY / HISTORY
Noxchi Eat Galnish
Today, we are having galnish. My dad, giddy like a child, teases my brother and I, while laughing at YouTube videos and simultaneously WhatsApping them to his friends, accompanying voice note explaining why exactly the video is funny. We all love galnish; I loved it more as a child, when I didn’t have to help clean up the kitchen afterwards. But I confess, there is something special about helping my mother out in the kitchen. Intuitively, I know what utensil to hand to her before she asks, or when to give her the salt or to check that the heat isn’t too low or high. I feel useful, and hungry.
Garlic, heavy salty bone broth, steaming pasta-like galnish and tender lamb: the way to any Chechen’s heart. Nothing feels more like home than galnish heaped high onto plates, with thick broth served in earthy mugs on the side. The galnish are skewered onto a fork, two or three at a time, and dipped into a garlic sauce which stays in the hollow center of the galnish. The slightly chewy texture of the galnish, the spice from the garlic and the hearty broth create a pleasant fullness and comfortable warmth in the stomach.
The meal is not even ready yet, but we are aware that for the next week, the garlic smell will linger. It will stain our hands, clothes, breaths. Just like a cloud of hotpot smoke stalks you home, or the stench of burnt popcorn persistently haunts dorm kitchens, anyone whose food demands submission to olfactory power knows there’s no point in trying to conceal the … fragrance. You learn to embrace the acridity, and possibly, love it in secret because it will mean you have eaten well.
Rolling galnish on a Saturday morning.
Photo by Anita Shishani
Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Abu Dhabi. I will find it in Paris during my semester abroad and wherever else I live after that. Galnish is delicious, yes, but it represents something deeper. Holding on to such ancient traditions is open defiance against three centuries of attempted colonisation of the “free people” in the Caucasus, oppression that includes Joseph Stalin’s horrific mass deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan from 1943-1957, which the European Parliament declared as a genocide in 2004. Speaking Chechen is becoming harder and harder with subsequent generations of diaspora dispersing across the globe. Thus, cooking galnish is the most powerful way for Chechens to reconnect with their homeland.
As my mother recounts her university days in the nineties, I peel the garlic. Apparently, all the residents in the Moscow State University dorms instantly knew when Chechens were cooking – when the smell of crushed garlic seemed to invade the entire city. But the Chechens did not shy away – they owned it. This smell became a vital link to a home that, at the time, was being bombed and depleted of every source of sustenance.
Chechnya’s situation has changed but the largely unwelcome scent of garlic has not. And neither has our food, which is still trailed by a potent odour. This stubbornness mirrors our love for our shared identity, and how confidently Chechens identify themselves as such, especially as a minority in Russia, where garlic in cooking is used with much less gusto.
Living mainly in the mountains, Chechen tribes used to perceive snakes as a serious threat, and believed that smelling like garlic would help deter the slithering predators. The garlic represents our national pride in that it does not come from a place of arrogance, but rather self-preservation and communal protection. The Chechens at my mother’s university were a diaspora, one of many navigating potentially hostile environments, such as their university or Moscow in general.
Unfazed by outsiders, they focused instead on the beauty of their culture, despite it seeming dangerous, or unwarranted, or unbelievable to those around them. They played eshars on car radios at full blast, did the traditional dance, lezginka, in the metro, and they ate galnish. Many Chechens were forced to leave their home, but they refused to bow their heads or allow themselves to be belittled.
Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles,
I turn the stove on as my mother kneads the dough with assured pride. Making galnish counts for me as a religious process, partly sanctified by childhood sentiment and partly due to the awe I feel when watching someone make dough. The biblical example of Jesus transforming water to wine does not seem so far-fetched after having witnessed someone take flour and water then miraculously make a wholesome meal out of it, seemingly from thin air. I let the dough set. My mother rolls every fat little finger of dough into a gal. I imagine how many generations of women have cooked this recipe with their daughters.
Dinner is ready – after hours of preparation, when the chefs (read: women) are all but about to collapse. We begin by serving the eldest guests. Respect for our elders is a cultural cornerstone, which could also be gleaned from seeing me trying to watch television at a relative’s house. Every time someone older than me enters the room, I must jump to my feet and wait until they are seated or I have been told to sit down. Although resembling an unnecessary exercise to the untrained eye, it is actually a traditional exercise of memory. It demonstrates the value we place on respecting our elders.
Respect also extends to our ancestors and their struggles. One difficulty that we thankfully no longer face is famine. It was not that long ago, however, when a working man’s daily wage included a mere glass of milk and crust of bread, as my grandma recalls. Or when under Stalin, my great-uncle remembers working at a flour mill, no longer able to bear his neighbours’ starvation. He ended up stealing all the flour and bread he could, and distributed it in his community, for which he was imprisoned for twenty years. The struggle of our ancestors is given the utmost respect, which can be witnessed in our kitchen. The traces of dough that form on our wooden table are scraped off with a knife and added to the rest of the flour – not a single speck is wasted.
Memory is important. Our language has been butchered, the books burned down and land-mines placed in our mountains; the construction of collective amnesia is centuries in the process. We hold on to whatever we can. Such as the story of Chechenits, a Chechen painter who was raised by a Russian general after his family was killed, the boy who despite his bizarre upbringing and lack of memory about his roots, held onto the threads of his identity, renaming himself Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenits. Chechenits is the Russian word for the Chechen; my last name, Shishani, also has the same meaning in Arabic.
When I was little, I would wish off the fuzzy dandelion heads, before blowing away the seeds to scatter elsewhere. I often feel that my family and other waynakh are like those wispy white dragonflies, having been blown to different corners of the world. One way back to our roots is though our food.
I am finally seated. I look around the table and I am grateful for what my parents have taught me about what it means to be Noxchi. I dig my fork into the galnish and dip into the garlic sauce. The first bite is always the best; a wave of doughy goodness and warmth . We enjoy the taste, but there is also a sense of responsibility within – to eat it often, and to always remember where we come from.
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Narrativizing the Refugee
Chiran Raj Pandey
Caroline Brothers’ s Hinterland, which follows the lives of two young Afghan boys who are refugees from their country, is an uncomfortable novel. There is something disturbing about the way it has made me suddenly conscious of my own body. Two brothers, Aryan and Kabir, are forced to work in a farm in Greece, or swindled again and again by those who promise them safety, abused, lost, or shivering. Both are young, too young to have to be so old and daring, too innocent to be victim to an ugly and tyrannical history.
Brothers has taken on a difficult task. Refugees define the crisis of our times, and as civil war, famine, invasion, disease, and climate change continue to escalate, so will the refugee crisis worsen. Brothers, who is also a journalist, is much too familiar with the terrible conditions in which these people struggle to live, sometimes just to survive. Her task, from her many years of experience reporting about refugee children in Paris, Greece, and other capitals of the world, is, in her own words, to break “news of Europe’s invisible child refugees on the front page.” Her novel breaks that news on every page; every moment in this novel is striking; every part of Aryan and Kabir’s journey is important; and when we leave Kabir in England at the end of the novel, we know that so much has to be written, still: life could hardly end here.
To write about people who are so far removed from our own lives is always difficult. Immense research must go into it. The love and empathy that one must build, slowly and over a lifetime, for people who one has encountered always from a safe and innocent distance — the work is daunting. History, too, must be dealt with: one need only turn their eyes to Afghanistan for a moment to be blinded by the intensity of its past. Violence has accrued over generations, and it carries the various brands of the white world: America, England, Russia. Local brands are available, too: the Taliban, often a distant but formidable presence in this novel, are responsible for the deaths of Aryan and Kabir’s entire family. I wonder if there were such times, when Brothers was writing Hinterland, that this history proved to be too much for one individual to write about. But I am quickly reminded of the courage and trust in life that the two brothers must have had, to shoulder such a history and then dare to leave it behind.
To write about people who are so far removed from our own lives is always difficult.
There are moments in this novel that find me wishing for more: more courage, perhaps, on the author’s part, to confront history, or to find ways of narrativizing the refugee’s struggle for survival that are less interested in being coherent, or even readable, to attempt to reimagine the entire landscape of a form such as the novel, which seems ill-suited to address life when it is spinning at full-speed inside a destructive washing machine. Consider the English of the book. How are two brothers and their acquaintances, who likely barely speak the language, employing idioms that would have been foreign to their tongue? Phrases such as “Don’t worry, it’s not like we don’t have time,” or “You lost people in your family too, didn’t you,” or “You’re the only real family I have left” seem like awkward simulacra of Hollywood films. They appear out of place in this refugee novel, like old Hong Kong movies dubbed in English. I regret that the author refuses to be attentive to silences in such moments. Things said in the privacy of the camps, things that this author must have misunderstood, those things lost in the vast horizon of translatability — all seem somehow narrativized, sanitized even, for the sake of the novel.
I sit upright. My back hurts; I have been here for almost two hours now. How easy it is to be comfortable, I think, how easy it is to forget now that the novel is ended. Is literature as powerful as one would want it to be? Perhaps in the refugee’s ongoing conditions of captivity and fugitivity, speculation and narrativization are terrifying forms of violence. We abstract, when we read about Aryan and Kabir, from the specific experiences of particular people. Speculation requires us to profess control. In narrating, we draw the paths their lives will take. I can only wonder if there will ever be a different way to write this story. There is much work to be done.
Chiran Raj Pandey is the managing editor of Electra Street and a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.
Author Caroline Brothers will speak at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on September 10 at 6:30 p.m.
FILM AND NEW MEDIA
Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video
“A total and complete dipshit.” That’s what Barack Obama seemingly called President Trump when he appeared in a short clip for BuzzFeed Video’s YouTube channel in April 2018. Here was a sharp gibe, uncharacteristic of the ex-President. Except, as Jordan Peele’s appearance soon revealed, it wasn’t Obama who was speaking. Instead, a vocal impersonation had been layered over a computer-generated image of his face – one which moved to eerily mimic the words being said. Here was a new genre of fabricated video, where pre-existing visuals of a targeted face are inputted into a create a realistic reproduction that can be manipulated for the creator’s ends. A deepfake.
While some people noticed that something was off about the way Obama looked and sounded, many others were initially fooled or at least confused by the clip. The incident demonstrates how good the generative algorithmic subset of the artificial intelligence used to create a deepfake is. And, scarily, the machine learning processes that help synthesize them are just getting better and more accessible, progressively requiring fewer source materials and extending to manufactured voices too. Every day, it becomes easier to forge people. And these forgeries can damage individual lives (as in cases of targeted pornography), but can also pose risks on the global-scale by undermining public trust in information sources generally considered to be reliable.
Jordan Peele’s Obama deepfake on BuzzFeed Video.
Today, we’re at a point where experts are playing catch-up to identify what’s real and what’s not. When the Gabonese President appeared to the public in a video-address to quell reports about his ill-health on New Year’s Day 2019, for example, many citizens and critics questioned its authenticity. A definitive answer on whether or not it is a deepfake remains elusive. And yet, its uncertain origins spurred a failed coup a week later. In any other time in history, a recording would be undeniable proof of something, just as the photograph had promised at its inception. But human innovation has transformed yet another medium of communication for the worse. What Photoshop did to photography, deepfakes do to film. And suddenly, a source and sphere of information is heavily compromised.
No doubt, deepfakes are a tremendous feat of human intelligence, showing how much of what we perceive can be influenced by others. Their rapid proliferation also represents the wonders of a democratized digital world. However, in developers’ quest to enhance our ability to control older audio-visual technologies with more sophisticated tools, they create dangerous, false information that threatens society. This is because people either believe a fabricated product and are influenced negatively by it, or they don’t and turn skeptical towards all products, losing their trust in the institution of production itself. Essentially, this maps onto the idea that people make decisions based on some collection of information, but deepfakes delegitimize a fundamental mode of information-collection.
There is a strong connection between this and the value of trust in our lives. In Trust in Society, Karen S. Cook notes that “trust plays a significant role in the functioning of social groups and societies,” and also links trust to order and stability. Trust is foundational to relationships within and with an organized collective. In a sense, we need to trust people and institutions to both preserve ourselves, and the democratic society we inhabit. If lost, instability and a loss of connections ensue. For example, in a simplified hypothetical, if you called the police while your house was getting burgled and they did not show up you would suddenly doubt the institution that promises you safety in a city. Repeated failures would make you lose faith in the promise of security implicit in many societies today. You might move to a different location, and definitely buy yourself a weapon for protection. In short, you would try disentangling from one area of your interaction with society.
Now, as people who turn to the media to locate ourselves in a social space, we are strongly influenced by the books we read, the songs we hear, and the news we view. A newspaper is a good source of information about a politician’s opinions, a voice recording of her is better, but a live feed of her saying something is closest to the best basis for trusting that she actually said it. Why? Because our eyes and ears combine to form the primary points of input for our experiences, and short of actually interacting with people face-to-face, videos are the best simulations of “being there.” That is not to say that skepticism and critical thinking are not important to being educated consumers – we should question the truth and implications of a politician’s position. But, historically, we could distrust an equivocator without qualms about the way we heard her hedging. Our faith in the medium remained.
The moment we reach manipulation technologies like deepfakes, however, a gateway into a world where no one can ever know if someone said something or not opens up. Suddenly, our trust in social institutions of communication begins to evaporate.
Hence, lawmakers in America are scrambling to regulate deepfake technologies. Why, inductively, notable figures across science and programming are worrying about the numerous ways artificial intelligence could harm society. Because they have the potential to fundamentally alter our experience of reality on an unprecedented scale, with unbelievable speed – in fact, the term “deepfake” is only a few years old and the technology has only existed for five years. And the fear everyone has of progress pursued without conscience or broader consideration is amplified in the interconnected present, where rapid, mass consequences arise from limited, specialist development. It is the same fear that made Plato distrust the memory-weakening potential for writing in Phaedrus or the Luddites destroy the job-stealing industrial machines – that of the price of progress. For technology to change lives, it must bury the way life was once lived.
Deepfakes, on a philosophical level, destabilize the trust in truth essential for us to know things or even believe in our ability to know things. They give people the power to make anyone say anything. And if anyone can say anything, then we might as well say nothing at all – or stop listening, at the least. Because a functioning society needs people to trust people. It needs some truth. And that is getting harder to find with each passing day. In this sadder sense, deepfakes are a natural extension of the post-truth world of alternative facts, a rabbit-hole that goes all the way down to artificially intelligent robots that can look like your favorite pop star or a notorious demagogue, spewing hate or inciting violence in-person. A sorry sight indeed. Regardless, it is unlikely technology will slow down. Between progress and the past, we only look back, never turn.
In such tumultuous times, the only way to resist a breakdown of social order is to build defenses. Governments should incentivize the development of programs that identify deepfakes, the masses must be educated about the existing misinformation threat, and corporations must invest in checks that filter potential fake content before it goes live. The end goal is a practicable ethical framework that preserves people’s faith in the institutions of communication. We must fight the good fight, or risk losing it all.
Karno Dasgupta is a student at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.
FILM AND NEW MEDIA
What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between the categories of “work” and “labor.” She differentiates between two types of human worker: the “homo faber who makes and literally ‘works upon’” and the “animal laborans which labors and ‘mixes with.’” In this conception, work is the creation of some product “which outlasts its own activity and forms a durable addition to the human artifice,” while labor “needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain within the human world at all.” Arendt concludes this meditation on the nature of work by arguing that art, in her opinion, is the most durable creation that humans can make, and thus the best form of work
How then, might Arendt classify work done by someone like Jing Zi, a young Chinese woman whose job is to live stream herself for 7 hours a day? In a 5-minute documentary video about her done by Noah Sheldon, Jing Zi goes through the motions of her typical content. She puts on makeup, plays with cute video filters, sings karaoke, and eats lunch that one of her fans ordered in for her. The woman is an employee of a media company in Beijing, that hosts other live streamers like her, and provides them with individualized filming sets and promotions in exchange for a percentage of the profit. Jing Zi regularly makes more than 10,000RMB ($1454) a day. Try using Live stream by Go Live to share your creations and more.
In fact, Chinese live streaming is one of the world’s fastest growing industries: in 2018 the number of users reached 456 million people and Deloitte valued market at $4.4 billion. The Chinese are dedicating their time, love, and money to their favorite streamers in extents that are unfathomable within the Western framework of internet celebrity.
Hannah Arendt in the classroom
Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University
In the West, internet concept creators often follow the “influencer” model of internet celebrity. They post some content on a variety of internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and attract a large following of people who engage with their content through comments, likes, and shares. None of these interactions, however, directly earn money for the content creator. Instead, their stream of income is usually a combination of merchandise sales, paid subscriptions on platforms like Patreon, and sponsored advertisements, in which companies reach out to them and provide a flat rate per post based on the number of followers.
Chinese live-streamers, while also trying to amass a large following and often working with advertisers, are in a very different position. Their main source of income is directly built into the platform: viewers during a live stream can buy “gifts” for the streamer, which appear as little animations on the screen in real time, and are purchased with actual currency deposited onto the app account. The streamers tend to respond to the gifts in real time, engaging with the users who pay larger sums and thanking them directly. In some platforms, there are added benefits, such as gaining the host’s contact information after reaching a certain monetary threshold in gifts.
“Live Streamer” is a short documentary by Noah Sheldon, exploring the industry through the example of live streamer Jing Zi.
Incomes of the most popular streamers can reach over $100,000 dollars a month, and even the less successful hosts earn many times the average salaries of college graduates in China. Many of these internet celebrities originally come from the working class, but through their popularity are able to obtain rich and lavish lifestyles. Their situation is in stark contrast to the rest of China’s population, as there is very little social mobility in terms of wealth, as the working class do not have the same educational and professional opportunities as the wealthy, who have stayed rich for generations. In fact, many of these working class viewers even impede their financial prospects, as they donate significant portions or even the entirety of their salaries to their favorite live streamers.
This seemingly irrational behavior is caused by the desire to keep one of their own rich, since the working class audiences are well aware that they could never reach those levels of financial success themselves. Furthermore, they are drawn to the live streams to feel less lonely: the changing economic and geo-social makeup of China, especially through increasing urbanization, has left many young people disconnected from their families and communities, and isolated in large but lonesome cities.
The live streams are an attractive form of escapism: hosts mostly stream boring content, like eating on camera, chatting, or simply going about their daily commute. Nonetheless, in some cases viewers tune in for up to 8 hours at a time, spending their entire day in virtual company with likeable hosts.
This particular medium, however, is very unique compared to other popular forms of internet content. Live streams are transient: the video is not recorded or uploaded for potential later viewing, all that exists is the here and now. In Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, Crystal Abidin writes that such “always-transient content” is “largely motivated by the followers’ cultivations of perpetual ‘FOMO,’ or the ‘fear of missing out.’” The immediacy creates a sense of exclusivity, and heightens the effect of virtual connection between the audience and the hosts.
Can Arendt’s conception of work and labor be applied to this occupation? Live streams do not have inherent market value or practical use. Instead, they are an evolution of other kinds of internet visual content (pictures and videos), which can be viewed as art and are often judged to aesthetic standards that resemble the approach to artistic products. In this case, lack of usability can also be viewed as proof of artistic status. However, the transience of live streams complicates this category. While the hosts technically create something new, the durability lies not in the content itself but in the audience that the content generates. The direct product, the stream, gets consumed in its very process of creation. There is no “true reification,” so this supposedly artistic project becomes a labor process of toiling every day on the clock, the live stream both becoming the means to an end and an end itself that must be repeated ad infinitum.
In this vein, the categories of “labor” and “work” appear insufficient. Perhaps, we should take the new types of vocations that the internet has brought about, such as live streamers, seriously. A different conception of work may be in order.
Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
The Power of Caroline Brothers’s Novel Hinterland
Zoe Jane Patterson
The street is dark. You pull your scarf a little more tightly around your neck, and glance around, hoping your destination—a popular bar—is close by. This is Paris: there’s a train rattling on the bridge overhead, a man stumbling across the street, and a café where people smoke and talk around outdoor tables despite the cold. Maybe you’ve bumped shoulders with him outside the metro, or maybe you crossed a silent street to avoid his faceless figure, but if you stay in Paris for long enough you will encounter him: the refugee.
The short and singular story of refugees fleeing across Europe has been widely distributed by journalists and activists to spread awareness about their situation. There are countless refugee statements and photographs of derelict shelters peppering newspapers and social media feeds. Most articles take five to ten minutes to read. In them we encounter a nameless other, whose situation is sad and far away. Then we sigh and continue scrolling. This story is so prevalent that we have been made numb to it, and the people who live through it have been stripped of their individuality. The overwhelming number of facts have made them into nothing more than their terrible circumstances, but nobody can empathize with a statistic.
Hinterland by Caroline Brothers tells a story that a newspaper article simply cannot. It is a known fact that there are unaccompanied refugee children travelling through Europe, traumatized and vulnerable. They are only known to most people as numbers, that is until we travel with them — a feat that is only possible through fiction. The novel form allows Brothers to introduce complexity and individuality to the refugee story: the boys feel joy, have dynamic relationships, and harbor aspirations for the future, which is true for everyone, but is left out of journalism for the sake of brevity. By returning these untold truths to the well-known refugee story, the novel helps the reader to regain the empathy that has been lost in a sea of facts.
The novel takes the reader across Europe with two brothers from Afghanistan. Fourteen-year-old Aryan and his little brother Kabir travel from the border between Turkey and Greece all the way to Calais. The boys are robbed and cheated, Kabir is sexually assaulted, and they are haunted by the deaths of their family members and the fear of deportation. When they are in Paris, Aryan asks Kabir what he would tell their family in Iran about the journey so far, if he could send a message to them. “I’d tell them about the puppies and that we got new clothes and that soon we’ll be going to school in England.” Kabir chooses to remember and relay joy. He plays with stray puppies while he and his brother are doing forced labor in Greece. While he is homeless in Italy, he meets an Iranian-American couple and they buy both brothers new clothes and train tickets to Paris. When Kabir looks at the sky in the city of lights, he feels hope for a future where he can go to school. There is no room for glimmers of joy in an article that takes five minutes to read, but these moments humanize Kabir and Aryan. Their happiness is punctured by abuse and trauma, rather than their identity being reduced to the abused and traumatized.
Kabir and Aryan’s identities are defined and made more complex by their relationships with Afghanistan, a topic that only a novel has the breadth to tackle. Kabir asks Aryan if he is still an Afghan even though he left the country when he was four.
“Of course you’re an Afghan. I’m an Afghan, you’re an Afghan, our family is from Afghanistan.”
“But if someone asks, I can’t tell them what it’s like. I can remember more about Iran and Istanbul and this farm than Afghanistan.”
Despite the violence and loss that they’ve experienced in Afghanistan, the boys still feel connected to it, and defined by it. Aryan tells Kabir about home and their parents as a way of defining himself. “In that way, each becomes the keeper of the other’s identity … Sometimes he feels he could float off into space like an astronaut tethered neither by orbit nor gravity.” Without a nation or a family, Aryan would lose his entire sense of self. He has lost community and security, and feels that if he cried out, his voice would be met by the empty vacuum of space. The boys’ history and their country are part of their identity. Hinterland reminds the reader of the importance of home, and the trauma of losing it.
Hinterland reveals Aryan’s deepest thoughts and feelings about himself and his home, and we are reminded of the specificity of each individual’s story by knowing him intimately. Aryan is treated as an individual in Hinterland, but he is still part of a much larger issue, which is made most clear when he and Kabir make it to Calais. Countless refugees arrive there, having crossed Europe only to encounter a kind of outdoor prison. The refugees in Calais cannot make it to a safe haven in England, but are pressed up against its border because of a hostile Europe behind them, and nothing to return to at home. The further Aryan and Kabir make it into Europe, the more hope they have that they will eventually reach safety. “Where on their journey was it that they had stopped fleeing and started running towards a future, no matter how indistinct? Yet all that time, they were only getting closer to a wall. The harder he runs up against it, the more he feels his courage fray.” Aryan and Kabir’s journey towards freedom and safety has been fraught with violence and fear, but now, on the last leg of their journey, they can’t go any further and are powerless.
Having travelled with them, the reader understands how impossible it would be for them to return home, when there is no home left, and the hostility that surrounds and corners them. Whether you read about this situation in fiction or in a piece of journalism, eventually the question becomes—what can I do? And what can policy-makers do? The failure in quick pieces of journalism to answer these questions kills empathy because readers can simply say, well it’s not my problem. Hinterland not only fosters empathy by taking us on the brothers’ journey, but also attempts to answer these questions.
The novel most deeply criticizes the treatment of refugees in France. Through the simple questions that the children ask about their treatment, it unravels these policies and points out their absurdity. At a makeshift camp in Calais, Aryan is teargassed while he’s asleep. He asks another refugee boy what is going on, and he’s told that the police teargas the camp every night. “He doesn’t understand how they could have become a target. They are not warriors and they don’t have weapons—they are on the run from those very things.” Aryan’s disbelief becomes the reader’s. This act of cruelty is pointless, as are many of the actions that take place in Calais. The police also take refugees’ firewood and shoes, and through Kabir’s conversation with his friend Hamid, the novel concisely portrays the flawed logic behind these actions.
“Why did the police keep those guys’ shoes?”
“To make it hard for them to walk back,” Hamid says.
“But why would they make it hard for them to walk back?”
“So they will go away.” Kabir ponders Hamid’s answer for a moment.
“How can they go away if they don’t have shoes?” Hamid’s laugh has a hardness to it that Aryan doesn’t recognize from before.”
One clear answer to the question of what policy makers should do about refugees is to stop torturing them, to ask why they would want to live in these conditions if they had any alternative, and to react to their situation with empathy rather than cruelty and violence.
The novel also answers the question of what the individual can do for refugees. While the average person may not have the power to write new policies, or change immigration laws, Hinterland does reveal how ordinary people affect the brothers on their journey. Aryan and Kabir encounter an Iranian-American couple in Italy, who feed the boys, and buy them new clothes as well as train tickets to Paris. The novel demonstrates how ordinary people can use their privilege to make things slightly better for the people who are suffering. At the end of the novel, Brothers writes about the origins of Hinterland. She states that she wanted to “somehow give these kids a voice, so that people, if they came across them in one of our great world capitals, would at least have some understanding of who they were.” If we do nothing else, the novel asks us to really see refugees when we encounter them, not as symptoms of a problem or emblems of a statistic, but as individuals.
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
An Upturned Bucket List
Reading Caroline Brothers’s Hinterland
For some, this string of glamorous capitals might be a bucket list of places to visit, but for others it can trace a much uglier reality. Kabir and Aryan, two young, recently orphaned brothers from Afghanistan, recite these names to each other while on the run. It is a mantra, in that it is made up of equal parts desperation and hope.
The route materializes itself in the world of Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’s debut novel Hinterland. The brothers are only fourteen- and eight-years-old – just children. Fleeing the Taliban in Kabul, and the consequent shattering of their family, they are political refugees in search of an English education. They carry two sets of clothes on their backs at all times, scraps of food, little money, and no papers. The novel opens with them enclosed within the jaws of a truck, carrying them to the fantasy of Europe. I am reminded, eerily, of the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, titled Men in the Sun. Three Palestinian refugees arrange, with intense difficulty, to get themselves smuggled from Iraq to Kuwait in order to escape their camps and find employment. They hide in a water tank in a truck travelling across the desert. Upon crossing the last checkpoint, the story ends, only to find their dead bodies spilling out of the overheated tank. The men had died at the final moment. It was a grim reminder of the difference between life and narrative; one could be controlled, while the other had no obligation to ever reach catharsis, but simply falter, like breath, in the middle of a sentence.
With this foreboding thought, I continue to read about Kabir and Aryan, continue tracing an invisible finger across the map – KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. Over an arduous winter, the brothers work as laborers on an anonymous farm in Greece. They are not paid, barely eat, and suffer violences to their bodies and minds in ways that children should not have the faintest conception of. They carry on. In Italy, they retch on their own fear while confronted by the police, paperless and ill-equipped in every possible way for a reality so mammoth, it dwarfs their small existences. They carry on. In Calais, they endure the even more powerful, lingering pain of waiting. Waiting for some kind of resolution. In a sense, they too are in the heated tank, travelling across Europe towards some salvation.
The journey is speckled with small moments of tenderness – a haircut from an Afghan wife in a corner of Rome. Fresh clothes, hot pasta, and a train ride to Paris from an Iranian-American couple, found, by some magical luck, speaking Farsi on their trip abroad. The innocent stirrings of desire on an overnight train, while catching the soft, occasional gaze of a girl sleeping across from Aryan. These are moments of ordinariness, illuminated not by their normalcy, but by their scarcity; the whole novel unfurls in the same calm, slightly detached, plain prose.
It makes sense then that Caroline Brothers is primarily a reporter. Hinterland is her attempt at casting a more empathetic, “human” light on her lifelong journalism on migrants. Based in France, she has conducted hundreds of interviews with child refugees, trapped in their own versions of Kabir and Aryan’s journey. It becomes, quietly, more horrifying to realize that Hinterland is only fiction to the extent that it embellishes upon what is, for thousands, everyday and real.
While studying in Paris for a semester, I once found myself, along with two friends, lost on the way to a bar. Google Maps directed us to a large, pulsating establishment by the waterfront of Bassin Louis Blanc, deemed one of the ‘hottest nightlife spots in the city.’ But we were confused, stopped in our tracks by a … smell. Two rats scurried by. We fought the urge to flee. It stank of stale bodies, disuse and urine. Right next to the bar, thronged with the ‘bobos’ of Paris, the hipsters and underage, overdressed teenagers with beers in hand, was a large muddle of tents. Bodies moved within them, shifting imperceptibly, carrying on as usual, unnoticed if you didn’t stop and really take a closer look.
“Is it a slum?
“They’re all brown…they must be immigrants.”
“Why are they partying next to a slum?”
“Do you think they could be gypsies?”
“Does nobody care?”
Over the next few weeks, under eventual daylight, the sun fell on the truth: we had stumbled upon a refugee slum. In the middle of Paris, next to one of its most popular clubs. A few return trips yielded conversations with the slum’s inhabitants (mostly Afghan), a million questions, immigration papers waved in our faces, pleas for help in French, English, Urdu, and ultimately, fruitlessness. One of my friends left Paris to end up writing a lengthy, sensitive article about how she had tried to capture, in words, what she had experienced upon finding such a place, about her desperate attempt to twist a story out of the conversations and shine some kind of light on the refugees’ plight in Paris, and, more widely, on the larger crisis of migrants coming into Europe.
Beneath Hinterland is buried the body of a huge political argument. One that asks us to take a closer look at the tents. What are the nuances of our border policies, our hot debates on migrants, our thousand little stumbling blocks of bureaucracy, xenophobia, fear, corruption, that place children like Kabir and Aryan in a refrigerated tank bound for England?
“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon,” Aryan asks Kabir to repeat, in the novel’s final scene, again in the mouth of a truck. I am taken back to one of the Afghan refugees in Paris appealing to me in Urdu: “Please, you’re from India. Our countries are brothers. You have to help me.” In that moment, I too became infected by helplessness. “SloveniaCroatiaGreeceItaly …” he rattled the mantra off with practice. “I’ve gone everywhere to be here.”