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The Shame of Arrival

If it can be allowed that the passport is a kind of book, then the immigration officer, holding a passport in his hand, is also a reader. Like someone in a library or even, in the course of a pleasant afternoon, on a bench beneath a tree. Under the ˛uorescent lights, he reads the entries made in an unfamiliar hand under categories that are all too familiar. He examines the seals, the stamps, and the signatures on them.

He looks up. He reads the immigrant's responses to his questions, the clothes, the accent. The officer's eyes return to the passport. He appears to be reading it more carefully. He frowns. Suddenly he turns around and tries to catch a colleague's eye. It is nothing, he wants more coffee.

You notice all this if you are an immigrant.

Let us for a moment pretend you are not. Imagine you are drinking your coffee in the cafe close to your place of work. You notice that the woman who is picking up the cups and then stooping to wipe the ˛oor is someone you have never seen before. She is dark but dressed cleanly in the gray and pink uniform of the employees here. You smile at her and ask if you could please have some more cream. She looks at you but doesn't seem to understand you. You realize she doesn't speak English. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the first thought that crosses your mind is that she is an illegal immigrant in your country. But you don't say anything, you get up and ask someone else for the cream. You smile at her, as if to say, See, nothing to be afraid of here. She probably doesn't smile back. It might or might not occur to you that she doesn't know how to read your smile.

Standing in front of the immigration officer, the new arrival from Somalia, El Salvador, or Bangladesh is also a reader. When looking at the American in the cafe who addresses her--asking her, perhaps, if she wants to have coffee with him--the immigrant reads an unwelcome threat.

If we allow that the passport is a kind of book, we might see the immigrant as a very different kind of reader than the officer seated at his desk with a gleaming badge on his uniform. The immigrant's reading of that book refers to an outside world that is more real. The officer is paid to make a connection only between the book and the person standing in front of him.

The immigrant has a scar on his forehead at the very place his passport says that he does. For the officer this probably means that the man is not a fraud. For the immigrant, that scar is a reminder of his childhood friend in the village, the one whose younger sister he married last May. Or it is likely he doesn't even notice the officer's glance. He is conscious only of a dark weariness behind his eyes because he has not slept for three days.

The officer reads the name of the new arrival's place of birth. He has never heard of it. The immigrant has spent all of the thirty-one years of his life in that village. This difference in itself is quite ordinary. But for some reason that he does not understand, the immigrant is filled with shame.

My attempt, as an immigrant writer, to describe that shame is a part of a historical process.

Part of that process is the history of decolonization and the presence, through migration, of formerly colonized populations in the metropolitan centers of the West. What has accompanied this demographic change is the arrival of writers and intellectuals from, say, India or Pakistan, who are giving voice to experiences and identities that Western readers do not encounter in the writings of Saul Bellow or John Updike.

But a crucial part of this narrative and its self-interrogation is the emergence of the discipline that can loosely be called postcolonial studies. Based most prominently in literary and cultural studies, but often engaged in conversations with older projects in the disciplines of history or anthropology, postcolonial scholars have made their task the study of the politics of representing the Other. This has meant, to put it in very reductive terms, not simply that there are more of those people speaking and writing today who are a part of the populations that were formerly solely the object of study by Europeans; it also has meant that a fundamental questioning of the privilege and politics of knowledge has made any representation problematic. There is now no escaping the questions "who is speaking here, and who is being silenced?"

A recent book by an anthropologist, T. M. Luhrmann's The Good Parsi, notes these two aspects, though its general discourse holds the hint of a reluctance to accept the wide-ranging implications of these changes for anthropology, a discipline that had been, after all, given shape within the broader history of imperialistic control of other societies:

Throughout the human and social sciences, in the writing of fiction and history and music, there is anger about those who speak for others. In the academy women are hired to teach about women, African-Americans are hired to teach about African-Americans. Hispanics about Hispanics. Names like Prakash, Suleri, Mani, Bhabha, not to mention Appadurai, Narayan, Tambiah, Obeyesekere, now dominate where names like Cohn, Singer, Bailey, and Dumont once held sway. Gayatri Spivak denounces the principle that only like can speak on like; knowledge, she says, emerges through difference. But her answer to the question "can men theorize feminism, can whites theorize racism, can the bourgeois theorize revolution?" is "yes but": "it is crucial that members of these groups must be kept vigilant about their assigned subject positions . . ." Her "must be kept vigilant" is ambiguous but has an ominous ring.
It would be a truism to state that these changes are not purely academic. Indeed, even in the more everyday world of travel, the writer who registers outrage or shame is different from the one of the days of yore. This difference is clear even when the one who has taken the place of the imperial traveler is a writer like V. S. Naipaul--renamed "V. S. Nightfall" by the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott--whose often contemptuous espousal of the bourgeois Euro-American viewpoint has been severely critiqued by numerous writers. In Naipaul's narrative, exceeding his expression of personal anger or shame in his last book on India is the attempt to delineate the silence of those who have suffered under--and, in fact, have been erased by--the sentence of imperial history.

In India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul recounts the experience of reading in the Indian city of Lucknow a book by William Howard Russell, a British correspondent for the Times. The book is entitled My Diary in India in the Year 1858-59. Written during the Indian Mutiny, the book reeks of death and plunder. Among the details of the burning bodies of the sepoys in their cotton tunics are the retellings of the looting at the hands of the British soldiers. From the sacking of Kaiserbagh in Lucknow, Russell himself got a piece of the loot ("a nose-ring of small rubies and pearls, with a single stone diamond drop"), though he lost the chance of acquiring an armlet of emeralds and diamonds and pearls because he did not have on his person the 100 rupees in ready cash demanded by a soldier ("Russell's money was with his Indian Christian servant," and he "heard later that a jeweller . . . had bought the armlet from an officer for £7,500"). Naipaul writes that these details "enraged" his Indian companion, Rashid, an inhabitant of Lucknow. But Naipaul also notices that Rashid and he are not identical readers of the historical text: they are positioned in different histories. Russell's book delivers divergent tales to its two present-day readers.

Russell had described Lucknow before its destruction as "more extensive than Paris and more brilliant. . . . Not Rome, not Athens, not Constantinople, not any city I have ever seen appears to me so striking and beautiful as this." Today, in the place of the gardens of the past, are hotel buildings and the embankments shared by black buffalo and the colored garments laid out to dry. When Naipaul distinguishes Rashid's nostalgia and pain from his own, he identifies with those who, rather than being displaced from their moment of glory, actually passed from a kind of silent ignominy to unnoticed oblivion:

Rashid grieved for the wholeness of the Lucknow world he had been born into, the world before partition. This world would have had elements of old Muslim glory: the glory of the Kings or Nawabs of Oude, and before them the glory of the Moguls. There was no such glory in my past. Russell's journey from Calcutta to Lucknow lay in part through the districts from which, about 20 to 25 years later, my ancestors migrated to Trinidad, to work on the plantations there.
The India that forms the core of Naipaul's concern is described by him as "the lesser India." This was the India "only glancingly referred to, [and] always assumed." Those who made up the lesser India "went on working during this time of war, working in the fields, constructing fortifications, clearing away corpses, looking for positions as servants: an India engaged without ever knowing it, in subduing itself."

I do not want to see in that kind of unknowing the definite traces of the barely explicable shame that I attributed to the immigrant face-to-face with the customs officer. But I do want to posit as one of the concerns of postcolonial writers the desire to address in their writing, and not without a measure of self-reflexivity, instead of the pride of the victors, the less readily readable structure of feeling of those who did not deliver commands to history. Here I echo, with the distortion implicit in all echoes, Ashis Nandy's question to modern Indians who have mimicked the imperialist's respect for the martial Indians but not the "effeminate" ones: "Why have they felt proud of those who fought and lost, and not of those who lost out and fought?"

I was living in a part of Brooklyn populated by Arab migrants when the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 provided the U.S. media an occasion to point all its accusing fingers at "Middle Eastern terrorists." While "experts" provided biased and also baseless opinion (the one at CNN averred, "It's clear, I think, that there must almost certainly have been a foreign origin to this, and probably one in the Middle East, although, of course, I have no facts to confirm that yet"), Arabs were conspicuously absent from the media panels on the bombing. (An enterprising ABC reporter decided to correct this imbalance by interviewing a British citizen who spoke of the effects of an IRA bombing threat: "Loss of innocence, loss of flexibility, loss of comfort, loss of trust more than anything else." Loss of trust in what, I wondered. In the fighting machine called the British security system? Or, by any leap of imagination, in the prejudice preserved as faith that the Irish are either getting drunk in bars or blowing them up?)

A few days after the Oklahoma bombing, I walked into a store near my apartment to buy bread. The Yemeni store owner had pasted on the wall behind him a photograph from a recent front page of the New York Times. The photograph showed Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, smiling, seated together in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. I asked the Yemeni man why he had pasted up that picture. He began to answer me: "I wanted to show how proud people feel when they're not Muslim . . ." Then his voice choked with emotion, anger overwhelmed him, and he stopped. He fell silent.

What was he trying to tell me? That the Taj, which could of course be described as an example of Islamic architecture, was here being appreciated by folks who didn't hesitate to kill a million Muslims in Iraq? I cannot say for sure. But whatever name we give to that emotion, I could see that it was a pain mixed with rage that made the store owner silent. Maybe it was the fact that the women in the photograph, sitting in front of a mausoleum and with a mosque to the left, looked so happy? And so very different from that pregnant Arab woman who, hiding alone in her bathroom, suffered a miscarriage because a mob in a midwestern American town surrounded and threw stones at her home? All because someone of her faith had been quickly assumed to be the one who had planted the bomb in Oklahoma City?

To conduct postcolonial studies in the American imperium we should be able to take note of, sometimes even to question, but nevertheless to take seriously the rage that makes an immigrant speak and, on occasion, turn to silence. (Or, as in the case of Colin Ferguson, the gunman on the Long Island Railroad, to killing.) In that case, what Nandy says of a necessary reading of colonial history also holds true for the postcolonial one: "While the economic, political and moral results of colonialism have been discussed, its emotional and cognitive costs have been ignored. And as Freud reminds us in this century, what we choose to forget has a tendency to come back to haunt us in 'history.'"

Let me return then to the image of shame. The figure of abjection I choose is again the surrogate Other, the writer-intellectual, a reader of the postcolonial condition, projecting on the screen of history a sense of the Self.

V. S. Nightfall is perhaps not inapt as a name or a description because there is a sense in which the Caribbean writer's presentation of the postcolonial realities is never quite able to extricate itself from the darkness.

Even in India: A Million Mutinies Now, where we get a "kinder, gentler Naipaul" (the phrase is Rob Nixon's), the depression, this time born supposedly out of empathy rather than repulsion, casts its tall shadows. "It is hard for an Indian not to feel humiliated by Russell's book," writes Naipaul after he finally finishes reading My Diary in India in the Year 1858-59. What brings on this sorrow for the modern-day travel writer retracing the steps of the imperial traveler is the realization that during the years of the revolt there were Indians who were utterly without an idea of a wider fellowship:

Just days away from the comfort of Calcutta, he [Russell] is among people to whom the wider world is unknown; who are without the means of understanding this world; people who after centuries of foreign invasions still cannot protect or defend themselves; people who--Pandy or Sikh, porter or camp--following Hindu merchant--run with high delight to aid the foreigner to overcome his brethren. That idea of "brethren"--an idea so simple to Russell that the word is used by him with clear irony--is very far from the people to whom he applies it.
To compound his sense of distress, Naipaul--here identifying himself it would seem as an Indian--writes that the "ambiguity" that the Indian must experience is a part of that feeling of humiliation. After all, had it not been for British rule and the changes it introduced through its institutions of learning, commerce, and government, Indians would not have acquired "a larger idea of human association . . . the ideas of country and pride and historical self-analysis."

Pride? If pride was indeed acquired by the Indians, even if we believe Naipaul's story, why does his prose still remain so abject? But that is hardly even the main issue. The scandal of this experience of shame is that it has no sense of irony. To begin with, Naipaul identifies himself with the British traveler and feels the whiplash of the latter's appraisal. Not for a single moment does his ahistorical self-analysis ever admit another reader of the colonial text. Thus bereft of the presence of the colonized as sentient beings, our writer feels utterly secure in construing the indigenous subject as empty of will, stratagems, subterfuge, or even innocence. Ignorant--if not also disinterested--in the articulations and agency of the subaltern colonized subject, our postcolonial writer takes the unsurprising step of welcoming, in the very next paragraph, the imperial conqueror.

Disgusted as Naipaul is by the spectacle recorded by Russell, Indians "run[ning] with high delight" on the road behind the invading army, he remains insensitive to the ironical fact that he himself has no trouble in following, with great enthusiasm, the British on their civilizing mission. Naipaul congratulates the British for their success at building roads, railways, and, of course, instilling among Indians a sense of country, pride, and historical self-analysis. It becomes clear that when he castigates Indians for their ambiguous responses to the British, the imagined Indian is only an imaginary figure on whose body our writer can peg his own ambivalence. And so it is that what I had earlier called an interest in illuminating the darkness created by colonialism turns out, in the end, to be nothing more than a brandishing of the lamp of Enlightenment, with a bit of pathos thrown in.

Naipaul's brief excavation of history is also an example of what historians have called "elite historiography." It remains self-satisfied in its dismissive writing-out of those subjects of history whose narratives are not congruent with either the imperial history or the history written by the nationalist leadership. It is hardly surprising that a few pages after his paean to Russell, Naipaul is providing an eager ear to an Indian man in his seventies who declares that "Gandhi made us a nation. We were like rats. He made men out of us." (As Bertolt Brecht would say: "Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?") In this deification of Gandhi, and its rapid suppression of what Shahid Amin calls the "many-sided response of the masses to current events and their cultural, moral and political concerns," we witness the repetition of the same reading code: history being given shape by the unified and singular subject, first the British, and then the Indian leadership intellectually formed by the British and, hence, very nearly identical to it. What falls out of the equation completely is precisely what Naipaul had earlier called "the lesser India."

The emotion that Naipaul experiences takes lucid form here, and, certainly, the sense of humiliation he betrays is sincere. Yet he is a bad reader of history. His model reader is still the one who is reading over the shoulder of the imperialist and in his language. The shame that he claims to see in the Indian is a generalization from his own specific class- and culture-based sense of inferiority against a victorious political and ideological system that now claims him as one of its own. (Or so our writer would like to believe.)

I need to revisit and revise the scene at the customs desk. The new arrival responds to the questions asked by the immigration officer. The postcolonial writer, male, middle-class, skilled in the uses of English, is standing nearby and wants to follow the exchange between the officer and the immigrant. Perhaps he wants to help, perhaps he is interested in this conversation only for professional reasons (or both). But for some reason that he does not understand, that he cannot understand, the writer is filled with shame.

The postcolonial writers who are read in the West are mostly migrants. They have traveled to the cities of the West--often for economic reasons, and sometimes for political ones, though it could be argued, of course, that all economic reasons are political too--and in the books they write they undertake more travels.

What makes even a figure like Naipaul engaging for me is that--perhaps because of what he calls his "depressive's exaggeration, or a far-away colonial's exaggeration"--his writing retains the intense appraisal of emotional costs that analysts like Nandy have found missing from studies of the colonial experience. (Of course, I've also been arguing that in Naipaul's case this engagement turns out to mask an identification with the victorious West or with the West as victor.) And it is precisely where the postcolonial writers make their own experiences as migrants and travelers intersect with and reflect on a broader, shared condition of displacement and loss--"the migrant is, perhaps, the central or defining figure of the twentieth century"--that their writing reaches its finest critical potential. It is also, inevitably, precisely at those points that it reveals its limits.

In Amitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land, the writer is a young Indian student in rural Egypt doing research in social anthropology. The book follows Ghosh's archival search for a twelfth-century relationship between a Middle Eastern Jewish trader in India, Abraham Ben Yiju, and his toddy-drinking Indian slave, Bomma. These details are interwoven with the more contemporary relationship that develops between the Indian intellectual and the friends he makes in the Egyptian villages not too far from the Cairo synagogue where for a very long time the papers of Ben Yiju were housed.

Ghosh was only twenty-two when he traveled in 1980 to Egypt. One day, while making tea for two young men in his rented room in the village, he is caught short by an observation made by one of his visitors, Nabeel: "It must make you think of all the people you left at home . . . when you put that kettle on the stove with just enough water for yourself."

This comment, Ghosh notes, stayed in his mind. "I was never able to forget it, for it was the first time that anyone in Lataifa or Nashawy had attempted an enterprise similar to mine-to enter my imagination and look at my situation as it might appear to me." Ghosh, the traveler, appreciates the travel undertaken by his friend, Nabeel, in his imagination. That effort brings Nabeel closer to that place where Ghosh himself has traveled--which is not so much Egypt as much as a place away from home, or from that which could be called the familiar. To be where one is not, or where one is not expected to be, and sometimes not even welcome . . . to travel to that place and write about it becomes the credo of the postcolonial writer.

This movement is not always possible. People are held down where they are, or there are intransigent barriers between them. A shared language is an impossibility. In one of the episodes that Ghosh describes with instructive wit, some older Egyptian men at a wedding in the village want to know what is done with the dead in India, whether it is really true that they are cremated, and whether women are "purified" ("you mean you let the clitoris just grow and grow?"), and boys, are they not "purified" either, and you, doctor, are you? Our writer is unable to respond and flees the scene. The trauma of a childhood memory merges with a shared trauma of a public memory and ties his tongue. Ghosh broods over memories of Hindu-Muslim riots in the Indian subcontinent (present in the narrative of his earlier novel The Shadow Lines):

The stories of those riots are always the same: tales that grow out of an explosive barrier of symbols--of cities going up in flames because of a cow found dead in a temple or a pig in a mosque; of people killed for wearing a lungi or a dhoti, depending on where they find themselves; of women disembowelled for wearing veils or vermilion, of men dismembered for the state of their foreskins. But I was never able to explain very much of this to Nabeel or anyone else in Nashawy. The fact was that despite the occasional storms and turbulence their country had seen, despite even the wars that some of them had fought in, theirs was a world that was far gentler, far less violent, very much more humane and innocent than mine.

I could not have expected them to understand an Indian's terror of symbols.

The name that Ghosh gives to the reality--or, at least, the possibility--of travel and historical understanding is "a world of accommodation." When the young writer and a village Imam get into a fight about the West and its advanced status in terms of "guns and tanks and bombs," and then both make claims about India's and Egypt's respective prowess in this regard, Ghosh confesses that he feels crushed because their heated exchange has most indelibly announced an end to that world of accommodation:

[I]t seemed to me that the Imam and I had participated in our own final defeat, in the dissolution of the centuries of dialogue that had linked us: we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all the others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak, as Ben Yiju or his Slave, or any of the thousands of travellers who had crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done.
But the postcolonial writer need not blame himself here. It is not his debate with the Imam but the might of U.S. armed forces supported by most of the Western nations that rubs out, at the end of Ghosh's narrative, his friend Nabeel--lost among the countless migrant workers in Iraq from countries like Egypt and India, displaced in the desert because of the sudden onset of the Persian Gulf War.

In this scenario, the immigrant does not ever appear before the customs officer in the airport of a Western metropolis. As driver, carpenter, servant, or nanny, the immigrant from countries of South and South-East Asia provides service in the Gulf states of the Middle East and Libya. In some of their cases the passport is a missing book.

Lacking proper documents, and much more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, those immigrants are given the name "contract labor" in the zones of shifting, global capital. In the 1950s and 1960s U.S. capital first attracted foreign labor in the Middle East and today, benefiting from investments of the rentier oil-rich Arab states, still profits from the labor of migrants. And when Western capital's profits were threatened, it was the lives of such migrants, and not only those who were employed in Iraq, that the Gulf War threw into devastating crisis. The postcolonial writer speaking of the migrant worker during the war is doing something rather simple. He is reminding us that the man who said to the foreign visitor in his room one evening, "It must make you think of all the people you left at home . . . when you put that kettle on the stove with just enough water for yourself," is alone now in a distant city threatened with destruction. And that man, when not seen in the footage of the epic exodus shown on television, is then assumed to have "vanished into the anonymity of History."

The migrant laborer might have "vanished into the anonymity of History," but the postcolonial writer clearly has not. By presenting those contrasting conditions, I am making a statement here about class, but besides that fairly obvious fact, what do I say about writing?

To ask a question about writing, especially postcolonial writing, perhaps we need to reverse our reading of the passport as a book and, instead, examine the formulation put forward by Rushdie, "A book is a kind of passport." Rushdie's point is on surface a fairly general one. For aspiring writers--"would-be migrants from the World to the Book"--certain books provide permission to travel. Recounting the history of his own formation, Rushdie pays homage, among others, to Günter Grass's Tin Drum. Grass's great novel, Rushdie writes, served as a passport to the world of writing. But even when writing of the book as a passport in a metaphorical sense, Rushdie is writing about a book--The Tin Drum--that is in a specific way about migrancy and a migrant's sense of place and language.

That is not a universal trait among writers. The trope of migrancy does not exist as a material fact, in either a metaphorical or literal sense, in the writings of Norman Mailer or John Grisham. But it emerges as an obsession in the pages of a writer like Rushdie. For him, in fact, "the very word metaphor, with its roots in the Greek words for bearing across, describes a sort of migration, the migration of ideas into images." Rather than oppose the metaphorical to the literal, it is the idea of the metaphorical itself that Rushdie renders literal and equates with a universal condition: "Migrants--borne-across--humans are metaphorical beings in their very essence; and migration, seen as a metaphor, is everywhere around us. We all cross frontiers; in that sense, we are all migrant peoples."

There is a danger here in migrancy becoming everything and nothing. Aijaz Ahmad points out that exile is a particular fetish of European High Modernism and in Rushdie's case becomes simply ontological rootlessness. And, Ahmad argues, novels like Shame display a form of "unbelonging" and an absence of any "existing community of praxis." If we agree with Ahmad and see the obsessive celebration of migrancy in Rushdie as a mere repetition of the desolation experienced by the modernist writer in exile, we might also sense that the inexplicable shame that permeates the postcolonial writer is only that of being taken as a representative by the West but having no one, in any real sense, to represent.

That is a real, hard-to-shake-off, nagging shame. And what complicates it further is that the writer is aware that while the migrant worker has "vanished into the anonymity of History," the writer himself or herself hasn't. But why has the writer escaped that destiny? We can be reductive and attribute the appeal of a writer like Rushdie or Ghosh only to Western tokenism, and indeed much can be said about the subject even without being reductive. But books written by immigrants or writers of immigrant origins are not merely hollow receptacles for the will of the West. This book that you are holding in your hands has been written in the belief that words matter. Words from an alien language. But also words in a familiar language that attest to different realities: words are our defense against invisibility.

I'd like to imagine the immigration officer as a curious reader of my book. But the officer should not assume that this passport doesn't have any missing pages; indeed, he would be wise to be skeptical even of his own interest. I am reminded of the wary response of Mahasweta Devi, an Indian writer who has earned high recognition for her work among the aboriginal or tribal populations in Bihar and Bengal: "Why should American readers want to know from me about Indian tribals, when they have present-day America? How was it built? Only in the names of places the Native American legacy survives." I take Devi's words as a provocation to present in this book, interspersed with my images from India and other places, the photographs that I have also taken in the United States. (The Other shoots back.) In which case, why only quote Devi? In order to go on with this mapping of a mixed, postcolonial space, I would like to frame these images with a line borrowed from the black hip-hop artist Rakim: "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at."

This is where I'm at: in the spaces claimed or established by these images. These photographs--please see the notes as well as the list of illustrations for more information on them--detail a different kind of immigrant experience. What these images offer cannot be described as "illustrating" any kind of argument; in the image of a woman holding a rubber Miss Liberty, for example, it is for the viewer to construct a story that binds or divides the three female figures in their distinct moments of emergence as objects or subjects. The recording of the difference that I am calling "immigrant experience" also has partly to do with labor and protest. Hence the images of workers and, in some cases, their organized protest, on the streets of New Delhi and New York City. The accompanying narratives, and oftentimes the photographs themselves, raise the question about how these images are to be seen. And from where. As a way of announcing that difference, let me offer at the beginning of this book a photograph that sets itself against the photo of the White House taken by the visiting tourist. This is the photograph of the First House from the viewpoint of the homeless sleeping outside its walls one Christmas Eve.