Citizens and Borders: A Viewing and Discussion of 'The Mapping Journey Project'

Citizens and Borders: A Viewing and Discussion of 'The Mapping Journey Project'

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

More on:


Politics and Government

In conversation with Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Director of the Institute for Transregional Studies at Princeton University, Joseph Carens, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and Bouchra Khalili, the artist behind The Mapping Journey Project, discuss the personal, political, and cultural ramifications of the current global refugee crisis. The speakers also consider how artists are portraying the migrant crisis and shaping the cultural discussion around it and explore how different artistic mediums provide different opportunities for propelling cultural debate. 

MS. : Good night. We’re delighted to have you with us tonight. Welcome to our digital audience as well.

We’re coming together on a very topical discussion. In our world, despite the advances of technology and commerce and enlightened thought, more people are displaced by conflict that ever before in recorded history.

The figures from the United Nations’ refugee report that was released last week are overwhelming; 65 million people have been forced from their homes by political violence and unrest, and that’s not counting people who were displaced by natural disaster. The largest number come from Syria and Iraq, but those places are hardly alone in feeding this exodus. There’s a surge of migrants coming from the Congo, from Somalia, from South Sudan, from Nigeria, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Colombia.

Twenty-five million people are taking refuge outside of their country. And the largest part of this flood are not coming to rest in Europe as the press might have you believe, but in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan and Ethiopia.

Along the way in seeking safety, one in 20 people die. And nearly 100,000 children have attempted the journey on their own.

This is the most staggering global crisis we have seen since World War II, and it’s an existential one, one that calls into question the adequacy of many of our long-held thoughts and ideas, our ideas about welcome, about citizenship, about nation and borders, about Europe itself.

And that seems clear with the shock of yesterday’s news that Great Britain elected to leave the European Union, motivated in large part by a fear of open borders and untrammeled immigration.

But of course, this is not just Europe’s problem, it is ours, too, and I don’t just mean the economic implications of Brexit. I’m thinking about the way that we are subject to the same forces that’s been made clear in Donald Trump’s xenophobic proclamations or this week’s Supreme Court decision about illegal searches that Justice Sonia Sotomayor described in her brave dissent as creating second-class citizens within our communities.

It’s been quite a week.

And in a civic society, artists and writers and other creative producers play a critically important role in helping guide us through these complex situations. They function as seismic sensors of key shifts in thoughts and of barometers of the social and ethical stakes at play.

And that’s what tonight’s conversation is about. It’s part of our Citizens and Borders initiative which is a series of discrete programs that are organized by curators and other program makers across the museum that are joined, offering perspectives on migration, territory and displacement.

The current exhibition of Bouchra Khalili’s revelatory “Mapping Journey Project” is part of the Citizens and Borders initiative. It’s organized Stuart Comer and Giampaolo Bianconi. It’s going to be open up until October 10th.

Another addition to our Citizens and Borders initiative is “Insecurities,” an exhibition that will be opening on October 1st. It’s organized by Sean Anderson and the Department of Architecture and Design and will explore architecture in relationship to global refugee emergencies.

So tonight’s event is cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations which is committed to global literacy, and together with the CFR we welcome an extraordinary group of individuals to our stage, the great artist Bouchra Khalili herself, philosopher and professor of political science and great champion of open borders Joe Carens, Bernard Haykel who is a historian and commentator on political offense, a specialist on Islamic law and political movements.

And I’m afraid that I have some bad news as well, which is the extraordinary writer and activist Samar Yazbek can’t join us because of visa difficulties. She travels on an official refugee status. She has a French passport with an official refugee status and encountered difficulties, and we weren’t able to work through them in time.

But she is very eager to join us tonight to address this audience, and we’re keen to have her, so we’ll have her for a while, part of the program via Skype. And then we’ll bring her back to the museum in the early fall when we can secure her visa.

So that’s a great disappointment, but I’m very glad she’ll be able to join us via technology.

And the run of the program will be that everyone will come to stage. Bernard will begin the conversation with Samar on Skype. The discussion will be about 50 minutes, then there will be time for Q&A, about 20 minutes of Q&A. You have cards in your program, and you can write any questions that come up during the conversation on your cards. And you can also send us questions with the hashtag #citizensborders, and you can comment on the event that way as well.

So thank you all for joining us. We’re delighted to have you and I’m looking forward to tonight’s event. (Applause.)

HAYKEL: Thank you very much for the introduction and for the invitation.

We have Samar here with us. I’m also, being an academic, I got the books. (Laughter.)

And Samar has two wonderful books that we’ll be discussing today, among other issues. The first is “A Woman in the Crossfire” which is a book about her experience at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, and the second is “The Crossing” which is the journey from Syria, out of Syria because of the war.

So hello, Samar.

YAZBEK: (Speaks in Arabic, no interpreter.)

HAYKEL: So I will begin the questions by asking you, the role of the artist in talking about these conflicts, in, you know, being a witness to these conflicts, can you tell us something about that role and in particular drawing from your own experiences?

(Note: Ms. Yazbek’s remarks are through an interpreter.)

YAZBEK: I believe, like, art is against death and against war. Regarding, like, the tragic situation now in Syria, in this situation it was very important to know the identities, the different aspects of the identity of the artist. It could be, like, different, like, aspects. It could be, like, a political activist, and it could be, like, an activist, or it could be, like, a witness for the truth.

One of the most important things that came to me at the beginning of the peaceful demonstrations in Syria around, like, five years ago, I was in the front line at the beginning of all these demonstrations and I was really very keen to try to convey the really two pictures right from the beginning to the media, even when I moved, like, when I went, like, to Paris and then I went back again to the north in 2012.

As a writer and as a cultured person also, I was eager just to be a part of this change. And also in that case, I was just trying to document everything, what’s going on in the north, and also to establish, like, a stable establishment.

I was there in all of these areas that was under, like, bombardment from the Assad regime.

And I was on the front line in all of these battlefields, whatever, even up to where is, like, all of this presence of the ISIS also, and until, like, I went back to Paris.

And I have, like, really very horrible, like, stories about all of these people that really lost their lives. And they are the silent, like, they are silent, all of these victims, and they have no voice for them. They were really silent.

And this is one of the roles of the artists during, like, wars or, like, dramatic exchanges in history, and this is at least from my perspective.

HAYKEL: If I may, one of the issues that actually unites a lot of the work that’s being presented here is the rejection of the typical or the stereotypical framing of the conflict, whether in your case it’s the sectarian way in which Syria is described as explaining all the problems, or in the case of Bouchra, you know, the idea, the stereotypical idea we have of the refugee is also interrogated in your work and is put into question.

And I would like us perhaps to talk about how the artist actually, you know, shifts the focus on what the problem is as it is defined, for example, in the media.

YAZBEK: After, like, in this situation of Syria, after it, like, it was, like, a battlefield for Sunni, like, parties in the field, it’s very important for the artist himself to be part of one of the tools of the change.

But in my situation, of course, the arts, like, the role of the arts, this was, like, really retreating in my situation, whatever was going on in Syria was a little bit retreating. This relies on, like, the identities for each artist and what is the relation between him and the society.

It was, like, really we were, like, look at this about the fear, like, the fear case of the Syrian people. We as artists, we were part of this, like, the demand for democracy, our demanding for peace. And we just was part of it as an artist.

As I said, like, also as a writer, also with so many identities I should be, like, also I was keen to have, like, really a part about the change, what’s going to happen in Syria, about the change in Syria.

We should not really limit the function of the art because this is not, like—really it’s limiting if it’s not good, like, we should not really limit the role of the art.

One of the most important things really is to try and convey the truth and to be the voice of all of the victims, because I am believing, of course, about the world media; and also the Syrian regime, of course, conveys the wrong image of what’s going on in Syria.

I was keen just to be part of the truth, just to bring justice for all the victims.

HAYKEL: Bouchra, do you see your role in similar terms, that you’re a witness to events that you’re trying to reframe how the media talks about refugees, for example? How do you see what you’re doing?

KHALILI: I think I see the things—I mean, I absolutely agree with what Samar just said. And at the same time, I will speak from my own position that is quite different because I work within a different context. I’m not Syrian and my experience is completely different. And an artist also works with one’s own life and own experience.

So I won’t define my work or myself as an artist, as a witness, but rather as someone who tries to ask a question, to give the forum to that question, and rather than speaking for the others, giving that opportunity to individuals who are often silenced to speak for themselves and with their own words.

But at the same time, it’s also what Samar was saying about providing with different images. And you started your question with the comparison with the media. The media often produce images to illustrate the preconceived discourse. My position is somehow the complete opposite of that. It’s rather how one can ask a question rather than illustrating a solution or a predefined or a preconceived discourse.

So I don’t see myself as someone bringing or proposing something that is complete, but rather asking a question to an audience and inviting an audience to reflect on the pictures that are shown and the words that are said, and not giving one solution, but rather encouraging a dialogue and a debate in a public space because a museum is also a public space. It’s a space for the public and, consequently, it can be a civil space as well.

So that’s also the reason why I cannot define myself as an activist, but rather as a citizen, which is a different position.

But try to look at images as something that can create a debate, a dialogue, and other ways of saying and suggest other perspective, but at the same time not imposing them, but rather suggesting them to the public and inviting the public to exercise this freedom of reacting to an artwork and reflecting for themselves through that artwork, and eventually speaking of it with others.

So the impact on reality is not direct, but it participates in the public debate on how do we approach very specific issues. Because at the same time, I also consider that I work on very specific questions and with very singular trajectories that cannot become examples as opposed, again, to the media.

Often when they give one minute or two minutes to someone to express himself or herself, that person is supposed to illustrate one specific case. But I don’t believe that they are examples, that individuals’ trajectories are examples. They are what they are, they speak for themselves, and at the same time they are universal, but never examples.

HAYKEL: There is definitely a universality.

And I know, Joe, you got to see the installation earlier.

CARENS: Yes, indeed, Kel. It was wonderful.

HAYKEL: And this story of, I mean, it seems to be universal, of people from so many different countries, all trying to, you know, delineating their own itineraries on this map.

And there are all the ethical issues that arise. I mean, some of them end up almost enslaved in countries, in several different countries. And what we would normally think is a journey that would take, you know, 10 hours on a flight takes three years, four years sometimes—


HAYKEL: —to complete. I wonder what your sort of response, given the work you’ve done on refugees, on citizenship, on borders, how that installation spoke to you.

CARENS: Well, I found it very powerful and for precisely the reasons that Bouchra just said, the counter-specificity, the tracking of the individuals. So doing the sort of work that Bouchra does as an artist is different from the sort of work that I do as a philosopher.

You know, we paint pictures with words and not like novelists. But there is a way in which what you do as a philosopher is to try to construct a vision of the world and say, isn’t it like this? So it’s an appeal to a debate, but it’s an attempt to use reason and argument. So, in that sense, I think there’s less—I do try to tell some stories, and I actually think of them as examples, so there are some tensions here because I’m trying to seek generalizations.

So in a way, what I’m doing is quite different from Bouchra because I do want to generalize. If one engages in a debate, then one wants to have an answer, so the question needs to be posed and I think she’s very effective at challenging the conventional questions.

But then with the new question, we want to know, is that a better answer? What are your answers? So I’m interested in what are the best answers to the questions and also in subverting the questions. And I think Bouchra’s work does a terrific job of that.

HAYKEL: Yeah, absolutely. And I know that the medium that you chose is the map. And you don’t see the faces of the individuals. So I was wondering about, you know, the choices that you made where, for instance, you chose not to show their faces and you chose the map.

And I know from an article that was written about your work where you had shown or you had discussed this wonderful map, medieval Islamic map by al-Idrisi, I think, which shows Europe in the south and Africa in the north, so a total inversion.

Why the map? Why did you choose the map or cartography as a way of talking and describing the question and the itinerary?

KHALILI: I think my answer would be quite long. (Laughter.) There are, basically, I would say, three reasons. The first one is what I have witnessed myself when I was a teenager in Morocco. It’s quite ironic to speak of it today on the Brexit day, but I was in Morocco when the Schengen Agreement was signed. And this had an immediate consequence on North Africans, because before ’91 it was easy to go to Europe for Moroccans, Algerian state. There was no need for a visa.

And this completely changed at the moment when Europe was discussing a no-border area but for Europe itself, not for the others. So then we became excluded from that area, from the precise geographical area.

For instance, until ’91 the problem was not in getting a visa, it was in having a passport because have a passport was a privilege, it was at the discretion of the state who could decide who could have a passport and who cannot.

From ’91 it became the opposite. It was easy to have a passport and extremely difficult to have a visa.

So I guess my interest in geography started also with this, with the contemplation of ancient Islamic tradition of mapmaking, because that’s also what I was in contact with, also of my own experience of living in a country where suddenly we were banned to cross borders while the distance between northern Morocco and Spain is 14 kilometers, and not to mention the history of convenience with Spain—


KHALILI: —you know, if we go back in history. So I guess the interest with geography started with this, with a perception, with a question of perception and a sort of counter-shot of that perception when I started to live myself as an immigrant in France. So I had somehow the counterview or the counter-shot of being in that place that was refused to as before and living there as someone who was not a citizen still, even though I could speak French fluently because, of course, the colonial history had an impact on Morocco after the independence until today. French is still a prominent language in Morocco.

So it was not if I was suddenly living in a completely unknown country. There was, like a cultural, let’s say, connection between both places, but still I was not a citizen. I was a foreigner.

And when I became an artist, of course I also started to work with this, with my own experience, my own perception of the question.

And being an artist, when I start working on a project, I also start somehow formulating a question and how to give a visual shape to the question. And that is an image, it’s a convention, it’s an image.

We all know map from atlas or from books, et cetera. It’s a familiar picture. But what about if that picture is challenged by real experiences? What about if that picture becomes a sort of surface on which a sort of counter-map can be drawn?

So for me, it was very, I mean, the idea was very simple. I want to show something to someone. How can I show it? Because eventually when one works with video or film, it’s always about showing something to someone. It doesn’t mean that showing that thing you would say it means this or this is what the picture is about. But you show something and you expect an answer.

And that’s also why I chose a map because a map is also, by a sense, didactic because it shows something. And when you show a hand drawing on a map, it’s also a performative and didactic gesture. You’re showing something else, you’re showing a sort of counter-shot.

So the idea of working with a map was somehow natural because of my own commitment with geography, conceptual, but also cinematic in the sense that in one long shot I had to shorten the counter-shot, there was no need for technical editing. The editing was already there because of the different layers that are combined in that very minimal, let’s say, yeah, visual shape.

And of course, the voice plays also a prominent aspect because it’s not, I mean, it cannot be defined as voiceover because it’s synchronized, completely synchronized, it’s direct sound. But that sound is also an image, and that’s how the position of the viewer becomes extremely important because there is something that is being shown and there is something that is being narrated.

And they are all the peculiarities of one voice, because every single voice is different, every single voice has a specific grain, there are accents. Four of the videos are in Arabic, and there are different Arabics. So for an Arabic speaker it’s also challenging to also realize suddenly how diverse the practice of Arabic can be in a region that is often pictured as completely homogenous, which is not true.

And I can, like, give more and more details on why every single thing is extremely specific, but at the same time very simple.

HAYKEL: The story of the, you know, of the intimate stranger, you know, in the case of the Moroccan or the North African who comes to Europe, who speaks French, but yet is still having to be made into someone, an othering, this is a story that also comes out in your work where you see that these legal norms, when they’re constructed, often there’s something very contrived and arbitrary about them.

And you have this wonderful story, I mean, tragic story actually, in the chapter on refugees where it’s a story of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust who are not allowed into the United States, and the ship is sent back and presumably most of them perish in Europe.

And the arguments that were being made at the time about these people, which ring, I mean, there’s almost an immediate and direct echo to how we, you know, listen to people who are talking about Muslims or talking about people from the Global South. There’s something so familiar about that voice from the ‘30s and now again today.

And I know that you were telling me earlier in your work that it seems that the situation is only getting worse as you’ve been studying these issues over the last several decades.

Why do you think that is? I mean, not just why is it getting worse, but why are these echoes, these trajectories so similar? I mean, why is it we never seem to learn to change how we talk about these others?

CARENS: You know, I wish I had an answer to that. (Laughter.) I do think it is—so, first of all, I’m not a complete pessimist. I think these things shift and that you do sometimes find an opening and a willingness to understand. And I actually think a lot of these things are contingent, that it just depends on a set of circumstances and who makes an argument.

I mean, we just went through an election in Canada in which there was a right-wing party that was taking the kind of conventional anti-refugee and a liberal party, modest, kind of mainstream, but liberal party that said, no, we should take in more refugees. And they won, they appealed. They said, isn’t this who we are?

So it’s an appeal to a certain kind of identity. And that’s what I try to do in the book in the section on refugees. So if you ask people in North America, in Canada and the United States, and most people in Europe about the history of the Holocaust, the lead-up to the Holocaust, everyone would say that was terrible, we failed, this was a terrible moral failure.

And exactly right, the language when you look at how people justified that at the time, how was it that they explained to themselves why it was all right to exclude Jewish refugees, why to deny them visas, why to accuse them of being smugglers, if they have this much money they can make it, they can’t really be in need, and all of the same arguments, they are dangerous, some of them are communists, some of them may be pretending to be, they’re actually Nazis, but they’re pretending to be Jewish.

All of the same arguments that you hear today about why you have to be afraid of refugees were the arguments that were made at that time. And so I think there is—so my hope is that by drawing attention to that, people will come to see that there’s something problematic about the kind of discourse that is dominating the discussion of refugees today.

And I do think it’s contingent, that if enough people hear it and see it that, you know, you have both of these forces out there. There’s a kind of open—you saw that in Germany, right? There was a very positive response to the refugees and then some negative things. It is flexible. It’s not predetermined, it’s not fixed. And it matters what people say.

HAYKEL: Although the legal structures and the legal norms seem not to have been updated to deal with this reality—

CARENS: Right.

HAYKEL: —or at least the intensity of the refugee crisis that we’re seeing today.

CARENS: Right.

HAYKEL: And one of your pleas in the book is actually to work on that.

CARENS: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think that if you said what would be the right frame to admit refugees, you would have a much more expansive definition. And indeed, again, you see some progress in that respect so that, for example, the definition of refugee has been expanded to include persecution on the basis of gender, persecution on the basis of sexuality, and those are all positive developments, a kind of expanse of those were not envisaged when they wrote the rules, but those were positive, recognizing that people can (suffer ?).

But in other ways, it’s been narrowed and constrained. And I do have to say that I would not, if I were recommending to policymakers, I wouldn’t recommend opening up the definition now because in this climate what would happen is it would be narrowed further still.

You know, although the definition as it currently exists is imperfect, if you try to make it better you’ll probably make it worse. So there’s a difference between what you think is right in principle and what actions you have to take in the world. You have to think about the consequences of the actions.

HAYKEL: And are you still engaged in some of these issues around—I know that, you know, you don’t really like to talk about the work you’re doing. But are you still engaged in some of these questions, these big questions about identity, borders, citizenship, belonging?

KHALILI: Well, somehow I also considered that my work was not necessarily about refugees or migrations, it was rather a sort of interrogation on what it means to be a citizen, including when the law doesn’t give you the right to be a citizen. Is it still possible to consider a society where anyone can be a citizen? Or to say it in more simple words, can we consider citizenship not as an exclusive club, which membership is your I.D. card, but something completely different that would be a commitment to a society and that would be the only condition that would be demanded by a state to recognize someone as a citizen?

But to go back to your previous questions, if you ask the question of alternative forms of citizenship, you also interrogate necessarily the conception of nation state, what it means today.

And I guess that “The Mapping Journey” project also interrogates the statutes of nation states and what it means. And the Brexit somehow is a sort of victory of the most conservative conception—

HAYKEL: Right, right.

KHALILI: —of what is a nation state as opposed to the European Union that was supposed to be not an addition, but a sort of coalition of nation states to somehow go over very restrictive conceptions of belonging to the point of dreaming of a sort of European citizenship that won’t only depend on every single state, but that would be more inclusive somehow.

And what we are seeing today is also the failure of that, the failure of that utopia. So maybe my work is eventually about this utopia of citizenship not linked to a nation state, but to other forms of belonging.

And I guess that’s also the reason why these last three years I went back to the history of the Middle East and the history of utopias in the Middle East, because there was a time in the Middle East when, even after the independence, when the nation state was not like the horizon, the final horizon of independence, but more a sort of perception of the world as a coalition of a common-shared, political utopia, and that was enough to consider that I can support a Vietnamese in his struggle for independence or someone from Mozambique or South Africa in the ‘60s, et cetera, et cetera.

And of course, the Arab Spring also had an impact on that. Because I must say that I was a bit confused by the way it was pictured in the media as the Facebook revolution, as if the history of revolution in the Arab world needed modern and Western technology to become possible.

Actually, there’s a very long history of revolutionary thinking and progressive thinking in the area. So I have dedicated the last three years in somehow investigating on that history and articulating different moments in the history of the region when that utopia was somehow implemented or discussed, at least discussed in a very concrete way.

And to answer your question, I’m currently working actually on two projects, one that would be the closing chapter somehow on this investigation on the history of utopia in the Middle East, but more focused on the connection between— it actually starts with Jean Genet, the French writer, and the connection between revolution and poetry.

HAYKEL: And poetry?

KHALILI: And poetry, because there is a connection, at least for a poet like Jean Genet.

And another project about theater and community and, again, what would be at stake is the question of belonging and the community. What is a community? And what is a community that aims to achieve equality?

And of course, this presents many problems, including decision-making, et cetera, when you have a group and you want to be equalitarian in the way you function. You have to invent ways of making decisions.

So I’m giving here, like, specific examples, but just to give you an idea of why it is also about theater. And it will be filmed in a theater and produced in a theater with non-actors that will form a theater group, and involving different people from different backgrounds. But it also originates in a real story.

HAYKEL: In a real story?

KHALILI: Yeah, but I cannot say more than that. (Laughter.)

CARENS: Can I say something about Bouchra’s mapping project that I found really moving and effective?

So in my book I say that the modern nation state, the rich, Western, modern states are like—it’s a form of fatalism really, to be born in a rich, Western, modern state is like being born into the nobility in the Middle Ages, and to be born anywhere else in the world is like, even though lots of us are of the lesser nobility, and to be born into any other place, the poor states, is like being born into the peasantry, even though there are rich peasants and some make it into the nobility.

And it’s that way because then your life chances are so dependent on where you’re born. And one of the things that comes out in the mapping project is you can see these are just ordinary people. You know, the immigrants get constructed as threats and dangerous and trying to take stuff from us. And you can see it’s the simplicity of it because you don’t know a lot about the stories, you just have the map tracing, but this voice saying, well, I went from here and I was looking for work and I couldn’t find work, and then I went there.

So these are just ordinary people trying to find jobs, trying to make a life for themselves, and that just comes out, I think, very vividly in the way in which all these different stories reflect that.

And they then call into question the legitimacy of exclusion. So why do we get to say no to these people? Why are we entitled to what we have? We, the United States and Canada and in these European states, well, why do we get to keep them out? What is the foundation for that? And that’s what I think kind of comes out in your project.

KHALILI: Yeah, I absolutely agree with your comment. And I hoped that this would be understood when experiencing the work.

Because again, what I tried to reflect on is this conception of citizenship that originates in the restrictive conception of nation state, meaning, again, the citizenship is a sort of VIP area in a big club.

CARENS: Right.

KHALILI: Like, there is the club, it’s the world, and there’s the VIP area, and that’s the area where you have the right passport and you can travel and the others are most of the time at the door and they cannot get in.

And, like, to continue your own metaphor—

CARENS: Yes, yeah, no, I—

KHALILI: —on nobility and peasantry.

CARENS: Right, right.

KHALILI: And I became more and more sensitive to this, first that someone who was born as a subject of a king and not as a citizen because that’s technically what we were in Morocco until the early 2000. And when I lived in France with a residency permit, I was excluded from the club in many, many different aspects, even though I was going to the same schools as the others, I was given the same education, I was speaking the same language, I was sharing the same culture, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And of course, this was also reflected in the daily discourse of French politicians, as an example. So one shouldn’t be today surprised that Marine Le Pen is so popular because she is the one who is claiming citizenship is an exclusive club, like this should be the privilege of the French only.

And therefore, also, giving legitimacy to a conception of French citizenship that somehow absolutely contradicts the principle of the French Revolution.

HAYKEL: Right.

KHALILI: I was rereading this afternoon article three, I think, of the constitution of 1793 that was probably the most progressive ever written in that country. And there is one sentence absolutely beautiful that says whoever—every alien who feeds an aged man or an orphan is French. That was enough. It was not about being born in France or having spent five years or 10 years or whatever, it was about being a good human being.

And that’s basically what the next article says. France can give French citizenship to someone who has demonstrated great humanistic values. But this can be an alien, too, someone living in, I don’t know, Morocco or Syria, it can be enough to become French.

So the question can be also, as in that way, why so-called progressive, democratic countries became nation states on the basis of very open conception of citizenship, and why we end up with the complete opposite? Somehow you answer the question before when you mentioned somehow the instrumentalization of citizenship for a short-term political agenda by politicians in many Western countries.

There is a wonderful essay by French historian Patrick Weil on the history of French citizenship.

CARENS: It’s a good one, yeah.

KHALILI: Yeah, it’s extraordinary, how it was instrumentalized—


KHALILI: —throughout the late 19th century and 20th century. And one also understands that there is a sort of opportunistic agenda in granting citizenship to foreigners and suddenly making it more difficult to the exact same people, and even worse during World War II because thousands of French were not French citizens at all anymore, even though they were for decades.

HAYKEL: I mean, there is something to be said for what’s happening in Europe in particular, the instrumentalization of and the description of the immigrant and the refugee in particular as a real threat to national identity, to the collectivity.

Speaking from the Middle East, you see that for countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, even Saudi Arabia has taken in several hundred thousand Syrians. And whilst these Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, so on are not necessarily treated well, they’re not given citizenship rights or even civil rights often, but the state doesn’t use them as a foil to construct a sense of identity, an exclusive sense of identity in opposition to them. And it’s curious that that’s not the case in the Middle East, given that they’re taking in many more than Europe.

CARENS: So this is, for me, you know, Leia mentioned it in the opening conversation, you just brought it up again, it’s one of the things that drops out in the conversation on refugees. So if you look at the debate on refugees, people are saying, well, we can’t take so many in Europe and the United States, so 10,000 that would be too many, and Lebanon has 4 million people and has over a million refugees.

HAYKEL: Yeah, yeah.

CARENS: So this idea that it’s too many, we can’t manage, what is it that people imagine, who say that, is going to happen to these refugees? Do they think they should die? And if not, who should take care of them, and why should Lebanon take care of them or Turkey or Jordan?

So there’s some refusal to contemplate the implications. This is where I like to kind of think through the implications. So if you’re saying this, what does that imply for what should happen to these refugees? Who is responsible?

And why do we assume that these states, as you say, the states in the Middle East, which are not our models, they are often un-democratic and they are repressive in various ways, but they are the ones who are admitting the refugees in, if not treating them perfectly, admitting them and taking care of them and the rich, Western, liberal, democratic states are excluding them?

So I think that’s a deep puzzle and contradiction in the values that we claim to profess.

KHALILI: Yeah. It’s absolutely true. (Laughter.)

HAYKEL: But I think, I mean, I suspect that the answer to why that is has to do with politics, it doesn’t have to do with—

CARENS: The answer has to do with privilege, right?


CARENS: That what people feel is that we will have to give up some of the privileges that we enjoy, and that is true. So if you accept this model of fatalism, the nobility has to give up some of its privileges. Yes, we cannot enjoy all of the privileges that we have in a just world. A just world will be a more egalitarian world.

And so in a just world, people won’t need to leave home to find work because opportunities will be more widely distributed. But there’s a kind of refusal to acknowledge our role in maintaining this present order.

Notice even in your comments, you know, we presuppose, and that’s one of the things that Bouchra’s mapping project undermines, we talk about states, oh, Syria does this, Jordan does, so it presupposes states in their existence and they make sense, we take those as given entities. Of course, you have to assume that.

Well, it is a deep feature of the modern world, I don’t mean to deny that, of course, but there’s a way in which, you know, one of the things one wants to do is to problematize that.

Well, why do these matter? And if we want to defend organizing the world into states, what is the story we tell as to why that’s good for everybody, not just good for us? It’s never a good moral argument to say this is good for us. You have to say it’s good for everybody, right? There has to be some story. And there isn’t a good story to tell about that.

KHALILI: And that would be true geopolitics.


KHALILI: And not what we have seen this last year, also conducted to what is going on in Syria and other areas of the region. When you speak of acknowledging the situation, there is also a need to acknowledge the consequences of geopolitical agendas that are operated and conducted in very specific areas to lead directly to the disasters that we have been seeing actually from 1991.

CARENS: Right.

KHALILI: If we were honest, we won’t speak only from 2003, because between 2001 and 2003 there were still a lot of Iraq refugees that were leaving Iraq out of the consequence of the ’91 war. And I met a lot of them in Istanbul in 2006-7 who left Iraq in ’96, ’95, ’94.

So speaking of equality is also speaking of geopolitics in its true—


KHALILI: —and essential form and not as a form of opportunistic and cynical diplomacy that operates for very short-term agenda and just leave the consequences to the neighboring area, to those areas that were destroyed. Because that’s also what happened in Iraq and Syria, just to give those examples.

HAYKEL: So I have a couple of questions. One has to do with, you know, the individuals that you, you know, spoke to and how you got them to tell their stories, so the mechanics of it.

But before I get into that, I’m wondering about the—again, you know, in a way your interrogation, your questions are also a representation of the situation. I know that they were done before the Arab Spring, but really they could have been done after the Arab Spring, they could have been done almost at any time because the story of these people trying to leave, you know, is decades old, even from the regions that they’ve come from.

So in terms of, you know, in a sense, giving them voice, representing them, there’s something, to me at least, that the artist does, and certainly in your case. It’s almost prescient, you know, you almost put your finger on something, on a problem that exists, and told the story of this problem in a way that hasn’t been told by anyone else, certainly not by the media.

There’s something almost, you know, as I said, prescient. You know, you could tell that this was a problem that’s very major in the world today, and you could tell that story in a way that I think is much more effective than other ways of telling it that we hear about typically from the media.

So the role of the artist in that telling, if you can maybe say something about whether you think you, you know, you put your finger on something in a very particular way. How is it that you even came up with this idea? I mean, did you notice it from Morocco and it was something that you experienced yourself so you wanted to reproduce it through these individuals as well? Or was it something else?

KHALILI: Again, I cannot make a short answer to this one. (Laughter.)

HAYKEL: Yeah, I’m sorry to ask you these big questions.

KHALILI: There are many things behind it.


KHALILI: Even when I was in the art school in Paris, I was working on the question of not being a citizen and being somehow excluded to the margin of society because you don’t hold the right papers.

HAYKEL: Right.

KHALILI: So I guess it’s something to which I have always been very attentive.

My own situation was different because I was a student and I moved with my parents, and I was very lucky because often it’s also a complete matter of luck.

The first time I went to France, I was 3 months old. And this stayed in the archives, so when I applied for a residency permit they saw that I already came, that there was a connection, so it makes things easier.

But what about if the law, a different law was voted two days before as Patrick Weil demonstrates it in his book? At that time, it was easier. Today it would be impossible, it would never happen. But 20 years ago it was possible for someone like me to not face that many difficulties in getting a residency permit.

What was much more difficult is to apply for French citizenship. That was another story which I won’t tell tonight because it’s too long.

But to go back to your question, I cannot answer to it in a simple way because I cannot say I have experienced this myself the same way. It’s not true. What I have experienced is witnessing this in my environment. And every single Moroccan knows a lot of people who cross the Straits of Gibraltar more of less the way it is described in the video.

So it is something that became somehow almost part of our culture. And it created a form of popular culture with songs, jokes, dance, music. It is almost a sort of culture, you know, because it was massive in the early ‘90s until the early 2000s.

HAYKEL: So the journey, right?

KHALILI: Yeah, leaving.

HAYKEL: Yeah, leaving.

KHALILI: In Morocco we say burning.

HAYKEL: Burning?

KHALILI: Yeah, because you burn the border.

HAYKEL: I see.

KHALILI: In Darija, in the dialectal Arabic, yeah, oh, he’s a burner, he burned last night. That’s basically what we used to hear almost every day.

HAYKEL: Interesting.

KHALILI: Oh, you know, Hamid, he burned last night. That was really in our environment. So, of course, this creates another perception of crossing borders illegally, not to mention the history of immigration that is completely linked to it and the mythology of immigration in North Africa that is very strong. Because there is a huge diaspora from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, literally all over the world, and these also participate in that culture that I tried to describe before.

I’m not sure actually if I’m answering your question, but I’m trying to connect very complex things together in which that work in particular originates.

But to say it in more simple words, I worked with what I know. And I worked also with what I researched because there is also a lot of research behind it, which I conducted out of, let’s say, like, because I like making my own words, so I know a bit what I’m talking about.

And of course, I was also dealing with different contexts so it was important to have a sort of precise knowledge of specific situations.

And the visual aspect, I described it before, so it gives an idea of how all those things combined. But it’s also the same methodology I used for all of my projects, always working with things I have experienced or know that was in my environment, including the ones on the history of utopia and the Middle East. It was also stories I have heard when I was a kid, Malcom X and Algiers, the Black Panthers at the Pan-African festival, the African National Congress headquarters that was located in Rabat, Morocco until 1962.

So I always work with things that I have heard or that I know about that was in my environment. And I research, too. And somehow, all of this becomes a sort of—it stays in my head, but it not anymore important when I’m on the site or when it’s happening.

And to answer your other question about how it happened that I met so many individuals who told me their stories, it’s just that we talked a lot together. So the videos are not based on interviews, there’s no cuts, there’s no questions being asked simultaneously as the filming. It was very long conversations. And I think throughout those conversations there was also a form of empowerment that was developing because they were somehow becoming the author of their own story.

HAYKEL: Right.

KHALILI: It was not being told by someone else, it was being told by themselves. So, yeah, there was also a form of empowerment in that.

HAYKEL: So I’d like to remind the audience that you can ask questions, and I think there are cards that are amongst you that have been distributed, so please do so, write out your question.

And Bouchra, I know you wanted to slow a few slides, too.

KHALILI: Not necessarily. I mean, we can keep talking. I also find it very nice just to have this conversation and to talk.

HAYKEL: It’s really up to you if you—

KHALILI: No, I’m totally OK. (Laughter.)

HAYKEL: So, all right. I mean, I wanted to—you had mentioned earlier that you didn’t think that social media, the internet, you know, Facebook, et cetera, all these things, had really played such an important role, I think, in the context of the Arab Spring.

KHALILI: I haven’t said that.

HAYKEL: OK, well, but that they hadn’t—but you said that, you know, there were revolutionary ideas and connections that predated social media. I wonder, though, how you think these technologies are—and this question goes to you as well—how these technologies may or may not alter the stories of some of these people who are, you know, who are refugees, whether—I mean, I know that if I recall correctly in your installation there were accounts of people saying, you know, I was able to call my mother, I was able to, you know, maybe, you know, FaceTime her or whatever, you know.

So, in what was do these technologies make a difference? I mean, are they, for instance, you know, helping attenuate or make less imposing, you know, the power of the nation state, the overwhelming sort of oppressiveness of the nation state? Do you find that in any way they play a role or not? Thank you.

KHALILI: Do you want to take this one, Joseph? (Laughter.)

CARENS: Well, so, I guess one thing to say is that I do think that the phenomenon of migration, of course it’s an old phenomenon, but it has been accelerated by technology, and that’s not just this kind of communication technology, though that is part of it, because now everybody understands the possibilities out there. There is global communication and people have pictures and they have understandings and they have communications and they have networks.

And so this sense that there’s a possibility to move if you want to is, I think, enhanced by technology. And of course, then the physical possibilities of moving are enhanced by modern means of transportation.

So that is, you know, that’s a simple point about globalization and the way in which that connects people together economically, socially, culturally. That certainly has an impact in challenging and then making people nervous about their understanding of what their community is and membership in the community and outsiders. So yeah, I think it’s relevant.

KHALILI: And in connection with the Arab Spring, of course social media were extremely important because, I mean, one of their initial vocations is to allow to communities to exist or to invent other communities. So strategically speaking, it was extremely important in Syria and in other countries, maybe not as important in Tunisia because the demonstrations were so immense.

So if they are maybe producing a sort of almost epistemological shift, it is in the conception of the community that doesn’t need to be physically present in one space, but that can exist and be effective virtually, in a virtual space. And that space will still have an impact on the reality.

Maybe it is in that connection in that from the virtual community to the physical, political community that becomes visible on the streets.

So when I said that Facebook or the Arab Spring doesn’t originate in Facebook—

HAYKEL: Right.

KHALILI: —it was historically speaking, it was because the history of those revolutions in the region were also present in the demonstrations.

To give you an example, I made in 2014 a work based on the encounter of Abd-el-Krim al-Khattabi and Che Guevara in ’59. That really happened, but that was never documented.

And what surprised me a lot is when I started seeing in demonstrations in Morocco pictures of al-Khattabi, and same in Paris a few weeks ago, yeah, in October. There was a demonstration against racism and for equality, and there were pictures of al-Khattabi, too.

And this is not the result of Facebook, it’s the result of the reconnection with history.

HAYKEL: So we have a number of questions, by the way, from the audience. So I’ll start with one that’s actually addressed to you, Bouchra.

And this is a question that says, do you see the artist as being necessarily progressive?

KHALILI: That’s a very good question. Well, I think history has shown us that not all of the artists are progressive. No, I don’t believe that an artist has to be necessarily progressive or being a good artist necessarily means—or if you are good artist it’s because you are progressive. No, not really.

There are great artists who I personally admire as artists, not as human beings—(laughter) —who are not progressive. But what they have done in art still deserves to be acknowledged as good art, even though they were not progressive.

HAYKEL: So this is a question that may go to you actually.

So the first question—there’s several actually here, but I’ll just ask one. The parallels between today’s refugee issues or crisis and the Holocaust certainly may exist, but there is a critical underlying difference. Today’s refugees largely come from political systems or political belief systems that seek to dominate others. Jews, however, only wanted to survive and assimilate. The excessive accommodation of refugee demands is suicidal for open Western countries. How do you balance Western values with refugee demands?

CARENS: So, you know, one of the problems with this sort of question one asks about, what is the empirical evidence? And if one looks at the facts over the last, when they’ve recently cited this, hundreds of thousands of refugees admitted to the United States over the past 20, 30 years and four incidents of terrorism.

So there’s just no reason to believe —so, again, I think Bouchra’s story captures it nicely, her “Mapping Journey.” You know, the vast majority of refugees, what do they want? They want their children to be safe, they want to find a place where they can live a life, grow up with their kids, have a job, and live a normal life.

And so the idea that somehow—so some come from repressive regimes, but the idea that they would then want to reinstitutionalize those repressive regimes I think is just without foundation, not to say nobody, but almost nobody.

And the idea that we should exclude millions of people for the sake of the one or two, the possibility of a few, is just inhumane.

KHALILI: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you, too. Because if one makes the hypothesis that they are living oppressively, to re-implement an oppressive regime elsewhere, then it means that they are not refugees, but that they have a plan.

CARENS: Right. And we see time and again, you know, I saw something somebody had said, you know, people do not put their kids in boats unless, you know, being on a boat is less dangerous than being on the land.

These people are not fleeing to dominate others. They’re fleeing to save their lives. So it’s just unreasonable to construct them in this way.

KHALILI: And to give an example that is probably not absolutely relevant for all the situations that are occurring today with regards to the migration crisis. But as an example, in North Africa, again I speak of what I know from experience, leaving the country without a visa was also a form of protest against the regime, but also against the restrictive laws that banned millions of people to travel freely and to make a life of their own where they want to live.

So there is also a form of I won’t call it a political statement at all, because it’s not the case, but as you said no one risks his or her life and the life of their kids to implement an oppressive regime elsewhere. It is to live, to simply live, not to become a millionaire or whatever, but to have a decent life and a life where respect is guaranteed, but also liberty.

And that’s also the difference as being, like, in Lebanon or Jordan or Turkey and being in Germany, mostly Germany, and the same in Europe. In one case, there are many restrictions to your own liberties and being a refugee there. And that’s also the reason why—I mean, if you take the risk or if you ready to risk your life just because it’s a matter of survival, liberty is also somehow at stake.

CARENS: Absolutely.

Can I say one other quick thing?


CARENS: That question said, well, Jews are just leaving to assimilate, but that way of phrasing it forgets all of the anti-Semitic tropes which said that, no, Jews were bent on domination. So if you think of all the justifications that were offered for excluding Jews, it was precisely this false construction that they were bent on domination.

So that’s, again, where these tropes are repeated today, but now with respect to Muslims.

HAYKEL: So we have one more question here. And I’m going to add to it a little bit.

So, did you have to choose between which refugee stories to tell and display? And if so, how did you choose?

And I’m adding to it, I recall, was it one woman or maybe more, at least one was a woman. And could you speak a little bit about the difference between the males versus the females in the story, in the narrative?

Because I imagine, being a woman, like, I think it was Somali woman in that case, I mean, the experience of traveling must have been, you know, harrowing. It’s harrowing for all of them, but that much more so for her. So if you could say something about that.

KHALILI: Well, actually, there was no casting.

HAYKEL: Right.

KHALILI: And there are no videos that we have filmed and that are not being shown there. All of them are there. And I have not selected because it was not what was at stake. What was at stake was meeting an individual.

And going back to the media question, it is somehow the opposite of looking for good examples because there are no good examples, every single life deserves or every single trajectory deserves to be told because they are all singular. And because they are singular they are universal. That was my bet somehow. So no, they are all there.

Speaking of the video with the young woman from Somalia, I think, of course, I was very touched by her. But she’s a very strong woman, really impressive, extremely strong. But she was also protected by other Somali men.

And going back to the previous question and the answer you gave to it, there is also in Europe a very popular complotiste théorie—

HAYKEL: Conspiracy, conspiracy.

KHALILI: —yeah, conspiracy, sorry, called Arabia that there is a plan, Arabs have a plan to invade Europe and to submit Europeans to Islam. That woman was protected by older men, not very older, but older. And they made sure that she would arrive safe. And they were traveling together.

She was not oppressed by them or nothing of this. She was in a group that left Somalia together, and she was the only woman, and she was perfectly safe among those men. So there was no, like, stereotype on the typical Muslim or Arab conception of a woman that is necessarily inferior or whatever, absolutely not. And yeah, she was among a community of men.

HAYKEL: OK. Another one is, what has changed in the refugees’ visibility in the media or elsewhere since you made these works between 2008 and 2011?

KHALILI: That’s a very good question. Actually, I think if we speak of visibility, then the challenge should be specified. Yes, the migration crisis is discussed every single day in the media, but it is also discussed by the politicians in Europe and also here. I heard that Donald Trump made some comments on his views on migrations.

Can we call it visibility? I’m not sure. What is certainly visible is certain discourses. But it doesn’t mean that they are visible, that the individuals that are suffering the conditions of being forced to cross illegally borders is visible.

And therefore, one can also ask another question until what point this should be visible, too, somehow. Because speaking of the visibility or the non-visibility of the refugees doesn’t answer the question of, why are they forced to experience this very hard life that can span for literally years for some of them?

So I’m not sure if, let’s say, humanitarian comments are enough to make visible a question or an issue, because eventually what is at stake is, again, equality. Until what point are we ready to accept an other that can be radically other or can be anybody of a certain type of otherness that is not popular in the country whatsoever?

And of course, I have in mind the very specific context of Germany and France, which I know well because I have lived in both places. And this also affects the visibility or non-visibility of the individuals who are forced to cross illegally borders.

I’m not sure if I’m answering the question, but it’s a very difficult question to answer because visibility can mean many, many different things. At least for me, what should be visible is their own views, the views and the perspective of the individuals who are experiencing this crisis in their life, that really impact their life for real. And are we ready to shift our perspective on otherness, but also on equality?

CARENS: So, I mean, I would just say that it seems to me that Bouchra’s project is to render people visible who are not, right? That’s what “The Mapping Journey” does is to kind of make it possible to see people in a certain kind of way who normally just are unseen as just constructed.

So they’re visible in one sense as objects, as threats, as de-personalized others, and then you have a project that tries to kind of make you see them as human beings.

HAYKEL: So we have a question. I think this one is addressed to you.

So this question says, commitment to a society as a basis of citizenship is a lovely idea. On the flip-side, the anxiety or suspicion about refugees and economic migrants comes from a suspicion of this commitment, in other words whether they’re committed to this notion of a society.

Do we need to think of these categories separately when considering immigration?

I guess the category of refugee versus economic migrant.

CARENS: Immigrant, yeah. So I guess I would, in answering that question, distinguish two levels of thought. So if you are asking as kind of practical policy matter today should we try to distinguish between economic migrants and refugees, I think it does make sense to distinguish between those who have an urgent need for safety, for their basic safety and protection of their human rights, to gain entry, between other people who have a life and they’re trying to better themselves.

Those are not the same situation. And we do need to make distinctions.

But it’s also important to step back. And that’s in a kind of context where we’re accepting the existing background framework in lace. But it’s also important to step back and criticize that framework.

I guess one of the things that I’m trying to get people to think about is the fundamental background structure of the way we’ve organized the world and to see that that is deeply unjust. And in a just world, this difference would disappear because people would not feel the need to leave, either because they were being driven out as refugees, or because they had a need to move elsewhere for economic reasons.

There’s no reason in principle why we couldn’t organize the world in a just way so that people had decent opportunities at home. Then if they wanted to move then they could have the freedom to move if they wanted to. Most people probably wouldn’t because most people want to live where they grow up, where they have family, where they know language, where they have cultural root. That’s the way most people want to live, but then some people want to move for one reason or another, and their movement would not be a problem if so many didn’t have urgent other needs to move.

So I think that’s what’s at the heart of the problem.

KHALILI: So you make a distinction between economic migrants and refugees.

CARENS: Well, I think there is a continuum, that you recognize that there are people who are being bombed, so if they don’t get to leave they will die. And other people—so if we look in the United States, for example, most of the people who come from Mexico to the United States, who I think ought to receive legal status, they ought to be regularized, but in most cases they would not die living in Mexico, they would simply have a more limited life.

And they come to create a better life for themselves and their children. They’re seeking some kind of opportunity that they don’t have at home, which I think is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do. But their need to be outside their country of origin isn’t as urgent and dire as the need of some people who really can’t survive without it.

So I think we have to recognize that distinction, yeah. You don’t? (Laughter.)

MS.     : Barnard, can we say one more question?


KHALILI: I’ve made the work here in 2013 that is part of a series called “The Speeches Series” that is actually about citizenship. And it’s a trilogy; the first one was made in Paris, the second in Genoa, Italy, and the third here. And the third was about the articulation between labor and citizenship.

And the whole piece, it’s a video work, is structured around somehow public speech given by what is defined today as undocumented workers, a few of them being from Mexico, and defining other forms of citizenship based on their belonging to the workforce.

And one of them specifically says something that I find personally very powerful. Even though he is undocumented, he considers that he belongs to this community because his political consciousness grew up here.

CARENS: Oh, I agree with that, though. But in saying that I think you have to distinguish, it doesn’t mean that the people who have some here and settled here as undocumented workers are not members or don’t belong or don’t have a right to sit, which I think they do. They have a right to get legal status and to get citizenship.

It just has to do with the urgency of people who are now outside, what is the relative urgency of people who are currently outside. I think we can distinguish between different conditions.

But the people who are already here, they’re members, from my point of view, and they ought to be accepted. So I agree with that.

HAYKEL: Good. Maybe one last question. So this, again, is a question that says, why isn’t there more focus directed on the people or leaders who are responsible for creating refugees rather than the refugees themselves? In other words, on the systems that produce this—

CARENS: Well, again, I think, you know, the story of—one of the things, one of the arguments you heard in the 1930s was, you know, admitting Jewish refugees will not solve the problem of Hitler. And that’s true, it wouldn’t. And so, of course, the problem is the leaders and the repressive regimes that are generating these refugees.

But the question is, what are you going to do with the people who are suffering? You can’t finesse that problem and there’s nothing to be gained by making—do you want Syrians to stay and be bombed by Assad? And is that somehow going to do something to remove Assad from power? I don’t think so.

HAYKEL: Please join me in thanking our speakers. (Applause.)

Thank you very much.



Explore More on CFR


A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, we unexpectedly find ourselves in a second one. The United States and its partners have a large stake in greater Russian restraint while Vladimir Putin remains in power—and in a Russia characterized by other than Putinism after he is gone.


Food and Water Security

A historic dry spell has severely affected Cape Town's water supply, and global climate patterns suggest that other cities may face the same fate.