Saturday, September 6, 2014

Andrew Arsan's "Interlopers of Empire"

Andrew Arsan is University Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John's College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa, and reported the following:
Interlopers of Empire charts the lives of Lebanese migrants to colonial French West Africa in the first half of the twentieth century, retracing the genealogy of these enduring communities, which continue to play such an important – if understated – role in the economies of countries from Senegal to Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is not just interested, though, in explaining the roots of their contemporary economic prominence, but also in the ways these men and women sought to make do in changed circumstances. Seeking to understand how they came to terms with displacement, it suggests that, far from lapsing into a disconsolate state of detachment from their homeland, they found a home in the world. Accommodation, not nostalgia, defined this particular diasporic community – a mode of dwelling in the world which, I argue, was easier before the rise of the nation-state to its present status as the dominant political form across the globe.

But enough of all that, and on to page 99 – which, fortuitously, marks the beginning of a new chapter, something which makes my task much easier, and much harder, than it might otherwise be. Much easier, because this is a story which we don’t pick up in media res. But also much more difficult, because this chapter asks a deceptively simple question, and one which gets to the heart of the matter: why were the Lebanese migrants who chose colonial French West Africa as their destination never subject to the stringent controls on entry which had become so common in the early twentieth-century world, from Australia to Canada and France to the United States? This is a question with much wider implications, of course. For these are checks and requirements – passports, visas, questions about our financial state, family circumstances, and intentions – which remain with us, forming the architecture of international travel. And while some of us treat these rituals as mere inconveniences – a few minutes lost in a passport queue or at a security check, on our way to the coffee shops and duty free stores on the other side of the barrier – for others, borders remain not a nuisance, but seemingly impassable ramparts, blocking off the way to the destinations they yearn for. As I write these words, I am travelling to Hong Kong, via Mumbai, my British passport, that valuable passe-partout, safely stashed in my pocket. As essential as our travel documents are, we hardly give them – or the entitlements they provide – much thought. But such an insouciant acceptance of these procedures is difficult to square with that other reality of our global age – the continuing flow of undocumented migration, which brings Central American children into the United States or African and Asian migrants to the holding pens built on the fringes of fortress Europe – in Ceuta and Melilla, in Lampedusa, Calais, or Thessaloniki. Only yesterday came reports of the discovery of thirty-five Afghan migrants, hidden away in the shipping container in which they had travelled to the United Kingdom. The press images of men, women and children, some as young as one, tired, cowed figures, taking their hesitant first steps on British soil huddled under the blankets provided by British immigration officials, are but another reminder of the waves of migrants who come crashing upon Europe’s borders, have-nots who lack the wherewithal necessary to gain access. In the end, this is why the Lebanese were able to keep coming and going, more or less as they pleased, between the Middle East and West Africa over six decades of French imperial rule, despite the constant grumbling of colonial bureaucrats who despaired of their presence – because they were fortunate to hail from a place with longstanding ties to France, and whose inhabitants, the French foreign ministry decreed, should be granted concessions as valuable clients and allies of their country. This forgotten history, then, is a reminder of the often invisible forces that structure international migration in our global age – not just the brute facts of economic capital, but also the diplomatic considerations of alliance and enmity, and the difficult calculations of political and social capital. Who one is, and where one comes from – these are things that continue to matter as much as what one owns, or what one does, or could do, in determining whether one is allowed to enter, or deemed to possess the potential to belong. This is a fact all too easily forgotten in an age dominated by the discourse of economic utility, but one we would do well to recall.
Learn more about Interlopers of Empire at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue