Ambiguous bodies, authentic bodies: terrorists, passports, and immigration law in the post 9/11 world.
Some years back, a collective of DJs in Cape Town's underground music scene began the Fong Kong Bantu Sound System. Their inspiration came from the "spazas of Soweto or the bazaars of Grey Street", where "we see fake consumer goods flooding our world and our minds"--be it in the form of endless rows of "shoes with fake Nike logos, 'Diesel' t-shirts [or] badly pirated DVDs" (Fong Kong Bantus 2010). The term "Fong Kong" is slang specific to South Africa, used to denote duplicates of tightly regulated, high-priced, "authentic" goods--which, in the popular imagination, historically originated in Hong Kong, that outpost of the British Empire which manufactured and disseminated various simulacra of the paraphernalia of late capitalism, despite the regulations of corporate empires. "Bantu", the second portion of the collective's name, playfully signals the group's claim on blackness, though in many southern African languages, variations of the word "Ba-muntu" mean, simply, "human". Fong Kong Bantu Sound System's collective of DJs cloak themselves in this complex label, playing with fakeness and authenticity. The hype and swagger of their marketing campaign are delights that aid in an analysis of South Africa's obsession with racial purity, authenticity, and the desire, within a multi-ethnic setting, to maintain delineations between human categories. They also aid in the critique of more recent western obsessions, post September 11, 2001, with circumscribing 'the real', whilst describing that which is outside those borders as dubious at best, and terrorising at worst.
Imraan Coovadia's novel Green-eyed Thieves (2006) links apartheid-era obsessions with classifying and containing people with the policies implemented in the United States under the Homeland Security Act: both systems are driven by the desire to define what is 'real' (self) and what is Fong Kong (other)--where the detection of any ambiguity in the barbarian/ terrorist foe intensifies fears. The novel begins with Firoze Peer, one of near-identical twins from Fordsburg, South Africa, reflecting on his condition. He is writing his memoirs from his prison cell, on trial in Brooklyn for crimes that he says his twin brother, Ashraf, committed: impersonating a federal officer, and unwittingly selling forged passports and a "Florida driver's licence" (13) to Mohammad Atta (who was allegedly the ringleader coordinating the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001). Though Firoze is accused of a crime as serious as "violating the security of the United States" (7), threatening the sovereignty of the superpower was hardly their intention; his twin, Ashraf, just happens to be one of the greatest forgers of identity documents, an artist born of an unjust system that created the need to duplicate one's identity in order to expand the limited possibilities to which he--and countless Third World others--would otherwise be relegated.
In Coovadia's joyride of a plot, we see that the difficulties South Africa encountered in describing, inscribing, and enclosing those who, historically, have been geographically, financially, and socially mobile via intricate trade networks based on family connections, are the same limitations that the modern world encounters in the twenty-first century when attempting to confine, similarly, those seen as dangerously peripatetic bodies. Apartheid South Africa's obsession with categorising is also mirrored in the friend/foe binary created by immigration policies and border policing techniques, the dompasses of apartheid now replaced by immigration documents and visas.
Fong Kong Bantu Sound System's originators contend that within the so-called New South Africa, "we are all fake people ... our identities manufactured, played over and over on MTV and Channel O" (Fong Kong Bantus 2010). In this world, 'the real' remains elusive, where locations of exchange sell us "black market identities", rather than real identities that the figure of every hip-hop artist is typically employed to billboard, or is pressured to simulate for those who can then purchase their representative piece of authenticity. Like Fong Kong's collective of DJs, Thieves's green-eyed Peer family, and its twins, Firoze and Ashraf, own up to being a part of the marketplace of simulated reality. They take ownership of their Fong Kongness--realising that those who live in liminal positions must learn how to manufacture/mirror authenticity, while focusing our attention on the inevitability of manufactured simulacra in a world that demands 'the real'.
The trouble with ambiguous Indians
As South African Indians, the Peer family prove difficult to categorise, their green eyes--some "Persian conqueror's insertion on the green-eyed coast from Port Natal to Calcutta"--making them "unclassifiable under the old South African system . where the search for racial precision extended to the cuticle and the follicle" (Coovadia 2006: 32).
People who exist on the margins of the authentic in the modern nation state have to find ways of negotiating a location for themselves, especially within those nations that perceive them as a threat, and attempt to regulate them as Fong Kong. To highlight the effects of such measures, Coovadia purposely exaggerates what Indians in Africa are known for--being ambiguous, unclassifiable, and slipping between the seams. Indians outside their subcontinental home, like other "peripatetic peoples" occupying a "peripatetic niche" similar to that of gypsies (Berland and Salo, qtd. in Bogue 2004: 172), have an ambiguous relationship with settled communities: they are "compromising and accommodating" in some instances, and "transgressive" in others (Bogue 2004: 176). Drawing attention to "the mixture of clientage and bribery, threats of expropriation and grants of political access and political friendship that typifies minority-majority relations on most of [the] continent" (Coovadia 2009), Coovadia dissects Indians' ability to fit between the seams of discord, irritate all sides of a conflict, and become the necessary criminal element that helps forge bonds within such 'in-between' societies. In other words, these ambiguous Indians are enough like 'us' to be able to pass, but not sufficiently like 'us' for any nation-state to expect total allegiance.
Whilst Coovadia plays up preconceived notions of the Indian in Africa, availing himself of the image bank already present in the South African reader's mind, his characters and plot move beyond an ironic representation of Gujarati Muslims involved in underhanded dealings and underground connections. True, the Peers of Fordsburg are a particularly shifty bunch of uncontrollable Others; the fund of alterable markers that the family exhibits allows them to resist and dodge empirical nature's desire to taxonomise and immobilise its 'troubling' subjects. The twins' physical markers straddle multiple categories--the green eyes, for example, the unclassifiable skin--allowing them to pass between multiple ethnic groups, as long as the names displayed in their forged passports match those of the favoured ethnic group of the moment. Ashraf not only excels at counterfeiting documents that authenticate a person's identity, but his "kaleidoscope soul" allows him to be the "born-and-bred Johannesburger that he is" when he is in that city; "swear ... and mounta camel like a proper nomad" when he is in the wilds of Pakistan; and be "Brooklyn to the bone" when in that illustrious borough (2006: 20). When Ashraf impersonates "a sergeant in the United States Fish Wildlife Service", all he needs is a beautifully counterfeited uniform, courtesy of a family of Chinese seamstresses (18). Meanwhile, we know that Firoze, the narrator, is the trickster with language and affairs of the heart--something at which his twin has no skill. Firoze claims to be the more intelligent, the one who is true to his word; but at the same time, the reader comes to mistrust the words he uses, because of his skill as a wordsmith. If poetic words are interpretable in multiple ways, so too, sometimes, are the sentiments of people with word skills, whose emotions and language may be counterfeit, though reflecting perfect simulacra of 'the real' thing.
Coovadia's use of ambiguity as a form of resistance to Empire and empirical nature's desire to categorise in order to control mobility "was quite deliberate", asserts the author; the green-eyed Indian was "such a striking image--it's an image of difference and unclassifiability" (Jayawardane 2009). It is the ambiguity of the physical markers on the Peer twins' bodies (even the woman they both love luxuriates on the romantic prowess of one, and then the other, seemingly unable to distinguish) that makes them so unsettling --and desirable--for Empire.
It is on their foray into Sun City (the location of their first major heist)--"where South Africans, in particular white Johannesburgers, come to relax from Calvinism" (Coovadia 2006: 69)--that we note that the illicit physicality of the Peers is as essential at this carnival as Mardi Gras once was to Catholicism. As ambiguous and duplicitous Others, the Peer boys are a perfect fit in the city of manufactured desire: illicit, unclassifiable, not easily identifiable as friend or foe, falling outside the strict guidelines of a strictly regulated nation. If Sun City was the steam vent in such a high-pressure system, the Peer family is the hand that lifts the lid off the vent.
The United States, too, finds the ambiguous duo, Firoze and Ashraf, to be simultaneously necessary and threatening: they are the problem that a nation might like to eliminate, but cannot do without. Their physical (and metaphysical) unclassifiability is equally unsettling for any given Empire, be it South Africa or the greater Empire of the US, given both nations' penchant for classifying and sorting people using physical markers as signs of criminality/danger. Upon their arrival in the in the country proudly known as a nation of immigrants, the Peers learn that modelling themselves as Hispanics (that marker of ethnic ambiguity special to the US) allows them to pass with less trouble, especially after 9/11, when things became "pretty uncomfortable" for anyone of "Middle Eastern appearance, which means anybody from a skinny black Somali to a Syrian" (Coovadia 2006: 20).
But the dexterity that allows the Peer family to flourish within the margins--to counterfeit money, documents, personas (via some fine costume changes), bodies (the twins' ability to "exchange" themselves at crucial times), and, perhaps most frighteningly, emotional depth--is the same skill that throws World Order out of balance.
My students in upstate New York find the Peers' ready wit, never-give-up attitude, and stylish escapades (including one in which Daddy Peer steals the Aga Khan's fine wardrobe) irresistibly charming: after all, there's nothing more American than fighting authority and indulging in elaborate costume changes. The Peers' ability to dodge empirical nature's desire to taxonomise is, however, more problematic for the American reader. Despite this nation's self-projected image as the location where anyone can reinvent the self, America has long had a history of maintaining its populace in neat categories. Most American readers are also disturbed to find, through reading Firoze's sweetly-innocent-but-scathing commentary, that the US is simply embarking on a trajectory that apartheid-era South Africa already attempted: classifying and sorting people for potential criminality, using bodily markers of darkness as references for the level of danger they pose.
Coovadia's novel is a mirror reflecting the image of apartheid-era laws that institutionalised a system of human separation in South Africa that most American readers find abominably unjust--a mirror before which we now stand. During the apartheid era, the South African government drummed out the rhetoric of terror in order to scare the white population into keeping a careful eye on fellow citizens for signs of danger--which infamously included an education that taught the average citizen to watch for threatening signs of possible race-jumping by those who were physically ambiguous and difficult to classify. Similarly, in the US, a terror-alert system aimed at maintaining the population in a constant state of Shock and Awe, endless news reports of America under Attack, and an advertising campaign that exhorts: "See Something? Say Something" have, together, fashioned a hyper-vigilant nation. A population mobilised to watch for anyone exhibiting inauthenticity learns to be suspicious of ambiguity--we learn to read for the marks of Otherness. Like South Africans under apartheid, we in the US have been trained to be vigilant for ambiguity; we have been taught to exclude the bodies of those not meant to obtain Passes allowing access to geographical and socio-economic mobility.
Global terror and the American imaginary
In a recent review of Chinua Achebe's collection of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009), G Pascal Zachary argues that the only manner in which an Other enters the imaginary of the US is by embodying terror; the reviewer claims that Nigerians, specifically, have no purchase on the mind of the average US citizen (2010). The most populous nation in Africa has entered the consciousness of the most "provincial American"--not because of spam designed to divest unwary email users of their savings, or even because Americans "consume more than 800,000 barrels of Nigerian crude a day (nearly as much as that provided by Saudi Arabia)", but because of Nigerians' recent entry into global terror networks: on "Christmas Day ... a Muslim from the country's Islamic north tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane by detonating explosives hidden in his underwear. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, son of a wealthy banker, had visited Yemen, where he allegedly received training, material and instructions from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" (Zachary 2010).
As I write, several developments in the various plots to capture or kill alleged 'master terrorists' grip the imagination of the US, and New York in particular. Those that make the news most often are those that escape the powerful scrutiny of the US and its intelligence-gathering machinery, not the captured men condemned to interminable detention in the various US-sponsored gulags around the world. Whilst the US and its allies boast an ability to pinpoint any human being, the men allegedly located at the centre of terror networks, such as Osama bin Laden, have become apparitions, entering our world via self-created and distributed holograms. Recently, in May 2010, a man "purporting to be Hakimullah Mehsud tells acolytes he's 'alive and healthy', contradicting claims of death" in a highly publicised US air strike in January 2010 (Walsh 2010). During his nine-minute videotaped message, animated fireballs erupted in various locations on a projected map of the US, the blue outline of the Earth haloing Mehsud's beatific face as he delivered his predictions of havoc.
And in a real-life case that mirrors the stylish twinning in Coovadia's plot, "[t]wo dapper Brooklyn professionals" Wesam (Khaled) El-Hanafi, 33, and Sabirhan (Tareq) Hasanoff, 34, men with ties to the Middle East (a description that could apply to significant portions of the populations of New York and New Jersey), "were accused ... of being homegrown terrorist agents who pledged allegiance--and technical help--to Al Qaeda" (Meek et al. 2010). Tellingly, both men were of ambiguous origin, with no obvious national allegiance. El-Hanafi was, in the words of his neighbours, "the pride of his Egyptian-born family"; a native-born Brooklynite, he attended a local high school and Baruch College (one of ten senior colleges of the City University of New York) "where he played on the basketball team", and went on to work for Lehman Brothers as a computer engineer. Hasanoff "was born in Australia but raised in Brooklyn and Queens"; he, too, attended local schools and Baruch, later "working for PriceWaterhouseCoopers as an accountant", reported the New York Daily News (Meek et al. 2010).
New Yorkers continue to be horrified by the thought that men who sported "French cuffs and polished shoes", have "degrees from Baruch, impressive resumes, wives and children", and "neighbours who never suspected a thing" (Meek et al. 2010) might desire to dismantle the very nation that helped support their lifestyle. Is it solely their ties to Islam that we attribute to the lure of Al-Qaeda? Or is it also the two men's national ambiguity--betokening a lack of allegiance and stability, rather than a benign cosmopolitanism--that we attribute to the ease with which men like El-Hanafi and Hasanoff are allegedly drawn towards terror?
Our fear of the Third-World nomad who has no fixed address, birthdate, or location of birth, who is able to tap into the advantages conferred by post-regulation cultures that can manufacture identity documents for the correct amount of money, is compounded by the fact that we know that there is no way to create a watertight system of border-control. Instead of coming to realistic conclusions about the impossibility of circumscribing and removing the Other from within its borders, the US has manufactured super-villains, caricaturing singled-out men as Ambiguous Terrorists Extraordinaire. Simultaneously, the general population is bombarded with images of what this supervillain looks like, so that we all participate in monitoring our daily environments and neighbours.
Francois Debrix contends that ideologies espoused and publicised by American "masters of stagecraft" helped create an atmosphere of confusion, leading to the adoption of a "geopolitics of abjection" (here Debrix relies on Julia Kristeva's conceptualisations in her theory of abjection) in consequence of which we rejected the "unthinkable and the intolerable" in our search for meaning after September 11, 2001 (2005: 1158-9). Reduced to an abject state, the population is "fixat[ed] on a threat, a risk, a horror, or a terror that seems to 'emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside' and that must be 'ejected beyond the tolerable of the thinkable'" (1158). But before the collective nation got to that abject stage, it had to be prepared by other master texts: Debrix argues that in order to "deploy the kind of discourses, often discourses of war, that ... place the USA and its population on a path towards abjection", people had first to feel that they were "part of terror. Once terror takes over a body (physical or political), that body must inevitably live in terror, exude terror, and be one with terror". In this way, "the victim of terror" resurfaces as "the terror-wielder" (1158).
It was not only these political strategies, but also popular culture that delivered up material bodies on which to place abjection--perfected in the television series 24, which comes with its own abject hero, "special agent" Jack Bauer, who must make the decision to eliminate terror with his own brand of terror. Debrix examines the manner in which "an aesthetic imagination that relies on the sublime" (2006: 767)--the appeal to which bespeaks a "time of political crisis and cultural tension" (769)--was employed to make war "acceptable" to the American public. The sublime, which is "commonly described as pleasurable experience through visual representation of a situation that is otherwise normally painful, terrorising, or destabilising" (768) was the tool which, post 9/11, made indiscriminate retaliatory violence, torture, and racial profiling palatable for a visually educated, television-addicted American public.
Jeremy Prestholdt, in his analysis of the 'myths' surrounding the al Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, the man accused of masterminding the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, explains that given the near-mythic dossier of Muhammad's deeds, we might be tempted to conclude that he has been constructed as a superterrorist solely by US agencies. We might, similarly, be tempted to believe that gross misrepresentations of any given "terrorist"--or random Muslim available for scapegoating--are "simply the invention of counterterrorism agencies" anxious to exaggerate individual prowess (Prestholdt 2009: 451) in order to assign blame and gather ammunition towards justifying their own agendas. Instead, Prestholdt claims, as does Debrix, that the manufacture of "a stylish archetypal master terrorist" ... with the skills necessary to execute a global campaign of terror, have
largely been the product of a common psychology of fear and a popular imagination saturated with the layered syntax of the entertainment industry's imagery. Reflections on Fazul have fit him into the entertainment industry's familiar profile of the diabolical uber-terrorist. The awesome abilities and resources ascribed to him recall those of terrorists we know from the James Bond and Die Hard films and, more recently, from the television series 24. (2009: 451)
The male members of the Peer family are similarly fashioned to resemble those uber-terrorists of film and television, portrayed as "what many in the West, particularly in the United States, have come to fear most: a cash-flush and tech-savvy master terrorist with the ability to strike anywhere", with "little education and few resources or technical skills" (2009: 451). Portraying the threat as encased within mobile-but-daft bodies allows us to create the vehicles of terror as controlled, operated, and masterminded by Other
Powerful Bodies--a slew of modern Mothers of All Evil, the total annihilation of whom is proposed as the only means of bringing peace. Such arguments have been "a public rationale for U.S. counterterrorism aid" to various countries, and "even for direct U.S. military intervention" in some cases (2009: 451).
Coovadia's twins, who exist within a political, intellectual, and emotional space that does not allow for a more rational response, simply mock our (irrational) rationale for adopting, embracing, and celebrating this state of abjection with which the populace of the US cloaked themselves in order to find "the meaningful through the incomprehensible, the irrational, the nonhuman and the terror/horror that the lack of meaning often provokes" (Debrix 2005: 1158). It justifies our own foray into the methodologies of terror.
Unjust systems and their "rubbish laws": forging and circumnavigating the "authentic"
Coovadia's writing is an example of the way in which writing from the periphery, and particularly South African writing, is especially suited for observing and mocking the Superpower's ethos and actions. It adopts a novel position from which we can critique the global hysteria, led by the United States, concerning the mobility of uncontrollable, undocumented Others. The plot, and the narrator's wry sarcasm, ridicules the West's advertisement of itself as pluralistic, whilst simultaneously attempting to regulate threatening dark bodies.
When I first asked Coovadia how I should teach Thieves to American students, he jokingly said that I should show them early 007 films, and Goldfinger in particular. Indeed, his story follows the trajectory of heist films, which have intricate plots woven around a group of people trying to steal something of value from those in power. Variations of heist films with a dominant thread of comedy are often called caper movies and Thieves can easily fit into this category. Typically, in a caper, there are many plot twists, and the film focuses on the characters' attempts to formulate a plan, carry it out, and escape with the goods--in which they often fail miserably, though comically. There is often a nemesis that must be thwarted by the gang: a former accomplice who has turned on the group, one of its own members, or an authority figure that is villainous or unjust. In Thieves, this authority figure is the State itself--the post-9/11 US state, or the apartheid state in South Africa.
Scotland Yard's "psychological consultant" describes the Peer family as a group with enormous personal charm, characterised by "a liking for expensive clothes, love of disguises, of riddles, of joke telling, of American music, the instinct for adventure" (Coovadia 2006: 53-4). This psychological evaluation reveals the threat that the Peer family pose as going beyond a containable level of "unruly masculinity". They offend, explains the consultant, because they "live, and love, to offend" (54). Firoze quotes "Father da Silva of Columbia Episcopal Seminary", who muses: "Muslims, who are famously lovers of justice, are just as famously spiritually dislocated in today's world", leading them to feel self-pity, isolation, and, eventually, to commit "unfriendly acts against the social order" (54). Here, the authorial voice of Firoze intervenes to ask: "can any of this be true of a man who loves nothing more than the warm texture of a Hermes necktie between his weaver's fingers?" Can such allegations be true of a man who playfully calls himself "Connery Goldstone" (54), or has he been manufactured into a superhero/super-villain in the style of Hakimullah Mehsud, Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, or the dapper Brooklyn professionals?
The background history of the Peer twins' predicament in America explains how third-rate criminal buffoons like Firoze and Ashraf got to play key parts in the scheme that unhinged Western Civilisation. From the early pages of Thieves, we learn that the Peers are petty businesspeople running a ginger-beer factory in the heart of Fordsburg, the suburb of Johannesburg designated for Indians under the apartheid-era Group Areas Acts. In Fordsburg, the Peers "shield[ed] their lives from birth to death behind walls", as did "Europeans, Lebanese, certain Indians ... [and other] foreigners of means always do in uncertain times in Africa" (Coovadia 2006: 75). Though "the government had been trying for years to evict all the Indian families from Fordsburg in order to turn it into a white suburb", they held on by tying up "evictions in court for years and years", for "the cost of defeat"--demolished homes all around them--was a frightening threat (75). To live "without walls" in Africa is "unthinkable" (75), remarks Firoze, because it is to be destitute.
In Fordsburg, the family's real vocation lies within the "Second Economy" of South Africa: counterfeiting, forging identification documents, and general racketeering. As protective as walls in an authoritarian nation can be, the restrictions they impose on enterprising people require the dissembling/dismantling skills of the unruly Peers. They break the laws that make daily life nearly impossible to conduct, thereby weakening and ridiculing the mechanisms that protect that system.
Whilst the Peers are initially tethered to this Little India, their ambitions spill over onto the world stage around the 2000s, in time for Firoze and Ashraf to become entangled in forging passports, suicide bombers, twin aeroplanes missiling into 'The Twins' on 9/11, and America's subsequent schizophrenic attempts to persecute, befriend, and civilise the Infidels at the Gate of Liberty.
The family's ability to manipulate the law, fashion officials into malleable tools, overstep each barrier to their mobility, and be generally unintimidated by 'ironclad' systems mock both apartheid and 21st century American justice. Their moral relativity--which begins with bribery, forgery, petty theft, and the double-dealings associated with likable criminal hero-antiheroes--is something we support, since the laws of the nation are unjust.
Central to all the trickery in which the Peers engage are the twins. Ashraf is described as ruthless, dull-witted, gifted with electronics, and, beyond that, a doubler and dissembler of his own identity. He is the charmer who knows how to woo the ladies--everyone from his maths tutor, Elena Lagadakapopolos, to Fazila, the woman for whom he ultimately falls. Firoze, on the other hand, describes himself as the more emotionally developed, ethical twin. His intentions towards the ladies are poetically motivated, rather than sexually driven; he will hold off till he clicks his seatbelt firmly in place before driving the getaway car. As narrator and co-protagonist, he assures us that while Ashraf may forge passports, he is the "romantic counterfeiter" (Coovadia 2009: 9) who can woo us with language, even if his skills with the ladies are, initially, somewhat lacking compared with the sexual gymnastics of his brother. We applaud the Peer family's ability to trick an immoral system of law, especially because the law is broken in style, and the family's antics are related by a witty, literate, and wry narrator.
South African law, in particular, is dissected in a manner that is both humorous and devastating: "the Liquor Products Act of 1957 possessed a certain formal beauty as social policy, in that it taxed every drop available to Africans and then did its best to drive them to drink" (Coovadia 2006: 32). We know, from details like this, that the law is rubbish, and we support the Peers when they rubbish it. Ashraf spends an otherwise tedious afternoon rigging the lights at an intersection: accidents happen, and he justifies the chaos by saying, nonchalantly, that the mechanics will have something to do. They also ridicule the elaborate turns that authority takes in order to maintain authenticity: these are, after all, experts at making jewellery certificates out of a technologically un-advanced Etch-A-Sketch.
Most importantly for the plot development of the novel, Ashraf, the twin most adept at artistic work, makes fake licences and passports for his Uncle Farouk's friends in Pakistan, one of whom turns out to be Mohammad Atta. This is the point in the book where Coovadia pushes readers out of their comfort zone: most Americans cheer on this pair of maligned South African brothers causing havoc within the apartheid state; but when they not only break US immigration laws, but also forge the passports that allowed the alleged 9/11 attackers into the country--that is when most readers back off. For most of my students, who are third, fourth, and fifth generation Americans, the privileges conferred by their birth in this country are hard to question. Ridiculing the sacred passports that stamp their privilege firmly in place, and accepting that those who dismantled America's monumental sense of power obtained this sacred stamp from two criminal buffoons is not an easy next step. After the shock of seeing the borders of their security penetrated, their sympathies do not stretch far enough to question the legitimacy of passports and immigration law.
Passports, visas, immigration laws, and the nation state
Early in the novel, when Firoze hands a counterfeited Australian passport to the Hong Kong-born Tigerlilly (who wants the "freedom to move ... in case the mainland Chinese get stroppy" (Coovadia 2006: 17)), she warns him: "One day you'll get in deep trouble for providing these services ... [y]ou're at the intersection of every kind of underworld enterprise" (16). Firoze brushes off her ominous words, saying, "I don't see why people who need another passport ... to get by in life, should be any worse than the average person" or "people who were happy with their original names" (16).
That the mobile Peer twins, with their penchant for multiplicity and artistry, get involved in creating duplicates of this document carrying "high truth-claims" (Anderson 1994: 323) is no surprise: finding a way to forge a space between the powers that be in any given empire has always been the challenge of liminal groups.
The passport, "an identification document established during World War I as a temporary security measure that was soon adopted, and never abandoned, around the world" (Higgins and Leps 1998: 94), retained its position in peacetime as a means of safeguarding the "integrity of the nation and its citizens, whilst strengthening the state" (1998: 96), with each state retaining the authority to issue travel documents, and the right to locate an individual. Without this document, one has no right to mobility between ever-shifting national borders.
Though the "compulsory registration of all births ... [and] the infant's [subsequent] inclusion or exclusion from citizenship" were not the norm until 1876 (Anderson 1994: 323), when there was a "vectoral convergence of migration and nationalism in an industrial age" (1994: 323), today we are so used to having our personal details and movements checked routinely that we hardly notice that our passports have become an essential part of the regulations aimed at controlling the integrity of the borders of the nation state. As Lesley Higgins and Marie Christine Leps have noted, the passport, a document producing "legal fictions of identity" (1998: 104-5), is a "crucial but overlooked twentieth-century power-knowledge matrix" and a "marker of the ever invasive exercise of governmental powers" (1998: 115) that "operates by labelling, specifying, and dislocating persons and subjectivities into demographic data to be managed and governed" (1998: 105). These small books have become "the most effective and least noticed instruments of enforcement" for documenting and regulating individual lives; simultaneously, the identification tag of the passport has become something we fight for the right to own and have, "rather than a burden to oppose" (1998: 105).
The passports issued by powerful nations, designed to be ironclad, foolproof, and unduplicatable, are the ones that are especially in demand, simply because they offer a pass out of one's un-belonging, otherness, and lack of access to resources and mobility. Forging identity documents, as unapologetically as the Peer boys do, ends up looking more and more like the right thing to do--the just thing to do.
Threatening nomads/ glamorised nomads
The Peers enter America with innocent enough motives: to embrace the American Dream, and to better themselves outside the stultifying confines of South Africa. They initially try life in Pakistan, where Firoze finds that the have "a great advantage" in that they "look like everyone else", but their father, having already spoken to Atta about donating their services as passport forgers, believes they should try for New York (Coovadia 2006: 100). "Americans", Papa Peer gushes, "don't pin you down" or try to "put you in boxes" (100). The twins' father not only believes that "[i]t's astonishingly easy to change identities in the United States", but also, much to Firoze's incredulity, that "it's a friendly country to people like us, to ordinary Muslims" (100).
But when the Peers arrive in the US, they find that as colonial subjects on the move in centres of power, they have no connections (outside of Atta), no capital, and therefore no access. First, they discover that their counterfeiting skills are useless--the boring design of $20 bills proving as impossible to duplicate (Coovadia 2006: 108) as the cookie-cutter vision of American middle class perfection. And second, though they have arrived in the nation that advertises itself as the location of new beginnings, they are among hundreds of thousands of illegals in a country that grants access to the $20 bill and the picket fence of the middle class only by way of a highly regulated and closely monitored path.
The twins' trajectory in the US helps us reflect on what happens to ambiguous figures in a society that advertises itself as free, but has deep-seated inequalities and a history of monitoring the Other. Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton find that attempts to control, through documentation, those who leave their places of origin have a long history, beginning with the advent of print culture in the Early Modern era. They connect the trend towards closer surveillance and increasingly detailed documentation to "the rise of the state, or, at least, the growing dominance of the record file generated by local officials" (2005: 52). Further, Morgan and Rushton state that the surveillance methods shared by Britain and its colonies "relied on knowledge of the bodies and appearances of subordinate groups to control them", and that the anxiety "lay not so much in the mobility of the poor as in the challenge to authority that lay behind" their acts (2005: 52).
In the eighteenth century, the increasing availability of printed material and the increasing dominance of print culture made bodies, particularly those of the "poor, troublesome and criminal", more visible and noticeable through the growing public culture of advertisement (Morgan and Rushton 2005: 39). Newspapers announced the names of "those who have been seized by suspicious authorities", spreading the "word" and the "image" of the undesirable (2005: 39), availing the powers of scrutiny and regulation of criminality to a greater public beyond law enforcement officials. In the colonies, the dominant paradigm of containing the "unfree"--slaves and convict servants--led to a colonial society that was "in a state of constant alert" (2005: 51).
Morgan and Rushton argue that by contrast with the poor the "ideal" bodies of the Early Modern rich were "scarcely visible" (2005: 41), retreating as they did behind ever-more codified masks of makeup, wigs, stockings, and ruffles, secluded from public scrutiny by the privileges afforded by wealth, whilst "those in subordinate positions became accustomed to presenting the self for ... inspection" (2005: 40). Similarly, today, the nationals of wealthy countries disappear behind the privileges that agreements arranged by their governments afford them. Those born into families with names that signify a threat, or into polities issuing passports that offer little access to mobility are continually inspected and subjected to 'random' official humiliations. If those highly regulated peoples who bear threatening physical markers and suspicious names on their passports--the Pakistanis, Sudanese, Sri Lankans, Iraqis, and Palestinians of the world who have been displaced by conflict in their homelands--arrive at the entry points of wealthy countries, they must resign themselves to presenting the body for inspection.
The "printed culture of advertisements and reports" that sprang up with the advent of the printing press and cheaper paper became in time "the most public face of wider processes of surveying and controlling people" (Morgan and Rushton 2005: 50). Today, the 24-hour news channel, the internet newspaper, and the endless stream of doctored photographs plastering the image-field of everyday life subtly infiltrate mindsets and alter thought patterns. When we regard our repository of inner images for what constitutes the faces of the criminal and the terrorist, it inevitably contains those of Others of darker origins. Our bank of images of these Dark Others associated with the troublesome and criminal--did not arrive by accident. This archetype is directly linked to the broadcast of such images linking dark bodies with terror; bodies bearing the markers associated with otherness are continually publicised and advertised as threats in various media in the US and Europe.
The difference in being individually documented and publicised in the 21st century is the ubiquity with which the bodies of certain Others are almost instinctively associated, by those in the Western world, with the generic image of an irrationally violent terrorist. The increased visibility of this image of the terrorist in the media means that certain categories of bodies are advertised together with silent messages about danger, much as an image of a can of Coca Cola is silently accompanied by specific messages associated with its logo. This standard image is now publicised on such a large scale that an entire global public has become involved in policing this Other and his (and less noticeably, her) private ventures and movements.
The drive to circumscribe the mobility of the troublesome and the third world traveller stands in stark contrast to the mobility that has been romantically available to the citizens of Empire--to white men, especially, carrying particular markers of power on their physical and psychosocial bodies. European and American writers have long glamorised the notion of the nomad in literature. John Noyes describes our continuing romance with the limitless access promised to the powerfully mobile in the twenty-first century, wherein "our technologies of communication release us from locality, and, when we use them, we defy the physical worlds that tie us to territory" (2004: 159). But getting lost "in order to purposefully unsettle the European's traditional sense of proprietary mastery" (Bogue 2004: 230) as did Gustav Flaubert and Roland Barthes, fashioning themselves as nomads in order to question assumptions--with the security of home, settlement, and determined boundaries for the self, safely maintained for a return--is quite different from being a nomad whose location, origin, and identity are always liable to be interrogated.
Whilst "subjectivity in the late capitalist world is defined by mobility", in which we see a class of "nomad millionaires" who enjoy homes in many continents, we also witness many more millions of others whose "homed" status is destroyed by the same economy (Noyes 2004: 160), as well as a class of those who simply have to become mobile in order to be employed (and survive) within that economy. These are the ambiguous wanderers, the duplicitous forgers of authenticity, the threatening Others who trouble the integrity of powerful nation states, for whom the Peer twins, and their ability to manufacture the documents giving access to survival, far from being abetters of terrorists, are heroes.
The war on terror: a lawsuit
The War on Terror has been fought in the US through words and images and by enlisting the law. Gayatri Chakravorthy Spivak, in her "ruminations ... in response to America's war on terrorism" (2004: 81), sees it as having been "reduced at home to due process, to a criminal case" (2004: 82)--one not insulated from the intense nationalism that surfaced throughout the US in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. This aggressive nationalism found expression in "attacks, harassment, and vandalism against Muslims [and those believed to be Muslims] and their property ... in all parts of the United States and throughout Europe" (Modood 2001: 193). The aim, apparently, was to 'encourage' unwanted 'Others' to return 'home'. In addition, a slew of foreign-born nationals (mostly men) of "Muslim and Middle Eastern" backgrounds were detained and deported--though they were "found guilty only of infractions of immigration law, not of conspiracy to commit acts of terror" (Buff2008: 526). Deportation became a state-sanctioned terror-point for securing and enhancing borders, through which the country that famously espoused and advertised itself as a nation that invited immigrants in "though the mythical 'golden door'" also "ushered [them] out through a much less publicised, indeed, partially hidden back door" (2008: 526). In the months after the attacks, "[d]iscourses of subversion and terror ... mask[ed] the operation of racialised state terror" (2008: 526), as expressed in stepped-up visa and immigration regulations designed to exclude those marked as Other, and in humiliating body/property searches and interrogations at ports of entry into the West.
Despite all this, Coovadia's novel closes wittily enough, mocking America even as the narrator, Firoze, decides to raise his future children here: he intimates that his brother, Ashraf, "likes this country" because he "actively repels knowledge" (2006: 188). One surmises, from these words, that to love America, one must learn to turn the proverbial blind eye. The novel ends with a farcical triumph of sorts: Firoze, the twin who has always felt subordinate to his 'sexier' brother, Ashraf, drugs him during a prison visit, "exchanges" his body with that of his "dark brother ... [his] beloved subject" (203), gets out of the federal prison, and woos the girl of his (and his brother's) dreams. As Firoze walks out of prison, he muses on the expanse of Brooklyn Bridge, that unwieldy piece of architecture carrying the dreams of thousands of immigrants. He wonders about the "endless generations of bridge crossers, jail breakers, bail jumpers, brothers in arms . [those] Ecuadorians, Hungarians, Pathans, Han Chinese". Will they "love the music of the bullet" as they enjoy the "leopardine, leopardistic America which constantly changes its spots" (206)?
Because the glorified Global Cosmopolitan arrives in our collective imaginary in the form of a white, Western traveller, marked by a collection of authentic labels and kitted with the latest gear that marks her/him as mobile --the inevitable Patagonia wear, the Timberlands, and the Blackberry/iPhone --we associate such a figure with one who has an explicit right to be mobile. We (typically) define this Privileged Wanderer as a white, male figure originating from a powerful empire located in the West: a man who is mobile throughout, and even beyond the specific borders of his empire. Anything outside of that image, in a nation exhorted to be vigilant for ambiguity, triggers a terror alert. Firoze and Ashraf present us with inversions/ conversions of our image of this global cosmopolitan. Their trickster versions of desirable mobility confound and confuse our expectations; their ability to refashion identity adding to the modern state's fear of mobile bodies. As a pair of Others whom we cannot categorise into an organisable, controllable group, we can define them neither as friend or foe.
In following Firoze and Ashraf's solipsistic trajectories, Coovadia's novel creates a counternarrative to the usual story written by the Western travel writer: it is a spectacle mocking our terror of the Global Nomad, particularly in the form of the Global Muslim, in an age that has come to glorify plurality, mobility and transnationalism for the select, and circumscribe the mobility of certain dark others.
The liquid nature of the troublesome immigrant--those Third-World nomads like the Peer twins, with their ability to manipulate imposed boundaries--has come to be a profoundly disturbing body for this leopardine country. Dark immigrants in this nation of immigrants are under the constant threat of being described, circumscribed, and policed, to allow for our easy management. For us, modern nomads have little to do with Flaubert's hallucination-soaked dreams. Instead, as marginal people, we "are constantly confronted with the brute facts of how territoriality affects lives, whether it takes the form of . border crossings, ethnic conflict, land-ownership disputes, or the injustices suffered by refugees and migrant labourers" (Noyes 2004: 159).
In the context of the post 9/11 world that Coovadia highlights, we realise that the dream of "disembodied bliss" (Noyes 2004: 159) may only be available to those who already benefit from the intense territoriality of their powerful homed political situations. The Peer twins, with their multiplicitous bodies and passports, interrogate the assumptions of those born into powerful nations, whose privileges allow them to live outside of territoriality, unquestioning of their ownership of limitless access.
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|Author:||Jayawardane, M. Neelika|
|Publication:||Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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