The Politics of Travel for Conde Nast Traveller / June-July 2017

 

Note: Following is the longer, original draft of the essay.

 

Departure. Arrival. Return

By

Suchitra Vijayan

 

‘In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.’

– Franz Fanon

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

James Baldwin

 

I have lived in Madras, London, Hague Arusha, Cairo, New Haven, Kabul and New York. I have called these cities my home at one time or another. I have been hit by tear gas in Ni’lin, Palestine, travelled across Sudan from Khartoum to the border town Kassala on rickety buses; I have seen mass graves in Rwanda, and nature’s wrath unleashed in all its fury in Haiti and Syria unfold before of me from the Turkish Border town of Mardin. I could write about these places. But today is a meditation on departures, arrival, the condition of exile and what it means to travel. To write about travel, you have to write about your home. Without a home, travel wouldn’t exist. Without a place to return, all travel is loiterings with time.

Departures

I was seventeen when I left for England to start my undergraduate studies in law, just a week after the 9/11 attacks. On my layover in Dubai, everyone seemed nervous. CNN streaming on the walls of the departure lounge was calling Kabul the terror hotbed, and Americans it seemed wanted blood. In the weeks that followed US government launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

In the years to come, TSA would demand disrobing at security checks, visas for brown folks would get harder, terms like ‘radicalisation’, ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘War on Terror’ would become part of everyday language and entire communities would become prisoners to state surveillance and buzzing drones. I
 was stepping into adulthood in this world of dystopia. When I saw the US Blackhawks fly across Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, I wanted to go
 to that country. I wanted to travel not to see the world or ‘discover it’, but to understand it. To understand human nature, feel the texture of violence and understand the pathologies of the men who created this dystopia I lived in.

After I had trained as a Barrister, I left London and headed to Hague to work for the War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, and a year later to Arusha, Tanzania to work at the  Tribunal for Rwanda. That summer I travelled through Rwanda in motorcycle taxis (taxi-moto), bicycle taxi’s (taxi-velos) and minibuses, hitchhiking from one city to another. Rwanda I saw was a living museum of genocide. Signs with the word “Jenoside’ was plastered throughout the country. These signs marked the sites of massacres and mass graves. Other larger signs repeatedly proclaimed, “Never Again.” Ntarama and Nyamata Churches located south of Kigali are horrifying reminders of violence that took place during the genocide are now genocide memorial sites. The floor of the Church at Ntarama, bloodstains, bones, blood-soaked clothing, shoes, and personal artefacts from the massacre remain scattered on the floor. At Murambi genocide memorial site, mummified bodily remains of men, women and infants are displayed. Seeing these bodies, frozen in the positions in which they met their gruesome fates, one can hear an “extraordinary scream pass through nature”.

The war might have ended, but the memories of genocide lived on. Homes had been transformed into sites of massacres and destruction. People had to return to those very sites of violence and resume living, often living yards away from perpetrators who killed their family. But the most heartbreaking stories I encountered were those of the children of rape. These children were brought into this world with unspeakable violence. Today they carry the burden as both marker of the genocide and the victims of that violence?

Since Murambi was farther away from Kigali, very few visitors made it this far. My friend Elaina and I were the only visitors to the museum that morning. The mummified bodies of over 50,000 dead, the manicured lawns and the eerie silence of the place left me numb. The smell and the memory of death are pungent. The blood-soaked clothes of the victims on display and the smell of the mummified bodies are a painful olfactory memory I still carry.

As I stepped out of the Murambi Genocide Memorial site, I saw two little girls and boys running around the site playing. I wondered if they knew what all this meant. That these grounds they ran over was once a shallow mass grave. My Burundian friend who had joined me at the site later spoke to the kids. As we later got on the taxi-bikes to head towards Lake Kivu on the Congolese Border, my friends remarked that the children knew. While they were born year’s aftermath the genocide, the children still grew up with an intimate knowledge of what had transpired; they were the inheritors of loss and memories of those 100 days. One of the girls said that she had once gone inside the museum trying to locate her brother, who had been killed as an infant in the Murambi massacre. She couldn’t. She was born five years after the killings but continued to live with his presence. The museum currently displays mummified bodies preserved in lime of thousands of children and infants.

Since then I have often wondered what home means when you grow up near a memorial site with 50,000 exhumed bodies. What did childhood amount to in these places, when you had to live with ghosts?

Arrival:

Brown and black folk don’t travel, in the imaginations of the visa regimes, border controls and check post we can only migrate. We are always immigrants even when we are architects of our travel, and our travel is by choice. And when our journey or exile born out of violence, we become refugees without a state. The world sees the colour of our skin,  and brands us as a migrant, as a refugee, as an illegal alien, not as a traveller or a nomad. Recently author Ishtiyaq Shukri, despite having lived in the UK legally for 19 years, married to a British citizen and owning a house in London, was barred from entering Britain. The Independent reported that “After 19 years legally resident in the UK, a South African book tour and a few trips to see his wife, the head of Oxfam in Yemen led to author Ishtiyaq Shukri’s deportation”. His trips to Yemen was seen with suspicion. “To those who don’t know what this kind of probing interrogation feels like, one curious effect is that somewhere deep inside one begins to doubt oneself,” he wrote. “That must be part of the interrogator’s intention, and it left me feeling violated.” He added, “But my name is not John Smith, and I have been to Yemen. That, I believe, sealed my fate at Heathrow and led Border Force officials to think that they could not take a chance on me, to decide that, given all the options at their disposal, they would enact the harshest. Had John Smith’s circumstances of 19 years in the UK been mine, would British Border Force officials have cancelled his life on the spot?”

When Ishtiyaq’s fate was sealed, I was in Kashmir, travelling to the border villages in the North. My first response was to flip through my passport see the multiple visas stamped to Afghanistan, Israel, Sudan and Eritrea. Would I be stopped, when I returned to New York?

As I write this, the US government has banned entry from seven majority-Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days following the signing of the order on Friday 27 January. For many people then this world is not flat, it is fenced, patrolled and policed. If this is the predicament of over most of the postcolonial world, then how does one indeed truly travel to engage with the world, then write about it?  

In Tourists with Typewriters Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan refer to the writers who use travel writing as a subversive medium for cultural and political critique as ‘counter-travelers’.  These are “travel writers who resist the tendency to indulge in exoticism or demarcate clear borders to differentiate or separate national and cultural identities.” I interpret counter-travelers as writers who write about a place not just of its present, but through its past. How it became a place in the map, how that map was drawn and redrawn.  When James Baldwin wrote, Stranger in the Village, his account of living in Leukerbad, Switzerland,  Baldwin writes as much about the village in Switzerland, Europe’s relationship to slavery,  and  “White American’s” contentious relationship to the “Black Man”. Here Baldwin was the subversive counter traveller.

In the same spirit artist and cartographer Subhas Rai redrew the Map of South Asia, for Himal South Asian magazines.  “The map mat seems upside down to some, but that is because we are programmed to think of north as top-of-page. This rotation is an attempt by the editors of Himal to reconceptualise regionalism in a way that the focus is on the people rather than the nation-states. This requires nothing less than turning our minds downside-up”. As children of this predicament, travel then transforms into something else. Like redrawing the map, travel itself should become a search for new ways of seeing. Each city, each conversation must become a  dialectic. The search for answers, and arguments, and in finding them we must build new homes.

Return.

Travel is nostalgia for home. It but not be the turmeric-tinged longing of the generation that went before me, but something else. For me, it’s transformation of my home into something unfathomable. Every time I return home, the place I left behind has changed a little. The oceans make a different noise; maybe it is just the sound of plastic waste caught in the currents or the shoreline eroding faster because of illegal sand mining. The texture of the language falls flat on my ears. But those are just cosmetic. My home no longer exists, it eroded in my absence. It has become less tolerant, more violent and seems to have lost its voices of dissent. It has also succumbed to worst kind of inertia: the apathy of the mind. The only home I remember is a residue of my imagination. I wonder how much of the Madras I remember existed to start with. So it became easier to make homes in the places I travel to. In conversations, books, and people who smell like home

But I am still lucky. I can, for now, choose the time, place and circumstances of my arrivals and departures. I have friends who live in exile, some of them were born in exile. Other who have returned home to their city emptied by bombs. Friends who became refugees twice, once from Palestine, second from Syria, and spent months locked up like an animal in Australia’s refugee detention camps. There is little Aylan Kundi’ found along the Turkish shore, whose mother decided to risk her children to the ocean because the land was no longer safe. “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey,” was 13-year-old Zubair’s statement to Congress about the destruction of his home by American drones. He and his sister were injured in a drone strike near North Waziristan in 2012. When you see them, you realise that homes can also be turned into prisons and graves.

I wasn’t born in war-torn Kosovo, or Rwanda, Gaza, Syria, Kashmir

Or as Dalit women in my own city. Or black in the city I now call home. For the Russian roulette of geographic location, caste and race would have played, a determining part in making me some less. Had I survived the Gujarat riots, bombing in Gaza or Curfew in Kashmir, I would be somebody else. When travel is personal, travel also has to be political. When we travel, we must ask why some homes don’t exist anymore, why that destruction doesn’t have its authors.

Travel is still nostalgia for home.