|The story of humanity is a story of migration. We are here, all of us, because 100,000 years ago, our homo sapien ancestors migrated out of Africa into the great unknown. That’s taking the long view. But even if we take a much nearer view, our lives are, in essence, migrations from birth to death or—to be slightly less dramatic—from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to middle age to old age. And if we are lucky enough to reach old age, even if we have never chosen or been forced to move, our surroundings will have changed enough to make us feel like migrants or foreigners in our own homes. Long view or short, these are migratory passages we all share.|
Today, as we well know, migration is a blood-soaked affair with desperate people attempting to escape war, economic hardship, persecution, or injustice. Under such dire conditions, movement isn’t about choice, but survival. The passage is difficult, often deadly, and arrival at a destination (not always chosen) is rarely easy, even in the best instances. From Palestine, Lebanon, and Iran to Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, our part of the world has experienced and continues to experience more than its share of forced movement under horrific circumstances.
Kuwait is, and always has been, a country of migratory flows. Kuwait was first settled by migrating nomads from Najd in the eighteenth century. Migrants from Iran arrived in the nineteenth century. In the 1940s, the first wave of Palestinians migrated to Kuwait, helping to prepare the conditions for the establishment of Kuwait as a modern nation-state. 1967 saw a second wave of Palestinians arrive. Until the invasion, 380,000 Palestinians helped to contribute in indispensible ways to the ongoing development of Kuwait and to the vibrant and dynamic composition of its community. Kuwait was and remains a destination for migrant labor from South Asia, the Philippines, and Egypt.
Demographically Kuwait is composed of about seventy percent non-Kuwaiti residents and thirty percent Kuwaiti citizens. This is a number that bothers screeching politicians and some ostensibly patriotic citizens. One reason given for this concern is that the high number of non-Kuwaiti residents puts a strain on public infrastructure—healthcare, roads, and other services. Another familiar reason we hear is that the high number of non-Kuwaitis dilutes Kuwaiti national identity. A third reason asserted is that the large number is a threat to national security.
These concerns are, of course, completely disingenuous for a number of reasons. It is, after all, the State of Kuwait that allows migrants into the country by issuing visas, and it is the citizens of Kuwait who rely on migrant labor to do the jobs they don’t want to. Secondly, Kuwait’s kefala system enables the corrupt buying and selling of visas—in effect the buying and selling of human lives and labor. Some citizens are making a lot of money off of this. Thirdly, as a rentier state, Kuwaitis rely on rent income to accrue high profit; they need the seventy percent for that. Kuwaitis alone are allowed to own property; everyone else must rent.
The 70/30 demographic in Kuwait bothers me, too, but for completely different reasons than the ones politicians and their supporters bemoan. It bothers me because it reveals that Kuwait is not—and rarely has been—a home to most of its residents. Migrants arrive in large numbers, but they cannot stay. The post-invasion history of the Palestinians in Kuwait is a tragic case in point. But it is also true of the bidoun, or stateless. It is true for families—Indian, Egyptian, Syrian, among so many others—who come to this country, live and work here for decades, raise their children here, and then, at retirement age, are forced to go. Kuwait’s citizenship laws are notoriously exclusionary and selective and have created a situation in which the best of the best and their children are lost to the country that they have contributed to and that has contributed to their development as well. This bizarre, inhumane, unproductive, and uneconomical state of affairs has been the norm since the 1960s. It has never made sense to me.
One of the familiar arguments against naturalizing migrants has to do with the effect they might have on the purity of national identity. We hear this in Europe and the US today against Muslims and Mexicans. On our own terrain, similar rhetoric prevails when it comes to migrant labor, refugees, or the bidoun. Fear, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance color ideological perspectives and, in turn, motivate exclusionary legislation. As we can see globally, this culminates in hatred, violence, and divided societies. The outcome is brutal and, ultimately, I think—I hope—unsustainable.
Literature and cultural production counter all of this as a matter of course. Some of the most exciting, innovative, and humane literature being created all over the world today is the work of migrants and immigrants or their children. Examples of such writers include Sinan Antoon, Teju Cole, Mohsin Hamid, Salman Rushdie, Rabih Alameddine, Ahdaf Soueif, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, among so many others. But literature in general—whether written by immigrants, the children of immigrants, or just good writers—is almost always about the crossing of borders of one kind or another (formal or linguistic, psychological or existential, habitual or societal). The process of writing, like the process of reading, is transformative: You are not the same person at the end of it that you were at the start. Writing is a process of becoming; it is movement, a form of metaphorical migration. This is not to romanticize the process of writing nor that of migration. Nor do I mean to equate the pain and danger involved in forced migration to the sometimes demanding task of writing. However, perhaps it can be illuminating to consider some of the ways in which the things that make writing and reading literature important to so many—the very elements we celebrate and reward in literature—become the very features we fear most when it comes to migrants, refugees, or social outsiders of all stripes. And it might be useful to consider why, in fact, we should think about migrating human beings the same way we do about migrating or, to use Edward Said’s term, “traveling” texts—as being full of transformative possibility and wonder, to be embraced and not feared or rejected.
Excellent literature makes us feel out of place, foreigners in our own skin. It challenges our complacency, our normative points of view. It stretches our senses toward unfamiliar perceptions and emotions. This happens in childhood, and, if we continue to cultivate a love of reading, persists into adulthood too. Books are “open-sesames,” to misquote Salman Rushdie, immigrant writer par excellence. They open worlds we might never otherwise have access to. They teach us to imagine otherwise. Because they are texts in our hands, they might seem less threatening than migrants. Yet, as censorship and bans demonstrate, books are sometimes registered as threatening by power for many of the same reasons migrants are.
Migrants—like good books—challenge complacencies and attitudes and laws that might not be as tolerant or democratic as they are habitually believed to be by a specific community. Migrants force communities to interrogate exactly what kind of society they are, and whether they might want to transform themselves into something better—more ethical, more considerate, more open to others. For the moment, the official answer to that question is, for the most part, no. However, given the popularity of certain books and writers and the groundswell of grassroots resistance to bigotry visible globally, a degree of social transformation is decipherable. It is not happening fast enough for Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, or Palestinians, but it does seem to be occurring nonetheless.
It is a fragile transformation, not sufficiently robust to withstand the overwhelming force of geopolitical determination. It requires protection and cultivation. We have—as a planet—reached a tipping point. It is the planet itself that is at stake. If we continue on the route we are on—climate change be damned—the migration we are witnessing today will seem a mere trickle by comparison with what will unfold. Contrary to what governments claim, transformations—in culture, in society—need not be feared. They are happening everywhere, all the time, in small ways we might not be conscious of or in larger ways some might worry about. But such changes are more often than not exciting and inspiring, even if they include problems in need of solving. As books remind us, with a little imagination, solutions can be found. To sustain our planet, radical transformation is required: a shift in economic values; a modification of ethical practice; a reassessment of what it means to become human in the world. This is no easy task, but it is necessary, and urgently so. And imagine, just imagine, the possibilities.
Mai Al-Nakib (maialnakib.com) is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Kuwait University and author of the award-winning short story collection The Hidden Light of Objects.