When Arab, Muslim novelists tackle the migration issue

Despite rich raw material, few novelists have tackled the post-2015 migrant crisis or the 2016 populist upsurge in the United States and the United Kingdom.
December 17, 2017
Cover of Rawi Hage’s debut novel “De Niro’s Game”

Political novels have a long pedigree. Arthur Koestler’s “Dark­ness at Noon” (1940) imagined the thought processes that perhaps led veteran Bolshe­viks such as Nikolai Bukharin to confess at the 1938 Moscow show trials. Koestler’s friend George Or­well published “Nineteen Eighty- Four” just 11 years later.

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) used a fictional journey up the Congo to question whether European colonialists were more “civilised” than those they conquered. It was transposed to Vietnam and Cambodia by Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.”

Political novels may observe, satirise or even suggest alterna­tives.

Has our time seen a reduction in the flow of political novels? Despite rich raw material, few nov­elists have tackled the post-2015 migrant crisis or the 2016 populist upsurge in the United States and the United Kingdom with the Brexit referendum vote and the election of Donald Trump.

The exceptions, however, are important and several have been written by Arab and Muslim writ­ers.

Rawi Hage, who left Lebanon in 1984, has written powerfully of migrants fleeing violence. His 2006 debut novel “De Niro’s Game,” which is set in the civil war in Beirut and in Rome, won the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, the world’s richest book prize. It was ranked ahead of works by Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and Margaret At­wood; yet Hage was writing in his third language, having started in English only at 18.

In 2008, Hage moved towards allegory in “Cock­roach” and even more so, four years on, in “Carnival.” This novel divided taxi drivers in a nameless city into spiders and flies. The spiders wait at ranks or on corners and the flies wander. The central character in “Cock­roach” is a young man who tries to commit suicide and is subsequent­ly assigned a psychologist, who is unable to grasp the unstable, violent world from which her patient comes.

“You have to be well off to be a pacifist,” the young man tells the psychologist. “Rich or secure like you. You can be a pacifist because you have a job and a nice house, a big TV screen, a fridge full of ham and cheese and a boyfriend who goes with you to nice resorts in sunny places.”

Then there is “Exit West,” shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. In the book, Mohsin Hamid tackles migration through the device of magical doors, which appear first, by rumour, in an unnamed city at the onset of war between an authoritarian govern­ment and militant fundamental­ists.

The city is home to Saeed and Nadia, who meet at an evening class on “corporate identity and product branding.” As the city dissolves into violence, the two fall in love. Interestingly, Saeed is slightly conservative, living with his parents and praying regularly while Nadia lives alone, independently, while wearing a black cape to ward off unwelcome male attention.

As the city slips into brutal­ity, the pair pays a door agent for a way out, finding themselves first in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Mykonos and then in London where “Britain for Britain” agitators threaten a massacre of migrants. Saeed and Nadia il­lustrate the changing relationship between “natives” and “immi­grants” and between immigrants themselves, as they move through another door to a new city near San Francisco.

Hamid is also thinking of solutions. Migrants to London pay a “time tax,” a contribution to long­standing residents that gradually decreases, while they can also gain rights to home ownership through work on infrastructure projects.

“[A] portion of the income and toil of those who had recently arrived on the island would go to those who had been there for decades and this time tax was tapered in both directions, becom­ing a smaller and smaller sliver as one continued to reside, and then a larger and larger subsidy thereafter… conflict did not vanish overnight, it persisted and sim­mered…[but] existence went on in tolerable safety,” Hamid wrote.

This ties in with ideas from po­litical philosophers such as David Miller of Oxford’s Nuffield College and Joseph Carens at Toronto University. They argue for “social membership” or a citizenship that migrants acquire as they work and develop connections. Eventually, a threshold is passed and they are no longer considered strangers.

“Exit West” is no polemic but the imaginative theme of magi­cal doors is inescapably political. Towards the novel’s end, with a leap of some years, the doors are far more easily accessed and less contested with the world becoming a borderless utopia where it’s pos­sible to visit Chile for the evening.

This reflects Hamid’s own views. In a 2014 article for the Guardian newspaper, he proposed a human right to migration, suggesting the alternative was an “apartheid planet where our passports will be our castes and where obedience will be enforceable only through ever-increasing uses of force.”

Hamid has flitted between Paki­stan, the United Kingdom and the United States since childhood but currently lives in Lahore, where his children can play before school with their grandparents. This perhaps attests to his desire to be both mobile and root his family in a specific, secure place. For this to be an option for all the world’s 7.6 billion people is truly utopian.