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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


Every state is born of violence, and state power endures only by virtue of violence directed towards a space. . . . A founding violence, and continuous creation by violent means . . . such are the hallmarks of the state.

—Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

The dialectics between terra and terrere, so deftly carved out in Frozen River, is at the heart of Philippe Lioret’s Welcome. Set mostly in Calais, the closest French city to Britain, and alternating between French and English, the movie portrays a seventeen-year-old Kurd’s efforts to cross the liquid line that separates him from Dover and Britain, the promised land where his Kurdish sweetheart, Mina, now lives with her family. Compared to the three months traveling on foot from Mosul, Iraq, during which time he was captured and held prisoner for eight days by the Turkish army, the English Channel does seem like a last short stage of the trip. As he arrives in Calais on a winter day, he calls his friend Mirko, Mina’s brother, to announce confidently that he will catch a boat and arrive in London the following day. Dover and London appear as the final destination in Bilal’s personal

“cartography of distance” (Prete 2010, 101), a road map that responds to the primal and powerful impulse to go beyond restrictions, to draw holes in the texture of impending limits and barriers.8 As he asks a group of men the way to the harbor, they ask back where he wants to go. His answer, “to England,” is followed by a bout of laughter, followed by the mock question, “Did the Queen invite you?” and the mocking recommendation to travel first class. Bilal, like the group of men he addresses, is part of the “political abject” that roam around Calais.9 The youngster is stateless and rightless and has been ejected from the old trinity of state-people-territory (Arendt, quoted in Duvall, Gundogdu, and Raj 2009, 226). These first scenes point at Bilal’s ignorance as to the rituals of passage on a continent increasingly described as Fortress Europe. The strip of water Bilal has before his eyes is not a fluid line that blurs the contours of the other side. Boats constantly crisscross it; the Eurostar makes a quick dash between mainland and England; phone connections are instantaneous; the liquid line just bars the physicality of certain crossers.

Like the rest of countries in this supranational political entity, France and Great Britain have solidified their borders to foreigners at the same time that the inner frontiers among its members have turned into mere formalities. What Bilal is about to encounter is a section of what Etienne Balibar terms the “Great Wall of Europe” (2006, 2). Like the walls built throughout history, this Great Wall of Europe is a bounded space that performs a violent act of exclusion and inclusion. If, as Lefebvre comments, every country is born out of violence, maintaining its physical and political integrity requires constant vigilance and the mobilization of threat along its borders, the edges where societies are more vulnerable, and the sites of increasing violence. Far from welcoming the guest or newcomer, Fortress Europe delineates the place, the spatial practices, and the status of the migrant in one single stroke. Bilal, like Lila Littlewolf, and the hundreds of refugees in Calais, is the mark of a “shifting boundary,” as Bhabha would put it, that is never going to be admitted to the Heim of the country. Etienne Balibar has taken Bhabha’s argument a step further to suggest that contemporary migrants not only bear the mark of changing lines, but have themselves transformed into borders. When you detain and fix in a limbo, in a non-place, in liminal zones, you transform people into a border (Raj 2006, 518). Yet being a border does not necessarily mean a person is detained in a detention or refugee center, for borders enjoy other features, such as heterogeneity and ubiquity. Borders, therefore, do not need to be situated at geopolitical borders but can be anywhere, wherever there is a checkpoint that seeks to select the crossers (Balibar 2002, 84). For the French philosopher,10 migrants morph into the place (or non-place) they inhabit. The border, from this perspective, turns into a form of autotopography. It becomes outer and inner landscape, a location that has implications for both subject and place. Being a border has little to do with optimistic celebrations of identity; instead it is associated with the spatial and ontological indeterminacy of those who are located neither here nor there (cf. Raj 2006, 517). Although surrounded by the constant and expedited passage of goods and capital, these human borders live in utter immobility, harassed, as the movie shows, along a geography of non-places, from the harbor to the jungle or other shantytowns. Fortress Europe, the border without, has its own internal counterparts, a geography of control and incarceration that is part and parcel of the making of contemporary Europe and its liberal democracy. Welcome illustrates this fungibility of borders both at the outer perimeter of Calais, the busy transit zone where trucks are carefully inspected, but also in the alternative geography of Calais the migrants tread on. This geography is part of what can be considered another form of inte- riorized outside in Calais, a kind of striated and policed non-place, and yet a very real and violent place that may constitute one of the hegemonic projects of the state (Raj 2006, 521).

Even if Calais may seem like a translocality that goes beyond the traditional isomorphism of shared language, origin, genetic pool, and culture, an emergent space beyond the nation-state created as a result of contemporary mobility, the city elides Arjun Appadurai’s formulation in that it seeks to reinforce national parameters through violence. Stripped of the “trans-” part of the word, the French city is a locality or fixed site where migrants always walk in groups and are perfectly recognizable, unkempt and disheveled, carrying the border wherever they go, and transforming the places they traverse into non-places. These are not the spaces of supermodernity that do not provide any sense of identity (Auge [1992] 1995, 77); they are just places that bifurcate into different locales, depending on the customer. While they provide the habitual services for the traditional French customers, they close their doors to migrants. For the latter, they morph into spaces of eviction. The only time this boundary momentarily opens is in front of the network of volunteers that offer them warm food every day. The encounter creates a fugitive city that convenes and disperses at regular intervals. Unsurprisingly, that is where the movie shows Bilal as he awaits in line and recognizes a friend from Mosul, who had claimed he was already safe in England. He did so, he confesses to Bilal, because he did not want to worry his mother. He had been in Calais for ten weeks; another Kurd had been there for three months. These are the first intimations that the stretch of water that separates Bilal from Britain is not easy to traverse, that his mobility may morph into petrifying immobility. In a fast-paced conversation, Bilal goes over all the possibilities of crossing the channel. The train and the boat are ruled out immediately. Trucks are the only option, but they need to pay a handler. The matter is expeditiously settled and the youngsters make their attempt. Everything runs smoothly until the truck enters the busy Calais pier and undergoes individual inspection. This is the crucial stage where migrants have to put plastic bags over their heads to foil high-tech sensors especially designed to detect motion and body heat. The image of the hooded men reveals one of the basic tenets in this era of supermobility: borders are closed to humans but not to goods and merchandise. Logically, if a human being wants to cross the border undisturbed, he or she needs to become inanimate. The bag stands at the crux of that transformation. Only through the bag can the human cargo travel the pathways across the land and the water that are always open to goods. The bag thus provides the insulation of the human that is required for the crossing. It can also turn into a death mask that suffocates the migrants. In the midst of the inspection Bilal has a panic attack and gives the group away. He will later tell his friend that during the time he was captured by the Turkish army, he had a bag over his head. Since he comes from a country torn by war, he is not returned to Iraq, yet he cannot enter England, either. That is over for him, the judge declares. He returns to Calais once more as he gazes at the Dover cliffs on the other side of the liquid line. What awaits him is the opposite of a warm welcome.

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