It is possible that the history of our age may come to be seen as the age of migration. We don’t usually think of these times in that way. The business world sees to the emergence of computers and information technology, along with the development of free trade, as defining the moment, while historians of culture champion the importance of television as our ubiquitous medium. Others see religious conflict or the emancipation of women as motor forces in modern development. But beneath these visible phenomena an unparalleled movement of people and peoples has given shape to our times.
Recently, a series of inter-linked stories brought home to me how pervasive is the experience of forced relocation, with its consequences of emigration, family separation and the difficulty of making a new life in a new place. These stories began when I read, fascinated, The Glass Palace, a new novel by the Bengali author Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh chronicles the dislocations of a Bengali-Burmese family buffeted by a colonial and postcolonial history of imperial domination, war, and economic reversal. Absorbed in the remarkable reach of the novelist’s imagination, I was unprepared for the conclusion of the narrative, where Ghosh author reveals that his story is his story, the character his family, the events his own familial history.
I was so overwhelmed with the sweep and power of the novel that I gave a copy of it to a young friend whose father, I knew, had grown up in Burma like the novel’s protagonist, Rajkumar. Several months later her father, Prashanta, wrote to me across continents and oceans to tell me how closely the story in the novel mirrored his own. He too had been forced to leave Burma during the Second World War amidst bombing, devastation, death. His family too had been separated by the need to escape destruction. His father, like Rajkumar in the novel, had journeyed overland on foot for many months to seek haven in Bengal.
Prashanta’s story, as stories are wont to do, worked in my subconscious, until I recognized that it was the story of my family too. My own father left Germany to avoid persecution, coming to the United States as an émigré. Separated from his parents, they were later reunited when impending imprisonment and possible death led my grandfather to flee. So sudden was the threat to my grandfather that he made the decision to emigrate while in the midst of a brief business trip, never even returning home, where the police were waiting to take him into custody. My mother, too, left Germany with her family when racial laws began to make life untenable for Jews, and when her brother was beaten by young Nazis as he walked down a city street.
Persecution, emigration, flight to a safe haven, familial separation, the hope for a new life in a new place. Is this not the history of the last hundred years? Migrations have taken place from Bangladesh to India, from India to Pakistan, from Germany to the United States; but similar passages have also occurred in Guatemala, Hungary, the Sudan. Masses of individuals flee from Kosovo to Albania, just as other mass migrations move from West Timor or Rwanda to anywhere safe from genocide. People flee to avoid death and persecution, racism and religious intolerance. In similar fashion, in country after country, individuals alone and en masse flee the shackles of economic want: from Mexico and China, Turkey and Panama, Korea and Nigeria. Starvation or absolute penury are as great a goad as persecution
Ten percent of the people in the United States were born elsewhere, most in flight from political repression and economic destitution. Millions of refugees and guest workers cross into the countries of the EEU. West Bengal knows only too well the pattern of forced migration. In every region of the world nations have struggled, or are struggling, to cope with displaced persons who stream across their borders in desperate flight from tyranny or economic catastrophe.
Too often the story
is written large by citing the names of distant lands and numbers which
are abstract and ultimately numbing. The actuality of migration is
something else, compounded of tragedy, dislocation, maladjustment.
That actuality is composed, person by person, of suffering and separation,
of the past jettisoned, of a future which stubbornly resists shape.
One has only to look at recent occurences in Bradford (or Oldham or Burnley) in Britain to see how difficult can be the situation for refugees and emigrants even in the developed world. Flight from one country does not protect one from prejudice, the National Front, and hopelessness in another. “The whole thing kicked off with some white lads calling us Pakis and it all went off from there,” said Tahir Hussein, 28, about how the recent race disturbance in Bradford began.
What was it like to walk for three months from Burma to safety in what was formerly Bengal? Even the novelist’s imagination fails: Ghosh in The Glass Palace tell us about a long journey, but does not detail it. What has it been like for Rwandan Tutus to live hidden in the jungles of the Congo, or for the ‘lost boys’ of the Sudan to wander the desert for five years without home, homeland, family? What is it like to live in a displaced persons camp in Lebanon or Jordan, in Kosovo or Albania, in Indonesia or Malaysia? To endure, day after day: a non-person in a non-place, yet having a name, a story, feelings as easily bruised as anyone living in more secure conditions?
Displacement is the hidden history of our time. Often one misery is exchanged for another less dire misery, as seems the case for many South Asians in Bradford. Owing to human resiliency and fortuitous circumstances, emigration can also have a happy ending: a new start made, a new home created, new roots sunk into a different nation’s soil. The dream is always economic security achieved, political despotism relegated to memory, children born into a world of bright promise.
Human cruelty in the form of persecution or the inequitable sharing of economic resources has forced hundreds of millions of individual human beings to depart from their homes, often leaving family behind, to seek survival by means of emigration.
This cruelty rears up again and again, seemingly without cease; because of it, the human flight across national borders is ongoing. What frightens me in the early hours of the morning is that the unthinkable is maybe not impossible: perhaps the worst is yet to come.
It is possible that empathy and a tolerance for differences of nationality, class, language, culture, religion, can put an end to this ongoing cycle of forced human migration. Perhaps such empathy and tolerance will affirm a respect for individual liberties and a revulsion at economic exploitation so that forced migration is no longer a defining condition of contemporary existence.
Meanwhile, armies of displaced
persons make their way across the globe, in their invisible wake inscribing
the silent history of our times.
Huck Gutman is Professor of English at the University of Vermont.
Recently Visiting Fulbright Professor at Calcutta University, he is with
Representative Bernard Sanders the author of Outsider in the House [Verso].