Waiting Bodies in Dictatorial and Bordering Regimes




Waiting is a particular temporal praxis, whose political dimension is more likely to be missed by those who make people wait than by those who have to wait for a visa, for food, for access to the city, etc. Shahram Khosravi shares with us some of his reflections on this action of waiting; its Kafkaian dimension, but also its revolutionary potential.

Chalabi Funambulist 3
Are you afraid of us? a part of Hayfaa Chalabi, Refugees Welcome?, 2020, also featured in Shahram Khosravi (ed.) Waiting, a Project in Conversation, 2021.

Léopold Lambert: You recently published the book Waiting: A Project in Conversation, which is a volume that has a lot of you in it, but that you wanted to be a collaboration with many people. You explain that you simply could not make a book about waiting in a “purely academic form.” Do you think that it says something about waiting and time that you encountered this difficulty?

SHAHRAM KHOSRAVI: This comes from a project that I have been working on for several years and I experienced a failure in putting my experience of what I have been thinking about when it comes to temporality and waiting in the form of pure academic language and format. I think it was a risk to do a narrow focus on waiting and missing other aspects of waiting, which are for me very interesting: for example, the aesthetics of waiting, the visual aspect of waiting, the architecture of waiting, etc. Also, within academia, I felt that waiting is treated more or less from a power position. You think about waiting from a power position, from a State position. And I wanted to see not like a State; I wanted to look at waiting from below. And this is why I started the conversation with many people with different backgrounds both geographically coming from different places, different biographies, but also different disciplines or different working forms: they are artists or architects or storytellers, etc.

This is why I published the book in this form. This is a collection coming from people who have been waiting themselves for different reasons. They have lived experiences of waiting themselves, because many of them are non-Europeans — this book is not only about migration and borders, but it is a main focus in the book. It talks about the temporal bordering, delaying people, keeping people in waiting, keeping people in queues outside embassies, along the borders of European states, etc. It is also about how waiting is about sense: you feel it with your body, and it is very difficult to express or to write about, at least for me, in an academic form. This is why I asked people from other areas to share their experiences and knowledge with me.

LL: This bodily experience is as much in the short-term wait, which hurts your back, your legs, etc., as in the long-term one that damages mental health… In your introduction, you write that “One of the basic divisions in the world today is between those who are forced into protracted conditions of waiting and those who impose it.” Could you elaborate on what it is that makes time so entangled with questions of power?

If we go back in history, waiting has been separating those who have the power to make other people wait and people who don’t have that power.

SK: Yeah, if we go back in history, waiting has been separating those who have the power to make other people wait and people who don’t have that power. But I think it has become more visible, more explicit in modern times. In modern societies, we see how time has become a capital: you invest time, you save time, you spend time… exactly the same vocabulary we use for money. So we see time as something we can make a fortune of. So if you have to wait for a long time, it can be felt like wasted time. You don’t have that capital, you cannot use that time for education or work or accumulation of this or that. The power relation is very clear here: it is a class issue. Who can wait and who can afford not waiting? Who can pay and jump over queues? Who can pay and not wait in refugee camps? Who can pay and not stand outside a government office somewhere. As Pierre Bourdieu put it, it is a form of domination: keeping people waiting without crashing their hope. You tell them, “Come back tomorrow.” “Come back tomorrow, come back”… this is really Kafkaesque! So you keep waiting, in the hope that something good will happen, something which never comes. This is very much a form of domination. And this is also a neoliberal mentality that turns waiting into something noble: if you are a good waiter, if you wait patiently and don’t complain, then you are a good citizen. In Farsi, and in Arabic, we use the words sabori, which means suffering patiently: the person who is supposed to do sabori endures and doesn’t complain. The same goes for Latin with patient, meaning to suffer and to endure. So, there is some added value to endure and to not protest. Keeping people waiting is reminding them of their place in a racial and gender hierarchy, and of course, a class hierarchy.

LL: You talked about waiting at the border or waiting at the embassy, which is always a sort of external condition to the space we call “the border.” But as Harsah Walia or yourself are teaching us, the border is not merely this line or this specific space, it is embodied in pretty much every space on both sides of that line we call “border.” Consequently, would you say that this act of waiting for a visa, a work authorization, etc. inside “the border” is one thing that can help us reconcile this idea of a multi territorial border regime?

SK: Yes, as you say, borders are not lines between states, but a series of practices and this series of practices can happen a long time after you cross the border between States. And we see how one of the main aspects of temporal bordering is delaying people. And this delaying, which results in waiting of course, is very much racialized, and with long term consequences. I give you an example. In the 1990s, two main big groups of asylum seekers came to Sweden, on the one hand Somalians, and on the other Bosnians, Somalian asylum seekers in average had a longer asylum process, they also waited longer to get Swedish citizenship, compared to the group from Bosnia. And now 25 years later, we can see the consequences of that delaying and waiting for Somalians in terms of their weaker situations in the labor market situation, in the housing market situation, for their children in education, compared to the Bosnian group. So I think delaying is very much a strategy to keep some people in this racial hierarchy of society. This is only one example, but you can see so many others: African Americans in the United States, Palestinians, etc. this delaying is a technique to steal their time to keep them in lower situations in hierarchies. It is so obvious in Palestine with Palestinians waiting in long queues at the checkpoints…

This delaying is a technique to steal their time to keep them in lower situations in hierarchies. It is so obvious in Palestine with Palestinians waiting in long queues at the checkpoints…

LL: The administrative machine that regulates the legal status of humans in the spaces where they live is arguably the entity that produces the most waiting, with devastating consequences on people’s mental health. Exiles experience it on a daily basis, waiting for “a piece of paper” that would ultimately allow them to breathe, virtually liberated from the constant threat of deportation, often only to realize that the next phase of waiting is coming. What forms of resistance exist against what you yourself designates as “stolen time?”

SK: Yes, I also used the term “wasted time” earlier, which brings the idea of passivity. But waiting is full of potential qualities. I use the metaphor of insomnia: waiting is like insomnia. You are aware of that, you think about why you cannot sleep, and you also think about what you’re waiting for. Those are very important questions. In the example you gave, you’re waiting only for a piece of paper. The moment you ask the questions you historicize your waiting, you politicize it: what is the object of waiting?, why am I waiting? Then, it also opens doors for resistance, for refusing… the revolutionary unwaiting. Here I refer to Martin Luther King’s call for unwaiting from his cell in Birmingham jail in early 1960s; “Why we can’t wait!”. The U.S. society’s promises of justice to African Americans, but it never arrives. The white authorities asked them to wait and wait and wait, but justice never arrived. Never will arrive. So we should not wait anymore. I agree with him and I follow his call for unwaiting. This is an urgent revolutionary act.

But also going back to your question about stolen time: I write about stealing of time, keeping people in waiting, delaying them, stealing their time, etc. but also that there is a form of resistance in stealing back your time. We have many examples of how people steal back their time, for example, migrants or asylum seekers who have a deportation order, they go in hiding, they refuse to collaborate, they start a clandestine life. So that refusal is a way to gain time, to steal back time for finding a way out of this horrible predicament. For example, in case of asylum seekers, they can apply again, after four years, if they can, you know, be in the same country, or if they can during time of hiding, maybe saving money and traveling to another country. Or in case of failed asylum seekers to collect documents, and coming back with a stronger case.

So, stealing back time is a way, but also, just waiting and waiting and saying “I’m not going anywhere, I wait here”: presence itself is a kind of resistance, because these people are not supposed to be alive at all. They are not supposed to have survived. The way they survived wars, how they’ve survived borders, border controls, and the asylum processes and migration processes. And they are still here. When I’m talking about waiting, I’m not talking about one year or two years, I’m talking, in some cases, decades. In the case of young people, 25 years old, and he has been waiting 15 years; or 12 years of 19. We are talking about two thirds of one person’s life! So protracted waiting is something we see more and more. In 1996, the average time of being a refugee was nine years. Today is more than 20 years. So not only do we have more and more people in refugee situations, but also these people are longer and longer in refugee situations. We see that waiting becomes some form of permanence. This is very obvious in the case of Palestinians, for example, you know, how many years they have been waiting: 73 years. That’s why the Palestinian sumud is a central concept: being here, being present. This is so much about time, being in that place during all these years and waiting for freedom.

Chalabi Funambulist 2
Refugees Welcome, / a part of Hayfaa Chalabi, Refugees Welcome?, 2020, also featured in Shahram Khosravi (ed.) Waiting, a Project in Conversation, 2021

LL: Queues are very present in the book: you write yourself that “Queues produce obedient behavior.” Could you tell us more about this very particular spatialized form of waiting?

SK: Coming from Iran and experiencing the 1980s, the first decade after the Revolution: I grew up with queues. Queues became something where people conceptualized life around, and I think this is very common in many other countries too in the part of the world we call the Global South. So, queues are a very visible form of how states organize bodies. And it is a very visible form of sovereign identity that states can keep people waiting and waiting for different things: it can be outside embassies in big cities, capitals, in Asia or Africa; it can be waiting for food, it can be waiting for clothes or fuel, etc. And I think it’s a very powerful scene to see citizens being kept waiting in queues, one queue, another queue, you know, people move from one queue to the next. Because it’s not only one queue: they queue for different things. And sometimes they queue many several queues in one single day. So, this is about how citizenship is transformed. Javier Auyero, an Argentinian sociologist, writes how citizens are turned into “patients of the State.” They are no longer citizens with access to citizenship rights, but they have become people who are waiting for something coming from the State. But again, if we go back to the resistance question, queues are also interesting spaces where people while they are waiting, they talk to each other. And they complain.

LL: As Basma Abdel Aziz writes in the book, sometimes you start a queue, and only then you ask what the queue is for!

SK: Yes, exactly. And exactly that question. You start asking: “What are you waiting for, what am I queuing for?” I also realized that queues are very interesting places for debate. People are complaining and exchanging information, and so it can also be a space for protest and resistance. These queue subjectivities are not only passive ones, but they can also be full of potentiality for doing things.

LL: Every queue is a potential conspiracy against what makes people wait, right? If you make people wait for hours without giving them ultimate satisfaction, you have a risk of an immediate rebellion.

SK: Yes, I agree. This is a form of organizing bodies, you know, putting them in queue and waiting is a very simple form of control of bodies, but many states are aware of the danger of that. If too many people are queuing, as you said, there is nothing to gain, and there is a risk of protest.

Putting them in queue and waiting is a very simple form of control of bodies, but many states are aware of the danger of that.

Chalabi Funambulist 1
Collective Waiting. / a part of Hayfaa Chalabi, Refugees Welcome?, 2020, also featured in Shahram Khosravi (ed.) Waiting, a Project in Conversation, 2021

LL: On the other side of the spectrum of waiting, there is the deliberate practice of waiting. What is revolutionary about this practice?

SK: If we think about how time is conceptualized from ancient Greek, Chronos was a way to calculate and measure time: weeks, months, years. But there was also Kairos, which was more about the quality of time, versus the quantity of time. It’s with Kairos that we can think of moments of action, moments that you can use for making a change. So many people are waiting for Kairos, moments when they can do something for their situation. It is exactly this revolutionary time that people are waiting for in countries under dictatorship, or Palestinians under occupation, or in refugee camps in Lesbos in Greece, etc. They’re waiting for an opening. During the so-called “refugee crisis,” when the border walls were closed in the Balkans, especially at the gates of Hungary, where people could not go further, they started chanting political slogans. One of them was “Infitah,” which in Arabic means “opening.” That opening is a very interesting slogan, which was used during the so-called “Arab Spring” movements, but also by refugees to Europe: the same slogan was used against dictatorship in the Middle East and against European borders. Yeah. So this infitah, openness is about the wait for an opening: the opening of a political situation, but also the opening of borders. Movements of bodies across borders, but also political movements are interrelated. And this is all very much connected to time, temporalities, and waiting. ■