Daily Podcast #26 Shahram Khosravi /// Border Smuggling as Decolonial Practice



Shahram Khosravi is Professor of Anthropology at Stockholm University. Khosravi is the author of the books Young and Defiant in Tehran (2008); The Illegal Traveler: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders (2010); Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran (2017) and the editor of After Deportation: Ethnographic Perspectives (2017). He has been an active writer in international press and has also written fiction. Currently he is working on an art book on Waiting. With Mahmoud Keshavarz he started Critical Border Studies, a network for scholars, artists and activists to interact. Learn more on their website. 


As many of us are confined in many places of the world, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast in partnership with Radio Alhara emitting from Palestine. Our ambition for it is to not add to the saturation of information we are currently experiencing but, rather, to propose a daily extension 15-minute of our political imaginaries.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

While we are recording this podcast in privileged conditions of confinement, we keep in our thoughts the multitude of people around the world who do not share similar conditions or have no choice but to risk being affected by the pandemic because of criminal policies that have to do with neoliberalism, carceralism, or colonialism

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)

Radio Alhara The Funambulist

NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on  راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show. 



Shahram Khosravi: These days when I am confined in my apartment in a suburb of Stockholm due to the Pandemic crisis, I think about other times of confinement. One of them was in 1986. I was 19 years old and behind bars in a small border prison along the border between three countries:  Iran,  Pakistan, and Afghanistan. I spent some time there after being arrested when I was trying to cross the border illegally from Iran to Pakistan. In the prison everybody I met had been arrested in connection with the border. During the time I was there I met all kinds of transgressors;  petty smugglers, large-scale drug smugglers, undocumented migrant workers, refugees, and local native Baluchi tribesmen who for generations had crossed the border freely, but were now being punished for violating the order of the nation-state system. 

It was a small prison, and border transgressors were many. Packed into dirty, overcrowded cells, some nights we took turns sleeping – half sat up while the other half lay down. Sometimes I was put in small cells that I shared with others: Iranians, Afghanistanis, Pakistanis, and Baluchis. Many languages were spoken at the same time. Many forms of being in the world were collected in a small space. But we all had something in common. We had refused to respect the border law; we refused to respect the existence of the border. We were, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s term, in a borderland, where inhabitants of the borderland refused definition of belonging according to the border regime, which were colonial definitions. 

That prison was the best school I have had in border studies, or any other studies related to what it means to be human today? 

During my time in prison, the connotations of labels such as ‘dealer’, ‘smuggler’ and ‘thief’ changed for me. Also terms like citizens, nationality, foreigners, illegal migrants all lost their meanings. Meanings which were imposed on us by the law and border morality.  When injustice and inequality become as pervasive as they are along this border, moral or perhaps even ethical assessments lose their weight.

Later on, I linked experiences from that prison to what I learned from Anzaldúa, the Chicana scholar who built up a critical border thinking, to theorise our refusal. It is to refuse belonging and to think from outside, using other terms, other languages, other references, and to join an alternative perspective than the hegemonic one which is imposed on us by one of the main forms of western modernity; the nation-state system.  

A system that demands belonging nationally. A system that commands us to fit in. To be integrated. It means territorialization of bodies of lives. It comes from a ‘botanical’ way of thinking about human beings, in terms of roots, and from the uncritical link between individuals and places. Between human beings and lands. Between souls and soils. 

Everyone is supposed to be implaced, homed, dwelled. This is the Heideggerian way, according to which being-in-the-world is imaginable only in relation to a home a homeland. In his philosophical thinking and ideological preferences being rooted in a place is a human tradition. In this view one can be understood only in relation to a place.

What I learned from that prison is to understand what people who are bordered need is not belonging but the right to participate. 

Here by border and bordering I mean being exposed to a broader meaning of bordering, people who are bordered in racial, gendered, class way are those who are deprived from the opportunities for participation, of course I mean a recognized participation, to be allowed to work in the formal and mainstream labor market, to vote, to talk back, to leave a trace and so on. 

In the border prison I met many inspiring people, among them I was most interested in smugglers. The conversations with smugglers shaped my intellectual life and later on my research field that is border studies, and of course in opposition to the dominant academic border studies which is colored by seeing-like-a state.  The prison taught me to see from outside. In this era of border fetishism and under the shadow of rising walls an urgent political question is: What do we see if we look at the border from the other side?

The answer to this question requires a repositioning, a de-articulation or re-articulation.

Rather than the hegemonic academic representation within academia that suffers from an obsession with of borders and border transgression, this repositioning aims to build up new relations to knowledges and concepts that are not otherwise articulated to knowledge production.  Perhaps it is in line with what Ariella Azoulay calls “potential history”: An attempt to liberate history from its confinement to the Imperial past.

I have met many smugglers in different countries but one of them was exceptional; Amir Heidari. I use his real name because he wants so. Moreover, he has talked openly about his work in the mass media. He is proud to have done what he did, namely helping thousands of people in need of refuge to cross borders. Amir Heidari was perhaps the best-known border crossing facilitator in the Middle East and Europe in the 1980s and the 1990s. 

Long time ago when he still was working as smuggler, Amir told me that he was his built his own migration agency: ‘I work for those who are declined visas and passports. I work for anyone who has no passport, and with pleasure help them go wherever they want.’  

First time I met him was in May 2004 in a prison in Sweden where he was serving a two-year sentence for falsifying documents. The Swedish authorities did not release him after two years and he was imprisoned again to serve a four-year sentence for ‘human smuggling’. Other European states were eager to punish him too, British, German, and Danish.  After six years in prison he was deported to somewhere (I do not want to reveal where for his security). 

Amir was different from all other so-called smugglers. He was and still is a genuine decolonial personality in practice, not in theory. 

Amir was born in 1953 in Kurdistan. As a minority oppressed by many states in the region, Kurds are a people crossed by several borders, some of them created by British and French colonisers. Amir grew up with border thinking, thinking from outside. The geography and the history that formed his life as unfitted, accented, outsider—as ‘a problem’ for the state—have left him without any option but to be politically engaged. The life he has lived has been a life of minority, in constant negotiation with the majority groups and in constant confrontation with the states. As a young man he joined a socialist movement. Once during a confrontation with the police he was injured and was sent to Sweden for treatment. When he saw that Kurdish people were rejected by every country he got upset  so he went back to Turkey to do something. At that time thousands of Kurdish refugees were trapped in Turkey. He  asked for help from the United Nations and  from the embassies of Western countries, all in vain. He realised that all nice declarations and conventions about human rights or other rights produced by the West were merely empty words. He realised that no one would help the Kurds so he started his own “movement”,  to send people in need to safety.

Over more than two decades of 1980s and 1990s tens of thousands of asylum seekers reached Europe through his organisation. Not only Kurds but also other groups. He got a good reputation for honesty and professionalism. He charged those who had money in order to send those with no money for free. In the first meeting I asked him why there was a market for human smuggling, He explained it much better than any professor in migration studies: 

“It is simple. The rich world steal from the poor world. When people have tried to make a change in politics and change the ruling regimes, the superpowers have intervened and stopped the democratic movements. In Chile, Allende was murdered and in Iran, Mossadegh was overthrown by the CIA. This is our situation. As long as there are plunderers the plundered ones [i.e., refugees and migrants] will want to come and see where their wealth has ended up.  And I help them.” 

And he explained why he chose to be a border transgression facilitator: 

“I am an existentialist. I mean Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy. I believe individuals have free choice and by that, responsibility. I believe that everyone should be able to do something with their lives. I am my own migration board. I work for those who are declined visas and passports. I work for anyone who has no passport, and with pleasure help them go wherever they want. You see birds and animals go everywhere they want. They do not have passports, so why should human beings? My thesis is to make the world more international. When the economy is globalised, it is foolish for human beings not to be globalised as well. We should help people get citizenship in other countries.” After a second we added “We need a revolution.”

Long before any other solidarity movement and before any social media group he made a booklet: Guidelines for Asylum Seeking written in Persian and printed in thousands copies. I was distributed for free to asylum seekers on their way to Europe. In the booklet, Amir gave basic information not only about the asylum process but also about what it means to be politically engaged. Furthermore, the booklet gives guidelines on what to say to the police and immigration officers, and about how to make a reliable case. The booklet is also a simple manual on how to behave in airports when trying to cross the borders without papers.

Amir spent more than 10 years in prisons in different countries and was deported several times. When I asked him about it he said:  

“I do not mind. If you believe that what you do is right…. Like Socrates. He paid a high price for his belief. Do you remember how the Canadian embassy forged passports for the staff of the American embassy and saved them from the Iranian revolutionary forces in the 1980s? They are heroes but I am a criminal…. In fact I do not smuggle people. I take them to the border where they can seek asylum. When they have sought asylum a refugee lawyer takes care of their cases. Why is my job a crime but not the lawyer’s? We both do the same thing.”

It is more than a decade since he has stopped his operations. A few years ago he escaped and came back to Europe. I met him in Amsterdam and he again talked non-stopping about injustices in the world. But his asylum application was rejected and he was deported again.  Now he lives somewhere in the mountains in the land of Kurdistan. 

When we talked we shift between many languages. He is well informed about international laws and declarations. He has lived with so many borders that he knows them better than those who guard them. Nowadays he gives free advice and consultations to those who want to migrate. As he puts it : “there are more work to do now than any time before”

His words recall what I learned in the border prison in 1986. Border thinking: thinking and acting from outside. A different articulation and practices not only coming from books but rather from everyday life, from daily practices of people who are exposed to various forms of borders and border practices. 
In April 2020 I called Amir to check how he was doing during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Approaching the age of 70, his answer was concise yet powerful and encouraging:  “The world has gone crazy. We need a revolution.”