Fictional writing and migration knowledge. Reflections on Refugee in Europe by Mehaba Jemal

by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

Why fiction matters

Talk about migration is widespread in present-day media. Paradoxically, the abundance of reports on migration does not seem to help bring the experience of migrants closer. On the contrary, the overuse of the term ‘migrant’ makes us forget that this word is much too broad to explain anything substantial about the people it denotes. In an attempt to create a more nuanced picture of South-North migration, scholars try to get a local perspective on migration by using qualitative methods of research and immersing themselves into  communities in the countries of origin. In some cases informants are invited to take an active part in research and even become its co-authors. But even genuine collaborations rarely change the asymmetrical power relations inherent in ethnographic research. In migration studies, where the very conceptual apparatus has been shaped by nation-states in their attempt to regulate immigration, that imbalance is even more pronounced. 

From this perspective, it is revealing to step out of the academic world of knowledge production and to turn to fictional books written by authors with personal migration experience for the purpose of entertaining and/or educating their communities. Such writings might explore themes often omitted in academic research and ignore issues which an academic would find crucial to mention. They present a view on migration which doesn’t look for excuses and doesn’t try to fit local experiences into terminologies used by receiving communities and academic or policy specialists.

Translating migration terminology 

This is certainly true of Ethiopian fictional writing. To begin with, the Amharic term for a refugee (səddätägna/ስደተኛ), meaning “someone in exile”, doesn’t precisely match its English counterpart. This term might refer to both migrants and refugees as it does not strictly distinguish between voluntary and involuntary movements. According to this terminology, people do not leave their country unless they are forced to and there is no clear linguistic difference between an ‘economic migrant’, a ‘refugee’ or a ‘victim of trafficking’.

Addis Ababa bookshop. Photo by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

Some Amharic media sources employ the term “fəlsät” to deal with this ambiguity and develop a neutral reference to migration, however its usage remains very limited and, according to my observation, “səddät” (“exile”) is the most widely used term to talk about labour migration (both regular and irregular). When it comes to European migration policy, terminology is highly important. The distinction between economic migrants, refugees  and victims of trafficking defines one’s destiny, even though it might be based on a very shaky grounds. The absence of such rigid categorization in a particular language, in other words, challenges the hegemony of the binary logic which shapes migration as either forced or voluntary.

Everyday fears

“Refugee in Europe” (ስደተኛው በአውሮፓ) by Mehaba Jemal (መሃባ ጀማል) offers a wonderful example of such writing. Published in 2002 in Addis Ababa, the book tells the story of a young man (Feqadu) who flees from Ethiopia to Sweden in the early 1980s.  It offers a portrait of the Ethiopian diaspora in Stockholm and dwells on the recent history of the city through the eyes of migrants. Feqadu, the book’s protagonist, leaves Ethiopia at a time when the Derg, a military junta which came to power in 1974, induced hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to flee from forced resettlement, ethnic violence, and humanitarian disasters. The novel, though, doesn’t dwell on the hardships Feqadu faces before his departure. On the contrary, he appears to be a normal city youth probably slightly better off than many of his countrymen. He even throws a farewell party for his friends and leaves the country on a plane directly to Europe. The question of whether he legally merits the refugee status is not addressed in the book. 

Front cover of Refugee in Europe. Artwork by Seyoum Tadesse. Photo by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

In the book, Feqadu arrives in Sweden with a very respectful attitude towards the receiving society. He has high expectations and hopes to learn a “civilized” way of life. At the same time, his life in Sweden keeps him in constant suspense. As an asylum seeker, he is not sure whether he will be taken to a refugee camp or to Stockholm’s Arlanda airport to be deported; he fears that police might want him to freeze to death in the cold when he is taken out for a walk. He has to wait for several years until the decision on his case is made and he is granted a residence permit. It remains unclear why the procedure takes so long and it is a source of great distress for Feqadu. 

Another source of anxiety for Feqadu is that during this time he is unable to help his family and repay his debt. The letters from his relatives make him tremble and he feels forced to lie and say that his situation has been settled. He is afraid that his mother would kill herself by fasting and praying for him, should she learn the truth. At the same time, his younger brother and sister keep asking him for European goods that he cannot provide. 

The fear of deportation is described in such detail that it seems that Feqadu would prefer death. But when the rumour spreads within the Ethiopian diaspora that the Derg military government had been overthrown, Feqadu reacts with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, he welcomes the news that the oppressive regime has fallen; but on the other hand, he is afraid that it will make his deportation certain. There is a scene in the book where Feqadu enters the room of an Ethiopian girl who has just received news of her deportation. The room is filled with silent people, and the girl is surrounded by her close friends, her face covered with a traditional shamma veil – the scenery remarkably reminiscent of funerals in Ethiopia when the whole community comes to show their support. 

Migrants as ethnographers

Refugee in Europe presents a fascinating description of the receiving society in a migrant’s journey. Addressed to an Amharic readership, it highlights wintertime and Christmas celebrations, depicts Swedish daily life and pokes fun at the Swedes for treating their dogs as people. These small observations resemble the details of everyday life that constitutes ethnographic research. In this way, migrants reflecting on their new surroundings could be regarded as researchers, treating receiving societies as their objects of inquiry.

Migrants reflecting on their new surroundings could be regarded as researchers, treating receiving societies as their objects of inquiry

To some that might feel uncomfortable, particularly when such topics as racism and dispossession are exposed. In one scene, Feqadu has been asked to undress for a physical examination. Hesitating to take off his underwear, he explains that he is not used to appear naked in front of other people. “Are you used to being naked in front of elephants?”, an officer jokes while his colleague wonders whether people in Africa wear clothes at all. 

A happy ending? 

Feqadu cannot afford to be stuck in the Swedish immigration bureaucracy for such a long time and he keeps looking for other ways to get a job. When he loses his last hope of obtaining residence through marriage with a Swede, he locks himself in his room and stops talking to people. He distances himself from reality, stops shaving and taking care of himself. In the words of the author, “he was like a person who was going to die in the next week”.

Stockholm skyline. Photo by Prashanth Raghavan

The scene of his unsuccessful return is constantly on his mind. The favourable decision of his case comes unexpectedly and the story ends abruptly with Feqadu regaining his happiness and hope. It is not clear whether Feqadu’s initial positive attitude towards Europe persists. During his stay in a camp in Sweden, he experiences racism and humiliation and the only person who is trying to help him is an Ethiopian drug-dealer. The decision-making process of the immigration bureaucracy, which brings Feqadu so much suffering, is also left relatively unexplored.

Learning from fiction

The perspective on a migration experience offered by this novel shifts emphasis from seeing emigration as caused by the threat of physical suffering to emotional stress and moral obligation. Feqadu doesn’t leave his country because his life is under threat and his return is not described as exposing him to the risk of physical violence. His motivation for becoming a səddätägna is to learn the European ways of life and earn an honest living in order to help his family. But from the authorities’ point of view, for a refugee, accommodation in a camp is already a rescue in and of itself. The scale of distress and suffering this misconception creates might be difficult to grasp for someone who has not felt the weight of the kinds of moral obligations that drive Feqadu.

As the struggle to decolonize academia continues, one should not overlook the insights migration fiction from authors in the Global South might offer

Mehaba Jemal has created a wonderful work of fiction which not only depicts the life of Ethiopian migrants in Sweden in the 1980s but, through artistic means, makes one share the fears and joys which many South-North migrants live through. Interestingly, by offering a migrant-centred experience that is not easily described by the terminology of global migration governance, this 18-year-old book in some respects corresponds to a recent call for shifting the narrative on African migrationAs the struggle to decolonize academia continues, one should not overlook the insights migration fiction from authors in the Global South might offer.  

About the author

Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky is a researcher at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) since 2015. He has an M.A. in Ethiopian Studies at St. Petersburg State University and in Anthropology at the European University in St Petersburg. His research deals with discourses on migration in Ethiopia. He conducted fieldwork in the Wollo region of Ethiopia, focusing on rural migration to the Gulf states and the issue of returnees. Nikolay is also engaged in research and inventory of African collections of the Kunstkamera museum.

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