a village somewhere in punjab

Notes from the field

March 26th at 2:52pm

Nishat Awan

I recently visited an area of north Punjab in Pakistan that is home to many of the undocumented migrants from the country attempting to make their way to Europe. It is a landscape that is being slowly engulfed by the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation creeping northwards from the city of Lahore. As villages lose their land to industrial workshops and small-scale highly polluting factories, and as climate change makes crop yields unpredictable, young men are being lured to make difficult journeys, to go bahir, a word that means ‘outside’ and usually denotes somewhere, anywhere, in the prosperous West. One evening we went to one of these villages, about two and a half hour’s drive from Lahore, past small towns, half-built motorways and the debris of a fast and unregulated industrial expansion. A small road between two fields seemed to go on forever into the dying light of the late winter sun as the two people with me, who are also from the area, told stories about these villages and the violence that had engulfed them. They are stories of land disputes and honour, that awful word that has caused so much misery for women in Pakistan and many other places. The village that we were going to is apparently notorious for the amount of violence it has both suffered and inflicted – many have been killed in the disputes between households, but I am told they are going through a calm period. Listening to these stories, I am trying not to worry; I am with people who know the area well, but as the light fades, my anxiety levels rise. We arrive at the village which turns out to be a high wall surrounding a large area and as we walk inside I realise it really is a village containing an extended family and their houses, but one that has had to cordon itself off from its surroundings.

We enter a room full of smoke, the baithak or sitting room that is always at the edge of a house, so that people can come and go without having the inner workings of the household revealed to them. About ten men sit around laughing and joking, falling silent and shy at the sight of a woman entering their world. After a while we begin to discuss the topic at hand. I find out that nearly all of the men have attempted the journey to Europe at one time or another with varying degrees of success. I also find out that many of these men do aggenty – that is they are agents, facilitating other’s journeys. People tell their stories of the violence and exploitation that they have had to endure, a violence that is often for them directly related to an agent who took their money, did not inform them properly of what was to befall them, and then was absent when they needed help. I marvel at the situation; in the same extended family there are agents and there are migrants, people are sending their young children on these harrowing journeys and everyone is sitting together ignoring the fact that they are directly implicated in the violence that others have had to endure. Sure, there is an unwritten rule that you don’t send anyone from your own village but there seems to be a disavowal at the heart of these discussions that to me as an outsider is striking. The systemic violence of the border regime produces a situation where violence circulates around certain communities. I am not certain but I can easily imagine how this ‘business’ as they call it, has perpetuated and deepened the already existing animosities between villages.

Yet, somehow people survive through networks that do not necessarily follow the familiar logic of friendship ties. There is a more ambivalent relationship to the friendships and associations that are made in these difficult journeys; it’s not that they are instrumental, it’s just that the ties are so loose and buffeted so heavily by external circumstances that they are made and remade continuously. People are making their way through the border regime not as abject victims, a conceptualisation that is one of the problematic side effects of only ever looking at this movement of people from the west, even if it is in solidarity with them. Yet, something has been lost. In the circulations that trap people, they have lost a certain ability to navigate the world through the maps that they would normally use, those maps that would have made the situation I witnessed in the village impossible in another time. One person I spoke to possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various bureaucratic, biometric and data collection processes implemented by the EU in Greece. He had spent many months in Lesvos and then in Athens, volunteering for an NGO. It was also how he had managed to come back, through IOM’s so-called voluntary return scheme. While he might not have been completely familiar with the inner workings of these databases, such as EuroDAC that he is now a part of, he was very aware of their function in creating the complexity of the world that he would have to navigate should he decide to return – because the question of return is always open in the persistent present that he inhabits. But he was also very aware of his own capacity to find a way through by mobilising the opacity that is the gift a racialised world offers to those who are seen as an undifferentiated mass. Navigating in this complex horizonless space and time is too difficult, perhaps impossible for him, and yet he is not without orientation. As many indigenous scholars have suggested in the context of the climate crisis, in learning to live with a dying world, we should consult those whose worlds have already been destroyed. I would suggest that in learning to navigate a horizonless world, we should look to those whom we have forced to inhabit such a world for so long.