Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future

14 - 18 September 2020

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Title: Animating mobility: From Imaginative Horizons to Experiences of Illegalised Border Crossing, and back

Between 2012 and 2014 I carried out a collaborative and co-creative research in Milan with three Egyptian men who crossed the Mediterranean Sea illegally to reach Italy. Mohamed, Mahmoud and Ali left their rural towns in Egypt when they were still teenagers or just a bit older, and lived in the northern city of Italy in the shadow of their illegalised status for almost ten years. When we began our research an amnesty was decreed by the Italian government which allowed them to finally legalise their papers. That period in their lives was experienced with many contrasting feelings, in expectation that the future would once again be re-inhabited by dreams and hopes they had put aside for so many years. To my surprise instead of becoming obsessed by the future possibilities, they all began to revisit their past in search of new autobiographical narratives, by deciding to return to their first places of arrival after the crossing. During those journeys we realised that those places were imbued with personal memories but also with imaginations of a life that had somehow pre-informed their experience and their own stories, through other more collective stories and images that had reached them in the village, well before Mohamed, Mahmoud and Ali made the decision to cross the Sea. In rural towns where villagers perceive their life as stagnant and trapped by the impossibility of advancing socially and existentially, satellite TV, the social media alongside the stories and images of successful migrants travelling back from Europe, convince people to see life as possible only through illegal migration.

Existential immobility, using Ghassan Hage’s terms (2005), is a condition that encourages people to imagine themselves elsewhere, and projects them into the future. The following animations suggest how the anticipation of places across the borders, is (in)formed imaginatively and socially, before and during the crossing, and how it relates to the following experience of being ‘in’ the imagined places. They explore ways in which my participants’ memories and experiences of moving across borders are created by the interdependent relationship between reality and the imagination of what lies beyond the horizon (Crapanzano 2014).

Mohamed left on a school day in November 2004. He was 17 then. Two days later Mohamed landed on the shores of Sicily with 204 other Egyptian young men who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat. He was one of five underage passengers on that trip and they all came from the same town, Tatoun. Whilst the collective adventure of risking their lives in the crossing infuses in the travellers contrasting feelings of excitement, fear, expectation and a sense of renewal, reaching the highly militarized borders, which are meant to exclude and control the unwanted “herds” of undocumented migrants, creates a shock in the imagination and in the experience of migrants that had anticipated a different sort of reality.

Disembarking on the pier

When I arrived on land, it was a completely different thing for me, compared to the journey. It was something that I was expecting for a long time. But when I landed I saw some things that I wouldn’t have even imagined. People with cameras…I thought of arriving in a deserted place, where no-one was there. Where I could do whatever I wished. Instead there were so many of them! I didn’t know what offense I had committed… because many policemen were there too. I understood immediately that we were going to appear in the news like criminals.
(Mohamed It was Tomorrow, 2018, 25:12 mins )

In this animation Mohamed also represents how the two days at sea affected his physical and emotional perception of setting his foot on land amidst all the mediatic attention and the presence of the authorities. “The land was moving in waves”, Mohamed described whilst drawing, providing an enhanced sense of disorientation, instability and confusion.

After disembarking in Sicily, Mohamed and Mahmoud were placed in reception centres for minors, where they were offered a bed, a shower and a set of clean clothes. Mahmoud had the urgency to call back home and communicate to his family that he had reached Italy safely. During the phone call he explained to his parents how he was planning to leave the reception centre and reach Milan, as soon as he possibly could.

Calling home after crossing

The place called Milan, which Mohamed and Mahmoud had so often heard described by their neighbours in the village, was a big city where everything was on the move, where there were lots of people, including most of their fellow villagers. In fact the majority of the 36 thousand Egyptians living in Milan, come from Tatoun, which is a small town of about 85 thousand residents in the wider province of Faiyum, approximately 150km south west of Cairo. Through his imagination Mohamed anticipated Milan to be a city so clean, whose surfaces “were like transparent glass”. That was the place of a thousand possibilities and it looked nothing like Tatoun or the African-looking surroundings of the reception centre in Sicily. Milan was the place he had risked his life for by crossing the Sea, and reaching his dream had become his only obsession during those first days at the reception centre.

The Escape – experience and imagination

“I was only thinking of Milan. Milan for me was the whole of Italy. Here, when I looked around I could not see Italy. I was still in Africa.”

In January 2007, Ali left the merchant ship he was working on as he had secretly planned, since it had set sail from the port of Alexandria, in Egypt. While he was escaping from the fluvial harbour of Porto Nogaro (in the North-East of Italy, near Udine), he took the first side street leading to a near-by city. The view of the street was covered by the shadowing trees of a small forest, which lent itself perfectly to hiding and to imagining what lied ahead of him.

From this point onwards I stopped looking at the port. From this street it started…this line separates that side [the side of the port] from this side with its future. Past and future. The street if you look at it from here, it doesn’t tell you anything. Because it was exactly like this, empty and dark. You’re entering a street as if you were entering a forest. In darkness, there was no light.

Ali photographed the street as he remembered it and some months later, when he was animating that moment, he drew what suddenly crossed his mind when a set of car headlights pointed in his direction.

The escape route towards the future

Without knowing whether or not it was a police car, as soon as he noticed the lights his imagination drew three possible future scenarios, indicating the anticipation of what could happen if caught running in such an anonymous place: he would either be sent back to the ship, put into a prison cell or repatriated.

Having lived for many years in Italy without documents has meant that my research participants have been unable to return to visit their families back in the villages. During the process of legalising his papers, Mahmoud was often dreaming about the possibility of returning to his family home and embracing his mother. He imagined reaching the door step of the house and surprising his mother who would have broken into tears of joy. Also his nephew, that he would not have seen growing in the past years, would have run to greet him. This animation shows how places of one’s personal past are re-drawn in anticipation of an imagined event taking place sometime in the future.

Imagining to return