Sense-less borders (academic essay on British-Iranian cultures)

The following essay was an auto-ethnographic assignment to my MRes anthropology module Migration, Borders and Space: Decolonial Approaches. Looking at recent case studies such as Shamima Begum and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as well as my experience with Iranian refugees, what does it mean to be multicultural?

“You can’t just switch between your different nationalities depending on how you feel that day Jasmine”, my friend Dominic said to me. “Are you Luxembourgish, Iranian, or British?”

While I hold passports for the two former, and a pre-settled status for the latter, I have been in the UK for nearly ten years. My parents incessant post-Brexit pleas to return to Europe have resigned, my dreams have slowly migrated into English and on all accounts but my taste buds, I feel British. Then I turn on the TV, and I see other dual citizens detained in Iran. I turn on my phone and hear cries from Iranian refugees I volunteer with. I turn up to detention centres to protest, and taste dried demands for freedom.
“My skin tone betrays me as foreign, while my accent hides it pretty well”, I wrote in a blog post in 2020. I can’t help but relish when people are surprised to hear of my international upbringing. “I’m fitting in here so well”, as if Britishness is a role I am playing. But the guilt of having been granted this role is slowly eating me up.

1. Dice your onions thinly into the same size 

Peeling back the first layers of my nationality, I seem like the ‘good’ kind of immigrant. My brown skin lets me pass as Mediterranean, and my short hair is unobstructed by Muslim headwear. I present as assimilated into British culture. My parents are from a comfortable financial background, and my European passport allows me the privilege to access the NHS and higher education with minimal barriers. 

This is not always the case: In 2015 ‘IS Bride’ Begum left London to join the Islamic State at the age of 15 (Masters, Santino, 2020). She recalls feeling like an “outsider” in the UK, and her urge to “help the Syrians” highlights the intangible borders experienced that might have pushed her to leave in search of agency and belonging (France24, 2021). Although she was by all definitions a victim of international trafficking, statutory rape and underage marriage, the media narratives as well as political figures neglected to mention her victimhood. 

There is a clear hypocrisy of the Western media in asserting the inferiority of agency of Muslim Women who are seen to need ‘saving’. As Masters and Santino note, ‘in order to be a threat, one must have agency’. They continue to expand that the very notion of Britishness seems unattainable to Muslim women. Expected to adapt to the British norm above any other community they belong to, they are unable to do so because of their non-white ethnicity (Tufail and Cohen, 2017). Visible identifiers of their heritage such as the hijab are considered a denunciation of Britishness (Meer et al, 2010). Sajjan (2018) further explains how the labelling of victimhood and a security threat dehumanises the individual.

So when Begum was seen to deviate from the path envisioned to her by the state based on the hierarchical notions of Britishness, her marginalised social identity was vilified.

As a woman of Middle Eastern decent, I wonder how much of my Western presentation was an unconscious need to belong as well as distinguish myself from newspaper stories such as Shamim Begum’s. Did I feel a need to differentiate myself from other brown women; a privilege and choice that seemed essential to survive in order not to be classed in the same category of the threatening ‘other’? Is the transnational and shared European identity that I am longing to belong to a fantasy that is ultimately going to be my undoing?

2. Add salt and bring to boil

Being seasoned with privileged factors does not exclude me from worrying about a great perhaps: what if I get arrested due to protesting or biased trials, what if a holiday to visit family ends in imprisonment? Am I truly safe in my newly found British identity if I cannot feel that in times of chaos and tension I would be as safe as a white Brit?

If I was merely present for a crime with multiple witnesses corroborating this, I might not be arrested and threatened with deportation like Osime Browndid. Convicted under the controversial Joint Enterprise Act, Brown was convicted in 2018 and threaten with deportation (Busby, 2020). He had been in the UK aged four, and suffered from heart disease, autism and other intellectual disabilities.
While public outcry has led to his deportation being cancelled, the extent of the social and legal failings throughout Brown’s life are staggering.His situation was already so fragile that it took ‘bad luck’ to utterly uproot his life, threatening to separate him from his only known support network. The intersection of ableist, racist and classist borders Osime faced rendered his integration into UK culture impossible.

As part of my both active and biological integration into British cultures, I have been granted agency to be grieved if something was to happen to me. My worth and ‘warranted’ effort to protect seems to have very little to do with me, and more so with my extended network of white friends and upper-class parents. How much can I truly choose to be British, instead of falling into predestined categories of belonging?

3. Wash with cold water

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe presents similarly to how I do, and yet her dual citizenship resulted in an unfair imprisonment of five years in Iran.

Due to an unpaid military contract dating back to the 1970s (Gillet, 2021), the custom of arresting dual citizens as leverage over alleged espionage charges has become custom. Boris Johnson, foreign minister at the time, however insisted these were “two entirely separate issues”, which Iranian state TV contracts with an open admission of the relationship. Was Nazanin despite having a white husband, citizenship and esteemed career, not ‘British’ enough to defend? Kundnani (2007)seems to have hit the nail on the head with their exploration that citizenship policies aggravate the theme of immigration exclusion instead of pushing for inclusion. Nazanin was not even given the choice to choose between forced assimilation and the Iranian values – instead of being equally Iranian and British, she was instead treated ‘half-British’. Does recognising Zagheri-Ratcliffe’s different to the ‘ideal Brit’ allow for recognition of the politics of difference, or does universalism indeed push the separating agenda further?

This theme is evident even in this blog post. I am exploring my Britishness by recounting the apparent differences within me and the unattainable notion of the former, instead of focusing on universal communalities. When all the external factors such as physical presentation, skin colour and any other kind of privilege are washed away, as a mere name on paper, I am inherently less British by the very existence of another passport.


4. Mix with Saffron

I fully came to face my privilege as an ‘accepted’ migrant when I started volunteering with Iranian refugees who are held in detention centres and subsequent hotels while awaiting their asylum claims. 

The domino effect of lagging legislation quickly became apparent.
One man, M, was experiencing PTSD symptoms from his journey to the UK. The assigned translator who accompanied him to GP appointment spoke poor Farsi, and the wait list to see a specialist was lengthy. When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I simply had to make an appointment with my GP who I saw the next day. I had the benefit of speaking English fluently, and was met with sympathy and clear guidelines on the next steps of finding a therapist. 

Whenever I visited the detention centres or holding hotels, time seemed to flow differently. The endless waiting and the threat of imminent change resulted in both time feeling frozen and sticky at once (Griffiths, 2014). The dual temporal uncertainty my fellow Iranians experienced, as Griffiths described, re-appropriated time in ways which were unimaginable to me, as I was free to come and go as I pleased.

When sitting down the Iranian refugees, I hoped to offer companionship apart from practical help. However I found that very few topics offered shared experiences – the saffron-spiced dishes our mothers cooked for instance. It felt like all we had in common laid in our past, before entry in the UK has striped us off the innocent memories that used to tie us together. While I moved forwards linearly, heading home, my friends seemed to be stuck in a different dimension of experiences entirely.

4. Fry your onions

When my otherness is solely accepted on its pleasant attributes, am I truly accepted at all? If Iranian food is celebrated such as Piaz Dagh over your favourite dish for a nice exotic evening out, but the feminist revolution happening in Iran right now is largely ignored by main stream media, has Iranian culture become a hollow buzzword for the senses, but not the heart? 

Silverstein (2005) explains how genealogy impacts the racial formation of the state. While the refugees mentioned belonged to an uprooted subgroup, moved by tragedy and circumstance, I was here by choice as a transmigrant. Further, the implications of class seem to trump the dichotomy of ethnicity – to a certain degree at least. Perhaps it is fruitless to compare myself to what society has deemed ‘deviant’ migrants, when I am set apart by privilege. 

The search for an identity and a nation to belong to seems to be inherently a search for self. When all individual aspects become irrelevant in the practical treatment a formerly foreign Brith is to face, how much does Britishness truly add or subtract to my understanding of self? It seems that the very idea that I could ever be ‘one of you’ is bound to be theoretical, until a deviance of mine proves it otherwise. 

Who do I owe loyalty to, the British amongst who I live, or the other which flows in my veins? Like an onion, I do not appear to have a definite core belonging to this country or another. Instead I am glad that each layer of my personality sings a different song. 

Bibliography:

Busby, M. (2020). More than 100 public figures call for halt to Osime Brown deportation. The Guardian UK. Online article.https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/12/public-figures-call-for-halt-osime-brown-deportation-priti-patel

El-Tayeb, F. (2008). “The Birth of a European Public”: Migration, Postnationality, and Race in the Uniting of Europe. Johns Hopkins University Press. 60 (3), 649-670. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.0.0024

France24 (2021). ‘IS brides’ open up in Syria camp documentary at SXSW. AFP. Online article. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210317-is-brides-open-up-in-syria-camp-documentary-at-sxsw

Gillett, F. (2021). Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: UK and Iran in talks over debt but ‘unlinked’ to case. BBC News – UK. Online article. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56969519

Griffiths, M. (2014). Out of Time: The Temporal Uncertainties of Refused Asylum Seekers and Immigration Detainees, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40 (12), 1991-2009. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2014.907737

Kundnani, A. (2007). Integrationism: The politics of anti-Muslim racism. Race & Class, 48 (4), 24-44.

Masters, M. and Santino, S. (2020). Human Rights and British Citizenship: The Case of Shamima Begum as Citizen to Homo Sacer. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 12 (2), 341-63. https://academic-oup-com.gold.idm.oclc.org/jhrp/article/12/2/341/5910762

Meer, M., Dwyer, C., Modood, T. (2010). Embodying Nationhood? Conceptions of British National Identity, Citizenship and Gender in the ‘Veil affair’. Sociological Review, 58 (1), 84-111.

Mohtashami, J. (2020). The Trauma of Multiple Nationalities. Reparent Your Soul. Online Blog. https://reparentyoursoul.com/2020/11/11/the-trauma-of-multiple-nationalities/

Sajjad, T. (2018). What’s in a name? ‘Refugees’, ‘migrants’ and the politics of labelling. Race & Class, 60 (2), 40–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306396818793582

Silverstein, A. (2005). Immigrant Racialization and the New Savage Slot: Race, Migration, and Immigration in the New Europe. Review in Advance, 34, 363–84.

Tufail, W., Cohen, B. (2017). Prevent and the Normalisaation of Islamophobia. Islamophobia: Still a Challenge for Us All, 41-5. London: Runnymede

Image References:

Mohtashami, J. (2022). Collage of original photos and stock images. 

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