Teaching about refugees

hopeLast night, in my graduate class on World Literature, we discussed Laila Lalami‘s novel Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits, along with clips of the excellent Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag. The title of the under-exposed but brilliant film (its budget was under $1m) is a play on words: bhaag means both fortune, portion, lot in life, or destiny, but it also means to flee or run; and zinda bhaag can mean “run with your life” as well as, literally, “living fortune” or idiomatically, “good fortune.”

In the discussion, we highlighted the timely issue of refugee movement – Syrian, Afghan, Mexican and other refugees from South and Central America, Rohingya, etc. Lalami’s novel trains the gaze on the lives of refugees and migrants *before* they become branded as a pestilence, unwanted bodies roaming the seas, as well as during and after the movement of bodies between lands, in liminal spaces and identities. We engaged with the lives that are so trapped that people are willing to plunge (with their children) into the dangers of illegal immigration, including very possible death, rootlessness, and loss of self. The book brings the narratives of four individuals – 2 men and 2 women – who find themselves so trapped due to global economic pressures, widespread corruption, elitism, and exploitation, hyper-competitive higher education opportunities (there are few seats in MENA universities given the youth bulge), domestic violence and gender, religious movements, the fear of extremism and terrorism, oppressive dictatorships where to speak critically of a monarch means to destroy one’s life prospects, and so on. In a relatively short novel, Lalami succeeds in capturing a world of forces that push illegal migrants into the sea and, if all goes well, into the ghorba and loneliness of unwelcoming societies where one loses contact with previous lives.

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