Two books isn’t enough protection: Britain deports writer Ishtiyaq Shukri

Many of you who are familiar with South African literature know that writer Ishtiyaq Shukri was detained and questioned for over nine hours at Heathrow Airport in London on the 14th of July 2015, and summarily deported. He also had his British residency revoked, although he had been a resident of that country for twenty years. Whilst held in detention, he was questioned about why he visited Yemen – even though thousands of people do for ordinary, non-sinister reasons, and Shukri’s reasons were no different: at the time, his wife was working there as the Country Director of Oxfam Yemen, one of the UK’s largest international humanitarian aid agencies.

But these clear answers didn’t stop UK immigration officials from deporting Shukri. Their official reason: because Shukri’s “last visit to the UK in 2012 was more than two years ago.” Because Shukri knew that how he was treated is “indicative of the increasing heavy-handedness facing African migrants at UK and EU borders,” he stepped forward to make a public statement about his encounter with British immigration authorities.

Anyone who has read his writing cannot fail to see the irony of the situation: Shukri is an author who writes about possibilities for dialogue and understanding between people of different faiths and personal histories; he also includes references to the seemingly irrational, yet quite intentional methodologies through which empire functions and dis-functions, employing petty functionaries whose dismissive judgements make or break the lives of those who are located on the outskirts of empire’s power structures. It was his first novel, The Silent Minaret, that helped me coalesce my own ideas about the ways in which colonial era tactics used to subdue people and control their resources were parallel to strategies employed by both apartheid-era South Africa and the post 9/11 world. His second novel, I See You, makes one question whether it is conceivable for any country to follow its purported democratic ideals, when interests of arms dealers and the possibility of making money and brokering power though war enters the picture.

When Shukri first wrote to say that he had been deported, my thoughts went immediately to the multitude of stories – including my own – that immigrants share about the indignities they face at borders and checkpoints, when their bodies are in transit between nations. Sometimes, we are less aware of power structures, even when they affect us deeply, and in the most mundane ways. Many of us do not even have the language with which to speak about these violent and violating encounters. And that inability to language, that lack of connection to power structures, the fear of voicing a protest in case of consequences, and the general feeling of powerlessness has a lot to do with why violations at borders and in no-man’s lands of airport questioning rooms continue. In these transitory spaces, petty immigration officials have enormous, unchecked amounts of authority that allows them to make decisions that affect the trajectories of thousands of people’s lives everyday. One is not permitted to use a phone and one cannot record a conversation: so the go-to technology checking authority in the 21st century is made unavailable. I’ve resorted to taking extensive notes – once, as I was sitting and writing what I overheard in one of those rooms in an airport as a petty official harangued a Senagalese woman in a wheelchair (“Why are you in a wheelchair?! Why are you in a wheel-chair?!”), someone noticed, and quickly processed me out of there with a friendly smile and a joke about making sure that I did not miss my next flight.

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by Neelika Jayawardane

Photo Credit: TopHD