Tag Archives: transnationalism

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 3: Location and nation

two-women-sitting-at-a-bar-1902.jpg!LargeEvery reviewer has to mention a different defect in the book under review: That was my conclusion when reviews of Sex at the Margins were proliferating. Some of the defects pointed to said more about the reviewer than the book, like the English academic who dismissed the research because it had taken place in Spain. I laughed a lot at that one. If you’re interested in migration and globalisation then nation becomes a funny category.

The other day I was interviewed by an investigator interested in undocumented migration in The Three-Headed Dog. We met in a blue bar and drank from stemmed glasses. She agreed I may publish a few points of our conversation, on the subject of place, location and nationality. Her name is Zelda.

mapZelda: Why did you situate The Three-Headed Dog in Spain? Is the plot special to the Costa del Sol? Or could it be moved to Britain or Italy or the state of Florida?

Laura: Spain has long been part of my own life and I lived in Granada while I was reading and doing fieldwork for and then writing what became Sex at the Margins. The Costa del Sol is one of the most fluid and confusing places I know, full of every sort of human mobility, and therefore appealing to me.

The stories in The Dog could be moved in terms of every important concept: How migrants reason and feel about what they’re doing and the sorts of networks they live in. The way they have to look for jobs and housing, the existing in and crossing out of social margins. Those are universal dynamics for undocumented migrants anywhere in the world. But margins feel different according to the terrain and the historical moment. migrantes-coahuiIf the scene were set elsewhere plot-mechanics would vary according to local laws and policing, cultural ideas about sex and women’s mobility, the availability of black-market jobs and the ease of getting out if things go wrong. If there is a coast, boats are an option. Sometimes trains are easily hopped.

Zelda: What about the migrants, are they interchangeable? Could the group of Dominicans on the airplane just as well be Chinese? What about the young Romanian smuggler, could he be Greek? Could Polish Tanya be French? Does anything about nationality matter?

Laura: The human responses portrayed are not unique to any nationality, but some of the mechanics of migration would have to change if you were to make arbitrary switches. For example, Tanya might humanly be French, but she’d be less likely to set up a cleaning service in Madrid. Or the Dominican club-owner, Carlos: If he were Chinese he might certainly run a hostess-bar, but it would be in another part of Madrid, and have a different style, perhaps with gambling, and would the protagonist Félix plausibly have become his close friend?

125969_day labor_GMK_The key to making the story work in any particular place is knowing how migrant networks function and the patterns that have developed based on (1) the possibility of getting visas to other countries and (2) colonial and other dependency/linguistic histories that lead to family relationships. For instance, Brazilians have visa-freedom to travel to Portugal, which is part of Schengen territory, meaning they cross easily into Spain and rest of Europe. Dominican women have a long history as maids and sex workers in Spain – over generations. These are migrations that give meaning to the word transnational.


Zelda: Can migrant women become sex workers anywhere, whether there’s some kind of regulated sex work or not?

Laura: The two jobs available everywhere to undocumented women are maiding and sex work, but if the plot were picked up and put down in Hong Kong, say, then adjustments would be needed to the kinds of sex businesses where migrants are likely to get employed. And to take up any kind of sex work without knowing the local context and laws, without knowing a few people on the inside, who can give informed advice, is highly risky. This is why there are roles for ‘protectors’ in the migration process, and most of them are not monsters. The plot would have to reflect this.

Zelda: What about racism? Aren’t some countries worse in that way? Wouldn’t that make a big difference to where you set the story?

imgresLaura: In the book, several of the Dominicans reflect on racial hierarchies that affect them in Spain, including those that give some dark ethnicities more cachet than their own. All cultures have ideas and prejudices about Others. But also mixing and hybridity are everywhere, even if more in some places than in others. The consequences are always the same: natives feel threatened, some promote xenophobia, governments talk about tightening borders. But there are colonial histories that can make natives feel that some foreigners are closer to themselves than others, whether their skin is blacker or not.

Zelda: So colonial things, like language. Dominicans who go to Spain already speak Spanish, which has to be an advantage, right? What would happen if you changed the group on the plane to Chinese? Isn’t the whole thing much harder if it’s a new language?

20130516-3L: Not as much as you imagine. Félix visits a Chinese migrant who runs a big variety store and who stands up well to extortion attempts because she has community behind her. Migrants come via networks whether they are legal or not. And migrants from different communities often communicate more easily with each other in the new language, because they all speak more slowly or with a common vocabulary. Then, too, sharing language can work the other way: when Dominicans speak, Spanish listeners know where they are from and bring negative cultural baggage to bear.

Z: The Costa del Sol has all kinds of ethnic groups in it, but you mention places like a Danish church and the urbanizaciones where everyone living there is the same nationality. Don’t a lot of migrants stick to their own kind? Isn’t there insularity among other Europeans who have made second homes on the coast?

CDN-Annons-tidning-2014-09-Svenska-400Laura: There is, but not forever for everyone. Europeans trying to settle and start businesses feel ambivalent about what they’ve left behind and anxious to hold onto their national selves. You see signs in Swedish or German, shops with food items imported so other cuisines can be maintained. But over time things loosen up for a lot of people, they become more curious and less fearful, they make new connections and cultures blend. And for some people, being in a mixed place with a shifting sense of belonging becomes interesting. They don’t find it so easy to answer the question Where are you from? It’s more about This is where I am now. I wrote about this kind of cosmopolitanism among sex workers in Leaving Home for Sex, many years ago.

For more about The Three-Headed Dog, a noir/mystery novel on sexwork and migration, see
Sexwork and Migration Mystery
Melodrama and Archetypes
Jobs in the Sex Industry

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The Sex Industry in Spain: Sex clubs, flats, agriculture, tourism

During the 20 years I’ve been consciously thinking about migration and prostitution, sex work and the sex industry, I have rarely seen such a bad portrayal of these deep and complex topics as in a New York Times piece on sex slaves I lambasted the other day. I lived a number of years in Spain, and it struck me early on that the endless discussion of prostitution failed to comprehend the variety of kinds of sex for sale within the industry, in all sorts of venues and situations that could be seen as good, bad or indifferent but that ought not to be reduced to any abstract, simplifying, uncontextualised term.

Here are researched descriptions of four types of places where different kinds of sexual services are for sale in Spain: large highway clubs, private flats, small houses associated with agriculture and the international coastal zone. After each description, I highlight the socially interrelated themes that arise from even such a brief glance, in order to point out how a cultural study of commercial sex – not prostitution – might proceed, on the assumption that knowing more about the specifics will help promote justice for more people.

Puticlubes (from puta, whore)

Streams of cars and trucks roar along multi-laned routes that connect Spain with France, Germany and other states east and with Portugal to the west. For long-distance truck drivers, the backbone of European commerce, long stints of solitary driving must be broken up with places offering rest and recreation. The buildings strung along these superhighways, as well as along smaller, provincial roads, are known informally in Spanish society as puticlubes (whoring clubs), but to those that work there they are hoteles de plaza, a term that refers to the employment system used, in which those offering sex for sale pay a daily rate for a place to live and work for three-week stretches. These businesses may house 50 workers or more, and in some areas, such as between Burgos and the Portuguese border, numerous clubs are located close together, forming a veritable erotic shopping area. With multiple floors, luxurious decorations, videos, live shows, jacuzzis and ‘exotic’ music—the latest rock from Moscow, for example—these clubs have come to represent luxurious sites of conspicuous consumption. Here customers pay as much as ten times the ordinary price for drinks, and it is the job of those working there to get them to buy as many as possible, since this is the owner’s major source of income. The array of nationalities living in the club at any one time is a phenomenon surely unique to sexual milieux: a German or Spanish truck driver or businessman may find himself surrounded by Rumanians, Nigerians, Colombians, Ukrainians, Brazilians and Moroccans. Imagine spaces filled with people speaking many languages, spaces where people from very different cultural backgrounds mix: the result may feel extravagantly cosmopolitan to some customers, who use these lavish venues to entertain and impress their own business clients. Other habitués include young men wanting a night out (and perhaps a sexual initiation) and lovelorn bachelors or widowers seeking company, all of whom may spend hours drinking, talking and watching. There is no requirement to purchase sex at all, and if it is, it occupies no more than twenty minutes (rules of the house, which wants workers back promoting drink as soon as possible). A large number of support personnel is needed to keep these high-overhead businesses going, and because they employ many migrants, good public relations are necessary with local police and immigration inspectors. Workers move on after their three-week stints, assuring that novelty will always be on offer.

To consider this venue as only ‘prostitution’ requires focussing exclusively on the 15-20 minutes when customers may retire to a private room with workers. Much feminist polemic has been written about concepts of exploitation, coercion and the lack of choice suffered by women in these jobs, as well as how they have reached this destination. Ignored are the work and lifestyles of long-distance truck drivers; cultures of entertainment among businessmen; multi-ethnic workplace cultures; the performance of masculinity and femininity and the reproduction of gender roles; homosociality (masculine bonding, competition, deal-making); financial advantages of owning such businesses and the extent to which lack of regulation makes it possible; relationships with local communities, employees and management and how sites may be used to accumulate social and cultural capital.

Private Flats

Where clubs specialise in splashiness and publicity, private flats offer discretion. They exist in most towns. Here the client rings up first to make an appointment in the kind of building that suggests tenants are ‘respectable’ middle-class families. The manager of the flat arranges for clients not to run into each other, and the flat itself displays few or no sexual signs; on the contrary, it may have floral-patterned covers and teddy bears on the beds, crucifixes and images of saints on the walls and the smell of home cooking wafting from the kitchen. A chain and cuffs hanging from a hook on one wall may indicate special services offered. If the customer has not requested a worker he already knows, he makes his selection and goes to a bedroom. Again, the mix of nationalities and ethnic groups is notable. These businesses rely on classified advertisements and mobile telephones, the two elements also making possible the boom in independent workers who run their own business from their own flat.

Again, most theory has focussed on the sexual acts that occur in flats and the extent to which women workers have chosen to perform them. Subjects that need researching include the cultural role of privacy and discretion; the possible meanings of domesticity as a sexual setting, including religious and family icons; communications technology’s contribution to the development of businesses.

The Agricultural World

In the southern province of Almería, a large proportion of the tomatoes and other vegetables Europeans eat are grown under plastic in vast plantations operated under semi-feudal conditions. Closeby, various kinds of sex businesses coexist, ranging from luxurious bars with private cubicles to rustic, poor housing where tenants open their doors to clients. The luxurious are located close to the plantations, even directly across from them, and those who enter and pay the prices are Spanish owners and other ‘whites’ from the managerial class, many of them men who were once agricultural labourers themselves. Women who work here come from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The rustic are located farther away, sometimes up inconvenient roads with few public services; here the clients are ‘non-white’, often undocumented, migrants. Here, Nigerian women offer offer sex and other domestic services in their houses (meals, drinks, washing and ironing, music, a place to stay the night). Occasionally tourists wander up from the beaches, seeking something different from the nightlife of the tourist coast.

While ‘prostitution’ is present here, this form of commercial sex attests to a traditional link with migrant sectors such as farming, mining and shipping. Useful research would look at the interrelation of commercial sex with other industries; the intersections of different informal-sector economies and forms of servitude; how the business segments by class, colour and ethnic group. Ethnographic work would consider what kind of relationships are developed among subaltern employees in different expatriate sectors.

The Cosmopolitan Frontier

This is the area of Spain where Spanishness fades and cosmopolitanism, tourism and hybridity reign. Businesses in Torrelinos, Marbella and smaller towns along the coast highway advertise in a brochure called Encuentros (meetings) which categorises its offerings under the terms Gay Bars, Swapping, Private Establishments and Contacts and Sex Shops. A plethora of clubs, bars, party rooms and flats advertise, mentioning as specialities piano-bars, saunas, jacuzzis, turkish baths, dark rooms, go-go shows, striptease, escort services, bilingual misses, private bars, dance floors, a variety of massages, private booths with 96 video channels, gifts for stag and hen parties, latex wear and aphrodisiacs. Apart from the sexual products and services available, other conditions are announced, such as air conditioning, valet or private parking, swimming pools, credit cards, select clientele, television and accessibility for the handicapped. Many adverts play down the commercial aspect by emphasising the ‘non-professionals’ present. Fitting the international environment, businesses are called Milady Palace, Play Boy, Melody d’Amour, Dolly’s, New Crazy, Glam Ur Palace Club and Titanic. Many are located in ordinary shopping strips.

Obviously, ‘prostitution’ occurs in these venues, but further areas for research include the influence of tourism and its correlation with questions of image and class in services; the positioning of gay culture and diverse sexual subcultures with commercial sex; the existence of subcultures within commercial sex; the role of entrepreneurism in the proliferation of sites. It would be interesting to know which kind of customer goes to which kind of place, how entrepreneurs decide what to offer in such a compact area chockful of sex businesses and how long businesses last. Are there sexual cultures here that extend into the rest of Spain or that tourists take home with them?

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants

Once, after I’d given a talk, an academic feminist geographer became very upset while trying to get me to admit that the poor of this world are victims objectively, by definition, because of ‘global structural inequalities’. I replied that I understood how she, coming from her position of middle-class person identifying as socialist, produced poorer people this way. I went on to say, ‘But if you move over to the poor person’s place and ask them how they see their situation, they may well not produce such an image of themselves.’ I thought the woman was going to go through the roof with outrage at my refusal to accept her point as objectively true.

This planet is rife with terrible differences between the poor and the rich, men mostly have more power and money than everyone else and things are getting worse. But given the injustice, I prefer to listen to how people describe their own realities rather than create static, general categories like Exploited Victims. It is also not smart to claim that poor people only leave their countries because they are forced to, with no possibility for their desires and abilities to think and weigh risks. Most poor people don’t leave their countries.

I published Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants in 2003, but several people have written to me recently about how up-to-date and useful it is. In the mainstream media, two reductionist visions are common: one that blames migrants as grasping criminals, the other that sees them as sad victims. Unfortunately many people with leftist sympathies and visions fall into the trap of victimisation.  Click on the title to get the pdf or read the whole thing below. What I say applies to all migrants, whatever jobs they do, including sex work.

Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants

Development, 46.3, 30-36 (2003)

Laura Agustín

There is a growing tendency to victimise poor people, weak people, uneducated people and migrant people. The trend, which began as a way of drawing attention to specific forms of violence committed against women, has now become a way of describing everyone on the lower rungs of power. Routinely, supporters position them as victims in order to claim rights for them, but this move also turns them into victims, and victims need help, need saving—which gives a primary role to supporters. Much rhetoric about migration has fallen into this pattern: migrants, it turns out, are not only vulnerable to exploitation, a patent truth, but they are ‘victims’.

The other choice, according to sensationalist media treatments, is criminal. Since news on migrants is reported only when disasters befall them, or when they are caught in something ‘illegal’, they can only be positioned in one of these two ways: as past victims of poverty or conflict in their home states and present victims of criminal bands, or as criminals who take advantage of such victims. The victims need to be saved, and the criminals to be punished. This reductionism encourages the idea that there is something inherently dangerous about being a migrant. Since migrants are usually seen as people from the third world, the positioning of so many of them as victims—of economic restructuring if not of criminal agents—harks back unsettlingly to the old category of the ‘native’. And since migrants nowadays are so often women, these natives are constituted as backward, developmentally less than first-world women. This is most overt, of course, in ‘trafficking’ discourses (for example, in Barry, 1979) but can now be heard in general talk about ‘illegal’ migrants.

Ratna Kapur shows how this victimising tendency began in the early 1990s with the project to reveal the widespread, routine nature of violence against women:

In the context of law and human rights, it is invariably the abject victim subject who seeks rights, primarily because she is the one who has had the worst happen to her. The victim subject has allowed women to speak out about abuses that have remained hidden or invisible in human rights discourse (Kapur, 2001: 5).

This strategy has led to many benefits for women. The problem is that the person designated a victim tends to take on an identity as victim that reduces her to being seen as a passive receptacle and ‘encourages some feminists in the international arena to propose strategies which are reminiscent of imperial interventions in the lives of the native subject’ (Kapur, 2001: 6).

The category ‘migrant’, awkward and ambiguous to begin with, becomes more so when it is victimised. In this article, I want to look at what we think we mean when we call someone a migrant, and then suggest that there are both class and postcolonial analyses to be made of this constructed identity and the passivity assigned to it. To do this, I will call on my own research with migrating people in various parts of the world. What I recount is widely known, but not often included in formal studies of migrations.

Conventional travellers

On the surface, there seem to be patently different kinds of travellers: tourists, people whose work involves travel, refugees and migrants. Tourists are generally defined as people with time and money to spend on leisure activities who take a trip somewhere to do it: they are ‘travelling for pleasure’. Tourism is defined by an absence (work), and tourists are believed to have left their jobs behind to indulge consciously in not working. In the literature, the tourist is someone from the North (the tourism of Southerners is invisible). Some people oppose a status of ‘traveller’ to that of tourist, saying their trips are unplanned, open-ended, longer and more appreciative of the ‘real culture’ of a place. ‘Interacting with the culture’ is the goal for many of these, and this interaction most likely comes about through getting a job. ‘Working’ does not exclude pleasure, then, for first-world subjects.

People who travel in the course of carrying out their jobs are at first glance also clearly identifiable. Whether sent on trips by companies or undertaking them on their own, business travellers are obliged to be on the road. Their trips may be long or short, involve familiarity with the culture visited and the local language or not and require sociability or not, but they have in common that this is not supposed to be ‘leisure time’. But is this true? Many businesspeople also engage in tourism during their trips, using their ‘expense accounts’ to entertain clients, much of this money going to sites where tourists also go (theatres, cabarets, sex or gambling clubs, restaurants, bars, boat trips, sports events). The trips taken to attend conferences, do field work or provide consultations by academics, ‘development’ and technical consultants, missionaries and social-sector personnel also feature tourism. Sports professionals, singers, musicians, actors, salespeople, sailors, soldiers, airline and train personnel, commercial fishermen, farm-workers, long-distance truck drivers and a variety of others travel as part of their professions. Modern explorers search for oil, minerals, endangered species of animals and plants and ‘lost’ archaeological artefacts. Many of these people spend a long time away from home, and their work life is punctuated by leisure and tourist activities. Some of these people have homes or ‘home bases’ in more than one place. Students who take years abroad or travel to do field work are combining tourism and work. The main goal of a voyage for religious pilgrims is not work, but they may work and engage in tourist activities on the way to and from the pilgrimage. And then there are nomads whose traditional way of gaining a livelihood includes mobility.

The dichotomy working traveller/work-free traveller is misleading, and many forms of travel have aspects of both. So what makes a ‘migrant’ different?

This other kind of traveller

Some people distinguish between all the above types and ‘migrants’, on the grounds that the latter ‘settle’. According to this distinction, migrants move from their home to make another one in someone else’s country. They are not positioned as travellers or tourists, since they are looking not only to spend money but earn it. The word migrant is nearly always used about the working class, not about middle-class professionals and not about people from the first-world, even if they also have left home and moved to another country. Instead, the word rings of a subaltern status. Continue reading

Leaving Home for Sex: Cosmopolitanism or sex trafficking or both?

It is striking that in the year 2001 women should so overwhelmingly be seen as pushed, obligated, coerced or forced when they leave home for the same reason as men: to get ahead through work.

Sex trafficking and human trafficking were not words on everyone’s lips when I wrote the above ten years ago. I was trying to figure out what was special and problematic about migrants who sell sex, believing that migrants are migrants, no matter what jobs they end up getting (including prostitution or sex work). Nowadays, a lot of the social conflict is about statistics: how many are trafficked, how many are illegal migrants. But even more it is about definitions, world views, ideas about sex and money, the insistence that a particular cultural view should be everyone’s.

Most conversations about migrants who sell sex present black-and-white versions of something that is almost entirely grey. For moral crusaders who would rush to legislation or attempt to prove that one sort of law is better than others, my vision is not satisfying. I say Stop, slow down. Until you comprehend the myriad elements present amongst people who leave home to go to another country and sell sex, you shouldn’t be passing laws about them. Of any kind. This is not useless postmodern dithering but the position that until you understand the minimum about how people experience their own lives you cannot responsibly take actions to help them. If you don’t care what they say themselves then don’t talk about helping and admit that control is what you want: the power to make people stop doing what you don’t approve of and start doing something else, whether they want to or not.

Leaving Home for Sex is the first piece I published that defined what my work would be for the next few years. At the time it was unusual not to use the term prostitute, but I also didn’t just substitute the term sex worker. Instead, I tried to describe how selling sex can be an occupation that works out all right for migrant women without their taking on a definite identity based on it. You will see ‘Challenging place’ in the original title because the piece was written for a special journal issue on women and ‘place’, meaning the idea of place, local and global both. I suggested that migrant workers didn’t fit into that framework but could sometimes be viewed as cosmopolitan subjects: that neither poverty nor bad jobs nor lack of complete ‘choice’ over your life prevents you from also becoming cosmopolitan. There are some footnotes not hyperlinked but listed at the end of the text in full reproduced here. Click on the title to get the pdf.

Leaving Home for Sex

Laura Mª Agustín, Development, 45.1, 110-117 (2002).

As soon as people migrate, there is a tendency to sentimentalise their home. Warm images are evoked of close families, simple household objects, rituals, songs, foods.[1] Many religious and national holidays, across cultures, reify such concepts of ‘home’ and ‘family’, usually through images of a folkoric past. In this context, migration is constructed as a last-ditch or desperate move and migrants as deprived of the place they ‘belong to’.Yet for millions of people all over the world, the birth and childhood place is not a feasible or desirable one in which to undertake more adult or ambitious projects, and moving to another place is a conventional—not traumatic—solution.

How does this decision to move take place? Earthquakes, armed conflict, disease, lack of food impel some people in situations that seem to involve little element of choice or any time to ‘process’ options: these people are sometimes called refugees. Single men’s decisions to travel are generally understood to evolve over time, the product of their ‘normal’ masculine ambition to get ahead through work: they are called migrants. Then there is the case of women who attempt to do the same.

Research in a marginal place: Geographies of exclusion

For some time I worked in educación popular in Latin America and the Caribbean and with latino migrants in North America and Europe, in programmes dedicated to literacy, AIDS prevention and health promotion, preparation for migration and concientización (whose exact translation does not exist in English but combines something about consciousness-raising with something about ‘empowerment’). My concern about the vast difference between what first-world social agents (governmental, NGO workers, activists) say about women migrants and what women migrants say about themselves led me to study and testify on these questions. I have deliberately located myself on the border of both groups: the migrants and the social, in Europe, where the only jobs generally available to migrant women are in the domestic, ‘caring’ and sex industries. My work examines both the social and the migrants, so I spend time in brothels, bars, houses, offices, ‘outreach’ vehicles and ‘the street’, in its many versions. Data on what migrant women say come from my own research and others’ in many countries of the European Union; women have also been interviewed before or after migrating in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Data on what social agents say come from my own research with those who work on prostitution issues in those countries, including as evaluator of projects for the International Labour Office and the European Commission.

Although researchers and NGO personnel have been working with migrant prostitutes for nearly twenty years in Europe, publication of their findings remains outside mainstream press and journals. Most of the people who have met and talked with many migrant prostitutes are neither academics nor writers. ‘Outreach’ is conceptualised as distinct from ‘research’ and generally funded as HIV/AIDS prevention. This means that the published products of outreach research are generally limited to information on sexual health and practices; the other many kinds of information collected remain unpublished. Some of those who work in these projects have the chance to meet and exchange such information, but most do not. Recently, a new kind of researcher has entered the field, usually young academic women studying sociology or anthropology and working on migrations. These researchers want to do justice to the reality around them, which they recognise as consisting of as many migrant prostitutes as migrant domestic/‘caring’ workers. Most of these researchers do oral histories and some have begun to publish but it will be some time before such findings are recognised. Stigma works in all kinds of ways, among them the silencing of results that do not fit hegemonic discourses.[2] The mainstream complaint says ‘the data is not systematised’ or ‘there is no data.’ In my research, I seek out such ‘marginalised’ results.

Discourses of leaving home

It is striking that in the year 2001 women should so overwhelmingly be seen as pushed, obligated, coerced or forced when they leave home for the same reason as men: to get ahead through work. Continue reading

Sayad’s The Suffering of the Immigrant: book review by Laura Agustín

The Suffering of the Immigrant is still one of the best books I know about the experience of migration. The book demonstrates how suffering does not have to equal victimisation and, most importantly, how migration is the inevitable consequence of colonialism. The migrants discussed left Kabylia, in northern Algeria, and went to France.

Book Review by Laura Agustín in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol 29.3 pp 703-15, September 2005

Abdelmalek Sayad, 2004: The Suffering of the Immigrant. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Initially I thought this book’s title might signal the growing trend to victimise migrants, but I was wrong. On the contrary, The Suffering of the Immigrant presents the strongest possible arguments for recognising migrants’ agency in the face of inherent, structural conditions that are all against them and whose consequences they must, undoubtedly, ‘suffer’.

Whereas many contemporary commentators refer to migration as a phenomenon of ‘globalisation’, Abdelmalek Sayad makes no bones about which stage of globalisation we should be looking at: the north’s imperialist colonisation of the south. Most commentators agree that current migratory flows are related to free-market capitalism’s need for flexibility, moving its workplaces around the world while workers move to find them. And probably few would deny that ‘earlier’ colonial relations were implicated, especially where migrants move to their former ‘mother countries’.

But Sayad obliges us to consider a more serious proposition, that migrations are a structural element of colonial power relationships that have never ended. His case study is the Algerian migration to France in the second half of the twentieth century, during which time many migrants passed from being French (citizens of the colony) to Algerian (citizens of an independent Algeria) and back to French (as legal workers and residents in France), with the complication that the majority were Berber peasants. The colonial relationship is seen in the subordination of the economic and social life of rural colonies to the industrial activity of the country in which peasants become ‘workers’.

Sayad’s arguments, however, go much further than this particular case. First, he demonstrates how discourses of migration focus on the situation of ‘immigrants’ — meaning, on how receiving countries view immigration as their own social problem. With this move, the dominant member of the migration relationship firmly maintains control over knowledge and management of this ‘problem’, according to which immigrants are always ‘lacking’ necessary skills and culture. Sayad insists that research must begin at an earlier stage, a demand that has begun to be met by a trend towards studies of ‘transnational’ migrations. But Sayad points to a more intransigent problem here, in which countries of origin participate in the negative construction of their own citizens abroad, construing them as simply absent, treating them as martyrs to the country’s economic good and considering them traitors who lose their original culture and become contaminated by another. If they do manage to return, they are pathologised as being difficult to ‘reinsert’ into society. Sayad shows how individual migrants reproduce this colonialist view of themselves as subaltern misfits only useful in an accountant’s version of migration that selectively calculates ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’.

Sayad debunks categories of migration imagined to be separate, in which ‘settler migrants’ supposedly value families and domestic morality more than ‘labour migrants’, as well as the idea that labour migrations are transitory and without a political dimension. Rather, he suggests that all migrants are united by a distancing from their original home, wracked by guilt that they should never have left and, having done so, that they will not perform well enough. Though they may achieve legal status, they are always treated as foreign by their second country and referred to via ‘digestive’ metaphors about their capacity to be assimilated, integrated or inserted into society. They fail to perceive the social, medical and other ‘helping’ sectors as being on their side. Their loyalties are divided, they don’t know which patrie is really theirs and they experience an alienation from their own children, who may have no interest in their ‘homeland’. They are doubly excluded from real political participation in both countries of origin and reception, thus being deprived of even

the right to have rights, to be a subject by right . . . to belong to a body politic in which [they have] a place of residence, or the right to be actively involved — in other words the right to give a sense and a meaning to [their] action, words and existence (p. 227).

While some of this may seem familiar to migration scholars, its presentation renders it new. Sayad belonged to the group he studied: emigrant from Kabylia, immigrant in France. He gives significant space to migrants’ own words, sometimes in the form of long, repetitive and even confusing testimonies. Although one can imagine his anger over the many injustices he recounts, he recognises their cultural logic.

Sayad makes an important contribution to migration study in his development of Bourdieu’s analysis of ‘state thought’, which he considers one of our most intractable cultural givens. Slurring migrants as ‘hybrids’ and ‘bad’ social products, society manifests its fear of those who ‘blur the borders of the national order and therefore the symbolic value and pertinence of the criteria’ used to establish differences between nationals and foreigners (p. 291). For Sayad, nothing less than the delegitimising of the state is necessary, the denaturalising of what we consider passionately real — our national being.

This is a book about men. The Algerian case that Sayad details was initially about single males, who are pictured as alienated from a natural cycle of courtship and marriage. Sayad reproduces one man’s speculation on a potential woman migrant’s fate: ‘whilst she might gain something by coming here . . . she’d pay a high price for it . . . she would be imprisoned in one room . . . she would miss the sky’ (p. 156). Given the current protagonism of so many women in migration, their absence here is notable, and in this sense Sayad’s case-study imposes a restriction. Given the wealth of ideas here that go far beyond any single case, this restriction can be forgiven.

Before Sayad died he asked his friend and colleague, Pierre Bourdieu, to make a book of the disparate manuscripts he had produced over the years. The result is intellectually rigorous, anthropologically perceptive, moving and poetic.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist