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Crossing borders

May 27, 2016


A PARADOX of the modern age is that as the world shrinks to become what Marshal McLuhan termed a global village, borders that separate people from one another are proliferating and becoming increasingly impenetrable legally. This is happening in an age when mobility is on the rise and people are leaving home in larger numbers than before. Some have experienced migration thrice in their lifetime.

Generally, writers and analysts focus on the political, economic and sociological dimension of crossing borders. Attention is focused on governments’ policies of making foreigners’ entry difficult into their country, the impact migration has on the host nations’ economy/politics and the challenges of integrating migrants from diverse cultures into a cohesive society.

There is yet another aspect of crossing borders — the human aspect. Few take note of it though its impact on an individual can be poignant and generational. It is only the personal becoming the political that draws attention.

Two catalogues in a three-volume project, produced by Houston’s Voices Breaking Boundaries, try to seek out voices that otherwise would never be heard. Titled Borderlines, these elegant publications capture the trauma, hopes and despair of migrants when caught in the wrong spaces of the borderlands.

Some have experienced migration thrice in a lifetime.

Sehba Sarwar, who is the artistic director of these catalogues, is also the creator of this project. She writes with deep feelings about her experience of her “appalling loss” when her father passed away in Karachi. At this sad moment, Sehba was in Houston thousands of miles away.

The two issues of Borderlines, which bring together the works of nearly 50 artists and writers focus on practically every dimension of a person’s identity when borders have been crossed.

Many years ago, when people moved away from home to take up abode in foreign climes, the phenomenon was attributed to push or pull factors. Immigrants were driven away from their country because of fear or insecurity. Or they were attracted by greener pastures abroad. Now there are many more factors.

There might be matrimonial alliances, dreams of a brighter future for one’s children, or the love of learning that lure people away. I even know of a businessman who sold off his business in Karachi to move to a small town in North America when he got sick of the corruption here. He is a man of integrity and felt he could not take the extortionist culture of which he had to be a part to run even a modest business in Pakistan. He is happy as he can lead an honest life.

Another highly qualified engineer left when he discovered that merit does not count in professional life here. Connections and ethnicity matter.

Whatever may be the cause, this is certain that migrants go with mixed feelings because modern online and telephonic technology and quick means of communications have made home just a stone’s throw away. There is no total break.

Yet the physical barriers such as geographical distances and border crossing protocols at times make the home country — seemingly so close — so unreachable. This inarguably creates more inner conflicts and contradictions in a person.

This also makes assimilation — the dream of many host countries such as the US — more challenging. Others such as Canada and the UK have opted for multiculturalism. Yet problems remain.

I found Borderlines interesting as it shed light on new dimensions of migration. Noor Zaheer, an Indian social activist, has another way of looking at her wanderlust in her essay Living the Dead. She writes: “Maybe my borders are more within than without ... In a world that is continuously defining itself through borders, races, nations and organised religions, it is like an elixir to find a space where the negation of all that is possible, that there are still ways to journey on roads that lead nowhere, that travel remains possible without a quest, that the journey can still be the destination.”

Then there is Nandita Bhavnani, whose parents were from Sindh and migrated to India at the time of Partition in 1947. When she was planning her first trip to Karachi, she realised that for her family going to Sindh was equated solely with the past. “How can you possibly go back?” she asks. But after she revisited Sindh she wrote: “I learned that more than architecture and geography, it is people who make a land.”

That is confirmed by Sehba’s drawing-room art production on dissent to honour her father. She connects the memories of dissent in Karachi (where her father led a student’s movement in the 1950s) with the Chicano civil rights movement, whose leader Daniel Bustamante is also honoured. So the world is after all a global village. It is important though, that the people living in it share similar values and concerns.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2016