Archive for June, 2012

No place like home


‘Borders can become stifling and murderous.   The dotted lines on the cartographer’s map can be transformed into walls of flame’ (‘Bricolage: An Interview with Michel Butor’, YFS, 84 (1994), 17-26)


All this week, I’ve been blogging about refugees.  I set myself the task of posting at least once a day on this theme, and whilst it’s been demanding (given the day job, and all that) to keep to that, there’s never been the remotest danger that I would run out of stories to tell.  The stories have spanned more than a century (Ukrainian Jews relocating to Sheffield at the end of the 19th century, through to Medecins sans Frontieres’ bulletin from South Sudan, and campaigns in the UK for refugees facing deportation and destitution), but only two continents, and every continent, every nation has its refugee stories.


The refugee story is perhaps the true story of our age.   In the chaos of Europe after the Second World War the numbers of people displaced – because they’d fled, or been deported, or been driven out of their homes by fighting or bombing – were so great (around 40 million) that for the first time the idea of the refugee was given serious consideration.   Our legal definitions come from that period, though they have evolved and adapted since.    Estimates of numbers vary considerably, based on the nuances of the definitions – from 8.4 million to 62 million if we include people displaced within their country of origin, as well as those outside it.


The classic definition – a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’ – is based on the idea of a national identity, and of national borders.  Borders change, of course, and are in the main arrived at through conflict, occupation or colonisation – or by nature’s arrangements of sea or mountains.   Nigeria’s ongoing hideous turmoil is felt by many to be a product of the arbitrary lines drawn on a map by colonialists with little notion of the land those lines were enclosing or the peoples who inhabited it.


Borders can be absolute – one step over and you are in safety or in peril – but there’s also the notion of ambiguity, in the old Marchlands – borderlands rather than borderlines – which were dangerous places where the rule of law might not prevail.  And there were also sanctuaries – places where the rule of God rather than man prevailed and so one could be immune from arrest.   That notion is powerful and long-lasting, despite the terrible roll call of abuses.   The flight to a hoped-for place of safety sometimes did the work of genocidal mobs for them, as in Rwanda where a church in Nyarubuye and the technical school which had been a UN base had attracted many hundreds of refugees, who were surrounded by the Interahamwe and massacred.


The frontier can represent the limits of exploration (‘Space.  The final frontier’), to be boldly gone beyond, with all of the implications that what lies beyond may contain unknown and unimaginable dangers.  It’s a romantic notion in a way – and one which when given a historical context such as the American West reminds us that beyond the frontier wasn’t empty space to be occupied but homelands and homes  and people to be displaced and destroyed.


‘I think I belong on the border.  I feel safer psychologically if I have two countries, two places to go’.  Carmen Bugan still feels this, decades after leaving Romania.  W G Sebald, no refugee, but an exile, unable to feel at home in the place of his birth, said that his ideal station might be ‘a hotel in Switzerland‘ – a non-place in a neutral country.   Going home – if one can – may be as painful as being a stranger in a strange land.  For Carmen, returning to Romania two years ago to revisit her family home and old school was “one of the worst experiences of my life”.  ‘Yet there is still an inescapable desire to reconnect. Her writing is circling ever closer to Romania. “Do I want to turn back?” she wonders. “Is Romania really the sun and am I the sunflower?”‘  A S Byatt said of Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn that he “journeys in great circling spirals in order not to go home, to get away from his origins”.


Every day’s papers bring more news of people forced to make unimaginable choices, people for whom home is no place.   South Sudanese refugees facing expulsion from Israel, boats carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers capsizing in the Indian Ocean, Ugandan Asians returning to the homes from which Idi Amin drove them, Burmese Rohingya refugees seeking help in Bangladesh, refugee camps filling up in Turkey, in DRC.  It would be terribly easy to despair.   But the other side of the picture is, as it always has been, the story of generosity and hospitality, of people giving a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, of the marginalised and spectralised finding a place in a community and people to listen to their stories.


What could I say, to sum up what this week has been about?  Just that, as I said in my first Refugee Week post, every story that can be told is precious, a little bit of light in the darkness.






PS – Many thanks to all those who’ve retweeted and reblogged these posts to bring them to a wider audience than I could reach.





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On the way to freedom


Walter-Benjamin (Photo credit: doylesaylor)

On 25/6 September 1940 a man took his own life in a hotel in Portbou, Catalonia.   He was 48 years old.  He was a writer, an intellectual, whose work, cut terribly short as it was, is still hugely influential.   He was Jewish, and had crossed the border from France, having escaped Paris ahead of the German army. He’d just heard that all transit visas had been cancelled, and that he and his fellow-travellers would be forced to return to France.

The UNHCR’s campaign for World Refugee Day focused on the ‘choice’ faced by refugees – to stay or to go, either one fraught with danger.  Walter Benjamin – and many others – took a third option.   He had contemplated suicide before, seeing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.  He’d recently been interned in France as a stateless person, and knew already that the Gestapo had instructions to arrest him.

His choice is made bitter by our knowledge that his travelling companion, Arthur Koestler, took morphine tablets too, but survived and escaped, and that the embargo on visas was lifted a few weeks later.  As Hannah Arendt says in her introduction to Illuminations, ‘only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible’ (p. 18).

It’s also bitter because, if the scope of his influence on the humanities is so great on the basis of the work he published in his short lifetime, it could have been so much more had he lived.  In the words of his friend Gershom Scholem, his ‘genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretative power of the Critic, and the erudition of the Scholar’. (Reflections, vii).   Anyone interested in the city, in maps and labyrinths, in Baudelaire, Kafka or Proust, in text and translation, history and memory, will encounter Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin stands, in this context, for our loss, the loss of those who didn’t escape, and particularly those – notable and anonymous – who chose this third way.   On the memorial to Benjamin in Portbou these words are inscribed: IT IS MORE ARDUOUS TO HONOUR THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS THAN THAT OF THE RENOWNED. HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION IS DEVOTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Hannah Arendt (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Peter Demetz (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)



Free to be me

Seventy or so years ago, homosexuals were arrested across Nazi Europe – around 100,000 of whom between 5 and 15 thousand were sent to concentration camps, where 60% of them are believed to have been killed.   Their place in the Holocaust was not recognised officially for many years – after all, survivors could not tell their stories openly in societies where their sexuality was still criminalised and stigmatised.

Today in Uganda the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, apparently withdrawn under intense international pressure, has been reintroduced to parliament.  It would broaden the criminalisation of same-sex relations by creating two categories: aggravated homosexuality (e.g. acts committed by someone who is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, a repeat offender, commits acts on a minor or using intoxicating substances),which would attract the death penalty, or the offense of homosexuality punishable merely by life imprisonment.  This legislation extends to those who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, and includes penalties for supporting gay people or LGBT rights.  Uganda is not alone – homosexuality is punishable by death in a number of other countries, and criminalised across much of the globe.   In these countries, not only are LGBT people subject to judicial punishments but to unofficial violence, against which they can have no hope of redress or protection.

Despite this, for a long time in UK asylum law, the idea that one’s sexual orientation could be grounds for seeking refugee status was not accepted.  As a result, even where people could show that they had faced persecution because of their sexuality, and that their home country criminalised homosexuality, they were told to go home, and be discreet.   Two years ago this was overturned by the UK Supreme Court.

‘The Home Office argument paralleled the idea that if Anne Frank could have avoided persecution by hiding forever in the attic, then she wouldn’t have qualified as a refugee. Sir John Dyson calls this argument “absurd and unreal”. The test essentially creates two parallel persecutions – the objective risk from the state or society one comes from, and the living lie required to hide from it. Moreover, the court holds that there is no possible yardstick for measuring when suppressing ones sexuality is “reasonably tolerable”. The question the court of appeal posed regarding what is “reasonably tolerable” is fundamentally unanswerable. As Lord Rodger points out, in the final analysis, “there is no relevant standard since it is something which no one should have to endure”.’ (Bernard Keenan, ‘Milestone victory for gay refugees’, Guardian, 7 July 2o10)

This was obviously a huge step forward.  And the refugee organisations who helped to bring about this change also lobbied for improved training for UKBA staff, to enable them to deal with these issues more sensitively, and with a greater cultural understanding (see Stonewall’s report for the background to this).  Things may well have improved in this area too, but the number of cases where gay asylum seekers are currently threatened with deportation suggests there is some way to go.

Julia Kristeva argued that the stranger/refugee multiplies masks and false selves.   In their homeland the refugee may have had to ‘pass’, as conforming to whatever set of beliefs and behaviours will make them acceptable.   In their place of sanctuary, the immediate threat may have been removed, but they still need to keep themselves as inconspicuous as possible, given that the very fact of being a stranger makes them vulnerable.   And if the reason for their exile is their sexuality, their claim for refugee status is dependent upon their ability to be open about something that has been a source of shame and fear, something that may still expose them to violence.   A new report from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration says that  ‘LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm despite being among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world. Moreover, they are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy.’

So, if the gay asylum seeker conforms to the norms of mainstream society, they may not convince officialdom that they are genuinely in need of asylum because of their sexuality.  If they conform to officialdom’s expectations of gay identity, they put themselves in even greater danger should their claim fail and they be deported, and they expose themselves to prejudice and aggression here – most poignantly, the communities which for many asylum seekers provide a vital support network, their compatriots in exile, may be the most hostile.    Double jeopardy.

Click to access oram-opening-doors.pdf

Stonewall, No Going Back: Lesbian and Gay People and the Asylum System, 2010

Julia Kristeva, Etrangers à nous-mêmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)

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Refugee Stories

Médecins sans Frontières report from South Sudan:

Upper Nile State in South Sudan has seen an influx of some 35,000 refugees over the last three weeks, with a further 15,000 refugees said to be on their way. Most arrive on foot, carrying their most precious possessions. Many have been walking for weeks and some describe having had to leave the weakest members of their party by the roadside.

Most are fleeing fighting in neighbouring Sudan. They arrive to find refugee camps already overcrowded and aid workers struggling to provide enough water for the 70,000 refugees already in the area, because of this thousands chose to walk to other temporary camps.

“All these people in the camps are normal people who had normal lives. They had houses and clothes, and then one day, they had to pack their things, leave their lives behind and start to walk. If they were lucky enough and strong enough, they made it to one of these camps. And if they weren’t, then they died along the way” – Chiara Burzio

Meanwhile, closer to home, Refugee Action‘s appeal will be broadcast on Radio 4 this weekend:

Tune in on Sunday 24th June at 7.55am and 9.26pm when we’ll be broadcasting a very personal message to 1.9 million Radio 4 listeners. The Refugee Action appeal will focus on how, with your support, we’re providing a lifeline for thousands of destitute asylum seekers across the country by giving food parcels, clean clothes and small amounts of money for a hostel bed for a few nights. It will be read by Santok, one of our caseworkers. Please share this with your friends, family and colleagues so we’re able to let as many people as possible know.

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Nigeria, 1966/World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

Nigeria, 1966

During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria.  Many more fled to escape the massacres.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.

As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping.  I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time.  I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could.  But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity.  I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success.    I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel.  I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.

As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events.  His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of  Port Harcourt.   During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over.   His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)

Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)

Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006


World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.

No one chooses to be a refugee

Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.

If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?

For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.

What would you do?

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.

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Small Tragedies

Extracts from Chris Mullin’s diaries, 2002-4

‘…The Savchenkos… were taken away on Sunday.  Although we were expecting five days notice, police and immigration officers turned up at 8 am and gave them an hour to pack.  They were put in a cold, windowless van.  …  The Savchenkos were/are (I keep thinking of them as though they are dead) such dignified, decent people.  They would have made model citizens and the little chap was doing so well at school ….  I can’t get them out of my mind.  If only I could have saved them’ (30 April 2002, p. 284)

‘Customers at the surgery this evening included … an asylum seeker from Goma in the eastern Congo.  He is half Tutsi, which, he reckons, puts his life at risk were he to be returned to Kinshasa.  … The man is terrified and absolutely desperate. … These cases haunt me.  We’ve grown used to watching horrors on television, and then, after a couple of minutes’ ritual sympathy, getting on with our own lives.   But now the victims are no longer thousands of miles away.  They do not go away when we push the ‘off’ button.  They are here, wandering our streets, popping up in our lives. They can talk to us in our own language.  They bleed, as we would, were we to change places.  One day, who knows, we might.’ (10 May 2002, p. 287-8)

Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin, ed. Ruth Winstone (London: Profile Books, 2010)

And meanwhile, in 2012:

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You and the Refugee

you and the refugee

Extracts from You and the Refugee, published 1939:

‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture.  …  In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot.  Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’ (p 231)

‘Hundreds of Jews are hiding in the German woods near the Dutch frontier.  Whenever they try to cross into Holland they are forced back by the Dutch gendarmes, to be arrested by the German police’ (The Times, 19 November, 1938)

‘In England, when we are aroused in the early hours of the morning by a sharp rap on the door, we think only of the milkman.  But the refugee who is safely in England still finds himself starting up in bed, his heart turning sick at such a sound’  (p. 233)

Norman Angell & Dorothy Frances Buxton, You and the Refugee: the morals and economics of the problem (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939)

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Cities of Sanctuary

It’s Refugee Week.  Every year a time to consider what drives people to leave everything behind and throw themselves on the mercy of a world that is often indifferent, suspicious and hostile.  Every year a time to consider what our culture has gained from those who’ve sought sanctuary here, and what it’s lost in those who never made it.

Two very different refugee stories that I came across in the last few days:

Occursus told the story of Pauline, whose family came to Sheffield from Ukraine, and were part of the Jewish community in the slums around Scotland Street.  There’s a multiple loss here – of the original home in Novograd-Volynsk, of the area where the 19th century Jewish emigrants settled, and the family home on Allen Street, but also of the connections to that past, and those lost places.  Pauline was discouraged from exploring her family history, and now pieces together what she can from fragments and guesses, and sensory memories – smells and sounds.   And the Guardian featured Carmen Bugan‘s memories of her father, a dissident in Ceausescu’s Romania, and the family’s escape from oppression.   Carmen’s memories have been enhanced in an unexpected way – by the secret police files which she’s now been able to access and which shed a weird light on the years of surveillance and suspicion, imprisonment and torture, but also gave her back a story she’d written as a child and the endorsement of her father’s love for his children in the words of an anonymous watcher.

These stories chimed for me with reflections on Storying Sheffield’s 2012 exhibition, from Matthew Cheeseman’s Einekleine blog, talking about the sensibility of loss, the fragmentary past, memory appearing as traces.  He says that the work in the exhibition ‘makes one marvel at all that is not there, at all that is truly gone, erased forever.’ It offers ‘a field of stories so deep, so potentially endless, it induces vertigo, a sense of terror at what has gone before and what will be left behind. …  Within this vertigo is a response to the finality of Derrida’s traces: more will come, more will happen. Traces will be replaced by traces, all dying, all corroding, but giving into others, in a protean, quantum-field of experience which is not only filled with loss but also, seemingly at least, a generative, life-affirming push. Speech and stories may be fragile and delicate, but they are replaced and revived by their own action. ‘

There are many, many lines of flight from here.   Reading history in the gaps, the absences, the lacunae.   Ghosts and revenants, walking the streets of our cities.   Themes for future blogs – but in this specific context, a reminder of the field of stories from those who, like Pauline’s parents, and Carmen’s, left behind lives that are unrecoverable now, and made new lives in unfamiliar places.   Every refugee has these two narratives – the life before and the life since.   And the former interweaves itself with the latter, consciously or unconsciously – Carmen lives on the border between France and Switzerland, where her husband works at CERN:   ‘I think I belong on the border.  I feel safer psychologically if I have two countries, two places to go’.   Another line of flight – borders, frontiers, liminal space…

The refugee story is our story too.  Not just in the sense that it could be any of us, though of course it could be – but because how we, our community, our city, our homeland, respond to the strangers who turn to us for sanctuary is a compelling story too, on every level from the most personal to the global political.   The refugee story told by some of our newspapers is a travesty of the truth, a mean-spirited, mendacious, xenophobic narrative of a Britain already full up, being taken for a ride by workshy foreigners with sob stories about persecution and spurious appeals to human rights.  I would be fairly startled if anyone reading this blog subscribed to that set of views.  But because it’s so pervasive, the counter-narrative needs to be robust,  and to establish both facts (the laws around asylum, the benefits and entitlements of those seeking it, the numbers involved) and principles.

For Derrida, ‘ethics is hospitality’:

‘Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others.   Insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and to others, to others as our own or as foreigners, ethics is hospitality’. (Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness, p. 16-17)

He goes beyond this assertion to recognise the possibility that hospitality can entail appropriation, control and mastery, and to explore therefore the idea of cities of refuge, an idea that goes back centuries, but raises issues of state sovereignty and law which he acknowledges are obscure and difficult.  There’s no simple way of enshrining that simple principle at national and international level, but without that, the fate of the exiled will always be precarious.   Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s study of cosmopolitanism, subtitled ‘Ethics in a world of strangers’, defines it as ‘ universality plus difference”.    Based on this, we should offer hospitality to the stranger because of the former – because what we share is more important than what we don’t.   That difference may be the first thing that strikes us, and Julia Kristeva sets out a shockingly stark polarity of responses: ‘I’m at least as peculiar as this other, and so I love him/her’, says the observer , or ‘I prefer my own peculiarity, and so I kill the other’ – more recognisably, fascination or rejection.    Kristeva’s analysis is complex and problematic on many levels and certainly doesn’t offer – any more than Derrida or Appiah – a programme of change.  But it offers some powerful images of what it is to be a stranger – in  a state of permanent transience, one’s space ‘a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping’, torn between here and elsewhere, belonging nowhere.  The stranger loses their language and their place in the community – they count for no one, no one hears them.

W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz came to Britain on the kindertransport.  Sebald explores the “effects political persecution produces in people 50 years down the line, and the complicated workings of remembering and forgetting that go with that”. He is interested in the long-term effects on émigrés who “may appear well adapted but, especially as they move towards old age, are still suffering from having been ostracised, deprived of country, family, language. There are damages to people’s inner lives that can never be rectified.” In The Emigrants too, he explores the ‘great time lag between the infliction of injustice and when it finally overwhelms you’.

Derrida rejects the option of giving examples of individual refugees in his text, ‘for there are too many; and to cite the best known would risk sending the anonymous others back into the darkness (mal) from which they find it hard to escape’ (p. 6).  There’s truth in this –  but the refugee risks losing past, history, identity and language when they uproot themselves to find safety amongst strangers, and every story that can be told is precious, a little bit of light in the darkness.

Refugee Week  is obviously about more than telling the stories.  It’s about campaigning, to end destitution for refused asylum seekers (Still Human, Still Here), to change practice on the treatment of gay and lesbian asylum seekers, for asylum seekers to be allowed to work.  It’s about fundraising to provide resources and support for refugees.  It’s about raising awareness and understanding, refuting and challenging prejudices and misconceptions.   There are many organisations working in this field, at the local and national level, some of which are listed below.  I choose to support Refugee Action, for which my brother has worked for a number of years, and for whom I will be fundraising by participating in the Great Yorkshire Run in September.

Julia Kristeva, Etrangers a nous-memes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)

Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism & Forgiveness (NY, Routledge, 2001)

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (London: Allen Lane, 2006)

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Free Men: The Resistance on Film

There’s a perception that we’ve been flooded with cinematic treatments of the Nazi Occupation of France in the decades since it ended.  There have been a fair few, it’s true, but what’s interesting is the way in which those treatments have changed over the years.

At the Liberation, the notion of France as a nation of resisters was a vital part of de Gaulle’s strategy to unify a country perilously close to civil war.  Of course, there was a purge – women who’d collaborated horizontally were publicly shamed, and there were trials, and some executions.   But a surprisingly large number of those who were complicit in the implementation of Nazi race laws and in the deportations ended up in positions of responsibility in post-war France.

All of this has been talked about a great deal, it’s true, and one might think that it’s all been said, that everyone knows now who was complicit, and how and why, as well as who did resist.  But fictional and cinematic treatments of the era have gone through different phases, each adding a layer of complexity and richness to our understanding.

The most recent films to contribute to this process have been two about the Vel d’Hiv round up (The Round up, and Sarah’s Key), and two focusing on particular clusters of resistance activity.  I’ll come back to the Vel d’Hiv in a future blog.


What’s particularly striking about the two recent films about the French Resistance is that in these cases, the resistance was not, strictly speaking, French.   Robert Guediguian’s Army of Crime starts with a roll call of names, each one followed by the words ‘mort pour la France’.  The names are Armenian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, some are difficult to pronounce, and the speaker stumbles for a moment, and goes on.  We see them on their way to imprisonment, ‘trial’ and execution and then we go back to see how they became martyrs for a country to which they did not belong.

But the Army of Crime – so called after the Nazi poster which aimed to alienate the populace from the resisters by emphasising their criminal acts and their foreign origins – was made up of people who had very little to lose.  From the start of the Occupation, as Jews, and/or Communists, many of them refugees from parts of Europe which had fallen earlier to the Nazis, or from other persecutions, they knew they were targets.  Some of them joined the armed struggle due to some personal confrontation, others after their families were swept up in the round ups and deported.  They fought and died for an idea of France, the France that they had seen as a refuge, even whilst that idea was being betrayed, as they were.

For the resisters in the new film, Free Men, it really wasn’t their war.  As Moslems they risked being rounded up only if they were mistaken for Jews and could not prove otherwise, or if they were involved in communist workers groups.  But the Paris Mosque was a place of refuge both for Moslems who were involved in the resistance, and for Jews.  The scale of this activity is not known – estimates vary wildly – but it seems clear that the head of the mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, instigated and supported the production of false papers for Jews, and the use of the building itself as a hiding place, whilst maintaining outwardly amicable relations with the authorities.

It’s a story that’s even less known than that of Missak Manouchian’s Army of Crime. After all, the Nazis publicised the latter rather effectively with the poster – which far from having the effect they intended, became a focus for solidarity and protest.  The clandestine publication Lettres Francaises reported in March 1944 how the ten images on the blood-red background attracted a silent crowd:

‘At length, and solemnly they saluted dead friends.  In their eyes there was no morbid curiosity, just admiration, sympathy, as if they were our own.  And in fact they were our own, because they were fighting alongside thousands of us for our country, because it is also the home of liberty.  On one of the posters, over night, someone had written in capital letters a single word: Martyrs.  That is the homage of Paris to those who’ve fought for freedom’

Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard wrote poems about L’Affiche Rouge, and there were earlier films, though one screenplay was rejected on the grounds that these foreigners gave the wrong image of the Resistance.

Free Men isn’t the only film to tell the story of the Moslem resistance – Mohamed Fekrane’s Ensemble came out this year too, though it hasn’t reached the UK yet.

Army of Crime had a very powerful resonance in the context of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee rhetoric that is spewed out by sections of the press here and across Europe, as does the story of Moslems risking their lives to save Jewish lives.  These young men from North Africa are the brothers of the Allied soldiers in Days of Glory, which told of their part in the liberation of France, and their betrayal after the war by the French government.

If Free Men had less emotional heft than Army of Crime, it’s not down to the story.  It’s to do with the leading character.  Manouchian and his group were from the start politically engaged, passionately committed to the struggle, with a sense of the wider European context – the Armenian genocide, the Spanish civil war.   They’re articulate and charismatic. Younes at the start is a black marketeer, willing to spy (rather ineptly) on the activities at the Mosque in exchange for an official blind eye being turned to his business dealings.   He’s nudged unwillingly into the resistance by his cousin, who’s already actively involved, and by his realisation of the danger faced by his friend Salim, a Jew passing as a Moslem.  Little by little, he’s drawn in until he is risking his life for the cause.  The problem is that as a focal point for the narrative he is somehow a bit blank, passive, lacking in real depth.

He reminded me, in fact, of Lucien  – Lacombe, Lucien.   Louis Malle’s ‘hero’ is an accidental collaborator – a combination of pure chance and his own naivety and vanity put him in a position where he can bring down local members of the Resistance which had rejected his bid for membership.  He’s an ambivalent and ambiguous character, and his portrayal has been controversial, because Malle refused to resolve the ambiguities.   When Lucien shoots a German soldier and escapes with his Jewish girlfriend, did he do so to save her from deportation, or because the German had taken something he regarded as his?   If Younes had not been so powerfully drawn to Salim, would he have allowed himself to be drawn into the Resistance?

Lacombe Lucien is a powerful film because of this opacity, which prevents us from taking refuge in simplistic polarities.  Malle’s film, which appeared in 1974, not long after Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, opened up the possibility of more complex narratives of the Occupation.  In Free Men the really interesting characters – Salim, Leila and the Imam himself – are sketched in as we focus on Younes, who we barely know better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning.

Nonetheless, it’s a gripping film, a story that needs to be told.  We’ve moved since the Liberation from the Gaullist myth of the inextinguishable flame, through the exposure of collaboration and complicity, towards a celebration of the real rich diversity of that struggle against barbarism.



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H. Frey, Louis Malle (Manchester U.P., 2004)

R. J. Golsan, Vichy’s Afterlife (Nebraska U.P., 2000)

N. Greene, Landscapes of Loss (Princeton U.P., 1999)

L. D. Hewitt, Remembering the Occupation in French Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

A. Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (Cambridge U.P., 1989)

P. Jankowski, ‘In Defense of Fiction: Resistance, Collaboration and Lacombe, Lucien’, Jnl of Modern History, 63, 3 (1991), 457-82

P. Kael, ‘Lacombe Lucien’,

S. Lindeperg, Les écrans de l’ombre (CNRS, 1997)

C. Nettelbeck, ‘Getting the Story Right: Narratives of World War II in Post-1968 France’ , Jnal of European Studies, 15 (1985), 77-116

C. Nettelbeck (ed), War and Identity: The French and the Second World War (Routledge, 1987)

A. Rayski, L’Affiche Rouge (Mairie de Paris, 2004)

H. Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Harvard U.P., 1991),13535938.php

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