Transcript: In conversation with Laleh Khalili
Luke de Noronha: Hello, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre here at UCL and today I’m speaking with Laleh Khalili. Laleh is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. She’s written widely on issues of political violence, war and counterinsurgency, political economy, racialisation and infrastructure and logistics, among many other things. Her first book was Heroes & Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration, published in 2007 and in 2013 she published the incredibly important book, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies and most recently in 2020, she published, Sinews of War & Trade: Shipping & Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, which is probably what we will focus more on today and a book that covers so much ground, offering a history of the Arabian Peninsula, and examining the role of maritime infrastructures as conduits of the movement of technologies, capital, people and cargo.
I’m really excited to have you on the podcast, Laleh. There have been several very important news stories in the last 12 months that have made me reach for your writing and analysis, or often just your Twitter feed – the Evergreen getting stuck, the dreadful explosion in Beirut, the treatment of seafarers and cruise workers during the Covid outbreak and, of course, the most recent escalation of violence against Palestinians in Israel - Palestine.
Laleh Khalili: Thank you, Luke. It’s really very exciting to be speaking with you and to be on the podcast.
Luke: I wanted to start with the most recent book, Sinews of War & Trade, and just to say I was reading it on the North Norfolk coast last weekend while camping, and thinking about dredging and land reclamation when in one of the places in England where there are these huge, expansive salt marshes, where the line between water and land is this kind of ever moving ecosystem. You write so well about the kind of land reclamation and dredging in the Arabian Peninsula, which I only heard about dredging through reading about New York City and JFK Airport. But reading your book, I found that I had to Google search images of the Arabian Peninsula, as it’s somewhere I’ve never been other than transferring on flights.
Laleh: Through the airports.
Luke: Exactly, so that’s my own experience and looking at the sky from Bahrain, I remember being very struck by when I was a teenager. With the land reclamation and dredging and the production of these places through modern forms of machine and statecraft, maybe you could talk more about this vast place, the geographical focus of the book, which is the Arabian Peninsula, because some people might not know what that area includes and why you chose to focus on it.
Laleh: I chose to focus on the Arabian Peninsula, a) for a very pedestrian reason that I’m a Middle East expert, and I thought it would be really interesting. But secondly, and I think this is probably a more significant scholarly reason for it, is because often the Arabian Peninsula, and specifically the Arabian / Persian Gulf, are spoken of often in extremely cliched sorts of ways and in a series of very familiar genres. Either these are places of security, so security becomes the object around which - a kind of very mainstream and conservative notion of security - becomes the modality around which the region is constructed, or people talk about it as being a place of kind of bling and shallowness and no history, which I also find deeply problematic. Finally, the third way in which people talk about the Arabian Peninsula is to talk about it being entirely about oil. And, of course, yes, the discovery of oil has been quite significant, but this place has been quite strategically important to the American Empire, to the British Empire, to the Ottoman Empire. You name it, it has always been quite a significant place, not only because of its location but also because of the fact that it has been a very significant and important place and node of trade for millennia, and perhaps more significantly since the start of the modern era; because it sits between Europe and Asia, and Africa, because it connects all of these places, both by land and by sea and because, of course, the digging of the Suez Canal - a major imperial venture, which put to work lots of conscripted people, corvée labour, in Egypt - connects the Arabian Peninsula much more closely to the Mediterranean and, therefore, to Europe. So, it’s an incredibly significant geographic location.
But in terms of topographically, what is also distinct about it is that it is flanked on the one side by a very, very deep and old sea, the Red Sea, which is essentially where the two continental plates for Asia and Africa meet one another, and that explains also why it’s so deep. And then, on the north side, it is flanked by the Arabian / Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman – and the Arabian / Persian Gulf from here on out I’m going to refer to it as 'the Gulf' - the Gulf is quite a shallow sea. And essentially actually, all of that used to be a kind of deeper sea and when the Ice Age happened and all of that, the waters receded and then it was filled again and it’s quite a shallow sea. And then, of course, you have, on the other side, the Indian Ocean, which is one of the most important spaces of trade / history / war / enslavement, you name it. Along with the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, these are some of the most significant bodies of water around which a politics has taken shape.
So, I really wanted to write about the Arabian Peninsula also because, after having completed Time in the Shadows, I really needed a moment to think about war and violence from the backend. What I mean by that is that with Time in the Shadows I have talked about the violence of war and of counterinsurgency doctrine, of the ways in which confinement happens. It was an extremely intimate look into the violence of imperial and colonial counterinsurgencies. And part of the reason that it was so intimate was because I was interviewing people who had been in detention, in Israeli and US detention, but also going through archival documents that recounted the works of people that had been in these kind of detentions. And I wanted to work on something that wasn’t so directly interested in the sort of bloody edge of the war, but rather about the sort of logistics, the political economy, the management and accounting, and construction and engineering that went into making the infrastructures that could be conscripted for war, because that is exactly what happens with these kinds of, ostensibly, civilian infrastructures, including ports and airports. So, I started doing that and one of the things that becomes immediately clear is that you cannot write about the making of infrastructures without talking about the ways that we remake also the lived environment; that what we would consider to be ‘nature’ – the term nature I’m putting it in scare quotes here – but nature is constantly remade and the making of infrastructures remakes ‘nature’ as well.
In the Arabian Peninsula this translates into two different ways, among many, in which nature is remade. One is in The Gulf where, as I said, it’s very shallow and it has a sandy bottom, but it has an extremely rich coastal, or littoral, ecosystem, and it has also an extremely rich sub-sea ecosystem. Dredging and land reclamation have resulted in the destruction of these littoral, coastal ecosystems. Salt flats, for example. You look at a salt flat and you think, oh this must be barren or arid because it’s salt, because of the ways in which we have started to think about deserts, for example, that these are dead places. But, of course, anybody who has lived near to a desert, as I did when I was growing up in Mashhad in northeast Iran, we were very close to Kavir Desert, which again looks very arid but it has an unbelievably rich life, through the different seasons, and you can see this if you’re living there. You become aware that also salt flats have that kind of a life as well, and so the dredging and land reclamation destroys salt flats.
Another characteristic of the Gulf coast, for example, are these amazing mangroves. If you’ve been to mangroves - some of the best that I visited were in Karachi, which are absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful places, but probably even more unknown species live in mangroves, precisely because they are a kind of liminal space between the sea and the land. They change and shift with the seasons, saltwater and sweet water mix in them, both marine and coastal and kind of land bound flora and fauna grow in them, and they are amazing. Again, a lot of the Gulf was mangroves and those were also destroyed when land reclamation was made.
In the Red Sea, the land reclamation and dredging that was required – dredging is where you dig into the sea in order to make it deeper, and land reclamation is where you fill out the sea with stable material, often concrete, in order to, for example you mentioned JFK Airport, build a runway, or in order to build a port, or actually to build land, which can then have buildings built on top of it. In fact, as an aside, the building that just collapsed in Miami, and where they think that hundreds of people are missing, was built on reclaimed marshland. So that was another environmental catastrophe that was made by man and we didn’t think about it. So anyway, in the Red Sea, where there is land reclamation and dredging going on, it rips up coral reefs. The entirety of the Red Sea has a very rich reef ecosystem. People who have gone, for example, diving, or on holidays in Sinai, would know that there are these amazing subsea, again subtropical and tropical the further down you move, ecosystems under the sea and again, dredging and land reclamation destroy this. But what is also important about this is that people would say that this is an economic calculus that goes into this but, of course, there is a political calculus that goes into these processes of state making as well. We have accepted the kind of liberal or capitalist dictum that, in order for us to thrive, economies must grow, and in order for economies growing, you need to have infrastructures, and in order for you to have infrastructures, you have to spend what you can, you have to transform, terraform the earth in however way, in order to produce runways, in order to produce port harbours, in order to produce land on which you can build skyscrapers.
And so, these kinds of dicta of capitalism, which are centred around growth, often result, after several steps, into this devastation of the lived environment. For me, dredging and land reclamation were fascinating spaces to study this, precisely because they are celebrated, they are discussed so triumphantly as kind of wonders of engineering, and perhaps because in the modern era, and especially in the last hundred years or so, they have resulted in transformations of the environments in which we live. And for rich countries in the world, it has resulted massive accumulation of capital at the expense of the environment, at the expense of subsequent generations, and often in ways that has benefitted certain classes more than others, and so in very specifically classed ways and racialised ways as well. That was one of the starting points of my study.
The other reason I actually wanted to do dredging and land reclamation is because I have an undergraduate degree in engineering. So, there was something quite appealing about taking what I had learnt, as a chemical engineer – I wasn’t doing mechanical or civil engineering, where you do this kind of work – but nevertheless it appealed to me to be able to interrogate the kinds of supposedly scientific verities that I had received as an engineering undergraduate student, interrogate them in light of social, scientific, humanistic, critical discourses, which are now, increasingly, turning their attention to the environment.
Luke: And not only the engineering, also your engagement with these trade journals and maritime literatures and your engagement with law and law-making is not kind of vague, or secondary, it’s often reading a lot of, what I would imagine, are quite difficult to read textbooks, but whatever floats your boat!
Laleh: Thank you. Yes, it is quite appealing to be a student constantly, to feel that the ground underneath you is not entirely solid. It gives you a degree of humility that makes you open to understanding in different genres of writing. So, I think that was part of it. Part of it is also because you cannot understand most of these mega infrastructures without understanding the legal discourses, and practices, that went into legitimating their construction. You cannot do this without understanding the technical stuff that goes into it.
And I think, in some ways, we have to understand that what constitutes itself as technical and as neutral, or as objective, which it does in the legal sense, is actually all entirely political as well. So that, as a starting step of dealing with this technical material, definitely makes you read that material not solely as, oh this is fun to learn something new about engineering, but also as wow, it’s interesting to see how the discourse of objectivity is constructed, or the discourse of scientific verity is constructed in these works.
Luke: In advance of our conversation, you sent me a couple of papers that are on the way, or recently published and the Oceans of Finance paper you sent me, there’s just a short bit I wanted to read as a way into thinking about the sea some more. You write,
...the maritime illuminates this very magical quality of capitalism, its ability to transform a world, humans, the sea, an ever-altering seabed subject to currents and winds, natural beings and things within and on the shore of the sea, even ephemeral imaginaries, such as routes, into commodities, subject to contracts, sale, insurance, borrowings, promise to bills of exchange, arbitrage, speculative wagers, transformation into an asset class, arbitration, dispute and violence. That the sea changes, moves, transforms, is inconstant, unpredictable, vast, rich, as yet unknown, perhaps even unknowable, does not stop capitals attempt to domesticate it, to fragment it, bound it, make it knowable and, thus, disciplined.
I love that as a piece of writing which actually sums up and would be my kind of paragraph that I would send to someone as an invitation to read the book as well, because I think it covers that really well.
What I wanted to draw from that was that a common thread across Time in the Shadows, and which I was kind of reading together with this, and Sinews of War & Trade, is the focus on legal regimes, on the sheer amount of law-making, and also the density of legal reasoning that leads to the spaces that we might think of as having a total lack of justice or accountability. So, in Time in the Shadows the amount of law-making involved in producing sites of confinement, in the War on Terror in particular, or in Sinews of War the many laws and legal processes involved in global shipping and trade, which then produce these kinds of invisible spaces on ships, in ports, on tankers, which you work on in the book, where kind of rightless, deportable, racialised migrants work and toil to, quite literally, make the world go around, and both books also provide histories of sovereignty and colonialism. But unlike Time in the Shadows, Sinews of War & Trade - it’s interesting you said about the backend and the logistics of the things that provide the conditions and the possibility for the war and the confinement, and the political violence you talk about and you work on in other parts of your work. But I also felt there was the romance of the sea too, even if the arbitration and the racialised violence do their best to kind of spoil it. So, there’s the travel, including your own, the maps, the ports, or the ports that used to be, or the sea as a space for possible connection.
So, I wanted to ask is part of that love of the sea what made you want to write the book, and yet an awareness of the fact that it isn’t that innocent and ‘natural’ space of flow and tides and currents; or maybe, more broadly, what does it mean for you to think from the sea, from the boat, from the shoreline? That’s a very broad and slightly too philosophical question.
Laleh: Let me start by responding to the latter part of your question: what is it about the romance of the sea? I grew up in a landlocked place – Mashhad is about a thousand miles from the sea – and I moved to the US, moved to a port and then moved inland, then moved further inland, then moved to a port, then moved to Edinburgh, which is almost on the sea, and then London, which is also almost on the sea. So, my life has kind of oscillated between landlocked places and ports, but the romance of the sea has always been there. I think that there is so much written about it, and so many of the world’s greatest novels take place on the sea, Hundred Years of Solitude, you think of every Melville that you can think of. inBut also, so much of the great scholarship, which I became familiar with once I started doing the kind of scholarly work that I do. I think there is this tension, as you say, between the romance of the sea, the maps, the ports, the ports that are no longer, the subsea life, this kind of a vastness and unchangingness of the place. The fact that, if you go out to sea, the sky that you see is like nothing that you see in our light polluted cities. It makes you feel extremely small. In a way a lot of people compare, of course, the sea to space, as these unbelievably vast and rich and unknowable, as I mentioned. So, I think all of those things give it romance.
Then, of course, there is the tension, and here I’m going to make my way to the first part of your question. The tension, of course, arises when you read scholarships such as, for example, Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which of course also has its own fascination with the sea but also the awareness of the horror of it. If you read anything about the Indian Ocean, there is this sense of also fascination and horror there. Of course, because if we are to think about the ways in which particular oceanic spaces have been turned into a kind of shorthand for a particular history, the Atlantic is about the history of slavery, the Indian Ocean is about the history of colonialism. So, in a sense, the shorthand meaning of these oceans, of these waters, is pivotal to our understanding of the modern world that we live in, and it is in tension with the more abstract, sublime views of the sea. So, that’s one thing.
The second strand that takes me back to the question of the law is, of course, reading Allan Sekula’s essays and watching his films. Allan Sekula, for those who don’t know, was an essayist but, primarily, an extraordinary photographer. He had a series of obsessions throughout his life, one of which was aerial photography. He started off writing about aerial photography but towards the end of his life he became absolutely fascinated with the ocean logistics, with the maritime, with ports. The corpus of his work, essentially towards the end of his life, became all about the sea. And he was also deeply alive to these kinds of tensions, and reading him, and the silences in his work - there are extraordinary insights but there are also extraordinary silences in his work - and those silences and what was said in tandem really shook the way in which I looked at the sea and wanted to do the kind of work that I wanted to see. And then I have to mention this here, because I think it is important to say that those silences, for example, have been criticised by Christina Sharpe in her book, In the Wake, which I think are very valid criticisms. And I think that, in a way, they make the conversation quite poignant, because it’s very clear that there are things being said in Sekula’s work, which are extraordinarily important, but also that there are these lacunas, which others, including Sharpe herself, are filling.
So, that was the second strand, and then the third strand was that, which you say, I keep in tension with the sort of the sublime and the abstract, and the beauty and the romance of the sea, and that is that it is also actually quite a banal space. It is a space in which people work on it, on the shores of it, off the shores of it, in work that is often tedious and backbreaking. Marcus Rediker’s work on, for example, early modern sailors absolutely does not romanticise the work at sea. He talks about the way that, in early modern times, being a seafarer was this extraordinarily difficult task, physically and emotionally, and it hasn’t become any easier. In fact, if anything, the speeding up of the way trade works, the fewer number of people who are aboard ships, combined with the further and more highly technical work that they have to do, means that work aboard ships has become much more mechanised, if you will, Taylorist in some ways, and much more intense. So, that’s kind of banal and important.
But there are also other factors. The sea we see it as this glorious - and I’m actually looking, as I’m speaking with you, at a map of the world that’s on my son’s bedroom wall where I’m sitting - you look at it and you see that so much of the earth is covered in the sea, and yet there seems to be also this extremely insidious modality which tries to domesticate the sea, tries to turn these incredibly complex, geophysical features into legal categories that can be understood, that can be negotiated over, that can be bought and sold; so, the subsea, the continental shelf, the exclusive economic zones, etc.
And so, I think it is really important, on the one hand, to acknowledge that this is an extraordinarily significant life-giving, life-taking, sublime, abstract space, but it’s also an extremely banal place of exploitation of humans, an extremely horrific space of killing and life-taking in colonialism and enslavement. So, I think that that tension is something that I have tried to keep constantly in all the work that I do, because it’s impossible not to be moved by the sea. It’s also impossible not to catch yourself in some ways and say, hey, wait a minute, it is an incredibly romantic, beautiful, incredible space, but it is also the space of death / destruction / exploitation / slavery / colonialism.
Luke: I was reading, a few days before this conversation, an essay, Our Sea of Islands by Epeli Hau’ofa, on the Pacific. It’s actually your work that has probably got me on to it, and one of the PhD students I’m second supervising has gotten me on to thinking a lot about the sea, and I’ve bought Fish Story, which is Allan Sekula’s photographic essay book, after you tweeted about writing the introduction to the newer version, so thanks for that. But reading this book about the Pacific, and he’s making the point that the colonial way of seeing the place was as a, I think he says something like, distance islands in a far sea, or something, whereas the oceanic frame is more about a sea of islands. And in the Pacific, also reading about the ways in which exclusive economic zones kind of say that this area of sea, and everything that is within the sea, is the property of a particular nation state, has benefitted from the context of very limited options, some of the Pacific islands which have then a huge territory of sea when having very small islands. And reading an essay about how the sea level rises will reduce the land and, therefore, maybe reduce these huge areas of sea and their resources, which would have huge consequences for tuna, which swim through that area.
So, yeah, when you look and think about the romance of the sea, you can realise that actually all of it is parcelled off and that that can have complicated implications, in the context of climate devastation, but also some perks for those who are trying to hold on to something in a sea of islands.
Laleh: Yes, I think that that is also another tension in there. For example, I write about open registries, or flags of convenience, which is a legal category that essentially allows a country to rent out its flag for ships to fly. A ship follows the laws of the flag that it flies and it pays a fee to be registered under that flag and, of course, certain countries have reduced tax requirements, reduced fees, reduced insurance thresholds, loosened up laws around environmental and labour rights, and that makes their flags quite cost-effective for a lot of shipping companies to fly. It’s fascinating to see who some of the biggest flags of convenience are; they are Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas and the Marshall Islands, all of which are firmly embedded not just in US imperial expansion but, very specifically, US territorial ambitions, colonial territorial ambitions, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
Of course, the Marshall Islands, the joke is, always votes with the US. Whenever there is, for example, a veto of Palestinian General Assembly, United Nation things, the Marshall Islands is one of the places that votes with the US; it’s, of course, a US client in these ways. But why are they selling this commodity at this incredibly cut-rate price and in ways that, for example, devastates them? The Marshall Islands and the Bahamas, both of their flags fly on top of more oil and natural gas tankers that transport goods, that result in the climate change that will probably inundate both the archipelagos of the Bahamas and Marshall Islands. So, why did they do this kind of self-destructive thing? And, of course, it's because, as you say, that in addition to the exclusive economic zones, this is one resource that they can sell. This is the unequal racialised, geopolitical, geoeconomic world in which we live, in which people are selling their own futures because this is the only income that they will have access to.
So that, I think, is also something that has to be recognised when we are talking about flags of convenience, when we are talking about these kinds of legal offshoring devices that are being used by places like Panama, like the Marshall Islands, like the Bahamas, like Liberia. Their future is a resource that they are now selling. So, in that sense, that tension is something that actually makes really clear the geoeconomical inequalities in the world. And I think your mention also of these shrinking exclusive economic zones, which also shrink the access of these archipelagic nations in the South Pacific and Oceania, it reduces their ability to exploit the resources of the sea, precisely because of climate change which is, in some ways, also produced by their selling of the flags of convenience. It’s one of the tragedies of our time. It’s one of the incredibly terrible dialectics of our time.
Luke: Staying with the kinds of terrible, I wanted to talk about the immobilities of some in a world where things have to be on the move constantly. You write about this really well in the book. I guess I’m thinking about this and we should all be thinking about this because of the pandemic and the way that shifts or sharpens some of the kinds of differential mobilities that define the world, which you have written about recently in an edited collection in terms of ship workers and cruise staff who were basically, when we had the fears around particular cruise ships and outbreaks of Covid on them, or just when global trade ground to a halt, you kind of showed the ways in which it was the workers, often migrant, racialised workers, who were unable to disembark, apparently due to Covid risks, but that plays into a longer pattern of exclusion of racialised, illegalised migrants who might be harbingers of disease, or other forms of pollution.
Obviously that kind of makes clear the inequality, or the pandemic reveals something which was there but we weren’t talking about, like racialised health inequalities, like who does all of the work, who is the frontline, if we want to use that military metaphor. This is in the book, I think – I’ve been reading the papers as well –
...at this moment, the only thing we know for certain is that the very scale and scope of mobility that has so dramatically defined the age of trade is premised upon the isolation and abandonment of the sailors.
I just wondered if you could talk about the aspect of your research and thinking that focuses on the people who do the work, whether on the ships or on land, and who are kind of made immobile or whose mobility is policed in intense ways.
Laleh: I want to start by using a phrase from the historian Vivek Bald, who has written an amazing history of Asians in Harlem, a number of whom were seafarers who jumped ship and settled in Harlem. One of the terms that he uses in describing the seafarers - and he’s writing about the early 20th century but I actually think that that phrase is so intensely and vividly accurate still - he describes them as a ‘semi-captive, hyper exploited but globally mobile population’. Semi-captive: they’re on a ship, they can’t leave. Hyper-exploited: because that work is so incredibly exploitative in terms of both the working regimes but also the wages they receive. But globally mobile, in ways that obviously, as you’ve mentioned, the limitation of regimes of mobility is part of the forms of sovereign power that states deploy nowadays. So, to me, that phrase is actually really quite fascinating because, in a way, as I said, he writes about the sailors at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s very vividly active and relevant even today. For example, we saw this with the seafarers during Covid times. Now this is an extraordinary period that, when the Covid lockdown happened, when airports shut down, when ports stopped receiving or allowing people to disembark from the ships, there were seafarers at sea who had finished their contracts - contracts, especially if you’re from the Global South, they’re supposed to be around 11 months, after which you are supposed to be able to get off the ship - they couldn’t. So, at some stage, there were hundreds of thousands of seafarers who had been essentially on their ships for sometimes up to 20 months, so for eight / nine / ten months beyond where they were supposed to be, originally. And they weren’t being paid wages for this. They were obviously still being maintained, given food and water and whatnot, but they were essentially not working, unwaged, aboard a ship, desperate to get off, hadn’t seen their families for nearly two years.
What is interesting is that that is again being repeated with the same intensity and scale right now, because of the ways in which we are thinking about the Delta variant of Covid in this extremely racist way, as being an Indian variant. And so, there is fearmongering that is being done which, obviously, WHO tried to attenuate by calling the variant the Delta variant rather than the Indian variant, but which people are obviously using it as another modality of quarantine and control. And we know that quarantines and public health measures have, historically, been used as precisely this, as, on the one hand, a public health measure but also, on the other hand, as another way to sort of put the sovereign state’s ability to control and constrain movement, to put it on steroids. So, in a way, it becomes very clear when you look at seafarers.
But also, there are a number of different, really wonderful scholars, including Deb Cowen, including Charmaine Chua, there are a number of people who are writing about mobility regimes in migration across the Mediterranean who are writing about this. It isn’t only limiting peoples’ entry that is part of the process of sort of capital accumulation, extension of imperial power by the richest countries in the world, it’s actually also facilitating movement. So, forms of mobility that are allowed and facilitated versus forms of mobility that are limited and prohibited all assist in the circulation of capital, all assist in the accumulation of capital, all assist in the accumulation of power in the hands of the states, or super-states like the EU, that can actually control, attenuate, or encourage mobility. And so mobility ends up being a kind of a currency of contemporary capital, because we’re living in an age of trade in which movement, or lack thereof, of migrants or of workers, of asylum seekers, of the wanted or unwanted, is the currency of our current moment.
Luke: We’re getting towards the end of the discussion now, and I really don’t want to do this, to end by thinking about Priti Patel, the current Home Secretary, but her kind of policies at the moment do make me think again about the sea, and about the place of exclusion from land but also captivity on the sea. Because not only has she kind of raised various plans, which have seemed untenable, even to the Home Office that is already geared up to very aggressive, draconian, violent immigration policies, and they seem even too outlandish for them; erecting floating barriers in the Channel to stop migrants arriving from France, etc. And you think of the constant reference to Australia and their policies on boats and, in fact, the UK model is quite like Australia - the UK and Canada - to some extent, which is that the new Nationalitiy and Borders Bill, which will apparently be introduced to the Commons around early July, which is around the time we’re speaking, will include a provision to create an offshore immigration processing centre. There has been talk about using ferries. There was this case of mostly Tamal Sri Lankans, but others, detained on a ferry off the coast of Harwich in 1987, which I was reading about, and they were only released from the ferry because of the great, famous storm in the UK in 1987, which meant that the boat ended up washing up onshore, and the emergency led to the clemency of the British State to release those people, although still later deporting several of them. But, yeah, I'm thinking about this desire to house immigration detainees on boats; I suppose maybe, from reading your work, you can help me historicise Priti Patel’s desire to send people to the South Atlantic, or to process them offshore, in a longer history of extra territorialising certain kinds of captivity.
Laleh: I think the fact that the British were a naval empire, number one. Number two, the fact that it is an island, and constantly reminds us that it is. The fact that it's imaginary of itself as a seagoing country, all feed into both the projection of British naval power overseas, and however meagre and pathetic it might be. For example, we have discovered that the recent warship being sent specifically cross through waters claimed by Russia in the Black Sea, they knew that it would provoke it and they wanted to do it anyway. So, it's a kind of projection, it’s like the hyper-masculine guy who feels like his masculinity is being questioned, doing really questionable things to bolster his masculinity. This is the only kind of proper analogy that I can find for this form of projection of power.
So, this kind of a naval projection of power is, to me, of a kind, as with the island forms of detention, that imperial Britain used throughout its dominion over its colonies, and which now is being revivified as a form of controlling migration into the country in order to bolster, again, the sort of imperial nostalgia of a white nation ruling the waves. I mean it’s really important, because I’ve written about this in Time in the Shadows, island detention, which wasn’t just a thing that the British used, the French used it also, of course, but it was considered to be a very effective way to control unruly colonial populations, but it was also really quite important in other forms of governmentality. So, quarantine islands was something that the British did throughout their empire. So, ships that would arrive in ports controlled by the British, often sometimes there was like a little quarantine island offshore where they could then process the arrivals, monitor them, record them, register their entry, make sure there were no undesirables among them, for example. So that’s one.
Island detention, as I mentioned, is quite significant. It appears that the British, for example, sent Palestinians in the Mandate era to the Seychelles, and the Andaman Islands off India was a major detention centre for those who dared to resist British rule there. But St Helena and other kinds of islands were also used to detain people from the colonies. St Helena also, famously, held Napoleon. So, this use of islands as places of detention has been completely written into the DNA of the British Empire. And of course, we know that the modalities of immigrant detention that are being used today are actually very close to other forms of detention that the British have used historically against both intransigent folks, against racialised folks, against you name it. So, in some ways, I’m completely unsurprised that there is a talk of offshore processing centres.
What is important to recognise is that, of course, some of the most cruel, terrible elements of this are being borrowed from, for example, Australia, but there is a long history of the British doing this. There are also other bits of it that makes me think that this is very much part and parcel of British imperial history, rather than a sort of a borrowing from Australia. Part of what the British did – and I write about this in Time in the Shadows – is that they would send detainees of one of their colonies, or protectorates, or mandatory places, to another one. So, detainees from Palestine would be sent to Kenya and then the British would say, the Kenyan Government rules, we don’t have any control over that, so send them there. So, it wasn’t just island detentions, it wasn’t just the sea, which provided the setting for these forms of detention, it was also offshore in another sense, offshore as in another location. And the fact that, for example, they’re talking about using Rwanda now as an offshore processing place for people that are potentially going to migrate to Britain from Central Africa, I presume, also speaks to this.
So there is, on the one hand, the very literal imagination of an island nation that has to protect itself by setting up these little protective islands of detention for migrants but, on the other hand, there is also a broader, more abstract thinking about offshore where the undesirable, whether that’s migrants or terrorists, or whoever, are pushed off into that offshore, and that offshore can be at sea or it can be in a landlocked place in the middle of Africa.
Luke: I think that’s a really good synthesis as well of your thinking and writing on both the legal and the geographical histories that we need to think about to understand our present, so I think we should leave it there. Thanks so much for speaking to us.
Laleh: Thank you. It was my pleasure and thank you so much for reading my stuff so closely, I’m very grateful.
Luke: I’ve gained a lot from it, thank you.
Laleh: Thank you.