His name is Aylan Kurdi. The picture of this lifeless child on a Turkish beach became a recurring image in news stories and posts on social media last week. Consider that there is no word in the English language to describe a parent who has lost a child. Language fails in being able to grasp the enormity of such grief. But it is not for images to speak a thousand words to fill this void, especially when tragedy such as this should not be for the purposes of public sharing. The virality of the image became a way to take ownership over the child’s body as an object of grief – available to any and everyone who could have access to it. To see it was to partake in a personal exercise of commiseration without needing to attend to the profoundly larger matter that had caused this misfortune. The universal distribution and consumption of the image was an act of refusal to see Aylan as a person whose death was the direct result of the fact that he was Syrian rather than just any three-year-old whose life had ended much too soon. In this very hyper-visibility, Aylan has been rendered invisible.
It is the sharing of the image that has made this tragic event extraordinary. And even as it brings newfound awareness to the Syrian refugee crisis, it can be guaranteed that this attention will only be fleeting because it revolves around the desire to quell the anguish felt upon the loss of an innocent child. In evoking the innocence of a now-dead child, the distressing image both underscores this horror as being unique while at the same time universalizing the child as a symbol of colour-blind humanity. In other words, it is Aylan’s very Syrianness that disappears in the image of his death being made quantifiable as personalised grief, but also then being made spectacular for the very same reason. The problem with spectacle is that its newness will always fade, for it is only spectacle in its ability to appeal and, so, be consumed.
Conversely, there is nothing spectacular about the Syrian refugee crisis, especially because refugee crises have become so rife that one cannot tell apart the fleeing Rohingya from the beleaguered Tamils or displaced Palestinians. These days, one cannot differentiate Manus Island from Calais or a Turkish beach. They blend into one another as borders close against the hopeless homeless. These geographies blur in how media apprises us of the fracturing of the worlds of the displaced and in how we now expect to come to awareness through the mundane being made phenomenal. Three-year-olds die in such circumstances all the time, even when we do not see their bodies. But that a three-year-old has to die to be seen is not any kind of solution.
In verse that has now become widely quoted, the Kenyan-born Somali British poet Warsan Shire provides this assessment in the ironically named poem “Home”:
You have to understand,
No one puts their children in a boat
Unless the water is safer than the land.
Children, Shire notes – as in the plural; the many whose namelessness is a metaphor for their homelessness. The multiple on-going refugee crises that vie for our attention are occurrences that can only be described as being profoundly contemporary. In Guests and Aliens (1999), scholar of globalisation, Saskia Sassen, perceives the rise of the post-World War I nation-state as being a location predicated upon the exclusion of bodies deemed ‘other’. In her words, “nationalism [was] associated with states seeking sovereign control over their territories ... The coupling of state sovereignty and nationalism with border control made the ‘foreigner’ an outsider. The state was correspondingly able to define refugees as not belonging to the national society, as not being entitled to the rights of citizens” (p. 78). That Aylan perished in liminal waters reveals the dangers of land that Shire remarks upon. Only this time, it is not the former homeland that is the solely perilous site, but also the exclusionary shores yonder.
As a preamble to sharing her own literary work at an event today, my colleague Hermine Pinson began by reading to her audience the poem “blessing the boats” by African American writer Lucille Clifton (1936-2010). For me, the words of Clifton’s hopeful poem were a salve to the searing image so glibly shared of the drowned child:
may the tide
that is entering even now
… carry you out
beyond the face of fear
... open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
There is promise beyond the waters, Clifton tells us, echoing Shire’s observation that “No one puts their children in a boat / Unless the water is safer than the land.” An innocent child tried to “sail through this to that”. He was claimed by the waters outside the borders, outside ourselves. His name is Aylan Kurdi. He is not the only one.
From The Goan.