The song I came to sing
remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing
and in unstringing my instrument.
The time has not come true,
the words have not been rightly set;
only there is the agony
of wishing in my heart…
I have not seen his face,
nor have I listened to his voice;
only I have heard his gentle footsteps
from the road before my house
But the lamp has not been lit
and I cannot ask him into my house;
I live in the hope of meeting with him;
but this meeting is not yet.
- Rabindranath Tagore
Ei mānuṣe [i] sei mānuṣ āche
That man is in this man.
Yet for four ages,
countless seers and sages
have roamed in search of him.
The unseen man
always sits in an unseen place
beyond their grasp.
Who can reach out and catch
the reflection of the moon
How deluded I am!
I search outside
For the treasure
That’s in my house.
Sirāj Sẫi says, Lālan,
You’ll keep walking in circles
Until you understand the truth of the Self.
- Lālan Shah, translated by Carol Salomon (2017: 148-49)
A train station and an anthropologist
After a sleepless night in a sweltering non-AC three-tiered train compartment, it felt like a long day as we sat on a bench in the Siliguri train station, waiting six hours for a much-delayed train. Nonetheless, there was levity in the air because we would escape the heat of Kolkata and would soon arrive in mountainous Darjeeling. Passing the time, we observed the rats running around the tracks, busily preparing for the day: a feast, better housing, and care for their young. I suggested to my family that the rats convene a focus group to discuss the unfortunate plight of humans who idly sit for hours on benches, waiting and being unproductive. Compared to how the rats were occupying themselves, we were making poor use of our time.
A week later, that very same train station was bombed. Had that explosion occurred a few weeks or a month earlier, our experiences of waiting that day in Siliguri would have felt very different. If we noticed the rats, we might not have idly joked. We might not have even noticed the rats, our eyes alert for suspicious packages or people. It would have been fearful waiting, alert and anxious.
As an anthropologist, I wait a lot. I wait for a time to meet someone; I wait for the right time to ask certain questions; I wait in an auto rickshaw stuck in traffic; I wait for someone to show up to a prearranged meeting; I wait for inspiration to hit me, for insights about what I am observing and hearing. Sometimes I’m generously given tea as I wait. I wait a lot, but I never consider it to be idle waiting. As my interlocutor cleans house, cooks, runs errands, or is also stuck somewhere in traffic, I reflect and plan, occasionally with a notebook in hand. I wait.
It is purposeful waiting, characterized by both a reasonable degree of hope as well as some doubt stemming from the fact that I am unable to control everything around me. So, while my waiting has uncertainty – Will my anticipated interlocutor be willing to answer my endless questions? – it is an active and purposeful waiting. It is not the same waiting as described by Tagore or Lalan, or as the waiting at the Siliguri train station, or as the waiting I would have experienced at that same train station had the explosion occurred before rather than after I sat on that bench watching busy rats. These forms of waiting are all nestled between moments when things are “happening,” and from an outsider’s perspective, they seem like idle time when little happens. But the waiting in each situation is experienced very differently. Lalan and Tagore’s poems describe intense longing, and they can be interpreted religiously or romantically. According to Vaishnava theology, the gopis wait with their entire being for their beloved Krishna to return, and the fact that he never physically returns to fulfill their longing is what gives Vaishnavas the language to describe the condition of mortal longing for God. Lalan, however, portrays himself as hopeless in his condition of waiting, but he also argues that with the correct effort, one can grasp the divine within. In all these examples, there is some degree of hope, though the gopis’ hope is tempered by our knowledge that Krishna enters the battlefield of Kurukshetra, marries, never returns to Vrindavan and the gopis, and later dies from a hunter’s stray arrow. The gopis’ desperate hope and longing are immortalized. In contrast, Tagore waits with hope. But Lalan seeks, even as he complains of the impossibility of the task. And through his collective songs, Lalan insists that we all seek, even when it is difficult.
Politics of Waiting
In this uncertain and insecure world, countless displaced people are forced to wait, often indefinitely. There are refugee camps turned into camp-cities for those who wait to return to a safer homeland or to a create a new home in an unfamiliar territory. At those camps, or in boats, or hurriedly fleeing their homes, people wait to be rescued, wait to be welcomed, wait for visas or proper documentation to be approved. They often wait indefinitely and with as much uncertainty about their future as they had in the places they had once called home.
Although we are expected to wait in a queue for our turn, at airports, at the doctor’s office, for official documents, not all forms of waiting are the same. In fact, making people wait can be a weapon, a method for dehumanizing an individual or diminishing their status or power.
Who gets to decide who waits, and for how long? What are the political and social structures that create the conditions in which some people are made to wait? Waiting occurs within constructions of time – time as linear, measured by progress, and ultimately going “somewhere.” In the global economy, time is measured by productivity, and social structures both within and between nations are organized around whose time is more valuable than someone else’s.
Because of global inequities and unjust allocation of resources, some nations, governments, and bureaucracies have the power to compel others to wait, thereby exercising power and demonstrating whose time is more valuable. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, “the ‘Global South,’ the latter understood as postcolonial Africa, Asia, Meso and South America, [is] frequently perceived as occupying the ‘waiting room of history’” (Chakrabarty 2000: 256). Gupta explains that in the discourse of economic development, in which some nations are “waiting” to be developed, “‘development’ [is equated] with adulthood and ‘under-development’ with infancy and immaturity. The temporal lag of postcoloniality is inscribed onto developing nations, anthropomorphised as less-then-fully-formed subjects, whose growth and maturity has to be supervised and monitored by those who have reached adulthood – that is, by the West” (Gupta: 11, cited in Malik 2009: 57). There is no doubt that the current refugee crisis, with migrants moving from the Global South to the West, has exacerbated global inequities. It should not be surprising, then, that industrialized Western countries are accepting less refugees and are forcing asylum seekers to wait longer than are developing nations, which have taken a much higher percentage of refugees relative to their current size and economic resources. According to the 2017 UN Refugee Agency report ,84% of refugees live in developing nations, while 28% of refugees were granted legal asylum status in the world’s poorest nations. The relationship between politics and human rights should be obvious. Not every human being is equally valued.
Everyone currently in exile has waited – months, years, or still waiting – to find a way out of danger. Yet when one considers how recently our contemporary nation states and national boundaries were constructed (some borders continue to be contested), waiting to travel from one geographic location to another is odd indeed. Clearly forcing people to wait to enter another country is a demonstration of one nation’s power over other people. Policy changes reveal that attitudes are not fixed but constantly negotiated, yet the waiting caused by policies functions as a weapon against refugees and asylum seekers. For example, the Australian government changed policies about refugees, claiming to “restore the integrity of its borders, and help prevent deaths at sea.” Arriving in Australian waters a month after Australia instituted a new policy that denied entry of any asylum-seekers who arrived by boat, Iranian Ali Durani (Eaten Fish) was taken to the Manus Island detention camp in Papua New Guinea. He waited over four years in harsh conditions, enduring physical assult, and with no knowledge whether claims were being processed. Many in exile, even when they long for their own home country, defiantly claim they are world citizens. Khalid Albaik, a Sudanese living in exile, claims that the Internet is his home: on the web, he can travel without visas, meet people regardless of color, religion, or nationality.[ii] If we look at the ways in which humans are connected through the Internet, where ideas and information can change lives and minds, and through infrastructure, borders are really about flexing muscles. National security is merely a concept used to win votes from fearful citizens; the primary objective is economic and political dominance.
Bureaucracy, with its checks for security and qualifications, meticulously constructed steps to safeguard citizens, and dispersed offices with various hoops to jump through, is arduous for anyone to wade through. International organizations such as International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), PEN International, and Amnesty International do incredible work navigating these bureaucratic mazes and keeping updated about policy changes and political whims. Because of their commitment to freedom of expression and human rights and their tireless work, they alleviate some of the uncertainty of waiting. They facilitated the relocation of Albaik and Durani as well as the Bangladeshis discussed in this writing. These organizations understand better than most the precarious situations of those whose freedom of expression and lives are threatened.
Waiting in Terror
Before leaving Bangladesh, my friends[iii]were constantly waiting to be attacked, looking over their shoulder, watching for anyone who looked suspicious. As Ratan Samadder vividly describes in this issue (2018), he lived for two-and-half years in a constant state of fearful waiting, writing a diary entitled, “Waiting to Be Killed.” At the ICORN General Assembly, Supriti Dhar exclaimed she lived as if every day was her last day. Others describe staying up all night, waiting to be attacked, especially when news reached them that another writer, publisher, or activist had been brutally killed. Boarding their doors. Screening phone calls and changing their phone numbers. Altering daily routines so that their whereabouts would be unpredictable. One person explained that Bangladeshis used to have an open-door policy, gladly welcoming unplanned visits from friends and family, but now they keep doors bolted and are reluctant to open if anyone knocks. For those who managed to flee to a nearby country, they waited in anxiety, apprehensive whenever they heard someone speak Bangla. All of these exiled Bangladeshis had been living in fear. While Samadder describes the relief of gaining safety in Norway, others also explain that they remained haunted over the next year or more after escape. An unexpected noise in the apartment, a nightmare, visions of friends brutally hacked, a knock at the door, a flood of vivid memories with each death anniversary. Being haunted by these fears becomes the new normal.
The power of terrorism rests in its ability to disorder time, to alter the course of normal life, and to immobilize productive individuals and communities. Terror disrupts the sociopolitical structure of time, but it is not separate from it. As people wait for a terrorist act to happen, the normal functioning of time (and productivity) is hampered. Yet political leaders have the capacity to shape attitudes about terrorism, particularly by defending free speech, guaranteeing safety, and condemning perpetrators of violence. That writers, intellectuals, and activists are seeking asylum reveals that the Bangladesh government has not done enough to protect free expression. Instead, it has given terrorists the power to chase out the very people who support societal and economic progress and long for a flourishing Bangladesh.
A democracy thrives when there are diverse perspectives and ideas. The current state of terror, where many of Bangladesh’s brightest are censored or exiled, does not bode well for a nation that has so much promise, yet is mired in political, religious, and societal suspicion and intolerance.
Dreams, Plans, and Uncertainty
Sometimes in the course of fearful waiting, the meaning and purpose of one’s life feels especially clear. But when that fearful waiting provides the backdrop for all future activity, then meaning and purpose are much harder to grasp. As a result, so many of my friends describe being in depression, trying to make sense of their lives now that they are safe. They are grateful to be alive, to be sure, but survival is not enough. Each and everyone of them wants to do something more; in fact, most state clearly that they feel it is their moral responsibility to do more.
Having found a way to survive, they find themselves waiting again, this time not to be killed, but to live, to work, and to be a part of a community. This waiting is downright demoralizing for those whose everyday condition has become saturated with uncertainty.
An exiled writer living in a Nordic country explains:
We always wait for something better in our life. But the wait I do is something different. When you are waiting for something and [waiting] is the only option you have, then it’s really hard.
Here I have nothing. No family, no friends. I am not familiar with the rules and regulations of this country. Everything is uncertain in my life… I had to leave my country in the middle of my studies. When I was hiding in my country, I was waiting for some visa so that I could move somewhere immediately. That was the only choice I had… [Eventually] I come to know about ICORN and applied. Then I started waiting for some email from ICORN. I arrived in this country after a long wait.
After coming here, the first thing I discussed with my coordinator was how to get admitted in some school. It took 5 months to get the final negative answer. I tried other ways to get into school, but they have also been unsuccessful.Now I am learning the language of this country because I have to begin my education from the beginning in their language. That’s the only option I have.It’s been 1.5 years here. My visa was for 2 years. I have 6 more months. But yet I don’t know how to apply and what I will do after this period.
Everyone has some dream about what they will do, what they want to be in future. I also use to have that. But now I stopped dreaming. Because nothing depends on me. So it’s better I stop dreaming than get depressed with my dreams.
One person is waiting to hear if his application for citizenship will be approved. After taking coursework to improve job prospects, he is waiting for an invitation to interview for any one of the over 270 jobs he applied for these past two years. And as he waits to secure a job, he is also waiting to marry and start a family. Another is waiting to find out what he will be permitted to do next to make a life in his new home. He also waits to meet with people he’s arranged to meet with, but who do not always follow through. He waits for his offers to volunteer at organizations to be accepted. Almost all wait for job opportunities. Almost all wait for clarity about their status and future options. All – even as they write – wait for inspiration, to feel the urgency and immediacy to write. They wait to see if their contributions matter to society. They wait to learn news about friends living or hiding in danger. How to make plans amid deep, existential insecurity, even when safe? In none of these cases are they passively waiting for others to hand them something. But the bureaucratic system they live in is a muddle, and cultural norms feel impenetrable.
Situational and Existential Waiting
Not all waiting is the same, nor is it experienced the same way. When we wait for something in particular, we are engaged in what Peter Dwyer calls “situational waiting.” One can be actively or passively waiting, but situational waiting is “of the world.” I wait for the train, or I wait to interview someone. I expect my waiting to end within a temporal frame. Existential waiting, on the other hand, is experienced as separate from linear time and “may be elicited in contexts where an actor is encompassed by an uncertain future – where, in effect, an actor experiences powerful yet incomprehensible forces that derive from places where he or she does not reside – then, to that actor, it may seem that there has been a loss of agency; that he or she lacks the capacity to act” (Dwyer 2009: 23).
Applied to our current context, waiting to be killed was situational, even as it evoked questions about life’s meaning. Those at risk were waiting, but not passively: they were actively seeking solutions, both daily solutions to avoid danger as well as grander solutions to the societal ills that have given rise to this danger. Their waiting was tied to specific events – killing of bloggers, intellectuals, religious minorities, LGBTQ activists; lack of governmental protection; locking of doors and attentive watching of one’s surroundings – occurring in their daily lives. In fact, I would argue that their identities are tied up with their activist ethics, so that while finding solutions to everyday fears were immediate priorities, they were driven by the expectation that they could act on the world, not merely within it.
Existential waiting is something else entirely, as expressed in the earlier quote by an exiled Bangladeshi. To an exiled writer or refugee, the future is uncertain. Worse, one’s ability to act on the world is uncertain. The exiled writer above describes multiple stages of waiting and what seems like the erosion of hope that one can influence one’s own situation. This is particularly captured in the statement, “But now I stopped dreaming. Because nothing depends on me.” For activists to feel unable to act on the world, this is especially frustrating.
Situational and existential waiting are not discrete categories; we can slip between them, and one person’s experience of situational waiting might be someone else’s existential. How we experience that waiting has to do with our dispositions and our history of waiting. As we wait, we might experience boredom, hopelessness, anticipation, eagerness, reflectiveness, frustration, stress, anger, and sometimes several of these sequentially or simultaneously. Some people seem to have an abundant capacity to wait with optimism and patience, even despite the odds. So whether waiting is situational or existential depends on structural inequities and on one’s capacity to act on the world, but also what we feel as we wait.
Unfulfilled Promises of Coffee
The precariousness condition of exile means that waiting for an email response, or for a promised meeting over coffee, is experienced not as situational waiting but as existential waiting. Waiting to see if someone’s promise for a meeting over coffee is symbolic for the much larger condition of powerlessness and vulnerability. Normally, it might be disappointing that the offer, stated in conversation, went unfulfilled, but “back home” it could be brushed off. We’re all busy, after all. But in exile, nothing is normal. There is no familiar routine, no abundance of offers, no other friends to ring up at a short notice, no open doors for spontaneous guests. Each offer for coffee has the potential to come with a meaningful conversation. For a moment to feel normal. To be recognized as human. To matter.
In exile, waiting for someone to reciprocate or extend an offer becomes entangled in larger questions about life’s meaning and purpose. Imagine the cultural differences of open doors and a strong social network that includes many friends one calls “brother,” “sister,” or “uncle.” Imagine elaborate meals made and offered generously as ways to demonstrate friendship and belonging. Imagine the excitement of exchanging ideas and political views over tea or whiskey. Imagine being so committed to the betterment of society that one’s own life was in danger.
Imagine now failing to find access to society in one’s new home. Imagine seeing no way to collaborate with new neighbors in the larger world-making projects of human rights activism. Imagine not receiving replies to emails.
Although much literature about waiting focuses on the power structures that compel some people to wait and the individual’s lack of agency within those larger forces, there is also evidence that those who wait are not powerless. Bendixsen and Eriksen, speaking about Palestinians in Norway[iv], argue that waiting is not “a homogenous condition or state of being” (2018: 89), and they demonstrate that some people are mobilized into a politically active waiting. Speaking about urban poor families waiting in “welfare hotels” in Bueno Aires, Procupez argues that the politics of waiting are not only influenced by those with political power, but also by those who wait. She describes grassroots initiatives to demand more equitable options for welfare-recipient families. Furthermore, those families developed ways in which they could physically contribute to improving living conditions. She explains that the “process of collective organizing requires patience as a necessary disposition, not only for negotiating bureaucratic delays and peer disagreements…Patience here is a political stance that involves a shift in perspective from the immediate to the long-term. It is better understood as an active engagement with” time and circumstances, combining “both urgency and restraint” (Procupez 2015: S56-S64, cited in Bandak and Janeja 2018: 8). Arjun Appadurai, in his work with under-housed urban poor in Mumbai, makes a similar argument about the “politics of patience” needed for people to organize and make collective claims. Differentiating between dreaming and hoping, he argues that in order to work for change, hope requires the “discipline of patience” – the discipline to wait with hope. In many ways, waiting implies hope (Zigon 2018: 70) – even if it is a sliver of hope – that something will change, that the future will be better, or that one can do something to change one’s situation.
Appadurai further argues that “politically organized hope thus produces in bare citizens the internal resources to see themselves as active participants in the arduous process of waiting; it converts the passive ‘waiting for’ into the active ‘waiting to’: waiting to make the next move in the queue and ultimately to claim the full rights of citizenship” (Appadurai 2013).
Applied to our context, collective projects aimed at achieving human dignity and societal rights for guest writers and “refugees” not only contribute to one’s meaning in life; they can also be precedent-setting within a world that increasingly prevents certain people from belonging. For “bare citizens” who are denied (correctly or erroneously) full status as members of society, “precedent-setting actions are critical resources in their efforts to enter the space and master the culture of legal and bureaucratic processes” (Appadurai 2013). Furthermore, “as the roster of precedents grows, and the effects are multiplied, there also develops a social infrastructure that fortifies the politics of hope, and eases the period of waiting” (Appadurai 2013). In other words, working toward making society more just for everyone eases the path for others in the future to do the same.
The exiled writers, artists, and publishers do not describe themselves as victims or as passive. Indeed, they escaped being victims of brutal murder or imprisonment; they actively altered their situation to protect their lives, their voices, their families, and their potential as actors in the world. Perhaps that is what makes waiting – whether for the bureaucratic system to open a door rather than shut it, or for an invitation to collaborate in local projects – all the more difficult. They were agents of change in their home land.
Hope, desire, and waiting are closely linked, and indeed religions often use these emotions to express the sense of waiting, whether for the messiah, final judgement, heaven, mystical union, or spiritual truth. Desiring the beloved, waiting to be recognized, waiting for fulfillment – these are intense emotions that can consume one’s very being and penetrate everyday life. This desire – mystical or this-worldly – finds vivid expression in corporeal imagery, as an aching for physical union. It is the desire that one’s entire being is recognized, that one becomes a human being in the midst of the other.
This desire, expressed in the songs that began this article, applies also to the desire for belonging and to be acknowledged as a human being within one’s new home country.
Being stuck in a bureaucratic morass with no clear sense of which office has the authority to decide whether one will receive the job applied for or entrance to an educational program, or waiting for someone to fulfill their promise of an invitation for coffee, when viewed against the backdrop of courage, fear, and sacrifice seem not mundane impediments but existential challenges to one’s life meaning and one’s humanity. The host country that invited an asylum seeker to reside as a guest, presumably because one’s life and words are worth saving, can either dehumanize the guest through the condition of waiting or open channels for long-term planning.
So, what can we, in host countries, do? To begin with, remember that life’s purpose is found in everyday acts. Fulfill that promise for a conversation over coffee. Don’t offer pity; find a way to help open doors so that those in exile can be productive and meaningful contributors to society in their new community. Despite cultural differences and daily preoccupations with family and work, realize that every interaction has meaning, especially for those displaced. Giving someone a chance to live in safety is not enough. Show that they matter in the community in which they now live. Give local opportunities for activists to engage in making the world more just. Collaborate in projects of acting upon the world.
[i] Carol Salomon translates mānus as “man,” but the Bangla word is ungendered and can refer to a male or a female.
[ii] Albaik, Khalid, 2 May 2018, presentation at ICORN General Assembly, Malmö, Sweden.
[iii] I write about Bangladeshi exiled writers, bloggers, publishers, and activist. They generously shared their time and became friends despite the fact that I asked them countless questions. I hope they will not mind that I call them friends in this writing. The traditional anthropological nomenclature of “informant” is too cold and distant.
[iv] Their description about the contrast between Norway and the Palestinian camps in Oslo is evocative of the challenges of waiting: “The contrast with the surrounding society – fast-paced, temporally regimented, fueled by neoliberal production regimes and lubricated by North Sea oil – was striking and signifies not only two kinds of temporality but also implied power discrepancies” (Bendixsen and Eriksen 2018: 88)
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