Seeing Like a Smuggler - in Conversation with Shahram Khosravi


On Monday 17th July we had the pleasure of hosting Professor Shahram Khosravi at Maldusa Palermo, and to engage in a rich and inspiring conversation about smuggling, starting from the last book he co-edited together with Mahmoud Keshavarz 'Seeing Like a Smuggler - Borders from Below' (2022). Here a short insight on some of the key points we raised and discussed.

Over the past years, within our Palermo-based networks, including the Feminist Autonomous Centre for research, the Captain Support Network, Watch-the-Med Alarm Phone, the Baye Fall crew, Sportello Sans Papier of Arci Porco Rosso, and more recently the Maldusa project, we have been discussing the relationship between struggles against borders, the illegalisation of people on the move, and the criminalisation of any form of facilitation to freedom of movement. 

On Monday 17th July we had the pleasure of hosting Professor Shahram Khosravi and to engage in a rich and inspiring conversation about smuggling, starting from the last book he co-edited together with Mahmoud Keshavarz 'Seeing Like a Smuggler - Borders from Below' (2022).
At the centre of our conversation were issues of dangerous single stories (inspired by
Chimamanda Adichie) and dichotomies created by states and border regimes in order to 'externalise', as Shahram Khosravi put it, the problems created by border violence. This process of mystification by the state, which is often legitimised by the language of 'protection' (of borders, of communities, of vulnerabilised women on the move), is a powerful colonial tactic to distort our imagination, our understanding of the complex realities and to centre the logic and the gaze of the state as the only (legitimate) one. Anything that deviates from or defies this logic, according to Khosravi, is classified as illegal, illicit, dangerous, and worth criminalisation.

This is the case of so-called smugglers, people who provide illegalised services to border crossers, *often* people who build networks of solidarity, care and support for those who attempt to survive border violence. 

Seeing like a smuggler, like a boat driver, a passeur, a guide 'who knows the way', like a service provider across and against the border, repositions our gaze. Rather than violence and exploitation, we can then see - through the smugglers' gaze - how these practices can figure as a socio-political struggle. According to a smuggler interviewed by Shahram Khosravi, rather than plundering, the smugglers stand up for those whose wealth, life and freedom were plundered. And help them to take them back. 

So why is it a feminist issues, we ask?  Our conversation started with Shahram Khosravi quoting our beloved Angela Davis, "when women rise, they rise for everyone". 

Feminism allows us to produce knowledge outside the main, mostly male, state-centric gaze. It allows us to see from below, and to speak from below, developing new languages and new imaginations. Feminism, as Shahram Khosravi poetically put it, allows us to dismantle the mystification that presents work of hate such as detention, deportation and border controls as a work of love (for nations). 

And this gaze from below, the gaze of the smuggler, Shahram Khosravi continued, allows us to adjust our way of seeing and listening, as to understand that smuggling only exists because borders exists. It reveals that those forms of interpersonal violence and possibly coercion that at times are associated with smuggling, are the direct result of the increased militarisation of borders. 

An associated question that emerges in the book, that informed our conversation, and that is key to our everyday struggles against borders and to decriminalise the facilitation of migration, is: 'what about victimisation'? And here feminism, or at least the border-abolition feminism that we embrace, becomes useful again.

The war on smugglers is indeed informed by state-centred narratives of the dangerous criminal, the smuggler, exploiting and harming vulnerable people who are supposedly at their mercy. The women-and-children trope is often mobilised to legitimise the intensification of border controls, of increased militarisation as well as of 'legitimate' use of violence, in order to protect vulnerable victims. Here the state exercises the role of the protector, that patriarchal protection that actually does not protect but controls, detains, deports and kills 'women-and-children' as well as men on a daily basis. We need a feminist analysis in order to deconstruct the narratives 'of vulnerabile subjects that need protection' mobilised here, whilst at the same time acknowledging the forms of victimisation border crossers are subjected to, due to state violence and global injustice (for more resources on these points, see the FAC research online course on the topic). 

It became clear in our conversation that we also need a feminist struggle to counter how colonial, white, carceral feminisms legitimise war, violence and killing in the name of protecting women from non-European, non-white - and therefore immediately classified as dangerous - men. Not only iis this self-proclaimed feminism racist, but it is also sexist. To counter it, we need to acknowledge and visibilise, from below, people's courage and existence in the face of and despite the injustices they are subjected to by the state and its borders. 

Are we romanticising smugglers here? According to Shahram Khosravi there is no risk of romanticisation. Every day, he explained, we hear single stories that legitimise violence. What we are doing here is not romanticising but presenting a more complex narrative, and reversing the single story about violence. The struggle is subverting a narrative where deportation is not violence but border crossing to seek asylum is; the narrative where the Israeli state killing Palestinians is not violent, but the Palestinian man who throws a stone is. 

So where do we go from here? We keep connecting our struggles, as feminism cannot define itself as a movement of liberation if it is not also connected to struggles against borders, against prisons, against racism and all forms of state-imposed narratives, categories and single stories. We keep expanding struggles over the imagination that is imposed on us, and building alternative imaginations, as Shahram Khosravi suggests. 

And we do so by continuing to burn borders and their binaries, rather than trying to fit more people within them, imagining and practicing a world without borders and without cages. Not only seeing like smugglers, but also acting like smugglers, and facilitating freedom of movement for all.