[-empyre-] On Passport Privilege, forward from Naeem Mohaiemen

Christina McPhee christina at christinamcphee.net
Wed Jan 16 03:33:48 EST 2008

From: "Naeem Mohaiemen" <naeem.mohaiemen at gmail.com>
Date: January 15, 2008 5:29:22 AM PST
To: empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
Subject: On Passport Privilege

I've talked elsewhere about "passport privilege" which can supersede  
class privilege in certain contexts. During SuperIntense/Flying  
Circus, we had a large group of Euro/American artists descending on  
Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City.  After showing work, there was fair  
amount of self-crit and talking about how all these artists from  
northern centers would be coming in, showing work, and then  
immediately leaving for the next "glamorous" location. The local  
artists would get what they could from the experience, but in the end  
it is the visitors who really took up most of the energy. Class,  
location etc came up and this is when I said that it's a passport,  
especially a dual nationality for many of us, that gives unique access.

By accident of birth I have a British and Bangladeshi passport. My  
family didn't even know I was eligible for the UK passport until 1987  
when we were going to London to visit family. The puzzled embassy  
official in Dhaka said "why doesn't your son have a British passport."  
My father thought we were going to get stopped and started blustering  
(he's a military officer, retired now, and they can be quite gruff).   
"But he's not asking for a passport, why are you people making such a  
fuss?"  "Sir," said the official, trying to calm him down, "I'm saying  
your son should get it, it will help."

I think of these accidents often (my father was in medical school in  
Edinburgh when I was born, hence the location). My brother came 6  
years later, was born in Bangladesh. I see the struggles he went  
through with his green passport (he only recently managed to get a  
Canadian passport) and what came with it. It makes me acutely aware of  
what I took for granted. My brother is an accountant-- I wonder if the  
choice of such a practical field was defined by (partially) the need  
to be in one of the "high value" fields that makes Canadian  
citizenship processing go faster.

When you switch planes in Dubai, for the New York-Dhaka route, a 90%  
middle class flight occupancy suddenly switches to 90% working class  
as the gigantic South Asian labor class (the ones building the Arab  
construction miracle that oil money is buying) boards the plane. As  
very few are literate in English, they will often look for someone on  
the plane to fill up immigration forms. On one such flight, I was  
bonding with a group of workers by filling the forms. There had been  
some construction death on site, so they also wanted to talk about  
that. Someone thought I was a journalist, so I was the receiver.  So  
we are talking, talking and we walk out into the airport of some  
country where there is a 10 hour layover transit.  As we talk we walk  
towards the transit counter and I walk through and then there's a huge  
flap behind me. The Arab immigration officer won't let any of the  
green passports through. I stand there staring as I wondering if I  
should go back and be trapped with everyone else, some grand act of  
solidarity. The officer won't let me back either, I have to do the  
full tour of transit area and shops and maybe even go out of the  
airport.  When I come back a few hours later, I can sense the distance  
that had settled between me and my compatriots.

It's a micro micro moment, but I think of that moment often because it  
made physical things that were always assumed. I travel a lot for work  
and at every airport, even when I do get hassle, I am still reminded  
that it could be much much worse.  The passport trumps all else, it is  
the document that people will give anything for. Those not born with  
the right color passport, that is.

Don't want to monologue, so I'll stop here and hope others on this  
list will chime in with their experiences and thoughts on this....

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