Escape to Europe: Comparative Refugee Imaginaries

My current research undertaking traces selected post-1948 Middle Eastern and North African imaginaries of refugee migration in literature, the visual arts, film, popular music, and the blogosphere. Charting discrepant agents and systems of signification formed out of the individual or collective experience of forced migration it aims at identifying modes of rendering refugee lives into meaningful narratives that differ from the representational modes at work in mainstream-European political and legalistic discourse. The project radically questions the widely held assumption of refugees being ignorant reading their own stories and histories.

Drawing on the interpretive tools of literary and cultural studies, (meta-)history, narratology, iconology, and law and literature studies and setting particular focus on the inherent transgressivity of creative imagination the project explores the ways in which refugeeism was and continues to be represented at the places of origin of today’s Arab refugee migrants. By analyzing discrepant narrative patterns, specific chronotopes, ways of focalization, inter-texts, and character figurations as well as stylistic and generic affiliations, I particularly wish understand the transition between what has happened and continuous to happen and the Arab narratives which convey, imagine, and disseminate these events.

The project starts from the premise that the European refugee policy’ and European law’s intrinsic antipathy towards fictional narratives necessitates the obvious: readings of stories which cannot easily be tolerated because they threaten the dominant ideological and legal strictures of narratability. These readings demonstrate that Middle Eastern works of literature, film, or art have the capacity to challenge the European languages of politics, mass media and law. It is my general argument that fictional refugee stories can indeed function as a testing ground for dominant European refugee representations: instead of writing a particular (hi)story, they analyze stories which have never been written in the books of history and law, which have never been told in policy briefings, and which are rarely represented in mass media. It is precisely due to their blatant reluctance to textualize/to emplot the individual or collective experience made by Middle Eastern refugees directly that these imaginaries have the ability to convey the real diversity of human experiences of forced migration. Giving evidence to what is usually overlooked in so-called fact-based datafications and demonstrating that these abstractions can do violence to what they abstract, fictional Middle Eastern refugee stories first and foremost have the ability to transgress the hegemonic discourse’s oppressive notion of symbolic totality. In short, they radically question our learned mode of (not) reading / (not) listening to the narratives of today’s refugees.

The project’s broader epistemological aim is to strengthen the role of the humanities generally and of post-classical narratological research in particular, in critical forced migration studies.  By doing so it wishes to contribute to refining the morphologies and interdisciplinary methods for the comparative study of refugeeness in transnational Middle Eastern studies.


Author: Markus Schmitz
markus.schmitz@ul.edu.lb