Representation is the political act of feeling entitled to speak, of being appointed to act on the behalf of someone: for others, for community, for oneself. They say it is the official right for you to be heard, but in these most turbulent times as a Muslim of the West, I often wonder who ‘represents’ me, how and for what?
Let me reword my question by way of digressing into philosophy. I read somewhere that humankind is a centaur. We are half beast. We are half spirit. We are immersed in nature and half transcending it: “like a boat,” they said. We are drawn up on the beach with one end of the keel in the sea and the other half docked on land. That is to say, one half of us wishes to set sail in search of our future aspirations and leave behind the other half of us that remains anchored in the daily realities of this world. Half my life is grounded by personal histories: body shape, colour, ethnicity and gender. The other half is the dreamer at sea, the within, who wants to transcend the particulars of what they say I am.
How does one therefore represent a spirit lost at sea, the spirit of exiles? By exile, I mean the part of you and me who spend days of undirected seafaring between our parents’ past and our children’s future. The middle generation who is nostalgic about our Islamic past and angry about our Western future. We are, as Edward Said said, lepers – the unsociable, the political untouchables. We are both enemy and friend: undecidable.
To the exile, opponents yell out the popular, tedious and wholly wrong list of their well-trained pragmatism. A bunch of engineers and doctors tell us that being an exile means that you are adrift without political grounds. We are simply dreamers, troublemakers and bring a bad name to the rest. We have by the force of our own stupidity isolated ourselves and impoverished our right to speak as citizens. We are just drifting about in abstractions and dangerous nonsense about Islamicate, discourse, postmodernism and humanities. Our ‘disengagement’ is hopelessness they say. We must learn, they conclude, to live in our adopted grounds – the sea is dangerous.
They are wrong about a thing or two, for the fact is that for most of us exiles the trouble consists in not giving the wrong answer to a choice, but rather we live with the many daily reminders that we never really had a choice. If it was as simple as wearing a t-shirt, I would have brought the chopped onions and cooked the sausages myself, drowned them in sauce, in celebrating ‘straya through BBQs. However, there is an indignity that follows such acts and we are all told what we are, before we whisper back what we are not. The exile is not a choice. It’s a condition. I don’t want it. It is that who yearns that which is absent, that which cannot be, that which is suspended in past and in future and that which remains untouched in the present. We metaphorically run between safwa and marwa awaiting the political mercy of a gushing zamzam: a caliphate, a self-determination, a leader, a thought, a spark, a dignity…
So a question to all those who represent me: how do you represent the sense of being lost by continually telling everyone we are ‘just like you’ Australians? What are you talking about?
What of the exilic of me speaks through you? What of a voice that is very different to the integrated leaders whose skill is survival and who are involved in that political equivalent of trimming beards? That is to say an approach of not taking a clear position but surviving handsomely as both ‘us’ and ‘them’, nonetheless a circular and pragmatic approach of working out an accommodation within power to accommodate power. They who politically trim are managers of sensibilities, who lack nautical co-ordinates of sailing beyond the existing co-ordinates. What of the voice of overwhelming dissonance or dissent and not the politics of two choices? I do not want yea-sayers or the nay-sayers. I want people who question questions.
The exilic is volatility and instability because it is the diaspora’s condition. It is metaphorical, theological. You’ve heard it before and it is said to return as it was before: we are the condition of the stranger. It represents dislocation and migration, not of homes or values, because living on a raft are the truths of a lost history and not our embarrassments. Exile is restlessness, it is movement, it is feeling unsettled and unsettling others. It matches our movements from south to north and the space in between. The exile cannot go back to some earlier home and can never fully arrive here. That is the story that needs representing…
The exile embraces such debate about loyalties so they can speak of disloyalties and their representation thus is a style of thought. It is an articulation of the condition of marginality. It doesn’t win friends, it gathers allies because it speaks of conditions and not the counting of nodding heads. It might seem to the pragmatist all abstract dribble, irresponsible or flippant, nonsense…and that is precisely the point.
…but the exilic as Edward Said concludes, “does not respond to the logic of the conventional but to the audacity of daring.” It represents change, moving on, not standing still. It represents the verb to-be and not the rusted relics who parrot the what-is of nouns. It represents a minority view for who representation means that which remains at sea.