skins, borders, terrorists

I have been reading Sara Ahmed on pain and skin, her reading through psychoanalysis and phenomenology of how we come to experience our bodies as ours through encounters with border-making experiences. Pain and irritation alert us to the places where something we define as us meets the something that is not us. Bordering or, to use her terms, surfacing, is ongoing. In a significant revision of Lacan’s mirror phase, Ahmed reminds us about the contingency of bodily integrity: it is only when we come against obstruction, often in the form of pain, that we are newly resurfaced as discrete bodies. Indeed, in the trash romance I have been reading for twenty years now, good sex is often described as liquid, melting, as a moment of dissolution. One’s borders melt in pleasure. The two or more become one. (That reading trash romance prepared me to read Leo Bersani and Sara Ahmed is important to mark: I respect the intelligence of popular trash.)

Kenya is at war with Somalia. Or, as the new media reports have it, Kenya has joined forced with Somalia to combat Al-Shabaab. But the slippage between the two—Kenya against Somalia and Kenya against Somalis—is the grounds for this writing.

Put otherwise, Kenya is officially at war with Somalis. In a sense, this is unsurprising, to the extent that our official and unofficial discourses depict Somalis as refugees or terrorists, drains on our economy and our imagination. The term “terrorist” became newly available to the Kenyan imagination in 1998 and was subsequently finessed by 9/11. It is no secret that Kenya has been less than pleased with Obama’s distance from us, and it is terrifying to imagine that we might be waging this war “against terrorists” to curry favor with our indifferent son.

Before Somalis were terrorists they were bandits.

I want to detour through Ahmed to think about how Somalis became terrorists. I am interested in the link between the taxonomic and the affective, in what, to paraphrase Fanon, registers as, “Look! A Somali! In this claim, the figure of the Somali enables a border-effect, a surfacing of the one naming the Somali as “not Somali.” Not Somali, in Kenya, registers as legitimate. Kenyan nativism and autochthony depend on “not Somali.” Kenyan-ness understands itself as such because it is “irritated” or “pained” by Somali-ness. But I get ahead of where I was heading.

In “Problematic Proximities,” Ahmed considers the effect of discursive proximities. She offers this example:

An example . . . can be found in discourses around the ‘war on terror’. Politicians can make an explicit argument that ‘this is not a war against Islam’, as they often do. However in the same speech they might use the term ‘Islamic terrorists’, indeed that term will be repeated, often in a very casual way. The term can work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words. The repetition of the proximity makes the association ‘essential’. A repetition of proximity is an affective mechanism: the word ‘Islam’ becomes sticky; it comes to carry the conations or value of the words that it is placed near. Saying just the word ‘Islam’ can then be enough to generate an affect of terror. In other words, the stickiness of proximities congeals into an attribute, without an explicit act of attribution having to be made . . . . Even if an argument is explicitly made that Islam does not equal terrorism, an implicit association between Islam and terror is sustained. Associations that do not have to be made explicitly are those that are already given. (125)

The example is clear enough not to need glossing.

Placed within the context of Kenya-Somali relationships, one notices the words that cluster around Somali-ness, so much so that they become attributes of Somali-ness: bandits, warlords, refugees, terrorists. Each of these is understood to “extract” something from Kenya: safety, security (military, economic, food), sovereignty. Take, for instance, the opening paragraphs of this article by Macharia Gaitho:

In the wake of the Migingo Island dispute with Uganda, repeated forays into Kenya by Ethiopian and Sudanese bandits and cattle-rustlers, and the latest incursions and abductions by the Somali Al Shabaab group, there was plenty of frustration expressed all round about the seeming impotence of our security organs.

Now the authorities have decided enough is enough. Kenya has declared war on Al Shabaab, an extremist groups that controls large swathes of Somalia and boasts links with the face of global terrorism, the Afghan-based al Qaeda movement of the late and dearly unlamented Osama bin Laden.

Histories of aggression cluster around Somali and Somalia: disputes over land, attacks by bandits and cattle-rustlers, “abductions” by pirates—Kenya under attack. Kenya, an impotent Kenya, a less-than-masculine Kenya—attacked by a group of lawless people. Somali becomes “extremist,” “terrorism,” “the face of global terrorism.” Macharia Gaitho is beating the war drums loudly and persistently.

Kenya is going to prove her masculinity using war as viagra.

Kenya—fracturing under its own weight and histories and irreconcilable differences, on trial in front of the world at the ICC, watched by international bodies in case of a future PEV—Kenya needs this war. Kenya needs this war to secure something called a “border” or “self,” to avoid the internal dissolution that haunts our quotidian-ness. A new constitution is not enough—we compromised it as soon as it was signed. And we are busy trying to amend it into something impotent against our politicians and their cronies.

We need Somalis, inside and outside the country, to be the irritants around which Kenya can establish its psychic and material borders. Not content with the deaths inside our borders, we must go kill Somalis in the name of fighting “global terrorism.”

A friend writes me that 75 people are already dead.

On twitter, #KenyaAtWar, a nation threatened by dissolution gels into shape.

4 thoughts on “skins, borders, terrorists

  1. I saw this invasion coming as early as three years ago. The rhetoric had been building, rising like a large wave. My boss at the time was Somali. We spoke about it casually but often — that US militaristic involvement in the region seemed to be switching it’s base from Ethiopia to Kenya; that Kenyan politicians seemed to make increasingly inflammatory remarks concerning Somalia, remarks that might have been backed by US money(?) and pressure.

    It’s such a shame how local newspapers are drumming up war cries. I wonder if the opinions expressed in those editorials are deracination at its purest.

    I’d say we’ve been at war for a while now. I heard reports (I believe on the BBC) about how even before the masses started crossing the border from Somalia when the famine worsened, there were incidents of people “rendered”, whisked to Nairobi and Kampala and questioned for their involvement in this or that alleged terrorist activity. Sometimes questioned in the presence of American intelligence officers (“questioned” here is a pathetic euphemism, no?).

    There is also talk of how we’ve never been at war (bullshit at its purest), but this talk is said in that way that suggests that this is a growing pain of some sort that we have to go through.

    Also evident here is the condescending nature of Kenyan-ness. The borders of Kenyan-ness are not only defined in opposition/tension to that of the figure of a Somali, but also in our exceptional ability to succeed where Ethiopians, Russians, Ugandans and Americans have shot themselves in the foot. Reminders of how our East Africans brothers have failed in Somalia (while acting as client militaries for the US) fall on deaf ears because we believe we are special. We are different. We are the top dogs in this neighborhood.

    And now some free association thoughts that keep dangling in my noodle about this whole business (as you know, free association has both good and bad things, so be forewarned):

    “Al Shabaab kidnapped a bunch of aid workers and one French woman. Uganda kidnapped the whole island of Migingo. Why didn’t we go to war with Uganda”

    “Is it just me or does Kenya have a tradition of appointing Somalis (and other people marked as North Easterners) as defense ministers and top military officials. Does this make it easier to justify police raids into Eastleigh and to heavily militarize the North East?”

    “Will this offensive result in more recruitment by Al Shabaab? The US invasion of Iraq seems to have resulted in more Al Qaeda there than before the US went it. Are we effectively turning Al Shabaab into a major player in the region?”

    “I wonder what is going on in Eastleigh at this very moment. Are Somalis being increasingly harassed and spaced deemed Somali being increasingly policed because we are not at war with Somalia?”

  2. Typo: are Somalis being increasingly harassed and spaces deemed Somali being increasingly policed because we are now at war with Somalia?

  3. There’s a narrative that says Kenya has been at war with Somalia/Somalis for at least a hundred years–it’s provocative. Certainly since independence. But because I believe–or want to believe–that wars are not inevitable, I was hoping to think about the kind of work “war” performs, especially in today’s Kenya. It’s not that the rhetoric is “new,” as you point out. But it does something interesting. Because, and this is what is sneaky, one need not agree with the war project to become part of its broader nation-making endeavor. To be drawn into its orbit is enough, I think, to help contour borders and belonging. Implicitly, one’s statements always begin: “as a Kenyan I support/don’t support.” That “as a Kenyan” does important work to mark Somali-ness, even and perhaps especially when voiced by Somalis.

    The vexed place of the Somali as military leader or high-ranking official seems familiar, at least historically. It’s a difficult place to be, impossible to sustain, a test, I think, of allegiances. An unfair one, of course. Eastleigh is so self-sustaining that it’s difficult to imagine police harassment going on there–it really is its own city, in a way that it was not yet when I worked there a million years ago. But it’s also incredibly wealthy, and that suggests it might be targeted for a whole range of reasons and in a whole range of ways. I suspect everyday ethnocentrism will increase: skins will resurface, even as I’m not sure how that will be read. After all, one does not want to be in the position of “defending” terrorists, does one? That the ground is slippery around Somalia/Somali/Terrorist is precisely the problem that is being avoided.

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