Passage Through “Shangri-La”

Desperate and destitute. These are some of the words that come to mind when thinking of the multitude of displaced Syrians. However, this does not seem to be the case for many Syrians residing in Öncüpınar Accommodation Facility in Kilis, Turkey. Many of the people who live there speak of the facilities that enable day-to-day proceedings. For instance, residential businesses have sprung up and there are schools which children can attend. Several individuals have expressed their wish to remain behind (McClelland 2014). The uncertainty that lay ahead seemed bleak in comparison to the certainty of sustenance and dignity such an established camp can guarantee.

Navarro-Yashin’s article on Turkish-Cypriots in Northern Cyprus paints an otherwise antithetical picture of living in an unrecognised space between borders. Take for instance, the poignant description of the old lady seated next to her geraniums staring blankly into the distance, with family portraits hung on the walls behind her. She creates a haven for herself in a neighbourhood of ‘X’-ed houses – houses that have been “erased” by the Turkish military (Navaro-Yashin 2003).

The construction of quotidian imaginations of experiences and expectations is embedded within a nexus of infrastructural relations (Star 1999). The question then of when and how does infrastructure come into being is pertinent in identifying the relational processes between actors. It is useful in tracing out the lived realities and sensibilities of collectivity in unstable times. Infrastructural relations reveal the differential experiences that result from the availability of resources, and socialities that manifest. Whilst the Kilis camp paints a rather idyllic picture of living, the Turkish-Cypriots seem to experience a devastatingly disruptive present. Conversely, such an affective perspective in both examples ultimately uncovers the facade, and illuminates the looming futures of displaced persons.

The reference to Shangri-La in my title might seem a little absurd. My intention is not to romanticise their plight. Navaro-Yashin (2003) warns against the normalising discourse of anthropology, as doing so would fail to anchor informants’ subjectivities and obscure the important things that need to be said. These camps are merely a respite from a future of uncertainty. In doing so, I wish to highlight how Orientalist perceptions of civil conflicts in the Middle Eastern region have tended to strip away the layers of complexity there are to these situations. Perhaps, examining the settlements for displaced persons from an infrastructural perspective help to illuminate their constructed subjectivities, and re-imbue displaced persons with agency most Euro-American narratives have stripped them of.

Displaced persons provide a pivotal focus for anthropology to develop novel methods of inquiry. The displacement of individuals in regions torn by civil conflict is one that extends beyond national borders, between the nooks and crannies of institutions and geographical spaces. It would be productive to pursue a multi-sited ethnographic approach as George Marcus (1995) has advocated. In this light, the connections that are enabled for displaced persons in this era of digital infrastructures provide food for thought for they afford emerging avenues that engender novel subjectivities and socialities.

Based on the article How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp by Mac McClelland for The New York Times.

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Works Cited

Marcus, G. E.
1995 Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual review of anthropology24(1), 95-117.

Navaro-Yashin, Y.
2003 Life is dead here’ Sensing the political inno man’s land’. Anthropological Theory3(1), 107-125.

Star, S. L.
1999 The ethnography of infrastructure. American behavioral scientist43(3), 377-391.


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