To Walk the World: Reflections on Not Attending the International Studies Association Convention

Image: Lena Bell

Tuesday 4th April, 2017

Aya Nassar

I initially wanted to write something to be read-out on my behalf, for a panel which I did not attend at the ISA annual convention (Baltimore, 22nd-25th of February 2017). I did not attend the conference because the Executive Order that came to be commonly known as the “travel ban” was issued less than a month before the conference, on the 27th of January 2017, and even though I was not a national of the seven countries listed at the time, I was caught in the panic. Instead of going ahead with writing a statement about my absence in an international conference in the age of Trump, however, I spent a day looking at the void, in the conference programme where my name was supposed to be, dwelling on its absence.

I would have presented on a paper about movement, urban circulation, governmentality and a 1970s fascination with America in the capital of Egypt. The abstract of the panel spoke very poetically of “us” the panellists “turning key thinkers into displaced urban Flanêurs”. I would have taken Foucault, and his understanding of the urban problem as a question of circulation of men and goods, as well as of ideas, wills, and elements (air and water), that are meant to be constantly moving around, and turned him as a displaced urban flanêur in a city obsessed with the movement of its traffic and people. Since the Executive Order, and its immediate resulting panic, however, I have been wanting to turn my gaze to my (our), displacement as I (we) navigate other spaces of academic events and mundane scholarly practice.

My immediate “plan” was to rework my topic. I thought that reworking my paper to respond to the ban was pertinent and obvious. After all, it was responding to what has been reiterated time and again since Foucault, on mobility and circulation as a matter of “making a division between good and bad circulation, and maximizing the good circulation by diminishing the bad”. The movement of people works unevenly, as a mode of exclusion of those who are free to circulate and those who are not. My academic self was intact, it could absorb the disruption and make something productive out of it. An event has presented itself to me, and I was going to make sense of it using the same framework of meaning-making I had planned to deploy in my research. Things fit. There is an order underneath the chaos and the panic. An order that I am sure we, as academics, seek. It is an order of an academic structure, of a full circle, where conclusions speak to introductions, where the case studies link to theory, where the circle is closed, no holes, no gaps, except for the few that we plant for future research.

However, as I was setting up to rework Cairo into Baltimore through the lens of circulation and governmentality, I was increasingly spending more time getting sucked into all the everyday practices of calculability, managing logistics, weighing the odds, and thinking hard- sometimes too hard- about how to conduct myself with respect to attending an international conference. My PhD self felt committed to the panel organisers. I had feedback to look forward to and worry about. I had the pre-conference anxieties about how to “present” myself and my work.

There was another ‘self’ of course, thinking about what to do strategically and ethically with respect to the ban, how to resist, show solidarity, claim agency, how to boycott and/or politicise, how to read the emails from concerned academics and how to react to statements from academic societies. Meanwhile, the rest of me had to decide within a week or two- the sooner the better, whether I am likely to pass as a good or bad subject through an airport, whether it is safe or dangerous, smart or dumb. I had to decide whether I am afraid, or angry, or just tired.

I am not a national of one of the seven countries that were affected by the ban at the time. Yet my country appeared among the lists of those rumoured to be included. I do not necessarily appear to be Muslim at a first glance; I do not wear a veil, and my shade of brown is vague enough to shroud me in some protective ambivalence. But I have the Arabic name, my passport, my accent, my “r”s that betray my “Middle Eastern-ess”. I was not-yet-punished by my race, gender, religion or nationality at this exact moment, but I was also still potentially “punishable”.

I was not able to figure out how to conduct my conduct. I had friends and colleagues who could choose how they wanted to enact their solidarity and resistance, and friends and colleagues who hung on every story of the encounter with the border to see what might happen to them. Anything could happen. The executive order was a tip of an iceberg of deeper uncertainties that render others vulnerable.

Eventually I decided not to attend, and I am unable to characterise it as an act of boycott or solidarity. In any “normal” year, my absence as a young first timer academic in a big conference would have gone down as a withdrawal, something inconsequential except for the logistical hassle of programme changes. It would have been simply a failure on my part to deliver, to perform, to do as academics should do, to self-expose and to network. My decision to not go, was an individual calculation. It was an act of refusal to be made vulnerable in an airport.

Yet this act has been hitherto unthinkable to me. It only appeared as a possibility for self-care, when other critical voices started to question attending the conference or call for politicising it. That is, when the executive order led to a wave of thoughtful introspection about our mundane conferencing practices. And yet my refusal still almost feels obscene to me, and I am troubled with why I still feel guilty of underperforming, of not writing the paper in time, of not writing this statement in time, of even failing to resist properly by being present, or by being more vocal in my absence.

The very constellation I have initially sought to examine, in building Cairo in the neoliberal moment of the 1970s, points to a “duress” – it tells me something of a corporeal and affective durability of a way of being. It tells me why as an Egyptian you just do not refuse to go to the USA if you have been accepted to go. It tells me how it has always, always, always been very difficult to cross the Atlantic. It tells me how people in my country would never refuse that fantasy of making it there. It also tells me how this fantasy was brokered by the 1970s Egyptian state, which launched a neoliberal project making that fantasy inevitable and necessary.

Academic or not, you don’t choose not to go if you are Egyptian, because the wait to get approval on a passport is an inherited and intergenerational wait. You are congratulated on getting your visa - always. You curate yourself, you save or borrow money, you spend a life time performing labour to be an accepted, approvable, cross-Atlantic traveller in the same way we, academics, curate acceptances into programs, fellowships, journals, research grants, portfolios and CVs to maximize subsequent acceptances into the job market. To suddenly decide to refuse and undo all the logistical effort that went into the bookings, the arrangements, the collection of documents, the visa interviews, the conference acceptance, the UK institutional affiliation that got me a nod of approval in my visa interview in London, the e-mails, the arrangements … to undo all that has always been unthinkable.

In this space of the unthinkable I have discovered the extent to which I have been disciplined. A denial of entry has always been a possibility when I travel. I have stopped reading Arabic books on planes. I always make sure I have a pretty collection of documents in my carry-on. I always show up to the visa centre on time with extra copies. This is something I have learned from my parents. The wait for acceptance had already started before my time. The potential but uncertain refusal has always been a matter of fact for academics from elsewhere, co-inhabitants of this space of vulnerability and unease, those who are neither denied nor welcomed, those who also seek and desire access to the everyday politics of international spaces, critical or otherwise, to tally on our selfhood as proper academics.

I have always related academia to travelling, and in that I am privileged. To walk the world literally and metaphorically is both the effort we put into academia, as well as the freedom that academia promises us. In the everyday life of the contemporary mode of being an academic, this mobility of academics seems to be translating into two modes, with which I am familiar. Firstly, for those who make it into academia, we usually seek to “complete our education abroad” – the literal translation of the Egyptian phrase referring to getting accepted for a graduate programme in the West, or the North, or the Centre (however you chose to map your imaginative geography). It is a mode of thinking, and a mode of being, characterised by waiting until you have become the mobile academic who will finally fill the lack, the 'incomplete' education through this very mobility. The second is more general, it is being on the move as the everyday business of becoming an academic, to travel for field work, for workshops, for conferences, to be mobile, networked, connected and worldly.

I am not writing against this desire for movement, I am writing because I feel that the rhythm, the time, the speed, the very temporality and spatiality of this mobility works very differently and unevenly, and this is becoming increasingly so. I am writing this still holding on to the image of the academic as a traveler who, rather than curate herself through a series of acceptances and accesses (border, territorial, disciplinary, social or otherwise), instead finds a way to inhabit the academy "as a place to voyage in, owning none of it but at home everywhere in it".

Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies (PaIS), the University of Warwick. She works on the politics of space on her home city Cairo. She keeps a blog, her phd margins, and tweets at @A_M_Nassar

Here's more you may be interested in: