Thinking on Experienced Borders in the Self-Quarantine

F. Güzin Ağca-Varoğlu

Borders are discussed in terms of both the geographic locations of nation-states or unions and social locations in everyday life practices and spaces. Global migrations cause borders to be questioned. Providing a perspective on the subject, autoethnographic narrative allows me to switch between self and society. In this sense, I cannot actually ignore the relationality between me and the social field and can/should be a “boundary-crosser” as per Deborah Reed-Danahay. In the global world, we are talking about a macro and micro relationality, thus the analysis of the ‘personal’ can have a feature where all boundaries can be reviewed.

In this pandemic period, the daily cycle, which Lefebvre has called “vicious cycle”, was also restricted and the social boundaries were drawn more clearly with both personal concerns and governmental regulations. This situation enabled us to see the home as a space of escapeness. On the other hand, while the home can be a private safe space, it can also be the site of oppression and a silent scream. In this respect, the pandemic situation demonstrated the necessity of addressing borders in the context of social inequalities. The home experience of a refugee woman who suffers from economic and social constraints, experience of a female student struggling with intense domestic responsibilities and patriarchal structures or experience of a “house-academic” like me who has a layered intertwined everyday life are differentiated from each other. We are all staying at home, but we do not experience home in equal measures.

The concrete borders I am facing at home in these self-quarantine days are triggering my past thoughts about the borders which are now intertwined on the macro and micro levels. After getting my bachelor’s degree in Ankara, I moved to Berlin to resume my studies at master’s and doctoral level. It was my first time being in another country, my first time crossing the border to “Europe”. In my previous research in 2011 on the identity-building processes of doctoral students going from Turkey to Germany, I’ve found that they developed several tactics to overcome the strategical borders in their everyday lives. These boundaries were drawn by stereotypes and prejudices constructed upon social and political categories and they came across as “boundary-crossers”. As a non-European international student, I have also experienced that the boundaries I physically crossed with my residence permit continue to exist in a social-symbolic way in my everyday life. The exchanges and struggles in everyday life encounters made me think about being the other.

Afterwards, I returned to Turkey and started to work at Harran University’s Department of Sociology in Şanlıurfa, a city located on the Syrian border of Turkey. I was really excited, having spent many years in Berlin, to build a new life in Şanlıurfa. As a person who grew up in a small city in western Turkey and studied in Ankara and Berlin, I already had a mixture of experiences regarding different ways of lives in different cities. From my point of view, it is an excellent opportunity as a sociologist to live in a multicultural city encompassing different local ethnic groups living together for many centuries now and offering a vibrant and distinctive everyday life. Concerning this, the city has produced various ‘lived spaces’ as well. The sense of place with the narrative behind its vernacular houses, mosques, dervish lodges, bakeries; its narrow streets full of children, street food stalls, women with colourful traditional dresses and men with lilac and white scarves is fascinating on the one hand; and on the other hand, what strikes me most is the motivation of the city to bring all these colours and the deeply rooted culture together within a framework of a developing city setting. 

Mevlid-i Halil Mosque in Şanlıurfa, Galip Varoğlu
Balıklıgöl in Şanlıurfa, Murat Nas.

Most of my students are women from Şanlıurfa. Campus life serves as a window to the world for those who do not have the opportunity to study in another town because of financial or traditional reasons. At first, they insistently asked about my roots, my ideas about living in the city, and whether I am really satisfied with being at this university. This interest stemmed from the general assumption of the prevalence of West-East dichotomy in Turkey, which is marked inter alia by arguably deep socio-cultural differences and altering mindsets. I answered all those questions patiently. One day I recognised that while asking all these questions they were aiming to find out our common points by investigating my personal view. It was the first step in breaking the borders between us.  On the other hand, as a woman traveller having crossed international borders and now a “homecomer”, I think my experience was encouraging and inspiring for them. They were curious about what kind of experiences and struggles I brought along. As Alfred Schütz points out, homecomer intends to bring home what s/he has learned on her/his journey. This is also a kind of boundary-crossing. Because the person who returns home has now a hybrid identity with what s/he has acquired in her/his whole journey. At this point, belongings are also ambiguous.

In all this interaction with my students, I should admit that I am learning more than they do during my journey here. They are strong and tenacious young women who fight against the patriarchy surrounding them. The comments they make during lectures or the ethnographic assignments they delivered also showed me how they are affected by the deeply rooted cultural diversity and by their everyday life experiences. They have already developed a sociological sense regarding the debates on gender, poverty, inequalities in the education system and power relations in everyday life through their socialisation and experiences. What needed to be done was only to embody these experiences with sociological definitions. These analytical tools were not only useful for their academic improvement, but also for the sense-making of everyday life challenges and coping processes. Meanwhile, after years of academic effort, I feel that, especially in these pandemic days, I discovered my dependency on books, fieldworks, colloquiums, lectures, projects etc. The experienced knowledge of my students gave me the idea that the intention for me to be here was not only to teach at the university but also to make them guide to my sociological sense of life. 

My students possess different skills than I do. They know how to make pepper paste, bread, chipotle; how to plant, to pick olives, to use alternative healing methods; to sew their clothes and how to tell a story, nursery rhymes, sayingsand so on. We, the white-collar workers, who are struggling to learn to keep our lives inside, are also getting familiar with skills like baking a bread and sewing a face mask through YouTube videos and now we have come to realise that all these skills we are desperate for during the pandemic days are essential for us. While a lot of things we cherished before have become pointless now, these skills have settled at the centre of our lives. So, I had to revise all the borders in my mind again. The borders between classes, genders, ages, status, hierarchies and skills are broken. Nowadays, I am a house-academic trying to give online-lectures, to cook, to clean and to home-school my son. We are all trying to escape from the virus at different levels stemming from deep-rooted intersectional inequalities. We are all refugees in these pandemic days, but still, the ‘real’ refugees are one of the most disadvantaged groups to confront the coronavirus pandemic now.

Migrants find expression in the world as actors of the global crisis. This definition of crisis clarifies the visible and invisible borders in everyday life interactions. In addition to debates such as citizenship, employment policies, and integration into the health and education system, isolation and ghettoization of refugees is especially evident in big cities. Refugees, who are unwanted and stigmatized bodies, are subalterns. The struggle of governments with asylum-seekers through border policies is related to the discrimination that refugees who have already entered the host country by crossing the borders face in their everyday lives. 

Refugee Houses, Güzin Ağca-Varoğlu

After the war in Syria started, Şanlıurfa has become one of the cities with the highest number of refugees. Immediately after moving to Şanlıurfa, I started to visit refugee houses, Syrian-orphanages, and neighbourhoods. The experience of being a refugee woman is remarkably intersectional. I met women who have many kids and whose husbands died in the war. They do not have safe conditions, healthy food and financial security. The communication with them can only be in Arabic, so most of the time, it was not possible for us to understand each other. But somehow, we could succeed in breaking the border. Listening to their stories showed me that these strong women also stood against the borders. Such that, they walked for miles with their kids to arrive in Turkey, and resisted the assault against their hopes, and their future. I recognise that the borders which they have already overcome were inconceivable in my realm; hence I needed to reconsider it. 

Perhaps this global pandemic despite all its negative effects can offer us the opportunity to find a ‘way’ to confront the invisible borders constructed and to cross them. All my thoughts are crossing the concrete borders of my place. They are with the young educated women who have to carry the responsibilities of their big families. I am also thinking of the refugee women who have no chance to immigrate from this drastic situation as they did before. Therefore, I am checking all the broken borders in my mind. As Neşet Ertaş, a Turkish bard, said: “There is an invisible path from heart to heart.”

F. Güzin Ağca-Varoğlu is a lecturer in Sociology, Harran University in Turkey. She got her PhD on Muslim Germans in Sufi communities in Comparative Social-Cultural Anthropology at European University Viadrina. Her research interests include ethnography of everyday life and space, migration and everyday lived religion. Twitter: agca_guzin Mail: fguzinagca@gmail.com

One thought on “Thinking on Experienced Borders in the Self-Quarantine”

  1. Çok güzel ve çok öğretici bir yazı olmuş… Güzin hocam çok güçlü bir kaleminiz var ve bu kaleminiz karanlığın ortasında parlayan bir ışık gibi… Ve bu ışığı gördükçe de biz, daha da mutlu oluyor, yaşam boyu öğrenmenin tadını çıkarıyoruz… Kaleminize ve yüreğinize sağlık ❤🙏

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