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La Calima: Diasporic Dust

[Remarks prepared for the opening of the Sharjah Biennial 14]

When first prompted to think about the Americas and the Persian Gulf—two spaces that are rarely thought of in connection, but between which so much is shared—my mind turned to dust. Specifically, what we in Puerto Rico call the Saharan dust (los polvos del Sahara). This is a yearly summer phenomenon in which dry air filled with particles of dust from Northern Africa circles the stratosphere in a kind of whirlwind.

Its presence is mostly invisible, perceivable only by the sudden itch it creates in your eyes and throat, the thin film it leaves on cars and windows, and the slight haze it casts upon the surrounding landscape. Wikipedia tells me that in English this phenomenon is called The “Saharan Air Layer.” In the Canary Islands, where the phenomenon is experienced most dramatically, they have a more beautiful term for these dust storms: la calima.

I’ve often traced my fingers around the residue that la calima creates on car windows and sliding glass doors and marveled at how these dust particles could come so far and still remain together in their dispersion. It is the only material connection that I’ve ever felt to the Arabian Peninsula, the only moment in which I’ve sensed the connective tissue between here and there.

I’ve always thought about this yearly migration of dust as a diaspora of sorts: displaced grains of sand from the Arabian Peninsula lifted up by the dry winds and forced into exile from the desert. Almost imperceivable in their individuality, these little specks of dust register only in their collectivity, in their perseverance to stay together even as they are forced into far-flung lands.

I would like to think about the Calima—this diasporic dust storm—in relation to the famous words of Marcus Garvey that frame Claire Tancon’s exhibition at the Sharjah 14 biennial: “look for me in the whirlwind, look for me in the storm, look for me all around you.” This quote is from a letter written by Garvey while imprisoned in Atlanta, Georgia. In it he seeks to assure his comrades that neither his imprisonment, nor his death, will impede the development of the Black nationalist movement. He asserts: “If I die, my work will only just then begin. For I shall live in a physical or spiritual to see the day of Africa’s Glory.” He is certain that he will return along with the countless women and men who died across and within the middle passage. Together they shall remain present, if not fully visible, in the dust storms that envelop and tie together each corner of the Black Atlantic.

For Garvey the African Diaspora was thus not a location, or a bounded entity, but a movement—in both the kinetic and the political sense. His notion of diasporic belonging was tied to the geographic movements of displacement and return, but also to the political movement of Pan-African solidarity.

Born in the West Indies as the descendant of African Slaves, Garvey was native to displacement. In his early twenties he left Jamaica for Central America, living in Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and Belize before relocating to England and later to the United States where during the 1920’s he became a central figure in the Black nationalist movement.

During his life Garvey searched to heal the displaced diasporic soul, most famously by organizing the African Redemption movement which sought the territorial recovery of Africa from colonial rule and the spiritual redemption of the black diaspora through what he imagined as a “repatriation” to Africa. However, like many other diasporic subjects, what he ultimately experienced was the impossibility of return.

Impossible homecomings are a common diasporic experience. As Iain Chambers writes, “Migrancy involves a movement in which neither the points of departure nor those of arrival are immutable or certain. It calls for a dwelling in mutation. Always in transit, the promise of a homecoming—completing the story, domesticating the detour – becomes an impossibility.” Chambers argues that this experience requires a different sense of home, a different way of imagining being in the world, a permanent feeling of exile.

Homecomings are thus impossible for the migrant, for whom each return is reconfigured as a mere visit and for whom even an attempt at re-settling cannot undo the experience of deracination. Even for those who achieve a geographic return, the trace of migration remains: a modified accent, an altered worldview, a reorientation to space and place, and the impossibility of re-sowing that which was uprooted. For those unable to return, or even visit, all that is left is displacement and deracination— like the Calima dust, they swirl in an unsettled state, never fusing with the sediment of the societies they are forced to inhabit.

Homecomings are also impossible for those who, like Garvey, were born into a condition of inherent displacement—either because they are the native sons of historic diasporas or because they are a “first generation” born into a society that is foreign to their kin. Those born into displacement are caught in an impossible belonging to the places where they live and toil—if by belonging we mean unquestionable inclusion, unconditional acceptance, and unmarked membership. At the same time, they must reckon with an impossible homeland to which they will never be native: the Aztlan of the Chicanos, the Borinquen of the Nuyoricans, or the Liberia of those who dreamed of boarding the Black Star Line.

This impossibility of both homeland and homecoming defies, as Claire Tancons writes in her introductory text, “the realm of the retinal” — it cannot be simply seen. It also defies the written word; it often cannot be fully recounted. I would venture that it even defies the affective realm. That is, exile and displacement, like many other traumatic experiences, cannot always be “felt.” Instead, these experiences are often held in suspension, pushed aside, or placed beyond the realm of the sensorium.

Even for those who do not imagine themselves to be displaced, the idea of home in our contemporary global world remains an open question. Those who have never migrated must still reckon with the impossibility of nativeness in a world where the global labor market has dispersed diasporas across the globe which, like the Calima, unperceivably but firmly swirl “all around.” These forced displacements effectively disrupt notions of citizenship, sovereignty, and autonomy. They necessarily lead us to question the idea of bounded nation-states populated by homogenous patriots, to rethink the profoundly porous boundaries of the world, and to reconsider the deeply questionable notion of “native-ness.”

This is particularly the case in the Caribbean were indigenous populations were nearly exterminated, but it is also true of former colonies across the world where settlers violently displaced natives. In all these sites displacement provided the bedrock for settler claims to citizenship, belonging, and the rights of property.

Forced displacement also shapes notions of belonging in contemporary societies where migrants toil and provide the scaffolding for new worlds, even as they are shut out of the full rights of citizenship. Here displacement serves as a mechanism of exclusion creating false distinctions between the figure of the citizen and that of the migrant. Prevailing ideas of who is and is not native, who does and does not belong, who is legal, documented, authorized, foreign or alien must thus all be upended. Citizenship itself must necessarily be reconfigured as a relationship that no longer excludes the displaced labor that fundamentally builds and forges the social.

This is true in sites such as the United States and the Emirates where strategies of nation-building depend on migrant labor that is simultaneously recruited and disavowed. It is also true in the heart of the Caribbean, in places such as the Dominican Republic where Haitian labor born on both sides of Hispaniola is both foundational and forsaken.

Again, Garvey becomes useful here for thinking about nativeness. Born in the West Indies but caught in the impossible homecoming of a return to the African continent, his native-ness is to the displaced diaspora itself. He is a native of the whirlwind: that invisible dust that swirls around us both blinding us and allowing us to see the quiet forces that bring our world into being. Migrants, laborers, the displaced, the discarded, and those that simply don’t belong are all parts of that Garveyian whirlwind: they are the invisibilized labor that builds our modern cities, displaced sedimentation—like the Calima—that appears before us but cannot be fully seen.

The connections between Arabia and America can perhaps not be seen or felt as anything other than specks of displaced dust, but they can be performed—that is, brought into being. I am speaking here of performance not as a simulacrum, but as an act of conjuring—making connections that perhaps could not otherwise be perceived and cannot necessarily be threaded into a coherent narrative.

Perhaps through performance we can view otherwise unperceivable connections between Arabia and the Tropics: how each of these regions are the products of displacements, migrations, indentures, forced labor, extraction and the constant transformation and commodification of the natural landscape—the battle with dust storms, desert sands, hurricane winds, and the putrid humidity of the mangrove.

I’m disappointed that I was not able to visit Sharjah. I heard that a mere ten-minute drive leaves you squarely in the desert. I wonder how this desert is tamed, and if the relation between local denizens to their arid landscape is similar to how Caribbean populations battle the incessant humidity of the tropics. I’m curious: is their desert like our mangrove? Does it refuse to disappear despite the efforts to transform it into a “modern” landscape? Do the sands blow through the cities of the Persian Gulf the way vegetation breaks through the cracks of the urban Caribbean? And do Sharjah residents battle sand and dry air the way Caribbean folk battle with the decaying forces of humidity? The latter results in a constant battle with mold, degradation, and moisture. It is an obsession with air conditioners and dehumidifiers, it is the search for cold dry air, even as walls remain coated in salty mist.

I also wonder how the residents of the Arabian Peninsula imagine the Calima—do they know that their sands serve as emissary clouds of dust? How do the residents of the Gulf imagine their displacements, their displaced, their migrants, their exiles, their impossible citizens, their disavowed natives, impossible homelands and ever deferred homecomings?

Lastly, I wonder: what is and isn’t possible in the connection between here and there? And how can these connections be performed, by which I mean brought into being? As both globalization and global warming forces us all to reckon with the threat of displacement and the impossibility of return to a previous state of affairs, I wonder: how might we rethink our relationship to diasporic/displaced peoples not as invaders, but as emissaries of the Garveyian whirlwind? Can our shared vulnerability to the winds of climate change help us reimagine the nature of our borders and our binds? Might we perhaps become able to recognize each other in the whirlwind and to explore where the wind and dust might take us?

San Juan, Puerto Rico

May 2019


Posted on

May 8, 2019