Amal Alhaag: Mercy & Other Diseases — A note from Marseille

Rene Boer

Beyond Rolling Eyes
Kissing teeth and
Touting Lips
… is this the place where one’s thinking about mercy starts? Somewhere at the crossroad between the end of the alphabet, the corner of Musee Des Civilisation de L’europe et de la Méditerranée and the Mediterranean Sea, I have an opportunity to rethink the relationship to my step-fatherland Europe, migratory biography and the waves of mercy and disengagements flooding our time-lines and realities across #FORTEU—the Fortress made of exclusionary militarized borders. In times of Burkini attacks and undocumented migrants camping on the streets of Paris, is compassion maybe just a plaster to cover up the open wounds of Europe?

Daily we are reminded of the fervour, anti-migrant, anti-refugee, anti-Black, anti-Muslim sentiments and rage that are (re) shaping Europe’s borders and politics. In the heat of this fire, how does the “feminist, person of colour, refugee, queer and Muslim” body negate and read against mercy and other diseases such as tolerance?

africa is coming-1

I am distracted and encapsulated by the scenic architecture of the shores of Marseille, which speak differently to whoever is peaking into its heart. To some it’s a depiction of ancient symbols of romanticized civilizations, a reminder of that which could make Europe great again. To others these buildings are merely picturesque colonial fortresses, home to Brutalist buildings and angry French hip hop.

Suprême NTM – That’s My People

Marseille reminds me that old Europe’s lungs are full of the toxic colonial residue that settled in every layer of its societies from Sweden to Italy, Bulgaria to Ireland. The deafening cough has produced a tolerance towards politics of fear and perpetuation of injustice. Cultural thinker Françoise Verges believes that in France, the question of morality, social hygiene & security were the excuses used to bring forth Islamphobia. I think of her words while pacing across MUCEM’s gorgeous promenade, a catwalk for all kind of beings. The museum’s surrounding waters form a playground for a group of young French teenagers of African descent (5th or 6th generation) – whose human cannonballs confuse the waves of the azure blue sea as amused bystanders enjoy the spectacle. Teenage bliss is remarkable when the sun is laying low and joy is alive and kicking. A moment dubbed by the Black American poet Claudia Rankine as a “gesture offering a hand to the atmosphere like a wave. Until it’s realized the one I am waving to can’t see me anymore.”

Their teenage playfulness is a precious snapshot in precarious times, where the Muslim constitutes the racialized divide marking the physical borders of fortress Europe. The end of Europe is the Muslim body. The body that must be emancipated of the headscarf and other restrictive clothing that represent Islam’s foreignness, otherness on European land. French secularism is perhaps the most successful form of policing towards Muslims in Europe.

“Since 2004 the headscarf was banned in all French public schools, and by 2011 full-face veils were outlawed. In 2016, the ‘burkini’, a full-body swimsuit that allows many Muslim women to swim with the majority of their skin covered, was declared illegal.” In this context, the state of emergency in France is merely an official continuation and a cover up for politicians, police and the state to freely censure Muslim and Black bodies without any juridical repercussion.

Simultaneously, I am hyper-aware that it is this selfie-worthy sea that accommodates the ghosts of African migrant bodies that caught the backhand of #FORTEU in the past fifteen years. Let alone to speak about the ghosts that are roaming in these waters for centuries, which shows that surviving the deadly Sahara live on Facebook does not produce enough compassion across #FORTEU to reach the shores of its illusionary Promised Land. How far will mercy reach into the unknown biographies of lost migrant lives or hail the uninvited guests relying on the good will of the host. Europe, the host, the master of the exquisite scenery and its joy which cannot be detached from the realities of these (in)visibilized, unwanted bodies that resemble my Black Muslim mother or Zakia Belkiri which also constitute the battlefields for emancipation from colonialism and Islamophobia.

It is in these moments that I believe that mercy is dependent on the killjoy. The killjoy or the Debby Downer in this case is the person who struggles against the hierarchy of mercy. The person who refuses the innate nature of charity and compassion since it tends to produce a boomerang effect, in which accepting the gift of giving suggests a certain debt… and constructs a problematic, inequitable relationship that one can seldom escape or pay off. This ongoing relationship can be read alongside the politics of mediatisation and the everyday struggle of undocumented and racialized lives of Muslims or people of colour. And, yet I question if the role of the Debby Downer, the killer of joy plays into the status quo of mercy – by only showing teeth without truly biting mercy’s head off. “To be unwilling to participate is to have too much will” feminist scholar Sara Ahmed states, and peals off the layer of tension, which returns us to my desire to fly off the handle, side step and scrutinize the unbearable task of rethinking mercy while re-evaluating my own dubious position of privilege in Marseille. Ayei Kwei Armah, the Ghanaian philosopher and poet, states in 2000 Seasons: “giving and receiving, receiving and giving, everything in life is a twin.” Perhaps mercy is a disease that we cannot avoid, and it comes with other friendly diseases such as charity, forgiveness and compassion. Concepts that are attached to people who are battling daily, the realities of otherness in #FORTEU.

To speak of Mercy & Other Diseases is to also dissect and use the character of the Debby Downer as a humorous front to reflect, obstruct and refuse mercy and its genealogy of contemporary societal ailments in our societies.

And if one would let Debby Downer speak her observations in Marseille, she might embrace her foreignness and familiarity, but she couldn’t roam the city without falling over France’s scars from its colonial war against Algeria that mark the architecture. Debby Downer would notice that mercy doesn’t travel without other diseases, and rethinking this concept from the margins of #FORTEU would mean that she can’t wine and dine without suffocating in its deluded, self-affirming exceptionalism, universalities and historization. Because, these concepts of universalities haven’t been “inclusive” or “compassionate” towards women, people of colour, migrant, queer or Muslim bodies throughout history. But she would also acknowledge that in this city, the ugliness of the precious coastal France fills the air but does not hijack the hearts or agency of its inhabitants, because to live amidst cumin, street cats, Raï music, coffee houses and street art is to accept that North Africa starts in this Southern tip of France.

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