Q&A: Dr Fiori Berhane – Literatures of the Horn of Africa, a conversation series

AiW Guests 
Interviewers: Emily Bhanu, Madeleine Butler, Madeeha Sharief, Eleanor Walker
Interviewee: Dr Fiori Berhane
Interview Date: 7th January 2022.

AiW note: This is one in a series of interviews carried out by undergraduate students as part of the module ‘Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali literatures in global intellectual history’, taught by Dr Sara Marzagora in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures of King’s College London in the 2021-2022 academic year. The interview scripts have been transcribed and first-edited by Nadira Ibrahim, who holds a first-class English degree from King’s College London and is proud to have contributed to the wider scholarly discussion surrounding these important literatures.

Fiori Berhane is an Assistant Professor in anthropology at the University of Southern California. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist whose research interests span global Black studies, critical refugee and border studies, and the anthropology of Europe. Her current book project, Prisoners of Our Dreams, argues that the substance of current debates amongst Eritrean refugees of disparate political generations hinges upon an aborted or incomplete decolonization from Italian colonial rule, and that these discourses impact upon how the migration crisis in Europe is imagined, and in turn, what potential solutions could be enacted. Her work has been featured in Anthropology Now, Africa is a Country and Lavoro Culturale and has been supported by the Wenner Gren foundation, the Fulbright IIE and the American Academy in Rome.

Among the literary texts on the syllabus of their final year module at King’s, Emily, Madeleine, Madeeha and Eleanor read: The Conscript: A Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War (trans. Ghirmai Negash, 2012), first published in 1950 but written in Tigrinya in 1927 by Gebreyesus Hailu, a prominent figure in the cultural and intellectual life of Eritrea during the Italian colonial period and the post-Italian era in Africa. The Conscript depicts the “staggering experiences of the Eritrean ascari, soldiers conscripted to fight in Libya by the Italian colonial army against the nationalist Libyan forces fighting for their freedom from Italy’s colonial rule”; the students also read African Titanics (2014, translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin), by novelist and member of the Eritrean Liberation Front who “fought in many battles against the Ethiopian occupation”, Abu Bakr Kahal (Darf). African Titanics is a novel that is described by its publisher as offering “the untold tale of the African boat people and their desperate exodus to the merciless shores of the Mediterranean”.

Picking up on the topics of migration and diaspora, particularly Eritrean migration, postcolonial legacies, and border-crossing in contemporary Europe in these novels, and further inspired by the explorations of race, sexuality and colonial amnesia in contemporary Italy in Dr Berhane’s article, “The Montanelli Case: Sexuality, Race and Colonial Forgetting in BLM Italy” (Allegra Lab.), co-written with Dr. Diego Maria Malara, the students followed up with Dr Berhane in their interview below, asking questions about her research, Eritrean refugees in Europe, and the Mediterranean crossing with its attendant politics of memory and memorialisation…

Fiori Berhane: My name is Dr Fiori Berhane, I’m an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California. My work focuses on the Eritrean diaspora. I am a legal and political anthropologist interested in intellectual genealogies, social activism, and the phenomenology of refugee life and refugeeism. I’m very excited to speak to you today.

Madeleine Butler (to Dr Berhane, for KCL): Thank you so much for joining us. First, I want to ask you, where did you spend the years 2020 and 2021?

Fiori Berhane: I was a fellow with the American Academy in Rome in Modern Italian Studies in 2020. On March 10th 2020, which was my birthday, Italy locked down. So I returned to Los Angeles, where I’m from, and wrote the rest of my dissertation. And then I got a job, in LA, which I was a bit surprised about as the academic job market can be incredibly difficult. 

Madeleine Butler: Do you like Los Angeles?

Fiori Berhane: I lived in New York for 11 years, so I kind of prefer New York City. I also like London. I tend to like big cities with good public transport. LA has a great culture but I don’t like the car culture. In LA I try to take public transit as much as I can, but I do have a 16-year-old car that I drive around the city, not for longer than 20 minutes at a time as that’s my tolerance!

Madeleine Butler: We are interested in hearing about your recent dissertation. How did you become interested in your current field of work, and where did you start in terms of researching?

Fiori Berhane: I am of Eritrean heritage and I did my undergraduate degree at Columbia. For my undergraduate, I studied Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies, and Anthropology. I always had an interest in forgotten historical subjects. I think this passion came from my parents who, when I was growing up, were really, deeply nationalistic. I remember my dad once coming to school when I was in second grade and he was re-drawing the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia on a rug that depicted the world map. This was before Eritrea’s independence, mind you. My mother had also told me that my grandfather died fighting in a war, in around 1930 or 1929, and I was like, “there was no World War then so what war could it have been?” As an adult I realised that my great grandfather was an ascaro [a local soldier of Italian East Africa conscripted to fight in Libya for the army of the European colonial power], and he had died fighting in Libya. 

I would say the passion came from wanting to understand my identity and the history of my people, but also a more general aptitude and interest. I was interested in literature and the social sciences so I had initially thought when I was an undergraduate maybe I’d become a lawyer. In high school, we had cultural anthropology as an elective and I found some of my other courses incredibly boring when I was in college, so I switched track and thought, “why don’t I try to do things that I’m interested in because this might be the only chance I have to explore my interests”. I took classes called ‘Gandhi’s India: Intro to Anthropology’ and ‘Israeli and Palestinian Societies and Conflict’. From then on I was like, “OK, this is actually what interests me. These are the kinds of questions about historical memory, political conflict, and inequality that I find compelling.”

As an undergraduate, I applied for a Kluge Grant and it was accepted. I did my first research in Asmara on women guerrilla fighters and their transition to civilian service and civilian life in Eritrea. I was interested in gender, nationalism, and citizenship, but when I got there, my initial question at 20 years old was “has patriarchy returned to their lives?” I saw that, of course, it had and that I was asking a moot question. The more interesting question then became: how did this political movement seek to transform its subjects? 

I interviewed a number of women who were guerrilla fighters. Most of these women were educated, of an upper-middle class who decided to join the revolutionary movement, and I also interviewed their daughters who were raised in revolutionary schools. 

It was a total society — The Society of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The group controlled every aspect of fighters’ lives. For example, fighters weren’t allowed to have romantic relationships because they had to give themselves up fully to the revolution. At some point, however, leaders of the movement realised that regardless of rules, people would have sex and have children, so they decided to set up these revolutionary schools. There, children were raised away from their parents, away from what they called the ‘bourgeois nuclear family’ and transformed into citizens in waiting. My research focused on this revolutionary movement that wanted to get rid of social class, wanted to elide the question of religion, wanted to bring together people of different ethnicities, and create the new man or the new woman that socialist revolutions often sought to create throughout the 20th century. Specifically, however, I was interested in all these young people who, at the time of my research, were desperate to leave the country. I was 20 years old at the time, so my sympathies also lay with the young people who were leaving as we were in a similar stage in our lives. I was interested in their reasoning, which for many was a dissatisfaction in the movement that expected everyone to erase aspects of themselves for the cause. You can’t force people to erase every aspect of their identities on a long-term basis, you know? 

I knew I also wanted to do a PhD but I waited quite a bit. Then the tragedy at Lampedusa happened in 2013, and I remember reading a New York Times article that said “Boat capsizes off the coast of Italy” and that African nationals died. When I read the names of those survivors I found that nearly every single one of them was Eritrean. I wanted to understand more about the people who left their homes and their motivations and I thought to myself, this would be an interesting project to do. I felt that I was well equipped to do so because of the research I had done before, and because I also speak Tigrinya.

Madeleine Butler: Thank you so much for sharing that. In your article titled ‘A Nowhere Space‘ (Africa is a Country) I was really interested in how you observed the pandemic and how it led to certain justifications of hostile securitisation, like lockdowns and border closures. How do you think the crisis has specifically affected refugees and migrants? Would you say it is comparable to “the deployment of natural barriers as forms of border violence”, which you mentioned in your review of the collection Migration by Boat: Discourses of Trauma, Exclusion and Survival (Berghahn Books, 2016), ‘Seeking Refuge in an Era of Naturalised Borders’? And how do you think it has affected popular attitudes to refugees?

Fiori Berhane: Those are all excellent questions and they all lead to one another. One point that I’ve made is that, traditional thinking about pandemics sees them as arising in Global South nations and that they could then assault ‘our way of life’, and that the response to these incursions is through biomedical security apparatuses. The interesting part about this pandemic is that it largely arose in the Global North, if we can consider China – in terms of its role as the manufacturing and logistics hub of the world – as part of the Global North. Part of the point I was making in that article, ‘A Nowhere Space’, is that leisure travel is still completely allowed, and encouraged in fact; whereas migrants and refugees, who face greater risks from living in concentrated populations such as detention centres and overcrowded situations, are the ones who are actually vulnerable to the virus and whose care is consequential to the future shape the pandemic will take.

I think it is also significant to note that by declaring a state of emergency, governments can take extraordinary measures without any need for justification or other forms of scrutiny or accountability. What I saw immediately in Italy was that as soon as the pandemic hit there was a concerted effort to say that “this is a state of emergency, Italy cannot secure safe borders because if people come, they themselves will be infected with COVID”. We’ve also seen in the United States a health law called ‘Title 42’. What this allows is that during a health emergency like this, the government can turn away any refugees coming to its borders. It was started under the Trump administration, and has continued under the Biden one. This enforces the logic of border externalisation. Now, under these procedures, refugees are being returned either to Mexico or to their countries of origin without having had an asylum hearing. Mind you, people can still travel for leisure in and out of the United States. It is an obvious and cruel double standard. Even the Centre for Disease Control in the US has said that Title 42 doesn’t do anything to stop the spread of the pandemic.

When I talk about the space of the sea being a ‘nowhere space’, I am talking about how space is constructed under the purview of maritime law. The “law of the sea” stipulates that you must rescue people in distress. An amendment made to the law in 1982 specified that regardless of nationality, you must rescue those in distress. What we’re seeing is that Global North nations are externalising that responsibility to the Libyan Coastguard, which they know is embroiled in human trafficking and extortion, or they’re just ignoring these calls altogether, as stated in the testimonies of many refugees. These are kinds of mechanisms used to evade accountability and responsibility.

In regard to the second part of your question, what I had seen in Italy even before the pandemic was that refugees were being quarantined at sea because the government argued that they posed a health risk. People like far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini said that the clothes of refugees would give you HIV/AIDS. There is a way in which contagion and disease are deeply racialised, the idea that refugees pose a risk, that their bodies are in and of themselves ‘risky’ bodies and that they should be contained in the same way we talk about the containment of pathogens or vermin, which is obviously deeply racial.

Madeleine Butler: I’m sure you know that in the UK, as well as in Italy, there is a lot of racist and hostile immigration policy like NRPF? 

Fiori Berhane: I think so – is it ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’? 

Madeleine Butler: Exactly. It’s something that is stamped on your visa. I was thinking that governments must soon realise the unsustainability of these policies and how, when there’s something like a global crisis, policies such as NRPF should be seen as completely unsustainable and unimaginably unproductive. 

Fiori Berhane: Yes, even in regards to public health. When you put people in a jail and in detention centres when there is a highly contagious respiratory virus like COVID-19 around, that is a kind of death sentence for the inmates. So, definitely I’d agree that these policies are deeply defeatist and counterproductive. 

When I was leaving Italy, there were a number of jailbreaks. One thing that they have in Italy are days out for prisoners where they can go and see their family or just be in society for a short time. Due to coronavirus however, they stopped this. Many prisoners thought “we’re going to die in prison”, so they escaped. In Foggia, the jail of Rebibbia in Rome, some jailbreaks took place. I tried to explain this to some of my colleagues, that how we are treating prisoners sends a message that says that we are okay with this population dying, we accept this as collateral damage. I thought it would push for movements for decarceration – at least in the US where we have a large prison population – but that hasn’t happened. 

Madeleine Butler: I was interested – and you touched on this earlier – in the ‘resignification’ of the sea that you mention. You talk about the “repositioning of the sea as the central site of human mobility and migration” as well as it being a “sociopolitical space of absence”. I’m really interested in how the realities around migration might be affecting a change in what the sea means internationally. 

Fiori Berhane: Part of it is that there are so many technical transformations that have made it so that people have to take long, circuitous, and difficult journeys. This is also combined with the climate crisis as well. People have the right, when they enter any kind of maritime, land, or air border, to petition for asylum. The United States, the UK and most of the EU countries are signatories to the UN Conventions of the Rights of the Refugee. Regardless, many governments make this process very difficult for people without completely vacating the laws in place. One thing they do is impose immense sanctions to airline carriers if they allow people to take flights without a visa. Another way they do this is by making the visa regime incredibly difficult and structuring it around global racial lines. For example, it’s the hardest to get a visa if you’re an African national; you have to prove you have an enormous amount of income and resources.

Madeleine Butler: That is very insightful and equally saddening to hear. I’m going to hand it over to Ellie now.

Eleanor Walker: Thanks, Maddie. Dr Berhane, in your article ‘Arts Activism in the Mediterranean’ you talk about the “decolonial figure of the refugee” and how it would lead to “the end of the refugee”. Could you expand on this a bit more and on how ideas of migration are taken hand-in-hand with colonial histories, race, class, and gender?

Fiori Berhane: There is a certain part of that article that can be misconstrued about the ‘decolonial’. The figure of the refugee is a colonial creation but that doesn’t mean that refugees shouldn’t be protected or that people shouldn’t have the right to asylum. What it means is that the kinds of conditions that create refugeehood and what we consider a refugee to be make it a racialised and colonial category. What we’ve seen historically is that there are greater movements from the Global South and greater numbers of refugees from the Global South, but there are fewer protections for refugees because a large part of the imaginary of refugeehood comes from the Cold War. For example, an Eastern European intellectual dissident hates Communism so he comes to Paris or Washington DC and is welcomed with open arms. Refugee law has ignored women traditionally; it has ignored the role of sexual violence as a form of political violence – which can also be used against men, they can also be victims of sexual violence. It has ignored the impact on children; it has ignored LGBTQ rights; and it has ignored a number of dimensions of political persecution and how these go hand-in-hand with identitarian claims.

The piece ‘Arts Activism’ arose after one of my interlocutors asked me to read the poem ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire, and he said to me, “How do you know you’re not going to be a refugee yourself?” People get upset by that, saying, “Oh, that’s so racist, just because you’re black, they assume you’re a refugee”. But I’ve always responded to that with, “No, I don’t think that’s what he was assuming or the point he was making”. I think the point he was trying to make to me was that there are instabilities in political systems and we can’t just assume that everything will always be okay. That was the point that I was trying to make – much like what Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou have said in their book, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (2013), where they discuss the concept of dispossession so as to dislodge notions of possessive individualism and to say that life is dependent on networks of care for its actualisation: my point is that, yes, it is possible that we all experience dispossession, but not to the same degree. It is, of course, undergirded by race and class and gender. 

Eleanor Walker: Thank you. I noticed that your Twitter background is a photo of The Conscript, which we’ve studied for our module. We were wondering what your reaction to that novel was when you first read it, and what you think the key takeaways are regarding the postcolonial world?

Fiori Berhane: I have actually not finished it yet… I do need to read it. I think what’s interesting about it, though, is that we’re in a time where people want to return to this notion of decolonisation. What’s interesting about this book now is that the kind of discourse of decolonisation it touches on and that academic interests have never really focused on peripheral colonialisms; the discourse is focused on French and British colonialism, and thinkers like Nkrumah. You rarely read thinkers from Mozambique or other Lusophone countries, nor has there ever been a kind of critical examination of Italian colonialism. Academic scholars who look at Italian colonialism talk of ‘the long decolonisation’, and what they mean by that is that there were a number of Italians who remained in the colonies, and specifically in Libya, well into the 1970s, which was 30-40 years after the end of formal colonial rule. 

Eleanor Walker: Well, I think it’s a great book. It’s what I enjoyed reading the most on the module.

Madeleine Butler: On that note, we wanted to ask whether you had a favourite book recommendation for us. 

Fiori Berhane: The book I really loved lately has been 2666, a novel by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, that I actually think is for now, for these times. He wrote a book called Nazi Literatures of the Americas [a fictional compendium of biographies of right-wing writers from the Americas], and it’s funny. It’s supposed to be like the Third Reich never ended and there’s a whole bunch of fascist writers in the US and Latin America, and these are absurd figures.He wrote it as a kind of nod to Borges, but also as a joke, but it’s too true to life at this moment. There are too many of these crazy figures, people like Marjorie Taylor Greene in the US, who just make you think, “this is nuts!”. There’s this prescience in Bolaño’s writing that is surprising. But I think the interesting point is that buffoonish figures are dangerous. Berlusconi was a buffoon, that was his public image… Trump is Trump…an idiot!

Madeleine Butler: So is Boris Johnson.

Emily Bhanu: Yes, we’ve got our own buffoon!

Fiori Berhane: But that buffoonishness and that foolishness, I believe, is a cover that means these people can do a lot of damage socially. Always take a popular buffoon seriously, I think that’s a key takeaway from that.

Madeleine Butler: That’s brilliant advice.

Emily Bhanu: Dr Berhane, you have said that recent debates obscure the more significant fact that many Italians haven’t yet begun to come to terms with the racist legacy of their country. I wanted to ask you how true you think that is of Europe as a whole and of European colonial powers as a group?

Fiori Berhane: I think there is a crisis of collective memory across the West. You see it in the United States with calls to ban the teaching of critical race theory. There is a way in which, at this particular moment in time, there’s a deep historical revisionism at play. You see it with France and in the UK. There’s this mobilising of liminal subjects, like Priti Patel’s public discourse, even Kamala Harris going to Central America and telling refugees to not come to America. This is something scholars and journalists are calling ‘intersectional imperialism’. Both the attacks – the historical revisionism and the deployment of people who are ‘not quite white’ to say and enact deeply racist policies – are really about this kind of shoring up of national ‘innocence’.

Emily Bhanu: In light of the Montanelli case and the wider BLM movement you discuss in your article written with Dr Diego Maria Malara, when people were vandalising and defacing statues of colonial figures or historical racist figures – something that Priti Patel criticised – how do you think we can begin to hold such racist figures accountable?

Fiori Berhane: Sometimes there’s a way in which, by admitting to the past, we relegate it to the past only. This is also a form of historical evasion and erasure. What we need to say is that some of the structures of the past endure to the present and we need to trace what those are and dismantle them. I think part of the reason why people defaced those statues was not to say that “this is the past,” but to say that this is in fact deeply in the present, and that it has a long historical genealogy. What we really need to do is know it’s not just the past; there are political figures of the present who are deeply racist, who are enacting racist policies, and we need to dismantle these too, whilst still looking to the past as a kind of intellectual resource. 

Emily Bhanu: Thank you. Where are your studies and interests taking you in the future, do you think?

Fiori Berhane: I’ve really become interested in law and institutions. One thing particularly of interest to me now is the use of artificial intelligence in migration regimes, which is pretty scary. I’m looking at that kind of technical side of how it is that AI is growing this global security complex.

Emily Bhanu: That sounds frightening. 

Fiori Berhane: Life is a Black Mirror episode now.

Nadira Ibrahim

This, and the accompanying interviews in the new Conversations series on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa, come out of an undergraduate module taught by Dr Sara Marzagora, “Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali literatures in global intellectual history,” in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures of King’s College London in the 2021-2022 academic year. The conversations have been transcribed and first-edited by Nadira Ibrahim.

Read the first conversation in the Conversations series, with Professor Nadia Nurhussein, Professor in English and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, specialising in African American literature and culture. And watch this space for more in the series – coming soon…

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: