Culture & Conversation

Call Me Ali

“Moby-Dick” begins with the line “Call me Ishmael.” According to the American Book Review’s rating in 2011, this is one of the most recognizable opening lines in Western literature.

“The name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts — in the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells the reader that he has turned to the sea out of a feeling of alienation from human society. In the last line of the book, Ishmael also refers to himself symbolically as an orphan, which maintains the Biblical connection and emphasizes the representation of outcasts.”*

I approached this short book from the back end, first. I will tell you why. I am invariably impatient. Yet another book about transitions, migrations, identities, exile torment, generational divides, paradise rediscovered and re-lost by migrant neurosis, about tossing the veil and discovering “modernity.” I bite my wrist in absolute distraction and draw blood.

However, tentatively looking at it from the back, I realized something otherwise was evident.  Abou Farman’s source material (consulted texts as he refers to them) is intrinsically serious, scientific, elegiac and thoughtful, as only a philosopher-scientist is prone to. His readings, on photography, passports and paradise, his mindscape – his penchant for Blaise Pascal (and the treatment of void and inertness-the primal definition of vacuum-for which Pascal’s name became un-erasable), or migration statistics from the UNHCR (Canada- this sparsely populated land, lets in 19,000 refugees in 2011 and kicks out 13,000), his curiosities about Utopia and Paradise, Surveillance and Biometrics, his knowledge and research into the first footsteps by hominids (the frightened looking back, and then the determined “moving on” towards the horizon), was by itself poetic, political and potent, and I was drawn in.

Farman has drawn blood. There was blood on the tracks of human movement throughout history. On the soil, on rocks, along deserted stretches and mountain passes and along highways in the night – this is what convinced me that it was worth reading correctly from the front.

Clerks of Passage is a collection of episodes from real encounters, deliberately fictionalized, that enable Farman to allegorize with enormous sangfroid–begining from prehistoric times – on the concepts of borders, crossings, lines in the sand, of images and footprints saved and fossilized, of deceptions, of being in in-between states in transit lounges – right up to the birth of the phobic Homeland Security. More importantly, Farman deliberates on the politics and grammar of escape. Escape by a tangential life-force, the curse of circular movement throughout life.

Movement has been re-defined in Farman’s point of perspective. Be it from point A to Point B physically, or from the point of recollection as movement from one era to another. Or, the capturing of still images and the exposure chemistry associated with it, or the painting of the incident as memory and relooking at it, perhaps centuries later.

Abou Farman follows the legendary and ubiquitous refugee, Ali—the Ali of a thousand fleeting moments of nervous “third world border paranoia before reaching Passport Control. Now he is the Ali of last minute amnesia for the famously tutored uttering “I am refugee,” the Ali who rips up passports and sticks his finger into the toilet to flush down the last vestiges of a plasticized fake identity, the Ali who smiles as he is let out finally into the normality of life as a taxi driver in Montreal, Canada. And the Ali who is caught and deported as an “illegal” after living for decades, sometimes, in his place of refuge.

And in the in-between chapters, Farman decants exquisitely and intelligently on the larger metaphors that encompass the anthropology of walking away as you evolve as a species. The very notions of moving on, of being in transit, of “freezing” time, of carrying with you locked-in images and seeking that illusory, deceptive state of mindlessness called Paradise. Paradise is the horizon ahead (“right there after the next hill”) where tranquil success is feasible. It is what the refugee, the peasant, the displaced aboriginal, the evicted slum-dweller (in this current neo-liberal context), the escapee from religious nut-job states, seeks as his/her way out of the “current” state. The quest for “eternal justice,” in the future state.

Paradise on earth is what the migrant seeks. Curiously, last week I was informed by a filmmaker from New York, who has developed a technique for crowd-sourced movie making (she has been interviewing passengers in taxi-cabs all over the world-New York, Montreal, Mumbai, Beirut). In Montreal she ran into an Ali, a cab driver, of Iranian descent, who had unqualified praise for America. A disappointment for her, it was nevertheless a vindication of that never ending misplaced search for a place that is “beyond dreams–America is where there are no ayatollahs and religious policemen.” Really?

In the chapter “Border Guards of Paradise,” Farman is able to excellently expatiate the non-affinity for history in America. America is where you must first erase in order to construct New Jerusalem, to conceive of Zion right there in Missouri over “mounds.” America is where Paradise is not a triumph of justice over evil, but a segregated construction, where the past must be declared as “mounds” not worthy of preserving. That is why the historic ruins of Cahokia in Missouri may soon be bulldozed, making way for highways of the future. “American researchers have come to call these structures ‘mounds,’ as though some natural accumulation of mud and grass could be adequate description. When white settlers first saw these structures they dismissed them as just that. Mostly they were ignored and then destroyed.” But is this not what settlers always do? Is it not what conquerors always do? Is it not, as Farman correctly surmises, the “giddiness of succeeding in a revolution” that make Americans feel that they are “chosen people” – and so the historic past becomes irrelevant? It is Herman Melville who says, “And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”

In another unique chapter, Farman covers two more “Alis”— the wily Ali of Montreal, who despite being deported manages to convince the pilot of his plane to release him to a transit hall in Frankfurt until he manages to retrieve an older fake passport from an ex-girlfriend. He then settles in Istanbul before finally landing in Canada and working double shifts as a taxi driver in Montreal. Such are the stories of identity-less Iranian desperadoes, including “Prince Alfred or Sir Alfred,” the other “Ali” who manages to live in transit for no less than seventeen years in CDG Airport Paris, denying his identity, making the transit lounge as his state of limbo, his self-defined liminal state. That threshold of inbetween that Farman describes with extraordinary accuracy: “He was choosing limbo over certainty…. an odd purgatory…. Neither hell, nor heaven, neither east nor west….And so they passed the only verdict possible: they said he was crazy.”

There are symbolisms and interpretations in all the signs, markings, the definitions of state and provincial boundaries (infantile straight lines in North America that erase the past and declare all land as “free” to divide up, with no “before”); the photographs, the films, the road signs we see as we travel, the affliction of erasure that we have gotten used to. Spreading out from Winnipeg, Manitoba ends up as a perfectly square postage stamp. No one lived or breathed there before, apparently. Whether of European or American origins, the films of Antonioni, Aldrich, the Coen Brothers or Lynch reflect the perspective of either the road ahead (American) or the road past (European). Of erasing or remembering. Farman analyses films, texts, manuscripts, paintings and the classics with significant perspicuity, along these lines, in these in-between chapters to document the passage of Ali.

As an aside, let it be said that migrants have apologized for too long for their presence outside their areas of confinement and they have pretended too long about their “real” intent in migrating. Let it be known that they move in any which way they can and the circumstances dictate that they lie, sham, fake, feign and occasionally triumph “legally” over extreme adversity. It is a historical march that goes beyond escapades. It is a human evolutionary and political movement, the latter referred to in certain circles as the outcome of the creation of “the reserve army of labour.” When they are displaced, they have feet to travel wherever it takes them. When they have wings they will hover over us, as the cover illustrates. There are 70,000,000 Alis circling the globe every day, with a tabula rasa in their hands. Ready to start out anew with a fresh slate.

Kudos to Linda Leith Publishing, a new Montreal based publishing concept that envisages such thoughtful essay-like works of articulation that straddle fiction and political essentiality in these disturbing times.

*Sourced from

Rana Bose is a Montreal Author, Engineer and Editor of the webzine Montreal Serai,

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