Since the peak of the European refugee crisis in 2015, public debates on borders, bodies, and rights have raised charged questions about whether and how to "let in" migrants seeking asylum. From fences constructed along the Austrian-Hungarian border to providing some measure of humanitarian relief for boat crises in the Mediterranean, land and water have become contested sites for expulsion. The question of who belongs – who may enter, who may be deported, and who may remain – in continental Europe is entangled with what Fatima El Tayeb articulates as “the desire to create unambiguous European spaces” (2011: 4). Here, I consider how expulsionary discourses and practices affect the lived experience of migrants, specifically displaced Syrians, approximately five million of whom have fled their country of origin after seven years of war. Their experiences of precarity and displacement epitomize the concept of “livability,” or the ability to sustain a livable life under conditions of precarity that Judith Butler, in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable (2009), argues is endemic to contemporary political life.
My audiography considers how Syrian migrants “get orientated” (Ahmed 2006) to the spatial and sensory dimensions of precarity by attuning to the auditory dynamics of displacement. As Sara Ahmed argues in Queer Phenomenology, “the world acquires new shapes, depending on which way we turn… Orientations shape not only how we inhabit space but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our attention towards” (2006: 1). Auditory experiences are crucial to how we move through space, particularly when navigating unfamiliar worlds. This work aims to make audible the sono-spatial experiences of Syrian migrants as they “orientate” themselves in conditions of displacement. I juxtapose field recordings and musical samples to suggest how people "inhabit" and "apprehend" spaces of encounter during their journeys, in other words, how they navigate spaces in which they are paradoxically “out-of-place” and hypervisible.
Crucial to navigating the Syrian experience of precarity is technology, specifically the mobile phone in the age of networked culture. Videos of protests and rallies taken on mobile phones and uploaded to social media platforms served to spur anti- and pro-regime movements; other videos documented violence, destruction, and warfare. Among those who have left the country, a smartphone is considered a staple cost for a life worth living. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) notes that about one-third of income is spent on connectivity in migrant camps, and 86% of Syrian youth in refugee camps have access to mobile phones. Mobile phones structure daily life, shaping decisions about when and how far to walk to charge one’s device, find free WiFi, and find a SIM card. Whether sending a selfie to friends and family through WhatsApp or Viber, or researching borders and planning logistics for migratory routes, mobile technology “offers a small level of control during a time of great uncertainty” (Wired, 2015). Devices also serve as an access point for resources, such as calls to the coast guard during emergencies, or calls from the UNHCR and other bureaucratic agencies that inform migrants about the status of their cases. Conversely, devices are a site of governance, such as when French authorities stopped providing Wifi in order to discourage migrants from staying in a camp near the French city of Dunkirk. Finally, smartphone apps have become essential for finding solutions for those in transit. Apps such as “Gherbtna” (“exile” or “loneliness” in Arabic), launched in Turkey by Syrian refugee Mojahed Akil, provide mobile-friendly resources for processes of resettlement, such as obtaining residency or opening a bank account. “Trace the Face” from the Red Cross lets people upload photos to locate missing family members, while the German site “Refugees Welcome” helps match refugees with people offering a place to stay. From staying connected to family and friends to accessing resources, mobile phones help Syrian migrants structure and manage the precarious conditions of displacement.
My methodology for this work centers on the mobile phone through two complementary approaches – as audio recording device and as that which mediates listening practices. I generally worked with source material recorded with a mobile phone, either by myself or others. These materials include lofi recordings by others, presumably taken with a mobile phone, and field recordings taken by myself using either my Iphone 5s or Zoom H5 audio recorder. I located recordings not my own through participatory web platforms, especially YouTube. By deliberately sourcing material from YouTube, I aim to recognize the role that networked culture has played in generating the Syrian conflict. Considering the multiplicity of sources and blurring of authorship that occurred in the process of creating this audiography, it is important to note that this work is intended not as a documentary but rather as a critical interpretation that stems from my ethnographic engagement with Syria since 2004.
My approach to representing listening practices also involves the integration of musical media. Given how listening to popular music helps displaced Syrians situate themselves while living in precarious spaces, music tends to be more frequently accessed via mobile phones than other playback technology. In the final movement of the work, I represent experiences of listening by playing the popular song by Ndal Karam, “Safarna ala Europa” (Our Journey to Europe), from the perspective of someone listening via mobile phone while walking through a trafficked space. Whereas most of this audiography constructs a listening subject through soundscapes of exterior spaces and events, here, the sounds emitted by the mobile phone itself construct the listening subject.
The audiography is composed of three continuous movements, each in two parts: Revolution (Syria), Migration (transport hubs and routes), and Resettlement (Chicago). Together, these movements juxtapose field recordings with mobile media to represent protests in Syria and Chicago, public spaces crossed by migrants in their search for livability, and popular Syrian music. At once audio documentary and sound composition, my work makes audible the spatialized and embodied sensibilities of Syrian displacement in a work that critiques the resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiment and politics in the West.
Headphones are highly recommended for optimal listening experience.
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Butler, Judith. 2009. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London, UK: Verso.
Boswall, Karen, and Ruba Al Akash, Ruba. 2017. “Listening, resistance and mobile phone playlists: musical listening practices of Syrian women living as refugees in Northern Jordan.” Social Dynamics 43(2): 167-183.
El Tayeb, Fatima. 2011. European Others: Queer Identity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Asala Nasri, "If only the chair could speak"
----, "Ya Mal esh-Sham"
The Abuds, "Samra Ya Samra"
Ndal Karam, "Safrna Ala Europa"
Field Recordings / YouTube uploads
"Al Hamidiya Souq Damascus City" [unknown device, likely mobile phone]
Takis Travel, "Al Hamidiyah Souq Damascus" [unknown device, likely mobile phone]
PencilPusherManila, "Walk through Souk al-Hamidiya Damascus Syria" [unknown device, likely mobile phone]
obedakailani, "04.02.12_Protest syrian embassy_Get out asad" (London)
Author, "Iftar on Mt Qasiyoun" (Damascus, Syria) [Panasonic camcorder]
Author, "Skokie Courthouse and surrounds" (Skokie, IL) June 2, 2017 [Zoom H5 audio recorder]
Author, "O'Hare Terminal Protests" (Chicago, IL) January 28, 2017 [Iphone 5s]
Author, "Immigration Rally for Resistance, Unity and Respect hosted by Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR)" (Chicago, IL) January 14, 2017 [Zoom H5 audio recorder]
Picture to Sound, "iPhone typing on keyboard"
Favorite Chicago Sounds, "This is 'Grand'", "O'Hare Terminal", and "Cars Over Bridge"
Audiocheck.net, "brown noise"
Mike Koenig, "Crisp Ocean Waves"
Shayna Silverstein is an assistant professor in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her research examines the politics and aesthetics of sound and movement in the contemporary Middle East, focusing on the Syrian dance music, dabke. Her recent and upcoming publications about sound include a chapter in Remapping Sound Studies (Duke UP) and an essay in Music & Politics. Her current book project, entitled A Fraught Balance: Performance, Politics, and Belonging in Syrian Dance Music, analyzes body, performance, and culture in prewar and wartime Syria.