Are you [Checkpoint] Charlie?


[Thinking/Work in Progress]

The history of Fortress Europe; A checkpoint.

The checkpoint functions not only to control the flow of migrants, illicit goods, and insurgents/terrorists, but also to divide continuous lands and to reproduce politically and legally encoded distinctions between “us” and “them”. Thus performing sovereignty, the checkpoint appears to be symptomatic of fears of catastrophe, whether economic, political, or social, in various national and global context. [Karim Mattar and David Fieni, “The Global Checkpoint: ‘Rights’ of Passage, Performances of Sovereignty”]

Checkpoint Charlie By Nancy Wong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

On this basis, no wonder Israel considers itself part of Europe; it shares with it the fascination with a mobile checkpoint that at once constitutes its borders and gives the (false) appearance that whatever is inside this border is free to roam, homogeneous:

The discontinuous lines of fences, ditches, concrete walls and high-tech sensors–referred to by the Israeli government as the “seam-line obstacle,” by the general Israeli public as the “separation fence,” and by those Israelis and Palestinians opposing it as the Wall or sometimes as the “Apartheid Wall”–are only the most visible mediatized barriers built in a frenzy of fortification construction that has pockmarked the entire West Bank since the beginning of the Oslo Process in 1993, with the aim of separating Palestinians from Israelis at every opportunity.

When one checkpoint is removed, another checkpoint is being fortified as a strategy of expanding the homogeneous territory of the state. The endless plight of refugees trying to get beyond the checkpoints, most of the times not even reaching it, is a continuation of the statist logic of zoning, bordering, and enforcing embargoes; a logic whose limits are easily strained and shown to be meek and weak by Khaled Jarrar:

In 2007 and 2009, Khaled Jarrar, an artist from Jenin, installed At The Checkpoint, a project consisting of photographs ofeveryday life in Palestine arrayed on the fences of the Huwarra and Qalandia checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. Making explicit references to “Checkpoint Charlie”, Jarrar drew a contrast between checkpoints that have become defunct or repurposed as tourist sites and those, like the ones in occupied terrotires and border-zones, that remains actively militarized, surveillant tunrstiles of human triage.

The rituals of being checked at the border; of not having permission to cross the line; and of risking subjection to interrogation, harassment, and incarceration were taken up in a subsequent work called Live and Work in Palestine… Using the logo of the Palestinian sunbird, Jarrar fashioned a “State of Palestine” passport seal (in English, Arabic and Hebrew). He proceeded to invite people at the Ramallah Central Bus Station to have their passports stamped… The project’s riskiness was enhanced in September 2011 in the weeks leading up to the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations when a number of travelers who opted for the stamp (among them ten Israeli citizens) were detained at Israel’s airports. [Emily Apter Against World Literature]

Sovereignty is immanently and momentarily blighted: if the checkpoint had enforced the border of a state, then a stateless checkpoint undermines this authority to write the law and draw the line.

Žižek with a “State of Palestine” stamp.

The Refugee

In 1943, Hannah Ardent writes an essay called “We Refugees” “in order to propose this condition as the paradigm of a new historical consciousness” (Agamben “We Refugees” 114). The refugee arises as the (a)political person that undermines the very treatises and legal-political categories that the world of nations is built upon, the rights of man: “the refugee is the sole category in which it is possible today to perceive the forms and limits of a political community to come… to reconstruct our political philosophy beginning with this unique figure” (Agamben 114). The refugee then “throws into crisis the original fiction of sovereignty” (Agamben “We Refugees” 117). The refugee lurks in a liminal position, between object and subject—the refugee is the abject whose existence is a threat to the foundations of the nation-state. Exactly for this reason, however, the refugee is the only person who can hold the banner of political hope, of a democracy-to-come. As a Syrian refugee by the name of Sami Hallisso says,

We can’t wait till the war is over; we have to start from now to build a society that lives in dignity and independence. There’s an opportunity for something to be that is not the regime and not Daesh,” says Hallisso, using the Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). “We don’t see ourselves as only an emergency response. We will return. (Malek)

The refugee emerges from the liminal space as the figure to which recent Arab tragedy points towards, the political figure for alternative political realities, puncturing and undermining standing understandings of sovereignty. The refugee does not wait, but lives, and in doing so, lives differently.

And for all that, to be “Charlie”, even fleetingly, is to give credence to a paranoid criminal sovereignty…


A Dance of Names


Youssef woke up frightened. Sporadic explosions echoed far off, and momentarily, red-blazed bullets shot off into the sky, sometimes rapidly, other times, as singles. He looked at his watch and saw its glass broken, the minute hand ticking in place, fidgeting as if frightened to continue its around-the-hour revolution.

“What’s wrong Zoos?” his friend Naji, who was watching the road that lay clad in the rubble of war, asked him, startled by his friend’s sudden movement.

“Mashi,” Youssef shrugged it off. “For how long have the bombs been going off?”

“Ever since you fell asleep. Weird how you just woke up, one of them must have been closer. Failed to notice that though.”

“I didn’t wake up from a bomb explosion. Just a nightmare. I was reading a book, and then someone had told me that I’d stop at a certain sentence. I saw the words in front of me so clearly, and I reached that sentence, and I couldn’t go on anymore no matter how much I tried.”

“What was the sentence?”

“I read, ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy’, and then the sentence was, ‘By a name I know not how to tell thee who I am.’ Romeo and Juliette.”

Naji’s laughter invited Youssef’s own. A cacophony of laughter, bombs and inaudible death cries merged in the night as bullets decorated the sky like satellites symbolizing progress and the conquering of an ever-widening space. But the bullets travelled down again like postcards from space, crumbling the progress of latitude with an Icarian meltdown.

“Sleep, you need the energy for tomorrow.”

The black sun rose from behind Mount Lebanon, drenching the populace with a virulent passion to waste itself: a passion for mutual annihilation. The cats, dogs and vermin hid beneath scattered broken rocks, destroyed cars and in the sewage system which had flooded on the streets.

“Yalla, wake up, yalla,” Naji pushed and shoved Youssef, “You should move. There’s no time.”

Youssef woke up again with a headache. The sun’s rays tore through his eye lids, into his crania and hit his frontal lobe with searing energy.

“Is everything ready?” Youssef sighed.

“Yes. Of course. Here you go,” Naji gave Youssef car keys and a package. “Stay off the main roads, but you’ll have to pass through two checkpoints.” He gave him two IDs, one with the name Joseph Harb on it, and the other with the name Youssef Harb. “Don’t worry, though. Everything should be fine.”

“Yeah I’ll try not to worry. Any news from the other side?” His teeth felt rough and raw.

“None. Which is why you need to go and come back quickly.”

Youssef wore a brown shirt, tainted by the diesel oil fuel stains of two days earlier.

“May God be with you,” Naji said.

Youssef looked cynically at his friend as he entered the worn out yellow Beatle, “which God would that be?” The engine started and he rode with Lady Luck. Naji saw him drive off, taking a right turn and escaping his view.

The engine rotated in a frenzy rumbling. Youssef drove cautiously and wearily. His hands gripped the steering wheel tightly; his right foot trembled as it stepped on the gas and brakes pedals. He passed by bullet-riddled buildings knowing that in them and beneath them, people were hiding, smothered by the ruins of the city as orphans mothered by strangers’ hands, promising imminent respite, but in front of him loomed the first checkpoint. Men in civilian clothing stood by the road; Kalashnikovs strapped like instruments, bullet-belts ornamented their waist. He slowed down, and easily stopped, facing a gunman outside the window on his left, two on his right, and another in front of him.

“ID”, the gunman on his left voiced his illocution.

Youssef reached to one of the IDs to his right, beneath the handbrake and gave it to him. The metal of the Kalashnikov clanked against the bullet-belt. The gunman scanned the ID, intermittently looking back at Youssef. The gunmen to his right raked the inside of the Beatle with their eyes.

“What are you going there to do?” One of the gunmen to his right asked.

“I’m visiting the family. There’s a birthday.”

He was given the ID back and the gunman in front of him moved out of the way.

He stepped on the gas and continued as if the name he revealed had cast him into exile, but even worse, his name lasted for a duration, a duration of great anxiety, making the name cling to his being until the next checkpoint. Beyond borders, people die without names, but they also die because of their name, because they cannot separate themselves from their name. The war was in part a war of names, and not of people themselves. It was a war of a symbolic order, dictating laws of what should be and what cannot be.

He saw the next checkpoint and changed the ID beneath the handbrake. The same arrangement of gunmen stood in front of him, dressed slightly differently.

Inside borders, names were learned by heart and written in blood. Names were a constant separation from the others as well as from selves.

He eased down again at the border, the gunmen on his left saw his face and cringed.

“Get out,” he ordered. His voice was stern.

Two gunmen opened the side door of the yellow Beatle and started rummaging through it. Their hands went beneath and through seats. They opened the trunk, grabbed everything they could grip and threw it on the soiled ground, examining what lay on the ground as they laughed like drunken madmen.

“Where are you going?” one of the gunmen asked Youssef.

Youssef became flustered, and with a shivering voiced uttered “birthday.”

“Your ID. Give it to me.” The gunman ordered his left hang gripping his Kalashnikov, a finger on the trigger.

“Beneath the handbrake,” Youssef’s eyes remained static on the ground.

“Why are you looking on the ground? Do you like the ground? Do you want to kiss the ground? Yalla, kiss it. Do it.” The gunman pressed Youssef’s head with the sole of his boot.

It wasn’t long before the two gunmen searching the Beatle found the package, a white box.

“What’s this? Are you trying to kill us? Kill our brothers you scum?” shouted one of them.

“No no, it’s a birthday cake.” Youssef pleaded.

“Get on the ground.” They shouted together, gathering around him.

Youssef’s body went down where his eyes were gazing. He felt bodies search him, hands entering his pockets, fingers pressing on his skin. A hand grasped his wallet, after which his body was left on the ground, as if already a corpse.

“What’s this?” A gunman found his other ID. “Joseph. Youssef. Which one is it?” He looked at each of the IDs with a cringe. A kick caused Youssef to groan in pain.

Youssef knew it was too late. He was now displaced and no amount of words could save him. His existence was wavering between two names, discrediting him from any truth. Credence was lost.

The dance of names was an inevitable rendezvous with death. The two IDs were thrown on the ground like a palimpsest from a stolen library, perhaps surviving, perhaps forever lost; but nonetheless, with one name, one script too many. Youssef’s body was dragged towards the unknown from where snails emerge with cryptic and enigmatic shells, sliding on the dew of rain as moving mausoleums of bodies hidden and beings undone.