[Pluto Press; 2022]

What does it mean to see like someone, especially when that someone is the oft-maligned figure of the smuggler? The collection of essays Seeing Like a Smuggler: Borders from Below, edited by Mahmoud Keshavarz and Shahram Khosravi, is animated by this question. Stitching together the many essays is also an allied concern: What does such a seeing do to many of our inherited understandings of the world as one regimented by nation-states and borders? For the editors and contributors of this volume, seeing like a smuggler or the “borders from below” approach which they have adopted, may in fact unsettle such an understanding. For readers of this volume, such an unsettling may reveal the possibility of seeing not only smugglers, but also borders, differently and critically. Although this collection takes the reader on a journey that traverses many places and crosses many borders, much like the central figure of the smuggler, the essays remain grounded in their own unique historical, political, and social contexts ranging from borders located in Asia to Africa to South America. Such contextual grounding, accompanied by the ethnographic sensitivity explicit in the various vignettes, makes for an intimate, and often moving reading experience.

Imaginaries of smuggling and smugglers are often saturated with stereotypes. Bolstered by popular representations, these stereotypes often situate the smugglers at extreme ends, either as heroic saviors or predatory villains. However, making my way through the essays, I was first struck by the ordinariness and everydayness of both the figure of the smuggler, and the activities that are bundled under the term “smuggling.” In their introduction, Keshavarz and Khosravi refuse to follow the state’s legal definition of smuggling but instead define it expansively as “heterogenous, complex, messy, decentralized, ad hoc.” “Messy” and “complex” are particularly evocative, as moving through and with the different essays, the enterprise of smuggling resists neatness, even in its naming. Different local names for smuggling betraying different understandings of these roles are highlighted—be it sokhtbari, fuel carrying at the Pakistan-Iran border, or kolbari, to carry goods on one’s backs and shoulders at the Iran-Turkey border. In Tekalign Ayalew Mengiste’s essay at the Ethiopia-Saudi Arabia border, a complex system of naming comes to encompass the many roles and activities associated with the transport or “smuggling” of migrants. Different specialized roles are given their specific names such as the lekami (picker), wana delala (main broker), agachoch (interceptors), and many more. Similarly, signs, symbols, and local vocabulary are used as codes to communicate by those smuggling at the India-Bangladesh border in Debdatta Chowdhury’s essay.

This refusal of neatness in naming is also accompanied by a refusal to offer a clear, albeit romanticized reading of smuggling as revolutionary. The editors and authors maintain that not all instances of smuggling are subversive, and the transgressions of smuggling often reproduce state effects of bordering, extraction, and violence. In Rebecca B. Galemba’s essay, “Smugglers and the State Effect at the Mexico-Guatemala Border,” such a reproduction is visible in the altered border line represented by the cadenas which are materially enforced by chains at the Mexico-Guatemala border. Her attention to racialization of border communities alongside Indigenous erasures shows how potentially subversive acts can also reproduce epistemic violence. Mengiste’s essay at the Ethiopian-Saudi Arabia border and Ataei’s at the Iran-Afghanistan border both deal with human smuggling and do not shy away from addressing the physical violence and bodily indignities suffered by the smuggled. At the same time, essays by Nichola Khan and Amin Parsa, focusing on gold smuggling in Asia and kolbari at the Iran-Turkey border respectively, make explicit how such violence is primarily enacted by state authorities, usually on the racialized and gendered bodies of the smugglers and smuggled themselves. What one encounters thus is a picture of the complex lived realities of those located at, or crossing, state borders. Unlike the stereotypes and popular representations that offer us endings with comfortable resolutions, this book’s open-ended understanding calls the reader to sit with the discomfort of these narratives of/at the border.

Many of the people we encounter in the pages of this book do not identify as smugglers but as workers of various kinds. The book’s attention to the perspectives of those smuggling also helps foregrounds dissonances between questions of labor and legality/illegality frameworks offered by nation-states. In Galemba’s essay, the rural residents of the Mexico-Guatemala border are often employed in various activities with the smuggling of ordinary goods—ranging from coffee to canned goods—is viewed as a byproduct of being border inhabitants. Mexican state abandonment and exclusion from formal trade has led these residents to view their activities as an “ethical livelihood strategy and legitimate business.” Similarly, in Kennedy Chikerema’s piece traversing the Zimbabwe-South African border, the so-called smugglers identify primarily as traders. These dissonances are made painfully evident in observations found in Amin Parsa’s essay on kolbari at the Iran-Turkey border. Political and economic marginalization of the Kurdish population at the Iranian border has made kolbari an alternate form of employment. Such an employment is taken up by many, even as the kolbars, often carrying on an average 50-100 kilograms on their backs, navigate difficult terrain which is made more dangerous by border guards that shoot to maim or kill. Incidentally and ironically, the determination of both payment and punishment for the kolbars is determined by the weight and value of the goods which can range from being common goods for everyday use and consumption to those prohibited in Iran such as alcoholic beverages, satellite dishes/receivers, etc. Parsa’s essay deftly weaves questions of illegality of these labor practices and shows how they are made and unmade at different scales of geopolitical relations. Due to decades of US-imposed sanctions, the Iranian state relies on keeping alive these informal labor networks. At the same time, the state asserts its authority on the bodies of the kolbars by punishment, injury, and even death. In a similar vein, Chowdhury’s essay on smuggling at the India-Bangladesh border also highlights the impacts of changing geopolitical relationships that make historical trade routes and connections illegal. Both Parsa and Chowdhury’s essays trace how states benefit and are often dependent on the continued informality and illegality of these endeavors. State border authorities and officials are often not outside but within these relations. This focus on the labor involved in sustaining these activities, and the recognition of them as “work” to sustain the livelihoods and needs of people, aims to question the authoritative narratives that determine the legality of some bodies but illegality of others.

One of the most impressive aspects of the collection is how it navigates questions of ethics, both of smuggling and in the writing of such a text. By tracing smuggling as a survival strategy for individuals and communities, the essays do bring forth questions of thinking through smuggling as an ethical endeavor. However, the collection’s refusal to romanticize smuggling also highlights the “partiality of any ethical framework” and its context dependence. Any evaluation of an ethical practice is embedded within the particularities of the practice. And as for their own practice in the writing of this book, the title of which foregrounds seeing, the editors stress on smugglers’ right to opacity, or “not everything should be seen, explained, understood and documented.” The idea of opacity as a fundamental right resurfaces in Simon Harvey’s contribution that stresses on the partial visibilities of smuggling. Harvey proposes the idea of smuggler subjectivity as a potential takeaway for those reading the book. They write, “participation without belonging produces a smuggler subjectivity.” In reflecting on the book, I am often sitting with this idea. What does it mean to participate without belonging, or to enact a smuggler subjectivity in the spaces we belong to or negotiate with? At the heart of this collection of essays is a striving to show how people navigate living, sometimes ethically, sometimes not, in the world that has come to be defined by particular kinds of boundaries and acts of labor. In ways similar or different, such a striving remains central to most lives and we, as readers, may endeavor to learn from smugglers.

Damini Pant is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego and is working towards a PhD in Anthropology and Critical Gender Studies.

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