Notes from the field

Places of silence at the edge of comfort

Read Kari Anne Drangsland's reflections on how silence is telling of the normative structures that shape irregular migrants' experience of waiting.

Park in Hamburg
Kari Anne Drangsland has spent the fall following irregular immigrants in Hamburg who have got their lives put on hold.
Kari Anne Drangsland

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Some years ago, I read a text by the feminist geographer Gillian Rose, in which she tells about how she struggled with data from a research project amongst community workers in England. As she started analyzing the data, she experienced how silences were “thread through” the sentences and stories the community workers had shared with her. After struggling with the material for a long time, she finally realized how these silences were important sources of knowledge in her material.

I am thinking about Rose’s work now, as I am getting to the last weeks of my fieldwork amongst irregular migrants in Hamburg, which I conduct as part of the WAIT project. The past months I have made a new acquaintance with silence. However, while Rose draws attention to the silence of that which is left out of the narratives of her informants, I want to draw attention to another form of silence. That is, the silence that occurs when the flows of words and related gestures between people I encounter in the field and myself halt. When the conversation suddenly dissolves and we pause, just looking at each other or into the air.

More specifically, I want to draw attention to the silence occurring in situations when I encounter despair, where I am unable to find, or choose not to speak, words of comfort, words of encouragement and reassurance. To paraphrase Doreen Massey’s definition of place as “the throwntogetherness of histories”, I suddenly find myself placed in a throwntogetherness of silences. My own silence; the silence of my companion; and the silence in-between us. In these places of silence, I gaze and listen and feel. Then my companion or I might comment the rainy Hamburg day, or the awaited bus arrives, and the place dissolves. I will use this opportunity to open a thinking about what might be learned in such places of silence, by paying attention to my own silence when I cannot or choose not to speak words of comfort.

"Where should I go? ...I cannot sleep outside”

I am walking together with Lydia on a muddy path in a little forest just outside the city center of Hamburg. We are returning to the bus stop, in order to take the bus back to St. Pauli, the Hamburg neighborhood known for its football team and political (leftist) activism. About two hours ago, we were heading in the opposite direction, on our way to a free legal counseling for undocumented migrants. Lydia is a woman in her early thirties from Ghana. She has been traveling for years. One year ago, she arrived in Italy. Finding no housing and no work there, she decided to go to Hamburg where she has found temporary shelter in a mosque. We met last week in a health clinic, and she asked me to come with her today. She is sick and worries about her health. She wants to find out whether she can “get into a camp” in Germany, as she puts it, in order to get a place to stay, food and medical treatment.

After an hour of waiting, a lawyer and a secretary greet us politely. They ask questions, Lydia answers. Where does she comes from? Does she have papers in Italy? Does she know anyone in Italy or in Germany that might help her? After a little while, the lawyer says, “I have to be honest with you, there are little hope of you being able to stay in Germany,” making it clear that if she applies for asylum, German authorities will probably deport her to Italy. He tells her that he does not think there is anything they can do for her that will be worth the effort. We leave the office and start the five minutes’ walk back to the bus stop. I say something about the consultation, and Lydia replies, silently, but I sense her despair: “Where should I go? …I cannot sleep outside.” I strongly feel the need to find something, and say something that might give her a gleam of hope. In my mind, I am going over her situation, my knowledge of the legal system, the support systems. I reach out for the only solid thing that comes to my mind - the mosque - and ask, “Can you sleep in a mosque in Italy?” I immediately wish I had kept my mouth shut. What a stupid, humiliating, hopeless question!  “No” she replies silently. I can think of nothing to say, and just look at her. She looks ahead in silence; I do too.

“I believe I am slowly going crazy”

With the Integration Act from 2016, Germany issued a regulation opening for a temporary residency permit of five years duration for migrants who manage to start and successfully complete vocational training. In my conversations with the young Afghan men I meet in the camps in Hamburg, the regulation is a recurrent theme. As Afghans in general have little chance of getting residency in Germany, many see this regulation as their only opportunity to be able to stay in Germany. However, this is not the case for Naser. Naser is a man in his early twenties. He arrived in Germany two years ago. Like his friends at the camp, his application for asylum has been rejected by German authorities. However, contrary to most of his friends, he is not planning to start vocational training. He cannot wait five years to start earning money, he tells me. His family back home needs money, and he needs to work to support them. Nevertheless, every time we meet he returns to the theme of work versus vocational training, attesting to the strong imperative to start vocational training for young Afghans. Tellingly, when Naser wrote a letter about his dreams of working for his lessons in german, his teacher corrected him, rewriting his sentence to “I will start ausbildung” (training).

One sunny afternoon, Naser and I am going for one of our many walks in a park adjacent to the camp where he is living. He tells me that he misses his family and that he fears deportation. He is constantly thinking about the future, and about how he might “solve his problems” as he puts it. “Kari, I believe I am slowly going crazy,” he says, as if he is stating an objective fact. I sense his despair. “Do you have an advice for me?” I feel a strong desire to provide some sense of comfort, and to give some advice, however, I feel uncertain about what kind of comfort I might provide. Should I for example point to the possibility of doing vocational training at this point? “Yeah…I know,” I say, and we look each other in the eyes for some seconds before we continue walking in silence.

The edge of comfort

In a thoughtful text about painting, the philosopher Edward S. Casey writes about the importance of keeping “the edges of the work in mind.”  The edges, he writes, frame the work and functions as provisional structures “that makes something else possible”. Perhaps “keeping the edges in mind” might be helpful in trying to make sense of my fieldwork experiences of comfort and silence. Maybe, it makes sense to approach the spaces of silence as situated at the edges of comfort. What might an exploration of these edges and spaces bring?

One direction leads to questions of ethnographic methodology. My encounter with Lydia reveals how I, in the field, am searching for words with the power to bring some kind of comfort. In other words, paying attention to silence reveals a “desire to comfort” on my side, that should be scrutinized for what it might tell about how I situate myself in relation to those I meet. Further, it invites a more general engagement with the notion of comfort(ing), as well as issues of emotional labor, emotion management and advocacy in feminist ethnographic research.

Furthermore, the words of comfort I desire to give are not random – I am searching for words of a certain quality and kind, or else I could have said anything. Thus, it might be interesting to pay closer attention to the qualities of the comfort I desire to give. Whereas just being there, sharing the moment through glances and words of understanding are also acts of comfort, I guess that what I am searching for in these situations is something that allows me to say that it will get better. Moreover, it seems I strive to anchor this “it will get better” in the present conditions in such a way that my utterances appear reasonable and rational. As I cannot do this, I turn silent.

Given this desire to anchor comfort in the present circumstances, my (failed) search for words of comfort involves an active engagement with the conditions producing the precariousness I am encountering. Thus, perhaps the edges of spoken comfort are valuable starting points for the investigation of such conditions and of how they work different according to gender, class, and race. For example, the possibility of entering vocational training are of little comfort to Naser, given the normative and gendered expectations that he should support his family now. Relatedly, exploring the edges of comfort might reveal the lenses through which researchers make sense of structural and normative conditions.

Moreover, if comfort of this kind implies thinking about how “it might be better,” then the edges of spoken comfort might convey something about the production, distribution as well as the imagination of hope in this context. Relatedly, the notion of “it will get better” (than now) implies that comfort involves and establishes a temporal relation between present and future. As such, paying attention to the spaces of silence at the edges of spoken comfort might open for an engagement with conceptualizations of present, future and hope – temporal concepts at the core of the WAIT project.