Author Abou Farman
Photo: Leonor Caraballo
“Witty, satirical, informative and profound. Farman is a contemporary voice with a deep understanding of various histories and what connects them.”
− Rawi Hage, author of De Niro’s Game
"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.... Farman decants exquisitely and intelligently on the larger metaphors that encompass the anthropology of walking away as you evolve as a species. Paradise is the horizon ahead (“right there after the next hill”) where tranquil success is feasible.... Paradise on earth is what the migrant seeks." -- Rana Bose, The Rover.
An international literary debut
Cover and interior illustrations by the author
Migration stories, says Abou Farman, are often told through the personal struggles and travails of the migrant, ‘the great voyager figure of our most recent centuries, the harbinger of hybridity, the metaphor for risk, sacrifice, toil, abuse, inhumanity. And humanity.’
These are the stories (both horrific and redemptive) that we hear about in the news, in taxis and airports, in bars and corner coffee shops. They are both real and existential, shared, denied, argued about, internalized. Seldom are the threads of such narratives woven together and imbued with the originality of insight brought to the page by Farman.
In some cases, money changes hands, fake ID cards are printed, military release papers are forged, and in secret meetings shivery with anxiety and excitement, a place and a time are whispered. On arrival, three magic words: “I am refugee.”
Telling modern tales of transit, Farman ranges far and wide on the migratory map of human history, focusing on such themes as border posts and paradise, surveillance and passports, Third World Border Hysteria and homeland.
For Abou Farman, the narrative begins to take shape in the early 1990s, his first years in Montreal. At 59A Duluth, on the third floor, in 350 hours on reams of old audio tape, he captures the voices of more than thirty ‘Alis’ who made the journey to Canada.
‘We sat around,’ says Farman, ‘sometimes three, sometimes ten Iranian men, from different backgrounds, all worthy of being called Ali, in apartments where the only piece of furniture was an ashtray and a line of empty booze bottles. The passage was liminal, and we, without a firm relationship to any stable state, were still liminal too. So the stories were important in that sense, they were as much about the past as they were about the present – as much about the story as about the telling.’
The roots of this book are thus real and full of characters and heroic stories of the sort one might expect from migration tales, drawing on emigration stories of Iranians that took place in the 80s with the crackdowns of the newly established Islamic Republic, evoking border crossings past and present.
In Abou Farman’s hands the stories turn into a larger meditation on movement, conveyed with humour and a subtle irony. Clerks of the Passage takes us on a journey in the company of some strange and great migrants, from the 3.5 million year-old bipedal hominids of Laetoli, Tanzania, to an Iranian refugee who spent seventeen years in the transit lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, from Xerxes to Milton to Revelations, from Columbus to Don Quixote to Godot.
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Abou Farman is an anthropologist, writer and artist. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bard College in New York, and once upon a time worked for the United Nations (DPI).
His writing has appeared in numerous publications including Maisonneuve, The Utne Reader, The Globe and Mail and the National Post, garnering two Critics Desk Awards from Arc, Canada's National Poetry Magazine and two Canadian National Magazine Award nominations. His essays have been collected in anthologies and textbooks, most recently in Best Canadian Essays 2010. He has been awarded a Banff Centre Literary Journalism residency, and a George Marshall Fellowship from City University of New York.
His film credits include screenwriter on Sound Barrier (Tribeca Film Festival) and Cut! (Venice Film Festival) and producer on Vegas: Based on a True Story (Venice Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival), all directed by Amir Naderi.
As part of the duo caraballo-farman, he has exhibited installation and video art at the Tate Modern, UK, and PS1/MOMA, NY, amongst others. caraballo-farman has been the recipient of several grants and awards, including a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship, a NYFA Fellowship, and residencies at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Art Omi.
"You are born once from your mother's womb, and a second time from the belly of a 747"
Abou Farman tells the story of migrants and of migration with the formal audacity of having lived and outlived it--being born again onto it, as it were. These are not migration stories that solicit or even generate your sympathies. No -- these stories transform you into a different plane. I have always thought there is no more home from which to be exiled. Now I see why and how that same idea can be drawn in formal outlines. Abou Farman is the closest thing to Juan Goytisolo I have read in recent years--making of migration and exile not an exception but an existential condition --of being, of existence itself, of passage as presence. Uncanny.
Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University, New York, October 2013.
Clerks of the Passage, by Abou Farman, Linda Leith Publicationsby RANA BOSE The Rover 27.08.2012
“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 – beginning 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.
-- Rana Bose
Excerpt (from The Toe Prints):
'The Laetoli prints are the earliest evidence we have of bipedal hominids in movement, our first upright ancestors walking on two feet, a species literally on their way to becoming us. Because of the depth and shape of one of the steps, it is sometimes said that the family stopped momentarily on their way, possibly to look back at the source of their displacement, the erupting volcano. That would make them the first refugee family ever, Australopithecus Refugensis. Hominids have been on the run for at least 3.6 million years."
Montreal — On October 4, lauded writer Abou Farman teams up with Montreal’s own Maisonneuve Magazine for a joint launch at Casa del Popolo (4873 St. Laurent). Together, they’ll celebrate the release of Farman’s first book, Clerks of the Passage (Linda Leith Publishing), and Maisonneuve’s new Fall 2012 issue.
“Abou is one of Maisonneuve’s finest writers, and he’s been with the magazine for years,” says Maisonneuve editor-in-chief Drew Nelles. “So teaming up with him was a natural fit. We’re so pleased to help launch his first book.”
Clerks of the Passage is an engrossing, wide-ranging reflection on movement and migration, across eras and cultures: from the 3.5 million-year-old bipedal hominids of Laetoli, Tanzania, to an Iranian refugee who spent seventeen years in the transit lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, from Xerxes to Milton to Revelations. Rawi Hage, the author of De Niro’s Game and Carnival, describes it as “witty, satirical, informative and profound. Farman is a contemporary voice with a deep understanding of the various histories and what connects them.”
At Casa del Popolo on October 4, Farman will read from Clerks of the Passage. He will be joined by writer Michael Nardone, who will read from his essay “The Striking Life” in Maisonneuve’s Fall 2012 issue. The issue features a cover story on gay evangelical Christians by author and Harper’s contributing editor Clancy Martin, as well as writing on art storage, the Quebec student strike, and the death penalty in Canada.
The launch begins at 5 p.m. Copies of Clerks of the Passage ($17) and Maisonneuve ($5) will be available for sale. Cash sales only.
Clerks of the Passage, by Abou Farman. ISBN: 978-0-9878317-4-3 Linda Leith Publishing. On sale here.
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