Borders Can be Borderlands

Art credit: Mara Ahmed. My mother Nilofar Rashid and her sister, graphic collage from the Series This Heirloom, 2013.

by Mara Ahmed

A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.

. . . Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute (1987)

It’s 1947, the end of British colonialism in South Asia. Unsurprisingly, independence is concurrent with the mutilation of land. Two nation states are created: Pakistan for Muslims, India for Hindus. No thought is given to Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jews, or the myriad sects and violent caste hierarchies within Hinduism and South Asian Islam. Quick lines are sketched by a British lawyer and the lives of millions thrown into a tailspin. As people begin to move across an arbitrary border, riots break out. Ethnic cleansing follows. Millions are displaced, broken, killed.

This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it. (1)

It’s 1947. My mother, Nilofar Rashid, is five years old, her mind like a sponge, her senses alive to the chaos around her, every scene etched into her memory, a graphic novel in bas-relief: huddled together on a rooftop as attacks on Muslim homes are underway on the street below; escaping under the cover of night with help from Hindu neighbors; hiding by the side of the road as trucks full of Sikhs chanting ominous slogans go by; living on cans of evaporated milk in ad hoc refugee camps; boarding a congested ‘special’ train to cross the line between India and Pakistan, its walls splattered with blood from previous massacres. A sigh of relief and prayers of gratitude as soon as they reach Pakistan. Then the scenes that await them: dead bodies piled up at the railway station in Lahore, the stench of industrial-strength disinfectants, houses burnt to the ground, others left with cars in their driveways and locks on their doors. A city cleaved with a butcher’s knife, still trembling, waiting for the blood to coagulate.

It’s still 1947. Refugees become eligible for the allotment of evacuee property. My grandfather, Rashid Ahmed Qureshi, receives temporary possession of a mansion recently owned by a Hindu family. As a child, my mother is entranced by its prayer room, an intimate shrine resplendent with paintings of Krishna and his Gopis. The Hindus who have fled Lahore, leaving all these beloved objects and memories behind, seem to fill the negative space wrapped around the city. The air is smeared with smoke and dread.

They move in colour, carrying everything they can. Though the eye of the century sees them in black and white, as a series of stills in a photographer’s portfolio. Partition: sounds like a thin wall made of simple materials between rooms that can easily be taken down. Take the word in your left hand and feel its weight. It is nothing – a few sheets of paper.

. . . John Siddique. Six Snapshots of Partition, Granta Magazine (October 2010)

It used to be that borders were formed naturally, by oceans and mountains, carved out by the physical contours of the earth’s surface. There was something poetic about these landforms, extending from foothills and valleys, to plains and plateaus, all the way to seafloors. They were shaped by wind and water erosion, pushed up by the collision of tectonic plates, forged by volcanic eruptions, sandblasted and weathered over millions of years. They were substantive, grounded in history.

The borders that came out of the crumbling of empires, in the 20th century, were different. Cartographic inventions meant to divvy up world resources and power, divorced from indigenous logic or priorities. A few sheets of stolen paper.

Documentary filmmaker and artist Mara Ahmed, TEDxRochester

In her book Undoing Border Imperialism (2), Harsha Walia challenges the notion of absolute, static borders by examining their elasticity. They can shift inwards to create spaces of containment and control, such as detention centers and the prison industrial complex, but they can also expand outwards to encompass black sites and colonial frontiers. Perhaps borders are systems and procedures, institutions and agents, rhetoric and symbols meant to wield power.

The confused and panicked children frantically wept for their parents, who had been separated from them at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s family separation policy. “Mami!” “Papa!” the children from Central America screamed, as if they knew no other words. “I don’t want them to stop my father,” one child said through tears. “I don’t want them to deport him.” Hearing the pleas that were captured on audio two years ago, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent joked, “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.” (3)

Violence tears into whatever territories or bodies are marked by borders. They delimit and police definitions of what is human or barbarous, valuable or expendable, colonizing or colonized.

“I was worried that I was going to get raped,” says artist Jackie Amézquita about crossing the U.S.-Mexico border when she was eighteen years old. In her performance piece Huellas Que Germinan (Footprints That Sprout), she walked for eight consecutive days from the U.S.-Mexico border to Los Angeles, in order to embody the hardships and dangers of her migration from Guatemala to the United States. It was an intense process whereby the physical act of walking became synched with the act of reminiscing and confronting difficult memories. Time seemed to fold over, with the past, present and future all jostling for space simultaneously. (4)

The linearity of time has its own imperious regime and hardened silos. Capitalism partitions everything.

My poems interrogate the language of power and state-sponsored language, and they explore the ways in which violence against bodies is premeditated in violence against language. (5)

In the Indian subcontinent, languages were partitioned long before the land ever was.

Back in April 1900, as Arundhati Roy has written, Sir Anthony MacDonnell, lieutenant-governor of the Provinces of Agra and Oudh, issued an order permitting the use of the Devanagari script in state courts where the Persian script had ruled heretofore. “In a matter of months,” Roy explains, “Hindi and Urdu began to be referred to as separate languages. Language mandarins on both sides stepped in to partition the waters and apportion the word-fish.”

In a bid to purify and distinguish further, Hindi became more Sanskritized and Urdu more Persianized. “But Sanskrit was the language of ritual and scripture, the language of Priests and Holy men. Its vocabulary was not exactly forged on the anvil of everyday human experience. It was not the language of mortal love, or toil, or weariness, or yearning. It was not the language of song or poetry of ordinary people… Rarely if ever has there been an example in history of an effort to deplete language rather than enrich it. It was like wanting to replace an ocean with an aquarium.” (6)

Whereas the process of scrubbing and sundering these languages has been labored and reductive, their constant engagement is what shaped the history of India. It facilitated the imbrication of social and moral codes, of political ideas and multifaceted cultures from diverse linguistic worlds.

If borders delineate zones of violence, activated by Western binarism and othering, then borderlands are in-between spaces – zones of contact that embody hybridity. Chicano/a traditions in the borderlands along the Mexican-U.S. border, exemplify mestizaje – the art of navigating multiple epistemological and philosophical systems. Gloria Anzaldúa defines mestiza consciousness as the ability to reconceptualize difference by disrupting racial, cultural, gender and class demarcations.

The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war. (7)

Borderlands offer connectivity. Jackie Amézquita’s art practice is grounded in this idea of cultures touching, merging, and transforming one another. Her work explores the interactivity between different ethnic groups across geographic, political, and psycho-sociological borders. Her own skin becomes a form of connective tissue between her interior and exterior worlds.

The Martinique poet and philosopher, Édouard Glissant, describes such a world as an archipelago consisting of many distinct parts, where borders become points of passage rather than obstacles to movement. Instead of a European universalism that requires homogenization and integration, Glissant proposes a ‘non-universal universalism’ which is supple enough to adapt to change. In this Tout-Monde, human differences are acknowledged all at once, and are in equal relationship with one another. It’s an open totality that requires constant negotiation, exchange, and mixing between a multitude of identities and in doing so, it produces unknowable outcomes. Unknowability, as espoused by Glissant, is a repudiation of stability and the model of airtight safety we are told to desire and strive for. His conceptualization of the manifold is a chaos world, where people learn to cope with unpredictability and become adept at withstanding tensions. (8)

It’s important to clarify that economic disparities between countries, and between people within countries, are not the colorful multiplicities Glissant speaks of. Such power imbalances do not represent atavistic identities but rather the theft and exploitation of labor and resources sustained by capitalist infrastructure, in direct contravention of Glissant’s egalitarian vision.

Nature too depends on the chaotic interface between differences, in order to achieve vitality and resilience.

[I]f there’s anything that the local earth wherever you live teaches, it’s the need for diversity, the need for the whole, weird multiplicity of shapes of life and styles of sentience—all of them shaped so differently from you and from one another—to be interacting with one another in order for the land to be strong, to be healthy, to be resilient. And so as we open our hearts and open our senses to the wider sensuous earth, I think we imbibe this deep teaching of diversity, of the need for an irreducible pluralism, and for celebrating otherness and radical alterity, radical otherness in our world, not looking to just shelter ourselves among those who think just like us or speak just like us or look just like us, but taking deep, new pleasure in otherness and strangeness. (9)

All of this is not an impossible dream. In fact, it’s happened already. Look at the subcontinent.

Just as the Sanskrit and Persianate worlds came together to create a borderless cosmopolis in South Asia, the millennia-long encounter between Hinduism and Islam also produced firmly embedded syncretism. In Pankaj Mishra’s words: “Incredibly, much of the subcontinent’s composite culture has survived both the divide-and-rule strategies of British colonialism and the rivalry between the nation-states of India and Pakistan, which has produced three major wars since 1947. This enduring pluralism is rooted in the traditional diversity of religious practice across the subcontinent marking a contrast to the more recent state-guaranteed multiculturalism of Europe and America. Here the pluralism preceded the establishment of the modern state, and it is often at odds with the state’s insistence on singular identities for its citizens.” (10)

In its solemnly wise way, history reminds us that borders can be meeting points, rather than lines of separation. Borders can be radically soft and porous, rather than festering wounds inflicted on people and land. Borders can be borderlands. We can map their dynamic potential by looking at liminal, in-between, intersectional, hybrid spaces. This is where, according to Manthia Diawara, “relation and difference link entities that need each other’s energy to exist in beauty and freedom.” (11)

This is where we thrive.∎

  1. Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Subh-e-Azadi (August 1947), Translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali, Annual of Urdu Studies 11 (1996)
  2. Harsha Walia. Undoing Border Imperialism. AK Press (November 12, 2013)
  3. The Southern Poverty Law Center, (June 18, 2020)
  4. Andrea Alonso. This Artist Walked from Tijuana to L.A. to Make a Powerful Statement, Los Angeles Magazine (April 27, 2018) /
  5. Solmaz Sharif. Look: Poems. Graywolf Press; 1st edition (July 5, 2016)
  6. Arundhati Roy. What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write? The New Yorker (July 2018)
  7. Gloria Anzaldúa. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute (1987)
  8. Edouard Glissant. Poetics of Relation. University of Michigan Press (September 29, 1997)
  9. David Abram. The Ecology of Perception: An Interview with David Abram, Emergence Magazine (July 2020)
  10. Pankaj Mishra. Beyond Boundaries, The National (November 2009)
  11. Manthia Diawara. Édouard Glissant’s Worldmentality: An Introduction to One World in Relation (2009)

Mara Ahmed is a multimedia artist and activist filmmaker based in Long Island, New York. She was educated in Belgium, Pakistan and the United States, and has an MBA and a Master’s in Economics. She worked in finance until 2004, when she resigned from her corporate job to focus on art and film. She studied art at Nazareth College and film at the Visual Studies Workshop and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Mara’s artwork has been exhibited at galleries in New York and California. Her first film, The Muslims I Know, premiered in 2008 and started a dialogue between American Muslims and people of other faiths. It was broadcast on PBS. Her third film, A Thin Wall, explores the partition of India and possibilities of reconciliation. It premiered at the Bradford Literature Festival, in England, in 2015, won a Special Jury Prize at the Amsterdam Film Festival in 2016, and was recently acquired by MUBI India. Mara is interested in dialogue across both physical and psychological boundaries. In 2017, she gave a Tedx talk about the meaning of borders and nationalism entitled ‘The edges that blur.’ She is now working on a documentary about racism in America, focusing exclusively on the voices of women of color. Her production company is Neelum Films.