Institute of Social Anthropology

Institute of Social Anthropology


"Disappearing lines" by Dr. Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

November 2017

In 1999, after two years of Chinese language studies in China, I decided to return home to Poland overland via northwest China and Kazakhstan. After Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, a bi-weekly train connection had temporarily been established between Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, and Berlin to facilitate the ‘return’ of the Germans in Kazakhstan to Germany. On the way to Astana, where I would board the train, I wanted to travel along some of the ancient caravan routes that crossed the region divided today administratively into provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang in northwest China. I scheduled nearly three weeks for this 3500 km bus journey, after which my student visa would irrevocably expire.
However, the pace of my travel turned out slower than expected. Many roads which existed as bold lines on my maps were, in fact, hardly-visible dirt tracks through the stone and sand deserts of the arid northwest. On the increasingly decelerating journey, I finally got stuck for good at the Qinghai-Xinjiang border, in a small village which grew around one of China’s largest asbestos mines. Summer landslides blocked the road through the mountains on the Xinjiang side. After strolling through the moon-like landscape for a day, waiting for something to happen, I gave up the idea of moving forward and turned back to embark on a roundabout journey via western Qinghai and Gansu which added some extra 1500 km to what I had originally planned. This journey, for a change, brought me into massive sandstorms which further delayed the travel, making me seriously worry that the visa would expire before I reached China’s western border.
My trip coincided with the last year before the launching of China’s Open up the West program in 2000. While the agenda of the program has been very complex, it is safe to say that increasing China’s territorial integration through infrastructure construction has been one of its main targets. Regions along China’s extensive land borders, all of them rich in natural resources but some, like Xinjiang where I have conducted my research since 2011, also volatile and restive, have since been at the receiving end of massive state investment in roads, railways, and airports. Over the past fifteen years, this investment has diametrically changed local and translocal geographies of mobility.
Last year, when I returned to the road that I was unable to take in 1999, I was able to observe the changes with my own eyes. There, where the bus had driven through a road-less steppe and desert in 1999, there was a brand-new tarmac highway. Interestingly, however, though the materiality of the road changed diametrically, when the wind swirled up the sand the tarmac road ‘disappeared’ from view exactly as the dirt track had done seventeen years earlier. Moreover, in summer months the tarmac heats up to 70 degrees Celsius, making it a place to avoid for both truck drivers and the traffic police. In winter, when sandstorms and dust weather set in, the travelling conditions further deteriorate. Tarmac, which unavoidably disintegrates under the influence of the overweight traffic, sand, sun and salt is symptomatic of a larger issue, namely, that of establishing and maintaining the material presence of the state in this vast border landscape. While currently maintained at extremely high financial and ecological costs, the future of the road is, at best, uncertain.
Things have changed so much since 1999, people say. There is a road to every corner of Xinjiang today, people say. Indeed, ‘things’ have changed. What exactly has changed, and for whom, is an ever complex question. While some individuals and communities profit from new infrastructures, these infrastructures also create new inequalities by excluding others from participating in the new world of cement and speed. Hence, representations of roads on maps as continuous, apparently available-to-all and non-valorized lines can be, variously, a claim, a fantasy, a desire, or a trick. In the practice of traveling, ethnicity, gender, class and other social categorizations influence mobility in powerful ways. On the other hand, ‘things’ have perhaps changed less than is often assumed. Roads are still complex bundles of social relations between human and non-human agents like terrain and climate, whose mutual entanglements in world regions like the Sino-Central Asian borderlands remain as challenging to discipline and control as ever.


October 2017


I was coming from an interview with a return migration consultant somewhere in Switzerland. In the entrance hall, a pile of bags and suitcases caught my attention. While I had been conducting the interview, someone had apparently put the luggage there, just under the yellow poster advertising for the so-called assisted voluntary return migration programme. An hour earlier, when I had entered the building, the luggage had not been there yet. 

Whose luggage could that be? I looked around. The hall was empty. I waited for some time. But no one appeared. Are these the belongings of someone who is about to leave Switzerland “voluntarily”, as the official language of the return migration programme describes it euphemistically? This was my first and immediate intuition. 

In the absence of my real camera, I took a grainy, underexposed picture with my smartphone. Then I left the building. 

On the train ride back home, my thoughts kept wandering back to the pile of luggage. I realised that, of course, it was not even certain that the pile of bags and suitcases had anything to do with the return migration office. Maybe those were the belongings of someone who just had an appointment with the social welfare office which is located in the same building. If so, this would mean that my speculations had been going in a completely wrong direction and that, in fact, the luggage had nothing to do with my research on so-called voluntary return.

Despite the lacking context, the picture can figure as a symbol for precarious mobility at the margins of society. The building that accommodates the social welfare office and the return migration office is frequented by those who have not found their place in society, or whose place in society is questioned and systematically denied. They are not welcomed, but rather governed and administered by the state bureaucracy. This luggage does not resemble the shiny suitcases of business travellers or tourists in any way. Definitively, here we are not dealing with someone preparing for a holiday. And the sheer amount of material that is packed in these bags gives the impression that someone has stuffed his or her entire life into these bags—ready for relocation. 

But maybe this interpretation is all too pessimistic. The owner of the belongings might be quite happy with the prospect that his odyssey will soon come to an end. During my research in Tunisia, I encountered several return migrants who were quite happy that they were able to return to their home town. While they felt stuck during their asylum procedure in Switzerland, the so-called voluntary return migration programme opened up a new perspective for them; that their life was going somewhere again. Being able to make plans for one’s own life is a very existential condition of humanity. However, for these young Tunisian migrants, who are wandering around Europe in search for a better future, the European border regime only allows them to imagine their own future under the very specific conditions of a so-called voluntary return. 

Hence, we should not forget that even in this more positive interpretation, it is still the state that governs the conditions of the possibilities of mobility and sets the direction. And it is still the state that has brought forward the conditions that made their lives come to a halt. This kind of governed “voluntary” mobility is the dysfunctional version of a transnational freedom of movement. 

The grainy, underexposed picture of this pile of bags and suitcases does not reveal much of these reflections in itself. It is nothing more than an invitation to think about the conditions of the possibilities of mobility in contemporary society. 

July 2017


The picture I am writing about here has acquired more and more meaning for me over time, because I only belatedly understood what is visible in it, and because I had deceived myself about it for such a long time. It exemplifies, as it were, that an ethnography never ends.

I took this picture because I had been fascinated by the idiosyncratic combination of clothes and decorations, in which the three young women celebrated their graduation from religious school. This was in 1996, after the end of the Ramadan, when the great yearly festivals take place in Sungai Tenang in the central Sumatran highlands. The three young women wore the white prayer scarf as it is common for Muslim women in Indonesia. With it, they wore headrings (agal), a male prerogative in their Arab region of origin. Together with the sunglasses and the lipstick the three girls looked coquettish to me, not quite congruent with the occasion. Did they take their religious graduation more lightly than their age-mates in the background? Or was their outfit an instance of creative gender-bending motivated by the structural contradiction of their Muslim and at the same time matrilinear society?

The explanations of a former secretary of the colonial administration soon threw some light on the enigmatic vestiary syncretism. The old man told me about a period in the 1920s and 1930s when many young men from the highlands had gone on the Hajj to Mekka and upon their return had brought with them Arab clothings. They would wear them for their own weddings but afterwards had no use for them anymore. Arab men use the headrings to fix the kufiya, the chequered headscarf. As Indonesian men wear a fez instead of a headscarf, on festive occasions, the decorative as well as practical headrings were up to grabs for the women, so to speak. Eventually it became a habit for women to wear the agal over their headscarfs during religious festivals. This peculiar appropriation of a customary Arab piece of clothing by the “wrong” gender exemplifies the creative and self-confident way the society of Sungai Tenang for a long time re-interpreted Islam and related cultural imports. Today, merely twenty years later, women don’t decorate themselves with the agal anymore.

But there are still occasions when young women wear sunglasses. Two years ago, during an excursion with a number of students to Sungai Tenang, this part of the puzzle finally unravelled for me as well. In daily life neither men nor women wear sunglasses. It would be deemed arrogant if somebody evaded eye-contact in this way. The only occasions when young women, and more rarely, young men, wear sunglasses, are festivals when they have to present themselves to the whole village – such as graduation ceremonies and weddings. As our excursion took place during the festival season, we got invited to many weddings. At each wedding, a master of ceremony explained the programme and the rules. The youth were reminded to behave properly. And remarkably, all those who might secretly object to the outcome of the wedding arrangements were asked to renounce on sorcery.

People said that it frequently happened that brides sitting on the pedestal besides their grooms were suddenly possessed by a spirit a begrudging shaman had sent. To protect themselves they wear sunglasses. It is believed that the evil spirits recognize their victims by their fearful gaze. The sunglasses deceive the spirits. Indeed, on one evening I witnessed myself how in short sequence a bride and her groom, whom their alarmed kin had put on sunglasses only minutes before, twisted and fainted and were quickly carried out of the village hall. A shaman was called to exorcise the spirits that had possessed them.

Finally, the riddle of the picture I had taken 20 years earlier dissolved. The religious graduation had taken place a few weeks before the yearly group wedding in the village. The three young women apparently were brides, for whom their mothers had already arranged marriage partners. That they wear lipstick is another indication of their status. Only unmarried but eligible young women may wear lipstick in public. At the graduation the young women were presented to the whole village. This was a first occasion for a sorcerer to call on a spirit to possess a young bride who was going to marry a rival of his or her son or nephew. The young women in the background in the picture were no brides, and their male age-mates were not yet eligible. Young women who didn’t go on to a higher school married at 14 at the time, young men at about 20.

Are the three women on the picture coquettish? Maybe on other occasions – but on the picture they tensly anticipate the supernatural challenges of the approaching wedding and the unknown and therefore scary events of their married lives.

Note: Kathrin Oester’s Film „I Love You – Hope for the Year 2000“ tells the story of the hopes and fears of young women and men during the wedding season of 1996 in Sungai Tenang.