Telling Stateless Stories Differently: on queer feminist oral history methods & stateless epistemologies

Nour Almazidi

May 2022

In this blog entry, Nour Almazidi,  PhD researcher at the London School of Economics & Political Science Department of Gender Studies, argues the importance of oral history methodologies for telling stateless stories differently. Drawing on her ethnographic research with stateless Bidoon in Kuwait, she reflects on the political potentialities of stateless oral histories and counter-memories to contest state-centric stories and national political imaginaries.

In tracing the main arguments that animate Critical Statelessness Studies, it is clear that the necessary task of troubling dominant modes of knowledge production on statelessness requires crafting alternative methodological interventions in order to tell stateless stories differently. As is demonstrated by previous authors of this blog series, writing about statelessness critically and reflexively means grappling with multiple complex political, epistemological, conceptual, and methodological concerns. Central to these concerns are questions of epistemic injustice and epistemic erasure in relation to dominant representational narratives, entangled systems of power, domination and exploitation, coloniality, and geopolitics of global human rights.

Some of these questions emerge in tandem with the move beyond legal studies’ disciplinary grip on statelessness scholarship and ask: How to attend to conditions of statelessness beyond ‘legal status’ and instead move towards an understanding of statelessness as imbricated within dynamic, intersecting structures of power? What would it mean to challenge the depoliticising and essentialising language of spectrality and invisibility that saturate representations of statelessness? How to think about complexities of stateless agency in specific locations and contexts of struggle without reproducing a romanticisation of resistive practices as ‘citizenship acts’? And finally, how to give varied accounts of the embodied realities and daily encounters of stateless people with the oppressive and marginalising practices and structures they come up against?

These concerns deeply inform and resonate with my ethnographic oral history PhD research’s commitment to a careful engagement with an intimate, historicised, intergenerational and heterogenous account of the Bidoon’s intersectionally gendered political struggles in Kuwait. Taking seriously the task of bringing to life stateless Bidoon counter-politics, counter-memories and counter-histories that contest dominant statist stories, historical narratives, and hegemonic national political and cultural imaginaries, my queer feminist sensibilities guide me to oral history methodologies as tools that enable the work of telling stateless stories otherwise. Here, I briefly reflect on the generative political potentialities of queer feminist oral history methods and, archival and memory projects for stateless epistemologies in the context of the Bidoon in Kuwait.

Paul Thompson writes that “oral history is a history built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and it widens its scope.” Oral history’s rooted commitments to “histories from below”, to “making space for subaltern narratives and using ordinary people’s voices to create solidarity and change” and to marginalised histories that have been suppressed “either by hegemonic discourses or by unwillingness on the part of repressive regimes to acknowledge the past”, show the capaciousness of oral history (in its diverse and multiple forms) for Critical Statelessness Studies. This capaciousness lies in the recognition that oral history is not only about producing knowledge through marginalised narratives, memories, and politics as methods of history-making against erasure. It is also about holding the past as simultaneously entangled with the present-future, which allows for thinking about the significance of accounts of alternative counter-hegemonic histories, collective memories and meaning-making practices to stateless struggles and experiences.

For those of us committed to the Bidoons’ multivalent struggles against oppressive state practices in Kuwait, we are confronted by the risks and realities of political persecution that emerge as a result of dismantling dominant nationalist historical narratives of citizenship, border histories, and indigeneity. In my view, these risks in themselves reaffirm the politically disruptive value of historicising work that begins from Bidoon living experiences and memories. Bidoon life stories also bring into view the necessarily complex readings and imaginings of the past and its continuities in present realities that inform state narratives that legitimise maintaining conditions of statelessness.

Feminist and queer engagements with oral history are historically embedded in “direct active participation” in liberatory projects, resistance movements and transformative politics. Through their focus on Palestinian women’s movements, liberation struggles, and gendered memory, Rosemary Sayegh and other oral historians brought into view how gendered narratives are excluded even within subaltern histories themselves. Engaging with queer feminist practices of oral history in Critical Statelessness Studies is politically generative precisely because of the ways in which these methods are rooted in being attentive to how life stories, memories and narrative histories are intersectionally gendered. This in turn allows for that insistence on “knowing” experiences of statelessness as entangled within complex structures of power and relations of gender, sexuality, class, race, able-bodiedness and other shifting categories.

My orientation towards queer feminist practices of oral history is also informed by what Sumi Madhok calls a “feminist debt” to a critical reflexive feminist politics of location and what it engenders for knowledge production. This commitment to a critical reflexive politics of location is not only an acknowledgement of knowledge production as mired in political struggle, but also has to do with “the ‘thinkability’ of particular knowledges and of their being counted as knowledge.” For me, centering lineages of queer feminist commitments to the politics of location in stateless oral history, memory and archival projects is important for a number of reasons. On the one hand, because of the recognition of “the heteropatriarchal, racist, capitalist geopolitics and power relations that structure and inform knowledge production”. And, on the other hand, because of the questions these commitments to deconstructing structures of knowledge production provoke in terms of feminist critiques of objectivity, positionality, the situatedness and embodiment of knowledge, and reflexivity in addressing ethical considerations and exploring difficult questions of power and issues of representation in the relationship between the researcher and the researcher’s narrators.

Storytelling is an essential “ingredient” of queer feminist oral history methods, and as Clare Hemmings reminds us: "telling stories differently” matters. For me, telling stories differently matters precisely because of the ways in which storytelling can be politically sustaining for stateless communities confronting conditions of state violence, surveillance, control, illegalisation, criminalisation, and other oppressive practices that render their experiences and histories illegible. Through historicising and locating experiences of statelessness and its oppressive conditions from the narrative histories and memories of stateless people themselves, and understanding these narratives as heterogenous and intersectional, statelessness oral histories, memory and archival projects hold the capacity to be disruptive to the political and epistemic authorities of hegemonic stories and representations of statelessness.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.