Middle East Studies

Materiality of Migration Lecture Series | Is the Mediterranean’s Seabed a Grave? Underwater Relics and the Reach of Relatedness

Thursday, February 23, 2017

5:30pm – 7:00pm

Rhode Island Hall 108

Is the Mediterranean’s Seabed a Grave? Underwater Relics and the Reach of Relatedness
Naor Ben-Yehoyada (Columbia University)

In one of the most cited references to the waves of Eurobound undocumented migration, Pope Francis called the Mediterranean a massive “grave”. While use of the term picked up over the previous years, the pope’s adoption of the term enshrined it. This paper uses the term as a key to decipher the role of underwater material relics of undocumented migration in the calls to address the ongoing situation. In recent years, the Mediterranean’s seabed – images and imaginations of it – has played an important moralizing role in accounts of European treatment of undocumented migration. At the same time, the use of the term “grave” in reference to the seabed raises several questions. How does the maritime medium shape the ways in which people acknowledge, relate to, attempt to access, or commemorate migrants’ vicissitudes? How does the sea shape our ability to access and understand forced and undocumented migration? In what ways the transnational stretch of the sea materially shape the challenges we face? To address these questions, I focus on the role that material remains of migrants’ voyages – pieces of sunken ships as well as migrants’ personal items – play in claims to relatedness and the obligation they might entail. I examine how Tunisian and Sicilian fishers, UK-based forensic oceanographers, as well as migration-awareness activists and marine biologists in Sicily treat the presence of sunken ships and human remains at the bottom of the Central Mediterranean. I draw on anthropological analyses of the ways in which people claim and contest social relations through interaction with similar material relics (like graves, graveyards, relatives’ remains, and saints’ relics). The archaeological perspective thus contributes to our understanding of the spaces of undocumented migration and interdiction by replacing the regnant scholarly attention to global connectedness across distance with attention to relatedness: how and when people come to see each other as related – in different ways and at different scales – and how they engage material relics to claim such relatedness.

This event is aligned with the Mellon Sawyer "Displacement and the Making of the Modern World" series.

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