‘Illegal’ Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders by Shahram Khosravi


Illegal, foreigner, “they”, others, migrant, immigrant, refugee. It feels as if this is a passing term for ones current existence. Transitory mode. Something one takes, becomes, moves onward, becomes part of “us”, assimilates. Or goes back, reunites, goes back and becomes again part of “them”, their “us”. It sickens me to imagine people, who think it is really possible. It does not start from some point nor does it end at some point, none of us would like to take it and all of us would like to leave it. Or maybe not, maybe for some it is a crucial part of self-making, character building and an essential parameter in existential matrix.

Shazram Khosravi is one of us, one of the travelers, othered by the very same world we are living in, far before he became an illegal traveler, far before he was born. He did not really feel he was in the right place at a right time when he was in Iran, as he explains in detail for us in the book, so he decided to travel any way he can. Which means he became an illegal traveler, a refugee, he started wearing the title given to him by this society. Since then he has gained a legal status in Sweden and thus became something else than an “asylum seeker”. He shows in his book that this is not the case as his border is not the border of a country, a national state border but a cultural border and even a self-border which one has to overcome, if one even wants to leave their “traveler/other” title.

If someone has problems defining Khosravi’s book, putting it inside a frame, then let me help you. It is not an autobiography with theoretical structure, Shahram Khosravi’s book is an ethnography of migration and borders, of people on the move. The fact that he himself has a background in migration makes it an auto-ethnography, it is the personal element, his personal knowledge of the processes inside migration, especially on the illegal side of this activity, which makes it auto-ethnographic. Yet his education, theoretical framework does not let it succumb into “memoirs of a refugee”, it gives it credibility. And I write this word (credibility) down with the utmost disgust, it is absurd for me to say that only academia could give one credibility, but with this book, academia is the added value.

I am going to continue this book review in a auto/gonzo-style, an auto-review of an auto-ethnography, questioning the borders I have had to cross to the current state of being, connecting the chapters of Khosravi’s book to the chapters of my life.

I am a legal citizen of a tiny nation state. I am male, straight, Caucasian, my parents are both natives, part of the majority ethnic group. This nation/ethnic group has not always been free but somehow it has a territory for the past something-something years, interrupted only by post-WWII Eastern European territorial disputes. The majority of the inhabitants of this country can call it their own. This country has some minority “tribes”, which are part of “us” thanks to similar language and “similar” Finno-Ugric “understanding of life” and “of being a micronation” between countries with better military powers (interpret the “” as scare quotes). And we have a whole big minority ethnic group living next to “us” inside this country. I am in a pretty good position, I am a majority, a “white hetero male”. But I do not feel right in this system, I have never felt right. Yes, there are reasons why I do not feel especially good in this territory at this specific moment of history, luckily these are not connected to my gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnicity. My otherness is connected to my religion, something I could hide if I would like to. I do not like to hide myself, I am good at it but I have never enjoyed it.

My otherness did not start from migration but also from illegality of my being, my actions. And it is deeply connected to the absurdity of man-made laws, to the “borders” it creates, constructed separation between “bad” and “good” behavior. Khosrami likes to reference a lot to Kafka, he uses him masterfully to characterize the absurdity he has encountered during his and other asylum seekers experiences in the machine of bureaucracy. This is not the first time I read a text and most probably not the last time, which finds so much from Kafka. I have read only one thing from Kafka, Process, and I am still disturbed from it. Right after reading it I wrote the following thing: “Now, after reading this book, I ask myself what did I get? What did I get, what did I get… I think I did not get anything which I already did not know or feel. I had already felt fear and a sense of oblivion due to the bureaucratic instances surrounding us. I have my own incidents, my own “processes”, based on which I can say, that we never know when the phone is going to ring or when the men are coming to pick us up. It has happened to me thrice.” Process was not impressive for me as I still had first hand experience with police, bureaucracy and the state, these experiences were still haunting me and I did not find these personal contacts to be far from absurdity, it was realism for me then and in a way still is.

My first experience was on a cold February evening by my high school. I was a minor and had a cigarette with my friends in front of a nearby kiosk. Two persons approached us and asked how old we were. In the beginning it sounded striking and strange but in few moments they added that they were police officers. They took me and my friend into a unmarked police van and gave us a fine, 45 EEK (3 Euros in todays currency). 3 Euros because our bodies were younger than what society has declared to be old enough to slowly poison itself. The Fine arrived at my home in a letter which I collected from the postbox before my mother could see it. I had learned my lesson, smoking was something I had to do secretly for the next two years or I could keep on paying the state for my unsuitable body, my body which was too young and unqualified brain which could not think for itself until it reached the “legal” age of 18. My society is eager to teach its youngest how to be ashamed and how to hide. We are good at that, hiding.

My second encounter was more violent, it happened on a beautiful and sunny April day. We were sitting outside and drinking cheap “wine”. Minor, drunk and rambling about God-knows what, I was suddenly picked up by another type of police officers. They did not say why they took us (there were two others beside me), why three minors were held against their will by grown-up men. They brought us to the station and started interrogating us. Without our parents nor any kind of help from legal representatives. I was pissed, both from alcohol and from rage against the systems. At one point the police officers admitted that they do not feel great that they have to question a native, a young Estonian man, they “would feel a lot better putting a fucking Russian behind bars”. After reading this Kafka thing, I wrote also: “They come by themselves the first time and take you in, you are shocked, surprised, proud and reluctant, you swagger until the first threats start to arrive, threats that make you think. It is surprisingly similar to the storyline of Process, but this is how it really happens. They threaten you and let you give a urine sample, and then they leave you on hold. You wait for at least an hour, and then they invite you in and ask questions. And you, a minor, feel ashamed and fearful, mainly in front of your mother, fear that your so-called “secrets” will come out. This is what they hope for, your fear that others will find out. In fact it is they who are afraid that others will find out, they have no right to interrogate you without your parents permission, but you do not know that. You do not know and so you talk, you talk about everything, you talk until everyone has fallen into the hole your mouth has dug, just to make it end. And you are released because you are afraid, afraid of jail, your mom, you are afraid for your future.”

Their threats were very straightforward, by the time of my interrogation I was sober and I remember them well. One of them went as follows: “Listen, we are taking you to the pre-trial prison. You do not seem like the strongest kid there, would you like us to take you through the pharmacy before we take you there? You could get some Vaseline, it will make things easier for you there.” After “mind-raping” me thoroughly, I was thrown on the street. No fine, nothing, they just took what they needed and released me into the unknown. Lesson learned, I should be happy that I’m not part of a minority ethnic group and threatening someone with sexual abuse is a very powerful tool during negotiations.

The third experience happened a year after I was thrown into the unknown: “And you are released, happy that you did not get a fine or anything. You continue your everyday life in the same spirit, maybe a small cringe for a month or two, but finally you forget all the unpleasantnesses. Summer full of love and peace will pass, ugly and stormy autumn, winter full of silence, and then it is spring again. A year has passed and one morning you decide to skip school and sleep. The phone rings… and you sit again in front of them. And you know what? You are a moron! Did they pick you up? No. Did you receive a written invitation which you signed? No. Someone calls you, says that come there at that time and you say: “Yes, mr. police officer, I will.” And you will. Moron. You should run and hide, not even notice the phone call but you are afraid that the consequences are worse, fines bigger, aloofness will cause bigger problems. “Its better to get over with it,” one can find themselves thinking like that on bus number 23. And then they will make a picture of you, portrait and profile, “You again here!” Same questions but you think you are smarter this time and will not dig a hole for others. But you are digging a hole for yourself – which can be even stupider? You think they can screw you neither way and staying silent does not help. Exactly, staying silent does not help them, staying silent is the only thing YOU have left, you are protected by laws which you have not been informed of. I get another fine for my stupidity and remain on hold.”

They wanted me to join the army, well, they actually wanted to draft me. Luckily I live in a country where going to the army doesn’t mean that I go to war, it means that I serve my army duty and then I am released. Khosravi had to go to that army where you go and kill people or will be killed. Loads of soldiers died during that time. But even though my soldier time would have been literally a walk in the park compared to serving in the Iranian army during Iran-Iraq war, I still did not wish to go. Getting away from the army service was tricky but I did not brake any rules nor simulate/lie. I was just busy with life and “naturally” extended my drafting until I was just put into on-call list, I think if war breaks out they are supposed to call me in or something.

“Welcome back to your home, dear terrorist!” The last “springy cop moment” happened a few years ago. I had just arrived back from a twelve day journey, it was a spiritual one. I felt really good as it went really well and I was eager to get back home to my closest ones. It felt good to be back on familiar ground, this piece of land, knowing that I could easily walk to my house from the airport, to my loved ones, to my apartment. As I was walking through the security controls, I was stopped by the customs. It was obvious from the first moment that they knew who I am and where I came from. My country of starting point was not an usual one, even a rather controversial one nowadays. So there I was, in the customs interrogation room together with a fellow traveler who had been sick for the past week (we later found out he had salmonella). They went through our stuff and finally asked: “How much cash have you brought back?” and then it clicked to me – they were not looking for bombs nor drugs, they had received a very concrete orders from the National Gestapo Agency. They did not even check the 10 liter water canister we had brought to the country, it could have been full of GHB or liquefied cocaine; they were looking for money. “Why?” you ask. Check the gestapo year book, the main threat according to them is from terror organizations funding terror cells inside the country. I, as every other Muslim have been contacted by the gestapo already before, they know exactly what I do and with whom I mingle. They let me work in a hotel, where NATO meetings where held, clean the shit after MPs of France and Netherlands. It was all good as I was a housen****r, tamed and groomed. 6 months before that encounter on the border I had left my job, become a somewhat freelancer, I was untamed, unshaved, I was logged out of the system. Gestapo made a huge mistake by entrusting me, they created an awful enemy for themselves.

The whole content of Shahram Khosravi’s book, short stories from different people, structure of the book, going layer by layer deeper from the outer world, from society into ones being and questioning the essence of “borders” – it gave me chills. This book has the right content in the right format, coming out on the right time of history. Europe is in a “refugee crisis”. People are traveling, they want to travel, as one of the greatest human traffickers, Amir Heidari puts it: “The rich world plunders the poor world. When people have tried to make a change in politics and change the ruling regimes, the superpowers have intervened and stopped the democratic movements. In Chile, Allende was murdered and in Iran, Mossadegh was overthrown by the CIA. This is our situation. As long as there are plunderers [i.e., plundering countries], the plundered ones [i.e., refugees and migrants] will want to come and see where their wealth has ended up.” (page 105)

My recommendation with this book, is to read with gonzo-style, with an auto-ethnographic style. Imagine yourself in these situations, draw correlations with your own experiences with traveling, border controls, police etc. Ask yourself, is your situation different and if yes, then how and why is it different. Ask yourself how and why some humans can move easily and some not, ask why some rules apply to you and some not. Ask yourself questions.



  1. Aitäh mainimast, et säherdune raamat on. Kui ma peaks ajamasinasse sattuma, valmistan omale aega lugemiseks. 😀 Ja aitäh huvitavaid episoode ümber jutustamast. 😀

    Thanks for mentioning of that book. If I should stumble into a time machine, I’ll manufacture enough time to read it. 😀 And thanks for retelling interesting episodes. 😀

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