Hospitality Archaeologies | Interviewing Rachael Kiddey

This interview arose from a project presented at Culturgest called “Archaeologies of Hospitality” which aims to present the lives of migrants from an archaeological perspective, presenting them as human rather than the pre-conceived ideas of fragile victims that have been transmitted to us by the media.

This project counts with 3 researchers, who are Yannis Hamilakis, Rachael Kiddey and Rui Gomes Coelho. In the second of three interviews we will speak with Rachael Kiddey about the impact of beeing forced to flee our country.

How did your interest in the subject of migration come about?

I took my PhD at the University of York and I finished it in 2014 and I had been working with homeless people in the UK so walking around the city in Bristol and York and then seeing where homeless people go, how they use the city, how they found shelter.

 When I finished my PhD the effects of the Syrian war were really noticeable and by 2015 there were so many people fleeing war in Afghanistan and Syria that it just felt like a natural progression from homelessness to displacement more broadly. How do people cope when they have nowhere to be?

Photo courtesy of Bruno CastroPhoto courtesy of Bruno CastroWere did the idea for your project came from?

I am an archeologist that focuses on contemporary archaeology, which means using archaeological methods and theory and apply them to contemporary culture and society. It was an idea of more than forty years ago with a project called “The Tucson Garbage Project” by Dr. William Rathje, he studied rubbish dumps and then asked people what did they throw away and then he compared what did people think they throw away with what they actually throw away, and this whole study was to show that people are very unaware of waste. It was the beginning of a combination of archaeology being a useful tool to society and not just interesting and about the deep past.

This idea was not really successful in the 1970’s but then in the late 90’s a lot of people were applying post-modernist and post structuralist methods and theories, so the idea that you could that archaeology methods and apply them to modern day society really took off in the early 2000’s.

I trained has a historical archaeologist, looking at colonialism, 18th century expansion from Europe out to the rest of the world, and so on; but when I did my masters I was very interested in the relationship between archaeology and heritage, on the one hand archaeology as being the study of the past, either it’s the deep past or a more recent one and on the other, heritage as a social process, something that we do rather than something that we have.

I was working in Bristol which is one of those cities where there are a lot of anarchist thoughts, anti-establishment thinking, very left winged and anti-capitalist, because I was very much involved in all of that one of the things I saw before the banking crisis in 2008 was these huge big hoardings everywhere, saying “Buy this flat for only 2.000 pounds” and I was looking around thinking that nobody I know could afford places like that. With that came a massive flow of homelessness.

While working with homeless people I chose anthropological methods, I used to ask them “Where do you go? How do you make shelter? How do you find the things you need to survive?” my goal was to combine anthropology, ethnography and archaeology while focusing on the material cultural itself. That process was very much collaborative and a lot of homeless people started showing interest in the study, which was something I did not expect, but ended up showing people and themselves that they were useful and part of society.

This project with migration is about working together, and telling a story together showing that we can change the way that refugees and migrants are thought about, they are not coming to take our jobs or live of the state, they actually bring with them all sorts of skills and a lot of culture, they are very useful people who contribute to society. The point in working with them to use objects is to try to understand how material culture features in the rebuilding of these peoples lives in a new place.

You said you do not view people as a study object, but rather as knowledge producers. Could you explain us your perspective on that matter?

I believe very strongly in a flat hierarchy, so I do not enjoy working in a structure where I am Dr. Rachel Kiddey from the University of Oxford and you are just a refugee. I work with people as a colleague, as an equal and then what I find is that the people I work with have other skills that bring different kinds of knowledge, for example what it is to be Syrian, experiences on conflict, different material cultures and how to survive, all this knowledge gets combined and then we tell the story together. I see this as a form of social activism.

You would say you adapt in their community, rather then forcing them to adapt to your study right?

Exactly that. Bill Caraher wrote a fantastic paper called “Slow Archaeology”, where the idea is that research projects are designed with the people right from the very beginning, the whole way through you go with a paste that is right for the whole team, not for the funders or the university.

Why did opt for and activist archaeological analysis? What sets it apart form the rest?

I am very worried by the rhetoric that goes around migration.

I am part of a project located in Arizona with twelve other archaeologists and we study the whole past of migrations, from the beginning to where we are now, one of the things our investigation tries to show is that humans have migrated forever and all over the planet. Every culture has some history of travel or migration. To be human is to migrate, and that is exactly what we try to show with our data.

In the last 500 years with the advent of capitalism you have politics putting borders and development of nation states which leads to the hardening of borders. So yes, I feel very worried by this rhetoric that goes around migration, I feel like we increasingly talk about migrants as though they are not humans, we talk about migration as though it is a flood and all these awful words which add to racism.

The reason why I call it activist is because I believe we have to do what we can to enable people who are migrants to tell their own stories in ways that do not make them victims. We have two views, the humanitarian one, that mean well but often conveys the idea that these people are victims which does not help them at all, and then the securitization one that is the exact opposite and tries to exclude these people even more. Somewhere in between there is something more human that tries to understand these people, imagine if you had to flee your home and you could one carry one thing with you, how would you continue to be yourself? On top of fleeing and experiencing a traumatic conflict you turn up in a place that is supposed to be civilized and you get treated like an abomination.

This project is about to try to humanize migrants and make them individuals and real people, our friends, our neighbors.

Being forced to flee with just one object is at the center of your project. Could you explain to us why you decided to present Hassan’s t-shirt?

I chose it particularly because as an artefact that t-shirt sits between a context of a long history of refugee and migrant material culture. My own family were Dutch Huguenot and in the late 18TH century they came to England, we have some letters written in Flemish asking “Did you get there okay? How is England?” and some other families from the Huguenot diaspora would sow jewelry into the inside of their clothing and you see the same thing with people fleeing the Nazi Germany, people hide their documents or money inside a secret pocket so they can always have something to start them off when they get to their destiny.

Hassan's T-shirt Hassan's T-shirt

The Hassan’s t-shirt as an artefact is a 21st century version of the exact same thing, needing to smuggle some money and passport, but I also find it extremely powerful to the extent that his mother made it for him and I have two little boys and I can only imagine what she must have gone through while making him the t-shirt.

Yes it is just a grey t-shirt, but it is not, it carries meaning, and can be considered vehicle for a mother love as well as a metaphor for the whole exodus from Syria. This object shows the raw reality of having to escape war. It is sadly familiar, I hear it again and again from anyone who comes the overland route, many of whom do not make it. The object is not just about Hassan it represents the families left behind.

That t-shirt symbolizes that the process of migration has no true ending, once they find safety, if they find it, they carry the weight of supporting their families at home.

I have had two people in my group who emailed me to say that being part of the project is too painful for them, they happen to be from Armenia which is at war with Azerbaijan and so they had to step back and not talk about it, and I respect it. That is the sad reality.

Do you think that some people stepping back compromises the project?

It does not compromise the project. If I was to be cruel I would say “My data is all ruined, this is really annoying”, maybe I cannot use their stories, their photos, the things that we worked on together for nearly 3 years, maybe they will say they do not want to see it published and that is their rights.

It makes it difficult for me, but that is not nearly as important as the fact that they are traumatized. There is always risks while doing this type of work.

Have you been struggling with a lot of people stepping back from the project?

Yes, and that has partially to do with Covid. We were supposed to meet 12 refugees in march, but because of the lockdown for the first time we could no longer get together to do the workshop, online was never an option because they live in camps and squats and do not have access to computers or phones nor internet. They ended up felling away from the project.

But I think this is the story as well you know? I just have to write about that.

As an archaeologist how do you think Covid will affect the migration process?

There was a point at the beginning of the pandemic where I thought “Amazing this is actually great”, in the sense that it would connect humanity, the virus does not care if you are Donald Trump or Boris Johnson or a beggar on the street, it will affect everyone equally.

We are humans and we create divisions and class hierarchies, their not real, but the virus is, so I thought the pandemic would help us to emerge and to look after one another better, or maybe even slow us down, forcing us to make changes. Maybe this is what we needed. I remember in the first week feeling this strongly as if earth were fighting back.

Sadly, I think now we are just back to where we were. It looks like rich people will get the vaccine, but it will take longer for poor people to get it. Once the rich get their life back the pandemic will stop being a problem. Unfortunately, that is the culture that predominates.

So, you believe for migrants everything will stay the same?

It will be worse for them. They will be stuck in camps because the whole process of asking for asylum stopped. In the UK, the virus is being used as an excuse not to process those applications, this government does not want people from Syria who were shop-keepers or café owners, this country is happy to have Asian people, as long as they have a lot of money. It does not want more people who are just normal people.

Having that in mind, what do you think could be a solution to integrate the migrants? Or to change the minds of people who do not agree with their integration in society?

In terms of integration we really need to recognize that until people can speak the language well enough to get a job, they cannot be self-sufficient nor independent. What you find in a camp is that if people already speak a little bit of English, then they want to practice their English and go to an English-speaking country. The case for a lot of West Africans is that they speak French so they would like to go to France. It makes sense.

In Sweden they are doing the integration very well, when people apply for asylum they are given temporary housing and have mandatory Swedish lessons and so they learn to speak Swedish really quickly. That is the deal, accommodation, and some money to live off, but you need to learn the language.

If you were forced to leave your home suddenly, what would you take?

First I would take my children… I have often made myself think about this, I would like to say something like “A cabinet my grandmother left me” but it is deeply impractical, and then I like to think I would take this really beautiful book size bookshelf that one of my refugee colleague made for me, he made all these tiny books that go in it, that are all my favorite books, a beautiful thing…

But in truth had interviewed people and had spent time with them, I would take a first aid kit, I would definitely take some marmite, a flask because I cannot live without coffee, socks, a good pair of walking shoes and as much money as I could manage.

I would pack for survival.

by Alicia Gaspar and Rachael Kiddey
Cara a cara | 26 November 2020 | Europe, forced migration, hospitality archaeologies, migrants