Interview with Rayed Khedher

Rayed Khedher is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. A graduate of the University of Tunis, Khedher received the Wadsworth International Fellowship in 2008 to aid training in socio-cultural anthropology at UCLA co-supervised by Dr. Sondra Hale and Dr. Susan Slyomovics. We reached out to Rayed to learn more about his education, his research on undocumented migrants in the Mediterranean, and to get an anthropologist’s perspective on recent happenings in his country. 

If one day People want to live, Destiny must surely respond

Darkness must disappear, Chains must certainly break

 Abu-Al Qacem Al Chabbi

(The Tunisian Poet of All Times)


Protestors in front of the RCD (Ben Ali's former political party) demanding its dismantling

1. What is the most unexpected way that your research interests have been influenced by your experience at UCLA?

During my four years in the UCLA anthropology Ph.D program, co-supervised by Prof. Sondra Hale and Prof. Susan Slyomovics, I gained a substantial knowledge in key theoretical classical and contemporary trends in anthropology which highly broadened my academic and personal perspectives. I critically re-explored the interplay of theory and ethnography in the development of anthropology into its contemporary form in dealing with socio-cultural research. My experience at UCLA in addition to the events taking place in North Africa, the Middle East and the world today are continuously shaping and re-shaping my knowledge and perspective about my doctoral research topic. For my study, I am investigating the impacts on male migrants of the mass irregular migration to Italy following the 2011 Tunisian uprising. My research interests have evolved in parallel with the recent developments in the North African region especially in light of the massive irregular movements of Maghrebi migrants to Italy. It is totally unexpected for me to deal with my topic in such a very timely context in which events in North Africa and the Arab region are unfolding every minute and every second. In light of what is happening, I am now focusing on the scrutinization of the potential of greater human rights abuses perpetrated by the Italian authorities and the resulting irregular Tunisian migrants’ reactions and strategies for resistance. My objective is to explore the human dimension involved in these trans-Mediterranean Sea crossings by examining two levels of human rights abuse: 1) human rights abuses by the Italian authorities at the point of entry within the police stations and detention centers; and 2) violations of human rights by non-state actors (smugglers, employers and the public) to which the Italian government fails to respond. I discuss this topic by ethnographically exploring the construction of the Tunisian Muslim irregular migrant as the “violent other” and the “potential criminal” or the “hidden terrorist.” I ask whether, in the face of this criminalization (in discourse and practice), the Tunisian migrant is able to turn the discursive power relations and oppression characterizing the host society into a collective form of resistance.

My proposed research on the 2011 post-uprising Tunisian irregular migrants in Sicily explores some of these politically racialized cultural identities and subjective vulnerabilities and investigates whether they lead to xenophobic/islamophobic migration sentiments and further human rights violations. The primary goal of this project is to examine the strategies and tactics irregular migrants employ to convert the stigmatized and criminalized self and crippled identities into collective forms of resistance. I hypothesize that those stigmatized representations could translate into valuable social, cultural and political resources that can be used in various alliances that provide opportunities for the migrant to fight the myriad forms of social violence and discrimination he faces from formal and informal institutions. The existing literature on North African irregular migration, violence and human rights abuse has had little to say about how migrants’ resistance strategies, particularly collective ones might alter their situation. Through in-depth ethnographic research in the field, I propose to fill this gap which has major repercussions for the understanding of the subjective experience of the irregular migrant in ways that touch not only on basic theoretical aspects of migration research, but also on policy. If, as I hypothesize, in a context  of socio-political turmoil the vulnerability of the Tunisian migrant is able to develop a sense of agency thanks to changes in the political situation at home, and if he is empowered to act with others to protest or alter intolerable conditions, a whole new way of dealing with the transnsational development of the migrant as a subject emerges.

My training at UCLA consolidated my knowledge of the key theoretical debates in the study of international migration and gave me new tools to examine the interdisciplinary and methodologically pluralist nature of the migratory phenomenon and its connections with the larger conceptions of nationhood, identity, citizenship and the state. In addition to taking classes and TAing, my overall experience at UCLA has been deeply enriched by participating in a number of lectures and various Conferences in anthropology as well as in other disciplines of primary interest to my research. I participated in several meetings of the Migration Study Group and I presented various papers and gave talks on the issues of illegal migration, human rights, social change in North Africa etc focusing on the power of people to stand up against injustice, inequality as well as economic, social and political corruption.

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