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Burning borders: Migration, revolution, and the work of dignity in a Tunisian coastal town

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In her recent fieldwork, Valentina Zagaria asks: What constitutes and delimits dignity, responsibility and belonging in a Tunisian emigrants’ town in times of political change and illegalised border crossings? Zarzis, the southernmost Tunisian fishing and commercial port close to the Libyan border, is known for its generations of male emigrants to France and for the harga: the undocumented “burning” of the Mediterranean to reach “Europe”. During the 2011 revolution, it was the first city from which boats started leaving for the Italian island of Lampedusa. Young men especially continue seeking the harga and a future abroad, despite accusations of immorality waged at them – and at sisters, mothers, and wives-to-be – by older generations of men. While some local youth have gone missing on the crossing, their bodies never to be found, Zarzis, like many other Mediterranean coastal cities, hosts a cemetery of unknown migrants, testimony to ever more deadly European Union border policies.

Also not unlike other Mediterranean seaside towns, Zarzis is a destination for retired Europeans, some of whom, particularly women, marry younger Tunisian men, in what are often viewed as “visa weddings”. Being simultaneously a place some wish to leave, others move to, some visit as tourists, others inhabit only temporarily on their way north, and where the bodies of unknown would-be migrants are laid to rest, migration in all of its various configurations is part of everyday life in Zarzis, while still remaining a morally difficult matter for all, albeit for different reasons.

 

 

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