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You got a fast car
I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I'd always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me would find it
I got no plans, I ain't going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving
So I remember when we were driving, driving in your car
Speed so fast, I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I-I, had a feeling that I belonged
I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way
- Excerpt from Fast Car by Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman’s well-known song Fast Car, the last few stanzas reproduced above, expresses the desperate longing of a young woman seeking to escape her conditions of life, slowly discovering that however fast the car drives, her troubles persist, her conditions are reproduced, and her feeling of belonging and sense of ‘being someone’ is fleeting. At the end her partner – the driver of the fast car – is given an ultimatum, the same one they once embraced together: “Take your fast car and keep on driving… Leave tonight or live and die this way.”
Caressed by this song are several of the themes explored in Nichola Khan’s book Arc of the Journeyman, a sometimes poignant, incisive account of the losses and sorrows, hopes and dreams, and comings and goings of Afghan taxi drivers forging livelihoods, sustaining relations, and making sense of themselves, their circumstances, and their troubled histories on the South coast of England. The most central commonality, of course, is the symbolic and material figure of the car and the act of driving as a representation of the im/possibility of escape and escapism.
Nichola Khan’s Arc of the Journeyman is a tale of male Afghan taxi drivers living diasporic lives characterized by dispossession, exhaustion, and a search for upward mobility and respectability. It is about mobility, exile, and violence intersecting personal and collective trajectories and bridging multiple geographies. It is essentially a book about drivers – drivers of taxi cabs, and drivers of mobility and immobility. It is predominantly about people but never in the abstract and never conceived as automated solitary creatures, always as embodied, situated, and caught up - for better and for worse - in formative relations of dependency and desire.
In fact, hanging out in taxi cabs and with taxi drivers has a bit of a history in the social sciences. As early as 1959, Davis’ early version of autoethnography studied the limits imposed on taxi drivers’ autonomy by the nature of the job. More recently Goyes and Skilbrei (2023) take Davis’ early work as point of departure for arguing that the unique professional position of cab drivers is a useful route to understanding the life worlds and attitudes of their passengers and acquiring insight into the imaginaries that comprise the cities in which taxi drivers typically ply their trade. The ‘taxi method’ as they dub it is portrayed as a means of quickly, easily, and cheaply accessing a new field of study, for Goyes representations and memories of Colombian narco cartels, for Skilbrei the dynamics and geographies of sex work in Russia. Khan’s methodology is more expansive, informed by a deep ethnographic sensibility and interested in much more than cab drivers as professionals or in simply using them as gatekeepers.
A central theme of Arc of the Journeyman is migrant subjectivity, specifically and deliberately Afghan migrants, disrupting common understandings about the figure of the Afghan man (member of a “suspect community”…) and reframing Afghan-Anglo relations – seeing them not through the eyes of the colonizer – the explorer or the peacekeeper - but from the perspective of the migrant subject moving back and forth and stuck unremittingly in between in “a place that is no place” (228). It is driven by and about “motile logic” (47), the idea that humans are not simply pushed and pulled by forces beyond themselves but propel ourselves (though often in a highly circumscribed fashion). Such locomotion – including its limits and conditions - is a core dimension of human experience even as we all (in vastly differentiated ways) traverse sites of confinement and freedom, and experience inertia-inducing turmoil as well as momentary joys.
Arc of the Journeyman deserves to be widely read. It will appeal to those with an interest in life, language, and representation; theory as practice; style as substance; suffering as compound (not cumulative); and histories as recursive. It will also appeal to those - like me - who identify strongly with Holland and Lave’s (2001) notion of ‘history in person’ and the way relations between ‘enduring struggles’ and ‘intimate identities’ are forged through ‘contested local practice’, what others refer to as relations between material and psychic dimensions of human experience, or relations between structure and agency. The tales of Arc of the Journeyman are fleshy, tactile, and sensual. This is conveyed initially by the contents page with its hints of what is to come: tastes, dreams, feasts, labors and so on. But there is no lack of spirit or theory, also revealed in chapter titles featuring lifelines, freedom, suffering, kingship, crossings and more.
The book begins by the crackling fire in the author’s living room and ends with a cryptic (to the uninitiated) proverb: ‘one finger doesn’t cover the eye of the sun’ (presented in Pashtun and English) implying to this reader at least that there is always more, always excess, always bleeding, and that despite best efforts our scholarly endeavors never cover the (w)hole. There will always be gaps, seepage, and ongoing indeterminacy. It is a tale told with respect for history, language, idiom, and place, taking advantage of “the facilitative privacy of moving cars” (24) and resisting the sexism that is prohibitive of women researchers hanging out with men in intimate secluded spaces. It was in fact, claims Khan, this ‘transgressive style’ that made the book possible (26). This claim and the claim that the book ‘wrote itself’, and that life and knowledge are intertwined forms of ‘unfinished business’ (229), are illustrative of the tension present in the pages between unapologetic and uncompromising insistence and gentle, even humble, invitation to embrace the force and points of her argument.
Style and content align. Fragmented lives are portrayed through ‘fragmentography’, most specifically in chapter 4 which is a collection of observations, reflections, and episodes following one another but unintegrated and unexplicated, inviting the reader to engage in their own sense-making drawing on clues provided in other chapters. Relatedly, Khan is also concerned throughout with the ‘impossibility of inscription’ associated with the “exchange of war for the oppression of freedom and refuge” (45) emphasizing the significance of displacement and dislocation not only in space but also in time, and in the language available to make sense of such dynamics. The book is ordered though there is an invitation to resist the structure and read in non-linear fashion. Prose poetry (Afghan style), ethnographic snapshots, as well as more orthodox tales from the field feature too.
Khan mines multiple sources for inspiration beyond the lives of her taxi driver friends whom she has gotten to know over many years. Traces of literary, philosophical, as well as psychoanalytic references abound (e.g. Arendt, Berlant, Das, Deleuze, Derrida, Freud, Hemmingway, Levinas, Proust, Rousseau, Stoler…). It is a book that models “epistemological dexterity” (236) as it traces journeys from Afghanistan to the south coast of England and back, often via Pakistan, and skillfully weaving together narrative analysis, methodological insights, and analytical argumentation.
Relations between kin (locally and via remittances), between parts of the world, and between taxi drivers and the author are foregrounded. Actors, events and ideations are juxtaposed in unorthodox fashion: “What have taxi drivers or picnics to do with suicide?” Khan asks, rhetorically (228). Quite a lot, as it happens. The reader journeys with the writer and the taxi drivers along multiple routes both literal and existential. Together we traverse one of the taxi driver’s troubled dreams as well as the Sussex Downs, the Khyber Pass, and the haunted sleepless space of a shared flat. We pause temporarily to fill in administrative forms that sustain livelihoods, and at border crossings featuring encounters with border guards. We partake in transnational and local trips, attending picnics and barbecues where connections are made between past and present, and through which we witness migrant subjectivities being shaped. Arc of the Journeyman models how we might look at the way relations between structure and subjectivity are constituted in practice be these the practice of acquiring and maintaining taxi licenses; arranging diasporic community events; planning and enjoying outings; or desperately striving to ‘be someone’.
Mobility is explored as “dream, metaphor and compulsion” (236), but perhaps most ultimately as simply letdown. Mobility fails to ‘bestow its promises’, resulting in fragmentation of self-hood, and forms of impasse and stuckness. Arc of the Journeyman traces the vicissitudes of im/mobility as lived and lived with. Binary and hierarchical thinking is resisted throughout: “Rather than jettison structure for process, immobility for mobility, or separate individual and community politics,” Khan (217) asks, “might we not hold both together?” Through a subtle weave of local and global, personal and collective, historical and contemporary tales, Khan effectively deconstructs the distinctions. Living histories are accounted for against a backdrop of imperial ruin, reflecting current scholarly preoccupations (in this writer’s field of confinement studies, and elsewhere) about how best to reference the intersection between long durée structural forces and personal and relational dilemmas of survival. Concepts like duress (Stoler 2016), aftermath (Bruce-Lockhart 2022; Draper 2012) legacies (Jefferson, forthcoming) and reverberations (Elsahamy, forthcoming; Weegels, forthcoming) are all in play.
Khan does not offer us a new concept but exposes a fluid, material, existential and analytical landscape that disrupts and provokes conventional thinking and invites us to grapple with, rather than dismiss, the contradictions of freedom and suffering that constitute confining migrant subjectivities. In short, Arc of the Journeyman is a fierce, transgressive, disruptive, and demanding book that warrants a wide and transdisciplinary readership.
Abdelhamid, E.E. (forthcoming) Searching for existential stability: exile, carceral transition, and securitized subjectivity. In Special Issue of Social Justice on Confinement and Authoritarianism curated by Tomas Max Martin & Atreyee Sen.
Bruce-Lockhart, K. (2022) Carceral Afterlives Prisons, Detention, and Punishment in Postcolonial Uganda. Ohio University Press.
Davis, F. (1959) The cabdriver and his fare: Facets of a fleeting relationship. American Journal of Sociology, 65(2), 158–165.
Draper, S. (2012) Afterlives of Confinement. Spatial Transitions in Postdictatorship Latin America. University of Pittsburgh Press.
Goyes, D.R., Skilbrei, ML. (2023) Rich scholar, poor scholar: inequalities in research capacity, “knowledge” abysses, and the value of unconventional approaches to research. Crime Law Soc Change.
Holland, D. and J. Lave (eds) (2001) History in person: Enduring struggles, contentious practice, intimate identities. Santa Fe/Oxford: SAR Press/James Currey.
Jefferson, A.M. (forthcoming) AFTERWORD: Making sense of recurrent histories of confinement and authoritarianism - legacies, afterlives, recurrences, reverberations? In Special Issue of Social Justice on Confinement and Authoritarianism curated by Tomas Max Martin & Atreyee Sen.
Stoler, L. A. (2016) Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham NC, Duke University Press.
Weegels, J. (forthcoming) Bestias: Reverberations of authoritarian control in Nicaragua. In Special Issue of Social Justice on Confinement and Authoritarianism curated by Tomas Max Martin & Atreyee Sen.
Andrew M. Jefferson is a senior researcher at DIGNITY, specializing in ethnographies of prisons in the global south with specific interest in relations between confinement and subjectivity.