Contact Zones

October 7, 2019
WSRP RA Alicia Izharuddin
WSRP RA Alicia Izharuddin. Photo courtesy Alicia Izharuddin

Alicia Izharuddin, Visiting Senior Lecturer on Women’s Studies and Islam and 2019-20 Women's Studies in Religion Program Research Associate, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on October 4, 2019.


I arrived in this country two months ago. It had been 12 years since I have been in the United States. In the six months before my arrival I was filled with trepidation. I was travelling from the Netherlands where my family resides, after many years of working and living in the United Kingdom and Malaysia, and I had become very accustomed to the impersonal nature of immigration bureaucracy that was quite determined to discourage me.

I had made sure I filled out every form, paid every fee properly and promptly, and kept much of the anxiety to myself. I had been very lucky; my voyage and eventual arrival was smooth, for it was facilitated by the kindness and warmth of people I encountered and work with since my arrival, which helped to slowly open my world to this world. Soon, I learned that the kindness and warmth was the way in which this world opened up to mine.

In the often heated and violent discussions about immigration in which people are reduced to statistics or worse, aggregated masses of swarms and invasions, or to speak more plainly, when we talk about the movement of people, bodies, minds, hearts across borders, their arrival are met with questions about the assimilation of these bodies into the majority. What this means is that these people must obey the law, enter with correct documentation, speak the language and make themselves, ourselves, myself, invisible. Here, assimilation is like drops of rain that disappears into the ocean.

I am that drop that falls and disappears into the ocean. To go back to my own experiences of kindness and warmth and support, I took that as a means by people here try to assimilate to me, my newness and my foreignness. Somehow my foreignness is accentuated by how I perceive this place as foreign to me.

Twelve years is a long time and much has changed. I often say to those willing to hear that this is like a new and unfamiliar country to me. But of course for people here who try to assimilate to me and me assimilate to them, that occasion is often conditionalagain, with the correct documentation, the right kinds of English, and legitimate purpose of my being here.

Something happens when I assimilate and people assimilate to me at this meeting point, like the one we have here at this moment. Two worlds meet, collide, brush against each other, sometimes miss each other. Assimilation on either side is never going to be complete, never going to fully satisfy.

Because I’m an academic I’d like to introduce a concept coined by Mary Louise Pratt called "contact zones" which are "social spaces where culture meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, of their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today."

The contact zone could be the meeting point of two people from very different cultures, but those cultures are not equal in power and global recognition. Many people I meet do not know where Malaysia is, or, as I’ve actually been asked here in Cambridge, if Malaysians listen to jazz or even know what it is.

The contact zone could also be an encounter with an object, maybe a photograph whose provenance is somewhere unfamiliar and unusual which we have few cultural reference points to draw from. It could be a name you have never uttered with your lips and will have trouble pronouncing. But from this contact zone, something happens. Two worlds meet, they may clash and collide, but they may also transform each other. No one is completely unchanged after the encounter at the contact zone.

I’ve chosen to recite the 13th verse from surat al-Hujarat from the Qur’an because it is the most appropriate one for our reflection this morning. I would like to re-read the verse in English and situate in my talk on what the contact zone means:

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.

This particular verse, one of the most well-known in the Qur’an, makes a statement on equality of humankind despite our differences and sheer diversity, how god has purposely made humankind diverse so that we may know each other and find common ground. In the Qur’an, that common ground is our shared point of origin, whichever way you wish to interpret that.

What I take from this verse is that finding that common ground must be hard work otherwise why would god needed to say it.

Meeting at the contact zone isn’t always a happy encounter. Before one reaches it, there is often paperwork, fees, waiting times, long queues, interviews, borders, and walls. The contact zone is not always a happy place because it destabilises what you thought you knew about the world and about yourself and your place in the world. You realise you’re no longer the centre, at the centre, but placed at one of the many meeting points and contact zones for others who are moving along in life. Thank you.