The Two-Edged Sea: Heterotopias of Contemporary Mediterranean Migrant Literature – an Interview with Nahrain Al-Mousawi

Alex Favalli in conversation with Nahrain Al-Mousawi

Nahrain Al-Mousawi is a scholar of Arabic and Anglophone literature of the Middle East and North Africa, primarily dealing with postcolonial, migration, and Mediterranean literature. She has held recent positions as Assistant Professor of World Literature at the University of Balamand, Lebanon, as well as Postdoctoral Fellowships in Modern Arabic Literature and Culture at Washington University in St. Louis.

During the academic year 2015/16, she was a EUME Fellow in Berlin, where she focused on “undocumented migrant narratives from North Africa across the Mediterranean, as well as conceptualizations of the Mediterranean from a geo-literary perspective”. Among other publications, her work has been published in Al Jazeera, The National, Globe and Mail, and Chicago Tribune. Next to the academic writing, Nahrain Al-Mousawi writes poetry.

Her latest book The Two-Edged Sea: Heterotopias of Contemporary Mediterranean Migrant Literature was published by Gorgias Press in 2021.

© Nahrain Al-Mousawi

Alex Favalli: Your new book The Two-Edged Sea. Heterotopias of Contemporary Mediterranean Migrant Literature addresses invisible borderlines and juxtapositions that are drawn by colonial and asymmetrical legacies and power-relations through the writings of migrant authors. What is your book about and what are its main ideas?

Nahrain Al-Mousawi: Indeed, colonial legacies are very significant for having transformed the Mediterranean Sea into the heavily surveilled and guarded border it is today. But the book is more broadly about narratives of immigration that circulate in the popular imaginary, and how the reality conflicts with the fantasy of immigrating. I would say that the novels I explore reveal these conflicts through various forms, namely fusing realism with the fantastical to have us question the ways we apprehend reality, narratives, knowledge that has been our legacy, as migrants or aspiring migrants, or more broadly as readers who have certain images of migration. As for the Mediterranean, it is so overlaid with fantasy (of leisure, sensuality, cosmopolitanism) itself that it is difficult sometimes to apprehend what it has really become, a knot of borders and guards and surveillance.

Alex: In modern times the Mediterranean has a colonial genealogy, but often is remembered today in nostalgic ways as a space of olive trees, beaches and cosmopolitanism, but the Mediterranean also has been described as a sea of death in view of the victims’ failed attempts of voyage towards its Northern shores. What do you mean by heterotopias of contemporary migrant literature, and in which ways do the writers you deal with chart out the sea, and its relation to the land around it, North, South, and East?

Nahrain: I think the Mediterranean is all of these things at once—it is a beautiful blue sea with leisurely surroundings, but it is also a place of death and detention for migrants. Many places are like that in the world, because this is the drive of our modern capitalist globalization—to create spaces of fun, contentment and wealth and superficial diversity at the cost of people’s lives, a “double imaginary”[1] of globalization if you will, to reference Doreen Massey. Where space is imagined as free and unbounded for some but subject to material controls for others, creating these anomalous, incompatible images of the Mediterranean where corpses wash ashore amidst sunbathers luxuriating on their vacations. The tourism-migration nexus of leisure service industries around the world itself characterizes this deadly-leisurely contact zone.  I think that is why the various novels I explore delve into the fantastical, absurd, and grotesque, while also using realism to apprehend this very contemporary world of deadly migrations across the sea—because how else do we reconcile these different modes of being and living? I use the term heterotopia not to simply refer to the ways these different spaces exist side by side but to elaborate on how they interact with each other—that is, how do these utopic places of fantasy, sensuality, cosmopolitanism interact with a grimmer place of death, in its various forms (physical, social, , detention, danger, etc.), according to the novels I explore?

Alex: By shedding light on the symbolic and aesthetic role of the „flimsy, fragile, unstable, and easily breakable“ boat, you portray the more burdensome of the spaces within heterotopia. How, if at all, does this translate into literary, poetic or artistic themes in migrant narratives?

Nahrain: Indeed, the boats or rafts themselves are flimsy, at least for what is often a tumultuous voyage and for the number of people it packs, but it is not flimsy in the popular imaginary because it has attached itself quite powerfully and irrevocably. I think photojournalism has contributed to this archive of undocumented boat migration as an encroaching mass of people, from the type of shots that attempt to capture migrants as an unindividuated horde, a “swarm” or “flood”, as they are often  described in nativist perspectives in journalism. Often, the novels I analyze explore individual characters and their motivation for immigrating—and most significantly, how different characters arrive to the same spot on the shore to embark on the same perilous boat crossing. Various motifs are shared by the novelists to explore themes of migrant aspirations, migrant expectations abroad, the “immigrant dream”, if you will, especially with the authors‘ use of narratives mimetic of reality alongside the fantastical that aim to delve into the discrepancies between immigrant dream and immigrant reality, on the European shore. So the Mediterranean Sea and land become rendered through motifs, like paradise and hell, a utopia or dystopia, a familiar guide or bizarre monster. Thus, the familiar and unfamiliar, reflected by the uncanny, provide an opportunity to explore the fantasies and realities we access to apprehend a place like the Mediterranean and its various migratory crossings.

Alex: In recent years (and weeks), the European Union intensified the presence of border patrol and coast and migration guard significantly from the sea to its shores to the countries in the south and east of the Mediterranean. Does that challenge your idea of a „Two-Edged Sea“ – or even de-center the Mediterranean?

Nahrain: I think, more than anything, the EU has contributed to the sea being double-edged, if you will, in that it has transformed  it into a more disciplined, bounded, controlled, surveilled sea, while at the same time the image of the sea and region as a place liberated of social mores, of open diversity and cosmopolitanism, of free leisure time, with a history of open exchange between three continents across the sea, still circulates quite vigorously—as part of its branding. So now we have what I call the paradox of cosmopolitanism and containment that the EU has had a part in creating.

Alex: Ultimately, it would be interesting to dive deeper into one specific aspect of your book, which you already wrote about as a EUME-Fellow in 2015/16 in your Essay „Making and unmaking migrant bodies“. How do you look at the relationship between fiction and reality in the context of the – made or unmade – bodies dying at the borders of Europe?

Nahrain: I was quite grateful after I wrote that Essay, because it helped to bring to light the divide between the discursive and the material in the novels, in the way rhetoric materially affects, builds and destroys the bodies of migrants. So while we have a lot of circulating discourse about immigration, the Mediterranean, security, exchange, diversity, and all of the buzzwords associated with it, the discourse also moves forward to affect the lives and limbs of migrants. But it isn’t just nativist rhetoric to which the novels allude, they refer back to historical, mythical, and colonial discourses that used to apprehend the Mediterranean and the way they have been projected onto the characters. When part of the discourse involves social fantasy, the novels sometimes reflect these social fantasies through literary fantastical modes that shape the interpretations of characters. So, for example, characters locating a siren-like monster in the Mediterranean Sea speak to the dangerous social fantasies of the aspiring migrant to venture abroad and find paradise in the EU, while having a character metamorphosing into a free roaming bird alludes to liberation from EU social fantasies of containment of African migration.


[1] Doreen Massey, “Imagining Globalization: Power-Geometries of Time-Space”, Global Futures: Migration, Environment, and Globalization, eds. Avtar Brah, Mary J. Hickman, and Mairtin Mac an Ghaill, 39 (London: Macmillan Press, 1999).

Alex Favalli works at the Forum Transregionale Studien and is part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team.

Citation: The Two-Edged Sea: Heterotopias of Contemporary Mediterranean Migrant Literature – an Interview with Nahrain Al-Mousawi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.06.2023,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 21. Juni). The Two-Edged Sea: Heterotopias of Contemporary Mediterranean Migrant Literature – an Interview with Nahrain Al-Mousawi. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 16. April 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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