Artistic webzine on migration, borders, human rights
En ce temps-là le monde était rond
et on pouvait tourner tout autour
en rond et en rond.
Once upon a time the world was round
and you could go on it around and around.
Gertrude Stein, Le monde est rond
The world is not (yet) round
Have you ever had trouble crossing a border? As a citizen (or villager, to be more precise) of a micro-country smaller and much less affluent than Luxembourg, I’ve had my (un)fair share of nuisance and discomfort when travelling from one nation state to another. At the Istanbul airport, for no apparent reason, I was made to wait in an office for what felt like a whole minute for each and every one of the 703 Maltese and George Crosses that decorate my passport, watermarks included. (Did you know it was possible to fit so much patriotic and religious fervour in the pocket of your jeans?) Outside the terminal of the Roma Ciampino airport, chatting and laughing away in Maltese with my well-bearded friend Kevin Saliba – who, much like our language, comes across as more North African than Southern European –, we were startled by an agent of the guardia di finanza (the Italian border police), who had no doubt overheard our Arabic-sounding exclamations (illallalalla, for instance, or the wonderfully hybrid ħaqqalmadonna), and trudged by to ask us for our passports. Malta, eh? Ma a Malta non parlate inglese? We were taken to an office, our stomachs churning in silence, and made to wait at the door whilst another guardia made a series of phonecalls. We were allowed to move on toward check-in only after I was asked to confirm that I happened to be born in London. What if I had been born in Tunis or in Tripoli, I wonder, or in Timbuktu?
Luckily they didn’t bother searching us, as I was carrying a few dozen ‘fake’ poetic passports in my rucksack, and had I been forced to explain myself to these state-sponsored guardians of the border, we would easily have missed our plane. These ‘anti-passport’ booklets contain a long poem I wrote three years ago, for several reasons both personal and collective, after a humiliating misadventure I had in a quaint little village called Kasani, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, straddling the frontier between Peru and Bolivia. There I was, sweating in the queue with my ‘real’ Maltese passport in my hand. Finally my turn came, and I handed my passport to the soldier, with a rifle hanging from his shoulders. He gawked at the cover. “Malta??! Malta??!”, then swung his head left and right like a lunatic and called out to his soldier colleagues, his voice rising agitatedly with each shrug of the shoulders he obtained in response. “Malta? Malta? Malta? Maltaaa??!” His comic demeanour, his bulging eyes, distressed me a great deal more than his blanks in geography (despite the words Unjoni Ewropea hinted clearly under his nose), although to a certain extent, I suppose they can be excused: by surface area, the Maltese archipelago would fit into the Titicaca approximately 27 times.
The uncertainty of the situation, and the nonchalance of the other soldiers, were seriously testing my nerves, until eventually, in a darker corner of the room, a more veteran soldier banged the palm of his hand on the surface of a wooden desk, visibly excited. “MALTA!” Next to his hand, quite obviously, was a list of countries, and next to each country, a corresponding visa entry price. Three weeks before my backpacking trip, I had read on the internet that Maltese passport holders enter Bolivia for free, but it seemed they had just re-introduced the paid visa, and I was very probably the first Maltese traveller to come their way since that change. “Usteeed tiene que pagaaar… cuatrocientosnoventayocho bolivianos…” I was too tense to mentally calculate the equivalent of 498 bolivianos in euros, and I’m not even sure I remember the amount correctly; what I do remember is the fright of that multi-syllable number, the helplessness before the possibility that I was being cheated (I was and I wasn’t), and the acceleration of my heartbeat. The grinning soldier then informed me that I could pay the fee in US dollars, $55, but that I had to give the exact amount as they could not provide any change. As all I had on me was a $100 bill, I spent the next twenty minutes negotiating with other people in the queue, many of them from the US. With each request for change, I felt progressively more humiliated, absurd, misanthropic. I soon got tired of explaining where Malta is, I don’t think I’ve ever given so many geography lessons in such a short time!
Eventually, I found a kind American soul who could give me the change I needed, I paid the $55, and I was awarded a visa for 30 days. Other EU citizens were being given 90-day visas free of charge. Those from the US had to pay $180, and l later found out why – quite simply, because Bolivians applying for a tourist visa to the US are required to pay exactly the same amount, $180. Symptoms of a puerile game between nation states, where one’s freedom of movement depends on bilateral agreements or disagreements between governments often aloof of their own peoples. After leaving customs, I took a bus to the village of Copacabana, and it was a long while before I managed to calm down. Once reaching the hostel room, I walked straight to the window, and finally rested as the sun, at that very moment, sunk its way lazily into the sleepy waters of the Titicaca.
Indeed, this personal anecdote is but the tip of a bulging, planetary iceberg. Citizens and villagers from the so-called ‘global south’ have it much worse, unless, that is, they happen to be wallowing in money. The value of citizenship is intrinsically linked to wealth – as if proportional to a nation’s GDP per capita -, and is a business in itself: there are consultancy firms that specialise in offering “citizenship planning” to rich individuals looking to purchase an ‘honorary’ citizenship that would allow them to go about their travel and business freely around the globe. Camilo Godoy’s lenticular ‘double ID card’ featured in the printed newspaper Le monde n’est pas rond contains a reference to the Global Ranking of visa travel restrictions compiled by one such consultancy firm for use in their “Residence-by-Investment” programs. Cynically enough, as of February 2013, this same firm’s website even had the cheek to cite, as a motto in the sidebar, Benjamin Franklin’s celebrated words “Where liberty dwells, there is my country.”
Nation-state immigration policies allow such businesses to thrive, alongside others of a somewhat more brutal nature, way down at the other end of the global wealth spectrum. By ‘illegalising’ unwanted migrants, governments legitimise their attitude of institutional racism and people-filtering; and this, in turn, is a means to staunchly defend a profound injustice which – after the flight from war, persecution, and the consequences of adverse climate change – can be considered the driving force of world migration: the simple fact that the cost of human labour varies immensely from one part of the world to the other. The same governments that provide logistical and financial support to northern ‘expats’ travelling south to harvest resources such as oil, minerals and diamonds, are quick to raise barriers to ‘immigrants’ travelling north in search of better working and living conditions, and point to them accusingly as mere ‘economic’ migrants who are expected to simply stay put. Capitalism is not for everyone: the more people it excludes from playing the game, the more it prospers.
The raising of such barriers to migration has created an ample scope for those ‘other’ businesses to flourish: some covert, such as trafficking, smuggling, and exploitation (see Carole Reckinger, Gilles Reckinger and Diana Reiners’ Bitter Oranges, a profile of the orange grove workers in Rosarno), and others legally sanctioned by governments themselves – the deportation of ‘illegal’ migrants has grown into a huge boon for private security companies, and as I write this, a market is being created for enterprises to patrol the Schengen frontiers, and beyond, with unmanned surveillance drones.
These policies, together with border controls themselves, are a pitiless, almost sadistic attempt to deny geography. This is perhaps one of the great ironies of the contemporary human condition: wind travels freely, birds travel freely, yet the self-baptised homo sapiens sapiens does not. According to which passport one holds, the world takes on a different size and shape – governments have conveniently imposed upon individuals a world in the form of a complex polyhedron of nation states (‘imagined communities’, in the words of Benedict Anderson), and movement between them is becoming increasingly more conditional, and in some places even impossible – as of January 2013, 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, if you were to string all physical border walls and barriers (Greece-Turkey, Israel-Palestine, USA-Mexico, …) in a single line, they would stretch out to over 41,890 km, enough to form a Saturn-like ring around the equator.
Since the tender age of eight, I have been an incurable map freak: I can stare at atlases, wall maps and globes for hours without losing an ounce of excitement and curiosity. The older I get, the more I travel and the more personal stories I hear, the more I see the nation-state borders traced on such maps as cracks, crevices, even rifts. The astronaut Muhammad Ahmad Faris once famously described the view of Earth from space as “indescribably beautiful… with the scars of national boundaries gone”; yet as the previous statistic suggests, such boundaries are no longer so invisible. These knife-edge lines on the map form an extensive network of tightropes that migrants are forced to tread across in their natural quest for a better life. For those that ‘make it’, to Europe for example, a huge and rapidly-growing network of ‘detention’ and ‘removal’ centres awaits them (such as the one opposite the Findel airport, which activist group Personne n’est illégal – Luxembourg have been campaigning against since before its inauguration in 2011).
The planet may be spherical, but the world – the earth inhabited by humans – will not be truly round until we achieve equal freedom of movement for all. In the mean time, our world will remain a polyhedron, whose size, shape, and sharp edges depend on which nation-state passport you happen to be carrying. (If you have one, that is: Kurds, Rohingyas, Tibetans, Uyghurs and North Koreans are not so lucky.) Alternatively, with a little help from Salvador Dalì’s Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, we could choose to see the bordered world as a cracking egg, with a new, free, frontierless life slowly preparing to hatch. The number of generations it will take for that to occur is anyone’s guess, but for now, the struggle continues.
These are some of the many reasons why I wrote the Passport poem. Since its launch in Malta in December 2009, I’ve presented the poem in collaboration with 12 migration NGOs in nine countries, through the organisation of readings, workshops and debates, and donations from the sale of the booklet. I am grateful to CLAE for their support, in 2010, when we presented the English, French, and Luxembourgish adaptations of the poem at the Festival des Migrations. In mid-2012 I was invited to join the grassroots activist group Personne n’est illégal – Campagne contre le centre fermé au Findel, and I am grateful for their hospitality. I’m also thankful to Paulo Lobo, Jean Portante, Carole Reckinger and Sandie Richard for their invaluable advice, and to the highly talented visual artist Marco Scerri, for the concept and design of the Le monde n’est pas rond artistic newspaper, and for his precious time and ideas. The printing of the newspaper was partly financed by donations from the sale of the Passport in Luxembourg, France and online. I hope that its relaunch as an artistic webzine will help to promote its cross-border spirit. I feel the initiative necessary, as I wholeheartedly believe in the transformative power of education, activism, and socially committed art and writing. The benefits of art and activism are not easily tangible or measurable, but that is because they work on consciousness, and their effects are long-term. Much like throwing seeds to the wind, travelling freely across the spherical earth.
Have you ever had trouble crossing an international border? www.passaportproject.org/share-your-storyAdapted from the editorial of printed newspaper
Video: Michael Chaplin, 10-year-old son of Charlie,
delivering an important lesson
on power, passports, and freedom
“To leave a country is like breaking out of jail,
and to enter a country is like going through the eye of a needle. …
It’s incongruous that in this atomic age of speed,
we are shut in and shut out by passports.”