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Once Upon a Time in Turkey...
A Brief Narrative on Borders along Autobiographical Lines
in Eight Chapters

I guess the first border I ever crossed was the one into Turkey. Well, I flew there, and passed over a whole bunch of other countries, so I don’t know if arriving at Yesilkoy can really qualify as a first border crossing. But, this seems to be a technical question. I was seven weeks old when that plane carrying me from Austria touched down on Turkish soil, and so this event does at least go down as my first step across borders in my personal history. I should leave Turkey again only a year later, this time in the backseat of a shabby Cortina GT that my parents drove all the way back to Austria, earning serious respect of the owner of the garage they then brought it to first thing. Even though it should take another 23 years for me to go back to Turkey, there always remained a sentimental attachment to the country that, at least so the family tales go, provided me with words (anne, top, ekmek) before I ever knew any German. Sarife, my nanny and the person teaching me the above mentioned words, should always remain a point of reference, the person I – again, according to the family tales - was more attached to as an infant than to my own mother. I should see her again too 23 years later. She was still living in the same house my parents used to live in. A Turkish friend of my parents’ brought me there, explained who I was, and Sarife cried. I felt a bit funny, but it was nice. However, I don’t mean to bore the reader with personal stories. The point I am trying to make is that I feel lucky enough to have transgressed borders at an early age, liking to believe that it sharpened my sense for the dividing aspects borders can and do have, and the harm they can and do inflict. I was about eight years old when the first Turkish gastarbeiter (foreign worker, literally: “guest worker”) family moved into the tiny Austrian village my parents had later chosen as a place for me to visit elementary school. Once my parents found out that a Turkish family had moved into the village, they packed me into the back of the car (something less shabby by then, even though I don’t remember what exactly), drove down to the family’s house, and welcomed them. It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but looking back at that day now, this simple gesture has taken on meaning for me. My parents were never particularly politically concerned, and making some kind of statement against ausländerfeindlichkeit (“hostility against foreigners”) was probably the last they had on their mind that night. It was just that my parents had depended on the hospitality and openness of Turks when living as Austrians in Turkey, and so they wanted to show hospitality and openness to these people who had just arrived to live as Turks in Austria. And that was all this visit was about. But maybe this is what’s at the core of battling the harmful effects of relations between people that are defined on various notions of borders: to overcome those borders through personal connections. In a way, or so I’d like to think at least, this should become a guiding feature of how I’ve been trying to live my life as an adult who wants to see people of all national, cultural, economic backgrounds come together rather than stay apart. Evidently, borders get in the way of any process of coming together. This is why I have no doubt in my mind that, ultimately, all borders need to go. A dream perhaps, but what would happen to our lives if we didn’t keep on dreaming?
Disclaimer: Before raising wrong expectations now I’d like to make it clear that this little piece is not gonna provide alternatives to the model of the nation state; it is not about how to dismantle borders; it is not about explaining how we can do away with aspects of the international political order that we seemingly can’t do without; it is not about making an attempt at some well-founded anarchist argument that borders are inherently morally and politically evil; it is, in short, by no means a political manifesto. It is merely a sequence of observations of issues connected to borders as they were experienced in the course of the author’s life. Yet, a consequence of these observations is the deeply rooted conviction in the author’s heart that borders are “wrong,” that people need and must not be divided, and that if relations between people were guided by tolerance, understanding, sympathy, solidarity, and love, both locally and globally, borders, with the states they define, and supposedly protect, would inevitably become an anachronism no one would ever look back to.

When I was six years old, and after crossing many more borders with my parents, my mom and dad decided that it’d be better for me to have a steady school education than having to change classrooms every few months. They built a house in a small Austrian village that was not only conveniently located halfway in between their respective hometowns, but was also a border village. Germany was on the other side of the river. Luckily, as I see it today, the economic differences between the two countries were negligable at the time, so the consequences of living in a border town were mainly positive for us villagers: we had easy access to another country, its jobs, goods, services, media, cities, and never felt like going to Germany was going to a “foreign” land. But, like I said, we were fortunate that we were at a border of relatively little economic significance. It meant that we didn’t have to deal with many of the problems connected with border towns where the meaning of a political border actually becomes manifest, since the people of a rich nation have to “protect” themselves against the people of a poor nation, while the people of the poor nation have to risk their lives (in various ways) near, around, and across, the border as an economic necessity. Unsurprisingly, such border towns usually become hazardous locations: places of organized crime, human trafficking, para-militaristic border control, corrupt government officials, cheap bars, brothels, and junk shops, reckless entrepreneurs of all sorts attracted by the supposed possibility of making a quick buck. Border towns between uneven economies are mostly ugly, sketchy places. If they have any charm at all, it doesn’t refer to their status as a border town, but because any border town still holds remnants of the old frontier town, that is, in fact, something very different: A frontier town is a place for people from different cultures to meet, share, trade. Frontier towns are usually fascinating and rewarding places. There is no need for people to control, exploit, extort, bribe. Frontier towns are exciting places, from Gorom-Gorom to Tennant Creek. It’s only when frontier towns turn into border towns that they are ruined by the ugly implications borders have. Border towns illustrate what political claims to territorial power can do. Amazing what difference barriers, gates, barb wire, immigration officers, and border police can make. Go to Nogales and see for yourself.

When I became politically aware in my late high school years, I very much embraced all causes the left usually embraces. So this included anti-colonial struggles in so-called Third World countries, the separatist struggles of the Irish, the Basque, the Quebecois, or the militant defence of “autonomous spaces” in the urban hearts of the developed world. Ironically, in these contexts, borders of sorts could turn into revolutionary symbols. I mean, every good leftist revolutionary loves a strong barricade. Now, does this make us hypocrites in our stance against borders? I don’t necessarily think so. I think it is rather one of those ironies of history that sometimes we have to employ means to achieve certain principles that violate others. Maybe it really is one of the most cunning mechanisms of the rule of the capitalist nation state that it constantly throws its enemies into moral dilemmas. But, what else is there to do than face them? Many socialist liberation movements had to employ a form of nationalism in their struggles. So what? If people know that it is a tool in a struggle it will remain a tool, and will be discharged of once it will have fulfilled its purpose. Of course there lies exclusivist, xenophobic danger in any nationalism. But there lie many dangers in any struggle. No other protective strategy than awareness. And this is what we have to maintain every time we defend a freed zone by creating protective “borders” of sorts around it. The main joy in creating them must lie in the knowledge that one day they will come down. With a blast.

One could probably say that after finishing my formal education I went back to moving around. I gave up my apartment, handed most of my belongings to friends, and began roaming. This was now over eight years ago, and I still haven’t moved back into any apartment of my own. My travels in themselves aren’t very important here, but the fact that they made me cross many, many borders is. One of the most noticeable features of border crossings is that they will always remind you of how utterly false in the wider scheme of human relations the concept of borders are. First of all, the oppressive nature of borders becomes obvious every time you approach them. With all those borders I crossed, I’m still nervous every time. A border post is one of the places you are the most helpless at you might ever be. And it is one of the places you might encounter one of the most disturbing forms of humiliation you might ever encounter. At least this is true for me personally. The worst kind of discrimination I’ve ever encountered, I most definitely encountered at borders at the hands of quasi-fascist immigration authorities. Now the fact that these were my worst experiences of discrimination very probably have to do with the fact that I am a white male, since white males hardly ever encounter any discrimination anywhere else. (In this sense sending white males in stereotypical hobo-outfits to the U.S.-Canadian border – from either side – might actually qualify as one of the possibly most effective means to make them more aware of and sympathetic to the lives of those who live under constant daily discrimination in our societies. It’d be at least worth a try.) But I am sure many individuals from disprivileged communities would see their discrimination multiplied at borders as well. It is there where the force of the state comes crashing down on you with full force. While, if you’re apt and a little lucky, you can often avoid the state powers on your own hometurf inside a nation state, there is no escape at the borders themselves. As they are main means – symbolic and material – to uphold the power of the state, they will have to be amongst the first entities to be dismantled in the fight against this power.
Footnotes: 1. I’ve always said that possibly the single biggest problem with the traveling life are the most ridiculous regulations of immigration. Arranging visas, extending visas, paying fees, bribing officials, securing “letters of recommendation” from your embassy, producing “letters of invitation” from friends, companies, or hotels that everyone knows are being done by imposters, producing proofs of income or savings that everyone knows are fake, producing travel tickets that everyone knows might never be used. It is, truly, a circus. Talk of hassling subordinates for no other reason than keeping them subordinate. 2. Besides the hassles, immigration policies reflect the abhorrent global injustice between those who have and those who have not: while you can eventually, after you’ve been through all the hassles sketched above, pretty much go anywhere as, say, a citizen of a European Union member state, you have to be very fortunate as a citizen of, say, an African or Arab state to receive visas to leave your continent, sometimes even just your very own country itself. Along the same lines, how many Westerners have ever been deported from anywhere, and how many non-Westerners have? We might very well look at a ratio of 1:100, maybe even worse. (Like, tens of thousands of Europeans are staying illegally in North America. Hardly any of them ever gets tracked down and deported, and, of course, they are never refered to, or thought of, when people address “the problem” of illegal immigration on the continent. It is only those with brown or black skin who pose the supposed “threat” to U.S.-American and Canadian society and who have to live in daily fear of the immigration authorities. Give me a break.) One can read the implications and effects of colonial and neo-colonial injustice along the lines separating nation states. It is both a revealing, and infuriating exercise. 3. Speaking of colonial and neo-colonial injustice: Colonial borders are the saddest and most obvious exemplification of the cruelty of borders. Drawn by white men on big tables as a game (the famous “scramble”) over influence, power, domination, with no regard for anything else, especially not the African subjects of the colonies, and later independent African nation states. Yet, until today these European agreements rule and divide whole non-European continents. Who would have thought mere lines on a piece of paper could prove so cruel? 4. The currently most vivid and tangible exemplification of the utter falseness of borders, however, are the “militarized” borders, those that politically aware and active Arizonians are unfortunately so familiar with. The apex of cruelty in the name of international political order. Where can the virtues of an order lie that relies on fences, weapons, and search helicopters? Can the ugliness of borders become more obvious? I don’t think so.

I’ve spent a fair amount of my time traveling around oceans and mountain regions. What both geographic features have in common, despite of their obvious natural disparities are that they’ve historically kept their people rather isolated: while the sea forms a natural barrier between the islands and their people, mountain ranges provide a similar barrier between valleys and their people. Of course, both barriers can be overcome, and have been since centuries. However, in many regions this proved difficult for a long time, and contact between people remained limited. Often, despite of a common heritage, many micro-cultures developed in such areas, complete with their own language, customs, economies. If one wanted, one could perhaps make the argument that both the sea, and the mountains, and, in fact, the desert, the tundra, swamp areas, or thick bush or forest, constitute “natural borders” by which people are separated. Perhaps this is true. However, this separation is purely physical, and its cultural implications are nothing but the result of this physical separation. Natural borders don’t demand political separation between people, don’t implement systems of control, hierarchy, privilege. Once they are overcome, people can meet, trade, exchange, share freely. Their cultures will meet, learn from each other, influence each other. New hybrid cultures will emerge. And as long as these natural borders aren’t overcome, no political harm is done. People simply live in separate spaces, with no hierarchical implications of power. Political borders are not, as sometimes deceivingly and apparently innocently suggested, natural “extensions” or “successors” of natural borders. Natural borders simply keep people apart. Political borders force them apart. While the former simply define a status quo that can easily be overcome once the natural borders are physically overcome, the latter keep people both in distinct spaces and distinct identities, with all the manifestations of division, hierarchy, oppression, and conflict, this implies. The cunning attempts to show both as the essentially same are part of the ideological attempts of the powers in force to legitimize the political status quo they uphold. But we won’t be fooled.

In May 2001 I arrived in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s sandy capital city, at the beginning of what would in the end amount to a journey around West Africa of half a year. I couldn’t believe how many people from various West African countries I met in Nouakchott who had got stuck there on their odyssey to reach the southern shores of Europe. Making it to Nouakchott is fairly easy for most West Africans, but then the Sahara needs to be crossed, roads disappear, traffic becomes scarce, and the transfer costs more money than what most West Africans are able to afford. So they stay in Nouakchott, hoping they will eventually be able to save up enough money to continue north, making it to Morocco, and then somehow across the Gibraltar Strait to find themselves in Spain, and hence in glorious Europe. In reality, these Africans mostly end up doing dirty work for the Moors and expats, earn barely enough to make ends meet in Nouakchott itself, and delay their dream of going further north first by weeks, then by months, then by years. It was not uncommon to meet, let’s say, a Guinean taxi driver in Nouakchott who would tell you that he was just passing through on his way to Europe; and then answer the question of how long he had been in Nouakchott for with “seven years”. And while the situation in Nouakchott might have been extreme, this feature should follow me around West Africa for the entire six months I was there: people were constantly talking about going to Europe, about making contacts there, about some relative there they’d wish would help. And aside from the many Africans I met who were eager to go, I also met some who had made it, but who had been sent back. Due to illegal papers, conflicts with the law, personal fuck-ups. In any case, meeting all these people made all the numbers we hear more concrete: the numbers of “illegal immigrants” in Europe, the number of Africans deported, the number of Africans dying in the waters separating their continent from the European. One day, the Guinean taxi driver I mentioned might be one of them. And as bad as bad numbers are, they become even worse once you have faces to substitute them with. I was always mad at the so false and hypocritical rhetoric of Europen Union advocates who love to praise the Union’s supposed unifying purpose and its dedication to soften, even eradicate borders. But being amongst those who are excluded from any union, because the exact borders that the Union is supposedly dedicated to soften, even eradicate, are not only upheld, but even dramatically reinforced along its outer limits, made me even madder. I mean, the claim that the European Union makes borders diappear is a mere farce. All the Union does, is shift its focus from the borders between its member states to those around them, and in the process even widely intensifying their control and defense. It’s like saying you’re giving up firearms by trading the 9mm in your bedside table drawer for an MG-34 in your garden shed. What a joke. What an insulting, cruel, ludicrous joke. What it all comes down to is that, instead of eradicating borders, the European Union merely redefines them, in order to protect and increase the riches of the rich. By no means does it challenge the model of the nation state, and the implicit notions of its borders. This model remains the backbone of international politics, and thereby upholds the harmful nature of political borders. Even if both conservative and liberal defendants of the Union already roll their eyes at the inflated use of the “Fortress Europe” to point to the Union’s true intentions, Fortress Europe is an apt term. Emperors and rulers build fortresses when they are afraid and feel the need to protect and defend something. It is a means to stay in control, hold on to power, and keep those perceived as dangerous and/or unworthy outside. And those who try to defy the emperors and rulers, and try to make it in nonetheless, do so by risking their lives. Like the thousands drowning in the Mediterranean Sea each year. And then they tell us about dismantling borders. Shame on them.

I assume I will visit Turkey again. At this point, my relationship with the country is mainly sentimental. Stories, photos, memorabilia from a time I was too little to remember, and one visit of not even two months as an adult. However, I don’t think the quality of my relationship with the country at this point matters much. Regardless, Turkey will in a sense always be the place where my journey started. And, luckily, this journey has many facets: It is not just about me going from place to place, crossing many borders, visiting many places. It is also about everyone crossing my path, about their identities, their places to call home, their journeys. Meeting Turks abroad always reminds me of this. And, in a sense, it is the best reconnection to the country I can have. Place is important. But, like everything, it is open, and one can carry it with her. And one ought to. This way people exchange, share, inspire each other, and make everyone’s lives richer lives. Borders only inhibit. The more freedom to move, the better.

I know that they say the dream of a world without borders is a naïve, utopian dream, not worth, no, even dangerous, to pursue. But who are they to tell us what to pursue? And, as already suggested earlier, what would be worth more pursuing than our dreams? NO BORDERS!!

Gabriel Kuhn