edited by Emanuele Giordana
Rosenberg & Sellier
Turin, 2018

What does the Sahara have in common with Ukraine, Haiti and Congo, Pakistan and Myanmar? The history of communities divided by lines drawn on paper, borders that change causing deportations of entire populations, monarchs who don’t want to leave their throne, illegal borders that create ghettos, colonial heritages that cause wars…
In this volume – co-written by several authors and edited by Emanuele Giordana in any way claiming to be exhaustive but representative of the different types of disputed boundaries – the geopolitics of borders is told by analyzing some emblematic cases, concluding with a historical and literary overview on the concept of border, a sociological analysis on its media coverage as in the case of the Mediterranean tragedies and a focus on the most emblematic situation of global importance among those currently occurring around the 38th parallel.

Sandro Mezzadra
University of Bologna

“A book on borders”, Emanuele Giordana writes introducing this volume, “is not a handbook of borders”. This seems to me to be a valuable indication, because the border is not suitable for being the subject of encyclopedic works (or global atlases). Indeed: in order to become so, one needs a sharp reduction in its meanings, in its intrinsic polysemy, it is necessary to assume a formal image of the border, to consider it nothing more than a line drawn on the map. However, the fact is that just when the border takes on that form, it ceases to be something interesting. To put it another way: it is worth studying and illustrating the border when its stability (so effectively evoked by the line drawn on the map) falters. In modern history this happened before. It is happening today, firstly because some of the most intense conflicts of our time are taking place around borders.
[…] Around borders people die in many parts of the world: from the Mediterranean to the border between Mexico and the United States, just to mention the two most striking examples (but certainly not the only ones), the conflicts that take place around the border are linked to migration. Elsewhere, along Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan or around the borders drawn by the 1916 Sykes – Picot Agreement in the Middle-East, it is the entire definition of geopolitically strategic areas that is at stake, in a framework that continues to be marked by war. Taking the “sand borders” in the Sahara as a starting point, one can look towards the Mediterranean, gaining a different perspective on the conflicts that cross it, or to the South, towards the Sahel: trade routes, smuggling routes, geographies of the Islamist presence, centuries-old nomadic customs, the interests of large multinational companies intertwine around borders that are sometimes rigid, sometimes porous.
[…] In all these cases the border seems to break down and then recompose itself, often in lethal ways on the bodies of men and women in motion. […] Many borders appear today to be strengthened. In particular, real and metaphorical walls are invoked and built against migrants. But to understand the meaning (and functioning) of these walls, it is necessary to look at the processes of “externalization” of the border […] and at how border control policies operate on the spaces they should delimit.
Stressing mobility and the elasticity of borders is not reassuring, it should be obvious. However, it helps to define the perspective from which borders can be studied today. I previously defined the concept that reduces the border to a line drawn on the map as “formal”. Indeed, this is when its stability is taken for granted. But the history of the border as a line (literally, an invention of European modernity) is anything but “formal”. In the meantime, it is worth pointing out that the drawing of this line is the condition for the existence of the state territory and therefore has a constitutive function in relation to the state (as well as to “the people” who live there and to the citizenry that establishes their rights). However, more generally, the history of the linear border is intertwined with the history of European colonial expansion – with the continuous opening of border areas (within which conquest often took the form of genocide of native peoples), with the protean geography of imperial rule and finally with the borders drawn with set square and pencil between the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 and the Sykes – Picot Agreement.
There is very little “formal” in this story.
[…] “Globalization” is far from creating a “world without borders”, as some people might have thought in the 1990s. In recent years we have witnessed a multiplication of borders, also in the immediate sense of an increase in nation states (often born from the blood of fratricidal wars, such as those that followed the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia). The linear border therefore continues to play an important (and often, I repeat, lethal) role in the lives of millions of people. But not only has this border become more mobile and flexible than it ever was in the past: today it is characterized by other limits (linguistic, cultural, urban), making the experience of the border something deeply complex and frequently disorienting.
In a 1984 novel, the American writer Russell Banks used the metaphor of “continental drift” to describe the impact of the migratory movements of those years. “Millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes, traveling sometimes as entire nations”, migrant women and men appeared to him as part of a larger whole, “of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses”. These images seem to me to be particularly effective even today, certainly to understand the pace and impact of migratory movements but, more generally, also to evoke the process of reorganization of the political and economic spaces we are experiencing.
[…] The border in the contemporary world challenges us to imagine and practice a politics of border, starting from the inner processes of transformation that are affecting and eroding the categories and institutions that have articulated modern politics – from the State to citizenship. By penetrating in increasingly evident ways into the spaces of these categories and institutions, which in theory it should circumscribe, there the border spreads violence and new hierarchies. A border policy today forces us to think at the same time about the internal dimension and the external dimension of politics – to create new forms of social and political coexistence in order to effectively intervene where the violence of the border arise in the most lethal way and to build new political spaces as a basis for democratic innovation in both local and national dimensions. Will it be possible to abolish borders? It is difficult to say. But certainly a border policy can aim to abolish some of them, to transform others from barriers to bridges, and more generally to make space around them for freedom of movement, meeting and multiple crossings.

Up to where the furrow of the border arrives
by Emanuele Giordana
Lettera 22

When this project took shape I thought it should begin with a journey across one of the many boundaries that have marked the recent history of the world. The 17th parallel, which for years has marked the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, has been chosen. To get there I boarded a night train from Hanoi to the south and got off at Dong Ha, a stop before Hue – the old capital – where, after taking the State Road 1, you arrive at the symbolic site of the Cold War: the “demilitarized zone” around Ben Hai River that runs from the Laotian border to the sea. It divided a no-man’s-land about eight kilometers wide. Today it is a quiet area surrounded by plantations and you should enter the small museum built next to a large commemorative monument to remember what it was. The old narrow bridge that divided and now joins the South and the North is in good condition as its wooden slats, and runs in parallel with the bridge of the State Road 1, wide and paved. The North Vietnamese custom house, the buildings where there were the international observers, and a guard tower in the southern part have been restored or rebuilt, not far from which a huge stone cone with a bizarre missile form rising amidst stylized palm leaves has been erected. Today everything is quiet but the southern area has been the scene of violent battles especially during the war with the United States. The names are known: Khe Sanh, With Thien, Hamburger Hill…
Today that border no longer exists and therefore that place becomes twice evocative and suggests many thoughts. It did not coincide with the geographical border, situated just a few kilometers to the south by the Col des nuages pass, which divides – albeit with few differences – the Vietnamese language that is spoken in the North from that which is spoken in the South. It is no longer a border; however, the legacy of the demilitarized zone is undeniable: even today the province of Quang Tri – and the neighboring Quang Binh – are still dangerous places to go for a walk and are the areas of Vietnam where the presence of unexploded bombs is the highest. Mines Advisory Group, an NGO operating in Quang Tri since 1999, a few years ago defused about five million of them. Next to the old line of demarcation there is a wooden building that houses wax statues, a simulacrum of the United Nations mission in charge of managing the legal aspect of the border. Those silent and static faces in the gesture fixed by the wax seem to give us the image of the difficulty that, yesterday as today, face those who are called to enforce the agreements. Their indications are often relevant but, most of the time, they are not considered. And finally, is the missile-shaped monument celebrating the Reunification only a symbol that hides the difficulties of integration between the two souls of the country or is it really the sign of a victory that is not only military?
Borders are many things. And there are of different kinds. It is in fact a «dark and impure, magical and violent» landscape – to use the words of Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson – that «surrounds the gesture of tracing and establishing a border», just as – we might add – its maintenance or expansion often appears dark, impure and violent. The borders are elastic and not by vocation (in theory they should be the opposite) and often violate the essential rule for which they have been created and that should be one of the cornerstones of international relations: delimit a territory definitively marking it with an untouchable dividing line and the result of a pact between neighbors that should not be violated to ensure the safety of those who live there. However, the history of borders says the direct opposite. And in fact – as Etienne Balibar has pointed out – «while the borders should be traditionally on the margins of the territory, coherently with their legal definition… it seems today that the borders and the institutional practices associated with them have moved to the center of the political space». Balibar has added: «The distinction between border and frontier is undoubtedly important… The first term was typically considered a line, while the second was built as an open and expansive space. However, in many contemporary contexts this distinction seems to dissolve. For example, the boundaries of the present European space often assume indeterminate features, historically characteristics of the frontier, expanding into surrounding territories and constructing spaces according to a variable geometry articulated over multiple geographical scales». This is the complexity of a story that comes from afar and where even the bureaucracy, with the birth of the ancestors of the passport, is the lion’s share: «Since Alsace, Hoffmann’s travel sheet has been covered by signatures of officials very similar to the zig-zags of drunkards… he was therefore forced to add one sheet to his passport, then another in Lorraine, where the writings assumed huge dimensions… there was a mayor who used two sheets, front and back, to give Hoffmann an autograph…» Dumas has stated, telling the journey of the young German who in 1793 went to Paris.
Today is apparently easier to move from one continent to another and with a third of the money you needed even just a few years ago, but travelling is more complicated than before, even for an Italian, bearer of one of the best passports on the planet thanks to consular agreements with many nations: it is possible to make visas online and yet restrictive measures have been increased and many states, if you are not just looking for a tourist visa, will only grant it if you apply in your home country. Globalization allows you to move around but not to wander. Everything must be under control and not just if you are one of those millions of people who travel for survival but who will never be granted a visa.
A book on borders is not a handbook of borders. If one were to list all the existing walls, all the disputed borders, all the difficulties of crossing this or that customs, a volume of five thousand pages would not be enough. Each boundary has its own history, its own dispute, its own complexity born around that dark and impure, magical and violent furrow. We have chosen just a few examples, but of course you could add endlessly to them: those suggested by recent news such as Ukraine, those ended in a massacre as in the case of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, those that are not yet certified and do not divide states but communities. That they exist even if they are often not seen. Invisible networks that limit and close instead of opening. A history in search of codification and in continuous transformation.
If the journey of these pages begins on what is now only a symbolic border, it ends in a place where, in the heart of a holy city, a barrage of iron and barbed wire marks the unwritten border between two communities. A maze of narrow streets, always traveled by an immense crowd of pilgrims among sellers of yogurt, tea, votive offerings, leads me to Gyanvapi Masjid, the most important mosque in Varanasi. It was built by the Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb in the second half of the seventeenth century after the destruction of a Hindu temple. The accounts report that Aurangzeb, who had neither the stature nor the openness of his grandfather Akbar, promoter of a peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims, wanted to give a lesson to the local landlords who supported the monarch and Maratha leader Shivaji. The provocation in the sacred city of Hinduism par excellence was not without effects. What remained – and in part remains – of the temple, became an object of worship and a symbol of resentment. In very recent times, in November 1991, there was yet another clash between communities that was supposed to kill dozens of people. Since then the great mosque has been surrounded by a metal barrier with barbed wire. The sacred sites – the ruins of the old temple and other small and large Hindu mandirs in addition to the mosque – are controlled by police, soldiers, militiamen. A border that cannot be felt in the magical atmosphere that can be felt on the great ghats of the Ganges, becomes immediately visible as soon as you reach the area around the mosque. A furrow marked by steel bars that shows the invisible border between the Hindu and Muslim communities, which in the 1991 events lost much of its economic power linked to the textile factories, some of which were set on fire.
The idea behind this work is that many of today’s borders and frontiers (I use the two terms regardless of what we have seen is and is not) are at the origin of conflict, migration, suffering. Colonial borders, the borders par excellence, are the most obvious evidence of this, and it is no coincidence that the adventure of Al-Baghdadi, the theorist of a new caliphate, began with the destruction of a border stone. But borders, or frontiers, are – as in Varanasi or as on the 17th parallel – also much more. Boundless.

The liquid boundary
The kaleidoscopic show around the Mediterranean wall. The humanitarian and media battlefield

by Pierluigi Musarò
University of Bologna

We know the story of Samia thanks to Abdi Bile, a former Somali athlete, unknown in the West, but a champion for his compatriots who still remember with emotion the gold medal in the 1500 meters at the 1987 World Cup in Rome. It was 2012, Bile celebrates the triumph of Mo Farah (British athlete of Somali origin) at the London Olympics and in front of an audience gathered in Mogadishu to listen to the members of the National Olympic Committee says: «We are happy for Mo, he is our pride, but do not forget Samia. Do you know what happened to Samia Yusuf Omar? The girl is dead… dead to reach the West. She had taken a tramp from Libya to Italy. She didn’t make it. She was a very good athlete. A wonderful girl».
Samia was the youngest of the six children of a Mogadishu family, born in 1991, the year in which President Siad Barre was dismissed and a long war began. Her father, Omar Yusuf, was killed by a gunshot at Bakara market: a month later Samia left school to look after his brothers and started training.
But in a country dominated by war and Islamic fundamentalists, people who did not look favorably on a woman who did sport, Samia not only could not enjoy the support of the government nor the few sports facilities now destroyed, but was forced to run with long sleeves, suit pants and a scarf on her head. And often to suffer intimidation, arrests and death threats.
Despite this, with enormous sacrifices, this small and slender girl in 2008 had managed to compete in the Beijing Olympics representing Somalia. She came last in 32,16 seconds, encouraged and applauded by the stadium audience. «I’m happy», she said.
She returned to Mogadishu, where she was greeted with little clamor. Here she received new threats from the integralist group al-Shabaab, and had to train at night and with the burqa, hiding her efforts and aspirations as an athlete.
In December 2009 she ended up living with her family in a refugee camp twenty kilometers far from Mogadishu; in July 2010 she managed to participate in the African Championships in Nairobi and the following month she moved to Ethiopia, hoping to find a coach. From there, with the obsessive thought of participating in the London Olympics, through the desert and Sudan, she arrived in Libya. From here she followed her dream, boarding a tramp that was supposed to take her to Italy. But a wall of water, on 2 April 2012, drowned her off Lampedusa.
The story of Samia came to light thanks to the story of the Italian-Somali writer Igiaba Scego and to the good book Non dirmi che hai paura, by Giuseppe Catozzella. Through their writings we discover the dreams and motivations that lead this very thin and tenacious girl to embark on the frightening journey that takes all the migrants to the Horn of Africa in the ways of the desert to try to reach the coasts of Europe. A journey that often breaks against the wall of the Mediterranean, in whose profound silence drown the stories that the media all over the world told, even through strong and moving images, capable of indignating or arousing pity, but then dissolve like any event consumed between a click and some commentary on the sidelines.

Over 30 thousand people, like Samia, have experienced in the last 20 years how fatal it is to feed the dream of the crossing if you start from the wrong side of the Mediterranean. Thousands of ghosts whose voice does not reach us, protagonists of a tragedy that has transformed the Mediterranean into a liquid cemetery, the most dangerous border in the world.
For those fleeing wars and famines, poverty and dictatorships, the possibility of shipwreck is the price to pay for re-existing (and resisting) on the other side of the Mediterranean. Along the coast between Senegal, Libya and Turkey, men and women feel both the desire to leave and nostalgia for home. Yet they do not give up. Like Samia, they undertake ‘the Journey’, which lasts a few months or many years. A reality that often becomes a nightmare, transfiguring an even deeper abyss: the one that separates the migrant from the rest of humanity.
Although we try to discourage aspiring asylum seekers through blockades, rejections, repatriations and communication campaigns ad hoc, that middle sea – Mare Medi Terraneum in Latin, the sea in the middle of the land – that the Romans called Mare Nostrum, is still more attractive than the impossibility of crossing it.
More than a border sea between Africa and Europe, a ‘liquid continent’ according to the definition of Fernand Braudel, who in his works on Mediterranean recognizes its dual nature of barrier that extends to the horizon and at the same time of a place that unites, common denominator of trade exchanges between populations sharing the same habits and paces of life. These similarities are also visible in the architecture of the Maghreb and Sicily, Cappadocia and Spain, and are the results of historical mixing.
«Not a civilization, but a series of civilizations stacked on top of each other», Braudel has defined it, a body of water crossed by sailors and merchants, missionaries and commanders, crusaders and pirates, each of them the creator of plots that have created contacts between the East and the West.
The Mediterranean is also the sea that has become the theatre of diasporas and conflicts, of hopes that have foundered in the form of massacres, human trafficking, arrests and solidarity. Not only a geographical place, but a changing imaginary that contributes to influencing the perception of the other. Sometimes representing him as close, similar, brother of the other side. Others categorizing him as alien, dehumanizing him, and thus fueling indifference, if not xenophobia, which ends up considering the tragedies of the sea produced by repatriation policies inevitable.
In the transition from the invisible deaths of a few years ago to the hypervisibility of contemporary shipwrecks, the rifts between one culture and another are revealed. The Jewish or Christian one against the Arab and Islamic one, the cosmopolitan one against identitarianism, the one of security and border control against solidarity that aims at opening humanitarian corridors.
A dualism built on fear of the other creates intangible walls that erase a history of common contamination, generating misunderstandings on both sides. A disturbing contrast which, today more than ever, sees the Mediterranean area furrowed by the division of concrete, material walls. Walls that risk bringing down the many bridges that have always linked the two shores.
A dualism built on fear of the other creates intangible walls that erase a history of common contamination, generating misunderstandings on both sides. A disturbing contrast which, today more than ever, sees the Mediterranean area furrowed by the division of concrete, material walls. Walls that risk bringing down the many bridges that have always linked the two shores.
The wall between Israel and Palestine, the barrier between Egypt and Gaza, the Green Line of Cyprus separating the majority Greek part from the part under Turkish control, the fortification of the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, the wall scattered with mines between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Republic, the one between Tunisia and Libya for antiterrorist purposes. And on the European shores, the barrier separating Greece from Turkey, the fences erected by Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia and to block migration flows from the southern Mediterranean, the Great Wall of Calais built in 2016 to prevent migrants from illegally boarding on trucks to Britain, up to the wall in Via Anelli built in 2006 in Padua to divide the quarter inhabited by immigrants from the Venetian terraced houses.

Less significant in their materiality and corporeality than the ideological narratives that are created around them, today these walls appear markers of a moral geography of the world in which openness and closure, universalization and exclusion coexist. They are concrete signs of the paradoxes of a globalization that has in its identity localization the other side of the coin. A wall-being built on the rubble of the well-being.
The space-time signature that makes the world a “global village” has deprived the State of its real capacity to control its inner political, social and economic dynamics, to the point of making it no longer “sovereign” as Thomas Hobbes had imagined it in Leviathan. Thus, national politics, emptied of the democratic conquests typical of the “project of modernity”, has found itself having to manage the gap between the “nationalized” individuals (whose status is still framed by passports, visas, residence, citizenship, etc.) and issues that are becoming increasingly global, in which the former have almost no say in the matter. Just think of global finance, pollution or terrorism.
It is precisely in the area of visa, border control and immigration policies that the gap is most evident: areas in which the state still has a great deal of room for maneuver. A power that often appears in the functions of police and territorial control, made more urgent by the need to face the challenge of transnational crime and terrorism, and in the management of the angry reactions of its citizens to this process of expropriation of popular sovereignty. In fact, feelings of discontent and frustration are growing, often becoming violent protests against those who are not citizens: immigrants and refugees, in any case foreigners, strangers, the foam that the sea leads and leaves on land, that the social backwash accumulates in the dead spaces, on the margins of society.
The crisis of the nation-state tries to hide behind walls that promise to defend citizens from external dangers, but that seem more useful in diverting attention from the economic crisis and from the erosion of welfare. And the migrant becomes the perfect scapegoat in a society where those who have lost income and future are becoming the majority. With a social lift blocked, or even reversed its course (no longer social ascent but downgrading), and with the impossibility of identifying the culprits on the top, one reacts by creating someone in a lower position, to be crushed even lower to establish more distance.
[…] Today, the Mediterranean wall is becoming the tangible icon of a weakness and vulnerability that States had not previously had the possibility to face. Symbolically representing a function and an effectiveness that in reality it does not exercise, the Mediterranean, like the other walls, appears as a «theatrical and spectacular performance of power». A performance that reflects the productive power of the border, or rather the strategic role it plays as fabrica mundi, its ability to build the world. A symbolic space with a spatial dimension that we tend to consider natural, geographical, territorial. But that is instead a complex social institution, marked by a tension between strengthening practices and crossing practices. A system that «crosses the lives of millions of men and women who, moving or conditioned by borders even remaining sedentary, carry the borders on».
A system that materializes primarily through the media: from the rigid lines of the geographical map that traps the subjects in the spatial divisions created by the States, and not by nature or anthropological divisions; up to the visual narratives that showcase the security operations of control or the humanitarian rescue on the high seas.
[…] The Mediterranean as a border, rather than a physical one, is narrated, mediatized, spectacularized.
[…] The political climate and the emotional tides change. And the Mediterranean is a thermometer of the world in which wars break out, dictatorships fall, new paths are created.
[…] In a few years, from the end of 2013 to the summer of 2017, the militarization of the borders in the Mediterranean explicitly associated with humanitarian discourse has moved the border further south, on the waves of the sea breaking in Libyan detention centers. The logic of threat and benevolence, fed by the media, has given way to a compassionate repression that today seems destined to lose the moral weight of the second term.
[…] Fear has rebuilt walls where humanitarian corridors were opening.
[…] When fear prevails over compassion, it feeds discursive rhetoric that legitimizes the closure of borders and justifies wars. With the reduction of the physical distance between “them” and “us”, the anthropological barbarization that reproduces the hierarchical relationship between the “African” and the “European” has widened. Solidarity is now viewed with suspicion, prosecuted as a crime. And the evil reconfigured as normal. Trivia.
[…] The Mediterranean […] has returned to become a cognitive, moral, political wall. And to hide behind its rifts the tragic stories of many people who, like little Samia, craved to reach our coasts. Sailing under the same stars, chasing the same dreams.

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