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What have travel bans taught us about the world?

Tuesday, 07 September 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

There is a great irony as the world watches Afghans scrambling atop barbed wires or clinging over plane wings.

For all of us have been confronted, since the start of the pandemic and its travel bans, to the rise of iron walls; to the end of free movement as we used to know it. Us who are fortunate enough – we may shy away from the comparison; that indeed, Talibans and Tourists are the twins who were fated for opposite lives; that fleeing West or fleeing East, whatever the motive of flight, remains the one expression of mankind’s assiduous striving for movement.

How ironic then – that we have all felt what it means to be on a travel ban list, that we have all prayed for that one border to open up before the weekend, and yet that, as the curtain of the pandemic unveils, we return to the one-sidedness of global transactions; that the arrow shoots East, but bends West.

It may be that, in a few years, the term ‘travel ban’ shall altogether disappear from our linguistic repertoire, for us residing in the West – and thus, I ask that we all consider our experience of it while the memory is fresh and alive.

There is something to be learned when, for example, lovers had to limit themselves to a wave from the other side of a fence; them who thought it no problem to cross a national border every day to see each other. “Were we wrong to assume that borders did not matter?” is perhaps the take-away for the young European couple, for whom, suddenly, the world has uncharacteristically shown them its teeth; as though the stripped and dotted maps from History class now fractured the white Atlas in their minds.

You may concur that I am too harsh – why, even the most privileged European must know that maps have lines; that there is no common world but several disparate worlds; first worlds, second world, third worlds!

It may be that none of us is as naive to believe that life before the pandemic had been borderless, and yet the counter-argument lies precisely in the fact that we deal here with a set of beliefs; and man, however knowledgable of geography or history, shall boil down reality itself to remain at peace with his beliefs; with how he wishes to perceive the world. It is when we want to rid ourselves of a contradiction that we fall into a false binary; or even worse; into a false unity; with the perception that there is that one thing, and that’s it.

It is a psychological observation, when I say that some of us can forget that there are tangible and admittedly dubious borders between countries. But when does the same premise become a political observation? At which point does naivety about a system in place become complicity with that system? Who is responsible when we are directed to view the world as peaceful and tour-able; when the glossy pictures of Mykonos or Lisbon that pop on our social timelines are actually masking the abyss of misery that really separates us from these destinations?

More pressing than the politics of a national border, I believe, is its epistemology; its connection to knowledge. For may we guess who knows more about the world: he who sees the fence, or he who doesn’t? Wait till we hear the first official to declare that the quota for Afghan refugees must be lowered because these peoples ‘cannot understand’ what it means to live in a ‘pluralistic’ society. The audacity!

Why, is it not the ultimate show of pluralism – when a man decides to leave home for good! A man waiting in line at the Belgian embassy to get a visa, after having been rejected from its American and Australian counterparts… has he not already toured the world in his imagination; have the dictums of the good life not dawned on him long ago; namely, that he did not choose to be born in this world, but that at least he may choose where within it could his life seem more tolerable?

In suffering alone – for to perceive is to suffer, teaches us Aristotle – does one reckon with the world as it is; not as how he would like it to be. How many eight-year-olds, growing up in Kabul today, have already learned the meaning of the world, by merely being told that there is another world elsewhere! How cosmopolitan of them, to already wonder about other cultures during bedtime! And how un-cosmopolitan of us, seasoned and permitted travellers of the world, to not once see nor the wall we move past from, not the writing on it!

That is why all of us must replay in our minds the very experience of having to browse online for travel restrictions. For in that most trivial act lies the confession of our century; in our wondering of whether or not we can travel tomorrow, we have grasped the very essence of travelling; the one that lies not its ultimate joys, but in its harsh beginnings.