Borders (What’s Up With That?)

One thing I learned from studying history is that the idea of a coherent or static “national identity” does not really exist. Although invoked regularly by politicians, our favourite athletes, and our patriotic parents, the concept of national identity as something that characterizes a country and informs the actions of elected leaders is largely a misconception. In my lifetime alone, I have seen new nations come into existence (South Sudan, Czech Republic), nations overlooked or unrecognized (Palestine), and nations that form new identities (India and maybe even the United States.)

I was really heartened by reading about this when I was younger. As someone who has lived in six cities across four different countries before the age of thirteen, I’ve always been curious about the notion of identity. At my angstiest, I thought it was stupid. Why should I, or anyone for that matter, align my identity to a nation-state whose existence is fickle?

Perhaps the incoherence of national identity has something to do with the arbitrariness of borders. In What Makes a Border Be, Fariha Roisin — a thoughtful writer and one half of the Two Brown Girls podcast — explores the relationship between identity and borders — both constructs, too nebulous to be nailed down or constrained by walls: metaphysical or not.

Related: MIA’s “Borders”

“What are borders? Who has defined them, and what defines them?” Rosin asks.

“In the West, settler colonies have created them. And these borders aren’t always physical: France has constructed an excoriating border from Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, the Sudanese and Somalis — all those they colonized and bled red of resources. The border is created with a rhetoric of the savagery of Muslims, as well as a furor of anti-blackness and haine de l’Arabe. France’s Islamophobia is masked in a concern for misogyny, in a championing of cacophonous feminism, when it’s really an Orientalist/escapist hatred; a fear of the unknown, of le sauvage, the brutality with which they’ve painted a thick portrait of the other, of us…Borders aren’t just geographic, they’re economic and racialized, too.”

This piece has helped me understand the arbitrariness of President Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” as accounts proliferated on Twitter of individuals who were stopped that were not Muslim but Zoroastrian, born in Tehran. Or had a parent who was born in Yemen, but were not themselves from there. Or weren’t even from one of the seven countries, but from somewhere like Morocco. Or had merely travelled through one of the seven countries. It’s hardly a surprise that border guards, when confronted with an order that conflates national identity with religious identity for political means, would use it to enlarge their powers. In the process they sow fear and entrap innocent Muslims, non-Muslims, people that look Muslim or have Muslim-sounding names, or that have merely travelled to Muslim countries.

The arbitrariness of the seven countries banned is intentional, as Trump is not attempting to guard the US border against these particular nationals, but against Muslims. All Muslims. It’s politically motivated, informed by self-interest and financial reward (President Trump has holdings in both Saudi Arabia and Indonesia), and intentionally xenophobic.

Roisin’s argument is a timely and eloquent reminder of the difficulties of defining and defending borders, and the fluidity of identity. She ends her piece wistfully, but I read it as a call to arms — it serves as a reminder to me, that as easily as we can construct these borders (or walls), we can (attempt to) deconstruct them.