The act of crossing a border is fraught with possibility and danger. Through personal accounts of the group’s members we traced historical changes and looked at how political borders have shifted around ancestral locations.
Starting the conversation was a shared concern regarding the plight of young unaccompanied minors who cross the border from Mexico into the United States. These children are seeking the possibility of a better life, but often find themselves exploited by human traffickers or by the US immigration system, which makes no special allowances for them. They rarely gain access to a lawyer with the result that they end up in in juvenile prisons for long stretches of time. The immigration system could make greater efforts to secure them pro bono lawyers and help place them in foster homes, but chooses not to.
We then embarked on our border-crossing journey in the Mediterranean port city of Trieste. At various points it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Italy and, during World War II, a region claimed by both the Allied powers and by the communist bloc. In the end, Trieste remained in Italy even as the areas around it were incorporated into Yugoslavia, splitting up families and friends. Through these shared memories and their complexity we could see both the arbitrariness and the fluidity of these political borders, but also their very real and enduring cultural, economic and emotional impacts.
Alsace, whose political border puts it within France, was brought up as another example. The region has a history of resistance to Germany, which occupied it during World War II, and yet its language shares little with French and much more with German. Political borders and the emotional ties they create can therefore cut against what might seem to be more natural cultural affinities. We were reminded that we often use borders to create ‘others’ based on what would seem to be relatively insignificant differences (like the ones between Alsace and Lorraine).
The province of Buyan-ulgi in Mongolia was another fascinating account of the ways in which political borders do not always map with more obvious cultural – specifically religious and ethnic – similarities. Buyan-ulgi is dominated by Muslim Kazakhs who seized the opportunity afforded by the opening up of Mongolia to ask for an open border with the Russian state of Kazakhstan, perceived to be culturally similar. The Mongolian state allowed both the open borders as well as dual citizenship in this case. However, ten years later, it would appear that the experiment has failed. The state government in Bulyan-ulgi finds that the open border is causing law and order and other problems and has now requested that it be closed again. We also learned about the weakening of Mongolia’s alliance with Russia as Russia’s economic power has declined, and the growing importance of Mongolia’s other border with China for the Mongolian economy. Whether this shift in economic relationships will also have cultural and political implications is perhaps a topic for another discussion.
As our round table conversation continued, we learned of the ways in which Manhattan and New Jersey are crosscut by invisible and visible borders marked by ethnic and cultural differences which, to some extent, creating borders of choice. Urging us to think about the reasons why we, as human beings, seem to need to create borders, it was suggested that this was driven by the need to feel comfort in likeness, to create communities; others thought that it might be driven by a competitive instinct – the need to create ‘other’s with whom one can compete on who has the best scenery or the best sports team.
Through the vivid memory about living in Calcutta, India, at a house in a middle class neighborhood that adjoined a slum, or basti, we were reminded of how borders can be extremely meaningful even when they are not national or even ‘official’. More about political borders and their lasting and profound effects was highlighted through anecdotes relating to post-Imperial changes in India, specifically in the region that became first East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, where families fled to newly formed India in the aftermath of partition.
While the violence and bloodshed around partition (which is the term used to describe the division of British India into India and Pakistan) often reminds us of the worst in human beings, this story did help us understand how human beings can be traumatized when borders cut through their lives without blaming or hating those left on the other side. Forced migration and the resulting sense of displacement and loss created a profoundly significant impact of borders in their own lives, and eventually may have passed down to the next generation. Over time, upon returning to the ancestral home, reconciliation occurred by recasting the relationship between the ‘deportees’ and the ‘occupiers’ as one among equals and by welcoming cherished childhood memories.
That kind of reconciliation is, of course, the happy ending we all hope for when we think of Israel and its politically fraught borders. Apart from helping us understand the historical roots of the Israeli state, the stories about flow of legal and illegal immigration to pre-independence Israel (first under the Ottoman rule and later under the British mandate) shed some light on the fascinating social experiments that were enabled by the return to this region of young Jewish ‘pioneers’. Within the kibbutzim they set up, they sought to erase hierarchies of gender and class, to share all labor and promote egalitarian ideals. Whether or not the experiment fully succeeded, it was a wonderful illustration of the possibilities, as well as the perils, of crossing borders. (Moderated and summarized by Smriti)