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Among Strangers

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Traveling the globe to research the buying and selling of passports, a reporter reflects on arbitrary citizenship and what it means to be “from somewhere.”

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Illustration by Jason Arias.

On a stormy night in Madagascar last November, I made my way to Le Rossini, a French restaurant on a narrow cobblestoned street in the old town of Antananarivo. I was going to meet a man I’d met for the first time on a plane two days prior. The man was tall and fair and slightly austere-looking, in the way of forty-something European consultants who cross-country ski in the winter and hike in the summer. We’d made eye contact, and he’d offered to help me store the big black backpack I had been carrying with me for two months on the road.

I make a point of carrying my own bags when I travel. I’m not entirely sure what it proves to anyone, myself included—a reminder, perhaps, of my own physical existence in the liminal in-betweenness of the airport terminal. This time, though, I appreciated the help: I’d begun that particular leg of my travels in Kuwait City some twelve hours beforehand and had already sprinted with eighteen kilos on my back to make my connection to a Johannesburg-bound flight in Abu Dhabi. My next plane was headed to Madagascar, where I spent a three-day layover with some family friends before going to the Comoro Islands. It was on my way there that I met the man.

He sat one row ahead of me in business class. I was struggling because my bag would not fit in the overhead compartment of the plane. The flight attendant was mean about it, so he took the bag and shoved it under the empty seat next to him. I thanked him for his help. After meals served and uneaten, he looked back and offered me one of his business-class chocolates.

I had already consumed, since leaving Kuwait: one Kit-Kat Chunky; one XL Twix; three Kinder sticks; and a third of a bar of Galaxy chocolate. I allow myself unlimited chocolate on planes on principle—a small act of defiance against the indignities of modern air travel (even mediocre chocolate tastes good in the sky). I’d also been dead set on spending every last penny of local currency before I left Kuwait, not quite remembering that a couple of dirhams go a long way in the candy aisle. Monopoly money, monopoly calories; I really overdid it this time. I declined his white chocolate truffle, and shoved some Kinder toward him, nauseously. We both took out our laptops and began to type. When we landed, he handed me my giant bag.

“What are you doing in Madagascar?” he asked.
“I’m on my way to the Comoros,” I replied.
“Wow. And where are you coming from?”
I raised my Swiss passport, which I had in my hand for immigration.
“Where in Switzerland?”
“Geneva.”
“I left Geneva a year ago. Lived there more than ten years and just couldn’t do it. Too hard to keep up friendships, with everyone leaving all the time.”
“That’s why I don’t move back, too.”
“So you’re going to the Comoros instead?” 
“It’s a long story.”

We exchanged cards. What were the chances?

*

We made plans to meet for dinner the next day. It was pouring outside. I rode shotgun in my diplomat friends’ chauffeured SUV on the way to town, rolling over potholes past small shacks and rundown houses. It was awkward at first, seeing a stranger from a tiny plane at a French restaurant with the name of an Italian composer in Madagascar. It was past 9:30 when I arrived, and the restaurant was emptying fast. I found him drinking a beer at the bar. He wore his wedding band on a chain around his neck and had a clipped Scandinavian way of talking that reminded me of some great friends I’d known in Geneva, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life flitting between international schools and the United Nations.

I’d spent most of the fall reporting stories about buying and selling citizenship, and I would continue to do so through the spring until my book deadline.

We sat at a table, and he picked out wine. As rain fell hard on the sidewalk cobblestones, I gulped down glasses of a very good St. Emilion, and talked, and talked.

Picking at the dish of sad landlocked calamari he’d ordered, he asked me again why I was bound for the Comoro Islands. I was writing a book, I told him. I’d spent most of the fall reporting stories about buying and selling citizenship, and I would continue to do so through the spring until my book deadline. Some years ago, the Comoros had sold passports in bulk to help the United Arab Emirates document their stateless population; now, Kuwait was looking to strike a similar deal, and I was going there to find out what had happened.

I’d crossed four continents on a dozen or so flights by the time I found myself in that restaurant, and the vast majority of my conversations had been with interview subjects: activists for citizenship rights, businesspeople peddling passports to the super-rich, politicians justifying their country’s immigration policies, lifelong diplomats trying to get a handle on the implications of sovereignty-for-hire. As a journalist, I kept myself out of it, mostly, even though my mixed-up background and three passports—Swiss, Canadian, Iranian—were what had gotten me interested in these arbitrary forms of citizenship to begin with.

I met stateless people who couldn’t travel at all because of their lack of documentation; I was only able to meet them because I have the fortune of being able to cross the planet almost entirely without restrictions. I’d been aware of these inequalities in the abstract, but to be confronted with them head-on was as informative as it was depressing. However little one shares as a journalist, the emotional effort that goes into this sort of work is tremendous; it is exhausting to be extracting information in some way out of every interaction, constantly on the lookout for telling details and choice quotes, always pressing for more numbers, dates, names.

So it felt good to talk to someone who wasn’t a subject. We sought nothing from our encounter besides a conversation in a remote place at the end of the world. It was a relief to speak and drink freely. The whole thing was a little awkward, and a little sweet.

I was also, without fully realizing it, living the happiest two months of my life. I had everything I needed in that big black backpack, and wanted for nothing more, not even once. I wore the same three grimy outfits for weeks on end and never felt better about my appearance. I slept haphazardly and not very well, but defied jet lag almost entirely. I ate Snickers bars for lunch and exercised maybe twice, but never got sick, and felt healthy, alive, superhuman, even.

There’s an Elizabeth Hardwick quote that gets tossed around in a lot of travel writing: “When you travel,” Hardwick writes, “your first discovery is that you do not exist.” Having spent the greater part of the past twelve months far from home—physically, emotionally, intellectually—I’d add that a lot of self-knowledge comes through this very erasure, and the ensuing recomposition and discovery of that self in motion. The old chestnut that people are strange when you’re a stranger still holds, of course. The faces and places I discovered were all new to me; I knew nothing of their worlds until I briefly inhabited them, trudging through Singapore’s antiseptic malls, sitting in Kuwait’s jammed and sulfurous traffic, sweating in the Comoros’ pressure-cooker climate, being lulled into a temporary despondence by the Caribbean’s lackadaisical breezes.

The flip side, I’ve found, is that when you exist among strangers alone, you become less foreign to yourself. No one knows who you are. It’s up to you to decide.

It is difficult to immerse yourself in a place when your presence there is by design impermanent.

The conversation shifted to Geneva. We talked about how hard it was to feel at home there, with its transient expats and their acronymic vocabularies and muddled backgrounds and all-too-frequent unwillingness to engage with the city; the traveling spouses who, after three years, still did not speak a lick of French; the singular preoccupation many seemed to have with shopping at the diplomatic store for American packaged goods rather than going to a normal Swiss supermarket; the expat enclaves clustered in tight radii around the international high schools. And everywhere, the assumption that every three years would bring a new house, a new neighborhood, a new city, a new country.

I don’t blame lifelong expatriates for this attitude. It is difficult to immerse yourself in a place when your presence there is by design impermanent. I’m guilty of it, too; I have only a small handful of local friends in Geneva, mostly playmates from the sandbox. Why it all felt so rootless and fleeting for me in particular, I can’t fully know; surely, the absence of continuity, and the lack of a unifying communal mythology, must have played a part. When I moved to the US in 2004, I noticed classmates remark that “we” were at war. Who, or what, was “we”? I was eighteen and had never heard anyone speak that way.

This man on the other side of the world had had largely the same experience of Geneva that I’d had. He said he’d tried to make it a home for a long time, but that the experiment had gone awry; the adults around him just kept moving on, while his kid, whom he had enrolled in a local school, forged alien allegiances. “He began to identify not just as Swiss, but from the Canton de Vaud, where his school was,” he said. (Vaud is a largely rural canton—think Pennsylvania.) “And while I consider myself quite global, I will never be Vaudois.

“It didn’t feel real,” he went on. “The people, the lifestyle, all of it. The organization where I worked was useless. At some point, I thought, What is the point?

I agreed with him, that the health organizations and trade organizations and rights organizations and rules organizations seemed, if not useless, then at least toothless. But, I said, I am worried that they are all we have. Besides, aren’t they better than the brands that have become inescapable, in Geneva, on the plane, in Johannesburg, in Madagascar?

“After my experience,” he said, “I might actually prefer brands.”

So he quit the organizations, started his own. “I went from having diplomatic status to civilian status overnight,” he said. “And that was when I realized the obscenity of the privileges—the arbitrariness of the lines that divide us.”

“The Swiss sent me all my unpaid parking tickets within weeks of the change,” he continued, a little sheepishly. “But that wasn’t what bothered me.”

Some years ago, he said, he’d had a colleague who, though well educated, fully employed, and well paid, lived entirely at the mercy of an organization’s precarious six-month contracts and employer-sponsored visas. Overnight, her status could change and she could be sent away to the country in which she was born—at that point, a foreign land, and not a particularly stable one, where her standard of living and her level of safety would plummet. The international organizations were growing more budget-conscious by the day, so the possibility of an abrupt layoff was looming large, and there was little anyone could do about it. Her fate was tied to a passport she’d acquired by blind misfortune, and felt little connection to. Even so, she was luckier than most. She’d had the chance to recognize this.  

She did not want to return home, if you could call it a return or a home. This was no way to live. So she reinvented herself. She quit her job, disposed of her worldly possessions, ripped up her passport and all signs of her past life, and flew to another European city, where she applied for asylum under a new name.

Many people would call this fraud. They don’t understand that these days, refugees come in all shapes and sizes. And legal citizenship doesn’t always coincide with a sense of identity.

The businessman, meanwhile, moved back to his hometown with his family. His hands are calloused; he chops wood for fun. He hasn’t been back to Geneva for over a year. He thinks it was the right decision.

I was relieved to hear my fellow traveler’s poor opinion of Geneva. I feel guilty for resenting a perfectly nice city I lived in until my late teens and that many of my friends and classmates have now happily returned to. I think of them as native expats—settled and grounded, but with one foot out the door. When I visit, I have a constant sense of being neither here nor there. I think that’s what he meant when he said that it’s not real.

*

Ten years ago, on my way from New York to Geneva for spring break, I shared a different multi-leg journey with a man I never saw again. It was a short trip to see my mother, so I packed only a carry-on and hauled it down the stairs of the 1/9 station at 116th, through the tunnels under Columbus Circle and onto the platform of the Far Rockaway-bound A train. 

I distinctly recall being surprised by the fact that no one tried to help me with my bag. Having spent only a few months in the US after a short lifetime in Europe, I found it discourteous that the football players on College Walk and the strangers in the station didn’t offer a hand when I was clearly struggling. Not that I would have accepted their help: hauling my bag all by myself through the underground gave me a new, American sense of self-made satisfaction. I relished in the physical effort; I wasn’t strong, but I could make it. I was eighteen then, and I wore a pair of Columbia-branded yoga pants I’d bought with campus cash at the bookstore, a short off-white jacket with fake-fur cuffs, purple Puma sneakers, and a long-sleeved Gap tee. I was emerging from a punk phase, and didn’t feel like myself in those college-girl clothes. I remember contemplating my reflection in the subway window, wondering if I looked like a yuppie.

When I got to Columbus Circle, I saw a man standing next to me on the platform. I noticed his shoes first: he wore those checkered slip-on Vans that were all the rage back then. The man looked a few years too old to be wearing those shoes. That seemed interesting to me.

“We’ve been following each other since Manhattan,” I said to him in French.

The man rode with me on the A train, then the AirTrain, in the same car, a few seats apart. We registered at the airline desk in tandem, passed through security together, and walked through Terminal 4—the old one—into the waiting area and to the gate. We didn’t speak; I didn’t think he’d noticed I was even there. He was lithe and trim, in that graphic designer-who-competes-in-triathlons way. I think he wore glasses. I couldn’t stop staring at his shoes. 

We boarded the night flight. He sat a few seats in front of me. We slept a little, or maybe a lot, but definitely not enough (it’s never enough). In Geneva, we took our belongings and walked off the plane, past advertisements for private banks and forever-watches, and into the arrivals area, where we waited those endless minutes for the luggage to make its way onto the belts.

“We’ve been following each other since Manhattan,” I said to him in French.
“We have,” he replied, smiling. “What are the chances?” 
I smiled back, or intended to, at least. 
“Do you live here?”
“I live here and there.”
“Me too.”
“Je m’appelle Ludovic.”
“Atossa.”
“Enchanté.”

And that was that. “A la prochaine fois, peut-être,” I mumbled, and carted my bag away to meet my very curious mother.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“We’ve been on the same path since 59th Street.”
You should have gotten his number, my mother said. After all, what were the chances?

My meeting with the first man on the plane stuck with me for years—not because of any romantic spark or sentimental notion (I fear I lack the capacity for such things) but because there is no good reason not to say hello, to have a conversation, to try to understand what, exactly, puts two people in the same subway, train, plane at the same time on the same day to arrive in the same destination, seconds apart. To travel with such ease between two places. To share not one, but two homes.

The idea of transience, of perpetual traveling, of having an A point and a B point that are interchangeable, has always felt intuitive to me. The mere fact of being from somewhere has become foreign. A friend who also moved to the States for college once joked that we were so international that we’d become xenophobic—possessing a cosmopolitan snobbery of the highest order (and not one I’m particularly proud of). How to reconcile this freewheeling globalism with the reality of citizens, nations, states?

I could have hyphenated myself, I suppose—broken off pieces to fit in boxes, American-style. But I can’t shake the feeling that nothing entitles me to those pieces to begin with. I do not deserve them. And I don’t really want them, anyway.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson presents a theory about the concept of the “secular pilgrimage” and its role in turning administrative units—nations, states—into meaningful homelands. He discusses how the journeys of state functionaries created a narrative of rootedness despite geographic sprawl, and how, through their trajectories, they helped create the idea of nationalism as we now know it. It’s an amazing book; I am surprised each time I read it. But there is one passage in particular that I keep thinking of:

“On this journey there is no assured resting-place; every pause is provisional. The last thing the functionary wants is to return home; for he has no home with any intrinsic value. And this: on his upward-spiraling road he encounters as eager fellow-pilgrims his functionary colleagues, from places and families he has scarcely heard of and surely hopes never to have to see. But in experiencing them as traveling-companions, a consciousness of connectedness (‘Why are we…here…together?’) emerges…”

My conversation with the businessman showed both how true and how untrue this statement is today. We shared a connectedness—but over the placelessness of a place, the naked unreality of an imagined community, a feeling that it is unraveling, of not knowing what to make of what’s left. We constructed for it a meaning out of its meaninglessness. It was the absence of connectedness there that brought us here, together.

Anderson’s theory of nationalism might not apply quite so neatly some thirty years after its publication, but his concept of the secular pilgrim endures, even if plane schedules and tax breaks and emerging markets, not nation-ness and “deep, horizontal camaraderie,” set his migratory patterns. (We are, in that sense, doubly secular: no religion, and no real country, either.) But it is the possibility of a consciousness of connectedness, in spite of it all, that’s more comforting than any homeland—physical, metaphorical, or imagined—could ever be to me.

“Do you ever feel like you’re most honest with total strangers?” I asked. The wine was gone. The restaurant was closing. I had been among strangers for thirty days.

“Perhaps,” he said. “But you’re not really a stranger.”

G

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is the author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015). She is an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America and a contributing editor to The New Inquiry and Dissent. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the London Review of Books, and other publications. She grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where she returned to study investigative reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Brooklyn and can be found on Twitter @atossaaraxia.

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2 comments for Among Strangers

  1. Comment by Vándorgyűlés on December 30, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    What a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you Atossa, as much for the pleasure of the prose as for the thought-provoking content. “We read to know we are not alone” comes to mind – it helps to know others have examined these dislocations with such sensitivity.

  2. Comment by Jared on January 31, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Enjoyed this piece. Read it sitting in an airport during the in betweens, which are the times I’m not at places that I travel to and from, none ever quite feeling like home. It struck a chord with me. Thanks

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