‘Passport, please’. This is where our different travels begin. One of our passports is ranked the second best in the world, and magically erases borders as it goes. It enables exploration, speedy boarding, and suits a mind of restless curiosity; but we will put it aside for the time being. The other passport guarantees its traveler a place of restless, protracted waiting in the back of the queue, a life under surveillance, and a secured seat in ‘deportation class’. It will test the endurance of its holder. This other passport will guide us through the unpredictable geographies of law enforcement that condition our (im)mobility.
Ours is a world of polarized and unevenly distributed mobility rights. It is one of fantastic travels, of exploration, speed, and interconnectedness; of conquest of time and space, and multiplications of real and imagined belongings. But it is also one of immobilization, not only manifested by the brutal border spectacles at the fringes of Western states’ geographies, but also in the banal practices of paperwork, enforced idleness, dissynchronicity, of hijacked dreams and forsaken futures.
What makes any of us into a traveler? ‘Traveler’ depicts a normative category as much as a descriptive one. Our romanticisation and awe of the traveler, mobile in heart, body and mind, is rooted in the sedentarist assumption that people do not move unless they have to. We are all assumed to ‘belong’ somewhere in Liisa Malkki’s (1995: 512) ‘national order of things’: in language, in politics, and in our imagination, our lives belong to a nation, we are its supposed natives, and are supposed to accept it as our natural mode of being. The national, bordered order has become a natural order of things. This nativist narrative is materialized in the passport, which, as John Torpey (1998: 239) notes, is a manifestation of states’ monopolization of the legitimate means of movement. Traveling involves entering into a negotiation with the state over the conditions of mobility. Therefore, passeport historically denoted authorization to pass through a port; to leave one’s city or country and enter into another while retaining one’s manifested belonging. The visa, in turn, signified the verification of the passport and divides travelers into recognized and invisibilized bodies.
One of our passports magically erases borders. The other guarantees its traveler a place of restless waiting and a secured seat in “deportation class”
Our passport is not validated, nor will it open ports; instead, the mundane, administrative practices of passport controls will immobilize its holder and keep him or her under close monitoring. To be on the move with this passport is to be unauthorized, banned, and ‘illegal’; a pathology to a nation-state system whose administrative apparatuses will not rest until the fantasy of a national order has been restored and our travelers are fixated and returned to where they ‘belong’. This fixation takes place in space as well as in time. Traveling with our passport is associated with immobilization, stuckedness, and waiting: for the passport to be produced, for the visa applications to be processed, for the travel bans to be lifted, and for the recognition of our legal personhood that never occurs and therefore, when all means of legalization have been exhausted, for whatever chance we get to move on as an unauthorized, commodified shadow of a traveler.
As unauthorized travelers, we rarely choose our destination. We are ‘displaced’ from the imaginary place we were once assigned, and emplaced in transit zones, asylum camps, or marginal spaces where we await the state’s recognition or rejec- tion. We have become immobilized travelers, and can neither choose to settle nor to move on. In this liminal space, we might exist alongside others in society, among authorized travelers and sedentarists; we take the bus, read the news, talk about the weather, we pass time. Yet we perform these everyday acts knowing we lack the authorization to do so. They therefore called ours a temporary pseudo-reality.
We asked those who are tasked to guard us how long they could keep us immobi- lized in these marginal places. They answered, on behalf of the state: There is no time limit: the idea is that you could remain here until you die. Until then, everyday at five pm, we are served a dinner we never asked for. We appealed our rejection of autho- rization, but our files are resting under a pile of others with high numbers and dried coffee stains and we are told to wait. They say we should start preparing for a future elsewhere. Every now and then, we are asked questions about our passport. We are asked to perform the same ritual that we once hoped would enable us to travel, but through which we learnt that our passport immobilizes us. Now, our passport will enable our forced removal, and displacement here changes content: we risk being forcibly displaced, not from ‘our’ place of birth but from our place of want. Our passport will effectively displace us to the place where we are told we belong.
This makes us ask: For how long can we remain immobilized and still be travelers? We are stuck in a state imaginary of a national order that, as William Isaac Thomas (1928: 572) put it, becomes ‘real in its consequence’ for unauthorized travelers. We are travelers, but not all travelers are conceived as equal. What remains for us is to imagine things differently.