Wandering in the dunes behind the Hotel Ksar near Merzouga at sunset, one encounters the sounds of the “modern” desert…. Camels braying softly as they walk out for their evening trek laden with tourists eager to spend a night in a desert camp, tourists making noises of excitement and fear as their “ships of the desert” stand up with them on top nearly reaching a 90 degree angle, and sounds of 4X4’s and quads bashing the dunes. As we stood silently watching the sunset, a Berber in traditional costume walking out for his night to show tourists his desert suggested we walk further to get the best view of the sunset possible. A short conversation ensued and he informed us that we were nary 15KM from the Algerian border, but that if he – a Berber, the indigenous people of this region wanted to go across to see his own family it was not possible. The only way to cross the “closed” border with Algeria for him would be a $500 flight via Casablanca.
It’s one thing to have read about the “Scramble for Africa” and the absurdity of the colonial borders, but hearing this man explain that his people, the Berbers, were now spread across numerous countries on the continent and that to him of course, these borders meant nothing at all made me think about the concept of a border all the more. This of course is an exaggerated example – some of Africa’s borders were truly drawn without any regard whatsoever for the inhabitants of the lands, they were simply drawn to “reward” a colonial power with a governable land-mass after they “pacified” the local populace. Nevertheless, I spent the long bus ride that followed pondering the larger question of borders and their impacts both positive and negative on life in the world – or at least the world which I have travelled, today.
The most dramatic contrast that struck me is the situation of the Schengen area within the European Union. In this case countries that actually have logical borders drawn to reflect their ethnic differences (in most cases at least) have decided to allow not only free passage of goods & people between them, but to allow one who is a citizen of any one country to basically have the rights of citizenship to all.
So we have two ends of the spectrum here – at one end is an Africa, split into colonial divisions and now further locked down due to conflicts between faux states – and at the other end lies Europe, gradually integrating into what amounts to a single state with retained cultural differences and character.
What interests me here in the impact on citizens of these states, both positive and negative as a result of these borders. The more I think about it, the more fascinating it is. One might think that in the European example, cultural differences would begin to blur and a sort of “United States of Europe” would begin to emerge. I see this to be the opposite of reality however, as nationalism is strong as ever in most of Europe and cultural identity is fiercely protected. There are strange effects that have begun to emerge, however. Soon after the eastward expansion of the EU, the “Polish Plumber” phenomenon took place in the UK and Ireland as thousands of Poles left the homeland for a “better life” and the “Western Dream.” After the 2008/2009 financial crisis which has seen Spain, Portugal and Greece’s unemployment shoot to unbelievable levels – something strange has started to happen…. The easterners have begun to return home for work, while at the same time some from the west have moved to prosperous “Eastern” countries which have experienced a relative economic boom during this same time. The “remainder” of Europe…. Most of former Yugoslavia, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia & Turkey now has almost turned into a 3rd region…. Filled either with those who can’t wait for their nation to join the EU, those who want to remain fiercely independent forever, and finally those who seek anyway out of their country for prosperous work.
On the other hand lies a country such as Morocco. Born of colonial divisions by France & Spain in North Africa, a monarchy and political system now desperately tries to define a Moroccan identity for its people. This is no small feat considering that 80%+ of its population identifies as a Berber…the indigenous people of the region. How to encourage a people such as this who see no difference between their culture and that of Berbers in Algeria, for example to care about a state is extremely interesting to me. Things only get more complicated from here. As we’ve learned since being here, Moroccans learn four languages in school – French, Arabic, Berber & English. French – clearly a holdover from Colonial days is still propagated and prevalent amongst not only those who lived under the colonial rule, but young school children shouting bonjour as you enter their village. As one man we met put it best – his head is a “Moroccan Salad” of languages, not only from these 4 state languages, but from those he learns for tourism to relate to the countless Germans, Spanish & others who visit his lands.
What does this all mean for a country such as Morocco? As the world inevitably globalizes more and more – I can only imagine the trend of open borders to continue between like countries. This will leave some behind. How can the Moroccan borders, for example, decided so many years ago remain relevant and functional for their people? Up until now at least the kingdom has done a remarkable job of appeasing dissent and keeping an “Arab Spring” event out of their country.
I don’t intend to have all, or perhaps any of the answers, but instead I wanted to share my thoughts on this with you. Ever since I was a young child I’ve been fascinated with the concept of borders…. Walking through the Peace Arch park between Washington State & BC endlessly fascinates me….. Canadians and Americans can walk without any control from their street into a park with their dogs, but they are on the honor system to go back the way they came.
The concept of a border today places speed bumps and roadblocks on the race towards globalization. It is almost as if we retain our walls with outsiders until we become comfortable enough with them to work together to find out how to extract efficiency in a global world.
I’ll end with this… Walking through the hot streets of Barcelona we stumbled upon what looked like a bubble tea shop. Intrigued, and thirsty, we went inside and were offered a sample of a natural iced tea with fruit from a man with a different accent. After spending some moments to learn about him and his shop, we discovered he was from a small town near Frankfurt Germany and had moved to Barcelona to run a Taiwan inspired Bubble Tea shop, fused with the idea of German quality, in hot and sunny Spain. If this isn’t an example of the beauty of a world with less borders, I don’t know what is.