Identity in the Global Village
Published: May 2009
By Pankaj Mishra
As the global village falls prey to global tensions, <b>Pankaj Mishra</b> discovers that traveling now means navigating a sea of shifting identities
In his memoir and travelogue Tristes Tropiques (1955), the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss lamented at some length the effect of Western civilization on the world. He claimed that "journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. . . . The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted. . . ."
Speak for yourself, I remember thinking while reading these lines as a student in India, more than 30 years later. This kind of overrefined European melancholy about native savages and vanished arcadias couldn't but seem a bit patronizing to me. It didn't take into account, among other things, the possibility that the natives might occasionally want to leave their perfumed tropics and that they, too, dreamed of journeys, of traveling to the very heart of the modern world, which Lévi-Strauss thought was the source of all corruption.
Growing up in small-town India, I was one of the dreamers, and I had started early, helped by the fact that my father worked for Indian Railways, arguably one of the greatest rail companies anywhere. To go to sleep one evening on the warm plains; to wake up the next morning to coffee and cool mountain valleys; to stop at small stations on the way and savor the local delicacies; to lie in bed and watch the landscape change through the day, the rain swaying across paddy fields, bullock carts straining forward under a big sky—every route had its own romance.
But the railways in India also represented progress and reason. First laid by British colonialists in the mid 19th century, they had knit together a subcontinent of bewildering ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic diversity. The railways had been the first step toward modernizing India and breaking down the caste system. Social hierarchies seemed mostly a crude prejudice in the mind, and individual "purity" hard to maintain, when high-caste Brahmans sat next to the low-caste Hindus they would have kept at a few arms' length in the bad old days.
Air travel, on the other hand, was a symbol of privilege, available to only a tiny minority of the Indian population. Airports were small, crabbed places populated with drab bureaucrats and businessmen, lacking entirely the vitality and egalitarianism of the massive railway stations of Bombay and Madras.
And so, when in my mid twenties I finally traveled to the West, it was thrilling to discover that its famous airports—Heathrow, Schiphol, JFK, LAX—contained a cross section of humanity much more democratic and multicultural than I had found in Indian railway stations. Mexicans, Russians, Indians, Nigerians, Iranians, Indonesians, Filipinos, Koreans—so many different human types swarmed in those vast, shiny bazaars.
It seemed that while I was growing up in India, the richness of the world had come to many people. Whether businessmen, students, tourists, or immigrants, all appeared to be easily accommodated by the modern world, where they could shed the narrow racial or national identity they had been born into and devote themselves to the making of money, the pursuit of learning, and the search for love and freedom.
It had been easy and attractive to think of oneself as part of this large busyness and movement of peoples across borders that were once remote and inaccessible. But things can change—and they had begun to change even before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In July 2001, I was about to board the Eurostar to Paris from London's Waterloo Station, when I was stopped, taken to a room with dark windows, and questioned by a man in plain clothes who said he was from the antiterrorist squad of the Metropolitan Police.
He was polite—at least until, looking through my passport, he discovered a visa issued to me by Pakistan and the then Taliban government of Afghanistan. I told him that I was a writer and had gone to these countries on behalf of an American newspaper. That was hard for him to believe. He kept asking whether I had met anyone close to Osama bin Laden and whether I knew any Islamic extremists; my truthful answers only served to work him into a kind of frenzy.
Minutes passed. I told him I had a train to catch. He said that he had to check me against certain profiles of potential terrorists, and that he had the authority to detain people for up to nine hours.
I did not like his tone, but at the same time, like many people unused to being questioned by the police, I felt nervous and almost guilty of some forgotten misdemeanor. Luckily, I had the idea of asking him to check my name on the Web sites of certain English and American periodicals. I don't know whether he did this or not when he disappeared briefly into an inner office. But he looked subdued, if still unapologetic, when he returned.
With only a few seconds remaining, I ran to my compartment. I seated myself and then discovered that my hands were shaking. I looked around. The other passengers—who were mostly French—seemed to be staring at me. I turned toward the window and saw a dark-skinned man with a quasi-Muslim beard. I looked away. The French people were still staring—and suddenly they were all menacingly white. I opened my newspaper and saw strings of meaningless words. The train started; houses, offices slid off; my mind remained paralyzed.
In a matter of minutes, something had profoundly distorted my relationship with the world. It was no longer the solid realm that I had moved through serenely, confident of my place in it. Waterloo Station, with its high, overarching iron girders, and even the grimy backs of factories and warehouses that the train passed, seemed threatening. They became emblems of an omnipotent power that appeared to regulate the world's hierarchies and told everyone where they belonged, the power that a handful of men who happened to look like me had presumed to challenge.
The moment passed. In the merciful light of Paris, everything became neutral and manageable again. And it was interesting to think later that, just a few weeks before, I had been seen by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a representative of the powerful West. It barely mattered to them that I was, in one sense, the worst kind of infidel: a Hindu by birth and an Indian by nationality. The important thing for them was that I had traveled from England, and I was writing for an American paper. This affiliation with the West might make them hostile now, but they were hungry for publicity in those days. And so the phone calls I made were swiftly returned. Doors that were normally shut to local journalists opened easily; people were courteous and frank.
In retrospect, the policeman at Waterloo was probably just doing his duty, and doing it well, with a prescient sense of the dangers ahead. But it is hard not to feel resentful when, as has happened frequently since 9/11, security people approach me at European and American airports and ask me to join a special queue of equally resentful travelers from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It was hard not to feel paranoid when, arriving at London's Heathrow airport more than three hours before check-in for a flight to Boston last September, I was told to wait, and then informed 20 minutes before departure that the flight was overbooked and that I could not be accommodated. I was offered 400 pounds as compensation, which I refused. I now think I should have accepted it then and bought a few more books on Amazon, and saved myself the further mortification of receiving from the airline, in response to my detailed letter of protest, a travel voucher for 400 pounds and some standard-issue phrases ("inconvenience regretted," etc.).
These experiences have, naturally, changed my view of airports. Previously, the only real boundaries airports appeared to maintain were between economy and business and first, which you could expect to cross with a steady accumulation of frequent-flier miles or a generous expense account. But now the ethnic, racial, and national differences that had earlier seemed to dissolve are used more often to define people, and distinguish between likely friend and likely foe.
Lévi-Strauss may not have approved of the native of the perfumed tropics who finds fulfillment in traveling to the West. But those natives are now everywhere in the West, finding new individual identities in societies that are considerably more liberal and multicultural than those they left. It is a strange irony that they should be thrown back upon the collective identities they had probably wished to escape.
I was always relieved to feel partly anonymous inside an international airport. The self-consciousness I feel now is a strain—sometimes more so than the actual experience of being singled out for a rigorous security check. I wonder if it will continue to afflict my experience of travel. I wonder if the momentum of globalization will eventually blow away these barriers in the mind and on the ground, or if airports—the showcases of globalization—will end up playing host to a miniature clash of civilizations.
It is not hard to be a pessimist. But any sustained scrutiny of these apparently clashing civilizations would reveal the hoary stereotypes they embody. For instance, what does it mean to talk of a clash between Christianity and Islam when a sizable number of Muslims live, or would like to live, in the West, and the majority of the world's Christians live not in the affluent West but in the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where they are likely to be more preoccupied with local political and economic conflicts?It is as if our old-fashioned notions of identity have not caught up with the new realities we live with.
In a world knit together by globalization, identities can be malleable things. In Pakistan in 2001, I was a representative of the West. And it has seemed even truer since then that who I am depends on where I am.
The security officials were friendly at the airport in Santa Barbara, where I probably look like a prosperous Hispanic businessman. Political correctness and the large presence of Indians in Silicon Valley ensure good treatment in San Francisco. For understandable reasons, security officials are unlikely to relax around me anytime soon at Boston's Logan airport. Detroit was tough—was it because of the large Arab community there?So, for reasons unknown to me, was Tulsa, and I think I should avoid the Bible Belt for the moment.
In my mind there is a map animated by the world's danger spots that is probably the reverse of the one that hangs in the offices of conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C. On this map, Syria, Iran, and the West Bank throb with friendly faces ("You Indian?! I love Indian films!"), and Australia, Spain, Italy, and Portugal—countries that were part of the American-led "coalition of the willing" in Iraq—evoke stern official stares ("Could you step into this room?").
Individual beliefs and loyalties count little in a world divided into ethnic and racial stereotypes. During the recent war in Iraq, an angry taxi driver in Cairo told the Guardian that he asks American and British passengers to leave his car as soon as he finds out where they're from. American and British travelers in the Middle East and certain parts of south Asia are exposed to much more rigid notions of identity than those I have come to fear at the airports of Western democracies. For very few people in these places know of the diversity of individual belief or political opinion that exists in America and Britain. Nevertheless, it would be premature to conclude from recent events that "journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished." As bombs go off in such tourist paradises as Bali and Kenya, the tropics may no longer appear perfumed and their inhabitants may seem to lack pristine freshness. But in part these eruptions of violence are particularly shocking because we think of them as taking place in paradise, in places bleached of complexity, of history and change.
As the best travelers have always discovered, there is much complexity out there, and history, and change—precisely the things that sometimes force the natives to flee paradise and travel to the West in quest of the simple anonymity of a middle-class life. Apart from everything else, they help us understand how multilayered individual identities are in a globalized world. Although we live in uncertain times, the magic caskets of journeys remain as full as before; they will appear empty only to those languid few for whom travel was never anything more than a change of scene.
PANKAJ MISHRA is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and is at work on a book about the Buddha.