Sometimes, it’s the border that crosses us.
Salman Rushdie knows a lot about borders. His books explore the concept of borders; he’s lived them. The recent knife attack on Rushdie in New York reminded us that — to paraphrase the author — we don’t cross borders; sometimes it’s the border that crosses us.
On a side note, I featured Rushdie’s other classic, Midnight’s Children, in a podcast about writing, if you’re interested. I met Rushdie at an event in California in 2004. He had just published a book, a collection of stories and essays, titled ‘Step across this line.’
Borders are funny things. Just lines on the map, arbitrary, contestable, often inconvenient. Dotted lines that someone drew, and the rest of us are asked to observe. A canal here, a fence there, a dried up river bed, a train station. What happens to us when we step across one of these lines? First, nothing. Twenty feet this way, or that, nothing seems very different. Cactus spikes glowing in the strobe light on a truck. Barbed wire. Plastic bags billowing like ulcers on neglected shrubs. I’ve seen my share.
Listen to “Step Across This Border” On Apple Podcasts: podcasts.apple.com
I recall a border crossing on a train between Germany to Czechoslovakia as it was then called. Border guards in trench coats with heavy guns tapped on our compartment. Routine passport check. Very intimidating. Especially late at night when you didn’t know exactly where –meaning which side of the border — you were.
The reality is, once you cross, you are now in a different jurisdiction subject to new laws whether its speed limits or what you might have in your carry-on. People across the ‘line’ always seem to notice you are different. The way you hold up your head, your dress, your accent.
I’m not sure if this is your experience but scary border guards notwithstanding, there’s something else at work. People on the other side tend to be folks welcoming of strangers. Perhaps (a) they were once in your shoes, with no carry-on bag; (b) you are a curiosity that adds color — currency even — to their humdrum existence; (c) human beings are born to be social animals. Sure, I’m being optimistic. But at least it used to be that way.
It’s not just them. Something else happens to you. Inside. You feel the need to assimilate. To not suck up too much oxygen. To appreciate otherness. To not be the obnoxious tourist.
Any immigrant knows first hand. As a foreign student in London, my buddies were from Malta, Fiji, Seychelles, and Ethiopia. They had crossed many borders to get there. When we crossed into Northern Ireland, a region that was violently fighting the British at that time in the 1980s, there were a new set of borders to consider, even while we were technically in the same country. To say it was tense, even for our English chaperones is to put it mildly. Especially the part known as ‘Free Derry’ where fierce battles had once raged. (Remember that term ‘Bloody Sunday’?) But even in that porous border, we could walk through like locals because the locals seemed to want to have us there. At night, we could hear on radio that IRA bombs went off in the area where we were, a few blocks away.
I still think about borders, but now in a different light. Despite our accents, and varying skin colors, the borders we cross don’t have to get between us. For those of you too young to remember, Rushdie ruffled feathers. Apart from the geographical borders he crisscrossed, he crossed a line — someone’s line in the sand –when he published a book, Satanic Verses in 1998. The regime in Iran considered the book blasphemy and promptly issued a global death threat or ‘fatwa’ against him.
So my question to you is, what borders, what lines might you have crossed in the past few months? At school in our daily morning assembly we call ‘Opening Ceremony’ our hosts often bring up topics like this. Inclusiveness. A tough value to put into practice. It’s such a cliche now to even say the world is more divided now. Especially when you consider that it’s some 50 years after the Internet sold us on the promise to unite us. There are new borders people draw around themselves. To paraphrase another Opening Ceremony host, instead of defining our borders, we could be creating and expanding ‘circles of influence.’