Because I come from South Africa, and not, say, the UK or US, I need a visa stamped into my passport before I can set foot in most countries on earth. When I travel to the Caribbean on business, I go via London instead of Miami, because the Americans won’t even let me pass through their doors in transit without half a ton of paperwork and an expensive visa application process. I have friends who’ve gone through the mill of proving that their grandparents were born in Lithuania in order to get a Lithuanian passport. Which amounts to EU citizenship. For the sake of sidestepping their travel visa headaches. (Or, in more cases, to allow them to live and work in the EU.) I can’t help wondering what their ancestral connections really prove to the powers that be. What on earth makes that individual a more palatable entrant to these countries than someone whose passport has a different country name on it?
I guess I could say, quite confidently, that I really don’t get nationalism. In fact, I get it less now than I did at school. Whenever I cross a border post by car, I’m struck by the absurdity of the wire fences that divide countries. Erected by labourers, manned by civil servants. The official dance of stamping bits of paper barely conceals the absurdity of it. What is this, exactly? Why do we need to do it? I can’t say I understand.
The last time I crossed from South Africa into Namibia, I mistakenly took my old passport, which had been invalidated when the new one was issued. The woman working at the desk didn’t notice. Relief for me. But also silent triumph. This is how significant the paperwork is. Its only significance is bestowed by the people handling it. Today, at Heathrow, I watched an official toss my make-up remover and body oil in the bin, because of some rule about containers that can hold more than 100 ml of liquid. She knew it was body oil, not napalm or whatever. She knew it was make-up remover. I knew the rules. She didn’t make them. Dumbly, we both complied. Dumbly, the liquids got tossed in the bin. Did this do something to advance national security in Britain? Somehow, I think not. I didn’t feel safer for it. I simply felt that some sort of tyranny of idiocy was at play, and neither of us had the power to do anything about it.