Tag Archives: no-man’s-land

Life Atop Ground Zero — The Message — Medium

Life Atop Ground Zero — The Message — Medium.

By the time I had moved into an apartment above The Hole, in the middle of the last decade, usage of the previous term, “Ground Zero,” was thankfully fading. It was a haphazard phrase anyway, a clash of words too evocative of territory (ground) and nothingness (zero). It lingered too long, uninvited, like an expression coined by Sartre, or maybe Rumsfeld.

New Yorkers, who wisely seemed to avoid calling it anything, also seemed to avoid the entire neighborhood. On the rare occasion that I could convince a friend to visit — to dine, or to drink, or to watch the season premiere of LOST, or to do whatever we did in that hazy decade — they would inevitably peer out the window, down onto the fenced space, softly breathing the same words:

“That’s sad.”

It was sad. But tragedy often pairs with farce, and here it was, 35 floors in the sky: a wide-angle view of the world’s most kinetic city, but directly below, an inert plat of earth.

For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.

It was like that for a long time.

But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.

We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.

[…]

“A hundred times have I thought New York
is a catastrophe, and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.”

― Le Corbusier

[…]

“New York will be a great place, if they ever finish it.”
— O. Henry

[…]

Before any of the occupants were even announced, this photorealistic wallpaper was wrapped around the construction site, a mural of aspiration pasted over the once-bleak landscape:

Like a map placed over its territory, this wallpaper is the purest projection of how the city imagines itself. In its new skin, all logos advertise the same product:

LUXURY.

The fonts may change, but the fantasy stays the same.

[…]

The new World Trade Center is the embodiment of New York City as the fantasy it has always projected, a constantly refurbished dream of America. In this place, images can change, but names are always waiting to be remembered.

This is what it means to never forget.

[…]

This neighborhood was always, from its founding, a fantasy. Fifty years ago, it literally did not exist. When the original Twin Towers were built, rubble from the site was used to push back the Hudson River, creating a new neighborhood out of thin air. I now live on the soil from the original Hole.

The rectangular appendage on the western side of Manhattan was added through land reclamation, a euphemistic process that rebuffs nature and creates new urban space. Nostalgia is impossible here, because the place has no history. It was invented.

[…]

If nostalgia is impossible, a different form of wistfulness thrives in lower Manhattan. Now, we residents fondly remember an earlier era, before the tourists.

When you live around WTC, tourism becomes a guiding principle and constant obstacle. Sidewalks congest in unexpected places, crowds gawking at construction sites and memorials, disrupting your commute. Quick, there’s an opening — seeing a path through the congestion, you plunge through the congealing mass, toward the empty space — whoa, wait! You halt, teetering, to avoid crossing a photographer’s sightline — a family portrait, taken with an iPhone, by a cop, with the Freedom Tower in the background.

Every day, on my jaunt to the subway, someone in a new dialect asks for directions. Once, several years ago, as an elderly couple approached, that beseeching look on their faces, I tried to guess — will they ask for directions to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Katz’s Deli?

“Ver eest zee 9/11?” asked the hunched man, in a deep brogue, seemingly German. The first few syllables were a jumble of harsh über-sounds, but the glaring anglicized numbers at the end resonated loudly.

“Where is The 9/11?” his wife repeated, in more familiar English.

Oh. Yes. The 9/11.

“Um, right there,” I replied, pointing at the tall fence, 20 feet away, barbed wire running along the top.

Their disappointment was obvious.

This is not a place to visit, I thought to explain. It is not even a place. There is nothing to see. It is an empty square on the map, the opposite of tourism — no adventure, no leisure, no attractions. It is void. Why would you come here? You cannot see The 9/11.

But the elderly couple moved on, circling the empty fenced space.

Now, years later, there is much to see, especially since this summer, when the 9/11 Memorial opened to the public. You can now walk right up to the Reflecting Pools, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the world.

In yet another linguistic conundrum, the memorial is officially called “Reflecting Absence,” yet the slate gray surface reflects nothing.

Was that intentional? Does the contradiction highlight the folly in deriving meaning from absence? Are the waterfalls like language itself, which aspires to be mirror of the world but is more of a foggy window? Or is “Reflecting Absence” merely a wink at the surrounding WTC towers, which reflect each other with abandon, a phalanx of architectural #selfies?

Perhaps it was a good question after all: Where is The 9/11?

[…]

Although the catchy moniker implied proximity to financial territory, Occupy Wall Street was actually several blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. However, it was right next to The Hole.

Watching New Yorkers turn into tourists, like Batman morphing into the Joker, was a supreme pleasure. Gotham seldom noticed that their doppelgangers — actual tourists — were across the street, gazing at The Hole. Both groups were strangers in a strange land, tourists on a pilgrimage of memory.

Like many people, I believed in #OWS on principle, even when those principles were unclear, which was more often than not. Occupy’s goals were often baffling, but sometimes the incomprehensible response is the perfect one. And gazing at the incomprehensible in wonderment — even better.

[…]

My neighborhood is nothing less than a surveillance state. You cannot walk outside without being photographed, hundreds of times within a block. In all likelihood, I get photographed inside my apartment. Cameras are everywhere — some obvious, some hidden.

WTC now resembles an absurdist theatrical troupe where robotic cameras take pictures of tourists taking pictures of cops taking pictures of tourists. It’s a fucking panopticon opera down here.

[…]

A “Freedom Tower” cannot exist in a surveillance state. This place is freedom’s antithesis.

[…]

But this morning, September 11, 2014, I awoke to a new place. The land is completely different — a new skin of America, a luminous carapace shimmering with optimism, but ambivalent about forgetting its past and fantasizing its future. I am still unsure what to call the land below, but for the first time, I can embrace not knowing.

This is what it means to forget.

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Corpography in No-Man’s Land | Re-inhabiting No-Man’s Land

Corpography in No-Man’s Land | Re-inhabiting No-Man’s Land.

From its first entrance into the English language, designating a mass burial site for 14th century victims of the Black Death, no-man’s lands exhibit an often violent encounter between bodies and the materiality of the earth. So much so, that a distinction is no longer possible.

In his 1922 essay The Battle as Inner Experience, Ernst Jünger describes how the Fronterlebnis – life on the edges of no-man’s land – dissolves the boundary between body and space, transforming the soldier into an integral part of a frontline ecology: “There, the individual is like a raging storm, the tossing sea and the rearing thunder. He has melted into everything”

The experience Jünger describes is not just a traumatic subjection of the body to mechanised war, but, as Jeffrey Herf notes, an almost erotic rebirth and transfiguration of men into a new, improved community of the trenches that will lead the creation of “new forms filled with blood and power [that] will be packed with a hard fist”. Rather than resort to nostalgia for a pastoral pre-industrialised era, in the no-man’s land Jünger discovers a landscape where body, machine and soil are fused to form “magnificent and merciless spectacles”.

[…]

In Svetlana Alexievich’s remarkable book of testimonies from Chernobyl, the wife of one of the firemen who was exposed to extreme levels of radiation described the bio-chamber in which he was placed during his hospitalization in Moscow, and the extensive quarantine measures that isolated the man from the medical staff. To complete his dehumanisation, one nurse referred to the dying man as “a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning.[…] That’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor”. The radical unmaking of the human body to the extent that it is no longer distinguished from the original space of disaster, echoes the violent dissolution of distinctions between body and space that constituted the disastrous corpographies of WWI.

Slaves of Happiness Island | VICE United States

Slaves of Happiness Island | VICE United States.

My message to the head of the Louvre would be to come and see how we are living here,” said Tariq,* a carpenter’s helper working on construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a $653 million Middle Eastern outpost of the iconic Parisian museum. Set to be completed in 2015, its collection will include a Torah from 19th-century Yemen, Picassos, and Magrittes.

“See our living conditions and think about the promises they made,” Tariq told me through a translator.

[…]

Recruiters promised him a salary of $326 a month—for a $1,776 recruitment fee to be paid in advance. With a cousin guiding him through the process, Tariq flew to Abu Dhabi to work for the Regal Construction company, one of roughly 900 construction outfits that employ foreign workers in the emirate.

But when Tariq arrived, Regal didn’t need him. For 24 days, he waited without pay, living in a squalid workers’ camp. When work finally materialized, he learned he would make only $176 a month. His boss confiscated his passport so that he couldn’t change jobs or leave the country. He sends half his salary back to his family. After 11 months in the Gulf, he still has not paid back the loan he took out to get there.

[…]

Though it is now only a sunbaked construction site, Saadiyat, a ten-square-mile atoll 500 yards off the coast of Abu Dhabi, will be home to branches of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University, alongside hotels, shopping, and luxurious homes. It will be a cultural paradise, conjured by the country’s vast oil wealth but built on the backs of men who are little more than indentured servants.

[…]

The Saadiyat Island Cultural District is the flagship project of TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), a state-owned firm responsible for much of Abu Dhabi’s development. Announced in 2007, with an initial budget of $27 billion, according to media reports, Saadiyat will be the largest mixed-use development on the Arabian Gulf.

TDIC’s website promises fantasias of contemporary architecture. Plans show museums that look like they are pierced with moonbeams or modeled after the feathers of giant birds. After a day of culture, visitors will be able to relax at the St. Regis hotel or the Shangri-La. They will be able to play golf on world-class courses, or lounge by a series of man-made lagoons and mangrove forests, and then eat at one of dozens of gourmet restaurants run by international celebrity chefs. While construction of all these projects is happening piecemeal, Saadiyat, as envisioned by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al Nahyan, chairman of TDIC and member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, may be completed by 2020. For at least five more years, the island will need a veritable army of laborers.

[…]

Workers at the Louvre are all employed by a company called Arabtec, one of the Gulf’s largest construction outfits. The government of Abu Dhabi holds a 20 percent stake in Arabtec, and workers have staged strikes against them for years.

In 2007, up to 30,000 Arabtec workers went on strike in Dubai. Men building Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, put down their tools. The strike had been coordinated with mobile phones to protest low wages and poor living conditions. Police arrested 4,000 strikers. At the end of ten days, Arabtec promised a pay raise. Managing Director Riad Kamal told Reuters that the impact on the company’s profits would be less than 1 percent.

But the strikes—and crackdowns—continued. Three thousand more workers went on strike in Dubai in 2011. They made $176 a month and wanted a $41 raise. The police arrested 70 men they claimed were ringleaders. “Their presence in the country is dangerous,” Colonel Mohammed al Murr, director of the Dubai Police’s General Department of Legal and Disciplinary Control, told the National, a state-owned newspaper.

After this, Bangladeshi workers, who were alleged to have helped organize the strikes, were banned for an indefinite period from seeking UAE visas.

[…]

Arabtec also replaced Bangladeshis with Pakistanis. It was classic divide-and-rule strategy, harking back to the British Empire. In August 2013, the tension exploded into riots between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Saadiyat Village. Workers turned their tools against one another. The police fired live ammo into the air.

After the riots, Pakistani workers were shipped off to other camps.

[…]

While wages may sometimes rise, the Emirates will never permit workers to formally organize. Workers’ councils, or any form of unionization, are strictly banned.

[…]

Ibrahim lives in one of Abu Dhabi’s labor camps, in a low-rise building set among row after row of identical blocks. Like most camps, it is hidden deep in the desert, far from central Abu Dhabi. Forty thousand men can live in a single camp. They are Nepali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian—and work for a variety of companies. Often, since they don’t speak English, they won’t know what project they’re building.

Corporate buses ferry workers to job sites. Even these are no respite from the heat. Despite laws to the contrary, many buses have no air conditioning. Commutes last up to two hours, and the temperatures often reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ibrahim showed me a cell-phone video of the windowless dorm he shares with ten men. Outside, he has only a mosque, a hypermarket, and the sun.

On his one day off, Ibrahim told me, he would like to stroll Abu Dhabi’s corniche. But there’s no public transit. He is a virtual prisoner in the workers’ city.

Besides a few cashiers, the camps contain no women—just as the UAE, flush with laborers, is two-thirds male. Men save up for occasional visits to Ethiopian prostitutes. They too are migrants, often former maids who ran away from abusive employers. Because of their dark skin, Ethiopian prostitutes aren’t favored by the country’s Emirati elite and have to charge prices that even laborers can afford.

“We are so bored, and it’s a long time away from home,” Ibrahim told me when I asked him about the women. “We sit in that room for the whole day. We can’t go outside because of the heat, can’t afford to get to the beach or the mall.”

Some workers sleep with each other. Several of Ibrahim’s acquaintances have been jailed for having romantic relationships with other men. To save face, one of them, a Pashtun, told his family he’d been charged with murder.

“A beautiful boy is like a girlfriend,” Ibrahim said. Bus drivers, among the best-paid workers, court good-looking young men with promises of meals at restaurants and cell-phone credit.

[…]

Roughly 10 percent of the UAE’s 9.2 million residents are citizens. The rest are “expats” (if they’re white-collar professionals) or “migrant labor” (if they’re working class). Foreigners can live in the Emirates for generations, but short of proving Emirati heritage, there’s no way they can get citizenship. They can be deported at whim.

Amid this disenfranchisement, Emiratis can appear to foreigners like aristocrats. One can be arrested just for flipping them off in traffic.

Pravasalokam is a hit TV show in Kerala, India. A reality program whose name means “Workers’ World” in Malayalam, the show depicts the rescue of workers who have disappeared—due to jail, poverty, or abuse—in the Gulf. The Gulf nightmare is well known, yet migrants keep coming. The $14 billion a year in remittances they send home is integral to the economies of Nepal and Bangladesh (in Bangladesh the two largest sources of foreign currency are migrant labor and garments). But migrants are pushed by war as well as cash. Many workers hail from Kashmir, Pakistan’s Taliban-dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and other crisis areas in South Asia.

Whatever his country of origin, a migrant almost always has to pay a recruiter fee (which is then shared with subcontractors inside the Emirates). While hiring companies claim to cover costs like airfare, visas, and medical exams, recruiters in the sending countries and their partners in the UAE often skim a year’s potential wages from the worker himself. In some countries recruiters dodge local labor laws by hiring subcontractors, who trawl villages for the illiterate, the desperate, or those simply frustrated enough to risk the dangers of the Gulf. Workers take out loans, empty their families’ savings, or use land as collateral.

At Mafraq Workers’ City No. 2, a labor camp 23 miles from central Abu Dhabi, I interviewed workers cutting one another’s hair in an improvised outdoor barbershop. They crowded around me, telling me about salaries of $150 to $300 a month and police who hassled them if they dared visit the beach in their salwar kameez. While Emiratis are dependent on migrant labor, they’d prefer that the workers stay invisible in their off-hours.

Friends crouched in the shade beneath buses. One group sneaked a forbidden bottle of wine. The rules here were as strict as summer camp—no booze, no cooking, no gambling, no porn.

[…]

Saadiyat Island is also home to what is billed to be the most humane labor camp in the entire Gulf. In response to international pressure, TDIC created what they call the Saadiyat Accommodation Village to house all workers building Western cultural institutions. In the words of its developer, it “provide[s] an internationally recognized world-class standard of living.” Its huge cricket field, writing classes, and a library containing Steinbeck are everything a visiting dignitary could desire.

[…]

Tariq, the Louvre worker, told me, “The grounds are the only things that are good. Everything else will make you feel awful. The bathrooms always stink. We don’t even have doors there. The food given to us is inedible.”

[…]

According to Ross, Saadiyat Village is a “high-security zone” where workers are constantly monitored.

Workers live more than a mile beyond a checkpoint they are forbidden from walking to. Their only escape is a bus that runs once a week to Abu Dhabi. In the wake of the Arab Spring, security concerns are cited to outside visitors as a reason for keeping the all-male workforce in physical isolation. But if controlling and isolating workers helps TDIC manage the fallout of international pressure, it also produces a less than ideal side effect for the press-shy Emiratis: It helps workers organize and resist.

[…]

The most simplistic accusation against Abu Dhabi is that by building branches of the Louvre or Guggenheim, the city is buying culture. This logic pretends that Cleopatra’s Needle ended up in Paris through the goodness of Egyptian hearts, or that Lord Elgin didn’t just pillage the marbles that bear his name.

Those accusations also perpetuate another myth: The UAE has no culture of its own.

Two generations ago, the Emiratis were Bedouins, nomadic desert people whose main economic activity was pearl diving. They built wind towers, trained falcons, and composed swashbuckling poetry. Emirati culture was rich, but Emiratis were poor. Now they are wealthy. From the lens of European dominance, Emiratis can seem like improper overlords.

Or perhaps Europeans are just jealous. The UAE’s oil money could have disappeared in the coffers of Western energy companies or corrupt leaders. Instead, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, built a munificent welfare state. Emirati citizens get free education, health care, and electricity, as well as generous wages subsidized by the government. They pay no taxes. But the foreigners who compose 90 percent of the population don’t share in this largesse.

[…]

One afternoon I stood inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in central Abu Dhabi. Built in 2007, the gigantic structure made me gasp at its loveliness. Its design spans the breadth of Muslim art: The domes were Taj Mahal, the stucco Moroccan, the tiles Turkish, the gold palm columns seemingly from the future. It embodied the cosmopolitanism of the Muslim world, vital with the energy of this young country.

[…]

Andrew Ross from Gulf Labor stressed that an institution’s responsibilities don’t end with construction. “If you visit Saadiyat, you find NYU is the only finished building. Apart from the workers’ village, it’s surrounded by nothing. It will have construction going on for 20 years around it.”

[…]

“You know how Ford said you can have any car you like as long as it’s black? In the UAE they can make whatever you want, as long as it’s a building. They can’t make free speech or human rights,” Ahmed Mansoor told me in the curtained-off back room of a Dubai restaurant.

[…]

When I asked him about the Western cultural institutions being built on Saadiyat, he told me, “All these glittering buildings and huge names are there to hide an ugly face… Artists around the world appreciate the human struggle for freedom. In the UAE, we are only buying the image.”

Can you have art without freedom? Splendid objects get made for the highest bidder. Challenging ideas require something more than the Emirates may care to provide.

I put this question to a young artist born in the UAE. He told me: “By entertaining any vision of a culturally engaged metropolis, [the UAE] has opened up a Pandora’s box. Critical culture is forced into a more subversive form. This subversion itself can be a form of poetry. I have to think like this, because I live here and I need to survive the aftermath of my own thoughts.”

[…]

I asked a butcher the price of a cow’s head. The crowd screamed as undercover cops yanked him away. The butcher was arrested, seemingly as punishment for speaking to a Westerner. Terrified that he might also be arrested, Ibrahim suggested that we leave the market quickly.

[…]

“I have nothing to do with the workers,” said Zaha Hadid, the star architect behind one of Qatar’s phantasmagoric soccer stadiums being built for the 2022 World Cup, when the Guardian asked her in February 2014 about the deaths of 882 migrant laborers constructing her design. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.” Hadid is now designing the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre on Saadiyat.

The West’s museums lie atop metaphoric graveyards. Art’s temples have always been built on the backs of the poor. The Louvre in Paris touts its history in the passive voice on its website: “Was built to the west of the city”; “wings begun under Louis XIV were partially completed.” But what of the peasants who sweated and died in the construction? Of them, official histories have little to say. Neither do official histories mention the miners who mined the fortune that let Solomon R. Guggenheim build the museum that bears his name.

Defenders of Western institutions in Abu Dhabi are right about one thing. They are not unique. The labor abuses at the Louvre or NYU are the same labor abuses that are happening throughout the UAE. The UAE is not the worst country for workers in the Gulf, and the Gulf is not the worst region for workers in the world. Most countries sustain themselves on the labor of transient, disposable people. This may be unofficial, as in the United States (our agricultural industry would collapse overnight without undocumented migrants), or it may be institutionalized, as in the UAE.

Maps, cracks & geographical imaginations: The Princess of No-Man’s Land | Re-inhabiting No-Man’s Land

Maps, cracks & geographical imaginations: The Princess of No-Man’s Land | Re-inhabiting No-Man’s Land.

Bir Tawil – Arabic for ‘tall well’ – an 800 square mile trapezoid-shaped tract of land wedged in between the southern borders of the Arab Republic of Egypt and the northern border of the Republic of the Sudan.

What makes Bir Tawil so fascinating is that it is seemingly so unwanted. It is unclaimed by both of its continental neighbours and, as a consequence, appears to resist, even exceed, the processes of expansion and enclosure that are so associated with the system of modern nation states. Until now, that is. As of 16 June 2014, Bir Tawil has been claimed – by the unlikely sounding Jeremiah Heaton of Abingdon, Virginia.

Heaton, we are led to believe, is a man who would do almost anything for his seven-year-old daughter, including fulfilling a promise that she could be ‘a real princess’. Eschewing the easy option of procuring a natty costume from a local royal outfitter, Heaton instead cast his geopolitical eye around the world in order to establish his own independent kingdom. He initially considered staking a claim to a portion of Antarctica until he “discovered” that sovereignty claims on the continent are suspended under the Antarctic Treaty System, agreed in 1959. The unclaimed Bir Tawil was a natural second choice. In a move discomforting for its similarity to past colonial possession-taking across Africa, Heaton travelled to Bir Tawil where, on 16 June 2014 (yes, you guessed it, his daughter’s seventh birthday) he planted a self-designed flag and ushered into being the ‘Kingdom of Northern Sudan’.

Jeremiah Heaton staking his claim to Bir Tawil (16 June 2014).

Jeremiah Heaton staking his claim to Bir Tawil (16 June 2014).

[…]

“It is not just a no man’s land, it is actively spurned. It appears to be the only place left on earth that is both habitable and unclaimed.”

The roots of this “unclaiming” date back more than a century to the publication, in 1899 and 1902 respectively, of two maps by British colonial cartographers that created two distinct versions of the border between Egypt and what was, at the time, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The 1899 iteration places Bir Tawil within Sudan but incorporates the economically productive pocket of land known as the Hala’ib Triangle within Egypt. The 1902 map reversed this territorial allocation by placing Bir Tawil within Egypt and the Hala’ib Triangle within Sudan.

The effect of this cartographic flip-flopping has been that neither Egypt nor Sudan has pursued an active claim over Bir Tawil because to do so may undermine their respective national claims to the Hala’ib Triangle. Bir Tawil, as a consequence, exists as a crack between two modern nation states and, as such, is evocative of one of the earliest appearances of No-Man’s Lands (nonesmanneslond) in the English language; from around 1320 when it was used in reference to the barren stretches of land—often used as waste or dumping grounds—between two provinces or kingdoms. While these medieval spaces were frequently economically unproductive and therefore unwanted by feudal Lords, the story of Bir Tawil is bound up in a more complex story of sovereignty claims and strategic ‘unclaiming’.

[…]

Bir Tawil was for thousands of years, until comparatively recently, actively used by members of the Ababda tribe in the pursuance of their nomadic lifestyle, culture and practices. Even after 1902, the Ababda continued to transgress – or, again, exceed – the newly-imagined lines of colonial cartography in order to seasonally graze camels, goats and sheep.

[…]

Satellite imagery reveals more contemporary evidence of occupation (albeit temporary) and movement within – and through – Bir Tawil. Tyre tracks point to frequent visitation – whether for the purpose of military patrols, tourism, or the transportation of goods or people. In any case, No Man’s Lands are rarely empty.

[…]

In the meantime, the world surely trembles in anticipation of 16th June 2015, the date when we will learn what Princess Emily requests and requires for her 8th birthday.

Exploring No-Man’s-Land in the 21st Century — War is Boring — Medium

Exploring No-Man’s-Land in the 21st Century — War is Boring — Medium.

Barrier walls in the Palestinian territories in 2004. Lisa Nessan/Flickr photo

Following the end of World War I, Europe’s intellectuals tried to understand and explain what everyone just went through. They also tried to grapple with the reality of industrialized warfare and the no-man’s-lands it created.

Blasted, blown up and raked by machine gun fire. The no-man’s-land was a place that people couldn’t go without risking death.

Some thinkers on the political left saw no-man’s-land as symbolic of the destruction of Europe’s dying, traditional political order. However, intellectuals on the right saw the battlefield as a place where young men could be reborn into the fascist shock troops of Weimar Germany.

The fixed trenches of World War I are long gone. But the no-man’s-land never really went away, according to Noam Leshem, a political geographer at Durham University in England who studies modern no-man’s-lands.

From Cyprus, Western Sahara, the Palestinian territories to the Korean peninsula, no-man’s-lands are now tourist attractions, environmental preserves and places to make money.

Leshem’s work is available at Re-Inhabiting No-Man’s Land, a collection of writing and research on modern dead zones.

[…]

Our concern began with the obvious no-man’s-land of the First World War, but Alasdair reminded me the term was constantly being circulated in reference to very different sites.

So anything from other geopolitical areas like the demilitarized zones between the Koreas, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or even urban geopolitical no-man’s-lands like the one that divided Jerusalem until 1967.

But even beyond the geopolitical vocabulary, what we saw was that no-man’s land entered our lingo to refer to anything from gangland in the heart of North American cities to tax havens in the Caribbean.

When we started looking into this, one of our key goals was to try and understand the history of the term, and to our surprise the term is much older than 1915, i.e. the Battle of the Somme. It dates back to the 14th century and to London during the months preceding the plague, when the bishop of London buys a lot of land outside the city to prepare a mass grave ahead of the bubonic plague.

We found that relationship between a space and death to be kind of one of the key characteristics of no-man’s-land throughout its history. And what we’re trying to do today is two things, is first is continue to understand the history of the term beyond its sort of Anglo-Saxon origins, but also ask what do no-man’s-lands in the 21st century mean?

RB: We often think no-man’s-land as a sort of desolate environment. But in the Cyprus buffer zone there’s actually a lot of stuff going on there.

NL: Absolutely. Cyprus is a great example. As you know, there’s a lot of economic activity. There’s a lot of farming going on in the designated U.N. buffer zone, but you also get newly constructed industrial zones that are rezoned by the U.N. for civilian use.

So what you get are sub-civilian spaces within the militarized space of the buffer zone designated for economic activity.

In addition you get a lot of smuggling—of drugs, people across the no-man’s-land. And I would add to that: tourism. The buffer zone in Cyprus has become one of the key tourist attractions on the island. Beaches, good food and you get some buffer zone watchers.

So absolutely this is a very significant space economically and a space that is constantly inhabited, governed, monitored and practiced.

There are things happening in it that makes it a significant space rather than just this empty no-go zone.

RB: There’s also environmental features to these spaces. The demilitarized zone in the Koreas is a famous wildlife sanctuary.

NL: Here’s a funny anecdote from when we were in Cyprus a few weeks. One of our interviewees told us that Cypriots just absolutely love hunting, and although most of the wildlife on the island is completely extinct, he said if you want to find snakes, go to the buffer zone. If you want to find wildlife, go to the buffer zone.

That’s the only place where animals have survived because hunting is not allowed there.

As you pointed out, the demilitarized zone between the Koreas is a very important Asian wildlife sanctuary. Chernobyl is famous for the resuscitation of natural habitats as a result of the withdrawal of human activity. The herds of wild horses that roam Chernobyl these days have become almost as famous as reactor number four.

However, there’s again an interesting history because in 19th century notebooks of expeditions in North America, we find repeated references to the no-man’s-land as a space between two warring tribes where wildlife game finds refuge.

So already that association between sanctuary and no-man’s-land is made long before we designated the demilitarized zone in the Koreas as a sanctuary or the inadvertent creation of a wildlife sanctuary in Chernobyl.

There’s a fantastic film on the community of bunnies that found refuge in Berlin between the two sides of the wall. So in the no-man’s-land in Berlin, there was a huge community of bunnies.

It’s really important issue. It sheds light on the interests that preserve these spaces. I think that’s not just about preserving these spaces for the future, but the sense that the spaces are still a part of human concern.

RB: You had a recent post on your blog about [German war veteran and writer] Ernst Juenger. What were you trying to do there?

NL: Juenger was one of the most important thinkers that repeatedly returns in his writing and thinking to the no-man’s-land. The no-man-land’s for Juenger—contrary to the traditional definition of it as this desolate no-go zone—is a very productive space.

The no-man’s-land is a space from which a new man emerges, a man that has fused with machine and with earth to create this new—almost cyborg—creature that has bettered himself to such an extent that he is a new kind of being.

Not only is this happening on an individual level, but also on a social level. He talks about there being a “community of the trenches.”

But it’s important to remember that Juenger was part of a very specific intellectual group traditionally positioned on the right in Weimar Germany that celebrated the no-man’s-land, that romanticized it. On the other side, still in Weimar Germany, we see people like Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin was exempt from military service in the First World War, but he constantly returns to the no-man’s-land as a space where a philosophical crisis happens. Benjamin repeatedly asks, what’s the meaning of this space of destruction?

[…]

In the Second World War, that is transplanted from the trenches to the enclosed space of the gas chamber, or remotely through aerial bombardment. And what we have here is a change in status and no-man’s-land is no longer applied to concrete spaces of warfare and death.

The U.N. buffer zone in Cyprus in December 2012. Athena Lao/Flickr photo