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Friday, February 10, 2017

Fareweel and fortune

I’ve been to Scotland many times, for pleasure or business. But I haven’t written much about it, and this visit to Edinburgh (for the day job) is the last time I can foresee. So here’s my farewell to Scotland, some impressions of it and the theme I can’t get away from, no matter where in the world I go.
National Gallery of Scotland and Walter Scott Monument

The first time I went to Scotland, like almost every subsequent time, the sun was out as I traveled by rail across the English border. It’s like a little joke between me and the country. To be sure, the weather can be more, well, Scottish. The last time I was up here was with some American family last June, and the summer was relentlessly rainy (see also: Wales). But 23 years ago I was traveling by train for the first time around the United Kingdom (it’s more expensive than the coach, or bus), and I was as enamored of the “standard class” experience as I would become of first class. 

Just picture me, fresh out of university, swigging from a bell-shaped bottle of Bell’s whisky bought from the buffet car, while the backpacker in the next seat thumbed through his Rough Guide. It was the true beginning of The Discreet Traveler. We were going to Glasgow to stay with an elderly lady who had moved to Scotland from England decades earlier and, as the saying has it, gone native. She felt Scottish and, to my ears, she even sounded Scottish. She was an elder in the Church (kirk) of Scotland, cooked delicious salmon, and had an umbrella in a tartan pattern. She belonged in her new country.

I didn’t appreciate until years later why this “Scottishness” of hers was dismissed by anyone south of the border. After all, where I come from, a person can move to a new city, state, or country and adopt it. There are Hoosiers who weren’t born in Indiana and Canadians who weren’t born in Canada, so why not a Scot who was born somewhere else?

But nope. That is not the Old World way of doing things. In the Old World, where a person was born can be the most important thing about her, even though it’s something over which she clearly has no control. And increasingly, this is becoming true in the New World as well.

You see, as much as I try to go local myself (eating a delicious smoked haddock soup called Cullen skink for supper, haggis and black pudding with my breakfast), I am where I was born, wherever I go in the world. I didn’t choose to be born in the USA, and while it’s certainly part of me, I don’t take any credit for it. It comes with many privileges I didn’t earn, and I don’t even think about all of them.

Do you have a passport? Most Americans don’t, but when they apply for one, they’re unusually fortunate. A US passport, like Canadian, British, and European Union passports, get you into most countries in the world with minimal hassle. Often you don’t have to apply for a visa at all, and if you do, it’s usually not a big deal or very expensive. 

People with passports from some other countries, however, find it very difficult to travel anywhere. Then there are the many people who aren’t able to get passports, because their own country denies them one (Syria), or because they are refugees, or because they are stateless. And then there are the people who are citizens of privileged countries, but because they were born somewhere else, they are still held responsible for that one unchangeable fact about themselves. The crime of where they were born.

Like Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen who was "extraordinarily rendered" by the United States in 2002. That is to say, deported back to Syria, which tortured him. Mr. Arar had lived in Canada for fifteen years, but his Canadian passport did him no good, because the USA decided to treat him on the basis of where he was born. Being born in Syria of course is not a crime, but it’s nothing new to treat it as one.

Or a British doctor I was speaking to in Edinburgh, who explained that he can’t enter India at all, because he was born in Pakistan. “I’m Christian,” he told me; “I don’t even have a Muslim name. But India’s decided we’re all terrorists.” The world’s largest democracy has deemed anyone born in its neighbor to be inadmissible to the country.

It was already difficult to travel to the United States, he said. Ever since September 11, just having dark skin, it was such a hassle. (I have heard this many times before, but of course, I don’t like thinking it’s true.) Now, this British-accented physician expects never to travel to the US again. Pakistan isn’t yet on the list of banned countries, despite an actual history of terrorist attacks both internal and external. But being Pakistani-born is enough trouble even for someone with a British passport, who lives here.

Nationalism is on the rise all over the world. English nationalism has led to “Brexit” from the EU and Scottish nationalism is reacting against that. Jill Stephenson, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in The Scotsman of how “cybernats” tell her she “hates Scotland” because she voted No in the Scottish independence referendum. Their view is that there is only one way to be Scottish, and she is not it. I have also been told that I “hate the United States of America” when I’ve expressed a way of being American that was different from the speaker’s. 
Glaswegian beer

What if we belong to more than one nation? What if we want to be part of a United Kingdom, as Jill Stephenson does; or a united Europe; or the world? The UK prime minister has said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” My acquired nationality has been dismissed in words like these: “You were born in America. End of.”

On my way to my return train, I stopped in a little shop in Edinburgh run by a young Sikh man. He saw the red ribbon on my jacket and recognized it as the AIDS ribbon. This emboldened him to talk to me for a few minutes about the people of Edinburgh and how he found the larger cities of Glasgow and London to be more open. I asked if he meant different kinds of people, and he said yes.

Different how? Different religions, national origins, sexualities? I didn’t ask him where he was born or if he is a British citizen. Does he feel Scottish? Does Sikhism make a difference, or his skin color?

So let me nail my colors to the mast: I’m not Scottish, but I want Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom. The UK is leaving the EU, but I voted for it to stay. I have passports from two privileged nations, and I know I am privileged to be a citizen of even one.

People may “feel” Scottish or British or European or a citizen of the world. But what I mostly feel is fortunate.