Dispatches from Palestine: Bil’in and Hebron

Palestine is a place that doesn’t exist in a legal-administrative way: it is only partially internationally recognized (but still not a member of the UN) and although – according to the Oslo Accords – possesses some sovereignty, in practice this is severely limited. However, Palestine is recognized by more than half of UN member countries, and is part of some UN bodies, which allows it to voice its opinions and grievances on the international scene. Compared to the de facto states in Eurasia, it receives much more international media attention and has a strong international presence, with many NGOs engaged in monitoring and documenting violence and human rights violations. Israel knows that large-scale violence and land seizures will not go unnoticed and will harm its reputation, but also cause economic damage. In order to pass under the radar and escape the watchful eye of media and NGOs, it resorts to what Foucault has termed the microphysics of power.

In my previous post I have argued that the “separation barrier” is the externalisation of Bentham’s Panopticon. I focused on the slow violence of architecture and urban planning. This time I would like to explore the shift from Panoptikon as a specific form of mechanical surveillance to panopticism as a form of social control behind the microphysics of power. In other words, I am interested in how the static, dehumanized elements of occupation (walls, fences, checkpoints) relate to – and are supported by – the dynamic elements of occupation (human activity).


One of the perceived differences between de facto states in Eurasia and Palestine, is that the former are widely (if incorrectly) seen as frozen conflicts, while the latter is very much still a hot conflict. One of the consequences is that there is no status-quo: the de facto control over territory changes daily with new “facts on the ground” being established through progressive occupation. Foucaultian approach to political violence seems taylor-made for the analysis of the microcosmos of occupation in Palestine. Foucault’s structural analysis takes into account both external (territory) as well as internal aspects (human thinking and behaviour), the geopolitical as well as biopolitical elements of political violence. This post is an attempt to frame my visit to the village of Bil’in and the city of Hebron in terms of Foucault’s concept of the microphysics of violence.

image by Julien Busac

The West Bank Archipelago. Image by Julien Busac

Occupation proceeds through small steps and occasional giant leaps. While the small steps consist of seemingly spontaneous local grass-root activity, the giant leaps depend on nation-wide administrative measures that legalize land grabs through court decisions. Both tactics fulfil the purpose of the larger strategy of pushing Palestinians out of their historical lands and are in contravention of Oslo Peace Accords.

The strategy of small steps itself appears to be twofold. The first part is carried out by Israeli settlers expanding their settlements through legal and illegal measures (often acting with impunity in full view of the army), such as burning olive trees, putting up fences, placing trailers on Palestinian land, and thus establishing “facts on the ground”. The second part consists of making life difficult for the Palestinians so that they would leave the land. This is done by constant harassment by the army and the settlers. The army operates through structural violence of the apartheid-like system of restrictions on movement; the complex system of checkpoints and permits, which create significant obstacles for locals to access their land, maintain contact between each other, and access services, such as healthcare. The settlers complement the “cold” violence of the army with “hot” violence ranging from harassment and verbal abuse to extreme acts of violence, such as the recent arson attack in Nablus, where a baby and his father were burned to death. In order to look at how violence operates on the micro level, I draw on my observations from Bil’in and Hebron.


The name of Bil’in – a village located 12 kilometres from Ramallah – resonates with very few people internationally. Yet, many have seen the Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras, which was shot entirely in the village and surrounding areas. A Palestinian-Israeli coproduction, the film depicts the struggle of villagers – mostly farmers – to hold on to their land, which has been seized by the Israeli military for the construction of new settlements and the West Bank security barrier. The villagers have been organizing protests every Friday after prayer for the past few years. Israeli army has mostly responded with arrests and fired tear gas at the protesters. As the tear gas bombs were not shot at an angle, but directly into the crowd, people have been killed and injured, with empty tear gas canisters still littering the edges of the village – a harrowing reminder of the ongoing violence.

Talking to the people in the village, one gets a more intimate impression of how life on West Bank borderlines unfolds. Everyone you talk to has several friends or relatives who were arrested, injured or killed. In Bil’in geopolitics and bipolitics become intertwined as the conflict for territory unfolds through the use of human bodies as the only source of resistance. Stripped of legal rights and territory, the villager becomes a Homo Sacer – left only with his or her bare life, an outcast liable to persecution and violence with impunity. In Palestine everything is political, down to human life in its most bare, basic form. To exist is to resist.

From any point in Bil’in, one can see the Israeli settlement Modi’in Ilit and its satellites Ne’ot Hapsiga and Green Park. The villagers of Bil’in are not in conflict only with the army, which only intervenes in protests and enforces land grabs. They are in an ongoing conflict with the settlers, who have on several occasions initiated violence against the Palestinians; stealing their land, destroying their property, and beating up the villagers.


Hebron has perhaps the tensest atmosphere of all the conflict areas I’ve visited in unrecognized states. One reads of periodic incidents in the media, but on the ground the tensions that escalate into violence occur on daily basis. Moving around the West Bank, one becomes used to horizontal divisions of territory with walls, fences, checkpoints and bypass roads separating Israeli and Palestinian areas. In Hebron, the division is as much vertical as it is horizontal. Israeli settlements surround Hebron, but in the old town they are also placed on top of Palestinian houses with Palestinians living on the ground floor and Israeli settlers occupying the first – and in some cases – the second floor. The conflict here also assumes a vertical dimension with settlers throwing rocks, trash, glass bottles, eggs, and spilling urine and bleach down on the Palestinians in what is the main market street of the town. In the complex legal-administrative vacuum the Palestinian police cannot prevent settlers from these hostile acts since it has no jurisdiction over them, and the Israeli army, which possesses this jurisdiction, has no intention to prevent violence, restricting itself to observing the whole situation from their guard posts on rooftops. The three layers on which the conflict unfolds in Hebron symbolise perfectly the wider situation in Palestine: Palestinians are on the bottom, under the attack of Israeli settlers above, while the army on top does nothing at best or takes the side of the settlers at worst.

Items thrown by the Israeli settlers on the people in the market street and the makeshift mesh put up by the Palestinians to defend themselves. Hebron

Items thrown by the Israeli settlers on the people in the market street and the makeshift mesh put up by the Palestinians to defend themselves. Hebron

According to Foucault, surveillance and discipline eventually become internalised so that the bulk of repression is carried out by the repressed themselves. In order to defend themselves, the local residents put up a makeshift metal mesh – a vertical analogue of the horizontal wall separating them from Israel. The Israelis have achieved the ultimate goal: the Palestinians are forced into building their own walls, their own prison.

Coming out of a Palestinian house, where we were hosted for lunch by a local family, we encountered a group of French Jews visiting a nearby Israeli settlement. They seemed agitated and we learned from our Palestinian guide that a few moments ago, they were engaged in a conflict with local people following which one Palestinian was arrested. Upon crossing the military checkpoint and entering the settlement, they approached us and started questioning us about the purpose of our visit, behaving in an abusive way. Despite our assurances that we are tourists who want to visit both the Palestinian and Israeli parts of Hebron, they were convinced that we are supporters of the BDS movement and were openly hostile towards us. It took the soldiers at the checkpoint to intervene and send them away. Had we been Palestinians, we would have been arrested and taken away “for our own security”.

Dispatches from Palestine: The Wall

Since I’m currently in Palestine, I will dedicate the next few posts to various issues associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestine’s status as a place that doesn’t exist. I’m starting with a post on the “Israeli West Bank barrier”, known here simply as the wall, and sometimes referred to as the apartheid wall. Its ubiquitous presence and the violence it imposes on the geography of the West Bank, is something that a foreigner can hardly avoid noticing.


The wall near Bethlehem

Walking along the barrier is a harrowing experience. Eight meter high concrete wall, twice higher and many times longer than the Berlin Wall, are interrupted now and then by guard towers, metal gates, and by sections of barbed wire which is there provisionally – eventually it will be replaced by the wall, too.

Construction started shortly after the Second Intifada in 2002 and the wall will be 700 km long when completed, sealing off West Bank from Israel. It will crop off 10% of Palestinian land according to the UN. According to International Court of Justice the barrier is illegal under international law and several UN General Assembly resolutions have called for the construction to stop.

The alienating feeling of the wall does not come only from its imposing size, a testament to the overwhelming imbalance of power in favour of Israel and its colonial project of settlements and land grabs. What stroke me most, was the emptiness and anonymity of the place. One can barely see any traces of human presence except graffiti and empty tear gas canisters – symbols of resistance and repression. It seems as if nobody is guarding the wall and the associated military installations. No visible guards, no patrol vehicles, no attack dogs. Only the wall. In this sense, the wall is a non-place (Marc Augé), a space that has no defining characteristics, no identity. An entity devoid of everything human, as if placed there by a higher force. An unhuman and inhumane structure, a concrete monster.

image taken from endtimestruth.com

image taken from endtimestruth.com

Yet, it is man-made, inhabited, surveyed. One just cannot see when, where and by whom. There may or may not be guards in the tower. Cameras may or may not be active. Perhaps there are soldiers behind the metal doors ready to storm through the gates at any moment. Nobody knows. This is the creepiest thing about its presence: to not see, but be seen. To not know who is watching you, when, and with what intentions. A hidden enemy in the face of which you are completely exposed and utterly vulnerable.

The “separation barrier” is a strange mixture of primitive and highly advanced technology. The basic concept is tens of thousands of years old. Walls and its predecessors – wooden palisades – are among the earliest buildings built by humans to defend themselves from wild animals and other humans. However, this is not merely a line of vertically positioned domino-like concrete slabs as it may seem. The wall includes guard towers, electronic fences, gates, trenches, cameras, radars, motion detectors, drones, and automatic weapon systems. It is a smart wall that detects movement, it is an active wall that eliminates potential threats. Above all, the wall is undermining Palestinian sovereignty and prospects of establishing a Palestinian state, slowly erasing Palestine off the map, something Israeli architect Eijah Wiseman calls “slow violence“.

According to Israeli government and military, the wall serves the purpose of separating Israel from Palestinian territories in order to prevent Palestinian terrorists (in particular suicide bombers) from carrying out attacks in Israel. However, in reality the wall cuts deep into the Palestinian territory as defined by the 1949 Armistice Line, known as the Green Line. The walls are never only about separation and inclusion, but just as much about linkage and inclusion. The “separation barrier” excludes, disconnects and fragments Palestinian territories, while including, connecting and uniting Israel and its settlements. As such it is not a defensive structure, but part of an offensive strategy. It is an integral and inseparable element of the logistics of the occupation. An instrument that complements dead zones and settlements, bypass roads and checkpoints that encircle and criss-cross the Palestinian archipelago.


The wall near Bel’in (where the film Five Broken Cameras was shot)

The “separation barrier” is the externalisation of Bentham’s Panopticon. The original Panopticon was the idea of a circular prison in which all cells and the prisoners in them would be visible from one central tower positioned in the middle of the prison – the invisible all-seeing presence. The “separation barrier” works in the same way, except that the gaze is not projected inward – controlling the area enclosed by the prison walls, but outward – controlling the whole territory beyond the wall. Besides the wall, connected and fortified settlements act as a kind of wall, too. Perched on the hilltops and surrounded by their own walls and olive trees, they hide settlers from view while allowing them to monitor any approach to the settlement. In fact, the hills are mostly cleared of vegetation (except the olive trees immediately surrounding the settlement and obstructing the view from outside) to provide a better view and make the vicinity of the settlement easier to monitor. Bypass roads, only available for the use of Israelis, are also lined on both sides by concrete walls, hence acting as an additional barrier.

In addition to the Israeli West Bank barrier and other barriers on the territory of the West Bank, Israel has built other walls and fences. A wall separates Israel from Egypt in the Sinai and a security barrier runs along the whole length of land borders of Gaza Strip. In addition, a barrier has been projected in the Jordan valley in order to control movement through the Israeli-Jordanian border and to cut off access to Jordan River from Palestinians. The system of walls is the externalisation of Bentham-like prison, the transformation of the whole Palestine into one big prison. Many have noted that Gaza has effectively become a concentration camp. With these new walls, West Bank is effectively becoming one, too.

Although it may seem that the walls are primarily built to defend territory, they really defend the population. But against what? Invading armies, terrorist attacks, waves of migrants? Possibly. However, they also “defend” the population against information, ideas, and culture of the Other. They physically prevent contact between people effectively disabling them to get to know each other, build relations and create empathy. This is convenient for two reasons. Firstly, an anonymous enemy is convenient because since we don’t know anything about it, we can project our worst fears and wildest fantasies into it. Secondly, it is much more difficult to shoot at people whose names we know, language we speak, and culture we share. Bourdieu once wrote: ”Le dominant est dominé par sa domination.” Without the wall, Israel’s domination of Palestine would eventually turn inward and haunt the Israeli society.

The results of unjust and dirty wars are not just physical causalities, but the mental damage they do to sensible, aware people that are turned into killing machines. The wall, supposedly intended to prevent offensive actions of Palestinians, serves just as much to prevent Israelis from becoming aware of the consequences of their own collective actions. It acts as a stick for Palestinians and as blinders for Israelis. Every conflict-resolution attempt must start with re-establishing lost contact and building trust. The wall physically prevents this and thus undermines conflict-resolution, maintaining the permanent state of conflict.

Sigismund von Herberstein and Russia that didn’t exist

For someone interested in travel writing, Eastern Europe, and places that don’t exist, the story of Sigismund von Herberstein – who I’ve heard of before, but came across again serendipitously – was one of those hidden gems, which one ironically finds buried in his own backyard after searching for it around the world.

This story is all the more relevant today with renewed tensions between Russia and the West as we witness a constant stream of news articles and scholarly papers that attempt to re-evaluate the West’s perception of Russia – and above all – it’s rulers.

Herberstein Notes_on_Muscovite_Affairs

Russia as Europe’s last frontier

Herberstein is not a well-known historical personality, except among people studying early Western European ethnographic work on Russia. He served as a Habsburg diplomat, completing 69 missions abroad, out of which two were extended visits to Muscovy¹ that he carried out as the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. My intention is not to write about his diplomatic activities, but to discuss his contributions as a travel writer, ethnographer and historian and specifically his pioneering role in bringing some of the earliest reliable and first-hand information about Russia to Western Europe.

Where in all this, are places that don’t exist, you ask? Well, before Herberstein, Russia was one of them. Muscovy, the predecessor of Modern Russia emerged out of the ashes of the Kievan Rus and had to fight for its recognition, a process that was repeated in a different form during the dissolution of USSR, when post-soviet states tried to gain recognition for their sovereignty. Moreover, Russia at the time was seen from Western Europe as an unknown periphery, a sort of hic sunt leones on the map of Europe. It is astonishing that in the minds of in the minds of 16th century Western Europeans – after the Americas have already been discovered – a clear and coherent image of Russia, with which Western Europeans shared the continent, simply did not exist. The immediate East, not the far West, was Europe’s last frontier.

Herberstein's map of Muscovy (detail)

Herberstein’s map of Muscovy (detail)

Herberstein did not discover Russia the same way Columbus discovered America – quite the opposite. Columbus discovered the location of a hitherto unknown continent, but left the interior unexplored. Herberstein explored the part of the continent – of which the edges were known – by venturing into the interior. Columbus was a geographical explorer, Herberstein an ethnographer and historian.

How Europe discovered Russia through Slovene language

Herberstein was born in Vipava, then part of Duchy of Carniola (itself part of the Habsburg Monarchy) and today part of Slovenia. Although from a German-speaking noble family, Sigismund learned the local language spoken mostly by peasants in the surrounding countryside – Slovene. At the time it was unusual for a German nobleman in a country where German was the only official language to learn the language of his serfs. What would at first seem like a curious biographical fact, proved to be incredibly important not just for Herberstein’s career, but also for Western Europe’s perception of Russia.

Although it may sound astounding today, Herberstein was one of the first ethnographers, who – writing about Russia – actually travelled there. Scholars wrote on the topic from the comfort of their apartment, or perhaps library, and offered widely differing and unreliable accounts of – what it was to the Western Europeans – a peripheral, cold, dark, and faraway land. One of the points of disagreements in those days was whether Russia was ruled by a brutal despot or a fair ruler with large popular support – a question that sounds incredibly modern today as we look at magazine titles trying to make sense of the state of Russia’s regime and frame Putin somewhere between these two extremes.

Grand-Duke Vasilii III, who received Herberstein at his court.

Grand-Duke Vasilii III, who received Herberstein at his court.

Besides traveling to Russia himself instead on relying on accounts of others, Herberstein had another advantage over other scholars – his knowledge of Slovene, a Slavic language related to Russian. Although the languages are not mutually intelligible, they share a large part of vocabulary. These two languages, which evolved from Old Church Slavonic in separate directions, were even closer to each other five hundred years ago than today. Due to this, Herberstein was able to interview locals, something that none of his predecessors or contemporaries had done.

Ethnographic approach that would change Western perception of Russia

Where other travelers might have seen content peasants being treated fairly by a mighty sovereign, Herberstein was able to get under the skin of the people and concluded that Ivan III and Vasilii III have steered the country towards despotism. As Poe (2001, 2) writes:

“Herberstein did not invent the image of Russian despotism, but his depiction of it was the first to be grounded in personal experience. Where his predecessors had based their sketchy understanding of Russian rule on wishful-thinking or brief interviews, Herberstein had been to Moscow, seen the Russian court with his own eyes, and met with men who served the grand prince.”

In 1549 Herberstein published Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii – Notes on Muscovite Affairs. The book that was printed and disseminated widely in Central and Western Europe would become the reference work for generations of scholars of Russia, making Sigismund von Herberstein instrumental in the (re)-discovery of Russia, and – to use the cliché – a bridge between East and West. Poe summarizes:

“Any discussion of the growth of European knowledge about Russia in the second half of the sixteenth century must begin with Herberstein’s Notes on the Muscovites.”

The book, its reception and influence will be the subject of future posts, so be sure to subscribe to the blog to receive notifications of new posts.

¹ The Grand Duchy of Moscow is considered a predecessor of the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire. Although not historically accurate, for the sake of simplicity, I use the terms Muscovy and Russia interchangeably.

The changing landscape of de facto states

The rise of revisionist de facto states

De facto states as a subject of research are far less obscure than they were in 1990s when several of these entities – especially in the post-Soviet space – first came into existence. Ethno-political conflicts, with which they are often associated, propelled them into the media limelight: wars in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, the two Chechen Wars, Kosovo War, the August War between Russia and Georgia for the control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the war in Ukraine, which saw the proclamation of independence of Crimea (which has been subsequently incorporated into/annexed by the Russian Federation), Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

All de facto states that have appeared in 1990s as a result of dissolution of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and the ensuing ethno-political conflicts saw themselves as-soon-to-be-recognized. This was not an unjustified view: the majority of successor republics managed to acquire international recognition within months and one autonomous region – Kosovo – has been recognized by the majority of UN member states, but not accepted into the UN as a member state due to vetoes in the UN Security Council.

The same cannot be said of the de facto states that have just recently (2010s) appeared on the world stage: People’s Republic of Donetsk, People’s Republic of Lugansk (and their proposed federation – Novorossiya), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the Caliphate declared by Boko Haram. It is too early to tell whether these entities will ‘survive’, debatable whether they fulfil the criteria to be called states, and there may be little ground for comparing them. However, it is safe to say that when leaders of rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine and Northeast Nigeria proclaimed independent states, not even their leaders believed anyone would recognize them. Compared with 1990s post-socialist de facto states, which genuinely hoped for recognition, these revisionist de facto states never had this goal in the first place. Given the current state of affairs, they are not just unrecognized, but also unrecognizable. In other words, while in 1990s non-recognition was the unfortunate result of unpredictable circumstances, in 2015 non-recognition of newly emerged states was an epiphenomenon of their political goals.


Uses of a state

What is the purpose of declaring an independent, but unrecognizable state? It does not serve the interests of its people who afterwards remain trapped in a legal limbo. In the case of unrecognized states in Eastern Ukraine, it seems that the rebel leaders (in cooperation with or under the influence of Russia) may be thinking that de facto state is a bridge to incorporation into/annexation by the patron state. This was indeed the case of Crimea, which declared independence but then voted to join Russia.

This use of the state as a vehicle for furthering political interests of a particular ethnic (Russians) or religious (Islamists) group is causing other de facto states to be seen as merely puppets controlled by powerful states or influential groups. Several authors have put forward the thesis that Russia is creating a cordon sanitaire made of de facto states, using them to destabilize the region, project power and fear and in this way try to prevent the expansion of NATO and EU. However, if that could be said with some conviction for the People’s Republic of Donetsk, it is much less true of Abkhazia, which ranks higher on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World rankings than Russia and where a pro-Russia candidate Raul Khajimba has lost the elections in 2011 (albeit winning the next election and is currently in power). It is even less true of Nagorno-Karabakh, which relies mainly on Armenia as a patron and which has also distanced itself from Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria (the latter three have mutually recognized each other) for fear of being seen as a Russian puppet.

Changing perceptions of de facto states

The fact that the newly emerged de facto states are using the polity form of the state as a way of furthering political interests of elites or rebel leaders rather than them being genuine expressions of a people’s right to self-determination, can have negative consequences on how de facto states in general are perceived by the international community.

When de facto states first appeared, they were seen as black holes, zones of illegality and organized crime, run by warlords and riddled with corruption. The perception of the outside world gradually changed as we witnessed a sort of normalisation of de facto states in the literature. Some de facto states perform better than their parent and patron states in terms of political (democratisation) and economic development. This graduate shift in perception has also been reflected on the conceptual level. More and more authors now use the term de facto (or de-facto) states. The difference between unrecognized state and de facto state isn’t just that in the first term the accent is on recognition while in the second it is on the statehood, it also indicates a normative difference. De facto states are states which happen to be unrecognized, while unrecognized states are unrecognized entities (a much more ambiguous category) which happen to have attributes of states – the first are identified by a positive, the second by a negative predicate.

To put it briefly, de facto states have had to battle the stereotypes associated with the lack of recognition of their sovereignty or as Caspersen and Herrberg (2010, 8) have put it: “without sovereignty, anarchy is assumed.” Unrecognized states have tried to change their image in international community in a number of ways, including using democratisation as a foreign policy instrument to increase their legitimacy. While the more democratic ones simply had to communicate their success in democratization to the international community, the less democratic de-facto states have to devise more elaborate schemes and resort to mimicry. They try to emulate the behaviour of recognized states, often not limiting themselves to copying patterns in the political sphere, but also in engagements in economic and cultural spheres. De facto states also employ democratization as part of their public diplomacy in order to obtain developmental assistance and attract investments.

References to democracy are almost completely absent from the agenda of the newly appeared de facto states. In the case of Crimea the referendum was organized under military occupation and in the Donbas region the referendum took place only in the areas under the control of the separatists. There were no international observers and the referenda were not officially recognised by any government. Another contrast with the de facto states that have emerged in 1990s is visible here: While the latter have declared independence after major ethno-political tensions but when events didn’t yet amount to a war, rebel leaders of the newly emerged de facto states played the independence card while already engaging in military campaigns. ISIS and Boko Haram are extreme cases of that; they are explicitly against democracy and view it as incompatible with the principles of the Islamic state. The declaration of a state came as both groups have already been involved in civil wars for several years.


Engagement without recognition

Recognized countries have always been careful in recognizing the independence of other states, claiming that this could lead to a ‘parade of sovereignties’, where the recognition of sovereignty of a large number of polities would devalue the concept of sovereignty and threaten the Westphalian system. Because the Montevideo Convention of 1933[1], which lays out criteria for international recognition, is vague and failed to introduce precise and firm rules regarding recognition exist, the practice of recognition is arbitrary and depends heavily on the interests of individual countries. With the (limited) recognition of Kosovo, de facto states have come to believe that a normative shift in the international community is underway, in particular with greater emphasis on democratization in US foreign policy. Many have jumped on the bandwagon and started highlighting their democratic progress.

De facto states have emerged from ethno-political conflicts at the dissolution of USSR, but have failed to secure recognition as states remain wary of playing the recognition card.[2] This is especially true for big, diverse multi-ethnic states, such as China and Russia, in which the policies of recognition could easily backfire and fuel secessionism. The policy of ‘engagement without recognition’ thus seems to be a better solution for these countries as it avoids the question of sovereignty.[3] It also gives non-negligible advantages to de facto states, namely enabling them to receive aid, economic investment, and to form cultural bonds across borders.

However engagement without recognition mirrors the situation of sovereignty without independence in which unrecognized entities find themselves – and thus remains a paradoxical situation of existing and not existing at the same time. By prolonging their legal limbo, the conflicts are left unsolved and present a small but constant threat to regional security, a threat that can escalate[4] by accident and quickly get out of control in regions where the geopolitical balance is particularly fragile.

People without a state and states without people

If ignoring states and leaving them in the state of non-recognition has its security risks, the opposite is true for newly emerged de facto states: engaging them could give legitimacy to the radical ideology they promote, attracting people to their cause and making them even more dangerous and destabilizing.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters celebrate flag day in the northern city of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, on December 17, 2014. Six months into the jihadist offensive in Iraq, the autonomous Kurds said this month they had lost more than 700 fighters and argued the burden of hosting a million displaced civilians was becoming unsustainable. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED


International Relations scholars have been quick to point at the process of fragmentation of the nation-state system, but have said almost nothing about the ‘statisation’ of radical political groups, which act as the opposition to the current territorial distribution among nation-states. The seeming paradox here is that in the time of globalisation (understood by many as a harbinger of the nation-state system), the state is the go-to form of polity even for radical movements opposed to this system itself. However, looked from up close, these newly declared revisionist de facto states prove to be states without people, empty shells used by the rebels to attract people to join their cause.

Perhaps the best contrast with these illegitimate entities created in a top-down, haphazard and confrontational manner, can be found in the words of Fuad Hussein, President of Iraqi Kurdistan Barzani’s chief of staff, comparing the birth of a Kurdish state to a newborn baby: “We don’t want to have a child that has many illnesses, and that will pass away after a few months. A child must have a good environment, and parents that will take care of it. If Kurdistan is to be born, it must be a part of stability in this area.”[5]

[1] Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States 1933.

[2] Even Armenia and Russia haven’t recognized Nagorno Karabakh and Transnistria respectively.

[3] China is extensively engaging with Taiwan, even allowing it to enter international organisations under the name ‘Chinese Taipei’, but doesn’t recognize its independence.

[4] Such as the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh in August 2014.

[5] Christian Caryl: The World’s Next Country. Foreign Policy, available here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/21/the-worlds-next-country-kurdistan-kurds-iraq (27/01/2015).

On the parallels between travel and writing, and the problems of travel writing

Travel writing would benefit from greater awareness of the similarity between the processes of traveling and writing – it shouldn’t be understood as writing about traveling, but more as writing through traveling and – even more importantly – as traveling through writing. What do I mean by that? Since writing and traveling are similar processes, writing can be thought of as a journey through the landscape of language. During traveling, our environments are new and unfamiliar, we pay more attention to observation, which prompts our mind to travel as well, looking for new conceptual constructions, comparisons, metaphors, and adjectives to make sense of what we are experiencing. If a message is our final destination, words are the roads which take us there.

Writing and traveling are both kinds of movement. Words and roads are similar in that they are finite but their combinations are infinite and can never be exhausted. Traveling makes us choose the most scenic roads that offer most thrilling and interesting experiences, while in writing we try to choose the most rich vocabulary that can best convey our emotions and reflections. In travels we seek purity, in writing we strive towards clarity. In both we are after elusive ‘authenticity’.

For me traveling has always been more about meeting than seeing, about people more than places. There are no places without people; people make places out of empty spaces. In my experience, the most engaging travels were the ones in which I traveled in a mixed company of locals and foreigners. It was in this context that I was able to get the most out of places, because different people would notice different aspects and I would get both the local and the foreign perspective.

One of the most important parts of traveling is observation, which acts as the bridge between external travel in the world and internal travel in our minds. Attractive and exotic places are not the key to good travel writing (or for that matter to good photography, painting or film-making).  The best travel writers are able to find interesting details in bland surroundings and write exciting prose about the most ordinary places. In 1794 Xavier de Maistre, the brother of the well-known political theorist, published Voyage Around My Room, a title that is self-explanatory. He published another volume, this time entitled Night Voyage Around My Room. In both volumes he writes about the objects, their shapes and colors, how they make him feel and what they remind him of, he moves from the bed to the sofa and discusses the parallax in the process of observation etc. De Maistre’s radical example teaches us that in travel writing it’s more important to be a good observer and word-painter than to have the resources to afford travels to exotic places. The good news is that anyone can be a travel writer. The bad news is that anyone can be a travel writer.

Choose an angle, tell a story

Traveling, like philosophy, is not about finding answers, but about asking questions. Why do these trees grow here but not there, why does this people do this but their neighbors do that? Asking seemingly naïve questions can be very rewarding; not in terms of giving us definite answers, but in the sense that the answers we get prompt us to ask questions about our home environment, our culture’s values and practices.

Although one should keep an open mind while traveling and writing, it is also important to have a focus. You can’t travel everywhere and pay attention to everything. I find it useful to have a thread. It’s not necessary to focus narrowly and on things you want to see, like visiting galleries or archaeological remains. Rather than what, choose how to look at them; choose a lens, define an angle. This gives you direction and allows you flexibility in terms of your choice of destinations. In my travels in Central Asia I focused on understanding the interaction between the settled and semi-nomadic populations, in my upcoming trip to Israel and Palestine I will focus on how power shapes space and regulates movement through settlements, walls, checkpoints, fences, and bypass roads. Having a focus helps me to have a more coherent narrative of my experience – it also lets me tell a better story to myself and others.

It is easy to be cynical about the postmodern obsession with story-telling. Today everything needs to tell a story: our lunch, our clothes, our travels. It is not enough for the food to taste good; we want to know if the eggs came from free range chickens with a balanced diet, if the endive is from a local organic farmer, if that chardonnay was aged in oak casks, and if the coffee we had this morning was harvested and roasted by workers who received fair compensation for their work. Once, while I was lingering outside a bar in Atlanta, a homeless person came to ask for money. The reaction of the man standing next to me was not to give him a few quarters or shoo him away, instead he took out his wallet and leaving it closed, asked what his story was, waiting for the answer to decide how much it is worth. It is deplorable that not even the jobless are exempt from this practice of selling themselves and their story, and are given money not according to their need, but according to their ability to market themselves.

I recognize the role of storytelling as a contemporary capitalist marketing strategy, however traveling that attempts to tell a story is better than travelers obsessed not with experiences, but with checking places off their bucket lists. Recently, I read an interview with Don Parrish, who has visited not just all UN-recognized countries, but also all US states and every major region in the world. Expecting to read fascinating accounts of travel adventures, to find a wealth of comparative knowledge about different cultures, or at least to get experience-backed practical tips on travel, I was disappointed to find little of it. Then I realized there are many more people like this, and some far worse. People who have visited every country in the world just for the sake of visiting them all, stopping only for a few hours or days in each, barely having the time to stop and take a selfie, post it on social media and indulge in their World Traveler persona. Today anyone with a Visa and enough on the account can take a year off and check all the countries off the map. In as same way, everyone can write, but not everyone makes sense.


Just as there are obstacles on the road, from high passes to broken down buses, there are obstacles we face in writing, often lumped together and labelled as “writer’s block” – a phenomenon faced especially by people who write regularly. Routine is the enemy of both writing and travel. In particular, the challenge is to establish a traveling and writing routine, but to not travel and write routinely. This demands constant reflexivity; a re-examination of one’s perceptions in order to maintain an open, child-like attitude towards the world. This in turn is not in tune with today’s fast-paced world in which – so it seems – we don’t have much time to stop, observe, and note things down. I will write more about multitasking, hyper-scheduling, permanent connectivity, information overload, and the slow movement that is trying to challenge this in one of my next posts.

Another common obstacle of writing and traveling is changing plans. If we miss a train connection, we have to prepare an alternative plan, if we encounter a broken bridge, we have to find a new crossing or retrace our steps. In writing we are constantly re-writing and editing our initial drafts. The key is to find a balance between beforehand planning and openness to surprises, random encounters, and inspirations of the moment.

While there are many parallels and similarities between writing and traveling, these two differ in several significant ways and – what is most troubling – often clash. It seems that while traveling is a journey outward in physical space, writing is a journey inward. Traveling requires a great deal of movement, flexibility, and sociability. Writing is best done alone in a calm, tranquil environment with minimal distractions. How are we then to unite the both? While no one recipe exists, I like the quote often (wrongly) attributed to Hemingway: “write drunk, edit sober” – that way you capture the subjective experience, impressions, emotions, but also give yourself time to reflect on them. Perhaps it would be worth paraphrasing this motto for the purpose of travel writing as: write while on the road, edit at home.

Traveling for me is a search for meaning, but – before you accuse me of being an individualistic post-modern soul-seeker – I understand meaning as something inherently social and collective. Meaning that I search for is not so much my own, but the meaning in other people’s eyes – the meanings that different cultures ascribe to. Not something therapeutic that makes me feel good and sure of myself, but something that makes me question reality. Travel writing is the maieutic method of writing down these questions and trying to answer them.

Places That Don’t Exist: Manifesto

For some time friends (and I hope current or soon-to-be readers) have been asking me to share my travel experiences in a more elaborate way than just posting a few statuses and photos on Facebook. They suggested me to write a travel journal, keep a travel blog or even film my own video journal. I always saw traveling and writing as radically different – and even incompatible – activities, understanding traveling as a fundamentally dynamic and social practice, while I tended to view writing as something requiring tranquility and relative isolation. (I plan to write on traveling, writing, and travel writing in more length in one of the next posts). Furthermore – and probably most importantly – the idea of missing out on interesting conversations and beautiful landscapes as I scribble down notes in my notebook on a train or bus never appealed to me…until now.

The decision to open this blog was based on two main reasons. Firstly, I have been looking for a way to integrate my personal and academic passions: traveling in and writing on de facto states.¹ It took me a while to see the parallels between the two and when I did, it seemed to me that it would be interesting to explore them. I was also looking to establish a writing routine that would help me be more focused and productive in my academic writing.

States with limited recognition

States with limited recognition

Secondly, I was surprised to find out that there are no blogs dedicated to these somewhat obscure and intriguing places. While academic research on de facto states is picking up, we still rarely hear about these places in the mainstream media and even in more specialized travel media and literature. Practical information about these off-the-map areas is also scarce, often unreliable, and out of date. Due to political volatility security arrangements and conditions for travel can change fast.

As an avid traveler and a PhD student conducting research on de facto states (focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on post-Soviet space), I believe I can offer interesting insights as well as practical advice to a relatively broad spectrum of readers, ranging from travelers to researchers. In the near future you can expect to read posts on my first-hand experience in de facto states I have visited in the past or will visit in the future, as well as posts based on my research and news digests from these fascinating places.

By “places that don’t exist” I mean first and foremost the de facto states as defined below, and these will be the main focus of the blog. Secondly, the title refers to places that don’t exist in a wider sense – in world politics, media, sport competitions, or the minds of most people. These can be non-recognized, isolated, and marginalized territories perceived as remote or dangerous, or both. I may occasionally write posts on related “territorial exceptions”, such as former de facto states that have been annexed/reincorporated by other states (Chechnya, Crimea), territories with significant separatist tendencies (Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan) and territories in which jihadist groups have declared an Islamic state (parts of Iraq and Syria, North-Eastern Nigeria, parts of North Caucasus). You will also find my reflections on more general topics concerning the intersection of traveling and writing.The main aim of this blog is to be informative, interesting and useful. The format will not be academic, and the idea is to write in a clear and understandable language accessible to everyone. References will be used out of academic integrity as well as to provide useful links to books, news, videos, other blogs and websites.

From my visit to Tiraspol, Transnistria, 2010

Another reason for starting this blog is to draw attention to de facto states, which being unrecognized and politically marginalized, and not well known to the general public. Lack of knowledge fuels imagination and these places are often depicted as black holes, as warlord-run conflict zones, areas of illegality and corruption, havens for human, arms and drug trafficking… – in short – places that are dangerous and best avoided by travelers. This image may have corresponded to reality in the past, and was especially true for post-Soviet de facto states in 1990s. However, things have changed significantly since then and many have achieved remarkable success in state-building despite lacking international recognition. My intention is to rely on research and up-to-date news and information to break stereotypes and misconceptions that inhibit travelers from visiting these places. Another aim is to show that although there are similarities between de facto states, these are radically different places, each with its own culture(s), history, social, political, and economic dynamics. Greater attention to de facto states and the conflicts in which they are caught, may contribute to greater international pressure for their resolution. It may also benefit the people living in those states, many of which are in dire need of humanitarian and developmental assistance.

To conclude with, I would like to share with you a handful of videos that make a good introduction to the topic of this blog and from which the blog itself takes its title. It’s a series of documentaries called Places That Don’t Exist, produced by BBC, in which Simon Reeve travels to a group of unrecognised states. The episodes were filmed some ten years ago, during which much has changed, but the videos are still interesting if you’re looking for a short introduction to de facto states. You can find them here:

Places That Don’t Exist 1: Somaliland
Places That Don’t Exist 2: Transdniestria
Places That Don’t Exist 3: South Ossetia
Places That Don’t Exist 4: Nagorno Karabakh
Places That Don’t Exist 5: Taiwan

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¹ You’re probably asking yourself, what are “de facto states”? De facto states, more widely described in the media as “unrecognized states”, are, to put it simply, places that you won’t find on the map, but they exist as political units. Nina Caspersen in Unrecognised States: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Modern International System (p.337) defines them as “territories that have achieved de facto independence, often through warfare, and now control most of the area upon which they lay claim. They have demonstrated an aspiration for full de jure independence, but either have not gained international recognition or have, at most, been recognized by a few states.” Still not sure what I mean? Think Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Western Sahara, Somaliland, or the more borderline, but better-known cases, such as Palestine, Kosovo, Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan.