In 2014, an American dad claimed a tiny parcel of 'unclaimed' African land to make his daughter a princess. But Jack Shenker had got there first – and learned that borders are delicate and volatile things
Bir Tawil is the last truly unclaimed land on earth: a tiny sliver of Africa ruled by no state, inhabited by no permanent residents and governed by no laws. To get there, you have two choices.
The first is to fly to the Sudanese capital Khartoum, charter a jeep, and follow the Shendi road hundreds of miles up to Abu Hamed, a settlement that dates back to the ancient kingdom of Kush. Today it serves as the region’s final permanent human outpost before the vast Nubian desert, twice the size of mainland Britain and almost completely barren, begins unfolding to the north.
There are some artisanal gold miners in the desert, conjuring specks of hope out of the ground, a few armed gangs, which often prey upon the prospectors, and a small number of military units who carry out patrols in the area and attempt, with limited success, to keep the peace. You need to drive past all of them, out to the point where the occasional scattered shrub or palm tree has long since disappeared and given way to a seemingly endless, flat horizon of sand and rock – out to the point where there are no longer any landmarks by which to measure the passing of your journey.
Out here, dry winds often blow in from the Arabian peninsula, whipping up sheets of dust that plunge visibility down to near-zero. After a day like this, then a night, and then another day, you will finally cross into Bir Tawil, an 800-square-mile cartographical oddity nestled within the border that separates Egypt and Sudan. Both nations have renounced any claim to it, and no other government has any jurisdiction over it.
The second option is to approach from Egypt, setting off from the country’s southernmost city of Aswan, down through the arid expanse that lies between Lake Nasser to the west and the Red Sea to the east. Much of it has been declared a restricted zone by the Egyptian army, and no one can get near the border without first obtaining their permission.
In June 2014, a 38-year-old farmer from Virginia named Jeremiah Heaton did exactly that. After obtaining the necessary paperwork from the Egyptian military authorities, he started out on a treacherous 14-hour expedition through remote canyons and jagged mountains, eventually wending his way into the no man’s land of Bir Tawil and triumphantly planting a flag.
Heaton’s six-year-old daughter, Emily, had once asked her father if she could ever be a real princess; after discovering the existence of Bir Tawil on the internet, his birthday present to her that year was to trek there and turn her wish into a reality. “So be it proclaimed,” Heaton wrote on his Facebook page, “that Bir Tawil shall be forever known as the Kingdom of North Sudan. The Kingdom is established as a sovereign monarchy with myself as the head of state; with Emily becoming an actual princess.”
Heaton’s social media posts were picked up by a local paper in Virginia, the Bristol Herald-Courier, and quickly became the stuff of feel-good clickbait around the world. CNN, Time, Newsweek and hundreds of other global media outlets pounced on the story. Heaton responded by launching a global crowdfunding appeal aimed at securing $250,000 in an effort at getting his new “state” up and running.
Heaton knew his actions would provoke awe, mirth and confusion, and that many would question his sanity. But what he was not prepared for was an angry backlash by observers who regarded him not as a devoted father or a heroic pioneer but rather as a 21st-century imperialist. After all, the portrayal of land as “unclaimed” or “undeveloped” was central to centuries of ruthless conquest. “The same callous, dehumanising logic that has been used to legitimise European colonialism not just in Africa but in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere is on full display here,” noted one commentator. “Are white people still allowed to do this kind of stuff?” asked another.
“Any new idea that’s this big and bold always meets with some sort of ridicule, or is questioned in terms of its legitimacy,” Heaton told me last year over the telephone. In his version of the story, Heaton’s “conquest” of Bir Tawil was not about colonialism, but rather familial love and ambitious dreams: apart from making Emily royalty, he hopes to turn his newly founded nation – which lies within one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet and contains no fixed population, no coastline, no surface water and no arable soil – into a cutting-edge agriculture and technology research hub that will ultimately benefit all humanity.
After all, Heaton reasoned, no country wanted this forgotten corner of the world, and no individual before him had ever laid claim to it. What harm was to be caused by some well‑intentioned, starry-eyed eccentric completing such a challenge, and why should it not be him?
There were two problems with Heaton’s argument. First, territories and borders can be delicate and volatile things, and tampering with them is rarely without unforeseen consequences. As Heaton learned from the public response to his self-declared kingdom, there is no neutral or harmless way to “claim” a state, no matter how far away from anywhere else it appears to be. Second, Heaton was not the first well-intentioned, starry-eyed eccentric to travel all the way to Bir Tawil and plant a flag. Someone else got there first, and that someone was me.
Like all great adventure stories, this one began with lukewarm beer and the internet. It was the summer of 2010, and the days in Cairo – where I was living and working as a journalist – were long and hot. My friend Omar’s balcony provided a shaded refuge filled with wicker chairs and reliably stable wireless broadband. It was up there, midway through a muggy evening’s web pottering, that we first encountered Bir Tawil.
Omar was an Egyptian-British filmmaker armed with a battery of finely tuned Werner Herzog impressions and a crisp black beard that I was secretly quite jealous of. The pair of us knew nothing beyond a single fact, gleaned from a blog devoted to arcane maps: barely 500 miles away from where we sat, there apparently existed a patch of land over which no country on earth asserted any sovereignty. Within five minutes I had booked the flights. Omar opened two more beers.
Places beyond the scope of everyday authority have always fired the imagination. They appear to offer us an escape – when all you can see of somewhere is its outlines, it is easy to start fantasising about the void within. “No man’s lands are our El Dorados,” says Noam Leshem, a Durham University geographer who recently travelled 6,000 miles through a series of so-called “dead spaces”, from the former frontlines of the Balkans war to the UN buffer zone in Cyprus, along with his colleague Alasdair Pinkerton of Royal Holloway. The pair intended to conclude their journey at Bir Tawil, but never made it. “There is something alluring about a place beyond the control of the state,” Leshem adds, “and also something highly deceptive.” In reality, nowhere is unplugged from the complex political and historical dynamics of the world around it, and – as Omar and I were to discover – no visitors can hope to short-circuit them.
Six months later, in January 2011, we touched down at Khartoum International airport with a pair of sleeping bags, five energy bars, and an embarrassingly small stock of knowledge about our final destination. To an extent, the ignorance was deliberate. For one thing, we planned to shoot a film about our travels, and Omar had persuaded me the secret to good film-making was to begin work utterly unprepared. Omar – according to Omar – was a cinematic auteur; the kind of maverick who could breeze into a desolate wasteland with no vehicle, no route, and no contacts and produce an award-winning documentary from the mayhem. One does not lumber an auteur, he explained, with printed itineraries, booked accommodation or emergency phone numbers. Mindful of my own aspirations to auteurism, this reasoning struck me as convincing.
There was something else, too, that made us refrain from proper planning. As the date of our departure for Sudan drew closer, Omar and I had taken to discussing our “plans” for Bir Tawil in increasingly grandiose terms. Deep down, I think, we both knew that the notion of “claiming” the territory and harnessing it for some grand ideological cause was preposterous. But what if it wasn’t? What if our own little tabula rasa could be the start of something bigger, transforming a forgotten relic of colonial map-making into a progressive force that would defeat contemporary injustices across the world?
The mechanics of how this might actually work remained a little hazy. Yet just occasionally, at more contemplative junctures, it did occur to us that in the process of planting a flag in Bir Tawil as part of some ill-defined critique of arbitrary borders and imperial violence, there was a risk we could appear – to the untrained eye – very similar to the imperialists who had perpetrated such violence in the first place. It was a resemblance we were keen to avoid. Undertaking this journey in a state of deep ignorance, we told ourselves, would help mitigate pomposity. Without any basic knowledge, we would be forced to travel as humble innocents, relying solely on guidance from the communities we passed through.
As the two of us cleared customs, we broke into smiles and congratulated each other. The auteurs had landed, and what is more they had Important Things To Say about borders and states and sovereignty and empires. We set off in search of some local currency, and warmed to our theme. By the time we found an ATM, we were referring to Bir Tawil as so much more than a conceptual exposition. Under our benevolent stewardship, we assured each other, it could surely become some sort of launchpad for radical new ideas, a haven for subversives all over the planet.
It was at that point that the auteurs realised their bank cards did not work in Sudan, and that there were no international money transfer services they could use to wire themselves some cash.
This setback represented the first consequence of our failure to do any preparatory research. The nagging sense that our maverick approach to reaching Bir Tawil may not have been the wisest way forward gained momentum with consequence number two, which was that to solve the money problem we had to persuade a friend of a friend of a friend of an Egyptian business acquaintance to do an illicit currency trade for us on the outskirts of Khartoum. Consequence number three – namely that, given our lack of knowledge about where we could and could not legally film in the capital, after a few days we inadvertently attracted the attention of an undercover state security agent while carrying around $2,000 worth of used Sudanese banknotes in an old rucksack, and were arrested – transformed suspicion into certainty.
On the date Omar and I were incarcerated, millions of citizens in South Sudan were heading to the polls to decide between continued unity with the north or secession and a new, independent state of their own. We sat silently in a nondescript office block just off Gama’a Avenue – the city’s main diplomatic thoroughfare – while a group of men in black suits and dark sunglasses scrolled through files on Omar’s video camera. Armed soldiers, unsmiling, stood guard at the door. Through the room’s single window, open but barred, the sound of nearby traffic could be heard. The images on the screen depicted me and Omar gadding about town on the days following our arrival; me and Omar unfurling huge rolls of yellowing paper at the government’s survey department; me and Omar scrawling indecipherable patterns on sheets of paper in an effort to design the new Bir Tawili flag; me and Omar squabbling over fabric colours at the Omdurman market where we had gone to stitch together the aforementioned flag. With each new picture, a man who appeared to be the senior officer raised his eyes to meet ours, shook his head, and sighed.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, I pointed out to Omar how apposite it was that at the very moment in which votes were being cast in the south, possibly redrawing the region’s borders for ever, we had been placed under lock and key in a military intelligence unit almost a thousand miles to the north for attempting to do the same. Omar, concerned about the fate of both his camera and the contents of the rucksack, declined to respond. I predicted that in the not too distant future, when we had made it to Bir Tawil, we would look back on this moment and laugh. Omar glared.
In the end, our captivity lasted under an hour. The senior officer concluded, perceptively, that, whatever we were attempting to do, we were far too incompetent to do it properly, or to cause too much trouble along the way. Upon our release, we set about obtaining a jeep that could take us to Bir Tawil. Every reputable travel agent we approached turned us down point-blank, citing the prevalence of bandit attacks in the desert. Thankfully, we were able to locate a disreputable travel agent, a large man with a taste for loud polo shirts who went by the name of Obai. Obai was actually not a travel agent at all, but rather a big-game hunter with a lucrative sideline in ambiguously licensed pick-up trucks. In exchange for most of our used banknotes, he offered to provide us with a jeep, a satellite phone, two tanks of water, and his nephew Gedo, who happened to be looking for work as a driver. In the absence of any alternative offers, we gratefully accepted.
Unlike Obai, who was a font of swashbuckling anecdotes and improbable tales of derring-do, Gedo turned out to be a more taciturn soul. He was a civil engineer who had previously done construction work on the colossal Merowe dam in northern Sudan, Africa’s largest hydropower project. On the day of our departure, he turned up wearing a baseball cap with “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” emblazoned across the front, and carrying a loaded gun. As we waved goodbye to Obai and began weaving our way through the capital’s rush hour traffic, Omar and I set about explaining to Gedo the intricacies of our plan to transform Bir Tawil into an “open-source state” that would disrupt existing patterns of global power and privilege – no mean feat, given that we didn’t understand any of the intricacies ourselves. Gedo responded to this as he responded to everything: with a sage nod and a deliberate stroke of his stubble.
“I’m here to protect you,” he told us solemnly, as we swung north on to the highway and left Khartoum behind us. “Also, I’ve never been on a holiday before, and this one sounds fun.”
Bir Tawil’s unusual status – wedged between the borders of two countries and yet claimed by neither – is a byproduct of colonial machinations in north-east Africa, during an era of British control over Egypt and Egyptian influence on Sudan.
In 1899, government representatives from London and Cairo – the latter nominally independent, but in reality the servants of a British protectorate – put pen to paper on an agreement which established the shared dominion of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The treaty specified that, following 18 years of intense fighting between Egyptian and British forces on the one side and Mahdist rebels in Sudan on the other, Sudan would now become a British colony in all but name. Its northern border with Egypt was to run along the 22nd parallel, cutting a straight line through the Nubian desert right out to the ocean.
Three years later, however, another document was drawn up by the British. This one noted that a mountain named Bartazuga, just south of the 22nd parallel, was home to the nomadic Ababda tribe, which was considered to have stronger links with Egypt than Sudan. The document stipulated that henceforth this area should be administered by Egypt. Meanwhile, a much-larger triangle of land north of the 22nd parallel, named Hala’ib, abutting the Red Sea, was assigned to other tribes from the Beja people – who are largely based in Sudan – for grazing, and thus now came under Sudan’s jurisdiction. And that was that, for the next few decades at least. World wars came and went, regimes rose and fell, and those imaginary lines in the sand gathered dust in bureaucratic archives, of little concern to anyone on the ground.
Disputes only started in earnest when Sudan finally achieved independence in 1956. The new postcolonial government in Khartoum immediately declared that its national borders matched the tweaked boundaries stipulated in the second proclamation, making the Hala’ib triangle Sudanese. Egypt demurred, insisting that the latter document was concerned only with areas of temporary administrative jurisdiction and that sovereignty had been established in the earlier treaty. Under this logic, the real border stayed straight and the Hala’ib triangle remained Egyptian.
By the early 1990s, when a Canadian oil firm signalled its intention to begin exploration in Hala’ib and the prospect of substantial mineral wealth being found in the region gained momentum, the disagreement was no longer academic. Egypt sent military forces to “reclaim” Hala’ib from Sudan, and despite fierce protests from Khartoum – which still considers Hala’ib to be Sudanese and even tried to organise voting there during the 2010 Sudanese general election – it has remained under Cairo’s control ever since.
Our world is littered with contested borders. The geographers Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen refer to the dashed lines on atlases as the scars of history. Compared with other divisions between countries that seem so solid and timeless when scored on a map, these squiggles – enclaves, misshapen lumps and odd protrusions – are a reminder of how messy and malleable the process of drawing up borders has always been.
What makes this particular border conflict unique, though, is not the tussle over the Hala’ib triangle itself, but rather the impact it has had on the smaller patch of land just south of the 22nd parallel around Bartazuga mountain, the area known as Bir Tawil.
Egypt and Sudan’s rival claims on Hala’ib both rest on documents that appear to assign responsibility for Bir Tawil to the other country. As a result, neither wants to assert any sovereignty over Bir Tawil, for to do so would be to renounce their rights to the larger and more lucrative territory. On Egyptian maps, Bir Tawil is shown as belonging to Sudan. On Sudanese maps, it appears as part of Egypt. In practice, Bir Tawil is widely believed to have the legal status of terra nullius – “nobody’s land” – and there is nothing else quite like it on the planet.
Omar and I were not, it must be acknowledged, the first to discover this anomaly. If the internet is to be believed, Bir Tawil has in fact been “claimed” many times over by keyboard emperors whose virtual principalities and warring microstates exist only online. The Kingdom of the State of Bir Tawil’ boasts a national anthem by the late British jazz musician Acker Bilk. The Emirate of Bir Tawil traces its claim over the territory to, among other sources, the Qur’an, the British monarchy, the 1933 Montevideo Convention and the 1856 US Guano Islands Act. There is a Grand Dukedom of Bir Tawil, an Empire of Bir Tawil, a United Arab Republic of Bir Tawil and a United Lunar Emirate of Bir Tawil. The last of these has a homepage featuring a citizen application form, several self-help mantras, and stock photos of people doing yoga in a park.
From our rarefied vantage point at the back of Obai’s Toyota Hilux, it was easy to look down with disdain upon these cyber-squatting chancers. None of them had ever actually set foot in Bir Tawil, rendering their claims to sovereignty worthless. Few had truly grappled with Bir Tawil’s complex backstory, or of the bloodshed it was built upon (tens of thousands of Sudanese fighters and civilians died as a result of the Egyptian and British military assaults that ended in the establishment of Sudan’s northern borders and thus, ultimately, the creation of Bir Tawil). Granted, Omar and I knew little of the backstory either, but at least we had actually got to Sudan and were making, by our own estimation, a decent fist of finding out. We ate our energy bars, listened attentively to tales of Gedo’s love life, and scanned the road for clues. The first arrived nearly 200 miles north-east of Khartoum, about a third of the way up towards Bir Tawil, when we came across a city of iron and fire oozing kerosene into the desert. This was Atbara: home of Sudan’s railway system, and the engine room of its modern-day creation story.
Until very recently, the long history of Sudan has not been one of a single country or people: many different tribes, religions and political factions have competed for power and resources, across territories and borders that bear no relation to those marking out the state’s limits today. A lack of rigid, “recognisable” boundaries was used to help justify Europe’s violent scramble to occupy and annex land throughout Africa in the 19th century. Often, the first step taken by western colonisers was to map and border the territory they were seizing. Charting of land was usually a prelude to military invasion and resource extraction; during the British conquest of Sudan, Atbara was crucial to both.
Sudan’s contemporary railway system began life as a battering ram for the British to attack Khartoum. Trains carried not only weapons and troops but everyday provisions too, specified by Winston Churchill as “the letters, newspapers, sausages, jam, whisky, soda water, and cigarettes which enable the Briton to conquer the world without discomfort”. Atbara was the site where key rail lines intersected, and its importance grew rapidly after London’s grip on Sudan had been formalised in the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian treaty.
“Everything that mattered, from cotton to gum, came through here, as did all the rolling stock needed to move and export it,” Mohamed Ederes, a local railway storekeeper, told us. He walked us through his warehouse, down corridors stacked high with box after box of metal train parts and past giant leather-bound catalogues stuffed with handwritten notes. “From here,” he declared proudly, “you reached the world.”
Atbara’s colonial origins are still etched into its modern-day layout. One half of the town, originally the preserve of expatriates, is low-rise and leafy; on the other side of the tracks, where native workers were made to live, accommodation is denser and taller. But just as Atbara was a vehicle for colonialism, so too was it the place in which a distinct sense of Sudanese nationhood began to develop.
As Sudan’s economy grew in the early 20th century, so did the railway industry, bringing thousands of migrant workers from disparate social and ethnic groups to the city. By the second world war, Atbara was famous not only for its carriage depots and loading sidings, but also for the nationalist literature and labour militancy of those who worked within them. Poets as well as workers’ leaders emerged out of the nascent trade union movement in the late 1940s, which held devastating strikes and helped shake the foundations of British rule. The same train lines that had once borne Churchill’s sausages and soda water were now deployed to deliver workers’ solidarity packages all over the country, during industrial action that ultimately brought the colonial economy to a halt. Within a decade, Sudan secured independence.
The next morning, as we drove on, Gedo grew quieter and the signs of human habitation became sparser. At Karima, a small town 150 miles further north, we came across a fleet of abandoned Nile steamers stranded on the river bank; below stairs there were metal plaques bearing the name of shipwrights from Portsmouth, Southampton and Glasgow, each company’s handiwork now succumbing slowly to the elements. We clambered through cobwebbed cabins and across rotting sun decks, and then decided to scale the nearby Jebel Barkal – Holy Mountain in Arabic – where eagles tracked us warily from the sky. Omar maintained a running commentary on our progress, delivered as a flawless Herzog parody, and it proved so painful for all in earshot that the eagles began to dive-bomb us. We set off running, taking refuge among the mountain’s scattered ruins.
Jebel Barkal was once believed to be the home of Amun, king of gods and god of wind. Fragments of Amun’s temple are still visible at the base of the cliffs. Over the past few millennia, Jebel Barkal has been the outermost limit of Egypt’s Pharaonic kingdoms, the centre of an autonomous Nubian region, and a vassal province of an empire headquartered thousands of miles away in Constantinople. In the modern era of defined borders and seemingly stable nation states, Bir Tawil seems an impossible anomaly. But standing over the jagged crevices of Jebel Barkal, looking out across a region that had been passed between so many different rulers, and formed part of so many different arrangements of power over land, our endpoint started to feel more familiar.
The following evening we camped at Abu Hamed, on the very edge of the desert. Beyond the ramshackle cafeterias that have sprung up to serve the artisanal gold-mining community – sending shisha smoke and the noise of Egyptian soap operas spiralling up into the night – Omar and I saw the outlines of large agricultural reclamation projects, silhouetted in the distance against a starry sky. Since 2008, when global food prices spiked, there has been a boom in what critics call “land-grabbing”: international investors and sovereign wealth funds snapping up leases on massive tracts of African territory in order to intensify the production of crops for export, and bringing such territory under the control of European, Asian and Gulf nations in the process. Arable land was the first to be targeted, but increasingly desert areas are also being fenced off and sold. Near Abu Hamed, Saudi Arabian companies have been “greening” the sand – blanketing it in soil and water in an effort to make it fertile – with worrying consequences for both the environment and local communities, some of whom have long asserted customary rights over the area.
It was not so long ago that the prophets of globalisation proclaimed the impending decline of the nation-state and the rise of a borderless world – one modelled on the frictionless transactions of international finance, which pay no heed to state boundaries.
A resurgent populist nationalism – and the refugee crisis that has stoked its flames – has exposed such claims as premature, and investors depend more than ever on national governments to open up new terrains for speculation and accumulation, and to discipline citizens who dare to stand in the way. But there is no doubt that we now live in a world where the power of capital has profoundly disrupted old ideas about political authority inside national boundaries. All over the planet, the institutions that impact our lives most directly – banks, buses, hospitals, schools, farms – can now be sold off to the highest bidder and governed by the whims of a transnational financial elite. Where national borders once enclosed populations capable of practising collective sovereignty over their own resources, in the 21st century they look more and more like containers for an inventory of private assets, each waiting to be spliced, diced and traded around the world.
It was at Abu Hamed, while lying awake at night in a sleeping bag, nestled into a shallow depression in the sand, that I realised the closer we were getting to our destination, the more I understood what was so beguiling about it. Now that Bir Tawil was in sight, it had started to appear less like an aberration and more like a question: is there anything natural about how borders and power function in the world today?
In the end, there was no fanfare. On a hazy Tuesday afternoon, 40 hours since we left the road at Abu Hamed, 13 days since we touched down in Khartoum, and six months since the dotted lines of Bir Tawil first appeared before our eyes, Omar gave a shout from the back of the jeep. I checked our GPS coordinates on the satellite phone, and cross-referenced them with the map. Gedo, on being informed that we were now in Bir Tawil and outside of any country’s dominion, promptly took out his gun and fired off a volley of shots. We traipsed up a small hillock and wedged our somewhat forlorn flag into the rocks – a yellow desert fox, set against a black circle and bordered by triangles of green and red – then sat and gazed out at the horizon, tracing the rise and fall of distant mountains and following the curves of sunken valleys as they criss-crossed each other like veins through the sand. The sky and the ground both looked massive, and unending, and the warm stones around us crumbled in our hands. After a couple of hours, Gedo said that it was getting late, so we climbed back into the jeep and began the long journey home.
Well before our journey had ever begun, we had hoped – albeit not particularly fervently – that we could do something with it, something that mattered; that by striking out for a place this nebulous we could find a shortcut to social justice, two days’ drive from the nearest tap or telephone. In 800 square miles of desert, we thought that we could exploit the outlines of the bordered world in order to subvert it.
Jeremiah Heaton, beyond the “kingdom for a princess” schmaltz and the forthcoming Disney adaptation (he has sold film rights to his story for an undisclosed fee) seems – albeit from an almost diametrically opposite philosophical outlook – to be convinced of something similar. For him, the fantasy is a libertarian one, offering freedom not from the iniquities of capitalism but from the government interference that inhibits it. Just as we did, he wants to take advantage of a quirk in the system to defy it. When I spoke to Heaton, he told me with genuine enthusiasm that his country (not yet recognised by any other state or international body) would offer the world’s great innovators a place to develop their products unencumbered by taxes and regulation, a place where private enterprise faces no socially prescribed borders of its own. Big companies, he assured me, were scrambling to join his vision.
“You would be surprised at the outreach that has occurred from the corporate level to me directly,” Heaton insisted during our conversation. “It’s not been an issue of me having to go out and sell myself on this idea. A lot of these large corporations, they see market opportunities in what I’m doing.” He painted a picture of Bir Tawil one day playing host to daring scientific research, ground-breaking food-production facilities and alternative banking systems that work for the benefit of customers rather than CEOs. I asked him if he understood why some people found his plans, and the assumptions they rested on, highly dubious.
“There’s that saying: if you were king for a day, what would you do differently?” he replied. “Think about that question yourself and apply it to your own country. That’s what I’m doing, but on a much bigger scale. This is not colonialism; I’m an individual, not a country, I haven’t taken land that belongs to any other country, and I’m not extracting resources other than sunshine and sand. I am just one human being, trying to improve the condition of other human beings. I have the purest intentions in the world to make this planet a better place, and to try and criticise that just because I’m a white person sitting on land in the middle of the Nubian desert …” He trailed off, and was silent for a moment. “Well,” he concluded, “it’s really juvenile.”
But if, by some miracle, Heaton ever did gain global recognition as the legitimate leader of an independent Bir Tawili state, would his pitch to corporations – base yourself here to avoid paying taxes and escape the manacles of democratic oversight – actually do anything to “improve the condition of other human beings”? Part of the allure of unclaimed spaces is their radical potential to offer a blank canvas – but as Omar and I belatedly realised, nothing, and nowhere, starts from scratch. Any utopia founded on the basis of a concept – terra nullius – that has wreaked immense historical destruction, is built on rotten foundations.
In truth, no place is a “dead zone”, stopped in time and ripe for private capture – least of all Bir Tawil, which translates as “long well” in Arabic and was clearly the site of considerable human activity in the past. Although it lacks any permanent dwellings today, this section of desert is still used by members of the Ababda and Bisharin tribes who carry goods, graze crops and make camp within the sands. (Not the least of our failures was that we did not manage to speak to any of the peoples who had passed through Bir Tawil before we arrived.) Their ties to the area may be based on traditional rather than written claims – but Bir Tawil is not any more a “no man’s land” than the territory once known as British East Africa, where terra nullius was repeatedly invoked in the early 20th century by both chartered companies and the British government that supported them to justify the appropriation of territory from indigenous people. “I cannot admit that wandering tribes have a right to keep other and superior races out of large tracts,” exclaimed the British commissioner, Sir Charles Eliot, at the time, “merely because they have acquired the habit of straggling over far more land than they can utilise.”
Bir Tawil is no terra nullius. But “no man’s lands” – or at least ambiguous spaces, where boundaries take odd turns and sovereignty gets scrambled – are real and exist among us every day. Some endure at airports, and inside immigration detention centres, and in the pockets of economic deprivation where states have abandoned any responsibility for their citizens. Other no man’s lands are carried around by refugees who are yet to be granted asylum, regardless of where they may be – having fled failed states or countries which would deny them the rights of citizenship, they occupy a world of legal confusion at best, and outright exclusion at worst.
Perhaps that is why, as we switched off the camera and left Bir Tawil behind us, Omar and I felt a little let down. Or perhaps we shared a sense of anticlimax because we were faintly aware of something rumbling back home in Cairo, where millions of people were about to launch an epic fight against political and economic exclusion – not by withdrawing to a no man’s land but by confronting state authority head-on, in the streets. A week after our return to Egypt, the country erupted in revolution.
Borders are fluid things; they help define our identities, and yet so often we use our identities to push up against borders and redraw them. For now the boundaries that divide nation states remain, but their purpose is changing and the relationship they have to our own lives, and our own rights, is growing increasingly unstable. If Bir Tawil – the preeminent ambiguous space – is anything to those who live far from it, it is perhaps a reminder that no particular configuration of power and governance is immutable. As we drove silently, and semi-contentedly, back past the gold-foragers, and the ramshackle cafeteria, and the heavy machinery of the Saudi farm installations – Gedo at the wheel, Omar asleep and me staring out at nothing– I grasped what I had failed to grasp on that lazy night of beer drinking on Omar’s balcony. The last truly “unclaimed” land on earth is really an injunction: not for us to seek out the mythical territory where we can hide from the things that anger us, but to channel that anger instead towards reclaiming territory we already call our own.