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license to travel

13 november 2023

Patrick Bixby's License to Travel is "a cultural history of the passport," but it is not much about the little booklets we now carry.

Inevitably, the Greeks seem to have invented the passport, in the form of terra-cotta tokens they called "symbols," a heavily freighted term. Traveling Greeks would carry these symbols around, in antiquity, to identify their citizenship and provide some specs on their social role and the purpose of their travel.

But the earliest passport-like artifact is a clay tablet from Amarna in Egypt, dating from maybe 3,500 years ago (29). It seems almost the size and shape of a modern passport, and contains language – commanding safe passage for its bearer (some guy named Akiya), in the name of King Tushratta of Mitanni – that isn't far off what my own passport commands in the name, or rather the title, of the U.S. Secretary of State.

My 21st-century passport conveys something extra that Akiya and Tushratta might not have understood: the concept of nationality. To hold a U.S. passport, I must be a citizen, which entails a vast web of rights and protections, not just the blunt threat that Tushratta, and the gods whose ear he had, would mess with anyone who messed with Akiya.

Much of the time, until the First World War, passports were optional even for those traveling across wide stretches of the globe. Some nations kept closer track of their nationals – the French, especially after the Revolution, were somewhat obsessive about this – but a lot of places just let people come and go. Passports, says Bixby, were somewhat optional. Travelers had other means of identity: letters of credit and introduction for the gentry; all their worldly goods packed into steamer trunks, for steerage emigrants.

1914 changed all that; passports were now mandatory. Between the world wars, passports became not just aids to travel, but essential elements of nationality. The obliteration of empires in the first war meant that stateless people were trapped and at risk in host countries, and encouraged the League of Nations to adopt the "Nansen passport," a collection of documents that established the identity and (theoretically) the rights of stateless people, if not their citizenship. Even with Nansen passports, of course, many Jews were gathered up and deported to their deaths. The passport alone did not guarantee safety in the Reich or the lands it conquered. Exit visas, extortionate fees, and other hassles locked people in the killing machine. Bixby contrasts Vladimir Nabokov's hair's-breadth escape with Walter Benjamin's suicide on the brink of safety.

Bixby is an English professor, and most of his examples are of artists and writers: James Joyce, Paul Robeson, Pablo Neruda, Salman Rushdie, all of whom experienced the anguish of states controlling their very identity by means of travel documents. But Bixby is alive to the wider implications of passport-holding, in what has become a permanent worldwide refugee crisis since the 2010s.

Bixby includes a chapter on "fantasy" passports, which are real things akin to those studied in Nick Middleton's book An Atlas of Countries That Don't Exist: pseudo-principalities and eccentric republics. Or not so eccentric; even this foray into weird fun turns grim at times. Highly legitimate claims to sovereignty, like those of Native American nations, sometimes get expressed through passports which are proscribed by the international community, in the interests of limiting its own membership.

Bixby ends with a brief look at passport anxiety after Donald Trump's "Muslim ban" and during COVID, crises during which the right to travel keeps getting defined and limited in new ways, and individuals become further defined by the ways that states keep their movement in check.

There is not much in License to Travel about internal passports like cédulas and Ausweise that comprise a central part of official identity in so many modern states. With reason; such ID cards are not always used to monitor travel, and by definition not international travel. Yet they are the other side of the weave of the theme Bixby handles so well: the complicated construction of citizens by nations.

Bixby, Patrick. License to Travel: A cultural history of the passport. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022.