The Rumpus Interview with Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

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It comes as a surprise to learn that there exists a global citizenship market, in which passports are bought and sold. Citizenship, the common thinking goes, not only determines our opportunities (a decent education, gender parity) and our allegiances (in sports as in war), but is also elemental to our sense of self. Citizenship cannot be reduced to a commodity—can it?

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, and an editor at The New Inquiry and Dissent, was working as a reporter at Reuters when she first encountered the global citizenship market. She says, “I received an email—I thought it was spam—inviting me to the Global Citizenship Conference… At the conference, people were promoting passports like they were selling any other product. A St. Kitts passport gives you visa-free access to these countries, and you can get tax benefits, and so on.”

While representatives of participating governments hawk passports eagerly, passports don’t come cheap. The buyers are billionaires willing to invest in a country in return for the benefits of its citizenship. This luxury industry would remain closed to our scrutiny were it not for a strange scheme.

Kuwait, an oil-rich Gulf state, has struggled for years with its large stateless population, the Bidoon. While the Bidoon are residents of Kuwait, they do not have citizenship papers. So, Kuwait has arrived at a remarkable solution—the government has purchased citizenship of the Comoro Islands for the Bidoon. The arrangement allows for documentation of a stateless people while denying them belonging.

The Comoros, a sovereign group of islands in the Indian Ocean, is one of the smallest African nations. With few natural resources and weak infrastructure, the country struggles with unemployment and poverty. It is not difficult to see why the state would be willing to sell citizenship for funds.

Abrahamian tracks this Kuwaiti and Comorian scheme in her new book, The Cosmopolites. She speaks with charismatic middlemen and reluctant politicians, activists, and bloggers. Through an investigation of this bizarre trade, in which a group of people who have never set foot in the Comoros find themselves with Comorian passports, Abrahamian asks what the idea and institution of citizenship is coming to mean. What does this entirely legal trade signal for the future of citizenship, and how does it disrupt notions of borders and belonging?

This exploration takes her from St. Kitts to Thailand, as she travels a world in which some people own five passports while others strive to secure one. Still others, intriguingly, renounce citizenship.

Abrahamian and I met on a rainy night in Manhattan. A conversation about citizens and refugees grew to include war, ISIS, ID cards, and how she nearly got deported from the Comoros.

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The Rumpus: How did you come upon the idea for this book?

Atossa Abrahamian: The idea for this book was always in the back of my head. I was in Geneva, and had Swiss citizenship, but didn’t feel very Swiss.

My parents worked at the UN. I went to international schools. So I was in this expat community, and our world was very UN-centric. No one talked about where they were from, unless it was Bring an Exotic Dish to School Day or World Cup soccer time.

Then I went to college, and people would ask, “Where are you from?” And I’d throw up my hands and say, “I don’t know.”

Now I say, “I grew up in Switzerland, but I’ve been in New York for eleven years.” Usually people say, “You don’t look Swiss.”

When I was working as a reporter at Reuters, I encountered the citizenship market for the first time. I received an email—I thought it was spam—inviting me to the Global Citizenship Conference. At the time, I had my own citizenship and residency on my mind, so I clicked on the link. It turned out to be a conference for the passport industry.

It’s a completely legal industry, in which countries sell citizenship, and wealthy people buy it. I spent a frantic week convincing my editors at Reuters to send me to the conference. They were keen, and very kind. They sent me to London.

At the conference, people were promoting passports like they were selling any other product. A St. Kitts passport gives you visa-free access to these countries, and you can get tax benefits, and so on. It was eye-opening.

There was a level of business-speak that I wasn’t familiar with. But what was fascinating was—not everyone in this trade had the most sophisticated political analysis, but they realized that citizenship is not as meaningful as it used to be. Clearly, if you can sell it, it’s not a morally unquestionable concept.

Rumpus: On the other extreme, you grew interested in people who renounce citizenship, too. There’s a line in the book about how, if you renounce citizenship, you are too busy answering questions to sustain any ideological stance.

61JY5w45tIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Abrahamian: Garry Davis, the first American who renounced citizenship, said that. The reasons people renounce citizenship are as diverse as the reasons people change or take citizenship. Some do it for ideological reasons. Some do it for tax purposes. Others do it for convenience. A handful of people now are stateless by choice. They are mostly libertarians.

This book project started when a friend of mine in Dubai said the government bought citizenship for their Bidoon population from the Comoro Islands. The notions of statelessness and citizenship collided in this fantastic way.

I knew there was a story behind it, and there was—a bigger and more fascinating story than I could’ve imagined. So my goal was to figure out how tens of thousands of Bidoon became Comoro citizens.

Rumpus: You have Swiss, Canadian, and Iranian citizenship. You’ve lived in the US for more than a decade. What made you go so far from home for this exploration of citizenship?

Abrahamian: It was just a great story. Also, traveling is awesome. Going to the Comoros was life-altering.

Rumpus: Tell me about traveling to the Comoros.

Abrahamian: I landed there and nearly got deported.

You have to pay a visa fee of fifty bucks, and I had assumed there would be an ATM machine in the airport. There was not. I didn’t have cash. So they put me in a room, and I called the person I would stay with, and he came and rescued me. I was lucky that the ATM on the island was working that day.

My first moments in the Comoros were scary in another way, too. The airport floor was covered in these bugs which kept crawling up my legs. Of course I tried to play it cool and pretend to the border guard that I didn’t care.

Then, when I finally left the airport, I was driven to the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying. It was run by a French couple. We drove for a long time along an unlit road, and the moon was the most enormous I’ve ever seen.

Rumpus: That reminds me of when I was in the north of Senegal, at the edge of the Sahara. That group of villages had no electricity. So you could see a sky full of stars.

Abrahamian: I mean, there’s trash on the ground, but there’s no light pollution!

Rumpus: I’m wondering about the ambition of the book. Did you see it as a theoretical intervention, or prescriptive in terms of policy, or something else?

Abrahamian: The lame journalist answer here is, I wanted to tell this cool story.

My agenda? Hmm… I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the world is changing in profound ways. It’s not just billionaires who are affected by the citizenship market—it’s stateless people, people who are being denied basic human rights in the country in which they were born.

Some people have five passports; some people renounce citizenship. What does it say?

It says that the relationship between person and state is not as meaningful as we’re conditioned to think.

Also, the concept of borders is being challenged—for example, with the migrant crisis in Europe, and with secessionist movements around the world. I am in favor of more open borders and more permissive immigration policies. What’s happening in Europe is preposterous.

So the idea that our belonging to certain territories is set in stone is being challenged. As Benedict Anderson noted, citizenship and belonging to a certain land are constructs. And these constructs are revealing themselves in pretty fascinating ways, I think.

Rumpus: If territorial bonds like citizenship are being subverted, do you think new forms of attachment are taking their place? Are new regimes of rights and duties rising?

Abrahamian: I am not particularly hopeful. I think the communal bonds that people form are now, increasingly, outside the state. The corporate world and the private sector claim our allegiances.

There’s a lot of dystopian science fiction written about the future, in which maybe we’ll have corporate gods and corporate rulers. That freaks me out. I don’t think that would be a good world to live in.

Rumpus: The erosion of state also means that international law, as it exists now, struggles to engage with contemporary conflict. How do we engage with non-state actors like rebel groups, which in many regions are as powerful as governments but do not have that legitimacy?

Abrahamian: When ISIS was gaining power, some people from Europe and North American countries began joining the group. So a couple countries said, Well, we should take away their European passports. Meanwhile, these people burning their passports, they are explicitly denouncing the state. That shows how futile it is to challenge new paradigms with old structures.

We’re seeing that with ISIS. To draw a regional contrast, the Taliban were much more nationalistic. They wanted certain parcels of land, and they wanted certain rules. They wanted to run the show. But ISIS is a different beast entirely.

Rumpus: Passports have always indexed citizenship. Now they’re reduced to a document which can be burned.

Abrahamian: And in that respect, ISIS and stateless billionaires have one thing in common—to them, it’s a piece of paper that can serve a purpose, and not much more.

Rumpus: Some Bidoon bloggers have spoken up against the imposition of Comoro citizenship on the Middle Eastern Bidoon population. How has the issue been discussed locally?

Abrahamian: The official line is there are far fewer Bidoon than human rights organizations, activists, and bloggers would have you believe. The Kuwaiti government says the Bidoon are illegally present, and have come from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’re only in Kuwait, says the government, to take advantage of the generous benefits the government offers. But the government offers generous benefits only to citizens!

(The big passport exchange happened in the United Arab Emirates. I went to Kuwait, which announced its own passport exchange about a year ago.)

Rumpus: Do the Bidoon want citizenship of Kuwait?

Abrahamian: Absolutely. They’ve held rallies asking for citizenship. They’ve been in Kuwait for generations.

They don’t have citizenship for reasons ranging from full-on discrimination to just not having signed up at the right time. But they consider themselves natives.

Rumpus: The absence of citizenship is troublesome for the Bidoon, but it’s also a threat to the state to have such a large, unanchored community.

Abrahamian: It is. Some activists think that part of the initiative was just to get people documented—which isn’t a bad initiative.

You know, this is happening in a moment in which these countries are concerned with security. They’re concerned with looking good to the outside world, and in some cases that means looking nominally democratic.

Rumpus: In India, too, there has been a push to get everyone ID cards.

Abrahamian: And in New York City! You and I, as non-Americans, can get a New York City ID. I can’t wait to get one.

Rumpus: What do you think is behind the push to have everyone documented and accounted for?

Abrahamian: Well. Edward Snowden would have one answer, and Bill de Blasio would have a completely different one.

Rumpus: Let me ask, then: Why would you be excited to have an NYC ID?

Abrahamian: You get to go to museums for free, and discounted theater tickets. (Laughs)

I don’t carry my passport around, because I’m scared of losing it. So it’s practical and useful to have an ID.

Rumpus: The book mentions that you can buy citizenship of the US. Tell me more about that.

Abrahamian: You can essentially buy a green card—permanent residency—for as little as half a million dollars. The government just re-approved an extension for the program.

It’s a controversial program. It has been poorly managed, and there’s been some fraud.

The idea is that you’re supposed to invest half a million dollars in an economically depressed area—but it’s unclear if that’s happening. The bureaucratic process is also a pain. You have to jump through a lot of hoops.

For now, it mostly serves the Chinese market.

Rumpus: This isn’t really part of the immigration debates we hear.

Abrahamian: It isn’t. It highlights how different it is to move in the world as a wealthy person as opposed to a poor person.

Malta plans to sell citizenship for about a million and a half dollars. Again, you have to go through an elaborate process. You have to make certain investments and donations, and show that you are maintaining an apartment in Malta.

So Malta has rolled out the red carpet for wealthy people, while other people have been showing up in boats—and the people in those boats have gotten a very different treatment.

To take a less extreme example, and something not many Americans know about, international students have a hard time staying in the US after they finish college. It’s easier if you’re in technical fields, and harder if you’re in the arts. It’s pretty hard if you’re a journalist, as I learned.

And I’ve been in New York for a while, and I do feel some emotional attachment to the place. Maybe not to the US, but certainly to New York, and to the communities that I am part of. The idea that you are at risk of being asked to leave, while someone can throw money at a project and gain belonging—that’s hard to hear.

Rumpus: Have bodies like the UN raised objections to the trade in passports?

Abrahamian: The UN is aware of the Comoros situation, though they have not commented on it.

The EU, I know, was concerned about Malta’s plan—and Cyprus’s. Malta is not the only European country to sell passports. Some in the EU said that membership of the EU should not depend on how much money you have.

Ultimately, there is little that any supranational body can do. Who becomes a citizen is squarely in the domain of sovereign law.

It’s also an issue on a smaller scale—hundreds of thousands of people are involved, rather than billions. But the implications of the issue are hugely significant, I think. It’s a paradigm shift. It’s a different way of thinking about belonging and citizenship.

Rumpus: Do you think there’s some interpretive work to be done around the fact that this is happening now, in the age of the Internet, in which the loosening of bonds to territories is already underway?

Abrahamian: I think so. Well, the Internet allows people to Google how to buy a passport! It’s easy to find options. But I don’t think everything can be boiled down to technology.

Maybe this is happening now because few things are sacred now. Moral veneers are coming off the institutions that surround us, including citizenship.

To their credit, the market is making it professional and less underground, and there are people in the market interested in re-distributing some of the wealth. One hopes that will happen.

And war. War messes with borders, making you realize that national borders are not set in stone.

Many countries don’t have the draft any more. There are civil wars and proxy wars, but it isn’t like World War II, with an Us vs. Them mentality. People don’t think that their allegiance is existentially important to their country.

Rumpus: How do you think the status of refugees, as a politically meaningful status, is affected when citizenship comes to be a thing that you can purchase?

Abrahamian: People always talk about the differences between expat and immigrant, migrant and refugee. And finances definitely mark these stratifications.

But there are also wealthy refugees. There are people who have had to leave their country for fear of violence or political reasons. Are you less of a refugee if you can shell out a million bucks to become a Maltese citizen? That’s a really good question. In that case, you’re not asking for asylum. You’re buying it.

Rumpus: What would you say to someone who says, “So this is a manipulation of resources by wealthy people. What’s new here?”

Abrahamian: I think people have emotional bonds to citizenship. There is the idea that you have to earn it. Naturalization ceremonies have so much pomp and circumstance to them. They are very emotional affairs. It does lend a certain tone to the idea of becoming a citizen—not being born a citizen, but becoming one. So when someone gets fast-tracked because they have cash, that’s quite new.

Rumpus: Has this project left an imprint on your journalistic process?

Abrahamian: You know, there’s something to be said for showing up.

Having grown up in Switzerland, it was a change for me to be in places where you don’t schedule things down to the minute. You show up and wait. In the Comoros, I waited for twelve hours for a politician to show up. I read one entire Ferrante book while I waited. (The second one of the series.) I drank a lot of whiskey. I went swimming, even though I didn’t have swimming clothes and had to make do with underwear. He finally showed up at 10 p.m.

So showing up and waiting is, I think, a skill that they don’t teach you in journalism school.


Megha Majumdar is an editorial assistant at Catapult. More from this author →