In 1995 the French anthropologist Marc Augé wrote the essay Non places: introduction to an Anthropology of supermodernity, in which explained his definition of non places: all those areas made impersonal by the intended purpose, transitional, unable to generate any relationship. Highways, malls, hotels, refugee camps, sport courts, airports.
Being in an airport is nothing like live the city right outside, enjoying its food, architecture, atmosphere, weather. It’s an alienating reality, a limbo, different but identical every time, whether it’s Tokyo, London or New York.
Harbors, at the opposite, have a history of commercial but also cultural exchanges, where sailors took their time for supplies and to recharge their spirits. The airport is a symbol of modern frenzy. So, even if you can meet people from all over the world, you rarely have a connection with them. No time for that, even if there is a delay.
But is not always like those regular standards. At the beginning of 2017 many U.S. airports hosted demonstrations against the Muslim Ban promoted by the president Donald Trump. No more neutrality of the non place, those acts had a strong political connotation.
Terrorists, unfortunately, thought the same, when they organized the attacks in Istanbul and Bruxelles. Especially in the ’70s hijackings or bombs on airplanes were frequent, the events of Ataturk and Zaventem mark a new mentality. A surprising action in places people are enjoying, like happened at Bataclan in Paris or at the Manchester Arena. The normality of an average place referred to an airport, which, this way, would stop to be a non place.
There always were some exceptions to the theory of Augé, similar to the story narrated in the movie The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg. The protagonist is a citizen from a country in which there’s a golpe and he finds himself stateless right when he is checking in. Waiting for a political solution, Hanks starts living a “normal” life at the airport, the opposit of a non place.
Ten years before the French movie Tombés du ciel was inspired by the real story of an Iranian refugee kept for 18 long years at Charles De Gaulle, because he had no documents that could prove his status. But, unlike The Terminal, this story has no happy ending.
A Sri Lankan man lived an airport misadventure, when he decided to fly to Spain, officially on vacation but probably to obtain political protection. His papers were rejected at the border station and this man was sent in the country of the last stopover, Morocco. He stayed at Casablanca airport more than the 20 days permitted, Morocco denied his application for asylum even though he showed signs of torture, therefore he was repatriated.
Besides those cases, there are also other quiet and peaceful possibilities to demonstrate that airports can be “real” places. In 2012 the Swiss writer Alain de Botton decided to spent a week at Heathrow, one of London airports. He observed that there can be a human, even sentimental characterisation, where anxiety, wait and desire are felt stronger than anywhere else. And despite what most people think, de Botton says he can smell Switzerland when he goes home in Zurich, “a mix of fresh grass and sanitizer”.
Seeing what happened to some unlucky people, stuck in a matrix of documents and papers, maybe now Augé should replace the airport with bureaucracy in his list of non places. His compatriot Asterix and permit 38 can teach him something!