Mehrunnisa Yusuf is an occasional writer of food stories, travel dispatches, and personal essays on a blog called 'come con ella' (Spanish for eat with her). (The blog can be visited at http://comeconella.blogspot.com/) She likes taking visual notes (instagram.com/comeconella) and often accompanies them with little stories. She has a background in law and human rights and works in the Higher Education sector in the United Kingdom. In her free time she enjoys reading, yoga and preserving seasonal fruit as jam.
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Modern Nomads and Static Postcodes
In Sarajevo, you possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher; the streets where people recognised you, the space that identified you; the landmarks of your life … If you somehow vanished, your fellow citizens could have collectively reconstructed you from their collective memory and gossip accrued over the years. Your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical corollary was the architecture of the city.
— The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon
There is a set vocabulary to explain and define peoples in context of their relationship with territory. Some categories, such as citizens and migrants, are regulated by precise legal architecture. To be a nomad is to be on the outside of the confines of these sharply delineated definitions. Extensive social and anthropological research has outlined firm characteristics and features of nomadism, but there is no formal international legal definition. The crux of these categories is the consideration of the relationship that people have with the land they live on because it determines rights and responsibilities. This spatial relationship is based on two fixed points – sedentary and nomadic. Citizens are the ultimate representation of sedentary order where space is marked by ownership and the state confers rights and responsibilities exclusive to its peoples.
For nomads, the land determines their place. One could say that they are owned by the land and are subservient to its demands on them. To be a nomad is to have no sense of boundary and territoriality, ideas that are in direct conflict with the contemporary world order that is tightly scripted by nationhood and belonging.
The term ‘nomad’ originated in the sixteenth century. Its roots lie in the ancient Greek term nemo which translates to “‘I distribute’, which is the root of nomás meaning ‘roaming, roving, wandering (to find pastures for flocks or herds)’.” The word is therefore both noun and adjective, defining and ascribing character to a particular group of peoples. In its traditional sense, nomadism refers to a way of life which involves people who move cyclically or periodically, implying that such persons do not have a fixed abode. Nomadic cultures fall into three broad categories: hunter gatherers, pastoralists, and peripatetic (tinker or trader nomads). Hunter gatherers are dependent on wild foods for sustenance.
Mankind practised this kind of nomadism until agriculture and animal domestication took hold. Pastoral life is configured around domesticated livestock, and the movements of these nomads are based on the type of livestock, climate, and the topography of the land. Peripatetic nomads have a mobile lifestyle predicated on the exchange of trade. Nomadic peoples span continents and cultures and can be captured under the broad categories above.
Kuchi women and children inside a yurt—a portable, round tent (above) and a Kuchi caravan in the desert. The Kuchi people are Afghan pastoralist nomads. Photos (c) Brigitte Neubacher (website). 1998.
Modern nomadism arrived at the cusp of the twentieth century. Its new taxonomy comes from annexing contemporary descriptions to established ideas. Conceptually, it coincides with tradition based on the centrality of travel, movement, and the living of life without a fixed address. Perpetual tourists or global citizens regard themselves as a kind of hunter gatherer of exciting and novel experiences. Snowbirds loosely align with pastoralists since their movements are based on seasons. They tend to have second homes in warmer climes to escape from bitterly cold and relentless winter at their primary place of residence. Digital nomads are a type of peripatetic nomad. They move from place to place offering skills that range from teaching languages to providing digital and technological solutions. These neologisms reveal a dialectic between old and new, but their overemphasis of similarity obscures some of the most crucial and people centric features of traditional nomadism.
To start with, the travel patterns of traditional nomads are governed by a set of clear principles that respect ecology. Hunter gatherers move from place to place in search of food and sustenance. They are aware of how seasons influence nature’s pantry and engage in hunting and gathering accordingly. The migrations of pastoral nomads are based on the need for verdant pasture for livestock. Like hunter gatherers, they have a deep knowledge of their terrain and will avoid overgrazing as it would affect the security of their livelihoods and food. All nomadic peoples feature internalised forms of social organisation and generally travel in bands of families or tribes. Kinship is important, and communality is indispensable, even to peripatetic nomads who travel in groups.
This is in marked contrast to modern nomads, who are highly individualistic. Modern nomads are largely concentrated in developed countries of the world and have command over money and the kind of skills that enable them to travel extensively and earn a living anywhere in the world. They favour location independence, freedom from commitment, and the pursuit of an ideal life. They tend towards air travel which has a large carbon footprint and seek countries with lower costs of living but with thriving expatriate or tourist cultures. Journalism and news features drive this point home clearly – “The original digital nomads were enticed to idyllic destinations such as Bali, Chiang Mai or Hanoi by the lifestyle: exotic surroundings, the low cost of living, great food, warm weather, the dream of getting healthy on yoga and coconut water.” Local economies certainly benefit from such people, but the cumulative effect of transient individual movements has substantial downsides for local populations simply because they favour short termism and the growth of specific sectors of the economy to the detriment of others
I recall watching a news feature on Hubud  in Bali, Indonesia. The word Hubud is a portmanteau of Hub in Ubud. It is a bamboo and wood building with wide open spaces, an organic café and is on the edge of a forest. It describes itself as a coworking space and community for location independence in life and business. Individuals based at Hubud are business rebels, courageous creatives, techies, and truth-seekers living a fulfilling life on their own terms. These bespoke spaces are built to fulfil the needs of a transient demographic and affect local space and resource. The greatest paradox, though, is that the modern nomad’s desire and ability to explore and travel freely across borders is a privilege of their nationality. Their citizenship of a home country entitles them to a passport which is a necessary precursor to mobility. And since not all passports are created equal, it follows that modern nomads are largely citizens of the developed world. Traditional nomads derive the legitimacy of their movements from their association with the land they live on which explains why nomadism of this form declined steadily during the twentieth century in the face of established national borders.
I grew up in Islamabad, studied in London, and eventually my husband and I made the city our home. My story is not of everyone, but it is certainly one of many. We came of age in a time that is often perceived to be open and meritocratic. We are typified by the pursuit of specialised higher education intended to broaden our horizons. The received wisdom is that education and travel together are a new kind of passport into the global world. We are often told that the world is our oyster and sometimes our lived experience of choosing a place to study, work and/or live in can appear like choosing an option off a menu.
My friendships certainly reflect the picture as they are scattered across the world map. I have friends whose careers unwittingly turned them into modern nomads through global placements and secondments. Others picked fields like diplomacy and international development which made frequent relocation a salient feature of their profession. And then there were those who took to skills that would enable a lifestyle on the move. They are adept at the art of living from a suitcase and offer services such as teaching English language, web design and analytics, charity, volunteering, and the well-being economy of yoga and meditation that have universal appeal.
“Vessel (I)” by Dua Abbas Rizvi. 2018. Print on Hahnemuhle paper. 6 x 8 inches.
Clearly, we are less constrained by norms of place. Our lifestyles mark a departure from our parents and grandparents who tended to stay in or close to the places they grew up. They may have moved cities within countries but retained a strong sense of place through language and culture. Those who moved further afield in pursuit of better opportunities assumed permanence in the countries that they migrated to. These migrations were not without expectation as it was de rigueur to sponsor kin such as parents and siblings. Marital unions presented an excellent opportunity to transport people from the erstwhile home. I am of the view that our ability to embrace a more itinerant lifestyle comes from travel at an earlier stage in our lives. Some of us studied in different places and if we did not, we knew people who did. This allowed us to have associations with more than one place simultaneously. The globalisation of culture plays a huge part too.
I am struck by the uniformity of popular culture around the world. The beauty of popular culture lies in its ability to allow large swathes of people to identify collectively, and thanks to the internet it has global reach. There are few societies that can claim immunity to it. It influences all facets of society from politics and sport to arts and culture and its near universality means that other places can instantly feel like home. Popular symbols such as films from Hollywood, global brands such as Nike and Apple, and the golden arches of McDonalds are powerful illustrations of how popular culture provides a singular gateway to the world. Layered on top of this is the fact that we live an intensely networked existence.
The private dimension of the Internet is such that it allows us seamless intimate conversation and connection through multiple platforms – speech, text, and video call. In this virtual world, everything is immediate and available, rationalised only by time zones and rest. Sleep is the only frontier. Travel may be the privilege of the few, but technology is the privilege of many.
Despite this, I began to notice a change in the lives of friends and acquaintances, especially over the past few years. It was subtle at first, but I recall that it started with fewer virtual postcards from different continents. I have a tradition of sending postal season’s greetings at the end of the year and when I asked for addresses, I discerned a pattern of static postcodes. More and more friends and family responded to my annual greetings, sharing their news which often began with something along the lines of swapping their vagabond shoes in favour of constancy and familiarity. It was apparent that many of us were engaged in an explicit negotiation of our relationship with the spaces we were living in. The reasons being offered up cut across of the spectrum – partners and marriages, fulfilling work, the love of a place, mortgages and house buying, births, and the sad yet familiar rhythm of terminal illness and loss.
The suggestion that personal experiences of love, family, birth, and deaths were the motivation for settling down is one part of the picture. But I think there are other and equally compelling reasons that reside in the public realm which are worth looking at. To view the laying down of roots as the converse of being a nomad fits too neatly into existing thought structures of opposites. Perceiving life in binary where the absence of an element means the presence of another is simplistic and limits exploration of the gradual spaces in between. The omission of a fact can be as much a lie as the telling of a lie itself. Real life is messy and rarely resolves itself neatly. In reality, we arrive at particular destinations with much forethought, although that thinking is not always evident.
The Irish poet, theologian and philosopher John O’ Donohue captures this eloquently when he says, “That there are huge gestations and fermentations going on in us that we’re not even aware of. And then sometimes when we come to a threshold, crossing over in which we need to become different, that we’ll be able to be different because secret work has been done in us of which we’ve had no inkling.” The gestations and fermentations that O ‘Donohue refers to are both inherently personal and deeply political.
It is therefore unsurprising that this gradual movement to lay down roots comes at a time when the world order seems particularly fragile. The political landscape is fraught and uncertain. The ideologies of exclusion and marginalisation that historically led to conflict have found currency again. Global news certainly points to a severely fractured polity. In such circumstances, the act of establishing oneself is an article of faith. For some, it is a cautious optimism that demonstrates care for what is near them. This is expressed in civic engagement and takes the shape of protests like Stop Brexit and Stop Trump, women’s marches in support of their rights, and campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives. Black Lives Matter started as a local movement but resonates beyond borders. As a network, it aims to build local power to intervene in violence against black people by the state and vigilantes. March for Our Lives was created by students in the aftermath of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Its activism is focussed on effectively addressing gun violence and crime in the United States of America. For others, it is a radical act in bringing about change.
An example of this is municipalism. It is difficult to describe municipalism on its own because it resists the existing language of power. Instead, municipal activists sit outside traditional structures of power (politics and state institutions) and are bound by common practical goals. Metropolitan cities seem particularly ripe and open to municipalism where they support specific issues. Their achievements are beginning to take hold. For instance, in Venice and Barcelona, there is a widespread movement to regulate tourist industries to preserve and improve the lives of local city residents. In London, New York, and Paris, the focus is on affordable housing. In Los Angeles, efforts are concentrated on the living wage. Countries like Thailand and Estonia have developed new visa types to regulate the work of digital nomads, for it was apparent that their traveller status allowed them to escape tax liabilities in both their home and host countries. What this shows is that localisation and personalisation offer a new script for a changing world.
The private and public imagination are synonymous simply because being social is intrinsic to being human. The truths of ancient philosophers hold our imagination precisely because they are universal and timeless. Aristotle maintains that:
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.
The process of constructing identity is perpetual and it will change at given moments in time. Sometimes it asks of us to shed the things that no longer serve us and at others it asks for us to assert ourselves.
Homecoming and being rooted may well be the métier of our time.
 Nomads and Migrants: Deleuze, Braidotti and the European Union in 2014, Eva Aldea (available here)
 Living and working in paradise: the rise of the ‘digital nomad’, The Telegraph, 17 May 2015 (link)
 Hubud.org (link)
 ‘The Inner Landscape of Beauty’, Krista Tippett in conversation with John O’Donohue (link)
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