After the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War and the erosion of the city-state in ancient Greece, Diogenes of Sinope was asked what city he considered to be his home. The philosopher, who believed the very idea of the city-state was rotten, replied, “I am a kosmopolites”—a citizen of the universe, not bound to any one piece of earth.
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a 21st-century Diogenes of Canadian, Iranian, Swiss, Russian, and Armenian citizenship who has written a sharp, compelling, and often humorous book about the evolution of citizenship and the rise of a new form of statelessness. As she contends in The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports; Paper $12.99), if in the 21st century “the nation is being called into question as a result of globalizing technology, trade and crisis, it makes perfect sense for our connection and allegiance to the nation to be challenged too.” A cosmopolite is a global citizen who manages to be “‘of’ the world without belonging anywhere within it,” she writes, all the while exploring and challenging the parameters that determine who among us gets to be global. Abrahamian discusses two avatars of the global citizen that pose the fiercest challenge to the idea of the nation-state. One is the bidoon (Arabic for “without”), the population of disenfranchised men and women who are denied citizenship and rights in their native Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. The other group is composed of the young and rootless wealthy of the West, whose connections, networks, and influences transcend fixed notions of nationality.
As the Gulf states sought to establish themselves in the modern world, they—like every other country with day-old borders drawn in the sand—imposed an alien idea of belonging over their traditional, more informal structures. Following the modern practice of defining identity and citizenship through strict, exclusionary guidelines, they established administrative frameworks to categorize their population. Kuwait treated its bidoon as full citizens until 1985, when it declared them to be foreigners living illegally in the country. Kuwait acted on tribal and religious prejudice, a desire to realign electoral demographics, and, most curiously, as Abrahamian writes, “shrinking government coffers.” At the time, bidoon accounted for nearly 80 percent of the soldiers in the Kuwaiti Army. They had the right to die for Kuwait, but not, apparently, the right to belong to it. The bidoon suffered from poverty, widespread unemployment, and a lack of rights, a condition that Kuwait ignored until the early 2000s, when its stateless began to protest their treatment on blogs and other social media. So in 2008, after decades of rising tensions, Kuwait asked the Union of the Comoros to accommodate the stateless population that Kuwait itself could no longer ignore or tolerate. “The newer the country,” Abrahamian writes, “the more arbitrary the distinction between those who are said to belong inside and those who belong outside.”