When Jeremiah Heaton hit the headlines last week for traveling across an arid stretch of southern Egypt to Bir Tawil and planting a flag on an unclaimed, uninhabited 800-square arid block of land that neither Sudan nor Egypt want, claiming it in the Heaton name as the Kingdom of North Sudan in order to fulfill a promise to his seven-year-old daughter Emily that he would make her a princess, I'm willing to bet that I'm one of a handful of people in the world that knew where the hell this place was or why on earth it was up for grabs in this way. Why? Because I'd read my way through Alastair Bonnett's fascinating assortment of profiles of this and dozens of other geographic oddities, from a 27 kilometer-long road that separates border posts (leaving the land in between technically neither Guinea nor Senegal, or both...) to the dead city of Agdan in Nagorno Karabakh, to tiny "gutterspaces" (available for sale, but just trying occupying one...) in New York City and the vast floating garbage islands in the Pacific. A few of these places I had heard of, like Sealand -- the attempt to build an independent nation on an abandoned oil rig -- but others, like layers of enclaves, were new to me. (Imagine: an Indian community, inside a Bangladeshi enclave, in an Indian village, inside Bangladesh...)
This book was a source of endless fascination, and left me pondering an equally endless numbers of questions revolving around our relationship to the space we occupy, and to the ways that our sense of identity is bound up with that space. We may believe that we live in an era where geographical exploration is a thing of the past, but that is less true that we might believe, as Bonnett points out. Part of it may simply be a matter of describing what we mean when we use the phrase. Then, too, it turns out that there ARE places on which most of us have never yet set foot, like North Sentinel Island. We don't know what the locals call it, because we've never had any contact with them. Ever. They've killed people who have landed there, and have made it VERY clear they don't want us there. (Their islands are near the Andaman and Nicobar islands.) And we've decided to let 'em be.
There are 47 short segments here, ranging from traffic islands to cities of the living inhabiting vast cemetaries, from pirate communities to invented nations in central Europe. I did sometimes think that it might have been more interesting to have read a work of narrative nonfiction, in which Bonnett presented his thesis and used these as anecdotes, rather than a book that is composed simply of vignettes (it ended up feeling a lot like a coffee table book, only without the pictures), ultimately that didn't spoil my pleasure. And Bonnett does a great job in presenting his thesis about our relationship to place -- and to geography itself -- in both his introduction and conclusion, so I didn't feel short-changed.
On the contrary, this was a delightful book. Some critics have noted you can find this content online. Sure -- if you know what to look for. This is a topic I've been interested in for at least a decade, ever since I attended a seminar on "Imaginary Nations" at the New School in New York, and I've got a graduate degree in international relations, with a strong interest in geopolitics (and hence, border issues). Nonetheless, half of these topics I had never even heard of. And to have them all presented in one place, engagingly written, is a great starting point for anyone whose curiosity is likely to be piqued by the topic. Does it answer all questions? Nope. And my advance review copy, alas, didn't include a bibliography or notes.
This is often quirky and always fascinating, and if it doesn't inspire in a curious-minded reader an interest in even the space around them -- and what may lie beneath the surface or hidden around a corner -- I'd be astonished. It's a reminder that what we see when we travel and what goes unnoticed and unremarked until some apparently eccentric guy like Mr. Heaton intent on making his daughter a princess brings it to our attention, can be fascinating. We may never ever want to visit Bir Tawil -- Bonnett notes that satellite photos show there are no buildings and that even its desert tracks have disappeared. But it's rare that I finish reading a book and feel that I've made as many discoveries along the way, about places like Bir Tawil, as I did in the course of reading this.