The May 2000 edition of Backpacker magazine included a special section featuring a “laundry list” of the 40 best-recommended spots in the United States National Wilderness Preservation System. The glossy feature was titled – you guessed it – “No-Man’s Land”.
A couple of days ago, while driving home from the train station, my attention was grabbed by two words – a name – broadcast over the car radio courtesy of BBC Radio 5 Live. This wasn’t the name of a person, but of a place that has long interested me, and which, at least in part, inspired me a few years ago to begin thinking about contemporary No Man’s Lands. It is certainly not a name one commonly hears on national radio within the UK, an absence that made its on air occurrence all the more intriguing.
The name in question is Bir Tawil – Arabic for ‘tall well’ – an 800 square mile trapezoid-shaped tract of land wedged in between the southern borders of the Arab Republic of Egypt and the northern border of the Republic of the Sudan.
From its first entrance into the English language, designating a mass burial site for 14th century victims of the Black Death, no-man’s lands exhibit an often violent encounter between bodies and the materiality of the earth. So much so, that a distinction is no longer possible.
In his 1922 essay The Battle as Inner Experience, Ernst Jünger describes how the Fronterlebnis – life on the edges of no-man’s land – dissolves the boundary between body and space, transforming the soldier into an integral part of a frontline ecology: “There, the individual is like a raging storm, the tossing sea and the rearing thunder. He has melted into everything”. Continue reading