A passport is the best and most loaded thing you own

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

I can count my life in passports. The one that sent me to live abroad for the first time and propelled me into adulthood. The one that saw me through my 20s on  routes like MCI-DEN-LAX-TPE-PNH. The one where I'm a grown up tech exec spending more time in airports than at home. That one will expire with my 30s. I'm excited to find out what life the next one fosters. One mistake I won't make though is the one I made in 2005, innocently handing my first passport to the official renewing it, only to learn I'd never see it again. Why do I feel grief still for an object shredded 16 years ago?

If you're a wanderer, your passport is your totem, a symbol and an enabler of your wanderlust. It's every travel influencer's favorite prop. Each stamp holds a story, each blank page a promise. You'd probably save it first in a fire. And with reason: That 32-page notebook is the most beautiful and most loaded thing you own.

Passports are the physical embodiment of privilege – or its absence. If you hold a powerless passport (there are rankings), what for others could be a spontaneous weekend trip, becomes a logistical nightmare. Shirin Samloo hasn't been able to visit her daughter in London in more than a decade. Her Iranian passport just isn't good enough for the Home Office. (Listen to their story on episode 23.) Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaïa's parents also have to jump through hoops to visit from Russia. "They have to give up their fingerprints. In essence you're treating someone as a criminal, which I just find shocking," she told me in episode 20. "It's expensive. It's time-consuming. It's ugly. It's presumptuous..." There is something absurd, when you think about it, about having to justify yourself for something as natural and immemorial as movement.

It wasn't always thus. Globalization started more than a millenium ago, as Valerie Hansen explained in episode 25. Passports and visa as we know them are only a 20th-century invention. The ancestors of those who today rail against unauthorized immigration never sought permission. They showed up at Ellis Island, spoke a name that officers butchered and were let into their new lives.

But when you hold little power in a powerful country, at least your passport gives you a leg up. "If you are a less wealthy, less skilled person in a richer country, the most valuable thing you possess is your passport and your vote," Hassan Damluji told me in this week's episode. "And the idea that we're going to have completely open borders and equal treatment by my government of all people, whether they're a citizen or not, is a great threat to a lot of people." Cue the inequality-fueled xenophobia of today's politics.

Passports declare you belong. The most globalist among us may find that odd and extend that feeling to all of humanity (Steve Taylor explains the psychology of it in episode 28), but the nation-state is the organizing principle of our world and the passport its membership card. What happens when you hold none? A life in limbo, like that of Asad Husein (episode 26.)

When you do hold one, you're assured that somewhere on this planet live people who don't know you but hold you as one of their own. Somewhere on this planet is a piece of land to which you can always return. That was until 2020 at least. Tens of thousands (like stranded Australians in episode 7) have now learned that in a true crisis, that promise is hollow.

I did not intend, when I started writing this, to keep referring back to old Borderline episodes. I just wanted to parse why a passport defiantly held up felt like the right symbol for it. The answer is in all those links. So allow me to introduce Borderline's new visual identity.

The passport shows no specific nationality because we are from everywhere. Red and blue are the most common passport colors and apologies if yours is green. The hand is... mine actually, and vector illustration is a brand new skill I learned just for this. I'm no designer but this will do for the next phase of Borderline's growth, and gets us rid of that pink stock photo that was haunting my dreams. I hope you like it and might even want swag. (Please give me an excuse to make swag...)


Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.