An area, call it what you will, of safety

Colleagues at Arab Digest have just published an interesting commentary on “Boundaries in the Arab world and their remarkable durability.” It’s not publicly available, but I do hope they’ll release it as a sample for general readers. The piece, authored by Chatham House’s Greg Shapland, ex of the Foreign Office, alludes to one of those issue-areas that bridges the grounded, practical, concrete world of international law, and the often fuzzy realm of historical understanding, collective identity and memory, and  perception and misperception in international politics. My own research looks closely at the political uses of terminology in framing diplomatic disputes and armed conflicts around international and sub-state boundaries, so Greg’s piece resonates quite closely. I don’t have anything substantive to add to it, except to flag a related New York Times commentary, published in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. Not long after the conclusion of US and Allied combat operations, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater commented on the plight of Kurdish refugees in Iraq, displaced as a direct consequence of the fighting and long-standing patterns of ethnic persecution. The Washington officialese surrounding territorial management of the issue was typical of such efforts. It was sufficiently surreal and vaporous to attract the attention of the late, inimitable William Safire. He had this to say on the official “dancetalk” surrounding “enclavery zones”, in the 21 April 1991 entry of On Language, his widely-read New York Times column:

FIRST OF ALL, IT’S pronounced EN-clave in English, not ON-clave; if you insist on pronouncing the first syllable in the French way, you should go with a French final syllable, CLAHV. I’d stick to ENclave, just as I lick an ENvelope; only when we use whole French words should we adopt ennui ‘s on-WEE or en route ‘s on ROUTE. The word, most often applied in diplomacy in recent years to suggestions for Palestinian Arab areas within the disputed territories of the West Bank, was thrust upon the world by the need to protect Kurdish refugees from the vengeance of Saddam Hussein. The British Prime Minister, John Major, was the first to call for enclaves within Iraq for the fearful Kurds. But the Bush spokesmen resisted the word: “The Administration backed away from the idea of setting up a Kurdish ‘enclave,’ ” wrote Patrick E. Tyler in The New York Times, “that might later be used as a claim to statehood by Iraq’s Kurdish minority.” Promptly, European leaders started talking more fuzzily about protection zone and safety zone. President Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, said, “The problem was that nobody wants a demarcation that says this is a permanent area or new country… We need an area, call it what you will, of safety.” With no official using a term to describe the place, reporters used “informal safe haven” in their stories; “safe haven” was part of the headline in The Times. Although safe haven is redundant, the words have been linked so long as to become an idiom. Subsequently, sanctuary was evoked, as well as buffer zone. Nobody used mandate, applied by John Maynard Keynes in 1919 to territory assigned to the League of Nations, because that would be too “official.” And nobody (except the Kurds, a distinct people with a thousand-year-old culture) would use Kurdistan because that would imply a separate state. What, then, was this area – inside Iraq, on the Turkish and Iranian borders above the 36th parallel – to be called? Not yet decided. For the time being, it’s “the area” or the “safe-haven territory,” the name kept fuzzy because the nations protecting the refugees do not want to clarify (or complicate) matters by giving an area an identity and national life of its own with a name. The synonymy: enclave is moving toward a meaning of “permanent, delimited area” from its origin in the French verb enclaver, “to enclose.” Sanctuary implies inviolability due to sacredness; when applied to a place rather than an idea, it now often pertains to wildlife, not human beings. Asylum is a state of shelter from persecution, but not a particular area. Haven, from the Old English “harbor,” with a connotation of “refuge” dating to 1200, has the advantage of meaning both a place and a status of protection, with a diplomatically useful overlay of impermanence. Refuge is a 14th-century noun from the Latin refugere, “to flee from,” and the 1908 buffer zone comes from buff, “to sound like a soft body when struck.” Zone is an area usually characterized as a band or a strip. Broadest of all: area, leading to “area, call it what you will, of safety.”

Reference: William Safire, “Dancetalk; Enclavery Zone,” New York Times (28 April 1991). URL: