“We wave flags, we burn them, they fly outside parliaments and palaces, homes and showrooms. They represent politics and the power of the mob. Many have hidden histories that inform the present.”Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags, Tim Marshall
The quote above proved to be salient for me. Not only because I’m now at the age where I can find a book about flags enthralling. I’ve always been fascinated by how most people practically worship bits of cloth, and don’t realise how strange this affliction is.
Flags have a sacred, almost religious, significance across much of the world. So much so that in many countries it’s illegal to ‘insult’ the flag, seeing it fly in certain situations will bring tears to the eyes of many, and to die for it would be perceived as the ultimate honour. In my own country – the UK – the nostalgic worship of the British flag played a huge role in a painful and ultimately pointless divorce from the EU in 2016.
The Brexit vote sent me into a tailspin. And it led to a (perhaps) unhealthy obsession with the strange concept of patriotism. Patriotism is the belief – with no sense of irony – that the slice of the world you happened to be born in is conveniently the best bit of the world. For me, nothing embodies this strange phenomenon more than the sacredness with which many view their national flag. In light of this, I decided to set off on a mission to visit the five tallest flags on this planet, to see what lessons (if any) I could learn from them.
The Flagtastic Five
Most people I mentioned this quest to said things like, “Flags are boring,” “Our flag is probably the best, though, so why bother?” or “When are you going to grow up and stop travelling?” “That’s brave” would in retrospect have been more appropriate, given the destinations I needed to visit. And, crucially, would have been a comment that more satisfactorily nourished my narcissistic need to impress others through travelling extensively. So, here they are:
- Saudi Arabia Jeddah 170m (170th)
- Tajikistan Dushanbe 165m (161st)
- Azerbaijan Baku 162m (168th)
- North Korea Kijong-dong 160m (180th)
- Turkmenistan Ashgabat 133m (179th)
The even modestly perceptive among you might have noted that these nations aren’t famous for being much fun. Before I set off, I noticed that there might be an inverse correlation between the goodness of a country and the size of its main flag. Above, the figures next to the height of each flag shows the country’s ranking (out of 180) in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s annual Press Freedom Index for 2020. It’s a useful barometer for how democratic and free a country is. Clearly, what Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, North Korea, and Turkmenistan have (big flags), they lack in things like basic civil liberties. But how did this rather grim assessment match up with my experiences on the ground?
Off To See The Little Rocket Man
Accurately, sadly. My quest began with a “holiday” to North Korea, just a few months after the Brexit vote in 2016. North Korea is a stranger and more dystopian land than we’re led even to believe it is. I struggled to come to terms with the fact that a society like this still exists in the modern world. City streets were regimented, colourless, and stank of oppression (and many stank in the more literal sense as well). I had a day or two ‘exploring’ Pyongyang. This involved being strategically shown all of the Kim family’s greatest monuments and achievements, under at times hilariously zealous supervision from our government-approved minders.
After a couple of days, the tour group and I headed for the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). It was conspicuous for being the most militarised place I’ve ever been. The green and verdant landscapes were gashed with barbed wire, muddy tracks, and military outposts. And of course, the fourth tallest flag in the world, defiantly fluttering in the wind in the distance. Having spent the previous week in Seoul, I doubt the residents of South Korea look longingly over the border.
The ideological fanaticism of the Kim family has condemned its residents to an extremely challenging existence. GDP per capita is 30 times higher in South Korea. And any country that feels the need to use the word ‘democratic’ in its title, usually is not. Algeria, DR Congo, and Laos offer a few more examples. With North Korea ranking as the least free country in the world in the Press Freedom Index – or in pole position dare I say it – I fear that Mr Kim will need to build a much larger flag to cover up the administrative shortcomings of this truly bizarre nation.
Baku To The Future
I returned to the UK, my anxieties about Brexit put into some much-needed perspective. A year later, the quest continued. Three of the world’s tallest flags lay ahead of me, in a jaunt through the Caucasus and Central Asia. Azerbaijan, the self-anointed ‘Land of Fire’ (for some reason), felt relatively free when I arrived. As I jumped in my cab from Baku’s space-age airport, glistening new skyscrapers shimmered in the distance and cranes peppered the horizon. The third tallest flag in the world also flew proudly, sitting in prime position over the city’s beautiful bay.
Azerbaijan is trying to become the Dubai of the Caucasus, spending lavishly on vanity projects to attract attention. Some of it has been successful: the wave-like masterpiece of the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by my favourite architect Zaha Hadid, is the best modern building in the world. The Formula One race is popular (annoyed I’ve already used my pole pun now). But the autocratic government less so. The 2015 ‘European Games’ athletics tournament was conspicuous for not being in Europe, and being boycotted by most major athletes due to human rights concerns. As shiny as it was, I knew the truth that there was a much darker side to this nation than meets the eye.
My Personality Cult Is Better Than Yours
A short flight was all it took to get me to my next destination: Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is the lesser known of the world’s two main personality cults. It’s a stupendously weird nation. The all-powerful Turkmen leader has been in power since 2007. He goes by the name of – and this is his real name – Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. The capital, Ashgabat, is like the mutant love chid of Las Vegas and Pyongyang. As I got driven into town, we rode in on spectacular highways. They were lined with gold-plated street lamps, ornate flower beds, and an impossible number of vast and garish monuments. They mainly highlight the country’s superb leadership.
“He really must be doing quite a fantastic job,” I said sarcastically to a member of our group, cognisant that our government minders were never far out of earshot.
There were almost no people in Ashgabat. Anywhere. Which is a shame, because it meant there was no-one to appreciate some of the excellent monuments in the city. These included the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world, which you can’t see out of. The Ministry of Horses and the Ministry of Carpets, which are both actual government ministries. The Olympic Park, which is conspicuous for being one of the most expensive ever constructed and the only one built when the country seemingly has no plans to host the event. And of course, the fifth tallest flag in the world.
The flag itself was impressive. Turkmenistan’s green flag is a goodie. The ornate red stripe on the left-hand side is a nod to the symbolic importance of carpets to Turkmenistan’s national identity. Unfortunately, this and all the grand monuments clearly did not go far enough. Mr. Berdimuhamedov’s personality cult was narrowly pipped to being the least free country in the world by North Korea.
After a jaunt through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, I arrived in my final Central Asian country: Tajikistan. Given how free and fair these countries seemed compared to Turkmenistan, you could say the countries appear to be taking a steppe in the right direction (I didn’t spell steppe wrong, if you don’t get the pun look it up). The leafy boulevards and streets of Dushanbe felt much more authentic than the garish monuments of Ashgabat. A week-long trip into the stupendous Pamir mountains was a delight. Tajikistan has some of the most enthralling mountain scenery on Earth, and some of the world’s tallest peaks outside the Himalayas.
World’s Third Best Leadership Cult
But don’t be fooled, Tajikistan is upping the ante in the personality cult stakes. Emomali Rahmon ticks many of the leadership cult boxes. There are portraits of him on most buildings. Newspapers are mainly filled with him pictured surveying and pointing at various things, such as factories and sports pitches. Indeed, he personally opened the largest swimming pool in Central Asia during my visit, with his son (the country’s next leader). While I would love to say that this means things are going swimmingly in Tajikistan economically, this is perhaps not the case.
Economically, it lags behind most of the other Central Asian nations. As always, these issues aren’t anything that can’t be glossed over with a little bit of good old patriotism. No electricity? No matter! There are lots of large Tajik flags on the street outside your house. Poor sanitation? Yes, but at least the post office has a big portrait of your president on it. Governing is easier without a free press, even though Tajikistan is the freest (160th position) of the Flagtastic Five.
Tajikistan’s flag – the second tallest in the world – is situated in the middle of the romantically named Flag Pole Park. It towers over the relatively low-rise city of Dushanbe. As in the other four countries I visited on my journey, the flag here again fluttered with a menacing quality. A giant sentinel watching over its citizens, reminding them: “Don’t dare question the omnipotence of this glorious nation.”
The Final Stretch
Last on my list was Saudi Arabia, which I thought it would have been impossible for me to visit for many years. But suddenly, in 2019, Saudi’s reformist leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threw open the gates to tourists. I was on one of the first flights. Jeddah was not what I was expecting. Modern and liberal, and not too dissimilar to large US cities like Los Angeles and Houston, save for a historic and charming old town. I took a stroll – unwise in the heat – to complete my three-year quest, which had taken me across the world and to the strangest nations on Earth.
I couldn’t help but feel emotional. The main emotion being frustration, however. As the flagpole sidled into view, I noticed that it was conspicuously lacking a flag. I was later told that it was being cleaned when I visited.
“The flagpole is as tall as a 50-storey building, so this is amazing in its own right,” I thought to myself. Even with willing cognitive dissonance and my best intellectual acrobatics, I struggled to see the positives. Although I still learnt a lot about Saudi.
While the country is famous for a shaky human rights record, among others, some credit where it’s due. Of the Flagtastic Five, Saudi is the only nation moving in the right direction, albeit from a very low base. The Crown Prince wants Saudi to have 100 million tourists by 2030. Prince Mohammed has already announced several liberalising reforms, and more are sure to follow: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” While democracy is unlikely, Saudi society is at least likely to become fairer and freer in the coming years.
So, what have I learnt? Probably best not to choose your holiday destination based on how insecure a country’s leadership is, for starters. I can also confirm that overt displays of nationalism are a good indicator that a nation is hiding something. And that really is the crux of it. The best societies in the world are rarely the most patriotic. You don’t see any of the Nordics feeling the need to build monuments to their nation’s greatness. Deep down, the leaders of these nations know that they are good places to live. This, more than any jingoistic flag waving, suffices. But in the Flagtastic Five, the leaders’ insecurity is all too clear to see. Mostly, these are economically underdeveloped, repressed nations (bar wealthy Saudi Arabia). Anyone born in these countries did not have luck on their side in the life lottery.
Without a free press and with nationalism force-fed down their throats since birth, there’s a good chance that most citizens in these countries deeply love their nation. Perhaps they wouldn’t even choose to live anywhere else given the choice, such is the success the state can have in brainwashing its own citizens. Karl Marx famously said that “religion is the opiate of the masses”. Nationalism is just as powerful. Autocratic leaders know this as well as anyone. I, for one, don’t doubt that even larger flags will be built all over the world in the coming years, as leaders unwittingly flag their nations’ huge deficiencies to the rest of the world.
*This post first appeared on Freo Gonzo, a great blog about politics and travel. Check it out.