New York- A hail of bullets can be hear in the video during an anti-terror police operation in the northern commune of Saint-Denis approximately 12 kilometers from central Paris. Here is a map of the precise location according to Youtube user trystero19.
New York- A couple of photos of mine from the ‘Summer War’ in 2006-era Lebanon are featured in a new documentary film on The Wanton Bishops, a Lebanese blues band that subsequently tours the heartland of the blues in the southern United States.
The film, titled Walk It Home, also explores the Beirut music scene where to be a full time musician is neither easily done nor conceived of as normal is mainstream Lebanese society. Pursuing one’s rock dreams is difficult anywhere under the best of circumstances but to have accomplished such from the Beiruti milieu is a far greater task. I’m happy to have made a small contribution to this film.
New York- A quick street story…
Sometimes late at night, I like to talk to people about where they’re from. If I were an economist, statistician, or think tank wonk I suppose I’d refer to them as ‘economic migrants.’ But in an increasingly borderless world they are simply people, people from other places. About a month ago, a rasta from Ghana hit me and my friend up for something at about 4am. I forget whether it was cash, smokes, or whatever. I ended up giving him a piece of pizza I’d just bought that wasn’t as meatless as my eyes had mistakenly led me to believe. Then as I often tend to do, I began what was essentially an interview about how and why he came to Barcelona.
He had gone from Ghana through southern Burkina Faso, then southern Mali and into Mauritania where he’d gotten stuck in the Atlantic port of Nouadhibou on the border of Western Sahara for a about a year when Moroccan security forces who control the disputed territories coastal border caught him trying to enter. Finally he got into Western Sahara where he reached Laayoune and organized the trip to Gran Canaria, EU territory off the coast. After lots of time in limbo in the Sahel and Sahara regions, he finally reached what her termed “Babylon,” a derisive term for the collective West in rastafarian ideology. Babylon embodies godless decadence and innate corruption. It is the opposite of what a utopian Zion embodies.
From Gran Canaria he received what he termed his “Babylon papers” which allowed him to board a flight to Madrid where he then lived in a Ghanian expat scene for nine years before heading for the seaside hustle that is my beloved city of Barcelona. He told me in Barcelona he wandered around the Gothic quarter late at night working with (ie hustling) tourists.
The conversation then took what for me was a bit of strange turn in the rasta claiming the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie who is hailed as a veritable god-king in what is a staple meme in rastafarian music was in fact a white man. I’d never heard this particular line before but digging around a little, I think he was referring to a somewhat infamous quote where the doomed Emperor told a noted Nigerian nationalist that Ethiopians (meaning Amharas perhaps) were in fact a Hamito-Semitic people akin to the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. Hamito-Semitic certainly isn’t a ‘white’ ethno-linguistic identity but the rasta may have meant that anything not explicitly African is therefore white by default. Where the rasta and I parted ways was when I stated that the twin poles of rastafarian culture were Jamaica/the Afro-Caribbean and Ethiopia and he said that his homeland was of much more importance to it than the previous two place names. I digressed. It was 4am after all.
New York- Reading two very different books in the same day, I came across references to the college where I received my bachelors degree, San Diego State University. When far away from San Diego, like say in Brooklyn, SDSU remains in the long shadow of UCSD across town in gilded La Jolla. It is thought of as mostly a party school or a sports school–both of which are apt.
I’m perfectly happy of having gone there but it’s not exactly a place name of conversation topic in New York or Europe where I spend most of my time these days. When it is seldom referenced in popular culture, it is often in jest as when Bart Simpson says to Lisa, “Lis, you made the school worse than it already was. It wasn’t exactly San Diego State to begin with” in the 2003 episode The President Wore Pearls. (Fun fact: Julie Kavner, who plays the voice of Marge Simpson, graduated from SDSU’s drama program.)
In perusing the endnotes of Scott Shane’s Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone about the life and assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, I wanted to see what Shane had dug up on al-Awlaki’s time in San Diego where he preached at a mosque called Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami that is four blocks from my college apartment. The late Yemeni-American imam-turned-firebrand had enrolled in a masters program called Educational Leadership but it has never been precisely clear whether or not he completed the program with a degree.
Though al-Awlaki has been dead for over four years now, understanding his trajectory to militancy is critical. This is due in part to his posthumous influence via the Youtube hereafter on aspiring salafi-jihadis around the world from Paris to the IS’s illegitimate khilifah in centered on ar-Raqqah.
The fact that Anwar al-Awlaki was questioned for interacting with policewomen posing as hookers on a once notorious stretch of El Cajon Boulevard by the San Diego Police Department doesn’t seem to have tarnished his vaunted image among the self radicalized scanning through his videos online. Al-Awlaki was a philanderer, a deeply flawed man. This may have played a larger role than we realize in his own escalation into militancy upon leaving the US before being killed in a drone attack in al-Jawf Governorate bordering Saudi Arabia’s Najran Region on September 30, 2011. The execution of an American citizen without trial is a constitutional conundrum which simultaneously catapulted al-Awlaki into perpetual online martyrdom which is what he sought in his last years on the run.
Al-Awlaki’s irresponsible, self-destructive straying from his wife and children was dwarfed by his rage upon departing the US and reconnecting with his tribe as well as AQAP in Yemen. As he became angrier over time, he repeatedly portrayed the world in a stark, binary good vs. evil rhetoric not unlike George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, even using the quaint term “evildoers” in one of his video sermons minus the overemphasized Texan drawl.
Shane’s extensive endnote is inconclusive as far as al-Awlaki’s masters pursuit at SDSU is concerned but in being so, it sheds some light on the imperfections of information flow dynamics here in the West. George Washington University has in its online national security archive a slightly redacted document from someone at my alma mater highly recommending al-Awlaki for a doctoral program at…George Washington University.
Just as many things are still not fully understood about the precise timelines of lives of the 9/11 hijackers here in the US fifteen years later, three of whom met with al-Awlaki in San Diego and the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, something as straightforward as whether he graduated from SDSU continues to be a matter of speculation–though several accounts indicate that he never graduated.
As a graduate, that astounds me, or at least befuddles me that this is still not clear. The fact that my beloved SDSU has a faint connection to 9/11 in that al-Awlaki was a student and met the San Diego-based hijackers during that time has always left me unsettled.
Then in reading The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David J. Morris, there are a couple of references to SDSU and even North Park, a neighborhood where I spent a lot of my time. The page pictured at left mentions an Iraq war veteran who is attending SDSU while grappling with PTSD at a Mission Valley clinic that deals with Cognitive Processing Therapy.
Both of these SDSU references are actually part of a unified larger continuum of the pre and post-9/11 era. Al-Awlaki was living in San Diego, the West Coast heart of the military-industrial complex, and met with al-Qaeda suicide attackers ostensibly well before he himself was radicalized. Now there are veterans of the terror wars attending the very same school where one of the world’s preeminent anglophone salafi-jihadi ideologues briefly went before ultimately leaving San Diego for greener pastures in northern Virginia. From there he ultimately joined the global jihad in Yemen, his ancestral homeland.
The pivot point that pairs these two phenomena is the strategically horrendous blunder of invading Iraq. Al-Awlaki had initially been sympathetic to the victims of the 9/11 attacks–at least publicly– particularly in the context that a widespread domestic backlash to mass casualty salafist terrorism on the American homeland would have on the American Muslim community writ large. Nor did he loudly decry the American-led military response against the Afghan Taliban immediately thereafter. From his redoubt in Yemen many years later, al-Awlaki stated, “with the invasion of Iraq and continued US aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the US and being a Muslim” with no mention of the intervention in the Afghan civil war in which al-Qaeda thrived.
The size of the American military footprint in urbanized Iraq with its rather highly concentrated population centers in comparison to that in Afghanistan was vastly greater, thus resulting in a far higher casualty rate on both sides. With San Diego County’s network of military installations including Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Naval Base San Diego and so forth, San Diego would transform into a hub for returning veterans of the terror wars. So my one-time hometown, the city and university where I lived my happiest days, is deeply connected to both the before and after of 9/11 unlike perhaps any other place in the country.
SDSU is not brand name, haughty ivy league institution that connotes automatic success accompanied by lifetime bona fides. It is a large, inexpensive, egalitarian school where you have to make your own way, where there is no guarantee of even graduating between the sun and the party lifestyle that are entwined with enrollment and the natural geography of the campus. SDSU is not Harvard to be sure, and that’s part of what I’m proud of about having been a student there. A unique place where skateboarders, soldiers and a future salafist have all mixed at one time or another. I don’t know any other place like it.
Athens- I’ve just spent the last three weeks in Greece and it felt as if I visited two distinct worlds between the whitewashed and azure Cyclades and the gritty bustle of Athens on the mainland. Greece is enduring simultaneous crises with debt issue with its tug of war with the so-called troika of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission and the refugee-migrant situation located primarily in the Dodecanese island chain and the Macedonian border.
With 19 parties competing for votes in Greek parliament, the election, like to conflation of genuine war refugees (Syrians) with ordinary economic migrants (Bangladeshis) and political asylum seekers (Eritreans), is likely to be a muddled affair. Greece like other Mediterranean states, has a rather extreme political pendulum that swings widely between right and left. The middle ground often seems vacant, at least to an outside observer.
In the docile Cyclades however, the feel of political and economic instability is buffeted by the massive annual influx of summer tourism which now includes a significant number of BRIC nation visitors, many of whom are traveling the Mediterranean world for the first time. Where once stylish Japanese backpackers with shredded jeans and long hair mimicking the original Western travelers of the sexual revolution plodding along solo or in pairs, in their place today are huge Chinese tour groups from the emerging middle class donning flat colored outfits with huge visors and umbrellas to shade their fair skin from the unrelenting sun. The shift of the economic balance in northeast Asia coupled with the Greek isles’ appetite for mass market tourism has ushered in a new era. From the small prism of visiting Greece over two decades I have seen the world change.
Athens has a distinctly different, hyper politicized feel about it than the island chain to the south. The city is plastered with an unending stream of posters from anarchists, traditional communists, and anti-fascists supporting the YPG in northern Syria’s Jazira canton. Graffiti is ubiquitous as is mainstream Greek political bric-a-brac. But one thing united the people making a living from tourism on the islands and Athenians in a maze-like urban grid: a good number of people I spoke with seemed certain Greece was destined be booted out of the eurozone to return to the drachma. Several Greeks told me the inevitable currency reversion was on the horizon and that much of the uncertainty was not about if this would happen but when.
People were slightly less concerned about the refugees and migrants arrive by the thousands because of the meme that they all desired to be in central or northern Europe. of course I didn’t go to Kos, Lesvos, Samos, Rhodos are any of the islands directly affected so the sentiments in the Dodecanese may wary greatly from those in the more isolated Cyclades or cosmopolitan Athens. Whoever I spoke with in the last three weeks in the Hellenic Republic felt that their nation-state was going through a painful, humiliating period of political and economic uncertainty that must end at some point. Resentment is directed everywhere form Angela Merkel and Germany writ large, to eurocrats in Brussels, to corrupt local politicians who failed to protect Greek citizens from becoming so vulnerable to market diktats.
Paros- Sitting in here in a quiet village on a quiet island in the heart of the Cyclades, the drama seems to churn all around. The Dodecanese islands just off the coast of western Turkey and mainland Greece have been in the media spotlight for months with the massive influx of people being smuggled into the EU. It has been labeled the ‘migrant crisis’ though some would argue it should be repackaged as the ‘refugee crisis.’ Public Radio International referred to it as “the story of the summer.” Part of the problem is that the dynamic is largely driven by entirely opportunistic people smuggling networks that have existed here in the Mediterranean long before the summer of 2015 and the Syrian civil war that sparked in March 2011.
In the fall of 2009 on the island of Samos at 6am, I observed a boat of migrants and refugees all mixed together on a overloaded dinghy while I waited fro my ferry to Turkey. They were being pulled in by the Greek Coast Guard and the dock was being monitored by FRONTEX, the EU’s border agency. The frightened boat people were then frog marched through town to a holding center where they hoped to be registered so they could eventually make their way to Athens and on towards northern Europe or the UK in all likelihood. These smuggling networks from the edge of Turkey are in no way a new phenomenon that was an outgrowth of the Arab Spring or anything of the like. They are simply part of a long existing economic underground that has grown enormously this summer.
There seems to be a lot of confusion on what the crisis is about and who the migrants are or what a so-called economic migrant is. A family fleeing the Syrian civil war is not in the same migration category as throngs of young men from Bangladesh who are entering an already deeply ensconced economic migration pattern to be able to wire money home back to, say, Sylhet Division where almost all Bangladeshis in the UK originate from, for example (and much of the community in Queens, NYC). In short there is no war inside Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a deeply corrupt, incredibly impoverished state but it has not produced genuine refugees on a large scale since its liberation war of 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan. Nor is there armed conflict in the State of Eritrea where thousands are claiming to be fleeing mandatory military service to a harsh regime with no end in sight. Miserable to be sure, but the situation inside Eritrea is not comparable to that in Syria.
Pakistan does have bouts of armed conflict along its poorly demarcated western periphery with Afghanistan but that isn’t where the bulk of Pakistani men attempting to get to the EU are coming from. In other words, these men are not Pashto or Baluchi speakers. They most often hail from rural communities not far from the eastern border with India. Though politically tense at times, it is not a war zone by any means.
When I was in transit for a day in piping hot Naples, I happened upon this poignant migrant monument erected by the Fondazione Mediterraneo and the Italian Coast Guard earlier this year. Not far from it, perhaps a few hundred feet, there were South Asian and sub-Saharan African men selling cheap hats and ‘selfie sticks’ to tourists along the city’s waterfront. No one seemed to care where they came from or how they got to Naples, only that they sold things at the right price. But when I turned my camera toward them they uniformly turned their faces, hiding in broad daylight.
The Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Agreement appear to be in tatters. Somewhat like the Euro crisis, the worst case scenarios for EU integration were never fully thought out. This integration was theorized to help prevent a third world war in Europe and domination by any one hegemonic European land power (eh hmm.. Germany). But massive external factors applying great pressure from outside the EU/Schengen Area were not sufficiently gamed out.
Now here we are. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is busy building a massive fence and Germany has just announced it is imposing border checks with Austria. Are we going to go from the United States of Europe back to how things were?
Paros- Four years ago today I finished this decade-long documentary project about what was then called ground Zero in lower Manhattan. When 9/11 took place in my city, I told myself I would follow the story wherever I could for as long as I could. It took me to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Hamburg, the Republic of Georgia, Jordan, Iraq, Bangkok, Malaysia, and countless other locales as the “War on Terror” unfolded. I then kept returning to New York City, my home, for each subsequent anniversary.
Ground Zero is now the site of One World Trade Center, a hub for New York City’s tourism industry. The city has been rebuilt where it was thrashed by the largest suicide attack in history. Ground Zero buzzes with curious visitors posting the requisite photos to social media but the memory lays there, heaving with silent grief underneath flowing water and cool black stone.
9/11 unequivocally changed our world. We are living in a less safe, less just world today in my judgement. Freedoms have been curtailed as the United States has evolved into a low key surveillance state in response. Afghanistan is still in a state of war. Iraq has been broken likely irreparably. Then the ‘Arab Spring’ happened. It resulted not in a well spring of democratic growth as many initially hoped but inadvertently acted as an enabling factor for the spread of cancerous salafi-jihadi ideology to the point of holding territory by the most vile of non-state actors.
9/11 must be remembered with calm dignity, not be opportunistically exploited with jingoism or crass populism. A vigil of the spirit.
New York- I spent a fascinating week down in central South Carolina at Shaw AFB lecturing on the socio-political and religio-cultural dynamics of the Levant. Within the sessions discussing the current state of affairs in the Arab and Kurdish world, it was impossible not to look back on Afghanistan in order to understand where we are today. I don’t have time to do a full on blog post but the talk at USARCENT had me wanting to quickly look at my archives.
I will never forget this time. It was my first experience in a full scale war. That stays with you forever.