New York- For close to two years now I’ve been putting up ink jet analog prints up around three of New York City’s five boroughs and in my favorite locales in EU Mediterranean states as part of my #fabledcity project about the glory of an antediluvian realm that in our time is the stuff of legend.
I plan to install more along the eastern seaboard in in the American Southwest as soon as I am able. The prints hail from before I purchased my first digital camera in January of 2005. I was way behind the curve in hyper competitive journalism terms. I simply couldn’t compete monetarily. While some journos acquired the first generation of DSLRs en route to northern Afghanistan in 2001, by February or March 2003, the big names/outlets had gone digital. I hadn’t.
When I departed San Diego from Iraq at the time, I faced a stark choice. I could either shoot the aftermath of the invasion or sit on the couch with a low quality DSLR at home. I chose the former. The #fabledcity project is about the arc of my analog photography before and thence after 9/11. Throughout the early years of the so-called ‘war on terror’ I remained enthralled by the allure of ancient sites. The politics of our time were a vehicle for me to experience the majesty of the ancients.
After decompressing in Amman, I quickly made my way down to Aqaba and on to the Sinai and the Nile Valley. Well I sunburned my back so badly snorkeling at the precarious Blue Hole outside Dahab I jumped on an overnight bus to Luxor. It was the essence of Mubarak-era Egypt. Checkpoints, mukharbarat, simmering palpable resentment among the native inhabitants of the Sinai. Upon reaching Luxor I had to run from shadow to shadow in the Great Hypostyle Hall because the sun hitting my t-shirt was unbearable. Finally I reached to Temple of Amun-Re where austere the god-kings stood surveying the stone. The nightmare in Iraq that was just getting underway was well behind me.
Nothing would stop me from seeing this world.
It’s the middle of winter here in NYC and I’m staying busy cleaning out my laptop and here I happened upon another unpublished story from my archives that I later used as the background for an article “Motivations and Methods of India’s United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)” for The Jamestown Foundation down in DC.
Gauhati- I’d come to Assam a few days ahead of India’s Republic day celebrations. Tightly sandwiched between the Kingdom of Bhutan and Bangladesh, Assam is the bottle necked gateway to the “Seven Sisters,” the seven states that used to make up the Northeast Frontier Province during the British colonial era. Deep in the shadows of the Iraq dominated headlines, an under rported insurgency raged there. Delhi is rapidly beefing up its troop presence in the region in a quest to smash “the terrorists” as they are referred to in the Indian media. The terrorists in this case are ULFA , a Maoist inspired group fighting a people’s war against the Indian state and the Hindi speaking migrant labourers and economic migrants from Bangladesh.
During 2007, ULFA was being blamed for the killings of dozens of migrants in a bid to send them packing back from whence they came. Along with some of the other ethno-linguistic based communist outfits here, they have also been employing Iraq-esque IEDs to discourage Indian units from patrolling villages considered ULFA strongholds in Upper Assam. The crisis has taken a steep escalation since the start of the New Year with a combination of executions and randomly placed explosives in busy marketplaces. The central government in Delhi, which locally is simply referred to as “The Centre” has responded by ramping up a counterinsurgency campaign in the rural areas backed up by truckloads of paramilitary forces brought into the Northeast from all over India.
All of this certainly does not bode well for the over hyped “Rise of India” too often touted by Anglo-American intelligentsia in the 2000s. For the Centre, ULFA is just one of the issues to tackle. There are literally dozens of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist insurgencies not only in the troubled Northeast, but also in West Bengal, Jharkand, Orissa, Bihar and so on. In a recent attack in the newly created Jharkand state, an obscure revolutionary group managed to kill 14 Indian policeman with an IED buried in the road reminiscent more of Ramadi or Nuristan than the buzzing call centers of Bangalore that were so in vogue at the time.
2007 was the 60th year of India’s independence from the British Crown, Indian elites seems to have two primary goals: to promote foreign and domestic investment, particularly in the economic services sector, and to demonstrate it’s robustness as a state. The latter would be the reasoning behind India’s refusal of direct government-to-government aid after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that smashed the coastline of Tamil Nadu.
In Assam, Indian authorities put on a show of strength far from the eyes of any media observers, international or local. The national press here puts far more emphasis on the latest cricket crisis or the Bollywood scandal de jour than it does for the casualties taken by its own troops fighting homegrown leftist militants in the bush. The total lack of media there was almost bizarre as if there was a veritable information blackout. But then India is a vast country with a multitude of issues occurring with vexing simultaneity. The Assamese conflict garnered a short fit of attention when the country’s then bespectacled Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh trekked out to Assam for a photo op with families of the dead migrants.
Walking around Gauhati at night was desolate. All the shops were shuttered and only the odd food stall remains open. Many of the migrants had fled back to their villages and cities in the state of Bihar. I went searching, foolishly I suppose, for an internet café that would still be open to post this story at the time. I met a local man named Amitsabh who told me there would be nothing open except for a darkened pub where he and his friends where taking some Fosters and cheap whiskey. He invited me to join them when I told him I was looking for a decent place for dinner.
Inside the pub was black as the night sky with a constellation of dimly lit Beatles posters for minimal décor. I plunked down in a booth with a group of Amitabhs friends for food, drink, and to get their take on the conflict here. The troubles here, they said, stemmed from land rights and linguistic chauvinism, but were primarily based on the fundamental economic inequalities of the state and the curse of oil. Many of the Assamese, they told me, resented the Centre’s exploitation of their resources while the local population saw virtually nothing in return. To then invite outsiders to work and benefit from this exploitation is to add insult to injury. After over three post-independence decades of this cycle, some in the Assamese community were angry enough to take up an armed struggle against the Centre beginning in 1979.
I wanted to get more into their impressions of ULFAs motivations and more of the actual specifics of the fighting. “These are sensitive topics” one them warned me. “As they say, in a place like Assam, the walls have ears.”
“Let us go out of here”. We paid our tab and got into a Suzuki the size of a suitcase, whizzing around the empty streets with the stereo blasting Punjabi Bhangra Beat music. “We need to be careful of police checkpoints” one said to the driver. “What do I care, I am not militant. I have nothing to hide!” And we sped off into the night.
This is a rambling story I began nearly seven years ago on one of the most singularly interesting days of travel I’ve ever experienced. I just now stumbled upon it and felt like putting it up.
Kabul/Dubai/Sharjah-At exactly 9am I arrive at Lt. General Hadi Khalid’s gated, sunlit home on one of central Kabul’s ubiquitous dust and rock backstreets. I’d been put in touch with Lt. Gen. Abdul Khalid by an Afghan friend I’d met during the initial post-9/11 war in the fall of 2001. That friend, Idrees, who now lives in Santa Monica where he works quietly on his PhD, was back in his homeland to visit family and gather material for his thesis. Idrees was a kind of stateless, post-modern intellectual who easily navigated between the corridors of American power and the strictures of his central Asian Islamic culture by which he was bound. He had arranged for me to interview the General for a Washington think tank that I was freelancing for as one of a string of clients I was trying to please under duress during a recent month-long stay in the Afghan capital.
Hadi Khalid had a falling out with President Hamid Karzai the previous summer and was now at loose ends, eager to talk and concerned about his personal security. A sinewy, refined Pashtun from Farah Province, Khalid welcomed me into his home with the best efforts of Afghanistan’s generous social code. We got on like two old friends as we tore into the minutiae of Afghanistan’s political and security relationships concerning the six nation-states that the country borders. Wanting to tackle the most difficult issue first in terms of obscurity, I launched into a line of questioning about the particulars of the Afghan-China border in the extreme northeast and we wound our way counter clockwise around the heart of Asia until we reached nearby Pakistan a short three hours later.
Near the end our time together, we were talking about a pilot programme of anti-insurgent local militias that was being tested in Maidan Wardak Province just west of Kabul. I’d heard from a visiting Indian reporter at my hotel that Obama’s top man in Kabul, the no nonsense General Stanley McChrystal had visited the area to have a look at this attempt at the Afghanization of “Obama’s Viet Nam.” I politely asked my very warm host if he could recall the name of the militia for my notes.
The name in English slipped his mind and he picked up a small, worn Nokia phone and quickly rung a friend of his that was still in government. I watching his face sink as the pace of his Dari accelerated and I picked out a few words here and there. The colleague he phoned to ask about something that was now utterly unimportant was telling him that two mutual friends of theirs had just been killed in an act of suicide terrorism in Laghman Province. It was not news yet, it was breaking reality. Khalid’s eyes winced and he shifted in his plush chair as a white hot sunbeam moved across the floor.
“At first we used to cry when our friends died. After thirty years of war, I cannot cry anymore. I have lost hundreds…thousands of friends.”
“I’m terribly, terribly sorry.” I did not know what else to say. This genteel, intelligent man invited me into his home to talk politics. Politics in the abstract. Politics in Afghanistan were often, most often, conducted at the point of a gun.
“These men were very good friends of mine.”
I felt at once awkward and sad. Afghanistan was tragic culture of neglect and stalled progress that I had developed an emotional attachment to over the years. Abused at whim by its neighbors and used as a hardware parking lot for the power projection of military technology innovators since the Great Game, Afghanistan seemed hopeless in the long term and dangerous in the short. But I grew to love the place nonetheless. It was time to leave.
As a foreign reporter in a war zone, there are psychological Berlin Walls that one builds between self and subject to remain above the fray and justify his presence in a place where in actuality he has no verifiable business and whose justifications are slim on the best of days. Khalid insisted his driver drop me back at the hotel for me to make it in time for checkout at noon. I had a flight to Dubai in six hours and still had errands to run. I told myself that what had just happened to the General’s friends out in Laghman must somehow be normal in context of a decades long, unrelenting jihad with constantly morphing internal and external stressors and that I should not question such things in order to make it out of the country by day’s end.
I had a ticket for the last flight of the day on a small Afghan airline called Pamir Airways (defunct since 2011). The Pakistani travel agent who sold me the document said, when asked, that the airline was essentially a glorified money laundering operation owned by Kabul Bank.
“Sure. Kabul Bank has one of the only working ATMs in the city, I use it all the time.”
I then asked specifically who owned Kabul Bank. The affable travel agent chirped that a man named Sherkhan [Farnood] whom he described as “Only the biggest drugs dealer in Central Asia.” (Farnood would be jailed in 2014.)
“Oh OK” I replied. Again, normal and justifiable in the context of Afghanistan. Who was I to object to flying on a drugs trafficker’s for-profit airline? I mean, hey, we all need it to get to Dubai. Everyone in Afghanistan is complicit in everything in one way or another. Just by being in the country, you are often supporting businesses run by criminal networks.
After a normal hour’s delay on the tarmac and a short 2 ½ hour flight across the Persian Gulf, I landed back in what passed for civilization. Walking into the immigration queue in the infamous Terminal 2, I spotted several families from Somalia. I had looked at the wikipedia entry for Terminal 2 and remembered that an airline operated flights to the horn of Africa’s perennial basket case. I approach an unusually friendly Emirati immigration officer in his ironed, white dishdasha.
I handed him my passport.
“How long will you be in the UAE?”
“Oh just one day, inshallah. Wow, so you do have flights to Somalia from here. I’d read that you did. I see a lot of Somalis in line.”
He smiles back; “I think those people are from Nigeria. I don’t know anything about flights to Somalia.” Pound, he stamps a page in my passport with little room left.
“Uh no, they are definitely Somali. Don’t you see the women’s distinctive hijab?”
I walk away from the desk and look up at a flat panel monitor. Basra, Baghdad International, Hargeisa, Kish island, Djbouti, Kabul, Berbera, Khartoum, Peshawar and on. Terminal 2, the gate to hell. Jubba Airlines, Jupiter airways, Air Blue.
As I walk over to the baggage carousel, a panoply of people from failing states, outright failed states and nervous economic migrants wait for their twined and taped luggage. Sri Lankan Tamils, Swati Pashtuns, Uzbek elders in embroidered Turkic prayer caps and Terai Nepalis all stand around anxiously. The only other Westerners in the hall look to be mercenaries, often called “Security Contractors” or “PMC’s” (“Private Military Companies”) in the new perverse lexicon of militarized journalism. I see two young men who appear to be Somali with angular cheekbones and gaunt posture. Waiting for my bag, I sit next to them on a bench and interrupt.
“I beg your pardon. Are you guys from either Somalia [proper] or Somaliland?”
“Somaliland” the one with wire rim glasses says with a London accent.
“I see there are flights to your country up on the departures board. May I ask, how does one actually go there? I mean Somaliland is not an internationally recognized state but I see you have an airline. Where do you buy tickets?”
“You can go to any airline office here in Dubai that specializes in tickets to East Africa. A round trip costs maybe $270 US.”
My imagination is set alight. “When I show up at the airport what takes place? Is there a visa for a place doesn’t exist in the eyes of the world?”
“I think you have to pay $20 for a visa when you arrive and then you must change another $50 into shillings.”
“Are they ‘Somaliland’ Shillings as opposed to Somali Shillings they use down in Mogadishu? Do you have a separate currency for a separatist state?”
The two affable young men laugh. “You seem to know a lot about our country” the one in the brand new Asics hi tops says to me.
“Oh well, you know where I’m from, San Diego, is a major refugee resettlement area in America and we have quite a number of your people living there since Black Hawk Down. Plus I like to read a lot.”
Before I could ask their names, they jumped up upon seeing their luggage. “It was nice speaking with you sir but we must be going, you know, with how things are here.” And with that they disappeared into the anxious crowd.
I jumped into the taxi of an angry, exhausted Malayali man in the sweltering blast of stagnant heat that hits you as you exit air condition world. It seemed the majority of the UAE’s taxi men were Malayalis, that is Malayalam-speakers from coastal Kerala state on India’s far southwestern coast. The Malayalis were required to drive in 12 hour shifts, 6 or 7 days a week without a break. Many of them told me they could be fined simply for the infraction of stopping to relieve themselves. These men are disconnected from the young families they leave behind in their villages and live in constant fear of their Arab overlords, who were often migrant traffic police with the power to issue steep fines from Egypt and Jordan but as native Arabic speakers, they thus remained at a higher echelon in the UAE’s rigid ethnic migratory hierarchy.
Sitting in the dim dining area of what I thought was a completely empty hostel, a sullen looking man in a white dishdasha shuffles in with a small laptop and seats himself at the next table. I asked him if he wanted me to turn down the Simpsons DVD on my MacBook Pro so that he could watch an Arabic telenovela.
“No, no, I am fine” he said as he cranked up the volume on the TV overpowering my small speakers.
I gave up and shut my DVD application down and began a conversation. His name was Majid Hizam Rabie Alshamari and he was an Iraqi national who escaped Basra in 1997 to look for a better life anywhere but Clinton sanctioned Iraq. Educated as a chemical engineer during Iraq’s drawn out secular Ba’athist nightmare of the late Cold War epoch, Majid got a working in the United Arab Emirates Environmental Agency. He travels the length of the UAE’s desert border with Saudi Arabia checking in bound vehicles for hazardous and prohibited chemicals. It’s a dull position but Majid performs his task dutifully. But Majid was not fulfilled in any way. He begins tell me that in 2006, his family received a night letter from one of the Iranian-backed roving Shia street militias controlling most of majority Shi’ite Basra. The letter, issued at the height of the salafist -induced intra Islamic civil war in Iraq, stated in no uncertain terms, that as Sunnis, they were no longer welcome in Basra and they were gifted with the choice of flight or death.
The Alshamari’s were able to make it to Yemen and gain political asylum in Sana’a. Majid’s wife had divorced him some time ago and they had no children. The only thing keeping Majid in the UAE was his steady income and dynastic political stability. He wanted his family, he needed them but he told me he could not get a visa to be reunited with them in Yemen. He stayed in the few youth hostels that dotted the Emirates when his job required him to travel along the seven emirates’s customs posts.
When I half-heartedly suggested perhaps Basra was stable enough to make a grand return, Majid scoffed at the idea.
“There is nothing there for me or my family to go back to. No house, nothing. I want to go to Yemen and I want to then go to another country. I want to go to Canada.”
“Can I play something for you on my iTunes” I asked.
I swiveled around an opened up my laptop and scrolled down for some recordings I’d made over six years before that I dreamed of having translated. In May of 2003, I was running low on money in instantly exorbitant Baghdad. I saw a sign in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel that if I could make it to Najaf there was free accommodation for foreign journalists who wish to cover the Imad ul-Nabi (celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed) undoubtedly underwritten by an Iranian-backed Shia party. I’d made crude recordings that I’d later digitized but had never had interpreted. I played them for Majid thinking, naively, that he would be surprised to hear something from his country on a random Westerner’s computer. He had a pained look about him. The thumps and slaps of a million plus Shia men pulsating through Najaf’s tiny lanes reverberated through the Sharjah Youth Hostel’s common area.
I understand a modicum of Arabic but was curious about one track I’d recorded in particular. I turned up the volume.
“They are saying “Haider, Haider, Haider” Majid piped up.
Haider was another holy nom of Imam Ali around whose shrine the men were marching toward. Imam Ali was the spiritual fountainhead of Shi’ism. Shia derives from Shiat’Ali or partisans of (Imam) Ali, the fourth caliph in orthodox Sunni Islam and the first Caliph in Shia Islam. The veneration of Ali ibn abu Talib and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein was the birth of Islam’s great schism over the succession of the caliphate in Islam’s volatile formative years.
The next afternoon before I headed out on a frivolous post-war zone party trip to the Greek Islands via a $100 flight from Sharjah to Athens, I waited in the hostel for Majid to come back from work. He gave me a sizable set of documents from his vast family in Sana’a. There were thirteen people in all. There faces gazed from a set of long expired asylum letters from the UNHCR’s head office in Yemen. In the middle was a photocopy of his recently deceased father’s passport. Majid looked on helplessly as he recounted how his father in another part of the world from the Alshamari’s ancestral home and that he could not even be there in Sana’a for his burial. The next document was what I guessed to be his Yemeni death certificate.
Over the course of 24 hours I’d engaged men from the globe’s then three most talked about war zones. This was a post-bipolar world incarnate.
New York- After what media attention was paid to the disgusting al-Mourabitoun attack on the Cappuccino Café and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a story seeped out that I found disturbingly relatable. Among those killed was a vivacious Franco-Morrocan portrait photographer called Leila Alaoui. She had been in Burkina on assignment for Amnesty International and had been a patron at the cafe that morning when more young salafi-jihadi men launched another attack in West Africa where French and local forces have a large anti-terror operation underway (more on that later). Ms. Alaoui, who once lived here in New York, perished of her wounds well after interest in terrorism in an utterly obscure African country had piqued.
I had never heard of her or her work but when I saw it I was immediately moved by its depth and genuineness. Rich, finely toned portraits of ordinary Moroccans jump to life from 72 dots-per-inch. To make something interesting about a place so trammeled by mass tourism is an accomplishment in and of itself. I’ve often been motivated by trying to break through bureaucratized geographical borders and cumbersome cultural boundaries to obtain images others either cannot or have not. Ms. Alaoui turned her lens on a very accessible land yet on a people wary of intruding photographers with unclear intentions. Her work is sumptuous and inspiring to me. It stands alone in its beauty.
Many questions have been asked about the Ouagadougou siege such as the possible context of a global ideological competition between al-Qaeda, in this case AQIM and al-Mourabitoun, and IS or whether such an incident would have occurred at all if former President Blaise Compaoré had still been in power. Compaoré had links to terror organizations in that he inserted himself as an interlocutor in the conflict in northern Mali to put it succinctly. Ouagadougou had welcomed leaders of Ansar Eddine at one point during futile negotiations back in 2012.
But for myself, I must ask another question, one that has been bothering me for years. What happens when an incredible writer, photographer or analyst is cut down in the midst of their prime? It reminded me of when Alexandros Petersen, the then young author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West–an ode to Sir Halford MacKinder– was killed in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul two years ago, a restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan I recall having a great night at with fellow journos during the heated 2009 presidential election. The work of victims like Alaoui and Peterson lives on of course, but they do not. I find this a difficult reality.
These images push me, they make me want to rush to B&H before departing to Burkina in defiance. Posted here without permission, posted with admiration.
New York- One of my first notions of this still new year is that the heyday of the ‘Arab Spring’ was firmly five years ago. The uprisings and revolutions of 2011 were either usurped, crushed, or soundly defeated, It is oft said that Tunisia is the Arab Spring’s singular success story due to its firm state structures (and perhaps proximity to the southern shores of the EU). But keep in mind that Tunisia produces the most mujahireen (emigrant jihadi fighters) per capita. The wunderkinds of the Benghazi media centre are now considered ‘veteran’ journalists, the ones that are still in the game anyhow. Libya is mostly a no go zone for journos like myself and an IS tentacle controls Qadaffi’s last bastion of Sirte. 2011 transformed France from the 2003 “freedom fries” Chirac era to one of the most proactive Western state actors in military interventionism today. Times have changed and not necessarily for the better.
2016 is looking rather bleak in terms of global counter radicalisation efforts and containing war fighting in the second, third and fourth world realms. Further discord has been seeping into Central and West Africa for years now and North Africa is still reeling from this chaos. Calling Iraq and properly functioning state today is absurd. The rump state headquartered in Baghdad will be lucky to maintain the territory is currently administers intact.
Despite analysts stating that IS gains are receding and the group is lashing out in the West as some form of asymmetrical offensive measure signaling that its territorial position is weakening, the so-called Kurdish question not only has not abated but has been greatly exacerbated. Though IS has greatly threatened the Kurds obviously, leaders from Suleimaniyyah to Afrin have used the conflict to firm their grip on land. The arc of Kurdish control south of Turkey and west of Iran has expanded and deepened. Meanwhile The conflict within Turkey itself has reignited and worsened. IS is now operational as far north and west as Istanbul within the Turkish republic and Ankara not only has no feasible strategy to defeat it but its obsession with Kurdish ethno-nationalism enables such expansion.
The West’s strategy to defeat IS is made up mostly of air strikes and press briefings. There is no cohesive strategy amongst the P3 (US, UK, France) and this is to the salafi-jihadis advantage. Russian scorched earth style warfare will accomplish nothing other than to smash cinder blocks and the vulnerable human beings trapped underneath them. Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus have been an abject failure. Anyone who knows the bleak history of the Russo-Chechen wars can’t be hopeful about Moscow’s efforts in a hyper fractious Syria.
Chinese naval encroachment in the South and East China Seas is not going away. The Philippine authorities are busy asking the united States Navy to return in a robust partnership to curb the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Spratlys. The Chinese Navy and/or Coast Guard is also making incursions into the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets which a theoretically pacifist Tokyo cannot stand. As all eyes remain on the fire and drama of a misunderstood Middle East, East Asia has a depth of inherent geopolitical conflict that is being largely overlooked by the rest of the global public.
Then there is Ukraine. From the Maidan to rebellion enmeshed with covert action to unabashed war, the fight in the Donbas continues on. Despite talks between leaders at the executive level, the Minsk Agreement seems worthless. Though the embattled President Poroshenko vows to restore sovereignty over the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” just how he would accomplish this seems far from clear to me. Some are predicting the war in Ukraine may come to some sort of conclusion in 2016 but the best case scenario is more likely to be its devolution from a hot conflict to a frozen one.
When one looks at the Moscow-supported fracturing of the Georgian state which has gone on for years now, Ukraine looks bleak if peered in through the Georgian prism. Of course the war for the Donbas is vastly different–no two conflicts are truly analogous–Russian intransigence is part of state policy since the end of the Yeltsin period. Donetsk and Luhansk are not Abkhazia and South Ossetia but there are some rough similarities even in the semantics of the areas being referred to as “rebel republics.”Sure, the Putin regime attends negotiations, but what do they really accomplish? In the Caucasus as a whole, all they have done is establish a status quo with a bureaucratic creep backed up by the FSB’s own internal agendas.
And people wonder why I look at cheerful imagery of the beaches of Oceania as a fleeting escape…
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.