A Story about Kicking Painkillers in the Center of Africa

21 May

This article originally appeared in Anomaly Literary Journal, issue 4.

There are exactly two ATMs and no more than half a dozen banks in the Central African Republic and every single one of them is headquartered in the capital, Bangui. For the dozens of humanitarian organizations working in remote outposts across this deindustrialized sweep of land, what this means is that paying staff salaries and bankrolling our good deeds necessitates running money. Clutching suitcases behind tinted windows, everyone does it, so when I’m asked to fill the false bottom of a duffel bag with cash, I say yes.

I roll through the asphalt corridor of the Marché des Combatants. It’s the last stretch of road before the airport and perhaps the most dangerous, because the market hems both sides of the thoroughfare, spills into it, and chokes the traffic of slow rolling SUVs. Smaller roads run perpendicular from the main drag in perfect right angles, facilitating the potential, and all too common, hit-and-runs. I make paranoid calculations during a usual passage through the Marché and they’re magnified when transporting the equivalent of 25,000 dollars, tucked between my knees. Rubber-banded in fifteen bundles of one million francs, the cash takes up half a duffel bag. It’s as large as a year old baby and cries just as loud.

I regret carrying the money as I enter the airport foyer. I’m sweating. Not only because it’s hot and I’m nervous, but also because I’ve developed an addiction to generic over-the-counter painkillers in the past week. I know I’ve become addicted because, as I make a note on my phone about opiates while in the check-in line, spell check corrects the word “opiates.” I find it striking. My phone doesn’t correct the word “paranoiac”, or the spelling of the country’s infamous dictator in the 70’s, “Bokassa”, or the adjective “Orwellian”. I can’t swipe-write the sentence, “Mother should I trust the Central African Government?,” but the suggested spelling of the word “opiates” appears, because in the past week I’ve been trying to define the experience of painkillers, often on my phone with numbed fingers, to the point where the device finishes my sentences.

If only I had downed a handful of pills this morning, I think, I could’ve coasted through the absurdity of moving enough money to skip the country. My thoughts would’ve lollygagged behind the present moment—that’s exactly why opiates kill pain, they relieve the user of the discomfort of being. I imagine myself, instead of boarding a domestic flight, booking international, and waving farewell to the equator and the sixty hour work weeks that drove me to addiction in the first place.

Leaving the capital, I go cold turkey, as usual. Not because I’m bound together with limitless reserves of willpower, rather, with the millions in my bag, I don’t want to be stopped for carrying cash and then be discovered with the drugs, or vice versa. I leave seven days’ worth of pills in my medicine cabinet and perspire yesterday’s chemicals in an uneasy sweat while I flash my passport to the lady at check-in.

Clenching my jaws in an ambassadorial smile, my logic is this: the money will appear under the X-rays, I’ll be accompanied to a back room and interrogated, then, showing customs a document, written on company letterhead and signed by my director, I’ll declare that I’m moving funds for a humanitarian organization in the southeast. I’ll be freed. Since everybody knows somebody in this country, because it’s thinly populated and the social structures are not yet atomized, the customs agent will dial a brother or an uncle, anyone with a gun in the town where I’m landing. He will murmur over the phone the amount of money in a black duffel bag and which organization’s insignia to look for on the white four-wheel-drive leaving the landing strip. In line for the metal detector, I scribble in pencil on my ticket, “A story about being robbed in the center of Africa.”

The X-ray gives up nothing and I shuffle into the single gate of the Bangui M’poko International Airport. I erase the note about being robbed and write, “A story about kicking painkillers in the center of Africa”.

In the corner of the airport gate sits a bar where two UN Peacekeepers from Morocco posture over a couple of croissants. I saddle a barstool, place the bag between my feet, then call for the bartender. She’s wearing thick makeup that would send any drag queen into fits of jealousy. A staple of the airport, she calls everyone “Chéri”, and pours rounds of instant coffee for the diverse mix of clientele—soldiers, humanitarians, and business men. It’s a masculine space and she mothers the lot of us as she dabs up spills here and there. She imbues the corner of the airport—her corner—with a mood of insouciance, but it’s only her nonchalance towards the affairs of the world outside. I keep my boot on the duffel bag and wash down a stale croissant with gut-rot coffee, trying to stay alert because it’s eight a.m. and because of the opiates, last night I slept like a somnambulist. I add to the tip jar and board the twenty seat aircraft and the patchwork of emerald and lime colored forests blur together as we gain altitude.

Flying over the stretch of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that separates Bangui from Bangassou in the east, with the rubber-banded millions in the overhead compartment, my paranoia is exacerbated. I’m no longer sweating, I’m shivering, but not all too much. I’m exaggerating. The feeling is of being paper thin.

Remembering I’m flying into LRA territory, I consider the Lord’s Resistance Army. Scratching myself as a side effect of the pills, I speculate if their leader, Joseph Kony, isn’t only schizophrenic, but because Sub-Saharan African society understands mental illness in manners that make anthropologists publish theses, his followers figure him illuminated, as he takes children for soldiers and rapes minors. After all, in the Central African Republic, senile women are often accused of witchcraft. It takes a thesis to understand why they’re then buried alive, if ever one ever does.

In a bout of turbulence over the forest canopy and the laterite roads, I think of the Seleka, the alliance of Muslim rebel groups that took over the country, and the town I’m flying toward, following a coup d’état in the spring of 2013. Again, I’m embellishing. The place is safe, but with the money in the overhead and the drugs leaving my system and the turbulence, I get carried away. Imaginative, you could say.

I’m flying with a coworker in Human Resources, but he’s doesn’t know about the money. It’s on a need-to-know-basis. The filtering of information goes both ways, at least for a while, because he eventually informs me he’s traveling meet the Labor Inspector to ensure the collective firing of our staff is in line with national labor laws. The organization is laying off locals and closing the base due to, among other things, wide-scale corruption. The first staff let go a month prior made death threats to those that weren’t, the reason why I ask my coworker to hold-off until I leave Bangassou before he drops the letter, sanctioned by the Labor Inspector, stating that some dozen employees will be fired.

The propellered aircraft touches down on the packed dirt runway and I am, what is referred to as, in the field. The harsh light hits my pupils as I step onto the fold-out stairs.

After the plane touched down on the packed dirt runway, I moved toward the vehicle waiting for me, looking over my shoulder for figments of my imagination. In the rearview mirror, no car tails us from the airport, all the way to the office, where the bougainvillea grows though razor wire on the wall of the compound. A group crowds the shade under an acacia and I assume it’s their payday. Greeting me with knowing gestures, they thank me in advance. I am carrying their salaries. Inside, behind a locked door, I sign a document that testifies to the handover of 25 grand, then flip-flop through the town with a local project manager. The circular saw of the sun cuts through a knot of clouds overhead.

“The LRA are not that active,” he says, “but there’s a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of town. They come from ninety miles north where incursions actually happen.”

Jacques wipes his forehead of sweat with a handkerchief.

“The Seleka seized power following the coup d’état but they were chased from their homes and government buildings in the counter coup more than a year ago.” His gestures are out of sync with his words, and he points to the river instead of buildings.

“A Moroccan branch of the UN Peacekeepers is stationed in here, and makes occasional patrols.”

We circle the town center, occasionally mumbling “hello” to passers-by, then Jacques says he must leave. He pads his apology with a description of a training he has to organize.

Bangassou smells of abandoned houses—mold on cement and ash—because that is what it is. The government offices are also deserted and grown through by vines. It looks as if the place was crucified by the last decade—the metabolism of equatorial flora, which is only the metabolism of nature in overdrive, is determined to choke every inch of human endeavor in thorns.

The locals pedal rusty bikes and pigs tack hurriedly on toothpick legs across the gravel road, as do the polio survivors. Women carry everything on their head. It’s an image of Sub-Saharan Africa so universal that it’s generic and therefore mundane—as if it’s only Tuesday and not the mutinous country I imagine it to be.

In the field, I live in a house, although it might be considered a tent because it’s closer to camping. How I place my toothbrush on the lavatory is the difference between clean teeth and dysentery and boiling the water saves me from typhoid. There’s an intentionality to the most banal of activities. As there’s been no electricity since the state was sacked two years ago, the rumble of the generator lays down muzak. Inversely, in the morning, before the generator’s started, I wait for a passing motorcycle so the entire house won’t hear me in the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, spell check corrects the word “diarrhea.”

Then there’s the food. For the past two days, I’ve gone out in the early morning to scour for a baguette or any flour based product to zero success. I don’t particularly care for eating—I despise the restaurant industry and am not interested in microbrews or superfoods. One of the greatest—albeit most selfish—aspects about residing in destroyed countries is that these are the last holdouts against the Western World, which, in culinary terms, can be summarized as an ever-changing array of condiments. I’ve never cared about flavor because I have no taste.

Yet here I am, the equivalent of two hundred dollars in my pocket I can’t spend, cursing under my breath, as I trudge through the southeast of the Central African Republic, begging locals for any pre-packaged food product. The bush meat in the market is swarming with flies. There are plenty of plantains, but I’ve eaten plantains every day for months. I find cassava, but cassava tastes like wallpaper and I’m not as adaptive as I thought.

It’s half past eight in the morning, which is already two hours after sunrise and in a town with no electricity, it might as well be midday.

“Le pain est déjà fini.”

“The bread is already finished,” a woman says. She looks left and right but nothing is moving, coming or going, except a herd of goats. I ask to be pointed in the direction of breakfast and she, and the next people I ask, look at me like I’m senseless. The question doesn’t register. Two young men string me along to the adjacent boutique—sachets of instant coffee, powdered milk, soap, but no breakfast. In the shop there’s upbeat music playing and it occurs to me that people in Sub-Saharan Africa rarely listen to gloomy music. It must be an evolutionary thing, I think, like how they burn less in the sun. Then I wonder why wigs are so popular in Africa, and then if there’s a pharmacy in town.

“You need any help?” the shopkeeper asks.

“No, thanks,” I say. I exit the shop.

Pairs of eyes follow me in my wanderings. One of a handful of white people in town, I’m practically a freak show on two legs. I pass teens selling watered down gasoline then corner a street vendor who hawks Chinese imports, and although I never wear sunglasses, I buy a pair of knock-off aviators. They afford me some cover.

A second shopkeeper shakes his head at my request for “Laughing Cow”, a processed cheese that keeps at any temperature and can be purchased in the remotest zones of equatorial Africa. Or so I thought. I continue, hungry, to my room, where, lit only by a slender window, I eat sardines out of a tin.

Then, on the second day of canvassing the town for any food product other than staple crops or bush meat, I score. A Lebanese merchant, in town since the nineteen nineties, owns a grimy shop stocked with luxury goods, like canned tuna and spaghetti. Just as I’m rummaging through his stock, praising the invisible hand of the market, he says:

“Look.”

But I’m in the corner of the shop, kneeling down to inspect the imports, having an epiphany: existence, in these latitudes, is decanted to its essence. The population—the majority who hold no more than an elementary level education—inch through short lives, their country in free fall. Here, near the equator, everything grows and yet human life is a miracle. Yet people live here. They eat here, not much, but enough. They fuck here and have kids here and those kids grow up and fuck, often too early, but what the hell, and then the metabolism of nature burps them all out. It makes me wish I were religious, like the remainder of the country, to give some sense to the narrative.

“Look,” says the Lebanese merchant, moving toward me. He blows dust off a military ration and pushes a camouflage box toward me. It has the word “halal” written across it, a Moroccan military ration! I waltz home, arms full with four of them. The eyes following me are no longer a nuisance. In my room, I lock the door and lay into a smorgasbord of packaged, fortified, food.

A Moroccan patrol rolls by, waving to anybody who isn’t black—me at my window, another NGO worker in the road, and the Lebanese merchant who I make out hunched over a calculator in the distance. I smile at the soldier with cheese in between my teeth.

After eating, I hop a motorcycle-taxi to the outskirts of town. We coast in neutral on downhills to save gas, under the dead power lines, to visit an education project.

Sitting on a school bench in a dimly lit building, I interview the school’s director. After asking me about my accent he switches from French to English and says he spent some time in England. I tell him I’m from Australia. He gives the token speech of gratitude toward my employer, the NGO, then translates for the nervous teacher by his side that I came to see the impact of the project. This is what I assume, because the local language escapes me.

“As you can see the school rooms are cross ventilated and comfortable,” he says. “We have the blackboard and the school supplies. Even the bathrooms are handicapped accessible. But the problem in the southeast is not out-of-school children, at least not in Bangassou. It’s that our schools are too crowded and we lack qualified staff.” The director tells me that half the teachers are parent-volunteers and then he asks for a piece of paper from a notepad I’m holding. He draws a map.

“We’re here. And the next closest school is here, five kilometers, and the next one, here. Also five kilometers.”

The schools are equally spread out. I imagine children traipsing in long straight lines on the shoulder of the road.

“But in this school here,” he pointed to the ceiling to denote the school we were sitting in, “there are 300 children per classroom, and this school here, too.” He drew an X across the piece of paper on the next school out of town. “Then there’s the forest, a half a kilometer, and on the other side of the forest is a school with approximately 100 children per class.”

He gazed at me to gauge my reaction. For a good deal of children, the third school was closer to their homes than the second one, with only a small forest separating them. And a road ran through the forest. There could be an equal amount of students in all schools. I lowered the sunglasses over my eyes, unsure if the director was staring at my pupils, and asked for an explanation.

“Children that attend the second school won’t cross the forest to attend the third school even though it’s two to three kilometers closer. There are spirits in these forests, meaning there might as well be a wall between these two villages.” He translates this to the teacher who concurs.

“Listen,” he sighs, “there’s a story of crocodile man that inhabits the local river, but I think it’s a way to scare people from swimming in the water, to stop river blindness. The same goes for the spirits in the forest. It was poor farm land and to make sure nobody planted there, a story was created decades ago. But it comes back to the same thing.” This he doesn’t translate into Zandé for the teacher.

While he is explaining this to me, I’m scratching.

“You should see a doctor,” he points at my nose.

“You believe this?” I ask, “I mean, do most people believe this?”

“Do people avoid walking under ladders in Australia?” He seems proud of this comparison and repeats it. I want to ask him about senile women being accused of witchcraft.

I thank the director and the teacher. Leaving the school room, it hits me. Even if, over time, the Central African Republic becomes familiar to me, and, with ethnological acuity, I succeed in drawing parallels between Western superstitions of broken mirrors or forests moved by spirits, regardless of the time I live here I’ll never understand these people. It’s not because they’re simple, but because I will never be a part of their complexity. The funerals, the births, the whispers in the markets. Self-conscious, the children will always come toward me or walk away from me, motivated by a crocodile man lying in wait to snatch their imaginations.

I take a picture of the director with the teacher. Their faces are lit with sunlight splintered by the lattice of the school room wall.

The following day, a man enters the office flustered and waving a piece a paper. In his anger, his body appears asymmetrical, like a child’s poorly drawn star. I share the workplace, so I guess he came to address the project manager, and am relieved when I see as much is true, and continue typing into a sprawling Excel sheet—I work on data collection tool for our Gender Based Violence program which captures information on the number of beneficiaries that visit our Listening Centers along the criteria of rape, forced marriage, psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual aggression, and denial of resources, all disaggregated by gender.

Jacques interrupts me and asks me to meet the man. I save the spreadsheet then position myself in a chair facing him, because, in a culture where consensus is paramount, to lend a person your ear is considered respectful. In starts and fits he presents to me a convoluted story detailing a deal gone wrong. He and former employee of our organization—the employee that was fired for extortion and who later made death threats to the remaining staff—planned on cashing vouchers for money instead of using them for their intended purpose, to buy seeds and farming tools. Our former employee took all the money, instead of cutting the man his share. His is named is Fidel. I almost laugh, but don’t, because irony is rarely funny.

In a way, I pity him. He wasn’t even capable of stealing from an organization willing to give him something for free. While Fidel rants, I space out. I ponder the relationship between precarity, in this breadless place, and trust. People here are constantly ripping each other off to the point where solidarity seems to be a luxury. I picture the centerpiece of Hay Wain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch and consider it my finest comparison to rural CAR. Fidel continues waving his sweaty letter, petitioning money.

“We’ll study your case,” I say, “but next time, it would be best if you go for the tools and seeds.” I didn’t tell him there wouldn’t be a next time because our organization was pulling out of town.

To escape the paperwork of the office and the demands for money, again, I fold my computer and ride a motorcycle into the countryside to visit fish farms, coffee fields, and the peanut harvests in the forest. I visit the camp of displaced persons and their plot of land. The organization gave them seeds and tools, through the abovementioned voucher program. Paris, the spokesperson of the group, confuses me with the distant donors whose money bought the land, and punctuates his sentences with terms of gratitude. He explains to me how my coworkers taught the group intercropping and seed selection. Paris says they’ve had three harvests.

“We eat twice a day now,” he says.

Before leaving, I shake his hand and thank him for the interview. I feel guilty for not telling him we are closing our operations in the southeast. Returning to town, we coast past the crumbling government buildings on a motorcycle taxi. We are three on the way back, the driver, Paris—whose his rib cage is visible through his sleeveless shirt—and me on back.

I almost fall off a turns, more than once, so far gone I’m not paying attention, cerebral: humanitarian work is an exercise in ambiguity. It demands an enormous amount of work to give away money that is not mine, to people who will only say “thank you” to soften the blow of “please.” Not the schools, nor the farmers, not even the thieves will be satisfied and I’ll never know if it’s because I, the freak show from out of country who is conflated with a foreign philanthropist, represent the possibility of money. Or is it that my work is indispensable? It’s probably both, but I’m never certain. On top of the ambiguity, there’s the reality of being held accountable by a distant headquarters and donors for a workload impossible to deliver on time.

As my white hand goes to pay the motorcycle taxi, I find my pockets empty. I return to my room and retrieve money from under the mattress.

Tonight, due to lack of gasoline, the generator is cut at eight. The lights fade an hour after the sunset. I turn into bed to abbreviate the solitude of evenings in rural Africa. Outside, the frogs sleepwalk through their instincts as they sing slow songs.

To confess, I didn’t leave the painkillers in the medicine cabinet. I lied, mostly to myself—about my ability to live on the equator, cornered on both sides of the day by curfews, amongst all this doom and razor wire. I lied about my willpower.

I walked across the airport tarmac to board the plane to Bangassou on four sheets of pills stuffed into my socks. I had calculated a week of sensible highs, but the time in between reaching into my pockets became shorter and shorter until, this morning, I washed down the last pill. I leaned my head back and stared at a sun severing the clouds through the counterfeit aviator sunglasses and dreaded the inevitable.

Coming down from a two week bender, I lie sweat soaked in my bed, with my limbs spread to stave off the heat, and listening to Chopin’s Nocturnes, because anything louder is thunder. I’ve experienced malaria and detoxed from opiates, the symptoms are comparable—the triple digit fever, the arthritic condition, the faces behind my eyelids—except I can blame nature for malaria. Dressed only in the wet rag on my forehead, I’ve only myself to fault. I’ve written myself into this, shivering under a mosquito net. I’m splayed out like the Vitruvian Man across a cheap Chinese mattress. My phone’s spell check corrects the word “Vitruvian Man”.

The Bangui Magnetic Anomaly

24 May

Around dawn, while caught in a nightmare involving spider webs, my roommate and co-worker kicks in my bedroom door. With a booming voice that expresses the temperance of older age, he says he’s flying to a sub-office of our NGO, in the country’s center—that is, the center of the Central African Republic—and tells me of bananas he’s left in the fridge. He continues with a joke ending with “in case I don’t make it back.”

“Good luck, Arsène.” I turn over. “Good luck in Bambari.” And with that, my sleep is curtailed. I pull myself from bed mechanically, moving through a year of repetition, a year informed by both boredom and violence.

I hear Arsène, breathing through his mouth, as he shuffles through preparations in the hallway. On the phone with the Logistics Department, he laughs at his own jokes. At fifty, with twenty years in the field, he imparts on anybody within earshot theories he’s assembled working in fox holes such as this city, Bangui. He punctuates his assumptions with laughter.

The front door slams. Outside, they till the earth, clang church bells for a God that has forsaken them, and in proximity, a baby wails. The neighbors recently bought a sheep for an upcoming holiday during which they will decapitate him with the zeal of jihadists. The sheep bellows with the baby. In short, it sounds like a nativity scene.  

Cursing Arsène, I move through hallways of undecorated walls. Undecorated because every tenant that passes through this house— on rubber sandals across the marble tiles, drinking on the back porch that opens onto a tended garden, or dreaming under mosquito nets in one of three bedrooms—conceives of their stint in C.A.R. as transitory. We stare out from barred windows at ten foot walls tinseled in razor wire. With a curfew from eight p.m. till dawn, this is our gilded cage.  

I open the back door. In runs the puppy with her twitching eyebrows, trailed by the cat, and trailing her, a litter of kittens. They lobby me for food, whining like hyenas, and shadow me to the kitchen. I open the front door, behind which appear two banana trees and dust-covered corrugated tin roofs, capped by satellite dishes. They shrink over the distance of one mile to a river, across which frowns a single green hill of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s windless again—this city, although 1,211 feet above the ocean, is swampland.

Feed the animals, light the burner on the stove, and the kettle for instant coffee. Pour last night’s beer dregs down the sink and drown some hundred ants that I would’ve relocated with a Jain-like attention a year ago. Following a bout of malaria, finding a snake in my bed, and the worms in the dog, I no longer venerate nature. The human-being is a fluke at seven degrees latitude; the rest of life needs no leg-up.

Crack an egg, two eggs. The yolk busts in the white on both. The eggs are old, imports from neighboring Cameroon, because C.A.R. produces little after centuries of pillage and decades of mismanagement, except crude oil, diamonds, gold, lumber, and ivory. The country is also fertile ground for coups d’état, the latest being in March of 2013, in which disparate Muslim rebel groups united to overthrow President Francois Bozizé. The Séléka demanded representation, yet, in retrospect, were more interested in plunder. Their leader, Michel Djotodia, disbanded the group from a desk in the presidential palace, but was powerless to keep them from pillage and rape. In turn, Christian militias calling themselves the Anti-Balaka committed their share of rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings of Muslims. The transitional government, established after Djotidia resigned less than year in office, is kept in place by UN Peacekeepers, the French military, and a squadron of humanitarians that place band-aids on broken bones.

I scrape the fried eggs from the pan, then sit on a leather sofa and turn on the television to scenes of asylum seekers falling off boats in the Mediterranean. I flip to a reportage about the Sea Shepard frigate, sabotaging whaling ships in the Atlantic. Even the cheetah on National Geographic, while beautiful, grins with blood stained teeth. At my feet, the puppy gazes up, eyeing for dropped cheese. She’s a fortunate bitch to be sheltered in ignorance.

On the toilet, I scan an article in a sensationalist local newspaper that accuses medical NGOs of trafficking organs because they’ve started performing Cesarean births in rural areas. When the births go awry and the baby dies, or vice-versa, the mother, rumors of foul play fly.

I overhear the guard outside lamenting to the driver that the private security company, our sub-contractor, hasn’t paid his salary. I’ve been awake for one hour and the first pleas, or second if you count the pets, are imminent. Five minutes later, before greeting the driver, I hand breakfast to the security guard—Arsène’s bananas—before he’s obliged to beg, in the capital of this country in free fall.

 “Salut.” I climb into the car. Although my age, Bienvenu looks the double. The driver, he’s also a friend, except because I’m relatively wealthy and he’s relatively poor, our relationship is painted with the wide brush of class and, come night, the only place we can agree to drink is on my back porch, where it’s cheapest.

“You look tired,” Bienvenu says, and unclenches the emergency break.

“Just waking up.”

“It’s impossible to wake someone who never sleeps.”

I know he’s giving me a local expression, because I’ve asked him repeatedly to tell me them when they come to him.

I respond with one, taken out of context: “The sheep lowers his head because he’s ashamed of seeing the goat’s ass.”

Exactement.”

Bienvenu and I share presence, both held in this anomalous swamp, me sitting shotgun, and him behind the wheel of a Landrover. He smiles, his mouth is rippled with deep wrinkles. At 7:30 we exit the walled-in perimeter of my home.

Instead of respecting protocol by cracking the window to stay attune to gunfire, I space out and think of my neighbor, the widow of the dictator who crowned himself emperor in 1967. Her house is a hallmark of the short-lived golden era of the country, a mélange of Malibu beach house and the redwood of the countries old growth forests. The pool cleaner fishes leaves out of a pool the woman’s decrepit body never swims. Her dead husband, Jean Bédel Bokassa, proclaimed himself the 13th Apostle before he died of a heart attack behind those walls on the 3rd of November 1996, aged 75, with 17 wives and an approximate 50 children. 

The car swings around potholes, heading north on the main artery that links the lower class neighborhoods with the city center in the south. Motorcycles, four people aboard, stream past. Going the other direction is an uncountable number of UN and NGO vehicles. Neighborhoods switch places during daylight hours, moving in a pendulum motion between two points, sunup, sundown. In the road, yellow, broken, puffing, taxis rarely yield. Biblical maxims are painted on their bumpers. “Take suffering as advice,” I read as a French military helicopter flies overhead, and wonder what instruction the day will impart to me. I tap Bienvenu’s shoulder and ask him to honk at a car approaching and I wave to a person, also sitting shotgun. We wave at each other with our big white hands.

At the office, a guard opens a steel gate and gives me a military salute. I return the gesture, as if enlisted. Inside, in the tradition of the French, I shake hands with forty odd staff, then chat while drinking an instant coffee. Over the razor wired wall and bookended by tanks, a procession of commercial vehicles drives by at eight a.m. I’m told the convoy is headed to Bambari, a city divided into Christian and Muslim neighborhoods and therefore a microcosm of the country. One bridge over a river is the only tie between them and the bridge is manned by a heavily armed check point. Camps of displaced persons populate either side. The convoy is organized by Muslims who’ve cornered the import/export market in the country, or rather on the continent, just as they have throughout history, across the old world.

I flip on the air-conditioning and open a colleague’s report to edit. Sip a second instant coffee. It’s a report drafted by Arsène, dating a few weeks, à propos Bambari. I read, “Due to the recent security, business owners starting tip-toeing back to their activities. Seeds were distributed to project beneficiaries.” Scrapping the sentences, I curse him, again. Arsène will nudge you to expound on his decades managing projects across Africa yet by a miracle he never learned to write academically. He’s like so many in the profession—a bullshit artist. Got himself hired because he’s stupid enough to move here. And he’s a mile in the sky on a flight back to Bambari.  

Word-of-mouth comes down. The convoy from half an hour back. Other than staple crops, the dozens of trucks transported Muslim passengers, and was ambushed, on the unique road north, as it crossed an Anti-Balaka stronghold. The initial body-count is fifty. I stand on the front porch of the office remembering the men as they straddled sacks of rice and Chinese imports, all now dead. The convoy drives by over and over in my mind—men lay across sacks of rice dressed in lengthy robes, thirty feet above the shifting asphalt, their bodies full of bullets. It’s true that people live on after their death, and now they live on in my head. My co-workers don’t seem too shocked by the news—they remain hunched over bright screens or shuffle around the office stapling papers. I probe them for details and their shrugs come off as indifference, perhaps a form of adaptation.

An ambiguously worded text arrives from a girl I met over the weekend. It’s been a year and not once has the option of waking up next to a stranger presented itself (other than when my girlfriend visited. She can be a stranger, however that’s the arc of a different story). I met this girl under strange circumstances, in a hotel along the river. At one point, I was on the edge of the water, in broken conversation with a fisherman dressed in loincloths—his French poor, my Sango nil—and minutes later, given my talent for drinking with just anyone, I was navigating acquaintances huddled in a dim bar in the bowels of the hotel. A bunch of us had drunk ourselves past curfew, then decided to rent a few rooms. With the restaurant closed, I compensated for the lack of food by drinking. There were mirrors on all the walls, and nationalities, accents, talk of work on this side of the circle, and sexual innuendo on the opposite. Beside me, an American soldier prattled on about the threat of terrorism, citing reports of Boko Haram crossing in from the Chadian border, and their accelerating numbers of identical suicides under the black flag of jihad. I stared at the gap in his teeth and argued that in this country the rebel groups were devoid of ideology, a prerequisite for suicide bombings or mass shootings. This forgettable conversation continued for a glass or two, until I saw him fidget with his phone. In paranoid panache harking back to bad trips on LSD, I accused him of recording our conversation, figuring him not to be a soldier but a spy, not a good one, given he spoke only English, yet a spy nonetheless. He justified himself by describing the particulars of his phone. I was already elsewhere.

I had watched her become more attractive as the box wine was emptied, through the noise and smoke and handshakes and calling bartender, so I extracted myself from his American accent, talking phone applications. She was striking, what came out her mouth was interesting, and she was practically a celebrity in her youth amongst this inferno of burn-outs. “My first mission was in Vietnam,” she looked at the ceiling, “I thought I’d change things, like gender roles, and in the end it changed me more than the other way around. Now I’m a little more self-aware, a relativist even, which goes far in the field.” Her name doesn’t matter, but if you need one, call her “Infatuation”. At one point I touched her thigh, unfortunately it was only to kill a mosquito. After a conversation long enough to create an inside joke between us, I got her number then whispered goodbye. Too lazy to scale twelve flights of stairs, I pushed the button for the elevator. I must’ve been blotto because I had never set foot in an elevator in Bangui. It got stuck in between the fifth and the sixth floor. I ripped open the doors and climbed out on the sixth. Staggered through the empty hall, and spun up another six flights on a spiral staircase. I dragged a couch from the hotel room onto the balcony that overlooked onto the Obangui River, and the jungle end to end, suffocating in a muted tropical silence. I laid back in boyhood euphoria, as if Infatuation’s phone number took eighteen years off my life. In the skies, I saw, in an expansive cloud formation, my elementary school girlfriend, Sophie, over the body of water. As I emptied a bottle of wine, she broke off and formed two of her selfs, a Siamese phantasm of unrequited loves.

I ask Infatuation on a date via text. Text, because we’re both at work and I don’t really know her. I was blacked-out when I noted her number. Although, as Infatuation, she’s half the women I’ve known since Sophie.

Hit send. On the screen of the phone a circle struggles to become itself. While waiting, I learn that it was only a rumor about the fifty dead. Characteristic of oral cultures, rumors like these buzz across the republic and end in song and dance or killing sprees. Not today. The truck was only waylaid for food and Chinese imports. There’s relief, as fifty lives are resuscitated and rise up from blood stained sacks of rice, but those deaths were a memory for an entire hour, and I pushed them down as far as possible, the only way I know how—evasion, infatuations.

Meanwhile the emails pour in because it’s not simple to hire employees to relocate to curfewed lives along equator. In consolation for our team being short-staffed and overworked, headquarters sends regards from the Eastern Time Zone, through a string of patronizing messages expressing gratitude about our effort, spirit, our perseverance. Instead of struggling to up the moral, I suggest they fill the holes in our organizational chart. But the NGO believes in strategy and future thinking, so my co-workers in New York fly to London for brainstorming. They hold team building exercises in Asia. They can go fuck themselves while they publish slick documents about sector strategies—I’m at my desk job in failed state where it’s impossible to forecast tomorrow and emails addressed to them bounce back in automatic replies when I, in the Central African Republic, a no-man’s land for recruiting, understand again and again that we are abandoned. Busting out of my button down shirt after a year of drinking with no exercise, I do the job of three people.

I call a car to go sign a contract with the UN for a project to fight against Gender Based Violence. While waiting for the unpunctual bureaucrats, I bump into the American soldier from the past weekend. Turns out he’s not a soldier or a spy. He works in Close Protection—a bodyguard for the UN diplomats who move in and out of this conflict zone like migrating butterflies. I shake his hand, and watch the gap between his teeth as he briefs me on the security situation for the arrival of Pope Francis, who is touring numerous African countries. GI Joe segues into how last week he almost “blew someone away”. Going on a tangent about guns, he drops the name of a firearm that means nothing to me, while I stand on the doorstep of the United Nations in Bangui and understand that there are more toons in this town than Toon Town.

I’ve often thought that the worst towns built character, much more than the political or economic capitals of the Western world boasting healthy service sectors. That expression, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Nietzsche coined it. Strange though, because Nietzsche lost his mind, in syphilitic paralysis, and ended his life in a mental hospital for what George Bataille claimed to have been caused by a psychological maladjustment brought on by his philosophy.

At noon the contract is signed. I call for a company car and it rips through the tombstones of the dilapidated buildings. Sign in on the log sheet, and fill in the “destination” column with “store” and we roll out past the steel gate onto the road. Bienvenu stutters, as he tells me about the Pope’s upcoming visit. I want to explain to him why I think that the Catholic Church is a two millennium old criminal enterprise, yet because I’m in Africa, I’m also a product of the Church’s sway on Western Civilization—a humanitarian worker in a former colony. Our jobs are not called jobs, they are called missions. Also I’m tired and hungover and the story is too long for a five-minute ride.

We turn onto a derelict road—it was on this road, months ago, that I was even more hungover and extremely hungry and the security in the city was bad (Was it kidnappings of foreigners or the fallout from a political assassination?). Thrown left and right because of the fissures in the laterite, I was hallucinating and nauseous and rolled the window down to puke. A car of armed men approached us on the perpendicular. Bienvenu, who hemmed the potholes, stuttered answers to trivia on the radio concerning the spelling of the capital of Argentina. “B-B-B-U-E-N-O-S.” My synapses fired in synchronicities and miscues. “A-I-R-R-R-E-S”. Immobilized, I had an autobiographical moment, as if I saw myself in the third person. My gaze followed the flatbed truck, but I was too far gone to be touched by gunfire. It was a soul, or my soul, that watched on. Then again, maybe I was only hungover.

It was only the cops.  

In the store, behind the cash register, a Lebanese merchant looks down from a chair as high as a throne. His face is pasty. A coffee at his side, he thumbs money as he shakes. I pile up canned imports—these are not provisions for a food drive or a bomb shelter, rather my daily bread, and if I complain about eating out of a can, I’m touched with guilt because in comparison to ninety-five percent of the country, it’s ten times more substantial. I chat with him in broken Arabic as so he’ll give me a discount. “50,000 francs.” He rocks in his chair then pauses. “Give me 47,000.” I’m a sucker because it’s three times the price as in the West.

At home, the electrician stands on the dining room table and fiddles with a chandelier. I run into him often, in one of the five houses and the office that the NGO rents, where he keeps himself occupied, because in C.A.R. everything breaks every two weeks. He’s a sweet if not voluble fellow with a raspy voice and he walks me through the intricacies of closed circuitry, pointing to the rooms of the house with a screwdriver. I say “ok” and thank him. Each time I say his name, it’s echoed by thank you, in the language of employer-contractor. I grab a plate and glass from the cupboard. The cleaner cleaned both of them. She swept the floor and cleaned my pants. She folds my underwear.

On the back porch, I shovel lunch into my mouth. Always fat or carbs. Juice from concentrate. Inescapable starches. I finish eating so I’m sinking. I’ve rarely given a second thought to my health, but a salad would be a god-blessed life ring right now.

No response from Infatuation. My evening presents two faces—one with flirting and foreplay and the other rocking in a plastic chair while gripping pilsners and within the one mile security radius. It’s shaping up to be the latter, so the choice of drinking is divided into the option of one of six bars (seven, if I include my bed). All are a five-minute walking distance from one another, yet each time I’m obliged to call a car to move in between them.

It’s two p.m. I step into the Landrover to return to the office and Bienvenu greets me with, “bonsoir”. I take it in stride, the day is dying for a city where the majority live off the grid and rise with the sun.

Ten minutes later, I narrow my eyes at the computer, and translate a report about awareness-raising sessions on hygiene given in rural villages. Halfway through the first page, in typical French, the subordinate clauses pile up in “ifs” and “buts” and “howevers”, concluding with punch lines, lacking verbs, rendering them lifeless like a train without an engine. I’m done. I close the document and write a “to-do” in a handover report for my replacement.  

Over the office the chop of the French military helicopter. The late-afternoon reconnaissance along the perimeter between the Muslim enclave and the strongholds of the Christian militias (The conflict was never about religion, rather resources, however in a twist of logic, identity became a resource, that of security.). I finish compiling rape statistics, copy/paste them into a project proposal budgeted for a million dollars. I’m at once depressed and empowered and these opposites cross each other out, leaving me numb, functioning. I verify formulas in an Excel table, attach the budget and work plan to an email, and CC ten colleagues who work for this hydra headed international non-governmental organization based anywhere from New York to Bombay. Hit send.  

A mosquito lands on my arm, heralding the great evening of Sub-Saharan Africa. At the dirty window the sun fizzles out on the horizon. I close my computer then ring for a car, just as I’ve done for 363 days, and the monotony is compounded by this—throughout the year, the temperature fluctuates only five degrees, the change in seasons is measured only through rain or lack of it, and along the equator the sun rises and sets, day in, day out, at the same time, regardless of the rotation of the planet.

Again, we navigate potholes, we, meaning one hundred expats, migrating en masse to a bar. In the car, I write “Relais de Chasse” in the travel log. It translates to “The Hunting Lodge”. The red wood sourced from the old growth forests lends a rustic air to the restaurant. A preserve of former French colonials, it’s a favorite of the ambassador himself, and occasionally you can spot, in between the faux-real African masks and sculptures, a smudge of whites, holding forth about eras of yore. They speak with no sense of urgency, because either the jungle or the privilege has done them in. 

I’ve not even arrived at the bar, I’m projecting. Sitting shotgun, I observe the city through the windshield, as the informal economy folds up shop due to the uncertainty that comes with nightfall. On the right, a construction site, due to the real estate boom ensuing from the United Nations Peacekeepers upping their presence. Speak of the devil, a truck of Blue Helmets idles over there—in the flatbed, six soldiers are seated facing the road with automatic weapons in their lap. The gold tip of a RPG shines like a candle under a street lamp.

Again, I ask Bienvenu to honk at a car coming at us and wave to another white person in shotgun. I make an observation about the spatial awareness of drivers in sub-Saharan Africa (subtly thanking Bienvenu for driving), the importance of the horn to communicate, and the art of merging. An idea I formulated years ago and only repeat to fill the empty space of the car. Sitting behind me, in a cloud of DEET mosquito spray, is an acquaintance. This isn’t the first time we’re together en route for booze, except you never truly become familiar with others here. We talk, or vent, principally of work, and remain discreet in an attempt to avoid gossip. We gravitate around one another at an official distance, despite the fact we black out at every possible weekend get-together. One is also not oneself here. Among the poverty, we are affluent. Amongst the masses, we participate in meetings that orient government policy. We fly over the jungle in UN chartered prop-planes, never mind that we are John and Jane Doe at home. The reason why many expats stay on becomes apparent. I’m chauffeured by a private driver, and step out of a SUV in the gravel parking lot, and might as well be my opposite, as I place several coins in the palm of the valet. In the restaurant, doted over as a wallet on two legs, I pull out a plastic chair in a straw hut and request that a bottle of beer be placed at arm’s length.

The owner of the restaurant is, bien sûr, French. A toon too. Goes by a pseudonym. Been in-country going on forty years, putting him back to times of the Empire. Today, other than serving overpriced cuisine à la française, he cultivates spirulina and feeds it to street kids, or so he claims, when he pops his head under the straw overhang. He has the colonial knack of considering all westerners as allies. I give him the gated community of a smile and nod long enough for him to understand that his predictions on the approaching French legislative elections hold no traction in my skull. He excuses himself amidst a foray of formal conjecture, tips his hat, and disappears into his half-acre empire. 

I drink. The acquaintance drinks. We talk, conflating the sound and fury of our drunkenness with passion and the exchange dissipates like petulance into the silent, humid, night.

“Oh God, I can’t wait to leave.” I run my index fingers under my eyes. “Longest fucking year of my life.”

I scan the restaurant and the faces framed either in collars or low cuts. Here, only nine months earlier, across the room, I dined with my boss. He talked at me and I drank at him and somewhere in there Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” played in stereo. It was the night before my first vacation and I considered the song as evidence of destiny. Tonight, the music is absent, so I hum the chorus of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B”. And the acquaintance is, in truth, a close friend who I’ll never see again come tomorrow. He’s a former roommate and co-worker and an alcoholic with whom I broke curfew more times than either of us remembers.

“At least we were bored together,” he says. No longer a co-worker, he switched to the UN as a consultant and has vacation every six weeks. He looks capable of living out another three-month contract. Plus he’s African, so he’s got that on me.

“Surely,” he says, “there’s something you’ll miss.”

I tell him I’d have to think about it and slip into the bathroom. Except I don’t think about his attempt to mitigate my negativity. I’m a pessimist, that won’t change. I’m an idealist stuck in hell. In the stall, I lock the door behind me and assess the insect situation. It comes to me while on the pot—the restaurant owner—he looks innocent in the autumn of his life, but so did Mobuto or Amin Dada, after they were forced into exile. I despise him, not because he carved out for himself a tiny empire, because I see him as an archetype that threatens to define me in the future—my career path is also predicted on international travel to remote outposts. I hear him on the other side of the bathroom door, wooing a difficult customer, and realize that I despise him not for his colonial ties, it’s because he owns a restaurant. It’s heaven for the homesick, serving French cuisine, for French expats, who fill the heart of darkness with the French language. It’s a painful revelation to know that one can travel to the end of the earth, live under a pseudonym, and reproduce the world one left behind.

Back at the table, the friend hasn’t forgotten. He says, “come on” and lifts a beer in my direction. Our eyes meet over the top of the bottle.

“It’s been a blur. I remember the dark nightclubs, you and I, dancing with girls who,” I pause to take a drink, “girls whose faces I couldn’t see.” In the distance I spot someone I’ve been avoiding. “There was the time in the countryside. The impression of pioneering.” I repeat something I’ve said previously, about the strange-for-strange sake, which ends with the word “anthropology.” I cite the story about the hippopotamus-man.

At this, we go back and forth with African proverbs.

He starts with, “Don’t set sail using someone else’s star.”

And I say my favorite, “He who does not know one thing knows another.”

He hits me with, “The foreigner only sees what he knows.”

“Touché!” We laugh.

“I don’t know if it’s a high point, well, there’s first time I ducked gunfire. This year has been a haze, only I’ll never forget that. The vivid memories are all tied to trauma and the rest, repetition. You repeat yourself so often you start to forget when one day begun and ended, or if it’s still going on, weren’t we here last Tuesday? Or is it just the present moment? I know we’ve already had this discussion, so what was the conclusion?”

My friend is better at listening than talking. He judges the level of beer in the .65 liter bottle when he hears the server in the vicinity. For me it’s the top of the third.

“I understand prisoners now,” I say, “how they must feel the night before they’re released. I understand soldiers. Sure, I dislike the majority of them, especially the soldiers I met here, nevertheless I see what living in a conflict zone does to a person, mentally.”

“You need to leave,” he points an empty beer at me, “But you’ll miss it, soon enough.”

We were roommates six months ago. One night, he asked me, on the back porch, why I worked so late. I told him I wasn’t working, was writing, and I mentioned the benefits of adventure for creativity, which is a non-conversation. I didn’t mention that psychic pain is equally effective.

 “You’re right. And I’ll hate myself for it.” I think of a line by Jeffrey Eugenides—Real life doesn’t live up to writing about it. I finish my sentence, “As if the present moment escaped me for a whole year except when there was gunfire or I was writing.”

I return from the bar, slurring to Bienvenu while staring through a distorted window for the final time. I’m leaving in the morning. Bienvenu, which means “welcome” in French, will drive me through a city with so many points of reference that it became blurred, because that which is most familiar becomes foreign. In my pocket will be painkillers I’ve hidden from myself these last weeks. As soon as we clear the last stretch of road notorious for carjackings, I will swallow the handful. (I’ll eat painkillers with just anyone, especially myself).

I come up on the pills as we wait on the runway. The camp of displaced persons that edges the tarmac has grown since the brief uprising in September (when I was in the south of France on vacation in a hospital bed with malaria). Here we come full circle—a woman with a large tray of fruit stands beside the runway staring at the plane. I squint through the window. She was the first person I saw when I landed a year ago and she reappears like an archetype in a dream. She’s motionless and dressed in a shirt ripped like venetian blinds.

We take off, and the scope of the camp becomes clear at bird’s eye view, sixty thousand splintered lives in one window. We one eighty the airport in direction for Cameroon and at a higher altitude the hues of farm land tile the earth. I make out the Relais de Chasse, located in between two avenues. I think of the moral of the story that I should have told my friend last night:

If you tuck into the correct latitudes, pay for experience with sanity, and manage to hold out, even if only for a year, the world is still a very, very, wild place.

 

 

 

 

 

“It Took Us Years to get over the Sixties”

3 Jun

           

There’s a nod to revolution in the image of Che Guevara on a T-shirt. But it’s an empty gesture, vacuous of meaning as the place where it’s worn: Berkeley, California. Both Berkeley and Che are dead.  

The graffiti on the streets has been blotted out, save the sanctioned murals of historiographical importance, paintings venerating the sixties. They keep like photo props for tourists who pose for pictures flashing peace signs. Perhaps a flower in their hair. An unmarked cop car orbits the campus, yet its presence is less to quell an uprising and more to garner tax money for a bankrupt state. The police reach deep into students’ pockets during routine traffic stops.

On the corner of College and University Avenue, I make pizza. After ten years abroad, it’s as if I’ve dug a tunnel through the earth and fell out the other side back where I began—asking, “what can I get you? in the restaurant industry. I try recall the affection I once had for this city but it’s like trying to rekindle a love affair with a ghost. I sniff for a mixture of weed and tear gas, waiting for a girl to walk by, long-haired and braless, an ideal. I get nothing. Reaching for the reputation that precedes the city, I haunt the past.

On my lunch break, I watch a documentary in the office, Berkeley in the Sixties. The narrative begins in ’64 with the Free Speech Movement on the University of California campus, a protest qualified as a civil rights panty-raid by a college administrator. As I eat a slice off a cardboard plate, I learn that a block north from where I work, the fledgling Black Panthers sold Mao’s Little Red Book at mark-up prices to purchase shotguns, in order to police the police of Oakland. And at the draft office in Oakland, running full-bore for the Vietnam War, the super glue leaked out of the keyholes. The work of Cal students, no doubt. Fifty years later, it seems impossible that this place was ever the epicenter of sex, drugs, and radical politics in America.

Berkeley now looks less like a place of rebellion and more like a playground. The kids in the street are just that—several boys wear suits but their starched collars frame hairless faces. Two girls in high-heels walk into the restaurant awkwardly. Virginly. They look as if they’re barely used to their bodies. I eavesdrop while they flip-flop on choices for pizza. I note a particularity about Americans, especially marked in younger people, which gives us the airs of indecisive children. Our ideas rarely seem complete before we open our mouths, forcing us to splice our sentences with a hundred “likes” to buy time. We throw around the superlative as if it’s the least of things and we do this loudly because Americans are loud, like children are loud. One of the girls points for pepperoni. She says, “It’s, like, the best pizza in town.” I thank her and smile because I’m in a good mood, mostly because business is slow. She hands me her Hello Kitty debit card. She doesn’t tip, but I assume she doesn’t understand tipping as she’s never worked behind a counter a day in her life. She’s lucky. She’s still a kid. I slide her pizza into the 450 degree oven. I look outside and spot another hint of revolution in the work of the prophet Steve Jobs. Four college kids walk by waving their smart phones, just like that Little Red Book during a Mao Tse-Tung speech. Although Mao and Steve were both great prognosticators, it’s apparent who has won out. The recipe was simple: Steve Jobs left behind toys, not ideas, and in Berkeley kids love toys.

Today, the most visible practitioners of past ideologies are the drop-outs and street kids. The former have been here since the sixties and the latter have flocked to the city to wait on history to repeat itself. They both do a lot of waiting. While they wait they hock hemp necklaces or ask for change. They’re a mishmash of every spiritual or political movement that has washed up in the Bay Area—one part moveable bacchanal, one part Zen minimalist. The young ones are nursed on nostalgia for something they’ve never lived, like the Grateful Dead, like free love. They remind me of myself ten years prior when I believed in the power of conversation to change the world and if I didn’t have exorbitant rent I would spread out a blanket with them for a chat. In the time it would take to regrow a headful of dreads, we could have a working theory for peace on earth. But no. Instead, on my way to work this afternoon I met my former self (the one that never left town) in the form of a panhandler. With the smiling tenacity of a Greenpeace fundraiser, a disheveled white guy asked for a cigarette. I shrugged, told him sorry. He asked for dollar. I placed a quarter in his palm. “I got a hole in my bowl, you got a nugget to plug it?” he said. I laughed and we made eye contact. We had an inside joke. A decade ago I would have ducked into an alley with him, but today, I told him sorry, no nuggets. It had been a while since I heard that joke and I wanted to retort with another, “What’s the difference between a street kid and a homeless person?—ten years.” I didn’t, because I don’t begrudge the unemployed just because I hate my own job. Continuing, I repeated the joke in my head. The punch line is particularly fitting for Berkeley. It translates to a homeless population ranging from starry-eyed idealists to shell-shocked veterans. They, the homeless and future homeless, live in their very own park one block off Telegraph Avenue, the closest commercial artery to the university. The park was created in the sixties when students tore up a campus parking lot to build a garden. They named it People’s Park; it was evidence of what a better world would look like if the youth took over. It now resembles an open-air psych ward. Perhaps it was the effect of tuning-in too much on psychedelic drugs but I’ll bet it also has something to do with former Governor Ronald Regan decreasing federal spending for the mentally ill in the eighties. Way back when he ran for governor of California in ‘66 he itched to “send the welfare bums back to work.” Almost fifty years later they’ve yet to clock in. Cut a diagonal through the park at three p.m. and you’ll see Food-Not-Bombs, a non-profit, truck in soylentgreen flavored confection for those who never joined mainstream America. Or for the adherents of dying ideologies. Or for those with mental problems. Or for those who just don’t want to make pizzas for college kids at ten dollars an hour. Can you blame them? After lunch, the street kids and veterans return to stroke Schrödinger’s cat in the shade of the John Lennon Memorial Plum Tree.

The second sign that the heart of the sixties still beats like a drum circle, albeit distant and dwindling, are the people who lived it and didn’t end up sleeping outside. Before meeting my former self in the park, I was at a poetry reading at an art space in South Berkeley. I showed up late. I didn’t have any cash for a donation so I told the doorman, a senior, that I was unemployed. He looked at me and nodded in respect. I took a seat, noted the lava lamps on the piano, and scrutinized a poet at the microphone over rows of grey and white hair. Four poets read, some bad, some great. The lexical field included George Bush, Xanax, and cats. Crop circles, chem-trails. There were political poems and light sexual innuendo and several poems about mortality, perhaps because of the poets’ advanced age. During intermission I made a tea. While admiring a gallery of beat-poet photos, I overheard and caught glances of two older people conversing. She just came over to say how much she appreciated the poems, especially the line, we don’t have to take back the night because we never lost it. They talked past each other, like drunken students at my pizza joint, although it was different. I recognized it. It was how people on LSD speak, in broken affirmations. She listened, and, like an evangelist, made piercing eye contact as she caressed a poetry chap book. She wore tied-dye. Nearly pulled into the kaleidoscopic spiral, I had a flashback—in the millennium there were still more tied-dye t-shirts than American flags in Berkeley. The shirt was ungodly bright and distracting. I thought that it was for the better the things were out of fashion, and besides, the American flag is far more harmonious, more ordered, esthetically speaking. I also thought perhaps I’d spent enough time during my twenties in the sixties.

I left early. I biked past the house where Patti Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army. In front of 2603 Benvenue, now a brown shingle four-unit apartment, in an otherwise home-owner neighborhood, sat a beat up Honda Civic. On the street SUVs were parked. There was a hybrid car. I expected to see a bumper sticker for gun control. I imagined the surveillance photos of Patti Hearst at the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wielding a M1 Carbine.

 

 

hearst2

 

Back to the pizza. To the students. And the future of the sixties. At work for an eight hour shift, during our transactional relationship, I ask our customers why they chose to attend UC Berkeley. My hypothesis was that somebody gave a shit about the past. My hypothesis was wrong. The reasons students give me are—the quality of education, or, I wasn’t accepted to Stanford, or Harvard, or, it was close. While keeping tally of replies, I remember something that a university professor once said—you can’t give a percentage based on a sample size under 100 respondents. It’s not representative, she said. I can safely say that, of the 110 students I questioned, 0% attend Berkeley for its past of activism or for nostalgia. They came because it ranked sixth in the world in the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. It makes sense, though. Why would you want to pay 50,000 dollars for an undergraduate degree from a school that was cool in the sixties? But it goes further than that. The students of Berkeley want to get rid of the rare vestiges of the sixties—People’s Park and the street kids. In a survey conducted by Berkeleyside, 65% of respondents said they would visit Telegraph Avenue more often if there were fewer panhandlers. Likewise, an Op-ed in the Daily Californian relates what is a common sentiment on campus: People’s Park, despite its history, should be run over with a bulldozer. It seems it took us years to get over the sixties, but we finally did.

 

Sometimes in the restaurant I hear the languages of countries where I’ve lived in the past decade. Pretending to be elsewhere, I speak a fluent French to an exchange student. Tell him I went to school in France. I converse in a clunky Arabic to a Middle Eastern Computer Programmer. Tell him I learned it in Palestine. I practice my Spanish with a coworker. “My major was languages…of course I should use my diploma… I’m looking for another job…don’t mention it to the boss.” I ask him what he thinks of California. The weather reminds him of his native Mexico. “And Berkeley?” I ask. He says the girls are cute. I agree. “No, I’m not from here,” I say. “I’m from Texas, although I could never live there. It’s too conservative.” Why the Bay Area then? “It’s one of the most picturesque cities I’ve seen.” Speaking in a language I don’t master, I employ vocabulary like favorite and best. I use hyperbole. “Great nature.” Spreading ingredients across a pizza, I want to tell him the truth—that like the street kids, the Beats before them, and the Okies before them, I initially came west looking for something. Guided by hippie clichés, it was a promise of reinventing oneself, and that, as soon as the high school graduation cap hit the ground. The San Francisco Bay Area carried that promise, and perhaps it still does for some (although you meet far fewer people who have renamed themselves “Tree” or “Wind” than you used to). Instead, I censor myself from waxing nostalgic and repeat what’s in the mouths of so many my age—“San Francisco is too expensive now.” I switch back to English to better articulate. “Oakland, on the other hand, is at a crossroads between affordable, beautiful, and busted.” He asks if I like Berkeley. “Not particularly. But I used to,” I nod to the customers, “when I was their age.”

 

Out of the corner of my eye I see the girl waiting for her pepperoni pizza. I check the oven to see if the oil has begun to gleam. “Five minutes,” I let her know. I tell the boss I’m going for a smoke and ask him to watch the oven. Clocking out, I listen to him, under his breath, attempt to wrap his brain around the day’s poor sales. “Well,” he says as he shoves his fists into his pockets, “Cal’s not playing today.” He stares longingly out the window. “I’m sure when football season starts things will really pick up. Plus it’s been raining quite a bit…” He scans the clouds on the horizon, perhaps trying to discern in the weather a sign from a Protestant God. Is he predestined to succeed? Everything that happens in the known universe somehow relates back to the success of his business. He makes calculations, projections; he remembers the great amount of money made last Saturday night. I nod. What he can’t understand is that whether business is boom or bust I still get paid the same amount of money, which is a little too close to minimum wage for comfort or for the six years I went to school. More business means more college kids snapping their fingers at choices for pizza. They live the best years of their lives on the other side of the counter where I’d rather be. They grin over the menu. Their future is bright. It is tethered to no past.

 

Outside, smoking at a reasonable distance from the restaurant, I can see straight across the San Francisco Bay to Marin. Behind me is the promontory of the Berkeley Hills. It’s gorgeous but unaffordable to live in both places. Us peasants, if we have homes, pile up in valleys. That class hierarchy should express itself through the language of geography is an unchallenged argument in Berkeley. It’s nearly feudal when you look at it from certain angles. The landed gentry—perhaps the people who lived through the sixties and came out moneyed on the other end—descend the hills in the evening. I watch a couple step out of an electric car, a Tesla. She wears alpaca. He’s bald with a pony-tail and donned in hi-tech hiking gear. He holds the door for her at an all-organic restaurant. As I take yawning drags on a cigarette, an etiolated man digs through the trash for pizza. He moves as slow as a mummy. History seems to be his burden.

 

I flick my cigarette and return to work. The girl, who I’ve completely forgotten and who my boss has completely forgotten, is still waiting on her pepperoni pizza. When I step behind the counter she licks her lips. I look in the oven. I’ve burned it, while I thought of the present, while I dwelled on the past. I offer her another pizza, for free this time.

 

“Like, we’ll be late for class,” she says between sighs. I notice a tone of revolt in her voice.

 

The Leisure Principle

3 Jul

 

I am at a conference in Palestine hosted by USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. By extension, American taxpayer dollars afford the apple Danish I stuff in my mouth. I am hungover and mope around the refreshment stand. A base creature, I am foraging for the two things I desire when sweating out a night-before: food and sex. I stave off the urge to fall asleep with an instant coffee that shakes in my hand.

In front of me a man traipses across a platform; his lisp is amplified through a cordless microphone. He’s shaped like a pear, or, given the belt that runs a fat black stripe above his generous belly, perhaps he resembles a bowling pin. His white bald head shines in the florescent light. In brief, he’s a person you can’t imagine ever getting laid (again). He asks us to sit. I pull out a chair near a woman thumbing through a pocket sized book. At first I thought it was Civilization and Its Discontents but it turns out it’s only Harry Potter. I think it’s magic how I find myself here, pouring a large glass of chilled water from an Evian bottle.

I used to believe the dichotomy of developing versus developed countries came down to using one’s left hand to wipe or using toilet paper, wearing or not wearing a seat-belt. However, Palestine is a gray zone with enough rampant consumerism to make your average American middle class family jump for joy, yet shaking someone’s hand with the left (wiping) hand is considered insulting.

In this gray zone, in militarily occupied Palestine, the order of the day is announcing a generous envelope of dollars for Palestinian non-profits. The twenty odd representatives of organizations listen attentively to the rules of the grant to be disbursed. Women are discriminated against in Palestine, the man says, therefore the kind Americans seek to remedy this by increasing women-run small businesses. The same goes for youth, who, in a patriarchal society virtually speak only when spoken to. To wit: politicians rarely listen to young people until their hair falls out like the man on the stage. The jargon is noted on papers made for the occasion, empowerment, capacity building, and income-generating activities. As the conference is in Arabic I understand only half of what the man says, particularly the jargon and the pronouns they and us.

Then I see her across the room, the only girl white enough to be a foreigner. We lock eyes.

During the coffee break I drag my heels over to her. My nonchalance is studied. She is dressed to the nines with a blouse open at the throat. Upon closer inspection I am sure I could make myself small enough to slide down between her breasts. When she speaks she closes her eyes, allowing me to survey her face without feeling self-conscious. In front of her folded hands she hasn’t even doodled marginalia on her papers. In sum, she looks professional, a co-worker you would mentally undress at the office. A two minute fantasy at the water cooler never to materialize.

The golden rule of conversation between two foreigners here is to talk about where we are from and the ridiculousness of choosing to live in a country where all the locals would leave if they could. She is from Lithuania, arrived last week, and found a job doing exactly the same thing as me. I try to remember a detail about Lithuania but come up short. I tell I’ve been here for two years. In candor I say that I would have never imagined the job description entailed so much bureaucracy, so many useless meetings in lavish conference halls. I confide in her, because that’s what I do when I feel like shit, that I am ready to leave. She said that her roommate told her this: The first year you hate the Israelis, the second year the Palestinians, and the third year you’re gone. I tell her it took me half that time. She touches me lightly on the hand and giggles. She has a silver molar.

The conference begins again. I take my seat at the other end of the hall. It’s cold. In Palestine, a developing country they say, air conditioning is seen as a luxury. Therefore pumping it in full blast denotes class. I shiver and think how her two small nipples must be hard across the frigid and sexless expanse of the room.  

We make eye contact several times, especially when others laugh at the jokes told by the bureaucrat with the microphone because we don’t understand them. She forces a laugh, her smile wreathing her perfect, un-hungover face. I complete the outline for this story between furtive glances at her breasts and the door.

In conclusion the man asks: Any questions?

I ponder the injustice of it all. How can a band of Americans waltz in here and dictate policy to a knot of note taking Palestinians? Why am I sitting in an air-conditioned room as the country is being colonized, while America slips an envelope of money into the pockets of several Palestinians and turns around and arms Israel to the teeth?

Finally, I question why I must get so drunk at night to stay sane in Palestine. I think of the absurdity of why she is over there and I in my pants with all these people and layers of clothes an obstacle between us.

After the conference I get her number and never call her.

 

 

 

 

In what decade was the 60’s?

3 May

Wall 3 Wall 1 Wall 2The first time you graff this wall you feel like a real bad-boy.

Then you realize that no one gives a fuck, especially the Israeli soldiers who are too busy doing keg-stands or water-boarding.

All the Pretty Martyrs

20 Dec
In the occupied Palestinian territories the line between art and propaganda is a thin one.

In the occupied Palestinian territories the line between art and propaganda is a thin one.

Naturalist landscapes are painted from the collective memory of a diaspora. The gold of the Dome of the Rock mosque shines in the background. The green, red, white, and black of the flag snake through the foreground. It could have been a peaceful motif with shepherds in the shade of olive trees eating oranges from Jaffa.
But history has never smiled on the Palestinians. Theirs is one of dispossession and occupation. There art is one of struggle.

Those masters of agitprop left their imprint with the hammer, sickle, and fists. Harvesting the grain became synonymous with mowing down the enemy. The Soviets were the greatest champions of the world’s underdogs! In their propaganda, which was rivaled only by Goebbels or Edward Bernays, symbolism was the key.

Once there was a Soviet flare. Those masters of agitprop left their imprint with the hammer, sickle, and fists. Harvesting the grain became synonymous with mowing down the enemy. The Soviets were the greatest champions of the world’s underdogs! In their propaganda, which was rivaled only by Goebbels or Edward Bernays, symbolism was the key.

Today the theme of apartheid is omnipresent, with the 20 foot high wall that separates Palestine from Israel providing the shared claustrophobic experience that is living under military occupation.

Today the theme of apartheid is omnipresent, with the 20 foot high wall that separates Palestine from Israel providing the shared claustrophobic experience that is living under military occupation.

Then we come to the martyrs. In Palestine the narrative of resistance is written on every street corner; murals and posters depicting shaheed stare out from the dirty brick walls.

Then we come to the martyrs. In Palestine the narrative of resistance is written on every street corner; murals and posters depicting shaheed stare out from the dirty brick walls.

It is almost an iconic art; In Gaza you can buy photos of the fallen. They hang on the walls in houses and are venerated as modern day saints.

It is almost an iconic art; In Gaza you can buy photos of the fallen. They hang on the walls in houses and are venerated as modern day saints.

It begins when they are young; instead of sketching private parts on the wall like the youth in more stable regions they draw filthy little machine guns. In Palestine children grow up quickly, their rites of passage involve slingshots. But they don't hunt squirrels.

It begins when they are young; instead of sketching private parts on the wall like the youth in more stable regions they draw filthy little machine guns. In Palestine children grow up quickly, their rites of passage involve slingshots. But they don’t hunt squirrels.

Always one to steal from those around me I thought I would try my had at propaganda

Always one to steal from better artists around me I thought I would try my hand at propaganda.

It reads: Heroes are Born when Heroes Die.

It reads: Heroes are Born when Heroes Die.

Ram'allah baby.

Ram’allah baby.

All posters except “Heroes are Born” from the Palestinian Poster Archive project www.palestineposterproject.org

Foiled escape plot

25 Nov

 

X

5 Nov

ASK ABOUT OUR LAYAWAY PLAN!

Control

23 Sep

Accidents Happen

6 Sep

Gettin’ up in the ghetto

24 Jul

Painting on the ghetto walls between the West Bank and Israel. In the background are the watchtowers where Israeli soldiers eat the lunches their mothers packed them and play with automatic weapons.

Analysis of Historiography

12 Jun

If you concentrate hard enough you can read between the lines of history, but it’s difficult, what with the sound of gunfire and all.

The War on Tourism

17 Apr

Poem for a resort town in Egypt that was bombed in 2005 and yet didn’t learn its lesson:

She had seen the sublime kaleidoscope of coral in the Red Sea

but when her oxygen tank emptied and she emerged from her dive the resort resembled a war zone.

Instead of the guided segway tours down the artificial boulevards,

with more flags flapping than a miniature golf course

and about as much soul…

Instead of the nouveaux riches

retired and tired in their chaises longues,

lounging under electrified palm trees

with no more than five stars in their sky…

Instead of the valet parking

and the bubblegum handshakes

of touts pawning counterfeit clothing,

the gated community of their smile

opening at the scent of money…

Instead of the cream filled bikini things

born in the jacuzzi of some other country

with a kinder fate than this one,

where new colonies are created every day

at the snap of their fingers…

Instead of the insignificant sound

of the hammering

of the gavel

in the form of this poem…

she exhaled, and saw the explicit damage tourism could take on a landscape

when the vengeance of the poor, embodied in a bomb,

questioned the wandering sovereignty of the monied.

The Limbic System

8 Apr

My grandfather, more of a father than my father himself,

taught me to shave before the age of eight.

I was in a rush as always

adding a half or a quarter to my age.

 

He rubbed the cream between his fingers.

They were cracked and worked

like the earth on the playground.

He was bowlegged from riding the ideal of a cowboy.

 

I took the  mirror seriously

for the first time in Texas

my faced wreathed with a fake beard

as the odor of sandalwood heralded in

a new age.

 

Two decades and a handful of continents later

I was on the other side of the world

in a chair as usual and not so hurried this time.

The barber sharpened his razor.

 

And as he applied the acrid lather

the olfactory happiness short-cut back,

and I fell out of the mirror

and into the memory of my ancestors.

I smiled at the mere thought of my grandfather.

 

“Don’t move or I’ll cut your throat” the barber cried.

 

-Nostalgia can be fatal if you let it get the best of you.

%d bloggers like this: