Middle East

Sightseeing in a Police State: a Syrian Travelogue

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In the late 1990s, long before the Arab Spring and the massacres of the civil war, I traveled to Syria as a tourist. This is a memoir-ish account of what it was like to go sightseeing in a dictatorship.

At the time, Syria was terra incognita to most Americans. I knew the bare geopolitical facts: Cold War bogeyman, foe of Washington and Tel Aviv, ally of Iran and Hezbollah, but that’s about it. A few years later, I’d return to the region as a journalist, working in Egypt and then in Palestine, covering the second Intifada. In 1997, though, I was twenty-two and, in my own half-formed way, curious about the world. I chose Syria because it sounded cool and vaguely dangerous. Above all, I wanted an answer to one ethically queasy question: What did sightseeing in a dictatorship feel like?

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A Spurious “Smoking Gun”

smokinggunIn commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, here’s a piece I wrote for Mother Jones back in March 2003. It’s about the lies that got us into a war.

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Jimi Hendrix, Musical Esperanto

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My newest piece for Thought Catalog, a meditation on the legacy of Jimi Hendrix, and his use as a catch-all comparison for all sorts of non-Western music.

I’m not sure exactly when I first heard a musician from some far-flung spot on the globe described as the “Jimi Hendrix of [insert place name here].”

It’s only natural to reach for some sort of shorthand to translate the esoteric sounds of distant cultures into a language understandable to anyone with a passing knowledge of western culture. People might not know what a kamelengoni is (for the record, it’s a 12-stringed, harp-like instrument), but when you describe Vieux Kante as the Hendrix of the kamelengoni, everyone gets it: the guy’s a badass.

Read the whole thing here.

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The inundation of the Nile

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Third in an occasional series of found photographs. This is a stereoscope from 1900, depicting a pastoral, pre-Pyramids Road Giza district, a place without sleazy discos, papyrus shops, and choking exhaust.

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PR Occupied Berkeley

proccupiedberkMy exploration of the struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on the UC Berkeley campus, in which I trace a decade of passion, protest, and bad behavior, runs in this month’s California magazine.

Every spring since 2001, a group of earnest, impassioned students has gathered near Sather Gate, cordoning part of it off with emergency tape. Some of them don faux uniforms and brandish mock M-16s; others wear keffiyehs and traditional Arab robes. Then the actors set up a military checkpoint, a simulacrum of the hundreds of real checkpoints that pepper the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The “soldiers” allow “Israeli settlers” to pass unmolested while they yell at the “Palestinians.” They bind the wrists of a young man, forcing him to lie face down on the concrete; another they “shoot.” There is fake blood, a makeshift stretcher, the wailing of the wounded and bereaved.

Created by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the mock checkpoints first appeared at Berkeley, and have spread to schools from Arizona State to Yale. It’s easy to see why.

The checkpoints are just one of the most visible elements in a decade-long, tit-for-tat struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on campus. It is waged through Palestinian movie nights and Zionist picnics; tables in Sproul stacked with literature quoting Edward Said and Theodor Herzl; and Palestinian “die-ins” and pro-Israel hip-hop shows. Ron Hendel, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies sums it up: “It’s a PR war.”

And wars are never pretty. Partisans have engaged in online flame wars in the comments sections of local newspapers, disrupted speeches by visiting scholars with shouted obscenities, and scrawled swastikas (aimed at both sides) on campus walls. Students even got into a fight at a 2008 campus concert.

In its dynamics, this local fight often echoes the flesh-and-blood conflict in the Holy Land—minus, thankfully, the body count.

Check it out.

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Give me your tired, your poor, your Internet-censored…

You can’t throw a rock in Silicon Valley without hitting some dude in business casual claiming his start-up is revolutionary. Sometimes, though, it’s actually true. Such is the case with AnchorFree, which makes software enabling activists to block their governments’ Internet-blockers, without being traced by the authorities. Indeed, without software like this, people in less-than-free countries might not be able to get on Facebook or Twitter to plan protests. It’s been used to good effect in Egypt, Libya, and is in heavy rotation in China and Saudi Arabia, too. The new issue of San Francisco magazine runs a short piece of mine on these guys, who just set out to make money and ended up aiding the Arab uprisings. How’s that for “Don’t be Evil”?

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Atar, Mauritania

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(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Atar, Mauritania, 2007.

Riding the line between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania is three-quarters sand and, thanks to creeping desertification, growing more desiccated by the day. This is the land of the Moors, Africanized descendants of the Arabs who once ruled Spain, a nomadic and arch-conservative people who lord it over their black countrymen. Slavery, though officially outlawed, is still a fact of life.

The Moors are (to generalize a bit) taciturn to the point of caricature, indifferent to outsiders, and uncommonly hostile to photographers. A man jumped out of a Mercedes to scold me for photographing a wall; even little kids wagged their fingers. “Haram!, Haram!” they yelled. It’s forbidden.

After a few days of these frustrating interactions, it was refreshing to stumble on a black neighborhood in Atar, the gateway city to the Sahara. Evening was coming on, and the desert was cooling off. The streets stirred to life as the sun began to drop. Kids swarmed everywhere, kicking a soccer ball. Adults emerged from their homes, headed for the market. People smiled at us.

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Urban Africa

Maputo, Mozambique

I’ve got close to 20 images in “4xAfrica,” an exhibition showing at Rayko photo gallery in San Francisco from January 27 – February 27. My photos span a decade of work, from Cairo to Cape Town. The opening is Thursday, January 27, from 6-8 pm, so if you’re in the Bay Area, please stop by and say hello.

The accompanying essay is below. For those who can’t make it to the gallery, I’ve put the photos into a set on Flickr. In the days to come, I’ll post a few of the photos, along with the mini-stories that go along with them.

457844090_229d4c3314_o1First we buy the meat, a pile of spicy red sausage, at a strip-mall butcher shop. Then we get the beer, lugging it past an armed guard at the door who zealously tears our receipt. Then the grilling commences, at a public fire-pit on the grassy verge separating the mall parking lot and the main road, which cuts through northern Soweto in a roar of honking minibuses. Hip hop and local house music blare from one of our cars. We eat and drink under the highveld sun.

As the beer flows, we talk about the world-beating incompetence of the national soccer team; about the perils of jealous neighbors paying witchdoctors to curse you; and about the merits of Facebook. A group of girls wanders by, and a few of the guys chat them up.

511089638_205e9fc2d0_o1My friend Tumi turns to me. “The first time you came here, were you expecting lions and tigers?” he jokes.

Mention Africa, and most people think of savannas and deserts, game parks and thatched-roof huts. It is a dizzyingly varied place–with so many countries and cultures, how could it fail to be?–and resists easy generalization. Like the rest of the world, however, Africa is rapidly urbanizing: by 2015, close to half of the continent’s population will live in cities.

3976819575_5884ed3733_o2Take Soweto, the largest of South Africa’s black townships, 20 miles south of Johannesburg and home to some 4 million people. It is a geography of extremes. Some neighborhoods are filled with tin-roofed squatter shacks, where people get their water from communal standpipes and filch electricity from the main grid. But it is also a place of crisp, modern housing complexes bristling with satellite dishes and monolithic new fieldstone-and-glass shopping malls. There are banks, luxury shops, and cafes where young professionals peck away on Macbooks.

3976811035_b50ec5dc0c_o1Indeed, what used to be an undifferentiated grey mass on apartheid-era maps, a warehouse to store Johannesburg’s black labor between working hours, has become a city in its own right. And Soweto is now part of a nearly unbroken strip of office towers, low-rise suburbs, and shantytowns stretching from southern Johannesburg to Pretoria, 30 miles away. Maybe 9 million people live here now, and more arrive every day in search of opportunities the countryside can’t provide. They call it Egoli, or City of Gold.

Places like Soweto are increasingly the story of how Africans live, from Mali’s low-slung cities, which unfurl across the land in dusty folds of cement and rebar, to Zambia’s Copperbelt, an archipelago of sleepy, seedy mining towns running along the Congo border, studded by precious minerals and checkpoints.

457886411_30ca203d12_o1My friends come from these places. Zé was working for a rental car company in Maputo, Mozambique, when I met him, and living in a decrepit Chinese-built skyscraper in the capital. The elevator hadn’t worked for years, so he trudged up and down the 14 floors to his apartment in the subtropical heat. Dale, a 32-year-old political organizer and jack-of-all trades, grew up in Lusaka, Zambia, part of the first generation of Zambians to be born in cities in large numbers. He sometimes goes out to his father’s small wildcat mine “in the bush,” as he calls it, and I get the sense that it’s almost as much an adventure for him as it would be for me.

457878679_0b79fab431_o1Urbanization, of course, brings with it a loss of tradition. Many of us have seen the news reports about Masai warriors working as night watchmen in Nairobi. But some of the old ways endure. There’s an African concept called ubuntu, meaning that one’s identity is bound to that of the family and the neighborhood. More or less, ubuntu enjoins people to look out for one another. In South Africa, it staved off the collapse of black society under apartheid. What the concept means nowadays for my friends is responsibility. These guys hold up the sky for everyone around them. Thami, a 30-year-old activist in Soweto, supports his son, his girlfriend, his mother, and her two teenage daughters by another father. Plus, because he has a job, every corner kid hits him up for cash. They call him a “cheeseboy,” and sometimes threaten him if he doesn’t cough up beer money.

457869073_d1487c4f98_o1Years ago, Thami’s elders marched in the streets, firebombed buildings, and at great cost won political freedom. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, whose lives were largely defined by the anti-apartheid struggle, guys like Thami face different challenges. Unemployment in Soweto is estimated at 40 percent, so everybody has to hustle. Most everyone is an entrepreneur of some sort: door-to-door salesman, restaurateur, even car thief.

457869077_cd466fbf6e_o1Back at the barbecue, the bottles are piling up. Thami proposes a toast of sorts. “Sometimes when it gets too hard I think of how far I’ve come,” he says. “Just staying alive until now is something to celebrate.” He raises his beer.

The sun turns red, dropping behind the mall and, beyond it, the manmade mountains separating Soweto from Johannesburg. These hills, flat-topped heaps of castoff dirt and rock, are the byproduct of the gold mines that made Jo’burg the richest city on the continent. In the waning light, even these mine dumps look like bars of gold.

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Goal!

The World Cup has finally begun (read my new South Africa piece here, starting at pg. 71), and in honor of the globe’s most popular game, I’ve compiled a quick portfolio of soccer-related photos from Africa and the Middle East. You can see most of these images, in larger form, on Flickr.

Pimville, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

Pimville, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

Midan Hussein, Cairo, Egypt, 2000. I took this photo of an impromptu midnight game during Ramadan.

Midan Hussein, Cairo, Egypt, 2000. I took this photo of an impromptu midnight game during Ramadan.

Maputo, Mozambique, 2002.

Maputo, Mozambique, 2002.

Colesberg, Northern Cape, South Africa, 2002. Note the color differential between players and coaches. It's the same with many of Africa's national teams today.

Colesberg, Northern Cape, South Africa, 2002. Note the color differential between players and coaches. It's the same with many of Africa's national teams today.

Gaza City, Gaza, 2001. I took this photograph in Beach Refugee camp, close to the Mediterranean but locked away from the world. Things were bad then, during the second Intifada. Things are worse now.

Gaza City, Gaza, 2001. I took this photograph in Beach Refugee camp, close to the Mediterranean but locked away from the world. Things were bad then, during the second Intifada. Things are worse now.

Atar, Mauritania, 2007. Mauritania is an insular place, and most people don't go out of their way to make you feel welcome. These kids were the exception.

Atar, Mauritania, 2007. Mauritania is an insular place, and most people don't go out of their way to make you feel welcome. These kids were the exception.

Soccer field, Jabulani, Soweto, South Africa, 2006.

Soccer field, Jabulani, Soweto, South Africa, 2006.

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Joy

Note for note, Sudan produces some of the most infectiously happy-sounding music I’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s the country’s position at the fulcrum of Africa, its mixing of North and South, East and West, Arab and sub-Saharan Africa. All of these influences–the pentatonic scales, the brass and strings, the crisp percussion and soaring, crooning vocals–are on display in this clip by the legendary Mohammed Wardi, recorded during a concert he played in Addis Ababa in the 1990s. Wardi, who was a teacher until Sudanese state radio plucked him out of obscurity in the 1950s, has seen more than his share of hardship–he spent years in prison, then went into exile for pissing off the thugs who pass themselves off as Sudan’s legitimate government–but you wouldn’t know it from this clip.

I’ve never seen Wardi play live, but I have seen another Sudanese legend, a guitarist and singer named Sharhabeel Ahmed (naturally, he has a Facebook page), when I was working in Cairo about ten years ago. He played a free show somewhere in Gezira, I think, to an open-air courtyard stuffed front to back with Sudanese. Cairo, of course, has a huge population of Sudanese–workers, refugees, exiles of all sorts–and it seemed like they all came out on this hot July night. Ahmed wore a galabeyah, his guitar slung over his shoulder, something of the wise old man about him. His band was tight, the sound sugary and kind of liquid in the heat. The guys around me were losing their minds. Near the end of the show, he played one of his signature songs (if memory serves, it’s El Leil El Hady) and the place went nuts. After he finished the song, the crowd continued to chant the chorus, a wave rolling across the courtyard.

Then Ahmed did something I’ve never seen a musician do, before or since: He played the song again, note for note. And the crowd went crazy all over again.

So check it out for yourself: This stuff positively buzzes with joy.

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