Travel

US government advice to soldiers headed to Syria–circa 1942

BxwCVIaIAAAqO97I came across this US War Department guidebook for American soldiers posted to the Levant during World War Two, so wrote it up for Slate‘s history blog, The Vault. The advice is often practical, sometimes Orientalist–and, at times, depressingly modern-sounding. Useful reading, in other words, for our current moment.

For all its age, the booklet’s prescription for mission success sounds thoroughly modern: “A big part of your job is to make friends for your cause—because this is a war of ideas, just as much as of tanks, planes and guns.”

As a bonus, the illustrations are pretty wonderful.

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“We’re a Zambian Band”

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My piece on the rise, fall, and rise of Jagri Chanda–once Zambia’s biggest rock star–went up recently on The Appendix. It’s an epic 50-year tale of psych-rock, Quaaludes, post-colonial politics, gemstone mining, and (yes, ultimately) redemption.

“It’s a Sunday morning in Kitwe, a colonial-era mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt. Clouds hang low, and the air is hazy. In the countryside, farmers are burning their fields in preparation for the rainy season. We’ve come to this recreation area to see an important part of the country’s musical history.

Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda hops out of a truck. Once upon a time, he was the country’s biggest rock star. As one of the founders of the “Zamrock” psychedelic rock scene of the 1970s, Jagari (an Africanization of Mick Jagger) was a household name. His songs were radio staples, groupies mobbed him, he always drank for free. Now sixty-plus years of age, he’s lost the Afro and gained a few pounds, but he retains a youthful, loose-limbed gait.

The recreation area sits on the edge of a manmade lake, and it’s a gently-ruined place. Jagari strides toward the water, past worn picnic tables and fire pits. Beyond the water lie the copper mines that power this central African country’s economy, open-cut gashes in the earth surrounded by heavily-rutted roads and streams running with mine tailings. Jagari grew up around here. He takes it all in, a dethroned king surveying his lost kingdom. “It’s rundown, as you can see,” he says. “Back then it was new.

As singer for the Witch, the biggest Zamrock band, Jagari played to packed stadiums and toured across southern Africa. This recreation area was always one of his favorite venues. Often the band played from a stage backed up to the lake. The crowd—miners, soldiers, office workers, students—caught fish, barbecued, drank, and danced. Sometimes the Witch played at night, other times in the afternoon, the show peaking as the sun set over the Copperbelt.”

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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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Talking Zamrock

Last week, I appeared on WBEZ’s Worldview radio show, talking about Zambian psych rock and my recent story for Symbolia magazine. Here’s the segment.

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Meeting Me

keithSymbolia’s short Q&A with me on music obsession, being an artist, and zombie preparedness. I wrote about Keith Kabwe and Amanaz (“Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia”) for this excellent magazine’s debut issue. (Illustration of Keith by the great Damien Scogin, whose answers to the zombie preparedness question show that he’s given it a lot more thought than I have.)

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Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia

symIt’s been a long time coming, but the premier issue of Symbolia is out. This brand-new tablet magazine is all about graphic journalism, and my contribution is the story of Zambia’s psychedelic rock movement and one of its biggest stars, Keith Kabwe–anti-colonial freedom fighter turned dope-smoking rock star turned Pentecostal preacher and gemstone miner. My friend and colleague Damien Scogin did the illustrations, which are out of this world.

Ndola, Zambia, 1974.

The equatorial sun has set and the dusty streets are cooling, but you wouldn’t know it inside the concert hall. The place is suffocatingly hot, packed with people. They have come in their multitudes, from mine workers and secretaries to government ministers, to see Keith Kabwe sing.

The band vamps, propelling itself into the song. The drums set a driving beat, followed by the bass and then the guitars, fuzzed-out and in the red. A klieg light illuminates a long rectangular box at center-stage: a coffin.

As the music peaks, the coffin opens. A skeleton springs out, a boneyard apparition in an Afro and floppy bellbottoms. The audience gasps, then roars its approval. The skeleton grabs the microphone and begins to sing. Another Amanaz show has begun.

You can download the iPad version here, and the PDF version here. The iPad version gives you the full effect, with sound files of Amanaz songs and my interviews with Keith. Both are free, but if you like what you see please subscribe to get the next six issues.

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The Thug

thugartRemember the movie Tsotsi, about a South African criminal? My story, “The Thug,” profiles a real-life tsotsi. It appears this month in the literary magazine Carte Blanche.

Most nights the crew headed north to the suburbs. Nigerian middlemen brought them orders from car buyers all across southern Africa–Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe. Maybe somebody wanted a C-class Benz, maybe a 4×4. Often, the Nigerians already had a car picked out. All Bongani had to do was take it: “We’d wait for the owner. We just ask for the keys, nothing else. If he is fighting, then we grab him and tie him with wires or ropes and put him in the house.”

They’d drive their treasure out to the empty spaces of eastern Johannesburg, half-industrial suburbs near the airport where there was plenty of privacy. The Nigerians would be there with the money.

There were four guys in Bongani’s crew, and they stole six or seven cars a week. It was lucrative: he made a few hundred dollars a week when business was good. The thieves couldn’t have done it, of course, without cooperation from the police–both black cops in the townships and white cops elsewhere. “You must have cops who know you,” he said. “You must pay the cops.”

Breaking off his story, he moved to his stoep. He swept his arms out, taking in the whole of Soweto beyond his courtyard. “I could tell you that maybe 30 cars have been stolen this morning.”

Read it here.

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Rainmaker: The Sort-of Super PAC

credoimgThe current issue of San Francisco publishes a quick Q&A I did with Becky Bond, head of Credo’s super PAC–which has the distinction of being the only super PAC out there that disapproves of super PACs. Here’s a PDF.

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Back to Zambia (kind of)

5021821668_4205b3c4d2_bIn this video, Symbolia founder Erin Polgreen gives us a walk-through of the tablet magazine’s premier issue as it comes together. My profile of Keith Kabwe, singer for 1970s Zambian psych-rock pioneers Amanaz, is slated to be in there, expertly illustrated by my friend and colleague Damien Scogin and supplemented by clips of the band’s music and my interviews with Keith.

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Capitola, CA. 12.30.2011

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Last surf of the year.

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