April 1 – 10, 2014.
“You should tell your friend you were kidnapped,” says the dark-featured young man I met a short while ago, cigarette dangling from his grinning lips. The car careens down a dusty new highway in northern Iraq. The man has a bulwark of long eyelashes around his murky eyes, and short dark hair with a hint of silver emerging from the edges. “It is April, after all,” he says with a wink. As I peer out the window, oil wells, billboards for Turkish and Russian companies, and craggy mountains whiz by.
“Çok ayıp!” I scream at the battalion of riot police, momentarily losing all semblance of journalistic objectivity. “Shame on you!” They resemble fascist astronauts with their black uniforms, white helmets, glass visors, and gas masks. Many of them can hardly grow a beard. I’d finally lost my temper after a blast of pressurized water from the hulking TOMA water-cannon truck nearby soaked me and my camera and launched my phone from my hand.
“We had escaped a place where evil stared right at you from the sockets of a child’s skull on a battlefield, only to arrive in London, where office workers led lives of such tedium and plenty that they had to entertain themselves with all the fucking and killing on the big screen. So, here then was the prosperous, democratic and civilized Western world. A place of washing machines, reality TV, Armani, frequent-flier miles, mortgages. And this is what the Africans are supposed to hope for, if they’re lucky.”
– Aidan Hartley, The Zanzibar Chest
It’s recently become fashionable to be “positive” when writing or speaking about Africa. We’re told that there’s been too much negative media about the continent in modern times. I suppose journalists were supposed to simply ignore the deluge of wars, genocides, tyrants, famines, coups, and failed states because they don’t always show Africa as a “happy” place.
“Even at their best, African cities seemed to me miserable improvised anthills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisers of cruel scams. Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves […] I swore that I would never return to the stinking buses, the city streets reeking of piss, the lying politicians, the schemers, the twaddlers, the crooks, the moneychangers taking advantage of weak currency and gullible people, the American God-botherers and evangelists demanding baptisms and screaming “Sinners!” – and forty years of virtue-industry CEOs faffing around with other people’s money and getting no results, except Africans asking for more […] Perhaps that was why I liked rural Africa so much and avoided towns, because in villages I saw self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture. In the towns and cities, not the villages, I felt the full weight of all the broken promises and thwarted hope and cynicism.”
- Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
A few small brain chunks are all that remain of the man on the street. My girlfriend Mahi and I walk past the lurching throng of crying Ethiopians. Myself, a thoroughly desensitized Westerner, feel only a detached curiosity, and perhaps a hint of jealousy at how emotional Ethiopians can be. If onlookers at a car accident cried in New York, Toronto, or London, they would be subjected to a flurry of bewildered and even mocking looks. This uncontrolled show of empathy contrasts sharply with the seemingly total disregard for human life one often sees in this part of the world, exhibited in the way people drive or how police beat the hoi polloi at the drop of a hat.
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.