Monday, April 21, 2014

The Sinai

Maybe your mind started wandering in synagogue this weekend and you flipped to the back of your Etz Chayim chumash to find several colorized maps of the biblical Near East--the division of the land between the tribes of Israel, the realms of the various Canaanite peoples, as well as those of the Assyrians, Edomites, Philistines, etc. It's Passover, so the one that seized my attention was a map depicting the "traditional" and "alternative" routes of the Exodus. It offers some familiar features--Raphia (modern-day Rafah) and Gaza were inhabited 3,000 years ago, as was the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, which isn't far from the present-day Egyptian capital of Cairo. The cities of Ramses and Pithom are no longer with us, and neither is the Great Bitter Sea, an inland salt lake that once stretched across the thin neck of land separating the Mediterranean from the Red Sea. But for me, the map had an almost eerie contemporary resonance because of the two speculated routes of the Exodus, which happen to vaguely mirror the Sinai's modern-day highway system.
To get from Cairo to the Israeli port city of Eilat, you could drive straight east, through the mountains of the northern Sinai before descending to Taba--roughly following the wanderings of the Israelites if they had taken the map's "alternate" route. In the "traditional" route, the Israelites hugged the peninsula's shadeless western coast and then began cutting eastward, into a monotonous and utterly barren labyrinth of wadis and box canyons. They received the law at present-day Jebel Musa, and then wandered in the (in this case literal) wilderness for forty years. A modern-day traveler might follow a nearly-identical route, at least up to St. Katherine's Monastery, which has sat at the base of Jebel Musa for over 1600 years.
According to one of my college professors, the Ancient Egyptians didn't consider the Sinai to be part of their or anyone else's domain. The Egyptians ruled over Nilotic Egypt and campaigned in ancient Palestine, but Sinai belonged to the gods--or possibly to no one. It's possible that to them, Sinai wasn't just a no-man's land, but actual negative space, a place that violently rejected anything with hubris enough to claim it. In the Hebrew Bible, the Sinai is the venue for history's single clearest and most intense point of contact between God and humanity, but the power of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and the narrative and theolgoical force of the Israelites' subsequent wanderings, depends on this Ancient Egyptian sense of the Sinai's complete otherness in comparison with the rest of the known world. It's a place where God appears and where magical sources of food and water can sprout from the ground, but it's also the embodiment of a nightmare, a place where it's possible to get lost for decades at a time and revolt against the same God that sustains you. Above all, the Sinai is a metaphorical and literal obstacle separating the elation of freedom (happy Passover, readers!) from the true fulfillment of the promises of freedom. Beyond it lies peoplehood, enfranchisement, and eventually redemption, but there is no "beyond it" when you're in it. Or so it can seem.
During my couple of visits to the Sinai, I understood instinctively how it's possible to get lost there for forty years, or at least why such a thing must have seemed plausible to the early inheritors of Israelite mythology. I would look around the empty roadways, threading through dizzy hours of identical, jagged mountain ranges, and think yes, this makes sense now. Similarly: Whatever route the Israelites followed--whether there was even an Exodus at all, historically speaking--the map in the back of Etz Chayim suggests a kind of jarring continuity across nearly the entire span of recorded civilization: to the Sinai's disparate yet strangely congruent meanings, its existence beyond the outer frontiers of temporal politics and even the human spirit, in a space that maybe only God or nothingness can truly claim.
It goes without saying that the Sinai isn't empty, and it isn't immune from the politics of the region, as it might have been in ancient times. Hundreds of thousands of people currently live there, although most of them are clustered along the peninsula's northern coast. And it isn't all madness and spiritual angst. Sharm El Sheikh is lovely, if overdeveloped and sadly deserted at the moment. In Sinai, the waters of the Red Sea are mirror-clear, and one often gets the disorienting illusion of swimming in nothing at all. An hour to the north, Dahab feels gloriously forgotten about; a self-balancing ecosystem of divers--many of them long-term expats--and the locals who attend to their needs. Hashish wafts down the corniche during warm and languid nights; there are no large resorts and few foreigners who are there for anything other than the diving life. Taba isn't terrible either, even if a traveler's sole reason for going there is to cross the border into Israel, which is not a quick or a fun process. Saint Katherine's does a brisk business in package tours, although most visitors come from Sharm or Eilat or even Hurghada, view the sunrise from the top of Mt Sinai, and then retreat to their respective beach resorts by the early afternoon, thus turning the Bedouin village of St Katherine's into a depressed litter of empty, husk-like hotels and guest houses.
The Sinai is a real place, and should be treated as one. Of course, it's a real place whose power--for me, at least--is rooted in myth and belief and an attendant and very specific inventory of culturally-informed experiences and perceptions. But I'll try to keep things as grounded and descriptive as possible from here on out. 
A STOP AT A CHECKPOINT: Leaving Cairo in the summer of 2013 would have been a surreal experience even if there hadn't been tanks stationed along the highway connecting the capital to the Sinai--Egypt's eastern desert is a carpet of gray dullness under an even duller sky, with grids of uninhabited apartment complexes hulking just off of the highway. Twice I've driven this route; both times, the strangeness of seeing so many unfinished and uninhabited buildings in such a difficult environment kept me glued to the bus window, straining my eyes towards the empty balconies and half-paved streets of distant, high-rise ghost towns. Who was supposed to live there? Who even built them, and why did they stop? Is it some kind of tax scam? Eventually the bus reaches the Sinai, those ruined targets of fascination disappear, the day drags on, all traffic vanishes, and it becomes impossible to stay awake. 
But sleep wasn't an option this past summer, because there were army checkpoints set up before, after, and indeed in between every town in Sinai. I'd fall asleep for 20 or 30 minutes, wake up with an 18-year old conscript asking for my passport, and then fall back asleep as soon as he was satisfied that I wasn't a terrorist, or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, or whatever they were looking for, exactly--if they were looking for anything. Have terrorists really ever been found on an East Delta Transport bus? Were the checkpoints performative, or were they a way to keep the soldiery occupied and alert amidst the violence and uncertainty of late August 2013, a mere two weeks after the massacres at Rabah at Nahda?
At about the dozenth checkpoint I was asked to get off the bus, and told to fetch my baggage from the cargo hold. The Sinai's is a dry, clean heat with none of Cairo's weighty smog, or the Nile's suffocating mugginess. But because the sky and air are so clear and empty, the sun is like the blinding lamp of an old dentist's chair, except channeled into a single, all-pervading bolt of pure heat. After hours on a dimly-lit bus, the eyes ache even under an intense squint, and it's hard to keep them pried open.
So I stared out of a foggy slit at the three people in front of me:  two conscripts, both in fatigues and both several years younger than I, and a crew-cut, muscular, and slightly older man in a pink polo shirt and aviators. The conscripts began chuckling, and could barely suppress their laughter through the entirety of our interaction. This was the best entertainment they'd had all day.
What are you doing in Egypt?, the man in the polo shirt asked me, in English, arms folded, like a man who finally, after days, maybe weeks of this shit, finally had the chance to play a plainclothes checkpoint goon, like really play one. Tourist, I said. Seeing some sights. Had you met anyone in Cairo? No one of any particular note, I said. Did you talk about politics in Cairo? Of course not.
At this point I realized I wasn't in any particular danger: if they arrested me, they would have to figure out what to do with me. To arrest me would have diminished the entire point of hauling me off of the bus, i.e., if you were bored and in the middle of nowhere and fortune threw a US citizen across your path during one of those spikes in anti-Americanism that have occasionally seized post-revolutionary Egypt, actually arresting him would complicate or even totally spoil the fun of just messing with him. Why not. What else is there to do. I mean, just look around.
What did I think of the Egyptian military? Well, the Israelis nearly wiped out your entire armed forces on multiple occasions and your only real military victory of the last century involved gassing Yemeni villagers, and a US military source once told me that he believed Iraq's army to be more battle-ready and in some respects more competent than yours--just kidding, I didn't really say that. Of course your country has a fine and heroic military, I said.
Then he got to the question he had really been building towards--Hell, maybe he had spent the past week scouring every East Delta Transport bus for an American citizen he could hammer with this one, his practiced and even lawyerly coup de grace: ah, he said. But don't we kill innocent civilians, like at Rabah and Nahda?
No, I countered with utter certainty and conviction, summoning every ounce of solemnity and respect, savoring, on some very conscious level, the chance to buy into an attractive falsehood, to project a confident actors' fiction in such an arrestingly strange place, to luxuriate in an absurd yet nevertheless quite nerve-racking set of circumstances--those people were terrorists.
Very well, the polo shirt and aviators said, handing me back my passport and beckoning towards the waiting bus. You are permitted to continue on your journey.
THE RESORT IN TABA: The Sol y Mar Resort in Taba has over 300 rooms, configured in two interlocking crescents surrounding a pair of lagoon-style swimming pools, each with its own swim-up bar and volleyball net. It has three restaurants and a night club and one of those fake bazaars that every beach resort in Egypt seems to have. Most of these things are closed now. In late August, 2013, I spent a single and indescribably relaxing night in a ground-floor poolside suite with a patio, BBC News, three free meals, and all the Stella and low-grade, Windex-disguised-as-Vodka I could drink, all for a measly $52. There were fewer than 60 other guests at the resort; I was told that by the next week, there would be fewer than 30. There had been some Polish and German guests the week before, but their government had advised them to leave.
If you're a working-class Brit in search of a cheap vacation, you could do worse than Taba, a beautiful and comparatively exotic destination that comes in at a fraction of the price of the Portuguese Riviera. Every remaining guest was British. They would wait expectantly by the poolside bar until 10 AM rolled around, then blow through cigarettes and awful Egyptian beer until lunch, then nap through the afternoon. They said they couldn't imagine what the place must be like when it isn't virtually empty--like they would feel cheated if they came back, and people were actually there.
But at least the Sol y Mar actually had people in it. See most of the hotels along the coast between Dahab and the Israeli border are abandoned. The shoreline is like a conceptual artist's madcap deconstruction of the very possibility of fun: it's crowded with bungalow villages, grass-hut backpacker dives with names like the Blue Wave or Paradise Bay, and without exception, they are empty and in varying and variously-scenic states of ruin. Some of them have Hebrew-language signage out front; all of them are strewn with rotting palm-fronds or littered with fraying roof thatch. The coast is a like a cemetery of fun--fun was had here, but now look: fun will never be had here again. Look, here, at the collapsed rooftops of Blue Lagoon Beach, or the immaculately-stucco'd exteriors of at the utterly deserted Red Sea Resort: this is what's left of fun once time and heat and reality have their way with it.
SHARM ARCHITECTURE: The road connecting Shark's Bay and Na'ama Bay is a museum of kitsch. This might be a turnoff for the unenviably joyless among us, but one can see classical amphitheaters and medieval frescoes in literally dozens of countries. Where else does one see Olympic-sized Roman baths in a perfect state of repair, with equestrians and legionnaires bursting from terraced balconies of radiating reinforced concrete? What about sphinxes and ziggurats lined with dancing electric lights, or fiberglass dinosaurs, necks shadowing the lustrous green of a nearby mosque dome? Las Vegas I guess, but Sharm is even more isolated and its kitsch is more contrived; Las Vegas's tastelessness is of a uniquely American and organic variety, whereas Sharm's is totally imported--and imported to a corner of the planet that beguiling enough to begin with.
The walk from my hotel to the beach passed under the approach to Ophira Airport, a bolt of noisy wasteland where no self-respecting developer would attempt to build anything. It had turned into an informal landfill--sun-beaten piles of old concrete and drywall, trenches filled with old plastic and glass, mounds of packed-together garbage. At the end of the road is the fake castle to end them all, with turrets and crenelations, a fat donjon made out of coral desert stone, cast against still mountains and a placid sea.
THE HOTEL-MANAGER: One day I woke up in Sharm, and checked twitter to discover that in north Sinai, terrorists had killed over 30 policeman, execution-style. They were on a bus together, traveling back to their homes in the Delta. It was a fearful and heartless act, this waylaying of a vehicle and the slaughter of everyone onboard, and it happened just under three hours from the empty, $30-a-night, 3-star resort where I was staying. I went to the beach, because what else was there really to do.
The man who ran the Longina Hotel in Shark's Bay wore jeans and faux-vintage shirts, ones with the covers of comic books or old movie posters on them. He spoke slow, loud and friendly English, and he seemed both baffled and delighted at my presence--at his hotel of all the hundreds along the coast, and just a few days after the killings at Raba and Nahada, too. He never asked me what I was doing in Sharm, never wondered why a single American had dropped by his otherwise-empty resort. His staff spent much of the day napping in the atrium of the deserted clubhouse, for lack of anything else to do.
The resort's restaurant hadn't been open for awhile, but he took me aside one morning and asked me to share a plate of fuul with him. Why had the army thrown away his vote? he wanted to know. I didn't support the Brotherhood. I didn't vote for them. But the army didn't care who I, who any of us had wanted in charge. 
Eleven-hundred people were gassed in Damascus, he said. Hundreds of children. Defenseless children. Babies. Why? I sipped my tea; I shrugged off the question. Then I went to the beach.
MOUNT SINAI: In 2011, I climbed Mount Sinai with two Frenchmen and a local guide. I was carrying a small library with me--piles of books and magazines and notebooks that I'd accumulated over three weeks of reporting in Egypt. In the hot darkness the weight of my backpack was wringing my body dry, and I kept asking to stop. There was no rush to get to the top, and the Frenchmen didn't seem to mind the slow climb.
Let's sit here for a moment, one of them recommended about halfway up the mountain. Let's just sit here and listen to the silence.
There were no cars, no rustling vegetation or birdsong, no wind, no lights in the distance, no planes overhead. It was absolute and deafening; a mortal, transporting silence, disembodying and severe. It was a self-obliterating silence in which my perspective seemed to drift outside of itself and into the voidlike near distance, then sink into the invisible and ancient mountain, then return all at once, in a conscious realization of how tired I was, how tight my back felt, how much further we still had to climb. But for a moment, we heard the faint whisper of prophetic silence, the still-detectable residue of what had happened there.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Juba, March, 2012

Some background as to what this is. Before leaving for South Sudan, Tunisia and Egypt in March of 2012, I sent an email to an editor at a well-known New York literary magazine explaining my travel itinerary and admiration for the magazine's work, and wondering in kind of a general sense if they'd be interested in something from me. I received a response a few days after returning to New York--sure, the editor said, apologizing for the six-week delay. Come to our offices and we can talk about a possible project. 

South Sudan had been a shattering experience; not transformative or negative, exactly, but profound in ways that I was still working through in my own mind. So I found myself pitching a travelogue about cosmopolitanism in war zones and former war zones, something about how conflict brings together people from all over the world who would otherwise have nothing  to do with one another--aid workers, profiteers, mercenaries, contractors, politicians, ect--thus creating a kind of a generic, stateless space, something deceptively open and hopeful, but carved out of the gangrenous flesh of the societies surrounding them. Or maybe I pitched a travelogue about normalcy--about what a place like Juba revealed about normalcy as a concept, and about how places establish and maintain some version of normalcy even under abnormal circumstances, and whether that normalcy is a coping mechanism and a lie, or whether it reflects a deeper strength that isn't visible from thousands of miles away. The editor said that she'd be unable to pay me, but gave me a piece of advice that would provide the inspiration that really brought this essay into being: we like to tell our contributors to write something you can't get paid for, she said. 

(By the way, it may be difficult for people who aren't professional writers to grasp how profound this is. Money and writing are synonymous for members of our tribe; simply giving your writing away wastes your own time and devalues the work of your professional colleagues. Which poses the question: what kind of writing would one do for free if one were in principal opposed to it? In order for it to be worth it write for free, what kind of personal or even spiritual need would the process have to fulfill? And it invites an experiment: What would the results be if one accepted the constraint that the resulting piece was to have no commercial value?)

For my first couple months at The Atlantic, an email back from the editor felt more validating than the actual publication of an article. It didn't matter that those emails were in response to messages that I had sent her first--any word back on my submission? etc. The fact that someone at a literary magazine was looking at it meant that I was capable of producing something with potential literary merit--that seas would rise, servers would melt, humans would die off, and maybe, just maybe there would still be physical proof lodged in the ruins of some college library or magazine archive that I had created something worth preserving. It almost didn't matter when the magazine eventually rejected the piece--it was heartening to have been strung along for that long, I told myself.

When a second magazine turned it down, I decided not to console myself at all and just put the thing down for awhile and move on. I declared the project over. It was a fast transition, and one that I don't even really understand in retrospect--it's like it almost didn't register as a failure. Maybe I just didn't want to face the reality that the thing was literally unpublishable. A journalist friend offered to post it on his blog; I politely declined. I thought of posting it here, and then kept finding excuses not to. Over time, the essay's existence began to inspire the kind of anxiety and fear that every past accomplishment inspires for me. Over even more time, it ceased to inspire any feeling within me at all, other than curiosity as to whether it was really as good as I remembered it being. I'm far enough away from it that I'm unsure how much of it is true to Juba as I experienced it, and how much if it is tainted by sentiment or idealism--I'm not sure how good it is anymore.

One thing is certain: the South Sudan I perceived in March of 2012 isn't the South Sudan that actually exists. And while it's true that there was somewhat less triumphalism and militancy evident on the streets of Juba than I had expected, I was naive in the sense that I assumed the SPLM to be rational, western-leaning and even proto-democratic, when of course they are as ideological, insular and opportunistic as any other guerrilla movement (although they are, it must be said, infinitely better than the pre-treaty, pre-independnece status quo). This isn't something I necessarily fault them for--I am still convinced that the sense of South Sudan's "failure" is founded on a position of external privilege. It's a talking point largely spouted by people who have little sense of the country's actual challenges, which are steeper than those faced by any other country on earth. But there is, of course, no contradiction between the fact that conditions within South Sudan are more dire and more complicated than many people realize--and the fact that I was obviously looking at the place through far too optimistic a lens.  This is the perspective of someone who had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before, and it shows.

There are other ridiculous things about this essay, too. It's way too world-weary and self-serious. There are places where I should have eased up. There are some bits that confuse external speech and internal monologue in a way that sorta bogs the whole thing down. There are some worthwhile thoughts that I brush past, and some dumb thoughts that I explore. It definitely doesn't deserve this long of a preamble, but hey, here we are. Anyway. Enjoy.

Special thanks for Michael Totten, Dov Friedman and Samir Paul, who looked at early versions of this piece.


Juba, March, 2012

For most foreigners, a trip to Juba, which lies amidst oceanic stretches of apparent nothing, dry plains that from the air resemble sand left damp from a receding tide--must necessarily begin at the city’s airport. Let’s start there. Or let’s start in the rough grasses surrounding the airport’s single runway, where a fatigue-colored fighter jet is slowly being reclaimed by nature. Wrecked planes are a feature of every airport in South Sudan. In Wau, a graveyard of rusting fighters sits just inside the airport perimeter; in Rumbek, a ruined fuselage rots in a busy street. As for the un-wrecked planes—in Juba, three distinct categories of aircraft are immediately observable. The largest in number, which sit at the far end of the runway, furthest from the single-storey passenger terminal, are white UN aircraft—helicopters, some of them heavy troop transports with rotors folded over the side; commercial jets with the World Food Service’s logo on the tail wing, hulking cargo planes. Closer in are neat rows of evenly-spaced Cessnas belonging to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, along with other, more obscure groups. Closest to the terminal are a small collection of planes from off-brand airlines; Marsland Aviation, Feeder Air, Kush, and Nasair are represented. All commercial passenger flights to Juba originate somewhere in the African continent, and half of them seem to originate in Khartoum.

The airport was the last thing the North Sudanese handed over to the newly-independent South when they left in July of 2011, and one pilot complained bitterly to me about the sheer incompetence of Southern air-traffic controllers, who were nervy and poorly-trained, at least compared to their Kenyan and Ugandan counterparts, and would ask for altitude and distance like every fucking thirty seconds. They would do it on a single radio frequency—there were no separate channels for approach and takeoff and landing, just a hopeless tangle of voices talking on top of one another, in different accents and at different volumes. Compounding the dangers in this already busy airspace was the air traffic control tower’s alarming lack of radar. Everything is done procedurally, based on the location of approaching and departing planes and the present takeoff and landing queue, which is first-come-first-serve. Not even the UN gets priority. But the anarchy ends as soon as you land, at which point the fledgling and cash-strapped South Sudanese government presents you with a bill for all sorts of services that are virtually free everywhere else. In Entebbe, Uganda, the government-imposed landing fee is $25. In Juba, it’s $116. Overnight parking in Juba is $70. It’s $6 in Entebbe.

An aviation connoisseur, or someone who spent a lot of time at the Air and Space Museum as a young boy, will be immediately intrigued by the veritable air show that awaits him. There are the Antonovs, glass-nosed Russian monsters with 32 wheels and red-lipped jet engines that taper menacingly in front. Less forbidding are the tube-shaped Hawkers built in the 1960s, or the boxy DC-3s that rolled off the assembly line towards the end of World War II, but are still airworthy, and can take off and land on as little as 900 feet of dirt runway. They carry medicine and generators and sometimes even vehicles to place-names of ambiguous linguistic and historical origin—Perriyang and Aweil and Malakal, dirt strips and dried lakebeds and places that appear on no map.

A serviceable Hawker jet, with room for a dozen passengers and several thousand pounds of cargo will only set you back $2 million or so, one pilot explained to me. But this piece of shit brakes down all the time. There’s a reason you see planes like this out here, gutted commercial jets, busted Russian helicopters. They’re obsolete anywhere else.


In Juba itself, you expect to see graves. A friend who visited Sarajevo once told me that the city offered little evidence that a war had been fought there less than two decades earlier—only cemeteries that blanketed the surrounding hills, visible from virtually any sector of the city, serve as testimony to some horror or another, though they are silent as to which horror. And while you expect to see the residue of war, ruined buildings and charred vehicles and craters, you’ll in fact see none of these things in Sarajevo. But death, or at least the fact of some recent mass death, nevertheless beams from grey reservations of the newly and prematurely dead, a ubiquity that makes grim demands on the imagination, inflicting the image of a hecatomb upon the same physical space as a city that suddenly appears unnervingly normal.
But in Juba there aren’t even graves, or at least there weren’t any that I saw. The war dead are somewhere; disturbingly, that somewhere isn’t obvious or apparently visible. Neither did I see ruined buildings, nor all that many charred vehicles (that wrecked fighter notwithstanding), and I certainly didn’t see any craters. I didn’t see any formal war memorials, no ostentatious public displays of triumphalism or regret, no murals or statues, no eternal flames surrounded by wreaths.  At the roundabouts there are already-fading posters from the previous July’s Martyr’s Day—exhortations to remember “the 2.5 million whose sacrifice formed our national foundation”—along with very occasional propagandistic reminders that “the SPLA stands on guard for the nation.” These reminders are weather worn and admirably discreet, considering that the country’s origins lie in violent revolutionary struggle, and that its government ministers and even its president began their careers as guerilla fighters rather than politicians, per se. A traveler arrives in a city already at odds with an unfathomable and bloody recent past, a past that commands no subjective, physical presence, at least not immediately, not in those first confused hours of choking humidity and flickering cell-phone signals. But already emerging is the sense of a city half-finished, a place whose atrocities remain guiltily archived in the darker regions of the visitor’s mind, even as they’re given few tangible reference points in the external world, where exhortations to proper health and hygiene far outnumber state-sanctioned reminders of the war. “New country, new beginning,” read several large billboards. “Have an HIV test today.”

Yet the war endures in subterranean form: figuratively, in mind and memory; and literally, in the tens of thousands of landmines that ring the city. Bombs of either variety lie buried under the dominating facts of the city’s physical existence: the smattering of high rises encased in scaffolding, white Land Cruisers (NGO and UN, mostly) clogging smooth and newly-paved streets, pop-up shanty-neighborhoods of freshly-arrived migrants, palm-shaded riverside hotel bars where Dutch consultants and Ugandan businessmen gather to waste their evenings—all of it evidence of a place exploding into a novel and unfamiliar normality.


The oldest building in Juba is its Mother Church, which was built by Anglican missionaries in the 1920s and sits at a confluence of shaded dirt roads, behind an expensive hotel that opened less than a year ago. It’s a red brick, open-air building with a roof made out of tin siding; the pews are also brick, and the floor is a lustrous concrete. It is cool and breezy, and on a boiling day—which is most days—the winds whipping through its partly-open ceiling evoke a sense of spiritual expansiveness, of being in a place quite a bit larger than mere physicality would suggest.

When we were here during the war, the pastor told me, all the South Sudanese that lived here were not allowed to go outside more than 15 kilometers. And if you want to go out you need to get a permit. For you just to get to your farm, you must get a permit to travel, and you must get no objection from internal security, public security or military intelligence. When you get no objections on your documents, you can go out. Sometimes you’re given a no objection document, but all of a sudden you find yourself kept in. You were treated as a foreigner in your own home.

And then the war itself—those years when the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the country’s eventual liberators, laid siege to the last major city it had been unable to capture, a northern garrison where the only cars were military vehicles, and the only permanent structures were government offices and mosques that hardly anyone uses anymore, even though they’re the largest and really most impressive buildings in the city—everything is centered on the war, he continued. Everything is actually portraying the image of war. If you see the kids making toys, they will be manufacturing military aircraft for war, building tanks for war. Everything is war. No living being could avoid it. If you bang a drum, everyone will lie down immediately, even the chickens, even the goats who were living in the city, everyone will lie down until the sounds is passed. That is the culture of war.

The city now inhabited a different universe. Life had been organized through the facile authoritarianism of landmines, soldiers and travel permits. Now there was chaos: language riots at the University, ethnic violence at the edge of town. But the chaos was cosmopolitan, at least. Unlike during the war years, there is evidence of a larger world that Juba is a part of, abundant evidence, even.

The hotel was not there before, he said. The only vehicles were from the church and then the army and maybe some few people in the government here or there. But there are actually traffic jams today. You can see there’s a cultural shock. Even someone who cannot dream to have a car, finds himself driving.

There is a dignity to this chaos, and the image of a life without fear—a life that the South Sudanese could own—has smoothed away decades of frustration and death. Or perhaps it hasn’t. There were times when the invisibility of the war was evidence of some grand, humanistic triumph in which every endlessly forgiving citizen of the country could share. At other times, this seemed like a self-concocted fiction.

During the war, the pastor told me, the Dinka died by the hundreds of thousands. Some of them are Anglicans. A Dinka once came to me and said: forgiveness, don’t talk about forgiveness. And I said no. Revenge is His. Revenge belongs to God.


The city is a bewilderment. There is no coherence to it. Where is the downtown? Is the downtown the dusty central souk, where pacing young men furtively shuffle rolls of pink and blue South Sudanese pounds, and Kenyans sell stacks of dress clothes and light bulbs? Maybe the downtown is near the Juba Bridge, the city’s sole means of reaching the lightly-inhabited eastern bank of the White Nile, and within walking distance of the recently-incinerated Konya-Konya Marketplace—there are dark whispers that the owner of the land the market occupied found the place inconvenient to his long-term real estate development plans—as well as some of the finer riverside hotels. Is the downtown in fact near the ministries complex, the walled-off, 1970s-era seat of the new country’s government, a place of crumbling brutalist architecture and spit-shined black SUVs? I don’t know. Juba certainly has a center, radial streets that are home to the Norwegian Veterinarians International and the Eight-Government Joint Donation Committee and the Nonviolent Conflict Responders and a thousand other organizations of ambiguous but seemingly well-meaning purpose. All the time I was there I never saw a map of Juba, so I’m not sure where this center is. On how to drive from the souk to the Nile, or from the airport to the bridge, my directions would be worse than ignorance. There is no promenade along the White Nile, few landmarks, natural or otherwise, to suggest your location.

In Juba, muddled geography is a tyranny in the sense that any basic, seemingly insurmountable fact is a tyranny. One morning at a nearly-empty hotel bar I met a South Sudanese man who had fled to Kenya during the civil war and then moved on to Australia, where he became a successful computer engineer. When the war ended he had no desire and no conceivable reason to return to a homeland that was still in a state of violent transition, but when independence came, he felt pinched by obligation, and his conscience could not allow him to simply enjoy a comfortable life in a borrowed corner of the earth. So for the last few months he had been on a consultancy with the Ministry of Tourism. In the deep south, down near the Kenyan border, are grasslands that rival the Serengeti in diversity—there are elephant herds and even lions, and each spring, antelopes migrate there, thousands of them, fur and hunched spines stretched to the horizon. It was the largest land migration in the world before the war scared them away—nature, it seems, has an instinct for human troubles. But it’s been seven years, and they’re beginning to come back. Had there been many tourists in South Sudan since independence? No, he said, chuckling and shaking his head.

Another thing about the deep south, he added: pineapples grow in the wild there. You don’t even have to try to cultivate them. Just dig them out of the ground. The land in our country is the most fertile in Africa.

Later in the day I found myself at yet another hotel bar (for a western visitor, Juba is a city of hotel bars). Remembering what the man had told me, I ordered a pineapple juice. I was given a can of Rani brand pineapple juice, from Yemen.

In all likelihood, the can had been taken by container ship from Yemen—thirsty, suffering Yemen—through the piratical waters of the Gulf of Aden, then to Kenya, then trucked through Uganda along miles of maraudering clay roads. It was a paragon of wasted effort and wasted local capacity, and in this respect, the humble can of pineapple juice was not alone: There is a national airline, but its planes are supposedly registered in Kenya. There is a national beer (White Bull—a Toast to a New Nation), but there are whispers that it’s owned by a Kenyan company as well. There’s an excellent weekly newspaper called The New Nation—but it’s a project of a European NGO, and its editor in chief is Belgian (even though most of its writers and columnists are locals). The woman who sold me phone cards at a roadside stall was Kenyan. The bartender at the Bedouin is Ugandan. What about the man scanning a fully-uniformed Bangladeshi UN peacekeeper’s groceries at the JIT Mart? It’s well known that the JIT Mart—the only “western” style grocery store in town, and as fine a place as any to spend $9 on a box of Frosted Flakes—is owned by Kenyans (or possibly South Africans), and the man looks as if he could be from India or Pakistan, which in this part of the world means he’s probably from Kenya, which means that he, like virtually every other laborer and businessman and piece of commercial produce in Juba, is not from anywhere that’s even particularly near Juba.

There are hotels called the Shalom and the Beijing and the Da Vinci, and one optimistically named the New Sudan. Everywhere is somewhere else. Peer into one of the prefab, shipping container houses on the grounds of the Afex Village—the sort of place where consultants and World Bank bureaucrats might live for months at a time—and you might see a heavyset older gentleman in khaki shorts hunched over a desktop computer, surrounded by African kitsch and plywood attempts at designer furniture, as unbothered here as he would be in Geneva or Soho.

Everywhere is somewhere else and indeed, everyone is from somewhere else. If you walked 300 yards from the waterfront pre-fabs, past a gravel parking lot crowded with white Land Cruisers, you’d find a neat encampment with outdoor shower stalls and its own little family of goats, flush against the Afex’s perimeter, which abuts slums where I’m told that homebrewing and prostitution are the only means of income and where Dinka and Nuer occasionally shoot at each other over cows. At night, stereos blast Congolese rumba and propulsive Ugandan pop—schizoid sounds, the music of other places and other lives.

It took about a day for me to realize that almost none of the city’s drivers, waiters, construction workers, bartenders, hotel clerks or dishwashers are actually South Sudanese. For reasons that I still don’t understand, the locals are all but totally locked out of the labor market. I heard polite (if loaded) socio-historical explanations for this, something along the lines that imperialism in the Sudan was based around Ottoman-style feudalism, while Uganda and Kenya reaped the benefits of western European Protestantism, which elevates work and self-betterment and individual dignity to the level of religious obligation. The most common answer to the labor question, however, was cultural. There’s just no culture of work, I was told. People wanted jobs, but they weren’t used to having jobs.

I assumed this was some sort of coded racism bandied about by condescending westerners (as well as by condescending Ugandans and Kenyans), this idea that South Sudanese would rather starve than work. But I heard a similar story from a group of South Sudanese economics professors at Juba University during a public lecture that touched on the country’s labor crisis—a panel discussion held in a sweltering, badly decaying lecture hall with malfunctioning lights and microphones.

This country is a goldmine for painters and electricians, one economist said. What are our people doing? We cannot say that there are no jobs, because the Kenyans and Ugandans are mining gold in South Sudan.

To develop entrepreneurship, you need a system that develops skill, another speaker said. In a militarized and traumatized society, this is hard. But what do we do? We could not de-traumatize our youth. They are still militant in their thinking.

What did he mean militant thinking had endured? And what did he even mean by “militant thinking?” He did not necessarily mean a predilection towards violence. Take, for example this bottle of Rwenzori brand water from Uganda, one speaker explained. Now here is a bottle of the local brand—of a locally-owned brand, even. In fact, this bottle of water represents one of the few truly domestic products you can buy here. The locally-produced bottle contains 0.65 liters of water for the same price as half a liter of Rwenzori. But the difference isn’t obvious to the naked eye, and most of our population is illiterate. The local brand now produces half-liter bottles. Their product’s advantage is gone. Our people can’t understand the competitive edge. Consumerism, work, a rational economic environment—these cannot function here.

If you spend money in the Juba market, one speaker said, the money goes to Kampala. It goes out.

The boda-boda is the only industry in Juba that South Sudanese dominate. The barriers to entry are minimal: simply obtain a motorcycle or the right to drive one for a few hours a day, and you can begin ferrying people from place to place, five pounds for short distances, 10 or 15, perhaps, for a ride to the airport or the Jebel Market or one of the nicer riverside hotels. The boda drivers are sharply-dressed young men—they wear aviators and striped collared shirts, and they evince an unflinching stoicism that, by my 10th or so boda ride, amounted to a collective philosophical statement.

The roads in Juba are dangerous—there is only an emerging sense of how to behave in a traffic jam, where imperious Land Cruisers and clouds of buzzing two-wheelers jostle each other for position, sometimes losing their footing amidst the dust and noise. In this environment, simply to ride a boda as a passenger is exhausting. The sun, the blacktop, the clutter of wheezing exhaust pipes and the hot motor underneath wring the human body like a wet rag, and by the time even a short journey ends, you feel the dizziness of an oncoming stupor, of a body sucked of whatever moisture and whatever vital energy it had held.

But the boda drivers are unfazed. They began to represent some ideal beauty, fearless and young. They will dart between 18-wheel trucks on a busy street, even when you tell them not to. They will pretend to slow down if their passenger is concerned with the current speed, only to quickly speed up again. In the dark early morning, when wild dogs own the empty and unilluminated streets, they will gun their bikes down lonesome straight-aways, screeching to a halt only when a limping and quite possibly rabid animal crosses their path.

Much to my regret, I didn’t interview any boda drivers, although I did take a picture of one. He’s bald, maybe in his early 20s, with a grid-patterned button-up shirt and a black pair of sunglasses. His shoulders are hunched, and his arms dangle at his side—there is nothing bothered or anxious about him, no grease marks or sweat stains. I’m not sure that his job even existed during the war years, when Juba was a much smaller and far more isolated place—he is newly enabled to drive on paved streets that actually lead somewhere, that are clogged with people on important and purposeful journeys, even though this sudden eruption of importance and purposefulness means that the ever-vulnerable boda driver might be side-swiped or spun out or killed at any given moment.

There is something I’ve read into his cool and vaguely sneering gaze that speaks of the mundane audacity of surviving here, but also of the crushing burdens attached to even the most minimal form of unthinking physical continuity. He strikes an effortlessly badass pose, a cowboy pose; there is a happy and novel independence inherent in this vocation of his, though it’s possible, looking at the picture, that this confidence inhabits a dead or decaying spirit. Is there some secret desiccation hidden in his careless hunch of the shoulders? He doesn’t have a helmet. His might be an attitude of superiority towards the thickening chaos that surrounds him, or an attitude of total acceptance.


In a building abutting the Da Vinci’s parking lot, a few hundred yards from the bulrushes and mango trees lining the White Nile, is the recording studio for Iconic Productions. I didn’t expect to be invited in—I was simply examining the posters lining the studio’s windows when a tall young man with long, braided hair all but insisted I come inside.

I’m an artist of dance hall, the man said. Sudanese-style. He played me an excerpt from the song he was working on, and it had a simultaneously heavier and more melodic character than Jamaican dance hall. The track had obviously been made with nothing more than a synthesizer, a computer program and a single human voice.

That song you just heard, he explained, is about the uprising in our country because of the economic crisis. This is a growing society, so any song we do must be about directly educating people.

The Konya-Konya market had burned down just days earlier, and already a song had been written about it: the market is destroyed, the artist repeated during the track’s pulsating chorus, now everything is expensive: sugar, salt, transportation.

The studio’s manager was also there, a 19-year old from the nearby city of Yei. He spoke Swahili, English, Arabic and Dinka, which was advantageous, since not all of the artists who used the studio were South Sudanese: there were also Congolese and Ugandans who paid 300 pounds for an hour of studio time, enough time to record a song that could be played on local radio (without any royalty to the artist, of course), and then maybe catch the attention of a concert promoter, or, more lucratively, a politician. Politicians in South Sudan never traveled—and certainly never campaigned—without a musician or two in tow. Even so, the manager explained that music was not exactly political here, or at least it wasn’t political in a divisive or partisan sense: in the studio, and in music in general, people meet as South Sudanese—as friends. They do not ask each other where they are from, or what ethnic group they belong to.

They had songs about AIDS prevention, hip-hop tracks in Dinka, story-songs meant to revive tales that were already being forgotten, past tales, the producer called them. There are South Sudanese spread all over the world, he told me, and most of our people forget their culture easily.

The war had killed up to 2.5 million people and displaced several million more. It depopulated vast tracts of the country, and any ambitious person either fought for the SPLA or fled to Kenya or Ethiopia or Khartoum or Egypt in search of a high school education or simply a life with a more manageable baseline of existential danger. Music could form an identity, a common language for a broken land.

Or perhaps not: the South Sudanese music market is just not making money right now, the artist told me. You can be very famous and still make nothing, and even if you are paid, they don’t pay you the way they’re supposed to pay you.


On the recommendation of a colleague, I met a Canadian fellow who had lived in Central Africa for the past 15 years, and was now a consultant or NGO hack of some sort of another. We met at an Ethiopian restaurant by the airport road. Ethiopian restaurants in Juba occupy a diner’s middle ground. They aren’t posh by any means, although the overwhelming probability is that a foreigner won’t get sick eating at one. Yet foreigners tend not to eat at them—not out of any latent racism, mind you, but because most of them have NGO or government expense accounts that obviate any need for budget dining options, almost all of which happen to be Ethiopian here. Why struggle with overcooked goat meat at the Paradiso, which sits across the street from the Red Cross compound’s decidedly un-scenic war-era concrete barrier, when spare ribs and ostrich steaks await you at the Da Vinci’s stunning waterfront? Luckily, the Ethiopian places offer a comforting lack of pretention. There’s an Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Juba called Lula’s, and if you walk up to a seemingly-purposeless wooden table in the establishment’s deepest, most fly-ridden reaches and display a flawless $100 bill from 2009 or later, you will get a mind-boggling exchange rate of 3.6 South Sudanese pounds to the dollar, which is nearly a half-pounder higher than the allegedly official rate of 3.2 pounds, which is basically like getting $10 for free (one of the city’s more ominous idiosyncrasies—at least from the perspective of South Sudanese economic planners—was that no one knew quite how much the money was worth). Lunch, accompanied by meandering 70s Ethio-jazz gasping from a beat-up cassette player behind the bar, is practically on them. And despite the flies and the heat, the place is such an upgrade over being outdoors that you want to sit there for hours, drinking Kenyan-imported coke, or perhaps Ethiopian-imported coffee, which takes ten minutes to make and is served in a kind of gourd-shaped jug, and tastes a bit like Turkish coffee would if the sediment were evenly distributed throughout the body of the liquid, rather than clustered in a single muddy glob.

We met in an Ethiopian restaurant. He had the beaten look of the frontiersman—sturdy, well-worn clothes clinging to leather flesh, a face made wise by decades of accumulated weariness. His countenance was consistent with the news he brought, which he conveyed with a hint of boredom, as if the country’s problems were so intractable as to be banal: Khartoum was mobilizing thousands of militants for service in Southern Kordofan; villagers in Nuba were getting pounded by long-range artillery and rockets; the price of basic foodstuffs had exploded on the southern side of the border. Yes, people were optimistic now. Juba was once a small place surrounded by SPLA, with only military pickup cars and so on. Now they were seeing things they had never seen in their lives. They had never seen a Prado. They had never seen a car that wasn’t a cattle car. They had never seen buildings sprout up beyond the mountains, or buildings more than a couple of stories tall. But the needs here are the same as needs everywhere, and the people were smarter than the French in the sense that they wouldn’t wait 1000 years to start their revolution.

For lunch, the Canadian recommended I go to a place called the Logali House, which he described as the fanciest restaurant in town. But I do not like it, he said. I did not move to Africa to be around westerners.

The South African-owned Logali House is indeed the most expensive hotel in Juba. With its barred windows and pale concrete exterior, the building it most resembles is the Bin Laden compound, even down to its inconvenient (and therefore discreet) location at the end of a dirt side street. One night there will set you back $400, which buys you access to a place that’s aesthetically calibrated to evoke a comfortable and familiar western existence. There is an epic breakfast buffet. The interior spaces are spotless and mercilessly air-conditioned, and the restaurant’s bathrooms have framed art photos of African cattle. On a large flat-screen TV in the restaurant’s outdoor patio, the blinding green of a distant cricket oval, manicured, so orderly and logical as to seem fictitious, an occidental fantasia—reassures you that you are actually someplace other than where you are.

At brunch on a Sunday, the Logali House is a fascinating place to dine alone. There’s lunchroom chatter about the torture of UN flights and difficulties getting up north. At the table next to mine, a woman from an NGO I’d never heard of clutched a motorcycle helmet. I’ve decided I don’t want to die on a boda-boda, she told her brunch mates, who were French, Dutch and American—young and attractive in a generically urbane, vaguely collegiate sense. A few days ago, she said, there was a fuckup at the airport, and my driver claimed he could get me to Bentiu in 12 hours. I was tempted let me tell you.

The conversation abruptly turned to vomit. When did you vomit? Did the retrofitted Russian military helicopters that UN uses (maybe not retrofitted—they look like they’re 30 years old as soon as they get off the assembly line, a pilot told me)—make you vomit? What about those long Land Rover journeys along potholed clay roads? What about you, had you ever vomited? No, replied a sunglassed Frenchman. I have never vomited. Not even when you were a kid? No. Never.

At brunch I had a bacon cheese burger—an actual, not fucking around burger, thick and topped with fresh avocado and an English-style bacon sheet, rather than the thin, anemic strips we Americans are used to. 


I grew bored one afternoon, and a short walk from my hotel—the cheap and Ugandan-owned and sometimes-electrified (and, therefore, ephemerally air-conditioned!) Bros—brought me to the Konya-Konya market, which was quite busy despite having burned down just a few days before. I could see the burned-out husk of the former marketplace, blackened plywood beams and piles of ash, crumbling walls and debris whose removal in either the short or long-term felt somehow unlikely. The rumors had already escalated: why had it taken the fire department (encouragingly, Juba seems to have one of these) such a long time to show up? Could it be that the government also wanted to clear the Konya-Konya of its troublesome tenants? If this had been the plan, it obviously hadn’t worked. Already there was fresh plywood going up, merchants staking their claims to an area that—out of inertia or stubbornness on the part of a population that had been through an awful lot worse than this—would likely function as a marketplace again someday soon.

And on the other side of the road was a glimpse of what the Konya-Konya had looked like just a few days before: live chickens stuffed in wooden cages and clothing racks offering nothing but Boy Scout outfits and Texan police uniforms. The Konya-Konya is a place of constant movement: of bicycles and motorcycles crammed between narrow rows of ramshackle stalls, of belching minibuses and voices—pleading, laughing, the hushed tones of negotiation, loud inviting voices, squawking and whinnying animal voices. Anything seems possible here. You can pay to have your cell phone charged or your business cards made using a computer and printer resourcefully hooked up to a small external generator; you can also catch a bus to Kenya or Uganda, or sit in the back of a coffee stall and watch Eritrean satellite TV. This is where the city lives, not in the hotel bars, not behind a dragnet of caltrops and concrete walls.

Back at the hotel, there were flyers around the bar notifying customers that an “Afrobeat” band performed at the hotel every Saturday night. This seemed plausible: the Bros’ waterfront, which is ringed by a rusty barbed-wire fence that obliterates an otherwise pleasant view of the Nile, accommodated scores of outdoor tables, far more tables than were needed for everyone staying at the hotel, as well as a large concrete stage with a new-looking drum kit. I got back to the hotel that night to learn that the band really didn’t play there anymore, if it had ever played there at all. I decided to begin a movie I’d brought with me, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, a seven-hour film about the last days of a Hungarian collective farm.

The movie begins with an eleven-minute fixed shot of cows pouring out of a dilapidated agricultural warehouse, just an endless torrent of cows, moaning and mooing and attempting to mount one another, and it seemed to me that the cows had triumphed over something—that they’d overwhelmed their human masters and earned their freedom, or a sort of conditional freedom, simply by virtue of a long, slow decay, the inertia and eventual self-destruction of the systems that held them in bondage. The land was theirs now, and the land would eventually reclaim and destroy everything that was external to it, first of all the warehouse, an island in a bovine mob, already swallowed by copulating dumb beasts; next the drunken, backstabbing townsfolk, who lived repetitious and spiritually desiccated lives whose meaning and value they weren’t even wholly convinced of. To me the scene conveyed a kind of eternality to the cow, something that mocked the constant dissatisfaction and changeability that every human community and every individual human being is subject to.

South Sudan is a land of cows. Cows appear on both the 5 and 10-pound bills. Wars are still fought over them. During the civil war, the northern military and their proxies would steal or even massacre cows. There are parts of South Sudan where cows represent wealth, status, food, milk and marriage; one NGO worker told me somewhat crassly that in Jonglei, where various tribes were busy massacring each other over cattle, local leaders only cared about three things: their tribe, their women and their cows. In the southern part of the north Sudan, the socio-historical rift between cow-herders and camel-herders is an ancient and bitter one.

In those blurred moments before the final onset of a hot, uncomfortable sleep, the film was a mirror of places I’d already been, and I was looking at the flatlands of Northern Bar El-Gazal, where the cows stood sturdy and fresh, and the humans were wasted and traumatized by decades of vicious genocidal war—and at the skeleton trees and dead grass of Yida, where refugees chased from their homes by the Sudanese military lived in crooked wooden hovels, and the cows’ horns grow up to two feet in length.


SPLA founder Dr. John Garang is the county’s hero, even though his vision of a “New Sudan” once stood in opposition to South Sudan’s current independence. He believed in a single Sudan for all of its citizens, a worthy dream that died when the Khartoum regime rigged nation-wide elections, and when Garang—who became Vice President of Sudan in 2005—was killed in a highly-suspicious helicopter crash just days after taking office. On the posters for Martyrs’ Day, which is observed on the anniversary of Garang’s death, he appears in western dress, with a rainbow arching halo-like overhead. His face is on every South Sudanese pound, wearing the calm yet resigned expression of a man whose tragedy is finally over. In the reception area of the Bros, there is a photo of the great leader, with the caption: Dr. John Garang. He was an icon, a fighter and a hero. You are a burning spear within us forever.

Garang’s SPLA didn’t capture Juba during the war, but he is nevertheless buried there. His tomb lies just down the road from the ministries complex, and he is buried along a stretch of roadway marked by a long row of international flags, including the flag of the north Sudan. On the other side of the road is a presidential reviewing stand for celebrations or parades, and the complex—the flags, the tomb, and the grandstand—is guarded by surly army officers who might arrest you if they catch you taking pictures.

Garang is buried beneath a slightly larger than life-sized statue of himself, built of a plastered-over bronze that is already peeling. He holds a book under one arm, and a walking cane in the other; with the cane, he motions towards the road and the row of flags, perhaps towards a future of promise and responsibility, towards freedom, and equal membership in the same community of nations as their former enemies. Garang is wearing a suit, and there is no suggestion that he had been a man of war, no sign that you were standing next to the body of one of the most successful, sophisticated and brilliant guerilla leaders in modern history. You were standing before Garang the agriculture PhD—Garang the statesman.

The statue sits in the middle of a vast, walled-off tract cluttered with piles of asphalt and dirt. Maybe it will become a park one day. Something is being built there, but it is not clear what.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"It Will Be Recalled By Countless Human Beings Not Yet Born:" Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World, pp 1-750

Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World brings to mind the Cigarette Smoking Man's immortal verdict on the value of literature relative to more generic time-killing pursuits: I would rather read the worst book ever written, he says in "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" (season 4, episode 7), than watch the greatest movie ever made. And it also brings to mind the anxiety I used to feel when discovering a band like Evangelicals or A Sunny Day in Glasgow, or even non-obscurities like Bill Callahan. We have only so much time in our lives; every second reading something unworthy of it represents the denial of an opportunity to read something good. I could easily have gone my entire life without coming across Evangelicals' The Evening Descends, which I found through the internal and probably now defunct (and totally legal, for the record) file sharing network of a music magazine I wrote for back in college. And I could have brushed past Llosa's 750 page account of a largely forgotten civil disturbance in late 19th century Brazil without having the slightest inkling of the mistake I'd made. Discoveries like this should be cause for disquiet: coincidences don't have to happen, and you could sail past any number of life-changing experiences, artistic and otherwise, without feeling any real sense of loss. But the loss is immense, almost immeasurable seeing as almost by definition you can't perceive it, at least not moment to moment--this accumulation of countless books unread, music unlistened to, places unvisited, thoughts unexpressed.

I'm beginning the post like this because the story of my possession of this book actually sort of ties in to some broader points I'm going to make about it. I bought The War of the End of the World at the Diwan Bookstore in Cairo, on the far end of the 26th of July corridor in Zamalek. I'd just finished Ismail Kadare's The File On H--which is a fine read about the collision between art, nationalism and cosmopolitanism in pre-war Albania, even if it's more breezy than that heavy description would suggest, and frankly the themes feel a little forced at times--a book I had bought at that same store like four days earlier. I was in a city with a 9 PM curfew and needed something long and I vaguely remember a book editor friend of mine recommending TWOTEOTW, and a bit of Wikipedia'ing revealed that Roberto Bolano considered it to be Llosa's greatest work. I'll get back to that later.

Anyway, it turns out that the first half of TWOTEOTW is about a three-way conflict between religious fundamentalists, radical Jacobins, and pro-monarchy conservatives--or, to cast it in Egyptian terms, between the Muslim Brotherhood, the military and the felool. The ingenious thing about (SPOILERS AHEAD) TWOTEOTW is that it takes a virtually-unknown episode that occurred deep in the desert wilderness of a largely unfamiliar country and endows it with a kind of trans-historical urgency, such that I could see it clearly reflected in my immediate environment. Of course the tension between religion and the state isn't exactly a new topic for literature (see: The Bible), but Llosa happened on something slightly different and even deeper, something I might not have realized had I not read this on the heels of a reporting trip to Egypt.

See any vision of progress must obviously come at the expense of radically different alternatives--we aren't going to have five-year plans in America (nice try, Obama); China isn't simply going to fire its two million web censors, etc. etc. TWOTEOTW is an account of a moment when one society was staring into the abyss of a fundamental choice about its own nature, not unlike Egypt has over the course of this violent and very confusing year. TWOTEOTW is about how these moments are negotiated by societies that aren't ready to deal with them (y'know, as if any society is ready to deal with them). More importnatly, they're about how they're buried--how their non-existence is incorporated into the mythology of the side that eventually wins. It's a historical novel in the truest sense: it's about how things could have gone, what was sacrificed or gained when they went in a particular direction--and what is sacrificed and gained over the even longer process of forgetting history. This, too, is relevant to my Egypt experience over the summer, when I saw no physical inkling of violence or massacres at Nahda Square, a typical and wheezing Cairene traffic circle, rather than a place that had been a battleground only ten days earlier. Inevitably, TWOTEOTW is about how a country of 200 million people can pull this off.

And folks, it ain't pretty. This is the most violent book I've ever read (Blood Meridian included, incidentally), and the violence isn't portrayed in procedural or clinical fashion like in Bolano's 2666. It is lush and descriptive and psychologically punishing, yet also unsentimental and unidealized. There are lurid and unreadably detailed accounts of the ravages of warfare--insects burrowing under the skin, survival off of rainwater and grass, dead bodies mutilated, executions, starvation, rape--that possess a jarring, blunt honesty. It's this violent because war itself is this violent, and more than once, I found myself thinking of Syria, of the way in which distance obscures and even abets the horrors of war, and the way that a book like this one unapologetically collapses this distance.  I can't imagine writing something like it. It must be the product of a tormented imagination, of an author warped and consumed by his subject matter--of an artist swallowed whole.


So here's what it's actually about, and I realize I'm embarking on a serious mishmash of Llosa, Wikipedia, and the decidedly non-expert ruminations of someone who doesn't actually know that much about Brazil. Anyway the last 30 years of the 19th century were a time of upheaval and crisis in Brazil. The country's slave-based economy was both immoral and impractical; as in the US, it entrenched a system in which landed elites ruled vast swaths of the country--and its diverse and perhaps ungovernable population--as a kind of personal fiefdom. Unlike in the US, that system was connected to an honest-to-God monarchy that was at the core of the entire country's social structure and national self image, along with a titled aristocracy for whom the endurance of the slave economy was literally a matter of survival. When the monarchy finally abolished slavery, it was only a matter of time before the existing political system was swept away as well, replaced by a kind of republican-nationalist government headed by the military.

TWOTEOTW takes place in the years following the establishment of the Republic, but during a time when the monarchial power structure was still firmly in place in parts of the country--such as Brazil's arid northeast, the setting of the novel and a desperately poor area in which something like half of the rural population had been killed off in a drought in the early 1870s. The drought is a crucial early event in the book, and gives the novel its apocalyptic context: The pilgrims of Canudos could believe that the world was about to end, because many of them had seen it end within their own lifetimes.

Anyway by the mid 1890s, it wasn't exactly a given that republicanism would survive in Brazil. The monarchy represented a historical and even religious connection to Portugal, Europe, Catholocism etc; the roots of the old system remained strong, and in a polyglot and largely ungoverned country that had experienced a series of civil uprisings and disturbances in the wake of the monarchy's abolition, the merits of the new system remained unproven. And there was the matter of the freed slaves, the shock of a massive, impoverished and racially different population attempting to enter a society that likely wasn't ready to accommodate them. Most of the country was incredibly poor and backward. It was, to borrow a phrase from Durkheim, a period of normlessness. Normlessness can create the opportunity for newer and better norms--think South Africa in the years after apartheid. Or it can result in a kind of chronic social rot that grows deeper and less manageable over time--think about the US's treatment of racial issues in the nearly 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act.

In Brazil, normlessness resulted in a bizarre guirilla war sparked by a messianic and egalitarian religious movement. That movement was itself started in Bahia's rapidly desertifying backlands by a mysterious wandering self-appointed Christ figure named The Counselor. In the HBO miniseries that I've been casting and indeed producing and acting out in my mind while jogging, bathing, etc., Brian Cranston plays The Counselor. Cranston/The Counselor was a kind of back-country mystic who blamed all of society's problems on the new republic's insistence on the separation of church and state, since taxation, civil marriage, the metric system, the census etc were symbols of man's usurpation of God's dominion on earth, thus making the Republic the antichrist, thus making resistance against it nothing less than an all-or-nothing apocalyptic struggle.

But The Counselor's movement isn't impractical or backward-looking. In Canudos, the town that his followers create in an impossibly-remote desert (see here), racial and social barriers fall away; former slaves, murderers, prostitutes and bandits are transformed and redeemed by God's love as channeled through The Counselor, who preaches a doctrine of mutual responsibility and acceptance. They don't want to overthrow the state so much as just be left alone by it. There is no money in Canudos; all resources are shared and its inhabitants want for nothing. All of their physical and spiritual needs are fulfilled, which is an astounding accomplishment within the bleak moral and physical/geographic environment the novel describes. Pilgrims arrive--tens of thousands of them. The politics of itmight be wacky, but it's clear from the beginning that there's something real underneath them, something that Brazil's new secular republic and arguably no secular republic can provide: a sense of meaning and worth for the marginalized and vulnerable; a separation between the harsh and unfair realities of a society in utter chaos, and a higher and purer truth that supersedes this degraded earthly realm.

Bahia is controlled by an aristocratic political party, under the leadership of the Baron de Canabrava, whose main purpose is to keep the republican government in Rio out of the local landowners' hair. So naturally an ambitious local republican politician named Goncalves engineers a situation--with the help of a plaint media, because this book is all kinds of topical even 30 years after its publication--in which the federal military is called in to suppress Canudos, which has declared the republic to be the antichrist and represents an open challenge to the legitimacy of the new order. In a way that Goncalves himself clearly doesn't intend, this becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy--Canudos turns from a semi-peaceful yet deeply weird religious commune to a full-blown apocalyptic militant movement and national crisis as the jaguncos manage to defend themselves against waves of republican attacks.

The most gripping parts of TWOTEOTW involve a monomaniacal army officer named Moreira Ceasar, who has been sent to crush Canudos, and who is the closest thing that this amazingly even-handed novel has to a villain--but even he isn't irredeemable. Of the three principles at the center of the novel--The Counselor and the Baron de Carnabrava, played in my mind by Christopher Waltz, are the other two--he is the one that most closely resembles us. The most ruthless character in the novel, who murders journalists in the streets and openly pines for a secular military dictatorship, is arguably the most modern and forward-thinking; meanwhile, the most compassionate and humanitarian character is the leader of what morphs into a millenarian death cult as the war drags on. The Baron is at pains to explain that he released his own slaves a full five years before emancipation, and since everyone seems to misunderstand exactly what Canudos is and why it's mushroomed into a potentially nation-wrecking problem, he seems to have the keenest sense of what's actually going on. But he behaves in ways that are truly monstrous, and represents an old order that's struggling to accept its own rapid obsolescence. He isn't a truly sympathetic character. No one is.

And they're unsympathetic because what they represent is unsympathetic. Goncalves is a bottom-dwelling politician of the worst sort. Cesar is a fascist. The Baron is an old-timey aristocrat. The Counselor embodies a politics based on equality and spiritual transcendence, but also the dangers of such a politics. The collision between these men and ideas kills around 30,000 people; as I mentioned before, it kills them in incredibly painful and unpleasant ways. And over 750 pages, we're introduced to its victims: to conscripts bogged down in the sertao, and to peasants refusing to flee Canudos as the city burns, secure in the belief that their souls will soon ascend to heaven. In the midst of it is the sense of a country working out a sublimated conflict between a kind of crass modernity and superstitions--religious, communal, even nationalist--that are more organic and perhaps more substantive and individually satisfying than anything that such a modernity could offer. This is still a hot conflict, even in our own, far more enlightened world. There is no attractive or easy way out of it. The normlessness of TWOTEOTW is the normlessness of contemporary Egypt, and of any other place where no one seems to be able to grasp the depth and the severity of the choices that confront them. And the people who can grasp them--history's Sisis, Ceasars or Counselors--are often products of that normlessness, the results of a sickly and unsettled national existence, rather than people capable of transforming it for the better.


Except there is an easy way out of it, and it gets at the truly ingenious thing about WOTETOW, which is as much about the process in which history is forgotten about, as it is about the process through which it is formed. The novel is flush with writers and storytellers--Goncalvez helps spawn a lie that brings the nation to the brink of collapse; the exiled Scottish revolutionary Galileo Gall, the buffoonish antihero of the novel's opening third, writes a series of articles about Canudos, which he mistakes for a second Paris Commune; the Near-Sighted Journalist becomes the only witness--of sorts--to the massacre at Canudos; the Dwarf is a traveling minstrel by trade; The Counselor earns followers through his storytelling and rhetoric, which is dutifully recorded by the Lion of Natuba. Even Cesar, who built his reputation for ruthlessness by murdering a journalist critic of his in the streets of Rio, betrays some awareness of his role in perpetuating an unctrollable cycle of falsehood and myth, as revealed in his dying words: "you mean we lied to the country for nothing?"

This emphasis on storytelling, and on the malleability and impermanence of narrative (also reflected in the fact that we never learn the real names of many of the book's major characters, including Gall, the Dwarf, the Journalist and even the Counselor himself), makes perfect sense if you Google the words "Canudos War." Aside from this amazing database at the University of New Mexico, you're not gonna find much. It apparently gets some kind of mention in Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil, and there is of course Euclides da Cunha's firsthand account of the war, which is apparently considered to be one of the greatest works ever written in Portugese. But it is the only firsthand account of the war, and in that respect the event is as obscure to us as the Jewish Wars, another conflict that lives on through a single and in many cases unfalsifiable first-hand record.

The power of TWOTEOTW comes from the lack of preconceptions we bring to the event itself--I knew so little about the Canudos War that I was shocked to learn that The Counselor actually existed, and that there is even a single, arresting photograph of his exhumed corpse. This shit actually happened. Yet it's difficult to find photos of the war; there's a contemporary sketch of what Canudos looked like when it was still standing, but the only actual photographs of the place depict it in ruins. As for the ruins--they're now under a reservoir created by the damming of the Vaza-Barris River. This is an erasure more complete and more even more horrifying than the coverup of the massacre of the banana workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude. This erasure actually happened--it is not fictional, and everyone is implicated in it. It's not as if the bodies of the people killed at Canudos were trucked away in the middle of the night. The burning of Canudos had to be consciously forgotten about, relegated to obscurity not just as a matter of policy (which policy is dealt with explicitly in the novel's dynamite final third) but as an act of popular willpower spanning over a century.

It's a reality that clashes with the purpose of Canudos, which was to create something for eternity--a merging of the heavenly and earthly kingdoms that could serve as a beacon to the rest of an unfair and benighted world. So one of the most heartbreaking moments of novel comes during the closing moments of the siege that destroys the city, as one of the Counselor's deputies contemplates his leader's dying words:
'It is the Counselor's testament,' the Little Blessed One thinks. He is perfectly aware of what a solemn, transcendent moment this is. What he is seeing and hearing will be recalled through the years, the centuries, among thousands and thousands of men of every tongue, of every race, in every corner of the globe; it will be recalled by countless human beings not yet born.
Even then, it is obvious that no one will recall it. The words are ephemeral; they'll die along with nearly everyone else in Canudos, and the cost of losing them will be immeasurable by virtue of being unknowable. Which is not to say that Llosa refrains from commenting on the more tangible consequences of mangling or wishing away the inconvenient bits of history. Take, for instance, this paragraph just a few pages shy of the novel's conclusion, in which Colonel Macedo--who is introduced in the book's final chapter but fleetingly mentioned about 600 pages earlier--explains why he is so intent on locating the corpse of Abbot Joao, the bandit-turned-leader of Canudos's guerrilla fighters:
'It's a story that goes back a long way,' the colonel growls...'a story that I began, apparently. That's what people say, anyway. Because I killed Abbot Joao's father, some thirty years ago, at least. He was a coiteiro of Anthony Silvino's, in Custodia...'
Of course Abbot Joao's father had nothing to do with Silvino, or with any other backcountry criminal. Several hundred pages earlier, we learn that he was summarily executed when his fellow villagers--in view of both personal jealousy and Macedo's reputation for burning entire towns on the mere suspicion that bandits were present--offered him up as a way to get Macedo to leave their community alone. That doesn't matter. The lie gains the status of official truth--it lives on through Macedo, who has outlived Abbot Joao, and through the lieutenant that the aging bandit-chaser is telling his story to, who will likely outlive him as well. A war that begins partly because of Goncalves and Cesars's lise ends with a lie that is itself connected to the war's even more distant origins ('a story that I began, apparently...'). In the novel's closing pages, Llosa reminds his readers that the real War of the End of the World takes place on the level of memory and forgetfulness; of truth, and falsehood. And he reminds us that even in an enlightened and connected age, it's a war that is more literal than figurative, one that memory and truth don't automatically get to win.