I should have raised hell

A trio of recent essays published in The Nation, The American Prospect, and Campus Progress attempt to explain why the United States has not experienced the same kind of student demonstrations that have been shaking Quebec for the past six months. After all, American students face a debt burden twice that of their Quebecois counterparts and graduate into a far more unequal society, with higher youth unemployment and a weaker social safety net. The authors’ explanations –cultural differences between Anglophone and Francophone organizing, elite student apathy, the fact that working class students literally can’t afford to take time off for activism– all strike me as correct. Our passivity does not have a single cause, nor a single cure. To the explanations already given, I would add another: fear.

The United States has the harshest criminal justice system in the democratic world and the life opportunities of anyone arrested and convicted of a crime –any crime, really– are drastically truncated. Contrary to its popular myths, America is a country of neither boundless opportunities for upward social mobility nor second chances for people who screw up, with exceptions made only for the most privileged. Among the reasons I never protested against local injustices while I was a college student, the most powerful, the one I couldn’t argue myself out of, the one that my roiling anger could not override, was my fear of being arrested and jailed. How would my family pay for my legal expenses? If I were convicted of a crime, how would I ever get a job? The tens of thousands of dollars I borrowed to obtain an elite education (in essence, to buy my way into middle class adulthood) would have been wasted, and I’d have no way of repaying my debt. My life wouldn’t be worth living.

So I kept my head down. I was a tame liberal. I volunteered. I blogged. I took to the streets only once, in 2005, to oppose what at the time appeared to be an imminent U.S. military strike against Iran. Somehow, I ended up at the front of a crowd surge, unable to do anything but move forward. When I came to be wedged between the crowd and a barricade erected in front of the Capitol Building, a Washington, D.C. cop in riot gear shoved me so hard in the chest that he knocked the wind out of me. The bruise on my sternum faded away after a few weeks, but the lesson stuck for years. If I wanted to do better than my endlessly broke and indebted parents –and I did, more than anything– I’d have to leave street activism to the kids who could afford mistakes.

Looking back, I had less to lose than I thought, and I should have raised hell.

In defense of Mac McClelland (And the view from where I’m standing)

The indignant responses to Mac McClelland’s personal essay in GOOD about how she used consensual, violent sex to ease the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she developed while reporting on sexual violence in Haiti are extreme examples of the limiting, self-defeating call-out culture in both journalism and American feminism.

That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought. As Jill at Feministe put it in a piece about calling-out in the feminist blogosphere: “We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up.”

The letter:

To the Editors:

As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland’s portrayal of Haiti in “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland’s story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

The issue here is that McClelland re-tells the story of the gruesome aftermath of the rape of a Haitian woman, an aftermath McClelland herself witnessed, at the beginning of her piece. But she doesn’t bring up the story to make her piece more shocking –she brings it up because it was the event that set her on a collision course with PTSD. In other words, without telling that story, the rest of the essay wouldn’t make sense. It is a deeply disturbing, completely necessary part of McClelland’s narrative of her own trauma.

Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath.

We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female “journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time,” women who have “chosen to be around trauma for a living,” who she says “rarely talk about the impact.”

In writing about a country filled with guns, “ugly chaos” and “gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments,” she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.


“This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular,”
Conor Friedersdorf wrote in his response to the letter at the The Atlantic.

I couldn’t agree more.

Nowhere in McClelland’s piece are the terms “heart-of-darkness dystopia,” “savage men consumed by their own lust,” or “danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA” used. And since when is it verboten to call men who gang rape homeless women “monsters”?

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland’s piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.

McClelland’s piece for GOOD is not a scholarly article about Haitian history. It is not even a reporting piece about Haiti today. It is a personal essay about one reporter’s literally physical battle with her psychological demons. (How difficult is it for other media professionals to distinguish between these?) McClelland isn’t obligated to fill her essay with any more context than is necessary to make sense of her own actions.

Ms. McClelland’s Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there.

The Afghanistan I know is not the Afghanistan many of my friends who have lived with more safeguards (and those who have lived with fewer) know. In fact, my Afghanistan –that is, the entirety of my experience in this country up to this moment– is known only to me.

Expats in places like Haiti and Afghanistan are not a uniform group. Some of us take more risks than others, live further outside the parameters of what is considered a sensible foreigner’s lifestyle and break more rules, both spoken and unspoken.

Those who live closer to the edge and those who do not stay long enough to experience the very real bursts of joy and love amidst the suffering, are struck more deeply by trauma. (McClelland definitely falls into the second category, and probably the first as well.)

When discussing the rampant, menacing sexual harassment on Kabul’s streets with other expats, I have actually been told that the problem is not serious, that I am being hypersensitive, that I am exaggerating and overreacting. The people who have said these things are, for the most part, people who do not walk alone, have not stood as frozen witnesses to men trying to drag a screaming woman into a car, have not been groped and cornered by Afghan men, do not have female Afghan friends and do not understand when a man shouts “Hey, foreign pussy!” at them in the local language.

But the women who responded to McClelland’s essay aren’t like that. They’ve lived in Haiti for years, even decades, a fact that makes statements like this even more baffling:

This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

Now that is just college freshman bullshit. Again, I have to agree with Friedersdorf:

It isn’t fair to say that this paragraph is loaded with the pathologies of left-leaning political discourse. A journalist writing in The New York Review of Books or The Nation or The American Prospect would seek to correct alleged misinformation about the prevalence of rape in a country by providing the most accurate available statistics about the prevalence of rape there.

And this makes no sense whatsoever:

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization.

Actually, the image of Haiti McClelland paints, mostly in her reporting pieces for Mother Jones, is of a place where the threat of rape is tragically high for thousands of displaced women. It’s not at all clear what the authors are taking issue with here, besides McClelland receiving a great deal of attention while being a relatively new name in mainstream journalism and not a Haiti beat long-termer.

While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

Oh, come on. Haiti has survived worse.

*

One day, when my time in Afghanistan is over, I intend to write about my life here. I do not intend to write a history of the Afghanistan war or a book about the intricacies of Afghan politics. Other people will write those books. Instead, I will write about the things that happened to me, the choices I made, the people I knew, and how my experiences affected me. Will it be self-indulgent? Absolutely. Because that’s what all personal writing –-including every male war correspondent memoir ever written– is.

I have male Afghan friends I trust with my life, but I have been cornered enough times by both strangers and personal acquaintances to fear the footfalls behind me and the grin of the average man on the street. I have learned to distrust before I trust. And when the time comes for me to write about my traumatic experiences with some Afghan men, I do not want to be told that I am marginalizing Afghan women, whining, or being racist.

Those of us who choose to go to work in places like Haiti and Afghanistan do just that –-we choose to work in extremely troubled places where we are outsiders. But the fact that we made that choice while others had it foisted on them at birth shouldn’t mean we aren’t allowed to write honestly and without shame or self-censorship about how we cope with the mental health issues that are among our occupational hazards.

*

And a few more points: Continue reading

“This is what happens when you go hunting for oblivion without a reflective vest”

My little sister, Evian, reflecting on injury, pain and the resulting deluge of self-awareness.

If I had lost my leg, as the surgeon warned me I could have, I don’t know how I would cope. There would no backpacking across eastern Europe in my future. The kind of people I love would never be able to do the things they love to do with me. One of my tattoos and an ill-advised adolescent scarification would have been for nothing. But I would adapt, I think.

Looking back on the minutes before my first surgery as I do, frequently, in PTSD-style flashbacks, I can see what I experienced without the mind-fucking hugeness of being inside it. It’s funny the way we talk about being in pain, as if pain were a place, a structure, a holding area. The worst waiting room on earth. I look back on that pain: the physical pain that surprised me every second it didn’t kill me and the heartbreak pain that made the physical recede better than vicodin or oxycodone or dilaudid ever could, and if I try really hard to be optimistic without being silly, I can see it as a lesson. This is what happens when you go hunting for oblivion without a reflective vest. It isn’t even the worst. You still get to dance on one leg. You still get to be touched and held.

Back in the USA: What I’ve been up to

I left Kabul mid December for an extended vacation back home in the United States. In between catching up with old friends, adding someone new and wonderful to my life, hugging my little sisters until they begged for mercy, attending an aidbloggers party in Washington, DC and a Balkan music festival in Brooklyn, giving a talk at my old school and working on a report for my job in Kabul, I’ve also tried to be a better blogger for UN Dispatch, my unfailingly patient and understanding second employer. That is to say, I’ve tried to be a blogger who doesn’t go weeks or even months between posts.

Two of my recent pieces (also linked in my RSS feed to the right):

A Taliban Reversal on Girls’ Education? Not So Fast.
Afghan education minister Farooq Wardak’s announcement that the Taliban no longer oppose girls’ education has been met with cheers internationally. Grouchy kill-joy than I am, I give a few reasons why these celebrations are premature, and perhaps even ill-advised.

Reconciling Afghanistan
In this long-than-usual analysis piece, I examine some of the challenges and dilemmas any future talks with the Taliban will pose, and argue for greater inclusion of Afghan civil society in peacemaking efforts.

Return of dreams

As far back as I can remember, dreams came easily to me. Every night, beginning in early childhood, I would land in a vivid scenario with a well-developed  plot and few if any fantastic elements. As a lonely child, I dreamed of having different parents and living in a house with a white-tiled bathroom, a happy mother and a VCR. I also dreamed of burned farmland and fishermen drowning in beer-colored waves.

In my teens and early twenties, dreaming became a hazard of my field of study, and then of my profession. My mind began constructing my dreams of whatever I read, watched or agonized over during the day. When I was studying the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for my international law class, I was shot at point-blank range by paramilitaries and bled to death on my grandmother’s favorite rug. When I was working in Bosnia, I stood trial for war crimes and squirmed under the judgmental gaze of tribunal interns. During the nights of my time resettling refugees in Upstate New York, I was recruited into an Afghan civil war militia and froze to death alone in a bombed-out building during the winter of 1994.

Happy dreams were few and far between then, but compensated for their infrequency by brilliantly outshining anything I had experienced in my waking life. They fulfilled not only personal-life wishes for romantic love and belonging, but also desires for large-scale, history-turning progress. In one shimmering dream, I attended the ceremony marking Bosnia’s integration into the European Union.

My dreams stopped for the first time early this year, when I moved to Afghanistan to work. Sleep became a pool of black quicksand I fell into at night and during long car rides. It became an off switch. Instead of feeling relieved, I was disturbed. Reality had finally overtaken my imagination. My hands and feet touched the places I had visited so many times in my mind. I picked up old shells from the floor of the building I succumbed to hypothermia in as a teenage militiaman.

About a month ago, the dreams returned at full volume with the strong antibiotics I began ingesting to reclaim my body from two raging bacterial infections. Now, I dream mostly about the forking paths before me, and along them the alternate futures that share a single commonality: they all remind me that life is short and impatient, and this will be another winter of hard choices.

Inspiration for this post courtesy of Natalia Antonova, who just wrote a lovely little post about sleeping and dreaming during turbulent times.

Reset/preservation

Thanks to a parent who never understood how to function in society with other people, I started my life over enough times during childhood to fuel a lifetime’s worth of death dreams. But the most altering reset was one I freely chose as an adult: moving to Afghanistan. As my first year in this country winds down, I can’t help believing that the girl who boarded that first connecting flight at JFK isn’t the same person who will depart Kabul, bound for the United States, next month. In my head, a gulf of a decade yawns between those two points in time. My mind lurches when I close my eyes and try to recall everything that has happened. The light from the hallway in my old house the morning of that first big attack and the blur of my housemate rushing to the gunbattle with his camera. Dancing at the last club in the city just before it closed. Beggar children with faces half-eaten by leishmaniasis tugging at my coat. Delicate indigo facial tattoos over the pale skin and freckles of a high school girl in Bamiyan. Arcade Fire’s ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ playing in M’s car after we were detained at gunpoint in the middle of nowhere. The no-going-back look in S’s eyes after that day on the Jalalabad-Torkham Highway when everything changed. The temperature in the room the exact moment I heard J was dead. The smell of the desert outside Herat at sunset. Tall soldiers patting me on the head, squeezing my shoulders and telling me I looked like a little doll. An electrical storm over the central highlands. Thousands of kites in the Ramazan sky.

I don’t want to hit reset; I want to preserve all of it –everything. Before the memories degrade.

How to begin?

A story from the other side of the world

A Twitter link led me to Blog-a-stan, the blog of an American Ph.D student doing her dissertation research in Kazan, Russia. Immediately, I was hooked by the author’s dark humor and storytelling. And when I came to the half-way point in a post titled Sud’ba (“Fate”) I stopped, and shivered, because I knew the story already.

Read, and then I’ll explain.

Tanya was sitting wrapped in a goat fur blanket rocking herself back and forth. It was only 8pm but they seemed to have already finished off a bottle of vodka and Valeria was now opening the second. “Leslie, come, sit, eat with us” she said. “Oh I just ate” I said but sat down for conversation. Tanya was moaning and crying and Valeria began to explain that her only daughter had just died. “It was a stomach illness. They did an operation but 100 days later, two days ago, she died. She was 37 years old.” Tanya sobbed and shook. I said how sorry I was to her, my eyes wide, slowly becoming conscious of the fact that I was rocking back and forth on my own chair empathetically. “Sud’ba” Tanya shook her head, “Sud’ba,” she sobbed as she tightened the goat hair blanket around her. I tried to remember the word, which I knew I knew but couldn’t find in my head at the time, only to look it up in the dictionary later and remember it: “Fate.” Valeria explained that Tanya’s husband had died five years ago of cancer so now she was all alone in her house. And she continued, hesitantly, touching my arm as she explained, “Tanya can’t sleep at her place any more. It’s just too sad for her there. Would you mind if she stayed here with us for awhile?” For a moment, and I know this is awful, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that the dead daughter was an elaborate ruse and that they were together and felt they needed to come up with an excuse for Tanya sleeping over all the time. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said with the utmost sincerity, whichever story was true I was happy to have Tanya stay. From then on I became accustomed to walking in to find Tanya with Valeria at the table, a bottle of vodka by her side that they would stay up late drinking rocking back and forth and talking about “Sud’ba.” Valeria too is a victim of Sud’ba at the moment as her ex-husband is currently insisting she sell the dacha she uses on the weekends and there’s nothing she can do about it. Both situations strike me as things we would deal with not just emotionally but practically through lawyers in the States to regain our control over the situation. We would find a pretense for suing the hospital for the botched operation, take the husband to court to insist on our right to half the property, maybe even the whole thing. And while this wouldn’t take the pain away, particularly in the first case, it would at least give us a feeling of some agency over this damn Sud’ba.

Yes, I know this story, with some slight differences. My version has loose leaf tea instead of vodka, an old comforter from Bagram Airbase instead of a goat hair blanket, and a young Afghan man in the place of a middle aged Russian Tatar woman.

But the grief-stricken rocking, and the wide-eyed American, and the very real, physically wrenching absence of justice, the rule of law and human agency are the same. So is the sud’ba.

Scenes from a Kabul summer

Excerpts from emails, some never sent, reflecting on being young, relatively rich, and a little foolish in Afghanistan during the summer of 2010.

1.

On August 17, an explosion shook my neighborhood for the second time in less than a week. Immediately, everyone, including my journalist friends, thought it was another suicide bombing. Sitting at my desk in my sweltering office across the city, I wondered if my house still had windows, and whether my new housemates were safe. My journalist friend Matt rushed to the scene on foot with his camera.

The explosion turned out to be a controlled one the government forgot to inform the media and NGO security office about ahead of time. But it still rattled. My Afghan colleagues bemoaned the state on unrelenting confusion in the city, the slow transfer of information from government to media to citizens, and the anxious malaise hanging over Afghanistan’s beleaguered capital.

2.

S, Z, and I ended up at the [country name] embassy compound, with a young diplomat we met at the party. The embassy was closed, so we climbed over a fence to reach the pool yard. (This would had  led to a bullet-riddled death at the US embassy.) Later, we tiptoed into the stables and the young diplomat showed us his horse, a present from the governor of the northern province Jawzjan. We were driven home just before sunrise in an armored car with doors almost too heavy to close.

3.

I went to Qargha last night with my Austrian-Iranian housemate and three guys from the Central Bank. As we drank green tea and ate grilled eggplant and listened to tablas, the conversation inevitably shifted to the reintegration and reconciliation debate. One of the bankers, a guy who received his Master’s from a tier 1 university in the United States, said he was completely in favor of reconciliation, because, “That’s the only way we can have some peace, and everything else has failed. Bringing the Taliban and Hekmatyar into the government is the only way I can drive home from work and not worry every day that I’ll be kidnapped or killed.”

I asked him about political concessions, and he grimaced, gestured to our little dinner party and my housemate’s uncovered head, and said, “There will be sacrifices. This won’t be possible anymore.” The others nodded in agreement.