Post-Inaugural Review: “Crippled America” by Donald J. Trump

Trump, DJ. 2015. ‘Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again’. Simon & Schuster.

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There’s a great review out there from a well-known English writer on the life’s work of an equally well-known European politician. It is a short and succinct book review, one that neither holds its punches nor wastes precious words on unnecessary bluster.

For example, reviewing the politician’s appearance on the inside cover jacket, the reviewer describes “a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs” where “the initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at”.

To some, judging an author’s work by his physical appearance might seem a bit superficial, but in the reviewer’s opinion, this dog-like face is the key to understanding everything about the work itself. It is this same grimace, he argues – that ugly, angry, ever-present, ever-pernicious and eternally self-pitying grimace – which permeates the text entire. The world inhabited by this politician-author, it seems, is a world where “he is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds”.

The “odds”, of course, are not odds at all – they are “dragons made from mice”. And yet even despite all that, and despite knowing that the man’s cranium is merely the vessel of a brain whose only political vision is the creation of a “horrible brainless empire” the reviewer puts the book down feeling that somehow and for some bizarre reason, that same politician actually deserves to win.

The review was written by George Orwell and the book was written by Adolf Hitler and just as it is with the Hurst and Blackett’s edition of Mein Kampf, there is an equally awful portrait of Donald Trump on the cover of his own political treatise – Crippled America.

I never wanted to buy a copy of Crippled America nor, really, did I want to read it. Sure, I’d seen it in the airport bookshops and noted it trending in the top 10 on Amazon. One time, I even picked it off a news-stand and flicked through it while browsing for a gift for somebody I didn’t like. For mere amusement, of course. Not to buy. I didn’t dislike the person that much.

Certainly, my intention was never to read it – cover-to-cover. I didn’t need to read Crippled America because Trump wasn’t going to win was he? All that nonsense being played out on cable news was just nonsense after all wasn’t it? All that bluster was just bluster. And all that rhetoric – that divisive, callous rhetoric – was sure to secure Mr Trump a crippling defeat. Right? One needn’t bother with the campaign chargers of the political runners-up of the world.

Election day came however, and Trump won and I was wrong and so were all the polls and so here I am reviewing Crippled America by Donald J Trump – well, reviewing the front cover at the very least.

The term “angrily indifferent” best describes the President’s facial expression on the cover because though he is very clearly frowning, one also gets the feeling that the frown is anything but sincere – that Trump isn’t really angry at all – that really in the end, he couldn’t care in the slightest about anything beyond himself – including whatever is written in his own book.

His oft-remarked-upon hair-do and rouge-orange skin is conspicuously present in the photograph as well, and with a patch of white around the temples it is feasible to imagine that the photo’s subject is not a mannequin made from wax even if the cheeks have been touched up with foundation and Photoshop.

In his dark navy suit and blue tie Donald J Trump dominates the portrait – the flabby, ichthyic hands which others have remarked upon shrewdly kept out of frame. Of course, the blue of Trump’s tie clashes with his strong-man posturing, leaving the viewer with a strange mix-mash of confusing imagery – speaking to a depiction of a Republican war-horse trying desperately to leave the body of a New York draft-dodger wearing the political colors of the Democratic party.

Still, and to his credit, Trump is very present on that book cover of his – more present than were the crowds at his Inauguration anyway – and though there is a great deal about this portrait that hints of an individual who is secretly insecure, impotent and ultimately pathetic, the President is to be applauded for his tremendous tremendous, tremendously successful presence on the front cover of that book of his.

And indeed, just as Trump lords over the cover photograph, the title of the book, “Crippled America” lords over the book’s subtitle (“how to make America great again”) as well, such that one feels that the bit about America being crippled is actually the good bit and the bit about making it great again is only a campaign motto… A campaign motto designed only to win an election and continue on with the crippling.

The copy I have is a hardcover, so naturally it is hard and straight-edged, and the back cover features praise from such notaries as Robert Redford and Mark Cuban – both of whom have since disavowed him.

Then there is the smell. When one opens up the jacket of the hardcover one is met with that partially-familiar scent of new book. And perhaps Trump himself is best thought of as a fragrance – a fragrance hinting at substance but lacking it nonetheless. Because unlike the earthy smell of fresh-pulped wood, the smell of my copy was a wholly synthetic one – more chemical than ambrosial. Likewise, in 2012, when Macy’s released Success, Trump’s very own eau de cologne, the reviewers also noted that it smelled not like Indian vetiver and fresh bamboo (as promised) but rather like “soap”. Artificial, distasteful, toxic to children. That’s the fragrance of Trump – and his book.

The words themselves fare no better either and much of the book reads like the label on one of his fragrances. The phrase “everyone is eating our lunch” appears in the first paragraph while “that’s not winning” forms the basis of the very next clause.

That said, by paragraph three we are invited to an infinitely more pleasing prospect when Trump alludes to a potential way out for everyone with a stake in his Presidency (hot tip: that’s everyone). “If I ran my business that way [the non-winning way],” Trump says of superpowers that don’t do enough winning. “I’d fire myself.”

One can only hope that America’s lunches keep get eating by others because right now it seems like a multinational blitzkrieg of lunch-eating is the only way we can all be rid of the man.

In the meantime, I hear that since Trump has become President, Crippled America: How to Make America Great has been republished as Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America with the emphasis now put on the “great again” part. First impressions of the reprint – there are substantial improvements in the cover design. It’s a nice touch but the words are the same so it’s kind of like the gold drapes in the Oval Office – a flashy distraction to avert one’s gaze from the empty vessel of a man sitting at the desk.  I can only hold my breath for the next campaign book when Trump runs for a second term – impeachments notwithstanding. The title, I hear, will be called Dammit, Crippled Again but the President hasn’t thought of a subtitle yet***.

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Please don’t buy this

 

*** Note: I’ve had some great feedback about potential subtitles for the next campaign book. My favourite so far is “Dammit Crippled Again: But How About that Crowd Size?” In the spirit of internet collaboration, feel free to add your own in the comment section – even if you’re an alt-right troll.

Les Canadiens Errants

Last night, in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, a 27-year-old French-Canadian walked into a mosque and slaughtered six people as they knelt before the god of their choosing during evening prayers. Sainte-Foy sits at the edge of the Gulf of St Lawrence – that great expanse of water mapped centuries ago by the naval explorer Jacques Cartier. In mapping this shore, Cartier’s objective was to claim new territory for France – to light the way so that others might immigrate to a new world. In time, those others came. Ship after ship, family after family and eventually those immigrants created a new country and called it Canada.

And so Canada today is a melting pot – a land where “hopes are high”; a “model of how people of different cultures can live and work together” – a land where “diversity is our strength”.

Last night, however, a snow-covered suburb in sleepy Ste-Foy was the scene of unimaginable violence. Sainte-Foy is just a few hours from the farm where my father grew up, and for much of my upbringing in Australia, the far-flung province of Quebec had always seemed a distant second homeland – la patrie de mon père – my father’s birthplace. Canada and Australia are both Western countries, I was taught, and because of that they have shared values. Democracy, diversity, equality before the law. These were the values that both of my grandfathers fought for during World War II – one in the Australian Army and one in the Canadian Army.

But now, watching as incommensurable ideological changes sweep across the Western world, I wonder – do we Westerners value diversity and equality anymore?

“This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith,” said Prime Minister Trudeau in a statement before the Canadian parliament, the morning after the attacks. Read that again. “Targeted for practicing their faith”. Targeted for kneeling on the floor in search of a spiritual connection with a higher being.

Is this acceptable now? Are there proscriptions on the gods we are allowed to pray to? Are there parts of the world where a Westerner is not allowed to be born in? Are there people on this earth who will never be allowed to count themselves among us simply because of the god they choose to pray to and the holy book they choose to follow?

“My worthiness stems from my faith and labor” reads the motto of the city of Ste-Foy and yet, yesterday, a young French-Canadian walked into a mosque and shot six people precisely because of their faith. The Islamic faith, by his reckoning, is unwelcome in the West – so violence was how he chose to welcome it. Six Canadians now lie dead – their bodies cold on a slab in some wintry morgue.

“Un canadien errant / Banni de ses foyers” sings the most famous Quebecois folk song. “A wandering Canadian / Banished from his hearth”. But it is not just one of us – the disturbed son of Ste-Foy last night – who is lost. We are all lost.

How did we end up here? Hate, of course.

Even as the smell of cordite hung heavy in the air of the Ste-Foy mosque, a member of my own family – an “ironic” supporter of the alt-right movement in the West– messaged me with “news” that the attacks had been committed by a pair of Muslim refugees who had entered Canada last week. Of course, it was just a “troll” he said and I had been “triggered”. That six people had just been shot to death was apparently lost on him but as we have learned in recent months trolling is the signature of the alt-right and the context never matters.

Elsewhere and everywhere on Twitter, on Facebook and sometimes even in the news media, the alternative facts were multiplying. The shooter was Syrian, no Moroccan, no d’origine Arabe… But then, when the details of the case became clear – that the shooter was not a refugee (nor even a recent immigrant) but rather a home-grown, born-and-bred citizen of Canada, the alt-right Twittersphere retreated, confused. “Canada attack doesn’t make sense,” tweeted Tommy Robinson, a leader of the far-right English Defence League. “Unless the Mohammed guy’s an apostate”.

It is true, that blame for the mindless slaughter rests solely in the hands of the young man from Ste-Foye. But just as an extremely selective, simplistic and not at all holistic reading of Islamic texts has produced the phenomenon we know today as jihadism, so too is it reasonable to deduce that the stereotyping, hatred and intolerance ubiquitous in the discourse of the far-right has created a set of conditions which allowed Ste-Foy to occur.

The Trump effect, it seems, has already gone transnational. Here, north of the border of all places, the consequences of his rhetoric are already being felt. The real “carnage”, it seems, is not the dystopian realm of rusted factories described by the President at his Inauguration. No, the real “tombstones scattered across the landscape” are those of the actual dead – those whose bodies lie riddled with bullets even as the President’s divisive rhetoric continues.

“This is Allah’s home,” said one Quebecoise woman, surveying the aftermath in Ste-Foy. “There was blood spilled on the floor.”

Of course, the president of a foreign country is not responsible for the attack that occurred last night in my father’s patrie. In this case, the blame rests firmly in the lap of a disturbed young man. Perhaps now though, even Donald Trump can see how hateful words can lead to violence. Perhaps now he can see how unfair it is to paint a whole people with a broad stroke of the same brush. How tragic that it would take the deaths of six innocent people for him to realize that.

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Donald Trump: “Syrian? Muslim? Leave!”

Jihadism on the Move in Mali

Last Wednesday, a suicide bomber linked to one of Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliates detonated a vehicle filled with explosives inside a military barracks in the Malian town of Gao. Jihadist violence is not uncommon in the country’s north but the death toll for this attack, at 77, was unprecedented – even amidst the current climate of insecurity.

Even though suicide bombers have hit Malian targets before, the January 18 bombing in Gao was demonstrative of a new trend in Malian jihadism: movement. While an identical attack would not be surprising if it had been carried out by a disaffected local in a Saharan border town further north, the Gao bombing is the latest in a series of events which indicate that jihadism is on the move in the country.

Spreading beyond its traditional base of support within marginalised Tuareg and Arab groups, the Malian jihadist movement is franchising and establishing new roots in ethnically heterogeneous areas – shifting the operational focus away from the sparsely-populated and largely-ungoverned Sahara and towards the semi-arable lands south.

This process has been nebulous and subtle, but the spread into central and even southern Mali has been ongoing for the last two years even if, for the most part, it has escaped much of the world’s attention. In recent months though, the movement’s footprint in the Gao and Mopti regions has increased and support for jihadist sentiment at the grassroots level is beginning to show.

On September 3, a platoon-sized group of jihadists riding motorcycles attacked and briefly occupied the village of Boni, the chef-lieu (seat of power) of an ethnic Fulani commune located south and west of Gao on the road to Mopti. The assailants were natives of the nearby hamlet of Sorma, and the attack was an attempt to kidnap or kill Boni’s mayor, Hamadoun Dicko. They failed, but on Wednesday – just hours before the explosion went off in Gao – Dicko was shot in the head as he exited Boni’s local mosque.

In this instance, the killing of a local mayor is not just local news. The Dicko slaying, as part of a textbook jihadist strategy that leverages propaganda of the deed from political assassinations, was only a supporting effort in a re-energised campaign to destabilise events in central Mali from the ground up.

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Mud mosque in the Mopti region

Everywhere on the road between Gao and Mopti attacks are increasing:

  • December 20: the livestock market in the town of Hombori was attacked by a group of jihadists.
  • December 24: a Swiss-French aid worker and longtime resident of Gao was kidnapped in broad daylight.
  • December 26: jihadists attacked a Malian National Guard convoy en route to Gao from the town of Gossi.
  • January 23: an IED attack against a Malian Army convoy travelling on the same road resulted in the deaths of three soldiers.
  • January 24: another Malian army convoy struck an IED while travelling between Douentza and Hombori. The number of dead is unknown but several of the wounded were evacuated to Sévaré in a critical condition.

The recent jihadist activity in the Hombori-Gao region, which seems now to have culminated in a massive attack against the joint-security base in Gao, is indicative of an increasing climate of violence in a part of Mali that until very recently was comparatively quiet.

Jihadism is no longer a metastasis which is endemic to a select few Arab and Tuareg clans dwelling in Mali’s northern fringes; it is on the move and it is “jumping” ethnicity, finding a home with new groups – Songhai, Fulani and others.

The Gao attack’s body count, though horrifically high, is not its most noteworthy aspect. Neither really is its location since we know from recent events in Istanbul, Jakarta, Ouagadougou, Brussels, Grande-Bassam, Orlando, Dhakar, Nice, Paris, Berlin, Sydney and Medina, that terrorism can happen anywhere – even, in the case of Medina, at the very heart of the Islamic faith.

What is most noteworthy about the Gao bombing is the identity of the bomber. In the Al-Qaeda statement claiming responsibility for the attack, the bomber was referred to as “Abdul Hadi Al-Fulani” – which is to say the man self-identified as an ethnic Fulani.

The growing Fulani vanguard in Mali’s jihadist insurgency is worthy of further attention. Indeed, with the recent emergence in 2015 and 2016 of a new group called the Front de Libération de Macina (FLM) – which aims to recruit Fulani fighters from Central Mali – this problem is likely to worsen unless it is treated.

The leader of FLM, Amadou Kouffa, a fiery preacher from the town of Konna (also located on the road between Gao and Mopti) has both a jihadist and a revanchist vision for Mali. Invoking the restoration of the “once great” Massina Empire – a Fulani Islamist state that ruled over the Niger River basin in the 1800s – Kouffa’s vision fuses the primacy of the tribe with the primacy of sharia in a way which is both highly dangerous and highly appealing to vulnerable Fulani populations. If the underlying causes of the spread of jihadism in central and southern Mali remain unexamined and untreated, the frequency of attacks like the one in Gao may increase.

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Fulani travellers pray with Malian soldiers at a post on the border between Mali and Burkina Faso.

The impact of such an invigorated jihadist insurgency in central Mali could be serious and have follow-on effects for regional security. Already, there are early indications of recruits from neighbouring Burkina Faso joining the movement in Mali. One country over, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram also continues to amass support and project power across territory in four West African countries.

A worst-case scenario would be the destabilisation of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Cameroon and the establishment of an African shadow caliphate resembling ISIS. This is some way off but the repercussions of such a prospect would be felt globally. The knock-on effects would include larger refugee populations, stresses on petroleum production and the establishment of a new sanctuary for jihadist training and recruitment. All of the above would have large in kind implications for citizens of Western countries.

We must do our best to address the structural problems and inequalities (whatever they may be) that are perpetuating jihadism at the micro-local level – even in the smallest of central Mali’s Fulani communes. We need to know more because if the problem is left unchecked, the jihadist spread in West Africa will continue to grow.

Melbourne Xmas Terror Plot: Enduring Anomaly

Earlier today, a multi-agency policing operation spearheaded by Victoria Police and supported by the AFP and ASIO, successfully averted a terrorist attack against targets in Melbourne’s CBD. Four of the five would-be attackers, it seems, are young members of the Lebanese-Australian community. They were born here, raised here and now they have been charged with preparing to detonate improvised explosive devices in a major Australian city.

This plot comes at the end of an extremely violent year which has seen salafi-jihadism predominating as the main driver of terrorism worldwide. At the same time, Australia’s Lebanese migrant community is also in the spotlight, often as a favourite case study for politicians to publicly examine the outcomes of immigration from the Middle East. Multi-culturalism is being challenged by very loud voices. Nativism is on the rise. Here the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton’s controversial comments in Parliament last month, which rightfully drew the ire of the Lebanese-Australian community, are particularly telling. Fear is rife in everyone’s analyses of the problem.

But while ISIS-inspired terrorist plots are on the rise in Australia, as I’ve written previously, the nativist movement which is sweeping the West – exemplified by Trump, Brexit, Le Pen and One Nation – is a phenomenon which is tied to “fear of small numbers” – an inflated perception of actual risk.

At first glance, Dutton’s comment that “of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background” seems pretty alarming. In many ways it is pretty alarming. As a court statistic based in fact it shows that terrorism in Australia is fast becoming a disproportionately ethnic problem. There is a problem amongst Lebanese-Australian youth which police and community groups need to redress. Even still, we need not let the Minister’s alarmism colour our perceptions of the Lebanese community as a whole. If there are in fact 22 young terrorists out of a community of 203,139 (the number of Australians who claimed Lebanese ancestry in the 2011 Census) a better way to truly gauge the scale of the problem comes from appreciating the reality that only 0.0108% of Lebanese-Australians have demonstrable ties to terror***. If we restrict the sample size to the 37% of Lebanese-Australians who identify as Muslim, that still only leaves us with a percentage of 0.029% who have been charged with terrorist offences.

Of course, singling out entire groups of people because of the actions of a few is not novel in Australian political life. In 1915, when a pair of Afghan cameleers carried out Australia’s first mass atrocity event at Broken Hill, an angry mob descended on an Afghan camp seeking revenge. Later that evening, they burned down the local German club, blaming enemy aliens for agitating the assailants. 90 years later, the rioters at Cronulla were channeling a similar kind of rage. Both responses were executed in a fearful, post-fact environment – one which overlooked the fact that Afghan camel-drivers formed the backbone of the trans-continental transportation industry in early Australia or, in the case of Sydney in 2005, that Lebanese-Australians were major contributors to local economic growth in manufacturing and small business.

That said then, when Minister Dutton talks about “calling out” (that is, by discriminating against) the Lebanese-Australian community for its links to terrorism, he is not being “honest” at all. But this is frequently the problem with those who proudly wear the badge of “political incorrectness”. More often than not, they are simply incorrect.

As far as policy is concerned, a multi-generational, intra-communal crisis like the one currently effecting the Lebanese-Australian community isn’t something that governments can tempest-harden against with ham-fisted responses. The eventuality that a Lebanese refugee’s grandson would one day become involved with a terrorist group (ISIS) that didn’t even exist in the 70s is  what military planners would call a “second or third order effect”. These effects are often incredibly difficult to predict. In the above case, it was impossible to predict.

In the case of today’s terror plot, a moratorium on Muslim immigration to Australia isn’t going to end the hatred and alienation currently being felt and expressed by a vulnerable demographic of second-generation and third-generation Muslim-Australians. On the contrary, it will make the problem worse. Instead of “throwing out the poisoned Skittle bowl” as Donald Trump’s son crassly suggested during his father’s campaign, our counter-terrorism efforts should focus on selectively removing the poisoned Skittles from the bowl (that is, by adequately resourcing and supporting our police and intelligence agencies) and working with community groups to neutralise the poison entirely.

Beyond this, bandying about alarmist crime statistics during Parliamentary Question Time is only going to make the problem worse. As former Liberal leader and now-ANU professor John Hewson wrote of Minister Dutton’s comments in Parliament: “while the Government has recognised the desperate need to rely on the cooperation of the Islamic communities to out potential terrorists as an essential element of its national security and anti-terrorism strategy, Dutton has sought to name and shame a particular segment of that community: Lebanese-Muslims”.

Better understanding the causes of social alienation is the key to solving the problem – not closing the gates on the alienated entirely. In the case of Mullah Abdullah, one of the perpetrators of the Broken Hill attacks in 1915, his alienation began on “the day some larrikin threw stones at me” for wearing his turban.

The bottom line, therefore, is this. Responding to domestic terror plots by engaging in activities (legislative, on the street or otherwise) which go against our fundamental national values is not the solution. Permanently closing our borders to innocent people fleeing terrorism will not prevent Australian-born citizens from committing acts of terror in the towns they grew up in. Similarly, oppressing Australian Muslims on the street will not end the scourge of salafi-jihadism.  By choosing to wage a war against Christmas, the terrorists are doing this themselves. Eventually, support for their barbaric violence will dwindle. In the long run, no one likes a Grinch.

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*** Edit & author’s note: A commenter below rightly pointed out that the 2011 Census statistic is too broad for use here as it doesn’t differentiate between religious background (obviously Lebanese-Muslims are the central focus here) or between various waves of migration. There is relevant chat in there so I added the math for Lebanese-Muslims too. Of course, if it is true that the Census stat doesn’t tell us much about a topical demographic than Dutton’s statistic doesn’t really tell us much about the same demographic as a whole either. At least, no more than a statement like “52% of homicide in the US is committed by African-Americans whereas less than 2% of American Presidents have been African-American” tells us anything about where African-American community interests and values lie as a whole. This of course is the problem with quantitative data (and the reason I studied anthropology which relies more heavily on the qualitative kind) – stats can be twisted to give gross misrepresentations of the scale of the problem. There is a good post about the neutrality of crime statistics here.

Aleppo

On Wednesday, I surfed a quiet break on the southeast coast of Australia while the Syrian government, aided by Russian forces, closed in on the final rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo. At the beach, the day was dark and rainy and a fierce cross-wind was sewing disorder amongst the waves. In Aleppo, I suppose, the skies would have been grey as well – that same dusty grey that accompanies the biting cold which blasts through during the week before Christmas.

As the bombs fell on that distant urban battlefield, I rode the same wave again and again, wondering periodically, between sets, what was happening to the town I’d called home for a few months before the war.

It was 2011 and a week or two after New Year’s. The day was cold and the skies were grey – that cold, lifeless grey that hovers over desert places in the winter. Beside the plaza beneath the Citadel, I sat on an open-aired divan in the warmth of a heatlamp, quietly taking in my surroundings. Our final Arabic exam was over and I’d gone out with some friends for shai and shisha to celebrate and even though I was outside and even though the hookah had been taken away by the waiter when the others had left, the air about me still smelled of apple-smoke.

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Above me, atop the sweep of stone and dirt that formed the castle mount and atop the stone walls of that very same mountain’s castle, a pair of Syrian army soldiers were stood, in view and a little apart from each other, on the ramparts looking down at the square. Assault rifles hung from their shoulders. There was a certain newness to this pair of Syrian Army soldiers and I noticed this newness because these soldiers had not been up on those walls during my previous visits to the square.

Still, while I remarked on the change, whatever that change might indicate, I thought very little of it, because down in the plaza everything looked the same. A young man in an ankle-length qamis sat by himself on an oblong bench beneath a lamp-post, his slippered feet flat and uniform on the smooth stone beneath him. Beside him, another man, apparently unknown to him, was quietly eating his lunch. A hundred or so metres away, at the Citadel’s entrance steps, an Iranian family was scattered in a photo-taking gaggle, smiling and trading places in the pictures. Meanwhile and aloof from both groups, on the far side of the square – a pair of Eastern European women with dyed white hair, powdered faces and form-fitting clothing (clothing which suggested their profession without explaining their profession) was stood next to the retaining wall, sharing a fume-cigarette between them.

They are Romanian or Bulgarian perhaps, I mused – though here in Aleppo, apparently, it didn’t matter because Syrians simply called all such women “Russi”. “Russi” meant “Russian” in Arabic though in this context it had a very different meaning indeed.

My time in this city was coming to an end and even though I’d had my ear to the ground just long enough to pick up a few of the above such colloquialisms I really knew nothing of Aleppo. I knew, of course, those humdrum factoids that every foreign visitor learns on arrival and that every Aleppan is quick to remind you of when you strike up a conversation about their hometown: that Abraham was supposed to have milked his herd here (from which the city gets its Arabic name “Halab” – as in “haleeb” meaning “milk”); that even though Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world Aleppo appears in the written historical record much earlier; or that the capture of Aleppo marked the final victory of the Arab Revolt and that TE Lawrence was known afterwards to enjoy a nightcap in the swanky lounges of the Baron Hotel.

I knew those little factoids. In truth though, I knew very little. So while my friends went back to the hotel to smoke those thick, heavy cigarettes which you can only buy in the Middle East, I decided I would linger a while, delay my journey home, for a final wander through the city – to feel its rhythms one last time.

I stood up and walked across the square and, finding the entrance to the Old Souq, I slipped down the steps and into the tunnel. It was late in the day and the market stalls were beginning to close up. The hawkers were still hawking but their hawking was more languid now – quieter, calmer, less desperate. One or two or three of them were drinking little shot-glasses of sweet tea, incuriously watching me from behind an over-stuffed rack of cheap toys from China.

I walked past the bath-house where some friends and I had had the best wash of our lives but the bathing time was later in the evening so the door was bolted shut. I moved on past a row of spice and fruit stalls remarking, as ever, the colourful arrangements of cinnamon, saffron and dates in their hessian baskets. The aroma of cardamom hung heavy on the air.

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I passed the little hole-in-the-wall that had become a favourite for an after-class snack. Freshly-squeezed juice (the unsweetened-but-still-sweet kind that leaves tassels of pulp between your teeth) with flatbread and a tray of humus dripping in olive oil. They’d finished making juice for the day but I bought a half-dozen circles of bread to go with dinner. The bread wasn’t fresh-baked like it was around lunchtime but even if it was a little hard and a little cold it would do for supper.

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Bagging the bread, I took off again with the ancient tunnel arches of the marketplace still overhead. Taking a side exit then, I wandered out into the open air – still cold and still grey – and past the Ummayad Mosque – the centrepiece of Aleppan Sunnism. The minaret, with its gingerbread stonework, towered above the street but the muezzin was not calling because prayer-time was over and the faithful were flooding out into the cold air as well – the women in their hijab, the men in their taqiyah – dispersing into the streets as they set off on their way home for dinner and rest.

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A few blocks and a series of side-alleys later (the exact route of which I cannot remember) and I stood before the big black iron-clad door that marked the language institute in which we’d studied. The door which led into our classroom – a medieval vault – was slammed shut now and Ali, my Arabic teacher, would be going home tomorrow. “This place is a powder-keg” was the last thing he’d say to me before he left.

I turned the alley-corner and passed by a grated booth in the wall, and though everything was closed now I knew that there was a government-run bakery inside – one which issued loaves of bread around lunchtime – a scene of daily subsidized chaos.

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I was halfway home now and turning the corner again, I wondered off through the local meat market – a vegetarian’s nightmare – cow’s heads on plates, dead chickens with hooks through their necks – and I passed out into the street again – past a take-away joint with a neon sign reading “Mr Chicken” in English and a line of backgammon halls, always teeming with coffee-sipping patrons, where Don and I had gone one afternoon to learn what all the fuss was about.

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The main street which led back into the Christian Quarter was teeming with traffic – old, smelly cars driven by leather-jacketed locals honking furiously in the grey-golden light of peak hour. I walked past the white-walled boundary of an international hotel – perhaps it was the Carlton, but I can’t quite recall anymore – and, stepping over the carcass of a dead street cat, made a decisive bid to cross the street. The cars weaved around me, the drivers adjusting their trajectories accordingly.

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Reaching the curb opposite, I mounted it and moved to a small shop where a man stood behind a counter stirring a giant vat of a viscous white something. For weeks I had frequented this little stop-and-shop on my way home, buying and drinking this viscous white something without knowing exactly what it was. The beverage they made here, I would learn long after I had made a habit of drinking it, was called sahlab – a sweet dessert made from the flour of orchid tubers. It was thick and milky-coloured and until I learned its actual name I had simply used a number of inappropriate English nicknames in everyday conversation.

Learning the name though, was of no real substance to me because the stuff was delicious. So, trading five pounds for a cupful of sahlab – whose name I knew at last on my second last day in Aleppo – I tipped it slowly to my lips, letting the aroma waft and steam beneath my nose, before draining the lot. It was warm and smooth and thick as it slid into my belly and, satisfied, I looked up and the grey sky seemed a little less grey.

I handed the cup back for a refill, and drinking my takeaway as I went, I crossed another road and plunged into the Christian Quarter with its cobbled alleys and ornate stonecraft. A block further and the day seemed to have fled from night’s black banners because the sky was black now and all the streetlights were turned on.

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I had bread in my backpack but I took the long way back to the hotel and visited the supermarket – a French chain called Monoprix – on the way home for extras. Meanwhile, seamlessly around me, Aleppans lived out their lives. Two blocks away was the university, bustling with students. A few blocks beyond that was the little resto owned by a pair of Iraqis. Best bread I’ve ever eaten.

A statue stood in my path on my way back to the hotel and even though I’d passed it many times on my walks about town, I realised then that it might be the last I’d see of this statue for a while so I concluded that perhaps I should expend a little extra time actually looking at the thing. The details are hazy now but I remember that the statue was dark and strong and prideful – standing tall and indifferent against the chill of a January night.

“Acacius,” read the plaque on the block at the statue’s feet. “Bishop of Aleppo”. There was something else on that plaque – a collection of dates, or places, or an elegy or a quotation perhaps. But I can’t quite recall any more.

Indeed, I’d be lying if I said that I will always remember Aleppo just the way she was during those few months I walked her streets. As the cold of that night grows more and more distant the details grow hazy – even if these memories in their present form are only five or six years old. Still, I remember what I remember and the Syria I remember was a Syria that I could live in even if a brutal dictator was in charge of it all. We used a proxy server to access many internet sites and the secret police were going through the garbage but still there was sahlab and humus and bread and for Syrians themselves there was something resembling normalcy even if that normalcy was not free.

There are, was then, always has been Syrians who wanted more than what Assad was offering. You could hear this sometimes in faint whispers, trailing at the ends of the occasional sentence. A sly joke about Bashar here and there; a one-time mention of what Bashar’s father Hafez had done to Hama in the 80s; but still, if you’d asked me, I never would have guessed what would happen in Syria just months after I left. What would eventuate in Syria would be a surprise to me even as I bore witness to the early tumult of the Arab Spring in Cairo.

It’s possible that there was a real “Spring” at some point during Syria’s civil war – a wellspring of hope injecting itself into a political system which had, for decades, stifled anything and everything resembling liberty. But the Arab Spring, the one I watched happen on TV during a cold Syrian December, had always looked to me like the beginning of an Arab Winter – a season of grey skies and political disquiet when a cold swell was washing against the Lattakia coast. A month when a cold frost clung to the cobblestone alley-ways in the side streets around the Ummayad Mosque. The beginning of the Long Cold.

Somewhere along the way it seems, a truly popular revolution was destroyed, either by Assad himself or by internal forces – jihadist or otherwise – who came into the picture at an opportune time to hijack both the message and the manpower. Things fell apart as, in hindsight, they were always going to. And in this instance, there was nothing that I nor anybody in the Western world could have done about it. To think otherwise would be foolish – and revoltingly ethnocentric.

I personally witnessed nothing of the Syrian Civil War as it happened, on the ground. I simply watched as Syrian friends went quiet on Facebook or as friends from other walks of life ended up in the midst of it all, dying there in circumstances still too complex and strange for me to fully understand.

All I know for sure is that the Battle of Aleppo was a loss, even if one side, as seems now to be the case, has claimed victory. Nobody won the Battle of Aleppo – least of all Aleppans. For who, really, could see success in the wholesale destruction of a living, breathing city? Who could read victory in the devastation of Aleppo’s Souq, its Citadel, its Mosque and its Inhabitants?

As I nosed my board through the trough of a towering breaker, emerging out the back a second later, I looked out to sea at the grey sky and the distant-falling raindrops on the long-forming swell.

Grey skies. Grey skies here. Grey skies there. Grey skies over Aleppo today, for sure. Grey skies everywhere.

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On Marrying

On the 10th of December, I married my girlfriend Eleanor, on the grounds of the Australian National University where we had both completed our degrees. The flowers in her bouquet, on my boutonnière and on the arbour behind us were all Australian natives – kangaroo paw, gum blossom, boronia and protea*** – and the ceremony and the evening which followed felt very close to the heart.

Below is a transcript of my groom’s speech.

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Tonight, I want to talk about what marriage means to me and what it might mean to an observer looking in from the outside.

In earlier times, marriage was understood as the union between a man and a woman, an act which was often followed by the parenting of children. Typically, the only prescriptions on traditional Western marriages were that they were exogamous (that is, the two parties were unrelated) and that the son or daughter’s spouse came from the right family with the right social status.

Today of course, Western marriage is changing. As a ritual, marriage is becoming increasingly secular and even our definition of it is evolving to include same-sex couples. At first glance, these seem like radical changes and there is even some discussion about whether marriage is still relevant in today’s world. People can have meaningful relationships and raise children without a priest binding them in matrimony.

So what function does marriage serve? Why do we still bother? Why do millions of people all around the world choose to get married every year?

Amongst the Nuer of Sudan, woman-woman marriages commonly occur – so it can’t just be about having children.

Elsewhere, in India’s Kerala State, young girls will often leave their new husbands immediately after marrying them – often acquiring up to six new husbands in the process – so it’s not strictly about monogamous relations either. In India, the tying of the necklace at the tali (marriage) ceremony is the groom’s admission that all the girl’s future children will now belong to him – perhaps the ultimate child support scam. In exchange of course, he joins his young wife’s family.

So you see then, marriage is fundamentally about selecting the right mate – a ritual whose central aim is to give you, your tribe and your offspring, a big step up. The word “tribe” is important here because not only was today’s union about the creation of my new family with Eleanor but it was also about the unification of two tribes – the Edgar-Tucker tribe with the Elliott-Cattanach tribe.

While I share no common blood with approximately half the people in this room, this marriage means that I now share with Eleanor’s family what anthropologists call an “affinity” – from the Latin finis meaning “border” – which is to say that there are no longer any borders between us. Eleanor’s family and I have crossed the hearth of strangeness to become kin. Louise and Brendan may not have raised me – Olivia and Alexandra may not have grown up with me as a brother – but in codifying my relationship with Eleanor, I have joined their tribe and they have joined mine.

This reception therefore, is something of a victory procession for me. I’ve just joined a terrific tribe.

 Marching with me on this procession, I have brought along a troop of fine young gentlemen with whom I had earlier formed alliances – my twin Best Men, Chris and Neil, and the other strapping hominids you might be able to pick out in this crowd. Humans are much like chimpanzees in this regard – the troop always comes out to support their boy.

But it is not these handsome apes alone which I bring to the Edgar tribe. I bring also the opportunity for a newfound affinity with the Elliotts and the Cattanachs. I bring to Brendan and Louise’s table my mother’s hospitality, my father’s artistry with a brush, my uncle Lorne’s award-winning humour, and my cousin Finn’s ability to make and have a good time.

So now that I’ve covered the socio-biology of marriage in tribal society, I should talk a little bit about love.

While we know that romantic love is neither universal to the practice of marriage worldwide nor, indeed, universal to all cultures at all, the anthropologist Charles Lindholm concluded that if nothing else “[love] is best understood as a form of the sacred” and though “it can blossom or fade… the impulse behind it is not likely to vanish”.

So I say love is real. It’s as real as it ever was on the day I met Eleanor all those years ago. And so all the details aside, there is one thing which for sure I can say is true. Insofar as I have grown into a world with Eleanor in it, I have fallen in love with that world and I have fallen in love, completely, with Eleanor. Eleanor, you are my best friend and I love you. I’m very happy you said “yes” to joining our two tribes.

So, I propose two toasts – that is, two chinks of your glasses – one for Eleanor and one for our big, new happy tribe.

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*** = Here I have to admit to being reminded that botany is not my strong point. A South African friend pointed out the following: “proteas are native to South Africa, waratahs are Aussie natives. Both from the family “Proteaceae””.

On the New Nativism

As one of the most bizarre presidential campaigns in the history of the United States nears its conclusion, it seems difficult to imagine that Donald Trump could emerge victorious in November. Too many key constituencies have been alienated. Too many vilified minorities – voiceless by themselves but vociferous as a collective – have turned their backs on the demagogue. One poll reported that minority voters have a more favourable view of the bubonic plague and middle airplane seats than a Trump presidency.

That said, even as Trump’s campaign seems to be collapsing around him, it is important to acknowledge that the political movement which catapulted “The Donald” from his job as a plug on a reality TV show with declining ratings to front and centre of American political discourse is far bigger than the man himself. Indeed, more than anything else, Donald Trump’s rise is better understood not as the outcome of a shrewdly-run campaign but as a symptom of an ideological trend (one that is not entirely novel) which is sweeping the Western world – a phenomenon we might label “the new nativism”.

Concisely put, nativism emphasises the primacy of “natives” over “non-natives”,  whereby special privilege is given to existing inhabitants over newcomers. The term “native” of course, is an ontological distinction which attaches a certain person to a certain place so at the core of the nativist struggle is an entire cosmology of place which applauds the walling off of local terrain to defend the native ethnie.  Because of its hyper-locality, nativism tends to manifest in hyper-local forms and this is no different in the West today with the return of Hansonism to Australia; the Brexit vote in the UK; the Le Pen movement in France; and of course, the enthusiasm for everything Trump which has swept across Republican America.

United by a shared dislike for non-natives (particularly Muslim non-natives), the anti-foreigner sentiment of these movements has caused them to be viewed as movements of “rejection” or negation – where “nativism” is simply a technical term for “anti-immigration”. But while it is usually true that nativists are anti-immigration, nativism shares more similarities with nationalism in that its discourse is framed first and foremost around an exuberance for an imagined community – “the nation” – whose cultural identity it seeks to preserve and promote. The Other is disliked, yes, but He is not the focus. Hate in the case of nativism, is simply a by-product of the manufacturing process.

Where nationalists seek to couple the mythology of the nation with the apparatus of the state in order to project power abroad, nativist discourse is usually framed in defensive terms (hence its frequent description as an “anti-position”), often laced with nostalgia for a lost but reclaimable past. Fears of immigrants “stealing jobs” result in calls to build walls and “make America great again”; concerns about “the Islamisation of the secular West” divert attention to cultural minutiae like religious food certification; and observable changes in local demography create a reminiscent longing for, in the words of Pauline Hanson, “a breed of Australians who were taught values, morals, honesty, work ethic and common sense – things very much lacking today”.

The tension between the “in-group” and the “out-group” is thus at the core of the nativist project, and the cultural field in which nativism thrives is therefore best embodied by the gated cul-de-sac – exclusive, manicured and insular – where neighbours band together in their quest for cultural sameness.

Not much in the new nativism is entirely new to humanity. Humans are territorial animals, traditionally banding together in small groups to pool and control access to limited resources. Early humans sought to secure their lands and goods by constructing socio-political units called “tribes” – communities of like-minded “selves” defined by relationships of kinship and affinity. With that said then, if early nativist thinking emerged from this primordial mould  what is “new” at all in “new nativism”?

The answer, conveniently enough, lies in one word – globalisation.

With the acceleration of chaotic globalizing forces defined by what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls “trajectories of disjuncture”, traditional structures of power buttressed by ideas of nationhood are being challenged like never before. In a world where oceans can be crossed in less than a day and information can be transmitted instantaneously, goods manufactured overseas transform into “flows” breaking down economic barriers while foreign peoples and ideas become “vectors” destabilizing extant notions of ethnic purity and traditional patterns of thought.

In the midst of all this perceived chaos, bids to reclaim the stronger ethnic identities of the past become more desperate, building momentum until rational concerns morph into widespread anxiety and anxiety manifests as fear. In this climate, anxiety amongst the majority translates into “fear of small numbers”. “Vectors” must be immunised against. “Flows” must be stopped by building walls against them. One study conducted by Essential polling suggested that 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration even though another study conducted in the US found that the chance of dying in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion (lower for an illegal alien).

Naturally, the miscomprehension of real versus perceived risk impels some like Thomas Friedman to opine that Trump’s supporters “are not interested in Trump’s details… They like his gut” or others to claim that those unfairly left behind by globalisation are living in “a post-fact world” where unequal globals forces are actually just “dimly understood”.

It should be obvious that this is not the way to engage with the many shortcomings of new nativism, even though much of what it represents is extremely unpalatable. As Peter Lewis wrote on the results of the Muslim immigration poll: “this is not a ‘basket of deplorables’ who sit outside the confines of polite society… [it] is 49% of the men and women who make up our nation”.

Indeed, the best way to grapple with the poorly-thought-out policy proposals of the new nativists is not to say, for example, that what Australia needs is more Muslims (even though, all things being just, this shouldn’t matter one iota) – it is to simply point out that it would be impossible and unconstitutional for border officials to run a test of a newcomer’s “Muslimness” at Australia’s ports of entry.

Similarly, Pauline Hanson’s totalitarian proposal to put surveillance cameras in every mosque across Australia cannot be countered by denying that there is such a thing as Islamist extremism – it can only be countered by explaining that overtly targeting religious minorities is likely to make the problem of religious extremism worse.

A multi-million dollar royal commission to confirm “whether Islam is a religion or a political ideology” would be excessive and wasteful because neither “Islam” nor “Islamism” are monolithic systems of ideation (meaning that they are difficult to put in simple, elegant boxes). Nor would any commonly-accepted definition of Islam characterise it as anything other than an engagement with the “sacred” – the most elementary component of a religion.

The list of bad nativist policy to refute goes on and on. An overly-combative, largely-symbolic and easily-breached wall along the US-Mexico border is not what US customs officials have asked for in appropriation documents – a “virtual wall” of sensors and drones is. Efforts to reclaim a lost “British-ness” in the wake of Brexit would be fruitless because there is no consensus on what being British actually consists of. Burqas cannot be banned without also banning masks, balaclavas and the full-body costumes one sees at electronic dance music festivals.

To many reading this, even giving the time of day to respond to some of the concerns of the new nativists might seem like a wilful acknowledgement of the mad ravings of a racist fringe. One thing is certain, however – ignoring the other side in a debate is neither a good way to win an argument nor a way to constructively engage with and allay the other’s concerns.

What is true is that the main challenge for modern democratic societies in the future will be to manage the tension between the identity-building projects of threatened ethnies and the unavoidable realities of a hyper-connected, culturally-homogenous world. This tension must be managed through balanced discourse free of name-calling and with sound policy free of mania. Failing to manage this tension could be disastrous. As the political scientist Benjamin Barber wrote in his influential treatise Jihad vs McWorld – “the two axial principles of our age—tribalism and globalism—clash at every point except one: they may both be threatening to democracy”.

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Friday, the native, and Crusoe