Escaping the Flood

In my car next to the trailhead, I switch on my headlamp and step out into the cold air. The night is dark but my tiny beam of light splits the heavy mist like a ship’s lantern through thick sea fog. In running tights and an ultra-lite shell, I am cold in the pre-dawn chill. For a moment, I consider throwing on another layer.

You should just get moving, I say to myself, because I know that when I’m moving I’ll become warmer. So that is what I do. By the time I’ve reached the first of the switchbacks I am warmer and I’ve found my stride. Below me, the creekbed boulders rumble, pushed along by a torrent of rushing snowmelt.

Rubble Creek. So no-named for the remnants of an ancient First Nations village that lies beneath. Sp’u7ets – meaning “boulders” – the Lil’wat people call this place. One day, a great rockslide washed it all away. Caused by the beating wings of the Thunderbird, they say.

My thoughts flit back to the trail. Planting the tips of my poles into the loamy ground – I move forward and upward. My pack is small – a daypack really with some water, a few energy gels, a down jacket and rain pants – although I’ve leashed a pair of snowshoes to the outside. It was a long, wet winter and there’s still a lot of snow up there.

At dawn I reach the lookout for the volcanic plug known as “the barrier”.

Behind that wall, I muse, lies Lake Garibaldi and a million years of pent-up energy. A natural dam created by a quick-cooling lava flow, geologists at UBC have assessed the barrier structure as “extremely unstable”. At its base, Rubble Creek flows from a breach in the moraine.

One day, the whole thing will go and Squamish will share the same fate as Sp’u7ets.

I keep moving. Half an hour later I’ve reached the lake-rim. An hour later, with snowshoes on now, I’ve passed Taylor Meadows and the snowline. The snow, though old and beginning to rot, crunches happily beneath my snowshoes.

Old White, my friend. It is good to see you again. I haven’t skied much this winter. “Obligations”. But now, here I am. By myself. Above it all. Escaped. At last.

In the distance, I catch a glimpse of Mount Garibaldi. Nch’kay – “muddy”. Garibaldi’s glacial névé forms the source of the muddy waters of the Cheekeye.  According to Squamish legend, during a time of great flooding, their ancestors sought sanctuary on the summit. Only on the highest peak in the area could they escape the Flood and the Mud.

Back in the post-diluvian era – in the world after the Flood – I keep moving. Then, I see it. My objective. The Black Tusk. T’k’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7en .  “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. A jagged pinnacle of volcanic rock lancing into the sky. I remember climbing it a few summers ago. The feeling of the warm, cinder-rich rock beneath my hands – the mountain a pinnacle of debris – black and andesitic. Shattered, as though from the impact of some gigantic bird of prey.

As First Nations tell it, it was here where the Thunderbird landed to comfort the Flood’s survivors. He gave them food. He nurtured them – wrapping them in His wing.

It suddenly occurs to me that the apparent duality of the Thunderbird is important. Its wings can nurture or its can wings can flap. It can provide comfort or it can wreak havoc. A true creator-destroyer. Like the mountains themselves.

Starting up the approach slopes of the snow-covered Tusk, I look down at my watch. I see the numbers and suddenly, I stop. Six hours have lapsed since I left the car. Today is a work day for me – I’m moonlighting for a night shift tonight. I realise I’ve run out of time. A part of me of wants to push on – to sever ties with the world below. Ditch the clock. Forget my obligations. Linger in the sunshine. Keep in company with the snows. Escape entirely.

I mull over it. What would happen if I just stayed here?

But I can’t stay here. Our time in the mountains is only temporary – will always be temporary. The comfort the Thunderbird can provide only fleeting.  Sooner or later, we all must return to the Mud below.

Besides. The mountain – as they say – “isn’t going anywhere”. And I live here after all. The trailhead’s a twenty minute drive from my door step. I turn around. I make my way back down to Rubble Creek.

Wadi Boraq

Photo: Squamish-Lilw’at Cultural Centre/Squamish Public Library


Boko Haram’s Decline Will Reveal Nigeria’s Bigger Problems

A good news story, seemingly rare these days, came in Sunday’s announcement that Boko Haram — a jihadist group currently menacing Nigeria’s north — released 82 of the 276 schoolgirls they had previously abducted from the town of Chibok.

While it is too early to speculate about what this means for the group’s long-term political future, there should be no doubt that this deal was negotiated with the Nigerian Government in a position of strength.

Even as Boko Haram continues amassing fighters — recruiting over 2,000 children in 2016 alone — and spreading fear through its online propaganda campaign, since late last year structural weaknesses within the group have begun to show.

Following a leadership spill between Abubakar Shekau, the successor to the group’s spiritual founder Ustaz Mohammad Yussef, and the group’s spokesman Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, factional in-fighting between the two camps has led to deadly skirmishes on a number of occasions.

A reinvigorated campaign by the Nigerian military corresponding with the 2015 election of hardline former general Muhammadu Buhari has also enjoyed progress against Boko Haram.

So far at least, the changes implemented by Buhari and his newly-appointed commanders seem to have had a positive effect on the battlespace.

Shifting the location of the operational headquarters from Abuja to Maiduguri (the locus of the problem), overhauling military procurement by cracking down on budgetary mismanagement and adjusting the Army’s tactical focus to saturation patrolling throughout Borno state are among the positive measures which saw the number of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria decrease from 270 in 2015 to just 36 in 2016.

On the whole it seems, especially with Sunday’s news of the Chibok schoolgirls’ release, improvements on the ground in northern Nigeria appear to be increasingly and incrementally tangible — at least, when compared with the worsening situation in Mali.

Concurrently however, the UK Foreign Office, in updating its in-country travel advisory, reported the receipt of new information that Boko Haram was “actively planning to kidnap Western foreign workers along the Kumshe-Banki axis” near the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

Of course, the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and oil workers by jihadists is not a new phenomenon in West Africa. Neither is the emergence of a specific threat is not suggestive of the historical absence of the same threat.

If it’s true though, that Boko Haram is now searching for an explicitly Western kidnapping target to boost its global profile, then it would indicate that a crucial psychological tool and bargaining chip has been lost in the release of the Chibok schoolgirls.

Furthermore, if Boko Haram’s increasingly splintering membership is shifting the emphasis away from large-scale military operations towards low-level kidnappings then the group’s relative strategic position is perhaps in even worse shape than previously thought.

Just as the 2014 kidnapping and beheading of the French mountaineer Herve Gourdel by a group of Islamic State sympathisers in Algeria revealed the work of a peripheral subgroup vying for relevance, a transition away from mass abductions of entire girls’ schools in favour of bundling stray Westerners into people-mover vans would seem to show Boko Haram as a militant group in decline.

If we go by the number of attacks alone, Boko Haram’s “power” — that is, its ability to project military force over territory that it controls — does seem to be decreasing.

That said, if the last decade and a half spent “fighting terrorism” has shown us anything, it is that eliminating the threat posed by jihadist groups is a task which transcends success on the battlefield.

An individual kidnapping, while a comparatively miniscule event, can still have a profound psychological impact on a target population.

This is even more pronounced when the individuals being targeted are foreign aid workers whose reconstruction work, per the counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen, is crucial for “hardwiring” militants out of the local environment.

As such, while Mr Buhari is right to be proud of the fact that Boko Haram is no longer capable of “articulated conventional attacks on centres of communication and populations”, his attendant claim (articulated as early as December 2015) that Boko Haram is “technically defeated” continues to be, at best, a little optimistic.

As the International Crisis Group summarised of the situation in May last year: “Boko Haram is seemingly on a back foot … [but] it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle.”

Naturally, excessively focussing on one’s military successes also allows Mr Buhari to divert attention away from deeper structural problems in Nigeria which underlie the jihadist crisis.

Corruption in particular remains a persistent driver of local instability.

According to one study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, if the misappropriation of funds by key influencers is left unchecked by 2030 it could cost the Nigerian economy up to 37 per cent of the national GDP.

The Nigerian public’s trust in its own institutions, especially the police force, is also at an all-time low.

It’s not all depressing though. Culturally, at least, Mr Buhari does not have a difficult adversary to contend with in Boko Haram.

On a grand historical timescale, it is difficult to imagine that a group as bizarre as Boko Haram — which at one point introduced a tax “for breathing” on some residents in a suburb of Maiduguri — could actually impose what they wish to see imposed on the Nigerian people.

Certainly, the rise of anti-Boko vigilante groups since the Chibok kidnappings would seem to indicate that on some fundamental level the group’s use of child suicide bombers and its propensity for sexual slavery simply does not resonate with the locals.

Likewise, if Nigeria’s generals are to be believed and the territory now controlled by Boko Haram is confined to a few jungled pockets of the Sambisi Forest, then that, at the very least, is a sign of progress.

And yet, as much as the world would like to see Mr Buhari’s mission accomplished, positive trends do not a “technical defeat” make.

As Stephen Chan from SOAS-University of London glibly put it: “Something is rotten in Nigeria — and something peculiarly Nigerian at that.”

The rot, if the metaphor carries, continues to fester, unabated. And until that rot is excised, whole-bodily from the Nigerian system, it is likely that the extremist problem will persist.

MOABs win battles but they don’t win wars

Friday saw global audiences awaking to news the US military had dropped a GBU-43/B MOAB — the largest non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal — on a jihadist defensive position in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

The event marked the use of the weapon on the battlefield for the first time in history.

Nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs for its 11-tonne blast yield, the employment of the $16 million MOAB comes at a time of increasing violence in Nangarhar — in particular, the rise of a local affiliate of ISIS called Wilayah Khorasan, often referred to as ISIS-K.

Named for the historical region of Khorasan which features prominently in jihadist eschatology, ISIS-K’s recent activities in the Achin, Nazian, Dih Bala and Kot districts can be traced back to a steady flow of Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants across the border into Nangarhar between 2010 and 2014.

Following a largely successful counterinsurgency offensive by the Pakistani military in early 2010, TTP fighters from the Orakzai Agency began moving across the Durand Line (the Afghan-Pakistan border) in large numbers.

An orange GBU-43 bomb in a large warehouse.

The US dropped a GBU-43B on a tunnel system housing IS fighters in a hillside on the western banks of the Mamand river just outside Achin district’s Asadkhal

While their initial presence in Nangarhar saw them arriving as ‘guests’ in the villages of their fellow Pashtuns, in early October 2014, six of these leaders declared the area to be an exclave province of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, breaking with the TTP and giving bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

By mid-2015, after a violent campaign against community rivals, including skirmishes against local Afghan Taliban elements, the newly formed ISIS-K began to grow exponentially.

Achin District in particular, as one of the largest opium poppy districts in Eastern Afghanistan, provided a logical base of operations for ISIS-K activities near the Durand Line – affording the militants a sluice of commercial and strategic opportunities for further expansion in Nangarhar.

Thursday’s strike comes in the middle of an Afghan government-led operation to clear ISIS-K from Achin, and despite CENTCOM’s description of the MOAB as “the right munition” for the obstacles which Afghan security forces were facing (as if the bomb’s use was unexceptional) there should be little doubt the strike shows a new preference for large displays of force in US-partner-led operations in Afghanistan.

At the same time, while there was initial speculation the MOAB-drop was Donald Trump’s way of “sending a message” to Syria and North Korea, what this event shows, perhaps more than anything else, is the President’s willingness to delegate decision-making to commanders on the ground, including the relaxation of top-down control of airpower.

While some might be concerned about a situation where military commanders have “total authorisation” to do as they please on operations, the knowledge that America’s generals are implementing “the commander’s intent” as opposed to, say, “the executive orders of the commander-in-chief” should come as a relief to many.

Indeed, with highly regarded military doyens like HR McMaster and James Mattis now crafting the US’s national security policy, one can see in Washington not so much the emergence of a ‘deep state’ but rather a ‘shallow state’ — an America where public servants now function as tugboats guiding the President’s very leaky ship through the shallows and away from a potential shipwreck.

That said, even if the US military is able to insulate defence policy from Mr Trump’s temperament, there is little indication the current offensive against ISIS-K in Afghanistan will be able to improve the local security environment in any substantive way.

Althought, at least at first glance, it seems there were no civilian casualties in the MOAB strike, some local reports have suggested civilian infrastructure up to four kilometres away may have been damaged by the MOAB.

Certainly, it should go without saying America’s use of airpower can sometimes be counterproductive and when one considers the last time the US made headlines in this part of Nangarhar was after the bombing of a wedding party which killed 47 civilians, it is not difficult to imagine how a large air strike can be used as a recruiting tool by insurgents.

More broadly, wresting the border areas of Afghanistan from the hands of insurgents may simply not be possible.

In many respects, ISIS-K is just the latest insurgent group to make use of the “friction of distance” offered by the remoteness of these areas — a symptom of the rocky and inhospitable terrain of Nangarhar as much as anything else.

Once a Mujahedin stronghold during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, in recent years the townships in the foothills of Nangarhar’s Spin Ghar mountains have also been ports of call for insurgents affiliated with the networks of Taliban leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

One thing these districts have never seen, however, is long-term control from a centralised government.

Home to Shinwari Pashtuns, a people who regard nation-states and the cities they spawn as habitats of “gund” (a Pashto term which describes inequality, disorder and the end of filial tribal bonds), the permanent incorporation of Nangarhar into any state seems to be, at the very least, historically unlikely.

Furthermore, that the ISIS-K tunnel complex might also have been a commandeered tunnel mine once used by locals to extract soapstone, should tell policymakers everything they need to know about insurgencies generally — they can only thrive in places where an accommodating environment — both infrastructural and cultural — for mounting a resistance already exists.

By now, one thing should be clear to everyone. Even if ISIS-K — America’s latest adversary in Nangarhar — is defeated, it seems unlikely Kabul, with or without the help of the US, will be able to permanently tame the borderlands of Nangarhar.

As coalition forces have surely learned after 16 years in Afghanistan — fighting in the Spin Ghar mountains is always uphill.


With sandaled feet upon the sand,

He calls his land “bayn al-nahrayn“:

“The land between two rivers”.


Overhead, the Sun sneers,

Though east, he swears, there lies a river

Of green banks and gentle flow

Where there! a fish shimmers, a boar lurks,

Shoulder-deep in cupric-coloured water.


And north, a dam, a mighty span,

Of earthly fill with core of clay.

Half-submerged in failing karst,

Betwixt two banks and shoulder-deep

In cupric-coloured water.


Heavy weighs the lake behind and for’ard lies the city,

And he swears to me they’ll take it soon.

Flinching in the glare of sneering Sun,

I see the city and see he’s right:


Smoke in the distance.

Hyper-local cacophanies of empyreal fury.

For weeks, he swears, it’s lingered there

The smoke, that terrible noise.


Thus, with sandaled feet, he walks on

– weeping –

His son’s blood curdling in the sand.

There’ll be no rain to wash away,

This gory blemish amongst this nothing.


Meanwhile the sneering Sun over this empty scape,

Beats out the heat of day,

And yonder in those city limits, the tracks of rolling tanks,

Have marked the road

Like tyre marks in clay.


They’ll take it soon,

Now that the bridge is theirs.

They’ve crossed the river with momentum west.

They’ll win this fight.




Can the bridges there be fixed?

Like the dam – half-sunk, by weight.

The hate-filled calm in-situ waits,

The bridge suspended

Above the cupric-coloured water.


As for the dam,

The walls are there,

Only as long as they can hold.

If they do not, then all is lost,

Hark the post-diluvian ode.


And still.


Those tanks will cross those banks,

Seizing what they have staked.

And like the surly tide, half-ebbed but sure to flow

When it rolls, it takes, all washed away

By cupric-coloured water.

A Chat with an Obamacrat

Early last month I had an interesting chat with Dr Andrew Exum, a senior Obama administration official at the Pentagon. A fellow lover of the Arabic language, Exum holds a PhD from King’s College London and is a former US Army Ranger. Once upon a time, he was also a terrific blogger – running the handle Abu Muqawama (Arabic: “father of the resistance”) over at the Centre for New American Security.

Recently unpersoned from his role as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy by the Trump White House, Exum is now a contributing editor at The Atlantic with plenty to say about the early days of this, the incoming administration.

Our chat centred around topics related to the habits, intentions and morale of the American “mukhabarat” (as the Lebanese-Iraqi comedian Karl Sharro jokingly referred to the US security apparatus) in the midst of Trump’s rise to the Presidency. Beyond this, we also covered themes as diverse as rugby versus NFL; the art of the garage benchpress; and the likelihood (real or imagined) of an authoritarian regime emerging in the United States. I caught him in the middle of a workout so some of the more extraneous parts of this conversation have been cut for brevity.

It should be noted that this post does not signify the launch of a new podcast. The connection quality and audio is, at times, less than perfect and very little editing went into the final product beyond tacking on the enchanting sounds of Naseer Shamma’s oud at the beginning and end of the track. For your enjoyment only.

Practical Tips for Skimming the Qur’an: Or, How to Study Islam without Rigour

In a world where media outlets are now plucking Middle East experts from the ranks of heavyset non-Arabic-speaking private military contractors (whose interactions with people from “these cultures” are confined to firefights and abusive run-ins at heavily-trafficked intersections), a few colleagues of mine over at the Australian National University have started a great new project called “Re-Anth”. Envisioned as a clearinghouse for popular, prescient scholarship in the social sciences, the general objective of Re-Anth is simple – to reintroduce anthropological thinking into the wider social and political discourse. As such, this will hopefully be the first of many contributions I can make to their new blog.

The first topic I’ve been asked to write about is the concept of “praxis”  one of those great buzzwords you will only ever come across in postgraduate anthropology seminars or in vaguely-meaningful but mostly arcane discussions of Hegel’s contributions to philosophy.

Praxis, in the context which anthropologists use it, refers to the process by which immaterial concepts and ideas (Aristotle’s theoria) are realised by action – the bridge between what Hannah Arendt saw as the two defining categories of human thought and behaviour – “vida contemplativa” (the contemplative life) and “vida activa” (the active life).

While the term itself suffers from a terminal case of jargonitis (in part because praxis is an import word from ancient Greek and in part because praxis is also the German for “practice” which has a separate meaning in English-language anthropology), the spirit of the praxis concept is as follows: there exists a process which connects the things people think about with the things people do and that mapping this contemplation-action algorithm is key to understanding how a member of a particular cultural group is likely to think and behave under a given set of conditions.

There is a huge body of theoretical muck out there to wade through in one’s search for a definition of praxis (from experience, this can actually lead to a reduced understanding of the concept) but since praxis, like anthropological fieldwork itself, is practically-oriented (or indeed, praxically-oriented) a good way to grapple with the concept can be found by thinking about a religion like Islam not only as a “practice” (that is, something someone does) but also as a “process” (the contemplative and active steps which lead to the doing). By reflecting on the process by which religious texts like the Qur’an (a body of work that contains various theoria) are interpreted and then incorporated into the daily lives of individuals, for example, one can observe the praxis concept in the field.

As a student of Islamic societies, the process by which the Quran is brought into the material world is the textbook example of the praxical process. Similarly, if one looks at a political project like “Marxism” – which Antonio Gramsci called “the philosophy of praxis” in his Prison Notebooks  one can observe an analogous process (that is, a revolutionary strategy) by which a utopian ideal is interpreted and then progressively introduced into society by the Marxist. Both the Marxist revolutionary process and Quranic exegesis-enactment (as a hermeneutic process) therefore, are examples of praxiin the wild”.

With praxis thus defined and with the title of this post suggesting that there is something lacking in how “Islam” is dissected and studied in public discourse, it is now incumbent upon us to consider how the praxis concept might improve the way we think about Islam, re-injecting some intellectual rigor into the discussion.

As I’ve discussed previously, the “true meaning” of any text (especially a religious text) is ultimately interpretive. This should be self-evident to anyone who studied “the novel” in high school – especially if one’s English teacher was intent on extruding bizarre, hidden meanings from the most innocuous of sentences. Certainly, the fact that deciphering a text is an interpretive process (a praxis) should be self-evident to anyone who is familiar with the way in which a nation’s laws are interpreted by the courts.

As Barack Obama said of the US Constitution in his final address as President: “it’s really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make.”

The “participation and choices” which Obama speaks of is, in this instance, a description of constitutional praxis – the process by which the law is interpreted, reflected upon, incorporated and then lived by “We the People”.

To Islamic scholars, the praxis concept is encapsulated by a process called ijtihad – the mental and physical effort which connects the Muslim vida contemplativa with the vida activa (to revisit Arendt). Ijtihad therefore, is the process (thus the praxis) by which interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence are developed. It follows then, that because jurisprudential interpretation is ultimately subjective, sharia (the legal aspect of Islam) cannot be thought of as comprising a single codex. Indeed, much as constitutional opinion amongst American jurists is not, in any way, unitary, “Islamic law” cannot be understood as a monolithic bloc that regulates Muslim behaviour in any single way.

For this reason – that is, because the ijtihad process produces many different interpretations of both sharia and Islam itself, it is uniquely artless to paint a literal “broad church” of thought with such a broad brush stroke. Likewise and for the very same reason, it is equally artless for one to imply that ISIS’ worldview has “nothing to do with Islam” (this position is often labelled an “apologist” position – often  by those who themselves detest the label “Islamophobic”).

Having said that, I suspect that there are very few serious scholars of Islam who would claim that Islamist extremism has “nothing to do with Islam”. As both Shadi Hamid and Reza Aslan (two very popular scholars of Islam) have argued – it’s not that ISIS’ ideology is “not Islamic” per se (because the very nebulous nature of religious praxis means that if one says it is Islamic then it is Islamic) but rather that using ISIS as a case study to inform a generalization about what it means to be a Muslim is inaccurate and unfair to the majority of Muslims around the world.  As such, despite the shrill cries ringing out from the far-reaches of the internet that terrorist-sympathising “snowflake apologists” are amassing in their “safe spaces” to measure just how little of nothing terrorism has to do with Islam, I’m yet to come across any serious peer-reviewed research that would reject that members of ISIS self-identify as Muslim. The critique, therefore, is probably a straw-man argument.

In many ways then, the greatest intellectual failure of “the anti-Islam school” (that is, the school formerly known as “Islamophobic” Prince logo.svg), lies not in its interpretation of Islamic text per se but rather in its refusal to include a discussion of praxis into how Islam is actually lived – that is, the inability to see Islam not merely as a set of practices but also as a process by which the practitioner interprets text and engages with the sacred.

Certainly, it is possible that one could conclude that the Qur’an is intrinsically violent or misogynistic if one selectively read (as ISIS does) verses like 9:5 or 4:34 to the exclusion of contradicting verses like 109:6 and 30:21 (even though, as the anti-Islam school will tell you, later-occurring verses are supposed to abrogate earlier verses). Yes, if you read the Qur’an like that you might find “Islam [monolithic]” guilty of many crimes.

But of course, in order to find Islam guilty of these crimes, one would also have to refute the role of praxis in producing human behaviour – discounting, for example, the possibility that Islam is a living breathing religion (defined by heterodoxy) or that Muslims are followers of a constantly-evolving faith, a community possessing of a diverse collection of doxa that oscillate from “asymptote to asymptote”. So yes, if one used such a myopic approach – that is, if one employed a textualist, literalist, atomistic, and wholly un-holistic approach to religion as an entire field and object of study, ignoring the fact that interpretation matters or dismissing the empirically-tested finding that diversity of religious opinion exists even in small-scale societies – you might conclude that Islam is, must be, has to be “bad”, “evil”, “antithetical to Western democracy”… as Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie seems to have concluded.

Naturally, if you use this approach, you’ll probably not find much intellectual backing for your work outside the various think-tanks run by Daniel Pipes or Robert Spencer (or, indeed, Richard Spencer). But then, “left-wing social justice warriors on university campuses”, right?

Ultimately, the bottom line is this: giving credence to the praxis concept is absolutely critical to the study of Islam [not monolithic]. Moreover, if one actually goes out on the streets and talks to Muslims about how they interpret the Qur’an and how that interpretation influences their behaviour (note: this requires interacting with a sample size that is larger than the cellblock of Camp X-Ray or the mullet-wearing Lebanese teenagers hanging out in hotted-up cars down the road), one would probably conclude that diversity of opinion in a religious congregation which comprises more than a fifth of the world’s population might well be infinite; that praxis is really the only thing that counts when crafting generalisations about “Muslims”; and that ultimately, the Qur’an (whether it is the word of God) is simply a collection of words recorded on a sheaf of palm-fronds. To borrow again from Obama, the Qur’an exists but it is up to Muslims through their “participation and choices” to interpret it and live it.

It might seem bizarre that a religion which scientifically regulates its phases of worship according to incremental changes in the lunar cycle could have so much diversity of thought. Here though, it’s worth noting that, according to hadith, the notion of ikhtilaf (Arabic: إختلاف) meaning “difference” or “diversity” was seen as a blessing by Muhammad. Indeed, according to a comprehensive study of the subject by Musawaikhtilaf  al-fuqaha (“diversity of opinion amongst jurists”) not only existed as far back as the Abbasid Caliphate but was also respected as a necessary part of realising a truer, greater Islam.

A non-Muslim interested in thinking more about praxis might consider his own practices, and the contemplation-action algorithm that led him there. If, for example, one ascribes to the Christian faith and goes to church every Sunday, consider the following passage in Matthew 6:4-6:6.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

After reading this passage, would it be fair to say that conducting the commonly-practiced Sunday ritual at church is “un-Christian”? The answer, of course, is “no”. Of sole importance here, beyond your self-identification as a “Christian”, is the praxis which underpins the religious choices you have made. In the end, the process of selecting the Sunday ritual and participating in the ritual itself, is the only bit that matters.

Down and Out in Squamish & Whistler

A version of this article was published in the Winter/Spring 2017 edition of Mountain Life.


Illustration: Dave Barnes

Dirtbag (noun): English portmanteau of “dirt” from the Old Norse “drit” meaning “excrement”; and “bag” from the Ancient Greek “bastagma” meaning “load” – lit. therefore: “load of excrement”.

  1. A bag or sack with dirt in it.
  2. An unkempt or slovenly person; an undesirable.


Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless…” – George Orwell


We spent the first year and a half of our life in the Sea to Sky corridor sleeping in the back of a rusty red work van with the words “Ville de Montréal” tacked on the side. We’d driven the van from Québec across the continental US (where gas was cheaper), arriving finally in Squamish – the outdoor capital of Canada.

Of course, I say “sleeping” in the back of the van because all of our living was being done outside of it – climbing, hiking and skiing. Anyway, on day three in town, after we’d made some mandatory repairs to our ailing vehicle, my girlfriend Eleanor tallied up the finances and discovered that we had eighty-three dollars between us. Eleanor had lined up a cash job at a dog kennel so we figured – with a splash of cautious optimism – that the receipt of a paycheque was feasible within two weeks. This left us, if we divided eighty-three by fourteen, with a per diem of five loons and ninety-two cents. A share-sized pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar’s cost $5.85 which left seven cents a day for whatever our hearts desired.

The point is we were poor. Which didn’t matter because we were happy. Although, to be fair, if we were a little less poor it’s not unreasonable to think that we might have been a little more happy.

In the meantime, we parked out front of the Walmart to access wifi and since we also frequently stayed there for the night, we listed that lot as our address when we switched over to British Columbia driver’s licenses. It was also a good place for the essentials – ramen, oatmeal and energy bars – because even when you live under the breadline you still have to line up for your bread.

We were, in the colourful parlance of the outdoors, a couple of “dirtbags” – living a life divided almost exclusively between Walmart, work, and the walls of the Stawamus Chief – the great totem-like stone around which the climber configures his existence.


The “dirtbag” of course, is less a species of outdoorsman and more a genus of outdoorsman – an umbrella term which describes a variety of different types of people who prioritise experience over possessions and adventure over stability. For example, during the summer, the dirtbag scene in the parking lot of the Stawamus Chief can be subdivided into three different social strata.

At the top of the dirtbag pyramid (and the closest this world gets to an aristocracy) are the Sprinter van dirtbags. Often, a Sprintocrat hails from outside the Sea to Sky Corridor, piloting vehicles with license plates from such far-flung places as California or Colorado. In the sense then that Sprinter dirtbags are usually holidaymakers or professional athletes (and often both) they tend to “eat cake”, so to speak, while the lower-tier dirtbags (les paysans) must use wit and cunning in their search for daily bread.

One tier down, the dirtbag middle class constitutes the only working class amongst the dirtbags. Typically, they are “local” in the sense that Squamish, Whistler or Pemberton are the listed towns of residence on their driver’s licenses. In the eyes of many well-settled, land-owning locals however, the inherent kinesis of the dirtbag sleeping quarters means that the middle class dirtbag can only ever be considered “drifters” or “freeloaders” – terms that both come with a history of social and political baggage.


It’s a misnomer of course, as middle class dirtbags generally occupy all the lowest-paying positions in the modern industrial economy. Operating lifts, selling tickets, pouring drinks, manning checkouts and ferrying cartons of hamburger meat up and down scenic gondolas, the middle class dirtbag is the oxygen-transporting haemoglobin of the Sea to Sky service economy without which there would be no French fries and nobody to hate on.

To make matters worse, a working class dirtbag is also derided as a “granola” by the lower dirtbags stratums for his or her ability to financially access the more bourgeois of the cereal options. So, much like middle classes the world over, the granola dirtbag gets all the loathing that comes with privilege without actually being privileged.

The final class of dirtbag (the dirtbag in its purest form) is the species a naturalist might refer to as “homo dirtbag dirtbagius” but whom others might refer to as “the lowest of the low”. These are dirtbags in their natural state, lifers who typically reside beneath tarps and tents and if a car is even owned at all, it is rarely greater in size than a Honda Civic. Although usually male, they come from many different backgrounds – young, old, Ontarian, Quebecois, often Australian.

This lowest form of dirtbag, it must be said, does not work, but then as Orwell once quipped “what, indeed, is work?” The Sprintocrats work by uploading filtered images to the Instagram accounts of outdoor clothing companies, the granolas work by serving beers to hedge-fund managers with goggle tans and the true dirtbag woks by bin-diving for the curd gristle on a discarded plate of poutine or by hoovering up the remnants of a half-eaten sandwich in a day-lodge cafeteria – to keep away the bears of course.

Insofar as these bin-diving, pow-shredding, rock-scampering dirtbags are usually cognitively-functioning members of society, most are, at the very least, physically competent to commence work. This means that social mobility across the three dirtbag strata is fairly easy. The lowest dirtbag can become a granola simply by getting a job and the granola can become a member of the Sprinter-owning class, provided that he is happy to shoulder a lifetime of debt for an overpriced vehicle.

Thriftiness defines the dirtbag and so does mobility. He knows that twenty dollars of gas will get him from Squamish to Whistler and back in his beat-up gas-guzzler. But he also knows that he must factor in the very real possibility that his van might never restart when he makes for a tactical exit in the wintry pre-dawn from his illegal bivouac in the Lot 4 parking lot. Fringe-dwelling aside, he is a good enough fellow – grateful even of his mountain life.

Indeed, for the dirtbag, the mobility afforded by life in a car is better than paying somebody else’s mortgage. It gives one freedom of movement. Squamish in the summer, winter at Roger’s Pass and perhaps a trip to Indian Creek or Bella Coola in the shoulder seasons if he can skimp to together the gas money.


Certainly, there isn’t much incentive for the dirtbag to sedentarise in today’s housing market. With a detached single bedroom likely to cost the dirtbag one thousand two hundred dollars per month, renting a place in Squamish or Whistler, share house or not, may as well involve speculating in Texan cattle ranches. So, for many, the time spent dreaming about living in a home is better spent cross-checking the calorie content of a can of tuna.

With the reasons for dirt-bagging being wholly rational then, the only question that remains is “why is the dirtbag hated?” Well, no one really hates the dirtbag. “Hate” is a word best saved for that moment when the Vancouverites cruise into Creekside at 7’oclock in the morning on Opening Day and find not a single spot available. The parking lot is full of dirtbags. They’ve taken on the Goretex-clad pelage of the dirtbag in winter form – the “ski-bum”… and they’ve slept there overnight.


A working class dirtbag, on patrol