Syria won’t be another Iraq – but it’s already another Afghanistan

“Lay down your arms, fight with the pen.”

“Lay down your arms, fight with the pen.”

Take a lesson from Afghanistan: the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria is to stop the flow of weapons to both sides.

The public debate over whether to strike Syria is a welcome change from the media cheerleading that led up to the Iraq War.

But it is also missing the point.

Our intervention began long before the debate on a military strike. Along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, we have already thrown our lot in with the rebels. We are providing them with aid, intelligence, training, and arms. In the middle, Israel slowly pushes from behind to keep the bloodbath going. On the other side, Russia (and allegedly Iran and China) are providing Assad’s regime with the same support.

Welcome to Cold War politics in the 21st century.

Americans have been told we have two choices: help Syrians with our bombs or leave them to die on the killing fields. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Foreign intervention has driven the bloodletting so far. More arms — let alone air strikes — will not bring peace for the Syrian people. (And it will not help us make amends for helping overthrow Syria’s last democratically elected leader in 1949, either.)

We must demand a third choice: strike a deal with Russia not only about the chemical weapons, but about all weapons. Let’s end the flow of ammunition and bring each party — and their foreign backers — to the negotiating table. The diplomatic bargain may not be perfect for anyone. But it will involve far less death for everyone.

We need only to look to Afghanistan to imagine the grim alternative of growing extremism, a fractured society, and an endless war.

My parents fled from Afghanistan to the U.S. in 1980 as refugees, finally settling in Seattle in 1990. I cannot speak from my own experience, but I when I visited in 2012, I witnessed the hopeless, empty gazes of Afghan people — some in my own family — caught in the crossfire of a proxy war not unlike what is unfolding in Syria today. I cannot bear to watch an encore in Syria.

Read more on the Seattle Globalist here.

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Localizing Our Movements, Localizing Ourselves

As I drifted across continents, I found my excitement to come home growing deeper and deeper, even as I enjoyed my travels more and more. Surely, a part of it is simple homesickness for the ones I love. But there was something pulling far stronger than even that – it was an excitement to take what I was learning home. To become deeply engaged in my communities, just as those incredible everyday activists I was meeting were connected to and working for change in their local communities.

What’s more, I became increasingly disenchanted (if I wasn’t already enough) with the idea of “developing” anyone else’s community. The sheer complexity and moral quandaries involved were simply too great. How could I begin to understand this place and these people? Who do you talk to? How do you know you’re doing good? Even in Afghanistan, to which I can clearly claim a greater stake, I could not imagine trying to do “development” there, caught as I would be in webs of political intrigue far above my head.

This is not to say the temptation to “develop” didn’t arise. In the village of Goyale, Burkina Faso where I was invited by my affable French teacher to visit his family, I felt myself enamored by tradition and the richness of spirit, and yet ever so tempted to view it from the lens of a “developer.” The village is perhaps the only place in the world I have seen that the “development” machine has barely scathed – the only signs things have changed are the plastic buckets and the sons with tall tales from the cities to which they have migrated. There is not an NGO or government ministry placard to be found.


It was easy to romanticize the idyllic and fascinatingly different nature of it all. Smiling from ear to ear, the father explained the practice of giving the use (though not the rights) to land away for free to those who ask – land is neither bought, rented, nor sold. I could hardly believe my ears. They work on just enough land to feed themselves, nothing more, nothing less. Seven months of the year are full of hard work, for five months they rest and enjoy the fruits of the harvest.

But inevitably, they also began to explain their struggle with overpopulation and shrinking lands, which stretch their age-old generosity thin. While unspoken, there was the lingering question of gender roles and equity. And then there was the bridge.

They took me to the edge of a small lake, explaining that the school for their children was on the other side. It takes an extra two hours to walk around it for the half of the village caught on this side. They wanted to build a school on this side, or a bridge across. They explained that they would petition the government for a grant to build a concrete bridge across.

I had come without any pretense of “helping.” Refreshingly, I had no goal other than to get to the life and family of a friend. But within a moments, I found myself sketching and trying to explain the concept of the floating bridge – something they could do themselves with old tires, a few hundred feet of steel cable, and a few dozen wood planks, reducing the costs of the bridge immensely. The span was far too long for a conventional bridge within a reasonable budget, but the waters were calm – it would be a perfect candidate for a floating bridge. The “engineer without borders” in me had been unleashed. But thinking about how I might organize a fund drive and send an American engineer to work on the project, I remembered that a plane ticket to this remote corner of the world would cost more than the bridge itself.

It was in those moments that I remembered the thrill of feeling useful, of trying to “help.” But the complexity of it all – who would build the bridge, who would maintain it, how the very act of the schooling it would encourage gradually depopulates villages like these as youth seek “better lives” in congested cities – made me grind to a halt. I’d rather leave it for them to work out on their terms.

So before I got carried away, I caught myself and left them only with the sketches. I could not promise them anything and did not. Perhaps they’ll show it to their government, perhaps something will happen. Likely not anytime soon.

This quandary of being unable to imagine “developing” others made my desire to work locally even stronger. My rejection of attempting to “develop” other people to whom I had no connection was balanced by an equally powerful sense of inspiration from the examples of people I met who were struggling for change – succesfully – in their local communities.

Sometimes they were locals, born and bred in the culture and geography like Fathy in the Jordan Valley, Palestine fighting for farmer’s land and water rights or Heidi in Joburg struggling to mobilize South Africans to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel’s apartheid state. But others were foreigners who had been adopted over time as they sunk their roots and invested themselves – from Gail Omvedt, who literally married into a small village community, to Patrick Bond, who began to teach, research, and fight in the trenches with community activists in Durban. Sometimes being a foreigner helps bring an international dimension and global connections to a local struggle – but not if you are transient like me. You must be willing to have a stake in the fight that goes far beyond empathy.

Their examples – and the dozens more I have not listed – make me more determined to localize myself, but with the connections, inspiration, and solidarity gained by those I have met and will continue to meet who are working in their distinct communities, cultures, and geographies.





One Wall, Two Jails

The Separation Wall, which divides Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (though not following the 1948 armstice line). It is better known as the Apartheid Wall in Palestine.

“One Wall, Two Jails” is scrawled onto a section of the Separation Wall, which divides Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (though not following the 1948 armstice line). It is better known as the Apartheid Wall in Palestine.

“One state is impossible. They [the Israelis] will not accept it…[there will be] no peace solution while I’m still here [in the refugee camp]. Peace, peace – we just know the word.”

-Hamza, resident of Aduheisha Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine

“I think can live with them [the Palestinians], but I’m not sure they would want to live with me.”

-Maayan, resident of Be’er Sheva, Israel

Kadosh Cafe is buzzing with the evening rush, but waiters manage to be calm as they serve the deconstructed rhubarb latkes and pick pastries off trays hot from the oven. They’ve proudly been a Jerusalem institution “since 1967” (an auspicious year for a cafe near the once-border of East Jerusalem). Families are hugging and kissing, celebrating their children’s birthday. Couples canoodle over warm chocolate cake. Orthodox students in long skirts gossip while sipping foamy lattes. The sights and smells make me a little homesick for the Seattle cafe scene. The only thing that brings me back to reality is the sight of the man carefully adjusting his assault rifle as he retakes his lover’s hand for the walk home.

Finding a way to carry your gun everywhere you go is part of the experience of most Israelis at some point or another during their rite of passage: military service. I ask my Israeli friends why you would need to go to such great lengths to appear battle-ready, and they repeat the dogma they’ve been trained in: “Your gun is your baby. You wouldn’t leave your baby at home alone, would you?”

The analogy of killing machines and new life seems absurd at first. But this is a country of citizen-soldiers living in a perpetual state of fear. Fear of terrorism. Fear of invasion. Fear of being hated by the world. Fear of ceasing to exist. And most importantly, fear of the truth of their past – the forced removal and massacres of Palestinians during naqba that they have tried so hard to erase. From fear, the formerly absurd becomes the new normal.

Ironically, as much as they restrict the freedoms of others, they have restricted themselves. My friends feared to travel to half of the planet, let alone traveling in their neighborhood. One spun a tale of traversing rural Jordan under the guise of being two young Mexican men. When they found themselves stranded in a small village and invited in by a family who recognized them for who they were, they thought they were finished. But they woke up to tea and pleasantries, surprised as they were to find themselves still alive at dawn in the house of an Arab.

They have built a wall to “protect” themselves from the Arab hordes to the east. But this wall serves more to jail in their spirits and inflict collective punishment on millions of Palestinians than it does to prevent entry by unwanted former residents of their lands. My Palestinian friends in Hebron jumped the wall regularly to look for work, pray in Al Quds (Jerusalem), and visit family in East Jerusalem – it’s not hard to climb a ladder, assuming you don’t get shot or arrested on the other side, they joked casually. (One must get used to seeing and hearing far more absurd things on the Palestinian side of the wall.)

But more than anything, they have built a military-industrial state. Every citizen must waste two to three years of their life in indoctrination, training, and occasionally, fighting a losing battle against an enemy which seems to gather more international support by the day. A few may join up hoping to “kick some terrorist ass,” as one new recruit described his goals to me, but they more often end up spending months traveling South America or South Asia trying to forget the horrors of what they were ordered to do in the name of the Jewish state. After chatting for a while with a bored and friendly soldier at a checkpoint in Hebron, I asked him if his grandchildren would be sitting in the same monotonous position as him, he shrugged and said, “Yeah, probably.”

Soldier at a checkpoint in Hebron. He was bored and friendly.

Soldier at a checkpoint in Hebron. Asked if he wanted to be posted there, he said no. Where did he want to be posted? “Anywhere else.”

Is it wrong to feel pity for him, and the nation of citizen soldiers trapped behind their own walls of oppression? Some of the international activists I met would shun me for such a thought– they get sick to their stomach just entering West Jersualem to renew visas, let alone talking to the same IDF soldiers who bulldoze their friends’ homes.

But I don’t let myself be deluded for too long – the fact that I am able to even stand in front of the soldier’s gun and walk by his checkpoint with immunity is due to being a transient outsider with an American passport who has no emotional attachment to the lands on either side of the wall. (That said, appearing “Arab” stopped me from entering a zone in Hebron I know is open to internationals.) I have lost no loved ones in house demolitions, night raids, or Hamas rockets. My grandfather was not killed in the Naqba or the Holocaust. I have never been tortured in Israeli prisons – or Palestinian Authority prisons for that matter. So I am free to dance across the wall and between the jails, making small talk with the oppressor and the oppressed.

But despite my desire to come to understand how otherwise normal, loving Israeli people can support such a vicious policy of hate, I am no “normalization” advocate. I do not think things will get better only if people know one another and go to summer camp together. The ingrained inequality in such a relationship is too great; as my friend Eva, an international activist, would say, “shit is way too fucked” for that. And as many argue, it may make the absurd situation seem even more “normal” than it already does.

That said, relationships and solidarity across the wall seem essential, given the deeply-rooted mythologies about one another each side seems to hold. The opening quotes are just two of dozens of examples of the ever-present pessimistic feeling that “we want peace, but they don’t.” But before these relationships can begin, just as with all solidarity work, we must start with an honest recognition of how the unequal situation came to be.

The work of organizations like Zochrot is thus essential in countering an education of indoctrination that makes the conflict seem like two equal parties fighting over land lost fair and square. As their education director described to me, the recognition of the Naqbacan be shameful for the Israelis learning their true history for the first time. But channeling that shame into action and honest solidarity is the crucial step. Only through the everyday Israeli’s recognition of how their present privileges came to be can a future together without a wall – or a border – be imagined.

And there’s little question left in my mind that it will be better for everyone. (Including the U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for Israeli bullets.)

The Qalandia checkpoint along the wall.

The Qalandia checkpoint along the wall.

A daily walk across the no man's land near the Qalandia crossing.

A daily walk across the no man’s land near the Qalandia crossing.

Walking through the humiliating lines to enter Israel. Many do this daily on the way to work the jobs no Israeli would do, for wages no Israeli would accept.

Walking through the humiliating lines to enter Israel near Bethlehem. Many do this daily on the way to work the jobs no Israeli would do, for wages no Israeli would accept.

A little girl walks behind her father through the Hebron checkpoint near the Ibrahimi Mosque.

A little girl walks behind her father through the Hebron checkpoint near the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Scars of resistance on a watchtower near the Qalandia crossing. These prefabricated concrete guard towers are perhaps Israel's most ubiquitous architectural contribution to the region, beyond Tel Aviv's Bauhaus marvels.

Scars of resistance on a watchtower near the Qalandia crossing. These prefabricated concrete guard towers are perhaps Israel’s most ubiquitous architectural contribution to the region, beyond Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus marvels.

Settlers in Hebron carrying guns, legally. Widely regarded as extremists, even by Zionists. However, the M16s are a common sight among military personnel off duty in any part of Israel.

Settlers in Hebron carrying guns, legally. Widely regarded as extremists, even by Zionists. However, the M16s are a common sight among military personnel off duty in any part of Israel.

Soldier looking out from a bunker in Hebron.

Soldier looking out from a bunker in Hebron.

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“This is our gas”: Family Outings in Kufr Qaddum, Palestine

Every Friday at 9AM, the crowd of males, ranging from barely five to sixty-five years old, gathers at the center of town for the weekly trip five hundred meters down the road to the Israeli settlement. They bring with them all the essentials for a father and son outing: flags, spare tires, and extra gasoline. (You know, in case they get a flat, run out of gas, and need to flag someone down on the highway…)

Down the road, the Israeli soldiers rouse themselves, gather their M16s and tear gas launchers, and walk down to their end of the road to defend the illegal Israeli settlement. They may consider themselves lucky – here the protests are relatively quiet in comparison to the other flashpoints in the area. The soldiers mentally draw the line in the blackened dirt where the demonstrators will not be able to cross. This line – and the locked gate beyond – are the reason the protests occur weekly. The road has been closed for the “security” of the settlement, and thus the community of Kufr Qaddum must now take a 25 minute detour to reach the main road to Nablus, not to mention being blocked from many of their lands.

Every week it’s the same. Except this Friday – today – is Eid, and Monir (name changed), the middle-aged organizer of the weekly demonstrations, has a trick up his sleeve. All week they’ve spread the same message by word of mouth and blaring over the mosque loudspeakers: even on Eid, there will be our weekly protest at 9AM, be ready.

But this morning, they quickly spread the word that the protest was moved to the afternoon so you can enjoy your morning with the family on the special day of Eid Al Adha and the Israelis will be caught  off guard.

The crowd gathers around 3PM as per the new plan and, after a few words from Monir over the loudspeaker, the group is off, with the enthusiasm and calm of a well-rehearsed theater troupe. The props for the fireworks are all in place and the stage is set. It’s street theater at its best.

The shabab (youngsters) lead the march, followed by the older men – the directors of the show – and the little ones in tow. The handful of internationals (like myself) mostly stick to the back – we’re new to this play and we don’t know the blocking quite yet.

But as I tiptoe downstage to put my camera to use (I have no zoom lens), I watch as we pass line after line of blackened ash from the tires from prior protests. As we near the end of the scorched earth, there is a certain tension in the air as the shabab  and old directors eye the hills and the road beyond: no soldiers yet? Go boys! – “Yala shabab!” they yell.

Finally we’re in fresh ground, just a hundred meters from the red-roofed settlement and the directors yell that we’re far enough. And so the shabab, giddy to be the closest they’ve ever been to the settlement, begin to prepare their “gas.” Tires stacked, brush piled, and petrol splashed, the show begins with a whoosh as matches find their mark.

Pointing at the black smoke barreling into the sky and downwind into the settlement, Monir, says to us, the internationals, “This is the Palestinian gas. They shoot [tear] gas at us. This is our gas.”

The smoke begins to drift into the settlement, and moments later a commotion begins. Not knowing Arabic well, my good friend Eva (a regular at the protests who invited me) and I only assume we should run – perhaps they’ve spotted soldiers. Soon it seems everyone is running, but no one seems to have a destination. We’re not sure if this is part of the script.

Finally it becomes clear that a few soldiers really are on the hills above, their distinctive silhouettes barely visible above the brush. The show is back on track. The shabab  begin their featured dance routine – gathering rocks behind their backs and rushing into position behind bushes and trees in the low hills, egged on by their peers. The soldiers begin to gather in number and slowly make their way to the very top of the hill. From two they’ve grown to ten.

A few shabab with something to prove begin to move towards the soldiers but the old directors yell them back down. They know better; they have seen too many old friends get hurt in the intifadas. A poor family – whose home is right at the base of the hill – is forced to send their Eid guests packing because they’re afraid the soldiers will storm in and use their home as a base again as they regularly do.

After a few more minutes in a standoff, the directors close the curtains. “Yala shabab!” they yell. Their sons, nephews, and grandchildren reluctantly put down their rocks and join the procession back home. They walk home with an air of victory – luckily there were no tragedies today. And there’s no more to be done this time – the smoke will make for an acrid Shabat tonight in the illegal settlement.

Once back at the gathering point, Monir brings us a chocolate bar from his shop. As we sit on the concrete porch watching the sun go down between the gray clouds hanging low in the valley, we ask if the day’s demonstration was successful. He responds,

“Yes. This is a message that there is no Eid under occupation. Our real Eid [‘celebration’] will be when there is no settlements [sic] here.”

He pauses for a moment before adding,

“No one in Palestine likes to demonstrate just to demonstrate. We do not like the [tear] gas…All we want is our rights, to reach our lands freely and take care of our harvest….We don’t hate anybody. We love all the people in the world. But we love ourselves also. It’s impossible to live with these settlements on our land.”

As our taxi arrives to take us back to the village we’re staying in, Monir thanks us for coming – not because we stop the gas with our passports anymore (today we were simply lucky), but because we can spread the word. So here’s to you Monir, Kufr Qaddum, and the broader struggle for equal rights for Palestinians everywhere.


This little man with his fake gun and his similarly-clad brother are just trying to fit in with the big boys. It would be easy to put photos like these on right-wing websites as 'proof' Palestinian children are violent 'terrorists'. But that would be missing the point: they live in a warzone. American boys play with toy guns constantly and we have never even seen violence firsthand.

This little man with his fake gun and his similarly-clad brother are just trying to fit in with the big boys. It would be easy to put photos like these on right-wing websites as
‘proof’ Palestinian children are violent ‘terrorists’. But that would be missing the point: they live in an oppressive warzone. American boys play with toy guns constantly and yet we have never even seen violence firsthand. This is their everyday life.


Setting their 'gas' alight. The red-roofed houses in the background are from the illegal Israeli settlement.

Setting their ‘gas’ alight. The red-roofed houses in the background are from the illegal Israeli settlement.

The old men directing the weekly show.

The old men directing the weekly show.

The illegal Israeli settlement as a whole, encroaching into the village's valley lands below.

The illegal Israeli settlement as a whole, encroaching into the village’s valley lands below.


The same boy, running with the determination no child should ever have to mimic. The irony of his toy gun is that the protest - as with almost all protests in Palestine today - is non-violent.

The same boy, running with the determination no child should ever have to mimic. The irony of his toy gun is that the protest – as with almost all protests in Palestine today – is non-violent.

The shabab (youth) playing chicken with the soldiers, whose silhouettes are barely visible at the top of the hill.

The shabab (youth) playing chicken with the soldiers, whose silhouettes are barely visible at the top of the hill.


Two international activists look on at the scene solemnly.

Two international activists look on at the scene solemnly.

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World Next Door Part 3: Saying Hello

This post is part three (see part one here and part two here) of a series on the space we occupy as travelers and outsiders, and the contradictions between our lives at home and our lives abroad. These posts were written together weeks, months, or even a year after the experience, but they are presented here together and arranged by theme rather than in chronological order.

How do we overcome this ignorance of what the other half of society is experiencing – be it women in Tajikistan, poor blacks in South Africa, chicken sellers in Burkina Faso, or the Latino day laborers in South Park? Perhaps inch by inch we can start to weave together our own narratives by traveling – and sometimes, as I found, that doesn’t need to be very far at all.

I’m inspired by a couple from Copacabana, Rio de Janiero, Brazil. They had lived at the bottom of the hillside Favela Chapeu Mangueira (“favelas” are typically poor Brazilian informal settlements) for nearly a decade and never even attempted the ten minute walk into the favela so visible from their living room window. Yet when my friend and I were taking a walking tour of the favela with a local hostel owner and resident of the newly “pacified” favela, we ran into the couple on the path to the top. They joined us on our walk. Like Soweto, our guide couldn’t go five meters without hearing a warm greeting – “bom dia!” and chatting about the latest news with a friend.

View looking down onto Copacabana from the favela.

The daughters of the hostel owner, posing at the summit just above the favela.

The hostel owner and his wife, holding a book written about a potential redevelopment plan written by a planner using the ideas of new urbanism.

They were blown away – as we were – by the vitality of the community and the total absence of the danger the media has taught us to associate with “favela.” The latter is partially a result of recent police efforts, but our guide said it has always been good. He was used to dispelling preconceptions and said quite simply,

La favela no e otrou mundo.” (The favela is not another world.) It’s not so different from ours – children play, adults gossip, and everyone dances. It’s not the dangerous place full of drugs and desperation devoid of humanity shown on TV – it’s a living example of a historical sense of community Brazil is trampling in its headlong rush into the consumerist world of “modernity.”

The couple and the hostel owners and neighbors who dropped in got along famously. The man on the right is a friend from the favela who was a riot. He joked casually about the racism in Rio – if he walks into a shop on the beach speaking Portuguese, the staff tail him and are unwilling to help him. As soon as he walks in speaking English with a foreign friend, he’s their VIP.

When the couple invited us back to their apartment for tea, we looked out the window together. The favela, once and ominous looming presence on the hillside – one where any stereotype might be true – was suddenly a real place for us. The drugs, violence, and prostitution of our imaginations had been replaced by the smell of strong coffee, vibrant smiles, and stories of people simply caught in the economic squeeze of capitalism.

The couple posing outside their apartment. They were by no means even progressive – the husband was a veteran of the army under the Brazilian dictatorship and was unabashedly a fiscal conservative.

The view from the couple’s window of the long walk up to the favela. In the upper left is Favela Babilonia, which directly borders Favela Chapéu Mangueira.

I think what I fear most about taking the bold steps the couple took is being rejected by those at the top of the hill – those with an upbringing, race, and class far different than my own. I always worry about how to explain myself and my curiosity – as a privileged, educated kid – without turning the interaction into a paternalistic one typical of a zoo. But the Brazilian couple showed me that perhaps I was overthinking it – and that this same overthinking was what created an artificial distance between us.

Their secret was to walk up and say Oi! (hello!).

Sometimes it just takes a few steps – and the curious mindset of an outsider without pretenses – to discover that another world that is happening right next door.

…Admittedly, it isn’t always so easy – sometimes tensions are so great that simply walking up and saying hello is dangerous (e.g. Palestinians and Israeli settlers). But I have found traveling that an earnest hello goes a lot farther than I ever imagined. I only hope I can carry this sense of genuine interest in everyone – and openness to all – back home.

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World Next Door Part 2: Access, Privilege, and Weaving Worlds

This post is part two (see part one here) of a series on the space we occupy as travelers and outsiders, and the contradictions between our lives at home and our lives abroad. These posts were written together weeks, months, or even a year after the experience, but they are presented here together and arranged by theme rather than in chronological order.

Vignettes of life as an outsider, from two opposite ends of the world:


As an American man in Tajikistan – even with Afghan origin – I was able to step tepidly into the generally closed world of the kitchen – and by extension, women’s lives – through my unusual (for a Tajik male) interest in cooking. As we cut onions,sitting on opposite sides of the kitchen carpet, women began to open up day by day. They not only showed me how to cook plov, but told me about their desires to wear the Russian clothes their husbands prohibited, their frustrations with unfaithful Tajik men, and their horror that an Afghan-American girl (born in the U.S. like me) – which they called a “free bird” – would choose to marry a Tajik man and “put herself in a cage.” I felt astonished and honored to be let into their world – even for the fleeting moments while the men were out working and we were alone to gossip in hushed tones over crackle of the onions in the plov pot.

Shepherd woman near Penjikent. During the summer months, women go alone to the upper pastures with the animals. When we came to the seasonal village, unlike in nearly any other scenario (with men around), the women were fighting to get their picture taken, and to take photos of one another.


I lived the dream of the new South Africa: I went from living in Soweto to a mansion in Cape Town in just four weeks. It is the dream few South Africans can actually realize in a lifetime, but is part of the everyday experience of privileged travelers (like me) who are able to straddle the widening gap between the worlds of the rich and the poor in South Africa and the world more generally.

I started humbly, living with a lower “middle class” black family in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg, where I learned just enough of the elaborate hand-signal system to be able to stop a minibus taxi. I’d say my sawumbonas to the exclusively black passengers, who would invariably stare and giggle as the “white man” struggled to close the half-broken door when the taxi had already started moving again. I’d then – in my best attempt to sound like a regular – yell “Driver, sho’t left!” and hop off to meet my new friend Nceba, who supports his entire family on his grocery store clerk wages. We ate French toast I made while listening to Zulu rap and talking about Osho, meditation, girls, and job prospects for him to work as an aspiring filmmaker in South Africa.

Soweto’s infamous ‘matchbox houses’ from above.

My friend Nceba. I have to thank SERVAS for connecting us.

By the end of the month, I woke up in the mansion of wonderful friends of a friend in a ritzy tree-lined suburb of Cape Town. It was only the next day, when we visited the office and we pull into the CEO parking spot that I realized just how far I’d come in the new South Africa. My friends, despite having colored roots, never ceased to express their surprise that I would take taxis, eat kotas or gatsbys, and stay in Soweto voluntarily.

The famed Kota sandwich of the South African townships. Similar to “bunny chow”. To make: hollow out a quarter of a loaf (hence the name) of white bread, spread spicy Indian mango achaar on it, then top with fries, and assorted processed meats, egg, and other sauces.

A typical Constantia home.


Dinner with distinguished guests. I was so humbled to meet the friends of the family – poets, activists, and academics who have been intimately involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

Many whites and even Indians I met were scared by the very idea of entering the enormous township. Sowetans attributed this to the fact that people still believe they are out of control “baboons.” I told those scared of Soweto the same thing I told everyone: Many (though certainly not all) parts of Soweto are lovely places where you find children playing in the streets, parents greeting every passerby in one of six different languages – “Dumayla! Sawumbona! Hello…” etc., and the smell of braai (barbecue) wafting between the beats of South African hip hop. It is most unlike most any other residential part of Johannesburg, where you’ll find only hot electric fences and residents relaxed only when behind their cold three meter walls.


In Tajikistan, I was an “honorary woman” – a gender crossing typically reserved for women (who become “honorary men”). In South Africa, I may not have been an honorary anything – but without missing a beat, I was equally invited to sit in the shebeens of Soweto and dine with the elite in Constantia.

There is something unique about being a transient outsider, a “traveler” (or a “tourist,” as much as we like to deny being one), which allows us to – when lucky – sidestep the social stigmas and personal preconceptions that divide men and women, the poor and the rich, the black and the white, and so on.

We are, of course, enabled by our own auspicious privilege that brings us to far-flung places like Burkina Faso in the first place. And while we don’t face the same social stigma and have not been steeped in the same preconceptions that locals have, we come with our own baggage of a different sort (e.g. “Africa is a country” or “all Muslim women are oppressed”).

Every day as I travel, I find myself breaking down stereotypes both in my own mind and those of the people I meet. It’s easy for me to judge those wealthier residents in South Africa for harboring such ignorance about those living just outside their suburbs, or the men in Tajikistan for being oblivious to their wives. But I hold back. The ignorance of those I meet reminds me of my own distance from marginalized communities in my backyard.

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World Next Door Part 1: Those we ignore

This post is part one of a series on the space we occupy as travelers and outsiders, and the contradictions between our lives at home and our lives abroad. These posts were written together weeks, months, or even a year after the experience, but they are presented here together and arranged by theme rather than in chronological order.

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

– Dagobert D. Runes

Cellphone light held precariously in my mouth, I crouch over the “map” I scrawled into my notebook, trying to keep it from getting wet in the nightly downpour in Bobo-Diulasso, Burkina Faso. I’m trying to find the legendary “chicken cooked in a bag” sold on a particular street in “Bobo” that my (all-knowing) guidebook told me about.

Stumbling around in the dark for another half an hour, I find Yacoub (18), and his father making the famed chicken under a tarp (across from the Hotel de L’entente on Rue de Commerce – in case you end up in Bobo), illuminated only by the wood fire under the chickens. We strike up conversation in my broken French as I wait for the chicken. By the end of my wait, I have not only a smoky, succulent chicken – the best I’ve ever tasted (one doesn’t realize how awful U.S. factory chicken really is until you try real organic free range poulet in Burkina) – but also a new friend.

Yacoub and his father at their nightly spot. They’ve been here for over 20 years.

The famed chicken in a bag. It’s not much to look at. But damn tasty.

Yacoub and his little brother

The next evening, after having a late lunch with his family, we return to our meeting place. I help chop a few onions in a futile attempt to be useful as Yacoub tosses the chickens with spices, onions, and sauce and puts them in the parchment bags. He throws them on the fire to braise slowly. We sit and shoot the shit about girls, politics, and the effect of the economic crisis on the poulet business as the sun goes down. His father used to sell 30 chickens a night, but now is lucky to sell five.

The road into Yacoub’s neighborhood was blocked due to the rains and erosion. The community was out to fix the holes.

Yacoub’s wonderful family.

An old photo of Yacoub’s mother and uncle with the daily batch of chickens, pre-crisis.

Dusk turns to night and we learn about each other’s dreams – a house, becoming a father, a stable income. He wishes for a Burkina as a grand pays with full employment and better infrastructure, but without losing the conviviality – the ever-present greetings, the friendships, the family – the reason his French brother-in-law stayed in Burkina with his new wife.

We watched moped after moped zoom by in the moonlight as we waited in vain on our rickety bench for the customers who never came – talking, learning, and dreaming of another world within our own.

The empty street.

I have never truly gotten to know, let alone begun to befriend, a person like Yacoub – or the many others I have met like him – in the U.S. I describe this irony a bit here. But as I travel, I consciously – some might even say obsessively – seek out those people and places I have too often overlooked or felt unable to get to know in my own home.

The question that now looms is how  to take this perspective – this curiosity – back home.

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Danger: Economic Apartheid

DANGER: ELECTRIC FENCE. No, this is not a prison. Welcome to my new (temporary) home, Johannesburg!

The electric fence may be to South Africa what the white picket fence is to America. It’s a symbol of having ‘made it’ (you have something worth stealing) – but also a sign that something is deeply wrong.

The barriers are the phyiscal manifestation of a disturbing trend of the wealthy – or even middle class – to try to live as though the 80% of people beyond their house walls, outside their car doors, and working behind the mall counters didn’t exist. The extreme white flight of the early years (read here, here, and here) may have abated some, but it’s clear even to a visitor that integration is still far from realized. South Africa can proudly claim to have the worst economic inequality in the world – much of it still along racial lines.

I arrived in Johannesburg just a couple days ago. It was a depressing sight simply riding from the airport to the walled compound where the hostel was located. Everywhere you looked was either a walled compound with barbed wire, spikes, and electric wires on top or a run-down house or apartment building that looks like the worst parts of Rainier Beach, South Park, etc. in Seattle.

Going “downtown” was even more mind-boggling than the ride into town. As I got off the minibus (“taxi”) in downtown I was struck by the strangely parallel and contradictory cities inhabiting the same space.

View from the taxi in town. I didn’t take my camera around often, so sadly my photos from in town are limited.

The first is the cold, glass and concrete “modern” (that is to say, Western) city built by whites, which exists today only in the decaying skyscrapers and regal government buildings.

On the street level is a city that could not be more different – a distinctly African city bustling with immigrant hawkers from across Southern Africa and makeshift outdoor markets that overflow onto the neatly gridded streets.

The residents of this parallel city seem indifferent to the incongruous shadow of skyscrapers above them.Yet there is no question which city is dominant – today it appears that it is the skyscrapers that are the ones feeling out of place.

In two hours walking downtown at three in the afternoon, I spotted two white people. Mentioning my astonishment to black South Africans was met with roaring laughter – of course no white people walk around downtown! If they even go, they drive into the garage and leave from the garage.

The incongruity of the parallel cities and the overall state of urban decay left me feeling strangely ill at ease. The city center shuts down completely very early due to safety concerns – the hostel told me to return before dark, or about six o’clock. Yet by 4:30 I began to feel a – certainly partially irrational – sense of urgency to leave.

I have still not fully figured out what it was that made the downtown so eerie. Perhaps it was the fact that it seemed like everyone else was hurrying to leave too. And given the new developments in Sandton and the other suburbs, those who can afford it are not coming back tomorrow morning.

The Seattle Coffee Co shop in the Exclusive Books in the Nelson Mandela Center, Sandton. An exclusive shop in an exclusive book store in an exclusive suburb! Yet as embarassed as we were to patronize this place, my amazing friend and activist Heidi and I stopped here since it was closest to the train stop to the airport. (It was actually surprisingly good by Seattle snob terms.)

(The United States experienced a similar phenomenon of white flight in the 1970s, but I find it hard to believe it ever reached this state. One can only wonder when the whites and economically privileged of any color will return. Despite efforts at “urban renewal,” many of the Sandton elites I happened to speak to seemed doubtful.)

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E melhor comer chocolate (It’s Better to Eat Chocolate)

We harvest the cacao over the course of three days. The first day we cut them off the trees and let them fall onto the forest floor, like these. The next day we gathered them into piles. The last day we split them open on site and haul off the beans to be fermented, dried, and finally briefly roasted to remove the skin (not like coffee where it gives it the flavor – the characteristic flavor for chocolate is achieved in the fermentation – the raw fruit is DELICIOUS but nothing like chocolate).

Yesterday we cut cacao. Today we piled it in designated spots. I think tomorrow we may cut them open. It’s hard work – lugging around a sack with 30 or more fruits and lifting each fruit (weighing at least a pound) up by stabbing it with the back of the machete.

I began to get very tired after a few hours yet I tried desperately to hide it, lest I be another city boy who can’t take a day’s real work. When I thought no one was looking, I walked over to one of the spots where we were piling cacao and rested for a second before lifting up the sack to dump the fruits out. Just then, one of the cacao workers, Neto (32) comes by with his over-the-shoulder basket and dumps out twice as many fruits as are in my measly sack. As he turns to go back to work, he grins at me and says:

“E melhor comer chocolate, nao?” (It’s better to eat chocolate, isn’t it?)

He read my thoughts so well that I could barely manage to respond with a nervous laugh and “e verdade” (it’s true). I was stunned by the piercing truth of his offhand remark.

He was just so right. For me, it is better to eat chocolate and not to think about – let alone experience – the backbreaking labor that goes into each bar.I am humbled and ashamed to admit I could not do this every day – trudge through the mud with a machete hacking at cacao. I cannot get over the drudgery in my upper-middle class intellectual petit bourgeoisie mind. As unbelievably beautiful as it is here, I just want to go back to the city.

Is this why many people in the nearby village are excited that the government wants to dam their beautiful river? Because it will bring them a road across – instead of their elegant wood canoes – and electricity to the other side (where I stay)?

Perhaps this is what it feels like to be on the other side of “development” – to feel its allure, once you’ve had a taste – even knowing its dirty underbelly? What is it about “modernity” that has so captivated our collective imagination?

Yet it hasn’t gotten all of us – when I asked Antonio (30) and Tiago (23), both cacao workers, whether they wanted to stay here or go to the city, they both smiled and – without a second thought – said they’d stay here. This is quite a different tune than those I usually meet who would give a limb to get to the U.S. or even a big city in their country. Neto said something telling yesterday: one of the things he loved about being out here is that he never has to buy fruit – he just asks a neighbor.

And perhaps that’s really it. The neighbors. Maybe we’re not so different, Neto and I. We love home. We love our families and neighbors. For him, he looks down the river and sees friends and memories, not trees and strangers. My home happens to be incredibly different (and probably exploiting his), but what makes me long to leave here is perhaps to feel at home again. Even in the broadest sense, I would feel more at home in a city like Sao Paulo, with city people who understand me, if not home to Seattle with people who love me.

Maybe he’d feel the same way I do about the crawly bugs and the unshakable mud here about the choking pollution and cold concrete of my home. It’s hard to imagine – since such comparisons are never made without values-tinted glasses which say bugs and mud are “backwards” and concrete and pollution are part of “developed” society. And I too can’t quite take off these glasses, even if I’m straining to imagine what world lies beyond them.

And I still can’t shake the self-doubt of someone who proclaims the need for alternative development and yet can barely stand a week working in the mud without electricity. (I had much the same humbling experience – without the ‘critical’ lens – in Bolivia way back in 2008 working with Engineers Without Borders.)

Picking out the beans. We suck on the particularly ripe ones and then spit them back into the box. After all, it’s all going to be fermented and dried in the sun. Hope that doesn’t ruin your chocolate bar!

Harold and his girlfriend helping cut and gather the beans.

Offloading the cacao from the donkey.

The roof where the cacao is dried.

A particularly beautiful ripe cacao fruit.

Tired at the end of the day. Time to rest and drink sweet, strong coffee Boca has cooked over the wood fire. My feet on the left, Harold’s on the right.

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Understanding Joy

The following two posts are about my brief experience working on a Fazenda Pura Vida permaculture cacao (cocoa, i.e. chocolate) farm in Bahia, Brazil. I’ve backdated them to when I wrote them by hand in my journal (there was no electricity). I worked as a volunteer for a week, and for most of the time I was alone with my thoughts and the river. Much to my surprise, the only foreigner around was the wonderful French refugee, Harold, who helped found and now runs the fazenda. And he was off selling chocolate most of the time. So it was me and the wonderful locals – this post is about them.

This is a journey deep into the Atlantic Rainforest, where cacao grows under the shade of huge, ancient trees and men swing their machetes six days a week to grow and harvest the beans that will bring us the treat that we all know and love – chocolate.

It’s a journey through the life of those growing cacao on the banks of a wide river, near a sleepy village in Bahia, Brazil. It’s the story of men, women, and children who live barefooted and free, knowing the rainforest upside down and inside out, never learning to read because notebooks are too expensive and short-term contracts never allow children to complete a whole year of school. Washing in the river, cooking rice and beans and hot, sweet coffee over the fire, fishing by sunset and eating fruit straight from the trees, these people might be illiterate, but live a life full in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

-The opening lines of the tattered book produced by the NGO about the Fazenda that I found in the cabin.

The book the NGO produced. The NGO is now somewhat defunct, but the fazenda and Harold remain.

Sunset over the river – the view from the cabin where I swung on the hammocks. After the sun went down, it was just me and the cat. The only way to the village was across the river in a wooden canoe – which I was helplessly bad at piloting.

Amidst the constant roar of the little waterfall, the crickets, and the birds is another beautiful sound – Bocamole’s (aka Boca) singing and humming as he works on the fazenda. It’s almost exactly as described by Prof. Jonathan Warren in Aracuai in his book chapter (link to the book here). It’s a beautiful, truly unique, and seemingly very African sound. I can’t really understand the lyrics, to the extent that I can’t be sure they are Portuguese. (But then again, I’m not entirely sure the Bahian dialect is even Portuguese…just kidding!) It’s absolutely enchanting, regardless. The tune of the songs remind me of the sort of hymns one associates with African-American churches of the civil rights era – the sorts of songs sung to give strength in the face of oppression and difficulties.

Boca sings them proudly as he wanders around the Fazenda, smoking his hand-rolled cigarros through his mostly toothless mouth (probably related to the smoking – does not help with understanding him!). He has the most enchanting grin, as does the other cacao worker, Toni. Perhaps it’s the toothlessness?

Toni with the cacao harvest. Boca, sadly, did not like pictures.

Whenever I tell Boca I like his singing, he grins sheepishly and seems mostly surprised. I ask him what kind of music it is but I’m not sure we understand each other since he just says “Bahiana” or even “Forro.” It think it’s the former, but I’d love a more specific name.

Today Boca stopped by for coffee after putting his fermented beans up to dry. Over coffee I asked him about the dam in the river Harold told me the government is planning. He said it was really bad – his house, his fields…everything would be flooded. The fish would be gone. He loves it here, but if they build the dam he’d have to leave.

Boca and Toni both live together incredibly modestly. They are bachelors, even though Toni has five kids (he divorced) and Boca is probably in his mid-40s. Their house has four pots and exactly two forks, two plates, and two cups. Just enough. They cook on a wood stove outside. They have a few chickens. They don’t even have hammocks – just little wood benches. They work hard. And they both seem effervescently happy. Whatever pain Boca may hold inside (why did he never marry?) he appears deeply content as he skips down the path from the fazenda singing in between bites of a freshly picked banana.

Like Jesusa’s giggles, Boca’s singing makes me once again question what we mean by “development” and what creates happiness.

And yet I am also challenged by the rather plain fact that – after growing up as I did – I would not be happy with Boca’s life.

So the question is why? Why can Boca be happy as such and I cannot?

It would be too easy to blame our upbringing amidst material excess. One cannot otherwise explain people like Harold, who are similarly content – if occasionally frustrated – with life in Bahia. Despite the occasional difficulties on the fazenda, Harold was wholly uninterested in reintegrating into the life and oppression admidst “modernity” in France.

If this seems like an incomplete thought, well, it is.

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