While this blogger has fallen back to the safer positions of the finer points of growing arugula and the boiling point of compost if not compote, there are events alarming and current that one cannot fail to consider, especially since we may yet be drawn back into the former times of our lives, wars of various shades of gray and sundry other problems that appeared for a time to be tucked away, like children who had gotten into Father’s liqueur cabinet under the errant eye of the babysitter who thought she had solved her issue by placing the children under the rugs in the nursery asleep, but the parents are home and her charges have awoken and are now plodding down the stairs drunkenly swearing and flailing about breaking all of Nana’s fine China.
We can only be horrified at these recent events. By our children.
That cud so many bloggers, ranters, and commentators on various versions of Boing-Boing chewed is back. So many of us chewed, gnawed on the marrow of exposes, documentaries that exposed this or that waste or warmongering until so many of us were overdosed on hard hitting exposes – billions over Baghdad…. yawn. General was a train wreck (I still believe that journalist was murdered), snore. We bloggers and commentators grew tired of researching and rehashing the ills of our age, grew to understand that we were powerless and held in stasis to the point where our thoughtful analysis, diatribes, and angry screeds were but reruns, we tired of our own thoughts, how many times can you point out the wrongs of the establishment only yet to do it again the following post/week/year until we alienated our general readers and grew to have a thinner and fewer audience, until the views, the click-through, the likes dried up. Many bloggers grew tired, many writers of various non-professional media closed down shop or redirected attention to some more fitting endeavour like organic gardening and what to do when there is too much kale.
And… suddenly… Again our world is 2000 and 3. Again many of us feel that we are young again, having lost our actual youth to financial miasma, personal stagnation, and a growing sense that the political show is just that and we are not to shuffle off the mortal coil and exit stage right for we are the audience…. we can only hold on to our pee and pray for intermission and poporn or some end to this long-played tragic-comedy where we are both riveted and bored.
There is movement, again. But not in a good way.
And we look up from our iDevices, which we haven’t done since Ohsolongago. Some of us, at least stopped looking at our iDevices. Not all.
Let me take a break, then, from travel and gardens, from playful considerations that are tinged with ire and some regret at a life half-lived and stick a marker in the ground, to make a claim we can view at a later date that we are passing through a momentous time in our collective history of this nation. The time where the evils of the previous regime were bloomed by the ill informed and spanking continuation of our own version of Lenin-Stalinism… Reagan-Clintonism. The war that Bush II started that Uncle O has sort-of completed in order to start anew, as his war. He will now pass on the next chapter to the next Clinton.
The Iraq is the defining moment in the history of American Empire. It is not our Vietnam. It is our Iraq. Something we cannot ask mummy and daddie (papa) about – we cannot add the suffix “gate” to it since it is a new animal, a new zone of political and economic discomfort.
Some years ago this blogger was in a war zone of sorts… A conflict area. No I am not a War Correspondent. I am no HUNTER S THOMPSON. I was traveling because I could, because I thought it would teach me… something… There was a bus from the city of A- going to the resort city of P- in the Former Soviet Union and I was on that bus. The bus route seemed to go through a rather bouncy region, the type of place the men of my father’s Vietnam generation called “hot.” I was indeed passing through Chechnya if not just at the top…. I was told later, by an angry and drunken American officer at a social engagement (his patronymic was Sunshine, I remember.. and he had blue cold dead eyes of a killer so I did not disagree) that “you did not go through Chechnya!” which took me aback – as I remember these years later his heated words… on his wedding night no less. I traced my line of travel with my finger on a map (since we still used maps back in those days) and according to the only road I could find from A- to P- that would fit a bus… seemed to go through the top of said warring region/country/semi-autonomous region, that indeed I was in said region of trouble if only at the outermost ring of conflict. And at the time it didn’t matter, since if you have guns about you and solders, who cares if it is exactly Chechnya or a mile away. It was fucking scary.
In the fog of travel I was unable to object to Sunshine’s later derision as I attempted to recall events since they are so strange to me as to be outside my experience. My relating of events would be just as strange a few days later as years or decades since there is no real point of reference for me to hang on to. The finer points of being “in” and “out” of a conflict zone were lost on me at the time and hard to recall with clarity later. I know I was on a decrepit intercity bus that dated from the late 1970s… the bus was without air conditioning – the seats were worn to that leather-like quality that cloth takes on when gunge wins out, and I was sitting next to a very tall man with hollow cheeks, and under his feet and in part under my own was a canister of propane – the sort that in the Americas is not allowed inside a structure least it blow up… and here it was under my feet in this fetid bus clunking along the highway… deep in the night, who cares what hour, it was dark and disorientating, we slowed down, the engine braked which was loud, awoke me out of my dis-comfortable seating position, my feet shifting on top of the gas canister.
I peered out. Why were we stopping, this dismal area, this small cement box of s structure by the road did not appear to be gas station or rest stop – and I have been to a dismal many in Peru, India, China, and Cincinnati.
The bus came to a complete stop, engine off, the people woke up and had there been ample cabin lights they would have been switched on, but everything was broken, so few lights came on. A twilight, shouting in what I imagined was Russian. I leaned over the the window. Out, in front of the bus was a berm. Earth. Sand bags. And behind that berm was a tank. And that tank was pointed at us.
On to the bus came a man who stopped at close to the driver.
Паспорт! he yelled.
People dug about on their persons.
People opened those bags where the special things were kept.
People went deep into those places, the pockets where you never drop things unless they are needed only in emergency.
I was nervous.
Did I cross some frontier by mistake?
I have before.
But this was the Former Soviet Union, they would charge me, perhaps toss me in jail since I didn’t have the money and there was no one at home who would have money…
I waited for the inspector, but the nice man with the large gun, he did not approach like so many other times. The man with the gun did not move down the isle at all but yelled more from his position. He waited. He barked. It was late at night. The darkness was broken only by what appeared to be rude former Soviet work lamps built into the Former Soviet bus, proletariat and basic and broken, and the smell of coal and poorly vented propane. I was tapped on the shoulder by the person behind me. Товарищ вы можете пройти вперед по этому вопросу?
A fist full of documents was handed to me, and I was expected to comply, to pass down the sacred document that kept me apart and above this poverty and madness, my US Passport.
Blue and marked with my travel, containing my visa, my lifeline to what now seemed the good life, to the life I wanted when I got home… I added my everything to the pile and passed it forward… O!… господин америки! exclaimed the babushka when she saw my passport.
I watched my beautiful passport vanish into a pile of worn red booklets, what I assumed was the old internal travel passports of these older Former Soviets.
The man with the gun vanished.
Other men with guns circled the bus as did some smaller men, older figures who appeared to be tapping on the bus here and there looking for….
The man next to me was relaxed. He leaned as best as he could towards the window and lit a cigarette. He looked at me, to calm me, to tell me that this was the way it was, the way it always was, that this was standard, the tank, the guns, the solders. He smoked atop the canister of explosive gas.
I waited in terror. I was no longer an American. I was like the rest on this bus. Subject to any action. Who had my American passport? Who was handling my travel documents, my visa? There was a tank outside. Pointing at us. Where was I?
In time, the man with a gun brought back another man without a gun. This second man walked along handing out our documents. He came to me. Мистер Америка? Yes… “Yes I am an American” I stammered…. He laughed. Bye bye, he exclaimed menacingly.
The got off and the bus started up. It jumbled to life.
We pulled forward a few meters to the edge of the cement building and the bus again stalled. People this time got off. They smoked. They went to the bathroom that cost a few rubles.
I went and pissed on a tree in the night air. I had no idea where I was. The darkness spread in all directions, I assumed in a flat land that looked like Ohio and Nebraska yet here I was with tanks and guns and propane and darkness and all of these strangers speaking languages of the Former Soviet Union. The stranger next to me offered one of his hand rolled cigarette. I thanked him, thank you, and stood close to the bus and smoked.
We loaded up on the bus, and started out again into the dark.
Again, later down the road, just when I was able to find a cramped angle to nod off, the bus was stopped again, and again I passed up my American Passport but this time, I had been through it before, this time, like the others, this was normal.
I cannot know if this is true, for I was told by Sunshine that this did not happen. I was not in a war zone. There was no way the United States would allow me to wander into a war. We just didn’t do that. Americans have a way of telling others what did or did not happen.
Wherever I was, I knew something a rare number of civilians know – thankfully – the fear of looking down an active tank, that the guns of the solders are pointed at you, that war is normal, that while the others about your shrugged off this inconvenient stop in the night with the panache of New Yorkers waiting for a late L train, there was true and active death lurking in the night and it was not a video game. We got one life. This was not a school lockdown drill. This was my Once In A Lifetime. This was their Tuesday Night.
Morning came and the bus pulled into the berth at the rail station. I was at the city of P- with little sleep I stumbled and got swindled with a taxi brokered by an attractive women with perfect English who already was latched on to an elderly English-speaking man. I parted ways with the man with the propane tank. He took that, and the rest of his bags, and vanished into the crowd. We may have nodded goodbye, perhaps not. That part of my adventure is lost to time. Details are good, much of me wishes I captured these but there is something to say about letting the sharp biting clarity dim and the pastels blend as in an impressionist so that the deeper and more timeless messages come to surface, if not the mystery of the dream where it is not what is remembered, but how it is remembered and for why it was recalled.
To this, as I took digital pen to electronic paper, I thought of this moment in my life rather than pithy silly witty analysis of our current situation. Perhaps because all that has been said. We know our government is corrupt. We know the Iraq war was wrong. Some of us – on the right and left even protested against it. We know that this, this life we are leading with terror threats and so much bluster is our new normal. Like those people on the bus we sit and hand over our travel documents. There are forces at work stronger than us and they will play out no matter if we take to the streets, write our congress dipshit-of-the-month or as much as we comment on local online newspapers, blog, read articles in The Nation, Rolling Stone, or Mother Jones and SMH or Rolling Face, LOL, WMD or whatever we do when we are surprised at our collective and individual situation.
As I write this I am but older than that trip so long ago, that adventure before the war, our war. Before our economic collapse. Before the next thing that is to happen. Close to me, in the rail station, is some machine that is constantly testing the air for some poison introduced by a foreign agent.
I often wonder what happened to my friend in that area close or not close to Chechnya. The one with the propane tank and heavy sack. I still cannot remember if we parted as friends.
Editor’s Note: A rough translation of this work in Arabic is HERE.