The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember last year I was in California when Sandy plowed through the Eastern Seaboard.
First of all, let me just say I have a deep and abiding affection for the state of New Jersey.
I will always refer to myself proudly as a “Jersey Boy”.
North Jersey, to be more exact.
So it was quite distressing to see the wake of destruction that Sandy left behind.
Especially from within the Great Bubble that is the San Francisco Bay Area.
Well, everywhere except for Oakland.
And the Mission.
Staying with my sister requires long hours on Caltrain and BART to get to Oakland.
Not as bad as L.A.
Not as good as New York.
I recall the first time I went to San Francisco.
I was ready to move there on the spot.
Looks, however, are deceiving.
What passes for “progressive” or “communal” in certain places is, in fact, a hyper-individualism.
What I mean to say is that in order to preserve my own hyper-individuality, I am willing to ignore or tolerate whatever others might see fit to do.
As long as they don’t impose on me.
How else can we explain Silicon Valley?
Technology-driven individualism under the guise of communal empowerment.
It is, in fact, the exact opposite.
Illusioned and inverted in a way that takes on the trappings of collectivity.
Without a true communal nature.
Summing up: Communities that are made up of those from the same bourgeois class are no more than collections of individuals.
Some have the luxury and privilege to group themselves this way.
While others deal with the insult of segregation, exclusion, and generally being looked down upon.
We are much overdue for a Great Stepping Down.
I still have fond memories of when I spoke at Oakland’s Socialism Conference in 2010.
It was the time of the Oscar Grant murder.
To be in Oakland is to sense palpably the community come together.
I recall being introduced to a former member of the Black Panther Party.
I was awed to be in his presence.
I realized how much I have to make up for.
I asked him: “How do you persevere?”
“Your comrades assassinated, exiled, turned coat, or silenced in academia?”
He paused a moment.
He replied: “I may not see justice in my own lifetime.”
He continued: “I’ve resigned myself to this fact.”
He concluded: “But I cannot let the next generation down. I have to carry the torch for them.”
If such a one manages to persevere, I have absolutely no excuse whatsoever.
I sense that more than most cities, Oakland carries its history forward.
By “history” I mean that of the people.
When there, I spend all of my time in used bookstores.
They are a sign of a valid and vibrant community.
Having exhausted the ones I was familiar with, I decided to venture towards Berkeley.
I don’t really like Berkeley.
Some places don’t give off an air of community, but it is there if you scratch the surface.
Some places have an affected air of community, but this is an empty facade.
I’m just saying.
I took the BART to the Rockridge Station, and started walking up and down the main strip.
After visiting some bookstores I thought I might find a place to sit and read.
Meaning, someplace that doesn’t cost money.
Like a park, for instance.
The only public places to sit were the benches at bus stops.
And seats in the fancy schmancy cafes and restaurants.
It was an exhaustive and aggravating hunt.
I finally arrived back at the train station, and sat on one of the benches.
It was actually more like a large sculpture in the form of a planter with benches surrounding it.
I didn’t have much of a choice.
There’s one thing I need point out.
One thing I notice, when I am making my way around these new-fangled Cosmopolises.
The deafening silence of not speaking to anyone.
It wasn’t always like this.
And this is the other reason I tend toward bookstores.
People within actually engage in conversation.
I am no longer used to this silence.
It is stifling; debilitating.
As I waited outside for my scheduled train I noticed a man making his way toward me.
Nondescript, really; unthreatening.
I thought he might want directions.
He vaulted into his sentence: “I see you are enjoying scenic Rockridge’s greenery!”
I don’t have much of a filter these days.
This I admit readily.
I also could not tell if he were commiserating with me, or busting my chops.
I’m not good with the local dialect in California.
Which lacks much in the way of irony in its forthrightness.
I’m just saying.
In any case, I let go with a bottled-up tirade.
I said: “You know what the problem is? You have no public space. You know what the bigger problem is? You pretend to have public space, but it isn’t there. I just spent an hour walking up and down looking for a place to sit, only to be mocked where I ended up, beneath a BART overpass and next to a main road full of bus exhaust, my back to the bogus greenery planted here to give off an air of what you call “scenic”!
He scurried off.
My sister would later laugh and say that he probably thought I was insane.
I can’t really say that I blame him.
I recall once walking back home from my lawyer’s office.
The path home has me walk by the National Museum.
On this day, a guy on a motorcycle was making a beeline for me.
I thought he might want to ask directions.
“What hours are the museum open?” he asked.
I replied: “I don’t really know. I’ve never gone in.”
He asked further: “You’ve never been in the museum?”
I laughed. “It doesn’t really represent the whole country!”
He continued: “Exactly! Why is it called ‘national’ when it doesn’t represent the nation? And why is it never open? How much of our money pays for this? Yalla, do you want anything?”
“Just your good health and safety, brother!”
“God keep you safe as well!”
He drove off just as quickly as he drove up.
In downtown Beirut, rebuilt as a bogus simulacrum of the pre-war city, I on rare occasion wait for friends.
Much more of the downtown area was destroyed–more than during the war itself–by the bulldozer vibrations that resulted from tearing down war-ravaged buildings after the war was long over.
This is a fact.
I am convinced that more of Beirut has been destroyed by the resultant destruction of new construction than during the 2006 July War.
It’s the same war, if we think about it at any length.
Yet one that takes place in slow motion.
I sit on the small posts that prevent cars from parking on sidewalks.
Until paid security guards tell me I’m not allowed to do so.
It’s a bit of a sport, and we end up talking at length.
About where exactly I am supposed to sit.
The usual suggestion is a cafe.
Which I refuse to do.
By the time my friend arrives, we’ve finished our conversation.
Usually agreeing on the negative turn the city has taken.
So it ends up a win-win.
The cafes usually are foreign in origin.
Local money funneled out to corporate non-entities.
An occupation of space.
The downtown used to be the crossroads of the nation.
All taxis made there way through it on any given trip.
The tramway brought far-flung residents into the country’s heart.
Now it is more or less forbidden to ninety percent of the population.
A very subtle reminder of who belongs and who doesn’t.
I inherently know where I can and can’t go.
I know where is welcome and where isn’t.
The state of mind of the visitor exults in initial displacement.
Along with the luxury and privilege of infinite access.
At a certain point the disconnect from Place becomes apparent.
At which point Home literally beckons.
A return to the familiar.
Wherever that may be.
When I arrived home in Beirut, I was coming back with about 50 books, 20 magazines, 12 CDs.
I packed everything in my two suitcases and a carry-on duffel bag.
British Airways amazingly didn’t charge me with any extra fees for being overweight.
I recommend the last Monday night flight back as the plane was nearly empty.
At customs, everyone had to send their stuff through the X-ray machine.
I loaded everything up, and the guy screening stopped me.
“What do you have in your bags???”
“Why so many books?”
“I’m a professor, and I bring back books for my classes.”
“Yes, istaaz, but these will need to be screened by general security.”
“Okay, no problem.”
He called out to “Moustafa” nearby.
I stood off to the side with some other people waiting for him to screen our things.
Moustafa came toward me, and I said: “If you please, my books–what do we do?”
He pointed to the bag he wanted to look at.
He asked to see my passport and residency visa.
“Yes, I was at AUB.”
“What are the books for?”
“Research and the classroom. And I just really love books.”
“You don’t have a national ID?”
“That’s a complicated story. I’m adopted, and I only recently returned.”
“You speak Arabic well though!”
“You’re very kind.”
He pointed to a young man sitting down against the wall.
“You see that guy over there? Muhammad? Whenever we need him to work he’s not around. You want to know why? Because he goes off reading.”
He yells across the hall: “Hey! Muhammad! I was just telling the professor that when we need you, you’re never around because you’re off reading! The professor is bringing in a lot of books for you to read!”
“You’re more than welcome to them, yaa Muhammad! Good for you!”
To Moustafa: “Good for him.”
“Yes, definitely. Please proceed, istaaz.”
“You’re very kind. Thank you.”
A month or so later there was a report in the newspaper about a Lebanese professor who was stopped in similar fashion carrying through a load of books.
His reaction was much different.
He pulled rank as a “professor, writer, and journalist”.
In response he got the fine-toothed comb.
He went off in the French-language press.
He pressed a defamation lawsuit against the General Security.
I could not help but laugh at this.
It reminds me of a “candle-lit vigil” that was held downtown last year for “Syrian refugees”.
The leaflet for the flyer claimed that those organizing it were “artists, writers, and intellectuals”.
The leaflet was written in English.
Given that one quarter of the Lebanese population is made up of those migrated for various reasons from Syria, you might think that there would be an attempt to reach out to them.
But these distances are maintained for a reason.
Like our professor above.
I’m pretty sure Mohammad and Moustafa could teach him a thing or two.
That is, if he were only willing to learn.
Image: Oscar Grant poster | Date: July, 2010 | Place: Downtown Oakland | Camera: Sony “CyberShot” DSC-TX1; Carl Zeiss lens | Caption: My presentation at the Socialism Conference was with the members of Dignidad Rebelde, Jesus Barazza and Melanie Cervantes. Everything about the conference was inspiring. Oscar Grant’s uncle arrived from the trial to give his view of the travesty of justice taking place, which was heartbreaking. This poster-mural from the streets downtown was created by the artist Paul Barron.