He had impeccable credentials. Impeccable even though he missed Seattle but that was for meningitis. He was in the front ranks at Genoa shedding blood with a hundred militants, deported with a bandage still seeping. In the camps in the forests preparing for Berlin he fashioned affinities with twenty-four other comrades. They came up with an anti-authoritarian tactic that was Gandhi 2.0. With arms taped to their sides, they threw their bodies at the police and Black Bloc equally, receiving rather bluer bruises from the latter. In between these excitements he traipsed between squats, lent money to teenage hackers, wrote pamphlets misleading the cops, cooked collectively and had sex unpossessively on all the northern continents.
But it was in the South where he really made his name. His first visit to the camp-sites of Porto Allegre gave rise in him to an indignation at the luminaries that swanned around so self-importantly. How was another world possible when it was being theorized in such an elitist way, he heckled to cheers? The following year, he was invited to sit on a panel. In his paper, he repeated his criticisms and found only celebration and not an ounce of resentment from those he called-out. He made a pilgrimage to Chiapas but it rained the whole time, the incessant wood smoke gave him asthma and he didn’t get to meet Marcos. Still. He’d been among the Zapatistas. When he spoke politics back in the North, Southern facts like these came in handy. He was able to pepper his point of view with anecdotes that wowed and cowed in just the right measure, such as getting asthma waiting for Marcos.
His time in South Africa was the most productive of all. He got a grant to study north-south struggle linkages. A University outside Cape Town hosted him. The poverty, the suffering, the disrepair of the shack settlements was not the worst he’d seen. Not by a long shot. But the shanties bristled with grievance and the provocatively lush suburbs nearby rubbed the face of the 99% in four centuries of uninterrupted indignity. Promisingly, in this land, even youngsters had memories of the methods of insurrection that the fight against apartheid had taught. Most evenings, after a visit to a black township, he blogged about new social movements: organisations demanding more than just the vote but economic equality too. He blogged about their inspirational leaders, the democratic nature of their agitations and the promise of a new humanism their praxis held out. He used the word volatile and dignity a lot.
It’s hard to say when the change came about – that is when he realized how much of the world he inhabited, imbibed and reflected was bullshit. Subconsciously, it must have been brewing because he was in a foul mood the last days of his South African stay and hardly greeted anyone when he left. Back in Canada, where he taught a semester course, the discontent grew stronger. He gave away books from his post-colonial theory collection. His inner conflict erupted during a weekly Wednesday meeting of a pro-Palestinian group. He proposed that the petition they sign against the Gaza blockade make a distinction between the Palestinian people, whose rights they all naturally supported, and the Hamas government about whom, in his view, the petition should say as little as possible. A newcomer rose to his full height in affront. The guy, who happened to be from Kashmir, questioned why white Northern activists, who proclaimed to be democrats, adopted such purist attitudes towards an elected government and whether splitting Hamas from the people did not exactly play into the hands of Zionists.
There were many ways in which to respond. Of all possible replies, his knee jerked:
“Don’t fucking talk to me like I’m some pasty, liberal passivist. My father had to flee Lebanon for being a militant and I’ve just come back from South Africa where … never mind … but there was some heavy shit going on”.
In the polite way that Canadians diffuse unpleasantness, the meeting was adjourned for a few minutes. It was at the urn, with several others standing nearby, that his Kashmiri critic approached the credentialed man of Lebanese extraction.
“Sorry friend, I meant you no disrespect, you know, in what I said earlier. I rubbed you up the wrong way and for that I sincerely apologise”.
It was neither the lilting intonation nor the delightfully archaic English that struck the sulking radical. It was the fact that his little tantrum had been so effective. With no argument made at all, he was in the clear. What’s more, it was technically a lie. His father was Lebanese and had fled the country but only because his business partner discovered how militantly his dad had been dipping into the profits. He extended his hand to the Kashmiri and said, “No problem dude. My name’s Hakim … and yours?”
For the next few days Hakim wondered how many others played this game and how many others caved like the Kashmiri fellow did. Hot on the heels of these questions followed further disillusion. A wave of xenophobic violence swept South Africa. Dozens of black foreigners living in townships were brutally massacred. Some among the squatters’ group with whom he worked in Cape Town were arrested for a pogrom against Somali shopkeepers. At first he disbelieved it. He assumed that his brothers in Khayelitsha would be immune to crimes of hate. How could they? It would contradict all that he and many others wrote about the ethical, new politics taking root in South African slums. What really rocked Hakim was that even someone he knew stood accused. Their cries of mistaken identity faded after local TV showed a shop being burnt and X, trademark shades on his head, booting the door in.
It was not that Hakim expected the poor to be pure. Not at all. In retrospect, it was quite obvious. If apartheid were really such a dehumanising system, it was to be expected that its victims’ humanity would be impaired, their psyches scarred. There were glimpses of this, even when Hakim was in Cape Town, caught up in the romance of burning barricades on the N2 highway. Reading press statements by his friends in the Informal Settlements Front or listening to speeches they made with the pungent smoke of tyres billowing in the background, there was a hysterical undertone to it all. It was like a scorned child acting-out to be noticed by a parent. Look what you are making me do, father. Look at me cross and hurting. But, reviewing his own blog, it was filled only with the picturesquely revolutionary stuff. He has avoided acknowledging just how stricken and ruptured and needy many Black people were in this democracy they had won. He wondered how many other blogs like his there were in the world, painting only the good, and hopefully ignoring the bad.
He kept quiet in future Palestinian support meetings although he was often called upon to give his view. He and the Kashmiri guy were ceded a special, if unspoken, middle-eastern insight into issues. One was, hilariously, what the appropriate salutation on a letter of solidarity addressed to ‘ordinary’ Palestinians would be. Glancing around the Wednesday meeting room, Hakim took the measure of his fellow travellers. It was not a reassuring exercise. There was a knot of law students who kept referring to something called the Rome Statute. There was a reedy girl who used to stalk a friend of his with vicious text messages but had evidently now fallen in love with a guy who came to the meetings dressed all in black. There were other activists like Hakim, veterans of the anti-globalisation milieu, whose angle into the Palestinian ‘question’ was primarily economic. Two of them sold a paper with a red fist on it. Zionism was imperialism. Imperialism was capitalism. The Kashmiri guy was the only Muslim: devout too, judging from the callouses on his forehead. If Hakim could peer into all their hearts and see the colour of what motivated his fellow travellers to come to meetings like this, what would the colour of his own pith have in common with theirs, really?
There was a brilliant young student taking the semester course Hakim taught. In a term paper his student said that he was not interested in analyzing the behaviour or ideas underpinning neo-liberalism, nor the kind of society it brought about. Rather he wanted to study the basis upon which neo-liberalism was problematised. He wanted to “analyse the critique of neo-liberalism”. It was a question Hakim had never considered so full in the face before. His intellectual Geiger counter spattered. He realized that what for him was wrong with the world and what for him needed to happen to change it was probably very different compared to those with whom he had been thrown together in activism and in meetings. Worse, glimpses of the new society they envisaged felt radioactive to his own and no doubt vice versa. He was overwhelmed. He gave his student full marks merely for proposing the question and took a migraine pill. It was Wednesday. He would not be going to meetings again. But where to from here? With whom?
Weeks passed. One afternoon, trudging along a Montreal avenue with a dripping schwarma in his hand, Hakim overheard a young woman talking to a girlfriend at a fast-food stand. Both were generically pretty and slim. Snatches of their conversation and the way they leaned into each other carried the sensual timbre of intrigue, though. Hakim drew closer. He found himself following them as they moved on down the street. He remembered this sensation of being on a mission to discover a secret. It was the same feeling years before when he scratched through his father’s boxes in the basement with the old man up above drinking beer. Hakim had read the threatening letters and the faded ledgers with a torch, discovering hidden explanations for all sorts of things, not least of all the lines of contempt around his mother’s mouth.
The two women he now trailed ascended a flight of metal stairs. They stopped on a landing. Both were short-skirted. One wore short white socks and sneakers, the other leather sandals. Below them but out of view, Hakim was able to hear the tail end of their confidence.
“I was so stupid, Mia. So dumb. When I opened the door, I saw his room was different. There was some sackcloth hanging down, like dividing the room half way. I didn’t ask. I was so drunk”
“Oh my God, Cilla”.
“Yeah. We ended up fucking. Thinking back, he kept stopping, pushing me up to the top of the mattress. Like, you know, arranging me. And pushing my legs apart and just admiring me, stroking me. Then fucking me again. It was beautiful. I kept coming.”
Hakim was himself aroused and found that he understood what had happened immediately. The women changed position, clanging on the stairs. For a moment Hakim thought he was discovered. But the sweet voice continued.
“But it went wrong for Aaron, the fucking shit. The guy he got to film us didn’t get the money shot.”
“What? You’re kidding. … You got to see the video?” her companion asked.
“Sure, he sent it to me.”
“You’re lying! Who?”
“The guy. I swear. I’ll even show you, Mia.”
“No way. That’s beyond creepy.” Giggles. “Are you like … all pink and spread?”
“That’s the thing. The guy Aaron got to film, I don’t know, he’s weird or he fucked up or something”.
“Of course he’s weird, he’s a pervert. A sex-offender. Him and Aaron both.”
“No, Aaron is a dick and, yes, he’s a criminal for what he tried. But the guy who taped me, I dunno, … it’s beautiful Mia, I swear to you and I’m not being vain. There are a few shots in the beginning of me naked but then he just zones in on my wrist, like the whole time. And he put music to it and just the faintest noise when I’m coming but it’s my wrist and my hand twitching the whole time. That’s all the clip shows”
“That’s crazy, Cilla. Cilla, you gotta go to the police, change your locks, move outta that place. Aaron must’ve told this guy where you live.”
“But Kay, you don’t get it. The guy who shot me isn’t a sexual pervert, he’s another kind of perv. … You know what?”
“I’d let him film my wrists anytime he wants to. I wish I knew who he was.”
“You’re sick, girl”, said Mia but laughing now, sounding impressed. “There’s probably a whole group of them then jerking off with your wrist flapping around to Beethoven or whatever”.
“Yes, but don’t you see, they’re sharing their … joy.”
Hakim understood. He walked up. The women made space for him to pass.
Heinrich Böhmke, 2009