The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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* * *

1. What Happened to Eastern Airlines Flight 980?

Peter Frick-Wright | Outside | Oct. 18, 2016 | 29 minutes (7,296 words)

In 1985, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 crashed into the side of a 21,112-foot mountain in Bolivia. No bodies were recovered at the crash site, and the plane’s black box was never found. More than 30 years later, two friends from Boston organized an expedition to figure out what happened.

2. The White Flight of Derek Black

Eli Saslow | The Washington Post | Oct. 15, 2016 | 25 minutes (6,254 words)

How the 27-year-old son of white nationalist leaders quit following his parents’ footsteps and began building bridges with the communities he previously worked to eliminate.

3. A Kink in the Hyperloop

Benjamin Wallace | New York Magazine | Oct. 18, 2016 | 20 minutes (5,248 words)

In 2013, Elon Musk put together a detailed proposal for a futuristic 35-minute San Francisco—L.A. commute. The idea was open-sourced, and enthralled by Musk’s vision, a venture capitalist named Shervin Pishevar started a company to bring a version of the idea to life. Like many Silicon Valley stories, this one would contain speed bumps and internal turmoil.

4. Fear of a Feminist Future

Laurie Penny | The Baffler | Oct. 17, 2016 | 11 minutes (2,797 words)

Laurie Penny—whose feminist dystopian novel Everything Belongs to the Future was released this week—considers the alt right’s fear of women heroes in futuristic literature and film, not to mention real life.

5. What I Learned About Love While Getting High

Tim Murphy | BuzzFeed | Oct. 15, 2016 | 14 minutes (3,595 words)

Veteran HIV/AIDS reporter and Christodora author Tim Murphy’s devastating recollection of a drug addled love affair he had with an older gay couple in the wake of 9/11.

from Longreads

Is Infidelity A Search for Identity? On Coupling: An Inventory

On a friend’s porch, someone has left behind a deer skull, beautifully intact, antlers and all, inside a wood crate set up against the wall. I consider the dead skull, the solid antlers, which won’t age for ages, which won’t die. The hollow sockets where eyes once looked for grass, the empty caves where a nose once bent to dirt. This deer must have lived in the woods behind here, in the fir and madrone, on the hillside taking a bed for its children, laying down in nights cold and rainy like this one. It makes me think about the wild in us all, how it stays tight, how we manage it or don’t, how we are animal in our marrow, our depth, our desire for sex as natural as the instinct to build a home, to shelter, to protect.

At Guernica, Melissa Matthewson explores infidelity in the search for her identity.

Read the story

from Longreads

Becoming One of the World’s 65 Million Refugees

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson | Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis | The New Press | September 2016 | 20 minutes (5,452 words)

Below is an excerpt from Cast Away, by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

This war is none of my business.

Majid Hussain didn’t know who would turn up on his doorstep first: Colonel Gaddafi’s foot soldiers following orders to purge Libya of its migrant workforce, or vengeful rebels wielding Kalashnikovs and the conviction that everyone with black skin deserved to be lynched.

For months the Nigerian teenager had watched on television in Tripoli as rebels not much older than himself stormed through the desert in their cheap sunglasses and mismatching camouflage, and it had seemed inconceivable that this shabby army of the disaffected could pose a threat to Muammar Gaddafi’s calm and ordered capital. He had heard rumours that all Africans from south of the Sahara were at risk of attack from rebels seeking mass punishment for the few who had colluded with the regime – but surely these were just rumours? Every day Majid still went to work and returned home every evening to his reliable air-conditioning and his satellite TV. The rebellion had remained remote from his life, and he wanted it to stay that way.

This war is none of my business, he thought. I have already seen my own country torn apart by old hatreds – I don’t need to see that again.

Majid and his housemate Ali had laughed off reports on CNN and the BBC about fighting on the outskirts of Tripoli, and they didn’t want to believe the news that Gaddafi was bombing civilians in Benghazi. It was all Western propaganda, the two Nigerians convinced each other. Even when a spokesman for Gaddafi warned on public radio that they would flood Europe with migrants if there was any Western military action, the young men remained unconcerned.

‘Come on,’ Majid had said to his friend, ‘of course they don’t want Europe to be full of immigrants, so NATO will leave us in peace.’

Finally, on the morning of 12 August, 2011 Majid could ignore the reality no longer. The air-conditioning unit was still spluttering along and Libyan state TV continued its delusional broadcasts, but outside the ground was shaking. The French Mirages and British Typhoons were cutting through the clouds above his head as NATO bombing raids thundered closer to Gaddafi’s compound, and closer to the two frightened Nigerians.

This is what an earthquake must feel like, Majid thought, as pure terror coupled with a sense of utter powerlessness overwhelmed him.

He was no longer safe in Libya. Clouds of dust and smoke rose above the minarets and cranes of the Tripoli skyline. Before the air had cleared, the order came from the top. The rebel army, supported by NATO, was closing in and Colonel Gaddafi finally made good on his threat. All migrant workers still living in Libya were to be rounded up, taken to the coast, and forced on board whatever vessels were available. There they would be sent out into the waves in the direction of Malta and Italy, a flotilla of human despair heading directly to Europe’s shores.

As the Arab Spring began its eastward creep from Tunisia and protests broke out in Libya in February 2011, a voluntary exodus of the country’s large migrant workforce had begun. During the first few months of fighting, the Egyptians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Vietnamese and sub-Saharan Africans beat a relatively calm path overland to neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, patiently queueing under the fierce desert sun to submit their papers at the crowded border posts. But soon people were fleeing with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Gaddafi had bolstered his military with mercenaries from nearby states, relying on Tuareg tribesmen from Mali to put down any rebellions that threatened to erupt in the Libyan hinterlands. These men became targets for vengeful rebel groups looking to vent their anger at the regime. They didn’t wait to gather any evidence: anyone with black skin came under suspicion. Sub-Saharan migrants found on the street were beaten, robbed and locked up. Hundreds died in the wave of retribution. As the rebels advanced on Tripoli, thousands of foreign workers found themselves trapped and terrified in the city centre, awaiting their fate.

* * *

If I stay in Nigeria, having seen what I saw, will I be a good person?

This wasn’t the first time Majid had felt so helpless: he was only eighteen but already weary from what seemed like an eternity on the run from events beyond his control. And he was so tired of running. Life was not meant to be this way. Majid’s father had prepared him for business dinners and charitable endeavours, not for a flight across continents in search of peace and security.

Majid had been one of Nigeria’s luckier sons, born to an industrious family which had managed to navigate its way out of the poverty and corruption which infected so many lives there. His grandfather was one of the first police officers in independent Nigeria, and his father practised medicine before turning his hand to business and ascending the corporate ranks to become a management executive at the Nigerian National Petroleum Company.

During Majid’s childhood, there was not much family around – his mother fell ill and died when he was four years old. An old passport photograph was all he had to remember her by, and other relatives had drifted away. But he felt no great emptiness in his life. He had his father, a kind and generous man who paid the school fees for the poorer children in their neighbourhood and insisted on supporting the underdog teams whenever he and Majid watched football. Majid preferred the relatively sure bet of being a Manchester United fan and used to tease his father for his soft heart. But he was stricter when it came to his son’s education: first it was home schooling, then a private academy with extra English classes, before enrollment in a management studies course.

As an only child, Majid had the run of their mansion set in generous grounds in the city of Jos in Northern Nigeria. There was a housekeeper, a driver and a cook, and he had plenty of friends from the local football team. Although occasionally teased for his height – he bore the nickname ‘Smallie’ with equal measures of affection and annoyance – he played with a determination and agility that belied his short stature. And he was growing into a good-looking young man with a smile that quickly spread to his eyes and lit up his face, with just a glint of good-natured mischief. Most of all it exuded kindness, and only time would tell whether he was cut out for the ruthless world of Nigerian business towards which his father was steering him.

In the end Majid’s wiles and athleticism proved more useful than any education.

In 2009, his steady path towards a comfortable life and lucrative career came to an abrupt halt. Near the end of the previous year, sectarian violence had erupted in Plateau State. Since Nigeria had achieved independence, religious clashes had come and gone with the inevitability of the seasons, with Jos sitting uncomfortably on the divide between the Christian south and the Muslim north. But this conflict was particularly brutal, with hundreds of people killed in Jos as gangs went from house to house, Christians attacking Muslims and Muslims attacking Christians with equal ferocity. Mosques, churches and homes were razed, as politicians from both sides fanned the flames.

At first Majid felt no fear. When you lived with your hero, what was there to be frightened of? He was fifteen and his father still towered over his life, although he was no longer the agile man who could match his son’s prowess on the football field. Majid’s father was 65 and had retired from the National Petroleum Company, deciding it was time to start a more low-key wholesale business and devote his dwindling energies to philanthropy.

When a Christian mob turned up at the family compound on 9 January 2009, there was little he could do to defend his son.

It was early morning when Majid’s father heard a noise in front of the house and went out just in time to see a man scale the fence and open the gate to a gang of young men high on hatred and violence. The spacious grounds gave him a little time to grab Majid and race him towards the rear of the house where he kept his chickens. He only had a few minutes to think, and hoisted Majid onto the chicken coop, from where he could climb up into the coil of razor wire that topped their perimeter fence.

When the men burst in behind him he realized he had no time to escape himself, but he had done everything he could to save his child.

‘Go!’ was his last word for his son.

But Majid couldn’t: he was frozen with fear on the top of the fence, his legs tangled and bleeding in the wire and his gaze fixated on his father as the axe hit the point where his arm met his shoulder. At first Majid was surprised by the lack of blood. Even as a second blow fell and his father crumpled, it all seemed so clean. Then the axe came down again and split his skull, finally opening up a torrent of red. Still Majid sat on the fence and watched, as if he were seeing it all through the filter of a dream. He watched silently as the life flowed out of the only family he had ever really known.

Finally the mob finished its frenzy and turned to the boy on the fence. One man picked up an iron weight and flung it high to try and dislodge him. Majid kicked his legs free and jumped down on the other side.

At that moment he started running, his life now suddenly set on a different course. First he ran away from the mob’s screams. Then he ran through the forests, finding himself alongside other men, women and children who had watched similar evils befall their homes and their family. He continued running through the region, seeing houses aflame and bodies in the road. He stayed on foot, eventually running out of the state entirely. He avoided large urban areas and trekked and hitched rides through the jungle, sleeping rough and eating whatever he could scavenge.

Nowhere felt safe any more, so he kept running.

Not once did he stop to ask himself where he was going or what he was doing. The only motive propelling him on was a deep survival instinct, a drive to make it alive from one day to the next, dimly aware that a hardness was forming within him as he ran from his country.

I am scared of no one. I have no fears, nothing, because of what I have seen.

An anger was also welling inside him. A cycle of revenge and old hatreds had robbed him of his father, and he was afraid that if he stayed in Nigeria he too would end up sucked into a life that would leech any remaining humanity out of him. So he ran to escape the desire to avenge his father and perpetuate the sectarian bloodshed.

If I stay in Nigeria, having seen what I saw, will I be a good person? he asked himself. I don’t think so. I will have this anger. I will just be waiting for the slightest opportunity to kill.

Finally he crossed the border north into Niger, a vast desert nation and smugglers’ paradise at the heart of the African continent. There, hanging out penniless in markets and bus stations among other itinerant souls, he heard about the life of plenty that could be his in oil-rich Libya. The streets may not exactly be paved with gold, but they said you could fill the tank of your car with petrol for less than ten dollars, and that was enough for Majid.

* * *

Twice he had trusted in people’s kindness, and twice he had been betrayed.

In the lawless border towns of southern Niger, you could get anything you wanted for the right price: guns, drugs, women. The thriving smuggling trades were run by nomadic Saharan tribes with a history of moving to wherever they could find the best resources. In the past those resources were water and arable land, but as nations in Europe and North Africa introduced more visa restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s, the most lucrative resource was the constant stream of human beings driven towards richer, safer nations. With their knowledge of the punishing desert climate and a history of navigating its farthest reaches, smuggling people across the Sahara was a natural vocation for the nomads.

When fifteen-year-old Majid turned up in sand-blasted Agadez – a caravan city carved from the desert by the ancient salt traders and now epicentre of the new business of hopes and dreams – he felt utterly lost and alone. He was grateful for the kindness when a local man approached and offered him food and assistance, not questioning his motives even when the man told him how to sneak aboard a smuggling truck which was heading to Libya.

‘Don’t worry – when other people are getting on the truck, just do it,’ the man said.

Majid followed his advice, and mingled in with those who had paid for their clandestine passage north. They clambered on board the light goods vehicle with their bundles of belongings, the men hanging over the sides as the women and children settled down on top for the long drive.

It was just one cold and cramped night on the desert tracks before the fugitive passenger was discovered. When the smugglers did their morning headcount, they headed straight for the skinny boy shivering in a T-shirt and filthy jeans. They didn’t even bother beating Majid or trying to extort money out of him. He clearly had nothing to give them. However, after threatening to leave him to die in the desert, they became oddly accommodating.

‘OK,’ the Chadian driver said with a sudden change of heart, ‘come on, get in – whenever we stop, if you need food, just let me know’.

For the rest of the winding two-week journey north, Majid happily took him up on his offer and thought how lucky he was for this small act of compassion. He failed to realize that he had become nothing more than a commodity to be traded and battered for the best deal. The smugglers had seen it all before, and had their own plans for the poorest of the poor who turned up in Agadez desperate to head north but unable to pay their way. Their agents prowled the bus stations for the most vulnerable, encouraging them to smuggle on board vessels and tipping off the driver about their illicit cargo. Everyone got a cut until they arrived at their final, dismal destination.

For Majid, that was a desert border post manned by a ragtag bunch of Libyan security forces and tribal militia. The mask of friendship fell from the Chadian driver’s face as he shoved the boy out and into the hands of a kidnapping gang, who bundled him onto the floor in the back of a pick-up.

Artistas pintam mural com os rostos de atletas refugiados

Mural of the athletes of the refugee team at the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro. Via Wikimedia.

The drive seemed short compared with his journey over the desert. Majid spent a couple of hours crouched beneath the seats trying to make sense of his situation. Had the kind man in Agadez really been working with the smugglers? What fresh indignity lay in store for him when the truck stopped? As he climbed down from the pick-up, he looked around in despair. His new home was an old farmhouse crumbling to dirt, but the locks on the doors were sturdy and the dozens of people cowering on the floor had clearly been there for some time.

Majid was held in the acrid heat for days, visited once in the morning and once in the evening by a man bearing bread and water. Each time he would slap the sides of Majid’s head and demand that he call his relatives for money. Each time Majid would tell him the truth.

‘I have no family.’

Like the other hostages, he either had to find someone who would pay for his freedom, or work off his debt. It took a week for Majid’s captors to realize there was no one to extort, so they found a job for him: tending camels at a sprawling desert farm, where the landowner had few kind words for his new charge. Majid’s delicate hands and slight frame were unsuited to manual labour, and the exasperated farmer soon gave up.

‘You’re an idiot, you have no idea how to feed a camel!’ he shouted at him one morning before taking him back to the main house.

‘He’s just a child, he is so little,’ the farmer told his wife, asking her to put him to use as a houseboy.

And so Majid found himself trapped in a life of domestic servitude with nothing for his efforts beyond crumbs of bread and water. For a month he was forced to get up at dawn to scrub the floors, wash the dishes, clean the toilets and perform whatever task the mistress of the house dreamt up. She was not cruel exactly, but she treated Majid as worthy of nothing but a few orders barked in broken English.

With each day that passed, a little more of the humanity Majid had been desperately trying to preserve ebbed away. But his ingenuity was undiminished, and he dedicated his energy to forming a new plan to escape. One morning his captor jotted down a list of a few items and sent Majid to the market. He didn’t flee straight away, but formed a mental map of the town. The next time he was sent to the market, he vowed to make his escape. Desperate for help, he ran up to every black face he could see on the street and tried to explain his situation. But the words tumbled out in English, and most of the French- and Arabic-speaking men shrugged their shoulders and turned away.

Then Majid caught sight of an older man watching from the shade of a street café. To Majid’s surprise the stranger started addressing him in the local language of Plateau State.

‘Calm down,’ he told Majid. ‘You can’t be on the streets – the Libyans know each other and it will be easy for them to locate you.’

The man told him he would be safer at his house. Majid wanted to resist, wary of the older man’s intentions. Twice he had trusted in people’s kindness, and twice he had been betrayed. Perhaps the apparent Good Samaritan knew of Majid’s father and was aware that the family once had money. But Majid had little choice: all he had in his pocket was a handful of notes for the weekly shop.

His trust in the stranger paid off: for six months the man kept him hidden at home, providing him with clothes and food and trying to engineer a way to get his new young charge to Tripoli, where he had a brother who could help him settle and find work. Eventually he heard that a friend was stopping by en route to the capital and asked him to take Majid with him. That final leg of his journey to Tripoli was a comfortable one. Majid didn’t have to hide among a crowd or crouch on the floor of a car: the friend was a Libyan police officer who didn’t think twice about ferrying an illegal migrant across the country to fill one of the many jobs going in the capital.

* * *

As the revolution gathered pace, Majid was working as a stock-taker in a supermarket.

Since the 1970s Libya had been something of a promised land for people from the poorer African nations. In many countries south of the Sahara, a young man might expect to earn around a hundred dollars a month during his lifetime before dying in his fifties with nothing to hand down to his children except unrealized dreams of a better life. Libya, by contrast, was booming. The oil finds and Gaddafi’s ambitious social development projects meant there was more work than the nation’s six million citizens could handle, and cheap labour flooded in.

Exactly how Gaddafi dealt with this labour deficit over the years depended on which geographical pole he was gravitating towards.

At first the workers came from North Africa and the Middle East, as Gaddafi tried to position himself as a strongman of Arab nationalism. But when fellow Arab leaders refused to back him in the face of a UN arms embargo in 1992, a wounded Gaddafi had to look elsewhere to realize his geopolitical ambitions. That marked the start of his pan-Africanism policy, with the Libyan ruler touting himself as a saviour for an entire continent. While his visions of a single African currency, one army for the continent and a pan-Africa passport failed to make any headway, he did open up his borders to sub-Saharan Africans who wanted to live and work in Libya. Hundreds of thousands took up this opportunity, and even when he tilted back towards Europe in the 2000s and agreed to requests for more border controls, the workers kept coming – they just were not all there legally. By 2011, there were estimated to be 600,000 legal migrants in the country and between 750,000 and 1.2 million people working there without official paperwork.


Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. September 2015. Via Wikimedia.

At first, Majid was one of the latter. But now, finally settled in Tripoli, he was beginning to feel at home. By mid-2011, as the revolution gathered pace in the east of Libya, Majid was working as a stock-taker in a supermarket, earning decent money and living almost rent free. His landlord was an army major, and often they would share a meal, and maybe a joint, and talk politics into the small hours of the morning.

The major had a very one-sided view of Libyan history, but Majid listened intently.

Libya used to be an impoverished desert backwater where people lived in mud huts, his landlord told him, and then Colonel Gaddafi staged a coup in 1969 and built a nation which shared the oil wealth and brought prosperity to all. The major and Majid did not talk about the purges of hundreds of students, academics, journalists and other ‘enemies of the revolution’ that happened as Gaddafi had set about building his paradise in the desert in the 1970s. Nor about the dozens who were hanged and mutilated on public television, a lesson to anyone unconvinced by his power grab. These disappearances and deaths carried on well into the 1980s and 1990s, with the Libyan regime also sponsoring terror abroad as Gaddafi fashioned himself as an anti-colonial pariah of the Western world. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, may eventually have been able to bring Gaddafi in from the cold during their rapprochement in a Bedouin tent in 2003, but new business and trade ties did not mean that Gaddafi was a reformed man. Old habits die hard, and when unrest started simmering again in the eastern provinces during the Arab Spring, the Libyan strongman didn’t think too long before ordering his troops to open fire on unarmed protesters.

He was also quick to remind his former Western partners that the proximity of Libya to Europe may not bode well for the future.

‘If you threaten [Libya], if you seek to destabilize us, there will be chaos, Bin Laden, armed factions,’ he warned as the support grew for a military campaign against him. ‘You will have immigration, thousands of people will invade Europe from Libya. And there will no longer be anyone to stop them.’

With a thousand miles of Mediterranean coastline and around two million migrants living in Libya at the start of the war, Gaddafi had plenty of human capital to bargain with.

* * *

He made the EU an offer that sounded more like a threat: give him $5 billion a year or he would flood the continent with foreigners

For decades, Gaddafi’s regime had been profiting from people’s desire to reach Europe. With the Italian island of Lampedusa less than 200 miles away, a steady trickle of people had launched off Libya’s beaches on dilapidated vessels, willing to risk their lives on the gamble of reaching richer, safer lands. Most were young men heading to Europe to work; others were seeking sanctuary from conflicts, droughts and famines. Gaddafi saw only opportunity in their desperation. No criminal enterprise could operate in Libya without the dictator sharing in the loot, and people smuggling was no different. The boats left for Europe with the security forces either turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes, or actively facilitating the voyages.

Migration was just another political tool for the dictator, and the extent to which Gaddafi could exploit this bargaining chip became clear when the economic crisis took hold in Europe. Rising unemployment and stretched government budgets meant that the few thousand people arriving on EU shores in boats from North Africa became easy targets for politicians looking for someone else to blame. In 2009, Italy’s President Silvio Berlusconi came up with a solution: they would intercept boats in Italian territorial waters and force them back to Libya, where his old friend Gaddafi could take care of them.

Italy had retained strong economic ties with its former colony. Libya was its largest supplier of oil, while the Libyan government also held stakes in everything from Unicredit, Italy’s largest bank, to the Juventus football club. Berlusconi and Gaddafi had a close personal friendship. A persistent rumour in Italy credits Gaddafi with coming up with the phrase ‘bunga bunga’ to describe a harem of women – a phrase now universal shorthand for the sex parties which led to Berlusconi’s downfall. So when Italy offered to invest another €5 billion in Libya, Gaddafi was happy to take the boat people off Berlusconi’s hands. People had spent days at sea with no food and water making the crossing from Libya to Lampedusa, only to be beaten with clubs and cattle prods as Italian sailors forced them back onto Libyan vessels and turned them round. The Italians sent at least 1,000 people back to Libya – an effective police state with little regard for human rights – with no effort made to assess who was on board the boats or whether anyone was a legitimate asylum seeker in need of protection from war or persecution. No one really knew what happened when the men, women and children returned. Libya is not party to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention which guarantees the rights of people needing international protection, and conditions in Libyan detention centres were appalling. Many people never even ended up in detention, but were transported to Libya’s inhospitable southern borders and dumped in the desert.

Whatever the morality of the deal, it proved effective for Rome. Clandestine arrivals by sea fell from 10,236 in 2009 to 1,662 a year later. But while the Italian policy may have stuck a finger in the dam, it did nothing to address the underlying causes or halt the overall flow of people entering Europe illicitly. They just found another route, with an increase in arrivals along the Greek border in that period. The Italian policy was also in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits returning people to a country where they may face degrading and inhuman treatment. Berlusconi was eventually forced to abandon his push-backs policy in 2010 when the European Court of Human Rights started legal proceedings. Gaddafi then came back to the EU with a new plan: for the right sum, he could stop the people ever leaving Libyan soil in the first place. In summer 2010 he made the EU an offer that sounded more like a threat: give him $5 billion a year or he would flood the continent with foreigners.


Refugee boat approached by Spanish coast guard vessel. Via Wikimedia.

‘Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in,’ he warned during a visit to Rome, where he did not shy away from playing on old European racial and religious prejudice. ‘We don’t know what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans. We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.’

European leaders were sufficiently spooked to come up with a deal. While publicly there was shock at the audacity of the offer, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström and the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle visited Tripoli in early October 2010. What emerged was a pledge to pay Gaddafi €60 million over three years for ‘economic development’. During the same trip they came up with a deal to ‘develop our co-operation on migration-related issues’. This was despite Libya’s dismal human rights records and evidence compiled by human rights groups that Gaddafi’s preferred method for dealing with unwanted migrants and refugees was to truck them out to the remote Saharan border outposts and leave them to die.

The migration problem was not solved. People would still flee war, famine, poverty and persecution. They were now just dying somewhere else, out of Europe’s sight.

* * *

You just keep running until you find a safe place, but a safe place does not exist.

For Majid, Libya had always been a place to settle and make a life for himself, rather than a staging post on the way to Europe. He had no interest in risking his life packed in a decommissioned fishing vessel like a battery hen simply to reach a continent which didn’t want him anyway. He had inherited an interest in international politics from his father, and read enough news to know that Europe was not the golden land of opportunity many people seemed to think it was.

Life in Libya was not perfect. Majid felt a wall growing around him, isolating him from everyone else. He told the few friends he had that he wasn’t scared of anything, but in reality he was scared of the night. When darkness fell visions of his father’s death would haunt him as he tried to sleep, the anger would return, and he felt like he was losing himself again. How could he ever be happy when he had lost the most important person in his life? But he had a job, some friends, a comfortable home – at least that was something.

Living a good life, peacefully, maybe I can be free.

The Nigerian teenager had clung on to the belief that Libya offered him the best chance of a bright future right up until the morning of 12 August, when six soldiers knocked on his door.

In the end it was Gaddafi’s forces who got to Majid first. He should have known better than to stay at home. While the major who owned their house may have been amiable over a few spliffs during the good times, his allegiances were to his colonel and he didn’t hesitate to act on Gaddafi’s order to round up the foreign workers. The soldiers knew exactly where to find Majid and Ali. When the knock on the door came, the two young Nigerians didn’t even have time to exchange words of surprise, let alone gather their belongings or their savings before they were marched at gunpoint into a waiting truck. When Majid tried to resist, he was told he had one other choice.

‘You can stay and fight for Gaddafi.’

So he reluctantly climbed aboard the truck bound for the coast.

Gaddafi’s spiteful expulsion of thousands of foreign workers marked the start of the mass exodus from the Libyan coastline which would over the coming years test the very principles at the heart of the European Union. Within a few months, Colonel Gaddafi would be dead. Rival rebel groups would start battling for power as Libya sank into a prolonged and chaotic civil war. The people smugglers would thrive like never before, with no functioning law enforcement to stop them. The countries which had helped oust Gaddafi would shrink from view. Scarred by military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, they would decide that the messy task of nation-building was best left to the victors, no matter that it wasn’t even clear yet who they were.

Majid was not thinking about any of that yet. As the truck rumbled towards the Mediterranean, a sad sense of resignation washed over him as he considered his short, troubled life.

From the day of my father’s death, I have been running and searching for some kind of peace, but this is so hard to find, he thought. You just keep running until you find a safe place, but a safe place does not exist.

* * *

Copyright © 2016 by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. This excerpt originally appeared in Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

from Longreads Blog

The ‘Anti-Helicopter Parent’ Is Just as Insufferable as the Helicopter Parent

If you read enough #longreads about parenting in The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, and Slate, then eventually you will discover you are an awful parent. But there is nothing so satisfying for us awful parents as reading stories about parents who are more insufferable than we are. So it is with great pride I share this piece by Melanie Thernstrom, who profiles a “free-range” parent who lets his children play on the roof of their house and then rubs it in the face of his neighbors – thereby forcing the other parents to become imagination-quashing killjoys, AKA people who try to keep their kids from potentially breaking their necks. (But hey, my neighbor says the odds are low, and life-endangering activities are mother nature’s way of thinning the herd! I guess it’s fine!)

He also tosses out some awful asides like blaming mothers for hampering their sons’ biological instincts: “In Mike’s worldview, boys today (his focus is on boys) are being deprived of masculine experiences by overprotective moms, who are allowed to dominate passive dads.”

This family lives in Silicon Valley, so naturally they’ve branded their movement, labeling their house a Playborhood™. It’s a place where children are free to jump around on trampolines and, I guess, based on these photos, write all over the furniture?

There may be a valid point somewhere that our children are overprogrammed and that we all worry too much. But by trying to Make Childhood Great Again, this parent misses a critical point about why kids are more scheduled with activities than we were growing up: “Free play” is a privilege – kids get scheduled into activities because they are a critical form of childcare for working families.

Community support also plays a part: When I was growing up, our elementary school had afterschool sports and other activities, but funding has been cut for many of these programs, so parents must pay for them on their own, and then worry about chauffeuring their children around town to access these same programs.

The parent in this latest piece is a Libertarian, but today’s overprogrammed children are in fact already living in a libertarian dystopia – a place where the community decides other people’s kids aren’t their concern and declines to properly fund public education, where people want a goodie bag for putting up with your kids, where school ends at 3 pm but your workday ends at 6 pm, and where people blame you because your kids might be more interested in playing Minecraft than re-enacting “Lord of the Flies” on the neighbor’s roof.

from Longreads Blog

Making Sense of Life In the Death Zone

There’s an image that’s been seared into my mind for a few years now. It’s the face of a man I barely knew but considered a friend nonetheless. I can still see him in the night when I close my eyes. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t scream. He just looks at me from beneath a layer of frost-covered flesh. When he visits me, I don’t sleep. He remains as I left him, seated near the top of the world, trapped in the Death Zone.

At The Walrus, read an excerpt from The Escapist: Cheating Death on the World’s Highest Mountain, by Gabriel Filippi with Brett Popplewell.

Read the story

from Longreads Blog

Present-Day Witchcraft: Seven Stories About Witches

I’m in no way immune to the lure of the witchy, and honestly, I don’t want to resist. I bought a small piece of sunstone from my local metaphysical shop, because I read that sunstone encourages mental clarity.

When I arrived at the shop, I awkwardly browsed until I got up the courage to ask the saleswoman how to choose a crystal. She said to hold each stone and see which felt right—felt special. I was skeptical, but I swear the stone I ended up purchasing buzzed with warmth when I held it in my hand. It was inexpensive and pretty, and I think it’s on a bookshelf somewhere, now.

I wore a cheap hematite ring, too, until it cracked in half while I was tapping my glands during doula class, which sent me into a temporary existential tailspin: Should I get a new one? Was it just a cheap piece of jewelry? Was it a sign that doula work would disrupt my stability? Did I not need the ring anymore?

I can’t put it better than Autostraddle’s Trans Editor (and Bruja femme) Mey Rude, who wrote, “We’ve said it before (and so have other people), but we’re definitely living in an age of the Resurgence of the Witch. This feels especially true for queer women. We’re embracing our family traditions and our cultural heritage. We’re learning about herbology and tarot cards and candle magic. We’re dressing like extras from Wicked or The Craft. We’re forming sisterhoods and cultivating auras.”

1. “Why We Are Witches: An A-Camp Roundtable.” (Mey Rude and Autostraddle Staff, Autostraddle, June 2015)

Mey, Laura, Ali, Beth and Cecelia discuss building altars, using Tarot cards, learning their family histories, reclaiming religious rituals and so much more!

2.  “A Complicated Faith: Alex Mar & Leslie Jamison Discuss Witches of America, Spirituality & Writing Nonfiction.” (Alex Mar and Leslie Jamison, Electric Literature, December 2015)

Alex Mar’s book, Witches of America, kickstarted my interest in the neo-pagan movement in the United States. Here, Mar and Leslie Jamison (author of The Empathy Exams)discuss the essayist as player in her own story and capturing the waxing and waning of spirituality in real time.

3. “The Lord’s Supper.” (Kristen Arnett, Catapult, October 2016)

A lyrical essay about queerness, Ouija boards, and our Christ-haunted past.

4. “A Teen Witch’s Guide to Staying Alive.” (Alice Bolin, Broadly, October 2015)

Alice Bolin explores the intersection of the teen witch vibes espoused by Silver RavenWolf, Shirley Jackson and the ’90s.

5.  “24 Hours in Witch Country.” (Jessica Pan, The Toast, December 2013)

I learned the basics of the Salem witch trials in school, but nothing about the witch hunts in Pendle Hill (near Lancashire, in England) that predated Salem by more than half a century. Turns out King James VI was paranoid about the existence of witches in his realm and convinced their hexes would lead to his demise, and he proselytized about their dangerous powers to all lower-ranking government officials. Jessica Pan’s essay is part history lesson, part travelogue and completely wonderful. (SPOOKY TRIVIA FACT: The Pendle witches were tried on August 18, my birthday.)

6. “Who Is It That Afflicts You?” (Rachel Kincaid, Autostraddle, October 2015)

Rachel Kincaid considers the power dynamics involved in the Salem witch trials. I appreciated the following prescient point, with its stark implications demonstrated our contemporary political atmosphere:

But what rings most dangerously prophetic about Salem is the ideology that suggests imagining the most helpless and vulnerable in our communities as the most powerful, in a kind of 1984-esque doublethink that provides a rationale for causing as much harm as one wishes to that group. The kind of doublethink that would allow Samuel Parris, for instance, to believe that Tituba could be imbued with all the powers of supernatural evil and hold the life of his niece and many others in her hand, while at the same time believing that she was literally his property and could not even lay claim to the powers of full personhood.

7. “How Magic Helps Me Live with Pain and Trauma.” (Maranda Elizabeth, The Establishment, April 2016)

I found this essay via Mey Rude’s amazing column, Witch Hunt, and I’m so glad I did. Maranda Elizabeth shares their powerful experiences of integrating witchcraft into their experiences of chronic illness:

My cane becomes a part of my rituals, an ongoing presence, a wand and a sword all at once. It is a sword because I am angry about injustice and inaccessibility; it is a wand because I care about healing and liberation. Now it is adorned with stickers of the full moon, and the Moon card from a tarot deck: the dog, the wolf, and the crayfish crawling at the edge of the sea, carrying messages only I can hear. My cane emanates a magical energy, holding onto me as I hold onto it. My cane is my fifth limb. We have conversations. We carry each other.

from Longreads Blog

A Stranger in the World: The Memoir of a Musician on Tour

Franz Nicolay | The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar | July 2016 | 25 minutes (6,916 words)

Below is an excerpt from The Humorless Ladies of Border Control, by Franz Nicolay, the keyboardist in The Hold Steady. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

You don’t travel for comfort; you travel to justify the daily discomfort, … the nagging doubt, sadness, weariness, the sense of being a stranger in a world.

Our roommate on the sleeper train from L’viv to Kyiv was a stocky, ham-fisted forty-five-year-old veterinarian. A friend of his, he told us, had a visa to America in the 1980s, but he got caught stealing from the grain quota and now can’t go to America ever. He had conspiracy theories and opinions he was eager to share: they didn’t kill bin Laden, it could have been “any tall guy with a beard”—for that matter, I, Franz, look a little like bin Laden, don’t I? And we haven’t seen that much of Michelle Obama recently, have we? If there’s not a trumpet, it’s not jazz. Vitamin C doesn’t work, all you need is raspberry tea with lemon and the love of a good woman. Everyone’s been there— first beer, first guitar, first girl.

He stripped down to what would once have been called his BVDs, nearly obscured by his hairless belly, and snored all night. When we awoke, he was gone, replaced by an older man with a lined face and Clint Eastwood stolidity. “He has the saddest face I’ve ever seen,” Maria said. He slept first, facedown and fully clothed; then, when I returned from the bathroom, he was sitting upright, bag beside him, staring out the window. He never said a word.

I was a musician then, often traveling alone, sometimes with my new wife, Maria. I hadn’t always traveled alone: for years I had been a member of the kind of bands who traveled in marauding, roving packs, like “Kerouac and Genghis Khan,” as the songwriter Loudon Wainwright once put it. First there was the nine-piece circus-punk orchestra World / Inferno Friendship Society, a monument to pyrrhic, self-defeating romanticism and preemptive nostalgia that still haunts me like a family lost in a war. But I had ambitions, and World / Inferno had “underground phenomenon” baked into the concept. So I jumped to a rising neo–classic rock band called the Hold Steady, which became, for a few years, one of the biggest bands in what is, for lack of a term of representation rather than marketing, called “indie rock.” We opened for the Rolling Stones and played the big festivals and bigger television shows. Our victory-lap touring constituted an almost audible sigh of relief that we’d finally arrived— we’d never have to work a day job again.

But I couldn’t, it turned out, take “yes” for an answer, and it seemed to me that I was still too young to settle into that comfortable chair. Amid the usual dull stew of misaligned personalities and creative sensibilities, I shrugged off (or threw aside) this rare sinecure for a keyboardist in a rock band. Compare it to the gamble of the ambitious young lawyer or financier who knows he’ll never make partner at the firm. When you’re on the train, one friend said, and you realize it’s not going where you wanted to go, you have no choice but to jump off. You’ll get bumped and bruised, and you don’t know where you’ll stop rolling, but you do know the train’s not swerving from its track.

I enjoyed a brief palate cleanser in Against Me!, who shared the dual title of most influential punk band of their generation and most controversial soap opera of their scene. It was a brief interregnum. I wanted to test myself as an entertainer, without the crutch of volume. I wanted to see if I could walk into a room full of strangers, who might not even speak my language, and keep them, at bare minimum, from walking out of the room. I aspired to the tradesman’s charisma and practical craft of the old vaudevillian, the one who may not be the best dancer or singer but knows a few jokes, can do some soft-shoe, whatever it takes to get over that night.

There is a great deal of similarity between touring life and military life: small groups of men (and it is still, almost always, men) of disparate backgrounds, bonded by close quarters, foreign places, and meager rations, engaged in activities of dubious purpose but governed by vague and powerful ideals— patriotism, punk rock, machismo. The rules are the same: Do your job. Pack light. Defend your gang, don’t get off the boat, beware of strangers. Sleep stacked three-deep in bus bunks like submariners or curled in hard foxhole corners. Release your tensions in promiscuity, alcoholism, and violence. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your feet dry. Above all, don’t complain.

And, like army men, when we finish our tours of duty, even if we remain in the touring world, we lose our taste for adventure: we return, like World War II veterans creating the Eisenhower suburbs, and quickly domesticate. We pair off, leave the cities for places like the Hudson Valley, Northern California, or Oxford, Mississippi, places within driving distance of an airport and a music scene but far from chance encounters with tour acquaintances. We drink quietly and alone, avoid loud bars and rock shows as places of entertainment and possibility. We tell and retell, buff and hone, our debauched and criminal war stories with those who were there when we see them, in a mutual, fictionalizing reassurance that what we did had some meaning, that we fought for the right side and maybe even won a small skirmish here and there. To outsiders, we no longer brag: we’re no longer sure we were noble.

Now I lived like a pack mule, a dumb and anonymous brute whose only purpose was to carry weight from one place to another. Accordion in a backpack on my shoulders; a day bag slung from my neck over my chest; a banjo in my left hand, my right dragging a suitcase full of CDs, vinyl records, and T-shirts with my name on them. From Brooklyn by subway to Manhattan, by train to Newark, by air to Frankfurt or Kraków or London, by cab to some club or another, dragging bumping bags across cobblestones to a kebab-and-pizza storefront to wait out a winter downpour. Often it was cold—I should have brought my overcoat, I would think, but that would have meant too much excess weight and bulk. You don’t travel for comfort; you travel to justify the daily discomfort, what in the last century would have been called existential neurosis. It’s a kind of therapy: the nagging doubt, sadness, weariness, the sense of being a stranger in a world viewed at an oblique angle suddenly, miraculously, all has a reason— you’ve been traveling. It’s not your past, your guilt, your family. It’s just the road: you are tired and sore, you are a stranger.

* * *

Be inconspicuous all day, except for the thirty minutes onstage, when you must be the most conspicuous thing in the room.

I lived like a pack mule, but I had to exude the appearance of ease and confidence. I packed carefully. I traveled alone out of thrift. The shows were rarely large, but I never lost money. It was a point of pride but also a necessity and a justification. I lived like a wealthy man, though I spent as little as possible; I had little to spend. I sometimes traveled with musicians whom hundreds of people paid to see and who were provided with bread, cheese, beer, fruit, hot food, orange juice. I scavenged like a beggar or a half-forgotten houseguest. I nibbled trail mix by the handful, like a rodent. I crushed single-serving bottles of water in my fist, as if my thirst might expose me if it, itself, was exposed.

I chipped my front tooth on the rubber cork of a bottle of wine. I had pushed it in too deeply, and taken it in my teeth and twisted the bottle to squeak it loose. A true cork might have torn or bruised, but the stubborn rubber ripped the tip of the tooth before popping free. Just a flake, a grain of sand on a pristine bedsheet, but, like the princess, my tongue grew restless in its sleep, probing, rubbing, aware.

Be inconspicuous all day, I learned, except for the thirty minutes onstage, when you must be the most conspicuous thing in the room. Your livelihood depends on being unable to ignore. Artistry has nothing to do with it: anyone can ignore a good song, but few can ignore someone singing even a terrible one in their face. They want to be entertained, but they don’t want it actively; you must both convince them of their need and fulfill it. You are the bottle and the wine, the vessel and the salve; they are the stubborn cork to which you put your jaw, in a grin that is both welcome and a challenge, like strange dogs meeting in an alley. Whose will is stronger? Is your wheedle wilier than their indifference? Can you bully or seduce them or turn their curiosity into interest, and then to attention? And for what? The restless tongue probes the tooth.

I marked my aging by renunciations: first I traveled with a band of nine, then with five, then with none. I sloughed off concentric circles of friends: my college friends and then my band friends stopped noticing I was away and filled my empty chair with others. Then instead of friends I had passing acquaintances with fake names whom I saw once a year when I came back through their town, if I ever saw them again. Time passed, and my body began to set its own contracting boundaries: first I couldn’t sleep on floors anymore, then I couldn’t sleep on couches, finally I couldn’t sleep in shared rooms.

But that changed again, and I could too: I married Maria, and she joined me in this world of transience and assumed names. Two years later, we were three months into a six-month tour, playing together on our way from Poland to Ukraine. The previous months had included six weeks around the United States, followed by a counterclockwise spiral through Central and Eastern Europe. It was time, then, to abandon the car for the train and slim down for Russia and Asia, mailing or abandoning anything we couldn’t carry. We repacked our remaining things in the parking lot of a rest stop: one acoustic guitar in a hard case, one banjo in a soft case, one accordion in a backpack case. Six audio cables, one tuning pedal. One hiking backpack filled with day clothes— for me, one pair of pants, one shirt, three undershirts, six pairs of socks, six pairs of boxer briefs. I had learned the army style of folding one’s clothes, first in halves and then rolled into themselves, tight and elastic like hot dogs or police batons. One rolling suitcase, mostly merchandise: one dozen large white T-shirts, one dozen each black and white mediums, one dozen large black, one dozen small white; two ladies’ tank tops; two dozen LPs, fifteen vinyl EPs; some stray one-inch pins. Two boxes of CDs met us in Kraków; we had sold enough to fit more in the suitcase and hoped we could restock before we crossed into Russia. Only one stage suit—two would be better, but space and airline baggage charges didn’t permit the luxury. No room for regular shoes, so I wore my dress shoes onstage and off: the uniform comes first.

We returned our rental car without incident. We changed forints, crowns, and euros into złoty and back into euros, then tried to spend the change on gewgaws and water bottles. “Every traveler experiences,” says Gogol in Dead Souls, “when scraps of paper, pieces of string, and such rubbish is all that remains strewn on the floor, when he no longer belongs to a place and yet hasn’t regained the road either.” We had to downshift from libertarian car touring, in which we could control our route, stop for lunch, and air-dry our dirty laundry across the backseat, but also were responsible for our pace and parking and gas and the logistics of the journey, to the contained social-democratic leisure of train travel, for which you have to pack tight and efficient and mobile, but once you’re on board and give yourself over to a power greater than yourself, your time is your own. On travel days you’re in an Internet-free bubble with a window and a bed and nothing to do but read, nap, snack, and think.

From Poland into Ukraine we rode a new generation of sleeper trains, an upgrade from the clunky metal midcentury model: molded plastic and triple-decker bunks with private sinks and en-suite bathrooms that don’t stink of the filth of decades. Our roommate was an elderly and cranky Pole. Who could blame him for his mood as we clattered and tripped and, sweating, hoisted a camping backpack, a suitcase full of merch, a guitar, a banjo, and assorted day bags above our heads and onto the shelf? We finished a half-bottle of Italian frizzante and tried to get a few hours’ sleep before we had to reckon with Ukrainian customs agents. Time to get our story straight: we’re not playing any official gigs. We have some friends with whom maybe we’ll play a few songs. We’re giving away the CDs. We don’t have any concrete plans. Just a couple of slacker Americans.

* * *

Maybe you want to see something more … unconventional?

Three youngsters, two guys and a girl named Larisa, picked us up at the Kyiv station. They had moved from Kharkov and other more provincial centers to the big city and were sharing an apartment in one of the beige Soviet housing projects on the far side of the river. A couple of people had driven their cars down into the shallows and were bathing them with soap and soft sponges. Along the public beaches people sunned themselves. Russians and Ukrainians like to sunbathe vertically: stripped to their Speedos, they stand, hands on hips and arms akimbo, sans headphones or other distractions, dignified, bellies oiled, like little Easter Island statues lined up facing the water.

We showered and changed while our hosts watched rollerblading stunt videos scored to “Gonna Fly Now” and Lil Wayne. The blades had the middle two wheels removed and a reinforced bridge for sliding on railings. Larisa asked if we skated.

“No,” I said. “I used to ski, though— downhill racing.”

“Really? Respect.” She gave me a high five.

We offered them a hard-boiled egg. “We’re vegan,” she said. “But can I have it for the dog?”

I didn’t know dogs liked hard-boiled eggs, and anyway this seemed conceptually inconsistent for a vegan house— but never mind. The dog wolfed down the egg.

“The country is like it’s dying,” said a different Larissa, a rare American of Ukrainian heritage who had repatriated. “I come home tired and depressed and I realize it’s not me, it’s that I was walking all day among people who are tired and depressed and it just rubs off.”

“Why do you stay?” I asked.

“Well—it’s just, like, I live here now. I’ve built a place for myself. And I can’t just leave”—like a tourist can was the implication—“ because, well, I come from an easier country, and good luck to the rest of you.”

“It is not a civilized country” was the judgment of a Pole I’d met a few days before, eating with Maria’s aunt and her posse of aging hipster friends at a Brazilian steakhouse in Łódź. I struck up a conversation with an owl-eyed, mustachioed man who winced when he heard we were bound for Ukraine. He had tried to set up a renewable energy program there. “Everyone warned me that it was corrupt and impossible to do business there, and I never will again. I lost 50,000 euros.” He shook his head. “The people are wonderful— it is just the system is impossible.”

The show was in Malaya Opera, a pink-and-white neoclassical theater that had been a cultural center for transportation workers. It was now a dilapidated hulk with dance studios and old socialist realist murals of Ukrainian peasants along the staircase. We were in the musty basement, where a kid (whose beard almost covered the “24” tattooed on his neck) ran a studio and a rehearsal room, and, apparently, lived: he dragged a twin mattress and pillow out of the show room when we arrived for soundcheck. The show was with local heroes Maloi— who would be flat-capped, anthemic punk stars if they lived in the United States or England— and was packed and sweaty.

The rhythm of train touring is not unlike that of bus tours. You are delivered to the station after the show, at midnight or one, get in your bunk, and let yourself be rocked to sleep by the sway of the car and the white noise of strangers’ snores. You’ll be picked up in the morning by the next town’s promoter, drive to their— or, more often, their parents’ or grandparents’—flat, shower, eat breakfast, nap if necessary, and try to see some of the town.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. In this case, when we rolled into Dnipropetrovs’k around six a.m., there was no one to greet us but a few sad pigeons. We called Vlod, our contact, twice before he answered, obviously still asleep, grunted, and hung up. We settled in at the station cafeteria for what promised to be a wait.

When he arrived, Vlod proved to be tall, slouchy, hungover, and dour. Maria tried some small talk, gesturing around the station and saying, “These buildings are pretty.”

“There is nothing pretty in this town.”

Off to his grandmother’s apartment (his mother also lived there) on the sixth floor of a crumbling housing project, a gray skeletal torso with rotting balcony ribs. Vlod had been a journalism student and worked at a newspaper “singing songs of praise to the rich people and politicians.” Now he was a technical writer, making more money, he said, but without as much fun and travel.

We wanted to go downtown to see the museum, or maybe a fortress. Vlod was unenthused: “Maybe you want to see something more … unconventional? There is a huge abandoned building ten minutes’ walk from here. It is a monument to Soviet stupidity.”

We walked to another disintegrating apartment tower, this one beyond habitation. It had been built on the side of a hill and almost immediately started sliding down into the valley. It was about twenty yards from the elementary school Vlod had attended. When the floors and walls of the building started cracking, the students didn’t worry too much about a collapse: “We were just happy school was canceled.” After the tower was abandoned for good, the money to tear it down never materialized. Eventually the school, which had closed to keep the kids out of the way of the demolition, simply reopened in the shadow of the gap-toothed hulk.

We scrambled over the piles of rubble, clumps of weeds, and blooms of broken bottles, up the urine-scented remains of the stairs to the soggy roof. The whole city was ringed with identical “monuments to Soviet stupidity”—a miles-wide Stonehenge of graffiti-splashed white concrete, separated by the green blooms of trees. Dnipropetrovs’k is, according to the UN, the world’s fastest-shrinking city, forecast to shed 17 percent of its population in the next ten years. Vlod and his friends did “rope jumping” from the top of the ruin—a kind of amateur ziplining in which you just freefall and wind up hanging in the middle of the slack rope like abandoned laundry until your friends haul you back to the roof.


Graffiti in Kharkov, 2010. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Vlod had been to the United States twice on summer work / travel visas. It is common for Ukrainian and Russian teenagers to be given a temporary visa arranged through a U.S. business looking for cheap summer labor. Nearly universal is the complaint that this often means, in practice, working grueling hours at someplace like a Carvel in a rest stop in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. The more resourceful quit and hit the road while the visa is still good.

Vlod was sent first to Connecticut, where he finished his job and then took a Greyhound across the country. “It was the trip of a lifetime,” he said. “I prefer traveling on bus. In Ukraine, on a train the view is always the same—station, factory, trees, station, factory, trees.” When he signed up for a second go-around, though, they sent him to Pennsylvania, where “they treated us like slaves. I said they couldn’t do that. They said I’d be fired, and the next day I was and they put me on a bus to New York and a plane home.”

There was an unusual culture clash at the show, and I wondered how Vlod came to organize it at this particular venue. We usually ended up in dank, graffiti-covered “youth centers,” but this was a spotless white gallery and cultural center, funded by a single rich benefactor. The theater’s director, Olya, was from Kazan’ in Russian Tatarstan but had just returned from a failed marriage in California. The staff were ironic, urban, cosmopolitan. They and Vlod—who usually booked punk and metal at a bar on the other side of town—regarded each other warily, if at all. Sophisticate or no, Olya was rubber-legged drunk at the end of the night. We bunked up in the attic and hit the train station in the morning bound for Kharkov.

* * *

What Proust called ‘peculiar places, railway stations, which do not … constitute a part of the surrounding town but contain the essence of its personality.’

Stations upon stations indeed, as Vlod had complained: some piled with rusted debris, some graffiti-splashed concrete, one home to a dark-green old train car emblazoned with a red star, as if from a Cold War newsreel— what Proust called “peculiar places, railway stations, which do not … constitute a part of the surrounding town but contain the essence of its personality.” Families parked their old Ladas next to the tracks and spread out picnics, the coming and goings of trains enough entertainment for the day. Young men in stonewashed jeans and ponytails, or with shaved heads and black Adidas track pants, watched an endless array of thin, busty blondes in vertiginous patent-leather heels. Next to the tracks wiggled a dual carriageway of bicycle-wheel ruts. A wall of trees shaded a shrubbery moat. Then miles of fields.

Nearly every ex-Hapsburg town in Eastern and Central Europe will tell you they have the biggest clock or bell tower and the biggest central square in Europe. In Ukraine, they will add that they have the biggest remaining statue of Lenin. Kharkov’s claim is the largest square in Europe, depending on whether you count Red Square or something (Kharkov native son Eduard Limonov says in his 1990 book Memoir of a Russian Punk, “ ‘Only Tiananmen Square in Beijing is bigger than our own Dzerzhinsky Square’—Eddie-baby knows that first commandment of Kharkov patriotism well”). Writer and musician Alina Simone wrote of the city, from which her parents had emigrated, “Invariably, the two words people used to describe Kharkov were either industrial or big. Occasionally big and industrial were helpfully combined to yield the illuminating phrase ‘a big industrial city.’ ” I saw many more Soviet remnants in Kharkov than anywhere else I’d been: hammer and sickle facades, shiny red Lenin medallions on sides of buildings, the odd “Glory to Work” mural over a gray housing project. The apartment towers were missing the pastel-wash veil they get in Eastern Europe.

The Kharkov show was abruptly canceled, if in fact there ever was a show. The status reports went from TBA to “open-air picnic” to “I don’t know, it says rain” to “You must have known the show could get canceled.” We couldn’t find our hotel, which was supposed to be near the train station. It was pouring rain. We took shelter under a liquor store awning and asked for directions from a kiosk operator, then a cabdriver, then some young dudes on the sidewalk— no one seemed to be able to agree where the street our hotel was supposed to be on was. We mule-trained up a hill that seemed right only to find a dirt road. This couldn’t be it—the station hotel, within sight of the McDonald’s, on a dirt path? I ran up the hill and back. Sure enough, that was it, and in fact it was a perfectly nice little place with a banya (steam bath) in the basement. After a pilgrimage for Georgian food (it was getting on six, we still hadn’t eaten yet, and I was now sick as the proverbial dog), it was a circuitous walk home past the Constructivist gigantoliths overlooking that second-biggest-square-after-Red-Square and, for good measure, “the second-biggest Lenin.” Lenin gestured in approval of the tents that crowded the square, advertising the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer tournament. The rain had stopped.

We had a message from booking agent Dima: “You have a show tomorrow in Donetsk, no guarantee, but they’ll pay your ticket to Rostov-on-Don.” We stopped at the bus station to see how painful it would be to get to Donetsk by tomorrow. There was a bus at noon, but “they don’t sell that ticket in Ukraine.”

They don’t sell in Ukraine a ticket for a bus … in Ukraine?

No. “Six a.m. or eight a.m.”

Eight a.m. it would have to be, and we hit the banya to sweat out the bad news.

* * *

Dinner for my capitalist friends!

The morning’s cabdriver quoted us a price of fifty, Maria said forty, he hemmed for a minute, and, thinking she was my guide, said in Russian, “How about forty-five? Tell him fifty, and you can keep the rest for yourself.” When he dropped us at the station, a man was loading boxes of live chickens into the storage bins beneath the bus. The fact that there was a space under the bus was actually a pleasant surprise, since it meant we were in a modern bus, not an old Soviet Ikarus, an exhaust-stinking, shock-free diesel monster. We asked to put our bags in the bays. “Not now,” said the driver. “There are cameras on me. You will have to pay extra.” The bus swung around the corner of the building and parked a hundred yards away. We threw the bags underneath and boarded without incident or extra charge.

The bus stopped for a bathroom break in a village (Izyum, meaning “raisin”) about halfway between Kharkov and Donetsk. A statue of a woman in a flowing dress strode confidently into the future. A dog slept in the sun in front of an ice cream cart, whose attendant yelled at me for leaving the freezer door open while I counted my cash. A young boy fingered a Rubik’s Cube faster than I’d ever seen, first with both hands and then with just one. He was the “Tommy” of Rubik’s Cube. Two tall, bullet-headed Georgians with sleepy eyes made gentle fun of the etchings of Georgian tourist attractions printed in their passports. My health had started to crumple under the effects of the short, sleepless nights, and there’s not much worse than having a cold in the dusty summer heat. Primary-color Ladas scattered across the streets like M&M’s.

Halfway through the six-hour sauna of a bus ride, we got another text from Dima: “The Rostov venue”—this was the first show in Russia, supposedly two days hence—“ gave me the wrong date! It’s tomorrow. Oh, by the way, there are no trains to Russia either. Please buy a bus ticket at the station when you arrive.”

Andrey, who was supposed to pick us up in Donetsk, called Maria, who’d been sleeping, for a status report. “I think … the bus broke down, we’re still in Slovyansk.” That’s what she’d heard the guy behind us saying to his friend on his phone. The guy tapped her on the shoulder and explained that he’d been lying to his friends because he was late. “Oh, we’re in Donetsk!” she corrected. “Almost there.”

We pulled in. “Where’s our guy?” She scanned the parking lot. “Not the hippie!”

A gangly ostrich of a man strutted across the gravel, juggling, woven bag over his shoulder, a couple of halfhearted dreadlocks, zipper pull in one earlobe, a curl of bone in the other, apron tied over corduroy cutoff shorts. He grinned, gathered his juggling balls, waved.

“Yup, it’s the hippie,” I told Maria. “Are you Andrey?”

“Nope, they sent the waiter. I’m Anton!”

Anton was a cheery fellow, as are most hippies at first. He took Maria to the ticket counter to explore our options for crossing the Russian border.

“You got a ticket?” I asked when they returned.

“Yeah, but you’re not gonna like it!” Anton grinned. “Leaving tonight at midnight, arrive seven a.m.”


Graffiti in Donetsk. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Donetsk seemed less weighted by physical history than other eastern Ukrainian or Eastern European cities. It was founded only in 1869—by John Hughes, a Welsh mining magnate— and destroyed in World War II. It had, to me, the faint scent of Texas: new mineral wealth showing off, fresh construction, unstained pavement, a pink Hummer parked outside a coffee shop. Donetsk is home to Ukraine’s richest man, the steel and coal tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, who operates the region nearly as a personal fiefdom (when fighting broke out two years later and ground the local economy to a halt, thousands of workers stayed solvent because his factories stayed open and continued to pay their salaries). Anton came to our table in the club with plates of pasta.

“Dinner for my capitalist friends!” he announced.

“Did he just call us his capitalist friends?” I asked Maria.

“Is a joke!”

We asked promoter Andrey if he thought that the bottle of wine he had given us would be an issue at the border. “In this part of the country, it’s barely a border,” he said.

(Two years later, it barely was. In the wake of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, separatist provocateurs began referring to the southeastern provinces of Ukraine as Novorossiya—“ New Russia”—and declared a “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Unacknowledged Russian arms, tanks, and soldiers poured across the border from the Rostov region. Bombing destroyed the Donetsk airport and much of the city, including the hospital. The train station closed. Heat and water were scarce. Those who could leave the region fled: 1.5 million of the region’s prewar population of 4.5 million are said to have gone either to Russia or to western Ukraine, depending on their political sympathies. The Russian government both represented the separatists at peace negotiations and denied any control over them. The American government considered sending arms to the Ukrainians.)

“I don’t like U.S.A., but I like you!” said an audience member after the show. The cab we were supposed to take to the bus station sped away in a huff because his trunk was full and we had too many bags. We packed into the next one, and a drunk jumped in the front seat. I thought he was with the driver until he got out at an intersection, gave us a double thumbs-up to confirm that we had the money, and split.

We passed the new stadium, built to hold Euro 2012 matches. The old one had been tiny and on the outskirts of town. The new one was lit up in blue like Giants Stadium and was almost as big. A massive statue of Winged Victory, also lit, stood out front. The cabdriver gestured to the hotel across the way: “That, too, has been there forever. And now in the last month they’re calling it a four-star hotel.” (The stadium was damaged by artillery shelling in 2014, and the Donetsk team now plays on the other side of the country, in L’viv.)

The station was dark, but the security guard, smoking cigs and drinking beer, assured us that the bus to Rostov was coming. He told the driver that it was a four hryvnia charge to continue into the parking lot. We got out on the curb instead. The bus pulled up some time later.

It was an hour’s wait to board, and a two-year-old girl had the best idea of anyone for making use of her time: jump on the curb, jump off the curb, shake your ass, kick the aluminum wall, get daddy to swing you around like an airplane. Cabdrivers offered to take us the six hours straight to Rostov-on-Don. We all boarded, crammed into every seat. Truly, as Dr. Pangloss never said, this was the worst of all possible worlds.

It was three a.m. when we reached the border crossing. The horizon brightened even as the near-full moon was still in the sky. The Russian authorities filed on, tight-lipped and tight-haired, and I had an idea for a worst-selling pinup calendar: “The Humorless Ladies of Border Control.” A guard mumbled his way through some boilerplate. As he left, someone said, “Use your street voice!” The guy sitting next to us joked, “He was asking ‘Everyone all right? Need a drink? Not too cold?’ ”

We sat for three hours at the border, from three a.m. to six a.m. Legions of pigeons were nesting and hatching in the eaves under the tin roof of the Ukrainian exit station, and the cacophony of coos, chirps, and warbles was maddening. We were given two cigarette breaks. A dozen giggling women ran into the field and hoisted their skirts to pee.

* * *

Having passed through one formality does not secure the stranger from another.

Of nineteenth-century Russian customs and border agents, the Marquis de Custine wrote, “The sight of these voluntary automata inspires me with a kind of fear … every stranger is treated as culpable upon arriving on the Russian frontier.”

The paranoia and vindictively selective enforcement had begun thousands of miles to the west, at the Russian consulate on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We’d expected some procedural difficulty getting an entry visa at the Chinese embassy, located in the shadow of the USS Intrepid on the desolate West Side, but had sailed through the lines, frictionless. We simply dropped off our passports, photos, and a check for two hundred bucks and a week later picked up the passports with our photos laminated onto a visa page.

The Russians, though, were a different story. Mark Twain, writing over a hundred years earlier, complained that Russians “are usually so suspicious of strangers that they worry them excessively with the delays and aggravations incident to a complicated passport system.” We were required to fill out the PDF application in advance and show up at the consulate building between nine thirty a.m. and twelve thirty p.m. to apply in person.

The first day, we arrived at ten thirty a.m. and joined the line on the sidewalk, about twenty people deep.

“Well, this shouldn’t take too long,” I thought.

Two hours later, only five people had entered the building.

“Come back tomorrow,” said the burly security guard in a thick Russian accent and slammed the iron cage around the door shut.

We looked at our linemates, none of whom seemed shocked. All of them, besides ourselves, were professional line-standers, paid by visa applicants with more money and less free time—or more sense— than we had. They brought books, lined up before the doors opened, and hoped for the best (or, if they were paid by the hour, the worst).

We returned the next day, at nine a.m. this time, and waited a mere hour and a half outside before being ushered through the glass doors into a waiting room, then to a Plexiglas window like a bank teller’s. A blonde stereotype of a sadistic Slavic bureaucrat didn’t look up from her desk.

“Papers!” she barked, of course. “Passports!”

She read unhurriedly through the applications, marking them with a red pen, first mine, then Maria’s.

“Twenty-six!” she said, circling that box forcefully. “It is wrong.” She shoved the papers back through the slot beneath the window.

Item number 11 took one’s passport number, issuing country, and dates of validity. Item 26 asked, “List all countries which have ever issued you a passport.” Since she had already entered her passport information, Maria had left it blank instead of entering “United States.”

“Obviously this was just an oversight,” she said to the lady. “Can’t I just write it in?”

“No! Reprint it and come back tomorrow.” If she’d had a shutter to slam shut, she would have.

“We’ve been here two days in a row!”

She muttered to herself, scribbled something in Russian on a Post-it note, slid it to us, and got up from her chair. The interview was over.

“What does the note say?” I asked Maria.

“It says, ‘Can skip line.’ ”

“We’re supposed to show armed guards a Post-it note?”

“Russia is the land of useless formalities,” complained Custine, who was himself detained in customs for twenty-four hours while trying to enter Saint Petersburg. “Much trouble is taken to attain unimportant ends, and those employed believe they can never show enough zeal … having passed through one formality does not secure the stranger from another.”

Yet societies that insist on procedure and red tape can be simultaneously riddled with informal, ad hoc loopholes. We arrived early on the third day, not a little dispirited. We knocked on the cage and showed the guard the note. He waved us in.

* * *

What we seek in traveling are proofs that we are not at home.

I should properly introduce my other traveling companion on the Russian leg of our journey: a Frenchman, the Marquis Astolphe de Custine, author of the 1839 book Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia. He served the same role for me in Russia that Rebecca West would in the Balkans: a perceptive, acid perspective from a different era against which to measure my own impressions. Born in 1790, Custine lost both his father and grandfather to the guillotine at an early age. He became an object of scandal when in 1824 he was found unconscious, stripped, and beaten, the result of a misplaced sexual advance toward another man. He became one of the most notorious homosexuals of his conservative day—“a problem for everyone,” as a contemporary put it—and he grew snide, bitter, and scandalous. He had literary ambitions, but his writing was ignored during his lifetime; Heine called him “a half-man of letters.” But his discomfort in his homeland, and seemingly in his own skin, made him an ideal traveler. “The real travelers,” said his countryman Baudelaire, “are those who leave for the sake of leaving.” Custine was a connoisseur of places, he said, that were “more singular than pretty or convenient; but singularity suffices to amuse a stranger: what we seek in traveling are proofs that we are not at home.” He first wrote a travel book about Spain, which garnered him a complimentary letter from Balzac, who suggested he write about another “semi-European country”—Italy, or perhaps Russia.

Emboldened by Balzac’s suggestion and envious of Tocqueville’s example, he traveled to Russia in 1839—a short trip, mostly confined to Russia’s northwest, but as George F. Kennan, the American Russia hand and Cold Warrior, wrote, Custine “read countries, he claimed, as other people read books.” Custine arrived in Russia a born elitist and returned (despite his personal respect for then Tsar Nicholas I) a confirmed democrat, sickened by what he saw as the debasing effect of authoritarianism on the population. “When [Russian nobles] arrive in Europe,” his German hotelier tells him on his way to Saint Petersburg, “They have a gay, easy, contented air, like horses set free, or birds let loose from their cages… . The same persons when they return have long faces and gloomy looks; their words are few and abrupt; their countenances full of care. I conclude from this, that a country which they quitted with so much joy, and to which they return with so much regret, is a bad country.” The Russian customs agents themselves questioned his motives:

“What is your object in Russia?”

“To see the country.”

“That is not here a motive for traveling!”

His ensuing judgment of the country was severe, perhaps unfair, certainly condescending, and somehow persistent: perhaps because his pessimism echoes the “curiosity, sarcasm, and carping criticism” he—and I, and many other observers— found among Russians themselves. It is in his role as critic, and as the personification of the opinion of a Europe toward which Russia has historically looked with a mixture of envy, self-deprecation, and defensiveness, that he served his most recent turn in the public eye. In Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark, filmed in one ninety-six-minute shot, Custine and an unnamed narrator stroll through the Hermitage and thus through scenes from Russian history, from Peter the Great to World War II, still trying to identify the soul, or the narrative, or the fate, of the nation.

* * *

Copyright © 2016 by Franz Nicolay. This excerpt originally appeared in The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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