Postcard — October 27, 2016, 8:00 am

The Troubles at Home

Syrian brothers seek refuge in Belfast

At Milltown Cemetry, in West Belfast, marchers who took part in the republican People's Parade gather to hear speeches marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. Photograph by the author.

At Milltown Cemetry, in West Belfast, marchers who took part in the republican People’s Parade gather to hear speeches marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. Photograph by the author.

On a gray Sunday in Belfast, police stood cross-armed in front of a line of armored jeeps, primed like racehorses in the stocks. They formed a barricade across a wide shopping street in the center of the city, starting at Poundworld and cutting off the KFC from the Disney Store one door down. The street was an eventual meeting point of the famous Falls and Shankill roads, the thoroughfares of West Belfast’s predominantly Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, divided by a looming peace wall. A solid concrete barricade topped with metal fencing, the wall runs for miles along the lonely bend of Cupar Way, rising higher than a double-decker bus. One of many peace lines built up more than four decades ago to prevent clashes between the two communities, on one side of the wall, fenced-off estates fly the English Cross of Saint George, while on the other, houses hang the Irish tricolor. Spike-topped security gates stand at the point at which the peace line crosses Lanark Way, traffic streaming through during the day. But the gates still shut automatically at designated times, barricading one side from the other.

That morning, Khaled Berakdar, his head and face freshly shaven, nipped down a back alley lane, making his way through empty streets and past the line of police, to meet his younger brother Ibrahim. With slicked-back hair and a thick beard, Ibrahim was sporting a rubber bracelet that read “Syria.” They embraced before making their way towards the Falls, where a crowd was mustering for a parade in honor of the Irish uprising against the British.

“It’s like being back home,” Khaled joked. The peace wall’s thick metal gates reminded him of the checkpoints and barricades in Syria, since the protests broke out there in 2011, leading to civil war. “When my sister left Syria with her kids it took her fourteen hours to reach the border in a taxi, because of the checkpoints, a journey that usually takes an hour,” Khaled said. “Now, there is Hezbollah checkpoint, regime checkpoint, Daesh checkpoint.”

A helicopter buzzed overhead, and he caught himself flinching.

The Falls Road is an artery through West Belfast, a predominantly Catholic area of the city where the streets are lined with murals immortalizing Republican heroes and houses along the side lanes proudly fly the flag of the Irish Republic from their windows. Khaled and his brother had come to join the parade commemorating one hundred years to the day since the Easter Rising, an armed rebellion in Dublin city that proclaimed Ireland an independent nation. Though the uprising failed, it was the catalyst for the years of war waged by the Irish Republican Army that led to Ireland becoming a free state. The treaty signed in 1921 made official the final break from hundreds of years of British rule in the south, but resulted in a bitter compromise, with six northern counties left under the British crown, creating what is now Northern Ireland. In the years that followed, the south was locked in a civil war.

Republicans were split between those who supported the treaty and the independence already won, led by Michael Collins, and those who rejected the treaty in favor of a united Ireland, led by Éamon de Valera. As a boy, my granddad in Dublin had refused to shake the hand of de Valera, by then a head of state, calling him a “Spanish onion” to his face, because my great grandmother was a sworn supporter of Collins.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, the bitter sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, was just a couple years from erupting. Similar to the grassroots demonstrations in Syria, it began with a civil-rights campaign—in this case to end discrimination against Catholics and repeal an act that allowed internment without trial by a mainly Protestant government loyal to the British crown. In 1969, the British military was sent in to quell widespread protests and riots, but instead the situation escalated into an armed conflict. Between attacks by Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups and crackdowns by British forces—who were targeted in turn—over three decades, more than 3,600 people, at least half of them civilians, were killed. Car bombs, armed men in balaclavas, British soldiers patrolling the streets, stone-throwing youths, the bleeding bodies of protestors, and political prisoners dying on hunger strikes dominated the news. By the end of the Nineties, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, declaring an official end to the conflict. But peace lines continued to be built at what became known as interface areas between already divided communities, and reports of sporadic killings that appear to be paramilitary linked continue.

Belfast is now better known for shopping trips than sectarian shootings, with tourists taking black-cab and bus tours of the peace walls and the old front lines. But for many, divisions remain raw. A few years ago, Loyalist protests erupted across Belfast, with petrol bombs and stones thrown, after the city council voted to limit the days the Union Jack would fly over Belfast city hall to the same number of days as other government buildings in Britain, instead of year round. Every year, Loyalist and Republican parades still march through the city, mostly peaceful, with some still carrying paramilitary trappings. This year, the centenary of the rising was followed a couple months later by a parade through the city center to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, commemorated mainly by Loyalists. The exit of Britain from the European Union, which the majority of people in the north voted against, has raised both hopes and concerns of a new push for a united Ireland.

A hundred years after the rising, Khaled and Ibrahim made their way up the Falls Road, lampposts plastered with posters for Sinn Féin,an Irish Republican party that shares power in the north. Theypromised that a vote for them was “a vote for united Ireland.” On the International Peace Wall, amid a patchwork of murals dedicated to revolutions across the world, the silhouettes of a man, a woman, and a little girl were painted across the bricks above a defiant declaration that refugees are welcome. Up the street, men and women in old-style green military uniforms marched holding rifles for show. Kids in green berets and yellow neckerchiefs struggled to keep in time to the beat of the marching drums and whistling flutes. Pinch-faced teenagers in sweatpants and hoodies carried flags emblazoned with “Irish Republic.” In the city center, a small contingent of Loyalists held a counterprotest behind a row of barricades and police, waving the Union Jack, middle fingers swinging.

A man we met during the parade mentioned that one time, during the height of the Troubles, the ceiling of his office collapsed on him during a bombing “You got used to it,” he told us. “I know that sounds weird, but you did.” Khaled knew what he meant. Two years ago he was living for a few months in northern Syria, hoping to work as a volunteer teacher in Aleppo. He stayed with the family of a friend and every night until the early hours of the morning, the sound of the barrel bombs by pro-regime forces had kept them awake. They lay there wondering if they would be hit. The next month, he heard the institute where he would have been teaching had been flattened in an airstrike.

“We thought it would end quickly,” said Khaled, speaking of the civilian uprising in Syria. “Now it’s five years and a lot of blood.”

Even though the brothers grew up in Syria, the Irish rebellion and the conflict in Northern Ireland was part of their heritage. Their mother was from West Belfast, born and bred near to the Falls Road. They all were entitled to Irish and British passports, as well as Syrian. When they were growing up in Syria, his mother rarely spoke of what was happening back in Belfast, her city turned conflict zone, at the height of the Troubles. Sometimes, Khaled remembers, he would see her crying in front of the TV, pointing at the screen and quietly repeating “that’s home, that’s home.”

Khaled had come to Belfast on family visits since he was a young kid, with his three brothers and older sister. When he was nineteen, at the end of the Nineties, he came back on his own and stayed for months with his granny in West Belfast. She would tell him stories about the Troubles, how one of the houses she had lived in had been destroyed in a bombing. Khaled had gone to an Internet café one day and tried to join the Irish Army down south. He came home a few weeks later to find his granny standing at the front door, slapping a thick, ripped open envelope against her open palm and telling him to come straight to the kitchen. “I got this in my door. What do you want people to say about me?” she had asked him. “I’m no traitor.” Somehow, he had been sent an application pack for the British Territorial Army.

Back then, Khaled remembers the Irish tricolor draped out every window along the streets of Catholic areas, until it met with the British Union Jack, each territory marked out edge to edge with flags. As if to strengthen the divide, Protestant areas would hang Israeli flags and Catholic areas would fly the Palestinian colors. More recently, Khaled had passed a muralist in West Belfast painting a tribute to Palestine. He suggested he paint something for Syria. “Which side?” the man had asked him. When Khaled said he supported the revolution, the painter told him, “Walk away from here, kiddo.” He supported Palestine, siding with Hezbollah against Israel. Hezbollah supported the Syrian regime against the revolution and so by default so did the muralist.

Before the revolution in Syria, divisions simmered beneath the surface. “They lived in some kind of harmony, but a hatred was still there,” said Khaled. In 1982, a mainly Sunni uprising in Hama been crushed by the Syrian army, under the rule of Assad’s father. It ended in a massacre. For Khaled, this revolution was not religious, but a political uprising against a long oppressive system. “It felt like it was coming from people desperate to have a dignified life.”

Khaled and his brothers were raised Sunni, but never felt divided from the Alawite or Christian kids they grew up with. Their mother, who passed away from cancer when they were young, had converted to Islam, but their father was never particularly religious. In school, Ibrahim shared a desk with a boy who was Alawite. But when Khaled posted a video of a protest in his neighborhood in Lattakia, Khaled said some friends who were Alawite began to criticize him for not being Syrian. Their father, still in Lattakia, is now confinded to a small Sunni enclave surrounded by pro-regime areas. Once a ship’s captain and a keen fisherman, now checkpoints often keep him from the sea. “He tells me, ‘I am ready to die in my house, but I won’t give it to anyone,’” said Khaled. 

Their youngest brother, Abdullah, a lanky twenty-four year-old, was in Syria in 2012, during crackdowns on his neighborhood by government forces. One by one, people close to him were arrested or killed. “I lost my best friend,” he said. “The security forces didn’t allow me to go to the grave.” While their father refuses to leave the country where their mother is buried, he made sure all his children got out of Syria before the war worsened. One brother went to London and the three others returned to Northern Ireland. Abdullah moved in with his sister and her two kids in West Belfast. He now works at a Pizza Hut in Lisburn, a mainly loyalist city next door where Union Jacks fly proudly. With his red cap and tracksuit, and every other of his sentences punctuated with “mate,” you would think Abdullah grew up in Belfast all his life. On his Facebook, a photo shows him in the stands at Old Trafford, the hallowed ground of English football, holding up the flag of the Syrian revolution. But he told me matter of factly that his last visit to Syria haunts him everywhere he goes—the face of his dead friend resurfaces in his dreams.

Khaled and Ibrahim followed the parade up the Falls Road, past a Palestinian solidarity mural and a souvenir shop bursting with green, white, and orange paraphernalia. At Milltown Cemetery, where hunger striker Bobby Sands is buried, the marchers tiptoed around the edges of old graves to form a crowd around the small stage setup, a man with a loudspeaker reading out a copy of the Irish proclamation.

“Six counties are still under British rule,” another speaker’s voice crackled out, reminding those gathered of the continuing campaign among some for a united Ireland. “We still have men, women, and youths languishing in jails because of their beliefs.” 

The brothers stood in silence. A year after the protests in Syria began, while working as a diver in Abu Dhabi, Khaled had been detained after trying to board a plane back to Belfast for Christmas. Ibrahim was also arrested shortly after. They were questioned repeatedly about why they were sending money home to their family in Syria. They described how their interrogators would hit them on the soles of their feet with metal bars over and over. Eventually, they were put on a flight together back to Ireland, heads shaven. Ibrahim finds it hard to sleep now. He thinks of the endless violence back home, the countless activists and civilians imprisoned or disappeared. They watched the ceremony, wondering what would be left to commemorate back home if the war ever ends. As they walked through the cemetery on their way home, Ibrahim flicked through photos on his phone until he found the one of his mother’s grave back in Syria, the last time he had visited her.

“Northern Ireland and Syria, it’s the same. Everywhere, it’s always the same,” said Khaled. “One day, there will be arguments over which date to remember for our revolution.” Maybe in the future, they will celebrate both the Irish uprising and the Syrian uprising in the same month. They wonder whether their country will be split into divided territories, whether the sectarian divides will be permanently entrenched.

After the parade, we went to Khaled’s sisters house in West Belfast for tea. When it was time to leave, he asked a taxi driver to take us to Lisburn. “What are you going there for,” the driver asked. “Khalid explained he was visiting his brother at work. “Does he support England does he? In football?” he responded.

On the drive into Lisburn town, a massive poster celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday, which fell the same week, draped the side of a building. British flags floated from lamp posts on a roundabout and along the streets. “It’s just tit for tat, that’s what it is,” the taximan snorted. “They put this up, we put that up.”

A few days earlier, while in London, President Obama had weighed in on how the peace process in Northern Ireland was a blueprint for countries dealing with sectarian conflict. He encouraged young people in Northern Ireland to forge “a new identity,” to decide “the country as a whole is more important than any particular faction or any particular flag.”

After playing football for a local team in West Belfast, Abdullah joined a club in Lisburn, which because of its location had Unionist allegiances, just as teams in West Belfast are tied to Republican groups. “People say, ‘How do you live with the IRA, support ISIS and play for the UVF?’” Abdullah laughs, having no allegiances to any. “You’re Muslim, but are you Catholic Muslim or Protestant Muslim?” If anyone gives him a hard time on the side of the peace wall in Belfast where the houses, isolated behind high metal fences, are flying the English St. George’s flag out their window, he says, “Don’t worry mate, I’m a Protestant Muslim!”

Abdullah refuses to buy into religious divisions. “My mum was Christian, I had friends who are Shia, we don’t judge on religion,” he said. “Religion is just a face, these conflicts are about money and power.” The guys he plays football with are his teammates, regardless of where they live.

“At the end of the day, we’re all human,” Khaled says. “It’s taken so many years here and some people still can’t get over this fact, but it’s true.”

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Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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