Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Both the Washington Post and Rotten Tomatoes decided to remind me this week that it’s the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential films of our age, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Before those of you who are sick of superhero movies (or have always been too snobbish to enjoy them) start rolling your eyes, let me quote Roger Ebert (as the Post also does) in pointing out that The Dark Knight is a film that transcends its comic book origins to become “an engrossing tragedy.”
And I am hardly the first person to read into the film something beyond the surface of its plot and action sequences. At the time of its release in 2008, many saw it as something of a metaphor for America in the age of the Iraq War and the War on Terror. Gotham might be a stand-in for Baghdad, and Batman a stand-in for the U.S. military, his very presence by the its violent and extreme nature inviting escalation and challenge. In the end, Batman wins a pyrrhic victory through mass surveillance like the NSA. At the more obscure end of commentary,
the good folks over at Overthinking It (hey Mark) presented an interesting essay interpreting the film through the philosophy of Schopenhauer: Gotham as Will and Representation.
John Polidori has been on my mind.
No doubt this is in part because I happen to be back in Romania, the country that originated the vampire myth. As I type this, I’m sitting only a stone’s throw away from the statue of Vlad Tepes “the Impaler,” the 15th century prince of Wallachia and real-life Dracula with his fabulous mustache, that stands at the center of Bucharest’s old town.
It probably also has to do with my learning just the other day that someone decided to make a movie about Mary Shelley and how she wrote Frankenstein. Apparently the film is not much good. But Polidori was there, present at the creation, when she first conceived of Frankenstein. Or put another way, she was there, present at the creation, when he first conceived of his parallel invention.
In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages in a debate with his friends Glaucon and Adeimantus that strikes me as suddenly newly relevant to our age.
Bear with me.
Socrates, like all great moral teachers in history, proposes that one must strive for moral virtue, or “justice,” as he calls it. His companions offer a counterargument. They point out that, even if a person is just, if he or she is perceived as unjust, then that person will suffer all the negative consequences of being unjust anyway. Glaucon puts it in graphic terms:
It is by now a cliche that, since January 2017, parody in American life has died. That may be an exaggeration, but it certainly is much more difficult to tell these days what is an Onion article and what is real news coming out of the West Wing.
But now we are living through not parody but a horror film. Specifically, a teen slasher. Think Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Halloween, The Faculty, and of course related works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its explicit and oft-referenced antecedent, Scooby Doo.
In these products of pop culture, as a trope, the adults in authority positions are always craven and corrupt or simply clueless as to what’s going on. (OK, some exceptions, like Giles on Buffy as an ersatz father figure.) The teen protagonists, and some of their teen friends, are the ones who know the truth and who fight the forces of evil with what wits they can muster in spite of their hormones.
It was only a layover the other day at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, but it still made me tense.
It didn’t help that the uniformed Russian officer immediately began demanding to know the purpose of my trip, never mind that I was clearly not entering Russia and was therefore not his concern. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I vowed years ago never to return to his country until and unless I obtained diplomatic immunity.
More or less on a whim, and as though I didn’t spend enough time in the classroom over the regular college semesters, I decided to spend the summer of 2002 studying Russian, a language entirely new to me. After a few weeks Stateside learning the rudiments, the cohort of us relocated to St. Petersburg for a few more weeks of immersion. When that finished at the end of July, I picked up my backpack and bought a train ticket to Moscow, hoping to see more of Russia and eventually to catch the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of my life of nonstop round-the-world travel. In that time I have visited countries from Ukraine to Uruguay, Armenia to Argentina, Estonia to Ethiopia, the Netherlands to Nepal.
Also in that time, to my surprise, travel has become a political act.
Or perhaps, as we live in the age of the unending War on Terror, travel has long been a political act. Terrorists would have us be too afraid to travel; they would have us avoid airports and train stations; they would have us tremble with anxiety in our window seats, eyeing our bearded neighbor with suspicion.
After all the horror stories I’d heard in the last few months about people getting detained trying to enter the US or having their visas revoked on arrival, I worried that I might run into problems myself.
After all, I have some pretty colorful stamps in my passport: Iran, Afghanistan, and a whole lot of Arabic lettering. The US consulate in Rio de Janeiro had granted me a visa, after a moment of hesitation. But that didn’t mean that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, a separate agency, had to honor the State Department’s decision.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."