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.
In Lalibela, “Ethiopia’s Jerusalem,” my hotel manager Abraham (not his real name) invited me to sit with him and his friend. He was thirty-something and wore a gray hoodie as though in emulation of Luke Cage. We were in the tranquil backyard, sitting on white plastic chairs and chewing khat, the tobacco-like stimulating shrub leaves common here and in the Middle East.
Like a surprisingly number of Ethiopians, he spoke fluent English, although his friend struggled to understand me and found it hard to get a word in edgewise. Abraham later explained that years ago a Finnish woman had helped him get an education, and he worked very hard to learn English well.
“You are Chinese?” he asked.
“But you are not Chinese.”
“How did you know?”
“You are not like other Chinese people I have met.”
“I live in America.” I repeated this lie, not wanting to explain the complications about how I’d left already.
Abraham was concerned about all the Chinese-funded and -managed construction projects happening in his country. “Chinese material is not very good,” he said gingerly, afraid of my reaction.
“Oh you can say it. The Chinese say it about themselves, you know.”
“All the time. They say, well we’ve built so many things so quickly, and we know there’s corruption in the government. So isn’t it just a matter of time before some accident happens? Have you heard of the train derailment in China?” I asked him, referring to the Wenzhou collision in 2011, which killed 40 people and injured about 200.
“No...” he shook his head again, fascinated. I summarized the incident for him. His friend chimed in to ask for clarification of what I was saying. Abraham explained in Amharic.
“So why do we make contract with the Chinese?” he wondered aloud.
“Because,” I said, “the Chinese don’t demand anything. I mean they do — of course they’re getting something in return, namely access to Africa. But compare to the Americans, who come into a country and say, yeah we’ll help you but only if you reduce corruption and improve democracy and human rights. The Chinese don’t care about those things.”
Abraham nodded sagely. “So, if you are a corrupt government, of course you work with China, not America.” Of course he knew much more about the foibles of the Ethiopian government than I did, so I let him draw his own conclusions. At this juncture Ethiopia was under a state of emergency. A religious festival in Oromia had turned bloody in early October, killing dozens. Protests by the two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, were already ongoing against the government dominated by the minority Tigray people. Now they reached a fever pitch, and the government declared the state of emergency in response. Had the wrong person heard Abraham talk this way, he might have been arrested.
“Also, Chinese people are annoying.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “But they can also be the warmest people if you get to know them.”
He asked me about America. “Why don’t Americans intervene in Syria? They did it for Libya, so why not Syria?”
“Because then they’d have to fight Russia,” I said. “Russia is protecting Assad.”
“Ah, is that right? I see, I see...”
We talked over whether American hegemony was a good thing. “Look,” I said, “in my experience, Americans are basically well-meaning, even if they make a lot of mistakes.” I leaned forward in my chair, perhaps more excited than I would have been because of the khat. “Who would you prefer to run the world? The Russians? The Chinese? If not them, then who’s left?”
Abraham nodded thoughtfully before asking me about conspiracy theories. “Is it true that the Illuminati chooses the president?” I started trying to explain to him why that was ridiculous, but in so doing I might have made things worse, because I told him about other alleged secret cabals that he’d never heard of, namely the Masons and Skull and Bones. “Was Barack Obama a member of any of these organizations?” he followed up in all earnestness. I said in the 1980s when Obama was in college he probably wouldn’t have been allowed into a society like Skull and Bones just for being black.
“You think if the Illuminati were choosing someone they wouldn’t have gone with someone... different?” I asked. He understood.
I began to think about why it was that far out here in East Africa men like Abraham bought into ridiculous conspiracy theories like that. But of course he did. The conspiratorial mindset thrives where people feel impotent to steer their own lives. If one has no power over what happens, then some strange set of individuals, mysterious and unseen, must secretly be directing events. The alternative is to believe that things happen for no reason at all, which is against human nature.
Appropriately for the moment, Abraham then asked me for a book recommendation. “I just finished reading Animal Farm, by George Orwell,” he said. “What should I read next?”
“You know Orwell wrote another famous book on authoritarianism?” I said. “It’s called 1984. It's a classic. You ought to read it."
I met Abraham in October, before the election. Some things I said are already not holding up so well, like characterizing America as a force against corruption, like saying that Americans are basically decent and in the end will do the right thing, like what I said about U.S. relations with Russia.
But at a minimum the book recommendation I gave him remains unimpeachable.
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."