I like to begin the Landmarkings series with a passage from a work of fiction that evokes something of our relationships with places. Here’s the opening passage from one of my favourite novels:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
—John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
Friends, hello again.
And to new readers, here’s the first of many more hellos, hopefully. Thank you for being here!
It’s been said: The thing about keeping up with the news so much is that you can grow disconcertingly inured to the daily rights abuses and tragedies that aren’t happening right in front of you. What’s happening in Afghanistan, though, has torn down this wall of dislocation for me a little.
I read about the mother whose baby was trampled to death in a crowded rush to get inside Kabul airport, and the father whose despair was so great he said, “If the U.S. gives me the entire universe after I lose a child, it is worthless.” I read about the young football player who clung to a plane as it took off, fell off in mid-air, and died. I read about the women who, having found some emerging sense of ownership over their bodies and identities, are now forced to erase themselves. Literally, as their photos on the facades of beauty salons and other businesses are removed and painted over, as they scramble to disappear any hints on social media about the schools they used to attend, the jobs they used to do, the guitars they used to strum, the football they used to play. “Only memories are safe now,” said Khalida Popal, a founder and former captain of Afghanistan’s women’s national team. At the same time, as real as those gains were and as wrenching as it is to watch them being taken away again, journalist Azmat Zahra makes the point that the narrative of empowering Afghan women was used to build support for a war in Afghanistan, even as they were also shortchanged.
Amid all that’s gut-wrenching, though, the thing that really made my heart lurch was an info doc being shared around to help those in Afghanistan get themselves out of the country. Last I checked, it was written in language that was soberingly uncertain. Reading it took me out of my present moment, here, in the relative peace and quiet of Berlin. There is all this advice on what to do, but there are no guarantees, especially as the window of opportunity contracts day by day. You are told to leave your pets behind, that you can carry nothing but your documents with you. You are told that you will have to get to Kabul for any chance of being evacuated, but that you will have to find your own way there. You are told that you will likely also have to find your own way to the airport, possibly at a time outside the Taliban’s designated curfew, possibly through Taliban checkpoints. There was something to the effect that the US government will not be able to ensure safe passage to the airport.
No surprise, then, that the stories I gravitated to most were of people trying to find a way out, including this piece by a Washington Post journalist who made that treacherous—but, luckily, successful—journey with her Afghan colleagues and their families. In similarly good news, Afghanistan’s first female Paralympian, an all-girl robotics team, and its only boarding school for girls have managed to leave. It’s a relief to hear all this, but it also makes me think about what will happen to all the women who haven’t been marked out as having any professional distinction or “potential”, even as the Taliban has announced it will treat women with a lighter hand from when it ruled Afghanistan over two decades ago.
Going beyond the news, here are three stories, from past and present, I found interesting to read:
Love Crimes by Jennifer Percy, for a close-up look at the difficult project of women’s freedom in Afghanistan—how they are caught between those who want to liberate them and those who want to silence them:
Koofi showed me an iPhone photo of a girl with no lips. The woman’s husband had chopped off her nose and lips because she wouldn’t give him her jewelry. He needed money for heroin. “We have raised the awareness that women are human beings, but we have not built the capacity of the man to tolerate such a woman.” Koofi had posted the photo on Facebook. “Get your nose chopped off in Afghanistan, and you become an icon for women’s rights in the West,” she told me.
Last Tango in Kabul by Matthieu Aikins about Afghanistan’s “Kabubble” of expats in times gone by:
“People had this idea that the rules that governed normal society were just out the window,” says Tom A. Peter, a freelance journalist who lived in Kabul during the Surge. “You’re at the center of this big world event, and in a weird way that social culture is all part of that—it makes everybody feel like they’re really important.”
What I Learned While Eavesdropping on the Taliban by Ian Fritz, who served in the U.S. Air Force.
On every mission, they knew I was overhead, monitoring their every word. They knew I could hear them bragging about how many Americans they’d managed to kill, or how many RPGs they’d procured, or when and where they were going to place an IED. But amid all that hearing, I hadn’t been listening. It finally dawned on me that the bullshitting wasn’t just for fun; it was how they distracted themselves from the same boredom I was feeling as they went through another battle, in the same place, against yet another invading force.
Meanwhile, I’m following Kiana Hayeri, who has been reporting some great stories from Afghanistan before she evacuated. Worth reading is an in-depth Nat Geo story she recently photographed with writer Jason Motlagh about the urban-rural divide in Afghanistan which gave wheels to the Taliban takeover.
I’m also following Marcus Yam, a Malaysian photojournalist with the Los Angeles Times, whose Insta Stories show scenes from the ground. He wrote recently about being beaten by Taliban fighters while on assignment and how the encounter took an absurdist turn, and about burqas serving as a kind of barometer of the Taliban’s outlook on the status of women.
Most importantly, there are Afghan women journalists with Rukhshana Media and TOLO News, as well as activists such as the impassioned Mahbouba Seraj of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, who have chosen to remain in the country and continue their work. “If everybody leaves, what is going to happen to Afghanistan?” Mahbouba said in a Washington Post podcast (do listen to her segment). “Besides, I’m seventy-three years old. If they want to come and kill me, hey, let them come and kill me.” But understandably, as Betsy Joles reports from Pakistan, more and more journalists are questioning whether the risks of staying are worth taking. Hats off to all of them.
As we watch what’s unfolding there from our different perches around the world, let me gently bring you, and myself, back around to Berlin. I’ve been wanting to write about this city since my first visit two years ago, but I’m still finding my feet, and I’ve yet to find the words. For now, I’ll let myself savor just being here, where it’s possible to enjoy an easy moment—eyes closed, face tilted to the wind (okay, let’s not romanticize it: on days like yesterday, the wind lashes) or to the sun—and where it’s possible to walk down the street openly, hand in hand, with someone dear.
Making sense of our place in the world
Las Marthas by Jordan Kisner, about “a visit to a colonial debutante ball in Texas where girls wear hundred-pound dresses and pretend to be Martha Washington—and the question of what it means to find yourself in the in-between”:
When I hit adolescence and the rituals of femininity became social requirements rather than play, I chafed against them, and my mother and I began to argue more over my appearance. By and large, women inherit their habits and neuroses about femininity from their mothers, and mine were inherited from my own Texan mother and, by extension, hers. The rituals of female beauty are deep-rooted in Texas, as is pageant culture—the desire to commodify the beauty of young women, and the sense that it is the moral duty of the mother to teach her daughter the rules of tasteful and advantageous self-display.
One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps, by Tahir Hamut Izgil:
Some time after, a man in his 70s had come across a Quran in his house that he hadn’t been able to find following the confiscation order. He was afraid that if he turned it over now, the officials would ask why he hadn’t relinquished it earlier, accuse him of “incorrect thinking,” and take him away to be punished. So he wrapped the Quran in a plastic bag and threw it in the Tuman River. But the authorities had installed wire mesh under all bridges, and when the mesh was cleaned, the Quran was found and turned over to the police. When officers opened it, they found a copy of the old man’s ID card: In Xinjiang, the elderly have a habit of keeping important documents in frequently read books, so that they are easily found when needed. The police tracked down the old man and detained him on charges of engaging in illegal religious activities. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
FMA and Me: Reckoning With Anime as Japanese and American, by Nina Coomes:
Complicating the magnetism of anime were the strange expectations that white anime lovers had of me. The hungry way they stared at me, the unnatural insertion of Japanese words into their speech, their claim to “love Japan”—which usually amounted to an essentializing of what they saw on-screen with little awareness that anime often presented fantasy, not reality. They didn’t know or care about the mundane everydayness I missed so much—the oddly plush digital feeling of pressing buttons on an ATM, the cigarette-urine-plastic smell of a crowded subway station. So many of the affectations adopted by white anime enthusiasts made me feel fake and plastic, which confused my yearning for the language and familiarity I so craved.
Making sense of a world at once quotidian, absurd, brutal, poignant, and extraordinary
The influence of the “wave” of Korean music and film on global culture was no accident — a comic by Sam Nakahira.
About 400,000 of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers are Filipino. Here’s their story: The Lonely and Dangerous Life of the Filipino Seafarer by Aurora Almendral. “They came home with thick, gold chains around their necks, built tall cement houses among their neighbors’ bamboo huts, provided for their parents and sent siblings, nieces and nephews to college. Marriage proposals poured in.”
Don’t Be a Prude, by Nicole Schmidt, on Berlin’s ease with public nudity, and where it comes from. I believed I spotted a butt-naked man in Volkspark, in plain daylight, during my first summer here; now I know I wasn’t imagining things.
Sci-Fi Writer or Prophet? The Hyperreal Life of Chen Qiufan by Yi-Ling Liu — “Indeed, in the past five years, China has become a nation obsessed with its own science fiction. What was once a niche subculture with a small circle of hardcore fans has blossomed into a full-fledged 66 billion yuan ($10 billion) industry of films, books, video games, and theme parks.”
Many in Pakistan have considered the sari a foreign item of clothing. Generations of Pakistani women have insisted on wearing it anyway, by Saba Imtiaz — also a story about Partition.
How Your Cup of Coffee Is Clearing the Jungle, by Wyatt Williams from Indonesia.
A view of home
Great video by Ell Zulkarnain cut from scenes of Malaysian youth protesters taking to the streets on July 31 to call for the Muhyiddin government’s resignation—which happened—melded with a galvanizing track by Indonesian singer Jason Ranti. (I wrote a piece about the white flag and black flag movements for Esquire Singapore’s print magazine—out soon.)
Dozens of Malaysian Indians Died in Police Custody. Not a Single Officer Has Been Charged, by Heather Chen, with illustrations by the rebel artist Fahmi Reza (Vice documentary on him here).
Malaysia’s Sexist Citizenship Law Is Keeping Families Apart—something I wrote for Foreign Policy, about how Malaysian mothers (unlike fathers) can’t automatically pass on their nationality to children born abroad, and how a court case challenging the constitution could change this. Follow Family Frontiers for updates.
Shih-Li Kow’s short fiction Under the Circumstance, which aptly pokes fun (just a little) at Malaysia today—on the one hand, a people agitating to be progressive; and on the other, struggling to breach our complacency.
This illustration by Erica Eng, which reminds me so much of home—note the monsoon drains delineated by yellow rails! (Her Fried Rice comic, a work of autobiographical fiction, won the Eisner Award in 2020.)
Being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. So please sign up if you would like to receive more letters like this in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity. Thank you! ❤️
Reimagining our world
Cutting remote workers’ pay is unfair. The alternative could be worse — Interesting take by Isabelle Roughol of the Borderline newsletter on global living, and a good starting point for discussion.
Maricá, near Rio de Janeiro, is using its own digital currency to fund one of the world's largest basic income programs, by Meaghan Tobin and Marvio Dos Anjos.
There Is No Good Reason You Should Have to Be a Citizen to Vote, by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian.
Something to think about
In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited—it takes on a life of its own.
—Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Before I go, a sound postcard from my archives—during a solo trip to Italy, at a Ennio Morricone concert at the Verona Arena, before he passed.
The second part of this dispatch is here.
Thanks, as always, for reading. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, I would really, really appreciate it if you would share it with your friends.