An Iraqi Painter Moved to America for a Better Life and Got Robbed Anyway
It’s not often you see a look of total devastation on someone’s face, but that was the expression Bassim Al-Shaker wore when I met him at a bar in downtown Phoenix on Tuesday night. Escaping threats for his life, the Iraqi-born painter fled to Phoenix in July of last year, eventually obtaining refugee status and becoming a permanent citizen earlier this year.
But Bassim woke up Monday morning to discover the door to his downtown studio smashed. Ten paintings were stolen August 18, as well as a couch and some power tools, from Bassim’s studio on Fourth Street and McKinley. Bassim was using the studio space rent-free before the whole block is to be demolished at the end of the year.
Formerly a barber in Baghdad, Bassim was once blindfolded, spat on, and beaten by loyalists of Iraq’s Mahdi Army militia, who left the painter so battered he spent the next two weeks in the hospital. But what had Bassim done to attract their violence? He had drawn sketches of the Venus de Milo as part of an entrance exam at Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts.
Yeah, that’s right. Some tasteful nude sketches almost got this guy killed.
Reasons Why Phoenix Is the Worst Place Ever
I am a resident of Phoenix, Arizona.
If you count all the surrounding districts, more than 4.1 million people crowd into this sprawling, suburbanite wasteland, yet no one really likes it here. We really try, but every boring list we dominate (we’re safe drivers, apparently, and we’re a top city for “entry-level jobs.” Whoopee) and every whine for relevance smacks of some deep, inner denial.
This metropolis is squatted in subtropical desert. It shouldn’t even exist. It’s spitting in God’s face. Yet rather than owning our survival prowess like some badass Road Warriortribe, we’ve allowed ourselves to become complacent, as vapid as the arid air around us, too numbed up on prescription narcotics and reality TV to reach self-actualization. There’s also a negative side.
Here are a few reasons why Phoenix sucks:
Everything Is Beige
Like a giant, concrete version of The Thing, Phoenix is a bloated tangle of tasteless architecture that never seems to stop ballooning outward.
The one thing you’ll notice is everything looks exactly the same. It’s an ever-replicating mirage of beige skies, beige walls, beige houses, beige cars, beige people. Sometimes you’ll see a flash of color, but it won’t last long before the local HOA stamps it out like a cigarette butt.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Shopping Malls And Movie Theaters Are Cultural Landmarks
Forget that Phoenix nightlife is so barren you can stagger downtown at 11 PM and find everything empty. “Snowbirds” (rich, white morons from Canada and Michigan who visit during the two weeks of winter) only come here for the fucking malls anyway. Chandler Fashion Center, Desert Ridge Marketplace, Tempe Marketplace, Scottsdale Fashion Square—they all have the exact same names, the exact same stores, and the exact same idiots who wear sunglasses indoors.
Watch VICE Profiles: Slut-Shaming Preacher
In August of last year, campus preacher Brother Dean Saxton caused outrage after preaching at the University of Arizona and holding a sign that read, “YOU DESERVE RAPE.”
This is typical behavior for Dean, who believes, among other things, that women shouldn’t be allowed to attend university, that feminism is evil, and that immodestly dressed women are asking to be raped.
VICE went to Arizona to meet up with Dean as he was preparing to protest the screening of a documentary about a rape survivor.
VICE Profiles is a weekly window into our eccentric and idiosyncratic world. Check back for new episodes every Monday.
Has Krokodil, the Flesh-Eating Russian Street Drug, Made Its Way to the US and UK?
You remember when we first alerted you to the joys of krokodil, right? In case you’d forgotten, it’s a drug from Russia that is just like heroin, except that it eats your flesh alive(NSFW link) because it’s made of painkillers cut with things like gasoline and sulfur. In other words, it’s probably the worst drug in the world. Well, unfortunately, it seems to be spreading. It made headlines last week when reports came through that it was being used in Arizona. And in the UK, Dr. Allan Harris, a specialist in treating drug addicts and the homeless, has reported that “there are plenty of warning signs” that krokodil is being used in Gloucester, where his drug clinic is. In an article he wrote for the Independent, he also mentioned that he’d treated a man in his early 30s who he believed had injected krokodil.
I called Dr. Harris to discuss his findings. We tried to negotiate whether to call the drug “krokodil” (from the Russian) or to Anglicize it now that it had made its way over from the mainland and start referring to it as “crocodile.” (I’ve used the former here, but Dr. Harris was pretty adamant about using the latter.) More importantly, it was an illuminating insight into the UK’s depressing cutting-drugs-with-things-that-are-even-worse-for-you-than-drugs scene.
VICE: So is it just the one case of krokodil that you found?
Dr Alan Harris: Yeah, I mean, it’s a bit retrospective really because it was a few years ago now. At the time, I just thought it was the citric acid burns of a heroin user, but looking back the tissue destruction was far, far in excess [of what you’d expect from that]. When you get citric acid issues you usually get second-degree burns, but this actually took out a huge crater of all the forearm muscle. When you took out the dead tissue you could actually see the tendons moving at the base of this crater and the bones as well—so pretty much like these horrific pictures you see on the warning leaflets for krokodil. It actually got to a point where he couldn’t move his right hand any more because it weakened the muscle so much. He could roll a cigarette and that was about it.
So how did they treat it?
They put a free skin graft over the top, which all healed OK but it was horrendous. The muscles never grew back because they were completely gangrenous. Looking back, it didn’t fit at all with citric acid because that’s an irritant but no worse than a slight infection. This was actually very, very disproportionate. From one small injection he took out the area of about 12 by eight centimeters of tissue, and quite deep as well—skin down to bone.
Teenage Exorcists, Part 2
Sick of taking responsibility for the shitty things that have happened to you in your life? Help is on the way, in the virginal and strangely vacant form of three Bible-thumping teenage exorcists from Phoenix, Arizona. Eighteen-year-old Brynne Larson and her friends Tess and Savannah Sherkenback (18 and 21, respectively) claim to be able to confront the demons lurking inside traumatized people and draw them out using nothing more than a crucifix and a few choice words. But are these teenage exorcists really empowered by the Almighty, or merely by Brynne’s father, a failed televangelist named Reverend Bob?
In our new film, the girls and Reverend Bob give us exclusive access to their tour of Ukraine, during which they attempt to save the souls of recovering drug addicts and exorcise people’s “sexually transmitted demons.”
Watch the documentary
Sedona, Arizona is believed by many to be the “energy capital of the United States,” as it is surrounded by several energy vortexes.
For the uneducated, “energy vortexes” are swirling centers of mystical energy that come from the center of the Earth (duh). Because of this, Sedona has a booming new age tourist industry (pictured above).
I’m not a very spiritual person, and am frequently jealous of those who are, so I decided to head to the desert to explore these vortexes and try to have a spiritual awakening. Luckily for me, there are multiple companies in Sedona willing to take your money in exchange for guiding you on a vision quest.
I went with a company called Red Rock Tours, because they were the first thing that came up when I googled “vortex tour.” For just $105 (+ tax), they will take you for a three hour tour of Sedona’s most sacred mystical spots.
This is my tour guide, Mark, who is trained in both matrix energetics AND reconnection therapy. I don’t know what either of those things are, but they definitely sound pretty cool.
As we drove to our first location, Mark gave us a little bit of history on Sedona and the vortexes. Which was pretty TLDR, but the gist of it is: the Earth is covered in these things called “ley lines,” which are lines that energy moves in. When two lines cross each other, they create an “energy center,” which in the case of Sedona, manifests itself as a series of swirling “vortexes.”
Mark drove us out to the first vortex on our agenda, which was located by Sedona’s airport. He warned us, “you’ve gotta promise me you won’t do any levitating! The pilots really don’t like that.” Which was promising.
He told us that a minor miracle once happened here. He was taking a tour group that included a man from Texas whose arm had been crippled for seven years due to a stroke. (That’s Mark showing you what a crippled hand looks like. Just in case you were unsure.) After just a few minutes at the vortex site, the man was able to feel his arm tingling. A couple of hours later, he was able to raise it all the way above his head. Mark thinks it was DEFINITELY because of the energy, ”I do not believe in coincidence at all. In no way,” he told us.
Can you imagine how weird life must be if you don’t believe in coincidences, BTW? Like, a couple of days ago, I was walking in LA with my iPod on random, and the song “Stay” by Lisa Loeb came on, which was featured on the Reality Bites soundtrack, and I thought to myself, huh, I wonder what Janeane Garofalo is up to these days? at which point I realized I was standing directly outside the building where they filmed the opening of Romi and Michele’s High School Reunion, and I was like “woooooah,” because Janeane Garofalo is also in that movie. AND THEN, when I got home, I looked on the Daily Mail website, and there was a story about Garofalo, right there on the homepage. I don’t hear anything about JG for ten years, and then she’s there three times in one day. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I were Mark, what the fuck would I think that meant?
Anyway. This is where the vortex is. Which was super nice. It looked like a desktop background, but IRL.
We were told that a lot of people feel a tingling when they’re there, or the hair stands up on the back of their neck.
I felt nothing, but Mark told us to go off and take some time by ourselves to try and connect with the energy. He told us, “It’s really about opening your chakras and being present and getting out of your left brain. Breathe and be in the moment.”
This is me breathing in the moment, trying super hard to get out of my left-brain. Turned out to be pretty tough. Mainly because I couldn’t remember which one was the right brain and which was the left brain. Based on the general hippie vibes, I guessed that it was the non-arsty one. So I tried to get way outta there.
BEFORE HE WAS A MURDERER, J.T. READY GAVE US A TOUR OF THE BORDER
When it was reported that a guy named Jason Todd Ready shot four people in Arizona—including a 15-month-old girl—and then himself, our hearts sunk, not just because of the sheer ugliness and horror of the tragedy, but also because we knew J.T. Ready. Or at least, we profiled him as part of a piece on the civilian militias patrolling the US-Mexico border we shot for our MTV show last year. J.T. was the leader of the “Ready Rangers” a group of self-appointed immigration enforcers who go around the desert with automatic weapons hoping to shoot Mexican drug dealers in the face. It was pretty clear from spending even a short amount of time with the guy that J.T. was a racist, a nutjob, and someone who had delusional fantasies about machine-gunning the bad guys like an action-movie hero. Even so, it’s a pretty big leap from that to actually doing what he did. It’s clear now that the guy had more twisted demons inside him than even the average gun-toting militia member. The cops are still sorting out what events led to the senseless death of four people, but in the next few days, we’re sure the shooting will serve to bring up old debates about Arizona’s incredibly lax gun laws (you can basically own a tank there) and the existence of these militias—if that isn’t already happening.
Watch our piece on J.T. Ready here