THE MAN WHO WAS THERE -
ROBERT KING HAS BEEN COVERING THE FSA SO LONG THEY NAMED HIM “HAJI MEMPHIS”
(Above) September 30, 2012: Fighters with the jihadist Tawhid brigade in the midst of a battle with Syrian Army troops inside Aleppo’s hotly contested al-Arkoub neighborhood.
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. Robert is a man with a heart of gold, a preternatural gut, and balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond). For more than two decades he has documented the most volatile places in the world at their most violent times, including Iraq, Albania, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and many others. We won’t get into all he’s done and where he’s been here because the following 20 pages of reportage he sent us speak for themselves.
August 28, 2012: A man holds up his Koran in front of an FSA flag at a protest after Friday prayers in Aleppo.
Ibecame interested in the conflict in Syria for the same reason I’ve always wanted to cover anything—it seemed to be underreported. There weren’t very many news organizations willing to commit resources needed to inform their readers about the situation on a continuous basis, so I took it upon myself to do so.
I genuinely believed in the Syrian people’s call for more than just demonstrations, especially once it was made apparent that Assad’s regime was using helicopters, jets, detainment, and torture to squash the rebellion. During a stint in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005, I was kidnapped by a brigade of Sunni fighters. I managed to escape, but I was wary of going back to the region—especially to a country where a violent battle had erupted between rebel forces and government troops. Still, I knew I had to go, and before I left my home in Memphis I established connections with relief and aid groups working inside Syria.
My initial contacts directed me toward other people who, once I was inside, would hopefully point me in the direction of activists who could smuggle me in via a city near the Syrian border. When I felt confident that I had ensured my safe passage as much as I could, I began to move into Syria very cautiously.
For about $1,000 round trip, I was able to take a back door into the country and was guaranteed—as much as a smuggler can guarantee—safe passage for ten days inside the governorate of Idlib. They took me to a town called Binnish, where they told me they could find me a place to stay for about $100 a night.
The first round wasn’t a very easy go. At that point, late March through April, there were still very few publications willing to assign long excursions into Syria. I also quickly discovered that the activists I was embedded with were in the habit of staying up and drinking Pepsi till the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping in until 3 PM.
The reality was that Binnish was pretty dead. There wasn’t much fighting or anything else going on, and it was difficult to get my guides to take me to the places I wanted to go. Looking back, hiring these people was probably not the wisest investment. Around Easter weekend, toward the end of my three-week trip, a horrific massacre broke out about ten miles away in Taftanaz. Dozens of people were slaughtered. And I was one of the only Western journalists there.
After the onslaught, there were fears that the fighting would spread to Binnish. The Free Syrian Army rebels who had tried to contain the attack in Taftanaz left about two hours after they arrived because they had run out of ammunition. It quickly became apparent that they were incapable of protecting or enforcing anything.
Members of the Free Syrian Army’s mughaweer (commandos) and Ah al-Rassi (Freedom for the Assi River) brigades return to al-Qusayr after a battle near the Lebanese border in Homs. (The photos contained within this piece were taken by an independent photographer before the author visited the region. The Lebanese rebel-supporters and Hezbollah members interviewed throughout the piece refused to be photographed for obvious reasons.)
ON THE LAM IN LEBANON -
SYRIA’S VIOLENCE BLEEDS OVER THE BORDER
It’s dusk when the rebels move into position within a cluster of lemon and olive groves about 300 feet from the Syrian border post north of the bleak and dusty Lebanese farming village of al-Qaa. I’m watching the operation from behind the troops with their commander, a Lebanese man I’ll call “Hussein” who oversees 200 rebel fighters in the area.
“We’re moving some guys into [the nearby Syrian town of] al-Qusayr and need to distract Assad’s troops,” Hussein tells me. His brigade is tasked with keeping the guns, money, and fighters flowing between Lebanon and Syria. He interrupts our conversation to bark out an order on his walkie-talkie, keeping it short and sweet so his signal has less of a chance of being intercepted.
“OK,” Hussein orders. “Move in.”
His soldiers fan out across the olive orchard, preparing to attack the concrete buildings, ringed by sandbags, distracting the border guards while another unit of fighters seven miles away slips across the border undetected. A classic diversion.
The idyllic orchard explodes into war. Three rocket-propelled grenades fly toward the border post. A dozen automatic rifles and machine guns release a rain of ammunition; muzzle flashes light up the darkening sky.
“We do this every few days,” Hussein laughs. “But so do they,” he adds while pointing toward Assad’s troops.
The Syrian Army returns fire with machine guns and AK-47s of their own, sending bullets whipping through the grove at the rebels in front of us. Hussein and I are standing a few rows back, but we are still somewhat in the line of fire. I realize I’m uncomfortably close to the front line, even if I’m not right up on it. The bullets that hit the nearby trees aren’t aimed at us, but marksmanship is a moot point after you’re dead.
A moment later, Hussein’s troops pull back. They’ve distracted Assad’s border guys long enough for the other unit to cross into al-Qusayr undetected.
“Let’s go,” orders Hussein. “The [Syrian] helicopter will be here soon.” We retreat as bullets continue to fly our way. The trees in the orchard are our only cover, and they don’t offer much protection.
The skirmish is part of a nearly nightly series of clashes along the Syria-Lebanon border that seems to indicate the civil war is morphing into a regional conflagration. A week after my visit with Hussein, a car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing an important pro-rebel Lebanese intelligence officer and sparking battles in the streets of the capital and Tripoli that resulted in at least seven deaths. Neighboring Jordan and Iraq are accepting refugees in an attempt to contain the spread of civil strife while simultaneously avoiding direct involvement.
In Lebanon, staying neutral isn’t so easy. The nation’s deeply divided population and weak central government have left it vulnerable to spillover from nearby conflicts. While most of the world is focused on the slaughter in Aleppo and rising tensions between Syria and Turkey, another, potentially devastating conflict is breaking out right next door.
Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee Wants to Give Americans Money for Nothing
Walking the streets of New York City this spring, you would have been hard-pressed not to come across posters promoting the Occupy Wall Street-led May Day general strike. “A day without the 99 percent,” is how it was billed. With the strike, the group was attempting to light a fire that might bring down capitalism and launch the US into an American Spring. However, Occupy’s rallying cry fell on deaf ears, as the rally had poor attendance and limited impact. Looking back, it seems like that was the moment that the pied pipers of political and economic discontent’s critical mass finally dissipated. The group’s momentum seemed to have run its course, and the fickle media’s attention turned to the sideshow that was the 2012 presidential election.
After May Day, Occupy had to find itself all over again. Call it an identity crisis. But in an organization as decentralized as OWS, where individual efforts and actions are constantly emerging as branches and nodes of a shape-shifting whole, identity is a fluid concept anyway. The post-May Day breakdown was a chance for rebirth—a function of Occupy Wall Street’s built-in eternal recurrence mechanism. It was in this ferment that Occupy forged its next project: Rolling Jubilee, a plan to buy anonymous medical debt, thus offering relief to Americans burdened by exorbitant healthcare costs.
“From the very beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the question of crippling debt that people are forced to carry has always been part of the agenda,” says Yates McKee, a member of Occupy’s Strike Debt team, which is leading the Rolling Jubilee project. “Student debt, mortgage debt, medical debt, and municipal debt—all of that has been a part of Occupy from the very beginning.”
Activists within Occupy Student Debt, an early sub-group of Occupy focused on the debt crisis, had the idea of using Occupy’s I Am The 99 Percent Tumblr to present real people who were debtors and break the silence around debt. It was a issue that was close to their hearts, as many of the original Occupy campers were debtors of all stripes.
As Yates explains it, Occupy Student Debt went on to create the Pledge of Refusal, which many Occupy participants signed. “It wasn’t about forgiveness,” Yates emphasizes. “It didn’t say, ‘Let’s come up with a piece of legislation that forgives our debt.’ Rather, it noted that going into debt is systematic. In order to live, you have to enter into this predatory debt. So the Pledge of Refusal was non-compliant with the debt system. It was similar to a debt strike.”
Originally, the debt strike concept gained a lot of traction within the Occupy movement, but people across the country weren’t ready for such an idea and conditions across the country couldn’t support a mass default. So in the post-May Day void, where Occupy’s idealism finally gave way to reality, they knew they had to take another approach to fighting debt. Luckily, the Occupy Student Debt movement still had a great deal of enthusiasm behind it, even after May Day.
“The only campaign that still had a lot of energy was the Occupy Student Debt campaign,” observes Yates. “So over the summer, we decided to have what we call ‘thematic assemblies,’ where in one assembly we talked about the environment, and in another assembly we talked about labor. And then we did one on debt. And we made sure to invite everyone from Occupy Student Debt, Occupy Universities, Free University, and Occupy Labor.”
The larger assembly then got together and discussed what would it mean to build a political movement around debt in all its forms and not just on certain types of debt in isolation, like student loans. This ultimately lead to the transformation of Occupy Student Debt into Strike Debt, the sub-group which now healms the Rolling Jubilee.
“One phrase we started to use was ‘Debt is the tie that binds the 99 percent’” says Yates. “There is something structural about the debt economy we’re forced to go into in our lives. And this was when we flipped the idea of a debt strike to Strike Debt. What would it mean to strike debt, to attack debt from all these different angles and metaphorically cross it out?”
Occupy describes the vast swaths of America’s debtors as “an invisible army of defaulters.” What if this invisible army were to come out of the shadows and become a political force? Out of this thought experiment came debt memes like “You are not alone” and ultimately the Rolling Jubilee program.
Jubilee, as laid out in the Bible’s book of Leviticus, was a time when debts were forgiven. Strike Debt appropriated the concept in a symbolic way and used it as the namesake for its first major project, in which a fund—financed by donations—buys debt.
GUNRUNNING WITH THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY -
THEY SAID I’D BE YELLING “ALLAHU AKHBAR” IN NO TIME
In the past few months, Assad’s forces had launched a devastating aerial campaign on FSA-occupied towns in an attempt to stamp out the democratic experiments they had built—schools, postal services, and new public-works projects had all been targeted. In recent weeks, the FSA’s supply of munitions had been bottoming out. Opposition leaders had gone to Turkey and to Sunni financiers in the Gulf in hopes of securing antiaircraft missiles to shoot down Assad’s jets, but turned up empty-handed. Rumors that heavy-arms shipments were coming in by boat from Libya and France turned out to be bogus. Meanwhile, the US reprimanded Gulf countries for sending arms to support the rebels, citing fears of a growing jihadi presence within the FSA. Saudi Arabia shrugged its shoulders along with Qatar, officially stating that private donors were funneling money and guns to Salafists and foreign fighters. They warned that the absence of meaningful intervention could result in a “popular jihad,” one that would run along dangerous sectarian lines.
Since the uprising began last year, the Turkish town of Kilis has been transformed into a Casablanca of sorts—a dusty border limbo for hustlers, spies, and arms dealers. At a backroom bar in Kilis, I had met Hassan, a used-car salesman turned FSA gunrunner, who offered to take me with him into Syria. “I’d rather sell cars than run guns, but the regime shelled my garage,” he said. “What am I supposed to do?” The regime had devastated his wife’s village the year before, and so Hassan, a father of eight, had decided to organize a local militia.
I WENT TO SYRIA TO LEARN HOW TO BE A JOURNALIST
(AND FAILED MISERABLY AT IT WHILE ALMOST DYING A BUNCH OF TIMES)
Sunil Patel had never been published before he decided to go to Syria in August 2012 to become a war correspondent. Before his trip, the 25-year-old worked as a community-support officer for the London Police, lived with his mom and dad, and occasionally volunteered in Palestinian and Kurdish refugee camps. On one of his activist trips, Sunil befriended an ever so slightly more experienced freelance journalist from Canada who promised to take him into parts of Syria that were almost impossible for a foreigner to get to through legal routes. It was a foolish idea for sure, and he almost died several times during his trip, but we still think his story was worth the risk. And no, VICE did not send him there. He did this of his own accord, and we found out about it after the fact.
Imet Carlos in an internet café in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan (and, obviously, “Carlos” is not his real name). I overheard him talking about something involving Palestine and Syria over a Skype call, and when he had finished we struck up a conversation.
Carlos told me that he’d already been to Syria, shooting as a freelance photographer, and that he was going back soon. I told him how I’d been thinking about going there to write about the conflict, but that I didn’t have any experience as a journalist. “You know what?” he said. “I’ll take you to Syria.” He didn’t seem to mind that I was a novice.
That night, Carlos crashed at my hostel. He didn’t have his own place to stay or money for a room, so he slept on the floor. It was a bit dodgy sneaking him in, but worth it, because we spent the whole night talking about Syria.
I got the impression that Carlos wanted someone to travel with. I already had a ticket home to London, but we came up with an arrangement: I would fly back, and when Carlos was ready to return to Syria he would call me and we’d meet up in Turkey. From there, Carlos explained, we could cross the border. “I’ve got contacts,” he said. I was a little nervous, but this sounded like a good plan to me. We’d never have war reporters like Robert Fisk or Seymour Hersh if they’d stayed at home with their moms instead of going into the shit.
Back in London, my parents were not too keen on my plans to travel to a country in the middle of a civil war. They thought I was going to get killed. My sister was really mad. I told them that I’d always wanted to be a war correspondent, and that if I ever was going to have a chance to become a real journalist, this was it. If people want news, somebody’s got to go cover it. But they didn’t care. They were upset.
The very next day, Carlos called. “Listen, man,” he said. “I’m going in. You coming or not?”
My mind was already made up. I told Carlos I’d meet him there and booked the next flight to Turkey.
My plane landed in Istanbul, and then I took the bus to Hatay, where Carlos was staying with friends. The Syrian border is about 25 miles to the southeast. We wanted to get there as soon as possible, but neither of us spoke more than a few words of Turkish or Arabic. Luckily, we met a Turkish family who helped us get there. They took us into their home, gave us tea, and we ended up talking to them using Google Translate, typing words into their computer. We explained that we were trying to get to Syria. Somehow they understood and helped us call one of Carlos’s contacts, who was supposed to meet us near the border to help us cross. We just had to get there.
At this point, Carlos promptly informed me that he was a veteran hitchhiker and had bummed rides all over Eastern Europe, so we decided to hitchhike to the Syrian border. We probably made a funny pair—I’m Indian, so I wasn’t as suspect, but Carlos is a white guy with black hair and a camera slung around his neck. I don’t know whether this made truck drivers more or less likely to pick us up, but we thumbed it all the way down the narrow two-lane road outside Hatay. It took us about seven rides with truck drivers and more than three hours to make it the 25 miles across the border. Carlos’s contact, a guy named Muhammad, drove us the last few miles, into a town called Reyhanli near the Syrian border.
One of the busiest border crossings between Turkey and Syria, Reyhanli is about 35 miles from Aleppo, where the war was really heating up. As we roamed around and tried to get oriented, loads of refugees were streaming into Turkey—to escape the war, I assumed.
We walked across the border. No one stopped us or asked us any questions. We just walked right in. On the other side, more refugees milled around, waiting to cross into Turkey in cars and on foot. We didn’t have an interpreter because we couldn’t afford one. Carlos didn’t have any more contacts, and at this point we were just hoping we’d see some rebels hanging around whom we could talk to and who would show us what war was like.
Just then, some men in military uniforms came up to us. “Journalist!” they shouted in Arabic. “Journalist!”
“Yeah, we’re journalists,” I said, in English. I think they understood me. “We want to get some coverage. Can you take us with you to the war?”
The VICE Guide to Syria
We have put together this guide in an attempt to condense the facts gleaned from thousands of pages of reference books, biographies, religious texts, firsthand accounts, reports, and other information that have informed this issue. We could’ve included dozens of additional entries, but in our opinion the topics below are the most important for you to begin to understand the complexities of the conflict. We also recommend that you read our illustrated timeline of Syria’s tumultuous history, “The Road to Ruin,” to provide some context before digging into the guide.
Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is the most important figure in Syria’s short history as an independent nation. Nearly every aspect of modern Syrian life was shaped by Hafez, which isn’t surprising given that he ruled the country with an iron first for decades—from 1970 until his death in 2000.
Hafez came from a long lineage of powerful men. His grandfather Sulayman was respected by his fellow villagers for his strength, courage, and marksmanship. They nicknamed him “al-Wahhish” (“The Wild Man”), which was apparently so fitting he adopted it as his surname. His son Ali Sulayman inherited many of his father’s fierce characteristics, cementing his kin’s reputation among the Alawite mountain tribes. In 1927, at the recommendation of some village elders, their last name was upgraded to the more distinguished al-Assad, meaning “The lion.”
According to Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography, Asad: Struggle for the Middle East, Hafez was born in Qardaha, when the northwestern village “consisted of a hundred or so mud or rough stone houses at the end of a dirt track. There was no mosque or church, no shop, no café, no paved road.” Few people in the region could read, but Hafez got lucky and snagged a spot in the nearby French colonial primary school. At 16, he joined the secular Pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party and quickly made himself into an invaluable asset by distributing Ba’athist literature, holding secret meetings at his house, and fighting rival groups and the police.
By 1963, Hafez played a major role in executing a coup that put the Ba’athists in charge. Three years later, he helped to engineer an even bloodier takeover that resulted in his appointment as minister of defense. Four years later, he staged another coup, clawing his way to the top and into the presidency—an office he would hold for the rest of his life.
A slick but uncompromising leader, Hafez managed to avoid the fate of previous Syrian overlords by undercutting his competition and brutalizing the opposition. He centralized the country’s political system, changed its constitution, and allied with the Soviet Union. Leveraging propaganda to present himself as a man of the people, he pushed Syria’s infrastructure toward modernization while suppressing dissent of any kind. In the process, he expanded the reach of Syria’s security forces and created a Soviet-style cult of personality for himself, commissioning thousands of statues, portraits, and posters to be displayed across the country. In 1982, he ordered the massacre of thousands of Sunnis in the country’s fourth-largest city, Hama, and a year later quashed a coup attempt by his younger brother Rifaat.
In a just world, Hafez would have been punished long before he died for his decades of iron-fisted rule. Instead, he passed away relatively peacefully, in 2000, from a heart attack.
Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus in 1965, five years before his father finished his ascent to the top of the Ba’athist Party. The third of five children, Bashar had a “normal” childhood that included frequent soccer games and ping-pong matches with his father. Few expectations were placed on Bashar, mostly because it was understood that his older brother, Bassel, would inherit his father’s presidency when the time came. Bassel—charismatic, confident, and good at sports—was the natural choice for a successor; Bashar was shy and uninterested in government. He graduated high school in 1982 and went on to become an army physician, then went to London’s Western Eye Hospital to study ophthalmology.
In 1994, Bashar’s life was forever changed when Bassel died in a car accident. Immediately after the funeral, Bashar was deemed the heir apparent, and his preparation for the presidency began: He joined the military academy and began working out of his deceased brother’s office.
Hafez died on June 10, 2000, and Bashar assumed the presidency at the tender age of 34, so young that parliament had to lower the minimum age so he could “run” for office. A sham election was held, followed by another in 2007 that “reelected” him.
If the lesser-son-unexpectedly-takes-over-the-empire narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the plot of The Godfather. Except Bashar is more like Fredo than Michael. Regime insiders told the Financial Timesthat Bashar is insecure and prone to mood swings. His uncle Rifaat, who fled the country after trying to take it over in 1983, told CNN that Bashar “follows what the regime decides on his behalf.” Bashar might have been a decent doctor, but as a dictator he was both brutal and prone to waffling, a deadly combination. “You discuss an issue with him in the morning and another person comes along and changes his mind,” said former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Whatever combination of poor choices and bad luck led him here, Bashar is quickly painting himself into a corner with a whole lot of blood. Some accounts attest that he refuses to step down because he fears his Alawite clan will be massacred by the rebels. “Syria’s Assad Has Embraced Pariah Status,” read aWashington Post headline over the summer. That seems like a fitting epitaph for a man who didn’t ask for a regime or revolution to fall on his head but seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
Looking back on his early life, it seems crazy that this nerdy goofball—who, by the way, took the Hippocratic oath—would end up being mentioned in the same breath as Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-Il. From time to time he probably asks himself: “For fuck’s sake… what am I doing? I wanted to be an eye doctor and bang English broads.”
CIVIL LIBERTIES AND THE EMERGENCY LAW
As you might’ve guessed by now, Syria’s never exactly been a bastion of freedom or human rights. In the colonial era, the French government routinely executed villagers without fair trial and displayed the corpses of “bandits” in Damascus’s central square. After WWII, Adib Shishakli, a military commander who ran the country, dissolved all opposition political parties, banned newspapers, and persecuted ethnic minorities. In 1963, the Ba’ath Party took power and declared a state of emergency that gave the country’s security forces wide-ranging powers; the “emergency law” was finally revoked in April 2011, ironically, just as the real crisis began.
Syria’s emergency law dictated that citizens can be arrested, detained, tried, and sentenced without due process or access to an attorney. All this continues today. Elections are held, but only as a formality.
Freedom of assembly is written into the constitution, but the Ministry of Interior has to approve any gathering of more than five people. Before the revolution, protests against Israel were usually approved, while their pro-Islam, pro-Kurdish, and antigovernment counterparts were quickly broken up. Last year, as demonstrations spread, security forces were given the green light by the regime to disperse protests by shooting civilians and leaving them to die in the street.
THE DAMASCUS SPRING
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in 2000, when Bashar took over, Syrians were hopeful that the new Western-educated president would begin dismantling the security state. Proud citizens met in private homes to discuss reforms in a movement that was called the Damascus Spring. Intellectuals signed the “Statement of the 99,” a manifesto demanding an end to martial law and the freeing of political prisoners. Bashar even gave them a reason for hope when he shut down Mezzeh Prison, long reviled for its brutal treatment of inmates. But this hope did not last long.
In August 2001, the regime cracked down on would-be reformers, arresting prominent members of the discussion groups that it had been tolerating, charging people with “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means” and “inciting racial and sectarian strife.”
The hope in the West is, of course, that once Assad is toppled, the rebels will institute a free and democratic society and everyone will live happily ever after; however, the presence of jihadists fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army indicates that the country could potentially replace secular authoritarianism with theocratic oppression if religious extremism is left unchecked.
Making Friends with the Prostitutes of Switzerland
In Italy, much like every single other country in the world, it’s not uncommon to see girls—with or without penises—stalking street corners, watched over by some volatile pimp in a pleather jacket and a bad haircut. The act of selling yourself isn’t actually a crime here, but aiding or inducing the sale of yourself is, which makes hooking kind of tricky, especially if you’re not particularly into the thought of spending your evening inside a cell.
For those who want to make a little extra change in partnership with their vagina, however, Switzerland—just across the border—is a haven for sex workers, being one of the few European countries where prostitution is legal. Bar Oceano, a historical, family-run brothel in the Swiss border town of Lugano, is one of the landmarks of the Swiss sex industry, so my friend Georgio and I drove up there to have a chat with Ulisse, the brothel’s 60-year-old owner, and Nicola, his right-hand man.
After being greeted by a monolithic bouncer, we were led inside to the brothel’s reception. We quickly found out that Ulisse had already gone home for the day to sit in his pyjamas, but he had left his 19-year-old niece, Diandra, in charge. Diandra told us a bit about how the brothel usually functions. “The clients come into the lounge, pay the cover charge—which includes a drink—then all the girls line up in front of them.”
Diandra gave us some good advice, should we ever feel like forking out cash for sex at any point in the future: “Never pick the first girl, they’re always the most desperate.”
You have to be registered to prostitute yourself professionally in Switzerland, which, by law, only EU citizens are allowed to do. Until last year, the Swiss government would turn a blind eye, meaning girls from all over the world (but mostly South America and Eastern Europe) would flock to its brothels, but since they cracked down, there are only Romanian girls left.
Diandra at reception.
Despite the fact that everything seems to be running by the books, the brothel still has its problems with the police. “Our girls all have visas, but the police always end up finding something they don’t like,” Diandra told us. “First, the room prices are too high, then they call us out on girls approaching clients, which is illegal because it’s considered soliciting.”
After we’d been given the full run-down, we asked to chat with some of the girls. Diandra took us through to the VIP lounge, where we were told to choose any one of the girls on offer. The first girl we spoke to was Paola, a 27-year-old Romanian who’d previously worked in Spain but had been living in Switzerland for the last couple of years. She didn’t appear to have any reservations about her line of work, because “a job is a job and I do it for the money.”
Paola does everything—”everything everything”—in her very pink, pungently-scented, IKEA-heavy room: pisses on people, licks feet, sodomizes men, and dresses up in costumes. Once she even dressed up in a dog costume, which makes me kind of worried for the majority of dogs wherever that particular client calls home. Many of her customers are married Italian men, but she claims she’d never set foot in Italy because streetwalkers there are “garbage, they never wash and they do it in cars.”
Nine Months Living With a Junkie
Editor’s Note: The name of the author and all the names in this story have been changed.
I didn’t know Clark was a heroin addict when he moved in with me. I had only met him in person once before, actually. We had an online relationship—he added me on Facebook, and every month or so we’d send some dumb videos to each other. This is how you find roommates in the 21st century. I needed someone to split rent with, he didn’t want to live in his old apartment, and things fell together. Before I knew it, he’s unpacking several carloads of clothes, trinkets, decorations, and household miscellany into my living room. He has these awesome leather-bound suitcases, the sort of thing Humphrey Bogart would use on cross-continental train trips. The house is starting to look better with him living in it. He knows way more about how to make a house a home than I do.
THE FIRST MONTH
He might have had good taste in luggage, but Clark’s a man of peculiar habits. He plays these bizarre noise records, he’s got a weird fixation on wire hangers, he likes to walk around downtown recording overheard conversations with a handheld microphone. He begins a kind of Banksy-lite street-art campaign all over town. This is fine, it gives the house some character, but I’m realizing that Clark has different boundaries than I do when it comes to drug use. He tells me right to my face that he’d done “a bit of H” last week, and that it was just some stuff he had left over that he was trying to get rid of. He says heroin is lame, and it gets over-idealized in his perspective. I don’t know anyone who ever idealized heroin, which makes me feel somehow uncool. Clark says he had to ease out of the stuff, and he was now done for good. I don’t know how to talk about this stuff, so I smile and say, “Yeah I know that feeling.” I don’t. Not at all.
THE SECOND MONTH
Strange, clattering, vaguely musical noises start coming from Clark’s room at 4 AM, also lots of giggling. I haven’t really met any of Clark’s friends, but they’re all esoteric people. One guy, Jeremy, is missing most of his teeth and wears a business tie on top of a tank top. I also hardly ever see Clark during the day now—the only way I know he’s in his room is I sometimes hear a rough-sounding cough. There’s clearly something seriously wrong going on here, but I don’t want to think about it. I start to lock my bedroom door.
THE THIRD MONTH
I come into my living room one day to find that Clark has pinned dozens of dozens of old black-and-white photographs all over our living room. They’re portraits of stony-faced old people who were staring into the camera without the slightest hint of humor. I ask Clark where he found all these and he tells me he went dumpster diving earlier, and gestures to a stack of moldy old books. He also bought a big black mechanical box that he says is used to grow mushrooms. Once again, I don’t ask any questions. He and his friends have started to shout out these almost cult-like incantations (“BORG-BORG”) till 6 AM. Sometimes I’ll see them hanging with the crusties in the neighborhood. I think they all live in the big old abandoned mansion a couple blocks down the street. They’ll go inside, shoot up, and puke behind the big oak tree in the front yard.
The Deaths of David Foster Wallace
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide, his death wasn’t just mourned—it was read. It was read like code, like apology, like an event in a novel—not simply a plot-level event but a meta-level event, a commentary on the history and future of the novel itself. Theories went something like: Wallace killed himself because he’d lost faith in postmodernism and/or his own efforts to replace it (“killed himself if only to prove that postmodernism was dead”)1; because he was sick of irony but couldn’t see a way out of it; because his own virtuosic mind was no match for its own despair; because he’d lost faith in the ethos of daily attention to which his writing paid homage—as his friend Jonathon Franzen put it, had “arguably…died of boredom.”2 Insofar as one could find hope in his magnum opus Infinite Jest—“no single moment is unendurable”—his death seemed to negate this hope, to proclaim that this hope was not—ultimately, in the final analysis—enough.
Wallace’s widow, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about his suicide in terms of aesthetic or metaphysical despair. “It was just a day in his life,” she says, “and a day in mine.”3 She folds his death back into the longer story of his life—it was one day amongst many—and robs it of the sense of inevitability that others have forced upon it.
Even the title of D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, suggests the size of his suicide’s shadow: it has become impossible to love Wallace’s work without reckoning with his ghost, how he ghosted himself. The book’s structure reinforces this suggestion of totalizing importance by closing, somewhat abruptly, with the event of the suicide itself. There’s no closing retrospective glance—no depiction of the mourning or eulogies—only the hanging and the unfinished manuscript left behind.
Max generally steers clear of the “Was his suicide an expression of generic/metaphysical anxiety?” fray, but his final lines nonetheless linger on an uneasy parallel between life and art:
“This [manuscript] was his effort to show the world what it was to be ‘a fucking human being.’ He had never completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen” (301).
He had never completed it to his satisfaction… Vague pronouns offer a syntactical slide between living and writing; the uncompleted “it” refers to the struggle of being “a fucking human being” and the struggle to write a manuscript about what this struggle was like; “this” means both the end of Wallace’s life and the nonexistent ending of his book.
Max closes with Wallace’s act as an expression of agency (“he had chosen”) and with a suggestion about the way in which his agency worked against the desires of others—“not an ending anyone would have wanted for him.” In this, Max closes his book by glancing towards the people left behind—editors and loved ones and the fans who were also, for Wallace, “loved ones” of a different stripe.
Wallace often spoke of his readership in terms of love:
"…it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved."4
In his biography, Max gives us both sides of Wallace—the part of him that could give love, and the part of him that desperately wanted it. His writing was always courting both ideals; his suicide felt—to some, to many—like a betrayal of both.