America’s First Hippie: Living, Learning, and Going Long with Gypsy Boots
Photos courtesy of Kees Van Voorthuizen
My mother hated hippies. She also wasn’t keen on meeting strangers, long-haired or otherwise. And her mood was especially dark that day in 1970 when the two of us were vacationing at the Hilton in Beverly Hills. She’d been waging a long battle with my father, her ex-husband, over me, their seven-year-old, and worried that she’d either lose custody or I’d “turn hippie” thanks to California’s corrupting influence. So when a hyperactive senior citizen with shoulder-length silver hair, a scraggly beard, and love beads around his neck approached us in the hotel lobby while banging a tambourine, shaking maracas, dancing a Russian cossack jig, and chanting, “I’m-a the Gypsy Boots, I live on nuts and fruits,” I wasn’t surprised when my mother yelled at him to get lost. I wanted him to scram, too. Ordinary hippies—the ones I saw on TV or hitchhiking through our New Jersey suburb—they intrigued me, but this one seemed crazy. Scary crazy. Why was this man who looked older than my grandparents behaving like a kindergarten escapee?
“Make him leave, Ma,” I whispered.
She certainly tried to. But Gypsy Boots was a man on a mission, which was to cheer up the sad-sack divorcee and kid he’d just come across. And, being irresistible, he succeeded. Within minutes, Gypsy had my mother and me smiling at him, then laughing with him, applauding his antics, trying out his musical instruments, and humming along to his inane ditties. Boots wasn’t drunk or on drugs, as I had heard other hippies were. Like the female protagonist of the film Harold And Maude, this guy was just chronically jubilant, the archetypal holy fool. After he was gone, leaving me with a free autographed copy of his self-published memoir, Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat, my mother admitted that she hadn’t felt this happy since before my father left her. It amazed me to hear her say that. And it amazed me to realize I felt the same way.
What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t know for a long time, was that Gypsy Boots was important, nationally important, an odd figure who had changed the course of American culture. He wasn’t just an old hippie, he was the ur hippie. His journey started in the late 1930s, when Boots, nearing 20, left the working world, grew his hair and beard long, and went “back to nature.” This was way beyond Thoreau at Walden Pond: For years at a time, Boots would sleep in California forests, bathe in mountain streams, feed himself by foraging for nuts and fruits and vegetables, practice yoga, and wear practically nothing in the way of clothing. A dozen other Nature Boys, as they were called, kept him company (including eden ahbez, who wrote “Nature Boy,” the hit song for Nat King Cole, supposedly about Boots), but Gypsy was the most visible of the gang, the one who would eventually become a star.
Long before the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, “Hollywood’s ageless athlete,” as Boots was known, created a counterculture for them to inhabit. He did this by performing fitness demonstrations on network television and in movies, opening one of America’s first health-food restaurants, racing around LA in his crazily painted van with organic treats for a network of customers—all to spread his message, which was deadly serious in spite of his constant clowning: “Why cling to sickly, fretful, conformist ways when you can be your healthiest, happiest, most authentic self?”
Gypsy died in 2004, just short of his 90th birthday. With his centennial coming up next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about him—what he meant to history and what he meant to me.
Two and a half decades after our encounter in Beverly Hills, Gypsy reappeared in my life. By this time, my mother was long gone—she’d died of breast cancer at 49—and I was living in New York City, volunteering as a cook at a soup kitchen for the homeless. I didn’t think much about Boots; he was a luminous childhood memory, nothing more. Then, while browsing my shelves, I came across the memoir he’d given me, and I decided to bring it to the soup kitchen. Maybe we could use some of the vegetarian recipes he’d included in his book. As I consulted Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat while cooking, a middle-aged woman I worked with noticed the book and grinned and said, “Wow, Gypsy Boots! When I was a flower child in Hollywood in the 60s, Gypsy was such an inspiration. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s still going—I just ran into him last year!”
“Wait,” I said, “he’s still alive?”
“Sure, and he hasn’t changed one bit since the old days. He came roaring into this ashram I was at, shouting, ‘Don’t panic, go organic,’ and making everybody crack up.”
Until then, I’d never met anyone who’d known of Gypsy. So, he was still around, inhabiting the present as well as the past! That night, I called 411 in Los Angeles County and requested a listing for Gypsy Boots. I was doing this out of curiosity, but also as a sort of tribute to my late mother.
Don’t Get Caught: I’ve Spent 8+ Years in the System for a Nonviolent Felony
I’d been involved in selling drugs since I first smoked weed when I was 13. It just made sense to me that in order to have the money to use drugs, I’d have to sell some, too. I never thought I was doing anything wrong—my entrepreneurship put smiles on a lot of faces, and I did it better than most people ’cause I showed up on time and wasn’t a greedy, lying scumbag. I did abuse my stash pretty frequently, but I had enough self-control to avoid going off the deep end.
As a kid, I attended elite prep schools, played hockey year-round, and wound up getting accepted into Skidmore College, where, smooth as silk, I kept selling narcotics, mostly to my fellow students. Soon, I was HOOKED, living lovely off all that drug loot. I drove all around the Northeast like a madman, bartering and hustling coke, weed, X, shrooms, and whatever else seemed like a good flip. (I stayed away from dope and crack, though—you have to draw the line somewhere.)
I was so cocky—I never actually thought the pork-chop patrol would come after me. I ignored the illegality of what I was doing and didn’t care about my well-being enough to investigate or even pay attention to the laws. But as I soon learned, the law was paying lots of attention to me.
On a seemingly normal Friday night in February 2004, I was outside a Barnes & Noble with my older brother and his son when I got tagged by an undercover cop who looked like an upstate trailer-park stick-up kid. In retrospect, I wish he had robbed me for all my money instead of cuffing me in front of my six-year-old nephew. At that moment, my brain was spiraling through a million made-up explanations for my arrest instead of accepting the nightmarish reality of what was about to happen next. The pigs had a search warrant, and they took me back to my crib to rifle through my head stash, which was substantial enough to get me charged with five felonies and, potentially, 12 to 25 years in prison. I was 23 years old.
I spent the night in county jail and then, thankfully, was released on bail to await my trial. At the time, I was in my last semester of college and had been as excited as a nip-sucking piglet to finally graduate with all of my peoples. The future was so bright, and unlike most of my fellow students, I was in the black: I had a ton of money saved. I had already booked my plane tickets and hotel reservations to go to Italy with my girlfriend. But not anymore. Whatever the outcome of the trial, I knew my parents would be devastated (way more than I was), and I’d probably be kicked out of school.
I ended up taking a plea bargain. I was sentenced to three to nine years in state prison. My lengthy sentence was at least partially a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time—’04 was an election year, and the politicians in Saratoga Springs, where I was living and dealing, thought the town had a drug problem. The district attorney who prosecuted me probably figured nabbing a college student “involved in a drug-trafficking ring from New York City” (as the local paper referred to me) was a good demonstration that the city was tough on crime. They made an example out of me.
I took the plea deal in August, and they told me I was going to jail in October. Because I was at home, living in my own apartment, I spent that summer in an awkward sort of hell—I was technically free, but soon not to be. Every day that passed inched me closer to The End. It was such an awful countdown—never before or since in my life have I wanted time to stand still.
When the morning of that loathsome day arrived I was already running late, stumbling out of my girl’s apartment, hungover and sleep-deprived. I left my bonerabelle sobbing uncontrollably in the bed. She couldn’t handle going to court and watching the police take me away. We’d been together a couple years, and this was the most horrible way imaginable to say good-bye. Only death would’ve been worse.
I found my parents parked on the street, waiting, already lockjawed with tears in their eyes. They were so caring that they had even temporarily moved to Saratoga Springs, renting an apartment for a few months to watch over me while I was out on bail, making sure I didn’t do anything stupid before I was sent away, which I probably would have if they weren’t there. I still cringe over the pain I put my father and mother through. I felt like the Human Turd.
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.”