Q: Bob Dylan (and my boss, Jake Dobkin) both like to exclaim that “nostalgia is death.” Which probably says more about them, and their own particularly complex relationships with nostalgia, than anything else. But do you think of yourself as a nostalgic person? How does nostalgia play into your appreciation of the urban landscape?
A: I understand what people mean by that expression, but it categorizes nostalgia in too simple a way. Nostalgia is like an intoxicant — in moderation it can be a rewarding experience, but if abused/overused, it becomes toxic. To indulge in nostalgia is to romanticize the past and stop living in the present. This could be totally fine for short periods of time, just a nice way to remember a pleasant time you experienced, but if it becomes a way of thinking, it ruins the present because there’s no way the present moment can compare to a fabricated, romanticized version past. Nostalgia has a way of erasing the shitty parts of reality. Like when people are nostalgic for, say, NYC in the 1800’s — the horse and buggies, the handmade shop signs, the elaborate suits and dresses — they’re forgetting (or perhaps never knew) that the city then was a filthy cesspool of trash and sewage, disease was rampant, and the clothing was insufferably hot and restrictive, and sometimes even deadly for women cooking with open flame.
The foot is a most easily accessible tool and it had a lengthy history as a means of measuring before the introduction of national and international standards. So how were earlier standards created? In this short video from 1981, the British physicist Reginald Victor Jones demonstrates a clever methodology for finding the length of an average foot illustrated in a 16th-century German geometry book. The video is excerpted from Jones’s 1981 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series ‘From Magna Carta to Microchip’, a marvellously dated and humorously English account of the history and principles of measurement.
Dr Rita Charon explains how Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel about American slavery is used to train medical students, encouraging them to "write what can't be told".
This is the final part of The Essay's five-part series, Narrative Medicine - a term coined to describe the capacity to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by stories of illness. Simply, it's medicine practised by someone who knows what to do with stories. Part of the BBC's NHS at 70 season.
Warning: this episode deals with serious medical issues and trauma.
In the 1970s, Algiers served as refuge to African Americans who confronted US racism with force and had to flee the country. Some Panthers hijacked planes.
As airline travel became more common in the 1950s and 1960s, hijacking planes also became a common practice. By the early 1970s, nearly 160 high jacking incidents occurred.
The book “The Skies Belong to Us” by the American writer, Brendan Koerner, charts some of this history of the golden age of airplane highjacking and connects it to the activities of the Black Panther Party and the party’s international office in Algiers.
Koerner’s account of skyjackings in the US in the 1960s and 1970s is nothing short of surreal. In that unimaginable world, passengers did not undergo TSA screenings, there were no scanners, did not even have to show boarding passes or IDs, and sometimes even paid for their tickets after reaching their destination. Skyjacking was not even illegal in the 50s and high-jacking airplanes had very little to do with political cause. One of Koerner’s most entertaining examples, a man who diverted a plane to Cuba because he was missing his mom’s style frijoles.
Algeria was one of the favorite destinations for hijackers, beside Cuba.
Newly independent Algeria had a deep flair for revolutionaries. Houari Boumédiène, Algeria’s second president and revolutionary leader, showed unconditional support of the Palestinian cause and Western Sahara, had close ties with Nelson Mandela (and the South African liberation movement), Yasser Arafat and the PLO, Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, and authorized actions such as welcoming the international section of the Black Panther Party and the Canary Islands Independence Movement (MPAIAC) – which aired their radio station from Algiers. Boumédiène’s solidarity with revolutionary movements across the globe earned the country a reputation of being a revolutionary heaven, a Mecca of sorts of revolutions.
One side effect was that Boumédiène’s internationalism also turned Algiers into a popular destination for politically-motivated highjacked airplanes. In fact, in 1975 Venezuela’s Ilich Ramirez Sanchez and his 42 hostages landed in Algiers putting Abdelaziz Bouteflika (then-minister of foreign affairs; now the President) in the negotiator’s seat. In 1977 leftist Japanese Red Army guerrillas landed their high-jacked plane and surrendered in Algiers, and in 1970 when 40 “Brazilian political prisoners were exchanged for the kidnapped West German Ambassador,” they requested to land in Algiers where they were welcomed with cigarettes.
But perhaps one of the most dramatic stories of planes highjacked to Algiers had to be the two airplanes highjacked by Black Panther members Roger Holder and George Wright and commandeered to Algiers in 1972. By then the Black Panther Party had opened an international chapter in Algiers led by Eldridge Cleaver who decided to seek exile in Algeria once Cuba did not look safe enough. Eldridge was in the company of several Black Panther Party members who were very active from the Panther offices in Algiers. Indeed, Donald Cox, Pete O’Neal, and Kathleen Cleaver were based there, and it made sense for Holder to set Algiers as the destination of his highjacked plane.
On June 2 1972, Western Airlines Flight 701 with 98 passengers and a seven-member crew was hijacked in Los Angeles by Holder and Catherine Marie Kerkew. The flight was on its way to Seattle when Holder executed his long-planned “Operation Sisyphus.”
Holder was a US army veteran, toured Vietnam four times, but on his third tour of Vietnam got arrested for possessing marijuana in Saigon. His time in jail made him not only experience firsthand race oppression of African Americans within the U.S. military, but also made him deeply reflect on the war effort and the injustices he experienced both as a perpetrator and a victim of the war machine. Holder’s traumatic memories of his friends killed in action and his disillusionment with the Vietnam War haunted him for the rest of his life. He planned the skyjacking as a way to get out of the feeling of guilt he felt for both participating in the war and surviving it. He also wanted to put pressure on authorities to free Angela Davis who was then standing trial for murder.
Kerkew was Holder’s companion, accomplice, and lover. She came from Coos Bay in Oregon, randomly met Holder in January of 1972 when he knocked on her San Diego apartment’s door looking for her roommate. Kerkow’s involvement with the Black Panthers did not come across as a commitment on her part to the cause but a result of her rebellious personality.
Holder and Kerkew dropped half of the passengers in Los Angeles and the other half in New York, where the plane refueled before taking off for Algiers without any passengers. In Algiers and Roger and Cathy secured their $500,000 ransom. Holder, however, was not enamored by what he experienced in Algiers.
Upon Holder’s arrival with Kerkew, Algerian government officials quarantined the couple and their ransom. After long interviews and investigations with security services, Cathy and Roger were released to the Black Panthers but the money stayed in the custody of the Algerian state until a meeting with President Boumediene was arranged. Boumediene was on an official visit to Senegal. When he returned, he summoned the couple to the presidential palace. Koerner documents that despite Holder’s deep struggles with racial injustices in the US military, the President quickly dismissed him and Cathy as pedestrian trouble-makers rather than visionaries. The cash ransom was sent back to the US, but US requests to extradite the couple were rejected, and political asylum was granted to both of them.
Eldridge Cleaver was revolted that Boumediene took away the money that belonged to the revolution. This frustration was further escalated by a similar event, when a Detroit-based group commandeered Delta Airlines Flight 84 along with a one million dollars ransom to Algiers on July 31, 1972. Cleaver tried to beat Algerian security officials to the Maison Blanche Airport (now named after Houari Boumediene), aiming, to no avail, at instructing the highjackers to not part with the cash. The money was once again returned to the US.
Cleaver, frustrated, decides to address “Comrade Boumediene” in an open letter presented at a press conference despite his second-in-command Pete O’Neal advising him not to. Cleaver insisted that “the Afro-American people are not asking the Algerian people to fight our battles for us. What we are asking is that the Algerian government not fight the battles of the American government.” Boumediene was, as O’Neal feared, insulted by Cleaver’s words and responded not only by having dozens of soldiers raid the International Sector residence and haul away telephones, typewriters and AK-47s, but also by asking Cleaver to step down as head of the International Section.
From Boumediene’s perspective, the Algerian government was a generous host to the Black Panther Party. It allowed it to operate openly and freely, supported it politically and financially (disbursed monthly stipends thanks to petro-dinars), and ran the risk of severing its business (gas and oil) deals with (among others) American companies. From this point of view, the Black Panther Party had to demonstrate, in action, what it said it was there to do. Earning the money needed for the mission (rather than relying on skyjacked ransoms) was a necessary if basic step.
Yet, the Algerian government was not alone in its disenchantment with the Panthers’ International Section leadership. Indeed, when Cleaver accepted to step down as leader of the party and turn it over to O’Neal under the ultimatum presented by Algerian authorities, Holder was aghast and loathed Cleaver for this for a long time. Shortly after, O’Neal and his wife left Algeria to find greener pastures in Tanzania. (O’Neal, incidentally, would go on to gain some minor celebrity as the subject of his time in Tanzania, “A Panther in Africa.”) O’Neal named Roger Holder as the head of the International Section who eventually also left with Cathy for France.
Kerkew’s whereabouts remains a mystery. The couple seems to have separated in Paris where Cathy abandoned the Black Panther cause in favor of living a bourgeois life among French artists and celebrities. To this day, it is not clear what had become of her. Brendan Koerner closes the book imagining her in Paris living the kind of American Dream that could only be lived if America was left behind.
Algeria’s legacy for supporting international revolutionary causes can still be seen today in the country’s continued stand on the Palestinian cause and on Western Sahara. Yet its record on questions of race and attitudes towards blackness, especially as manifested in its practices with regards to migrants and refugees from neighboring Mali and Niger, is so poor it’s hard to imagine a time when Black Panthers roaming the Casbah or the spirit of the famous Pan-African festival of 1969 filling the streets of Algiers were a common thing.
What are the fates of ex combatants from Cote d’Ivoire’s 2002-2011 civil war and would they go back to fighting?
“I’m so fed up, I would happily go and fight with the jihadists in Mali,” a former Forces Nouvelles (FN) fighter declares to me during an interview in Korhogo, northern Cote d’Ivoire in November 2017. The interview was one of many in which ex-combatants expressed anger and frustration with the failings of the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program implemented by the UN and the Ivorian government from 2011 to 2015.
The FN were one of the main protagonists in a conflict fought against the government of Laurent Gbagbo and several of his militias between 2002 and 2011. The FN ruled the north of the country during this time and at its height comprised 33,000 members. The conflict, fought primarily as a result of the perceived marginalisation of northern people who were often viewed as not being “Ivorian”, ended after a particularly brutal round of conflict in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election. President Gbagbo refused to step down after the poll, which he was declared to have lost. This prompted clashes around the country, leaving around 3,000 people dead and eventually resulting in UN, French and FN troops bringing the now government, led by northerner Alassane Ouattara, to power.
In the most extreme cases these FN ex-combatants have called for revenge and violence against the current government because of their failure to adequately reintegrate them and keep promises made to them at the end of the conflict.
This feeling chimed with analysis made in a 2016 report by NGO Interpeace. The peacebuilding organization argued that ex-combatants who were demobilised in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 remain a significant risk to peace.
The report added that ex-combatants who have been well-trained in weapons and poorly demobilized represent a breeding ground for violence and mobilization.
And yet, there is no evidence of large-scale remobilization taking place in Cote d’Ivoire. Also, despite there being a raging conflict over the border in Mali, there are very few reports of ex-combatants going to fight in that conflict either.
As my interviewee in Korhogo pointed out, fighting in Mali presents a fine opportunity for many demobilized ex-combatants who are desperate for money and a job. Many Malians fought in Cote d’Ivoire’s conflict before returning home and business and family ties are common between Ivorians in northern Cote d’Ivoire and Malians.
So, why is remobilisation so scarce? What is it that is preventing former fighters taking up arms again in Cote d’Ivoire? And why are ex-combatants threatening to remobilise if they are not actually doing it?
Based on research with around 30 former FN fighters in post-conflict Cote d’Ivoire, I have found that ex-combatants’ approaches to remobilisation are typically shaped by their experience of their first conflict. The primary combat encounter has a long-lasting impact on former fighter’s identities and their attitudes to violence, and in the case of Cote d’Ivoire, this creates something of a barrier to remobilization.
For example, most Ivorian combatants thought of themselves as peacekeepers, rather than rebels. They were the ones who had installed the current government in power, ending the nine year on-off conflict and bringing peace to the country. Rather than being unruly mercenaries, they viewed themselves as noble warriors. “We are the peace,” exclaimed one ex-combatant during an interview, clearly a sentiment that is at odds with the prospect of remobilization.
The ex-Forces Nouvelles fighters are eager to point out that they fought for a clear objective in the conflict in their own country. They wanted to end the oppression of northerners in Cote d’Ivoire, which they believe they achieved. They now have the impression that fighting in a conflict requires clear objectives, and much as they need the money, being a mercenary is perceived to be beneath them. This is particularly the case with regards to Mali, a conflict they struggle to understand and often see as synonymous with suicide bombings.
Another result of having fought in such a long conflict in Cote d’Ivoire is that, despite their many gripes with the government, ex-combatants are extremely patriotic. This feeling is heightened by the fact that they had fought in a conflict that centred around the right to have an “Ivorian” nationality. The connection these fighters have to their country reduces their interest in remobilization, which they feel would bring shame on Ivorians and on their government.
Moreover, the relationship that ex-combatants had with their primary mobilizer, the current government, has fundamentally altered their ability to trust remobilizing agents. Ex-combatants speak of how because the government allegedly failed to keep the promises made to them during the DDR program, they are unable to accept a remobilization offer from anyone else, because they fear they would not follow through with their payment offers.
An ex-combatant in western Cote d’Ivoire told me that he had been approached by Hezbollah to fight in Syria but that because the organization only offered to pay after the fighting, and not beforehand, he refused. He said that his experience of broken promises in Cote d’Ivoire had taught him not to trust such people unless they paid upfront.
Thus, repeated threats to take up arms again or to go and fight with armed groups in Mali appear to be empty. There is considerable reluctance to participate in another conflict, much less one with which they have no affiliation. Yet the threat to rearm is a way of trying to pressure the government to give them what they are owed from the DDR program. They are aware that they could present a threat to the peace if they wanted to and they are attempting to use this dynamic to their advantage.
This is not to say that ex-combatants in Cote d’Ivoire will never take up arms again: they are angry, betrayed men with many motives for revenge violence. Rather, these ex-combatants are not inclined to pick up a weapon at the slightest opportunity, they would much rather avoid further conflict if they can, and maintain their peacemaker identity. This is arguably why they have avoided becoming embroiled in combat for seven years since relative peace came to Cote d’Ivoire.
As we consider the DDR programs around the world at the moment, from Colombia, to Central African Republic, to Mali, it is important to bear in mind that ex-combatants are not as easy to remobilize as we might have once thought. As such, they should not be considered solely as security threats and spoilers to a peace process.
An intricate array of factors influences the decision to remobilize, not least the experiences that fighters have had in their first conflict. As in the case of Cote d’Ivoire, it may be that the primary experience of conflict has shaped ex-combatant’s identities and attitudes to conflict and trust to such an extent that they can act as a block on remobilization.