Into Africa

Where the Heat Comes From

Africa is one of the centerpieces of fantasy in our time. Its ambiguity and variety have always challenged the imagination, partly through dark and brutal acts, partly through a vitality that interweaves the subtle and the sizzling. Though Africa’s cooperation fueled the Atlantic slave trade, though its conquest stands as a repulsive record of colonial misjudgments and excesses, and though its periodic coups are usually the work of blue­-ribbon brutes, the continent’s people constitute a startling and inspiring catalogue of languages, customs, and physical types.

When I was there two summers ago, traveling in quick stopovers from Dakar to Monrovia to Lagos and then spanning the continent to Nairobi, where I remained for two weeks, it was easy to see that if you want to know where the heat comes from, Africa will set you straight. If you have a passion for the scorching rendition of the human story by drums and percussively elastic dancing, Africa will run rhythmic rings through your nose and teach you new stanzas of the poetry of the pelvis. Not that there isn’t abysmal poverty reminiscent of Belzoni, Mississippi, in Shauri Moyo, which means “You Are Hot,” not that there isn’t a gloom as wide as the waist of an elephant standing on its hind legs. But you see and feel a will in­tent on reducing the hold of ignorance, filth, and imprecision, intent on fusing African poetry and Western fact into a fresh interpretation of mod­ern life.

So Africa is moving through the mist of its — and our — misunderstand­ings. If history is benevolent, the wounds suffered from within and with­out, from the worst of colonial history and contemporary African corrup­tion, greed, and gangster politics, will all someday become no more than the ritual scars of an initiation into world status. We see only the fore­head of Africa now, but it is levitating through the steam of its own heat.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716138″ /]


On the plane I sat with a couple of Nigerians, one a tall, maple-syrup­-brown student studying in Chicago, the other reddish beige, stocky, and recently graduated into the world of computer software. The student was comical, his accent and look that of a young trend-addicted Texan — a leather tie around the collar of a red shirt, that shirt covered by a black suit, his nappy hair oiled and a small suitcase of Jheri curl solution to keep those kinks under control once home and to provide friends and family entry to the circle of black American style. Both were aware of the Buhari takeover, which felled a democracy, albeit a corrupt one, and wondered whether or not the new (and since deposed) leader’s submis­sion to Islam would make much difference. It was concluded that tribal roots were deeper and thicker than religion or politics. “In our country, it is not who you know but who you are related to that makes the differ­ence between being in the jail or out on the street, begging for your money or getting the very good job. That is how we are. But this Buhari guy, he might try to be honest. That is very dangerous in Africa, how­ever.”

The software African, an Ibo who as a child had been a terrified wit­ness to the Biafran war of 1967-70, sat in front of me. As soon as he mentioned the war, I remembered the photograph of an Ibo mother gone mad, her huge breasts black and flaccid, her embraced baby starved dead, her hand filled with a rotted chicken she swung to taunt the hungry. He spoke softly because the other Nigerian was a Hausa, a member of the once largely ignorant tribe that the educated lbos meant to free them­selves from when they seceded. But all of that was past and he became disgruntled about other business as the flight progressed. “Look at this plane. It is filthy. I wonder if this plane is so dirty because it is going to Africa.” He wrote a note to the stewardess on a napkin: I hate you Pan Am. You have no respect for the African. You think all we deserve is dirt. But since he wanted a second helping of food — “I am really hungry, miss” — he chose not to hand it over. I joked with him that I would give her the napkin and they would never let him fly Pan Am again. Except on the wing. Of course, when he was asked why his people weren’t interested in planes, one African witch doctor answered, “We fly in our minds.”

When the plane landed in Dakar and I was on the land of Africa for the first time, I didn’t experence any special excitement because the greens and the low trees and the milky brown earth reminded me of the arid parts of the American Southwest. But on the low hills that surrounded the airport like a badly tattered sombrero brim, five or six long, nilotic bodies were moving in a percussive gait akin to dancing, their robes shift­ing position in the dry air as if measuring the wind. As we lay over, I left the plane and walked across the field, passing first a shed in which auto­mobiles were being repaired, then a guard near the wire gate that opened to the dirt road running parallel to the landing strip. There were lots of Peugeots and Africans whose small body types counterpointed those so tall they seemed to balance the sky and the clouds on their shoulders. The wind was a hot glove, thick with invisible fur covering your every movement. But as more clouds gathered, the air cooled and the light changed, transforming the milling Senegalese in the distance into shadows in robes. I had now become accustomed once again to the African smell I’d first encountered 20 years before in college, that scent reminiscent of grease and condiments that sometimes becomes a smooth stench. And there was also the somber pride that inhabits the eyes of many and that appeared by the end of the trip to be the most universal aspect of African people, cutting across the whirlpool of religions, languages, and historical enmities.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

Senegal was the land of Ousmane Sembene, that muckraking Marxist and sardonic weaver of celluloid tragedies; and the land of Leopold Senghor, whose 1930s poetry of negritude had saluted Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” as a salve for the lonely African blues in Paris, but whose regime, for all his stanzas’ pandering to the Baudelairean appetite for ersatz savagery, had been largely a flight from the bush to the Louvre. Here, according to the films of Sembene, the African was tied to the ground more by tribal custom, Islam, and corruption than by the oft­criticized attraction to French elegance. After all, it was the work of European scholars and explorers that informed provincial tribes which knew little of each other that there were not only more varieties of culture than they could imagine but that there was, in fact, an African continent. Yes, for all the huffing and puffing, for all the black kingdoms that de­cayed mysteriously back into pre-history, Africa is largely a European idea, the result of bigger maps and the will to knowledge as well as the desire to exploit labor and raw materials. A huge woman I saw hobbling under her blubber, a babushka spun around her head and her body cov­ered with a print dress of smoldering color, gave me a feeling of the easeful warmth I forever associate with the American South, while the passing men who seemed formed of flesh and stilts had an effortless grace that presaged the African basketball I would see in Kenya. As the plane rose from the airstrip and headed for Liberia, an odd melancholy melted down through my skin as I sensed the long, hard march Africans would have to make. A steaming road of asphalt caked with blood lay before so many of them, just as the monstrous records of dictatorships lay imme­diately behind them. The mood was perfect for a sky ride to the next domain.

Monrovia was very different from Dakar. Its greenness was sweet to the eye and its air a smooth and warm rejoinder to the droning noise of the airstrip. In the airport, the shine boys were on it, after dollars, their almond eyes and high cheekbones capable of instant pathos or entranc­ing smiles. There was warm beer for sale, and the customary picture of the president in every shop revealed a nearly comical severity much like that of Sapphire’s photograph in the old Amos and Andy television show. Except that there was little comic to it when you thought of the blood let to destroy one order and push Dr. Samuel K. Doe up to the top. The army men who walked about with the vicious arrogance of pit bulls left no question as to how power was maintained in this country. What we have read of the Reign of Terror is almost always a few seconds away in Africa, the distance only as far as the gathering of enough guns to wrest control.

In 1980, Doe had brought off a coup, storming the palace with fewer than twenty men, who gouged out the eye of the former president and disemboweled him, after which their leader called for public executions. The doomed were wounded as many times as possible before a shell bit off the top of a head or plowed fatally into a body. Perhaps that was the cost of a tradition in which the 60 local tribes had been living for over 130 years under the condescending weight of a regime begun by freed American slaves. Thinking of themselves as black pioneers, they took the land with America’s military backing and formed the first African re­public in 1847. Those colonizing Negroes saw their African cousins — ­”brothers” and “sisters” has always been an absurdly maudlin exaggera­tion — as no more than savage labor sources. Some think they emulated the antebellum ways of the whites they knew in America, yet in a way they were really no more than an intrusive “tribe” anticipating a monstrous aspect of Africa’s political future. And they would probably have reacted in much the same way had they been put in command of droves of illiterate black Americans, given the fact that some ruthless ex-slaves had chattels themselves when they could afford them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724836″ /]

In the airport I met a black American businessman getting a shoeshine who had been working deals in Africa since 1976. He immediately pointed out what he considered the differences between the aggressive Monro­vian shine boys and young U.S. Negroes. “If they had half the hustle these kids have got, we could get this goddamn welfare and all that crap up off our backs. Work is the only solution to our trouble.” He had become well acquainted with West Africa and laughed at the local newspaper. “I buy these things to cop a giggle. They’re ridiculous. ‘Today the president looked out the window. Today the president put his pants on. Today the president wiped his ass with his left hand. Today the president blinked twice before sunrise.’ They’re all on that level. News is an unknown commodity in Africa. But one thing is sure: there are big bucks to be made over here. Big bucks. So far, the fattest deal I’ve done was 20 mil­lion, but that’s not the top. It’s our time over here — those who got their stuff together and can handle the funny ways you got to deal with these Africans. You can offend your way out of a million dollars in five minutes. No telling what the man with money looks like. He can be a dirty, nasty, greasy-looking sonofabitch. He can be in a robe or a suit with raggedy sandals and his hair hasn’t been washed in only the crystal ball knows how long. But this guy can be sitting on some money, buddy. You’ve got to be cool. You can’t look down on anybody. It’s always a mystery. And the most interesting thing about it is that they prefer dealing with us, not white folks. Same thing with the Japanese. They choose spooks, too. It’s our time. But it ain’t going to be about the niggers in that joke back in the ’60s about going back to Africa. You know the one where the boat hits the shore and all these greasy motherfuckers get off in robes and plastic beads and want to know, ‘Hey, do the welfare checks come on the first and the 15th or the 10th and the 25th?’ That won’t do it.”

As we came down in Lagos, where the greens were even more various than in Monrovia, the pilot announced that the use of camera equipment was forbidden. I was pushed back down into gloom, wondering what Nigeria’s new regime preferred to keep off the photographic record. I bid farewell to the businessman and listened to a missionary explain how conversion worked and what he had learned through dealing with the spiritual concerns of Africans. “The Western version of the Joseph story is that wherever Joseph went, he never forgot God. The African version is that wherever Joseph went, he never forgot his family. So when asked what salvation means in African terms, you always got the answer that a man who goes home to his village and follows his father’s orders will be a safe and happy man. The point for a missionary is that God the Father can be explained in those terms. That the Father of everyone is, finally, spiritual, and that doing his moral bidding will make one safe and happy.” Much later, in Nairobi, I met a superbly dressed Irish lawyer, his hair silver, his gin tonic atilt, and the lines of intelligence and wit section­ing off his face, who soberly told me something I would never have im­agined:
In the next century, this continent will be the center of Christianity. When the pope came here three years ago, we had the biggest crowd ever seen in Kenya. Kenyatta never drew crowds like that. In the West, we think Christianity is old hat. For the African, it is the good news. It is a release from the grip of superstition. Everything takes time to seep through, and our first legacy — our worst — was ravenous materialism. Now, very slowly, mind you, we are seeing the arrival of Western high-mindedness. It is very humbling and has that pecu­liar intensity you come to expect of Africans. At their best, they seem as though they could make stones come alive through the Power and the sincerity of their emotion.

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article


We landed in Nairobi at half past midnight and the array of Africans was as provocative as that of any people I have ever seen: Africa, like a long and legged serpent, writhes over the chessboard of time, at once primeval and contemporary. There were Africans splendidly dressed in tweed jackets, silk shirts, and magnificently woven trousers who carried them­selves as though they were to the rest of the world what the sun is to our solar system. Then there were others in brilliant robes and glistening Italian shoes; Africans in cowboy hats who had gold teeth, tribal scarifi­cation, and remarkably mismatched attire; Africans in deeply wrinkled $400 suits and terribly scuffed shoes, their hair as filthy as unshaken dust mops; Africans in berets and military dress, in smocks with official airport buttons. I appreciated most the arrogance and the enthusiasm, those eyes exuding temperaments as aloof as the ears of a giraffe but given the grace of bristling affection.

Everything fit together, I have long thought of this century as poly-rhythmic, an era at one with the transmogrified African sensibilities of jazz, perhaps the most sophisticated performing art in Western history. But ours is also a century of speed. In that respect, the speed with which Africans moved from prehistory to software and the telex has provided a shattering but impressive compression of European history: the move from the world of magic to that of speculation, deduction, and scientific experiment. Sophisticated technology bespeaks an accurate understanding of natural law far beyond the explanation in metaphor of animist super­stitution. The agony of the long fight to separate church and state hap­pened more quickly and with a brutality that did not allow African convention to suppress science or new political ideas. The moment Afri­cans were colonized, their church was separated from the government, and the imposition of borders agreed upon by Europeans in Berlin in 1884 created pluralistic nations that tribalism in contemporary Africa has yet to truly accept. Though they were colonized, their conquest also meant access. Just as the white man changed Africa and Africa changed him, the adventure of the African in Europe’s and America’s libraries and laboratories means a safari into the intellect and technology that will, eventually, lead to a mutual transformation, a fresh combination, yet another bittersweet conjoining rife with uplift and destruction. It is one of the signal ironies of our time that the totally selfish or geopolitical concerns of empire also made for a redefinition in the wake of rebellion and decolonization which expanded our conception of human talent and dignity.

[related_posts post_id_1=”418189″ /]

The drive from the airport was comfortable and the pleasantly heated Kenyan air came in the open windows after passing through fields of tall grass. It was early in the morning and I checked in at the New Stanley Hotel, located at the intersection of Kenyatta and Kimathi avenues, names that acknowledged the combination of eloquence and bushlord bloodshed that coaxed and hacked the way to independence: Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of Kenya and Dedan Kimathi had been the last butch­ering desperado of what the British call Mau Mau. In a few hours, I was looking out from my seventh-floor balcony as Nairobi came to, with night some dark capsule that dissolved into the morning light. Cars and old buses filled with workers began roaring and rattling down Kenyatta Avenue and the people of the city — walking swiftly, ever so swiftly — appeared from every direction and in every size, shape, skin tone, and imaginable sort of dress. There was a wood smell in the air and a chill that leaned subtly inside the wind and I could see the rectangles and cyl­inders of modern architecture surrounding the golden peaks of a mosque from which the muezzin chanted his guttural calls to prayer. Five times a day, above the percussion of jackhammers, car horns, and whistles, the caustic melancholy of Islam flared, taking control of an unplanned orches­tration of human and mechanized sound.

It was time to hit the streets. I put on my black knit shirt, my olive British khakis, my slender leather Italian dress suspenders, my silk and wool Irish motoring cap, my beige Henri de Vignon high-topped shoes. That sartorial combination was in keeping with the cosmopolitan qualities of my bloodline — African and Asian from Madagascar, Irish from Atlanta, Choctaw from Mississippi, and some tribe I will probably recognize on another trip, perhaps to West Africa.

The pulsation out in the streets had its own uplift and I found myself wandering around, looking this way and that, not focusing on anything, only seeking the feeling of the city. It was a city all right and the popu­lace ranged from the very rich to the terribly impoverished. The beggars came crawling forward, eyes crowded with the harsh lessons of penury. One man, his legs bone-thin and twisted around each other, pulled him­self down the street with a long pole he used in rowing strokes; it struck me as I looked at all the people who had been reduced to cripples by po­lio that what we consider abstraction in African sculpture might just as often be realistic. Then there were others with slashes in their cheeks or their ear lobes stretched to brown loops that dangled against their collars. Those who shined shoes were setting up their businesses, as were people who sold elephant-hair bracelets, batiks, carved statues, and the ma­chetes called pangas. As I walked it was obvious that they knew I wasn’t an African. Some assumed more than that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

When I neared what I later heard was a dangerous part of town, I passed three young African men sitting on the ground, barefoot, ragged, and filthy. Soon one had passed me and was walking in front while the other two were behind, close enough to smell. I knew what that was. I suddenly put my back to a wall and they turned to face me. I let them know that I would defend myself. There was a brief exchange and they moved on. Had they been armed, things might have been different.

That was my first brush with street crime, and I was to have a second that was almost identical on a Sunday morning walk, though it didn’t get as close to attack. In front of the New Stanley, I spoke with a man I’ll call Boniface, who dealt marijuana, cocaine, and provided walking tours and sex with a chocolate topping for German women especially. A cosmopoli­tan man who had traveled as a sailor and was quite wily, Boniface told me about Nairobi crime.

These people, they come in from the bush every day. Every day. They think there is work here and there is none and they do not want to become beggars. They are too proud. They would rather rob. But you were lucky. You were near River Road. There you can hire a man to kill someone you want dead for 50 shillings. They kill him. They come back and you don’t have the money, they kill you. You see that white woman over there, the one crossing the street? That man right behind her, he can see she is too busy enjoying to know she is in danger. When she turns a corner, he will rob her. He will snatch her purse. If he cannot get her purse, he will take one of the bags she is carrying. He will get something and she will be disap­pointed in Africans. But Europeans they are scared in their heart of the black because if the child is bad, they say, “Go to sleep or I call the Negro.” This happened to me in a small village in Germany. I was working the lift. This German girl see me when the door open: AHHHH! And she go down. We had to pick her up. All her life she was told as a threat: “If you are bad I will get the Negro.” If that woman across the street whose money is doomed to be stolen is from Germany, she might feel she is punished for coming to Africa!

[related_posts post_id_1=”727310″ /]

Since then, wandering robbers known as the “five-minute gangs” have been breaking into homes in the suburbs, taking what they can and get­ting away before the police arrive in the conventional six minutes. Even so, like any modern city, Nairobi doesn’t feel dangerous and isn’t, except for those who don’t know where the limits are or who are “too busy en­joying” to feel the presence of a predator.

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article


By the time I got back to the hotel on that first morning, breakfast was be­ing served and the waiters in green coats, white shirts, black ties, and black pants moved quickly. The New Stanley’s restaurant and the Thorn Bush, the hotel’s enclosed sidewalk patio where drinks and food were served, became my meeting places. When I wasn’t there, I was taking long rides in a cab I hired daily, listening to the driver disparage other tribes or explain how the tea and coffee plantations worked when we traveled far out of the city into the Aberdare. Or I was at the Jockey Club, a remarkable race track, sitting up in the boxes with the Anglo­-Africans who owned horses, betting the way they suggested and winning almost every time out. Or I was on foot, walking here and there, striking up conversations with eyery kind of African I could talk with, most friendly, some con men playing on what they expected would be a black American sentimentality about “the motherland.” I could hang out with the rich black son of a coffee business owner, an athlete who had played rugby in Scotland and wondered why Africans who went to America came back so big. Or I might be dancing at the New Florida or the Sky­light Room or partying with the teams of the NBA, the Nairobi Basketball Association. In all, it didn’t take me long to know that I was an American, which was no news, or that the kind of American I was had a special sig­nificance to Africans, at least the Africans of Kenya. As one young man told me in the Nairobi market:

We keep wanting you to come back, to help us build our country. The American black man is the only black man in the world who is his own man. You send an African to France, he comes back a French African; to England he comes back a British African. He will not come back the way you American black people are. You are the only ones who have learned all of the white man’s knowledge and have put it out your own way. In his heart, the African knows this. In our country, this is what we need. We need to be Africans in a modem way. Now we are half old-fashioned and half European, or all of one. When we see you on the television and in the movies, on the cassettes of the basketball games and such things, we see a truly modem black man. That is our struggle and we hope you will come back to Africa and help us build this new thing completely.

I heard that many times and from many different levels of society, al­ways said with an earnestness that made a bigger joke of the ersatz Afri­cans of America who confused identity with pretentious name changing, costumes, and rituals that turned ethnicity into a hysterically nostalgic so­cial club. But ethnic nationalist black Americans had no comer on imbe­cility. One conversation that was as illuminating as it was terrifying re­minded me how unreasonable defense of African tradition could sustain barbarism. At breakfast one morning, I talked with a couple on vacation who lived in the Sudan, where Numeiri had recently sought support from the Muslim majority and allowed them to slaughter thousands of Chris­tians in the south. Numeiri had refused to let the press into the areas where the murders were taking place, but those who lived in the country knew the facts and the rough figures. (Numeiri recently fell to a group of military men whose epaulets are large enough to suggest — if my epaulet theory is correct — that they will be as repressive and vicious as he was.) They also went on to talk about how tribal customs called for a clitoridec­tomy following the birth of each child. “They continue to cut away until nothing is left but an opening.” I wondered how the ersatz Africans of Brooklyn would justify that. Who knows? After all, when the issue of female circumcision was raised at an international women’s conference held in Europe a few years ago, the delegation from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) stormed out in protest, castigating the European feminists for im­posing their standards on a Third World culture. Well, there’s nothing like uncompromising ethnic self-regard at high tide.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720490″ /]


It was the end of June and the drought was on. The Railway Club golf course, where Africans in floppy hats and plaid pants strolled in front of their caddies, was filled with green trees, but a long hay-colored stretch showed the effects of the devastating wait for rain. The Kenyatta Mauso­leum, across from the Hotel International Nairobi, next to the Nairobi City Council, across from the Kenyatta International Conference Center, was parched. The grass was yellow or replaced in patches by brown or red earth, the bushes interrupted by the stone and steel gate were faded and sagging toward what looked like death from thirst, but through that gate, in a black cap with a shining badge on it, rifle at rest, in a red jacket that stopped halfway above the knees with five brass buttons lining down to a white belt, the legs covered by dark trousers either-sided with a red stripe and glistening boots, was a single African soldier as impressive as any soldier I’ve ever seen, standing guard out in front of the monument that contained the old man’s remains. On each side of the guard were 10 flagpoles from which the red, black, green, and white national colors flew, their emblem crossed spears behind a shield. Across the street, the green pavilion next to the conference center had long stretches of earth turned red by relentless sun, only three of the spotlights intended to light the path leading to the old man’s statue over an empty fountain were left in­tact — the other 40-odd metal poles, victims of the intended coup in Au­gust of 1982, stood like dead and slightly bent gray stalks. The pavilion itself was falling apart and the octagonal and square motif of its pave­ment gave way to rebellious patches of uncovered stone, combining the structured and the anarchic as perfectly as anything in Kenya. The steps were loose and some of the stone was missing. But the bronze of the old man stared into the desiccation with a stoicism that bespoke his endur­ance and eloquence on the long trek to independence. That African voice is still legendary and the name “the old man” calls forth the culture.

In Africa, it takes a long time to really become a man. A man is one who knows. When you have become a man, your respect is very big. The years give you the gift of power. Each hour, each day a man lives turns him stronger in knowledge. So the African has, as the European says, reverence. Our old people are respected because their spirits take on the strength that the body loses to time. When the old man spoke, he could make the air around your ears very hot. He could raise bubbles in your blood. Kenyatta was force, an African voice. That is why be put on the symbol of the country a shield, two lions holding spears, and a cock with a hatchet in the center of the shield. This is not the British lion; this is the African lion. There are no lions in England; the lions are in the British mind. They took from us that symbol and Kenyatta took it back just as he took our land back. The cock is the power. It is all African and it is all very simple. It is also very strong and very patient. In Africa you must learn to wait and to remain powerful. That is the test of the world and all old men who are not mad or foolish know how it is done. Kenyatta knew. He was the old man. Yes.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

Jomo Kenyatta was a Kikuyu born around 1892. His was a life that em­bodied the transition of the African from the world of magic and supersti­tion to the complexity of modern life, which he could learn about only through contact with the Western world. Were it not for surgery, Kenyatta would have been dead early on, the victim of a spinal disease corrected at a mission when he was ten. It was there that Kenyatta became fascinated by papers that the missionaries referred to as objects that said things or gave orders. Once, when everyone had left after a proclamation had been read, Kenyatta returned and spoke to the paper. The paper did not an­swer. He raised his voice. The paper remained silent. Kenyatta decided that he had to get to the bottom of that magic, and once he did, he so in­tensified the power of his oral tradition that he developed into a spokesman for nascent tribal nationalism and anti-colonial feeling. The hand­some and charismatic African traveled to Europe, flirted with communism, increased his skills as an orator, and returned in 1946 to Kenya, where he quickly came to symbolize the desire for independence and an end to the inferior status of the African in his own land. When the so-called Mau Mau Emergency took off in 1952, Kenyatta was arrested and accused of leading the guerrilla forces which were slaughtering Africans, whites, and livestock. The Kikuyu rebels were defeated in 1956. As David Lamb wrote in his excellent The Africans, the death toll following the rebellion “stood at 11,500 Mau Mau guerrillas and African civilians, 2000 African troops fighting for the British, 58 members of the British security forces and 37 British settlers.” Nonviolent agitation continued, and, finally, Kenya became independent a few years after Kenyatta was released from prison in 1959, then exiled. In 1960, he was elected president of the new Kenya African National Union. He became prime minister of the independent nation on December 12, 1963. Those who wished him to follow the largely unsuccessful path of African socialism were disappointed. Kenyatta turned his back on the Marxist models and made sure that Kenya maintained its status as a capitalist, multiracial society, albeit one dominated by his own tribe. His decision to downplay race in favor of pluralism and incentive made him a hero to Africans and Europeans. Though the investigation was dropped when Kenyatta’s daughter was discovered at the center of an ivory-smuggling ring, though Tom Mboya and a few other political en­emies were assassinated, though there were some politically motivated ar­rests, the corruption and bloodletting were so comparatively modest that the old man is still revered. Since the nature of African independence has reduced almost everything to good or bad kings, Kenyans are largely philosophical about Kenyatta and see him as an essentially fair and in­telligent ruler whose occasional ruthlessness never overshadowed what he gave to his country. Perhaps his greatest achievement was cooling the tribal animosities to such a degree that there was no national outbreak of violence when the old man died in August of 1978 and was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a member of the small Tugen tribe. Since the at­tempted coup of 1982, however, Moi has been replacing the Kikuyu in the armed services with the Tugen, which makes Kenyans nervous across ethnic lines.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]


In the backwaters of our minds hovers the nightmare of the bestial Afri­can, human blood dripping from his panga. This is what many think of when they hear the term Mau Mau, a name accepted by the British but still denied by the fighters who had to reach for a primordial savagery to express their outrage in face of colonial repression. They committed the murders of rebellion in the most unspeakable ways, sometimes drinking human blood, eating human flesh, mutilating livestock, burning. It all ended with the demon run of Dedan Kimathi, the last desperado. A clerk who would be king, who seemed to have gone mad in the middle of his journey, whose fury against colonial domination created an appetite for blood among his followers, Kimathi had called himself Field Marshal, Commander-in-Chief, Knight Commander of the African Empire, Prime Minister of the Southern Hemisphere. None of those names protected him in court, and none of the magical powers he claimed for himself traveled beyond the Aberdare forest where he fell, wounded in a leopard-skin coat. His photograph after capture shows long woolly snakes of hair matted beneath his head as he lies supine, the British handcuffs looking like metal bones or talismans, the light cast from his eyes that of a man nearly over­come by contempt for his captors. Kimathi was hanged and the revolt crushed.

Pages upon pages have been written, reports made, accusations leveled and denied, the breakthrough coming when a British soldier, an Anglo­-African who had been reared near the Kikuyu, began interrogating the captured rebel General China, making his way through the labyrinthine meanings of a protean tongue. By achieving linguistic entry into the Ki­kuyu world, the British were able to isolate the rebels, and an end came to four years of terror, manic whiskey-guzzling, and gauche flamboyance of the sort exhibited when white ladies wore pistols with their evening gowns. Most important was the fact that the British were able to enlist ex-rebels to help them track and fight the continued resistance, a device as important as General Crook’s recruiting Indians to fight with the Amer­ican cavalry in the wars of the Plains and the Southwest. As Fred Majdalany wrote in State of Emergency: “The whittling down of the increas­ingly disrupted gangs was from now on left more and more to Special Forces, whose use of ex-terrorists had reached the point where they were now regularly tracking down and killing their former leaders.”

I had read about it, I had heard about it, I was told stories by the left­over British from the days when Africans felt smothered under the heavy red robe of empire. The central clash was with those who had fought for British control when far outnumbered— 30,000 settlers to a million and a half Kikuyu — and had long been admonished by dignitaries back in England to give up the ship and let the Africans sail or flounder; and there were those baptized in the inevitably bloody dream of change, who took oaths in the bush and came away remade, the steel of pangas in their hearts, pangas that eventually made their way into human flesh. They would fight. Yes, they would fight. One of them told me about it. A cab driver.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726949″ /]

My regular cabbie was Juma, a Kikuyu whose love for White Cap beer kept him from showing up on my final Sunday in Nairobi, when I went to the track for the last time. Irritated, I hired another driver and he took me out on the road to the Jockey Club, passing the African women who carried loads on their heads, the trees, the occasional spavined dog, the homes that were large and the buses that were raggedy, making a left turn into the track, where the backdrop became green and the Indians ran much of the gambling, where the owners had a clubhouse and talked excitedly about their horses, where tar-black Africans in British khaki sat under poles and a tarpaulin roof tooting marches, where the members of various tribes would entertain with exciting dances and drumming be­tween the races. The African, European, Asian, and Arab crowd, filling the stands and the field, betting, cheering, and drinking with friends, fam­ily, and children, had an entrancing epic variety, ranging from those in robes and tribal beads to Saudi Arabian silk suits and diamonds, from the palest skin tones possible to the deepest ebony, from the squat and homely to the breathtakingly tall and handsome. Then there were the jockeys, jet­-dark Africans and rosy-faced Irishmen armed with crops and educated knees. They came out of the stables seated on little saddles, the brims of their caps in the air, the straps beneath their chins, their silks brilliant in the afternoon sun, all moving on the backs of the bays, the chestnuts, and the grays, the creatures’ musculature pulsive insignias of breeding.

They are coming out on the track now, some bucking and rearing, cantering to the gate. The sky is a particularly African blue, gray, and white; the vegetative geometry of the green shaping, the horizon beyond the track has its own textures; and invisible patterns are cut across it all by big and little African birds that redefine the meaning of their hues in the light.

When it is all over and the sun is going down, my driver is waiting for me. He takes me to see a friend who lives near the Jockey Club, where I chat for an hour, and we head back for the New Stanley. When we are stopped by African policemen who have spread a long white piece of wood run through with spikes across the road, my driver is delighted in­stead of annoyed, and suddenly intuition pushes me to ask him if he knows anything about the Mau Mau. He is silent, leaning forward against the wheel, then back, slouching. He asks me why I want to know. I tell him I am a writer and I have heard what the white people have to say but I have found no one who was on the other side who could tell me what the Africans really thought and really did. He smiles and tells me he is very happy that I am a writer, that I can put my words on paper. There was no Mau Mau. He has never told anyone this before but be will tell me. He says he likes me. He bas watched me every day when I rode with Juma. I remind him of a black American who came back to Africa and dedicated his life to educating Africans. Because of this and this only, he will tell me. His voice has a melancholy so thick the words seem to sink in the air after they are uttered.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725434″ /]

I am a poor man but somehow I am happy for what I see. Africans can go to the New Stanley, Norfolk. It used to be European here, the Asian there, the African back down. You could own nothing. If you are there you must only service. You must only whisper. I saw this, My father was a cooker. If you want food — no. Water — no. Coffee — ­no. A European could write D.C. — district commissioner — that you are wrong. No word from you, no fair trial. But in 1945 the African learned from the war — if you cut a European, he bleed; if you shoot him, he die. This was new! The old people did not go to learn this. The European could not be killed. If you strike him, you die. Ahl Old was wrong. This was very important.

We needed unit, unit: our people, our land. We Kikuyu took the oath. I have been shot in the leg one time, two times. Two bullets in me right here and behind the ear. But all people are not equal. Some they do not have heart. Courage is to them the poison you spit out. They were royalist. We make it if you loyal to the British here, you die. You die! It was necessary because the British is very clever. He had command us, but he did not know us. How we live, how we move, Kikuyu knew. If he tell, he must die! In the bush in one month you become like animal. Smell, hear, quick, strong. You cannot eat for seven whole days. You can go for six months, for a full year with­out a wash, and now, even after 30 days, the animals let you pass. Ha! You see, you see?

The British thought the Kikuyu had lost to remember the forest, that we could not lie still as the trees and wait to kill them. We did not have the good guns of them. Ours had been made by ourselves and had only the one bullet. When you shoot, barrel is hot. You must wait to cool. Our orders were to use the rifles we had made ourselves only to defend. Only defend, you understand. To kill, we use only the long silent knife. If you use a bullet not to defend, you die. The knife because the European hates the sharp edge. He would rather be shot. He hates to burn covered with petrol. You kill him this way it is an African way. The knife, the flame make his heart stampede. It stampede.

I was scout. Young boy. Go here. Go there. No one knows what it is I am doing. We cut him here. We disappear. We smile to talk to him. We say we know nothing when he ask. Soon, when he looks at us and he does not know, he sees his own grave, his own family, his horses all floating in a grave of warm blood, all covered with petrol and he smells the flesh of British burning.

But the most we kill are not British — the loyal Royalist African. Why do we kill him most? I want you to understand this. He did not know that the African is a human being. He did not that the British is not God. He did not that he was more important than the British was to England. If he believe British is God, the European go home and rule with the royalist right here for him. Do you understand? The British will not have to be here. If an African must cut another Afri­can to death so that more will know the European is not God, it must be so. From that blood come the tree of respect. You must — only for emergency — fear the Kikuyu more than British.

We all must die, but what must we die for? If we must die to prove we are human beings, if we must kill to prove so, if we must love to know so, it is these things to do that are done. My heart has happi­ness somehow, even though I am a poor man. I hope you understand this because I did not get an indication — to read, to speak, to write. My eyes, my ears, my skin, what all I remember: This is my indication.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]


Given the history of postcolonial Africa, all Kenyans are concerned about the ever-present possibility of a coup, something they learned about when the air force attempted to take command of the country in the August dog days of 1982. The insurrection was put down quickly by the army, when the radio was recovered and broadcasts announcing a new regime were ended and the violent animosities of the African poor were beaten down. Those animosities sweep color, culture, and even class before them. As the wife of a coffee grower said to me, “They were going to get the Wa­hindi — the Indians; the Wabenzi — the rich Africans who drive Mercedes; and the Wazungu — us, the white people. They got a bit of the first two, but they never really got around to the Wazungu.”

The hatred of the Indians is the enduring contempt for the go-between, the person who has risen with absolute determination and mercantile wiles but relates to those below in the condescending terms established by the rulers of the society. Three young men who worked in the market selling chess sets, carved statues, and printed cloth that women wrapped around them as dresses told me over beer in my hotel room that the Indi­ans printed fake batiks which they sold for almost nothing or gave away as bonuses so as to corner the market. That was but one of the tricks In­dians used to push Africans out of the business world, wanting everything for themselves. But they also admitted that the Indians were often more industrious than the Africans and that they were willing to sacrifice in or­der to build income.

The Indian will be your friend only if he is fooling you!l He is no good. One of the independence we do not have is economic. But we are different from the Wahindi. He will pile his money up and up and up. I cannot do this. I must go to the disco and drink beer and I must have a new pair of “levees.” If I do not do this, I will have much sadness. I will feel like I am a dirt road and life is rolling over. But when I buy new clothes and dance and drink, then I am more.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719613″ /]

A German businesswoman in her eighties told me that the Indians wor­shiped a god given over to currency, a ruthless mythological bitch whose vision of life was that anything done to gain money was all right. But she was equally aware of the notorious African inclination to corruption: “In the African mind, there is no stigma to corruption. It’s just being smart.” So a bribe in the hand is far more important than skill or talent in too many instances. Though Kenya claims a more honest governmental and social structure than almost any other African country, both black and white complain of the bribery in everything from licensing to acquiring land. Where things are not decided on the basis of tribal or familial al­legiance, money commands favors. A Kikuyu businessman’s son told me:

These men in government can be no good! When it was proposed that we might get a loan to build an underground so that people could travel better, when they could not discover the way to steal most of the money, they would not accept the loan and said that Nairobi was too small a city to have an underground!

This kind of hanky panky has led to a bitterness that found its limited release during the attempted coup and said a great deal about the changes in the country since independence. Twenty-five years ago, the whites might have been the most hated, then the Indians, then the Africans loyal to empire. But time and bribes and tribes had changed that pecking order, which was dwarfed by the fire and terror that resulted when the air force tried to throttle the Moi regime.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724152″ /]

Before the army, the people did not know what is coup. But the army teach them. At first, there is running and shouting. The people were happy in the streets, then they see. They see what is coup. Is when you can do nothing but watch and hope nothing happen to you or happen to your family. This is what took place on those few days. The people were happy to destroy business of Wahindi because they have been treated so bad by them. But the army took whatever they want. This was the pay they give themselves. Many Indian homes were broken into and they took sex with the Indian girls and the Indian wives. They feel this is their only chance because in certain places the Indian will threaten to kill an Indian woman if she is seen with an African. What the army did to them is not in the newspapers. So many disgraced their fathers had to marry them, or their brothers or their cousins. This is not talked about. But the Wahindi, they do not learn ever. Money is all they understand. Money will not stop the soldier who kicks in the door. He will take the money and then still do what he came for — to kill you, to rape you, to wound you. Wa­hindi do not understand that the African is a human being. This the British knows, this the Wahindi will never understand. A panga is hanging over his head and he pretends it is a feather.

One Sunday morning I took a long walk, traveling up Harry Thuku Road, and passed a fenced-in area where soldiers were living. It was the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Voice of Kenya, the radio sta­tion that had been taken by the air force. At the gate in berets and fa­tigues were the two surliest black men I have ever seen. Viciousness seemed to seep from their pores and the only answer they had to any ques­tion was a sullen, “We are all right.” They weren’t impressed in the least by a writer from America and it was clear that their job was to kill any­one who tried to come into that station without the appropriate papers. Beyond the guardhouse at the gate, as I moved on, was a lot filled with broken-down cars and trucks. I looked for bullet holes in them and saw none. All I could think of was how terrible it must have been when men like those at the gate were allowed to do what they wished. The idea of a country taken over by cool black killers was as nightmarish as anything I could ever imagine. But then, anything could happen in Africa.

Harry Thuku Road became Hotel Boulevard and I heard “Polly Wolly Doodle” in what sounded like Swahili floating from a restaurant. Eventu­ally, after walking up a bill and passing eucalyptus trees and a large ho­tel, I began descending and the Aga Khan Nursery School came into view, next to a playground filled with Asian children joyously playing soccer in white uniforms and expensive tennis shoes. Against the fence of the playground was a shack made of slats, flattened rectangular three­gallon cans, and cardboard. It was a store and inside it old African men sat at a table eating maize with powdered milk. Every so often a Mer­cedes filled with giggling Indians passed. Directly across from the play­ground there was a sunken field of pineapple trees, corrugated shacks, ragged, shoeless people, stacked burlap sacks, and a child collecting coal, but near the end of the street, seated at a table in a torn and filthy dress, her feet wide from never having worn shoes, sat a young girl of about 10. She was playing a card game by herself, alternately excited or laughing, her big eyes, long neck, and long arms predictions of a great beauty. In the way she turned her head, stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth, and sighed the accompaniment to what was possibly a dream, this girl suddenly became an index of the indomitable. I knew that as Jong as Kenya could produce children like her, it would have a chance to handle whatever burdens history and circumstance placed upon its shoulders. Or, as it was once written. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” ❖

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

Stanley Crouch reports from Africa in a 1985 Village Voice article

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

In the Sahara, Searching for the Rolling Stones

Arm-wrestling the Midnight Rambler to a draw

Last November I read an article in Harper’s by Professor William Irwin Thompson of the Humanities program at York University, Toronto, entitled “Planetary Vistas.” It was prefaced with three italicized analogies, the first of which ran as follows:


“Imagine insects with a life-span of two weeks, and then imagine further that they are trying to build up a science about the nature of time and history. Clearly, they cannot build a model on the basis of a few days in summer. So let us endow them with a language and a culture through which they can pass on their knowledge to future generations. Summer passes, then autumn; finally it is winter. The winter insects are a whole new breed, and they perfect a new and revolutionary science on the basis of the ‘hard facts’ of their perceptions of snow. As for the myths and legends of summer: certainly the intelligent insects are not going to believe the superstitions of their primitive ancestors.”


We left Massachusetts the day of the first snow, for Africa. I will not tell you what country we went to because the next time I need to lick my index finger and hold it up to the solar wind I won’t want a gallery. Suffice it to say that it was the geographical ozone of the pre-Saharean mountain wilderness, a place where the map makers fudge and the guides shill. We did not know what we would find where we were going which was just as well since in the ozone if you think you know where you are going you will get lost but if you don’t know where you are going you may lose yourself. We drove toward the Sahara on a corugated track that was wider on the map than it was on the ground. An hour after the sun went down it might as well have been midnight and when after 50 kilometers of pre-Saharean zilch we turned a switchback and the Fiat headlit the rusted-out exoskeleton of an upside-down Land Rover, we realized that the end of the road would not be when the road disappeared — the one we were on hadn’t appeared in the first place — but when it became more treacherous to try to turn around then to keep on going, that what is terminal about the end of the road is not that it stops you, but that past it you may go further than you can.

“I could really dig finding a place where there was mountain music,” I said.

“Like in that Leary book,” Alison said.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716833″ /]

We had holed up for a few days that summer with a husband and wife dealer team in the Santa Cruz hills and they had a copy of Timothy Leary’s “Prison Notes,” in which the acid exile tells how novelist and ab initio way-station on the hash trail Brion Gysin had taken him from Tangiers into the Rif Mountains to hear the piping and drumming and singing of the Master Musicians of Joujouka who, Gysin had discovered, still celebrated — on the pretext of the Muslim Ramadan — the Roman Lupercalia, the annual feast of Pan, patron of forests, pastures, fields, and flocks. “The World’s Oldest Rock and Roll Band,” Leary, blown quite away, called them.

“Too much to ask,” I said.

We had long overdriven the odometer reading that should have put us in a village with a small inn before we came in sight of a group of buildings, windows dark as a pre-Saharean midnight, which we took to be the hotel. “Check-out time,” I announced, and began to backtrack four or five hours to the last place we had stayed. When I went forward the Fiat bottomed out on the mount between the wheel-ruts; when I went back the Fiat began to slip down the embankment toward the desert floor several thousand feet below.

So, we stopped and waited for an intervention.

The geographical ozone is a realm of supraordinary synchronicity so we didn’t have long to wait. Down the hillside came a flashlight, carried by — why, a waiter, of course, in a white coat, carrying a towel over his arm. He motioned us in the direction of a switchback so steep it looked like a hill you would build a switchback to climb. It led to the parking lot of the hotel. We were not burdened by relief any longer than was necessary to step into the entrance hall of the place, a long room with a bar at the end. Along the left-hand wall sat two young German couples staring goggle-eyed at the opposite wall along which were sitting 12 young Berber men, mumbling, moaning, and grunting, occasionally coming into phase rhythmically just long enough to resolve a melody, then lapsing into a silence whose discomfort they attempted to relieve by much adjusting of burnooses and subrespiratory chuckling.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

“Too much — ,” I said, taking my seat opposite them.

” — to ask,” said Alison.

The boy behind the bar brought us a bottle of wine. Delightful boy. Most remarkable boy.

We drank it.

He brought us another.

We drank it too.

Still the burbling up and down of rhythms and melodies. Some ten­tative finger-tapping on table tops. Some clapping of hands. Silence. And then, at length, a young man at the far end of the room spoke.

“Bon soir m’sieur madame. Est-ce que vous connaissez … ‘Sex Machine?’ ”

It was the only time I had ever felt like I needed a drink when I was already drunk.

“Oui,” I managed.

Affirmative aahhing and urrhing from underneath the hoods across from me.

“Par Zhems Bquun?” he asked. Zhems Bquun? Oh!

“Oui. Oui Oui,” I ouied.

“Pourriez-vous le chanter?” he asked.

I tried to sing it as best I could — I did James Brown all right, but the Famous Flames parts were sort of rough. When I was done they all shook their hands out of their burnooses and applauded.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716155″ /]

”Maintenant, connaissez-vous ‘Hold On, Ahm Comingue?’ ” said he for whom it was too much to ask.

“Oui,” I said, “mais nous desirons vous ecouter!”

“Non,” he laughed, and spoke to the others. in Berber. “Non, non, non,” said the others, laughing.

“Oui!” I insisted.

“Non non non,” he said.

“Oui, nous voulons que vous chantez pour nous.”

‘N’est pas possible.”

“Je vous en prie, messieurs!”

“Nous vous en prions,” he said. “Nous ne pouvons pas chanter comme Sam et Dev.”

“Non! Pas Sam and Dave!” Oy. “Votre musique — un chanson, er, natif!”


“Uhh — un chanson … local?”

“Nous ne vous comprenons pas,” he said apologetically.

“Mmmm — un chanson de ce ville-ci.”

“Est-ce que vous voulez dire, un chanson folklorique?”

So that’s what they call folklore in French Africa — la folklore.

“Oui, oui, bien sur, folklorique, oui, s’il vous plait.”

And they immediately struck up an air, 12 voices insinuating a song composed exclusively of grace notes arranged in synco­pated triplets. It was unques­tionably the most folklorique sound I had ever heard. And, strangely, I found it evocative of the Rolling Stones: How thoroughly bizarre, I thought.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717029″ /]

When they were done, my in­terlocutor, who, it turned out, spoke French because he was the teacher at the elementary school — the darkened “hotel” we had come upon — asked if I could teach them a song.

“Est-ce que vous connaissez,” I asked, “les Rolling Stones?”

The question drew as blank a blank as I would have expected 10 minutes before if I had thought to ask, “Pardon me, my new-found Berber friends, but do you happen to be acquainted with Stax-Volt product, most especially that classic Memphis tune ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ by that hot buttered soul man, Mr. Isaac Hayes?” No, these particular tribesmen had never heard of les Rolling Stones.

Nevertheless, I tried, to teach them “Paint It Black,” which seemed to resonate with the song I had just heard — Nyaa-nyaa­nyaa-nycia-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa nyaa- nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-aah . . .

The Berbers stared at me like ­the Germans had been staring at them.

“I see a red door and I want to paint it bla-ack … “

Pre-Saharean zilch.

“A very German sentiment,” observed one of the German men. “In Germany zey vont to paint everyzing black.”

The Berbers just couldn’t get behind the Rolling Stones. As we sat there across that oddly shaped culture gap, at some points yawning abysmally and at others overlapping, the door opened and a slight young Berber man swaggered in. Suddenly the 12 began to clap and cheer and stamp their feet and laugh hear­tily.

My first thought was that this was their sarcastic greeting to a friend who had been out in the oasis making it with Aisha the Coleman lamp fuel-seller’s daughter.

Instead, the newcomer threw off his burnoose, cocked a hand on his hip, and, as an enormous flute appeared from under one bur­noose and drums appeared from under others, began to sing in a piercing reedy tenor with the 12 booming in with a choral response every other verse.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604″ /]

The applause had been the pre-­Saharean rhythm section’s wel­come to their lead singer, who had begun to wail not merely immediately but, seemingly, retro­actively. This resonance with the Stones’ stage act and those with the music that followed were so concordant that I saw there was no point in teaching them “Paint It Black,” that they could already paint it any color they wanted. Too much to ask!

Retroactively he had us on our feet, Jews and Germans dancing with Arabs, and I would have pinched myself but I knew I wouldn’t feel anything. I can’t describe the double-time shimmy-­shake circle-dance he did as he sang because I was trying to do it too hard myself while simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to drink wine faster than I was sweating it out. How long this went on I cannot tell you. The end­ing of each song save the last was the beginning of another; the dance never stopped until it was done. Then the Berbers went home and the Germans and us went to sleep in the hotel’s bedroom

That’s right, its bedroom.

The bedroom.

I awoke in terror at some ghastly hour of the morning, flashing forward to trips I hadn’t taken yet. The bedroom was filled with psychomorphic squid ink, and as I held onto the floor I felt like the Desert Nasties were snuffling up to me like grim shades of the beneficent forest creatures who snuffled up to cop a visual on new­born Bambi in the movie of the same name. “Here on the edge of Forget It where the tech­nosphere’s penetration into the biosphere is at least energetic,” they said in unvoiced tones of pre-­Saharean menace, “there is no­thing to interfere with your recep­tion of our emanations. You para­noid twerp, the life-cycle of this plant will expunge Man before he manages the opposite. If you think your kind’s puny dereliction of mysteries of their own inven­tion has weakened the vital powers of the Zone, tell us what you think of these little green apples!”

And the floor began to fall away at the speed of darkness and me with it and I said to myself oh boy, don’t I get one telephone call to a party of my choice? And I struggled to fall fast enough to be able to hang in close enough to the floor to climb onto it and walk toward where I remembered the door should be and step —

Outside and close it on the Nasties. Whew. But now the cold gust off the desert was blowing on me naked and hung over and the air was cacophonous with dog­barks and donkeybrays and I decided I was going to go back in­side and go to sleep, anti-matter Bambi-snufflers or no.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719802″ /]

I went back inside and lay down. “Back for more, with your hand-wringing fantasies?” asked the Desert Nasties.

“Aw, go fuck a duck,” I said, and went to sleep.

Summer will come again to those who are hot for it, I dreamt. I have informed myself of my rites. 

We awoke in daylight, dressed, and went outside. We could see for the first time that the town was built on a steep hill. As we stood there a single line of women dressed in black appeared around a corner and began to file down the zigzag of switchbacks.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est que ca?” I asked the boy.

“Une femme a mouru pendant le nuit,” he said.

We watched the procession pause at a doorway as the woman’s shrouded body was brought out. They resumed their descent, carrying her to a rocky knoll just outside the town. There they lay her down and piled rocks on her and keened over her and consigned her to the desert.

I decided that the Nasties who had visited me earlier that morn­ing were ill-tempered outriders of the perambulatory vortical presence that had sucked the woman’s juice out of her. I don’t know that the Berbers call that mortifying infundibulum but we Hebrews call it Moloch Ha­movess, the closest English trans­lation of which is, Midnight Rambler — as in, ev’rybody got-ta go.

Soon a film crew arrived, complete with Arabs in tinted aviator glasses, bell-bottom trousers, and faded denim jackets. They interviewed an old man and his donkey. What was it that the Nasties had been saying about the penetration of the technosphere? The musiciens folkloriques of the night before trickled into the morning-after parking lot. We looked at each other like we had all balled together, which essentially, we had. Too much to ask, but not a moment too soon.

[related_posts post_id_1=”61038″ /]


Shortly after our return to Babble-on, I discovered that while we were gone Rolling Stones Records had released a disc called “Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.” Well what do you know. Seems Jones and his Nagra recorder had been escorted to Joulouka Tatoof by Brion Gysin in 1968, but it was only now that the Stones had their own label that they could get the master he made released — too late for Brian, who was found floating face-down in his swimming pool in mid-1969. The album included a text by Gysin:

“Pan, Bou Jeloud, the Father of Skins, dances through eight moonlit nights in his hill village, Joujouka, to the wailing of his hundred Master Musicians. Down in the towns, far away by the seaside, you can hear the wild whimper of his oboe-like raitas; a faint breath of panic borne on the wind. Below the rough palisade of giant blue cactus surrounding the village on its hilltop, the music flows in streams to nourish and fructify the terraced fields below … All the villagers dressed in best white, swirl in great circles and coils around one wild-man in skins. Bou Jeloud leaps high in the air on the music, races after the women again and again, lashing at him fiercely with his flails … He is mad. Sowing panic. Lashing at anyone; striking real terror into the crowd. Women scatter like white marabout birds all aflutter and settle on a little hillock for safety … They throw back their heads to the moon and scream with throats open to the gullet … Pipes crack in your head. Ears popped away at barrier sound and you deaf. Or dead! Swirling around in cold moonlight, surrounded by wild men or ghosts. Bou Jeloud is on you, butting you, beating you, taking you, leaving you. Gone! The great wind drops out of your head and you hear the heavenly music again. You feel sorry and loving and tender to that poor animal whimpering, grizzling, laughing, and sobbing there beside you like somebody out of ether.

“Who is that? That is you.

” … Up there, in Joujouka, you sleep all day — if the flies let you. Breakfast is goat-cheese and honey on gold bread from the out door oven. Musicians loll about sipping mint tea, their kif pipes and flutes. They never work in their lives so they lie about easy. The last priests of Pan cop a tithe on the crops in the lush valley below. Blue Kif smoke drops in veils from Joujouka at nightfall … ”

I could hardly be surprised at the kinship of the music on this record to the music we had danced to — such reserves of surprise as I still had were exhausted that night. The charts were different, shall we say, but the bomp was syncopated in the same hypnagogic way.

The album stiffed, of course. Music that people stoned on gelignite kif have danced to for eight nights a year for 4000 years could hardly be expected to engage the attention of rock critics, rack jobbers, and prog/rock play­listers.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722241″ /]


I was out at the farm in Walled Lake, Michigan, where Creem, America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine, is put together, marshaling my faculties for a series of journalistic encounters with the Rolling Stones tour. Dave Marsh, the noted Teenage Dwarf, who edits Creem, flew into a rage at my eagerness. “It was Brian! The Stones are nothing without Brian. You’re going off to see a band with a hole in it!,” and he dragged me off to Ann Arbor to see a screening of “The TAMI Show.” Topping the bill of that kinescope of a 1964 telecast were the Stones complete with Brian. All I could see was a blond kid with a winning smile and losing bags under his eyes, strumming a guitar.

“Well?” pressed Marsh, dwarfishly.

“My gazoogo was not flonged, if that’s what you mean,” I said.


I guess I expected that the music of the Rolling Stones live and in person would sweep me off my feet. Instead it planted me more firmly on them. It was an ultrasonic brain enema, kilo-hertzing loose the scud of 50 per cent jive and 50 per cent bullshit and making me kiss it bye bye. It was was menschische music and I could not value it more highly.

But the audience response disappointed me to where I was flying to Detroit on my own nickel in the hope that I would be able to see the Stones perform before a live audience. I don’t mean that the audiences I saw didn’t hoot and holler and do a little light trucking in situ. I mean that in New Orleans the night before the Mobile date we went to Crazy Shirley’s on Bourbon Street and they were snake-dancing to Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, but there was no snake dancing at any Stones concert. I mean, I watched Jagger try again and again to get an audience to sing along on the refrain to “Sweet Virginia,” the one that goes, “Come on, come on down, you got it in ya/ Uh-huh/ Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes,” before giving up late in the tour, and that I’ve seen solo accordionists at bas mitzvahs get more people to sing along. I mean it wasn’t long before Jagger stopped asking the audience to “kiss the person next to you” and that I’ve seen people do weirder things to each other on the Simon Sez-so of Borscht Belt tummlers.

I didn’t expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy — hmm, well, okay, maybe I did expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy. Why shouldn’t I have? “You gotta move,” the Stones had sung on their last album, and for this tour they had composed music to move by, music too powerful to capture on a piece of vinyl, which is why a lot of album reviewers do not consider “Exile on Main Street” their fave rave.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717075″ /]

My first analysis was that the audiences’ stolidity could be accounted for mostly by the fact that the tour management’s attempt to democratize the ticketing procedure — $6.50 top, computer-assigned seats, etc. — had created the first rock audiences chosen under the McGovern reform rules, i.e. what do you expect — 90 per cent of us have never been to one of these things before. (And upon all of us in discreet votaries of rock and stroll, O Orpheus, the curse of the Underground Gourmet: May you stand on line forever hungering to sup at the table you sold maps to.) The audiences were for the most part too stunned at being in the presence of the Rolling Stones to react — it was, after all, like seeing a resurrection right before your eyes, in that everything the Stones stand for is dead and gone except, wonder of wonders, them­selves. In meaner moments I chalked it up simply to the endemic callowness and inbred lethargy of the generation that dogged the footsteps of mine, slogging along zonked on Sopors. Kids today etc. etc. etc.

Which led me back to the liner notes of the Joujouka album and a reconsideration of whether it was possible that there was something lacking in the Stones’ music that sapped its power to actualize the rhetorical imperative “You gotta move” so that people would sim­ply have to move.

“I don’t know if I possess the stamina to endure the incredible, constant strain of the festival,” wrote Brian Jones. “Such psychic weaklings has Western civilization made of so many of us.”

When I first considered the Joujouka album, I assumed out of hand that Jones’s flirtation with the music of the Moorish highlands was nothing more than late ’60s pop-star dilettantism, that it was nothing more than late rites practitioners wore fur vests and lolled about sipping mint tea and copping tithes. But having seen this tour and re-read that liner note, I began to wonder whether Brian hadn’t been searching the African hills for the musical root of incredible, con­stant strain, looking to incorporate that root, collected first-hand, into the Stones’ music along with other African musical roots that had been transshipped from Gambia to Virginia to the Missis­sippi delta country to Kansas City and Chicago, arriving as “de blues,” and thence by post to Richmond, England, none the better for wear. Was “Joujouka” recorded as a sample of a transhistorical eight-day full-tilt­ boogying rhythm track for the rest of the band to cop licks from like they had from old Chuck Berry sides? Did he as rhythm guitarist and multi-instrumentalist intend to build a set of chops into the band’s music that would have the same effect on audiences as the raitas had on the Joujoukans, i.e., “striking real terror into the crowd,” the Lupercalian panic we read about in “Julius Caesar”? That would expose those who were not got to move to themselves as psychic weaklings, made so by Western civilization? That would turn every Rolling Stones performance into a rite?

[related_posts post_id_1=”723787″ /]

We won’t know whether the Teenage Dwarf was right for the wrong reason or wrong for the right reason because Brian Jones is no longer with us, such a psychic weakling had Western civilization made of him. The question is far from moot, however: The Master Musicians of Joujouka are still there, as are the Master Musicians of the Rolling Stones. On the last two American tours there was no rhythm guitarist “replacing” Brian Jones — Mick Taylor plays second lead, augmenting the im­pact of de blues on audiences; at times he seems to play a blues track, as much a part of the Stones’ music as the bass track or the lead vocal track. I am beginning to think that it is arguable that the entire body of de blues, from Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” as recorded 50 years ago in a San Antonio hotel room to the  Stones’ version as performed July 26 at the Garden, is a music of, by, and for psychic weaklings — wound-down entropic insect-winter music.

I know that a bunch of kids in a desert hill town made sounds that put my rear in gear and somehow activated in me the vestigial ulte­rior consciousness that some of us have more of and some of us have ess of, and that within hours I had arm-wrestled the minions of the actual Midnight Rambler to a draw. I doubt many people were forced to have that kind of experi­ence in the aftermath of the con­certs on this tour, though, that Gambler rambles throughout this land as he does in no other, and baby, it’s no rock ‘n’ roll show, and how much you w11nt to bet he’s beefed up his security since Wallace got shot?


Peter Beard, Photographer: The Toast of Society Photographs the Death of a World

Photographs are the blown leaves of modern experience. They swirl around us, clamoring for attention whether they have anything to say or not, and the sheer mass of them can impair our ability to see even the best. Then, once in a while, some iridescent image will confront us and peel away our numbness like a burned skin.

So I was taking an uncustomary browse through Interview a while ago because the issue was entirely devoted to photography. The pictures were an odd jumble, like an exhibition at some peculiar museum run by, well, Andy Warhol. There was a brawny back by Man Ray, a pointless self-impersonation by Verushka, some crinoline-stiff fashion pictures by Horst, a curious view by David Hockney of a sternly symmetrical park, and then, lurking in the midst of all this mostly forgettable imagery, a two-page spread composed entirely of aerial photographs of dead elephants. They were ghastly and beautiful at the same time, and the mix was hypnotic. Unexpectedly coming upon them was the kind of thing that jogs phantoms loose in the mind. When I saw that the photographer was Peter Beard, it was a confirmation of sorts; for the past several years his intensely personal viewpoint has made me anticipate the emergence of a compelling and unique visionary. In fact, all that has stood in the way of this emergence is Peter Beard himself.

[related_posts post_id_1=”675261″ /]

Beard is a man of so many parts that the best is inevitably confused with the least. As he stands in front of you, there is the distinct feeling that he is on the verge of moving, shifting slightly out of focus every few seconds. One thing is certain: with his 15-year-old J. Press suit and striped shirts, with his refle­xive and fastidious manners, with his habit of laughing off his own most serious commitments the minute they hang too heavy in the air, he is quintessentially a True Wasp. After spending two decades in Africa, photographing animals, and blasting holes in more than a few (in the name of science), ruffling official feelings, getting himself thrown in jail for putting a poacher in his own trap, he has been called everything from jet-set adventurer to high-minded ideal­ist, and each description can fit easily into his accommodating, tessellated personality. Beard is a scion of privilege — he is the great grandson of J.J. Hill, who put together the Northern Pacific railroad; he went to Buckley School in Manhattan and to Yale (class of ’61), and though conjec­ture on the amount of money he has varies widely, it is safe to assume that he could scrape by without doing any of the things he does. Instead, he uses the advan­tage of financial independence to work under the almost weightless cloak of amateurism. (Make that a capital A.) Everything done with a certain brilliance, but nothing te­diously overdone. And no inescapable niches, please.

Despite telling evidence to the contrary, Beard insists he is not a photographer at all, and strictly speaking, he is no professional. “I think the camera is a wonderful machine, don’t you?” he asks, without trying to be ingenuous (I think). “And not to take photo­graphs in this century is crazy.” Beard might actually think that his work is just a casual record of various aspects of his life in Afri­ca, (as Lartigue viewed his work as merely a record of childhood’s se­cret garden) but at its best it is sim­ply too remarkable to be looked at that way by the rest of us. He has been largely ignored as a photographer because, for one thing, he refuses to take himself seriously, enough, which is a serious crime indeed, and for another he shows up frequently in society columns, which is worse. But attention ought to be paid to pictures that contain the kind of portents some raving prophet might bring back from his purgatory under the desert sun; to a man who can make a picture of two dead crocodiles belly up by a joyless lakeshore in such a way that his own disturbed and disturb­ing inklings of doom speak to the unwary observer in an awful whis­per; to someone so struck by the pre-echoes of Armageddon in the deaths of elephants that he will spend days in a wind-pitched light plane making a vast catalog of colossal remains, and then present a wall of those awesome and memorable cadavers to the some­what less awesome and memora­ble creatures of the New York beau monde at a party that rates a two-page spread in W. There is a temptation to see Beard, with his manic energy and charged conversation, as the Ancient Mariner, trying with a sort of helpless anguish to ride out all the famous kisses and hugs and get the wed­ding guests to listen.

In 1955, when most of his friends were presumably going to Bermu­da or even the Biltmore, Beard went to Africa. One suspects that he could have as easily gone to Bermuda, being the manner of man who overlays whatever discontent he may feel with a soothing and deceptive layer of adaptability, and perhaps if he had lived on the benign talc beaches off and on for 2o years, as he has in Kenya, he might even have found the reverberations of doom there. Beard had a close friendship with Karen Blixen (whose pen name is Isak Dinesen) during the last years of her life (she died in 1962). His new book, Longing for Dark­ness, is in many ways an echo of Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and contains an amalgam of her family album photographs taken over 60 years with captions from Dinesen, and stories and drawings by Ka­mante, a Kikuyu who was for years her cook. When Beard is in Africa, he lives in an encampment known as the Hog Ranch on the outskirts of Blixen’s farm near Nairobi, which Kamante now runs for him.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714537″ /]

Beard photographs in Kenya, mostly the peoples and the animals living there in disintegrating harmony. If that were all there was to it, there would be no more to say. Africa can dictate more photographic cliches than a toddler’s birthday party, and given the beauties and the beasts readily available, they can often be surprisingly good. What single Beard out so unmistakably from the mechanized army that roars and clicks across Africa is the same thing that singled out Ahab from the average sea captain — a kind of madness. The eye that peers through his lens is not your Garden of Eden variety rational optic; it is estranged from the world of im­peccable boundaries, and its hallucinatory perceptions transfigure his pictures. They become messages sent from the Apocalypse.

Perhaps even this misrepresents Beard’s vision. For if he is not one of Darkest Africa’s myth-spinners (“How splendid and melancholy is this vanishing continent”) — and he is not — neither is he a trendy doom-beater of ecology (“It’s not going to be easy, my fellow men, but we can save all this noble savagery for our grandchildren”). When forced even to use the word, he winces. Instead, he is, in the specific clarity of his craziness, a recorder of dissolution in a particular time and place, after the manner of Defoe in Journal of the Plague Year or Celine in Death on the Installment Plan. It is not easy to take pictures of animals and keep them unsentimental, but Beard’s are almost fiercely so. He is assembling a rolling landscape of life and death that is never mawkish, and in the process he is dredging up out of himself (and those of his pictures’ viewers who don’t turn away too glibly) prime­val stirrings that fundamentally alter what we see.

Whether as a thoroughly nove­listic character, a stranger in a­ whole geography of strange lands, or as a photographer, Beard does not sit lightly to be examined. In many ways, his recent exhibition at the Blum-Helman Gallery epito­mized the slippery contradictions that mark his work. First, the exhibition came and went in two weeks, while other less deserving imagery hangs on gallery walls until it turns sepia. (Though no longer hanging, many of Beard’s pictures remain at the gallery and can be seen on request.) The Blum-Helman Gallery, which provided an intimate and elegant setting for the pictures, cannot be faulted, since the rent-paying product there is modern painting. But the exhibition was undeniably worth more time, and perhaps­ more space, somewhere else. Because Beard is a society Somebody with the good luck to be out of town most of the time, the brevity of its run never gave the exhibition a chance to evolve from a social event into a photographic one. The pictures were mounted unframed with a nice sense of balance and flow. Most of the photographs were taken from his three books, The End of the Game, Eyelids of Morning, and his most recent Longing for Darkness. The prints varied in size, and they had a raw look consistent with his blithe lack of concern. (“I’ve never been a quality man myself.”) More than a few of the prints were made from copy negatives where the originals were lost in one pat of ooze or another.

The first grouping of pictures was, perhaps intentionally, the least moving, though there were fine moments, like an awesomely tusked boar right out of Jung, just visible at close range through a screen of underbrush. Two up­stairs rooms were respectively devoted to the corpses of ele­phants, and the corpses of tim­e — the loony and monumental collec­tion of diaries in which Beard stores the lint of his existence, plus an epic photographic record of the diaries.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722610″ /]

To put it very mildly, the diaries are the most obviously obsessive aspect of Beard’s work, and there is no way to adequately describe them in a few words, however well chosen. They are a combination of adolescent daydreaming, fiendish detritus, cosmic dandruff, frantic tangible psychotherapy, and visual novas page after exhausting page (to mention a few well chosen words). On one page lies a stra­tegic segment of a Playboy centerfold, on the next a dried snakeskin, on another an exquisitely loony ink doodle, followed by extraordinarily fetching photographs of Beard’s former wife, Minnie Cushing (one of the beautiful Cushing daughters, and Amanda Burden’s sister), a quote from some arcane source, and so on. The league of compulsive diarists has so diminished these days, and these diaries are so phenomenal, that if they were in any way reproducible they could stand on future bookshelves next to Pepys, Kafka, and Woolf, not as literature, but as the copious archeology of a particular mind.

The “elephant room” — with one wall almost covered by 40 or so views of similar and varying death and a large color picture of an exquisitely formed stillborn ele­phant embryo — may have been in its way as arresting as the room of Irving Penn’s cigarette butts exhibited at the Modern last summer, or that of Richard Avedon’s pictures of his dying father shown there two years ago. (Perhaps more than the show as a whole, this room deserves remounting somewhere else.) This is not to compare these pictures in any way, just to indicate that they are all works of significant eccentricity. Beard, using the odd aerial point of view (an invention mothered by the fact that the park authorities consider him persona non grata for his strong espousal of a politically unpopular method of game control, and perhaps because he has had trouble masking his contempt for rampant mismanagement of African wildlife) has turned what might simply have been sad and horrifying pho­tographs into paradoxes on the nature of death itself. Lying on their sides devolving visibly to dust and old leather, the elephants seem almost to be running, but with a weightless grace that belies the reality of their lives. They are a culmination of Beard’s way of looking at the darkening horizons behind and before us, aptly de­scribed by John Hemingway as “beauty born out of ashes.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722670″ /]

The story that the elephant pic­tures tell is not at all beautiful, however. They represent just a handful of more than 12,000 ele­phants that starved to death when the growth of suburbs and farmlands crowded them into an 8000-square-mile national park. “I have 6000 pictures of dead elephants!” Beard said when I mentioned that some I had seen in Interview were not on the wall. Whether or not that figure is true, there seems to have been a considerable fury behind the aerial survey. The “die-off,” and Beard’s elegiac photographs of it, illustrate what he calls “the fallacy of the bleeding heart.”

Shooting an elephant is not the sort of thing you can drum up much enthusiasm for among mod­ern civilized folk. It can only seem an act of purposeless destruction in a world of ever scarce wildlife, but Beard sees it as the only realistic solution. The problem is that man is interfering in a much more profound way than hunting; he is expanding the geographic limits of his civilization, and elephants, with their voracious appetites and inclination to travel great dis­tances, have less and less place in modern westernized Africa except as tourist trade decor. So they are crowded together on preserves to await nature’s way, in the form of the Malthusian sickle. But as Beard vehemently points out, there is nothing natural about overcrowding, whether in Kenya or Manhattan, and while thousands of elephants sank into starvation, the doomed and distended herds deserted the ancient forests that had been their habitat, and that of hundreds of other species. As Beard and I looked at the wall of pictures a Famous Person remarked in plangent Italianate tones, “How wonderful that they die with all that beautiful space around them — not like the way people die here in New York.” Beard pointed out, with his imper­turbable Wasp politesse, that the photogenic empty space was sim­ply the result of the elephants eating every living thing in the region. Beard’s elephants, vul­tured and rotting, are not just unprecedented views of the end of an epoch, they are intimations of the end of the world.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719095″ /]

In the sense that he will still harness his energies to a cause that has been lost as he watched — ­Africa, after all, will finally be lighted in every corner, the heart of darkness flickering with 10 mil­lion color televisions — Beard is the ultimate romantic. It is not a par­ticularly fulfilling thing to be anymore. His pictures, when they are good, relate to Goya’s drawings of the horrors of war, and they may be serving a dual purpose for the photographer: exercising his anguish by determinedly recording the source of it.

I had thought to write about Peter Beard the photographer and leave alone Peter Beard the toast of society, but it would be an incomplete impression. The prob­lem is that the edges of the two personae don’t match up too well. What, one wonders, does that unforgettable wall of elephants have to do with the paparazzi-choked opening-night party thrown by Lauren Hutton for Beard, attended by the likes of Halston and Andy Warhol? And when Marion Javitz tells the Times reporter that Beard is showing Africa through “young, vigorous, sophisticated New York eyes,” one twitches a bit at that missed point and wishes that Beard would find some other way to go public. It’s no crime to befriend the famous — somebody has to, after all, and what matters is the work — but fair or not, the inevitable glamorous cortege around Beard prevents him from being taken seriously by a public that ought to see his pictures. There seems to be no way to rub the glitter off him. This piece, for instance, began life as a humble photography column and has moved forward into a brighter limelight as if by magic — Beard’s magic.

Beard is an anachronism, a throwback replica of the 19th-century young English nobleman who went out to Africa to get away from stultifying family and wan friends and, if he survived malar­ia, green meat, and knobkerries, periodically returned to regale his circle with tales of savagery. When I spoke with Beard at the gallery he was gushed over nonstop by a parade of famous beauties and semi-titanic achievers, and there can’t be much doubt that at least some of his friends are feeding on his palpable vitality. I suspect he puts up with the lionizing for various reasons. First, he is just too well bred in that obsolescent true Wasp way to suggest that anyone take a walk. Second, he has not been in the bush so long that he’s unaware of the power of celebrity to sell books — though an afterword in Longing for Dark­ness by the luminous Jackie O. really is a bit much. And finally, let’s assume that Beard, despite being to the manor born, is just as liable to be star-struck as any other mortal. It would be asking a lot to expect him to resist being that adventurous adorable beau Peter. (If his diaries are any clue to the state of his libido, the assured flow of attractive women is no minor dividend.) His current bit of mischief is that he misrepre­sented a beautiful African girl who was the wife of a Nairobi official, as a goatherd.

The inconsistencies about Beard would be irrelevant if they didn’t seem to confuse Beard himself. If he means it when he denies that photography has any particular importance to him — and his atti­tude toward the reproduction of his pictures indicates that he does­ — then he can deny the harsh lan­guage of his vision rather than accept the risks of confronting it. Like certain other offhandedly gifted photographers, Beard is better than he knows. What he needs is someone who can prod and browbeat him further into the midnight of his mind’s eye. His next book, Nor Dread Nor Hope Attend, is a collaboration with Francis Bacon with an introduc­tion by R.D. Laing. It deals with such things as stress, death, and the lugubrious future in ways that one can hardly predict, but the elephant motif gives an indication of its tone. This may be the project that finally defines Beard’s vision. Sooner or later, too, there should be an exhibition that orchestrates his singular nightmares in a way that they — and we —deserve.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

I have spent only one afternoon with Beard, and otherwise know him only by hearsay and through his photography. He was polite and personable and just as charming as had been predicted, but my guess is that he is a very disconso­late man. In the second after he would express concern over some­thing, he would laugh at himself and disclaim it. I was reminded of a moment in Casablanca when Paul Henreid protests to Bogart that if we stop fighting for what we believe the world will die, and Bogart just shrugs and says, “Well, what of it? It’ll be out of its misery.”

Friends can’t resist reporting that Beard habitually puts himself in situations full of risk, and many of the pictures, of him and by him, attest to this. He once climbed inside a dead crocodile to have his picture taken and was almost crushed by a spasm of rigor mortis. Yet there is no aura of bravado about him. It may be simply that he doesn’t like what the world is becoming, and feels no particular dread at the thought of leaving before the rug is yanked out from under the rest of us. In his lost paradise, in the seemingly immutable African bush, Beard has seen the present, and it doesn’t work.


Bodys at Rest: An African Artist Gets His Due at MoMA

Bodys Isek Kingelez almost wasn’t famous. He lived in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) — which was still known in the 1980s as Zaire, per edict of the autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko — a city scarce on opportunities for a contemporary artist. A bit of a recluse, Kingelez had ditched his early career as a schoolteacher for a more oblique civic engagement: constructing, out of paper and plastic and found materials, scale models of fantastical buildings that he imagined for the city.

When the Parisian curator André Magnin visited him in 1988, Kingelez was forty, and worked as a restorer at the national museum, tending to masks and other traditional items. His own art — meticulously crafted, vividly colored, always representing civic or business edifices — piled up at his office and in his modest home. Magnin picked Kingelez to be one of the artists in Les Magiciens de la Terre, the mega-group show he co-curated in 1989; mixing fifty Western artists with fifty from the so-called Third World, it made a forceful statement, especially for the time, about equal worth in contemporary art. Even so, the Congolese press treated Kingelez as a footnote, emphasizing the selection of the popular painter Chéri Samba instead.

“Ville Fantôme” (1996)

Kingelez is now the subject of a fun and absorbing retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the apotheosis of a career that took off through that Paris exposure, making him a regular at biennials. It comes late for the artist, who died of cancer in 2015, and even later for the museum, as this is MoMA’s first-ever survey of a Black African artist. In that respect, the idiosyncratic Kingelez is an unexpected choice. But one has to start somewhere, and the show itself is a delight. Attractive in its jaunty, toy-world charm, it gets profound on longer look, as the cityscapes reveal the artist’s stubborn civic optimism dueling with his frustration at broken social promises and missed possibility.

Screen captures of “Ville Fantôme:” Virtual Reality Tour.

Kinshasa is the crucial context. Prior to the Paris show, it was the only major city Kingelez had known since arriving from his village after secondary school. In the late 1970s, when Kingelez began to make art, the energy was souring in many African cities, lofty post-independence dreams giving way to cynicism in the face of corruption, neo-colonialism, and complicit leadership. Mobutu’s histrionics amplified this phenomenon in Zaire. Having taken power in a coup in 1965, he had imposed in 1971 his doctrine of authenticité, under which people were told to spurn suits and ties for Mao-like ensembles, switch from French to African names, and call each other citoyen. The mishmash didn’t stick, leaving the single party, the M.P.R., with no ideology beyond plundering the country’s mineral wealth, while ordinary Zaireans lived by “Article 15,” a fictional law invented by street wags that stated simply débrouillez-vous, find a way to get by.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594109″ /]

Architecture and planning underwent a parallel decay. A wave of truly interesting African modernism had swept major cities on the continent as countries attained independence, starting with Ghana in 1957, and with the biggest batch, including the D.R.C., in 1960. In major African cities like Abidjan, Accra, and Dakar, both European and local architects endowed civic and corporate buildings with aggressive designs — blunt rectangles, cylinders, pyramids — plus elements such as breezeways or louvers or sheathing intended variously as decoration or to suit the climate. But by the 1980s, with money and belief exhausted, high architecture retreated, and unregulated sprawl took over as the language of urban expansion. Kinshasa was no exception, with no better symbol than the Tour de l’échangeur, four tubular concrete shafts soaring more than 200 meters high with a rounded triple-level belvedere on the top intended to serve as a city landmark — like the Eiffel Tower or Space Needle — as well as house a restaurant and other entertainment amenities. Begun in 1971, the tower looms over the city today, yet was never finished or put to use. Mobutu shifted his attention in the 1980s to building palaces and useless amenities in Gbadolite, his home village far up the river.

Kingelez was attuned to this psychic and political environment, and the needs it left unfulfilled. He had come to Kinshasa after high school, like so many rural migrants; his village was called Kimbembele-Ihunga, a place impossible to find on the map, at the edge of Bandundu and Kasaï regions in southwest D.R.C. At university in Kinshasa he studied economics and industrial design, so he was not exactly an autodidact. The urge to make art only hit in his late twenties, however, in a kind of epiphany. The medium he landed on would stick for the rest of his career. He called his works “extreme maquettes” — paper-based models of almost always imaginary buildings, and eventually whole cityscapes. They varied in size, but often reached two feet high or more. They landed between architecture and sculpture, but were not meant as literal designs — rather as general propositions, or fantasies. What made them truly distinct was their style, rich with ornaments and full of bright color applied with paint, marker, or colored pencil.

“U.N.” (1995)

The exhibition gathers 33 of these maquettes, many of them quite involved: The largest, Ville Fantôme (1996), fills a base that is roughly nineteen feet by eight feet, with buildings several feet high. All the works show imaginary buildings, except one — a rendering of that unfinished concrete tower in Kinshasa, Approche de l’échangeur de Limete Kin (1981). Three feet high and made of paper and cardboard colored with paint, marker, or pencil, it is close in structure to the original, though gold-toned with pink, orange, and brown accents instead of the concrete gray, and with its spire off-kilter, looking distinctly (and one presumes, intentionally) wobbly. Later Kingelez invented structures with clear marked purposes — airports, stadiums, universities — and sometimes urgent relevance, such as The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA (1991), an elaborate gingerbread-house hospital; that title appears verbatim on a label affixed as a canopy, using the French acronym for AIDS, a major concern in Congo at that time.

What he made of Mobutu is never clear. The M.P.R. acronym, for the ruling party, appears on a monument in Place de la Ville (1993), a model of a plaza with a rambling city hall–cum–conference center, a second building dominated by scalloped shapes, plus paper trees and statuary. A version of Mobutu’s green-and-yellow Zaire flag flies atop the buildings, but incomplete, the central torch-bearing brown hand replaced by a ghostly white shape. Then there are two works titled after Kingelez’s rural village. Reinvented in Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), the village becomes a space-age downtown with some fifteen buildings in assorted shapes — bulbs, wheels, fans, scallops, shafts — and a cacophony of decoration. One of three large, complex cityscapes in the show, the work includes a railway station with a sleek high-speed train ready to depart, as well as a “Kingelez Stadium.” One can read the work as aspirational and development-minded, but also a sideways comment on Mobutu’s Gbadolite and similar artificial cities manufactured by autocrats.

“Kimbembele Ihunga” (detail) (1994)

By then, the Mobutu regime was falling apart, the president sick and often out of the country, the government dysfunctional, and the Rwandan civil war spilling into the east of the country to spark a regional conflict that continues to mutate to this day. Mobutu fell in 1997, and died in exile in Morocco the same year. His successor, Laurent Kabila (father of the current president) promptly changed the country’s name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through it all, Kinshasa carried on in its usual resourceful way. Kingelez stayed, though he now traveled for exhibitions and European residencies. His spent the newfound means from purchases and commissions on imported art supplies, but also on Kinshasa real estate.

His work became more global in references, however. U.N. (1995) is a wild alternative design of a United Nations headquarters that looks like a demented fairground attraction. Nippon Tower (2005) and Development Australian Bank (2007) make geographical assertions in their title, and Sports Internationaux (1997), a tower of beer and soda cans crossed by an oval horizontal structure adorned with Lipton tea bags, is odd but clearly of global intent. (His proposal for replacement twin towers for New York City after the 9-11 attacks, with their third structure intended as a water-cooling system for putting out fires, is not in this show.) Ville Fantôme (“Ghost City”) is peak Kingelez: With skyscrapers up to four feet tall amid a forest of lower-rise buildings in seemingly every possible shape, it looks like a demented mash-up, drizzled in colors, of Las Vegas, Dubai, and the capital of Wakanda in the film Black Panther. Adding to the overload of signifiers, some towers are marked “USA,” and one cluster of buildings is labeled “Seoul.” (This piece is also the subject of a three-minute virtual-reality experience at MoMA, in which you zoom amid the buildings, though this reviewer, deterred by the long line, skipped the opportunity.)

“Sports Internationaux” (1997) and “Nippon Tower” (2005)

Kingelez was on a residency in Sète, a port on the French Mediterranean, in 2000, when he fell ill, resulting in his cancer diagnosis. He lived another fifteen years, but his output slowed. The cityscape Ville de Sète 3009 (2000), made during that visit, contains some of the classic Kingelez motifs — scalloped triangle buildings, weird tubes, bulb or cone spire ornaments — but makes greater use of translucent materials that give the work airiness and new light. With diagonal lines sectioning curtain-walls (in the manner of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China building in Hong Kong), and a star-like grid of roads, it suggests a geometry at work, a vector field. It is the rare Kingelez work that feels squarely futuristic, and not just for its title. More often he seems to work in an alternative present, concerned with expanding the scope of possibility to address civic needs. And though his maquettes are not meant for literal implementation, the cascade of materials and style vernaculars involved in their making returns, inexorably, to the improvisational genius at work in Kinshasa and other African cities.

“Ville de Sète 3009” (2000)

“As I see it, he is more of a mental-mapping phenomenon, and his sculptures represent a dogged mining of the contemporary African psyche,” the British and Ghanaian architect David Adjaye writes of Kingelez in a catalog essay. “The power of his work comes from his ability to aggregate his observations in fantastical scenarios.” There is nothing stereotypically traditional in Kingelez’s maquettes — no village motifs like thatched huts, nor for that matter the slum vernacular of tin-roofed shacks. Instead he offers a kind of shadow history of African modernism as it might have been and could yet be, suffusing his work with the while tormented, romantic history of nationhood and belonging, from the independence era through globalization, with its promises and contradictions. The absences are striking as well. Kingelez never put human figures in his works. He never depicted housing. He only did cities. Perhaps that was just his obsession, but it reminds us that infrastructure, public facilities, the skyline, remain central to how a society narrates itself, its way of being. They are always improvable, and they are worth the fight.

[related_posts post_id_1=”605332″ /]

The sheer color and invention gives the MoMA show a snack value that has earned it raves since it opened in early summer. The works live on white pedestals with rounded, irregular shapes, prepared by the German artist Carsten Höller; they are not encased in vitrines, so one feels proximity. But there are missed opportunities, too. A thirty-minute documentary about Kingelez, with ample interview footage, is shown near the elevators, in an area where noise is near-certain, making it impossible to hear. The catalog is truly excellent, its highlight a fluent and wide-ranging essay on Kingelez’s life, art, and context by curator Sarah Suzuki, but little of that information makes it to the gallery. The risk is that Kingelez’s work lands out of nowhere, and comes off like a brilliant curiosity.

Kingelez is at one end of the spectrum for African artists, in that his exposure owes primarily to Western curators and patrons. They include Magnin and the businessman Jean Pigozzi, whose famous private collection of African contemporary art, considered the world’s largest, owns a good number of the works in this show. Kingelez didn’t exhibit in Kinshasa, nor seek out Congolese collectors. To be clear, this was also by his choice: He was obdurate, grandiose, and didn’t care for the company of other local artists. That’s fine; it’s who he was. But if MoMA, after looking away from Africa so long, is to play catch-up (for instance with the Brooklyn Museum, which has presented surveys of El Anatsui and Wangechi Mutu), the hope is that it will pick up the pace, broaden the range, and not limit the pleasure of deep engagement with the work to those who already know.

‘Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams’
Museum of Modern Art
Through January 1


Moses Begins: Bale and Exodus Tremble Before a Murdering God

Flip open your Bibles to Numbers 12:3 to find the first inaccuracy in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth,” sayeth the Good Book of our hero, played by Christian Bale, an actor of hauteur even when saddled with a combover and potbelly. Bale’s Moses is a sword-slashing general who strides around ancient Egypt like he owns the place, which, as the adopted son of the Pharaoh, he does, at first. This guy is fated to lead a slave uprising? The only way Bale’s Moses could be the humblest man alive is if the rest of the planet were killed.

Of course, in the Old Testament, global genocide is always a possibility. In fact, we saw it earlier this year in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, in which God commanded Russell Crowe to be an accomplice to mankind’s murder. Here, God — a small, tantrum-throwing boy who looks like he enjoys burning ants — orders Moses to wreak havoc on the Egyptians. Judging by the carnage, it’s an awful time to be a human and an even worse one to be a horse. Pair Noah with Exodus for a night of big-budget biblical bummers that cow us before the Lord’s divine will and then, when his back is turned, whisper to us that God might be a bit of a jerk.

Archaeologists have never found evidence of a huge migration out of Egypt. Yet the Moses myth (and to historians, it is one) has one absolute truth: It makes an expensive movie. For a story that’s pro-poor and anti-wealth, every frame of it looks like it cost as much as human life itself — and that, more than any bludgeoned battle cries for freedom, is the pleasure of the film. What 1923’s The Ten Commandments lacked in pixels, it made up for in people. Cecil B. DeMille hired 1,600 laborers just to build his own cathouse of 21 sphinxes, and while he had to fake the parting of the Red Sea with Jell-O, he could afford to send a thousand extras scurrying through the jiggling walls.

Ninety-one years later, Scott has the resources to animate a terrifying tidal wave crashing upon the enemy army. Still, the best visuals in Exodus are tactile: the heavy turquoise bridles worn by the villainous Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), the matching blue-and-white headdresses of his soldiers as they dominate the Hebrew slave quarters like cotton stormtroopers, the zebra and tiger skins he uses as carpet, and the unearthly pink crab he munches on for dinner. We can hear the luxury: Even in chaotic battle scenes, you can discern every individual clink of the scaly gold armor. And when Scott pans over the city after the Angel of Death slays the Egyptians’ first-born children, you can make out each parent’s scream.

Alas, Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian spent less attention on the story. Granted, the plot outline is over two millennia old: Moses discovers he’s Jewish, demands liberty for the Hebrew slaves, and wins only after 10 terrible plagues and a chase through the desert. But Scott, either from fear or distraction, has no take on what the story might mean. A budget this big ensures he’s gotta sell tickets to Bible-thumpers and spectacle-loving heathens alike. Yet he can’t decide if making rivers run with blood is heroic or horrific — you sense he’d rather make Gladiator II: Attack of the Frogs. (Thanks to a distracting father versus son versus favored adopted son plotline, he essentially has.)

Scott skips over the creation of the rituals of Passover, and he dodges any discussion of faith deeper than side-with-this-guy-and-you-won’t-get-killed. As a result, Bale’s Moses is paralyzed. In scripture, he seems to enjoy raining locusts upon Egypt. Here, he whines to God that the plagues are going too far, and then simply stands by after the boy-lord snaps, “For now, you can watch.”

Bale angered the faithful earlier this year by describing Moses as “schizophrenic” and “barbaric,” but that description doesn’t inform the performance. His portrayal is more like a middle manager making apologies for the boss. Meanwhile, Ramses II, a fine pharaoh, has been so slandered that Cairo’s Egyptian Museum should hire extra guards for his mummy.

Not only has Scott rewritten history to vilify a blameless leader, he’s erased the Bible’s most morally tricky problem: that God himself made the pharaoh cruel, “hardening his heart” to provoke an excuse to advertise His own deadly power, like a cop just itching to pull the trigger. At least Edgerton has fun with the part, his goofy kohl eyeliner giving definition to a face that’s slick with fake tanner and as soft as fresh halva. The role is a Xerox copy of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus with less sex and self-pity, but Edgerton adds humanity and humor — he dismisses servants like he’s flicking grape seeds off his nails.

Gods and Kings is an odd subtitle for a story where the two types of leaders were, by definition, one and the same. (To the occasional annoyance of Ramses, who gripes that all his architects want to do is plan for his death.) When religion is government, then faith is sedition. It’s a political debate when Ramses growls to Moses, “Is this your God, a killer of children?” Moses has no answer. How much better this beautiful-looking film would be if he did.

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian. Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley.


Concerning Violence Is a Devastating Essay of Colonization

Göran Hugo Olsson’s profound essay doc aspires to upset in the truest sense. As its vintage footage of the cruelties of colonial life shocks and disgusts, its narration — excerpts from Frantz Fanon’s thundering 1961 text The Wretched of the Earth — demands that Western viewers fundamentally upset their conceptions of everything. A commanding indictment of the exploitative nature of geopolitics, and of Europe’s and the U.S.’s abuse of native peoples around the world, Concerning Violence pairs up hard truths from Fanon — Lauryn Hill reads his words, each blunt and burning like a cigarette she’s putting out in your ear — with damnable scenes shot in colonized countries in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s: In Rhodesia, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea, we meet local rebels and European soldiers, striking workers and the company stooges punishing them.

As the title suggests, viewers will bear witness to the results of violence that Fanon insists is the only recourse of the colonized. The guts of a Portuguese soldier pinken the Guinean muck, a terrifying but also inevitable image: Colonization, Fanon asserts, “is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” Contrast the shots of the wounded soldier with the scenes here of napalmed Africans — a baby with a red-tipped stump of a leg suckles at the breast of a woman with a stub for an arm — only a monster would argue the colonized were wrong to fight.

But since death is so common on film, the images of war might not haunt as much as those of everyday African life
under European rule: beaming white folks, lawn-bowling in crisp shorts, laying out at the pool, attended to by native men and women who live in shanties and barely register to the oppressors as people. Happy Christians in Tanzania explain all the good they’re doing, as black men dig ditches all around them: First these
missionaries will oversee the building of a church, where they’ll disabuse the Africans of long-held beliefs. Then, if everything goes well, they might bother with a school and a hospital. The assumptions of patriarchal superiority are chilling and familiar — these people assume they know exactly what the Africans need, how they should live, what they should accept and what they should wait for.

That’s not a precise match for the troubles afflicting our own country today, but at times this rousing, despairing film plays like a parody of them: There are revelations here for everyone, but this definitely should be seen by every white American who shares MLK quotes on Facebook to tell black Americans to stop protesting.


The Found-Footage Trend Meets the Somali-Pirate Trend in Default

Default has a pretty good point to make about the American media’s tendency to overlay a Western worldview on the plights of impoverished people in other countries. But it sacrifices its voice to the premeditated non-style of a first-person pseudo-documentary, a form that often has the paradoxical effect of making everything it shows us seem more fake than usual.

Absent the omniscient perspective of standard visual narrative, all the tricks actors learn at Juilliard or wherever just seem like affected tropes of acting. An American news crew is held hostage by a group of Somali pirates who hijack a chartered plane in the Seychelles; the tarmac standoff becomes a global news story as the reporters struggle to keep their captors from killing them, even as they cover the story and plot their escape.

The scourge of East African piracy meets the scourge of found-footage cinema. The pirate leader’s intentions are unclear at the outset, and he seems mostly interested in proving a philosophical point to the American correspondent he’s captured. One of the biggest problems with the faux-doc format is finding an excuse to keep the cameras rolling at all times.

Default resolves that issue at the outset: “Continue filming or you will be shot!” shouts the pirate leader, although the audience is never offered an explanation for why anyone was documenting a news crew boarding a plane in the first place. Director Simon Brand works hard at verisimilitude on the plane and in the film’s many intercut cable-news segments, but it’s hard to achieve realism in a mode that’s so completely contrived.


The Good Lie Tracks Sudanese Immigrants to America and Explores a Culture Clash

Trailers for The Good Lie make it appear that a Spunky Nice White Lady (Reese Witherspoon) takes under her wing a group of young Sudanese immigrants who arrive to the U.S. via a humanitarian program, only to have culture clash lead to laughter, tears, and, finally, enlightenment. And all of that happens.

But the film, based on a true story, is also a bit — not much — better than its marketing hook suggests, largely due to fantastic acting and gorgeous visuals. Directed by Philippe Falardeau from a script by Margaret Nagle, The Good Lie kicks off in 1983 Sudan; children frolic as civil war brews. When violence finally reaches the village where Theo, Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital live with their families, the orphaned kids, along with countless others, are forced to walk 800 miles to a refugee camp. Violence and death trail them, cementing their bonds.

The half-hour first act, which carries the kids into adulthood, is the film’s strongest. After 13 years in camp, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) are selected to emigrate to America, but Abital is sent to a different part of the country than her brothers. And because 9-11 happens shortly after they arrive, throwing their host program into chaos, reconnection seems impossible.

The Good Lie moves too briskly as assorted traumas (emotional meltdowns; simmering resentments) and triumphs (getting jobs; the act that gives the film its title) are checked off a list without real examination. Despite its weighty material and some moving scenes (much of the Sudanese cast are survivors of the war), this aggressive crowd-pleaser is slighter than its subject matter deserves.


The Supreme Price Honors the Struggles of Nigerian Women

Hafsat Abiola was a student at Harvard when she learned that her father, Nigerian President-elect M.K.O. Abiola, was in prison. Moshood was a Muslim who had managed to appeal to his country’s Christian majority and, in 1996, to win Nigeria’s most fair and democratic presidential election in decades. A military coup soon after prevented M.K.O. from taking office.

While he was incarcerated, his wife, Kudirat, led Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement, and Hafsat became an international activist. In the new documentary The Supreme Price, director Joanna Lipper watches Hafsat and her siblings grapple with their parents’ legacy, with what it means to be Nigerian and what it would take to make their country a fair and democratic place.

No hashtag activist, Lipper does an excellent job of using her film as a vehicle for the voices and concerns of Nigerians, and especially of Nigerian women, who are traditionally expected to stay at home while men operate in the public sphere.

But Lipper does not limit her camera to political struggles. In one of the loveliest moments in this lean, lucid film, car headlights slice through crowds at night, illuminating a long arm, a length of cloth. In another, Hafsat’s brother reflects on the mosque where four generations of his family have prayed, and Lipper captures the shadows of the men’s bowed bodies. Late in the film, Hafsat makes the hard choice to leave her family in placid Belgium and return to work in Nigeria, stating that “any society that is silencing its women has no future.” Hafsat Abiola knows how rare is her chance to speak, so with keen intelligence she does, and it’s compelling.


Fishing Without Nets Examines a Hijacking from the Somali Pirates’ POV

Perhaps the most frightening thing about blockbuster thrillers and action films is their purposeful lack of empathy, their reliance on faceless others whose deaths — comic and exhilarating — allow the heroes to bond and grow and find their smiles or whatever. A studio film like Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, which devoted its final third to the killer’s post-arrest therapy, would be even more surprising today than it was in ’68.

That explains some of the hosannas that greeted Paul Greengrass’s Somali-pirate thriller Captain Phillips last year. Stylishly shaky in camerawork but no great shakes as drama, the movie distinguished itself by daring to look beyond good guys and bad guys and remind us that its antagonists are people. It’s not excusing their actions to acknowledge that global poverty has more to do with piracy than, say, inherent black-hatted evilness.

Now Cutter Hodierne’s gorgeous,
harrowing debut feature, Fishing Without Nets, goes further. Rather than asking you to feel a bit for the pirates, Hodierne’s film puts you in their shoes. Again and again, the camera bobs behind uncertain Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a Somalian fisherman/husband/father/nice guy, as he journeys deeper into places he probably shouldn’t: a ramshackle pirate camp, a foreign oil tanker, at times into wide and empty expanses of ocean and desert.

When we meet him, Abdi is still trying to fish an ocean that has been poisoned, to feed a child in a shanty of a country that offers no opportunities. Abdi’s skills with a boat bring him to the attention of local pirates, who finally prevail upon him to send his wife and child off to a safe house and sign on for a raid out in the nearest shipping routes — and the possibly grand payday to follow. How else can he care for his family? But worry pinches his easy smile: This isn’t what his father raised him to be.

What follows isn’t especially violent, but it is raw and upsetting, even with Hodierne’s eye for seascapes or the
way sweat can glisten as it pools in the clavicles. The perspective sticks mostly with the pirates during the protracted hostage negotiations, but Abdi shares a few affecting moments with a captive Frenchman (Reda Kateb). Even the scenes of imprisonment — and of pirates shouting and pointing their crusty old AK-47s — stir complex feeling: The Frenchman and Abdi play checkers with bottle caps on a grid of hand-scribbled plywood. Even the prisoner’s heart seems to be breaking. (He’s figured out that he’s of no value to these guys dead, or even wounded.) The pirates, meanwhile, prefer a grimmer game: competing to be the quickest to jam a cartridge into a gun and get the nozzle pointed at someone else. It’s at once a contest, a practical skill, and a terrifying admission that, in their world, there’s no other skill that matters.

Most of the film plays like a pirate
procedural — like an ordinary ship-taking rather than a singular one. But dissatisfaction among the Somalis eventually leads to terrible complications and, of all things, a curiously beautiful adventure-film ending. The final shots boast some existential man-v.-nature grandeur, but never anything like grandiosity, and they will leave audiences sifting the implications: Does this powerful film have a happy ending? Is one even possible?