Seeing Your Homeland Closeup From Afar

2019 Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World
Belén Fernández
OR Books.

In the interests of full disclosure, I confess at the outset that Belén Fernández is a friend of mine. If she wasn’t, I’d wish she was after reading this book. Not that she’s a raconteur of travel tales at the dinner table. More likely she’s asking questions and even jotting down notes. She doesn’t do selfies and I’ve never seen her with an iPhone. In an age where MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, who studies how people interact with technology and the effects of that on human relationships, concludes that these interactions are so prevalent that they’re starting to undermine basic human survival skills, Belén Fernández has been honing these very skills, to the extent of putting herself in some very dicey situations as she roams a dangerous, ailing planet. I doubt there’s another journalist quite like her. Even the valiant Marie Colvin had a fixed address in London. Not only that, but Fernández’s prose is so incisive, pithy, powerful, and often funny, I feel like an interloper when trying to convey her words using my own. Just offering a string of quotes might be a more effective way of reviewing this book.

For the last fifteen years Belén Fernández has turned her back on her global superpower homeland to embrace a condition of permanent exile in some of the world’s trouble spots, made troublesome precisely by her homeland, itself a massive trouble spot and the only item on her no-go list. Not that self-banishment can be total eschewal. Fernández is well aware that her American passport is the key, “the grotesque privilege of being able to voluntarily uproot oneself”, and that she has chosen to do this “in an epoch characterized by mass forced displacement”, much of which is caused by long-standing policies of the country that has granted her the passport. And it’s not just any old passport but one sprinkled with uplifting quotes, including this: “‘The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity’ (Anna Julia Cooper, black feminist born in 1858).” The unabashed gloss of hypocrisy doesn’t gleam very bright in the places Belén Fernández inhabits.

In geographic terms “home”, for homeless Fernández, would simply be her present temporary hearth, wherever it is. In human terms, it’s where her heart is. And her heart is very big. She opens her book with a quote from another wanderer, James Baldwin: “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition”. Baldwin made of the tiny Swiss Alps village of Leukerbad a sort of home where, although he was highly visible, he retreated to write and rest several times in the 1950s. And this is maybe something that Fernández shares with him. For she too is highly visible, not for black skin but as a young woman travelling light and often alone which, in Uzbekistan, led to questions like “why a woman of my age had not yet reproduced.” Baldwin and Fernández have found many homes in what Robert Frost described as home—“the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”—yet uneasily mindful all the while that millions of people, forcibly dislocated from their homes, are never taken in, never receive hospitality. Anywhere.

If passport officials don’t take kindly to Fernández’s answer of “nowhere” when they ask where she lives, other people think that, “without a fixed residence, one cannot actually be. And yet some of these same people have no qualms telling migrants and refugees to go “home”—even when a physical place called “home” may be one that precludes existence itself, and consequently the irrevocable condition.” At the end of her Preface, written in Sarajevo and musing about what home is, she concludes, “While my own current irrevocable condition appears to be itinerant—and my exile from the US definitive—the generosity with which the world has received me would seem to indicate that home is where the humans are.”

This is the grandeur of Fernández’s book: the humanity of others and (not that she would say it) her own. With UNHCR estimates that, worldwide, 68.5 million people (more than the population of Thailand) were driven from their homes at the end of 2017, that refugees fleeing conflict and persecution at home accounted for 25.4 million people (many of them “warehoused” to live a bare-life existence in refugee camps), and conscious that many others are made to feel not-at-home when persecuted and branded as the enemy because of their name, religion, or skin color (and I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, the day of the terrible bombing attacks in Sri Lanka, where she was not long ago), Belén Fernández’s words—written in the freedom of her footloose condition, and always about and addressed to real human beings with names, families, friends, skills, hopes, wishes, fears, and desires—are extremely urgent and necessary. And all the more so when mainstream journalism—deeply embedded in the system and treating us like a bunch of Nippers, ears pricked for the latest taradiddle of His Master’s Voice—is so debased.

After her first foray out of her homeland, a junior year abroad studying at the University of Rome, return to the US in 2003 meant “a daily routine of debilitating panic attacks” on finding that “my homeland resembled a large-scale lab experiment on how to best crush the human soul.” She was now seeing it through other eyes. “The self-assured grace with which Italians seemed to move through the universe—even while constantly spewing penis- and testicle-related expletives—made it increasingly difficult to view the US public as anything but a bumbling mass sorely mismatched with earthly ecosystems.” And she knew that this wasn’t just a matter of individual panic attacks, but that this “shortage of compassion across the board” has caused many states of permanent massive panic among the world’s less privileged inhabitants because panic fattens “the arms and pharmaceutical industries, among other businesses for whom unhinged environments are an ideal market, and the national landscape has proved ever more optimal for school shootings—one of those phenomena that is somehow magically absent from many of the Inferior Countries of the globe.”

Belén Fernández has a sharp eye, not only for the political economy or geopolitics behind most of what she sees but also the follies and foibles influencing them. She lands in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, just one month after the 2009 “Coup-Type-Thing” against slightly leftist President Manuel Zelaya. “Knowing approximately nothing about Honduras—part of my brain had even assumed it was an island—I nonetheless decided that the Central American nation was as good a place as any to postpone sorting out my life. In the process, I became ever more acquainted with my homeland’s own intimate role in fucking over other people’s homelands.” The not-so-ingenuous young journalist of these lines is soon at the heart of things, spotting and exposing the carelessly inflicted iniquities of her country in foreign lands. She manages to attend a meeting in the US embassy between a human rights delegation and “embassy officials who had not adequately rehearsed the US line on the Honduran governmental switcheroo of June 28”, thus extracting a thumbnail history of the cruel and blundering madness of US foreign policy which, of course, required out-and-out lying. As usual, she lets the villain reveal himself in his own words.

After Deputy Mission Chief Simon Henshaw had broken the ice by proclaiming his conviction that Zelaya’s overthrow “was a coup and that it was a military coup and that it was wrong,” US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens arrived on the scene to rectify matters by detecting a “clear-cut case of a coup” and then downgrading it to the status of a “whatever-you-call-it.” Llorens went on to assert that the joint US-Honduran military base at Soto Cano had been “shut down,” ostensibly as punishment for this “whatever-you-call-it,” although he then backtracked and acknowledged that US troops were indeed still there but weren’t talking to their Honduran counterparts. The delegation questioned why the postcoup repression of protesters by what Henshaw had described as Honduras’ “extremely uneducated troops and policemen” had not resulted in a suspension of “education” for Honduran soldiers enrolled at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA)—which, founded in Panama in 1946 and then transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, had traditionally been the go-to institution for Latin American dictators, torturers, and death squad leaders. Llorens triumphantly countered that the SOA no longer existed, after which he was reminded that the school had simply been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

It isn’t just in the cupolas of power where Fernández gleans her insights. She sees the craziness of politics in all sorts of places, for example in “a small band of spirited elderly ladies and other assorted characters parading around a Tegucigalpa parking lot, followed in hot pursuit by a water cannon blasting them with a special water-and-pepper spray mix—a scene that was impossible to contemplate without arriving at some conclusion about the ultimate futility of the universe.” Although she was spared the spraying she did get a taste of “a taste of egregiously weaponized environments in which the ubiquity of armaments ostensibly intended for ‘security’ appeared to produce exactly the opposite effect.” She got around Honduras with a plastic bag containing a bit of money and a “crappy cell phone” but was still accosted several times and threatened with death if she didn’t hand something over. But at least her alarm clock was restored to her. One man, claiming to be armed and unimpressed with the contents of her plastic bag, decides to walk her to an ATM. She is deadpan. “In the end, the issue of my lack of any sort of ATM card was rendered irrelevant by my companion’s decision that I was nice enough and could therefore adopt his eighteen-month-old son, who, he said, was improperly cared for on account of the child’s mother’s crack habit.” And this is only a fraction of what Belén Fernández has to say about what she learned in Honduras.

She travelled rough in Crete, Poland with her friend Amelia (“where we endured continuous coercive feeding by her grandmother, a veteran of a Siberian labor camp in World War II), Andalusia (picking avocadoes and accommodated by a Moroccan construction worker, Abdul), Turkey, Morocco (accommodated by Abdul’s family, complete with more forced feeding and dancing at festivals), Mexico (getting trampled by a bull after a tequila-fueled attempt to join a village bullfight), Serbia (water aerobics in underwear at a treatment center for rheumatic people), Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela (free health care availed of), and Kyrgyzstan, inter alia. In Lebanon where The New York Times, taking the IDF line, had decided that the two tiny villages of Muhaybib and Shaqra were bristling with arms depots, rocket-launching sites, underground tunnels, anti-tank positions, Hezbollah command posts and “about 400 military sites and facilities belonging to Hezbollah”, Fernández, unlike the Times reporter, actually went to have a look and found not a single Hezbollah command post but plenty of “schoolchildren, old people, houses, farms, a colorful establishment offering “Botox filling,” a place called Magic Land, a painting of Che Guevara, and a graffito reading ‘THUG LIFE’”.

Palestinian-Lebanese Hassan, who gave Fernández a lift and whom she eventually marries, “as part of a heavily wine-fueled scheme to procure for him a US passport, with which document he might travel to Israel to see his late father’s Palestinian family members in a village near Nazareth”, tells a story that is also different from the one pushed by The New York Times, according to which Beirut is the “darling of the international travel scene”, complete with “high-end beach clubs where ‘hordes of heliophiles . . . cultivate their bronzed exteriors’”. Hassan and other Palestinians are “banned from a long list of professions, property ownership, and anything else that might solidify their presence in the country where they have now spent more than seven decades—many of them in squalid camps”. Well, anyway, the “Lebanese state doesn’t do jack shit for the majority of its own population—some of whom have been known to contend with a mere two hours of government electricity per day, not to mention the near-total lack of affordable health care options or other basic needs. The upshot, in the end, is that refugees provide a convenient scapegoat for the government’s own willful failures vis-à-vis the Lebanese.” No wonder Hassan tried to escape, with plans involving sojourns in Turkey, Kiev, and Madrid, a fake Somali passport, prison, and being tied to an “interrogation chair”.

In Turkey (tear-gassed near Gezi Park), Fernández finds that, emulating the wonders of American cranberry sauce, God-fearing, solid pilgrims, and unscrupulously uplifting passport quotes and their usefulness for distracting from a country’s history of genocide and slavery, Erdoǧan has his very own style of lexical murder, which ends up generating a perverse kind of confusion about where home and fixed address actually are. By the end of 2017, nearly 200 streets in Istanbul were renamed to expunge the word Gülen (a former ally of Erdoǧan). “Additionally slated for rebranding were Kandil (oil lamp) Street—since “this is also the name of the group of mountains in northern Iraq where the [PKK] has its base”—as well as ‘morally inappropriate’ thoroughfares like Askim (my love) Street.” But naming a street after one of the founders of al-Qaeda is OK.

Travels in Ethiopia turn up a European NGO funded by far-right money trying to deter northwards-headed migrants and refugees, some of whom are paying $5,000 to be smuggled to Greece. In Malta, Fernández finds refugees sleeping in concrete pipes and containers while the government does a brisk trade in selling European passports (1.15 million euros each) to people it deems more desirable, whining, all the while, about “its disproportionate refugee burden and endeavoring to wrest the role of victim from the refugees themselves”. And no travelling in war- and poverty-stricken, plundered lands would be complete without running into a USAID “success story”. There it was in Tunisia, responding to the poverty-driven causes of the revolution of 2010-2011 and doing its best to further impoverish local farmers by installing a gourmet olive oil program (featured at New York’s Fancy Food Show) that prevented poor farmers from consuming the products they grew on their land. And, as Habib Ayeb’s documentary Couscous: Seeds of Dignityshows, Monsanto was right in the thick of things with its imported non-indigenous seeds and chemicals and insecticides needed to make them grow. Meanwhile, other imposed development—with phosphate refineries and other noxious, for-export, foul-smelling, yellow-gas-producing products, not to mention the tons of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea—has turned the coastal city of Gabes, once celebrated for its oasis, into Tunisia’s cancer capital.

Belén Fernández travels and writes but she isn’t a travel writer, at least not by the five standards Lonely Planet sets for people wanting to make money as such. Mammon isn’t her guide. Like the good journalist she is—a foreign correspondent on her own terms—she takes up the cudgels of Anna Julia Cooper’s “cause of humankind”, chronicling the depravities of a moribund empire, talking to ordinary people, and finding out how the empire has screwed them. Her style is mordant. She finds the injustice and provides the context that explains it. Which means that, thanks to her “grotesque” passport and what her sharp eye lights upon, although she escaped from her homeland she’s constantly lugging its baggage. But she’s found something else too, and I think this is why she keeps going: “while the planet may have been going to hell, there were still some damn fine people on it”.