Last summer my parents were hoping that my brother and I and our wives would join them for a week or so somewhere in Mexico, to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Why Mexico? Well, it’s interesting, my dad and brother enjoy speaking Spanish, my parents are middle-class Americans of the right generation who had long and stable careers so they could afford it, and there were plenty of flights. No other reason, except that we all wanted to see each other.
Their anniversary is June 6, but the gathering of our small but farflung family – Jenny and I live in Seattle, Aaron and Terry in DC, Mom and Dad in Colorado Springs – likely would have taken place in July or August, right around a year ago now. I was also looking forward to the wedding of my cousin Cindy’s son Will in late September. I’m very fond of Cindy’s whole family, which is why I would have happily made a point of traveling all the way from Seattle to Miami for the occasion.
The kibosh was put on all those plans when it became clear that I was going to have to have major surgery, which took place August 22. The doctors told me I shouldn’t expect to be able to travel anywhere until at least November. I was supposed to be in Fort Worth to take part in TCU’s Veterans Day programming and International Education Week in mid-November, but out of caution we agreed that I would come to campus this March instead and do then some of the things – like a writing workshop with student veterans – that I would have done in November. And then the plan was that this coming November, we would hold the biggest and best Veterans Day luncheon yet, to launch Voices of America: Veterans and Military Families Tell Their Own Stories, the book that Maj. April E. Brown, USMCR (ret.) and I have spent the last five years editing. Meanwhile on the family front, the revised plan was to mark the folks’ 61stanniversary in Mexico, sometime this summer.
In early August 2019, two and a half weeks out from my surgery, India peremptorily abrogated Article 370 of its own constitution, which had granted special status and a measure of autonomy to the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. I can’t expect any reader to know chapter and verse of why that was an appalling affront to history as well as to the rights and wellbeing of a remote and rustic minority population, but there are many resources available for learning about it, including the early chapters of my own book Alive and Well in Pakistan.
It was not the greatest timing from my personal point of view, and I had not been to the Indian-occupied part of Kashmir since 1995, to India since 2009, or to Pakistan since 2011. But I felt an obligation to write something. So I mustered the oomph to put together a 1,000-word spec piece that I hoped might serve as a calling card for something either longer or shorter for publication, depending on whichever periodical’s space and priorities. It began:
Anyone who was paying attention on the ground in Kashmir, and listening to Kashmiris, 25 years ago – as I was, as an independent reporter based in Bangkok – would find the current situation there depressingly unsurprising. Nothing has changed, except for the worse. Most importantly, the moral truth of the situation has not changed.
I never heard back from the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and whoever else. That’s the way it goes. A well-known Pakistani novelist of my acquaintance called my piece “powerful,” which I appreciated. And a well-placed contact helped me approach the recently appointed, London-based international editor of a venerable American magazine. But the editor replied to me:
I think I’ll pass on this piece, but let me know if you are free to hop on the phone to discuss what kind of stuff you’re interested in, and to let you know what we’re typically after, so we can figure how best to work together in future?
A couple of writer friends I respect urged me to read the editor’s note as encouragement and to make an effort to cultivate a working relationship with him. And I tried not to yield to the soft bigotry of holding his Ivy League degree, tortoiseshell glasses, and (given the subject matter) Hindu name against him. But I found that I didn’t have the effort in me to make. And I thought I detected a blitheness that rubbed me the wrong way, as though the fact that Kashmiri lives were at stake were part of some editorial parlor game, or ongoing game of chess or Risk, in which various world crises compete for space on the board representing the fickle attention of the American public.
The editor’s reply sounded to me a lot like the kiss-off I had received from a New York literary agent in January 1995, still in the very early wake of the long-drawn-out and deadly embargo and regrettable U.S. invasion of Haiti, and after I had exhausted myself writing a book-length manuscript at speed: “People’s interest in Haiti has peaked. But I’d love to stay in touch. Please tell me what else you’re working on.” In the recent Kashmir instance, there was also my private awareness that potential side effects of the surgery I was about to undergo included death. I wasn’t about to share that personal information with the editor; I was feeling vulnerable enough already. But I was in no position, or mood, to “hop on the phone” across eight time zones to try to sell myself in some undefined, non-Kashmir-specific way to an editor probably two decades younger than myself. In any case, the episode revealed to me that I was no longer hungry for fame or publication in the way I had been a quarter-century earlier. Which is, in the grand scheme of things, just fine, since for another article about them by me to be published is not what the people of Kashmir need.
My career in journalism and authorship took the directions it did partly because I was cutting my teeth overseas – and not in familiar-enough Europe but in faraway Southeast and South Asia – at a historical moment, the mid-1990s, when the chronic self-absorption of the U.S.A. was curdling into a peculiarly sour self-satisfaction. “We” had “won” the Cold War, after all. The mood of the moment is well summarized by Stephen Kinzer in his book about Rwanda, A Thousand Hills:
A handful of brave foreign journalists remained in Rwanda as the slaughter proceeded, but editors back home buried many of their stories. They believed the same lie that had swayed the [United Nations] Security Council: that what was happening in Rwanda was a spasm of “ethnic conflict,” not a government-sponsored extermination campaign. That allowed them to relegate reports from Rwanda to the back pages and concentrate on covering stories with greater public appeal. In the United States, these included the murder case against former football star O.J. Simpson, the saga of figure skater Tonya Harding, and the suicide of rock musician Kurt Cobain.
The mid-’90s was the time when steroids were infesting baseball and SUVs were becoming a widespread thing on American roads. I had rendered myself remote from that America, and a result was that I forewent the literary success that I wanted and was forced, over the longer haul, to redefine it in my own terms.
All of the above is on my mind now because I find myself sometimes wondering, as I lug books and papers, day after day, between my dining table and my vintage wooden pool chair under the patio umbrella in front of the backyard shed (which Jenny calls my “summer office”), what the point is anymore of keeping abreast of events and developments in other countries, or even other states. From time to time I hear something about how the coronavirus pandemic is worsening in South Africa – a country I’m halfway through writing a book about – and I make a mental note to read up properly on that when I get a chance. But when will I get a chance? I hear about how bad things are getting in Mexico, and Brazil, and Texas and Florida. But I’ve got more than enough on my mind and my plate right here in Seattle.
I smile both happily and sadly as I recall something the old man who was my primary contact in Kashmir said to me near the end of my third and last visit to the Vale, in the summer of 1995: “I was thinking yesterday: If Ethan gets kidnap, I will go to the militants and say, ‘Here are his books and papers. He needs these. At least let him have his books and papers.’” I ended that chapter – of my book and, as it turned out, of my career and life – with this paragraph:
I would move on, I realized that evening on the pier, and life and death would go on in Kashmir as before. This was their life; it was only a slice of my varied, attenuated experience. I had no right to claim Kashmir, to feel sure that it was mine. I was not suffering and dying; I was not losing my livelihood. On the contrary, as a journalist I was literally making money from other people’s suffering. And in more important ways, I had been given more than I deserved or felt I could repay. Maybe the best I could do was to say, with a faith truer and more confident than I could have mustered a year earlier: We’ll meet again, inshallah.
Twenty-five years on the plight of Kashmir has not changed except greatly for the worse, I have not been back, I’m still lugging around books and papers, and I doubt whether I’ve kept faith with my duty to bear witness. The other day I picked up from my pile of printouts an essay by Arundhati Roy published last November, in the Indian magazine Caravan. She quoted the Indian army chief, Bipin Rawat:
Normal life in Jammu and Kashmir has not been affected [by the severe lockdown that followed the abrogation of Article 370]. People are doing their necessary work. … Those who feel that life has been affected are the ones whose survival depends on terrorism.
Roy allowed herself the comment: “It isn’t hard to work out who exactly the government of India sees as terrorists.” And she wrote:
Now, the curfew has been eased, schools have reopened and some phone lines have been restored. “Normalcy” has been declared. In Kashmir, normalcy is always a declaration – a fiat issued by the government or the army. It has little to do with people’s daily lives.
That Arundhati Roy essay is from a pile of things I intend to get around to reading that doesn’t often get much smaller than a couple inches high, and that now dates mostly from a seemingly long-ago era. It’s not easy these days to read anything, but it’s especially hard to cross the temporal boundary to before the pandemic began. Why bother, given how utterly everything has changed?
Then again, some things never change, especially if you allow yourself to extrapolate. And Americans have a lot to learn, which is exactly why I read, and why I’ve traveled as much as I’ve done. Americans chafe at being asked, pretty goddamn politely – all too politely – to restrict their own mobility and social interactions voluntarily, for the sake of their own and others’ health. A lot of my fellow Americans call that tyranny. I want to say: Bullshit. If you want to know what it’s like to live under tyranny, take the trouble to study up on what Kashmiris have been enduring for decades.
One of our present dangers is that the severity of the pandemic, coupled with travel restrictions and a political crisis that might or might not begin to end in November, will reinforce, rather than rebuke and undermine, the ingrained xenophobia and narcissism of Americans. Early in my adult life, what I craved above all was to burst forth from beneath what I thought of as a smothering membrane of entertainment and meta-media enveloping my country. The only way to do that was to leave, so I did, and I stayed away almost entirely for thirteen years. Back then, if an American actually wanted to travel, which not all do, white skin and a blue passport made it easy. I took full advantage of that privilege. And in the back of my mind the whole time was the thought that I had better travel all I can, while I can, because it might well not remain possible indefinitely. I don’t know what told me that, but I could smell it.
And I adopted as a personal dictum something my older colleague and friend Anthony Davis said to me over beers on a hotel rooftop in a frontier town in the far north of Thailand: “There’s no substitute for the sniff on the ground.” The occasion for that particular reporting trip was a cross-border clash that had taken place between Thai and Burmese soldiers, and I remember that Tony and I visited the Thai Army camp and looked straight across a ravine right at the Burmese soldiers, not far away at all in their camp. And I remember wondering: Where exactly is the border? It was a revelation to realize that the Thai-Burma border, per se, doesn’t have any objective existence. The border is somewhere between these soldiers and those soldiers. But you can’t really know that unless you go there and see for yourself.
Also during that period, I developed a working hypothesis that the events I was witnessing and the truths I was learning, first in Haiti and later in Burma, Cambodia, Kashmir, Pakistan, and elsewhere around Asia, and later still in Zimbabwe and South Africa and Rwanda, are universally relevant. There is no clear dividing line between home and abroad. And countries we used to call “developing” were not behind the times, but ahead of the curve.
I was not reluctant to follow the implications of that insight where they might lead, and here and now I’m finding them more applicable than ever. And, given that until further notice I can’t travel internationally or even, easily or justifiably, domestically, the best I can do is to pay attention to whatever is happening here, now, where I am. For now Seattle will have to suffice for most of my subject matter, and for better or worse that’s more than enough.