A journalist reflects on re-entering the U.S. after being a war correspondent in the Middle East:
How It Ends
The windows are open, and I’m driving my mother-in-law’s car, a turquoise compact number that’s festooned with bumper stickers like “Namaste,” “Peace,” and “Save the Tatas.”
I’m free, free from my child for the first time in weeks, free from my husband, free from the little rented bungalow on the adorable street where the blue skies are almost oppressive.
I’ve been back in the U.S. for exactly two weeks, and this trip away from it all, up Venice Boulevard, feels like a Carnival cruise.
I’m kind of a terrible driver. Turns out I haven’t spent much time at the wheel of a car in the past handful of years. For a long time that job went to other people: cynical, sarcastic, sometimes burly, sometimes handsome, always charming men — men I would hire by the day or the week or the month.
Getting out of being a war correspondent and coming to grips with it in Cali, by Kelly McEvers
There was Ahmed, in Baghdad, who drove NPR’s armored Toyota pickup. He was big and round and baby-faced and soft-spoken and reasonable, with a Hitler-like mustache you would recognize if you’ve spent any time in Iraq.
I want to say we were as close as siblings, but I knew that could never be true. Still, from the day I met him, my first day on the job as Baghdad bureau chief in 2010, I knew we would die for each other if we had to.
And later, there was my driver in Beirut, with his bronze armored Mercedes. It had a leather interior and a sun roof; a car in which I spent hours driving up and down the Mediterranean, a car that made me want to pretend the world wasn’t falling apart around me.
As my driver told it, he’d been strafed by Israeli planes in that car, had escaped militias in that car. And he always, always knew the exact right thing to do.
* * * * *
The night I first sneaked over the border and into Syria, back in 2011 when the protest movement was clearly turning into a civil war, long before I had any idea what I was getting myself into, our Syrian contacts were furious to hear that my driver’s wife was from the nearby village, which meant she was a Shia, which meant she was the enemy.
Our contacts were Syrian rebels, and they were Sunnis. These were guys with guns and hard stares, but my driver just smoked and laughed at them under his breath.
“They don’t even know who I am,” he mumbled. We had stopped at a roadside coffee shop made of corrugated steel in one of those crappy towns near the Lebanese-Syrian border. It was midnight. “My wife might be that. But I am not. I drink! I’ve had girlfriends!”
Hours later, the argument with the Sunni rebels had been settled and I was about to get on the back of a rickety motorbike with a Syrian girl whom I’d hired as a translator and who had never done anything this stupid in her life.
I looked back at my driver and said, “Girlfriends, eh?,” and it was clear that was all that needed to be said. He knew me already — just another Western journalist in his stormy homeland. And now I knew one of his secrets. It was as good as being bonded in blood.
Turning left and heading toward Santa Monica, I pass streets with names like Palms and Rose and Ocean Park. I thought my destination was a college, but it turns out to be a fancy private school. It’s all windows and staircases and sunset-orange walls with earthy accents.
The event is a film screening and fund-raiser for an international human-rights group. After the screening I’m supposed to address the audience. Organizers are excited to see me, give me a name tag, and send me upstairs for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
There are lawyers and filmmakers and women who are ten years older than me but better rested and groomed than I have been in a really long time.
I’m 50 pounds overweight and the bags under my eyes no longer disappear after a few nights of good sleep. I eat too much cheese and mop my cheeks with a cocktail napkin and listen to the organization’s top field researcher imploring those gathered to donate. Then we head into the theater.
The lights go down and there it is, the film about the photojournalist Tim Hetherington, the guy I didn’t know who was with a guy I did know the day they both were killed in Libya. I knew this was going to be a film about Tim, but I guess I didn’t really think through what was going to happen on the screen.
First there are a few scenes of him talking about what it’s like to be a war photographer, a few shots of him doing his job. Such a kind face, such care he took to tell people’s stories.
Then it’s Libya, and it’s footage from the last day the two were alive, and they’re in a car, and the Bee Gees are singing “How Deep Is Your Love,” and the driver has an AK-47 with the Libyan rebel flag on the handle and a grenade on the dashboard.
The car tries to speed through a checkpoint, and the street is totally deserted in the way that can only happen when there’s a war. Tim says, “Which way is the front line from here?,” which is the title of the film. They see a bombed-out building and they’re laughing, doing that thing you try to do, which is laugh at everything because maybe you’re trying not to be scared or maybe that’s just what our bodies do.
they’re at the front line, and everybody is serious except the Libyan rebel who is just firing and firing at a building that’s pocked with huge black holes from rebel rockets. He has this shit-eating grin, hamming to the camera, because of course the fighters are laughing, too, and scared, too, and he says, “Good? Crazy!”
At first I’m feeling pretty cool, sitting there and watching this, because I know what it’s like to be in the shit and still laugh and smile.
I know how vivid those incongruous moments can be in a war, when everything around you is mostly bad and the one slightly striking thing can seem so beautiful because it’s the only good thing.
Like that night-blooming jasmine bush I passed in Syria, when I was embedded with the rebels in 2012. They were heading out to a battle and we were all running through this centuries-old, mud-brick medina, and the smell of the jasmine hit me first.
I stopped and looked up and realized there was an entire ceiling of the stuff growing above us. I buried my face in the tiny white flowers that only bloom after sundown, each one a little starburst. I was convinced they were the most miraculous thing I had ever seen, a god-given moment of truth.
Like the Bee Gees playing in that rebel’s car in the film. Which I’m fine with. Until I realize that rebel’s shit-eating grin is only funny if you don’t know the end of the story. But I know the end of the story. Oh fuck, I think, I’m about to watch Tim — and my friend, Chris — die. I’m not prepared for this. It’s about to get ugly.
* * * * *
It happened in April 2011. Tim and Chris were covering the Libyan uprising against Muammar Ghaddafi. It was the Arab Spring, which at the time was probably the most exhilarating, dynamic, dangerous story that any of us could imagine: millions of protesters calling for the downfall of dictators were flooding the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain.
In Libya, the whole thing had devolved into a civil war, with NATO backing the rebels and Ghaddafi digging in with loyalist soldiers and mercenaries.
I was stuck in Baghdad, cooped up in a grand house on a secure street that NPR shared with McClatchy, The New York Times, and others. Armed guards were posted in towers and at the ends of the street to search cars. Reporters were only allowed to go out for work.
Nearly all the other Iraq-based correspondents were long gone by then, most of them in Egypt or Libya.
I wanted to go, too. I kept writing my boss: “Put me in, Coach?,” but the answer was no, we never miss a day in Baghdad as long as there’s an American soldier on Iraqi soil.
One night I had a few people over for dinner, and as they were getting ready to make it home before curfew, a friend got a message on her Blackberry that some journalists had been killed by shrapnel after a rocket attack in Misrata, the latest and most brutal front in the Libyan war.
It appeared that Tim Hetherington, the guy with the big heart who’d just collected an Oscar for Restrepo, a film he made with longtime war correspondent Sebastian Junger, had bled to death in the back of a pickup truck.
Longtime photojournalist Chris Hondros had survived a major head injury, but the situation did not look good. A colleague was handed Chris’s blood-filled helmet before he died.
Chris was a lovely guy whom I’d sat with on a panel, gone drinking with a few times. He was one of those guys who are almost universally loved by the tribe. That’s what we call ourselves, foreign correspondents who work in dicey places. The tribe. Losing Tim and Chris was very bad for the tribe.
By the time I am sitting in that dark theater, my wish to get in the game, to become a real hard-core Middle East correspondent has come true. And I am about to have to start reckoning with the consequences.
On the screen, Chris and Tim are still very alive, in a building that’s right on the front line, and the rebels are using these little hand mirrors attached to sticks or car antennae to look around corners and see if the enemy is waiting.
Then the music gets ominous, and a rebel guy puts his fingers to his lips to shush them as they go up the stairs, and they burn tires so they can see in the dark.
I know exactly what happens next. I have run that story over and over, online that night as I watched it unfold while I was in Baghdad, and at bars and parties with tribe members ever since. My breath starts coming fast, I am rocking in my seat. I love this scene because I know how it feels, but I hate it because I know how it ends.
I start to feel very bad. I’m shaking and weird in a way I have never been. I realize I can no longer be in that seat. I bolt out of the theater, out past the interns, out the door of the perfect little school, out and away from the drought-resistant landscaping and the guys setting up the taco truck.
I find an alley, the only place that looks remotely dirty and bad. There’s lawn equipment and fertilizer and old shoes. Coughing, crying, retching, vomiting — or maybe I just think I’m vomiting.
Either way I’m doubled over, and I hurt behind my eyeballs, an emotional hurt, a death hurt, a fucking punch-it-out-of-the-side-of-your-head-if-you-only-could hurt. The alley is brown and dusty and I need that, but it hurts me too, and there’s nothing I can do to make it stop hurting.
And I’m furious at myself for not being more complicated at this moment, for having no frame to the problem, that after all this time it’s just so childish and simple, that the question that keeps spilling out, over and over, as ridiculous as it sounds through the sweat and tears, is why.
“Why?” I scream it, and I’m sure the taco guys hear. Stupid white lady.
Back inside I’ve smoothed the dress, licked off the mascara, reassembled the smile. The event organizer tells me how sorry he is. Is there anything he can get me? I ask for a quart of Jack Daniels and a carton of cigarettes. He laughs, a little afraid, then looks around nervously.
Nobody is smoking. The interns pretend to go look but I know they won’t come back. Fucking California. I knock back a few white wines and head into the theater.
I will watch the rest of the film, and I’ll get in front of all those people and tell them that yes, my job was dangerous, but it’s important to be a witness to history, to document the atrocities, to put yourself at risk to tell the truth. But then sometimes you have to quit while you’re ahead and pass the baton to someone else and leave the crazy.
I will put it into sound-bite-size paragraphs, and there will be thoughtful questions and applause. And I will feel like I am lost at sea, caught between the life I know I am supposed to want and the oblivion, back there, that I so loved.
And then I will get back in the turquoise car and drive myself to the place I am trying to call home.
Kelly McEvers is a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the podcast “Embedded.”
If robots are the future of work, where do humans fit in?
Note: I watched a documentary on robotized industrial plants yesterday. Japan is the leading nation for 3 decades in manufacturing robots of all kinds and exporting about 180,000 industrial robots.
Soon, China is set to produce one out of 3 robots. South Korea is the leading State for adopting robots, around 450 per 10,000 employees, followed by Japan, Germany, the USA and France (barely 50 per 10,000 employees)
There is no turning back on that trend on a hard working machine that never sleep. More importantly, robotized plants generate more hiring of qualified personnel who undergo in-house education and training on the new setting.
Zoe Williams. May 24, 2016
Robin Hanson thinks the robot takeover, when it comes, will be in the form of emulations. In his new book, The Age of Em, the economist explains: you take the best and brightest 200 human beings on the planet, you scan their brains and you get robots that to all intents and purposes are indivisible from the humans on which they are based, except a thousand times faster and better.
For some reason, conversationally, Hanson repeatedly calls these 200 human prototypes “the billionaires”, even though having a billion in any currency would be strong evidence against your being the brightest, since you have no sense of how much is enough.
But that’s just a natural difference of opinion between an economist and a mediocre person who is now afraid of the future
These Ems, being superior at everything and having no material needs that couldn’t be satisfied virtually, will undercut humans in the labour market, and render us totally unnecessary.
We will all effectively be retired. Whether or not we are put out to a pleasant pasture or brutally exterminated will depend upon how we behave towards the Ems at their incipience.
When Hanson presents his forecast in public, one question always comes up: what’s to stop the Ems killing us off?
“Well, why don’t we exterminate retirees at the moment?” he asks, rhetorically, before answering: some combination of gratitude, empathy and affection between individuals, which the Ems, being modelled on us precisely, will share (unless we use real billionaires for the model).
Opinion on the precise shape of the robot future remains divided:
the historian Yuval Noah Harari argues, in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, that artificial intelligence robots will be the first to achieve world domination. This future is bleaker than Hanson’s – lacking empathy, those robots wouldn’t have a sentimental affection for us as their progenitors – but essentially the same.
(With the rise of totally nonsense mass killing around the world for all kinds of religious emotions… well-designed robots, which know the laws, cannot be any worse)
Harari predicts the rise of the useless class: humans who don’t know what to study because they have no idea what skills will be needed by the time they finish, who can’t work because there’s always a cheaper and better robot, and spend their time taking drugs and staring at screens.
These intricacies, AI versus Ems, AI versus IA (intelligence amplification, where humans aren’t superseded by our technological advances but enhanced by them) fascinate futurologists.
Hanson argues that AI is moving too slowly, while only three technologies need coincide to make an Em possible: faster and cheaper computers, which the world has in hand; brain scanning, which is being worked on by a much smaller but active biological community; and the modelling of the human mind, “which is harder to predict”.
But all the predictions lead to the same place: the obsolescence of human labour.
Even if a robot takeover is some way away, this idea has already become pressing in specific sectors. Driverless cars are forecast to make up 75% of all traffic by 2040, raising the spectre not just of leagues of unemployed drivers, but also of the transformation of all the infrastructure around the job, from training to petrol stations.
There is always a voice in the debate saying, we don’t have to surrender to our own innovation: we don’t have to automate everything just because we can.
Yet history teaches us that we will, and teaches us, furthermore, that resisting invention is its own kind of failure. Fundamentally, if the big idea of a progressive future is to cling on to work for the avoidance of worklessness, we could dream up jobs that were bolder and much more fulfilling than driving.
There are two big threats posed by an automated future.
The first – that we will irritate the robots and they will dominate and swiftly obliterate us – is for Hollywood to worry about. There is not much apparatus we can build in advance to make ourselves less annoying. There will undoubtedly be those who believe our obliteration is so inevitable that every other anxiety is a sideshow.
If you can hold your nerve against that, the critical question becomes: in a world without work, how do we distribute resources?
It is a question articulated precisely by Stephen Hawking last year, when he noted: “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”
Like so many things, from debt cancellation to climate change, the reality of the situation is easily understood by scientists, academics, philosophers from the left and right, activists from within and without the establishment; and the only people who staunchly resist it are the self-styled political “realists”.
The question of how to distribute wealth in the future curves back round to meet a conundrum raised by the past: how do we remake the social safety net so that it embodies solidarity, generosity and trust, rather than the welfare state of the present, rickety with the woodworm of mutual suspicion.
The idea of a universal basic income is generally framed as a way to “shift from the Beveridge principle of national insurance based on contributions and the sharing of risk, to a system of income as of right” (as described in a Compass paper by Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley).
In its simplest iteration, all citizens receive the same income. There is work to be done on the numbers – whether this income needs to be supplemented for housing, in what form it has its most progressive effect, whether and how it is taxed back in the higher deciles, how it can be affordable at the same time as genuinely livable.
There is also work to be done on the surrounding incentives, whether a basic income would capsize the work ethic and leave the world understaffed while we await the robot takeover (a pilot scheme in Canada concluded the only groups who worked less with an income were mothers of young babies and teenagers still in education; other pilots are under way in Kenya and across Europe).
Enter the future, with its possibility that many vocations will be unnecessary, and we face more existential questions: how do we find meaning without work? (That’s the most critical point)
How do we find fellowship without status?
How do we fill leisure intelligently?
These mysteries possessed Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes, then fell out of currency as we realised we could consume our way out of futility, and ignite our urge to earn by spending it before it arrived.
Even absenting the constraints of the globe, that plan has failed. Consumption may have lent necessity to work, but it didn’t confer meaning upon it.
And perhaps the most profound accommodation we have to make with the future isn’t whether or not we are capable of sharing, but where we will find our impetus.
“Can you just write,” Hanson asked at the end of our conversation, “that even though I’m talking about dire and dramatic things, I’m a friendly guy who smiles a lot?” I’m not sure how much this helps.
Some of his predictions are only bearable if you assume that you’ll have died before they come to pass.
Hanson doesn’t insist that his is the only possible outcome.
Rather, “you should expect that, whatever change is going to happen, it’s going to happen pretty fast. Like, five years from nothing different that you’d notice to a completely different world. What I want is to have people understand how urgent it is, when this thing shows up, to have made a plan.”
A Gentle Touch
Prettier than white dust
You shall never be.
Uglier than a skeleton
You can never be.
Toward the scared souls, scared of death,
Scared in living,
Let your stretched hand
Be gentler, your voice softer.
Is this the world’s most radical mayor?
When Ada Colau was elected mayor of Barcelona, she became a figurehead of the new leftwing politics sweeping Spain. The question she now faces is a vital one for the left across Europe – can she really put her ideas into practice?
It was the early evening of 5 February 2013, and seated among grave-looking men in suits, a woman named Ada Colau was about to give evidence to a Spanish parliamentary hearing.
“Before saying anything,” she began, “I’d just like to make one thing clear. I am not an important person. I have never held office or been the president of anything … The only reason I am here is that I am a momentarily visible face of a citizens’ movement.”
Colau was there to discuss the housing crisis that had devastated Spain.
Since the financial crisis, 400,000 homes had been foreclosed and a further 3.4m properties lay empty.
In response, Colau had helped to set up a grassroots organisation, the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), which championed the rights of citizens unable to pay their mortgages or threatened with eviction. Founded in 2009, the PAH quickly became a model for other activists, and a nationwide network of leaderless local groups emerged.
Soon, people across Spain were joining together to campaign against mortgage lenders, occupy banks and physically block bailiffs from carrying out evictions.
Ten minutes into Colau’s 40-minute testimony she broke from the script. Her voice cracking with emotion, she turned her attention to the previous speaker, Javier Rodriguez Pellitero, the deputy general secretary of the Spanish Banking Association:
“This man is a criminal, and should be treated as such. He is not an expert. The representatives of financial institutions have caused this problem; they are the same people who have caused the problem that has ruined the entire economy of this country – and you keep calling them experts.”
When she had finished, the white-haired chair of the parliament’s economic committee turned to Colau and asked her to withdraw her “very serious offences” in slandering Pellitero. She shook her head and quietly declined.
The “criminal” video became a media sensation, earning Colau condemnation in some quarters and heroine status in others.
A poll for the Spanish newspaper El País a few weeks later revealed that 90% of the country’s population approved of the PAH. The group’s work continued.
In July 2013, Colau was photographed in Barcelona being dragged away by riot police from a protest against a bank that had refused to negotiate with an evicted family.
Tonnie Ch shared Rania Masri‘s post.
Two years later, that image went viral, powered by the extraordinary news that the same T-shirted activist had just been elected the new mayor of Barcelona.
On the day of her inauguration, Colau addressed supporters of all ages gathered on the cobblestones in Plaça Sant Jaume in Barcelona’s old town, thanking them for “making the impossible possible”.
Some waved the tricolour of the Second Spanish Republic, which was declared in the very same square in April 1931; its egalitarian ideals buried in the rubble of the civil war five years later.
The date of Colau’s victory – 24 May 2015 – was to be, in the words of one spray-painted graffiti slogan, “a day that will last for years”.
Colau had been elected mayor on behalf of Barcelona en Comú, a new “citizens’ movement” backed by several leftwing parties. She became the city’s first ever female mayor, and BComú the first new party to gain power after 35 years dominated by the centre-left PSC and centre-right CiU.
The date was not only significant in Barcelona. BComú was one of several new groups that had defeated the established parties to win power in eight major Spanish cities, including Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza. These new “mayors of change” became symbols of hope for what progressives in Spain sometimes call la nueva politica.
It has become commonplace across the western world to talk of “new politics” in response to voter apathy, economic crises, corruption and the decline of established political parties.
In Spain, however, the phrase has a ring of truth to it. After years of social upheaval following the financial crisis, widespread uprisings against political and business elites have transformed the country’s political landscape.
Just as the Indignados, who occupied Spanish squares in their millions in the summer of 2011, inspired the global Occupy movement, it was in Spain, too, that this energy was first channelled into political movements capable of contesting elections, such as the leftwing populist party Podemos.
Colau has been involved every step of the way, and as mayor of the country’s second-biggest city, she now possesses real political power – arguably more so than Podemos, which came third in the Spanish general election last December. The question Colau now faces is a vital one for the left across Europe: can she put her radical agenda into practice?
When I first met Colau last autumn, she was in the middle of an unusual transition, adapting from grassroots activism to life as an elected politician.
Having started out at BComú’s spartan office, populated by young people hot-desking on laptops, she was now installed in Barcelona’s 14th-century city hall, with its marble columns, stained glass and Miró statues.
Her calendar had been taken over by a succession of official mayoral duties: gladhanding, exchanging gifts and small talk with dignitaries – death by a thousand micro-ceremonies. The demands on her time are especially intense, since it is central to BComú’s principles and media strategy that the organisation’s figurehead stays on the same level as her supporters, taking public transport and attending neighbourhood BComú meetings where possible.
In the weeks following her victory, Colau signalled what might be new about the new politics, with a series of headline-grabbing reforms.
“This is the end of a political class removed from the people,” she said, cutting expense accounts and salaries of elected officials. She announced she would reduce her own pay from €140,000 to €28,600, slashed the budget for her own inauguration ceremony, and replaced her predecessor’s Audi with a more efficient mayoral minivan.
(She was eventually blocked by political opponents from reducing her salary below €100,000 and has stated that she will donate the remaining sum to local groups.)
She suggested withdrawing the annual €4m subsidy to Barcelona’s Grand Prix circuit, restored school meal subsidies to the city’s poorest children, and levied fines worth a total of €60,000 on banks that owned vacant properties.
(At the posturing end of the spectrum of political action, she removed a bust of the recent King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, from the city hall’s council chamber.)
She also spent a night out with a homeless charity, helping to count how many people were sleeping rough in Barcelona (almost 900), met mobile phone company workers who were on strike, joined a demonstration against a controversial immigrant detention centre in the city, and returned to speak at the very same local assemblies that had brought BComú to power in the first place.
These initial moves encouraged Colau’s supporters, but the challenge most likely to define her time in office will be taming Barcelona’s tourist industry.
In its transformation, since the 1992 Olympics, into the self-styled capital of the Mediterranean, and the fourth-most-visited city in Europe, Barcelona has become a victim of its own success. In the old town, evictions are common – a direct result of rents being driven up by tourist apartments – and residents complain that their neighbourhoods have become unlivable. “You really can’t walk down some streets in the summer,” one local told me, “as in, you physically can’t fit.”
The scale of the problem is made clear by a few simple figures:
in 1990, Barcelona had 1.7 million visitors making overnight stays – only a little more than the population of the city;
in 2016, the number has risen to more than 8 million.
In the intervening period, infrastructure and accommodation have been improved and expanded – pavements widened, signage increased, tour buses rerouted – but the problem is a fundamental one.
Barcelona is a relatively small city. It is not London, Paris or New York. Major attractions such as the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell are located in the middle of residential neighbourhoods, not surrounded by the open space they need to accommodate millions of visitors.
As tourism has exploded, radically reshaping the city, the question of who Barcelona is ultimately for has become increasingly insistent.
“Any city that sacrifices itself on the altar of mass tourism,” Colau has said, “will be abandoned by its people when they can no longer afford the cost of housing, food and basic everyday necessities.” (Beirut has already been abandoned with No tourists even visiting this city)
Everyone is proud of Barcelona’s international reputation, Colau told me, but at what cost?
“There’s a sense that Barcelona could risk losing its soul. We need to seek a fair balance between the best version of globalisation, and keeping the character, identity and life of the city. This is what makes it attractive – it is not a monumental city, and it is not a world capital like Paris – its main feature is precisely its life, its plurality, its Mediterranean diversity.”
“We want visitors to get to know the real Barcelona,” she said – “not a ‘Barcelona theme park’ full of McDonald’s and souvenirs, without any real identity.”
Even in the last few years, the change in Barcelona’s old town is noticeable. The area is no longer dominated by locally owned restaurants, decked with laminated pictures of sangria and tortillas, or little shops selling matador costumes and Gaudí tea towels.
Now its narrow cobbled streets are watched over by American Apparel, Starbucks, H&M, Disney and Foot Locker. Every now and then, as you stand in the Barrio Gotic and wonder whether the locals who refer to Barcelona as a “tourist theme park” are being hyperbolic, a bike tour – if you’re particularly unlucky, a Segway tour – will spin around a tight corner and you will have to jump to avoid being body-slammed into an oversized paella dish.
While visitors come for the Gaudí mosaics, al fresco drinking and tapas, there is another side to Barcelona’s culture – a history of barricades, pitched battles with police, and deeply held local neighbourhood identities – that long predates the rise of the tourist industry.
In the early 20th century, this rebellious side of the city earned Barcelona the epithet la rosa de foc (the rose of fire). It was there that the radical trade union, the CNT, was founded; by 1919, it had more than 250,000 members in Barcelona alone. That same year, a 44-day-general strike held in the city secured for Spain the world’s first national law on an eight-hour working day.
Colau is not shy about expressing her respect for this heritage. She was born in 1974, in the twilight months of Franco’s dictatorship, only a few hours after the execution of the prominent Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich – an event that Colau has described as formative.
Last autumn, she laid a wreath in honour of the anniversary of the execution of Catalan anarchist and educationalist Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia. It was, she said, thanks to the legacy of figures such as him that she, as an “activist, rebel and Catalan”, could become mayor of the city.
Colau grew up in Barcelona’s Guinardó neighbourhood, playing in the streets with her three sisters and other local children – the idealised Mediterranean upbringing where public space is everyone’s living room. She grew up in a politicised household and participated in her first protests, at the age of 15, against the first Gulf war.
She went on to study philosophy at the University of Barcelona and never considered becoming a politician. Later, she studied theatre for a year. When she was 27, she even appeared in a short-lived sitcom about three sisters called Dos + Una – she was the “una”, the eldest of two twins.
It was at the turn of the millennium, as the post-cold-war radical left began to coalesce around a series of anti-globalisation protests in the US and Europe, that Colau became more actively involved in politics.
She recalls speaking on the telephone to friends in Genoa during the 2001 anti-G8 protests, after a police raid had left 63 protesters hospitalised. It is this period, she believes, that laid the groundwork for Spain’s new wave of leftwing politics. “I got involved in 2001 with anti-globalisation movements, against the war in Iraq and the World Bank, and global warming,” she told me. “For hundreds of thousands of people, this was the beginning of their involvement with politics, and I still see the influence of this period at work today.”
Colau spent the first years of the new millennium embroiled in activism, protesting and campaigning against wars, poor housing and gentrification. While working for the PAH, she developed her distinctive style of speech, which rests on a sincere, if carefully crafted, populism. She has said that she wants to “feminise” politics and avoids macho or old-left rhetoric. It is hard to imagine her saying, as the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias once did, that “Heaven is not taken by consensus – it is taken by assault.”
Instead, in speeches and interviews Colau returns again and again to a few central themes: human rights and democracy, participation, inclusion, justice. When I used the word “radical” at one point, she challenged it, “But what is radical? We are in a strange situation where defending democracy and human rights becomes radical.”
A key part of Colau’s appeal is that, unlike many politicians, she is not afraid to show emotion. The famous 2013 parliamentary hearing was by no means the only time she has cried, or been close to tears, on camera. At rallies during the mayoral election campaign, she used the whole stage, gesticulating and speaking passionately about the city’s most marginalised residents – women and children and pensioners and migrants and the unemployed – only letting herself uncoil from the performance once it was over and the BComú supporters were on their feet.
In person she is the same, speaking quickly and seriously, not seeming to pause for breath – then, when the message is delivered, she relaxes, often breaking out in laughter. When I met her on BComú’s symbolic 100th day in power, it was the middle of the Merce, Barcelona’s week-long autumn cultural festival. That week it genuinely felt as though the doors of the city hall had been thrown open to the people: normally protected by security guards, the courtyard inside was thronged with festival performers and their families, in traditional Catalan folk costumes of red shirts and white trousers; there were piles of rucksacks on the floor, excited children darting about, and a baby being changed on an ancient oak bench.
From the moment of her election victory, Colau had echoed the Zapatistas by promising to “govern by obeying the people”, and that night she delivered a speech of studied humility. “Never trust in our virtue or our ability to represent you completely,” she told her supporters. “Throw us out if we don’t do what we said we’d do … but be conscious that we can’t do everything on day one.” It was a response to the paradox at the heart of Spain’s new leftwing politics, which depends upon a small number of charismatic leaders.
In Barcelona, for instance, the remarkable collective victory against the establishment by a crowdfunded citizens’ platform, formed only 11 months before the election was built around the appeal of the one woman whose face was on all the posters
In one of her most high-profile speeches of the election campaign, at a rally in September 2014, Colau addressed the grey areas in Spain’s new populism. “They will ask us: ‘Who are you?’ Let’s not be so arrogant as to say we’re ‘everyone’. But we are the people on the street. We’re normal people. We’re simple people, who talk to our neighbours each day, who, unlike professional politicians, use public transport every day, work in precarious jobs every day, and who see how things are every day.” Colau still lives in a modest flat near the Sagrada Familia with her husband Adrià Alemany – with whom she wrote two books about the housing crisis – and her young son Lucas. With Gaudí’s gargantuan basilica at its heart, and three million visitors a year filling the pavements of an otherwise quiet, residential neighbourhood, it is an area that exemplifies Barcelona’s identity crisis.
As Colau has found out, the problem with being the people’s champion, is that not all the people want the same things. In one part of Barcelona’s old town, tensions over tourist excess have spilled over into outright hostility. Tucked away from the sea, Barceloneta’s narrow streets are lined with blocks of flats displaying the barrio’s blue and yellow flag, with a crest featuring a lighthouse and a boat. These days, they are often accompanied by another popular flag, bearing the stencilled Catalan slogan “Cap pis turistic” (No tourist flats).
For centuries, Barceloneta was a traditional working-class fishing district, until the beach on its perimeter underwent extensive regeneration for the 1992 Olympics. The area is now lined with expensive surf shops, rickshaw drivers, sellers of tourist tat and beach volleyballs. Locals complain that the cost of living has shot up and the hordes of tourists often make for bad neighbours.
Tourist misbehaviour peaked in Barceloneta one Friday morning in August 2014, when three exuberant young Italian men spent several hours wandering around the area naked. Photographs of the streaking holidaymakers quickly circulated on social media and a series of anti-tourist protests followed. When I visited last year, the area was plastered with posters put up by the city hall, asking in several languages “Do you know if you’re in an illegal tourist apartment?’ Another in the same series instructed: “Don’t use the street as a toilet.”
Colau’s stated priority is to move Barcelona away from what she considers “massified tourism”, with no thought for sustainability, strategic planning or input from the public. “Until now, all we have had were private initiatives doing what they wanted,” Colau told me. “This has led to a model that is out of control.” She added: “We suffered the same short-sighted model here with the real estate bubble. We are trying to prevent the same mistakes happening again with tourism.”
Soon after her election, Colau announced a year-long moratorium on new hotels and tourist apartments, disrupting over 30 planned hotel projects.
In March 2016, the city hall extended the ban, and is proposing to direct any future expansion to the periphery of the city, away from the over-burdened old town. City hall has also fined Airbnb and its rival Homeaway €60,000 each for advertising illegal tourist apartments – ones that had not been registered and were therefore not necessarily paying taxes or fees.
In April, city hall announced it was looking into a specific tourist tax levied on those not making overnight stays: cruise ship passengers and day-trippers. Many of these initiatives have come from Ada Colau’s new tourism council, which features input from ordinary Barcelonans, as well as the industry.
Even so, many locals are still unhappy. On the first day of the Merce, as the crowds gathered in Plaça Saint Jaume for Colau’s ceremonial opening of the festival, the Barceloneta neighbourhood association staged a protest. The locals, many of them accompanied by young children, faced the city hall waving blue and yellow flags, banging drums and blowing whistles.
“Life in Barceloneta has become unbearable,” Kico Casas bellowed to me above the din. He and his fellow activists are campaigning for a total abolition of tourist flats in Barcelona. “Speculation has led to so many rent rises,” said Casas, “and now we can’t afford to live in the neighbourhood our grandparents lived in. Meanwhile, the drunken tourists and their parties make ordinary life unbearable.”
On a demonstration the previous week, the Barceloneta neighbourhood association had marched to the city’s Airbnb offices, wheeling a cannon alongside them – a theatrical homage to the area’s marine heritage – and fired a fake shot at the apartment rental company. On that occasion they had singled out Colau, too, with a homemade banner reading: “Mayor: three months without solutions. Well?” It was the first time Colau’s core supporters, or at least one strand of them, had faced up to their champion.
On the other side of the old town from Barceloneta lies the Raval, another area with a long history of poverty and strident working-class solidarity. One afternoon, I attended a community discussion event here, which took place on ground where a factory once stood. The empty plot was due to have a luxury hotel built on it – instead, the site was occupied by local activist groups who had turned it into a “social space”, covered in graffiti art decrying police brutality and city branding of the “I❤ Barcelona” variety.
A man named Manel Aisa took the mic to explain that he grew up on this very street in the 1950s, where his dad ran a bar populated by duckers and divers, radicals and sex workers. He explained that the week before, he had been walking through the Raval, when a group of young German tourists approached him and asked in faltering Spanish, “Is this a good area to invest in property?” He managed a laugh, recalling the cheek of the question. “I told them where to go – away.”
But the difficult truth is that for many Barcelonans – not just a wealthy elite of cruise ship owners, hoteliers and landlords – the tourist economy has been a source of salvation. “For the majority of people sharing their home, it’s about making ends meet,” Ricardo Ramos, spokesman for the Barcelona Association of Neighbours and Hosts, explained over lunch near Sagrada Familia. “We have pensioners who are trying to pay the mortgage, or the rent, and live on €400 a month – and that’s impossible in Barcelona. Some of these people would be on the streets within two months, without that extra income.”
Ramos’s organisation, which was founded in April last year, is supported by Airbnb. Its members have organised their own protests – with slogans, written in English, such as “Tourists come home!” , instead of “Tourists go home”.
Ramos explained that, as well as helping home sharers, the type of tourism encouraged by companies such as Airbnb generates income for small shops located outside the obvious tourist centres, and provides a more local and authentic experience than a fleeting walk around La Rambla and a night’s sleep in an international hotel chain. Airbnb points to a 2014 study that found that more than half of the company’s Barcelona hosts had used the platform to help pay their mortgage, rent or bills – in the process, generating €128m and creating more than 4,000 jobs in the previous year.
Like his opponents in Barceloneta and the Raval, Ramos argued that if Colau were really of the people, she would be supporting them: “Given that Mayor Colau comes from a socialist background, I don’t understand why empowering citizens to take action to avoid being evicted from their homes is so difficult to understand. We should be on the same side. Home sharing and tourism has been stigmatised in Barcelona – some groups of neighbours have been out on patrols, at night, to see where the tourist flats are. And Mayor Colau doesn’t stop it.”
“I think Mayor Colau doesn’t understand the difference between being in an election campaign, and being in power,” Ramos continued. “When you are in the campaign, you talk to your audience, that’s fine – but once you are in power, you rule for all citizens, regardless of whether they voted for you or not.”
With a minority government of only 11 of 41 councillors, Colau and BComú have required support from other parties to get new legislation passed. They have also faced hostility from the business community and media – not to mention an intransigent local bureaucracy.
The threat that BComú’s enemies posed to stable governance was clear from the outset – even before the mayoral inauguration, Jean Delort, the political representative for the Barcelona police, resigned in protest at the election of Colau. “For them, there are no decent police,” said one police spokesman. “We’re all torturers.”
BComú has encountered substantial opposition in the council chamber from established parties keen to block its more radical reforms and expose its inexperience.
In October, two parties which were nominally allied with BComú – the centre-left PSC and the leftwing Catalan nationalists ERC – voted to reverse Colau’s moratorium on new hotel building (it was renewed in March nonetheless).
The following month, the PSC leader Jaume Collboni described the measures as “indiscriminate”, accusing Colau of ideological purism and “profound ignorance of the terrain” in “a complex city like Barcelona”. He proposed that the novices in BComú would benefit from his party’s governing experience, and that only a co-governing pact with the PSC would stabilise the “extreme weakness” of Colau’s administration.
On 10 May, Colau finally relented, and announced just such a pact. BComú will be bolstered by the PSC’s four councillors, and Collboni will become deputy mayor. Perhaps more importantly than votes in the city council chamber, the PSC will give Colau’s administration access to a network of contacts, which includes influential bureaucrats, union officials, commercial and civil society associations.
As with any governing coalition, behind-the-scenes politicking and media spin will be vital in determining which party is judged to have been the “winner” from the deal; in the short term, it is hard not to see it as a defeat for Colau. In January 2015, four months before the election, she had ruled out just such a pact with the PSC, whom she called one of the “parties of the regime”, and as such, “part of the problem, not the solution”.
Some activists are sceptical about what this compromise will do to BComú; according to an article published last week in the leftwing newspaper Diagonal, the PSC pact is “like getting a dominatrix into bed, with the hope they will assume a submissive role”.
Events in Barcelona in the last few days risk further alienating some of Colau’s core supporters. The eviction of squatters from a former bank that they had turned into a social centre led to violent clashes with riot police. She angered some people by refusing to get involved in what she said was a private dispute (although she has also offered to find the squatters an alternative site).
These kinds of setbacks raise a bigger question for BComú supporters and those of other new parties such as Podemos: was it all worth the effort? Might they just have been better off lobbying for change from outside their various parliaments?
For some experienced observers, taking activist politics into the institutions of power was always going to be a challenge. Oriol Nel·lo is professor of urban geography at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and a former PSC representative in the Catalan regional parliament.
In last year’s municipal election, he backed Barcelona en Comú. Grassroots activists should not think of city hall “as a fortress”, he told me over coffee in a cloistered square in the Raval. “It’s better to think of it as a very complex arena, in which you can manage to conquer certain positions – knowing that these institutions are more likely, a lot of the time, to give way to other pressures, coming from the economic sector or from business.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything within the institutions,” he smiled. “You can change plenty of things.” For Nel·lo, Colau’s determination to rebalance the effects of tourism in favour of Barcelona’s citizens is one example of a reform that is both essential and achievable.
In the summer of 2016, Spain’s political scene is in a strange purgatory: the old is dying and the new cannot be born.
The rise of new parties on the left and right culminated in an inconclusive general election in 2015, without a decisive victor.
Six months of coalition talks resulted in stalemate, and so Spain will go to the polls again at the end of June; the results are likely to be equally unclear.
In the meantime it is Ada Colau, and her fellow mayor in Madrid, Manuela Carmena, who remain the most powerful proponents of ‘the new politics’ in Spain – a country where, despite a short period of economic recovery, unemployment remains above 22%.
Even after the compromise with the PSC, there is a sense among her supporters that Colau’s experience fighting for housing reform, occupying banks and blocking evictions with the PAH has given her the confidence and perseverance to see the project through.
It is, she told me, “a collective made up of the poorest people in Spain, people who have lost everything – not just their homes, or their money, but their hopes for the future.”
With nothing left to lose, they got organised, formed close bonds, supported new friends, joined in civil disobedience together, fought and kept fighting – and they won.
“It’s an experience I will never forget in my entire life,” Colau said, “because it taught me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned, which is that we will be whatever we want to be. To have a society that is more just truly depends on us, and on whether we get involved or not.”
Main photograph by Dave Stelfox
Stockpile near-death experiences and look anguished: a guide to expat etiquette
Are you a foreign aid worker who only talks to other aid workers?
Here’s how to survive – and maybe one day escape – the trap
Michael Kleinman. May 16, 2016
There are two unmistakable signs that you live in an expat bubble.
First, the only time that you talk to non-expats is at work.
Second, you look around at any social gathering and realise that no one is actually from the country where said gathering is taking place.
As always, you have choices.
You can strike out on your own, boast of your friendships with local shopkeepers and street children, and tell everyone that you didn’t travel overseas to spend your time drinking with Americans and Europeans. This is an honourable path, but might leave you lonely.
“The expat bar is a place to get very, very drunk. It’s also a place for more anthropological pursuits, where – if the conditions are right – one can see almost every species of war-zone and disaster-porn expat gathered in one place, including:”
Alternatively, you can embrace the expat bubble. Like any social situation in which a group of random people is confined to a small space – like a high school, or prison – it promises immediate transitory friendships, drama and the opportunity to scorn new arrivals.
As ever, striking the right balance between these two extremes is up to you, but here a few tips to help you navigate the process.
How to talk to expats
Nod frequently. Look thoughtful. Especially when people are talking about a) horrific things, b) how terrible everything is, or c) how awful their boss is.
Refer to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, as just Addis. Johannesburg should always be Joburg. Say ciao, even if you’re not Italian.
Aid workers are notorious for speaking in acronyms and you might, after a time, feel the irresistible urge to make some up.
This is healthy. Just remember that most acronyms are three or four letters long. Try to use the most common vowels and consonants. If you can’t think of a decent one on your own, then just use airport codes – KHT, NBO and so on.
Acronyms describe things that invariably sound or work better on paper than in practice.
Hence, when using your new acronym – the NBO process – try to look thoughtful and frustrated and resigned, yet still willing to fight the good fight.
Also use the same expression when saying words like “governance”, “participatory” or “sustainable”. These words should be used as frequently as possible.
How to drink in expat bars
Most large cities will have an expat bar or three. It will be crowded – unless there’s been a recent bomb scare or police crackdown.
It will be loud and you will pay far too much for mediocre drinks.
The expat bar is a place to get very, very drunk. It’s also a place for more anthropological pursuits, where – if the conditions are right – one can see almost every species of war-zone and disaster-porn expat gathered in one place, including:
- Twenty-something aid workers drinking loudly in large groups
- Thirty-something aid workers – looking worse for wear – drinking in smaller groups
- Journalists, huddled together
- Private sector or government contractors in suits and semi-sensible shoes
- Private military contractors in short-sleeve shirts and cargo pants – sometimes wearing sunglasses indoors
- And, older white men of indeterminate background dancing with much, much younger local women.
Persuade others of your overseas credentials
Never brag openly about your experience. It’s uncouth.
Never start a conversation by saying how long you’ve been in the country. This not only makes you seem insecure, but also leaves you open to embarrassment if your interlocutor has, in fact, been there longer than you have.
Even if the person has actually been in the country longer than you have, all is not lost.
Ask where they were before, and then casually mention either that a) you were there, but at a worse time, or b) you spent the past few years in a country that was even more dangerous.
Stockpile near death experiences, especially those involving rickety airlines.
Instead of listing the number of countries where you’ve lived and worked, it’s far more effective – not to mention socially acceptable – to prove your credentials by casually describing the time you almost crashed on a runway in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in the mountains over Kabul.
Dress like a missionary
The problem with travel is that it alters our finely-tuned cultural compass.
Suddenly, it’s disrespectful to look older adults in the eye.
Suddenly, revealing your elbows is a sign of moral depravity.
Suddenly, it’s alright to say ciao, even if you aren’t Italian.
This is the general advice for navigating different – and at times interesting – cultural waters that won’t have you running to the safety of the expat bubble.
- Treat anyone older than 50 with pronounced – if not semi-exaggerated – respect, until told otherwise.
- Wear more conservative clothes than you would otherwise. Though one wants to be mistaken for a missionary, long-dress missionary-chic is sometimes preferable to being propositioned by every man on the street.
And never, ever make the a-ok sign – stick to a thumbs up.
This is an edited extract from the book Expat Etiquette – how to look good in bad places
Photo record of Native American life in the early 1900s
Born on a Wisconsin farm in 1868, Edward Sheriff Curtis grew up to become a commercial photographer in Seattle.
In 1895 he photographed Princess Angeline, the daughter of the Duwamish chief Seattle, for whom the city was named.
That encounter sparked Curtis’ lifelong fascination with the cultures and lives of Native American tribes. He soon joined expeditions to visit tribes in Alaska and Montana.
In 1906, Curtis was approached by wealthy financier J.P. Morgan, who was interested in funding a documentary project on the indigenous people of the continent. They conceived a 20-volume series, called The North American Indian.
With Morgan’s backing, Curtis spent more than 20 years crisscrossing North America, creating over 40,000 images of more than 80 different tribes.
He made thousands of wax cylinder recordings of native songs and language, and wrote down oral histories, legends and biographies.
In his efforts to capture and record what he saw as a vanishing way of life, Curtis sometimes meddled with the documentary authenticity of his images.
He posed his subjects in romanticized settings stripped of signs of Western civilization, more representative of an imagined pre-Columbian existence than the subjects’ actual lives in the present.
“Noble savage” stereotypes aside, Curtis’ vast body of work is one of the most impressive historical records of Native American life at the beginning of the 20th century.
My best friend
One Step Ahead
1. My friend, with all his disadvantages,
I quit counting the stars,
Yet, I can’t help feeling awestruck in his presence.
2. My friend, with all his weaknesses,
A couple of them will make me crawl
In a corner and forgo motion,
Yet, he always finds time
To listen to me, to care for me.
3. My friend, with all his awkwardness,
When I meet with him,
He is one step ahead of me,
Moulding His next Self.
My best friend, my soul.