Susan Maiermoul walks in the footsteps of Eamonn Sheehy’s political travelogue, Summer in the City State.
In those days it was common knowledge — and not just the domain of a few who went off by themselves to read adventure stories and daydream about them — that life consisted above all in waiting to be possessed by other voices, which brought with them every happiness and every grief.
– Roberto Calasso
I spent some time with some street kids while in Russia which kicked it all off really. A friend made a documentary. And I thought … write.
– Eamonn Sheehy
It is possibly my favorite thing about Eamonn Sheehy’s writing how openly and uncritically he reports his true feelings. By “true” I mean they are honest reactions to the unforeseeable predicaments of travel, not confections of fearless poise and political correctness. Among the essays on his blog, Migrate to the Fringe, when a glue addicted street child in the Urals tries to shoplift candy, Sheehy is “red-faced” and “panicked”, when a teenager walks up and slaps his face on a street in Sarajevo, Sheehy is “frozen with shock… The smack still burns hot as I try and compose myself.”
I’m won over by how regularly these feelings express neither smooth sympathy nor a formulaic confidence he’s above the fray. Sheehy could emphasize his expertise. After journeys in Russia, Lebanon, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and Morocco he could write savvy travel journalism. Instead he hardly spares a word for savoir faire. His richly detailed prose takes as its compass and constellations his fears, his gusts of compassion, his gritty pleasures. As moments of things nearing disaster occur with unnerving frequency, he finds his passage into “every happiness and every grief” in the chaos.
His intentions may be noble, but Sheehy is entirely and recognizably human, a twenty-first century Odysseus as performance artist. The material of his work is a no man’s land of vulnerability pinned between the multiple readings of him by the people he travels among and by those of us among whom his tales are passed. I know he will tell me as honestly about how he feels as he does about what he sees, he will not pretend to see it with more or less clarity than he encounters in situ or in himself. Possibly this is why I believe what he tells me about what he sees, why what he sees touches me so deeply. In a world of postures and avatars, Eamonn Sheehy’s signature is a guileless visceral presence to discomfort, outrage, and love.
The Morocco via Spain tourist itinerary of Sheehy’s new book, Summer in the City State, signals political tension we’re not meant to overlook in his subtitle “Ceuta to Tangier Through Fortress Europe.” Accordingly, we encounter Frontex in paragraph one enjambed by a travel agent checklist of sunbathing locations, positioning our departure by ferry to Northern Africa amid surveillance and patrols in stark contrast to “pasty white tourists” and “the good life.”
The writer’s treatment of this juxtaposition threatens to teeter into unabating contempt. Though I have never taken a beach vacation, I feel myself begin to distance from the swift and easy formulation of who is good and who is bad as the colonist and the consumer merge at the fortifications of the Pillars of Hercules. It’s at this moment of what must be for him a sore temptation to damning screed that Sheehy does a beautiful thing, a thing of literate discipline: having raised his energy, he contains it. He walks his body away from his loathing of the postcard beach and takes himself physically as close as he can get to the edge of the edge of Europe in North Africa. The spaces of narrator, protagonist, author, and reader, collapse and reconfigure as Sheehy gazes with some local men toward the sea.
A little walk on from the café along a dusty road and I round a subtle bend where the frontier comes into full view. The vista is strikingly beautiful and rugged. But then the fence creeps into view – high shining metal cutting coarsely down through the foliage. The reinforced unnatural border runs from the rocky mountain top down into the sea. It is strange to see the fence cut the landscape deep down the middle. It has a tall lookout tower in the middle where the road finishes. At the other side of the fence sits the Moroccan village of Belyounech.
And then instead of lingering to criticize those who don’t go, we cross the border. We go see for ourselves.
Injustice can make the most gifted artist switch up the traces of the means and the ends, condemn out of hand the very people they hope to convince, and mostly it is done in the heat of fear that they will fail to be persuasive, and would therefore prefer to be right. But this is the kind of right anyone can be. It’s the source of devastating failures to communicate among people who long to find a way to alliance that doesn’t betray their own experiences. Sheehy rejects the role of authority as surely as he rejects its yoke. He chooses his desire to be “possessed by other voices” as Roberto Calasso describes the inner longing of travel. By trusting his Summer in the City State to the landscape, to a remarkable number and variety of people, to the things he sees and what happens to him among these, Sheehy trusts me, the reader, to struggle with him step-by-step, no more or less of an outsider than he, no more or less uncertain.
Other writers, famous writers, have not refused bad faith with such alacrity.
“A cliché is a cliché, truth is truth, and direct experience is—well—something one repudiates at ones peril,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1968 trip to Hanoi. It was her attempt to ward off criticism. This saying “I was there, you wouldn’t understand,” is defensive, an admission that she has failed her story, has chosen a process of accommodation rather than reject, innovate, or complicate the given form of polemic. Her visit as a journalist might have been written in order to take us there with her into moments of being. Instead, in a zone as highly contested and ambiguous as those of Sheehy’s post-war, intra-conflict, and refugee migration, Sontag’s essay degrades millions of deaths with dissociated philosophical rumination designed to empower her, not them.
By the time of the Tet Offensive, Sontag had already published two novels, and a collection of essays, and had been filmed by Andy Warhol. With sustained network news reporting of the situation and the silver studio light of Pop Art playing across her features, it’s not actually possible to think of her trip to Hanoi as an unmediated event. In spite of this, and to the exasperation of many of her most liberal supporters, Sontag was unwilling to question even the crudest aspects of her tightly choreographed visit. “We’re driven even very short distances,” she complains. It turns out this bothers her not because she feels manipulated, but because “They think we’re weak, effete foreigners-” Questions of agendas and credulity are never far from a reading of Trip to Hanoi, and they undermine the credibility of Sontag’s assertion of a direct experience of North Vietnam.
In the twenty-first century these questions are complicated with unprecedented urgency by social media, citizen reportage, and the ubiquity and often strange politics of embedded journalists. The most serious and harrowing of conflicts is packaged as reality frisson by the likes of National Geographic Entertainment, complete with slick graphics and theme music, talking heads, montage and color timed editing, as though the deaths, torture, grief and suffering of millions of people are never in danger of provoking nausea in association with the very concept of entertainment.
When I travel in his writing with Sheehy, I’m not with a spokesperson, diplomat or credentialed guest, no celebrity journalist, I’m not in the company of an official tour guide such as those Sontag had in Hanoi, sanitizing my view of hard pressed people in order to supply the props and staging for political subterfuge.
Instead I travel freely and without intellectual carpetbagging to quarters where eyes peer from alleyways:
They come from a variety of regions across Africa – Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Senegal, Sudan. Through Ceuta and Tangier, they plan to move on towards Europe across the Bay of Gibraltar. And now, like the refugees of Ceuta’s town square, people fleeing the Syrian and Libyan regimes are vying for a place on these same boats. We pass some more – the new clandestine of Tangier and northern Morocco; stigmatised and criminalised as dangerous migrants, a ‘problem’, a ‘threat’. Europe crudely pays Morocco to police the exterior of its fortified fences across Northern Africa, keeping out these same people that watch me pass by. They have an impossible fight on their hands.
With Sheehy I am essentially solitary and subjective, and aware of this as an inescapable tension in halcyon moments of being, keenly aware there’s no such thing as being able to see what’s going on as it really is, there’s no such thing as the right to look away from the sequences and consequences we call by the rubric of history. There’s no safe distance from the multiple subjectivities of human beings struggling for justice, a decent chance, struggling for life in the places Sheehy goes, no location where integrity musters stability.
We travel by bus from Chefchaouen to Tangier:
From the slowness of rural Morocco to an African urban hybrid, Tangier is a pressure cooker. Here is the merger of those trying to survive, trying to profit, and trying to escape. So many people with cross-section motives fill its winding alleyways.
At the next stop policemen with rifles do a clear down then load all of the empty seats with prisoners in chains. There are no voice overs, there’s no supplied context. A wife “hides half crouched in the aisle, trying to stay out of the Guard’s view while feeding her shackled husband some food.”
Taking a dim view of non intellectuals, Sontag closed Trip to Hanoi, “Of course, most people are unlikely to come to a direct awareness of how local is the human type they embody, and even less likely to appreciate how arbitrary, drastically impoverished, and in urgent need of replacement it is.” In spite of this, she seems to grasp that she’s condemning the very masses in Western culture that she ennobles in Eastern culture, and has a moment of startling self observation, to wit, that she has obtained an unethical advantage from this objectification of one culture to denigrate another:
Radical Americans have profited from the war in Vietnam, profited from having a clear-cut moral issue on which to mobilise discontent and expose the camouflaged contradictions in the system. Beyond isolated private disenchantment or despair over America’s betrayal of its ideals, Vietnam offered the key to a systematic criticism of America. In this scheme of use, Vietnam becomes an ideal Other. But such a status only makes Vietnam, already so alien culturally, even further removed from this country.
It is this viewing from a remove that Sheehy labors patiently, often against his own temperament, to separate from its guise of impartial disinterest. Sheehy is an innovator in an emerging variant of performance as raw as the punk music he writes about. It takes as its tenets a faith in its readers, a distrust of the gates and edits, the mechanisms of the distribution channels of corporate popular publishing, and an absolute refusal of the given forms of reportage. This emergent art practice may frequently share the political orientation of the twentieth century left but it repudiates its employment of the tools that built the masters house, going beyond “question authority” to “keep a close eye on yourself.”