Mashad, 1st-10th December, 2012
When I realised I’d be having a birthday in Iran, I began thinking about where I might celebrate it. I originally opted for the now ruined city of Bam, simply because I read a story about it once that quite enchanted me and spending a birthday in a desert city seemed like something only dreams are made of. However, my life being what it is: a tumbling of synchronicity with little space for planning, I found myself turning thirty-two in Mashad, Iran’s second biggest city and one of it’s most devout.
On the train to Mashad, I’m asked by the girls sitting across from me if I’m Muslim. I’m originally puzzled by this question as it’s not one I’ve been asked often, but later come to realise that the sole reason any foreigner would usually go to Mashad is to visit Imam Reza’s shrine, a huge elaborate gated construction attracting thousands of holy pilgrimagers each year. I, however, am not at all intent on visiting this world-famous shrine, but on meeting an Iranian anarchist I’ve been emailing for the past three years through the Couchsurfing website.
The train ride to Mashad is a long, arid track through an endless desert. The sun settles down to sleep on the dry earth. I write pages and pages, filling my notebook with synonyms for heat, sand, earth and sunsets.
Another CS contact comes to meet me from the train station, along with his couchsurfing guest Michel. Michel is a musician, originally from Spain. He spent the previous few years living in Syria and has come to Iran in search of an Afghan rubab teacher. Mashad is close to the Afghan border and it’s here that the majority of refugees first arrive. Michel and I, being the only foreigners in town, bond quickly and spend most of our time together, particularly while our Iranian friends are busy with work and university.
There are certain stereotypes associated with the city of Mashad: devout, pious, conservative, traditional. As though in direct opposition to this, my new Iranian friends are highly progressive by anyone’s standards: critically minded about not only the power of their own government, but power in general; environmentally conscious; sensitive to gender issues and hyper-aware of their own constrained place within their culture. I meet people practising open polyamorous relationships. I meet a vegan man who’s living in nature, teaching himself about Permaculture and digging his own compost toilet. I meet a university student who’s setting up the first independent student-controlled newspaper (depending on your definition see the bottom of this post for update) since the Islamic Revolution. I meet strong, independent feminist women who are assertive about their sexuality. I find myself making bonds quickly and feel like I somehow ‘fit in’ to the cultural bubble they’ve created inside a spacious shared flat in the centre of the city.
On the streets outside, it’s a different matter. I am apparently an object of intense interest and curiosity. Heads turn, eyes follow. To make matters worse, Mashad seems even more polluted than Tehran and I can barely breathe.
Without the usual access to alcohol enjoyed by young people around the world, I’m finding Iranians to be particularly creative in organising social activities. There are theatre recital evenings; night-time football matches; discussion evenings and mountain treks. And of course, despite it’s prohibition, there’s alcohol.
As the date of my birthday draws closer, it becomes clear the only place to spend it is here in Mashad with my friends. I’m notorious for having terrible birthdays and all I want is good company and preferably something to drink. This arrives, in abundance. It’s not so hard to get booze in Iran if know the right people. Fortunately, we do. A huge four litre bottle of aragh is procured: Iranian homebrew. My birthday is singing, dancing and merriment, with plenty of food and good company. It’s my best birthday in years.
*UPDATE I have been informed of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Students_News_Agency but whether it qualifies as “independent” or not depends on your criteria.
European Rainbow Gathering 2012, Slovakia
Going from a No Border Camp to a Rainbow Gathering is quite a contrast. Perhaps a little too much.
I left the squat in Krakow, where I spent a couple of nights after Berlin, in the afternoon. I was only going 240km and figured it wouldn’t take long. I was wrong, of course.
I got out of Krakow fine, with a guy who was driving almost to the border, where he would spend a week walking in the mountains around Zakopane. He spoke almost no English, but we got on well. “Ahh my lovely mountains!” was all he could say, as soon as they came into sight. He took me further and dropped me at a cafe close to the border, just as thunder crashed overhead and a sheet of rain fell down. I ran inside and ordered a coffee.
The next part of the road was slow, very slow. I got a few rides for a few kilometres each with long waits in-between. I reached Hnusta and again the rain came down, making a river out of the road, washing over my sandals. No cafe, no nothing. I passed a big Tesco and stood in the doorway, but got kicked out by security since they were about to close. It was very dark. What to do? With umbrella held aloft I thrust my thumb toward every passing car, but to no avail. Feeling very bedraggled and flustered, I continued walking on and on through the road-river until finally… the crustiest hippy van you ever saw ground to a halt right beside me. Rainbow family! Welcome home!
These three Rainbow brothers were returning to the gathering after being away at a psy-trance festival for a few days. They were every kind of stereotype of hippy you could wish for: stoners with dreadlocks and munchies, driving a big crusty van painted with flowers, from a psy-trance festival to a Rainbow Gathering. They left me in the Parking, from where I managed to find my way by torchlight through the narrow paths to the Welcome tent. The rain fell down again just as I got there.
No sense going any further that night. We huddled together around a fire under a dripping tarp. The rain blew in from all around. Some people were sleeping under another tarp, but there was no more space. I would have to pitch my tent. But first, I would have to fix the broken pole that Nomadic Pete sat on and snapped. In the rain. In the dark.
I sat with my back to the waterfall with head-torch and shaky hands, trying to be quick. Unfortunately, the brothers sleeping around me were not very accommodating and rather than offering to help, they began shouting at me to turn my light off so they could sleep. “Yes, soon, I would also like to sleep, but first I have to fix this…” Welcome home, indeed.
I had noticed sexism at Rainbows before, of course, but never so much as at this one. I don’t think the European Rainbow in Slovakia was any more sexist than the others I have been to, but coming from a No Border Camp where it’s considered sexist to refer to people as men and women (that’s “female-ized” and “male-ized persons” to you), to a place where I’m advised not to carry a box of tomatoes because I will have babies some day, tends to highlight the issue. “Well, I don’t want babies anyway, so I guess I’ll carry it”, I told her. Her eyes grew wide – “Are you a feminist?”
“Strong men! Strong men needed to carry wood!” Fuck off then, I won’t help.
I pitched my tent in a good flat place in the woods, fortunate to find it just as the previous occupier was leaving. I made my little camp, happy to be home at last, and went to explore.
“Foooood ciiiiircllllle!” “FOOOOOOOD CIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRCLLLLLLLLE!” “NOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!” Horay, just in time.
I sat on the slope around the main circle area and waited. Slowly, very slowly, people gathered and joined hands, forming a circle which grew bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, broke into two circles and then three. I held hands with the brothers and sisters around me and we began to sing, “We are cir-cl-ing, cir-cl-ing to-ge-ether, we are sing-ing, singing ou-ur he-art song, this is fam-ily, this is un-ity, this is cel-eb-ra-ation, this is sa-a-cred…”
Later, I was sitting with two guys by a tent, listening to one of them speak. I looked up, and there in front of me were Matthieu and Alex, friends from the Hitchgathering and No Border Camp. I jumped up and hugged them with a big grin. It’s unbelievable how, with three to four thousand people here, they somehow managed to spot me before even pitching their tents. I was delighted to see them.
Now I was no longer the only one with a heightened sexism detector. Alex and I attempted to go to a tantra workshop, but finding it run only in French, we co-erced Matthieu into going instead and reporting back to us. He found us again two hours later, deeply frustrated. “That fucking tantra workshop that YOU made ME go to!” “Oh yes? What happened?” “It was soo sexist and soo homophobic and soo fucking horrible.” He proceeded to tell the entire story – the sexual harassment (“she said no FIVE TIMES!”); the macho guys imitating bears and lions; the guy who was running it basically denying homosexuality existed…
I have never been to less workshops at a Rainbow. I shirked the following day’s English language tantra workshop, which apparently wasn’t much better; I wasn’t in the mood for the Angel Walk and the Nine Dimensions Meditation workshop never happened. We assumed they had already made it to the ninth dimension by the time we got there and that’s why we couldn’t see them.
What I did do though was hang out a lot at the Karma Bar. A brother named Stefan had created this space and was putting all his time and effort into it, creating a warm and cosy atmosphere. People were bringing coffee, tea and food to donate and there was always something to share. I have very fond memories of sitting in the Karma Bar for hours every day with my wonderful friend Sara, her partner Aycan and the other “locals” (how we referred to the others who spent most of their time at this particular hang-out), watching Aycan learn to make a fire and then learn to make vegetable kebabs to put on it with his own carved sticks and having political discussions with some of the other locals, many of whom seemed to be activists. In general, it was a lovely Rainbow.
I had intended to stay for one to two weeks, but after having a particularly vivid dream, I decided to follow it to Lithuania. More on that next time.
Following the tradition of international No Border Camps, which over past years have popped up in (among others), London, Calais, Brussels and the Greek island of Lesbos; I find myself in a field in Bulgaria, screwing pallets together with an electric screwdriver to make toilets.
After nine months travelling I am once again “home” – not in a geographical sense, but culturally. I am with my own people – activists from around the globe whose belief in freedom and solidarity has brought them here, from as far afield as the North of England, Sweden and the U.S.A. Many faces are new to me, many are familiar.
During daylight hours it’s so hot in the open field that few can stand to work between 11-5pm. Mostly these hours are spent under tree-shaded tables outside the village’s only bar. As well as beer and coffee, the pub sells “salad”, which consists of tomatoes chopped up on a plate with a bit of cheese or onion scattered on top. The salad costs 50 stotinki – around 20p. The beer is around 50p. There is one place that could be called a shop. I found it by accident when I first went looking for the bar. I took entirely the wrong direction and met a small old man on a moped, who beckoned when I asked for water – “Magazin! Magazin!” I followed and he took me through a plastic curtain into the front room of his house. I wasn’t sure if it was a café, shop or just his house, but I asked for a coffee, which his wife made for me. I bought three bottles of water and the man gave me a big bag of tomatoes and showed me where he grows them in a greenhouse at the back of the house. I was pleased to remember him later when the camp supply team went looking for local food producers, and he and a neighbour supplied us with a lot of vegetables.
I tell you this to give you an idea of the kind of juxtaposition which has occured in this small village in Bulgaria. This man’s two sons, like many people in the village, make thier money from the border regime. There is not one family in this whole region without this kind of connection. So what happens when two hundred international activists turn up on their doorsteps to protest against the border? Well, not a lot actually. They are very congenial, very happy to sell us vegetables of course, and some even come to the camp to meet us and hear what we have to say. These people are not necessarily in political agreement with the border here, but it’s business: their livelihood.
The Media Collective arrived before the camp started and began a film screening programme in various small villages – including Siva Reka, Shtit (the closest village to the border) and Lyubimets, where the detention centre has been built. After each film screening was a discussion. I attended the first and the one in Lyubimets and heard locals speak about various clandestine people they have seen coming through their villages at night. A woman spoke of a pregnant lady, another of a man who knocked on their door and asked for water. They are not without sypmathy for these people, but they believe the state is helping them. They have all seen the shiny images of the Lyubimets detention centre on television and talk about how the men inside eat chicken for dinner and watch TV in their rooms. The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
The No Border Camp has officially begun. Day one sees three workshops, all with an interpersonal theme: a discussion about Safer Spaces – what are they and why are they here? A queer space and POC (People of Colour) Space onsite have already been the topic of some debate and controversy – but we’re No Borders! Surely we can’t be… racist? Well yes, unfortunately anarchists are not fully-enlightened beings and among the camp are many sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic ideas – albeit largely subconscious. There’s also a workshop on “looking after ourselves and each other” – about building debriefing and emotional support into our actions, and a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop. It’s my feeling that these three workshops on the first day of camp laid the foundation for a camp with a far higher level of awareness about these issues than is usual.
Another hot debate is the apparently unsolvable dichotomy between wanting to do “spikey” actions and respecting the “local context”. Basically, there are a small group of what I will call “The Bulgaria (based) Collective” who have been working for many months getting the plans for the camp together and have, as a part of that process, had to give their names and addresses to the police. There are a variety of reasons for this – it’s a legal requirement to inform the police about any kind of protest, and where in many other places it’s more-or-less fine to tell the law to fuck off and just do your thing anyway, in Bulgaria there are a great deal more fascists than anarchists, and those fascists are armed and organised. There are a very small number of No Borders activists – perhaps 5-10. We are witnessing the first baby steps of a movement in a country where none like this has previously existed. The Bulgaria Collective ask that we respect their wishes and keep conflict with the police and controversial actions to a minimum, since it’s them that will bear the brunt of what happens afterwards. This is understandable, but difficult. Camps like this are by their very nature decentralised and focused on autonomous actions within a diversity of tactics – many of them controversial and provocative of police responses.
When a staged “die-in” is called off by members of the Bulgaria Collective for being too confrontational (people lying passively on the road are causing an obstruction to the border), many begin to question what in fact they are able to do in this context.
This dichotomy gives rise to a lot of frustration and some very creative responses, for example: a small group of people hitchhike over the Bulgarian-Turkish border into “no man’s land”, declare a free state and hand out flyers; street theatre, a samba band and information boards on the streets of Svilengrad are designed to grab the public’s attention (although the streets are quiet, unfortunately); candles and shoes are laid outside the Border Police Headquarters to symbolise those who have died on the EU borders (the press said we threw the shoes at police and lit candles under car tyres!); a huge banner with a free legal phone number is erected outside the detention centre… then there are the usual flash-mobs, marches and banner hangs of course. These are symbolic actions – it’s understandable, but frustrating.
Demontrations at detention centres always feel different to me. Somehow it’s suddenly all a lot less theoretical and a whole lot more real: here is the prison where they lock up migrants who dare to seek a better life. Here are the people at the bars of the windows, shouting “Freedom!” in every language they know. Around fifteen hitchhikers came to this camp from the Hitchgathering a couple of weeks before, many as a result of the workshop Jasper and I facilitated. It’s amazing to see how people grow and change through these experiences. Some who began the week not understanding why some people “seem intent on violence” suddenly need holding back when they see a line of police protecting an immigration prison. Once again I’m seeing a camp’s power to radicalise people.
Among the other actions are a variety of on-camp discussions, presentations and workshops on topics from the situation in Calais and the Ukraine borders, to Understanding Whiteness and the privilege it brings.
At no other political camp I’ve been to has the level of self-reflection been so high. The apex of this for me was during the session on Roma Rights. Three women from Roma backgrounds put on this “workshop” (actually more of a lecture) in order to give vent to their… well, lets just say fury, at the level of unawareness and subconscious racism within the camp. Conversations about a visit to a Roma community opposite the detention centre at Lyubimets had provoked a variety of stereotyping and racists comments – you know the ones, about “gypsies”, stealing and romantic ideas of musicians… The women gave us all a firm talking to – “You are a white mob! …Do you know what a white mob looks like to these people? …This is ethno-tourism! …do you know why Roma people had to become performers? …”
Despite the explicitly non-violent context of the camp, which many participants felt to be narrowly defined and limiting, the camp seems to have achieved many of it’s aims – reaching out and awareness raising to local people who are already seeing an increase in migrants coming through their communities, growing a movement in Bulgaria and networking campaigns in other parts of the world.
Next year, Stockholm.