Adam McCauley

Past Work

A short selection of articles is posted below. Scroll to the end for a full clippings list. 

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Asia’s seas offer rich pickings for marauding pirates who steal oil and supplies worth billions of dollars every year

BY ADAM MCCAULEY
Pictured above: Vessels anchor off the east coast of Singapore on Aug. 15, 2014. Photograph by Edgar Su—Reuters

 

Two hours before sunset on May 28, 10 men, armed with guns and machetes, climbed from their speedboat onto the deck of a shipping tanker named Orapin 4. The ship was carrying large quantities of fuel between Singapore and Pontianak, a port on the western coast of Indonesian Borneo. Bursting onto the bridge, the attackers locked the ship’s crew below deck and disabled the communications system. They then scrubbed the first and last letter from the boat’s stern, leaving a new identifier, Rapi, in its place.

Failing to hail the crew that evening, the Thai shipping company that owns Orapin 4 reported it missing. Radio alerts were sent out, asking other vessels to keep an eye out for the ship — but nobody had seen it. Over the next 10 hours, the attackers siphoned more than 3,700 metric tons of fuel into a second vessel. Finally, four days after the attack, the Orapin 4 pulled into its home port of Sri Racha, Thailand — the town, as it happens, where the namesake hot sauce was first brewed. While the 14 members of the crew were safe, the pirates — and $1.9 million in stolen fuel — were long gone.

***

Under most conditions, the brazen attack on the Orapin 4 would have been notable. But this was the sixth such attack in three months.

When the world thinks of piracy, it thinks of Somalia and red-eyed young brigands peering over the barrels of their Kalashnikovs. It thinks of the 2013 Hollywood movie Captain Phillips, which tells the story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009 and the capture of its American captain. But the waters of the West Indian Ocean are not the world’s most dangerous. Far from it. The most perilous seas, as the U.N. declared last month, are those of Southeast Asia — and for criminals they offer sumptuously rich pickings.

Stretching from the westernmost corner of Malaysia to the tip of Indonesia’s Bintan Island, the Malacca and Singapore straits serve as global shipping superhighways. Each year, more than 120,000 ships traverse these waterways, accounting for a third of the world’s marine commerce. Between 70% and 80% of all the oil imported by China and Japan transits the straits.

Read the full article at Time Magazine.

 
 

Teenager Rescued After Five Days Trapped in Rubble

By Adam McCauley | TIME Magazine

 

A 18-year-old man was miraculously rescued in Kathmandu on Thursday, five days after the house where he was sheltering collapsed during Nepal’s devastating earthquake.

Bystanders roared as Pemba Tamang, caked in thick red dust, was ferried out of harm’s way on a stretcher with an intravenous drip in his arm, blinking at the midday light.

American medic Dennis Bautista administered drugs to Tamang to guard against any potential crush syndrome. "I can't imagine what it must have been like," Bautista tells TIME, "he was incredibly brave."

An army of volunteers had swarmed on the narrow, multi-colored residential and commercial neighborhood of the capital where the young victim was discovered under layers of pancaked floors of reinforced concrete that had once been a seven-story building.

Lying flat with a corrugated iron sheet above, Tamang could be seen squirming with his arms pinned by his sides. “I’m cold,” he murmured, and a bystander immediately ripped off his scarf and passed it forward. Others scrambled to find him a jacket and locate flat pieces of wood to secure and widen the opening to the hole.

Nepali rescue workers — wearing camouflage uniforms, knee pads and red helmets — struggled for what seemed an eternity to remove a motorbike that was crushed between the floors and blocked the opening of a 10-ft-deep pit where Tamang lay.

American and French aid workers loitered at the periphery offering equipment and preparing medical care for when he was cut free, dolling out pink and red glowsticks to arriving Nepalese officials.

“This is your site, I'm here to help and assist you,” Andrew Olvera, a urban search and rescue member of AUSAID's DART team, who had been leading a team of search dogs five blocks away when the boy was spotted, told his Nepali counterpart.

“We’ll ask you if we need something,” came the reply, as a throng of around 40 local police hung around snapping photos on their mobile phones. A rotatable camera on a telescopic pole was also deployed to see how best Tamang could be freed.

The first rescue team arriving at the scene where Pemba Tamang, 15, had been trapped for five days in Kathmandu, Nepal, April 30, 2015 Adam McCauley for TIME 

More than 5,500 people have been confirmed dead in Saturday’s 7.9-magnitude earthquake, and as many feared the trickle of survivors dragged from the rubble had finally stopped, there was a renewed determination to save this young victim.

A generator was fired up and an array of Makita saws and jackhammers whirred into action, kicking up a choking mix of dust and smoke. First, the back wheel of the prone motorcycle had to be surgically removed to improve access.

A hot stick checked for live wires at the opening of the pit, which was a twisted mess of rebar stripped of their outer concrete shell. Eventually jacks were used to pry apart the concrete slabs and allow rescuers to squirm inside.

As rescuers descended into the void, the fear of more aftershocks unsettling the tumbledown buildings was upmost in everyone’s mind. Thankfully, Tamang was carried out into the seasonal drizzle as a symbolic triumph amid a city drenched in loss.

Originally published in TIME Magazine

 
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A man flashes the symbol for peace in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in 1989  Stuart Franklin—Magnum

A man flashes the symbol for peace in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in 1989  Stuart Franklin—Magnum

 

In Tiananmen: 25 Years Later, Three Students Tell What They Saw

By Adam McCauley | Time Magazine

 

On June 5, 1989, Jonathan Chan arrived at Beijing airport with two swollen bumps visible on the back of his head. In a line of tired and weary student demonstrators, eager to slip out of the capital if not the country, the 24-year-old slid his hand into his pocket, fingering the single roll of film he had rescued moments before his camera had been smashed by Chinese soldiers. A journalist standing next to him took notice, quickly explaining how he might break open the roller, overexpose the images, and protect himself if he were stopped by airport immigration. Then Chan walked to the front of the line and waited for the inevitable question.

“Were you on the square?" the immigration official asked.

"I was," Chan said, expecting to be detained.

Frowning, the official leaned in.

"Then go and tell the world," the official said softly, before waving him through.

For the past 25 years, that's exactly what Chan, Lam and Lee have tried to do. As leading student activists from Hong Kong, they played a vital role in the protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, not only as fundraisers and couriers of supplies for their fellow protesters, but also as emissaries of information, able to evade Communist Party censors by returning to Hong Kong — then still administered by the British and enjoying a vigorously free press and communications regime — to share their stories.

They arrived in Beijing in late May 1989, eager to join the call for a more open, representative and prosperous China. But they left, 10 days later, wearing clothes still stained with the blood of their friends, and with the images of the injured and dead still fresh in their minds. In the quarter-century since, seeing the “dark side of humanity,” in Lam’s words, they have actively fought against a growing amnesia surrounding the massacre at Tiananmen, instigated by a Chinese Communist Party desperate to erase from the history the hundreds, possibly thousands, of dead and wounded.

“Every year I have to remind myself that I have a job to do,” Lee tells TIME. “I was rescued by the people of Tiananmen Square and they have an expectation of me.”

Read the full article at TIME Magazine

 
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AND MOUNTAINS SHOOK

By Adam McCauley | RUINS

 

Tibetan myth claims the Kathmandu Valley was created by Manjushree, a powerful saint who flew across the water-filled hollow and sliced the spiny Chobhar ridge in two, just south of the modern capital. With his mighty sword he opened this great fissure, allowing the water to funnel away and civilization to begin.

Geological research suggests Kathmandu was an expansive lake thirty thousand years ago. As epochs unfolded, a terrain surfaced, and the receding water unearthed a fertile valley, ideal for human settlement. These verdant plains gave rise to the Licchavi, a kingdom of northern Indian descent, whose kings would build the Pashupatinath Temple and the royal palace of Durbar Square. Later centuries saw the division of Nepal’s three kingdoms —Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur— before Prithvi Narayan Shah, a ruler of the Ghurka people, unified this small nation in 1769.

At 11:56 am on April 25, 2015, a great force ripped through the soft layers of sediment. Its source was not mythical, instead the result of two tectonic plates sliding across one another nearly 15 kilometers below the earth’s surface. The tremor shook the small land-locked nation of Nepal for 30 seconds, from the soft valley floor to the peaks of the Himalayas, shifting the earth’s crust ten feet.

It’s been just under 24 hours in transit from Hong Kong, and I’m dozing off on a Thai Airlines commercial flight-turned-emergency relief vessel—passengers dressed for disaster separated by a handful of reporters and photographers. The pilot breaks the hours-long silence as we enter Nepalese airspace, “We are currently number eight in queue.” Three hours later, we land under the haze of light rain and get our first glance of Nepal.

In the 200-meter walk from tarmac to terminal, we pass Chinese, Indian and U.S. military aircraft. The latter, which arrived just hours earlier, lay open with personnel and supplies still littering the runway. Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster renders one temporarily speechless; my open notebook dampens in the haze of a light rain.

The 7.8 magnitude quake had fractured and tumbled infrastructure throughout the capital of Kathmandu. The night before I arrived, thousands of people—residents and visitors alike—attempted to flee, lining the airport entrance and spilling out into the approaching road. Today, frustrated faces of those who remain are pressed up against the small terminal’s glass windows—their eyes alight with hope that the plane we’ve only just disembarked from would soon be their escape route.

At baggage claim, bags stuffed with tents, dehydration salts and instant noodles fill a conveyor belt struggling under the weight. Beside stacked flats of bottled water are camera and video cases heavily adorned with stickers and logos. Beside them, a disoriented young couple’s baby bag and stroller mark an unceremonious return
to their native Nepal.

The airport is the heart of Nepal’s disaster response, pumping much-needed resources throughout the country. American medical technicians stand beside consular staff, who stand shoulder to shoulder with Japanese relief workers, all studying the slowly rotating conveyor belt. Behind them, waves of urban search and rescue teams in bright colored helmets and matching uniforms stream down the airport’s only escalator into the crush of emergency responders now forming amid the chaos.

In Gortex, flourescence, and often Keen shoes, the groups huddle like professional sports teams waiting on equipment, their conversations consisting of anxious snippets at levels just audible over an impatient and growing din. As team members check their phones for signals and hurriedly thumb arrival messages to colleagues, I’m drawn to a backlit welcome sign in the arrival bay: Are you a tourist? Looking for a Kathmandu Tour? asks the first, with sunny photographs of Pashupatinath Temple, Boudhanath and Bhaktapur.

Only one of those three sites survived the earthquake unscathed.

“Everything is crooked.” I write on my first night on the ground, while walking the broken streets of Kathmandu. Near one of the city’s teaching hospitals, in a neighborhood called Baluwatar, I stumble across the skeleton of a five-story building, its innards spilling into a street filled with responders.

This building had housed a tax office, a fruit market and a tea shop. Just yesterday, police and rescue workers extracted six dead bodies. Now, crews are still there scraping and bending the piled debris with an industrial backhoe. Locals stand off to the side in silence, some because the last text messages sent by their loved ones lead them back to this mound of mangled office chairs and half-buried binders.

From behind the caution tape, my gaze falls upon a pile of brick and splintered wood denting in the roof of a car it had fallen upon, killing a passenger. The impact had bent the chassis with unthinkable force. As the dusk fades to darkness, I come across a dog, unseen but unsettled, baying endlessly—longingly—into the anxious night.

By morning, I’m traveling to Bhaktapur in the back-seat of a van organized by the United States Consulate, following the US Disaster Assistance Rescue Team (or DART) on one of their daily reconnaissance patrols. We pull into the ancient village—a former seat of the Newar King—and understand the term exacting damage. The Vatsala Durga Temple, built by King Jagat Prakash Malla (debated as 1672 or 1727), has been reduced to a pile of stones in the town square. Nepal’s tallest temple, Nyatapola, lay in pieces; its sculpted guardians, fused to the simple stone staircase, are all that remain.

Ducking underneath low-hanging electrical wires, I climb through countless debris-filled trenches and narrow alleyways. Every few steps I glimpse corners of a scarf, a book, a utensil. I come upon residents digging free these very fragments of everyday life, after days without assistance. The DART team members, structural engineers in tow, scour available sight-lines for evidence of voids: pockets within collapsed buildings where the living might survive for days. “There are always miracles,” Mike Davis, an urban search and rescue team leader for DART, told me earlier that morning. “This isn’t so much science as it is an art.”

Residents and experts insist the worst structural damage has occurred somewhat paradoxically in the country’s oldest and and newest construction: older structures lacked earthquake proof designs, while some of the newer had been hastily constructed with little regard for safety codes. As a result, rescue and recovery teams have spent hours trying to ensure their patrols are effectively targeted.

I walk the rubble with Sajan Timilssina, 30, who says he has counted 50 friends and family members among the missing. He speaks of the hidden impact of the temblor: the price of tents and basic food supplies had doubled in the 24 hours following the quake. Timilssina is heavy-set, his deep voice tinged with anger and disbelief. He breaks the flow of conversation often, asking—as if to some power beyond these shattered streets, How can this happen to his city? Of course, there are many people—from seismologists to development and disaster relief workers familiar with the geological underpinnings who knew an earthquake like this was not a question of if, but when.

Nepal sits on a terrible crack, one of the worst on the planet: a trough of soft silt directly above the young and active Eurasian and Indian plates. Their fault lines traverse most of Kathmandu Valley’s floor, making it vulnerable to the earth’s instability. Therein lies Nepal’s prolific history of high magnitude earthquakes.

 

In 1934, an 8.4 magnitude quake killed more than 16,500 people and damaging 318,000 homes. In 1988, a 6.9 quake killed 721, injured 6,500 more, and destroyed just under 65,000 structures.

For any given year, there are roughly four earthquakes in excess of magnitude 7.5 worldwide. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, larger earthquakes can have “larger rupture surfaces” which radiate something called “long-period energy”. In these quakes, like the April 25 shock, the earthquake’s energy is spread over more time, reducing the violent shaking that often shatters foundations and topples structures.

But April’s earthquake was different: the disaster showed the “tremendous disparity in the lethality of earthquakes,” Brian E. Tucker told The New York Times. Tucker runs GeoHazards International works with officials in Kathmandu in conjunction with his other NGO, National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, to improve build characteristics of schools and hospitals, steps that maybe able to curb the average death toll in an earthquake from tipping into the tens of thousands. Whether referring to the laws that control how buildings are constructed, or how city services are organized, Tucker’s implication was that the true damage of an earthquake is not tied to seismic measure, it is intimately related any country’s persistent weaknesses.

Published estimates claim 75 percent of Kathmandu’s buildings were destroyed or deemed unsafe after the 7.8 magnitude tremor. In addition, 60 percent of heritage buildings had also been badly damaged, according to Nepal’s UNESCO chief Christian Manhart. According to the Nepalese government, post-quake reconstruction would cost more than 10 billion dollars and experts warned the number of deaths might climb to the tens of thousands. By that Tuesday evening, three days after the nation shook, the number was 4,800, with more than 9,200 injured.

But none of this was a surprise, either.

In a report authored by GeoHazards International in 1997, experts noted the “seismic record of the region, extending back to 1255, suggests that earthquakes of this size occur approximately every 75 years” and that a devastating earthquake is “inevitable in the long term.” This event was already written.

Five days after the quake, I’m standing outside Kathmandu’s American Club scanning a sea of climate controlled tents fanned out across what was once the club’s baseball diamond. Two American flags hang from the chain-link fence. Team members roam freely through the dawn, refilling cups with coffee and picking out their day’s MREs.

I stash peanut butter and pretzels into my bag and set out in a smaller convoy with a canine recovery team on loan from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. When working abroad, the team is known as USAID Disaster and Relief Team, or DART, and are specifically equipped for assessment, urban and rural search and rescue.

We make a roadside stop to survey the debris of three collapsed buildings just off one of Kathmandu’s ring roads. Over the pile of rubble in front of a building precariously pitched forward at 21 degrees, the US team is walking their live scent dog, Ripley, when the call comes in.

A live victim had been found five blocks away.

Abandoning his vehicle, Andy Olivera—another urban search team leader—starts to jog. I follow, turning a corner into yet another landscape of destruction: some buildings had collapsed fully, others simply hung precariously over a dense pile of heavy debris.

In a pit that lay between the remains of two buildings, a crowd of Nepalese police had gathered around a small, dark opening: a space of inches between what had once been floor and ceiling in the seven-story building.

Off to the side, four Nepalese police were standing in a deep pit, straining to look into a narrow gap between two concrete slabs. Six days earlier, these concrete slabs had been the floors and ceilings of a seven-story office building.

Wedged between these layers, a young man had been trapped, his own body saved by a nearby motorcycle which had been caught in the collapse. The motorcycle had braced the collapsed roof, creating one of the coveted void spaces rescue teams had been searching for during the week’s patrols. In those moments, void spaces seemed little more than a euphemism for hope in a country of ruins.

Workers and rescuers flood the scene. With each team comes more material—water, power saws, back braces, battery-powered lights—even glow sticks brought in by the DART team. Some Nepalese policemen fumble with the pink and yellow phosphorescent sticks, trying to cut them in order to light them up before their American counterparts intervene in an unexpected moment of levity. Meanwhile, photographers and reporters crawl over one another on the precarious debris for better angles and new details.

Hours later, Pemba Tamang, 18, is pulled from the four-foot crevice, his body caked in red-dust. He is dehydrated and disoriented, and repeatedly asks for juice. His survival owed as much to chance as to the myriad relief teams who cut through re-enforced concrete, dulling industrial blade after industrial blade, in a race against against time.

The rescue team carries him towards a waiting ambulance while a crowd of several hundred native Nepalese gather street side, cheering and clapping for both the rescued and the rescuers. In front of local media, the police chief is hoisted onto shoulders in a fleeting spirit of triumph, before returning to the hard work.

“We had a really good day,” Bill Berger, head of USAID DART would tell a room of reporters that night. During the seven days following the earthquake, 50 urban search and rescue teams from 23 different countries would pull 16 survivors and another 179 bodies from the wreckage. These were small victories, but victories nonetheless.

On my last day in Kathmandu I decide to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. Acrid smoke stings the back of my dry throat. This river slows to a crawl as it passes the Pashupatinath Temple, and I stand watching flecks of ash, particles of the once-living released by their beloveds, floating across the warm winds, a few flakes catching on my arm before continuing their drift. I commit a few thoughts to the page, concerned for a moment I might forget this.

Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They drop the fire into the mouth first.

Without sleep, the caffeine-fueled focus of recent days is starting to falter. I become aware of the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck and I want to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. My eyes drift downstream to the scurried activity, the din of an amassing crowd, and the light reflecting off strange new naked bodies.

Originally published in RUINS Magazine

 
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The Sahel Sang Back

By Adam McCauley | Los Angeles Review of Books

 

IN EARLY AUGUST, in the back of Community Book Store on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, Anna Badkhen sat in front of a small piano, its red paint chipped either by wear or design. As the audience sipped grocery store wine and nibbled at cubes of cheese, they listened to an introduction, offered by an editor of an esteemed literary publication, that stirred, and perhaps even embarrassed, Badkhen.

He cited her restless pursuit of life lived at the edges, and his glowing account left the audience wondering what it must be like for her to be there, 4,350 miles from the Malian Sahel — talking through her experiences with the West African Fulani family with whom she walked for nearly a calendar year. Her eyes kept dropping to the hardwood floor in front of her high-top stool.

Finally, Badkhen picked up a copy of her new book, thumbed to a marked page, and told of a specific conversation she had with these “nomads forever chasing rain in the oceanic spaces of Africa’s margin lands”:

When my turn came to tell a story Fanta told me to talk about the sky. I said the universe was very old and vast and that its origins were difficult to explain because it seemed to have appeared out of an infinitely dense and hot nothingness […] I said that compared with the unfathomable size of the universe our planet was a round blue bead so tiny it was almost invisible. That the Earth traveled on annular migrations around the sun and that its migrations coincided exactly with the yearly migrations of the Fulani and determined them. That the sun was itself a star that shone off to the side of the massive and ever-expanding group of celestial bodies and gas and debris, a galaxy called the Milky Way.

Fanta’s husband, Oumarou Diakayaté, the male head of the family, said he had heard the “stars were distant suns. He said the roundness of the Earth was news to him.” He added that it “was obvious that the world was in motion, since a Fulani proverb said, ‘Our shadows move, our animals move on the Earth that moves, so why should I myself not move?’”

He settled on a simple, but final, judgment: “Good story,” he said.

***

Walking with Abel is a patchwork of culture-colliding exchanges — a careful rendering of one of the world’s last remaining migratory peoples.

In Badkhen’s account, the Fulani number 20 million and represent nearly half of the remaining nomadic population in the world. For centuries, these herders have shepherded their cattle across thousands of kilometers of plains and grasslands, a territory stretching from Mali down to Nigeria, inland to Chad, and straight across the continent to their place of origin: Ethiopia.

The Fulani, a majority of which are Muslim, have many sects, but the well-heeled practice transhumance — which is not identical to nomadism — and travel with their extended families, traversing borders and barriers with the changing seasons. Their heritage is tinged with mythicism; it remains unclear just how the Fulani once domesticated their prized cow, but their tireless steps, often taken today in well-worn plastic sandals, are inspired by a simple refrain: “There is no truer wealth than milk and cattle.”

Badkhen is no stranger to remote and near-lost corners of the world. Her previous works, including two books that chart her time in Afghanistan, and another small volume, Peace Meals, featuring war reportage from Chechnya, East Africa, Eastern Europe, and Palestine, serve as compass points on a map of places infrequently visited. After the publication of The World is a Carpet, a record of life and work in the tiny Afghan village of Oka, Badkhen said, “I hope [the book] reminds my readers that we are all threads woven together.”

Her latest immersion with the Fulani allows her to “graze for stories” and “herd words,” and she uses her credentials as a war reporter with tact, reconditioning readers whose only context for West Africa — and perhaps the continent — is that of violence.

“I have written about violence up close because I believed its obscenity had to be exposed and examined so we could take collective responsibility,” she writes in Walking with Abel. And she commits to writing text in order to prompt her readers to imagine the Fulanis’s distinct way of life — not through difference but similarity, even if the particulars are stitched onto hardscrabble horizons in a forgotten corner of the world.

One of Badkhen’s talents is her ability to build narrative forward and backward in time. In doing so, she situates the Fulani in relief across centuries and physical space. Fanta’s husband Oumarou Diakayaté searches for “counsel in the stars” or for guidance in the shifting night sky, from “coordinates […] brought into existence billions of years before the Earth itself” — reminding the reader of the gravity and value of tradition even if the world is rapidly at change.

Across this landscape she wanders, harnessing the immediacy of life studied, “with your feet, with your eyes, and with your mind.” To join the clan, Badkhen learned their local language, Fulfulde, and was christened with a new name, Ana Bâ — one of oldest and revered Fulani honorifics.

She learns, one footstep at a time, the Sahel has grown hotter and drier since the 1960s, with the rains each year growing more unpredictable. These conditions have forced the Fulani closer to settled lands and increasingly into contact with the region’s pastoralists, who tend to the grasslands upon which the Fulani’s cattle rely.

“We have less grass now. The milk before and the milk now taste different, and the river doesn’t get as full. The wind is hotter and dries out the water faster,” Oumarou tells Badkhen. Spotting change requires no degree in science, as few credentials can substitute for the knowledge culled from fifteen million footsteps each year.

The book’s title, biblical in its portents of story, is also suggestive of the region’s

clawing meta-narrative. Cain, a crop farmer and the first human, kills his brother Abel, a shepherd. For the few readers who will have followed news about the Fulani, inter-communal violence between farmers and shepherds have been tallied in bodycounts for generations, growing most acute as climate change has altered the terrain.

For Badkhen, following a Fulani family through their annual wanderings appears an attempt to create a more holistic, humane description of these communities — to introduce readers to the people who actually occupy these slivers of the world.

“The double-edged power of a narrative to devastate or strengthen extended beyond accounts of ignominy,” she writes, describing the anxiety of proscribing the Diakayatés’s lives to the page. She is a stranger in an ancient land, who knows “[a]ll storytelling was magic” and could affect lives in “profound and unpredictable ways.”

Discussing Fulani marriage, Badkhen captures what to some will seem a surprisingly modern exchange:

“People get married but their ideas about life are not the same. So they separate. Sometimes it’s the woman who decides to get divorced, sometimes the man.”

“But it’s always the woman’s fault,” added Ousman.

“Anna Bâ, Anna Bâ, don’t ask them!” Mama tossed her chin, squinted. “They don’t know anything.

[…]

She seemed to speak not only of her stepfather and stepbrother but also of all the cowboys [herders] unseen now in the night. “But I’ll tell you. All the problems in life are because of men.”

This is where attentive reporting shines — illuminating the similarities between people across space. That this conversation might have occurred in a nail salon in New York, a dinner party in London, or an art opening in Paris alters the frame through which we might view the dusted and weathered plains of the Sahel. Details like these are testament to this human condition — a testament hidden beneath contemporary literature that strains to portray difference as extraordinary, without realizing it was making the extraordinary distant.

¤

Walking with Abel can read more like fiction or poetry than straight reportage. Her richly detailed and delivered observations are crafted with a careful ear for the rhythms of language:

[D]ay crashed into the Sahel in a crescendo of birds. A rooster crowed once and right away clouds of tiny passerines in twilit shrub let loose a delirious trill. Starlings shrieked the world’s oldest birthsong: alive, alive, alive, alive. A kingfisher warbled. The sun hurtled upward red and elliptic from beyond the sparse scrublands, grazed the low umbrella crowns of acacias, slowed down, and hung glaring in the fierce African sky.

This artistry both helps and hinders Badkhen’s work. Some readers will undoubtedly read sections as precious or romantic, evocative for their own sake. These are the complications of a stylist, Badkhen might claim, who admits grammatical errors are her greatest pet peeve. But her mode of exploration-qua-reportage, where she remains tucked away from the prying eyes of others, allows her to render the Fulani in a space unimagined and as a people largely unimaginable to the average reader. Out of this void, Badkhen’s observations can become scripture, and the reader is left without the means to adjudicate trust — a quality writers like Badkhen must earn and retain.

What we do see of the Fulani’s mode of life is rendered in crystal crispness — the “narrow plastic lace-ups made in Côte d’Ivoire” vendors called “Fulani shoes”; the “broken veterinary syringes, cracked calabashes, vials of dewormers, smashed flashlight batteries, ripped plastic shoes” that marked the “tidelines” of the Fulani’s yearly migration. Badkhen harnesses the unavoidable distance between herself and her subjects as space to identify similarity, not simply to sharpen contrast. She references the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who explained a similar dissonance while reporting in Africa. “I the Self can exist as a defined being only in relation to; in relation to the Other,” Kapuscinski said. “[H]e appears on the horizon of my existence, giving me meaning and establishing my role.” Similarly, Badkhen knows she cannot truly be the family’s “white Fulani.”

But Walking with Abel’s freshness also comes from the prose’s steady climb out of the proverbial cave, beyond the shadows cast by works of current affairs. These pulp treatises, often penned in political-ease, problematize instead of describe most places the Fulani call home. In these texts, the 2012 coup and continued insecurity in Mali become the country’s dominant references, its territory an uncertain battlefield between groups reducible to acronyms and extremist sentiment. In concert with Niger, Chad, and northern Nigeria — territories where the Fulani trespass — Mali becomes little more than dry tinder where the next spark threatens a firestorm that will reduce peace to mere ashes of conflict.

What makes Badkhen’s work valuable is how she records a world in which readers can live vicariously, and provides those viewers a chance to glimpse the “conflict” as it appears on the ground: in passing conversations with other travelers, by mention of the tragic death of a Fulani herdsmen, and in the image of French military plane on their occasional flyover. Of the latter, Badkhen writes:

Was it possible that somewhere — in Bamako? France? the United States? — uniformed men and women strained their eyes at pixelated images of us eating lunch? What did the pilots see? Motionless diners, stacks of gunnysacks, long bundles of matting. Animals. The plane was low enough for them to see the uncomprehending fear on our faces.

Badkhen never suggests the Fulani are immune to war’s consequence, and clearly mentions that the modern mode of war fighting “warped time and thrust modernity at the cowherds” and “threatened to reorganize their lives in ways they could not foresee.” But the conflict, Badkhen hints, does not forestall today, even if it begs questions of tomorrow.

¤

“I see myself as a storyteller. I see myself as a connector of the world,” Badkhen told Nautilus magazine last year. Born in the Soviet Union, she moved to the United States in 2004. “I insert myself into the lives of people for very long stretches of time. I guess you could call it ‘slow journalism.’”

Badhken consciously draws on the finest of travel writing, paying homage to Bruce Chatwin’s “nomadic alternative” and his sense of “perpetuum mobile” — extra human restlessness — which has colored nearly all of Badkhen’s projects over the last five years. She also seems to measure her own motivations with the Fulani against Peter Matthiessen’s motives for exploration in his cherished book, The Snow Leopard: was this her “true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart?”

In an essay in the Boston Review, writer Jessa Crispin takes pains to explore the difference between travel writers who focus on their own “interior psychodrama” — the Elizabeth Gilberts or Cheryl Strayeds, in her estimation — or those who harness their “masculine force” and “need to conquer” — a group that includes the Chatwins or the Therouxes. For Crispin, both archetypes constrain the authenticity or import of their respective conclusions.

Whether one agrees with Crispin’s schematic, there are clear consequences for these literary products: do the texts graft “others” into a personal story of the writer, or do these texts become exaggerated tales of life in extremis? The former uses the “other” as prompt, while the latter as mere ornamentation. Between these two worlds, however, Walking with Abel finds its particular niche.

Badhken tries to hunker into the background, and her assumed social position with her adopted family does limit any chance she might don the crusader’s cloak in her writing. If Crispin is worried that travel writers might “deny other people’s humanity” by supplanting the “other” with the reporter or writer themselves, Badkhen does not warrant such a charge.

She isn’t missing from the story, of course, and her personal drama surfaces throughout the text. We learn early in this volume that Badkhen has left a loved one behind; this is a person whose inability to offer her a future (he is married) leaves her raw with memories of their past. Yet even this harkens back to Montaigne, and a quote biographer Nicholas Shakespeare found scribbled into one of Chatwin’s signature notebooks: “I ordinarily reply to those who ask me the reason for my travels, that I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.”

But Badkhen’s mention of her lover, a fellow “wordsmith,” provides chance to delve into her own insecurities and sensitivities around reporting and writing:

There was no blueprint. No matter the deference, no matter the elusive sense of entitlement, the loftily so-called poetic license to represent before my readers the iniquities I witnessed, there existed an inherent contradiction in the purpose of my writing — to bring the world closer, to make it accountable — and my keen awareness that I was intruding upon and exposing something exceedingly private. It baffled me. Maybe a true writer of conscience was one who never put down a single word.

In making her anxieties visible and her limitations known, Badkhen is trying to earn our trust.

This does not mean Badhken’s work is without issue. Her “slow journalism” can make the narrative logy: there are countless nights spent curled up alongside the families in their moveable shelter, daily trips to fill containers of clean water gathered, and the selling of the Fulani’s milk and curd. She lives among strangers, who become surrogate family, and she navigates an environment without personal space and absent much privacy. But if intimacy requires time and a rendering of the quotidian — resplendent in its expectable tedium — then this record of presence will always threaten to stall the narrative.

At other times her prose can seem purposefully difficult or ornate. She describes a crude mix of scents as an “olfactory cacophony,” or the air around Fanta as smelling of some “intrinsic remembering.” These are throwaway phrases. But they seem to grow from Badkhen’s own philosophy of writing: “Try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.” This is Badkhen trying “to scrape the page with the sharp raw edges of what’s broken, to scratch sense into skin.”

If there is a mode and message in Walking with Abel, however, it is the stubborn echo of human resilience: a centuries-old compact cherished by communities who have committed, and reaffirm their commitment, to life lived at the world’s quickly fraying edges. “Stoicism was the discipline of suffering, and transhumance demanded both,” Badkhen writes of the Fulani. These pronouncements are harsh, but they do not carry the doomsday-isms that color much of the writing about the continent.

For centuries, Fulani families have traversed these lands, signposted by the graves of loved-ones now buried. There is a trauma in these steps. But there is also the sense of place and purpose. “The nomads were always leaving, leaving,” Badkhen writes. “And they also were always returning, returning.” For one year, for a finite number of strides, Badkhen’s footsteps traced theirs. Thankfully, she took us with her.

Originally published in The Los Angeles Review of Books

 
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CLIPPINGS

 

‘Throw Me in Jail for the Best Reasons’: Artistic Defiance in Hong Kong After the Umbrella Revolution. Published by Time Magazine

The Sahel Sang Back. Published by The Los Angeles Review of Books

What Orwell can still teach journalists about saying exactly what they mean. Published by the BBC

Volunteers Burn Nepal’s Unclaimed Bodies as Death Toll Rises. Published by Time Magazine

Americans Stranded in Nepal Mountains for 5 Days Tell Their Story of Survival. [Exclusive] Published by Time Magazine

Nepal Earthquake: Teenager Rescued After Five Days Trapped in Rubble. Published by Time Magazine

Meet the American First Responders on the Ground in Nepal. Published by Time Magazine

Aid Has Yet to Reach Earthquake-Stricken Villages Just 2 Hours From Nepal’s Capital. Published by Time Magazine

Kathmandu Airport Shelters the Stranded as Rescue Teams Fly In. Published by Time Magazine

Fading Foliage. Published by Beacon Reader

Prisoners of Peace. Published by TIME Magazine

Batman in Hong Kong. Published by Beacon Reader

How a pro-democracy protest has kept thousands on Hong Kong’s streets. Published by Al Jazeera America

The World’s Most Dangerous Waters. [International Feature/Multimedia Project] Published by TIME Magazine

Beijing presses pause on Hong Kong’s democratic future. Published by Beacon Reader

The Tiananmen Massacre: 25 Years Later, Three Students Tell What They Saw. Published by TIME Magazine

China obstructs Google before Tiananmen date. Published on Al Jazeera English

Tiananmen museum revives ghosts of a massacre. Published on Al Jazeera English

Tennessee horse country tries to fight off allegations of abuse. Published on Al Jazeera America

How does the Syrian Civil War End? Published on War is Boring (Medium).

Putin’s Plea. Published on War is Boring (Medium).

Obama’s Secret Weapon. Published on War is Boring (Medium).

Missives From a Forgotten Country. Published on War is Boring (Medium).

The Changing Winds for Central Park Boaters. Published in Wall Street Journal (Greater New York)

The Lingering Light of Childhood: Doug Dubois’ Ireland. Published on Time LightBox

The Art of Aggregation: Angelo Musco’s Bodyscapes. Published on Time LightBox

Forgotten Spaces: Jon Tonks’ Search for Empire. Published on Time LightBox

Jim Naughten: Conflict and Costume in Namibia. Published on Time LightBox

Nadav Kander Rediscovers the Nude. Published on Time LightBox

A Journey in the Human and Animal World. Published on Time LightBox

Real Photographer, Fake War. Published on Time LightBox

The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph from Sandy Hook. Published by TIME LightBox

Overexposed: A Photographer’s War with PTSD. Published in The Atlantic.

Unfiltered: Photographers React to Instagram’s New Terms. Published by TIME LightBox

The hidden world of mixed martial arts. Taking Shots in the Ring. Published in The New York Times/Lens Blog.

Analog photography strikes back. The Impossible Project’s new 8×10. Published in The New York Times/Lens Blog.

Broken: Haiti at the Crossroads. (Essay and Photographs). Published by The Canadian International Council

I Speak for the Teas: Can two young entrepreneurs save an Ecuadorean indigenous community with a rare tea? Cover story for The Santa Fe Reporter.

Football’s Lost Boys. Full page spread in The New York Times/Lens Blog.

Vietnamese-born, American Photographer Binh Danh. Published in New York Times Lens Blog

 
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