Arthur, from Baltimore (as we already know), taught part time at a university in Queens, New York, last year. While there he managed to enchant some students with all his anecdotes, and photos, and footage, from his time in the postcolony where I still lived, where I lived unemployed but presumably doing independent research. Among the students was a very bright anarchist firebrand: Joshua Marx. This is the story of the grief that would be visited on Joshua Marx’s head and body, suffering the “boil down” meted out by the grim undercurrents and alleyway shades of a postcolony in 2007. This is the story about how Joshua Marx discovered that he was white, wealthy, an outsider, a conservative, and an imperialist. It is also a story of what Joshua Marx discovered about his innermost feelings for the postcolony, and how he reoriented himself professionally as a result, having been lucky enough to survive.
Joshua Marx won a Fulbright. He bought himself a new backpack, a laptop, a digital video camera, a digital photo camera, a digital audio recorder, malaria pills, hiking boots, stationery, and of course an airline ticket. Joshua was from a working-class background, and rarely had two nickels to rub together, so this was all a major boon, and off he went. He had a mother and a friend, and these were the only two people to see him off on the morning he left for JFK. Let’s follow him on his departure from New York and his arrival in the postcolony, using ethnographic footage of his journey, glimpsing this special episode of his personal life and professional development as an anthropologist:
Joshua was not sure what to think. The planes on the ground were familiar foreign aircraft, but repainted, brightly, like flowers, or like cheap hookers, he couldn’t make up his mind about which was more reflective. The airport was modern, but with a slimy, air conditioned undertone of squalor that he couldn’t quite pinpoint — was it the young girls in purple shirts with gold fingernails standing next to pyramids of shiny rum bottles and Swiss chocolates in the Duty Free shops? Was it the sleepy-eyed, lugubrious, Customs officials? Was it the dark mob of people outside, waiting for their loved ones, so that he felt doubly excluded? He didn’t know. He was excited, and yet uncomfortable.
Joshua had a rough entry, a very abrasive one in fact. He planned to stay for 18 months — no airline ticket is valid for longer than 12 months, and so he made the mistake of just selecting “one way” when ordering his ticket. He also had no bank statements on him, and hardly any cash. When asked about the purpose of his visit by an over sized, bovine Immigration Officer with a huge gold tooth and garlic on his breath, he responded, “I am here to do social and cultural research.” Well, that only made matters worse. Without indicating that there would be any problem, Officer Cowsingh inserted Joshua’s ticket inside his passport, smacked it shut with his hammy, shiny hands, and rather than handing the documents back, he held them up and waved them at a woman in an ugly blue pantsuit standing at another stall — that was Officer Cassandra Sergeant, the start of the nightmare.
“Eh? A one-way ticket? No, no, no! How you mean a one-way ticket!?”
He could feel not only her hot breath, it was the smoldering look of utter contempt, of unprovoked malice, that caught young Joshua way off guard. He stammered, and she had him. He was now hers to be toyed with.
“You think you can come here, with a one-way piece a nonsense?” she said this flapping his ticket in the air as if it was worthless scrap.
“How do I know you can go back? You have money? Show me, show me. What? How you mean no bank statement!?”
He had heard of how brutal U.S. INS agents can be at the border, and he gathered this was payback of some sort. But why him? Who carries cash anyway? He had his ATM card, and that’s all he needed, that and an American Express charge card.
The worse thing about this is that it was done in front of an audience, the whole hall of arrivals looking on, looking down their noses at him as if he were some drug dealing, hippy terrorist. “Fuck her! Fuck her with a chainsaw! Who the fuck is this cunt, some reincarnation of Captain Fucking Ahab?” These are the thoughts that passed through his head and into the burning veins of his shaking arms.
Had he understood the symbols worked into her attire, he would have known on sight that this woman would be serious trouble. First thing is that she was wearing “maljo” blue. Maljo is a local patois derivation of “mal yeux”, which refers to the “evil eye.” If you wear that kind of blue, it means you are giving people the evil eye, you are dangerous, back off. Then she was wearing a string of jumbie beads. Coincidentally, these contain the black and red colours of the postcolony’s national flag. A jumbie is a malignant phantom. You wear jumbie beads to protect yourself against the evil eye — so this woman was giving evil eye, and making herself immune to it in return. The beads are very toxic seeds: ingesting a single ground up seed could be fatal to an adult. Beautiful and deadly. In some parts of the Caribbean they are even used as rosary beads, as ironic as that may seem.
Hanging from her string of beads was a large “Donkey Eye” seed, also known in some parts as a “sea bean” or an “ojo de buey.” These seeds are related to cow itch, which can send some people to hospital. The seed pods are covered with tiny hairs that can be shaved off to make cow itch. In the Caribbean and Central America some stir the hairs into honey as a remedy to expel intestinal parasites. Her all-seeing donkey eye could itch him and expel him like some sort of turd worm.
The matter would be resolved after he submitted to a total search of each item in his luggage; after US Consular officials had been informed that he violated the nation’s entry requirements and that he should not have been allowed to embark in New York with a one-way ticket; after the airline was chastised; and, after he promised to make himself available at the Ministry of National Security the very next afternoon, with a return ticket in hand, and with an ATM slip that showed the balance of funds in his account, and only then would he be issued with a six-month tourist visa to be renewed at a fee of 300 local dollars.
Four hours after the plane landed, he was “free” to leave.
As he makes his way through the baggage hall he sees one single passenger, who had also been detained for questioning. She is a tall and attractive local lady, returning from a vacation in New York. Joshua notes how she is elegantly and smartly dressed, and though not a fetishist he cannot take his eyes off of her immaculate, shapely feet, in very high heeled strappy sandals. Smooth and sculpted, the colour of coffee and cream, with delicately off-white soles. And he notices her hand going down to one foot and removing the shoe, barely hearing the Customs agent repeating that the bag of apples could not enter, they were on the “negative list.” Holding her shoe by the toe, she brings down the heel with force, like a spike, over and over again, mashing up the bag of apples. Then with an almost coarse voice, she exclaims: “You want apples? Good, now you go get apple sauce!” She is convinced that her apples are to be confiscated, only to then be brought home to be eaten by the Customs agent himself. The agent shouted: “Eh-eh! You could get arres’ for dat!” and she responded, “Arres’ mi nah, then you go see!” He waves her past, saying, “Who vex loss” (the one who loses her cool, loses the duel). She passes Joshua and morphs her face at him, with an expression that says, “What are you looking at?”
Joshua, on the recommendation of Arthur, stayed at a guest house for international students, near the local university. He found adjusting to the constant heat and the spicy local food a real challenge and he had non-stop diarrhea for several weeks. It took him two months just to get agreement from members of a local, predominantly East Indian, Muslim community to agree only to do interviews with him — the whole “participant observer” thing struck them as asking a little too much. He would also be allowed to attend Friday prayers, but no other events.
Joshua spent most of his time reading in the university library, where it was cool, where there was ready access to cooked meals, and where he could hang out with other students, both local and foreign. In fact, he met seven other American anthropology students, all doing doctoral research, all for roughly the same period he would be there: Jack Stone from Emory, Hilda MacLeod from Johns Hopkins, Beatrice Ransom from South Florida, Lev Goldberg from UCLA, Tania Overmann from Chicago, Mary-Beth Copeki from NYU, and Joanne Silversmith from Princeton. He never had such in-depth anthropological discussions even in grad classes, and he felt like he was still at home in their company, as defensive as some of them were about what they were researching, where, how, and who with.
It’s not that he missed home as such, he knew he would be back, in some respects he was glad to be immersed in colour, as he explained. He would take snapshots of colourful scenes that struck his eye as refreshing changes from the drab American urban background from which he came. He saw how colour was woven into fabric, food, drink, art, fruit, house paint, you name it. Overall, he was getting to be really happy about being in the postcolony, though he was put off by the widespread adherence to superstitions, the lack of a strong union movement, the absence of any radical socialist movements, and the profuse, gross consumerism.
The Imam had serious reservations about Joshua, his appearance, his name, his nationality, and his religion (or lack of one). Sitting in his air conditioned office, with his hands folded on his belly, the Imam asked Joshua:
“Are you white? Because you look more like what we in local parlance call a ‘poor white'”
“I’m not sure if that’s a criticism or a compliment.”
“Poor white is not a compliment,” the Imam said dryly. He continued: “Marx, Marx, Marx…what kind of name is that? It’s Jewish, not so?”
“Yes, it is.”
The Imam stopped rocking gently in his office chair.
“So you are Jewish then. And what is it that you want from Islam?”
“No, I’m not Jewish. I mean my family is, was. I am an atheist.”
“Atheist! Oh you poor boy, you will have a lot to learn from us,” said the Imam feigning pity, as he ended the sentence by clicking the end of his gold pen against one of his molars.
“So here you are then, an atheist Jewish American poor white boy, studying us Muslims. And you want to be a participant observer. You can explain that to me?”
“Sure. I want to do some interviews with yourself and other members of the community, film some of your ceremonies, sit in on meetings, do some historical research on the emergence of the community, and look at how you engage with the broader world of Islam, globally.”
“And you’re looking for Bin Laden, you forgot that part,” the Imam laughed raucously, interrupting to cough, as his assistants in the room carried on the rolling fat laughter for him. Joshua started to wonder about the choice of his topic, since these really were not people like him, he couldn’t figure out what he was doing here now.
“No, not Bin Laden…”
“Yes, tell me a next one,” the Imam said with dismissive indifference.
“Anyway,” the Imam continued, “back to this observant participation thing, however you call it. It seems to me that you have an idea about what to observe, but what concerns me is what you mean by ‘participation’.”
“Well I was thinking that maybe you would allow me to participate in meetings, prayers, special events…”
“Oh really, how so?” the Imam queried with an arched eyebrow, looking sideways at Joshua as he had spun his office chair part way around.
“Well by sitting in…”
“No, that’s observation again. Anyone can ‘sit in’. I can go ‘sit in’ as Parliament meets, I can ‘sit in’ the gallery. I can ‘sit in’ cinema, and not be big time actor on screen. I can ‘sit in’ restaurant, and not be the cook. Anybody can ‘sit in.’ Sit in does tell me where your backside is set, but it doh tell me nuttin’ about where your backside be headed, how it be movin'” exclaimed the Imam, moving in and out of local parlance for emphasis.
“Sorry, I’m not sure I follow your drift.” Joshua says this timidly, but with some tension in his voice. Joshua is not happy.
“Well then you better open your nose boy, because you cyah be no ‘participant’ if you eh no believer, you understan’?”
“Well hopefully I can learn to see the world from your point of view…”
“How!? By being an unbelieving, Jewish American atheist? Nah, tell me anudda one, boy.”
An excerpt from Joshua’s personal diary, found strewn among the remainder of the few belongings gathered by the police at the scene, on the beach:
After breakfast — some hideously salty and pungent smoked herring inside some thick and greasy flat bread, and a cup of instant coffee thickened by a heavy local cream — Joshua clutched his belly and went out on the gallery to have a smoke in the morning sun, birds singing loudly, uniformed little school children running and walking to school.
The guest house’s owner had a daughter, just returned from “tourism school” in Barbados, not too attractive in Joshua’s eye. In fact, he had politely rebuffed a couple of advances she made since she got back five days ago. She had then asked him if he was a “faggot.” She came and sat next to him on the step, all previous signs of antagonism gone.
“You know, Josh, I know plenty a young women who would just go crazy to meet you, you know. You ever go to the Cat & Blue Bird pub in Chaguaramas?”
“Now dat is de place to be, boy! Beautiful women, wall to wall, great drink, great music. I will take you tonight.” Her eyes glittered. Joshua thought he should go, just for the experience.
You could hear the music pounding from the long wooden building on the seafront from a mile away, and its neon blue and pink sign could be seen from even further.
He was brought in by the hand, by guest house daughter, and then it was as if she had vanished from his hand. He looked down at his empty palm, and she was nowhere in sight.
The decor of this place was predictable. Rum and beer posters everywhere, including one of the far side of alcoholism:
He went to the counter, and before he could say what he wanted, the sleek chicky-babe behind the counter told him: “You look like a Jack Iron man to me sweetness!”
A very fat Indian man, dressed in lots of gold and silk, holding on to two gorgeous young women, both speaking Spanish (odd, he thought) shouted over the music toward his ear: “Yeah boy! Jack Iron! Jack is fuel for yuh iron, boy!” Laughing fatly and gently jigging his waist, the two girls bobbing under his weight, his shiny face added: “Yuh take a shot ah dat and t’row it up in de air, an’ I tellin’ yuh, nuttin’, I mean not a drop, comin’ back dong! Dat stuff so high proof it vanish into t’in air!” With each emphatic sweep of his arm his two women get shunted from side to side, like lifeless appendages.
Joshua paused, but did not want to appear weak to the challenge. He would rise up and meet this pirate, Jack Iron, on his own terms. He took a shot, and felt nothing but a fast spike of liquid heat fire past his tonsils. “Good!” he said. Down came another shot. And then another. And then another. And then another. He was impressing the locals. Someone suggested he mix some brown sugar into it, to sweeten it a bit.
“You want some sweet brown sugar? You see dem two over dey, you tell me which one you want, maybe you want bot’ a dem, no problem man, I go fix up for you.” The same Indian man winked at him, and motioned with the shrug of one shoulder as if to say, “go on boy.”
A man in his twenties, dressed modestly, with long braids, took Joshua’s arm and spoke into his ear: “Brother let me take you out of this place.” Drunk, sweaty, giddy, confused — Joshua mistook this man as some shady character, and yanked his arm away, saying, “Get lost man!”
Vanessa, the girl in the maljo-blue tank top, ‘wined’ her way over to Joshua, once given the signal. She grabbed one of his hands between her two hands, and stroking his arm down from the elbow to the wrist, began to lead him into a corridor behind a red bead curtain. They reached one room, one in a series of dark and filthy rooms all of which had sounds of muffled moans and rusty bed springs emanating from inside. Vanessa, stroking Joshua’s thick sandy blond hair, said: “It’s only a blue note, and you get to do all you want, master.” Joshua, dazed, out of control, slipped a blue note from his pocket, and closed the door behind him. He was too far gone to bother to notice that only a weak little latch was used to “lock” the door. Far too gone to think of a condom.
Three minutes into the heated action, as Joshua sank into a frenzied vertigo, a child’s ruler slid up the crack of the door and pushed the latch open.
Pressed by U.S. Consular officials, local police CID repeatedly questioned the lead suspects, while dismissing the inputs offered by two FBI agents who were permanently stationed on the island. Led by Detective Inspector Lennox Constantine, they began with the seven American anthropology students, leading the local press to believe they were “typical” drunken, drugged, American youth who would have led Joshua to a wild beach party. The American media caught a whiff of the story, and soon Joshua’s face was on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, for three consecutive nights. Pressed by the FBI men, the police finally took samples of the blood found in the prostitute’s room, specifically on the bed, the floor, the walls, the door, the corridor, and from the walkway outside. They do no DNA testing here, so all they could say was that the blood type did not match that of the prostitute, but matched Joshua’s (once they could check his medical records, faxed from Queens), and the blood of two other persons was also found. Constantine also questioned the daughter of the owner of the guest house, who claimed to have spoken to Joshua on only one occasion, and to have no knowledge of where he had gone that night. Her father backed her up. The prostitute deleted any mention of a fat Indian businessman in the company of two South American (illegally imported) prostitutes in the club that night, or perhaps the police failed to record that information. The police had no knowledge of the young man with long braids who witnessed the series of events.
The police were led to a beach, where they found Joshua’s tattered and bloody shirt, his broken glasses, one of his shoes, and what appeared to be a finger nail. What struck them as entirely suspicious was that they also found contents of his room, on the beach, including diary fragments like the one shown above. Constantine went back to the guest house, and placed the owner’s daughter in custody, as well as her father for good measure. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Mervin Ramdial, launched a formal case as CID uncovered yet another kidnapping ring. At a press conference, DPP Ramdial and DI Constantine announced that they had evidence that led them to believe that Joshua Marx had been targeted by a kidnapping ring, that no ransom note was found, and that the kidnapping may have been botched. They were scouring the northwest coast for signs of a body. The U.S. State Department, despite pleas to the contrary by the local Chief Minister, issued a Travel Advisory to all American nationals planning a trip to the postcolony.
It was Dimanche Gras, and the Calypso King finals were broadcast live on television. The volume of the television was turned up just high enough to mask the moans, as a young man with long braids applied clean white gauze, and removed bloodied gauze.
The voice of the man said gently, “This is a hurt nation, and plenty does get hurt, all goin’ to hell now, boy. You go be fine, nah worry, they cyah find you here and you go leave soon.” The young man with braids replaced the bandaging on his own arms and jaw, and watched Kurt Allen preach against patriotism in a sharp, relentlessly critical calypso chock full of disillusionment about crime, corruption, dictatorship, racism, and foreign ownership:
At 6:00am, Carnival Monday, with the pumping sounds of the music trucks downtown in the background, the door to the one room apartment in the ghetto opened up. Imam Hosein stepped in, his two large hands held out, his white palms showing, and a paternal smile on his face. Within a moment, Joshua was a waif in his big arms, sobbing with joyful relief.
The Imam, chuckling says, “Now dis is participant observation, ent?” Joshua was barely able to laugh through the pain of his multiple bone fractures.
The young man with braids had done community work with the Imam years ago, and had been in touch with him. Both feared that if Joshua’s whereabouts were known, he would be gone for good, and they both suspected that the police were trying to find him on behalf of the kidnapping ring, led by what was believed to be a prominent member of the local elite.
The Imam put Joshua’s arm around his shoulder and carried him outside. Two very heavy men, wearing white kufis, long black beards, long sleeved white shirtjacks (the local version of the guayabera), black pants, and each with a large caliber handgun tucked into the back of the pants stood in front of a black SUV with tinted windows. Weaving its way through the tight streets of the hillside ghetto, and past bands of Carnival-going masqueraders, the SUV made its way onto a highway named after an American President and a British Prime Minister, and sped at top speed to the airport. The Imam had purchased a one-way ticket back to New York for Joshua, and he would leave, right now, as he was.
In the airport now, lo and behold, but who should Joshua glimpse having her breakfast break, if none other than the lovely Cassandra Sergeant herself? They walked quickly passed where she sat with two colleagues. Sergeant smirked at Joshua’s appearance, knowing some of what the news said had happened to him. He turned his head sideways, and loud enough for her to hear him, he said one word: “Cunt!”
Her jaw dropped open and the chicken bone fell from her mouth.
On his return to New York, and on the advice of his mother, Joshua dropped his anthropology degree. In subsequent years, he completed a MBA, and now works for Goldman Sachs.
Back in the postcolony, his story has become part of the local lore, especially among newly arriving anthropology students, who share versions of it among themselves over coffee when they meet outside the university’s main library on Friday afternoons.