Slow trains, Cab Rides: NYC, Fez, Mombasa

January 1, 2017

The slow train from Nairobi to Mombasa runs 18-20 hours to cover the 300 miles. First class cars provide sleeping “cabins” and access to a dining car with overhead fans that do not work. The toilet, as with all other cabins, is a hole through the floor, where whatever exits hits the rushing tracks below. A sign posted by the hole advises passengers not to use the facility while the train is in station (maybe the use would be too obvious to all those waiting at the station).
The slow train allows you to see the countryside unravel, from shantytowns outside the urban center to villages further out. Children from the shanties and villages alike rush out to greet the train. What does the train mean to them? What does it symbolize?
The looks on the faces of some “western” passengers in first class, particularly the females – from resigned despair to muffled revulsion – accompanied by the men wearing equally apologetic looks, suggest that the once-proud railroad line is long a relic of some past industrial glory. The excitement greeting the train as it “speeds” past the shanties and villages, however, suggests a different mythology lives amongst the imaginations of the dark complexioned children. 
An older Kenyan points out the new railway line under construction. The bridges connecting the hilly country, he says, are built by the Japanese. But the new railway line – connecting Nairobi and Mombasa by a mere four hours – and the highways, are Chinese-made. “This road is very nice” he declares, on the way to Mombasa’s Moi international airport. “You see there, that will be the new highway to Nairobi.” It is all being built by the Chinese. “You see, there!” He points to an Asian man in a yellow hard hat, standing admist a handful of African laborers working with rock and concrete. But the suspicion of foreign workers prevalent in the United States is not present in Kenya. The man almost seems to praise the Chinese without any prompting. “They work very hard. They build things fast.”
Hard work is admired in Kenya. The man saves his disdain for the ruling Kenyan elite. This administration is going around claiming credit for all the construction. He laughs: the projects were approved before the current administration and will be completed, perhaps after it- new elections will take place in August. The man believes that the opposition will win and take over the government.
I ask him about the contrast between the many schools I see along the roads – evangelical, baptist, pentacostal, and yet a common sight of women walking, covered completely, faces veiled, in flowing black hidjabs. [1] He seems to either not understand or chooses to ignore my question. Instead he offers, in a tone that hints at longing, “In America they welcome everybody.”
The mythology survives.


Postcript / slow train to Mombasa (1/1/2017)
[1] 1980, Kenya: “The charismatic Christians were no less aggressive than the fundamentalist Muslims in those days. The whole country was beginning to fall apart; perhaps people were grabbing for certainties. Preachers of some sect or other were all over the place…. The state in Kenya was crumbling from within, buckling under the larceny and nepotism of the men in control…. It was happening, in fact, almost everywhere in Africa and throughout the Islamic world. The more corrupt and unreliable the apparatus of government … the more those people headed back into their tribe, their traditions, their church or mosque, and hunkered down, like among like. 
“A new kind of Islam was on the march. It was much deeper, much clearer and stronger … than the old kind of Islam my grandmother believed in, along with her spirit ancestors and djinns …. It was a huge evangelical sect backed massively by Saudi oil wealth and Iranian martyr propaganda. It was militant, and it was growing.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “Infidel,” Simon & Schuster, 2007
2.  January 16, 2016

My uber driver Ali is from Fez, the old capital of Morocco. Fez is dangerous now, Ali says. There is a lot of crime; there is “no government – it is just a show” for the monarchy. But Ali wants to go home.
Ali left Morocco after his father died, and his older brother took care of the family. As a man, Ali felt that he had to try and make it on his own, and decided to strike out for the Big Apple.
After eight years in the US, obtaining his college degree, and American citizenship, he is counting the time before abandoning the dream. Ali wants to start a family. There are no opportunities in Morocco, but at least it is home, he says. Here, there are no opportunities either, Wall Street is “corrupt”, *and* there is racism.
I tell Ali that New York City is not the United States. America is a large country. Maybe there is someplace else. Though I also tell him how people have said things to me like “Go back to where you came from” (not in NYC) – ostensibly judging me first by the color of my skin. But I was born in New Jersey and have no desire to move across the river, either.
Lack of economic opportunities, a sense of humiliation/absence of dignity, and the belief that the government does not work for its citizens – these are all flash points for radicalization amongst young men in the Maghreb. 
And people are expressing it here in the United States.
Anti-Terrorism (AT) is not a matter of simply defeating the actors carrying out violent ideologies. AT is a matter of creating/enabling functioning civil societies where people have the opportunities to make a life for themselves, are afforded basic human rights, and have the faith that the government exists to work, rather than take, from the people.
Otherwise, you will never stop treating the symptoms while the roots of terrorism persist. And it will be a “war” that never ends.


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