New Essay in Fourth Genre: Dreams are not made of Concrete

I have a new essay in the Fall issue of Fourth Genre. You can read a version of the essay here. Here is a snippet:


Haider's encounter with the Dinka man reminds me of a photograph by Robert Capa, titled Near Namdinh. It is 1954. We are in Indochina, and it is war. In the background of the photograph, a French military convoy roars along a narrow road amid rice paddies, urgently trying to get through to Doia Tan. Even when frozen in a photograph, the convoy looks impatient. It certainly has a sense of time: orders to be received, places to get to, missions to be accomplished, battles to be won, and lovers to return to in France. In the foreground of the photograph, a man is plowing a field. His time is dictated by the seasonal rains, the demands of the rice, and his absorption in the rhythm of his plow; the way the strokes seem to flow so easily, if only he would allow the tool's weight to dictate the movements of his body.

Between the French convoy and the farmer, there is certainly interaction. Farms will be burned, and the farmer may soon join attacks on other convoys. The French and the Vietnamese are fighting for the same land. Yet between them, there is no conversation, no sense of values that might be commensurable. It is not just the absence of a shared language, but also the absence of shared sense of time in which an encounter might unfold. The French fought, and asked – why don't they play by our rules? Like all games, war has a beginning, and an end, and to play the game, one must agree on the rules--the strategic objectives, the play of forces--and on the sense of time inherent in the game. There was no start to this war, which knows both rice and commands, even if, for the French, there will definitely be an end. 

Today, where there was once empire, there is now the UN. In an essay he wrote in 1994, the novelist Amitav Ghosh noted that while the UN represents the totality of the world's nation-states, and seeks to recreate the image of its membership wherever it goes, in the contemporary world, sovereignty resides precisely where the peace-keepers do not.

Sudan is full of peace-keepers.