Reihan Salam

Diary - 22 August 2009

Reihan Salam opens his diary

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I spent last weekend in Edinburgh taking part in a small celebration of a friend’s eventful life. Fred was dazzlingly intelligent and witty and kind, and though I hadn’t seen him in years, the news of his death came as an awful shock. Poignantly, I first heard the news from Cary, one of my best friends. After getting off the phone, I was mugged by a young man I’m guessing couldn’t appreciate the grim irony: I was already feeling so bereft that I couldn’t care less. Oddly, I spent a good deal of time thinking about my assailant. What led him to become a crook, and would he wind up in some grim, miserable prison, leaving a weeping mother behind, and perhaps a child? Perhaps I’m taking compassionate conservatism too far.

It was obvious to everyone that Fred was, as they say, destined for great things. But of course there’s something faintly indecent about dwelling on that, as though his death would be somehow less tragic if he hadn’t been so bright and charismatic. As a kid, Fred fell in love with the theatre, and he was a ringleader of a small but ambitious theatre troupe that performed at the Fringe every August. After leaving England for Harvard, he brought some of his American classmates, myself included, into the fold. The summers I spent in Edinburgh — the first was interrupted by a bout of tropical disease, and the second involved me dancing around in a nappy and a fez in an abandoned, dank, mould-infested warehouse — were easily the most memorable of my life, not just because of the deep-fried Mars bars and the heart-breaking beauties who shared our venue.

It’s hard to explain how much I’ve missed acting. Or rather how much I’ve missed having an audience. Despite having appeared in about a dozen productions as an undergraduate, I was never really an actor. I’d normally be brought in to behave like a madman or to do some kind of sensuous, knife-wielding dance to comic effect, which comes naturally to me. My sisters and I would occasionally belt out songs alternately to torment and amuse our mother while she prepared meals. While some of my comrades have gone on to become professional actors, the only performing I do is as an occasional talking head. I enjoy it, but it’s nowhere near as thrilling as making a fool of yourself on stage. I hope I’ll have another chance to perform, perhaps in my future nursing home where I will once again be called upon to don a nappy, albeit under less happy circumstances.

After returning home to Washington, I took a short nap before heading to see District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s brilliant science-fiction film about an extraterrestrial refugee crisis. One of the most disturbing scenes comes early on, when a guileless bureaucrat essentially sets fire to an incubator full of alien infants. He notes the popcorn-like popping sound, and you suddenly realise that this is the banality of evil. Much has been made of District 9’s heavy-handed political allegory, so I won’t go on. The film reminded me, though, of Danny Kruger’s observation about ‘the wall and the desert’: the problem at the heart of our culture is its spiritual aridity. Societies that treat children so callously can hardly be expected to treat insect-like visitors from another world terribly well.

One aspect of District 9 has proved particularly controversial. In the film, a Nigerian mafia rules the alien refugee camp through a combination of brute force and careful control of cat food, which has an irresistible, crack-like appeal to the derisively nicknamed ‘prawns’. I must admit, I’m puzzled by this. Isn’t running a brutally efficient gang a mark of entrepreneurial vigour and cultural openness? Surely we can all agree that these are qualities we’d like to see more of from people of all nationalities, provided, of course, that it can be channelled in more constructive directions, like the manufacture of stylish knitwear.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to a band called Why?, part of the Anticon Records universe of mostly white cerebral rappers who favour dense electronic arrangements and lyrics that range from comically earnest to luridly comic. But over time Why?, brainchild of Ohio-born Yoni Wolf, has moved away from hip-hop in the direction of a more folk-inflected sound. The results are strangely compelling. With rare exceptions, the nasal Wolf sounds as though he’s in the middle of a profoundly self-loathing funk. Another favourite is a 2007 album from Brendan Fowler, also known as BARR. Fowler’s trick is to produce near-hypnotic speak-singing that comes across as very profound reflections on how one ought to live. I think of it as substitute religion for those who are allergic to the real thing. In a similar vein, one of the year’s most celebrated indie rock albums, The Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, is best understood as a near-flawless self-help manual. The song ‘Stillness is the Move’, which sounds like a strange marriage of Beyoncé and the Eagles, strikes me as subtle Buddhist propaganda, and I mean that in the best sense. Will alt-culture save the West from paralysing ennui? I say: perhaps.