Life in the Field - The Way of the Samurai

"Show me the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh don't ask why. Oh don't ask why."

Monday, November 07, 2005

Buzkachi vs. Riots

In Afghanistan the buzkachi season has just started, while in Europe the riot season is well under way. Two regions, two sports.

In our free time, we have had many fascinating discussions on the social divide in Western Europe, on the level of disaffection of the youth, on their lack of social opportunities and so on. We have had discussions to try and figure out whether the kind of riots seen now and then in the States could take place in a similar fashion in Europe, eg whether at the first display of weakness by the State, populations would within minutes take to the streets, robbing shops and burning down cars. We were fairly convinced it wasn't the case, and indeed, I still believe it isn't.
Why is it so? Because to start with, I do not believe that, when in a neighbourhood, some disaffected members of the population take the street to burn down private and public properties alike or to fight with the police forces around, they are representative of that neighbourhood's population at large. We saw on Euronews some random educator testifying that the ongoing unrest was the result not only of the accidental death of two youth, but also of the general disatisfaction of the local population with police harassment and more generally with their social situation. Arguably, there are truckloads of studies demonstrating that people coming from a certain geographical and/or social background, especially those who are the offspring of first and second generation migrants, are overall failed by the State, in that their chances of social success are far lower at every step of their existence than the rest of the population's. Yet, should I understand from there that mothers of two and three are currently on the streets of France burning down buses? Does it mean that 40-something manual workers are currently harassing police officers patrolling?
The truth is whether in Jo'burg or in Paris' suburbs, the first people to fall victims of such riots in poor suburbs are the local populations, eg the poor are the first to suffer. Because the unrest targets local private property, local public facilities and creates opportunities for further crimes, thefts, etc targeting whoever is close by. In that sense, there should be no misunderstanding that, when failing to calm down such situations, the State is not failing the said disaffected youth, nor possibly those wealthier populations whose very location protects them from such violence, but primarily those people who may indeed feel some level of disatisfaction, yet still express it for most during elections, or public demonstrations, or even during discussions in cafes, but are unfortunate enough to share their neighbourhood with a handful of rioters.

This said, it is also interesting to concentrate for a while on the said disatisfied youth. Again, should we expect that each and every young man and woman in poorer, marginalised neighbourhoods, is currently out on the street, challenging locally the forces of order?
Certainly I cannot pretend I grew up in some of the poorest suburbs. I had a supportive family, with a mind set on sending me to uni, should it turn out to be what I wished to do. I still had to work part-time, to be able to afford the kind of independance most fellow students took for granted, though. Most of my colleagues at the time, in the various bars and cinemas I roamed in during my undergrad years, were similarly students working to be able to afford their studies and lives. Some of them were more successful at uni, some less, but overall all did give it a good try and had their mind on eventually succeeding. Is there any difference between any of them and those kids out to destroy anything they can put their hands on until someone stops them? Probably some: better family support, possibly a better education to start with, teachers more present at school. But mostly they have decided on doing something with their life and they are working on achieving it. Meanwhile, the rioters of Paris, Birmingham or Brussels remind me of this line in Trainspotting: 'Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a fucking big television and wondering who the hell you are on a Sunday morning. (...) But why would I want to do a think like that?'
Maybe, only maybe, these disaffected youth are not children of France failed by the republic. Maybe they are just a bunch of dangerous brats, whose teenage negative energy could not be used in paintball fights, due to lack of funds. Whose energy could not be re-channelled towards actually doing something with their lives, out of lack of imagination. Who, in short, have merely elected to remain passive towards adversity, to use such convenient excuses as their social condition, the ugliness of the suburbs and society's back turned on them to channel all their energy towards something infinitally simple: destroying as much as possible in as little time as possible, without being caught. Because trying to express genuine social and political anger through music or art or political activism would take far more courage than they are able to display. Because trying to change the system for the better would take perseverance. Because building an actual life of their own would take real men and real men don't need to burn down schools to feel good about themselves.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, plenty of kids starting with an otherwise difficult passive, are taking every opportunity they can to attend English and IT classes outside school. In fact, I've known some radio operator who attended for a year, while in a refugee camp in Pakistan, an English class around 5 am, before going to regular school. The same people work ridiculously hard to take the university entry exam, often while working full-time. If they are accepted, it will probably not be for the course of their choice, due to the number of applicants and the limited positions. And they will still more often than not work part- or full-time throughout their studies to continue supporting their family. Surely, here too there are some brats who will choose any excuse - an MP's murder, the Karzai government, the international presence, female NGO workers - to go out and be as destructive as possible. Yet, it seems sometimes like it is those starting with the greatest passive who are most able to set their mind on building, building as high and as solid as possible. One would wish that the handful of disaffected, unhappy, aimless kids of Europe who seem to take pride in their internationally publicised little successes could try and live up to these standards and ambitions too, so it wouldn't take children from Karte-Se to remind them they only have very flimsy excuses to turn their back on society and behave like gangsters.


At 1:56 PM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

If society has been unjust to you, providing you with free healthcare, apartments, high pensions, etc. it's stupid to go around in violent protest just because you have no hope of ever getting a decent job unless you change your name.

Funny how everybody mentions that there are few Muslim politicians in France. As if this were the French people's fault. Why don't the communists go nominate some Beurs for seats in the suburbs?

Anyway I still think it's cute that they are burning cars instead of organizing suicide bombings (see my post on this and related topics).

At 12:11 AM, Blogger exMI said...

Nice post. Very interesting analysis of the situations.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Oh my- you've got links! Hey, everybody, Babs put links on her blog!

Congratulations and thanks, Babs.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Babs said...

Six months it took me to achieve that so the congratulations are warranted. hence the relevance of the post on computers and IT hey...

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Q. A. Shah said...

Hey Babs,
So I'm joining the fray and starting up another Kabul blog. It seems like there may be a saturation point soon, but if you want to exchange some links. Mine is ...q

..btw, i read somewhere that there are an average of 3500 cars burnt per month across france...some interesting context to the riots, i thought...

At 11:12 PM, Blogger Q. A. Shah said...

here's the link to the article i read:,0,3442680.story?coll=la-home-headlines

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