Book Review: Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World by Belén Fernández
By John Kendall Hawkins
Domestically, there was the Homeland Securitization of everything…the steady erosion of civil liberties, the very liberties we were allegedly fighting to protect. The cumulative damage—the malfeasance in aggregate—was staggering to contemplate and felt entirely irreversible, and yet we were still honking our horns and flashing our lights in jubilation.
- Edward Snowden, Permanent Record
At the end of his court martial for treason, the fictional character, Lieutenant Philip Nolan, was asked if he had anything to say to the court before sentencing. Rashly, he blurted out, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” A stunned judge granted his wish and Nolan became the legendary ex-pat described in the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale. He was condemned to live at sea his remaining days (56 years) without ever again being vouchsafed a single word of his beloved country. The teary tale of patriotism was required reading back in the elementary days when it was also mandatory to stand-up (no knees) for a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, right hand across the heart.
I thought of Nolan’s plight as I read Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, Belén Fernández’s travelogue, beefed up with op-ed riffs on local and global politics. It’s not an easy comparison; there are many complicating factors to their respective exiles — beginning with the fact that Nolan’s is involuntary (he really didn’t mean what he shouted), while Fernández leaves thoughtfully rejecting America.
The other thing they have in common is that their views on American militarism are not welcome by the mainstream patriots of their times. Nolan’s “treason” was that he had spoken out for peace during the Civil War, at a time when the Union was having difficulty recruiting soldiers, while Fernández openly rejects the War on Terror and its rootedness in what she regards as a drive for world domination
It was a view her parents shared, too, ditching America for Spain, once they got past their “mercifully brief…patriotic sentiment” and came to realize that, after the bellicose presidency of G.W.Bush, “the ensuing reign of Obama—the king of drone strikes, deportations, and other damage” was just more of the same. There was no real difference in the policies of Republicans and Democrats. Fernández’s dad, once settled into Barcelona, spends time writing postcards to the warmongers of the Middle East — “Beelzebub” (Obama) and “Mephistopheles” (Netanyahu), which probably put him on at least a couple of watchlists.
Early in Exile, Fernández makes clear her disdain for American-style hypocrisy — its willingness to force its brand of Exceptionalism, an olio of neoconservative militarism married to debt-inducing neoliberalism, while allowing its own domestic policy-making to so erode confidence in the American Dream that the country entered social and economic crises, so catastrophic that citizens risked everything to elect a populist clown as president. As Fernández puts it,
Lest folks start to view the state itself as public enemy number one, however, more convenient menaces are regularly trotted out. In addition to the usual domestic suspects—blacks, poor people, immigrants, and so on—the wider world has proved fertile terrain for the manufacture of any number of freedom-imperiling demons.
They say, ‘America, love it or leave it’: She left.
But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love America — it’s just that, like Nolan, her voice goes against the grain of the times, her tone sounding treasonous (see Susan Sontag) in the ongoing narrative of vigilance against terrorism at any cost, even if the price is compromised freedom. Fernández grew up hearing her fair share of soldierly tales of foreign deployment in the service of setting people free. Her grandfather “facilitated patriotic assimilation by joining the armed forces, thanks to which he was able to participate in not only the D-Day landings at Normandy but also the Korean and Vietnam wars.” And she has a brother who was in Special Forces who discovered through tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that he liked to kill Arabs.
However, she really takes after her journalist father — she, too, writes op-eds (for Jacobin magazine) that question the motivations of various heads of state. She also seems to carry his romanticism. He reads and re-reads Don Quixote, resulting in a memoir that took 17 years to complete. One can see how Fernández’s travels seem quixotic, although, rather than chasing after windmills, she tends toward tracking down the nearest winebar, with her sidekick Polish-American friend, Amelia.
In her travels with Amelia through Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy, Fernández’s quirky humor is especially effective in painting a droll picture of her locale or situation. While hitchhiking she discovers “some damn fine people,” and “Relatively rare was the occasion on which we had to leap out of a moving vehicle to thwart molestation….” And when things did go bad that way, luckily they went comically bad, such as the time when hitchhiking near the Black Sea, they were picked up by a drunken Turkish doctor, who brought them to a remote locale, then got aggressive and chased them, “leaving us no choice but to hide dramatically beside a stream—facedown—until the coast was clear.”
She has a flair for describing scenes that can seem comically self-indulgent, such as when she writes of jogging, “clad in a hideous pileup of sweaters, scarves, and socks,” through the mortar-pocked streets of snowy Sarajevo which remind her of “the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s.” She ends up in an apartment “not far from the bridge where the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I,” being attended to by a girl who teaches her “essential Bosnian words like ‘wine,’ ‘spinach-and-cheese pie,’ and ‘catastrophe.’” It’s an attractive observational humor.
Similarly, when she writes “ …Italy may not always be the most helpful society on the planet—witness the boatloads of refugees left to drown in recent years by the Italian coast guard—the ubiquity of cheap wine made it a suitable spot to sit out the inaugural year of the War on Terror…,”one pictures a blogger sitting at a cafe table overlooking the sea, getting their post in for the day, while people drown — all recalling the tone of W. C. Wiliams’ Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (“a splash quite unnoticed”). Her arch, but jocular attitude seems like the right approach for a disgusted, opinionated feminist turning her back on America’s fatwa against the Shia world.
In Lebanon, Fernández’s passions are aroused by the politics of the region and her meeting up with a Palestinian-Lebanese character named Hassan. “Amelia and I first met Hassan,” she recalls, “while hitchhiking in Lebanon shortly after Israel’s 2006 assault—not to be confused with Israel’s 1978, 1982, 1993, or 1996 assaults, or its 22-year occupation of the southern part of the country.” She talks with Hassan and discovers that he’s a kind of jack-of-all-trades — a hustler after mysterious scams, a bus guide for refugees, a blackmailer, a poor man’s private eye, and a car rental agent in Tyre (“former stomping ground of Alexander the Great”). He needs a bride to obtain an American passport to visit relatives, he says, in Israel; she obliges, but eschews “the premarital virginity test.”
Fernández has significant animus for the seemingly unrepentant fascism of some Israeli policies, especially when it comes to Palestinians. She notes Israel’s bombing of roads and bridges, and discusses Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon; its management by the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA). And, no doubt, Hassan’s tales of loss amplify her empathetic rage: He has “lost three sisters, who had been killed by Israel, a sniper, and a car, respectively.” As Fernández and Amelia accompany Hassan, and his pal Mo, on “the high-speed running of unspecified errands in the rubble of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs,” you get the feeling he’s on a watchlist somewhere. And she could be playing Ilsa to Victor Laszlo’s resistance fighter — drones overhead be damned, she has her own sassy hellfire.
Fernández is generally unimpressed with Lebanon. She finds the government useless: “[T]he Lebanese state doesn’t do jack shit for the majority of its own population—some of whom have been known to contend with a mere two hours of government electricity per day, [and] the near-total lack of affordable health care options or other basic needs.” Syrian and Palestinian refugees are marginalized. Meanwhile, the elite bronze themselves at Zaitunay Bay, content to think of Lebanon as “the Paris of the Middle East,” and keen to keep the masses, and their needs, suppressed. It’s a theme she will find everywhere she goes.
Fernández arrived in Honduras a month before the ‘pajama coup’ of President Manuel Zelaya in the wee hours of June 28, 2009. Zelaya was flown to Costa Rica — illegally — and, effectively, exiled from Honduras. Zelaya had tried to introduce “a nonbinding public opinion survey” meant to gauge voter interest in future constitutional reform. The Supreme Court found the survey illegal and told Zelaya to cease. He refused and was ordered arrested for treason. But many outside observers, including the UN and the OAS, saw it as a coup — including Fernández:
…Zelaya had stepped on the toes of the entrenched Honduran oligarchy, whose members had long ago pledged allegiance to the predatory capitalism endorsed by their benefactors in the United States.
The elites at work again.
Months later she interviews Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the general who’d led the coup, a fatter, more fatuous version of Captain Renault. He gets all gleeful relating how he once “saw” Jennifer Lopez; they talk the zaniness of Honduran politics; and then:
“Vásquez warned,’there will always be people who want to attain power through ways other than the proper way of being elected’—although it was not clear that he had fully thought through the implications of this line of reasoning given that he himself had just perpetrated a coup.”
She listens to him liken Honduran security forces to “armed cherubs” and say that the real problem is there’s “too much freedom.” After the interview, he ‘sees’ her and says “he wouldn’t mind a second wife.”
In keeping with her family tradition, Fernández makes an effort to castigate the US response to the removal of Zelaya — their refusal to call it an official coup because, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time, a coup would require cutting off US aid to Honduras. Fernández regards this as merely protecting America’s elitist friends, the same friends, she says, who were so cooperative with the CIA during the drug-trafficking Contra years. Later, under pressure, the US does cut off some aid — to works projects — while continuing to gift the security forces millions of dollars.
And on and on it goes, everywhere she goes: the wretched of the earth providing her with reminders of the salving touch of abiding humanity, while male authoritiy figures fuck up — hungry-like-a-wolf male gazes, unassisted drowning refugees, machine-gunned Kurds, Monsanto-driven farmer suicides in India…. Fernández seems to cope with it all by drinking massive amounts of cheap wine and blogging about it for Jacobin. The turmoil she thought she left behind when she rejected America and went into “exile” follows her everywhere, as effect follows cause.
And if that weren’t dismaying enough, she’s got a hang-up about New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s “imperial lapdog” justifications of bad American foreign policy. Fernández had taken issue with his description of “bikini-clad Lebanese women leaving little to the imagination” as a vulgar deflection from the awful reality for most people there.
But when Friedman describes himself in a column as an “environmentalist,” that’s when Rolling Stones journalist Matt Taibbi is trotted in for a cameo take-down:
Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”?
For Fernández, as with Taibbi (and so many others), the NYT columnist represents all that’s wrong with the integrity of the Fourth Estate in America. Subservience in the suburbience. Never risk your comfort zone.
Belén Fernández quotes James Baldwin at the beginning of her travelogue — “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition” — but you wish she’d said more. Baldwin lived for years in Paris, and wrote a lot of his best work there, ‘unhappy in his skin’ back in America. Every Black man in America is an exile, the true legacy of slavery.
Fernández spends 15 years as an expat, leaving clothing markers everywhere (it comes across a bit like a Wind Song ad, frankly). Her conclusion is inconclusive, as is her idea of what ‘home’ has come to mean. She ends by talking about sciroccos in Puglia and “the desire to suspend one’s entire existence until the wind had blown its course,” making one wonder if that’s not what her exile amounts to.
She’s been described as a Martha Gellhorn, but I think ‘intrepid blogger’ is a better description. She does one thing that all Americans should be required to do: live in the moccasins of foreign cultures for awhile, before you remotely drone them. Exile is an excellent book to read on the plane over for a slumming summer abroad.