Close shaves

For modern tribes, symbols are deadly serious. Even the cut of a beard.

Image: Ed Kashi

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Frank Viviano wrote his first article for Mother Jones — about Detroit’s road to resurgence — in 1980. Since then, as a Europe-based contributor to the magazine, Viviano has recounted his capture by Serbian irregulars; reported on the decline of the giant Czech steel mills; and unraveled the international web of the modern Mafia.

In these stories and others, Viviano has interpreted the enormous changes taking place in Europe. With the fall of communism, he writes, Eastern Europeans found a measure of freedom but lost the “grim cushion that protected them from…change.” The end of the Cold War also undermined Western democracies that defined themselves in opposition to communism. Into the void left by declining nation-states have charged the separatists and criminals, bureaucrats and industrialists of Viviano’s stories. “The nation-state,” writes Viviano, “tried to pretend that tribal identity had been dispensed with — that ‘national character’ could be a matter of invention and design. But the tribal map is being reasserted, and the tribal soldiers are wearing Levi’s. They are moving away from the nation-state — backward toward the tribal dawn and forward toward the 21st century at once.”

I was in Eastern Turkey, covering the Kurdish civil war, when the break-in occurred. It was a professional job, much too professional to be explained by my only material loss: the disappearance of a cheap portable radio. The thieves had cut a neat hole in the rear shutter of the house I’d rented, two miles from the village of Terrasini in western Sicily. Then, just as neatly, they’d removed a pane of glass from the window and climbed in.

There was money in the bedroom closet, a wad of banknotes in several currencies that I keep around for unexpected assignments. My backup camera and a bag of lenses were in plain view on the desk; a laptop computer was on the shelf. Nothing was missing when I returned to the burgled house last February, except the $60 radio. The boom box could not have been the purpose of the break-in. It had to be about something else.

In Terrasini, people offered a hodgepodge of theories. It might have been amorous teenagers, using what they thought was an unoccupied summer retreat. That was what Signore M., my landlord, wanted to think. Sicilians live with their parents until they marry, often up to their 30s. “Nowhere to go except somebody’s country house,” Signore M. said. But I sensed he didn’t really believe it, and as far as I could tell, my bed hadn’t been disturbed. A pair of socks I’d left lying atop the blanket was still there.

More disconcerting was the possibility that my work for Mother Jones had attracted these visitors, and that they were a far cry from horny teenagers. That their intention wasn’t to steal, but to intimidate. The likely stool pigeon was the Internet. Until very recently, American foreign correspondents could pass themselves off as something less threatening than journalists: I’d traveled as an “economic analyst” in China during the Tiananmen crackdown, a “historian” in Bosnia, a “hospital administrator” in Russia. But with the sudden rise of the Internet, everything I wrote could be read with a simple search under my name, or with a fishing expedition under a topic.

In the winter of 1996, an Internet search of the word “Mafia” listed “The New Mafia Order” (Mother Jones, May/June 1995) as number two in the top 10 sources on worldwide organized crime. Whatever pride I took in the listing was badly chilled by the hole in my rear window. Western Sicily is where the Cosa Nostra was born and grew up to preside over a global empire; Giovanni Falcone, the crusading anti-Mafia judge, had been assassinated in 1992 six miles from my country house. I had my own theory about the break-in, and it wasn’t comforting. But there was no way to confirm it, except to wait. For another burglary. Or worse.

About a week later, I was on the road again, this time in Israel and the West Bank. Reporters carry their autobiographies on every journey (one reason why pure “objectivity” is an illusion); each assignment in a long career is a de facto summation of all of the assignments that precede it. I’d been in the business for 25 years when I arrived in Israel, but I had covered very few stories that so thoroughly summed up what I had encountered in a quarter century of wars, insurrections, coups d’état, and terrorist attacks. It was as though every dispatch I’d written had been shoved into a single, tragic frame.

It was the season of the suicide bombings in Israel. There were still pieces of flesh hanging in the trees of Jerusalem over the charred carcass of a bus; medical aides and rabbinical students were gently scraping them off for burial.

I decided to go to Ramallah, a West Bank city eight miles from Jerusalem. At least four of the suspected Palestinian bombers had been born there or educated at its university — which was regarded by the Israeli authorities as a center of Hamas activity. Hamas is the radical Muslim group said to be responsible for the attacks. The university had been forcibly shut down by the Israeli Army the previous week, and security precautions were as intense as I had ever seen. The entire West Bank was cordoned off by the military, and hardly anyone made it past the checkpoints. My press card got me through to the West Bank. It didn’t get me back into Israel.

An awful silence hung over the dry hills that separate Jerusalem from Ramallah and other Palestinian towns, the silence of people who know each other only as symbols. The Palestinians and Israelis were doomed to share the same land; they had no choice. Every Muslim suicide bomb on a Jewish bus, every mosque shot up by a Jewish extremist, shattered their common peace. Yet if you stood most Israelis next to most Palestinians, they were very hard to tell apart. There were the elegant noses, tawny skins, and tight curls you’d expect on both sides of the divide — but also flamboyant redheads and deep blue eyes. Israelis, Palestinians: They put me in mind of the Serbs and Croats I’d written about for Mother Jones (“The Balkan Tribe,” Jan./Feb. 1993), the Slovaks and the Czechs (“Ostrava,” March/April 1994), the Catholic and Protestant Irish of Belfast. They were the embodiment of our collective end-of-century madness, the reduction of profound human commonality to a dialogue between hostile symbols.

But there was also a singular difference between Israel and the West Bank, and it was in this difference that the fearful power of symbols — of the irrational, thinly disguised as the normal — most struck me. A high proportion of the young soldiers guarding the roads that led back to Jerusalem were black, Ethiopian Jews who had emigrated to Israel. The Sephardic and Eastern European Jews in the army knew that border duty on the West Bank was an unrelieved hell, and they knew how to get transfers to other postings. The Ethiopians, however, were new to the tragedy that has beset these borders for three generations, and very raw. They could barely speak Hebrew, much less Arabic, and few were able to muster more than a sentence or two in a European language. As I tried to cross back into Israel at 9 p.m. on a stormy night, one of these kids stuck his Uzi into my gut, unsnapped the safety, and shoved me up against a concrete barrier. There was undisguised fear in his eyes. Fear of me. Fear of making a mistake.

Two hours passed before an Israeli lieutenant arrived, leaping from his jeep before the driver pulled to a full stop. He had his service revolver out — a precaution that seemed redundant, as the Uzi was still pointed at my stomach, and there were half a dozen soldiers standing in a tight circle around me. He motioned them away, and asked in Hebrew to see my identity papers. I answered in English, as angrily as I dared under the circumstances: “This is my passport, and my goddamned press card. What the hell is going on here?”

The lieutenant was American-born, from Brooklyn, and instantly apologetic. “Jesus Christ, I guess we’ve really fucked up, haven’t we?” Israeli officers, especially those born in Europe or Brooklyn, grasp the importance of a favorable press image in the United States.

The Ethiopian understood “Jesus Christ” and looked pained. I felt sorry for him.

The lieutenant personally walked me across the border, and flagged me down a ride into Jerusalem. “I’ve got to ask you,” I said, “why did I scare that kid?”

“The beard,” he answered immediately.

I have a closely trimmed beard, black and slightly curly. It was news to me that it might be regarded as dangerous. “Give me a break,” I said. “Plenty of Jews wear beards.”

“Not that kind, pal.” He gestured at my face. “The Jews who have beards are either professors or Hasidim, and they keep them long and untrimmed. That’s a Hamas beard you’re wearing.”

He sighed, turned his back, and walked away. What can you do with a reporter who is so out of touch with the language of symbols, with the only vocabulary Israelis and Palestinians share?

When I got back to Sicily, a relative of Signore M. called, a businessman who had befriended me. He said we needed to talk. We met in DiMaggio’s Cafe, on the Terrasini village piazza. “About that break-in,” he began. I had been right: Signore M. and his family never believed that teenagers burglarized the house. They had made inquiries, and the inquiries had reached the ears of people who might have been concerned about a reporter’s presence.

As it turned out, these people were quite aware of the project I was working on, a book on a 19th-century ancestor who was killed in a vendetta. They wanted me to know that they had no objection to what I was doing — so far. “They said they were not responsible for the robbery,” Signore M.’s relative explained, “but they would find out who was.”

A week later, the wife of a local carabiniere approached him. Police from the government’s Ministry of the Interior had committed the burglary, she quietly told him. “They thought your friend was Giovanni Brusca.”

Brusca was the most wanted fugitive in Italy, the Mafia don charged with triggering the bomb that killed Judge Falcone. He had been on the run ever since the assassination (the carabinieri eventually captured him this past summer), and at the time was widely believed to be hiding somewhere in western Sicily. When a mysterious man showed up in a country home that was seldom occupied in winter, the Interior Ministry had sent a team of its plumbers in to check.

I asked Signore M.’s relative why they had been so suspicious. My house wasn’t the only one occupied this winter.

“The beard,” he said. “Brusca’s face is on posters everywhere in the country. They figure he’s probably grown a beard.”

In little over a month, my beard had caused me to be arrested as a suspected Muslim suicide bomber and mistaken for the most infamous assassin in the Cosa Nostra. It was a reminder, disquieting for all of its comedy, of the strange soil we inhabit at the end of this troubled century.


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