The Milkman of Khartoum


It is evening and in the street

the donkey cart comes to the gate

of a mud house coloured light orange

in this fading light.  I am in a high window;

No one sees me. I am an angel or a bird.


A small man unwraps his legs, hops down

and honks a rubber horn; it is like the sound

of horns clowns use in the circus.

He honks it just three times.

He does not come to the gate, but

quickly from inside, still arranging her veil

a young girl slips into the tiny courtyard,

cemented with glass and tile and pebbles,

a kingdom between the bricks and the road.


The little man has three big urns of thin copper.

They are brimming with fresh goat’s milk.

He ladels a portion into a cup and takes

the cup to the gate, pouring just so much

into the bowl the girl offers.  She offers,

he pours just so, shway shway and saves a dribble

for  the urn when he returns to the cart.

I am an angel or a bird, but I do not

see her disappear into the brick house.

The milkman takes his position askew

the cartbed, crosses this thin legs and flicks

the donkey into motion with a hiss.







Your words scissored beneath the hum of the fan

you came and went with a wish, and with your name

and the whisper of your veil in the lifeless air.

Insha’allah she will come again. That is what I wished.


I sat still as a mouse cornered behind the stove,

in my tiny way aware it was my final moment,

quivering at the shrunken distance between us,

knowing one word from you would kill me–

knowing that no word from you would kill me.

Can other men look you in the eye?


You are a wish, you are also everything.

I give you the power to be everything.

I wish you breezes in orange evenings.

and the kisses that cannot be counted,

each one a jewel, each jewel a word.


I wish you years of tearless passion

and love when it comes, under a fan

or on the banks of the Nile, an undivided

beauty. That is what I wish.

Edward Snowden is a Spy: The Nagging Questions

At a certain point everything Edward Snowden says about his motives for revealing details of the secretive PRISM programme turn to mush.  We are at that point.

  1.  Although widely depicted in media as a young idealist, Snowden was a high school and army flop who found validation as an IT worker with the NSA and subsidiary contractors.  What did Mr Snowden, as David Brooks rightly asks, think NSA was—Catholic Relief Services?
  2. If Mr Snowden did know that NSA is involved in surveillance among its other remits, why was he shocked to discover things about its activities that even the general public has known since 2005 when a NYT article revealed that the FISA court often acted as a rubber stamp for government operations?  Court procedures have been extensively reviewed and amended since then, and dozens of requests have been rejected or modified before being granted: something else Mr Snowden must have known, or should have known.
  3. Snowden claims that his outrage over the PRISM program “grew over time,” though there is no indication there was a corresponding intensification of NSA’s operations within the program over the time he was with NSA: what he was doing on day one he was doing on his last day.  The sole reasonable explanation of his staying on was to continue to monitor the program and to gather information in a clandestine way—in short, to spy on the government with the intention of revealing information to third parties.  By one definition this is espionage, but by an older definition it is treason—a violation of an oath he swore to uphold and protect the Constitution.
  4. Why if Mr Snowden claims to care about free speech and privacy did he head for Hong Kong a few days before he was told by The Guardian and the Washington Post that the stories would be published? Why didn’t he stay in Hawaii and meet reporters on his front lawn?  Even today, no warrant for his arrest or extradition order  has been issued—which must be very disappointing to a wannabe martyr.  Imagine Christianity without Nero and lions.
  5.  Even if he is naïve enough to think that the relatively mild constraints on Hong Kong’s press make it the “envy of the world,”, successive reporters have marveled that China itself represents everything Mr Snowden claims to abhor: the iron fist of the state over the private interests of its citizens, and where internet privacy is a faraway dream.  As I sit at my computer, I cannot access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or my own rather innocent blog—the one you are reading—because with all other WordPress-based media it has come under fire as fueling anti-Chinese opinion.  On most days it is impossible to access Google except through various backdoors or sister sites, Google NZ being the most reliable and the one almost all Chinese use.
  6. Why did The Guardian choose for the date of the release of this information the window during which Mr Obama would be meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in California.  If this target was chosen by The Guardian specifically, to cause maximum impact and damage, then its chief reporter on the case, Glenn Greenwald, a man whose appetite for outrage rivals a Hussar’s for raw goat,  should be questioned about what he knows of Snowden’s connections to China.
  7. Despite his claims that he is in the game to out corruption and not to avoid prosecution, he is chiefly successful at hiding and giving interviews on the lam, shouting “I am not trying to avoid prosecution” from  undisclosed locations.
  8. Mr Snowden has, by all accounts, lied about the degree of access he (or anyone else at his clearance level) had to private information, conversations, and classified “secrets.” Perhaps it is possible even he thought he had this access.  He has now claimed provocatively that the PRISM program and NSA had hacked into Hong Kong and Chinese computer systems, with special reference to those of businessmen, universities, industry and students.  None of these targets as targets makes any sense, unless the real point of this mini-bomb is to get opinion in those communities to shift in his direction.  In short, Mr Snowden seems to be out of information and what he hasn’t already fabricated he is now making up on the run in order to create a protective smokescreen for himself. His quiver is empty and he is shooting imaginary arrows at everything and everyone.

It is a shame that words like “hero’ and “whistleblower” have been used of someone who is basically a tech-savvy social catastrophe. If there is a crime here, it is the fact that NSA hired him, trusted him, and trained him—that our security obsessed nation will scrape this low in the barrel to fill positions that require honesty, integrity and a commitment to the national interest. 

In fact, “national interest” is not a concept he appears to understand.  And it is true, the phrase can be used to disguise mischief. No government has ever claimed that what it was doing it was doing to abrogate the rights of its people.  But to accept Edward Snowden as a hero is to say that his understanding of national interest is superior to that of the government, and many of us aren’t nearly ready to accept that calculus. Governments like the United States choose their leaders; tyrannies do not.

I find it depressing that sales of Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed because of this rather smarmy interruption in our national life,  and that thousands of shoddy analogies will be made between NSA (or the American government) and Big Brother.  Orwell was writing about the rise of the technical, unrepresentative state.  He could not have anticipated (he died in 1950) the world of the real 1984 let alone the world beyond that.  In fact, nothing is more democratic that the internet culture that makes an Edward Snowden and his noxious ideas possible.  That is why real totalitarian states despise it and try to control it.

 I happen to believe that in a representative democracy government operates within the rule of law to achieve the national interest.  That is what people elect other people to do.  It is not a blank check.  There is a limit on the account. The people they elect are much like them—which, often, is not saying much for the quality of the parliaments we get, but we also get to move them in and out and remodel them in the long haul.  I would be very interested in knowing whether Mr Snowden voted in the last election, as his idol, Ron Paul, was not on the national ticket.

When Snowden enters the real China from the slightly irreal Hong Kong, he will live in a country without elections. Where government watches the moves of every internet user. Where surfing is unheard of, and “Page not Available” on English language sites is the most familiar message he is likely to find–because censors work 24-7 to edit, remove and control any stories unfavorable to the Party. The commemoration of Tiananmen Square last week was outlawed.  The relative of Nobel Laurate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years in prison on charges barely comprehensible—but endangering state security is the best translation.  Uighurs (Chinese Muslims in the far west of the country) have been killed by the hundreds in the last few years as they campaign for their civil rights.  Not hosed down, mind you: killed.  Mr Snowden comes from a country firmly fixed on its navel; these stories do not regularly appear in American media.  We are obsessed with the important things like tornadoes and Kim Kardashian’s fashion disasters.  But he now lives in a world where they do happen, all the time.

Tech savvy and bright as he may be, Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I wish Ed Snowden every success in mastering it.  Because now that his backpack and pockets are empty of saleable information, that’s the only way he will survive and he will be competing with millions of well-educated young Chinese men and women for jobs in his profession.  The hardest one to land, and the most prestigious? 政府审查中宣部–Government Censor for the Ministry of Propaganda.

The Cyber-Theodicy of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden is a 29 year-old American who landed a very good job after taking a computer science class at a junior college–for high school credit.  Most of his life, it seems, was spent on the internet.

If an auto-didact is someone who teaches himself through reading books, Snowden is one of a growing number of cyber-didacts whose entire knowledge of the world is based on their interaction with screens and codes.

In a world dominated by video games like Dragon Warriors and The Portal II, (where,  gratifyingly,”many years after “Portal” Chell reawakens in Aperture Science and tries to stop GLADoS once again with the help of Wheatley, who has his own plans for the historical facility”), Edward Snowden eats, breathes, and stays awake

The electronic Manichaeism of the age reduces everything to super-villains and superheroes who thwart their evil designs.  Most of us who live in a more-real world have not crossed the line between playing games and inserting ourselves into them as avatars of the virtues or strategies they embody.  But Edward Snowden did.  He crossed the line between electronic appearance and political reality.

And for him it must have been an easy line to cross.  He woke up and went to sleep each night within the matrix.  No friends are coming forward to say “He was just a normal guy–a fun-loving kid in his twenties,” because he wasn’t.  Even the girlfriend he chose for himself was a super-fit Laura Croft, ripped from the pages of a Marvel comic.

Edward Snowden may or may not be a villain, but he is certainly dangerous.  He is dangerous because of what he does not know, what he cannot feel, and what he does not anticipate.

What he does not know is that he cannot possibly detest America as much as most countries do.

The price America has paid for free speech and openness is to wear its sins in public, often on its face, while other countries–including the former Soviet Union and China, but loads of others lead their political lives in private, rig elections, and rule media with an iron glove

Even the soul-searching and hand-wringing that is happening in public because of his folly would be unthinkable in the kind of country he fantasizes he is living in.  But it is too obvious a point for either Snowden or his fans to take in.

He does not know this because as an avatar of an unreal hero he has no context, no reality, to refer to.  He blips along controlled by impulses that come from a brain unaccustomed to reflection and critical thinking, unformed by the complexities of history and unaffected by intuition and compassion that makes life in the real world possible.

He also does not know history, a thing he shares with the caste of anti-Americans in Europe and around the world who equate power and corruption as a matter of simple truth and logic–the logic of the video game he is playing.

America was founded on distrust of government. That distrust still defines the political landscape, from Tea Party-ism to Libertarianism, to mainstream (if it still exists) politics.  That distrust has its downside, because it means that voters are never happy with the status quo and always ready to believe that their government is lying to them.  When recently Mr Obama called for a Marine to hold an umbrella over his head to prevent him and his guest from being soaked with rain while giving an outdoor press conference, the newspapers immediately depicted it as an act of an “imperial president.”  -The real story elsewhere would be that he had to ask.

When the innate distrust of government  is communicated in the media, in movies, and in political debate to the rest of the world, the image that America sends outward becomes the image of America that comes back at it.  The fodder for anti-Americanism has been the raw material that American democracy has exported to the world–its insulting image of itself– for almost a century.  That self-affirming image is the one Edward Snowden came to believe in: a cartoon frame of an evil, conspiratorial CIA master-club dominated by cyberites who want to control minds and drop bombs.  Sure. Why not?  Isn’t the fact that the United States is “eavesdropping” on millions of Americans proof that this conspiracy exists.  Of course it is.

For a computer guy like Edward Snowden, the why question, the prior question, will never arise. Short of robbing them of their pensions, what use does American government have for so much information?  In a land of shrinking interest in anything and dwindling attention spans, who would pay attention to such sludge- dull information?

The possibility that in defending a greater good, national security and constitutional democracy–freedom in short– it is necessary, sometimes, to do a modicum of unpleasant, even unusual things–that explanation is not nearly as sexy as life in the Portal.

His very life had become an affirmation of a comic reality in which an overreaching, awe-inspring government was out to control the lives, thoughts, and actions of the underlings

But, again: why?  We are long past the point where people’s souls were thought to be valuable, so it can’t be a soul harvesting operation.  And the idea that Americans can be turned into thought slaves would require a political establishment populated by men with brains, so it can’t be that either. Maybe vital organs?  Maybe Edward Snowden knows.  But more than likely, it is not a question he has ever thought about.

It’s a question I always want to ask.  Not just Edward Snowden but everyone like him who seems to think that America cannot be sinned against and can only be an aggressor.  Is it partly the residue of Bush era adventurism, the legacy of the Cold War, “unique” superpower status in the world, the effects of Viet Nam?

I don’t know when America “became” satan, only that if it were truly successful at being evil–I could name a country in this slot–the world would not know much about it.  America changes drivers far too often for the “concentration of power” the founders (Google it Mr Snowden) feared to ever happen.  That is why it is absurd to demonise the American government: just when you’ve got the demon in a corner, someone votes him out.  But no one is under any illusion that the entity (a good computer game word) that replaces him is an angel.  It was the eminently distrustful James Madison who said, “:If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  But they aren’t he reckoned, and even though in normal circumstances the will of the people is all that’s necessary to keep the government under control, “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”  Mr Snowden worked not in the matrix but within a calculus of “auxiliary precautions.”  No one explained it to him.  If they had, he would not have understood, because his matrix has no history; it is an eternal Now.

It chokes me to say it, but if  freedom, openness, self-criticism, the cultivation of conscience and liberty are virtues in a nation, it seems to me that no country is as virtuous as America.  If Americans really thought their civil liberties were being sold to the highest bidder in a data mining facility in Maryland, there would be another revolution.  And interestingly, revolutions are bad material for video games because the stakes are uncertain and the principles are not modal.

Edward Snowden, after all is said and done, is a cipher on a screen.  You can almost see the pale blue lights flickering across his lifeless, uncomprehending face as he came to believe that he understood the game he was playing.

He made his own rules, created his own matrix, declared himself the winner, based on his own score.   Computers are simple for him,  just like good and evil were simple for the Manicheans; it is hardwired into all of us,  embedded in a syntax where operations are either legal or not.

If he is in China, he will find himself in a world much closer to the game he is playing and the rules he understands.  But if he is in China, he won’t be permitted to play it.

Villanelle Baneen



If I’d sung songs that saw you through the night
and woke you with a kiss at break of day,
and danced upon the moon until the light–
You’d probably have said, “This is not right–
Because your words are words, and really they
Are not the ones that see me through the night.

“For there are others dancing, oh so bright,
I cannot count them–and you will not stay
Dancing on the moon until the light….

“So many boys who praised the moon in flight
And loved me, and saw me on my way:
Though you sang songs to see me through the night–

“Wild boys, full seeded, stirring for my sight,
Skin like leather, flesh like moulded clay
Dancing on the moon until the light.

“And you, poor thing, there on the mountain height–
What were you asking in your funny way
when you sang songs that saw me through the night
and woke me with a kiss at break of day?”