Rap music in a Gottingen Subways outlet. The old kind of rap. The kind to stir a heart into resolute anger at the world and its injustices. At the institutions that deny liberty and call the result Normal. Fair. The kind of rap that no Subways would have dared to play in the 90’s, but can laugh at now. Humiliate through tinny takeaway speakers. Like the immigration official that’s taken a liking to Bob Marley, or the corporate cat who enjoys Alanis Morisette and Shirley Manson.
Defanged of their politics and reduced to pop sparkle. Nothing left to remind the listener of their guilt. The deferred dreams and the buried principles that gnaw at their gut. Yet, ironically, those accusations still remain so sharp in the lyrics. Screaming contemptuously at the listener’s conscience, but in a the language of a different moment. Of a different time, when different wars raged in different social spaces – or the same wars with different flavours. Like Che Guevara’s face, or a thousand other icons, someone realised that we can keep the symbols, yet smother the memories of the time that gave them their power, replacing them with ones that serve different, less obligating masters.
But I’m not sure those story-victories are ever finally won. Perhaps if they are defeated for generations, stories may finally die, but as long as a mind remembers – and that mind can write, or speak, or reach out in some way to others – the defeat of the stories it holds remains incomplete.
There’s something to the fact that I routinely refer to stories with the metaphor of fire. An insubstantial thing that can lie in wait, holding fast and feeding of the smallest pieces of tinder. Refusing to die, when really it should. But when the air finally comes, it retains the spirit of the largest possible conflagrations. Stories can leap from lives to lives and reduce their owners’ worlds to ash if they find fuel there. Find the air and find the space.
People have built and discarded lives over stories. Over sparks that came to them and burned them down to their hearts. There’s something reverent about searching for those stories in the ashes of the places that they’ve burned. In songs, for sure, but in other places too. In sandy landscapes and fragments of UN reports, for example.
There’s a town in Darfur called Kailek. Or perhaps there was a town in Darfur called Kailek. The coordinates in the UN reports look empty now, and full of pixellated sand. But it existed once, and might do so still. A place where, in 2004, the army of the Sudanese government and its allied militias starved a town to death. The story of Kailek, and of other places like it, are part of the reason people came to call Darfur a genocide. But eight years on, the stories of the place have become embers, preserved in reports from the UN and the NGOs who bore witness to the crimes that happened there. I’ve no idea what came after.
During the course of my MA studies I happened to kick some historical ash aside, looking for something else. For an account of how people with power can use hunger as a weapon for the most savage crimes. It was there that I founda small piece of Kailek’s story in a journal paper, hung onto it, and used it as an example of a famine crime in an article. Then was contacted out of the blue by a man who had a copy of a report from one of the earliest teams to see the place firsthand and catalogue what was happening there. And so my interest in the story has continued to grow with every new thread since.
Where it goes, I’ve no idea. But stories must be followed. Their work is to remake the world, and teach us not simply that things were, but what they were like. Not just that there was a Kailek, but that there were people like you and I who lived and died in it. And because of that, there is a justice of sorts to be had in assembling a full account.
A complicated, fragmented and storied justice, perhaps, but a justice all the same. The kind rooted in a reverence of stories. A justice of empathy.