(Written 17 August 2012)
Unlike so many on Facebook, I don’t remember the first time I met Ben. I was always aware of him – he was older than me so he was at Rice before I was – and I am sure that I interviewed him a few times before I really got to know him. In fact, I only became really close to him – as a person – when we were in Kyrgyzstan.
At Rice, he was one of a couple people who fit in a particular genre in a young female’s youth: speaking broadly, he fit into the category of “attractive radical”. We had a couple of them at Rice – two stand out – and they were very different. Ben was known as a Christian person who fought for freedom; others wore T-shirts supporting Communism. I never found anyone in this category attractive, so I went about my business at the Thresher.
We developed a mutual respect for each other fighting for freedom of speech on the Rice campus. When I try to explain the battle to people outside Rice, it suddenly sounds like a flimsy battle: a student radio station shut down by the university administration. “The man” snuck in in the early morning and bulled a radio DJ – all as retribution for another DJ playing music during a women’s basketball game, which Rice was paid to broadcast. To the conspiratorially minded at the Thresher, they did this as our newspaper went to press, to prevent us from covering it.
This sounds flimsy or silly if I tell people about it now. It didn’t feel flimsy at the time. We hadn’t slept from putting out the previous edition of the paper, but we put out a special edition of the newspaper. It was finals, but we put out special editions of the newspaper for the rest of that week. We basically didn’t sleep for the whole week. I don’t remember my grades, but they were probably pretty bad.
Like I said, it didn’t feel flimsy. It felt important.
I still think it was.
I wonder, as I write this, if I doubt its importance because I have gained perspective, or because I have forgotten how much I believe in freedom. This week, the Pussy Riot protestors were sentenced to two years in prison for a 55-second, admittedly blasphemous protest. I wish I could speak to Ben about it. I wish we were on Facebook, obliquely observing each other’s support for freedom of speech, even if we didn’t speak directly about it.
Liora started dating Ben when I was studying abroad, so I missed how that relationship grew, and he had graduated from Rice by the time I got back from Poland and Russia. By the time I was back in the US, he was on his way to Kyrgyzstan for a couple years, and Liora and I were beginning our last year at Rice. I applied to the Watson fellowship, passionately (and honestly) writing a personal statement that mentioned my obsession with Russian, and with freedom of the press.
I was in Kazakhstan for the first few months in the region, but when Jeff B. and his friend met while studying abroad in Turkey visited, we visited Ben in Kyrgyzstan. I remember his narrative of Kyrgyzstan well, as I considered myself somewhat up-to-date. His recommendations included a visit to the local historical museum, which included a surreal mural mostly aimed at discrediting the US (there was a skeleton wearing a US flag). One of the first stories he told was that, when they took down the main Lenin statue (there are Lenin statues everywhere in the former Soviet Union), people in Bishkek protested so much that they had to move the Lenin statue to the back of the government buildings. It now saluted the American University. The irony was not lost on Ben, but he was mostly struck by this rejection of the supposed freedom that the region had just gained. It wasn’t what we had been taught about the Soviet Union; we certainly never heard in the US that people protested the removal of Lenin. We all learned that year that things were more complicated than they seemed in the news, or written down on paper.
The next stage of my research was set for Kyrgyzstan, and Ben let me live in the other room in his apartment, which had been used by his friend John, who I think was in the US. The apartment was decorated in an extremely Soviet, brown-themed style, with the relevant ornamental rugs. The kitchen was somewhat functional, but definitely not to a high standard. There was no heating. The main perk was not living alone, and Ben’s standard-issue Peace Corps heater, which probably used the same amount of electricity as all the rest of the appliances in the rest of the building. I moved there a bit before Christmas. It was freezing.
I met some of the other Peace Corps people quickly, and I remember some great stories from their village lives, which I still tell at parties. There was the story about another volunteer who had broken a leg – I think he was hit by a car – and was prescribed a live urination on his leg. Another one had another ailment that could only be cured, in village medicine, by fresh human breast milk. Ben listened to these and other stories so that he could find out where to travel, whom to visit, and what the meaning of the local culture was.
I lived there for a few months – I don’t know precisely how long – and Ben and I were closest when we were at home alone. I have never been particularly fanatical about music, but I love to hear about things other people are passionate about. This made me a good target for Ben’s music lessons, from which I learned to love Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Blackalicious (to name a couple). I was less a fan of the hardcore Christian rock, but we listened to that for an afternoon as well. He threw a plov party – in Central Asia, men are supposed to cook plov (women cook everything else) – but was very particular about it, and I can’t remember if he approved of his results.
We had lepyoshkas – local traditional round bread, with various patterns in the middle – in the apartment all of the time, and we ate them with cheese, peanut butter and various other condiments. We bought our groceries from basements of our or nearby apartment buildings. I never figured out how to say “cheese” (syr) in a fluent enough way. We discussed the local belief that one should never throw away bread – you should eat it or feed it to a dog or give it away or use the crumbs for something. Ben named this as a Muslim belief, but I am not sure if it was, or just a local superstition. It is an admirable belief, and an onerous one, as I tend to take things literally and became afraid of being exiled if I threw away bread (which I often tend to do).
The winter was long and dark, and colder than anything I had experienced, but I remember the apartment as being warm, not physically – I was often freezing and if I was alone at home, I was probably in the bath (we had hot water, if not heating) – but with light. I read a copy of a Krishnamurti and St. Augustine books that Ben had lying around, and I thought about what I was supposed to do with my life. I had achieved all of the things I had planned so far, and I had no idea what I was doing.
I started freelancing in Kyrgyzstan, probably out of boredom – but at least out of opportunity. I was interviewing journalists, and the local printing press was being changed into a commercial one by a slightly crazy American, in a project partially backed by Bob Dole. The local media had not taken kindly to this, and I pitched and then wrote an article about the printing press. Ben’s apartment had only a partially functional phone, but I used it to call my potential , mustering all of the Russian I knew to make appointments to interview local journalists when their rights had been infringed, or when there was a media scandal. Otherwise, I devised and carried out my research project on press freedom in Central Asia.
Ben and I would talk about the frustrations of living in a country like this – neither of us had lived anywhere like Kyrgyzstan before. Neither of us did again, either. Our conversations often mentioned what a reasonable prospect of success looked like in Kyrgyzstan. Ben’s theory was that it was accomplishing something like 25 to 50 percent of one’s goals for a day. Some days that felt very optimistic. A typical story: Ben needed a particular form from the university where he taught economics – not the American University, but the one he was assigned in Peace Corps. He asked about this form many times. Finally, he lost his temper with the woman at the reception desk, and asked how it was possible they didn’t have it. She smugly smiled, pulled open a drawer, and gave him the form – which may have been there that whole time. He may have been exaggerating, but to me, the moral of this story was not clear: should we lose our tempers more? Be firm? Improve our Russian?
I moved out when John returned and I went to Tajikistan, and then lived in Bishkek a while, moved to Uzbekistan for a couple of months, met my boyfriend (now husband), and saw Ben generally less.
I have fewer stories about Ben from the rest of my time in Kyrgyzstan, although we still saw each other. I saw him, but Liora was there, so I saw him much less. When I got mugged, he walked with me around the neighborhood (I was limping, having hurt my knee in the attack) to try to find my bag in the dumpsters. He was impressed but also scared with my decision after the mugging to run after my attackers. (My passport was in the bag, so it seemed logical.) He taught me where the best internet cafes were, so I could call my credit card companies to cancel them.
The real “Ben” stories from that period are mostly about ice cream. He was getting frustrated with the inefficiency of the economy, and the dysfunction of the ice cream market became one of his best symbols. His favorite ice cream shop, near the main square, changed the rules of its ordering: instead of a mandatory two-scoop order, it instituted a three-scoop mandatory order. Ben only wanted two scoops. This was non-negotiable, it seems. Even if he paid for three scoops, he could not only have two scoops. Ben and the ice cream scooper were similarly stubborn, but she held the ice cream. I think Ben had to find a new ice cream establishment.
Another time we tried to go watch the polo-like game, which utilizes a goat carcass (named buzkashi in Farsi-speaking countries, but I forget the Kyrgyz name). We were sure that there would be a game on a particular day, so we went to the stadium. There was no buzkashi, and it was a long trip to get out there. We approached a taxi driver, sitting in his car, parked in the parking lot. He quoted us a ridiculously high price. We argued, but he would not budge. Ben’s parting words were, “You would rather stay here in your car than earn a normal fare from us!” The driver was not convinced. I don’t remember how we got home.
These are the stories that have popped into my head, probably because they are some of the stories that I have told the most about Central Asia. Ben was good at teasing simple truths out of this wild country. He was not a relativist, and could find the absurdity in many situations. He could also find and ignite beauty: he started a hip-hop club with some local youths; I can’t imagine that their families or friends understood them, but there they were, with their baggy jeans and counter-cultural messages. What he gave them was love, and probably hope of finding someone who understood them. His bad raps in Russian encouraged them to find a voice.
These are stories, but they are not the essence. Ben’s essence was authenticity and therefore is multi-layered. I remember his excitement and his grin when he half-hosted a dinner at a friend’s apartment, with a big screen set up to show us pictures and tell us his crazy stories about the road trip he took through Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The way he counted the alcohol and cigarette bribes he paid out, and objectively ruled that Kyrgyzstan’s border guards were the worst, corruption-wise in the region. His excitement was infectious, and it made us wonder what else we could be doing to explore.
Ben was just himself, and being oneself is a hard thing to be. I remember that he found few people who wanted to talk about most of the things he wanted to talk about; I loved adventure, but couldn’t identify with his love for the mountains. I remember being totally bewildered by the thought of the crevasse, and his blithe way of saying how easy it would be to die by falling in one. You would just disappear. I had never been anywhere like that, and I still have not. I would listen, but I could not comprehend what it meant to be on a mountain. Most people couldn’t comprehend his passion for God, or for freedom. Almost no one understood why he was unwilling to forego his trips in order to finish Peace Corps in good standing. I felt awe about this lack of confinement by human systems, and his ability to understand that he had very little to lose.
Sometimes his authenticity was grating. He would never stay out with me and a friend just to be polite, and his abruptness in leaving a social situation he felt bored by could be embarrassing. Sometimes the strength of his beliefs was confusing to me. When we were both living in DC a couple of years later, I remember sitting in Kalorama Park, picking the grass, angry at him for his views on raising a family. Ben did not rise to my anger, but calmly argued his view.
But even in a disagreement, I took comfort that with Ben, I didn’t have to pretend to care about things that didn’t matter. He would never ask me who I worked for, the way most DC conversations start. He specifically expected me to show up with authenticity, something to debate, perhaps a disagreement – but something real. I could show up, and Ben would expect me to be who I am, say what I thought that day, care about something. He expected that because he knew I could do it. I have had few friends or contacts who expected me to be as much of myself as Ben did. We talked less after he was in California, and I was in London, but we followed each other’s lives on Facebook. When he cared about a cause, I read about it and often did something. He disagreed with me on US politics, particularly the meaning of Sarah Palin’s ascendency for America. We read each other’s blogs, and he continued to be one of very few people who, even from afar, demanded authenticity from me.
Since Ben died, I have questioned a lot of things. I have questioned the way I am living my life, and the people I am around. I have questioned what it means to be authentic and to become an adult. I have questioned my motivation for saying and writing and reading things, and I feel I have no anchor for evaluating these things. Ben was an example of authenticity – both its attractive and annoying sides – and I have few people who demand such authenticity from me. This suddenly makes it more important for me to be genuine, but I now need to figure out what this means – and I will have to do this on my own.