Obama's cliché security. Image: Getty
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Will Self: state cops, FBI letter jackets and celebrity sandwiches

"In Boston, I deliberate between the Fiscal Cliff with blue cheese and the Mark Zuckerburger."

On the dockside in Boston I spotted Fia’s Seafood – they were offering “twin lobsters” for $28.95; I ventured in and asked if the lobsters were identical or non-identical twins. “Why d’you wanna know?” the maître d’ snarled. “Because,” I replied, “I can only perform unnatural psychological experiments on them if they’re zygotic.”

The president was in town for a speech and the area around the State House was fraught with security: state cops on cliché Harleys, FBI agents in cliché letter jackets, and most intimidating of all those excessively polite men in pale yellow raincoats with pig’s tail antennae dangling from their ears. I gave them all a swerve and took the Red Line into Cambridge.

Sometimes it seems to me that the relationship between American society and its fast food is as close as that of ... well, identical twins. Foreigners writing on US gustatory habits have always understood the cafeteria and the lunch counter as the extension of the production line into the stomach. If you haven’t already, take a look at Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s ecstatically enraged depiction of American fast food in his 1933 novel, Journey to the End of the Night.

Emerging into the darkness of Harvard Square, I also gave the raggedy man standing by the subway exit a swerve. (His sign read “Looking for a Little Human Kindness” – how corny can you get?) The street folk were thronging about Starbucks, homing in like zombies on its smell-a-round of deceit – the odours of bread, pastry and roasted coffee that as one enters are dissipated by the cold winds of commercial calculation. In the lift down to the basement I sighed as I tapped my receipt code into the console. “They gotta do it,” an academic-looking type said, “else the homeless people trash the restrooms – they smear shit on the walls – I guess they’re really aggrieved.” I gave him an admiring glance and said, “Nice use of ‘aggrieved’.”

Back on the surface I passed by the Bridge Over Troubled Water trailer – “Reaching Out a Helping Hand to 16-24-Year-Olds” – before coming upon Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, a Boston landmark – or so its sign asserted – since 1960. Inside, the tables were covered with wood-grain laminate and the chairs were of the green plastic, lawn variety. A waiter with a T-shirt that read – wholly in innocence – “We Beat the Meat”, showed me to a table. Looking around me I saw that this was an establishment dominated by what Walter Benjamin characterised as the “vertical type” of modern consumerism: hokey old advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes; triangular road signs that showed stick figures crawling on their knees towards beer glasses, and which were captioned “STUDENTS CROSSING”; over several tables there were small signs that said “Johnny Cash Ate Here”, or “Robert Plant Ate Here” – claims I didn’t doubt for the thousandths of a second necessary for a computerised trading system to make a ruinous interest-swap.

Mr Bartley’s menu was equally diverting; the standard seven-ounce burger came in a plethora of guises. The Obamacare was glossed thus: “Nobody knows what’s in it ... ask the liberal sitting next to you”, and costed at: “$ Trillions”; while the Fiscal Cliff – “it’s here!” – was rather more optimistically priced at $13.85, for which you got crumbled bacon, blue cheese, red onion, balsamic vinegar and additional onion rings. I wish I could tell you I ordered a Mark Zuckerberg (“America’s richest geek, Boursin cheese and bacon with sweet potato fries”), which was a snip at 13 bucks – but, strange to relate, my sense of humour seemed to have deserted me. While I sipped my coke and chewed on my standard Mr Bartley’s cheeseburger (the only novelty being that I opted for provelone) I stared about me at my fellow preppies, who, to a man and a woman seemed to be channelling Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in those early scenes of Love Story – before the crab bites.

Lucky us. Out there in the streets the chill winds blew along Massachusetts Avenue and our brothers and sisters were dunking in the trash cans for discarded donuts. As I say, I often feel that American society and American fast food are twins separated at birth; and while one has been fed on 100 per cent ground beef and French fries cooked to a golden perfection, the other has been starved, beaten and otherwise degraded. It’s an unnatural psychological experiment – nonetheless I’m sure you’ll agree that it has to be done.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser