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Entries in heather mcrobie (12)


In Which We Dig Up All Our Colleagues

The Way to Slovenia


The Americans
creator Joe Weisberg

Digging a hole and getting stuck in it isn’t a subtle metaphor. The last season of The Americans saw our favourite spies contemplating their escape – being offered the chance to return to Russia – but here we meet them, stuck in repetition compulsion, still in America and still trying to dig up. Between the end of the show's fourth season and this week's premiere, increasing evidence has piled up of Russian involvement in the presidential election, and allegations of wiretapping fill our 2017 headlines, so our fictional Soviet spies are not the only ones trying to dig themselves out of a mess.

Elizabeth and Philip, aka Nadezhda and Mischa, are excavating the body of a colleague who was caught, infected with the disease he’d been tasked with taking back to the USSR, and died in the hands of the CIA. So there is unfinished work here, and when their colleague cuts himself as they try to retrieve a tissue sample from the corpse’s body, Elizabeth tells him in reassuring tones that it’s okay, don’t worry – and then shoots him.

There is new work too, as Elizabeth and Philip play at happy families under new identities with their new Vietnamese ‘adopted son’, Tuan. Elizabeth and Philip work for an airline under this identity, presumably because the show refused to finish without having a character wear a quasi-nautical Duran Duran-style double-breasted suit.

Tuan makes awkward conversation at school with the new kid who has just arrived from the Soviet Union. The details of the school cafeteria makes us think for a moment that we are watching another 80s coming-of-age drama. Then we are back in Moscow, where Oleg, just returned from his posting in America, has given the new assignment of sniffing out corruption amongst the nomenklatura, the Soviet elite in which he was raised. It might make for awkward conversations with his family, but his boss tells good jokes.

In a hint, finally, to all the therapy that teenage daughter Paige will one day require, she tells her mother she has been having nightmares since she saw her mother kill a mugger at the end of the last season. Her mother takes her down to the garage and starts pushing her around to teach her self-defence. Meanwhile, the blossoming romance between Paige and Matthew, the teenage son of the friendly neighbourhood FBI agent, is concerning her parents. But who knows, maybe they would be concerned anyway – it’s always hard to map over what would be problems in some parallel universe in which they are a normal family.

Playing at being another normal family, with their son Tuan and under their new guise as airline employees, Elizabeth/Nadezhda and Philip/ Mischa have dinner with the family of Russians who have defected to the west. The father of Tuan’s awkward new Soviet classmate speaks like a stock character out of the Robin Williams’ 1994 film Moscow on the Hudson, of how full the supermarkets are in America. He isn’t wrong, of course, but his wife looks embarrassed, and he doesn’t seem to notice or care that his wife looks embarrassed.

In the kitchen, where the knives are kept, Elizabeth/ Nadezhda and the wife of the family of defectors make small talk about learning English and recipes, and Nadezhda, as Elizabeth, gives advice to the other woman about how to make a home here. But we hate to meet those who have come to a place for the opposite reasons to the reasons that brought us there, and in the car home afterwards Elizabeth/ Nadezhda expresses her frustration at their new ‘friends’ and their seduction by the west.

The sexiest new cast member of The Americans this season is 80s Yugoslavia, the kind of edgy new high-school kid of twentieth century ideology shown here as Mischa’s son – released from a psychiatric institution at the end of last season – makes his way to Slovenia. Yugoslavia, having split from the Soviets some thirty years earlier, is reminder of the ambiguities and alternatives that exist to the show’s usual Washington DC versus Moscow binary.

A decade later and the hills you can see in the Yugoslav bus ride would be covered in soldiers, as Tito’s state ripped to pieces. For now, Mischa’s son is in this liminal place, slowly making his way west, away from home but towards his father.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about the Mecca Mall.


In Which We Leave The Countries On The Other Side Of Here

The Mecca Mall


Just before I first moved to Amman my boyfriend at the time gave me a book about Jordan that he annotated with his own notes and little jokes. He was a graduate student and so I unkindly joked at the time that he had time to produce such labour-intensive gifts, but it was touching nonetheless. It touches me more now.

There was a picture in the book that he gave me of a statue of Artemis in Jordan’s National Archeological Museum, and next to it my then-boyfriend wrote about how Artemis was remarkable because she was both the hunter and the symbol of the home. I think he was right that it was strange, that she was both the one who leaves and the one who keeps the house – even then, I knew there was a choice, especially for women – the world will try its best to make you pick only one of those roles. I saw a similar picture of a bust of Artemis seven years later, in a seminar last year, when a Libyan archeologist stood there and explained how they are hiding artifacts from ISIS, and I cried in the darkness while the old man clicked through his slides of all of what will and may be lost.

Like many people coming from Europe and north America, Amman was my first experience of living in the Middle East. In that late Bush and early Obama era –when Jordan was awash with sketchy western businessmen ‘just back from Iraq’, their SUVs with tinted glasses and their job titles smudged into plausible deniability – my friends and I joked that Jordan was the ‘starter country’ for Arabic language learners and kleptocrats-in-training alike. Every expat graduated to a new city within a year or two, and in the meantime westerners were fond of the unkind nickname for the country, the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom. All of which is to say that all the dodgy influences coming and going from the north (Lebanon), south (Saudi), east (Iraq) and west (Israel) didn’t do anything to make Amman remotely sexy in our ungrateful eyes. It was shopping malls and roundabouts and people trying to get to or from the airport as often as possible.

The general sense – even from our Jordanian and Palestinian friends, as much as from the little group of internationals I fell into spending my time with (I’d yet to learn the tricks of getting away from fellow countrypeople abroad) – was that Amman was a kind of under-achieving sibling of the region’s metropolises, and it was a kind of permanent arch joke that we’d all wound up there instead of somewhere Real. It wasn’t really fair to the city that three great golden universes of history were each a taxi ride away – Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem – the places where shit went down, historically, instead of the place that just sold a lot of nice shit.

Being from England, Amman was also the first and the closest I got to experiencing what popular culture has told me life is like in mid-west America: we’d drive to the mall, we’d drink milkshakes, we’d go bowling, we’d have young-people arguments and we’d go home. The mall for bowling and for boredom-induced milkshake-drinking was called Mecca Mall, its neon sign written in the Latin alphabet, its escalators and entertainments full, just like American movies told me that malls are, with kissing teenagers and girls talking about clothes. My friends and I never did make it across the Saudi border all the way to Mecca; the Mecca Mall stood as testament to how all our lives were facsimile, in starter-setting: the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom, we’d laugh, Mecca Mall and we’ve never been to Mecca.

This constant background-noise of how studiedly unremarkable Amman was held extra significance for me because living in Jordan, in my early voyage out practice-of-adulthood, was also the last period of my life when I felt remarkable myself. My first novel had been published eighteen months after I graduated from college, at the time when my peers were facing down the tarmac-chewing period of internships and it’ll-be-great-for-your-resume servitudes, and tightrope-walking the precariousness of my status of half-waitress half-celebrity was a disorientating experience – so much so, in fact, that I’d run away to the Middle East. At twenty three, there was a serious discrepancy between the period in which a person can actually socially trade on ‘I’ve written a book’ (one year and four months) and the time I thought could glide through life as an ingénue (forever. I thought I could do it roughly forever).

So I got a job in Jordan working on human rights, and called my boyfriend in America as often as was inconvenient to tell him all the atrocities I’d either researched or read about or, you know, sometimes just dreamed about. Aged twenty-four there was an obstructive chasm between the amount of time a person can use ‘I work on human rights’ as an excuse to make Skype calls at 3am out of insomnia and weltschmertz (one year and eight months) and the amount of time I thought this professional badge of Being A Good Person would be a get-out card for having to learn to not bulldoze through other people’s lives (forever, more or less. But I promise I have learned since that there are no badges or titles that give you a pass on that). He finished his PhD on ancient artifacts while I was slowly learning to not use either the Being A Professional Good Person badge or a fluke of early success as a free pass through human interactions. I wrote to him, last year, after I’d been to the seminar of the Libyan archeologist who stood so solemn and quiet as he showed us the artifacts he risks his life to save. My once-boyfriend wrote back in a timely manner with helpful advice, and maybe that is the mark of a real good person, with no badges.

In our youthful arrogance, back in my Jordan days, my friends and I constructed this narrative about Amman so effectively – or perhaps inherited it, from whichever young people had been hanging out in Mecca Mall in the years before we arrived – that we didn’t even bother to notice when the city in its complexity refused our story. We occasionally discussed the divide between east and west Amman – one side historical Palestinian refugee housing then layered over with precarious temporary accommodation from the Iraqis who had fled since 2003; the other side the shops of Shmeisani where you could get anything you didn’t really want made out of gold (we went to look once for the most ridiculous made-out-of-gold item we could find there, and I think the winner was a stapler), and where, my research and my nightmares told me, wealthy inhabitants beat their Sri Lankan maids and confiscated their passports.

More often though, we went from our day jobs of report writing on human rights violations to our evening past-times of wandering the mall and drinking milkshakes, and our nighttime pastimes of Skyping people far away and pretending to be better than we really were.

Eight years later I live in Tel Aviv – the Mecca of my queer friends who left the countries either side of here and neon in its own self-mythologies – and Amman is two short bus rides away, give or take any trouble at the border. The man who gave me the book lives far away. Amman’s complexity shows more now – would even if these last years hadn’t beaten from me the ability to ignore that which doesn’t fit with an arrogantly neat summation of a place or person – through the Syrian refugees who have since layered over the parts of the city the Iraqi refugees were pushed into, and the Palestinians before them.

Still of all the horrors in all those reports and all those years and all the nightmares, there is a singular little cruelty in how we dismissed Amman so easily in our practice-run adulthoods. Even if, as they did in our stories, people just went to work and went to the mall and went home and lived their lives, that seems now to be something to hope for, a normality lost in the golden places nearby that we so aspired to be in and be like. Just be a place, like Amman, just be a person, like any other person. Much better that than a statue of Artemis, once revered and now with her face smashed in.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Tel Aviv. You can find her tumblr here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


In Which We Endure The Same Ending

Down Deep


I once read that Nora Ephron knew the identity of Deep Throat from the start of the Watergate scandal, and would go round cheerfully telling people at D.C. dinner parties, but nobody listened because Nora was just the brownie-baking novelist wife of Carl Bernstein. So let it be a lesson to investigative journalists and modern historians alike: always listen to the clever, neglected wife.

Still perhaps the twentieth century is best understood not through neglected wives but through the damaged daughters of privilege. This is the coded manifesto of Jean Stein’s biography of Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl. That there was something about Sedgwick’s power and powerlessness so closely bound together that refracted the contradictions of the period as a whole: to be both an heiress and be abused by your father.

And that Sedgwick’s artificial doll-ishness and supposed built-in self-destructiveness made it alright for Warhol and Dylan to variously use and abuse her and not feel bad about it afterwards, like they might’ve done if she had been a good ‘authentic’ woman, like Joan Baez. (Spoiler alert: a lot of good progressive men of the period didn’t feel too bad abusing the good ‘authentic’ women either, but there seemed – there seems – to be a particular delight in some quarters in ripping the spoiled gamine girl to pieces, as if in punishment for her unearned privilege). Patti Smith maybe understood this later, in her poem to Edie: I never got a chance with her/ though I really asked her/ down deep/ where you do/ really dream.

In cinemas Natalie Portman in all her Harvard-and-multilingual pedigree has been playing at Jackie Kennedy – iconic mourner, New England heiress, the Good Wife. This last decade television has turned to the emotional range – the masochism; the complicity – required of the wives of politicians. Maybe because it was the decade in which Michelle Obama’s poise and Hillary’s presidential campaigns together ripped at the seams the medieval absurdity of the institution of the First Lady. But all this daydreaming and reworking of the Kennedy-era Camelot in the 2010s ignores the fact that the most interesting Kennedy wasn’t even Jackie. It was Rosemary – the damaged daughter, the silent sister, who never got to perform the glossy, demeaning role of public wife.

Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918, with two older brothers and a surname already heavy with association. From early childhood, her doctors and parents expressed concerns at her ‘developmental delays’, and at the age of 11 she was sent to a boarding school for ‘intellectually challenged’ students. Though observers in her teens found her charming, the Kennedy parents worried about her ‘unruly’ behaviour, particularly after the family returned to America in 1940, when Joe Kennedy’s ambassadorship to Great Britain came to an end.

It seems the parents feared that Rosemary’s ‘disability’ – acting out, occasional violent outbursts of frustration, seizures upon her return to America – would hold back the other siblings, as if mental illness was a contagion. (Even if it is, Google Wittgenstein’s family tree and tell me a genealogy of mental malaise stops a brilliant brain). So in 1941, at her father’s command, a doctor drilled two holes in her head. Rosemary was told to sing songs as the doctor drilled; he stopped when she fell silent. And she fell silent. For the rest of her life she walked with a limp, and never fully regained the use of one arm. The prefrontal lobotomy the doctor had performed on her – a contested surgery, even at the time – certainly stopped any ‘unruly’ behaviour from Rosemary, but with it her speech, and her ability to properly express herself.

You want to fight her corner, of course, say that all contemporary accounts of Rosemary’s behaviour really don’t make her sound crazy by any normal standards, but just a girl who climbed out of her window to kiss boys in an era that still pathologised female desire. The feminist reading of women and madness sometimes requires the Bovary versus Karenina test. The test goes – ask yourself honestly, was it the stifling forces acting upon her, or would she have been a bit fucked up anyway? Anna Karenina passes and Emma Bovary doesn’t, because that’s the spectrum of humanity and patriarchy as a power structure can coexist with people sometimes just still being people in all their unpleasantness, their disappointing-ness. You get the same ending either way, but one of them was avoidable and one of them would have been like that anyway.

The truth is I have no idea if Rosemary Kennedy would have been like that anyway. But the question chews at me. Kate Clifford Larson’s biography of Rosemary offers some clues: how her siblings were impatient when she struggled to keep up with them, how her parents’ fears that men might sexually prey upon her vulnerability seemed to come less from a genuine concern for Rosemary’s safety than worry that the resultant scandal would harm the sibling’s political prospects.

So more than outrage and sadness at the thought of a young woman brutalised, as they’ve so often been, for her human desires – you want to argue, God, it wasn’t Rosemary, it was the others. Look at the photos of Rosemary with her brothers. (If you want to pathologise anyone’s behaviour, run through the list of the public and private acts of the male Kennedys.) Rosemary had a non-freakish IQ and no desire to remake the free world in her vision; you want to say – hey, Rosemary was just fine, but maybe they should’ve lobotomised the rest of them. Except you can’t say that, given how everything turned out, with the rest of them.

Rosemary Kennedy never recovered from the surgery on her brain, and was sent to a series of permanent care facilities; her father stopped visiting her after several years, while Larson’s biography describes how, after the surgery, her mother ‘couldn’t face her.’ It was Eunice Kennedy Shriver – the other sister – who eventually took over her care, and, when her brother became president, she lobbied him (to speak of unnatural behaviour – to have to lobby a brother) to improve national services for the disabled. Rosemary died aged 86, the way that normal people do – no assassinations and no great fanfare.

Larson’s biography claims that the matriarch of the Kennedys – Rose – blamed her husband for what happened to her daughter, but nonetheless toed the family line and colluded in keeping Rosemary out of sight, purportedly both for the sake of her sons’ political careers and to protect her vulnerable daughter. Rosemary isn’t just more interesting than Jackie, she’s more haunting than Rosemary’s Baby. Because this is the horror story the twentieth century’s Rosemary tells you through her silence: that those who seek to lobotomize you will later say they did it out of love.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here. She is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She last wrote in these pages about Tahrir Square. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.