As our world becomes increasingly intertwined and amorphous, and American interests involve more external players than before, it is important that we make an effort to immerse ourselves in different cultures to truly understand the issues we face today.
Henry Rollins: I go all over the world on my own just to travel and see things and learn. I travel, have traveled, with the USO to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Kuwait, to places like that, so I don’t know how easy my access would be to those places without traveling with the Department of Defense. I travel all over Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central Asia by myself, and after a certain point I started to accumulate a lot of photographs and a lot of stories, and I wanted to do a book that showed that part of what I do with a great deal of my time sometimes. I travel alone up to 100 or plus days at a time, just me and two backpacks, dry socks and Cliff Bars in one backpack and camera gear in the other, and I just go, country after country, and just live out in it for entire fiscal quarters.
The attempt of the book Occupants, which is a photo on the right side of the book and on the left page is a crazy essay writing thing that I did, kind of abstracting off the photograph a reflective impressionistic bit of writing. The attempt of the book is to try to shorten the distance between the two points, to try and shorten the disconnect between what a lot of Americans perceive of the world outside of their view. A lot of Americans don’t have a passport, never will have a passport. Not only will they not travel, they don’t want to travel. They will never know. They don’t want to know.
Like my father, who’s a PhD in economics. He’s also an amazing racist and homophobe. Brilliant guy with numbers, never traveled. And so my mother took me here and there as a very small kid--Turkey, Greece, England, Jamaica--before I was 10, so I had a little green passport before they made them blue and I kind of had some international beats by the time I was in fourth or fifth grade. And I so I had a little idea of poverty and seeing those things as a very little boy.
And so what I want to do with the book is bring the viewer to Sudan and North Korea and Burma and Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam and Syria and all these places that I go and South Africa, wherever, and let them see these people and these beautiful faces and these incredible ways of life and maybe shorten that distance.
Most of the things I do are basically antiwar, and I want war to become this obsolete thing that would just be really not even a consideration, where if we can’t—if negotiations breakdown, we just keep negotiating because dropping white phosphorous on a village full of humans is just . . . we can’t do that. There are people down there. You don’t want to drop that stuff.
And so this book is a small—it’s a monkey wrench about this big being hurled at a giant teeth gnashing robot nine, ten stories high, and it probably will do nothing, but it’s not nothing. At least I wasn’t sitting on my keister going, “Eh.” I was going for it. The destinations in that book not only took a lot of time and a lot of strife to get the visas. It cost a lot of money to get to these destinations. America doesn’t seem to want me to go to Iran. That was months of getting the runaround to get that visa, and then finally some guy said “Look, you’re not going to get one here, I'll just save you some time, but you might get one in Dubai,” thinking that I won’t go to Dubai. I went right to Dubai. I got the visa. It took me two years to get a visa to go to North Korea, and I was not allowed to walk around Pyongyang without my two tour spies, but I did a whole lot of walking in Iran by myself, and Tehran, and had nothing but great experiences of people going, “What are doing here?” And my stock one-liner slash ice-breaker is “I'm here to meet you!” And I shake hands, and the conversation starts.
And I've almost been killed a couple of times in my life, like really, you know, like bullets went whizzing by me. But that was in America, and besides a mortar attack I was in in Bagdad once, the world has been very kind to me. And I'm not brave and I'm not tough and I'm not looking for a fight. I am insatiably curious and I am fairly confident that I go into these places leading with my curiosity that I will be perhaps spared a beating by just the way my body is relating, the way my whole physicality and posture is as I walk down these streets.
I was in Pakistan in Islamabad when Bhutto was assassinated, and the next day, you know, there’s just plumes of smoke everywhere. I mean, Islamabad is on fire. All the diplomats from all the embassies are now at this hotel, so there’s like sleepy children, like, “Where’s my bed?,” tired parents and scary security guys, like, men in suits with big, big firearms under their jackets. I go up to the gate, which is now festooned with soldiers. I go, “Turn me lose.” They are like “Sir, please, really, go back to your room.” I'm like, “No, I'm going out there.” And like I said, I'm not a tough guy. I'm not brave, but I'm damn curious. There is no way I'm sitting in my room as all things burn. So I walked outside, spent the whole day, literally the whole day outside until the sun goes down and the mosquitoes come out. Everyone runs. And I just walked amidst flames and sobbing men who were, like, mourning the death of Benazir Bhutto, and I marched with an angry mob. They were chanting something about Bhutto. I just, like, kind of jumped in with them--all men; women did not hit the streets until the sun started setting. All the stores were closed. The majority of things on fire were tires, and I stood outside. This one white dude--the one of two white people I saw all day was me and some Reuters guy who got a sound byte, got into a car and bailed--and no one hurt me. People thanked me for coming to Pakistan. I spoke English with quite a few people.
And so this book is trying to make the world in a certain way a smaller place, to lessen the contempt, the fear and ignorance some people might have for other ways of life and other cultures. ‘Cause other cultures have been around, for the most part, much longer than American culture. Middle Eastern culture, Arabic culture, I'm no expert. Even the experts will tell you they are not experts. But there are ways of life there, ideas of civility that are so many centuries old. There’s a decency amongst some people in some parts of the world that you can learn astonishing lessons from, politeness that is so stylish, so considerate, so poetic that your life is better for having been there, for having experienced Islamic and Muslim civility, for having walked the streets of Vietnamese cities, towns and villages and looking at what Agent Orange looks like four generations later, yet, finding the unbelievable kindness and generosity of people who have little, who suffered big and still welcome you to their streets. And this is what has happened to me in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, several times, India, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, all these places I have been to and walked for miles. I just hit the streets and go, every souk, every slum, every railroad track. I just walk down them and see what happens. I'm still here.
Recorded on: October 13, 2011