The Matchbook Diaries


My next-door neighbor in our compound reconstructed a Banksy stencil and spraypainted it on the outside of his house. It’s of a guy dressed in terror garb hurling a bouquet of flowers. I trotted right over and borrowed that stencil and made a few copies for myself and my friends. Banksy’s rebel art makes my heart sing.

My obsession with beauty is a product of being indelibly connected with an abomination. My unconscious compulsion is an attempt to compensate for that peculiar ugliness with which I am intimate. In the world as we travel, I witness inconceivable suffering, life far worse than anything I know. We visited Jordan during the height of the terrorist occupation in Syria and saw kilometer after kilometer of tents with political and religious refugees. The signs on the road as we drove in Jordan indicated the proximity to Iraq and Syria, but we didn’t need the measure, it was obvious how close we were to the borders. At night the men from those terrified families dug in the garbage below the apartment where we stayed, despite the cold weather and their lack of clothes.

In Thailand one summer I saw the worker shacks for the construction of a luxury hotel. There was no electricity, no water, no screens for security from insects, yet there they’d travelled, to this remote island, to build a hotel whose interior accommodations are as far removed from their personal experience as I am from the moon. Like workers everywhere, those men have no insurance, no vacation, no job once that one is done. Those exhausted men are ubiquitous, but they’re of great consequence. They have names; they have lovers, and mothers, and children.

Once, when I was dealing with pride and entitlement in my son, I asked my driver to take us to the adjacent neighborhood and to escort us. Ten minutes from our razor wired, heavily guarded compound, we stopped on a road that was impassable because of ruts and water. We stayed in the locked car until my driver arranged for the Dar neighborhood bosses to bodyguard us. (I’d pay them afterwards.) Then we stepped out and into where women and children lie sleeping in the dirt under the open sky. I dragged my horrified son to meet the people who live there, under tin roofs, without electricity or clean, running water. The neighborhood I took him to is one of the better ones. To go into the slums would not be safe. We were permitted to enter the private home of one man. Inside on the dirt there was a bare mattress, and beside it, a small ceramic mug with a toothbrush in it. The man had a latrine out back, and a shower made from a pipe and a cistern of black plastic that held fresh water. He is barely able to afford that luxury, but he values the water. My son scurried out of that neighborhood trying to shake off the invisible despair.

Yet from those neighborhoods comes the street art I buy. People who cannot otherwise afford to shelter their family carve wood and sell the work so that they can eat, at least for one more day. People face a world that is dangerous, filthy, and utterly chaotic, and still find the courage sit down and to make something beautiful. One of my favorite Dar art places is run by a man named Suburu. Suburu has no feet. In his little workshop disabled men and women take recycled materials from around the diplomatic quarter and make beautiful things. I have a large herd of metal warthogs from Suburu’s workshop, as well as thousands of handmade glass beads and handmade paper. Suburu is often forced to relocate his gallery as the landowners get greedy and push the rent up so high he leaves. He persists, reopening someplace else; he doesn’t blink in the face of his haphazard life, and I chase him around until I find him again.

I’m easily overwhelmed by the despair, the needless torment imposed on the undereducated and the weak by me and others like me. Folkart is meaning. Folkart is the power within the human heart to make beauty, to impose beauty, onto an otherwise lost world. When I am asked to do a workshop, I tell students that they can’t feel their God-given importance by buying important things. They can only know their holiness, their infinite value, by doing important things. Making art is important because it expresses the identity of the creative human being.

I’m told hourly, by large corporations, what has value. But it is up to me to believe what I am told or to reject it. I invest my money and my time in things upon which I choose to impose my own value. I can’t save anyone. But I can exercise my free will to purchase the passion inside of the beautiful bits and pieces that emerge from the hearts of people who ought to be angry, who ought to hate me, who really ought to revolt, but don’t.