Sleeping Under The Cell Tower
With so much turmoil in the world, it was admittedly a difficult task to remain focused solely on the business of BizCloud. We all felt like we had so much to say; we wanted to speak out against the worst of what we saw unfolding around us and reassure people that there was hope, that a different,better world was indeed still possible. My Serbian team and I decided to devote our time to writing and publishing a book we titled The Age of Nepotism. I chose the title while thinking from a global perspective about how human beings treat each other and how we take care of each other during trying times. And then how, when we achieve positions of power, we bring in our families and our friends to help sell out our country and our values. We first launched a website and social media handles using the same name and highlighted not just issues involving Wall Street and capitalism,but also international issues like the Green Movement against the oppressive Iranian regime. The Age of Nepotism tried to highlight the global hypocrisy of war, poverty, and social injustice. We covered the crimes committed in the name of democracy across the globe, from economic crimes to inhumanity in Iran and the Arab world. You’ll recall that this was just before the Arab Spring, a regional rejection of the repressive authoritarian regimes, most of them US-backed, that ruled over people from the Atlantic shore of Africa to the medieval fundamentalist regimes running Saudi Arabia and beyond. It would be more than another year before Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi would kill himself in his fiery anti-corruption protest, but the spirit of the Arab Spring was welling up within the souls of countless millions of oppressed peoples across a huge swathe of the globe and that spirit was definitely palpable among the courageous men, women, girls and boys who took to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities during the Green demonstrations.
The Age of Nepotism is part travel journal — like Mark Twain, I’ve always believed that travel is fatal to prejudice, part economic and social justice manifesto, part art project and part ramblings of a man on the edge. We didn’t sell too many copies. But then again, that really wasn’t the goal. I was observing and commenting on a world gone mad around me the best way that I could, and writing and publishing The Age of Nepotism was the crowning jewel of a lifetime of activism and an invaluable experience informing everything I would do going forward.
I initially hadn’t planned on anything more than a short stay in Serbia. I arrived without even a hotel reservation and with only a Lonely Planet book to guide me. Fortunately, Belgrade welcomed me with open arms and great hospitality. That usually meant liberal pours of rakija, the local firewater,and hearty shouts of “živeli,” or “cheers!” I noticed similarities between Serbs and Iranians, like how both are intensely proud and independent people who chafe at US bullying but nonetheless have a strong affinity for American people and culture. This was as true in the middle of the countryside as it was in cosmopolitan Belgrade. Once, for example, when my credit card for some reason wouldn’t work after I filled up my tank at gas station on the way back from visiting a friend’s village, the proprietor let me leave on the promise I would return with his €40. I loved visiting villages, meeting my colleagues’ families (I met so many lovely old grandmas and grandpas) and being guests in their homes. I also often found myself just wandering the streets of Belgrade, not really knowing where I was going but discovering new adventures around every corner.
As I interacted more with average Serbians in farmers markets and around town I discerned some hesitation to speak in English. People would ask if I was from the United States, to which I would reply affirmatively before being hit with some or another version of “you bombed us.” I would then share that I am Iranian-American and they would laugh and say something like, “watch out, you are going to get bombed next!” We would both then inevitably smirk, smile, and say our polite goodbyes. The people of the Balkans are very educated in local and international affairs. They are politically attuned. This is partially due to geography as well as brutal scars of wars that have not yet healed with time. Serbians had many reasons to fear the United States and other Western powers. When the former Yugoslavia was breaking apart, the Western powers did nothing to help the region’s economy and were simply content with a free-fall. Then came the US-led NATO bombing campaign of 1999 — which still haunts Serbs to this day, 20 years later.
All sides committed atrocities during the decade or so of fighting in the region after Yugoslavia began disintegrating in 1991. Croats ethnically cleansed Serbs during Operation Storm in Krajina,Serbs ethnically cleansed Bosnian Muslims and Croats, US-backed Kosovo Liberation Army terrorists — some of whose fighters had trained with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan — ethnically cleansed Serbs. And Serb leader Slobodan Milošević was certainly a war criminal. But by selectively amplifying Serb atrocities in order to wage a war against the Serbian people, and by publicly stating the purpose of the slaughter was to “preserve NATO’s credibility,” President Bill Clinton and his allies were rightfully viewed by Serbs as warmongering hypocrites. There can be no doubt that NATO warplanes were targeting the Serbian people as much as, if not more than, the Serbian military. The bombing killed as many civilians as soldiers, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure including the power grid, water supply, bridges, railways, and even mass media. Because NATO wanted a “zero casualty war” — for its pilots, that is, not for the Serbian people —its warplanes flew at such a high altitude that bombs inevitably “accidentally” hit a loaded passenger train, a hospital, a crowded market, a nursing home, fleeing refugees, a house 30 miles away in Bulgaria, and even the Chinese embassy.6 The US blamed that last one on “outdated maps.” When it was all over, hundreds of men, women, and children were dead, with many more wounded. Also critically wounded was the Serbian people’s trust in Western nations and institutions. But Serbs are remarkably resilient people, endowed with a uniquely dark sense of humor. They bore the bombings’ brutal brunt, buried their dead, dusted themselves off, and went about their business. You could see and hear their defiant humor on the streets of Belgrade in everything from the jokes people were telling to morbidly-named businesses like “Boom Sandwich.”
Considering US history and behavior in the Balkans and indeed around the world, I can really understand why my BizCloud Co-workers in Serbia were initially quite reluctant to collaborate on apolitical book. They were understandably wary that I might not have the best interests of Serbia or the region in mind and feared that I might not represent the truth. However, after they heard my experience of leaving war-torn Iran they agreed to work with me on The Age of Nepotism as well as on BizCloud. I would have highly capable and enthusiastic partners as I worked to report on anduncover social injustice from Wall Street to the streets of Tehran during the Green revolution. We intrepidly set out to inform and educate the world — but especially Americans — about Balkan geopolitics. I really felt we were in a position to see beyond the religious and ethnic divisions and differences that have caused so much pain and suffering in the region and across the planet.