Back to the Garden

It’s Alexandria, Egypt, 1957. We are witnessing a disturbance in the air. A group of eight people set fire to an effigy wearing a Star of David on a street corner. A military vehicle drives past and does nothing. Several streets to the south and there’s my grandfather, in a hard seat on the tram, holding the leather portfolio that contains three laissez-passer documents with visas for Brazil. He sees the black smoke rising, a plume of unrest in the Mediterranean sky, but his curiosity remains somewhat anesthetized; probably just another one of those things that have been happening ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser toppled the monarchy, five years earlier, or perhaps since Israel was founded in such close proximity, four years before that. He doesn’t want to open the portfolio before getting home. His name is Elie Bensimon. He was always the ugly guy in the photo. He’d be the only one with a shirt in a group of men wearing bathing suits, as in a picture that today lies in my family’s box of photographs from that time, the metal one with a lid showing two altar boys in flowing red and white robes. I never understood where that box came from, or why it was chosen to be the repository for the most dramatic—and most Jewish—part of our history.

He’ll arrive at the apartment on the Rue de Thèbes, in the Ibrahimieh neighborhood. Soon, nearly all the names of nearly all the places in Alexandria will no longer be the same. It’s just one more thing he’ll lose. He’ll board a ship to South America six days later, along with my grandmother Julia and my mother, Danièle.

The vastness of the adventure, of the uncertainty and the apprehension, is hard to imagine when the dominant image I have of Elie Bensimon is from his comfortable, leisurely life in middle age: him seated in an Eames lounge chair asking my grandmother for a glass of whiskey, maybe while humming a few bars of an old Arabic song.

We are three generations of people who have never visited the north of Brazil, which isn’t surprising at all around here, but rather, the rule.

My mother would play at being an Indian, but a North American Indian. The bicycle leaning against the wall of the little apartment in Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil, was her horse. She knew the names of a half-dozen tribes: Sioux, Navajo, Comanche, Cheyenne, Apache, Cherokee. She had action figures, would go to the movies to see Westerns with Uncle Édouard, who was Edward on his birth certificate and became Eduardo in Brazil. What did she know about Brazilian Indians? That the ones in the south had been catechized by Jesuit priests—she’d been learning this at school. But the Bensimons hadn’t visited the ruins of the mission at São Miguel, seven hours away driving toward Argentina, and my mother had only once seen an elderly Indian woman weaving baskets in the city center. The majority of Brazil’s Indians were in the north, in the Amazon. She never went to the Amazon. We are three generations of people who have never visited the north of Brazil, which isn’t surprising at all around here, but rather, the rule. In a country that spans a continent and tends toward chaos, the wild holds less interest for us than the civilized.

In 1964, a military dictatorship came to power in Brazil, as well. I don’t believe that my grandfather was shaken up by the coup, this sudden blow to his adopted country’s democracy. He was far removed from the ideologies of the left, from the protest songs and lists of the disappeared, leading the life he’d started anew in Portuguese. Later in the ’60s, he began working in timber exports. This didn’t take him to the Amazon, but to the subtropical landscape of Paraná, where he handled worldwide shipments of araucária, the “Paraná pine,” that region’s most characteristic tree; it recalls an umbrella flipped inside out on a windy day. Some of those araucárias became broom handles in Alabama. It was the araucárias that bought his Eames lounge chair and the whole of his sprawling modernist apartment, his paintings from Brazilian artists already well-known abroad, the diamond rings he gave to my grandmother, and most likely my first car, much later.

Under the military regime, an excessive preoccupation with the Amazon emerged— not in the sense of environmental protection, but in terms of occupying it as if on a game board so that the forest wouldn’t fall into the hands of you Americans. That’s what the generals were considering in their air-conditioned rooms while my grandpa, who preferred not to get mixed up in politics, was dispatching timber to the port of Itajaí, in Santa Catarina state. This would have been around 1969, the same year that Loren McIntyre disappeared into the rainforest, and so I should add another image to this fragmented portrait of a country that, in a way, has always hated itself: little men who didn’t finish primary school arriving to populate the Amazon region because the dictatorship offered those lands to them, deforesting their given plots and struggling to produce something from that soil unsuited for their idea of agriculture. The government sent them cattle by airplane. Forty years later, one of those little men, João Saldanha, is at the Ministry of the Environment, paying a fine of R$200,000 (nearly US$65,000) for recent unauthorized deforestation. He pays without batting an eye, handing over an amount that the majority of Brazilians will never see in their seventy-five-and-a-half years of life expectancy.

The first advance in the sense of banning the felling of the arauacárias exported by my grandfather occurred at the end of the dictatorship, with the 1988 Constitution. I was born six years before that, and since I have almost no memories of my first years of life, in my mind I’ve only ever known him as a retired, chubby old man.

There are distorted notions in Brazil of what civilization is, what progress is, what wealth is, which tends to be a prevailing characteristic of underdeveloped countries. Our small cities want to be mid-size, our mid-size cities want to be big, and our big cities want to be your average metropolis elsewhere in the world, not in Brazil. Maybe the abundance of nature in our territory gives rise to a denial of that natural world—an understanding of it as the opposite of the country’s “development.” When I drove across the interior of my state, Rio Grande do Sul, to write a road novel about two girls involved in an ambiguous relationship, I came face to face with the conspicuous Brazilian desire to demonstrate upward mobility via the erasure of History (and the relationship to nature): as soon as it’s economically feasible, the descendants of Italians and Germans replace their traditional wooden houses with nondescript concrete structures, completely out of step with the landscape. Then they stay inside, with their cold tile floors and harsh lighting, sitting in front of the TV. No one even considers going for a hike.

Rio de Janiero, Brazil

In Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas and gateway to the rainforest, the denial of the natural world is flagrant. As photographer Rodrigo Baleia, who worked in the region for Greenpeace from 2000 to 2012, described it to me, there are almost no trees, nor any yards. Manaus, a city of nearly two million inhabitants, resembles one big run-down periphery, concrete and precarious. Being considered “Indian” is a real insult there.

I wonder if the fact that we’re not in the habit of camping or observing beetles with magnifying glasses demonstrates merely a lack of environmental education, or if it means that, in some strange way, we need to deny nature and the wilderness in search of our coveted share of civilization. A book by Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams, has helped me think about this. The cult of nature is a Victorian construction, she writes; the emergence of landscape painting and the cultivation of gardens led Western man to perceive the natural world, previously so threatening, as an aesthetic phenomenon. In a way, the founding of the first national parks in North America can be seen as a consequence of this vision, which brings with it, inevitably, the domestication of the landscape: it must be emptied of its non-Western history (including the indigenous peoples who inhabited those lands), and of its “dangers,” so that motorized visitors can snap pictures of waterfalls on the weekend.

In Brazil, this type of thinking feels very far away. Perhaps the tropical won’t let itself be domesticated after all.

Even people attracted to the wilderness—Loren McIntyre, and so many of Joseph Conrad’s characters—may reject it in moments of desperation. On a different scale, this is how I’ve come to feel about my country. I recently spent six months in northern California, in a cabin in Mendocino County. I stayed a while in Mendocino because I felt attracted by (1) dramatic, but yes, domesticated landscapes; (2) the back-to-the-land movement; and (3) marijuana growing. Now that I’m finishing a novel that contains these three elements as a backdrop, it seems clear to me that my life, as well as my art, desires a healthy balance between nature and civilization. I discovered many things in Mendocino. Walking down Main Street and seeing the occasional van with a psychedelic paint job, or hearing stories from new friends in their eighties whom I’d never imagined knowing, made me realize how much this counterculture depends on a country that offers its individuals the minimum conditions for survival. To be able to sleep inside an RV in the middle of nowhere without worrying about being killed over an iPhone is, in the global context, a privilege. And there’s no irony lost in the fact that, in order to distance yourself from the state, you depend, to a certain degree, on the guarantees that same state offers.

My grandfather never liked the woods, so I don’t know what he’d think of my conviction that I should move to Mendocino because life is short. I’m not saying that he wanted to kill off the araucárias out of hatred—it was just a job he had to do. He died with Alzheimer’s; he didn’t remember anyone. A few months later, we sold the Eames lounge chair and the rest of the modernist furniture and the paintings and the souvenirs from various trips and the kitchen utensils and even some old bottles of whiskey. I was against that garage sale, but what could you do? What remained were the tin of photos, a desk that I now write on—it’s made of solid wood, he took pride in that—a red chandelier, and an ashtray from a Las Vegas hotel that no longer exists, with the suggestive name of Stardust. He didn’t like the woods, but he always liked Las Vegas and Houston. He never returned to Egypt, never saw the Amazon.

THE ENCOUNTER follows National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre as he finds himself lost in a remote area of Brazil in 1969, which leads to a startling encounter that is to change his life. Each seat comes equipped with a pair of headphones. Put them on and experience ground-breaking sound design - plugging into the power of the imagination, and engaging you in new and breathtaking ways as McBurney leads you on an epic journey. Through May 7 only.