It’s been a while since I was last on the U.S. east coast, coming up to four years now. Virginia and Maryland saw some of the worst fighting of the American Civil War, because that was the boundary layer between Yankees and Confederates―the evidence of those painful times abounds.

The last time I was here was for a visit to the Library of Congress, and I sat in the magnificent Jefferson Reading Room for several days, poring over various books that were part of the genesis of The India Road. I was not allowed to take my camera into the reading room, but luckily my phone escaped scrutiny.

It was in that room that I first read the accounts of the travels of the spy, Pêro da Covilhã, and somewhere down the line it struck me that the Perfect Prince really had been a political genius. It was also at the Library of Congress that I read all about the journeys of the Greeks across the Indian Ocean, about the Brahmins at Pataliputra, and the Sidhanta, the Knowledge of the Sun.

If you drive west across Maryland towards West Virginia, it’s impossible not to be struck by the  natural beauty, enhanced by the rural architecture, clearly of north European lineage. There was substantial German immigration to Maryland, reflected in place names such as Gaithersburg and Germantown. It seems strange in this day and age to think of Germans emigrating, but perhaps it helps us to understand that the wealth of nations fluctuates―today’s pauper may be tomorrow’s millionaire. One of the German immigration waves to the U.S. took place after the Napoleonic wars, due to economic hardships imposed by excessive imports from an industrialized England. Plus ça change…

One such community was founded by a Pennsylvania German―Hagerstown, population 40,000. Bang in the middle of Interstate 70, which serpentines across Maryland from east to west, it was the scene of heavy fighting in the Civil War. Custer fought there, as did other famous generals, and it’s difficult to imagine, as you walk down the tidy streets of the town, built by the descendants of Bohemians and Bavarians, that cavalry regiments once thundered down Potomac Street, snipers picking off the Yankee forces.

Hagerstown, back in the day.

The news in the U.S. dwells little on world events, and what I saw centered around Libya, and the internecine wars between President and Congress. Obama is being accused of going to war illegally, in an example of particular silliness from GOP hawks, and there is a general preoccupation with an exit strategy. I think in this case, with no boots on the ground, and no chance of anything but a few “observers”, à la CIA and SAS, sooner or later Ghadafi will go, one way or the other.

The Independent, a British paper, is rife with speculation of Libyan defections. You have to be confused when you realize the guys who are defecting are the core of the Libyan hard line, allegedly responsible for planning the Lockerbie bombing, and that all this is apparently taking place under the aegis of MI6, with the blessing of the British government. Other British papers speak today of Saif’s PhD, obtained at the Libyan School of Economics. The links between the LSE and the Khaddafi regime have already cost the head of the director.

Presumably British business interests are being served, but are the British people being equally well served?

Support for US troops returning from duty overseas. No country in the world cherishes its military so much.

I discussed the Mid-East situation with people in the U.S., since I think there is a naiveté in average Americans about the gratitude of Arab populations, particularly when compared to the cynicism of Europeans, Russians and Chinese, when any outside assistance is provided. The military-industrial complex of America is certainly not included in this candor, but the people are extremely well meaning. Somehow, perhaps because large countries are so self-contained, there is an illusion that North Africa will suddenly recognize this gift of freedom, become friends with the West, and all will be well.

Unfortunately it won’t.

We are the crusaders, the infidels, the people who stole Jerusalem, who sold Islam down the river, who destroyed the caliphate in the Iberian peninsula, and sent the Moors back to the Maghreb in the very year Columbus sailed for Cipango.

In Arab countries, the Americans are known as Beni-Al-Kalb, the Sons of Dogs. That should make things clear enough…


2 Responses to “Hagerstown”

  1. Phil Says:

    more I read, more I envy… just checking – is it the Libyan School or London school for Saif’s PhD?

  2. Frances Says:

    Driving through America is such a patchwork – landscapes of shabby infrastructure, moving out of brown-stoned towns the highways give way both to landscapes and to food-chains: human (McDonalds) and animal (roadkill and turkey vultures). Always someone there, swarming overhead, waiting for a golden opportunity – over time and distance. Power and greed, the drivers which led to the indignity of the native, and to their own civil war (good novel by Doctorow, The Long March). There is only one cultural aspect all American’s understand and that is the dollar! They are a very well meaning people but very few have any intuitive feeling for the complexities of the lives of others, outside of America. Neko Case paints a good portrait of smalltown pride for a delapidated hometown – geographically incorrect for this blog, but relevant nonetheless. http://www.lyricsmania.com/thrice_all_american_lyrics_neko_case.html

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