Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Bulletproofed

Translated by Gitanjali Patel.

[Translator’s note: The Portuguese word for bulletproof (blindado) has a number of different nuances,
including covered with a protective coating, bulletproof and, more simply, protected. This story is an
exploration of the author’s choice to protect herself and bulletproof her car. The translation bulletproofed is
both a literal reference to the narrated events, as well as a nod to the position the author is defending in
the story.]


For over a decade, I travelled around Asia and Africa. I toured around Europe with a theatre group, I made films in Mexico and lived in New York. I went on adventures that are no longer possible: I drove from Paris to Greece before taking a flight to Egypt, from where I travelled to Italy via the Mediterranean and then back to Paris. Yugoslavia was still a country, Hosni Mubarak was ruling the roost on the Nile, Gaddafi reigned over the Libyan deserts and the Twin Towers were still standing.

I was 26 when the Berlin Wall fell. For me, the end of the Cold War made the world seem both small and accessible. Today, thousands of refugees fight to cross the same borders that I’ve travelled over, some of which no longer even exist. Wars have razed entire countries from the map, and cities I’ve visited have suffered through genocides. The end of the eighties saw the victory of liberalism, which brought with it a feeling of prosperity, for the West at least. But future troubles were already manifesting themselves in the present. The end of history was probably not going to happen for a while yet.

A strange man was sitting at the bar, dressed in a suit, in a hotel in Cairo. He offered to buy my boyfriend and me a drink. Sipping on a daytime whisky with a sullen expression, he seemed tense and remorseful. He kept saying that we were in a free country and that he believed in humanity. Perhaps it was our youth, or our thirst for risk, that made us accept the invitation to go for a spin around the city with this dodgy Egyptian in his bulletproof Mercedes Benz.

We arrived at a swanky club where he introduced us as his friends, constantly reiterating that we were in a free country and that he believed in humanity. Our tour continued to a soulless apartment where a scantily clad woman was staying, but we were back driving around in the Mercedes before we knew it. It felt like were in a Buñuel film; we couldn’t seem to escape from this depressed drunkard who was convinced we were in a free country and who kept reiterating his faith in humanity at every opportunity. This was when I noticed a pamphlet on the floor by the backseat. The paper was the expensive sort, like in those leaflets real-estate developers use to sell luxury real-estate in Miami or Abu Dhabi. This pamphlet, however, was promoting the sale of arms. A well-presented soldier dressed in a bulletproof vest was pictured front, and side-on, demonstrating the bold design of his armaments. On the next page there was a modern-looking gas mask. Further on, there was an assorted mix of pistols and machine guns to equip any battle. Our guide was a dealer in the arms trade. Perhaps this is why he was drinking alone in the hotel bar, introducing friends he didn’t have, and was tireless in mentioning that we were in a free country which had sealed his belief in humanity.

The breakdown of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the nineties created a rivalry between the two major global powers. The big businessman of War (with a capital “W”) was still eating alone for 1001 Cairo nights. This period saw the first signs that hordes of refugees would be gathered on the European coastline decades later. It also saw proof that Pax Americana in the age of globalisation, with its promise of pasteurising people, conquering markets, and exporting the American Way of consumption to the four corners of the globe, would last as long as a bedtime story.

I was born and bred in Rio de Janeiro. South America is a region that escapes macro-political interests. We are America’s backyard after all, as George Bush Junior made clear while he was in the Oval Office. Military dictatorships were supported on the pretext of preventing communist ideology from spreading on the continent. But this was nothing compared to the huge conflicts that killed millions in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam.

Here we have primitive warfare happening on the margins every day, stimulated by regressive subdevelopment and the criminalisation of drugs. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and a belt of Spanish-speaking countries, Brazil is increasingly isolated. A nation that cooks up inequality in its bain marie of back-room deals and mutual conspiracies in the hope of delaying imminent social disorder. Like launching yourself from the abyss with a death wish, thinking “so far so good.”

While the guillotine was still in Paris, Napoleon crowned himself emperor. Romanticism was born in Germany and the Industrial Revolution was under way in Britain. The United States wrestled with an unprecedented civil war and Brazil established itself as the last slave state. We entered into the free market through the back door, with a monoculture driven by a whip. As producers of food and raw materials, we destroyed ecosystems in order to extract heavy metals. We cut down the Amazon rainforest to feed the Chinese demand for soya, and we sent cattle from the slaughterhouse to the tables of the wealthy metropolises.

Rio de Janeiro bears the weight of this karma. It lost its title as capital of the colony, the Empire and the Republic and transformed from the Marvellous City into the divided city, split between entrenched poverty and a cosmopolitan middle class, surrounded by beautiful hills and the ocean.

The number of reported murders in Brazil between 2011 and 2015 is 279,000. 256,000 people were killed during the same period in the Syrian civil war. If Rio was situated in the Fertile Crescent, it would give Aleppo a run for its money. But don’t get the wrong idea; life goes on here just fine with people going about their daily business on the beach and on the streets. In Aleppo, parts of the population are also maintaining their usual routine, taking their kids to school, going to the cinema or going shopping, just like that bit in Bananas when Woody Allen kicks the old woman’s walking stick away from him on the subway while she’s being assaulted by Sylvester Stallone’s gang.

It’s impossible to cope with the chaos, and this puts restrictions on cohabitation, creates walls of indifference and a willful blindness that lets life move forward despite the fear and hopelessness. “This is a free country and I believe in humanity,” said the arms dealer in Cairo. A carioca would say the same thing while reading the tragic daily news.

In April a 13-year old girl was shot by three stray bullets in a Rio suburb. “Three stray bullets – how is that even possible?” asked her father. “One bullet could be an accident, but three is an execution.” The evidence showed that the girl was shot by the police. The shootout between police and drug traffickers had travelled down Acarí riverbank to a nearby school. Here it continued but the wall that separated the sports field from the gunfire wasn’t enough to protect the young girl. Walls don’t protect anyone from anything.

Living in Rio means being surrounded by security, cameras, grills and electric fences. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been mugged. Young kids rob people on the beach en masse during the summer. Gangs mug drivers stuck in traffic on the weekend. A cyclist was stabbed in front of my building, which faces the Lake Rodrigo de Freitas, where the canoe races were held during the 2016 Olympics. The huge favela complex which borders the expressway that connects the airport to the centre of the city is now concealed behind a soundproof barrier. The official excuse was that this barrier would protect the favela community from traffic noise. Instead, it serves as a symbol of the line between the citizens protected by the state, and the citizens that live at the margins (as well as protecting tourists fresh off the plane from seeing our shame).

Every New Year’s Eve, instead of fireworks, I watch the drug traffickers’ celebrations in Rocinha, a favela home to almost 200,000 people. Bullets are shot into the sky, leaving a trailing red flare. Every year the same. Geographically, Rio isn’t like most cities which have pushed out the poor from the so-called “civilised” urban centres. Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York is not so different from the suburban town Nova Iguaçu, in Rio. The difference here is that, with the exception of the peripheries, the favelas and the affluent neighbourhoods live side-by-side. The social gap is clear both around the beach and in the richer areas. Everything in Rio is conspicuous. Nothing is hidden because the natural landscape doesn’t allow it. On the other hand, buildings along the coastline are protected by grills, floodlights and security guards. This gives the neighbourhoods of Copacabana and Leblon the appearance of a maximum security prison.

I have a bulletproof car. It’s a shame but it’s true. Bulletproof like the Mercedes Benz owned by the Egyptian arms dealer who believed in humanity.

I got my car bulletproofed after an incident outside my son’s school. An armoured police vehicle was parked outside with a flat tyre. There were ten policemen kitted out with shotguns and bullet proof vests, like the ones advertised in the pamphlet I found in Cairo, protecting their colleague who was sorting out the wheel. There was a dispute over the control of the drugs trade in the favela that neighbours the school – Rocinha – the one with the New Year’s bullets. The squadron of police shared the same access route as the concerned mothers. As a supporting actor in this horror show, I bundled my son into the car as quickly as I could and then did something that I had previously considered slightly over-the-top: I bulletproofed my car.

One afternoon years later, I was stuck in traffic in one of the city’s many tunnels when a motorbike sidled up to our car. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat, and I saw two men on a motorbike drive up to the driver’s window. They were dressed in dark meshed domino masks, which left only their mouths and noses visible. They impatiently demanded our phones. The guy on the back of the motorbike had something metal in his right hand, pointed at us. It was a gun. My husband rapped on the window with his knuckles and mouthed the words “it’s bull-et-proof”, exaggerating each syllable so they could understand. Since I was protected, I had the courage to look at the gun. It was a silver automatic which was aimed directly at me. I dared myself to look at the black hole from where the bullet would emerge. The black orifice. Death. I thought of my friend who survived five shots at point blank, thanks to the extra re-enforcement on the bodywork of her car. I resisted falling into a panic. I prayed that the bulletproofing would resist the force of the bullet. The guy on the motorbike kicked off the side mirror in anger, wrenching me from my dazed state.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable about moving around the city in a cocoon, but the experience of being mugged at gunpoint confirmed my suspicion that, whether I like it or not, I risk my life every time I step outside my house. The mega rich travel around with a bulletproof car in front and behind their own. The hyper-rich travel by helicopter (and there are quite a few of them). Sao Paulo has more helipads than London, Paris and New York. The walls around here are just pieces of furniture.

What I’ve just described might seem scary to someone living in Amsterdam, Oslo or Munich where one sleeps each night without fear. I’m afraid to say however, that Europe is perhaps becoming the Rio de Janeiro of the world. Prosperous countries like the United States, Canada and China are like large detached luxury condominiums. They don’t have to deal with the pressure of having the third world on their doorstep. Trump plans to prevent barbaric invasions from Central America with defensive concrete, but there isn’t a Great Wall of China that takes care of the Mediterranean. Surrounded by Egyptians, Syrians, Tunisians, Algerians and Libyans, Europe faces a dilemma: either fuel xenophobia and racism, which has caused so much horror in the past, or allow the growth of marginal groups, like in Brazil, that don’t enjoy the same rights as European citizens, and who resent the ensuing inequality.

The result of choosing whether or not to embrace egalité, liberté, fraternité is evident in the rise of nationalism, fundamentalism, protectionism, racial prejudice, and in the fear of the poor. Everything we thought had been relegated to the recesses of history has come back and is now spreading on the streets, in the press and through art. In Brazil, the extreme right won votes by claiming that a good gangster is a dead gangster and by calling for the return of military rule. In four years I reckon that if a Latin American like me wanted to go to North America, she would end up with a visa with MIAMI ONLY stamped on her passport.

There is no guarantee of progress, redemption, or enlightenment. The world moves from one side to another, backwards and then forwards, but very occasionally. The internet broke boundaries, uniting the world into one network. Yet it was harnessed as a degrading tool for espionage and control. The modus operandi of Google and similar companies triggered a concentration of wealth in one sector. Meanwhile internet users spread hate into Facebook’s public courtroom. We’ve once again become fascists and fanatics, digging moral, economic, political and racial graves in order to protect ourselves from one another.

While I was watching the fall of the Berlin Wall at the age of 26, I remember feeling like I was born at a time of hope. Today I take off my shoes at security before getting on a flight, I avoid the metro in Paris, London and New York, and I don’t reckon I’ll return to Egypt.

One of the most famous Brazilian writers is an extraordinary man from Bahia called João Ubaldo Ribeiro. He is a master of a remarkable culture, and wrote, among others, a seminal book about Brazil called An Invincible Memory. He used to arrive at airports four hours early. His stereotypical Brazilian appearance was the product of a mixed white, black and indigenous heritage. This, together with his chunky moustache, meant Ubaldo suffered the same prejudices as an Algerian in France, a Turk in Germany or a Arab in America. He was used to unnecessarily long friskings at security and interrogations at immigration. On one occasion, at Charles de Gaulle airport, he had got through lines, delays and usual questions. He had arrived at the gate and was in the queue ready to board when he saw a police squadron appear at the end of the corridor accompanied by a sniffer dog. The immortal João Ubaldo Ribeiro, member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, was taken out of the queue and was frisked with his face pressed against the wall in the presence of children and older women. As if that was not humiliating enough, he also had his ass sniffed by the dog.

My childhood fear of seeing the red button pressed subsided when the Berlin Wall fell. We swapped Armageddon for wars localised in distant countries with exotic names which sustain the war industry just kilometres away from major city centres. Terrorism poses a threat to this system of isolated, bounded, surgical conflicts. The enemy we are now fighting against is invisible. They could be sitting beside you on the bus, plane or train. Paranoia rules over us and is capable of confusing a brown-skinned intellectual with a Jihadi soldier. This climate of distrust and fear, mutatis mutandis, characterises life in Brazil. The root of this problem is social inequality.

Contrary to what globalisation promised, there hasn’t been an equal distribution of wealth and comfort around the planet. In an attempt to guarantee legal rights, countries close themselves off and reinforce physical, ethnic and economic barriers. They build metaphorical walls, like in Brazil, and physical ones like many Americans are dreaming of. Trump promised to make America great again. Brexit cut Britain off from Europe, and Germany retracted its policy of welcoming refugees. I’m reminded of Jiang Zemim’s pragmatism in his speech at Harvard in 1997. When asked about the lack of freedom of expression in China, he silenced the audience by saying, “when there are a billion people to feed, individual needs are forcibly made secondary.”

The discovery of the New World inspired Thomas More to create his Utopia: the non-place where a perfect society would exist. The Amerindians who ruled the Americas without creating nation states contributed to the myth of the good savage. Brazil used to be an inspiration for such a society, but today there is not much left of paradise. There are too many men on this earth with potentially irreconcilable differences. The secular, liberal, material West that believes science can replace religion is astounded by the new wars.

Unlike the arms dealer in Cairo, I don’t feel free, and I have a lot of reasons not to believe in humanity. I lost my utopia, the feeling I had when I was 26, that I was a citizen of the world. Now, I look to have healthy, close, everyday relationships and enjoy what is around me. I try and produce art that expresses the contradictions of my time. This is my struggle.

There are so many injustices, every day, everywhere, that it seems that engagement is the only honourable, decent and acceptable way out. As an artist, however, I don’t believe in immersing myself in big battles. These battles also bring to art an intransigent, implacable deafness, which ignores the absurdities of life, and the imponderability of tragedy. This is what stopped Hamlet, and this is what gets confused with cowardice.

I may feel cowardly and hopeless in my bulletproof car, but I feel alive.