I had a period of rebellion around age 16.
A remarkably typical age for rebellion, I met my best friend Stephen at Bab Al-Yemen (The Door of Yemen), a free-standing Arab city buried in the heart of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Built by the Turks in the 1700s, Bab Al-Yemen sits on the foundations of one of the longest populated places in the world dating back at least some three thousand verifiable years. Legends hark back to Noah’s day.
‘Al Bab’ is an astonishing mishmash of everything amazing about Yemen. Local entrepreneurs vie their trade, from 10-year-old boys rolling wheelbarrows of seeping prickly pears (supposedly a delicious afternoon snack) to pottery crafted from centuries old oral traditions. Inside these ancient buildings lie cheap ‘fast food’ restaurants, roaring gas flames deposit steaming stews into stone bowls shared across the table with whoever happens to sit closest. One underground basement houses a camel, destined to live its days in darkness and trudge daily in a ten meter circle. Tied to a wooden wheel, this contraption mills wheat two levels above ground. This is the way this family has made a living since anyone can recall.
Every second person carries a weapon of some description, most men outfitted with a ‘jambiya’ (a ceremonial curved dagger generally strapped to the front of your belt), and at least one in three is carrying an AK-47. This country of 20 million people is second to only the US in gun ownership.
The shop-keeper recoils. ‘La, la, majnun (no, no, you’re crazy)’. Men in Yemen don’t pierce their ears. They’ll happily kiss other men’s faces (a sign of greeting) and walk hand in hand with other men down the street (its what good friends do), but pierced ears are strictly women’s domain.
So we wander, stopping in at numerous jewellery stores, hoping for a friendly face to wish our wills upon. Finally we find one, and with a glint in his eye he pulls a pair of jewelled plastic studs from a drawer. He breaks them from their hermetically sealed plastic package and carefully wipes the ends with his fingers, slotting one into his piercing gun. I’d done my research at home, conscious of impending high school perceptions, and chanting “left is right, right is wrong” (it’s the early 2000s and conservative values stigmatize), Stephen and I each get one jewelled stud shot into our left ear. I wander home, a little worried at what mum might think.
Fifteen years later, my piercing remains, jewelled stud traded out for a gold ring borrowed from my mother (one of a pair that lost its partner, I assume she doesn’t need it back). But getting here had its share of troubles.
Two weeks post piercing. I return to boarding school in Kenya. Conservative values abide and pierced ears are strictly prohibited in young men (as is swearing, wearing t-shirts to church and giving frontal hugs to girls, its all side on here). I come prepared though, ready to fight the system. 16-year-old rebellion serves to fight the ruling elite and inspire a younger generation to chase my footsteps.
Knowing that I’ll be made to remove my piercing immediately on arrival at school, I bring a bottle of rubbing alcohol to campus. On my first day back I strip the acacia tree behind the dorm of its thorns, two inch long spikes that start needle thin and expand to a centimetre thick at their base. Sterilising a thorn a day, I remove my stud and slide the thorn into its place. Then I snap both ends off the thorn, leaving a little wooden stake holding open the piercing. Each night I put myself through excruciating pain, removing the thorn from flesh doing its best to grow back around it and slide my metal stud back in. A little pain is well worth the price of rebellion.
The piercings don’t end here. My Swedish room-mate Joe delights in my new look, and deigns to join the rebellion. Picture three teenage boys, leant across a bathroom sink. One swabs his ear with an ice-cube, while another takes a needle (mum gave me a pack of needles to sew my clothes when necessary, I currently use the same set to repair my girlfriend’s jeans) and attempts to dig a hole through the fleshy earlobe. The first stab is diagonal, pointing up towards Joe’s skull (“this is a lot tougher than I thought it would be”). Pull out and try again, now with a slice of apple held behind the earlobe to gain some purchase (a concept borrowed from that Parent Trap movie). Blood drips drips across the floor, down the sink, into a pair of shoes, spewn across everything we own. We lack a jewelled stud to hold the piercing open, so start with a paperclip (decidedly unsanitised) and the next day we realise Joe’s ear is infected.
Rebellion feels decidedly harder in your 30s. You can rebel against speed limits, rebel against immigration laws, rebel even against the government, but the penalties mount up and the consequences seem to have some bite (except if you’re Clive Palmer). You can rebel against societal norms (goodbye Facebook), rebel against the status quo (goodbye ironed shirts) and indeed rebel against partaking in society at all (hello Walden).
Lately I find myself rebelling against buying a new couch (finding a free one on Gumtree), rebelling against going out on weeknights (spending more time in bed instead) and rebelling against responding to messages. Rebellion has become decidedly passive, exchanging things I should be doing for the betterment of man (and myself) and instead avoiding doing anything at all.
In the spirit of passive rebellion, I’m taking a little break from shows. I’ve been busy over the last two years, playing around 140 guitar shows at last count, as well as a similar number on drums with various projects. This seems like a nice time to space out for a bit, have some weekends off, and finish off the new EP.
I’ve got one last Melbourne show, this Friday at Some Velvet Morning with Mandy Connell. Would love to see any Melbourne peeps who are out and about!