Layla AbdelRahim, Which Side Podcast transcript

J: We talk with Layla AbdelRahim. We’ve talked to a lot of anti-civ people and this has been my favorite conversation so far. I really like her perspective on everything and really liked talking with her. I don’t necessarily agree with her, but I love the idea, being that I romanticize the idea of primitivism a little too much, but I really like this conversation….

J: How’s your day going so far?

L: It’s hectic. I just recently got back from India, as you know. My daughter is going off to college, and so it’s quite a whirlpool.

J: What brought you to India?

L: I participated in this educator’s conference. They’re trying to build new pedagogies for the future which we can discuss later, how hopeful or hopeless these attempts are. And then after that I went on a public lecture tour for the Routledge Book, they said they’re interested in releasing it in paperback. So that was really great. I basically toured the whole country. Bangalore, the mountains around Bangalore, the Eastern Ghats, small villages, then Goa, the jungle in Goa, some of the projects where they’re giving back the land to the animals, to the tigers and other wildlife. Then Mumbai was a small break with a friend. And then the intensity started in Delhi, Faridabad, Hyderabad, nonstop.

J: I’ve always heard Goa is just absolutely beautiful. It’s always been on my to-go of places.

L: Yeah. The whole of India is absolutely amazing. The range of experiences. The range of emotions it evokes. The range of kindness and brutality. It’s like New York tenfold and more. Goa is special. I just spent a day in Goa with some friends, they took me around, they live in small villages, they’re very beautiful. but mostly it was the jungle that really impressed me.

J: I’ve always heard that India is that land of extremes, on both ends. It showcases it very well. You can see everything, from both end of the extreme, no matter what section of society you’re looking at.

L: Yes, and for me it’s very interesting because, on a personal level, well my work is my personal level. I do it because I crave for a more livable and compassionate wilderness. But also it’s a personal level where you just want to forget about the pain and just go and lose yourself in the forest and that wilderness. So it was very interesting, precisely because I found that in contrast say to the west, and I’ve been here for the past ten years, I decided not to take planes anymore, and travel by bike, train, and when necessary take a car, So I haven’t left the continent for ten years, and so going back to a part of the world, well, I’m not from Asia, but it’s kind of reminiscent of my experiences in Africa or Japan or Russia, it was still very shocking because you don’t notice how you become part of where you live and start forgetting about what the world is like elsewhere. So it was a very interesting reminder of what has frustrated me in that world and why I left here, and what frustrates me here and what I crave there, but at the same time I feel that precisely these things that frustrate me are the reasons why I should stick it out here and effectuate some change.

J: Do you have any specific examples of how that expressed itself in your travels?

L: Yeah, of course. For example, what frustrates me in North America is the anthropocentricism. And the anthropocentricism spawns even, I would say even sometime animal rights and animal liberation circles, but not as much because these people are more sensitive towards the animals, but they’re kind of very binary and still a lot of the claims or the arguments made still have this anthropocentricism at its basis in the premises. Unlike say my experience in Africa, again I can’t speak for the whole of Africa, but northeast Africa, particularly Sudan, I spent some time in Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt especially. So I guess Sudan and Egypt probably because of Islam the anthropocentricism is really like its bound or legitimated or secured by the religious narrative. So going to India, this was the first thing that struck me, how receptive they are to the critique of anthropocentricism and to the violence against animals. And at the same time, because civilization is the oldest there, you see that the human hierarchy is so much stronger than even the madness that’s going on around elections in the states right now pales in comparison because it’s not stated, but the visibility of the children on the streets, of the caste system that is still very much alive today, it’s so heart breaking. Well, I come and I give my critiques, I give my talks, and they’re receptive to the compassion, the ecology, there’s a lot of initiatives going on, a lot of debates, really interesting, actually I would say in some ways perhaps more effective than here in North America   And yet I see that they ‘re stumbling against the same borders, where if you don’t combine the issues, if you don’t look at the whole problem of civilization then we’ll just be either be fighting for tigers, or for the indigenous tribes, for the untouchables or for this, for this or that. And so it ends up still being this reality which we have here but on the other angle.

J: So what is your critique as far as the steps to fix those hierarchal societies with humans, like you say with the caste system, but not just with the caste system but also see going into play with capitalism in general and other institutions but as well as the hierarchy that we have with other animals.

L: Well basically that’s the whole crux of my work. The crux of the problem that I try to tackle in my different essays, books. The basis of this economic system and political system, because it all organizes us in relationship to each other in terms of what role do you play in the production of resources, of energy, of whatever. And so the basis, the core of it, it’s an issue of the choices that we make in terms of our subsistence strategies. The choices that some of our ancestors made that created, that manifests themselves in this system, agricultural civilization, that is today manifest itself in global capitalism, actually at the root of it is a predatory system. And this predation is a choice that was maybe at a certain point in an ecological crisis, scavenging for dead cadavers was a necessity and was the right choice at that time for whatever group of people that suffered and took up that strategy, but usually you see that most animals who have been frugivores, gathering fruits, choosing the role as disseminators of seeds, like primates and birds and small mammals, most of them, when out of necessity they would take this choice of carnivory or scavenging, they would revert, and you see even chimps, they would take a decision when there’s encroachment of humans in their forest, they could wage wars, they could start hunting, but most of the time they would revert and go back when the system becomes ecologically viable again, they revert back to that original choice they made. And so at a certain point when a group of humans decided not to revert and took it a step further, that’s when hunting began, and with hunting, in order to institutionalize it as a cultural choice, as a strategy, alienation became necessary, and then technologies of this alienation and murder became necessary, and the choice demanded that these technologies be developed. And the development of the technologies ensured that this choice then remains. I could see it very clearly that even in India, where actually there’s still a lot of people who are vegetarian, vegan, there are hunter-gatherers who mostly gather, and still you see that the predatory economy frames our relationships to the world, to each other, to other species and ensures that whatever role we take we are still reproducing it. And so the task that I see now more clearly, if it doesn’t matter that you’re vegan, vegetarian hunter-gatherer, or it doesn’t completely bind you to the whole industrial predatory system, then the task is that we should undo this whole knowledge on which our desires are formulated, on which our fears are rooted, on which we base our daily maybe even unconscious decisions to participate in order not to perish, so we need to undo this whole anthropology of the human as a predator, and rewild both our knowledge and our relationships within our spaces. So, namely, if so far we are all stuck in anthropocentric relationships and spaces, and usually catering towards this anthropocentricism in the interest of humans, how are we going to break that anthropocentricism on a larger scale through the narratives that are given us as science, as education, as fiction, as imposed options on us, you know you have an option to work here or work there, do this or do that. If you have any specific things you want me to illustrate this with, I’d be willing to. Have any questions?

J: Yeah, let’s start with what is your origin? What brought you to this “radical” thinking and position as far as viewing hierarchal structures is concerned.

L: Ha ha. I never thought this was radical. I was kinda always like this. This is just normal. And it’s true, like ever since I could remember myself, that’s how I felt and I thought, I just didn’t have the vocabulary. If you want me to speak more about my personal, like where I’m born and how I got to find the vocabulary…

J: Yeah, like what was your awakening into, oh this is what it’s called. Like I kinda feel the same way, like I’ve always pretty much been an anarchist but I didn’t know the terminology.

L: Ok. So my father was from Sudan. His dreams was to become a geologist, go to the Soviet Union, study there and come back and make his country independent from England, and rich, and equal among the nations. So Patrice Muamba was hot at the time, there was a lot of aspirations in terms of leftist politics and all that, and geology was supposed to play this role in liberating and giving this wealth and stuff. And my mother is Russian, she came from a tiny village in the south of Moscow region. Actually in that tiny village, 15 houses, they would walk to school, in the next, it’s not even a town, it’s just like a larger village, that’s 10 kilometers they had to walk through forest, winters, so snow, wind, rain, whichever, and she discovered ever since she was a kid, that there exists a beautiful river called the Nile, and there was the White Nile and there was the Blue Nile and they flew together, they would flow to meet in Kartun and together they would majestically flow into the Mediterranean Sea. So in spring especially she would look for the different creeks and say Oh this is the Blue Nile and this is the White Nile and they majestically flow into the Mediterranean Sea. And the second thing she was dreaming of was becoming a Russian linguist. So she went to Moscow and at the university met my dad, whose dream came true and my mom’s dream came true, and passion and all that, and I came into being. At the time they would just send me off to my grandparents in that village. That was very interesting because my grandfather would spend a lot of time going into the forest and he would show me how life is born in the forest and how peaceful and wise and just and moral the wilderness is. The German army during World War II when they were coming to Moscow were stopped just across that forest, so he would show me the places with burned or destroyed villages, he mentioned like here and here so many people perished, and basically that humans when they come into the forest they bring death and destruction. And so it was very interesting that at the same time there were farmers and they had animals and the animal had names and they would say I love you and would call them names, and then oops one of the animals would get into a soup. And I did not start speaking until the age of four, so it was before I was four I realized that there was this deep hypocrisy, this understanding and this love of the forest, and at the same time you bring these animals in, you domesticate them, I didn’t have that vocabulary, but I could see they were keeping them, they’re saying I love you, and then the next day the animal could be eaten. And actually I was terrified after that whenever anyone said I love you, I thought oh my God, when are they going to eat me! There was this identification with the animals and then running off into the wood or into the … the communal state’s agricultural land, which the villagers would plow for the state, but then everyone had their own little kind of tiny farm, and so running off into the sunflower fields, and just staying there with the mice, with the birds, it was before I could speak I already knew that it was wrong, like I could not hurt them, I should not eat them, my place is not to say I love you and then destroy you. I didn’t want it for myself and so I knew they did not want that for them. I knew there was a big difference between the wolf hunting and the humans hunting. And as I went on much later studying civil engineering I realized that building dams and roads was part of that same culture of murder of the wilderness or destroying the wilderness, and I quit civil engineering, and after that I became much more conscious about where the violence resided and how we should start approaching it at least. So that’s the short, but there are many other things.

J: I want to touch base with some of the questions that some of our listeners have, would that be ok?

L: Yes, of course.

J: So one of the questions we got was whether or not you believe that humans have a natural habitat as other species do? So for example, would you agree that people in climates unsuitable for humans should re-locate, be helped to re-locate to areas which are natural human habitat such as warm climates with cool shade and clean water?

L: I don’t believe there’s anything essentialist about any group of living beings. I believe its all cultural strategies. And the strategies in the wilderness usually, except for when we’re threatened by a disease, they’re usually viable and sustainable. Humans could live in any climate, that’s why our physiology is considered to be omnivorous, it’s not because we’re supposed to be predators. But it’s that it gives us the possibility to adapt to scavenging when it is needed, and to still retain that cultural choice, that social contract that we have with the plants, to help disseminate the seeds and propagate life. So I don’t think it’s an issue of where humans have chosen to move. Movement is a principle of life. But its movement through chaos which means you adapt to other particles of life around you in a viable manner, you make your strategies according to the strategies devised by that system. If you see any one, and all the other organisms in the wilderness, when they see any one group overtaking others, they curb it, they curb that group because they need to keep that balance. And humans are now the epidemic that has not been curbed on time, and now threatens the viability of the planet. So what does that mean? That doesn’t mean we need to annihilate humans. That doesn’t mean we need to ship them off to whatever things we think according to whatever narrative we heard that they should reside in. We should find a healthy way to rewild ourselves within the places in which we find ourselves now, which means that we start giving back spaces to the diversity of life. And seeding the place we have kind of conquered for ourselves as the crown of evolution, we are not, we have not been created by God to rule over the animal kingdom, and we have not evolved to be the ultimate predator to devour the animal kingdom. It’s possible to revert. It’s possible to make new strategies. Evolution is all about making new strategies, adapting, changing, it’s all possible, but we have to do it where we are, as we are, and rewilding those spaces, giving back to the wilderness on the terms of that wilderness, not on our terms. So it won’t work, like degrowth doesn’t work. Taking care of the forest concept doesn’t work. We really need to rewild those spaces and letting the animals take over, and us listening through empathy, adapting, learning how to give back to the spaces we have colonized and we have been only been extracting from It’s all about giving back. Mutualism. Life requires mutualism. Mutualism depends on giving back to the community from which you took in whatever form, but you have to give back. We have been taking, taking, taking. And now, finding a different place to move to, be it, for those who uphold hunting, Well we’ll find the last Germans of the forest and kill the last running deer, is not a solution. Well bombing cities because cities are not viable, and this is inadvertently, we’re not being told this, but inadvertently this is what has been happening with all those bombed cities in the Middle East. Europe has been bombed. Africa has been bombed. That’s not the solution. The solution is really rewilding ourselves. You’ll see that the gender aspect will immediately be fixed with this demand on reproduction of human resources, it will wither away, immediately, there will be no need for that because we will be tuning into a different mode of listening to each other as humans but also across species.

J: So a follow up question to that would be, with that rewilding, how would you go through that kind of process without having cause pretty much mass suffering among humans, or do you view that kind of critique just as an anthropocentric view in of itself?

L: In what sense?

J: Like you say, rewilding ourselves, and we’ll adapt to individual areas where we are at, certain areas where we’re at during that rewilding phase would pretty much cause a lot of suffering because our entire civilizations are based upon the current structures in place so the current habitat that we’re using we wouldn’t be able to use anymore, so there will be suffering there, or what about the people that need specialized medical care that is only available due to the specialization of those areas, so that type of aspect.

L: That presumes already that we don’t see the suffering that is already happening. And that presumes, or maybe the question is spoken from the perspective of somebody who has not lived through war, through total desertification, through total poverty. In Delhi, we went to Faridabad, ended up coming back late, so I saw Delhi after midnight, and it was heart breaking to see the kids choosing to sleep in the lane between the divide between opposite lanes of the highway because there are lamps, they are naked sleeping, so they wouldn’t be raped. You see a kid, then another kid, a dog, another animal, somebody else, could be an adult but too skinny, and it’s very hot, the cars are honking driving like crazy on both sides opposite directions, and in between these people are sleeping because there is nothing else in their world to protect them, to give them food, shelter, clothing, So to say that rewilding will cause suffering ignores the fact that there is so much suffering in civilization. Again, if we’re anthropocentric and we care about humans, here are human children. Well what about the animals, what about that rhino, the last rhino walking knowing that there is no future, no one to give his culture to, his strategy, his peaceful, viable, beautiful culture that has helped life be for millions of years, and he is the last one to walk the earth and die. If you have this understanding and this feeling, you would never be able to say that Well you’re demanding of rewilding will cause people to suffer. Maybe it will cause people to suffer who have huge houses and they don’t want to give those houses up, or they have access to medical care. But, we have a neighbor’s father from Pakistan died just before I came back from India, he had medical care, he went to the hospital, even my daughter, when she was 10 she already knew the symptoms for a heart attack, he goes to the hospital with all the symptoms of a heart attack and they give him aspirin, because they don’t care, and the guy died, and he could have been saved, he could have been saved, he went to the hospital. So the hospitals are not there to take care of humanity as such. Education is not there to take care of humanity. Businesses are not there to take care of humanity. Agricultural farmers are not there to take care of humanity. That’s what domestication is. We are all forced into these options to cater for a specific agent of our will. The one who will reward us if we do what he, and I use it intentionally, chooses for us to do. This is what civilization is about. And rewilding would allow precisely the safety in the spaces, you rewild a city space, even cities can be sustainable, they’re not sustainable not because the place itself is not sustainable, they’re not sustainable because the culture of predation is not meant to be sustainable, it’s not meant to reward the prey, it’s meant to consume the prey and it depends on which part of that hierarchy you find yourself, if you find yourself as a poor white man abused by the system, still you have white women below you you can prey on, you have people of color, and then the animals, and the land, and everything else. It’s not like an intentional kind of meanness with which we make these choices. A lot of the times we don’t see other options but that’s because we don’t see that we could win more if we decide to just say no to those options and rewild our cultures and our spaces rather than giving in to that pressure, and whining, well I’m not talking about the person who asked the question, it’s more general, but a lot of the time people just whine and complain about I’m not happy at work, I hate what I do, what will I do, how will I feed my family, how will I pay my rent, how will I do this, how will I do that. And unless you really find meaning, total meaning in what you do, maybe it’s worth stepping back and doing it differently. And by doing it differently you’ll see that actually you’ll be giving more to your community and your community will be much richer because it won’t be only single species, or single class, or single gender, or single race. It will be much richer and much safer in that.

J: Another listener question that we had was What is your solution to the nuclear waste problem, specifically because of the long half-life and toxicity level that it has and where we might need that specialization for a long time to make sure it doesn’t cause continuous harm to the environment and all living creatures around the planet for thousands of years.

L: Yeah, I agree that that’s a serious problem, and that’s a trap in which it’s not an easy answer and it’s not an easy solution because we’re kind of trapped. And you see that for example even in the logic of the super powers, it works. If one super power knows that there is another super power that has nuclear weapons, they will not go rampant. It’s not my argument, but it’s one of the kind of explanations of how you keep the balance of power. And then there’s the daily nuclear energy of course, there’s a lot of radiation in everything, in the technology we use for communication, technology for medical facilities. Yeah, we’re there. I don’t believe that since we’re there, it does not mean that, that’s it, we can’t go back. One of the evolutionary arguments that we cannot revert to say frugivory and gathering is that we’ve evolved to become this, and of course it doesn’t hold because evolution entails change, so there’s no reason for you not to change. Nuclear argument is a much more difficult argument because it’s from outside of us. It’s a choice we imposed on ourselves and became submitted to that choice. We need to go with that choice in the sense that we’ll need to maintain some of those, we need to find ways how to shut the plants, shut the technologies. But at the same time obviously there has to be, what would be the word, an attack on the system, on the epistemology, from a different angle, where the maintenance of these nuclear plants will not be a justification for the current status quo, and rather that this is the result of the ill decisions that we have taken, but we have reverted, and we have rewilded, and we shall dismantle this disease as soon as we can. So it’s still not an excuse not to do all the other work just because we have made this crazy fatal decision.

J: Another one was, somebody wanted your opinion about this quote from animal liberation front prisoner Walter Bond:

“I feel that the technology problem is the source of Animal and Earth degradation. If there was no industry and computer tech, even if everyone hunted and ate Animals, 99% of the Animal abuse and murder that exists today would be gone!”

L: I disagree with that, and actually I discuss it in the first chapter of my Children’s Literature Domestication Social Foundation, the Routledge book, it’s available for free, try google. My research brought me to realize that all the problems economic, speciesist, and sexist, misogynist, wars, everything goes back to that decision to hunt. Yes, when you look at pre-industrial human societies that hunted, and again, not all of those societies hunted, but those that hunted, yes the effect was not visible right there, however it was that decision to hunt and kill that required the development of the technologies of murder, and of predation, and of alienation. And so if it required those technologies, the technologies then ensured that that choice becomes permanent, and because it’s not sustainable you always have to kill more. It’s like agriculture. Colonization and expansion is built within its unviability, within its basic foundation. The more you practice, the more you destroy, the more you require to acquire and to dominate and colonize. It’s exactly the same with the nuclear technology question. It brings us to a point where the more you develop it, the less chances you have of coming out of it. And again, it does not mean we cannot come out of it, but it is necessary. And yes, I know there is a lot of debate, people say Well indigenous people have hunted, and so when you critique hunting it’s basically like an attack on indigenous people. Today, it’s not the indigenous people who are hunting, or when they hunt, they are still within the hierarchy of predation; they are still the prey, with very few outlets for participating in that predatory narrative and structure. So if we’re going to talk about the right to hunt because that was the evolutionary choice to which we have adapted and that’s it, like we can’t going anywhere else, we’re talking about mostly white people, black people on this continent are not allowed to own guns, they’re not allowed to even walk on the streets. They’ll be shot. The excuse is always we thought he was armed or we thought she was armed or whatever. So it’s not an attack on the victims in this narrative but it is a necessary understanding if we want to get out of this mess we need to understand what precipitated the situation to what we have today. and that decision to kill, and to normalize killing, and to alienate ourselves from the screams and the desire to live of those whom we kill, that precipitates this whole predatory situation with its hierarchy with everyone feeling that because I am being predated on then I have no other choice, or this is the normal way and I shall also predate on someone who’s weaker than me. And it’s both socially, but also in terms of what we eat. That would be my response.

J: Another question that we got was how do you address the problem of the whole globe not changing at the same time. So basically having one community rewild themselves, but how does that stop the rest of the globe already predatory in nature from being predatory toward this new group to begin with.

L: Yeah, I agree, that’s something I think about often. Especially for example, historically in many situation, the one who is colonized then adapts to the culture and subsistence strategies of the colonizer and then colonizes in turn. When agricultural civilization became institutionalized in parts of Ethiopia and the Middle Eat and when they started spreading around they were colonizing the peoples around. Egypt for example. And then Egypt responds with its own civilization, and they spread to Europe, then southern Europe. Mediterranean, they suddenly come up with civilization and then they start spreading north. Europe gets colonized, then those colonized people become colonizers in turn. Now you see in African cities are growing like mushrooms, people are proud that they have asphalt roads, high rises, petroleum, this and this and that. At the same time these incredible desertification problems, incredible pollution, incredible acidification, change of the oceans, change of the environment, lack of potable water. It’s a real problem. My visit to India was very interesting precisely because being so Eurocentric here, you only hear about they have caste system in India, cities in Nigeria are fancier than Toronto, or whatever. And we don’t hear about how resistance is still ongoing, how knowledgeable, I was so impressed in the villages east of Bangalore we went to the small villages, we visited the teachers there. A school is just a wall, the kids sit on the floor, there’s hardly any books, there’s a fan, a blackboard. And the teachers are so knowledgeable about everything that goes on. Environmental, ecological, political problems, everything. We talked with the kids, the kids know what’s going on in the world. The problem is not having that solidarity across the different spots of the earth. For people to know it’s happening, it’s everywhere. You’re not alone, you don’t have to take the choices. The kids love the villages, they know about the problems of colonization by the city. I asked them, You grow things here, where does it go? To the city. What do the city give you back?   Plastic bottles, pollution, bad water. Do you love your place, your village, the countryside. Yes, we love very much, we don’t want to leave, but we have to go to the city because there is no other option. So it’s this kind of lack of solidarity that allows them to give up, and allows us to despair as well here. So you think, the rest of the world doesn’t want… everyone is in this competition about who will be the ultimate predator, who will be the ultimate winner, who earns more per capita, etc. etc. So it sounds like it’s overwhelming. But I believe after visiting there and speaking with the kids. And the kids in the end asked me, Can you help us get rid of this colonization? What shall we do?   Find your ways. Find the people who will help you stay here. Defend the land here. Defend the forest. Reforest. And find strength in that solidarity. I will be there, there’s a lot of people out there, you can find them. You can find the blogs, you can find the groups. People travel, people talk. But it’s your work, and you have to do it here. But knowing about others inspires that we go on. For me the continuous battle that uncontacted tribes have is ultimately what, if these people don’t give up nobody has the right to give up.

J: Well I can’t believe it’s already been an hour. What are some ways that people can find your books and find out more about your projects and contact you and get involved?

L: Well, you can find more on my website. There’s everything. There’s email, there’s a place to leave comments, info about my books, talks, links to different things. It’s So you can find more about my work there, and good luck in rewilding. Stay strong and wild.


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