Yo, Belfast! How YOU doin’?

Ecoutez et Ecrivez

Let me start by stating the obvious: I’m one lucky son of a gun, as my grandfather would say. Returning from a weekend in Barcelona where I attended my first ever football match (FC Barcelona 2 – Valencia 1), organized by Kyle Krieger (pronounced in my native tongue as Kree-GUH), I think this is the perfect time to reflect on the first leg of my time in Northern Ireland as a Mitchell Scholar.  For anyone wondering why I’m writing this on the plane ride home instead of sleeping, which I need to do at some point, I’d direct your attention to Season 2, Episode 7 of the West Wing (yes, I’m a West Wing nerd, and thankfully so are a ton of people I’m in school with in Belfast), where Jed Bartlett asks Sam Seaborn to rephrase his reason for loving long plane flights, and Sam pointedly concludes that on planes, unburdened by the ground, we can “be poets.”  Anyone in my family or friends’ circles who read my early attempts at poetry and non-academic prose would know that when it comes to personal reflection I need all the help I can get, so here’s to hoping that flying above the Earth helps this reflection.

I’m titling this post as a head nod to a former chief in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) who mentored me for a time. Very early on at the NYPD, this chief sat down at my desk and told me the most valuable thing I could do as a new employee for the police was to listen and to write. Back then, I remember thinking that was a curious order, and that my abilities at hearing and taking notes were more than adequate. I had, though, missed the point of the instruction. My chief was trying to tell me to carefully listen and analytically observe, not simply hear and acknowledge, all that was happening around me, assimilate it and produce useful thoughts that were relevant to my office’s work. Once I realized what my chief meant, I became a better observer and critical thinker.

What’s the point of that anecdote? I’m in Northern Ireland, specifically Belfast, to study past acts of violence and police responses to them with the hope of learning more about tactics, methods, and the impact of policing on communities where political violence is a reality. I need all the powers of observation and critical analysis I can summon to do this right. However, with only six weeks under my belt here, none of my observations on those topics are ready for reflection. What I can offer is a brief bit on my experiences in Belfast and the incredibly inclusive community of Irish, Northern Irish, and fellow university students who’ve so far made me feel right at home.

Coming From America to Northern Ireland…

Right off the bat when I landed on September 15, a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) approached me as I was grabbing my luggage (I resisted the urge to tell him that seeing a police officer made me feel at home) and quizzed me on where I was from, what I was doing in the airport and why I had so much luggage (this induced flashes of my father who engages in mocking me for packing too much… maybe I didn’t need a suitcase entirely full of books that weighed over 50 lbs but really who’s to say?). That was the first time in my life a law enforcement officer ever stopped me to ask me questions. When I left the airport to hail a taxi cab not ten minutes later, another police officer stopped me to do a similar thing. I could not help then but wonder whether or not my time in Belfast was to be marked by the presence of law enforcement in such a way that I didn’t think was the case anymore.

Fortunately first impressions remain just that and from when I arrived an hour later on campus at Queen’s University Belfast I’ve seen a city that everyday reminds me of my beloved borough, what I underrate by only terming it as God’s gift to mankind, Brooklyn. Safe and walkable, Belfast has presented me with a city that I feel relaxed in. The people here have been beyond friendly and impressively diverse; most are disarmingly welcoming, witty and many have an attitude that bespeaks a huge pride in their background. And everyone (at least to me) has an outrageous accent that makes them completely unable to be understood at times – a commonality that I share with them as I have found myself able to confuse people from all backgrounds because I “talk” like a Brooklynite.

Queens is a remarkable school. International students aplenty, there’s a vibrant and active community for almost any issue you can name. Since I began here, I’ve found a home in the fencing club, the hip hop dance crew, the want-to-be-scotch connoisseurs, the international and post-grad students who enjoy cheap movies and pub visits to see who is worse at pool, and the group of people trying desperately to finish applications to things beyond Queens for next fall before we jump into volunteer organizations and community work. One thing I’ve been grateful for is the number of Irish and Northern Irish natives who’ve befriended me so far. The intro to Northern Ireland they’ve given me exceeds any expectation I had – invitations to persons’ houses, tea with their siblings, late night conversations about what it was like to grow up at the end of the Troubles, and more. I’m learning about Northern Ireland from the source I’d hoped to, and that is its residents (just like I hope people learn about New York City not from books or articles but rather New Yorkers).

At Queens, I’m a student in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, studying in its violence and terrorism masters degree track. The program is the first time I’ve jumped into studying terrorism or security academically. Till now, I’ve learned on the job with the NYPD. Here though, with a slew of experts in the field, I’m studying under persons whose scholarship informs the field. More important to me, my class is a mixture of opinions on every issue we’ve considered. It’s been three years out of college for me but the debates in my courses these past six weeks helped me remember why I enjoyed my undergrad days at Brooklyn College. I’ll say more next time on the opinions expressed and hopefully how they’ve evolved and grown over the time spent in class and studying as I’ve found the discourse on everything from terrorism, its root causes, the role of America in either combating or fostering terrorist sentiments fascinating, frustrating, and eye-opening.

On an aesthetic note, anyone who takes a trip to Belfast or Northern Ireland should stop to see a few things: the primary building on the Queen’s campus (the iconic red brick original school building); the Giant’s Causeway; and the Bushmill’s Factory. I wouldn’t recommend the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge unless you want, like me, to have a mini-heart attack after you cross a seemingly bottomless ravine. The QUB main building is a thing of beauty. Constructed almost exclusively using red bricks and giving Queen’s the much-talked-about-on-the-streets status of the university in the UK with the most red bricks, the building is a museum, a banquet hall, an administrative building, a teaching facility, and a constant reminder of the prominence of Queens in Belfast, in Stormont, and all over Northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway, a natural wonder of near-identical hexagonal rocks on that formed on the shore of one of the most northern points of Northern Ireland (maybe the most northern point…?), was breathtaking. The rocks are able to be traversed and visitors can scale the surrounding hills and cliffs. In fact, doing so leaves you atop heights of more than 200 ft with an endless view of water and rolling farm land. Admittedly I couldn’t help but think of how many houses and skyscrapers an architect could fit in the area. Finally, the Bushmill’s factory. To quote my family from Cork, it was brilliant. I had never seen a true distillery and Bushmill’s whiskey is a crowd pleaser everywhere.

To Be a New Yorker in Belfast

To conclude, I want to share one observation on the people here that I think will tie in to my work in many ways I cannot yet predict. And that is the impact my being a New Yorker has had on the natives of Northern Ireland that I’ve met. At least once a week, and for the first few weeks easily every night, I encountered people who wanted to know where I was from. Why? Because they heard me speak and, to quote one person, “Man, what accent is that? Never heard an American sound like that. I don’t know what the hell you’re saying!”

After saying that I’m from New York and Brooklyn, universally people have expressed excitement and/or quasi-kinship (many persons have relatives that moved to New York), and more than a few have quickly followed-up with, “Then how’d you end up here?” Further to my surprise, after hearing that I’m from where I’m from, every person has proved willing to speak to me about any topic I’ve asked so far, including such experiences that involved violence during the Troubles. New York as a place, as an idea, seems to evoke a sense relief in people’s minds that transcends any thoughts they have about Americans in general. It’s truly unclear to me why yet this has been without exception, but I’m curious and probing to find out why. However, understanding the effect of being from New York aside, I’m happy to take the good will that seems to come my way after this revelation.

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