Falling off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization

Falling off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization

by Alex Perry

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If the world is flat, as the prophets of globalization proclaim, then what happens on the underside? Alex Perry answers with this eye-opening journey through the planet's most dangerous hotspots

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, international corporations, governments and Western pundits have embraced the idea of a global village: a shrinking,


If the world is flat, as the prophets of globalization proclaim, then what happens on the underside? Alex Perry answers with this eye-opening journey through the planet's most dangerous hotspots

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, international corporations, governments and Western pundits have embraced the idea of a global village: a shrinking, booming world in which everyone benefits. But what if the coming boom is an explosion?

Alex Perry, award-winning TIME correspondent, travels from the South China Sea to the highlands of Afghanistan to the Sahara—and observes globalization on the ground, instead of from the executive suite.

Perry takes readers to Shenzen, China's boom city where sweatshops pay under-age workers less than $4 a day; and to Bombay, where the gap between rich and poor means million-dollar apartments overlook million-people slums. He shares a beer with Southeast Asian pirates who prey on the world's busiest shipping artery. And he puts us in the middle of a firefight between American Special Forces and the Taliban.

He shows that for every winner in our brave new world, there are tens of thousands of losers. And be they Chinese army veterans, Indian Maoist rebels or the Somali branch of al Qaeda, they are very, very angry.

Falling Off the Edge is a tour de force of frontline reporting, which reveals with alarming clarity that globalization, far from a planetary panacea, starts wars.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Time 's Africa bureau chief, Perry belongs to a cadre of journalists who thrive in the thick of a war zone; he admits that his editor once commented that "someone had died in the opening paragraph of every story I had written." Because he's seen so much, the book would have hit the mark had he fully probed the stories of his subjects, among them Indonesian pirates, Bombay's vacuous elite and a Muslim Indian terrorist who "predicts a future of relentless violence." Unfortunately, his book is poorly organized and dizzyingly disjointed; he dissects the prodigious growth of Asian cities, jets north to comment on the reign of the Nepali king and flies south to interview a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. The stories don't build to any concrete conclusion, individually or collectively. Perry is sincere but his analysis is simplistic; he dismisses the opinions of academics who haven't first traveled extensively in Asia and Africa and concludes China will "make it" because China's central government "gets it" while India "looks a lot shakier." Perry's firsthand experience provides one necessary piece but not enough of the puzzle to construct an accurate picture of the consequences of globalization. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Time magazine's Africa bureau chief, Perry opens with a story of the Stone Age Jarawa tribe and their encounters with modern society in 1997. It's an arresting but somewhat jarring start that sets the rather uneven tone of the book. Perry has covered his share of conflicts and has a journalist's eye for telling details. In four different sections, he investigates global hotspots, details conflicts resulting from resource competition and differing worldviews, describes how confusing it can be to determine who is really benefiting from globalization, and questions whether war will always be a part of the human experience, regardless (or because) of shifting borders. Each chapter offers firsthand reports from frontiers of global competition, including Shenzhen (China), Bombay, Nepal, Kenya, and Karbala (Iraq). The book's downfall is that it proceeds from location to location with very little cohesiveness, and Perry can't quite seem to decide whether his subject is business, politics, society, or war. Perhaps that is the point, but it still makes for disjointed reading. Larger public libraries may consider it to round out their international affairs collections; otherwise, not recommended.
—Sarah Statz Cords

Kirkus Reviews
Globalization sounds good in theory but proves disastrous in practice, Time Africa bureau chief Perry demonstrates. Covering hot spots from South Asia to South Africa, the author reports some alarming developments since 9/11. Globalization-that is, a cost-directed consolidation of capital, labor and markets that Perry characterizes as "global governance without global government"-tends to enrich the few and impoverish the many, accelerating a worldwide sense of injustice and resentment. Despite buoyant growth in such developing nations as China and India, real income of the poorest ten percent is falling, exacerbated by the fact that population growth often outstrips economic growth. The explosion of crime, worsening of pollution, growing AIDS populations, spread of Islamic fundamentalism and war all have roots in the globalization frenzy, the author systematically reveals. In China, for example, the city of Shenzhen seems to be booming, exhibiting "the same energy, the same-get ahead ethos and the same towering respect for a buck" as nearby Hong Kong. But it's "an unregulated free-for-all . . . Tijuana, with Chinese characteristics," writes Perry. Sweatshops operate with impunity, and there's a brisk trade in illegal wares of every sort, including endangered species served as restaurant food. In India, "offshoring" (moving labor West to East) is not proving to be the country's panacea; there is no middle class, infrastructure or education to speak of, and while a handful get richer, 900 million Indians still earn $2 per day or less. The author traces the origins of several key wars, such as those in Nigeria and Darfur, in terms of spreading global misery, some of it due to climate changedirectly linked to Western pollution. Maoists in Nepal, Naxals in India and Tamils in Sri Lanka-not to mention al-Qaeda-all target the instruments of modern-day globalization. Perry, to his great credit, is on the beat, scratching under surfaces and helping to clear away the obfuscation around this important issue. A critical look at the myths and national delusions surrounding globalization. Agent: Howard Yoon/Gail Ross Literary Agency

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Bloomsbury USA
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By Alex Perry
Bloomsbury Press
Copyright © 2008

Alex Perry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-526-8


On 24 November 2001, a bright autumn Saturday, 8,000 Taliban soldiers who had fled the American bombardment of Kunduz, their last stronghold in northern Afghanistan, laid down their weapons in a vast natural rock amphitheatre in the desert a few hours to the west of the ancient Bactrian Silk Road city of Mazar-i-Sharif. They surrendered to Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who crowed that his forces had achieved a 'great victory'.

In earlier episodes of Afghanistan's wars, Dostum was reputed to have killed his enemies by tying them to the tracks of his tanks. But outside Mazar, Dostum decided to make a gesture of reconciliation to unite Afghanistan's warring tribes. Thousands of Afghan Taliban were free to return to their farms. Only the few hundred foreigners would be kept captive. They were taken on flat-bed trucks to Qala-i-Jangi, a sprawling mud-walled nineteenth-century prison fortress to the west of Mazar, where Dostum stabled his horses and which contained a large dungeon. The prisoners were led down the steps into their new jail, a succession of small underground cells on either side of a dark, earthen corridor. They were not searched.

The next morning was clear and cold. Two Americans arrived at Qala-i-Jangi. They were Johnny Michael Spann, thirty-two, a CIA paramilitary operative who had been parachuted into Afghanistan at the war's beginning, and Dave Tyson, a CIA officer operating in central Asia. Their mission was to identify any members of al-Qaeda among the prisoners. They decided not to interview their charges one by one. Instead, they asked for all the men to be brought out and made to kneel, with their hands tied behind their backs, in lines in a large enclosed courtyard in the south-west of the fort. There, overseen by a handful of Alliance guards, the two Americans walked the lines, examining the fighters, prodding them, asking questions. The prisoners, trussed and cramped, began wailing with pain. Prisoners and captors also had little language in common, and the interrogations suffered as a result. Spann used loud English. Tyson tried Russian, the language of Afghanistan's hated former invaders.

The last men were being brought out of the cells when there was a shout. One prisoner had a grenade. He threw himself at Spann. There was an explosion. Other prisoners lunged forward, at Tyson, at the guards. More men launched themselves at Spann, scrabbling at his flesh with their hands, kicking and beating him. The Alabaman was said to have killed three men with his pistol and AK-47 before he became the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan.

Other Taliban fighters quickly overpowered the Alliance guards, killing them with their own weapons. Tyson grabbed an AK-47, opened fire and ran. When he reached the fort's north wall, he paused, borrowed a satellite phone from a German TV crew to call in news of the uprising to his commanders and stayed put to figure out how to extract Spann's body. That was not going to be easy. A few hundred yards to the south, the prisoners discovered the courtyard they now controlled also held Dostum's armoury. They ransacked it for AK-47s, grenades, mines, rocket launchers, mortars and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The Taliban held the south-west of the fort. The Alliance held the south-east and the north. A vicious exchange of fire ensued across the open ground between. Two ancient Russian tanks now in the possession of the Alliance were driven up the ramparts on to the north wall and started firing on the Taliban. High in the sky, an American B-52 began to circle.

All this happened before I arrived. I had been in Mazar for a fortnight after slipping over the border illegally from Uzbekistan, and that day I had hired a rusty Lada cab and set off south from the city with my fixer, Najibullah Quraishi, to investigate a story about the assassination of a renegade Alliance commander. We made it to the city's southern outskirts before the ancient Russian car gave up. I got out for a cigarette and, in the quiet of the desert, I could hear the distant 'pop, pop, pop' of gunfire. After five minutes under the bonnet, the driver managed to start the car. We turned around and followed the noise of weapons through Mazar and out to its western edge. It became clear we were heading to Qala-i-Jangi. As we got closer, we began to see signs of combat. At one point, a car sped past us carrying a badly wounded man. A few hundred yards further on, men were out in the street, looking excited and frightened. Then the fort appeared and our driver refused to go further.

Najib and I walked up the track to the fort's entrance. A junior Alliance commander came out to greet us. 'There's nothing happening here,' he said. A rocket-propelled grenade split the air between us at a little over head height and exploded a few hundred yards away in a mud cloud. The embarrassed Alliance man let us pass. We skirted the bodies of three Islamist fighters who had apparently tried to escape, neat and precisely placed diamond-shaped holes in their foreheads indicating close-range executions. Inside the fort, we met some more senior Alliance commanders, who told us what we had missed.

At 2 p.m. two minivans and a pair of open-sided white Land Rovers mounted with machine guns pulled up outside the fortress gates. From the minivans jumped nine American Special Operations men wearing Oakley sunglasses and baseball caps, carrying snub-nosed M-4 automatic rifles. The Land Rovers disgorged seven British Special Boat Service soldiers armed with M-16s and dressed in jeans, sweaters, Barbour jackets, Afghan scarves and pakuls, the distinctive woollen hats of the Afghan mujahideen. The Americans and British quickly convened a conference with the Alliance leaders. 'I want eyes on, and I want satcom and JDAMS,' said the American commander, Major Mark Mitchell. 'Tell them there will be six or seven buildings in a line in the south-west half. That's where they're getting their weapons and ammunition. If they can hit that, then that would kill a whole lot of these motherfuckers.'

A bearded American in a Harley-Davidson cap and mirrored sunglasses raised Tyson on his radio. 'Shit ... shit ... OK ... Shit ... OK. Hold on, buddy, we're coming to get you,' he said. Then, cutting the radio, he turned to his commander: 'Mike is MIA. They've taken his gun and his ammo. We have another guy. He managed to kill two of them, but he's holed up in the north side with no ammo.' As a hurried discussion of tactics began, Harley-Davidson went back to his radio. Then he cut in: 'Shit. Let's stop fucking around and get in there. This guy needs our help.' Pointing to the sky, he added, 'Tell those guys to stop scratching their balls and fly. We have a guy in the north, enemies in the south-west and friendlies in between.'

Outside the fort, Alliance soldiers began pouring out of the north-east battlements, sliding over the walls and down the ramparts. The wounded were whisked away in commandeered taxis. A firefight raged inside the fort through the afternoon, the occasional rocket or mortar spinning out over the walls. Two American fighter planes began circling the area. Inside, the Americans' translator fled. They ordered Najib up on to the parapets where they had set up a command post and told him to translate between them and their Afghan allies. I went with him.

On the roof, Alliance General Majid Rozi told the Americans and the British that their warplanes needed to hit the armoury, a pink single-storey building inside the Islamist area. Najib translated and the visitors spotted the target for the planes far above. 'Thunder, Ranger,' said an American radio operator, speaking to the aeroplanes above. 'The coordinates are: north 3639984, east 06658945, elevation 1,299 feet.' He turned to his comrades. 'Four minutes.'

'Three minutes.'

'Two minutes.'

'Thirty seconds.'

'Fifteen seconds.'

From the sky, a great, arrow-shaped missile appeared, zeroing in on its target a hundred yards away and sounding like a car decelerating in high gear. The spotters lay flat. Alliance commanders and soldiers leaned into the mud walls. A warplane flew overhead. Then the missile hit. CRACKWHOOMF! Lungs emptied. Minds blanked, rebooted. The building bounced, a dust cloud flew into the air and shrapnel whistled by. The Alliance soldiers burst into applause. A US soldier picked up a piece of fallen metal. 'Souvenir,' he grinned.

Six more strikes followed before the British SBS commander re-established contact with Tyson, just as night began to fall. Some of the attacks were on target. At least one was a mile wide, landing on houses nearby. The Alliance soldiers yelled at Najib. He blamed the foreigners. 'Somebody should be criticized,' he said indignantly. At 4:25 p.m. the sun set over the hills to the west.

That night, I broke the news about the battle and Spann's death on Time's website and in a live interview with CNN. Overnight, around a hundred more journalists arrived. They included Time's contracted photographer Oleg Nikishin and two freelance cameramen friends, an American, Dodge Billingsley, and a Frenchman, Damien Deguelde. Fighting was constant overnight, with red tracers shooting off into Mazar city.

The next morning, Monday, I took a cab, picked up Oleg, Dodge and Damien at 6 a.m. from their hotel and took them to the fort. We scrambled up the side of the north wall until we reached Alliance commander Mohammed Akbar, who was guiding mortar and tank fire on to Taliban positions in the south-west. We watched for an hour or so before Akbar threw us out. I later discovered Akbar was acting on a request from an unusually skittish Najib.

Dodge, Damien, Oleg and I took up a new position on a road outside the fort. Around 10 a.m., four more Special Operations soldiers and eight men from the US 10th Mountain Division arrived to join us. A jet pilot circled overhead, radioing instructions to the spotters.

'Be advised,' said the pilot to the soldiers in the fort, 'you are dangerously close. You are about a hundred yards away from the target.'

'I think we're perhaps a little too close,' came the spotter's reply. 'But we have to be, to get the laser on the target.'


Bomb spotter: 'We are about ready to pull back.'

Pilot: 'We are about to release.'

Spotter: 'Roger.'

Then suddenly, spotter: 'Be advised we have new coordinates: north 3639996, east o6658866.'

Pilot: 'Good copy.'

Spotter: 'Two minutes.'

At 10:53 a.m. a 2,000-pound missile slammed into the north wall, a direct hit on Akbar's command post and exactly where Najib and I had been standing half an hour before. His nerves had saved our lives. Much more powerful than previous strikes, which had been 500 pounders, it sent clouds of dust 1,000 feet into the air. 'No, no!' Alliance commander Olim Razum yelled at the 10th Mountain soldiers. 'This is the wrong place! Cut it! Tell them to cut it!' The men around us froze with incomprehension. How many Alliance soldiers were dead? How many Americans and British? A Special Ops soldier standing next to me glanced up at a tower of rocks and shrapnel thrown up by the explosion and saw what was about to happen. The debris was mushrooming into a giant fog and speeding towards us like a tornado. 'Incoming!' he shouted. 'Get down!'

It took a second. Then we were inside it.

This is a reporter's book. It was born out of the slow realization during the years that followed 9/11 that - sometimes by chance, sometimes by design, but always because it was simply my job - I was often there; and, what surprised me: very few others were. It is a reassertion of that old tenet of beat reporting: if you want to know, go.

As the years passed and my experience increased, I began to wonder about the absent. In particular, I began to question how they viewed the world. My travels made some of their ideas - often those that originated inside universities and strategic studies institutes or banks and newspaper offices in London or New York - feel increasingly unsatisfactory. Few people now think we are living in a time when history is ending, but it seems to me that the world is not peacefully flattening either. Instead we are entering a new era of war. This book also rejects the idea that militarism and ignorance in American foreign policy are the sole reason why global war is the legacy of the Bush era though they certainly played an important part. My encounters across Asia, Africa and the Middle East made me believe that this is primarily a story about global economics, and the rising inequality that results. The shared truth that links conflict zones as distant as the Himalayas and the Sahara is this: globalization starts wars.

Globalization, like terrorism, is of course a word that overuse has made so elastic, it has almost lost definition. I aim to rescue globalization from some common misunderstandings and rediscover its meaning by viewing in the context where it is best understood - at close quarters, in the developing world.

Narayan Murthy, the Indian offshoring pioneer, describes globalization as 'securing capital from where it's cheapest, talent from where it's available, producing where it is most cost effective and selling where the markets are.' That's globalization in a purely economic sense, what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls 'flattening the world'. But when we're talking broad human development - about progress - we need to consider globalization in a wider sense, as a political, cultural, humanitarian and even environmental phenomenon.

An American soldier charged with bringing democracy to Iraq personifies political globalization. The worldwide release of a Hollywood blockbuster is cultural globalization in action. The World Food Programme is a manifestation of humanitarian globalization. Global warming is an unfortunate instance of environmental globalization, in which a few of us have produced enough pollution to heat the world. Though these are all recent examples, it's worth noting that Indians drank Italian wine in the second century BC. Globalization is a new word, but the phenomenon has deep roots.

All these examples share a common trait: an element of dominance by a powerful country or philosophy, or even a movie star. Globalization is global governance without global government. In an unregulated environment, the ideas of our more powerful national governments - or philosophers or companies or pop groups - tend to dominate. Globalization describes standardization in the image of the elite.

This is what opponents of globalization object to - and why, since the champions of our world are so often Western or American - anti-globalization activists are frequently anti-Western and anti-American. As Joseph Stiglitz writes in Making Globalization Work: 'Globalization should not mean the Americanization of either economic policy or culture, but it often does - and that has caused resentment.' The antis say that for the poor majority, globalization means being pushed around. They argue that, like a kill-or-cure, globalization fortifies the strong but impoverishes the weak. It makes might right, and want wrong. Moreover, they say, the elite works to keep it that way. 'The critics of globalization accuse Western countries of hypocrisy,' writes Stiglitz, 'and the critics are right. The Western countries have pushed poor countries to eliminate trade barriers, but kept up their own barriers, preventing developing countries from exporting their agricultural products and so depriving them of desperately needed export income.' The anti-globalization movement is a world collective that regards itself, or others, as victims. Or, to borrow Friedman's metaphor again, the problem with a flat world is that people fall off the edge.

That is why a growing movement rejects globalization and fights to be non-standard - to be different. And that applies not just to economics, but to anything from arms control to fast food, and is as true for an Iranian nuclear scientist as it is for an Amazonian Indian worried that logging will ruin his way of life or a French farmer who sprays cow dung at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

Or a terrorist. After 9/11, some argued terrorism was a distraction from globalization. But if globalization is standardizing the world, and anti-globalization is resistance to that, then terrorism is a subset of the anti-globalization movement. Albeit a prominent, bloody subset. At Qala-i-Jangi I saw American and British commandos and barefoot Afghan soldiers courageously and skilfully slaughter 300 of their enemies in the single bloodiest battle of the Afghan war. I saw an Alliance fighter split a Talib's head with a rock. I stepped over the giant white intestines spilling from the stomachs of Dostum's dead horses. I slipped and fell in another man's brains.


Excerpted from FALLING OFF THE EDGE by Alex Perry Copyright © 2008 by Alex Perry. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alex Perry is Time's Africa Bureau Chief, based in Cape Town. From 2002 to 2006, he was South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi, and covering locations from Afghanistan to Burma. He has won several journalism awards, and his report from the battle at Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan was featured in The Best American Magazine Writing 2002.

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