David Graeber, 1961-2020

Nasruddin was a thirteenth-century Turkish mystic and philosopher who used humor to teach. David got hold of a book of Nasruddin’s tales in graduate school and would retell the stories to entertain us, over a dinner of dim sum, while walking in a protest march, or during an endless anarchist meeting.

I met David at my first such meeting in New York in 2001. The World Economic Forum announced that it was moving its annual meeting from Davos, Switzerland, to New York, ostensibly in solidarity with the tragedy the city had suffered on September 11. A group of students was organizing a rebuttal to the forum—a counter-summit of sorts—and I attended the gathering to connect with other activists. It was at Saint Mark’s Church in the East Village, a hub at the time of anarchist organizing. David was one of the few friendly faces there.

He was writing an ethnography about the direct action movement, he explained, and then proceeded to break down the culture and social hierarchy of the New York City anarchist scene. I was captivated. David inspired me to study anthropology and to pursue graduate school. He embodied the example of the scholar-activist, even if that wasn’t how Yale University felt. After being rejected for tenure, David moved abroad, and found work in England. Over the years, we stayed in touch sporadically.

I was gutted to learn that he passed away. I always thought I’d have another opportunity to share a meal, a story, or a laugh with him. I will remember him as our generation’s Nasruddin, mumbling a joke with his eyes twinkling.

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