Blog Archive

Blog Archive – September, 2011

Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, 1929-2011 (see our Sept 27 podcast)

September 19, 2011

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

To know Mohammed Hikmat Ghani was to know Iraq… well, Baghdad—vibrant, dynamic, proud, all-embracing. With a long, productive career, his work valued by museums and collectors internationally, Ghani the sculptor needs no introduction.

I first met Ghani in 1990 on my initial visit to Baghdad. It was a propitious encounter since through him, I made many good friends who helped me understand and like Iraq. Our encounter moved from a professional relationship-- I first interviewed him about his work for a US magazine-- to an enduring friendship with the entire family.

I remained close to Ghani and his wife, archeologist Gaya Rahal, up to the time we last met, a year ago at their home in exile in Jordan. His son Yasser, with his wife Rana, and their children, had just left for overseas. Ghani was so sad he could not talk about it. He was never a person lost for words, so we knew this separation was very hard for him.

Whatever the misfortunes of his homeland, the absent friends, and his personal disappointments, Ghani never relaxed his enormous energy as a sculptor, and his artistic imagination never flagged. That week in Amman, he had had a hugely successful exhibition of recent work. “All sold”, he said, with some astonishment. “I have new orders from many people who were too late to buy a piece in the show. I have to start working again, immediately.”

Collectors of Ghani’s recent work are Iraqis in the Diaspora, especially those living in Jordan. He was proud of this, proud that his people, despite recent hardships and material losses, continued to value art and the work of Iraqi artists in particular. Indeed, since 1991, the year when UN-US sanctions were imposed on Iraq, the Jordanian capital had emerged into something of a regional art center—this largely due to the influx of Iraqi artists driven there by lack of materials, by the closure of museums, and due to the decline of Iraq’s middle class who had supported the arts in their homeland.

The only time I witnessed a hiatus in Ghani’s production was during the US bombing of Iraq in early 1991. He was angry and shocked and would never forgive the Americans for that assault. During those 42 days, before he could repair his bombed studio, under siege, confined to his home, Ghani occupied himself assembling a photographic collection of his work—sketches, photographs and notes from his entire career. He set about preparing this for publication. (Indeed, within months it was printed, now certain to become a collector’s item.) In this he recruited the help of his skillful and devoted daughter Hajjar.)

Ghani often recalled his years in Rome, and kept in touch with fellow artists there. He knew Italian so well that when conversing in English, which he did with relative fluency, he spoke with an Italian accent.  Whenever lost for an English word, he quickly substituted with an Italian. This Iraqi’s conversation in English was often colorfully peppered with Italian.

During his exile in Amman, Ghani resumed his work, and to a degree the family’s social life continued. Any meeting after 7 pm with Ghani and Gaya was bound to be an Iraqi party; down the street or across town, Iraqi friends were gathering, and if I was in town, I accompanied them. Invariably I was gratified by hilarity and uplifting company. It was the same in Baghdad where I spent time with the Ghani family on every one of my dozens of visits there during the 13 years of sanctions from 1990-2003.

At their modest Baghdad home the atmosphere was always relaxed; I often joined Ghani and Gaya in the evening to find myself among Iraq’s most accomplished musicians, artists and scholars, among them oud master and composer Munir Bashir, literary critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, artist Laila Al-Attar, archeologist Walid Al-Jadir; with others, they made Baghdad the dynamic and vital city it was. Of course all that changed as the merciless sanctions took their toll, driving people out of the country, striking down many with illness or despair.

During the day, whether in Iraq or in exile, Ghani was not to be seen. He had a strict regime—at work in his studio by 9 am, an hour for lunch, then back to work until seven in the evening-- even at the age of 82. He was not to be disturbed when at work. Not even Gaya ventured into the studio. Only Yasser, in the years that he was an apprentice to his father, might be in the studio with him. I was once in his workplace, only because I was to interview him about his career, arguing that it was essential for me to be with him among the mock-ups and his finished pieces while we talked.

Ghani and his family survived the sanctions, but not without difficulties.

 “Never”, said Ghani; “these sanctions will never reach inside my house”. So he kept the mood upbeat, and an open door for guests including his children’s school friends. Although those sanctions did invade even this home—nothing could withstand that brutal, cold-blooded assault. The death or departure of friends and neighbors took its toll; still Ghani stayed on. It was not until the American led invasion, bringing threats to his family and the ransacking of the museums, that he went into exile. Before long though, in Amman, he was at work again.

“The mayor of Baghdad has asked me to return”, he told me in 2010. There will be work there for me. But as long as my country is occupied, I shall not go.”

The determined mayor persisted it seems, and finally last October, Ghani revisited his country. It was a bitter-sweet encounter. However, the sculptor did agree to design a series of pieces for the city. Back in Amman, in his final months, as he was failing, Ghani worked with his son Yasser to direct the details of the casting and the installation of his last works—four new sculptures to be erected in Baghdad. When they are installed, they will partner with the already well known Ghani landmarks in Baghdad to decorate this city he called his “most beautiful lady”.

Today his body rests there, a final wish of Ghani, awaiting these new installations.

[ Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, 1929-2011 (see our Sept 27 podcast) ]

"Yesterday"

September 12, 2011

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I turned off my radio all day yesterday, Sept. 11, 2011. I didn't need to hear the memories and tributes and analyses underway. Neither did I want to participate in those memorials. Then I reconsidered. So I share this with you-- what I wrote and felt a decade ago today. bna 

 

Yesterday was Sept. 11, 2001. A Tuesday.

               I leave home 200 km beyond New York City for the three-hour drive into Manhattan. I make my way out of the quiet hills where I live, to drive into the metropolis to host my two weekly radio programs.

This Tuesday, I would not reach work.              

 

At 9:30 am, just an hour north of the city, I turn on my car radio. A panicked broadcaster’s voice is reporting the catastrophic event underway in the city.

I pull off the road to listen more carefully. It takes but a moment for me, to register the magnitude of this news. I find myself weeping uncontrollably over my steering wheel.

Cars slide pass me. Do those drivers know? Have they too heard? Do they also disbelieve the calamity we have entered? Are they rushing to sit with a friend, to turn on a TV to have real evidence?

Newscasters repeat: “All bridges and tunnels into Manhattan are closed”. 

I decide to continue southwards in the direction of New York City. Sapphire’s apartment is along this New Jersey route; so is Kay and Salah’s. I will stop at Paulette’s house: hers is the first along my route.

Before restarting the car, I open my cell phone and call my office--the radio station. Silence. All lines are cut. The building from which we broadcast is barely 500 meters from the World Trade Center. Somehow I do not expect it is in danger. I need to join my colleagues at work doing what journalists must at such a time. I switch my car radio to 99.5 fm. Ahhh. We are sending out signals. I hear the voices of colleagues: Jose, Sally, Burnard and Deepa. They sound calm, trying to make sense of the terror in the streets below them.

I wish I were there. Not for the news scoop; there is no scoop on this. Our experienced announcers will use their voice to help our stunned public through this. I want to be with my colleagues to capture the immediacy of this calamity. That's one job of a journalist, especially broadcasters, in a moment of crisis.

               At 20 kilometers from Manhattan I reach the top of the hill, “Mountain View”. From here, one can make out the far-off skyline of Manhattan. I always find it a breathtaking spectacle; seeing the peaks of identifiable city buildings is reassuring somehow. On this unhappy clear morning, reaching this crest on the road, I slow the car, and I gasp. Something is missing. No sign of the two highest towers, those at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. All I can distinguish in that vicinity is an enormous cloud of smoke seeping skyward. I begin to weep again.

It is clear I cannot proceed across the George Washington Bridge so I abandon any idea of reaching the radio station. I exit highway 4 and within a few moments, pull into Paulette’s drive. On her television I witness the catastrophe. All channels--news, food, drama, marketing, sports, history-- replay clips of the planes crashing into those buildings, then the softly, dropping towers, crumbling, sinking to the pavement.

I pull out my phone again. Still no connection with the station. I try the home of a colleague living in lower Manhattan. Nothing.

I manage to reach my family in a far away city; next I call the guests scheduled for tonight's broadcasts. The shows will be cancelled. Of course.

               I return to the TV. Paulette and her son and I hardly speak. As I watch the spectacular images (a spectacle indeed) of the impacting planes and the collapsing buildings, I feel sick, weak, stunned. Inside that inferno and among the fuming rubble, thousands of women and men are being incinerated, pulverized. The replays go on. And on. Each cycle takes but a few moments. But this rumble begins to deepen, to build a story and a fear and boundless anger. I know it will last a generation. I glare at the TV screen, wanting this to be just a film I can shut off.

               Every week, when I arrive into the city, I park my car uptown, then take the subway train to our downtown office, passing through the World Trade Center. Along with millions of commuters I exit the subway train that terminates under that maze of towers. I pass through the busy mezzanine and out to the street to walk to the east end of Wall Street. This subway station is now a mass tomb.

Those two towers are--were--so colossal; I have always been aware of their immensity. They dwarf everything around, even the 19-story building where I work.

That was yesterday.

Today, the day after, our radio station is not broadcasting. Neither are other communications centers in the neighborhood. Was our transmitter damaged, the electricity cut? Were we forced to evacuate?

               My thoughts shift from the dead and dying to the future, not a distant future, but to the coming weeks and months. Already newscasters are speculating that the perpetrators are Arab. This catastrophe is bound to affect Arab and Muslim Americans. It is going to bear down on every one of us, wherever we are in the USA. Not because of more terror attacks here. But because the authorities will launch a hunt. Expansion of intelligence activity across the country is inevitable. But I could not imagine the universal ramifications that would ensue.

After earlier, less horrific incidents, The US Congress had hastily passed an anti-terrorism law; the negative effect of on our civil rights is already apparent. Most Americans were unaware of this because the immediate target of those laws was one community—US Muslims and Arabs.   

New regulations were put in place, here and abroad. Congress had already granted greatly expanded power to our intelligence agencies and the civil liberties of our people had already suffered.

Thirty hours have passed since that morning.    

Tuesday night I drove home, mournfully, slowly, silently.

Any neighbors I meet volunteer child-like threats: “we’ll get them”; “wipe them all out”. They are afraid.

All of us are afraid for our future, the future of this disneyland of democracy and all the stuff we strive to possess, stuff that we take so for granted, for ourselves. I think; suddenly we all feel vulnerable in this invincible land. I know Americans will answer with revenge, not reflection. This frightens me most.

[ "Yesterday" ]

Venerable Trukshik Rinpoche (1924-2011), Nepal

September 05, 2011

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Trulshig Rinpoche (1924-2011), Nepal

Trulshik was the name given to the son of YumWangmo. He was recognized in his infancy as the incarnation of the Trukshik Yogin, his biological father, who had had a close association with the then abbot of a monastery in SW Tibet.

At the age of just 19, the young Trulshik was appointed assistant director of that monastery, Dza-Rong. He eventually inherited the leadership of the center, located above Dingri, in the northern shadow of Everest.

Trulshik Rinpoche, as he was known, eventually became one of the most revered and influential Tibetan religious figures in Nepal and beyond. Today, September 5, 2011, he is no more in the realm of we sentients.

I recall Trulshik so vividly today. Hearing his voice clearly in my memory, I feel a surge of grief along with warmth of the memory of times together. You see, I knew Trulshik well in the 1970s when I was a young anthropologist in Northeast Nepal and he a fast maturing, skilled monastic leader. He immediately rose to the challenge of piloting a disoriented refugee community of Tibetans, most of them from Dingri in Tibet. Together they had fled into nearby Nepal beginning in 1960 after the Chinese occupation of their land.

Tibetan Frontier Families, my first book, has just been released in a new edition. (Vajra Books, Kathmandu, 2011). Here, I update the history of Dingri Tibetans and Trulshik's rise to prominence. I also recall Trulshik’s youth in Tibet, his early years in Nepal, and our close association. He was a genuine and important friend of this single woman scholar with few friends in that distant, once-isolated valley. (That was the pre-road and pre-mobile phone era in Nepal’s interior.) Starting in 1970, Rinpoche and I discussed news headlines, the past, and his plans for his growing monastery. (I was not in a position to converse with him on Nyingma Buddhist philosophy, and he did not appear to mind that.)

I was based not far from his retreat –just 5 hours by footpath through the mountains of Solu-- and, when I visited the monastery we had lunch in his chamber, where he often tuned into his shortwave radio, where together we followed international news. He kept an atlas nearby whenever  we talked.

After knowing each other a year, seeing my curiosity in and my attraction to the 13th century yogin PhaDampa Sangyas, founder of the Zhijed Tibetan philosophical tradition, Trulshik shared with me a 5-volume manuscript he had secreted out of Tibet on the backs of his party of refugees. Moreover, he suggested I might photograph the more than 1,200 pages and he then made all facilities in the monastery available to me during the weeks of the project.

Those manuscript photographs I took to India; the film was printed, and eventually the entire 5 tomes were published for the first time. Recently I learned that Tibetans and other international scholars are engaged in work based on this text.) I need to mention the publication was arranged by another eminent figure of that era, Gene E Smith. A brilliant Tibetologist and a devotee, Smith was the US Library of Congress acquisitions officer in India those years. Many scholars like me owe much to Smith's support. He too recently escaped the wheel of sentient beings.

Last year, before his death, Gene and I reviewed my new introduction to Tibetan Frontier Families and we recalled the early years of Lama Trukshik’s career and his widening influence. Anthropologist Jane Goodall apparently became a devotee of Trulshik, along with other European Buddhist students. All followed the trail through the hills to his expanding monastery in northeast Nepal where my friendship with him had blossomed and where I spent many weeks at work on the manuscript and with the community of talented men and women who were part of the Rinpoche's center. (Consulting the web, I see that you can  learn about his foreign followers and Trulshik's international work there.)

In my new preface to Tibetan Frontier Families, you can find more about Trulshik’s life, and in the body of the original text , more details of his youth. I leave it to readers to consult my book, available on Amazon.com.

I believe there is not much beyond this in English about the remarkable early career of Trulshik. Although there may be a biography in Tibetan language written some 30 or more years ago. Suffice to summarize here what a brilliant manager he was; he drew around him dedicated, talented people; he was extraordinarily compassionate in the simplest way, and above all, he was hardworking, ready to serve anyone who came to him for spiritual or other help.

 For the first 20 years of his residence outside Tibet, Trukshik focused his attention on building up his original monastic center Thupten Choeling in Nepal. Despite his youth and limited access to anyone of his rank who he could consult, he flourished intellectually and spiritually. He emerged as a wise man by the time he was 45. I am told that after 1990 he had become influential within the ranks of the Tibetan scholarly hierarchy; and I understand he travelled the world. Although unlike many others of his background, his base remained the immediate community of monks and nuns in his mountain retreat.

I can hear his voice still so clearly-- laughing over some curiosity, his head always tilted to one side to emphasize his attention, chuckling about contradictions in earthly matters, praying, rosary in hand, in reflection on the problem of a supplicant, and his discerning comments as he inspects a calligrapher’s work, a liturgical ritual process, or this anthropologist’s writing. I still have some of his letters, written in a beautiful, careful hand, with a spot of whiteout here and there.

There will be abundant prayers for Trulshik’s soul in the coming weeks as his spirit travels beyond the worldly realm into that of the angles and countless Buddhist spirits in paradise. As in the case of Gene E. Smith who left his sentient body barely a year ago, I feel they hardly need our prayers to assure them a safe and swift passage.

Footnote--I am often surprised when I meet someone whom I have known for the past two decades and they have no awareness whatsoever of my work in Tibet. Perhaps, had I not been on record as opposing Zionist policies against my own homeland, and known for my unshakable pride in my Arab peoples, this early history would not have been obscured. So I welcome this opportunity through the passing of my dear friend Trukshik, to show that these lives are not unconnected.

This is by way of sharing with those who have known this author only from her work in the Arab lands, of an earlier era in Nepal, India and Tibet, the foundation for my dedicated ongoing research and work in the Middle East.

Bibliography, By BN Aziz

2011 Tibetan Frontier Families, new edition. Published by Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.

1979 The Traditions of PhaDampa Sangyas, A Tibetan text in 5 volumes, edited from a manuscript in Nepal, with an English introduction by BN Aziz. Published by Druk Press, Thimbu, Bhutan.

 

[ Venerable Trukshik Rinpoche (1924-2011), Nepal ]


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