Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2014

Books Old and New from My 2014 Desktop

December 30, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

OK; it’s yearend review time.  As for recommendations, send me yours.

Mine is not a list of new releases. Those who know me recognize that I’m moving backwards; (a positive move, I’d argue). That is to say, I’m not reading the latest Arab American novel or anything from NYT’s glorified bestseller list.

It’s not that I can’t keep up. (Indeed I can’t.)  I’m too occupied with volumes I ignored decades ago. Since the 1970s, I plodded through obligatory tomes by anthropology theorists, Nepal ethnographers, or misinformed, myopic Tibetologists, all in pursuit of academic ‘authority’.

I pored over student papers as well as countless scholarly articles on Himalayan cultural trivia until journalism liberated me. Only to land in a culture of phony political experts: people who after a week in Iraq or who’d never once visited joined the media chorus, first to support US embargo policies to crush Iraq, then to cheer an invasion to ‘liberate’ its people. Parallel to that I dared face the self-perpetuating gang of Zionist writers with its remarkable ability to reinvent Israeli rationale to fit each shift in Middle East existence and intimidate every US leader.

By the time American veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan began writing award-winning memoirs to redefine heroism and fashion history to US needs, I’d grasped the central role of literature in serving American ideals of righteousness and exceptionalism. No made-for-film war books for me.

So, what am I reading? First the work of two remarkable authors, both British, both living to the age of 94, both prodigious writers. It was their recent deaths—Doris Lessing in 2013 and P.D. James in 2014-- that signaled how little I knew about either. Lessing I remembered as writer of children caught in dystopian worlds. But I’d never opened her most notable book “The Golden Notebook”. Unprepared as I often am, I launched into it unsure where she would lead me, then slowly awakened to her brilliance and the book’s enduring place in women’s history. The character of “Golden Notebook”’s heroines is now deeply embedded in modern feminist thought. As for mystery writer P.D. James, I’m agreeably working my way through her novels nowadays, pausing to reread passages and ponder her mastery of the English language. I want to study her style, book by 20 book, through all of 2015 (while still pursuing brain science).

Another author I came to belatedly is British biologist Richard Dawkins, best known today for his controversial advocacy of atheism, (and his concomitant loathing of Muslims). I set aside that and pick up Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” first published in 1976! My goodness, how could this anthropologist have missed that? A brilliant idea, doubtless relevant to the advancement of theories in anthropology, the ‘selfish gene’ also led to the concept of ‘meme’. Today ‘meme’ seems to have unraveled itself from Dawkins to simply mean ‘replica’. A pity since the original concept is far more profound. Determined not to shortcut the scientific process via Wikipedia, I struggle through 400 pages to see how Dawkins arrived at his selfish gene.  

 “The World Is Flat” (2005) by journalist Thomas Friedman is a much easier idea to grasp, so easy that it has defied critical analysis and enjoys an unchallenged place in contemporary economic thought. Still, I ask: what respectable anthropologist can accept this formula? It annoys me that a journalist whose views on the Middle East I dislike so intensely, popularized this brilliant although biased idiom and demonstrates the economic transformation of our economy through the history of digitization and the internet. I await a new edition by someone who’ll demonstrate why Friedman’s 10-year old book is really “The Capitalist World Is Flat”. Friedman’s success is surely tied to his total embrace of the US-led global marketplace.

But I’ve found one thinker closer to my heart—Slavoj Zizek. He writes about everything, somehow applying philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche to the ills, injustices and innovations of our world:—police brutality, pornography of torture, anti-Muslim popularism, perpetuity of racism, Nintendo gaming, and so on. My kind of cultural analyst; I’m starting with his 2008 book “Violence”.

As for books still on my list Rabih Alahmeddine and Laila Lalami have novels for us to celebrate: “An Unnecessary Woman” and “The Moor’s Account”.

And here’s another closeted Arab American we can boast about. Remember the hit film “Thelma and Louise”? Its scriptwriter is Texas-based Callie Khouri who also directed “Mad Money” and “Nashville”. Yes, Khouri is one of us.  

Sending all my prayers to all for new adventures in good health and with worthy, joy-loving companions in 20015

[ Books Old and New from My 2014 Desktop ]

Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 3

December 28, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Part 3 Life Among the Believers

Many of the issues (outlined in parts 1 and 2) are bound up with religion. Westerners consider many problems or flaws of the Muslim world products of Islam and pride their societies and their governments on their purported secularism. But when it comes to separation of church and state, how long and wide is the distance between the two cultures?

    A central question is whether a theocracy can ever be democratized. British history since Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England in 1531 proves that it can be. The English theocracy was democratized first by making democracy stronger and later by making the theocracy weaker. The major democratic changes had to wait until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the vote was extended to new social classes and finally to women. The Islamic Republic of Iran is less than two decades old, but already there seem to be signs of softening theocracy and the beginnings of liberalization. Nor must we forget Muslim monarchies that have taken initial steps toward liberalization. Jordan has gone further than most others in legalizing opposition groups. But even Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states have begun to use the Islamic concept of shura (consultative assembly) as a guide to democracy.

    The West has sought to protect minority religions through secularism. It has not always worked. The Holocaust in secular Germany was the worst case. And even today, anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe is disturbing, as are anti-Muslim trends in France.

    The United States has had separation of church and state under the Constitution for over 200 years, but American politics is hardly completely secular. Only once has the electorate chosen a non-Protestant president – and the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy won by such a narrow margin, amid such allegation of electoral fraud, that we will never know for certain whether a majority of Americans actually voted for him. Jews have distinguished themselves in many fields, but they have so far avoided competing for the White House, and there is still a fear of unleashing the demon of anti-Semitism among Christian fundamentalists. There are now more Muslims – an estimated six millions – than Jews in the United States, yet anti-Muslim feeling and the success of appeals to Christian sentiment among voters make it extremely unlikely that Americans will elect a Muslim head of state anytime in the foreseeable future. Even the appointment of a Muslim secretary of commerce, let alone an attorney general, is no more than a distant conjecture because of the political fallout that all administrations fear. When First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton entertained Muslim leaders at the White House last year to mark a special Islamic festival, a Wall Street Journal article cited that as evidence that friends of Hamas had penetrated the White House. In Western Europe, too, there are now millions of Muslims, but history is still awaiting the appointment of the first to a cabinet

position in Britain, France, or Germany.

    Islam, on the other hand, has tried to protect minority religions through

ecumenicalism throughout its history. Jews and Christians had special status as People of the Book – a fraternity of monotheists. Other religious minorities were later also accorded the status of protected minorities (dhimmis). The approach has had its successes. Jewish scholars rose to high positions in Muslim Spain. During the Ottoman Empire, Christians sometimes attained high political office: Suleiman I (1520-1566) had Christian ministers in his government, as did Selim III (1789-1807). The Moghul Empire integrated Hindus and Muslims into a consolidated Indian state; Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) carried furthest the Moghul policy of bringing Hindus into the government. In the 1990s Iraq has had a Chaldean Christian deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. And Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Coptic Christian, would never have been appointed secretary-general of the United Nations if not for his long and distinguished service in the foreign ministry of an otherwise Muslim government in Egypt.

    The Republic of Senegal in West Africa, which is nearly 95 percent Muslim, had a Roman Catholic president for two decades (1960-80). In his years presiding over that relatively open society, Léopold Sédar Senghor never once had to deal with anti-Christian disturbances in the streets of Dakar. His political opponents called him a wide range of derogatory names –hypocrite, stooge of the French, dictator, political prostitute – but virtually never taunted him for being a kafir (infidel).

    When Senghor became the first African head of state to retire voluntarily from office, Abdou Diouf, a Muslim, succeeded him, and he remains president today. But the ecumenical story of Senegal did not end there; the first lady is Catholic. Can one imagine an American president candidate confessing on Larry King Live, "Incidentally, my wife is a Shiite Muslim"? That would almost certainly mark the end of his hopes for the White House.

    One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Westerners are far less secular in their political behavior than they think they are. Another is that Muslim societies historically have been more ecumenical, and therefore more humane, than their Western critics have recognized. Islamic ecumenicalism has sometimes protected religions minorities more effectively than Western secularism.

 

Between the Dazzling and the Depraved

Cultures should be judged not merely by the heights of achievement to which they have ascended but by the depths of brutality to which they have descended. The measure of cultures is not only their virtues but also their vices.

    In the twentieth century, Islam has not often proved fertile ground for

democracy and its virtues. On the other hand, Islamic culture has not been

hospitable to Nazism, fascism, or communism, unlike Christian culture (as in

Germany, Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia), Buddhist culture (Japan before and

during World War II, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea), or Confucian

culture (Mao’s China). The Muslim world has never yet given rise to systematic fascism and its organized brutalities. Hafiz al-Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq have been guilty of large-scale violence, but fascism also requires an ideology of repression that has been absent in the two countries. And apart from the dubious case of Albania, communism has never independently taken hold in a Muslim culture.

    Muslims are often criticized for not producing the best, but they are seldom congratulated for an ethic that has averted the worst. There are no Muslim equivalents of Nazi extermination camps, nor Muslim conquests by genocide on the scale perpetrated by Europeans in the Americas and Australia, nor Muslim equivalents of Stalinist terror, Pol Pot’s killing fields, or the starvation and uprooting of tens of millions in the name of Five Year Plans. Nor are there Muslim versions of apartheid like that once approved by the South African Dutch Reformed Church, or of the ferocious racism of Japan before 1945, or of the racist culture of the Old South in the United States with its lynchings and brutalization of black people.

    Islam brings to the calculus of universal justice some protection from the abyss of human depravity. Historically, the religion and the civilization have been resistant to forces that contributed to the worst aspects of the twentieth century’s interludes of barbarism: racism, genocide, and violence within society.

    First, Islam has been relatively resistant to racism. The Koran confronts the issue of national and ethnic differences head on. The standard of excellence it sets has nothing to do with race, but is instead moral and religious worth – what the Koran calls "piety" and what Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the content of one’s character." An oft-quoted verse of the Koran reads: O people! We have created you from a male and a female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. The noblest among you is the most pious. Allah is all-knowing.

 

In his farewell address, delivered on his last pilgrimage to Mecca in A.D. 632, Muhammad declared: "There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, and indeed, no superiority of a red man over a black man except through the piety and fear of God… Let those who are present convey this message to those who are absent."

    Unlike Christian churches, the mosque has never been segregated by race. One of Muhammad’s most beloved companions was an Ethiopian, Bilal Rabah, a freed slave who rose to great prominence in early Islam. Under Arab lineage systems and kinship traditions, racial intermarriage was not discouraged and the children were considered Arab regardless of who the mother was. These Arab ways influenced Muslim societies elsewhere. Of the four presidents of Egypt since the revolution of 1952, two had black African ancestors – Muhammad Nagib and Anwar al-Sadat.

    Islam has a doctrine of Chosen Language (Arabic) but no Chosen People. Since the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I in A.D. 313, Christianity has been led if not dominated by Europeans. But the leadership of the Muslim world has changed hands several times: from the mainly Arab Umayyad dynasty (661-750) to the multiethnic Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) to the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922), dominated by the Turks. And this history is quite apart from such flourishing Muslim dynasties as the Moghuls of India and the Safavids of Persia or the sub-Saharan empires of Mali and Songhai. The diversification of Muslim leadership – in contrast to the Europeanization of Christian leadership – helped the cause of relative racial equality in Islamic culture.

    Partly because of Islam’s relatively nonracial nature, Islamic history has been free of systematic efforts to obliterate a people. Islam conquered by co-optation, intermarriage, and conversion rather than by genocide.

    Incidents in Muslim history, it is true, have caused large-scale loss of life. During Turkey’s attempt in 1915 to deport the entire Armenian population of about 1,750,000 to Syria and Palestine, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps up to a million, died of starvation or were murdered on the way. But – though this does not exonerate Turkey or its responsibility for the deaths – Armenians had provoked Turkey by organizing volunteer battalions to help Russia fight against it in World War I. Nor is the expulsion of a people from a territory, however disastrous its consequences, equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust, which systematically took the lives of six million Jews and members of other despised groups. Movement of people between India and Pakistan after partitioning 1947 also resulted in thousands of deaths en route.

    Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas against Kurdish villages in Iraq in 1988 is more clearly comparable to Nazi behavior. But Saddam’s action was the use of an illegitimate weapon in a civil war rather than a planned program to destroy the Kurdish people; it was an evil incident rather than a program of genocide. Many people feel that President Harry S Truman’s dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also an evil episode. There is a difference between massacre and genocide. Massacres have been perpetrated in almost every country on earth, but only a few cultures have been guilty of genocide.

    Nor did Islam ever spawn an Inquisition in which the burning of heretics at the stake was sanctioned. Cultures that had condemned human beings to burn and celebrated as they died in the flames, even hundreds of years before, were more likely to tolerate the herding of a whole people of another faith into gas chambers. Islam has been a shield against such excesses of evil.

For More on Mazrui see a)b)  and check out his courageous and censored TV series The Africans: A Triple Heritage 

[ Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 3 ]

Radio, Science and Your Brain: by Physicist Michio Kaku

November 24, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I’ve decided to learn as much as I can about brain physics. No, I haven’t been diagnosed with a frightening disease. I’m reading “The Future of the Mind” by Michio Kaku.

Besides being a renowned theoretical physicist and teacher, Kaku is someone with whom I shared an affection for radio and the airwaves of 99.5 fm. in New York where we both produced weekly programs at WBAI Radio. For more than 25 years, he’s been hosting “Explorations” (airing 2-3 p.m. Saturdays) which is now nationally syndicated.

One of the first journalistic science programs in the US (mid-1980s), “Explorations” was initially a forum exposing the dangers of nuclear energy and advocating anti-nuclear policies. Kaku also wrote about that, while his radio show grew into a review of cutting edge science where he spoke directly with leading researchers and addressed listeners’ questions by phone.

The best way to make science comprehensible is through public dialogues like “Explorations”; it was surely the foundation of Kaku’s emergence as a leading popularizer of science. In “The Future of the Mind”, Kaku’s interviews with fellow scientists integrate an enormous range of research. (He credits more than 200 scientists, many interviewed over WBAI airwaves, in his latest book.)

In 2001, Kaku extended his reach, hosting “Parallel Universes”, a television series on the cosmos. (His books had already attracted a large audience: “Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension”, and “Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century and Beyond” were followed in 2008 by the even more daring “Physics of the Impossible”.) As his influence grew and he became a frequent guest on mainstream television, Kaku remains anchored in radio.

This man can make the fantastic (but not impossible) intellectually appealing to the average person. Heh, if he inspires me to learn more about my brain, imagine how young people respond. It’s all the more fun with his frequent invocation of phenomenon we’ve seen depicted in Sci-Fi films.

Although we will doubtless hear much more from this brilliant physicist/journalist, Kaku’s “The Future of the Mind” may represent the zenith of a career that integrates disparate fields of research and demonstrates commonality between the laws of physics, the cosmos, and the human brain.

In the introduction to his latest bestseller, Kaku writes: “There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, roughly the same as the number of neurons in our brain. You may have to travel 24 trillion miles to the first star outside our solar system to find an object as complex as what is sitting on your shoulders. The mind and the universe pose the greatest scientific challenge of all… one is concerned with the vastness of outer space, the other with inner space…the mind...”.  Wow!

 

[ Radio, Science and Your Brain: by Physicist Michio Kaku ]

Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 1

November 18, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Part 1  Democracy and The Humane Life

Westerners tend to think of Islamic societies as backward-looking, oppressed by religion, and inhumanely governed, comparing them to their own enlightened, secular democracies. But measurement of cultural distance between the West and Islam is a complex undertaking, and that distance is narrower than they assume. Islam is not just a religion, and certainly not just a fundamentalist political movement. It is a civilization, and a way of life that varies from one Muslim country to another but is animated by a common spirit far more humane than most Westerners realize. Nor do those in the West always recognize how their own societies have failed to live up to

their liberal mythology. Moreover, aspects of Islamic culture that Westerners regard as medieval may have prevailed in their own culture until fairly recently; in many cases, Islamic societies may be only a few decades behind socially and technologically advanced Western ones. In the end, the question is what path leads to the highest quality of life of the average citizen, while avoiding the worst abuses. The pat of the West does not provide all the answers; Islamic values deserve serious consideration.

 

The Way it Recently Was

Mores and values have changed rapidly in the West in the last several decades as revolutions in technology and society progressed. Islamic countries, which are now experiencing many of the same changes, may well follow suit. Premarital sex, for example, was strongly disapproved of in the West until after World War II. There were laws against sex outside marriage, some of which are still on the books, if rarely enforced. Today sex before marriage, with parental consent, is common.

    Homosexual acts between males were a crime in Great Britain until the 1960s (although lesbianism was not outlawed). Now such acts between consenting adults, male or female, are legal in much of the West, although they remain illegal in most other countries. Half the Western world, in fact, would say that laws against homosexual sex are a violation of gays’ and lesbians’ human rights.

    Even within the West, one sees cultural lag. Although capital punishment has been abolished almost everywhere in the Western world, the United States is currently increasing the number of capital offenses and executing more death row inmates than it has in years. But death penalty opponents, including Human Rights Watch and the Roman Catholic Church, continue to protest the practice in the United States, and one day capital punishment will almost certainly be regarded in America as a violation of human rights.

    Westerners regard Muslim societies as unenlightened when it comes to the status of women, and it is true that the gender question is still troublesome in Muslim countries. Islamic rules on sexual modesty have often resulted in excessive segregation of the sexes in public places, sometimes bringing about the marginalization of women in public affairs more generally. British women,

however, were granted the right to own property independent of their husbands

only in 1870, while Muslim women have always had that right. Indeed, Islam is

the only world religion founded by a businessman in commercial partnership with his wife. While in many Western cultures daughters could not inherit anything if there were sons in the family, Islamic law has always allocated shares from every inheritance to both daughters and sons. Primogeniture has been illegal under the sharia (Islamic law) for 14 centuries.

    The historical distance between the West and Islam in the treatment of women may be a matter of decades rather than centuries. Recall that in almost all Western countries except for New Zealand, women did not gain the right to vote until the twentieth century. Great Britain extended the vote to women in two stages, in 1918 and 1928, and the United States enfranchised them by constitutional amendment in 1920. France followed as recently as 1944. Switzerland did not permit women to vote in national elections until 1971– decades after Muslim women in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan had been casting ballots.

    Furthermore, the United States, the largest and most influential Western nation, has never had a female president. In contrast, two of the most populous Muslim countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have had women prime ministers: Benazir Bhutto headed two governments in Pakistan, and Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed served consecutively in Bangladesh. Turkey has had Prime Minister Tansu Çiller.

Muslim countries are ahead in female empowerment, though still behind in female liberation.

for further reading: a)  b)

 

[ Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 1 ]

Our Endless Wars: Re-reading Naguib Mahfouz

November 11, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Thankfully, browsing bookshelves still can be an adventure.

There’s no end to new books worth reading, and those of us who enjoy literature constantly add to our ‘must-read’ list. Best sellers compete for our leisure hours; literary prizes point us to new talent. It’s hard to keep abreast. But rather than prepare myself for conversations about this year’s Nobel author (Patrick Modiano) my hand rests at a volume by 1988 Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

Hmm; how did I miss this? “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma” by the acclaimed Egyptian writer is new to me. Eclipsed by Mahfouz’s popular Cairo series and missing from many online biographies, here is an overlooked masterpiece. So timely. This simple parable resonates poignantly as we innocent mortals traverse our 2014 world of endless wars.

The universal relevance of Mahfouz’s 1983, “The Journey…” is surely affirmation of his genius as a writer and political philosopher

Layers of morality thread through this short yet complex story: there are traveler-merchants, protected and untouched, journeying through a series of cultures and wars, profiting as they proceed, unconcerned with conflicts underway or any suffering they witness. They glide amorally onto their next marketplace. (For me, together with family protocols, they are Mahfouz’ primary target for criticism.) Accompanying the travelers is Qindil, a young man who left home after betrayal by his teacher and his family. He shares his companions’ immunity but he is curious. So he dallies. Doing so, he encounters manifestations of justice and freedom.

Qindil’s ultimate goal is Gebel, a land of purported purity. Although he knows nothing of its merits and meets no one who’s been there. In the course of his journey Qindil, himself from an unidentified, fuzzy land-of-Islam, confronts a series of civilizations— in its individual way each appears to be a utopia. Each claims spiritual integrity. Blind to any of its deficits, none doubts its own superiority which, in the end, proves its demise.

Each nation lures Qindil with irresistible hospitality. (Is Mahfouz remarking on his society’s values? or Are those warm receptions a means of moving his protagonist through history? I’m uncertain.)

Qindil’s first dalliance is in Mishraq, a moon-worshipping land of free love where he joins a household and fathers four sons. He’s ultimately driven from there to Haira –he is welcome here too--which likewise claims it embodies everything humans desire and need. The same in Halba, the hero’s next destiny. Then on to Aman, and finally to Ghuroub. Readers may identify Mishraq as a primordial society, Halba a capitalist haven, and Aman a socialistic utopia. Regardless, each people believe theirs is the zenith of human existence (although it awards an unseen ruler unquestioned rights and powers over it).

War seems to prevail wherever Qindil finds himself. Haira is compelled to conquer Mishraq; then Halba is drawn into war and takes control of Aman, then Ghuroub must be subdued. Each conquest seems inevitable and morally wholesome as well. Wars are acts of grace rather than of ambition or ill will.

Qindil moves naively through these lands, withholding judgment whether or not he is mistreated. Whatever attachments or hostility he encounters, he is able to move on. His sole aim, he claims, is knowledge and thus seeks out sages at every stop.

Predictably, our traveler never reaches Gebel, his purported goal. He also seems to never acquire the knowledge he asserts is his noble ambition.

Reading this story, you’re sure to find meanings beyond those that I record. And you’ll grasp Mahfouz’ message on how humans rationalize our endless wars.

[ Our Endless Wars: Re-reading Naguib Mahfouz ]

Been There Done That -- Post-election Thoughts (following on Oct. 21 and Nov. 3 blogs)

November 05, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Did our candidate win? No.

Was it a waste of my time? No.

Would I volunteer again in two years? Yes, although not for a party that puts Hillary Clinton as their candidate.  (What will be my alternative?)

Next time, I my join efforts with one of the small parties—Green or Working Families. They might endorse the same candidate, but my mark in their box will hopefully demonstrate to those arrogant parties that they don’t deserve this vote. (Other citizens have already withdrawn their loyalty.)

As for my candidate in District 19: Sean won 28% of his votes from Democratic supporters and 5% from Working Families voters, finishing with 33.9% overall. This against his opponent, Congressman Gibson, who accumulated ballots from Republican, Conservative and Independent voters to win with 63%.   

We should be pleased by 33.9% for our savvy first time candidate in a traditionally Republican-held area. But the 30% difference between Sean and our opponent was not what campaign organizers claimed:-- “10% and closing the gap fast”.

From a radio report on Sean’s campaign after the election, we learn he’d spent $1.84 million. He sounded upbeat; he assured supporters that he’d continue to promote issues he campaigned on.

Did that million plus go for free coffee and donuts for volunteers? Regardless, the million-plus bundle is what allowed Sean to actually enter the race. Sean is married to a very rich person, so he likely didn’t need Democratic Party funds for his campaign. More significantly, he doubtless knew there’d be nothing forthcoming from the party. It had decided to ignore the district, as it had in our state level elections.

It’s all rather off-putting, I admit.

Two phone calls I received on the eve of election day further explain why this young man entered a race he was unlikely to win. (Both were robo-calls, prerecorded messages computerized into a list of voter numbers.) One was from Hillary Clinton, the other from Bill, urging me to vote for the candidate I’d given my free time for.

What does this say? Well, it’s 2016 in Clinton-World and our wealthy, energetic Sean, with abundant resources ($$$$) and an emerging party machine in our district, will be campaigning for the woman expected to be the Democratic candidate for president.  

[ Been There Done That -- Post-election Thoughts (following on Oct. 21 and Nov. 3 blogs) ]

Getting Out the Vote: A Personal Experience

November 03, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Hello”.  Good morning, I’m Barbara Nimri, a volunteer with the State Democratic party campaign. We are calling to ask …   Click. (They hang up.)

Good morning, I’m a volunteer with the Democratic Party campaign in District 19. We hope you’ll be voting on Nov. 4th and we’re asking you to support ….  “I don’t discuss my vote with anyone.” Click.

I continue for 3 hours—more than 100 calls. A volunteer comes into the campaign office and asks if there’s hot coffee. Someone arrives with a supply of lawn signs.

Good morning, I’m … . and we are urging voters to cast your ballot for … running for Congress this year.   

“I can’t talk now, and I’ll decide when I get to the polls.”

Good morning, I’m ……..               “Is he on the Working Families Party ticket? I’ll vote for whomever WOR endorses?”

There are as many as nine parties listed on the New York state ballot. Smaller parties often haven’t their own contestant, so Republican and Democratic candidates seek their endorsements.  (I saw candidates with four parties endorsing them. No other choice, I guess)

Good morning, I’m… .  We have a strong Democratic candidate running for Congress in our district.

 “Well I don’t get out much; I’m ill.” We can arrange transport … I see. Thank you.

Good morning, I’m … .  Click.

Good morning. I’m … . “I’ll make up my mind myself thank you.” Click

Good morning I’m … . “Voting's a private matter; I don’t think my vote is any of your business.” Click.

This campaign strategy is supposed to be a science. Facebook and a webpages must be augmented by volunteers—we’re all women-- congregating at call centers to work the phones, with numbers of all registered voters provided by the Board of Elections.

Campaign advice: “get your message out in 15 seconds; be cheerful; don’t argue”. Some candidates use rotocalls. Our strategy says personal live calls are best. I punch in the next number.

Our head office announces that only 10% separates us from the incumbent. He’s ahead but we’re closing in; another week until Nov. 4th. We have a chance.

With 2 days left, we concentrate on registered Democrats and independent voters . So no rebuffs, no hang-ups. Well, almost none.

Good afternoon, my name is …. a volunteer with the state Democratic Party campaign. We hope you’ll be voting Tuesday; will you support our candidate for congress?  

“Yes, I expect to vote Democrat; yes, I guess I’ll vote for him.” Wonderful. We’ll see you at the polling station.

Good afternoon, my name is … a volunteer… We hope you will be casting your vote on Tuesday for…  “What‘s his position on veterans?”

Good afternoon, my name is … We hope you’ll…   

“I usually vote Democrat. But once they are in, whatever party, they don’t care about us. I don’t feel like voting. I don’t know.”

Good afternoon, my name is … volunteering with… .   

“I received your flyers. I’m a Democrat but I don’t know him. I haven’t decided.”

Good afternoon, my name is … volunteering with… .   

….“Yes, I have three daughters and I care most about women’s rights; he can count on my vote.” 

 …. “Yes. This is the 3rd call today. Sorry, I’m making dinner; I can’t talk. Yes, yes, I’ll vote.”

…. “I’m in Florida now ; I already voted by absentee ballot.”

….“I haven’t made up my mind yet. No I can’t tell you what my husband’s position is.”

Other volunteers are at neighborhoods across our district, moving house to house, knock on doors, leaving flyers, fielding questions about our candidate. Three arrive at our phone center feeling exhausted; it was worthwhile, they say. They like meeting voters face to face. We have to believe we can be effective.

Traditionally the US electorate is uninspired by mid-term races, most especially Democrats. Media tell us we’re letting the side down.

With less than 40% voter turnout, incumbents tend to be re-elected without a fight. (In NY’s state legislature our senator and assemblyman, both Republicans, are on the ballot; both are unopposed.)

Just get our people to the polls; that can turn the results, we’re told. We continue punching in the numbers.

After three hours I hand over my half completed list to another volunteer. See you Monday. Yes. I grab four lawn signs to post along the roadside on my way home.

[ Getting Out the Vote: A Personal Experience ]

Two Weeks from ElectionDay: Do I have to Vote?

October 21, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I arrived near the end of the candidate’s talk and the Q&A that followed. So although I had no opportunity to put a question to Sean Eldridge myself, I could see he wanted the job. He knew issues that concern voters. He was clear minded. He was open.

I reaffirmed my commitment to vote for this first-time candidate for the US Congress. The star of today’s luncheon, Eldridge is running on the Democratic Party ticket, opposing Gibson, Republican incumbent and congressman for our district. At least we have a race here, I thought. We finally have a credible opposing candidate. 

It’s a lot of work learning about local candidates. Because this locality is known as strongly Republican, the Democratic Party passes us over. There’s often no party nominee; so no debate, and no media attention. Citizens feel marginalized, and-- what’s the word? —disenfranchised. It happens. And it’s a mistake. Uncontested elections are bad all around.

When I lived in Manhattan, we had a similar problem, only reversed. There, Democrats prevail and Republican contenders are hardly seen. When a district is so heavily in one political camp, the opposing party won’t even field a candidate. Today a large part of the country is polarized like this; thus most election outcomes are easily predicable. So they’re ignored; thus fewer residents in those areas even bother to vote.

The media and Party resources focus on places identified as ‘crucial’; this means the outcome is not as clear as it is in either Manhattan -- reliably Democrat, or upstate New York-- predictably Republican. A ‘crucial contest’ means there’s controversy: a viable challenger has appeared and the opposing Party is backing him or her; there are lively debates and verbal attacks. The incumbent faces criticism; parties pour more money into the race; there’s more advertizing and then more news coverage.

In my district, Sean Eldridge seems to be a serious contender for Gibson’s seat. How much the party agrees, I’m unsure. But this year my local election may not be as boring as in the past. I feel invigorated and commit myself to reversing the imbalance in Congress that has so hobbled the president.  

But my vote isn’t enough. There are many like me out there, and our party’s local branch needs us. Still, we have to hammer on their door. Which is what I did.

I didn’t go to that meeting to shake hands with the young hopeful. I was trying to connect with my local Democratic Party.

A week had passed since, seeing a glossy mailer about Sean Eldridge, I checked his webpage; from there I emailed his campaign office. No reply. Two more emails, then a donation, then finally a phone number. I spoke to a real person and thus learned about the candidate’s luncheon. Now I’m signed up for a workshop to train for their phone campaign. Then I’ll donate a day to getting out the vote by phone.

Today I spoke to a neighbor. Yes, she saw a TV promotion for Eldridge. As a Democrat, she’ll vote for him. But she would have liked to meet him. “How many more are there like me?” she wonders. “I didn’t receive any flyer. How did you know about the luncheon?” She asks. “Tell me what is his position on job creation, on medical insurance, on threatened cuts?”

Voting wisely and being more than a bystander takes a lot of work these days. We have to forfeit the glamour that national political stars bring, and do some basic democratic grunge work for our home counties. 

[ Two Weeks from ElectionDay: Do I have to Vote? ]

What Can I Say to My Fellow Syrians and Iraqis?

September 19, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Shall I explain to these besieged, patient, impoverished millions that this war is the last one? Shall I confide that it’s hopeless; better get out? (To where?) Shall I urge them to enlist their sons with the moderate rebels who the coalition will support? Or, say “Forget about reforms; even if the current leader is ousted, Arabs are just not ready for democracy”?

Shall I argue: “The Sykes-Picot division of your homelands created your national boundaries; so don’t be so attached to them”? Shall I go there to help care for the wounded and the orphans? Or plead that I didn’t vote for this president, just as liberal Americans assured their Iraqi friends a decade ago that they hadn’t supported the administration that invaded Iraq in 2003?

Shall I placate those already settled in the West with “Aren’t you happy you left”?

There’s no way for people here in USA to imagine what Syrians and Iraqis are thinking; and thereby offer advice, or relief.

And then there’s the war machine. It needs feeding. And there are European and American leaders needing to show they’re capable of thwarting any threat. The enemy too. It needs to be shown how this ‘civilized world’ can and will crush it.

So another war is announced. That is to say: ‘smart bombing’ is underway and a coalition is in line to liberate these millions. War plotters caution us that it’s not going to be a fast fix, unlike that bombing campaign across Libya which nobody here will talk about today. Not like drone operations in Yemen and Pakistan which turned their people against the USA and its once respected ‘no-war’ president.

How can any Iraqi who remembers how America’s military assault on Fallujah turned so many into antagonists expect anything but more instability, more strife, more division? How can inhabitants of northern Iraq welcome the alliance of outside forces with the ambitious Peshmarga if they later find themselves absorbed under unfriendly Kurdish rule?

In Syria, citizens sighed with relief when just months back the chemical weapons destruction program was successfully concluded. Damascus too surely expected to earn some reprieve with that. Perhaps many Syrians, whatever their ethnicity, began to shelter behind government forces as a lesser evil after witnessing the excesses of al-Nusra and other wild rebel groups. And if they looked to Egypt and Libya as models of liberation, Syrians may have wisely concluded: “Maybe after some years, we can try again”.

I suppose everyone is making preparations for the new war. Somehow, they will have to suffer another era of deprivation and uncertainty.

[ What Can I Say to My Fellow Syrians and Iraqis? ]

Who, How and Where Are Iraq's Turkmen?

August 23, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 

Know your Yazidi. An anthropological sketch will assure support for US and Peshmarga military advances across Iraq, and sequester a competing other minority—Iraq’s Turkmen.

International concern in Iraq pivots around saving the Yazidi people. Christians seem to count too; the Shabak also merit some attention. One can only applaud humanitarian support for any threatened population. But why the total dismissal of their neighbors and fellow Iraqis, the Turkmen? They too are at grave risk. Augmenting Al-Mufti’s account from the ground is this disturbing report: “While the European Parliament … officially acknowledges the situation faced by minorities in ISIS occupied Iraq, their resolution … [2014/2716(RSP)] made no specific mention of Iraqi Turkmen… among the worst affected”.

Yes, Iraqi Turkmen are among millions now terrorized by the insufferable ISIS.  Turkmen’s expulsion is not new however. A review of their history over the past decade reveals a pattern of forced removal from cities and villages across north Iraq. Not by ISIS, by American allies: Iraqi Kurds.

Telafar, a majority Turkmen city of 200,000 was all but depopulated  beginning in 2003 when Kurdish Peshmarga reportedly conducted massacres there; attacks targeting Turkmen continued thereafter. This coincided with a political campaign to absorb ancient Kirkuk City along with Ninevah and Diyala provinces by Kurdish authorities. In 2009 the parliament of Kurdistan voted on a constitution to claim these areas, extending Kurdish rule beyond Suleimaniya, Dohok and Irbil. Mass Kurdish migration into Turkmen homelands displaced Turkmen, creating new facts-on-the-ground. In 2011 the Peshmarga Kurdish militia occupied Kirkuk, ostensibly to protect local inhabitants. The Turkmen National Front has been struggling with little success to push back Kurdish takeover. They’ve no militia of their own and support from Baghdad, always weak, has now collapsed.

International news and human rights agencies consistently disregarded Kurdish advances into Turkmen areas. Today too. Turkmen are being whited-out of the picture. Why? It appears to be part of a strategy to consolidate Kurdish claims over all the Turkmen homelands.

Kurds took command of Kirkuk a month ago, again “to save” the city, this time from ISIS. The Peshmarga militia is a major US ally; resupplied with heavy weapons, it’s now engaged with the US military to push ISIS out of Mosel.

We may find Kurdistan awarded full control over Ninevah and Diyala-- provinces they have long coveted. Its illegitimate constitutional claim becomes a reality.

One does not seek to tarnish one people at the expense of another. But the current situation in northern Iraq suggests it’s more than a heroic drive to protect endangered civilians. Here is an opportunity to answer Kurdish territorial and political ambitions.

Iraq’s Turkmen are ancient inhabitants of Iraq. Estimates of their numbers vary from 1-3 million: possibly 13% of the population, Iraq’s third main ethnic group. Turkmen are well known as loyal Iraqi nationals, Shiia and Sunni. They speak Turkish and Arabic. Avowedly non militant, they’ve been engaged in peaceful means to hold onto their rights and their homeland.  

The Turkmen deserve to be heard and embraced. Let’s not be manipulated by the divide-and-rule policies of others which have done so much harm across this land.

[ Who, How and Where Are Iraq's Turkmen? ]

Thank You Michael Brown

August 20, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Michael Brown is dead. Eighteen years old, a young man gunned down—not just shot--by police in his neighborhood in Ferguson, Missouri.

Brown’s experience earns international attention not because he is dead, but because of sustained outrage, first by his grieving family, then over video available from bystanders, then by people in his community demanding answers, then by shocked citizens around the country.

Extrajudicial killing of Black Americans, especially young men, is so, so common today. Many pass unnoticed. So, why the attention to this murder?

First, police refused to permit anyone near Brown’s body lying in the street. That ban included the boy’s own mother. Turned back by the police, she gazed at the lifeless body of her child in the road. Like a Gaza mother.

Second, residents alerted the media that Brown was lying in the road, guarded by police for more than four hours. No medics arrived to attend to him.

Third, a companion of Brown during the confrontation with the killer policeman testified Brown was unarmed, with his hands up in surrender when he was murdered. 

Fourth, the community’s call for explanations of the killing went unanswered. For almost a week, the police chief refused to release the name of the officer who’d killed Brown (with 6 gunshots!). Finally when public outrage grew and civic protests increased, reinforced police arrived to repel them armed with assault rifles book of ra deluxe and armored vehicles. They placed snipers around the neighborhood, deploying rubber bullets and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators. Journalists were among those mistreated by police and arrested. Was this Gaza or Baghdad? No, it’s hometown, USA.

As protests continue you hear leaders shout, “Thank you Michael Brown”. Brown is a martyr. As civil rights leader Jesse Jackson remarked on the killing of another young Black American, Trayvon Martin in 2012, "We find our way from the light that comes from the martyr." People associate Brown’s fate with too many other bodies lying in our streets (http://time.com/3136685/travyon-sybrina-fulton-ferguson/). A quiescent people become mobilized.

Why do we view Michael Brown as a martyr? Because his death serves to expose these routine American injustices:-- shooting Black unarmed citizens, unreasonable suspicion of Black and Brown people; disrespecting the dead and their families (perhaps the way US troops do in Afghanistan and Iraq). Our authorities exhibit fear and violence rather than empathy and patience. (Perhaps many of these policemen are veterans who shot their way through Iraqi and Afghan villages). Finally this incident confronts us with how shamelessly warlike our community policing is. We’re accustomed to watching such images in movies and in news coverage of foreign wars.

Now we understand how widespread military tactics are across the USA. Although they’re rarely telecast so widely. Normally hidden from public scrutiny, they’re confined to minority neighborhoods and to suspect immigrants. ‘Swat’ teams regularly charge into American homes, rifles ready, to assault mainly Black citizens. Muslim Americans too experience this. Abuse of young Black people by police is endemic; detention goes unchallenged. Multiple shots fired at an unarmed suspect is not new.

Why is Michael Brown a martyr? Because his death helped bring these everyday injustices to the fore. Because his death became a national spectacle. Because his death rightfully shames USA. Brown’s death says: “this is what American is”; it challenges the leadership to prove otherwise. His death is a not just a legal matter; it’s a moral issue we cannot turn away from.

Thank you Michael Brown. Thank you sons and daughters of Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egyot, Yemen, Syria.

 

[ Thank You Michael Brown ]

Challenging Academic Freedom in the US— the case of Steven Salaita

August 12, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The morals and principles of all authorities need to be periodically examined. So it is that we find the University of Illinois is yet another institute of higher learning that falls short.

U. Illinois fails on the principle of academic freedom, having withdrawn its appointment to my colleague, Professor Steven Salaita. Salaita, a brilliant and daring young scholar in comparative literature was set to join U. Illinois’ department of American Indian Studies. Besides his work in comparative studies, Salaita is an expert in Arab American fiction and author of The "Uncultured Wars"  and "Israel’s Dead Soul" among many fine analytical treatises. U. Illinois’ decision to cancel Salaita’s appointment is said to be based on tweeted comments critical of Israel during the current Gaza crisis. But Salaita could well have already been targeted for his radical insights, his criticism of American liberalism, and analyses of Israeli policies. A campaign launched on behalf of Salaita is generating considerable attention.

Off the radar is the removal last week of another modest champion of free speech:-- “The Commentators”. The program aired over WHCR- 90.3fm “Voice of Harlem” at City College, a university celebrated for its progressivism. This too is a free-speech issue, since according to “The Commentators”’ host, Leroy Baylor, the administration attacked the show for inviting controversial guests such as American Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. Baylor claims the university has consistently accused the program of “anti-Semitism”.

American universities have a shameful tradition of purging courageous scholars from their ranks for saying unpopular things. I’m reminded of South African professor and former Robben Island prisoner, Fred Dube. Dube was expelled from his post at Stony Brook University of New York in the mid-80s. The campaign against Dube was launched after he raised some poignant questions about Zionism in his classes. 

Then we had the notorious case of lucky ladys charmSami Al-Arian, a Palestinian American professor who not only was removed from U. Florida in 2002 stemming from statements he made in a TV interview; he was indicted, jailed, subject to years of legal harassment. (Only recently he was cleared of all charges.)  Native American, Ward Churchill, distinguished professor of Ethnic Studies at U. Colorado was also fired because of statements made after the 911 attacks; Churchill was well known for his support of Palestinian rights (which de facto involves criticism of US-Israeli policies.) Then we have the case of Israel critic and author Norman Finkelstein. DePaul University fired him in 2012.

University administrators often conduct such purges over opposition from faculty committees.

These examples, where scholars fought back only to lose in the end, are the best known. In countless cases elsewhere, professors—it they are not fired—find themselves marginalized, denied promotion or otherwise ostracized for their stand in defense of Islam and in support of Muslim and Palestine rights. Others who speak out on certain taboo subjects early in their careers find themselves shut out completely.

In many institutions, most especially our exalted universities, there is an unspoken rule about criticizing Israel. Even a faculty member who hosts a ‘controversial’ guest lecturer can come under fire.

Some years ago I arrived at a New York university hosting a theatrical performance by an Arab American author. The scholar who invited me to lead the discussion afterwards was a doctoral candidate at that well-known graduate center. Welcoming me, she whispered “Every head of department here is Jewish”. I was shocked and asked: “What has this to do with the performance, or with me?” She could only reply, “Just keep it in mind.” In retrospect, I wonder if her warning was less about anything I might utter, and more a reflection of the chilling atmosphere in which she and fellow scholars function.

Today, activists and other concerned citizens feel the tide is turning-- that Israel can no longer control information and thwart free speech on our campuses. The campaign for U. Illinois to reverse its decision on Salaita rapidly garnered 13,000 signatures. Americans credit social media with spreading democracy across the globe. Can it be successfully mobilized in defense of freedom here? 

[ Challenging Academic Freedom in the US— the case of Steven Salaita ]

Even though a massacre is going on

August 05, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Even though a massacre is going on, still the people of Gaza resist

Even though a massacre is going on in Gaza, genocide of Turkmen in Iraq is underway.

Even though a massacre is going on, US lawmakers award Israel millions more for weaponry

Even though a massacre in Gaza is underway, US president Obama remains mute and firmly loyal to his Israeli lord 

Even though a massacre is going on in Gaza, in the Occupied West Bank Palestinian demonstrators are killed, rounded up and imprisoned

Even though a massacre is going on, Israel insists it’s Palestinians who are to blame

Even though a massacre is going on, no Arab government has suspended its diplomatic ties with the Zionist state

Even though a massacre is going on, some South American countries cut their diplomatic relations with Israel

Even though a massacre is going on, US media devote excessive time to cover the fate of Israeli soldiers

Even though a massacre is going on, a feeble UN head, Ban Ki-moon, invokes international humanitarian law

Even though a massacre is going on, there are charges that those protesting Israeli actions are anti-Semitic

Even though a massacre is going on, Paris bans demonstrations and police arrest protesters who criticize Israel

Even though a massacre is going on, many remember Israel’s 2008-9 massacres of Gazans being a “game changer” Even though a massacre is going on, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia & Venezuela have reportedly decided to stop buying arms from Israel

Even though a massacre is going on, Gaza’s hospitals have nothing to treat the thousands of wounded civilians

Even though a massacre is going on, seven dedicated journalists have been killed exposing the truth

Even though a massacre is going on, major American networks and the BBC continue their pandering to Israel

Even though a massacre is going on, most US television network hosts refuse to suggest Israel may be wrong

Even though a massacre is going on, the United Nations itself is totally powerless to intervene or impose sanctions

Even though a massacre is going on, John Kerry, US secretary of state, turns over leadership of the crisis to Netanyahu

Even though a massacre is going on, Israel supporters assault demonstrators who dare oppose Israeli military actions

Even though a massacre is going on, most of the 3,000 comments on Yahoo News assail Islam, Muslims and Palestinians

Even though a massacre is going on, a pro-Palestinian demonstration of thousands in the US capital was reported on page 6 of The Washington Post metro section

Even though a massacre is going on, I chuckle at the blatantly absurd statements by supporters of Israel

Even though a massacre is going on, a rare White House comments that it is appalled by the shelling of a UN school

Even though a massacre is going on, the White House comment says nothing about the killing of refugees in the school

Even though a massacre is going on, we are informed how disruptive the war is for Israelis browsing in their shopping malls

 

[ Even though a massacre is going on ]

Toys: Girls and Boys

July 31, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

From Tom Sawyer, through Batman to A Wimpy Boy and the innocent Nemo.  It’s not just in math, science and journalism where our girls and women are marginal. Boy-man heroes dominate our children’s books; films too.

Among theories on socialization, I subscribe to the argument that serious life-models for our children derive from the admirable, heroic characters in our books and films. And boy heroes who far outnumber female champions of any kind-- even today-- affect girls’ aspirations and achievements.   

Hadn’t 40 years of feminist campaigns reversed the dominance of males in the bedtime stories we read to our children and the films we so enjoy together? Aren’t women in all police squads now? Harry Potter’s creator is a woman.

Certainly that movement awarded many more women iconic status. After Wonder Woman, we have Leia of “Star Wars”, Agent Scully of “X-Files”,  Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games”, Barbara Park’s Jennie B Jones series for kindergarten kids, Elastigirl,  Xena Warrior Princess, and a host of ‘badass women’ sleuths.

Women are there. Somewhere. But boys and other male characters still dominate.

Arguments for stronger girl models to counter stereotypes of the bossy, the compliant or the adjunct female character are back. The debate’s been sharpened by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. “We have too few women leaders”, notes Sandberg. She argues that girls and women are still constrained by low self-esteem; “Lean In” is her strategy to change that.  

Authors Hadley Freeman and Zoe Margolis are among the many journalists re-examining how heroic stories depict girls. Now animated films are brought into the argument. About time too. Animation is a major source of family fun-- and possibly, just possibly-- impact our children’s ideas of who can be brave and noble, dynamic and successful.

We have film interpretations of classics like Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter; we have video adaptations of bestsellers like Diary of A Wimpy Kid; and of course Disney’s fantasy hits. I marvel at the animation technology and human imagination that gave us “Toy Story”, “Finding Nemo”, and “Shrek”. (Even if all three of these happen to feature males in leading roles.) They offer entertainment for adults and children from Texas to Thailand. They are funny, playful, dazzling and touching.

But where are the girls? Am I just a grumpy lady frustrated by the sluggishness of feminist successes?

If so, I’m not alone. In the July issue of The Atlantic, Sarah Boxer convincingly demonstrates that female characters are not only secondary; those who save and protect lost children are predominantly male. She reviews the fate of cartoon mothers in some of our favorite animated tales, from “KungFu Panda”, “Little Mermaid”, “Ice Age”, “Aladdin”, “Pocahontas”, going back to “Bambi” and “Snow White”. In film after film, she shows the pattern:--mothers die, leaving orphans to be rescued by men, be they fish, lions or princes.

And we haven’t even mentioned the issue of American children’s falling reading levels. Where do we begin to counter the imbalance? Would Pixel editions of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Zora Neale Hurston, and Doris Lessing work?

Tell me I’m misinformed or unreasonable. Shower me with examples of the little girl heroes who inspire your daughters and granddaughters. Maybe your sons too.

[ Toys: Girls and Boys ]

Making Connections in Israel's Stategy

July 21, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I really can’t comprehend what the long term intent of Israel’s current military action is. But I’ve had a most discomforting thought, namely that Israel’s short term aim is based on earlier developments-- the success of the boycott and divestment campaign—and to put the U.S. Congress on the spot.

Perhaps months ago Israeli strategists, noting how world opinion in their favor was waning, asked: “Will American lawmakers remain loyal? Could there be a crack in the Washington fortification we so carefully nurture? Are ‘they’ as solidly behind us as we demand?”

Of course, from the start of the attacks now underway on Gaza, the US media and U.S. leaders rush to affirm their allegiance: “Israel is justified-right or wrong”; “We must support them.”

But Israel might have needed reassurance from Washington well before this crisis erupted. Possibly months ago, Israel began to worry about the mandate it’s enjoyed for decades, and wondered if it remained beyond economic and moral censure. Because on other fronts it was facing serious threats to its immunity.   

Had you noticed how things hadn’t been going Israel’s way? During the past year the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement has made significant gains in securing pledges by institutions and individuals to divest their funds from Israeli companies and to boycott events there. Notable among those joining BDS’ call is the respected British physicist Steven Hawking, Microsoft’s Gates Foundation, the American Studies Association, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. Rock stars’ cancellation of their concerts and academic sanction indicate this is serious stuff.

BDS’s successes are augmented by the Palestinian lord of the ocean leadership applying directly to the United Nations for recognition, and most recently, a hard won union with Hamas. If things continued this way, some U.S. leaders might reconsider their stand and find the courage to join the global chorus for justice.

Could the successes of BDS have so worried Israel that it needed to test its status with Washington?

What was Israel to do in the face of all those peaceful initiatives? Surely not re-enter peace negotiations in good faith. Nor halt illegal colonialist settlements. Release hostage prisoners, recognize the Palestinian right of return? You’re joking.

Israel is doing what it knows best:--stepping up the violence and terror, pressing ahead with ethnic cleansing, rounding up thousands, deploying its inexhaustible lethal arsenal while pleading danger from terrorism, crying that Syrian and Iranian arms for Gaza militants assault its cities and homes.

What better way to achieve assurance than to precipitate an event that obliges the U.S. president to reaffirm what he has done so consistently and loyally. If the virtue behind the boycott and divestment strategy reached the hearts and minds of any of our elected officials, now it may have been subdued. 

 One thing I’ve learned over the years of closely observing Israeli policy is that no action is simply a response to an alleged provocation. Israel’s moves are part of long-term strategies and careful control of their U.S. partnership. END

[ Making Connections in Israel's Stategy ]

We do not want to send our children

June 30, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“I’ll go anywhere, even to America.”

It was 1994 when I heard these words, spoken by an Iraqi lad, Yasser. Yasser was  barely 20, plodding sadly from embassy to embassy. He was in Jordan when the vicious US-led world embargo, only four years into reducing that country to shambles, was forcing Iraqis to escape waves of disease, deterioration and death generated by the siege. Several million mainly young and educated Iraqis would follow this despondent young man through the embargo. Many more left after the US invasion in 2003. Today, with new instability threatening the entire country Iraqis continue that reluctant quest.

“Even America”. !! Not a statement anyone, least of all Americans, wants to hear. In those two words, Yasser uttered so much about his dilemma. What haunts me until today was his tone:--deep lament.  They are not words we can associate with those silent boatfuls of refugees, lines of women and men at visa offices, human trafficking, and UN camps. Yasser spoke to his sadness, his reluctance, his anger.

American citizens, the majority of whom are themselves descendants of emigrants, are currently debating the fate of tens of thousands of children stumbling across their southern borders. Yet how many can comprehend Yasser’s sadness? How does the United States so rapidly become a hallowed and privileged goal to those of us now comfortably lodged here?

We should remember that U.S.A is a goal only when one’s own homeland is wracked by insecurity, where parents are unable to see any future for their young. As Alexandra Early observes of an ongoing Salvadorian exodus: “The vast majority of Salvadorians, like other Central Americans, don’t want to migrate to the U.S. They love their families and communities and would much prefer to stay … in their own countries”. This same applies to Iraqis, etc.

For Salvadorians, Iraqis, like Syrians, Hondurans, Vietnamese, Sudanese and countless other petitioners at our borders, migration is not a first choice, neither for youngsters nor adults. But parents, year after year, seeing such bleak prospects in their homeland, reluctantly apply all their energies and funds to sending away their children.

Speaking to a colleague in Syria only yesterday, she informed me her daughter is now in The Emirates (UAE). She sighed: “At least our children may be safe”. But then, reflecting, she added, “Look how we seem happy that our children are not here beside us”.

This is repeated in millions of homes across the world. War, persecution, poverty, and exploitation are the source. Often, whether in Honduras, Vietnam or Palestine, we know it’s a product of ongoing self-interested, heartless U.S. policies and unholy alliances, and America’s search for unlimited economic gain.

In the case of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, places I’ve written about, émigrés depart thinking it’s a temporary move. Then strife at home, and in neighboring countries where other family members fled, continues. A decade on, they find themselves sponsoring loved ones to join them. A generation later, the process continues. Yasser ended up in Australia and I wouldn’t be surprised if, at 40 now, some of his brothers and sisters and their families are with him there. Yet, for every family who secures resettlement, thousands of others remain—because they can’t leave, or to secure their home and their homeland, somehow enduring, rebuilding, hanging on and believing it is worthwhile, that conditions might… somehow, improve.

The holy month of Ramadan has arrived—a time, alongside the prayers, contemplations and breaking-fast when families feel so much joy being together. I doubt if there is one among Muslims worldwide who doesn’t feel the absence of our children or our parents, our husband, our wife, our mother, our beloved brother and sister, during these days.

[ We do not want to send our children ]

Voting in Syria

June 04, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

What could be the point of Syria’s presidential election? 

Why would anyone watch the voting in Syria yesterday? If I were a refugee, waiting on tables in Lebanon, would I? If resettled in Boston, would I? If on an extended visit with my daughter’s family in Kuwait, would I? Would the main candidate, incumbent Bashar al-Assad, himself even follow the polling?

Globally millions line up outside voting stations to elect a new president, members of parliament, local councils, party candidates. Some contenders run unopposed; some come from behind to surprise everyone. Some are first timers, some veterans fighting for a tenth term. Elections happened in fractious Ukraine, another was just completed in post ‘Arab spring’ Egypt. We watched Indians choose a new leader a fortnight ago. Newark, New Jersey had its mayoral election last week.

Syrian citizens should have their chance too, shouldn’t they? Surely they watch what others do across the world and want to have a go. Capable women and men who know something about governance and who dare to challenge an incumbent should get a crack at leadership, shouldn’t they? Their supporters need the thrill of a hard-fought campaign, of rallying together for something new, of believing their representative can do better than others.

But nothing of that sort is happening in Syria. Rather than this election making a real difference, it seems to be what analyst Fawaz Gerges suggests: -- a coronation of Assad. “It’s a celebration of his ability to survive the violent storm and basically go on the offensive," said the London-based professor.

Although a few Syrians are listed as opponents in yesterday’s presidential election, everyone knows they pose no challenge to al-Assad. Surely there was no one waiting earnestly for polls to open, and later watching anxiously as ballots were counted late into the night.

All that we outside observers— perhaps those inside the country too-- can ask is: why? Why bother with all the fuss; why invite the international scorn this exercise will likely elicit?

Perhaps the Syrian regime is looking at Egypt where the chief candidate, ex-general Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi, after winning handily with 96.1 % of votes cast, was assured by Washington that it would continue to work with him. It surely makes the US and its allies, all rabidly anti-Assad, look disingenuous about their concern for democracy. Whereas president Obama long ago arrogantly told the Syrian leader he must go, he takes a radically different position about the Egyptian commander–in-chief. That Bashar al-Assad, newly anointed, can use this election to quell unrest and unite his people, as his counterpart el-Sisi probably will do in Egypt, is doubtful.

El-Sisi has managed this election as a sanction for militarily acquired power, and he may succeed… with international support. Al-Assad cannot play the same game. This election is no cause for the Syrian leadership to enjoy any confidence, and no reason for Syrians to expect some respite from their war.

[ Voting in Syria ]

Poet and Novelist Maya Angelou, 1928-2014. Keep close what she gave us

May 29, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Only last week, I was listening to Gather Together In My Name, an audio book. So I was reminded of Maya Angelou’s power with words, her extraordinary life too. If there’s a more poignant and commanding example of message embedded in ‘voice’, I cannot imagine. In every line, in every pithy phrase, in every interview, she utters poetry.

We are enriched by the treasure chest of audio recordings Angelou leaves us. Look for them. Listen to her voice. Especially hear “On The Pulse of Morning” 

I wonder if Arabs and other Muslims heard her words in that ode recited at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. In itself it’s a powerful invocation, so perfect for the horizon we peer onto when a leader takes office. Her ode is not for a man but for a nation, for every nation, for every one of her citizens. Angelou speaks to the horizon of every morning:--for each of us, whatever our status, whatever our condition. (I have this poem posted on the wall of my bedroom.)

Angelou, in her 2008 interview with Armstrong Williams, remarks: the challenge is “to defy gravity, to stand erect and remain erect, and be absolutely present… so that everything I know I have, is in this chair, with me now.” This Buddhist idea surely explains her clarity and the force of her person.

I met Maya Angelou. Yes. At the YariYari conference in New York. 1997. It was a crowded celebration of African and African-American women writers. With a small group seated around this lady—she was Yari’s honored guest-- I dared: “What do we need”, I selfishly asked, “to confront, thwart and overcome racist attacks on our people?” (At that time, I was preoccupied with Arab civil rights work in this country.) Angelou’s reply was abrupt. “Shout, cry out for help. The predator senses weakness and he goes directly to it, taking it in his jaws. But, when he confronts boldness and solidarity”, she said assuredly, “then he slithers away.

“So cry out”, she admonished. “Scream, loudly.”  Then she turned from me. I felt intimidated. I wanted to talk about this; but Angelou must have gauged this was enough advice. She had many young people pressing her. I’ve never forgotten those words, and tone of rebuke she used.

I read her best known book, I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings, early on; still, well after college.

I had another experience of this woman’s importance to Black writers in particular. Angelou’s writing career had been nourished as a member of the Harlem Writers Guild; it is said she owed much to the guild and to its leader John O. Killins. When Killins later headed the Writing Circle at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn in the 1980s, he invited me to join. That experience with him and his cluster of emerging writers made an enormous difference to my growth:—more to my finding my voice as an activist than as a writer. Transforming.

Then. when I heard Angelou read "On the Pulse of the Morning", my esteem for her as a unique voice for Americans took a leap. I’ve heard that some editions of that poem exclude her references to Muslims, Arabs, and sheiks among those whose horizons she speaks to. So be sure to look for the original. You will see what I mean. 

[ Poet and Novelist Maya Angelou, 1928-2014. Keep close what she gave us ]

Winter’s A Distant Memory, Alas.

April 11, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

For months, I’d wanted to write about our all-consuming winter. But you heard nothing from me. Like many east coast inhabitants, I was stricken by what they call ‘cabin fever’.  Although warmed by a well-stoked woodstove and an oil boiler chugging limply through the night, one feels immobilized, pitiable, and mistreated. Hard not to complain; it doesn’t matter that I’m one among millions. All those comforts we take for granted are not longer comfortable. Not nice.

Now that it’s over/past/gone I stretch lazy limbs, strip to one layer of clothing, listen to the twitter of real birds, and toss a green salad. There’s a term for U.S. retirees --snow birds-- who pass these hard weeks in Florida. They’re back too.

What I find so astonishing in these early days of our thaw, is that with the sight of one red-breasted robin, the twinkle of a single purple crocus budding through melting mud, and the bang bang of a carpenter’s hammer on a neighbor’s roof, the scourge of those four icy, white, blustery, hostile, inconvenient and unsociable months absolutely evaporates.

I have to think hard to recall images of that historical wintery precipice:— a young deer stranded on a icefloat in the river, shoveling through feet of snow to replenish the bird feeder; strapping on my boots, missing mittens and scarves, the utter silence of fresh snow embalming a town, colorless hillsides; the roaring snowplow at 4:30 in the morning, orange lights blinking crawling through snowed roads, tires spinning on black ice; abandoned trips to the city, then finally, escaping onto the dry highway between storms only to land under two feet when I reach the stalled metropolis and forget my car in a snowdrift; then when roads out of Manhattan clear, heading upstate I hit another blizzard 100 miles before reaching home. New Yorkers on their morning ride to work forget fashion and pile ugly boots, oversize coats, and funny Nepal-knitted wool hats over their brand-named suits. Bundled little schoolkids, eyes peering over heavy scarves, are hardly visible in the crush of hunched up adult subway passengers. And remember those mittens attached with string that threaded up one sleeve and down the next? We hated them as children. But I saw a pair dangling from the sleeve of a young New York worker. Slush-slush-slush: on Manhattan streets, walkers tiptoe through icy paths at an Alabama pace, and apartment dwellers pull carts of accumulated dirty clothes through the slush to nearby laundromats.

All gone now. On a drive to the radio station last Sunday, I actually saw people outside their homes wandering over brown grass, a woman leisurely walking her dog, a couple sitting on their house veranda-- outside. Ah, this is why the winter can depress us—we don’t see each other. We cease to witness the routine of daily life. Welcome back.

comments welcome

[ Winter’s A Distant Memory, Alas. ]

Who Can Negotiate for Palestine?

April 04, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Palestine-Israeli peace talks seem to proceed from uninspired to obscure to fruitless. This week we learned that U.S. negotiators may offer the notorious American spy Jonathan Pollard as a carrot to Israel to concede something to Palestinians, even a promise to continue negotiations. Would it work? And who would it benefit? Can anything move Israel towards a genuine agreement that would realize Palestinian autonomy?

Do you remember any meaningful Israeli move towards peace during these agonizing costly decades? The Oslo Accord lies in tatters. Israel’s pullout from Gaza was an opportunity to rid itself of an ungovernable population on a tiny coastal strip which Israel then proceeded to lay siege to, surrounding Gaza with boats and fences and bombing its population at will.  

Does anyone buy a release by Israel of Arab prisoners as anything but a transfer of men and women essentially held as hostages? Secretary of State Kerry who began his tenure with energetic diplomatic initiatives recently suggested the US might offer a real prize to Israel—the American spy Pollard for…  . For what? Hostages. And, oh yes-- extending a peace talks deadline, leading we don’t know where. Any extension of talks would likely slide into the next U.S. president’s tenure. Then they’d restart under a new US administration.

Meanwhile we’ll see 1000s more armed Jewish colonizers installed in the West Bank, while 1000s more Palestinians are dislodged, more Arab lands seized, more defenseless Palestinians killed, more livelihoods lost, more Palestinians fleeing abroad, more foreign funding allocated for more helpless, more impoverished refugees.

A Pollard-Palestinian exchange would also provide another reminder that one Israeli is worth hundreds of Arabs. So more humiliation.

Where else can Palestinians look for action? Not their militants. Not Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, not Iran’s Ahmadinajad or Turkey’s Erdogan:-- all erstwhile champions of Palestinian statehood. Not Tony Blair and his phony “Quartet”.  

The recent Palestinian announcement that it will pursue membership in various U.N. agencies is long overdue.

Despite legions of talented, courageous, determined Palestinians outside, and the enduring millions under occupation, this leadership has thus far failed its people and its supporters. It must change. It must invoke bold strategies.

Palestinian leaders can still turn to one of their bravest supporters, Nelson Mandela; his recent passing recalled an extraordinary 1990 confrontation in New York where Mandela boldly responded to a hostile audience regarding his support for Palestine, reducing the normally aggressive Ted Koppel to a dithering amateur.  The clarity of his words in this clip reinforces Mandela’s ideological position; it demonstrates a brilliance and fearlessness we rarely experience today—from anyone.

All Palestinian orators, researchers and supporters outside and all the martyrs inside cannot achieve their goal without really skilled people at their negotiating table. The greatest tribute Palestinians can pay to the foremost champion of their cause is to study every detail of Mandela’s evolution, and adopt it. Immediately.  

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and journalist. She has visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories on numerous occasions, reporting from there for Pacifica-WBAI in New York and elsewhere

[ Who Can Negotiate for Palestine? ]

An Unlikely Solution to Our Children’s Reading Ailments

March 27, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

American children are in the doldrums. Not their persons. It’s their reading skills that are in steady decline. In science, math and reading, compared to their peers across the world American students make a poor showing. And professors report that an alarming number of students entering U.S. colleges require remedial classes in reading.

Educators are debating; parents are fretting; money is poured into research; all kinds of color-coded, pop-up and multi-media books are developed to help teach our young to read. Nationwide, costly and controversial charter schools are replacing public schools; parents are paying huge private school fees and hiring tutors for their children. What to do?

There is one modest but effective solution few educators mention when discussing children’s reading needs:—therapy dogs. This service is free, effective, and heartwarming. What’s going on?

In the course of my radio productions featuring local libraries in New York State, I interviewed ten librarians and asked each how they were addressing this national crisis. They know that schools can’t manage. They admit their libraries see few young visitors today; they say they’ll try anything to get children to handle books. Libraries buy iPads and other e-reading devices to loan out; they construct playrooms that overtake adult reading spaces; they budget for more computers. They bring in celebrities to read. Which brings me back to the dogs.

Mark Condon is a therapy dog-owner who trains people to train dogs to listen to children reading. Across the U.S. there are 1000s of women and men like Mark and his dog Dutchess and doubtless many more worldwide with the same skills and devotion. Just goggle “therapy dogs”.

Of course I’d known about seeing-eye dogs and the use of dogs for the elderly and for mentally disabled people. But reading?

Mark explains how reading therapy builds on dogs’ sociable nature, their need for attention and affection, their calmness and their long history living with humans. It also builds on children’s imagination. Mark describes the process: the dog is introduced to a class (this therapy is effective for ages 3-10) as a guest and one child is selected to read to this ‘guest’. There’s no judgment by the dog of the readers’ abilities, no impatience, no noting errors or speech difficulties:—an ideal atmosphere to engage and support the child. The animal listens quietly and even responds when the child shows it a page to illustrate a point from the story.

Apparently results of these programs are very positive; children’s reading abilities markedly improve.

Mark and his dog Dutchess, like therapy teams across the US, are volunteers. They will also train your dog, and you, to join the project. Look into it. And look for Mark’s book.

also see: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/28/an-unlikely-solution-to-our-childrens-reading-ailments/

[ An Unlikely Solution to Our Children’s Reading Ailments ]

Fallujah1, Fallujah2,Fallujah3

March 20, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

For over a month I’ve been trying to write about Fallujah. It’s an attempt to gain a grip on news coming out of Iraq.

This essay began two months ago when the name Fallujah leapt onto US news headlines with stories about al-Qaeda gaining control of what was known as a “restive” city populated by tribes “disloyal” to Iraq’s central government.

Across much of that land, day after day, year after year, Iraqis are being killed, wounded, disheartened and driven out by ferocious bombings and shootings. Somehow, it was only when Fallujah flared up that the world was alerted to real trouble. What can one make of this? Who is really responsible for continuing instability across Iraq? What kind of future can any citizen-- any child or parent or official, anyone at all--expect? It’s been almost 25 years since the cruel UN blockade began a continuous downward spiral of life there.

That January rebellion in Fallujah pointed us to a specific threat. And Washington’s response was swift--a commitment to sell the Iraqi government missiles and other weapons to subdue those rebels. Thereafter Fallujah fell out of the news. Apart from reports by two seasoned Iraq observers, Arbuthnot and Jamail that those US armaments gave the Iraqi prime minster a license to annihilate his opposition and crush the city once and for all, press attention waned.  

Until March 17, two days ago when we hear again about A-Qaeda.  Matt Bradley and Ali Nabhan give a dazzling account in wsj.com about a former Iraqi loyalist officer now heading those Fallujah rebels.  

Let’s admit it; for most of us Fallujah is largely a mythic entity. Alarm in the US press in January over Fallujah (let’s call it Fallujah 3) was augmented by a marketing campaign by Amazon.com using algorithms to alert anyone tagged as an Iraq observer about resources on Fallujah. For example, I was invited to purchase any number of books about the place. Not about Fallujah’s society and economy or its earlier history:—Fallujah 1. (Fallujah 1 is the unheralded city I passed on my 10-15 hour drive there during Iraq’s 13 years of sanctions with Fallujah’s lights signaling that we were finally nearing Baghdad. Fallujah 1 was a market center of 300,000 inhabitants, a major hub for the surrounding farms, where we stopped for supplies on our return journey across the desert to Jordan.)

No. These Amazon.com titles were about battles, specifically the American war on Fallujah.  Most of eleven books listed are accounts of the once-celebrated 2004 US assault on the city that defines another Fallujah: Fallujah 2. Fallujah 2 is an event belonging to US troops—their personal story of a siege and battle-- and to journalists who used these soldiers and the Pentagon as their main sources.

The Battle of Fallujah’s bloodiness and ferocity is mainly associated with the deaths of 450 or so Americans killed there. Not with the tens of thousands of Iraqi victims. That battle, 18 months into US occupation when Iraqi resistance emerged, was a celebrated US military victory. The alleged “subjugation of a key Iraqi city” was, we were informed, a turning point in America’s war in Iraq.

Simultaneously another account about Fallujah did not make world headlines. This was Fallujah 2b. This story is amply documented by the Italian RAI TV film Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre and a book by the highly regarded Al-Jazeera correspondent Ahmed Mansour. Mansour’s "Inside Fallujah,The Unembedded Story" (not included in the 2014 Amazon.com list) is further corroborated by two capable journalists also on the scene at the time—Dahr Jamail and Rahul Mahajan. 

Fallujah 2b is a very ugly and very different portrait of that Fallujah battle, a picture that during the past decade has been enhanced with health reports of Fallujah’s residents. Multiple studies confirm they continue to die and suffer from diseases caused by chemical weapons and other deadly projectiles fired on them. See for example Patrick Cockburn’s 2010 summary.

One cannot help but wonder if the fierce resistance of the people of Fallujah and their reported embrace of the notorious al-Qaeda today is not somehow an outcome of their suffering and injustice stemming from the 2004 U.S. assault and brutality experienced at the hands of American troops. There is sufficient documentation of that infamy that it must be part of any discussion of Fallujah today. The US military may have battled Fallujah and quelled that 2004 rebellion. But that these people were subjugated? It seems not.

Aziz’ blogs are also carried on www.counterpunch.org

[ Fallujah1, Fallujah2,Fallujah3 ]

"The Lowland", a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

March 12, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Certain creatures lay eggs that are able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.”

The Lowland, a beautifully crafted and compelling read about the divergent careers of two brothers begins with this scene in the gardens of Tollygunge in Calcutta where they play as children. The passage appears to be an innocent setting for the story. Re-reading this page after I’d finished the book, I now interpret these lines as a metaphor for the lives of these Bengali boys as we follow them through fifty years of their lives.

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, is known for her unmatched skill in portraying the severe and tender intersections where India and America meet. As in her earlier work New England is one setting, Bengal in India is the other. Unlike there, however, The Lowland has a strong political element in that Udayan, the younger brother, joins the leftist anti-government Naxalite movement that emerged in India in the 1960s. (Naxalite politics lingers in the country’s ongoing Maoist rebellion today). The Lowland offers the most convincing, intimate portrait of the Naxalite movement I’ve read. Indeed, some might accuse Lahiri of devoting more attention than necessary to Naxalite history here. But she must have a reason for its inclusion beyond building her plot.

Historical details aside, Lahiri shows us how a rebellion can penetrate the lives of even those (innocents) who flee a country. I can’t help wonder if she recalls this turbulent Indian period in order to contrast challenges facing Indian youth at home with the politically insipid course they follow if they choose to emigrate to the West. Is she saying ‘We can never escape some realities about our homeland’?

The brothers' story moves from childhood, when they’re engaged in seemingly harmless escapades, to old age. Although the younger of the brothers Udayan is killed early in the account, his character and his political choices remain central to the plot. So much so that his mission and his death are never completely resolved. While Udayan chooses political activism, his brother Subhash elects to take up a scholarship in USA. Lives which once seemed inseparable radically diverge. Udayan enters deeper into Naxalite activities; he marries Gauri, a union his family grudgingly accepts, and is assassinated before he knows his young wife is pregnant. Subhash recognizes Gauri’s difficulties on his visit home following his brother’s murder and offers to marry her. She accepts, leaves her unhappy marital home, joins Subhash in the US and gives birth to a daughter, Bela whom they both raise, although from childhood Bela favors Subhash, never suspecting that he is not her real father. When Bela is 12, Gauri abandons both husband and daughter to take up a post at a university on the other side of the country.

We follow Gauri and Subhash through their estrangement, the decline and death of the parents in Calcutta and through Bela’s growth and motherhood, with Udayan’s ghost hovering over each life. Lahiri inserts him into the personality of her characters and through regular flashbacks to India, piece by piece we learn about episodes connected to Udayan’s life and death.

The Lowland is a sad story although the characters themselves are not at all sad. We enjoy their joy and we care about what happens to them. While some readers may find the Indian side of the story foreign, the lives of Subhash and Gauri in the USA feel completely normal:— Gauri’s solitary pursuit of her career, the decision to hide the identity of Bela’s father, and Bela’s growth as a young American woman. Everything that happens, even to the boys’ mother alone in the decaying Calcutta home, seems logical. There is no real cruelty or malice, no judgment, no heroism.

Therein lies author Lahiri’s wisdom and her superb literary skills. We feel affection for all her characters—the rebel Udayan, the self-interested Subhash, an erstwhile lover, the mean-spirited mother-in-law, and the loveless Gauri.

It is a gift to English-speaking readers that Lahiri and other artists from India and elsewhere are able to grasp and work so sympathetically with cultural disparities to create these engaging, rich characters. Given how many Americans embody foreign cultures and histories, we need more writers with the depth, sensibility and skill of Jhumpa Lahiri.

[ "The Lowland", a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri ]

Syrian orphans, a short history

February 03, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Are others as bewildered as I am by news stumbling and reeling interminably out of Syria--those accounts of starving, besieged children? We are moved by the stories yet also immobilized. The “worst humanitarian tragedy of our time”, say experts of catastrophes. (As if we need their authority.) Anyway, how can I distinguish between a 4-year old alawite corpse and a 6 month old miasmatic christian infant, between an orphan and a refugee?

Prospects for relief are bleak. Impossible to comprehend who is fighting whom and how can it possibly worsen? Who is responsible? Maybe we find solace in having yet another out-of-favor-dictator on whom to heap responsibility.

I hesitate to join any chorus, recalling an early story of Syrian orphans. Today it seems like a mythical tale from this ancient land of Syria. But it was just four years—forty eight months ago--in 2009. Told to me unsolicited by Samir, a proud college student from Darra. That quiet rural region bordering Jordan would gain international recognition as the site of the earliest civil uprisings in Syria in 2011 following the 2010 revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

March 2011 was unimaginably distant from this story, an anecdote of what transpired at a local Darra orphanage. It was during Eid al-Fitr feast that marks the end of holy Ramadan month. Customarily, officials and celebrities visit orphanages distributing gifts and celebrating the talents and progress of the youngsters. Mosques and churches across the region are especially generous and attentive to orphans and the government supports many children’s centers too.

Feeling the encounter at the Darra orphanage was particularly noteworthy, my student Samir recalled it with pride when I first met him on my 2009 visit to his country. He told me how an orphan, barely 6, had asked the visiting dignitary, a lady from Damascus, whether she had a little boy. And when she replied that yes she had, he countered with: “Then why have you not brought his daddy with you?”. The next day, the woman returned, now accompanied by her husband. She called for the orphan and introduced the man at her side with these tender words: “Here is my boy’s daddy.” 

The lady of course was Asma Al-Assad.

I share this story not to absolve the Syrian leadership for what’s happening today. It’s to account for my utter dismay and express how difficult it is even for me to imagine that that 2009 encounter was real. It summons a testimony I heard six years ago (although it could be today) from Iraq: a weeping elderly man shouts, “Look at what we have become; look, look at what we are doing to each other!”

As for the Darra orphanage, I’ve no update. Except, a week back I received a message from Samir; he writes from inside a UN refugee camp in Jordan, pleading for help to “get out”. Of the orphan child who summoned the president? I doubt if even Samir remembers the event.

Syria meanwhile remains the only home they have for many thousands of orphans in both government and private centers. Then there are schools for the blind; also hospitals for the handicapped. Each is staffed by men and women who can’t and probably wouldn’t abandon them. Doubtless state support for these institutions, once so generous, has dwindled. Meanwhile you can expect that dedicated private citizens, men and women, somehow manage to cover the basic costs of feeding and caring for their wards.

Whether or not the Syrian first lady recalls her Darra visit in 2009, I don’t care. But that episode should be registered somewhere in the nation’s history.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist, author and journalist with Pacifica-WBAI Radio in New York. Her latest book is Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters in Iraq (2007). She can be reached at info@RadioTahrir.org.

[ Syrian orphans, a short history ]

The Impossible Takes A Little Longer

January 11, 2014

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 “Well, the impossible takes a little longer!!!!!!”:  Attorney Lynne Stewart on her release from US federal prison, Dec. 31, 2013  

“Never Give Up”:  Ralph Poynter, Stewart’s husband and comrade throughout his campaign first for her acquittal, then for release on compassionate grounds.    

‘Never give up’ is an adage easily proffered. But here is living testimony from a man who I personally witnessed devoting every ounce of his energy, his finances and his every day to fighting for justice for his wife. Ralph’s political spirit and personal confidence lies behind this improbable success story. animal pornLynne Stewart’s husband also reaffirms the essential role of family members in securing justice for their loved ones.

Over the 25 years that I’ve participated in and reported on civil rights and justice issues in the US, I witnessed how family unarguably makes an enormous difference to success. Yes, we have some good civil rights lawyers here; we have a justice system that can be challenged; we have citizens who can sometimes be moved to act when they see injustice. Lynne Stewart had all that; and immediately on her release she and Ralph thanked their supporters.

Still, knowing the campaign that was waged, interacting directly with Ralph Poynter and (from a distance) with Stewart particularly during her imprisonment, victory was assured only with Ralph’s personal leadership. As Lynne noted: “I was not very optimistic.” (To be expected as her health deteriorated.) “But”, she added, “Ralph was sure we’d win.”

US press reports of Stewart’s campaign to defend her actions and win her freedom were absent or downright hostile. Any history of her conviction was reduced to an alleged association with terrorism and the Egyptian-American ‘blind’ cleric Abdul Rahman. These eclipsed Stewart’s noteworthy career defending unpopular cases particularly for victimized minority people in the USA.

When she was first charged in connection with Abdul Rahman, Stewart interpreted the government attack on her as a constitutional issue.  The government, she charged, had breached the right of privacy between lawyer and client; Stewart defended herself on that point. It was a touchy issue at a very scary time here (after Sept. 2001) when attorneys were retreating from defending American Arabs and Muslims.

The government attack on Stewart was, many agreed, a warning to the entire legal profession. It had the intended effect. (Muslims here who were being rounded up, intimidated, detained, jailed and deported were hard pressed to find defense attorneys. Some Muslims may quietly admit that Lynne was their champion during the 1990s; yet they remained silent and few US Muslims joined the long, hard campaign to free her. Note: I have yet to see any announcement from a US Muslim organization welcoming Stewart’s release.)

During two years (2007-09) after Stewart was charged, she was able to meet bail and swiftly set out on a campaign against government abuse of client-attorney privilege. In her late 60s by then and barred from practicing law, she travelled the nation to make her case. A forceful speaker, Stewart drew large audiences.

But the government was out to get her; in fact government prosecutors called for a higher penalty, and indeed it succeeded in turning a 28 month sentence into ten years. Stewart was 70 at the time, already diagnosed with cancer.

During her first two years in prison, Stewart’s attorneys sought to overturn the judgment on legal grounds. When those appeals failed and Stewart’s health deteriorated, Ralph and their children called for compassionate release on the basis of her cancer prognosis. Between travelling from NY to the Texas prison to see his wife, Ralph concentrated on a New York-area campaign. A year ago one rally he organized outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan, drew more police than the 20 protesters. Poynter petitioned passersby outside the White House. Another NYC rally drew 50-60. Online petitions hardly garnered 10,000 signatories-- pretty slim in the US.

Undaunted, Ralph and his children posted regular health reports. They informed us how Lynne was shackled in heavy chains, hands and feet, when transferring from her cell to the prison hospital for treatment. He distributed updates at any assembly where he felt someone would be receptive to Lynne’s case. He came to our studio for an interview on my program; he spoke to any journalist who’d give him a moment. The family updated Lynne’s webpage where we could read Lynne’s letters from prison.

Today, Lynne’s release (even on compassionate grounds) with doctors’ expectations that has 12-18 months to live, may be viewed as a civil rights success. To me, it is a victory for the dogged, hard work and faith of a small circle of good people, led by retired schoolteacher, union organizer and husband Ralph Poynter.

[ The Impossible Takes A Little Longer ]


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