Blog Archive

Blog Archive – March, 2014

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 ]


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