Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2015

Christmas Eve in The City That Never Sleeps?

December 25, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The city that never sleeps? Well, this Christmas eve New York is defying that moniker.

Although the metropolis may awaken after midnight, it’s presently deserted. Park and Fifth Avenues twinkle on through the evening while their residents abandon streets and highways, malls and markets, parks and bike lanes to join family and friends indoors, even on this warm winter night. Up and down the wide avenues of Manhattan millions of miniature lights still sparkle, embracing tree trunks and reaching through invisible, naked branches. Dazzling decorations that lured shoppers are now but shadows behind dimmed window panes. Curbside parking space is plentiful; taxi drivers have burrowed their cars in suburban garages; fruit vendors, the only merchants in sight, are shuttering their vans.

I pass Symphony Space with its marquee in darkness. Starbucks at 95th is lifeless; although I see lights on at McDonalds on 96th.  Their coffee maker is off; and those employees chatting inside must be waiting to be paid their bonus. (Does McD give Christmas bonuses?). One working mother guarding McD’s door against any new customers unapologetically announces that she’s heading home early today.

Forget any last minute stocking stuffer, a bottle of perfume, chocolates, or wine. Shoppers had their chance; now workers deserve some respite. Do I detect an uncharacteristic respect for workers’ family needs this night? “We’re closed”, whispers a silent Wall Street. For one evening and a day, this mercilessly capitalist center succumbs to ‘tradition’, if not religious conviction.   

I don’t remember New York streets as vacant like at 9 pm today. Broadway in lockdown! South Asian cooks in masala bars, Japanese sushi roll wrappers, and Afghan taxi drivers all bend to America’s Christmas (if not Christian) tradition and depart for distant lodgings. No quick pickups from cheap Chinese fast food joints or the Halal shawarma street-carts tonight.

After finishing my radio special after 7 o’clock, I head towards Brooklyn’s Schermerhorn subway station. The streets have emptied. Seeing a handsome brightly lit store selling fresh produce, juices, and organic cereals, I step inside for some bulgar wheat—$8.00. a pound!-- but I’m unlikely to find it anywhere else tonight. Four attendants hover in the aisles with no one to serve. (Are they too awaiting their yearend bonus?)

At least the A train to Manhattan is still running and I board a near empty car. Beside me, a groggy fellow, in laborer’s clothes is either drugged or he drank too much at his company party; he teeters beside me all the way out of Brooklyn, then finally stretches himself out over five empty seats as we tunnel towards Manhattan. Three other passengers across from me emit the ambience that identifies ‘tourist’ to any native New Yorker. They’re conversing in French, as are two casually dressed men seated nearby. I spot a young woman an orange hijab browsing through her phone: intense, but not French.  

That’s it. What a reversal of mood since I traveled on this very route only 6 hours earlier! Then, subway platforms on the A-Line were not only jammed with commuters; they thrummed with seasonal music proffered by a variety of ‘holiday’ entertainers who know we’re especially generous these days. A cacophony of sound behind me stirs my curiosity and, walking along the platform, I find its source-- a man plucking a guitar and stomping his tambourine-wrapped foot while mouthing some unrecognizable tune. Awful. Yet a surprising number of people stop to photograph his pitiful drama. The man’s disharmony is surely a ploy to draw us to his ‘stage’, a presentation as crude as his music and unarguably below NYC’s street-music standards.

There in front of him, and us, five foot-high dolls are perched, each dressed in a colorful bra and skirt. Electrically animated by the man’s vigorous foot slapping, they shake and shimmy, while on a shelf above them, three furry toys-- a rabbit, a bear and a monkey-- twirl. “Oh look!” squeals a young mother, parking her baby in its stroller. Calling two older children towards the display, the enthusiastically snaps a photo. (Her daughters are less impressed.) Meanwhile passing travelers drop dollar bills into a bowl at the man’s elbow. Others raise their phone cameras towards the makeshift stage, then move on.

I step into the next train to join workers and shoppers heading to Brooklyn. The train car is crowded but four tall men somehow make their way among us, three wearing red Santa caps, followed by one shaking a small brown bag at us. The singers start with “Jingle Bells”, then shift to “Silent Night” in the genre of African American gospel music. I can’t find any singles when I reach into my purse, but the fellow handling the quartet’s ‘donations’ rushes to assist me. Seeing my $10. note, he smiles: “I can give you change”, and reaches into his own sack to help me out. Am I to announce my contribution, divided by four, to the whole train? The carolers, waiting, are into a second verse of Silent Night. An awkward moment.  How can I ask for change? So I drop my tenner into the proffered bag forthwith and murmur a blessing to his “Merry Christmas” thankyou.

[ Christmas Eve in The City That Never Sleeps? ]

Is She Muslim? from our archive--March 19, 2013

December 23, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Some years ago, I accompanied Arab feminist and writer Nawal Al-Saadawi to an interview with National Public Radio at their New York studio. Saadawi was already recognized as a dissident and a provocative thinker. The host began by asking: “Are you a good Muslim?” Unshaken, perhaps accustomed to simplistic, seemingly innocent challenges, Saadawi calmly retorted “That is between God and me”.

That rebuke was and remains the appropriate and also the wisest answer. Nowadays few seem to grasp the significance that interrogation, as Saadawi did, and then to reply as sharply as she could. Today it is not: are you ‘good’? It is whether we’re shiia or sunni, salafi or alawi, caldean or copti, kurdi or turki. Oh yes, how can we forget sufi? Questions refer not to theological or ritual considerations, but to a conflict highlighted in our media. They reflect the savvy of the interrogator; because using such terms endows the journalist or the curious colleague with authority, with insider-information.

Women’s month calls me not to rethink my relation to Allah, but rather where we –Arab women--have arrived. Who speaks for us? Who are our pioneers? Who do we champion, study and celebrate? Thirty years ago, the Arab woman was recognizable, vocal and visible. She Is embodied in individuals like Nawal El-Saadawi, Hala Maksoud and Intissar al-Wazir. Today she has all but faded (or has she been sidelined?) behind the more current-- that is to say, more controversial and provocative --‘Muslim’ woman. A generation ago, no one asked, ‘What kind of Muslim are you?”. That issue was between ourselves and Allah, as Saadawi said.

Today, we should be Muslim-- ideally head-covered--to be recognized, invited, discussed. Our headwear becomes central to our dialogue. Our Muslimity helps secure funding, invitations to seminars and performances, inclusion in collections and exhibitions. Especially those of us residing in Western countries for whom religion had been private and between ourselves and the divine we now find ourselves submitting to the currency of Islam.

In an earlier article, where I identified a few worthy Arab women, I didn’t know who among them was shia or sunni, caldean or turkman. To those who admired them and followed them, and celebrated them, it did not matter then. Why does it today?

Remember “Can she type?”--the parodied phrase invoked among early American feminists. We chuckled over this pithy summary of women’s identity of the old days. We finally recognized the poignancy and the disarming power of that question.

[ Is She Muslim? from our archive--March 19, 2013 ]

The Moor's Account: a novel by Laila Lalami

December 17, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Stories wrapped in stories generate yet another story. Interwoven, layered tales are a feature of Arabic culture, epitomized in the extraordinary Persian story collection 1001 Nights from which it draws. So beguiling and versatile is the tradition, it’s inspired both ancient and contemporary literary endeavors.  Salman Rushdie applies the eponym to his latest novel (Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight (1001) Nights). Of course the format is effectively employed in films too.

Laila Lalami has produced a marvelous new novel drawing on this, her own Arab storytelling heritage, and advancing the reputation she established in her first two novels with a tale whose pages I’ve pursued with anticipation: The Moor’s Account. Lalami, already an established interpreter of the entangling of dissimilar worlds—North African and American-- offers us an unparalleled interpretation of 16th century encounters between African Muslims and Native Americans. Within a single narrative Lalami’s Moor exposes us in a way we’ve not previously experienced, to opposing peoples’ responses to invasion, enslavement, colonialism and fellowship.

Following successful African American historical novelists, Lalami demonstrates that finally an Arab Diaspora writer can negotiate centuries back in time. This is the first novel of its kind to emerge from the substantial body of Arab American narratives penned over the past quarter century where our writers return only to the latest war (we are still so engulfed and traumatized by these events), or we embrace a history of merely three generations. This habit is hard to comprehend for a people with a recorded heritage of five millennia. Never mind; someone had to break the mold, and Lalami has.

This award-winning novel is the autobiographical account of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. (He regularly invokes his linage to assert a proud family identity as did the driver I spoke to on my first visit to Baghdad in 1989; when we parted and I asked his name, he responded: “I am Kamal Abbas Hussein; Hussein us my grandfather; Abbas is my father; and I am Kamal.”)

The Moor’s Account covers eight years of Mustafa’s survival in La Florida in New Spain”, with flashbacks to his youth. Hardly out of his teens and already a successful trader in Azemmur, Mustafa (born in Hegira 921; 16th Century AD in present-day Morocco, Northwest Africa,) nobly commits himself to servitude to save his family during the Portuguese siege of his homeland. He finds himself renamed-- “…Estebanico, converted and orphaned in one gesture”— then rudely transferred from a slave-owning family in Seville to serve Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, an officer of a Castilian armada in the ill-fated Narvaez expedition to the Americas. Castaway with several hundred others --officers, settlers, priests and servants—forced to struggle by foot through swamps and mountains, their numbers dwindling sometimes by violence, sometimes by disease, sometimes by madness, Mustafa emerges undeclared leader, although legally still bonded to Dorantes, now his friend and companion. After eight years in the forest, he is one of four survivors of collective despair, fear, strife, friendships, accommodation with their Indian hosts… and shared stories.

Mustafa maintains his dignity throughout the ordeals of this diminishing band of lost men. He’s inspired both by hope of winning release from servitude to Dorantes and of returning to his mother’s home in Africa. (Both dreams are unrealized.) Eventually, just as today’s revolutionaries conclude that “freedom is won, not given”, he contrives a story to escape the Castilians and strikes out with one companion, his wife.

Lalami employs flashbacks to introduce us to 16th Century Muslim Africa. Mustafa’s world view summons images of African experience we are rarely privy to. As in African American historical novels Lalami’s Mustafa captures the overwhelming experience of subjugation, not only with his enduring dream of freedom but in his interpretation of enslavement: “a rebirth into an alien world” where “I had to learn all the things I was not permitted to do …”.  Where Mustafa’s story differs from most modern African slave accounts is in his Muslim identity, skillfully painted by Lalami as quiet backdrop to his character. Lalami builds our Muslim Mustafa as perhaps only a co-religionist could, with unpretentious yet unequivocal imagery, recalling for example the sounds of his home neighborhood in “…the afternoon prayer refreshed me after a long nap, dusk prayer delivered me from my workday to my family, evening prayer commended my soul to God.” Of his home in New Spain he realizes “…why it felt so quiet and empty: I had not heard the call for prayer.” Mustafa refers to time by his Muslim calendar: Hegira 929 (1522 AD) was the year he sells himself, and Hegira 945 the year he escapes his Castilian masters and leaves Tenochtitlan to cast his lot with Oyomasot and her people.    

The healing power of shared stories is invoked in each stage of our Moor’s chronicle. Stories aid the lost, frightened men who humor and succor each other with tales from their homelands. Later, when Mustafa is called upon to care for Indians, his stories build trust with his patients and they ease the dying of those he can’t save with medications. Renowned and sought out for his healing potions, Mustafa moves from village to village, taking his wife Oyomasot and three surviving Spanish companions on a journey in which they establish a new co-operative equilibrium with one another, with the land and with its inhabitants

This idyllic period ends abruptly when they stumble on a party of Castilian soldiers. They embrace those men as liberators and follow them to the palace of the governor who, applying his own storytelling skill, lures them into supporting his expansionist designs. While Mustafa’s companions succumb, Mustafa is able to devise a story to outwit his masters. In the final scene, having taken his own freedom, Mustafa is dictating this chronicle to the now pregnant Oyomasot, conscious that at least his descendants should know their own history. Unlike Sheherazade, Mustafa weaves his tales not to escape death but to heal.

And then there’s the story’s teller, Lalami. From Mustafa’s introductory invocation, she has you in her grip, anxiously following the fate of her hero page by page.

[ The Moor's Account: a novel by Laila Lalami ]

Arab Women, Muslim Women Provide Infinite Possibilities (for Your Debate)

December 03, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Do you remember one reason Washington gave for invading Afghanistan in 2001? It was to liberate women. Watching pictures of ill-treated Afghan women, previously uncommitted Americans heartily joined the cry for war. (No possibility of doing that in Saudi Arabia. Or Egypt. Since no good friend of America would suffer that kind of liberation.)

Hidden from war headlines are hundreds of millions of women from Japan to the USA fighting for justice within their legal system, for parity in media portrayals, for equality in the office, and for respect in their own homes and bedrooms. They include Arab --or if you prefer, Muslim—women. And don’t forget Christian and Buddhist, Jewish and Hindi and Shinto. Even non-believers shouldn’t be excluded? (You might ignore Ms. Twakkol Karman, Yemen’s Nobel Peace Laureate because presently she and her people are being besieged and bombed by American ally Saudi Arabia.)

Anyway, Egyptian women seem to receive an excess of attention. Maybe it’s because they’re so numerous-- half of Egypt’s 80 million-- or because they’re so glittery, or perhaps because Egyptian feminists are especially outspoken and creative, or because Egypt has a vigorous literary and film industry that takes on issues with boldness and skill. A powerful film emerging from this trade is Yousry Nasrallah’s 2009 feature “Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story”. It’s playing again in New York, double-billed with a new release, “Private Revolutions”. Both films explore the lives of women.

“Private Revolutions", a documentary by a European team directed by Alexandra Schneider, focuses on four individuals during the 2011 revolt, and later. Schneider revisits Cairo to learn the fate of each of them following the ouster of the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government and the re-imposition of a military dictatorship. “Scheherazade” is a fictional tale set in modern (pre Arab-Spring) Cairo, the work of two men, the renowned director Nasrallah and writer Wahid Hamed, and some very fine actors.

Schneider’s documentary will seem more credible because we know these are real people with apartments and neighbors. But both films are bigger-than-life dramas. “Scheherazade”’s four women are no less credible; indeed the scriptwriter says this story was inspired by true events. The central character here is Hebba, a TV host and a modern woman recently married to a seemingly progressive man. Confronting her nation’s social realities, journalist Hebba decides to profile three women on her show and in the course of these interviews exposes widespread misogyny and corruption at high levels. Her truth-telling goes too far, upsetting her husband’s career, and when she finds herself a victim of abuse, Hebba emerges more determined. She enters the debate with her own personal experience.

Schneider chose four Cairo activists for “Private Revolutions”. Each woman is struggling for recognition and for freedom, some in her local community, others within the national campaign to oust a corrupt government and install a true democracy. The filmmaker caught them at a promising time in their careers when each exhibits a thrilling confidence on camera…at first. Their candor is extraordinary and Schneider makes us really care about each woman. When the filmmaker revisits Cairo after the restoration of military rule, two of these women are unavailable; one has vanished and another rebuffs the director.

Fictionalized or documented, both films portray a slice of the multifarious life of contemporary Egypt-- portraits of “women who fight back”. All the women here will touch you and provoke you. South Asian, African and Arab women are already deeply engaged in the ‘challenges’ portrayed here. But Western women may only grasp these characters as unfortunate products of exotic, troubled places. (I hope not.) If we are honest, we in the US and Europe can recognize that we share a great deal with the eight women we meet through these films.

Today the women’s movement globally is weak and fragmented, fragmented by culture and war, and by class. Western women’s patronizing narrative of Third World women has alienated many; this applies especially to their view of Muslim women. If western audiences see the women in these films as only Egyptian, or only Muslim, the gulf between us will grow wider. And the value of such films will be lost.

[ Arab Women, Muslim Women Provide Infinite Possibilities (for Your Debate) ]

Nepal Must Search for Alternatives

December 01, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The people of Nepal must be wondering what happened to the international outpouring of concern and relief aid following the April 25th earthquake there. Because today they find little outside interest in a crushing economic embargo that many of them feel exceeds the hardships precipitated by the earth’s upheaval. India which seemed so sympathetic and which offered generous relief following the earthquakes has a hand in a new predicament, allied as it is with Madhesi Nepali residents of the southern lowland whose opposition to Kathmandu precipitated current border closures.

A blockade on indispensible fuel and other essentials imported from India now enters a third month. The crisis reached a new low last week when Indian troops reportedly crossed illegally into Nepal and shot at least four people.

Nepal’s diplomatic overtures towards India have proved ineffective in overcoming the standoff at their shared border. Indian authorities continue to insist that Nepal revise its constitution to accommodate Madhesi demands. This population claims the new constitution marginalizes them and insist on a more prominent place in the constitution.

The two neighbors have peacefully resolved differences (usually to India’s advantage) in the past. One leading voice in Nepal, publisher Kunda Dixit  argues that Nepal has no choice but to concede. No choice, arguably because Nepal has unwisely grown over-dependent on the South Asian giant for necessary commodities like fuel. Small wonder the interruption of fuel supplies has brought life for the four million inhabitants of the capital and residents of other cities to a standstill. Schools and businesses are closing; there is a critical shortage of medicines and tourists are cancelling visits at the height of the trekking season.

A steadily flow of aid and political patronage from India had become the norm in Nepal. Every political party and leader, monarch or prime minister, bears some responsibility for this dependence and for Nepal’s lopsided relation with India. Nepal never made a serious attempt, even after the Maoist revolutionary success (The People’s War) in 2006, to develop a self-sustainable economic model or seek an alternative to Indian dominance beyond another kind of dependence, namely western charity (including Australian, New Zealand and Japanese). Nepal’s NGO industry never challenges the traditional model; rather it reinforces Nepal’s consumer economy and lack of self confidence. This is furthered by a new reliance on remittances (used to purchase yet more imported goods) from the hundreds of thousands of unskilled men, former farmers, who flock to Malaysia and the Arab Gulf states seeking work.

During the past decade, China, Nepal’s equally giant and wealthy neighbor, has increased its presence in Nepal. One finds more Chinese products in the market every year; Chinese-made carpets have displaced Nepal’s once thriving carpet industry established by refugee Tibetans. Increasing numbers of Chinese tourists join Europeans on Himalayan trails while other Chinese visitors invest in businesses in the capital. (“Chinatown” is a new quarter in Kathmandu’s city center.)

The Tibetan Buddhist presence is thriving in Kathmandu Valley, but today that influence is being directed from India, not Tibet, with substantial financial support coming from Europe. The mountain peoples of Nepal such as the Sherpa and Mustangi who once had significant exchange with Tibet, are now south-oriented, their communication with Tibet having almost disappeared over the 60 years since China established its rule there.

The Chinese government hasn’t ignored Nepal. It was a major presence after last spring’s earthquake and might have been stronger had the tremors themselves not interrupted northern access routes. Because those roads cut through the highest passes in the world Chinese assistance and influence is limited in normal times.

No one views China as an alternative to India, although in today’s fuel crisis Nepal is negotiating emergency shipments of gas and petrol from China to Kathmandu. What is needed is not a temporary solution however. Nepalese people and their leadership have taken the easiest economic route, charity and big brother support--a flawed strategy that now manifests itself in this unprecedented crisis. Long term options are available, but is there the leadership to pursue them?

[ Nepal Must Search for Alternatives ]

McDonalds on 96th Street, NYC

November 21, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

McDonalds on 96th St.”    Blog by B Nimri Aziz                         Nov 21, 2015  

Not to be outdone by the Eastsiders’ “92nd Street Y”, Manhattan’s Westside has its own popular cultural center:-- McDonalds at 96th Street. (No website.)

A sunny autumn day in New York City, perfect for a stroll along Upper Broadway.  Before noon restaurant staffs are arranging lunch tables on the wide sunlit sidewalk. It’s a school holiday too; so 5 and 6-year-olds dressed in brand-name casuals skip beside parents, mingling with infants strapped in strollers overseen by their Filipino or Nepalese nannies. All signs of our stratified but celebrated multi-cultured New York.

I pass bargain-seekers browsing through stalls of used books set up outside Symphony Space (formerly Thalia film theater) whose broad window posters announce evening concerts and poetry readings.

A bulky, balding man in running shorts steps out of NYSportsClub wiping sweat from his neck and hurries southwards. Strolling singles’ are bejeweled with ipod buds; people perched at the Starbucks window, likewise muffled, focus on computer faces, coffee at their elbows. Fixed on the pavement is the fruit wagon stacked with trays of blue, purple, red, and black berries, pyramids of green papaya, a terrace of apples and heaps of unripe avocados; the vendor needs an assistant to handle waiting customers.

This is the New York which its residents proudly cling to and where tourists arrive from their own suburban institutions to observe us from an open tour bus-- as on a safari. Two squat white vehicles, currently empty, are parked at the curb. I recognize them; they’re designed to transport wheelchair-bound commuters and handicapped youths, ferrying them from their suburban institutions for day- excursions into these poly-peopled streets.

Determinedly focused on my target at Broadway and 96th, I pass laptop gazers in Starbucks and breakfasters at Filicori Zuchein Café likewise absorbed scrolling a screen or resolutely hunched over their morning crossword puzzle. Cafes are interspersed among three commercial banks; a manicure shop advertises holiday specials. Then my destination: the most visited store along this promenade. I step inside, not for McDs new all-day-breakfast menu but for an ethnographic check in.

I’ve been into several of New York City’s 354 McDonalds restaurants, but I’m returning to this 96th Street outlet with a specific goal, namely to test my earlier assessment, and then to share its culture with you. I’ll linger in order to revisit the tenderness and tolerance I’ve glimpsed nowhere else that serves a Big Mac. Please suspend your hostility towards McDonalds’ fast food empire and its fattening menu and step inside with me.

The counter, manned by young, underpaid yet smiling waiters is at the back of the high-ceilinged room. I amble slowly forward. As I pass 8 or 9 tables en route I imbibe the mood I experience every time I drop by here.

The store is small, perhaps 15 feet wide with hardly 30 chairs, only few of which are empty. Both window tables, one on either side of the door, are occupied. At the table to my left sit three women, two elderly ladies in wheelchairs, and the third, younger, who’s probably their caregiver. They seem like young girls, huddling close to one another—intimate and unreserved.

The table on the other side of the entrance is monopolized by one customer with shopping bags, papers, and two briefcases consuming the floor space around him and the tabletop as well. Not even a cup of coffee. He’s alone, absorbed with his cell phones, one in each hand. It’s unclear if he’s speaking with anyone. I keep my gaze on him, but he avoids any eye contact. He’s dark skinned with African features except for his long, straight hair pulled untidily somewhere behind his ears. I note the fringe of a prayer shawl in his lap and when he turns I see he’s wearing a yarmulke, the Judaic head cover for men. Could he be on lunch break from the Hassidic-owned B&H electronic outlet downtown? Doubtful. Moreover, I learn he’s here every day; same table.

“Yep,” says my interlocutor. “And you just missed Frank; he’s 90 and never misses a day; yep, every morning.” Joe Wilson (that’s the name embossed on his shield) is a policeman who I interrupt speaking to a customer with a spread of CDs and papers covering his table. “Are you here to remove people if….?” (I anticipate Wilson’s reply but I needed an opener) “Nooooo Mam”, Joe assures me, turning so I can read his shoulder badge–NYC Traffic Police; “That’s up to management; I’m here for my pancakes.”

I explain my purpose and Officer Joe willingly responds. “Yep, I know most of these folks.” He nods toward the Hassidic guy with the phones: “That’s his spot; never eats anything.” I look over my shoulder towards the well-dressed couple at a third table. I’d already noticed how animated the woman is and how purposefully she speaks. The man, younger, nods as he listens. Three Christian bibles lay open at their elbows (no coffee cups here), also a copy of Awake, the magazine distributed by Jehovah Witnesses. (This makes sense; these evangelists often work travelers at the 96th Street express station; this stop is a common venue for them.) I overhear “…and now the world was created”, and, “when somebody goes to church…” . They’re regulars too, says Joe Wilson. “Yep, a regular meeting hall this here place is.”

The two washrooms further along the passageway are in constant use. A young couple arrives, tennis rackets under their arms. The man sits and checks his phone while the woman heads into the ladies room. They both exit without purchasing even a cookie. Throughout all this traffic, a woman, her shirt printed with All-Day-Breakfast, gently moves among the tables with a wet mop, sweeping up crumbs, adjusting chairs, and frequently checking the toilets.

Although almost every seat in this McDonalds is occupied and people are constantly arriving and leaving, the place is quiet. A man (bus driver?) wearing an MTA uniform sits down across from me absorbed in calculations with his electronic meter. Many of these McD patrons sit alone; others are in pairs. No one’s hurrying through their fast-food here.

When I return in the afternoon, I find the scene unchanged. Except the chairs around the table where I sat this morning are now occupied by a group of 6 people, adults who appear like children because of one disorder or another. They sit silently, smiling, neither talking nor eating. Some gaze at the ceiling, some at their nurse. Their day outing has ended and they’re awaiting their bus.

Can these customers purchase enough McPancakes and McBurgers to pay operating costs here? Given soaring property values, it’s remarkable that this small shop survives in a city being converted to serve only the rich. Would that out-of-city home for handicapped youths lobby Ronald McDonald to keep it open? Or, in the interests of public health, would wealthy citizens moving into this neighborhood in order to lounge in another $6./cup organic Starbucks mobilize to eject an unwholesome ‘greasy spoon’? Or will they know here is really a community center? 

[ McDonalds on 96th Street, NYC ]

Universities Are the Right Place to Demand Change

November 15, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Finally, events have converged to mobilize our new leaders—young Americans. Who are students but the very women and men who will lead this country spiritually, economically, politically? We press them into college to imbibe progressive ideals, to hone their communication skills, to learn about justice (and injustice), to build enduring personal networks—i.e. to prepare for active participation in society. Hopefully while bettering themselves they enhance our culture, our government, and our values?

Yet look at what this generation is facing:--years of student debt, weary-part-time-underpaid adjunct lecturers, increasing dormitory fees, skyrocketing book prices, administrations that protect campus rapists, brutish fraternity practices, and racial bias overseen my presidents with million dollar salaries.

Some say the current uprisings on campuses beginning at University of Missouri were aroused in part by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the Black Lives Matter movement in cities across the nation.Thankfully. Who better to have led this revolt than Black football heroes who for too long have been compromised by glory and monetary rewards for athletic achievements? (“Our star basketball team is multi-racial; that should be sufficient.”) Whatever the inspiration, voices of students in the forefront of political demands for change are overdue. When can we remember the last campus-based revolt? (It was another generation when it probably focused on overseas wars that overshadow daily injustices at home.)

$1.2 trillion is said to be the total accumulated student debt in the USA today. Without this staggering statistic, we live personal stories and conditions in our own family, our students and classmates, our co-workers and their children. On the one hand we learn about abuse on campus and wild student behavior on spring-break; on the other side, there’s the single mother holding down a job while she pursues her degree. This is American university culture! So is the common practice of underpaid college workers--adjunct teachers and other employees. Many professors who enjoy abundant privileges ignore staff inequalities around them just as they overlook racist practices that today’s students are bringing to public attention due to their raised intolerance of innuendo which, like gender and religious insults, is simply unacceptable.Thus their multiple demands.

The case of Steven Salaita who was denied his appointment at U. Illinois ended in success with a substantial financial settlement. It’s a new victory in an American community of scholars who stood by as many more colleagues saw contracts cancelled because their political beliefs were seen as a threat to university vested interests and the status quo.  The current campus uprisings are significant because these youths are exercising nascent leadership, also because the university had perhaps lost its place in American society as the arena where ideals of equality and free speech are held most sacred. Where else do we expect vigorous debate if not here; where else do we expect parity if not here; where can we challenge the status quo if not here? Where else should social media be an effective political tool? Where can we expect hopes to be planted and nourished if not here?

Finally, although it’s not been cited as factoring into these revolts, there’s the current national election campaign underway. Surely that ‘circus’ disturbs many would-be first time voters anticipating next November. Either they are watching in disgust or cynicism and thinking: “None of these guys is going to stop police violence, cancel our debts or assure us jobs. Let’s move it ourselves”. The November 12 nationwide march is well timed.

[ Universities Are the Right Place to Demand Change ]

Pity the Democracy

November 08, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

In the Interest of Media.     

Sit back and enjoy the ride. US media runs our proud American democracy. It’s in their interests to keep Trump in the forefront, then shift to Carson, maybe move to Fiorina—just for a day-- with interludes into the cozy nest of Democratic contenders.  

We are being toyed with by our news outlets—print, radio and TV, national and local. With every day the American presidential campaign moves on (if not forward), I become more dismayed. Take one major contestant for the White House, The Donald—I love media’s moniker for this political celebrity. Trump is a blustering, inarticulate, egoistic, maybe smart fellow who makes outrageous claims and calls people nasty names. Somehow, he has popular appeal. Thus he’s newsworthy.

Whether it’s Trump’s declaration that he’s not beholden to donors or his false statements on world history, he ought to be seriously challenged. He’s not; neither by his opponents nor by journalists. The men and women questioning Trump—everyone’s getting in on the act, like how, before the invasion of Iraq, every international correspondent dreamed of bagging an interview with Saddam Hussein-- do not really confront his outrages. They discuss Trump’s rudeness; they gossip about him with their political commentators; they fact-check Trump’s statements; they compare his poll numbers; they play clips from his rallies. The result:—more airtime for The Donald.  And we read reports like “The most stupid things said on the campaign trail”. That’s helpful?

Journalists can only push so far, they claim. “We can’t be advocates and we should not appear partisan”, we argue. Really?

Which candidate shines on any particular day varies as we move through the week, theoretically in response to shifting popularity polls. If we don’t learn much from a candidate’s declarations, we still follow them, eager to quote their latest outrage to friends. We eat it up. As Mr. Trump declared at the opening of one speech: “We’re killing them; we’re killing them.”

Audiences of 24 million and 15 million tuning into televised debates don’t reflect how popular Trump and his co-debaters are; those numbers demonstrate the cunning of our media producers. A lot of money is rolling into media coffers from companies blasting their commercials at us 24 million enchanted viewers. Later, ad revenue will be augmented by paid-for promotions from candidates’ coffers. All those $25. donations and the million dollars checks to your favorite candidate will end up in the accounts of media outlets too.

Today, Trump’s lead seems to be waning. Although it’s only by a fraction less than the margin of error, media are quick to exploit this and they shift to the soft-spoken surgeon. Carson’s statements on Muslim citizens and on gun violence seem to have done his popularity no harm; in fact they may have earned him more support. This week is Ben Carson’s week. So we’re treated to vignettes from his youth, his family, his medical career.

I watch. Am I waiting for Carson to make some blunder that drops him back to second place, or will Rubio shout some wisdom that will bump the good doctor off his perch? Both Trump and Carson have written books, I see. So if there’s no new news, we can watch book reviews. And maybe if something in these memoirs is questionable— as just happened -- guess what? More coverage.

Surely the entertainment power of these campaigns is confirmed by their imaginative reach into hit TV comedy shows—Kimmel, the View, SNL, The Late Show with Colbert. We need some lightness; we need to get away from awful subjects like military budgets, crony-capitalism, police violence, or the future of social security. Laughing candidates remind us we real human beings are running for the nation’s highest office. Look, they can take a poke.

You’re thinking of emigrating to the more civic-minded Europe, you say?  According to Serge Halimi’s survey of recent elections across the Atlantic, big media is in control there too. I admit I’m hooked on the US show. I’ll worry about democracy later. 

[ Pity the Democracy ]

What’s A Regular Voter Like Me to Do?

November 02, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I wonder how many Americans find themselves in the same predicament as I do:—there’s an election next week and we have little idea about the issues being debated there and whom we might vote for. Yes, elections are happening all across this country now. But would we know about it from our mass media? No.

In my upstate New York district, it’s not always apparent which candidate is Democrat and which is Republican. Some places have legislative elections; some don’t; my county has a state senate seat up for election, but I don’t vote there. Elsewhere (in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi) important races for governorships and some US senate seats are being contested. If it weren’t for Rachel Maddow’s discussion on national TV, out-of-staters wouldn’t know about them at all.

Meanwhile, through this bizarre American system of early party primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire, both small states, seem to dominate and skew our current democratic process. Ignoring local races which affect our daily lives (this mythical middle-American family beloved by all politicians), tens of millions of Americans obsessively watch, debate and quote statements by presidential candidates, men and women whose success down the road will have little to do with this week’s nationwide elections.

Who are those residents of Iowa and New Hampshire who get so much attention from the big parties and our media and the political analysts? Why do two low population (IA with 3,100,000 and NH with barely 1,300,000)  arguably marginal states, define our presidential nominees? If they really do. Outside of these presidential campaigns every four years, one hears little from them. How could their views of presidential contenders be as critical to the rest of us as the fierce competition underway suggests they are? And why can’t the major parties assign some of the tens of millions in their campaign coffers to local contests?

Two weeks ago, lawn signs appeared on roadsides in my neighborhood; they were announcing candidates for local judgeships, and for town mayors, councilmen and road supervisors. Thus I learn an election is imminent.

I normally vote by party, but none of those candidates’ flyers specify party affiliation. What about information from a local paper? I find only personal ads in this week’s edition. So I turn to my county Board of Elections webpage; on its home page appear the names of a bunch of committee heads. I click the link to my town but information is sparse. On the ballot I’ll mark next Tuesday are 12 candidates running for 9 posts. Six of these candidates, all on the Republican ticket, are unopposed. Hardly a Democrat anywhere on the ballot. And I’ve found no resume of any candidate.

A neighboring county held a public candidates’ night with the local radio station airing contestants’ statements and Q&As from the public. Some of those candidates are running for seats in the county legislature. Hmmm, I consider jealously: what about my county legislature? There is none, I learn. We have what’s called a Board of Supervisors. So are those seats up for election this week? It’s uncertain.

Can you blame me for turning to the national scene? I’ve been watching the Republican presidential debates (the Democratic too) for the past 2 months--it seems like longer-- followed by hours comparing my responses to the endless musings of our multitude of talk show pundits. (They keep themselves gainfully employed through this process.) The candidates --we all know the handful of four or so who stand out-- are certainly entertaining and at times infuriating, even frightening, to any non-Republican. And if they can’t provide the level of comedy we need, corporate media will find a way to arouse us. And however outrageous, limp or impoverished these candidates may be, it’s our income-generating media that will keep this circus spinning for another year, all 365 days of it. 

In case I become excited over someone to cast my vote for, from among the finalists who survive through to next autumn, I’ll be told that the outcome for the post of the “most powerful person in the world” will be in the hands of residents of the “swing states”-Florida, Pennsylvania and perhaps Colorado or Virginia--where competition is always close. We in the remaining 46 states will not count much. So, our costly, time-consuming election process comes down to media offerings. It’s good entertainment, I give our democracy that.   END

[ What’s A Regular Voter Like Me to Do? ]

Nepal Update with Radio Station Phoolwari

October 30, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Manju is a Nepali activist working in a village near the Indian border in the densely populated fertile band across the length of Nepal called Terai or Madhes. She’s found herself in a community in revolt that poses a serious challenge to the new republic only weeks after it finalized a constitution. I hope the crisis I wrote about last week in CounterPunch will be resolved soon. Because, if Nepal doesn’t have leaders who can urgently unite the country and repel India’s suzerainty, the republic could be in serious jeopardy. 

I am reminded of my visit to the Terai to see Manju. I’d spent most of my career in the higher regions of Nepal and compared to what I’d known of those areas, I found the Terai so much like India. Still, I saw no hint of the tension that’s recently surfaced there; indeed the people I met expressed strong Nepali nationalist ideals and were proud of their infant democracy, particularly a new local radio station.

Unlike many compatriots, Manju did not take a job in the US after completing her PhD; she returned to her country to address some of its needs. Moreover she chose to do this in her ancestral village near Basantpur, beyond Janakpur, and far from the modern facilities of the capital.

Manju is a committed Nepali nationalist like others in her family. And she’s a sociologist and a feminist. But she didn’t choose the route we expected:-- join some foreign- funded NGO for women’s services where she’d command a good salary.  

When Manju returned to Nepal ten years ago, media was recognized as indispensable to the new democracy. Radio production could be done on a modest scale and idealistic young people were eager to join new media opportunities. Combining her interests in journalism and women Manju decided to establish a radio station and did so in a rural area where listeners would be local farmers and shopkeepers, teachers and school children.

Phoolwari Radio became one of more than 300 private, commercial micro radio stations that sprang up across the country. Phoolwari, under Manju’s direction, is the only one run entirely by women.

Manju was keen for me to meet her fellow producers so on a visit to Nepal in 2013 I flew to Janakpur and made my way from the airstrip first by rickshaw, then bus, then another rickshaw, to meet them. Facilities at Phoolwari Radio are modest but adequate, with sufficient power to reach villages in a radius of 20-25 miles. The seven women working (part-time) alongside Manju produce stories on a range of issues; they interview studio guests and also go into ‘the field’ to report on real conditions. Phoolwari is required to carry two 30-minute daily news bulletins from Kathmandu; the rest of the programs are their own productions. Besides production work, the team has to secure advertisements to pay operating expenses, and they have to compete with larger stations that reach their locality from farther afield. It was good to see my friend’s pride in a project that combines her commitment to women and to democracy through media.

Today Madhesi leaders across Terai are in a fierce confrontation with the central government. I expect that Manju, her co-workers at Phoolwari Radio and her neighbors in Basantpur are debating the controversial clauses in the new constitution. Negotiating this will be a real challenge for the radio station. END

[ Nepal Update with Radio Station Phoolwari ]

Nepal’s Democracy Landmark-- a Constitution-- Leads to Instability,

October 25, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

To set the framework for its infant democracy, to recognize its rich pluralist character, and to enshrine its secular ideals Nepal had finally awarded itself a new constitution. Barely five months after earthquakes struck Kathmandu and neighboring districts an agreement that had eluded Nepal’s constituent assembly for eight years was finalized. Perhaps its resolve came from pressure exerted by global humanitarian donors meeting to award earthquake relief; perhaps in the face of this national disaster Nepal’s citizens realized how desperately they needed clear governance.

 

The constitution, signed into law September 20, provides the essential framework for country-wide elections, introduces a proportional electoral system at the federal and state levels, and spells out leadership powers. Many compromises had to be made but across the country most citizens felt a sense of relief and stopped work for two days to indulge in a self-congratulatory holiday.

The final document is far from perfect and there were disappointments over many provisions. Even before celebrations had ended serious discontent surfaced. Notwithstanding hasty statements by some ministers that the constitution could be changed, opposition to the agreement in the south of the country turned violent. Eight police were killed; in the mayhem that followed another 45 people were dead.

Within days, India advised Nepal that its hard won sacred document should be amended; a border blockade went into effect preventing essential imports, mainly fuel, from Indian suppliers. This cutoff of fuel has disrupted life across the country and the resulting crisis is now in its second month. Although the embargo isn’t a stated Indian government policy, no one in Nepal doubts that Delhi is not fully supporting it.

Some say today’s emergency is as serious as the one which preceded the end of the monarchy in 2007. Except today there is no king to blame, or eject. This predicament is not new; it’s a manifestation of the entrenched imbalance of power between these neighbors. A dilemma that has confronted every leader in Nepal now challenges its newly elected prime minister, K.P. Oli. A Communist Party member, he relies on a coalition of minor parties when boldness and confidence are needed.

Nepal, although never occupied by a foreign power and enjoying the largesse of nations across the globe, has allowed itself to become perilously dependent on India for basic commodities. Every few years its vulnerability to Indian interests becomes painfully apparent.

Today, without India-supplied fuel, life across Nepal has been brought to a halt. Factories are shut, children and teachers cannot get to school; without propane gas businesses are idle, and intercity travel is impossible. Tourism (customarily at its peak during autumn months) is thwarted and projects designed to repair earthquake damage are suspended. 

Why should India be unhappy with this harmless northern neighbor? Nepal poses no serious challenge to India. Barely a year ago, its people applauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a hero on his visit to Kathmandu, and following the earthquake Modi pledged $1 billion in relief aid.

But commentators on both sides of the dispute see Delhi’s hand in this crisis. It is seen as siding with a major block of Nepal’s inhabitants unhappy with the constitution. They are the Madhesi who populate the lowland strip of Nepal along its 1000 mile border with India. They’d wanted the constitution to demarcate a distinct Madhes province and to define Nepali citizenship to favor them.

Most Madhesi originated in the adjacent Indian provinces and they enjoy benefits from both countries. Moving freely across the frontier, they share more with India, including language, religion and economic interests than they do with Nepal’s hill people and Kathmandu residents.

With the fall of Nepal’s Hindu monarchy and the rise of democratic freedoms over the past decade, regional, religious, gender and language differences became the basis for ethnic awakenings across the country and these sentiments evolved into political interest groups, each demanding special rights constitutional rights. Indeed, competing interests of these communities was a major factor delaying the work of the constituent assembly.

Madhesi leaders, arguing that the new constitution marginalizes them in favor of other ‘ethnic’ groups, launched the current protest, employing their strategic position along the frontier to impose the blockade. Nepal’s Prime Minister (Communist Party) is a compromise candidate relying on a coalition of small parties and it’s already apparent that Oli lacks the personality to force a solution. His newly appointed foreign minister (from a small royalist party) returned empty handed from a meeting with India’s prime minister.

The United States, so active in fostering democracies across the world, shows little concern for Nepal’s struggling democracy. Perhaps that’s because of its close ties to India. Also, since the 1990s opposition movement that eventually led to the end of the monarchy and the creation of a republic was Maoist inspired, and with Maoists and Communists still major players in Nepali politics, the US may be less inclined to support this democracy. More reasons for new assertive leadership here.  END

 

[ Nepal’s Democracy Landmark-- a Constitution-- Leads to Instability, ]

A love story? A cure? Atonement?

October 07, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 Today’s story begins with a minor bureaucratic procedure but it ends with a human encounter that begs telling. Let’s start with the death of Robert and the survival of his elderly mother. After Robert died three years ago, his mother reregistered her house from his name (his father’s) to hers, the surname she’d adopted when she remarried. This simple act would have far reaching ramifications that would change her life, sort of. 

Robert, who’d lived with his mother for the past 20 years was 63 when he died. Yvonne was 86 then and things looked rather bleak because she was now living alone and because of a recently diagnosed illness. Not long before his death, Robert noticed mental difficulties his mom was experiencing. She was awaking at night believing strangers were trying to enter their home or wandering through the rooms. Robert had new locks and a security system installed.

Yvonne was not comforted. Recognizing what he thought were signs of Alzheimer’s, Robert attended a local Alzheimer’s support group to learn how best to help his mother. An additional problem for Robert was own health; he himself was dying of cancer and he knew this. Unable to work fulltime for the past year, his visits for medical treatment were increasingly frequent.  

While struggling with his own debility Robert accompanied his mother to a geriatric specialist; she indeed showed symptoms of dementia. Yvonne completely rejected this diagnosis and refused to take recommended drugs. Barely a week later, before Robert could resolve the matter, he collapsed and was hospitalized. Within three days he succumbed to his cancer. Relatives of Robert’s (from his father’s side, all living faraway in Georgia, Texas and California) converged in New Jersey for his funeral. Here they learned about Yvonne’s prognosis and discussed what might be done. Neighborhood friends met too, and we arranged to cautiously monitor Yvonne’s health. Meanwhile she insisted on remaining in her home, alone.

On the surface Yvonne had an undistinguished life. Born in France, she married an American after World War II and moved to the US where her son was born. When Robert was barely four, his father died. Yvonne rented a place near her son’s grandparents and they helped care for him while she went to work. She often talked to me about her good paying office jobs in New York City. She supported herself and her son most of her life.

Until a few days ago Yvonne she had never spoken about living in North Africa. Robert was seven when she left New Jersey to work for a US company in Morocco. Perhaps because of her skill in French and an expectation that Morocco might be more like her homeland, she thought it would be a good move. Robert went with her.

Two years later both were back in the US. Yvonne eventually remarried; unluckily, this partner too died after a few years. Robert and his mom were alone again. Little seemed to have changed. A hardworking single mom, Yvonne was able to buy a house for Robert and her. She resolved not to remarry; she continued to use the name of her second husband although their house remained listed in Robert’s name. If anyone needed to locate Yvonne by her first married name, it would be difficult. Who guessed she’d be the object of a search?

Six months after Robert’s death Yvonne’s was managing well alone but relatives expected they’d soon have to decide about her long term care. Friends living nearby were keeping a close watch over her. Discreetly exchanging news about Yvonne, we noticed that her Alzheimer’s symptoms seemed to be retreating. Not only was Yvonne’s health not worsening; she appeared to have regained her energy, good humor and mental balance. How could this be?

Visiting Yvonne a few days ago when her phone rang, I learned a possible reason for her recuperation. I heard her curtly ask the party to ring her after an hour; then she returned to me, shyly announcing, “I have a boyfriend”. Without my urging she quietly explained what was happening, pausing only to retrieve from the next room a small photo album this friend had recently assembled for her.

All the photos were of a smiling, tall man with a full head of hair—let’s call him Alan. In the early pictures he was in military uniform, usually posed beside an aircraft of some kind. Decade by decade they showed him aging, until the most recent snap at his current 83 years, still tall and proud. Sixty years earlier Alan was an American pilot stationed in Morocco, Yvonne said. They’d met there and fallen in love. They planned to marry but he withdrew his promise citing family obligations in the USA. She was heartbroken and as she recalled the episode to me I could see some lingering sadness.

Both returned to the US, she with her son to resume her suburban life and office job, he to marry and raise a family while continuing his military career. They had no contact, although now he claims he desperately tried to find Yvonne. For half a century, he told her after he’d finally traced her whereabouts, he’d never forgotten her. Only when Yvonne registered her house under the name by which Alan knew her, he succeeded.

“He betrayed me”, she said, and explained she was not very receptive when he first reached her at her home. That was six months after Bob died. Alan composed this album of snaps documenting his life and after that, when he insisted on visiting her, she could not resist.

He came to see her a second time to drive her to his home in North Carolina to meet his whole family. He’d been completely honest with them, Yvonne says. She found Alan’s wife cordial, although his grown children refused to meet with her. The final pictures in the album include two snaps of Alan and Yvonne and one with him and his wife.

Alan phones Yvonne every day, sometimes more than once. They talk for a long time. She can’t believe this. She can’t understand his wife’ generosity (or is it tolerance?). As she fingers through the small album, she smiles and talks about what he’s told her of his past 60 years and the details of his search for her. I don’t know if Yvonne is deeply happy about what’s happened. But I think this reunion does explain her improved health.

You tell me: a touching love story? A temporary cure for disease, or exploitation by a scoundrel trying to atone for a 60-year-old mistake?

[ A love story? A cure? Atonement? ]

A Short Walk Through Europe

September 15, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It was hardly six weeks ago that Walid announced he’d finally saved enough at his part time construction job in Lebanon to pay the smuggler’s fee. After two years of wearily waiting for conditions to improve in his homeland, it was time to move on. When I met Walid in 2009, he was completing his degree in literature at Damascus University. He often spoke about visiting foreign lands, but it wasn’t as a refugee fleeing his proud land of Syria. It wasn’t with a single knapsack on his back. It was not before he heard news of whether his brother, a young military officer and trained lawyer in Palmyra had survived captivity during the ISIS assault on that city. It was not without completing his degree. Or knowing the fate of  Karim, his childhood friend, who in the earliest days of the uprising joined opposition forces. It was not without an embrace from his mother.

Two weeks passed. We spoke the night before he and four friends left for Turkey. On August 30, on his Facebook page, Walid posted “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in light.-Hellen keller.”

 

Not long after that, daily messages arrived along with some grainy photos on my viber account.

This pic in serbian hungarian borders

Now I am in budabesit in hungary

We are wating for train to go to germany

My journy was good and safe untill now

need just ur prayers and ur encouragment

Now iam in hungary we are stuck and wait to go out without take our fingerprints in hungary

Here in the kelti station there was a gathering of syrian young to let us go by train

We buy food from around us

nowdays hungarian people give us water and sweets and plankts

I think I could pass the way I still just have little step to get to germany

Hello dear freind dr, I am happy now I am in Austeria they are a goodhearted people Today I will take train for germany; If God wanted.

Hello dear freind

I reached sweden today,  thanks God.

Why not yes you can?

[ A Short Walk Through Europe ]

Losing Our Young Syrians (From My Expanding Illegal Migrants File)

July 21, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When a former Syrian student of mine, Walid, announced that he’d resolved to pay smugglers to get him to Europe, I thought of his classmates and so many youths I hear from, now scattered across the globe. I’d known them in Damascus where I’d been teaching workshops in media. I stayed until 2012 well after the conflict had begun so I witnessed these youths’ dilemmas at the earliest stage.

Faras, after completing his studies in theater, delayed plans to travel to Egypt because his mother needed him with her. To support himself meanwhile he was tutoring foreigners in Arabic. Initially Faras seemed unconcerned about the demonstrations erupting across the capital. One afternoon this abruptly changed when while innocently riding a bus, he was picked up by security agents. He spent 40 days in an underground jail, emerging as a fearless anti-government activist. Using contacts from prison, he joined clandestine planning meetings and street protests very much like young men did in the city of Homs. Where Faras is today, I don’t know.

Others-- Karim and Walid, Hazem and Samir, Homa and Rana [i]-- somehow keep in touch with each other and with me. Most are now outside Syria, alone. Rana who managed to continue doctoral studies in English literature in Syria is leaving soon. In 2009 she considered graduate work at an American university but because of U.S. policy towards her country, she shifted her focus eastward, to India and Thailand. Last week she wrote me that’s she’s received a scholarship for India. It’s good news. Rana knows the high level of English there and I’m happy she made that choice.

I’ve recently lost track of Karim who decided to join the opposition after the first protests erupted in the south of Syria. Joining a network of equally committed youths he offered his services in media to the Syrian Free Army. Initially foreign journalists ventured into FSA and other rebel camps and that’s where they picked up Karim. Although poorly paid, he seemed to thrive in that risky job. Within a year Karim was in Europe and the USA giving testimony at human rights meetings there. I think he really believed that these international bodies could change the direction of U.S. policy in favor of intervention; anyway there was no going back. It was on one of his human rights junkets in NY in 2013 that we last met; I was astonished at Karim’s facility with his laptop and phones as he tracked his network of informants and kept in touch with family in four countries simultaneously. He was to return as a guest of the U.S. State Department but never arrived. From his base in south Turkey he continued his forays into increasingly dangerous rebel areas of Syria, again on behalf of journalists for whom entering Syria had become too risky.

Karim always kept in touch with us so his silence over the past six months is worrying. Friends suspect he’s been captured by ISIS. If he’s not dead, he is in deep trouble, they fear.

Then there’s Samir, alone and despairing in Jordan. Although when I last met him he was upbeat, gratified that, passport in hand, he’d escaped his homeland by a circuitous route. No U.N. refugee camp for Samir, he was working at two jobs and saving for his marriage. His college sweetheart, to whom he was engaged before he fled, was still in Syria. (They kept in touch daily by WhatsApp.) Certain she’d arrive within weeks he invited me to the wedding. That was 18 months ago and she’s still not with him.

Hazem chose another course. Even with a degree in economics he hadn’t found work and was sharing an apartment with four students, friends from his hometown in south Syria. Inexplicably Hazem decided to join the army; with his degree he’d become an officer, he expected. Before he completed his training in 2012 the crisis had worsened, so during a week’s home leave he decided to slip across the border. With no passport or any papers at all, he’s having a hard time. At one point he asked: should I join the rebels? (I don’t know which group he was contemplating.) His friends report that he too is missing.

Homa is in Turkey unable to decide whether or not to return home; she’s Turkmen Syrian and in the early months of the conflict she supported Turkey’s opposition to Assad. She hasn’t found work there and didn’t get the sympathy from Turkish people that she’d expected. Her parents are urging her to return home although the apartment where they lived has been bombed.

There are five more I can add to this account--and a hundred more from Iraq—among millions. Not everyone’s dead; not everyone’s against their government. But all are hungry, and all have family ‘back home’ making very hard choices. Any good days they recall are far, far behind them.

[i] Names have been changed, but the details of their lives are as reported.

[ Losing Our Young Syrians (From My Expanding Illegal Migrants File) ]

Demolition Dilemmas--Kathmandu Dispatch 5

May 25, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There is little doubt that they have to come down. But how will priorities be decided? Who will pay? Then how will the formidable task of securing Nepal’s homes, schools, hospitals and offices proceed? In Kathmandu valley and beyond, new medical and business complexes, government centers, police posts, universities halls and libraries, temples and monuments, and high rise dwellings –from the most prized heritage sites to model rural medical centers --are badly damaged and marked for demolition. Some structures are visibly disfigured and non-functional; some lie folded into heaps of rubble; some appear serviceable although they are not. Whatever their appearance, the task of demolition and clearing rubble is immense, its implementation hard to grasp despite the great urgency.

Although the most widespread damage is in rural areas across the 13 districts (of 75 nationwide) adjacent to Kathmandu, debris removal and reconstruction may be easier there. Rural dwellings are by and large constructed by farmers from local materials and are one and two stories only.

Across Kathmandu one occasionally passes cranes at work. The most colossal machines that ever treaded the lanes and tracks of the valley, they methodically attack 4-story villas that once stood confidently in purple, red or blue coats but now offer less protection than a 5 mm thick tarpaulin pinned in a clearing beyond a local temple or strapped to an unsteady tree.

Those lumbering orange giants claw at brick walls of traditional modest dwellings; they batter glass facades of grand modern offices like Kantipur Publications; they hover above half-buried villas jabbing at their roofs. Heaps of rubble spill into roadways as the professional crews and soldiers move on, leaving residents to await teams who’ll somehow remove these piles of detritus. (Forget about rebuilding for now.) Somehow, in the confusion and clutter that is Nepal today, from their tented ministry offices, bureaucrats fashion plans about how reconstruction will proceed. Proposals seem awfully tentative to this observer; neither do they convince most citizens that a viable scheme exists, although some really believe that demolitions will proceed responsibly.

Not waiting for the engineers to visit them and eager to resume some normality, private householders are one-by-one reoccupying their rooms and shopkeepers are buttressing their dwellings with 12 foot bamboo, wood or iron poles. (It’s temporary, they say.) Others (residents or the army, we’re not sure) set a few boulders and bricks on the pavement to warn vehicles and pedestrians that something uncertain hovers not far above them. Occasionally a road is blocked by a rope with a bold red warning hanging from it.

Engineers are out in force. (The Nepal Engineer’s Association -NEA- lists its phone number in city dailies.) Local ward officials have invited house owners to fill forms requesting an inspection. May 20th The Himalayan Times reports that since May 4th 2,500 of its engineers are engaged with 25 international counterparts to assess buildings inside and beyond Kathmandu Valley.

One NGO working with these respected, and incorruptible NEA engineers is US-based GFI found that only 20% of 1,500 houses inspected were uninhabitable and due for destruction while 40% are safe to live in and 40% in need of repair http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/ May 21, 2015. (In which localities the survey was done is unspecified). An earlier NEA preliminary investigation (May 9, The Himalayan Times) indicated that 70% of houses in Kathmandu Valley (with several million residents) were safe. May 18, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared it could not handle the multi-story demolitions due to inadequate equipment and was thus reaching out to others for help. Whatever the figures, it’s a daunting concern.

Meanwhile commentaries are offered in the press and anecdotally about conditions responsible for these many collapsed structures: buildings are constructed on soft land without proper foundations; illegal wells are bored under large dwellings destabilizing their foundations; shoddy, cost-cutting materials are used by cheating contractors. Much blame is reserved for landlords who build-to-rent and thus skirt the rules (supported by permits from corrupted officials). These rumors are now endorsed by newly published investigative research by Himal (May 24-30, 2015) the Nepali language weekly run by the notable journalistic team of Kunda and Kanak Dixit). This excellent report names names, prints photos of rows of crumbling apartment complexes together with doctored building permits.

Reconstruction is manageable, but only if more quakes and the approaching monsoon rains don’t further destabilize shaky neighborhoods, create more havoc and halt work in progress. Regardless, it will take years for life to return to normal which is uncertain at best, and for most citizens, perennially desperate. In their foreseeable future, they have no sign that-- although millions of them will move out of their tents and settle into new homes and offices-- a stable and just government will do its part. END

 

Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz spent several decades conducting research in the Himalayan areas. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (vajrabooks.com.np).  Her latest book is “Swimming up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq”, U. Press Florida, 2007.

 

 

 

[ Demolition Dilemmas--Kathmandu Dispatch 5 ]

A Schoolboy Looks to Nepal’s Army with New Pride

May 19, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“I want to be in the army”, replied Sophil quietly, responding to his father’s urging to tell this visitor about his future goal. I had been introduced to the 9-year old child a week earlier as he sat in a place of honor inside his parent’s home, accepting gifts and congratulations following completion of ‘vratabandha’, the Nepali coming-of-age ceremony for boys. His father Bhagwan Shrestha and I have been working on a teacher training project and I was again at their home to discuss the school’s schedule and how we might address the needs of staff’s and students’ families most adversely affected by the earthquake.

Surprised by his son’s new ambition, and with no history of military service in their family, the father pressed the lad on why this career interested him.

“Because our army rescues the people,” explains the boy.

In time, Sophil’s aspiration may change; meanwhile it’s undeniable that his current ideal is an outcome of what he’s seen and heard during these tragedy-filled weeks when the largely unheralded heroes of the earthquake have indeed been members of Nepal’s armed forces and police. They are visible everywhere:-- clearing roads, dismantling damaged structures, rescuing families, ferrying the injured to helicopters, redirecting cars from danger zones, sifting through fragile piles of debris and supervising foreign rescue teams, clearing rubble brick-by-brick and providing security in neighborhoods and at sensitive government and holy sites. Unlike the million or more Nepalese who have temporarily fled their jobs, or given leave because of forced closures of retailers and factories, Nepal’s security forces are currently doing double duty.

“They are the first line of assistance across the nation”, a colleague asserts. “Army and police are posted everywhere, even in Nepal’s most remote regions, so they are the first to arrive at devastated areas, help the injured, and identify the needy.” (Nepal’s military hospitals are currently filled with earthquake-injured citizens, many flown there by helicopter.) Although not equipped with heavy equipment essential to cope with a disaster like this, these men and women seem to be efficient, focused and dedicated. I myself noted their prominence on media reports and saw them at sites I visited. So I began to inquire further about the military’s status, aware that, in contrast to public disappointment with the government’s response to the crisis, I’d heard no criticism concerning military and police actions.

So selfish, inept and disappointing are Nepal’s ministries and leadership that from the time of the quake to the present, they are the focus of universal dissatisfaction and disdain, a source of national shame. From the earliest days of the tragedy, private local and international donors felt obliged to divert their energies and supplies away from Nepal’s government. “It’s the only way to assure fairness and to avoid delays, graft, and mismanagement”, notes one agency staff. Because of mistrust of their government, citizens have mobilized to arrange relief for hard-hit areas, astonishing themselves by their generosity, swift response and co-operation.

One former military officer argues that had the government immediately turned over food and shelter distribution to the army from the outset of the crisis, the entire situation would be different:--help would move more quickly and fairly, foreign assistance would be more efficiently put to use, and victims would feel more confident. (A minor item in today’s [05.19.15] press –day 24 of the crisis- carries the first news of this, although authorization appears to be limited to 'relocation and rehabilitation'.) “So why didn’t this happen?” I ask.

“Ah, that would have been impossible; such a policy might steal the glory and credit away from our politicians. They can’t give up their power.” It seems that despite their history of ineptness, ministers want to be seen as leading the rescue of the nation; different parties that make up Nepal’s feuding coalition of ministers compete with each other to show constituents that they and not others have come to their aid. (The result is internal bickering, obstruction and paralysis.) But isn’t the military part of the government and the Prime Minister its commander? (This status is not clear to many but my research revealed that the army’s supreme commander is Ram Baran Yadav, Nepal’s president; he hasn’t been heard from throughout these weeks.)

The leadership would still get credit, I argue. “The prime minister (or president) might, but what about other politicians, with each of their parties jockeying for the limelight? They can’t let the prime minister prevail. They don’t trust him; also his party (Congress) would take credit for any favorable outcome and use it to their advantage at election time. (Although no election is in sight because of a 9-year stalemate over defining a new constitution). Any presidential action would, I’m told, also have political implications since although the post is theoretically neutral Yadav is known to be a Congress party man. 

Under the circumstances, and given the ongoing crisis of Nepal’s administration, could the military decide to assume control by force, at least temporarily to address this emergency. One professor I put this to replied that indeed, “some people are thinking about this alternative”. However there’s general agreement that this could not happen because of the traditional role played by the Nepalese army dating back to the establishment of a unified nation in the 18th century. Since then and up to the removal of the monarch in 2006, Nepal’s military has been independent of the administration. Thus far the Nepalese Army is known to be relatively protected from political manipulation, untainted by ongoing political scandals. “Our army leaders do not seek power. We are not like Pakistan or Egypt, or Turkey. Ours is a professional body with a standard that you see reflected in the reputation of our Gurkha regiments” who also serve across the world, one example of which is former General Army Chief of Staff Katawal, credited with preventing an assassination of the deposed king while peacefully facilitating his removal. That’s quite a record. 

[ A Schoolboy Looks to Nepal’s Army with New Pride ]

In Search of Muna's House-Kathmandu Earthquake

May 13, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There’s a patch of Nepal I’d never seen before--it’s called Buspark or Gongabu, (‘cock-field’). Since there’s no guidebook available—I find it inadvertently on my search for Muna’s mother. She’s the woman left alone and brokenhearted when her daughter, Muna, our Amrit student, and husband were crushed in their home 2 weeks ago. “Where is Umm Muna and how can we assist her?” asks an Iraqi friend-- my anonymous, irrepressible humanitarian.

Sukanya our school director is concerned too—“We might learn more when school resumes and her schoolmates return next week”. Despite saying this, Sukanya, expedient, ever dependable Sukanya, is not someone who willingly delays. She calls Rita, one of our primary class teachers, and within 10 minutes, the three of us set out together on foot. Muna’s family apartment was somewhere near the school-- just here, just here. “Just here” turns into my discovery of the now infamous Gongabu.

I’ll soon enter another world although it’s barely a quarter hour stroll from our Amrit school and the famous Mehpi —“empowered-place”-- hilltop. This local prominence is crowned by Mehpi temple and surrounded with a modest forest that draws morning worshippers and neighbors seeking clean air in the dawn hours before city smog envelops us, and ahead of local traffic snarling through Mehpi district.

A lane leading northward off the circle through which Rita leads us is new to me. Well before reaching Muna’s neighborhood, it is evident that I’m venturing into an unhappy corner of Kathmandu where life is hard on any day, and still precarious, if not dangerous, after the quake. We reach a point where vehicles are prohibited; even foot traffic is unadvisable. Anyone without a mission here ought to stay away. People seem uncustomarily scarce at this midday hour, and those who are here seem subdued.

An unconvincing and unauthoritative barrier of stones and wires are tangled around a thick bamboo pole lying across part of the road. Rita steps over them boldly. So Sukanya and I follow, leaving a cluster of men among onlookers we’ll pass along the next 200 meters staring at the devastation across the street. A crushed taxi is motionless by the curb and heaps of bricks flank the cleared path we now enter. Frankly I’m ready to turn back, but Rita has her assignment. Confidently she points out corner pillars—“there, up, up further, through that passage there—see, see those cracks at the base, see up the walls, this building, that one too.” Open windows expose limp curtains protecting nothing inside. No posting is needed to tell us all of them are vacant, and although these facades show little evidence of damage beyond those menacing cracks, all these four-story structures are either condemned (red code) or dangerous (orange). Don’t go further, says one bystander. But Rita presses on.

Two soldiers walking towards us turn a corner and proceed slowly into a deserted street, notepads and phones in hand. I prefer to interview them, but Rita again invites me to proceed; Sukanya and I timidly follow. A hundred feet more and we arrive at Muna’s. The gnarled brick and mud mass leans towards us at a 30-45 degree angle, held there against another structure that’s upright but no less precarious. I’m exerting my imagination to understand how even a rescue team would dare to search for bodies here.

Her remains were retrieved the day after, but it took six for rescuers to find her father, (and a cousin who perished here with them). This detail, Rita gathers from a man seated in front of his shop across the way (the only occupied space in his 4 story building). And Umm Mona? “She’s returned; she’d gone to their village in District 3, (far east Nepal, maybe Illam) after the quake. She’d not been normal following the death of her boy 18 months ago. Want her number?” So Rita records it; we’ll contact her later. (I’m not prepared to speak with Umm Muna this afternoon.)

I’m obliged to proceed further only by the resolve of Rita herself. (Sukanya also continues unprotesting, despite her 79 years and aching knees). Not far beyond Muna’s, the street opens up into an ugly, hazy panorama framed in noise, oil fumes, stink and dust. “This is Buspark”, signals Rita, arm outstretched to a wall of corrugated iron sheets. From a gap in the gate, a row of buses is emerging onto the congestion of Ring Road to make their way out of the capital. We step back, but there will be no retreating.

As we wait for a line of 10 or so buses to lumber past us, Sukanya reads the banners painted at the top of their windshields— Biratnagar, Rajbiraj, Janakpur (east Nepal), Hetauda, Birganj, Bharatpur, Pokara, Bhutwal (south and west)  --(I’ll check locations and spellings on a map back at Nirmal’s library.)

Ahhh: this is the long-distance bus depot linking the city with Nepal’s far flung corners. So I suppose it’s reasonable that what looms there beyond the traffic on the main artery before us is a migrant slum that’s Gongabu. Hardly an image to compete with those toppled UNESCO-protected grand temples. The Darbar Squares of the ancient Malla cities-- Bhaktapur and Patan and Hanumandoka centered in Kathmandu city-- together represent the rich ongoing Newar identity and culture. (Our Amrit alumni student 17-year old Ashesh accompanying me at Mehpin a day earlier gently remarked: “We have lost our pride”, adding “our heritage”—in case I didn’t understand).

These sites --Google will find them, but I don’t know about Gongabu; try it-- are much documented and appreciated for their art and thereby hold added value in the tourist economy. Already foreign scholars (Gerard Toffin, at C.N.R.S, Paris; Michael Hutt, S.O.A.S., London) and international agencies are writing and conferencing about the urgency and costs of restoration, with commitments already made, I’m told, by Germany and Japan.  

Sorry, I digress.

Back to Gongabu where our only guidebook is oral—teacher Rita.

There’s more to come and we three hesitatingly make our way across the main thoroughfare and down a path following the open sewer that is the Bagmati River (!). (I feel sticky all over; behind my mask, my mouth is dry and my breathing difficult; my fingers are swollen.) Here I witness a slum city of hundreds of 6-7 story structures, endlessly packed against each other with hardly a street to distinguish them. Some post names like Pari Guest House and Morang Lodge.

Now I understand where those millions of migrants stay. Either they lodge here temporarily (where many are robbed, beaten or killed for the cash (earnings they have returned with, insecured in their backpacks and suitcases) enroute home from years of toil in Malaysia and Gulf states. Or, this is where their families rent apartments; tenants here are rural migrants who’ve abandoned villages to live as consumers off the cash those brothers, husbands and sons send as remittances from distant jobs. Perhaps some of those lads flying with me on that Etihad Airways flight 13-14 days ago have relatives residing in Gangabu. That is to say, they had.

“They (these apartment slums) are all empty now”.  I pause and speak to a pharmacist leaning (masked like me) across his open counter: Where are they? “Their villages; they’ve gone home.”

It’s becoming clear—they left Kathmandu not only because of concern for their village homes. They are afraid to stay HERE, in these hastily build, illegally constructed, cramped and precarious code-defying structures. Whole blocks have collapsed, only sustained partly upright today by the buildings around them. And many perished here—the bodies of some unretrievable. So perhaps those laborers and families fled these death traps. Yes, I think so now.

Gongabu was already familiar to Kathmandu citizens as a migrant slum. It’s well known that these residential blocks were constructed illegally, that this area was known to have been a swamp with soft land (c.f. nearby Machhe Pokari-“fish pond”- is now a dryless place), unsuitable for dwellings, where wells were dug illegally and where utilities are impossibly inadequate. Thus, when other city residents heard about April 25th’s high death toll in Gongabu, they weren’t surprised. Tomorrow, who will dare to raze these structures--the government, the landlords? And who will stop these migrants from re-occupying? And where will these families go when they come back to the city?

Rita and her two sturdy companions return to the main road, skirting buses and trucks, scooters and cars for another wearisome half mile trek until we reach the junction at Machhe Pokari. A beautiful name, no? But I assure you what lays there is a bleak scene, with more scars from the quake.  

 

Addenda:

(Why is there so much dust only 15 hours after last night’s storm and the noisy rain that filled our house’s reservoirs and sent my host rushing to the roof to manage his personally designed water collection system?)

 I’ll meet Utpalla this evening; she’s Padma’s and Nirmal’s sister-in-law (living with her son, daughter and husband on the ground floor of this, their family house). Utpalla’s due to return from a more promising mission than mine-- to Dharmasatila town an hour from the capital. She and her Shree Shree Kuman (women’s) Committee members had collected funds to deliver truckloads of supplies to homeless villagers (all farmers; 300 of 310 houses collapsed; school is intact). I’ll learn that her 30 member committee teamed up with a Malaysian delegation that arrived in Nepal a few days back with 40 two-family tents and 350 sleeping bags, tarps, food, etc. (Sree Sree Kuman is one of the hundreds of private Nepali associations and ad hoc groups, who, despairing of the government, joined each other and friends across the country and world to carry out emergency relief like this.)

(No one has informed me of a similar government project. Although we can end with a promising note: i.e. the Nepali army and police forces seem to have been outstanding during these urgent, painful days. I’ve heard not a single word of criticism and I’m told they’ve shown themselves totally dedicated, capable, unbiased, and-- most significantly--immune from the party politics which has infected government relief obligations and angered so many citizens.)

Tuesday’s agenda: Musician and writer Nirveya kindly agreed to take me on his motorcycle to hard-hit Sanku village just 30 km from here. I know that Sanku residents have received supplies but I need to see conditions for myself. I need to get out of Kathmandu.

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Bio note: Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz spent several decades conducting research in Himalayan regions. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (vajrabooks.com.np).  Her latest book is “Swimming Up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters With Iraq”, 2007, University Press of Florida.

 

 

[ In Search of Muna's House-Kathmandu Earthquake ]

Kathmandu Dispatch 2. days 8-12 post quake

May 08, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Our night skies are still battered by the sounds never heard over Nepal before—they are the monster cargo planes departing after disgorging millions of tones and tones of relief aid. This should be a welcome disturbance. But given our tenseness, it is one more sign of the crisis enveloping us. Tremors too continue. Some stop us in our tracks midday; others awaken us from sleep, setting off sustained bursts of barking feral dogs. Tremors immediately following the quake were really upsetting—menacing—and remain never less than threatening. Gradually, against instinct, we accept advice from scientists saying these waves of the earth will continue to decline and are not, as first supposed, a resumption of the great upheaval of 13 days ago.  

As I move through the city, I note signs of progress, if not hope. Not far from my residence, at the corner of Dallu Bridge, there was a sleek, orange crane probing earth, lifting parts of homes in search of victims for 3 days. It’s gone now. Every time I pass there, I note people paused on the bridge to stare onto the scar –a quarter acre crater of rubble, twisted iron, concrete slabs. What most startles me is the clash of terror and calm:—a regular line of buildings, attached rows of shops and residences, then suddenly, inserted among them, either yawning space vomiting its gnarled mass of brick and rubble, or a building suspended at 60 degrees, with innards of people’s private lives spilling out of cleft kitchens and bedrooms. Like a mutilated corpse suspended among a cluster of office workers continuing their routine.

To me that’s more unsettling than a field of crushed houses. Maybe because it speaks to the utter irrationality and randomness of the quake’s fury. The bizarre and threatening imposes itself into the normal. Tornadoes have the same effect, I imagine.

Talking about normal, life’s far, far from routine. A fraction of customary activity pulses through Kathmandu city. After endless complaints and apprehension, we appreciate those trucks, small and large, heaped with sacks of food, stacks of tarpaulin and cases of water loading at depots across the city, then setting out on their missions. Nirvaya, a musician and student of English, tells me he’s about to depart with friends for nearby Godavari to assist victims there. Dr. Mingmar and his Belgian counterpart have departed by road with a field hospital; they will deal with hill slides and impassible roads as they proceed behind bulldozers, then set up medical centers in villages awaiting help. Kathmandu residents emerging intact from their daze and disorientation realize that fellow citizens in those places, most within 100 miles radius of the capital, are today’s priority;  they may feel heartened that they in turn can offer succor to others.  

Foreign rescuers are fewer, although I suppose overseas media are plentiful. Nepal’s journalists are doing a terrific job in TV and print. I heard that NYTimes declared “Nepal is flattened”. If so, it’s untrue, and irresponsible. Why exaggerate? It’s bad enough. Here, most talk is of government ineptness—officials demand that everything be channeled through the government while its ministries are largely incapable of coordinating supplies or setting priorities. (More about government and governance later.) Meanwhile, some basic facts (I’m still a social scientist) starting with population statistics:

Kathmandu has as many as 5 million (possibly 6) inhabitants, not the 2.5M reported by foreign press (probably taken from official sources, since true figures would expose the scandal that is Nepal’s administration). Over the past 15-20 years  the city has exploded with rural migrants; they’ve settled here, living on remittances from mainly sons and brothers (making up the 3+ million who work as unskilled laborers in Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi, etc.) (Source: Pitambar Sharma, “Some Aspects of Nepal’s Social Demography, Census 2011 Update”, 2014) These people left fields fallow to live as consumers, increasing Nepal’s dependence on imported food and everything else (from India and China). They live in poor conditions, but their presence increases property values and enhances the income of the original owners and retailers. Sound familiar? Kathmandu city is also home to hundreds of 1000s of Indian migrants, not really legal, but who nevertheless become an integral part of the economy.

As the capital’s population has quadrupled in the last 25 years, no new infrastructure has been built by the govt. We still live on a water-elect-waste disposal-road system build for a million or less. (Foreigners, including parasitic iNGOs, have their own fully supplied compounds. “Tamel”, the tourist business district serving the lower-strata foreign backpackers is a cluster of 1000s of curio, art and cloth shops, trekking suppliers, 2-star lodges, restaurants, etc. Those hundreds of cozy hotels drill private wells (illegal) to provide showers and western modern toilet facilities for oblivious clients.)

Foreign press may accept the 2.5 M figure since those internal migrants and Indians aren’t here at present. Many are Nepalese who, as noted, returned to their villages to care for families and inspect lands/houses. We’re told that almost all the Indian workers departed on busses and by planes provided by the Indian government. I don’t know if this exodus was encouraged by Nepali officials, ie: if it was a plan. But the result is, in the short term, favorable. During normal times the city is filthy, strewn with waste, choked by dirty air, clogged by traffic, etc. Electricity is normally cut half a day; (called “load shedding”, it switches from neighborhood to neighborhood for hours at a time in waves across the city with its schedule published in the dailies, and guess what—there’s a phone app for it!) Today’s depopulation greatly reduces stress on electric and water; so there’s less likelihood of disease (from accumulating garbage), less chance food shortages and resulting high prices, hoarding, and panic.

Municipal water supply is totally, totally inadequate anytime. One needs a Kathmandu guide book to identify and manage the categories of water—drinkable, teeth-gargling, bathing, cooking, dishwashing, clothes laundering, toilet flushing-- and anticipate the weekly hour when municipal tap (non-drinkable?) arrives. That’s 60 minutes- a week: Wednesday at 5 am in our street. This isn’t an earthquake condition! It’s normal during the 8 non-monsoon months. (Foreign visitors including NGO-types never face this.)

Nepal has ~28M people. That means one in five resides in the capital—a heavy load for a city with shoddy infrastructure. Then an earthquake hits!

Today, by their absence, we’re feeling the critical place of these city migrants in our routine. Because young men who drive taxis left for their villages immediately after the quake, taxis are few. It’s difficult to get a haircut, I’m told, since it’s Indian migrants who do the barbering, and they’ve left. Indians are the scrap dealers, gatherings and sorting waste paper and plastics for recycling; so we expect to see a resulting accumulation of waste in the streets in coming weeks. Indian migrants are also the main vegetables and fruit vendors who sell door to door and at residential corners.

(Remember the night-watchmen who turned me away from Mandep and Northfield hotels? That was likely because most service staff, village boys, had left for home villages.)

How many NGOs (international and local) do you think Nepal hosts? 34,000 is the estimate given me by Professor Rai. (Small wonder the government doesn’t function.) With this quake, NGOs may increase -- offering still more imported experts a handsome living, easy access to mountain trekking on their ample free time, and envy and admiration from folks back home. (Some of you have heard me rant about this scandal.)

There you are--basics to help evaluate international press reports. Meanwhile you can have a useful political sketch from my anthropology colleague David Gellner (http://theconversation.com/could-nepals-messy-politics-hamper-relief-efforts-40903   I’m still listening and reading in search of a voice-- is it called leadership?-- that might emerge at a historical moment like this one. Where is our Nepali poet, our sports hero, our film star, celebrated author, lama or priest or shaman, our mountaineer, our professor or millionaire investor, whose words will echo off majestic peaks and roll through villages, down terraced valleys to offer these 28 million souls the vision, the strength, the unity and motivation they need? A decade ago, in an essentially bloodless coup, these people rid the nation of an incompetent despot king, and with a death toll of hardly more than 14,000 over 6 years, carried out a successful rural-based socialist rebellion to overturn a one-party royal dictatorship and launch democracy (without US interference—in fact the Americans and British supported the ruler). And, don’t forget: Nepal produces capable, honorable dependable young women and men who earn respect wherever they work across the globe. 

[ Kathmandu Dispatch 2. days 8-12 post quake ]

Kathmandu Dispatch 1: days 4-6 postquake

May 04, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Revisiting a school I know well in Kathmandu city, I meet Tilok just as he and his wife, a school teacher, and their baby are about to depart for Darjeeling, NE India where her parents live. This young family is among hundreds of thousands of mainly Kathmandu Valley residents leaving the city to be near loved ones, to be assured that their home villages and uncultivated lands are intact and perhaps to recognize that those fields they abandoned for salaried work in the city and beyond now offer a newly discovered security. As a part-time journalist Tilok has been working overtime filing stories about the quake. But it’s not the quake he’s so eager to speak about. It’s his new magazine “Siti Miti; he proudly gives me a signed copy of the very first issue. It will be monthly, he explains, the first of its kind for the Chamling Rai language, one of Nepal’s 124 recognized languages. Only 10,200 Nepalis speak Chamling Rai and it’s never had a script. Tilok and his group consider this project essential to their ethnic survival and identity; they’ve been hard at work for years to develop the written form and prepare materials for their children’s education. A magazine like this pamphlet in my hand is a political symbol for the Rai people and will, they believe, secure a political place for them in the new democratic mix here. Tilok is thinking well beyond the quake, you see. 

We went to visit linguistics professor Subadra. At 80 she prefers to live alone in her longtime residence near Kirtipur Campus. On Saturday at 11:50 am, when the quake struck she rushed out of her bungalow seeking safety. She tripped and now lies in a cot with a broken pelvic bone. Friends gather around her bed today sharing anecdotes from each of their neighborhoods—not only cracked walls and impassable lanes but the absence of any government visitors seeing to their needs. They report conditions of villages whose names I once knew well. 

The assembly courtyard and playgrounds of Sukanya’s school, Amrit, have become a tent city for the entire MehPin neighborhood sleeping under tarpaulins, cooking communal meals. The school luckily had a diesel generator and retrieved it from storage to furnish light for the area, so essential during those first two scary nights. Like elsewhere across the country, schools will remain closed for some weeks. Amrit’s teachers and students have joined the exodus to natal villages. But Mokta, Sukanya’s granddaughter of 18 months is ill with an unknown ailment and that’s taking her attention away from the quake. She’s been rocking her all though our visit; it’s her first grandchild. 

By night four, here and elsewhere, even families who continue to sleep in a garden spend a final hour inside their parlors to watch the latest episode of “Udaan” (flight), the Indian serial drama they have been following for six months. It’s the story of a young girl, 7, Chakour, whose story as a bonded laborer has gripped the entire subcontinent. I wonder if this too is proving a sense of security for families-- some continuity (or escape) at a time they so desperately need a sense of connection and routine.

I’m not very good as a deadline journalist reporting from the field; I found out that in Iraq in the 1990s. While dozens of international journalists were busily typing away at the Baghdad Press Center—(pre-cell phone) where we had to go to get satellite access-- I took days to mull over what I’d seen, cross check facts, and absorb the personal testimonials I’d gathered before I could write. It’s the same here in Kathmandu where a week ago, the 7.8 scale earthquake struck as I was packing to leave home for Newark International airport.

I gave no thought at all about cancelling, even though my visit was not urgent; I had neither a news assignment nor a humanitarian mission. I thought, “I’ll go as far as the plane will get me”. To be sure, there were inconveniences and delays, but anything facing me was eclipsed by those of the Nepalese. Suffice to say the second attempt from Abu Dhabi was successful. My fellow passengers were about 20 journalists and another 20 or so humanitarian aid reps, from Christian evangelicals to Medicine Sans Frontiers. The remaining 200 or so passengers were  young Nepalese men (20-30 in age, from among 3 million migrant laborers outside) who’ve taken leave from their unhappy jobs in Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia to get home and offer succor to their families.

A larger aircraft has been assigned to carry those of us from yesterday’s two flights unable to land at Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu (turned back to UAE), plus a new load of passengers. Somehow the mood seemed more upbeat than yesterday’s; passengers were loquacious, gaily taking photos of themselves in this more upscale aircraft. Tonight after crossing the Indian Ocean and India we’d again join a fleet of planes circling over Kathmandu Valley. But this time our pilot shared some wonderful optimism, announcing at least 3 times, that he expected to get into Nepal: “We have dropped from 28,000 to 24,000 feet;” then later to 18,000 feet, repeating “I expect we will land. I know how to manage”.  Many of us in the cabin erupted in laughter and peered through windows looking for the lights of the Nepalese capital.

Within an hour of getting into the terminal I was pleasantly surprised to locate the suitcase I’d surrendered in New Jersey 58 hours earlier, found the sole taxi sitting outside Arrivals and directed its driver –the cost was irrelevant- to Tamel quarter where I was confident I’d find a room. At 10:30pm it was too late to contact Padma and Nirmal with whom I’d planned to stay, or even Dawa Sherpa who I knew would respond to my call at anytime, anywhere. Anyway, I thought, if their houses are intact, they would surely be occupied by crowds of people from their large families. Indeed, as I’d learn in 2 days, Padma and Nirmal were among the hundreds of thousands sleeping outdoors sharing blankets, huddled under tarpaulins, in this case in their own garden. Nirmal was also among perhaps millions who by day 2 had lost all the charge on his phone.

My taxi sped through dark, empty streets; we encountered no roadblocks, not even police checkpoints –perhaps all security personnel were seconded to damaged high-value areas. The only traffic I saw was a convoy of 4 small trucks loaded with what was probably humanitarian relief. I frankly expected to encounter chasms and fissures in the road, but the driver zipped along as if he knew where was safe and passable. Two hotels –Northfield and Mandep-- were in darkness but I knocked anyway; at each in turn sleepy security guards shooed me away unsympathetically: “no beds, no water”. Finally I persuaded the watchman at nearby Dalai Hotel to take me in—he originally apologized that the rooms were dirty and without sheets; I didn’t care (in fact it was very clean and in the morning, when I awoke at 1pm, I even found hot water flowing in the shower pipe.)

I emerged into the street at 2, warned by the hotel receptionist to watch for bricks falling!!  I was only concerned by a sudden feeling of unsteadiness on my feet, a little woozy, like vertigo. It didn’t last long but would recur at odd times for the next several days. I recall Dr. Ammash, a cellular microbiologist in Baghdad in 1995 explaining how the depleted uranium from US munitions and all the dust of war and refuse, alters the molecules in the air—something to do with ions. It would have deep affects on health, she explained. So I wonder if an earthquake too can cause this air molecule destabilization.

I was also reminded of Iraq where, unable to make phone contact in April 1991, after the massive US bombing there, I determinedly directed my taxi to the homes and businesses of Iraqis who I needed news of; now, I find myself walking the familiar streets Kathmandu to confront the calamity engulfing this nation but also to locate the shops of friends. Jamling and Lhakpa’s trekking outfitters store is shuttered, but I find the bookseller Bidur behind his counter. Normally I can depend on Bidur to advise me what anthropologists are in town or what new book on Tibet has appeared. This time the mission would be different.  END

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Bio note: Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist BNAziz spent several decades conducting research in the Himalayan areas. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (vajrabooks.com.np).  

[ Kathmandu Dispatch 1: days 4-6 postquake ]

(T)ERROR: A Filmed Exposé of FBI’s Entrapment Program

April 25, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Finally we have a visual testimony of how FBI informants do their dirty work. Americans who experienced COINTELPRO understand the treachery involved. During the 1960s African Americans were targeted and Black organizations infiltrated, intimidated and disrupted. Today’s main targets of US intelligence plots, Muslims, were completely naïve about COINTEL strategies; and much of the US media today act as if they’d never heard of it.

In the climate of fear that began to grip the US in the mid 1990s, it was a rare lawyer or journalist who would question government announcements of uncovered ‘terror’ threats. Exaggerated claims of danger and demonic portrayals of Muslims threatening ‘the American way of life’ went unchallenged by media for more than a decade. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Patriot Act drawn up in its wake was followed by an expansion of surveillance post 9/11, allowing the FBI and police to act with near impunity. They swept through Muslim communities detaining individuals on suspicion of aiding terrorism. Authorities deported thousands, most without a trail, and at the same time planted suspicion and fear within Muslim communities, citizens and immigrants alike.

The process continues today. After Sept. 2001, 13,000 mainly Muslim men were put into detention proceedings; we don’t know the precise number of resulting deportations. We also don’t know how many people were recruited as ‘informers’ to identify or entrap suspect Muslims, although it may be as high as 15,000.

During the first ‘Muslim terror’ phase (1993-2001) a few civil rights attorneys dared to take on the defense of suspects. After 9/11 everything changed. Distrust spread, animosity towards Muslims heightened, mosques and workplaces were infiltrated by planted informers, Muslim charities were investigated while many were closed and their leaders arrested. With notable exceptions –e.g. Lynne Stewart who paid heavily for her principles —civil rights advocates retreated from taking on ‘terror suspect’ cases. Journalists too backed away from investigating civil rights violations of Muslims. The 9/11 attacks had a chilling effect on everyone —the press, legal institutions, citizens, and especially Muslim immigrants—that persists to this day.

FBI entrapment programs were greatly facilitated by the tenuous status of many Muslims living in the US, especially non-citizen residents many of whom were married to Americans and had American-born children. Some had citizen applications in progress while others skirted the law by quietly overstaying their visa. These practices were not abnormal, and normally they were not serious.

Suddenly this population became vulnerable, like African Americans with minor infractions forty years earlier under COINTELPRO.  A traffic citation, unpaid child support, or a visa overstay now became a device whereby FBI recruited individuals to pursue people it identified as possible ‘threats to America’. This new class of FBI informants, nefariously referred to as ‘mosque crawlers’, began frequenting Muslim institutions and neighborhoods across the country. After ensnaring victims in ‘sting operations’, these informants would furnish evidence in court, helping to send hundreds of these entrapped individuals to prison.

One such ‘mosque crawler’ is Saeed Torres, a longtime FBI contract employee. Thanks to a remarkable new film “(T)ERROR” offering Torres’ on-camera testimonials, no one can pretend that such work has anything to do with justice. Torres is a disagreeable character but he was ready to show and tell.

 Disenchantment with his work and his disrespect for both his FBI handlers and his potential victims (POIs: persons-of-interest in FBI parlance) led Torres to confess his activities to Lyric R Cabral, a fearless –fearless because she would herself come under scrutiny by the FBI--photojournalist and filmmaker. Torres decided to allow her to film him at work--scouting out a ‘terror’ target.

“(T)ERROR”, a newly released film, is the result of painstaking work over a 10 year period by Cabral. It’s a joint effort by her and fellow filmmaker David F. Sutcliffe https://vimeo.com/davidfelixsutcliffe whose 2011 film “Adama” documented how, beginning in 2005, FBI harassment of a 16-year old New York student and her family almost destroyed their lives.

Sutcliffe and Cabral’s success in “(T)ERROR” lies not only in securing Torres’ candid testimony, but also in identifying and filming his intended Philadelphia target, (POI) Khalifah. The filmmakers’ extraordinary access to these men during the ongoing process of entrapment shows us both sides—that of the hunter, Torres, and hunted, Khalifah, in this unsettling drama.

We get a first hand view of the clandestine nature of an FBI ‘sting’. We witness an underworld of unsavory characters, incompetent and living a marginal existence. Even the ‘innocent’ Khalifah evokes no sympathy in this drama. (He was able to contact legal advisors for help, thwart entrapment and avoid imprisonment as a terrorist, but eventually was tried and convicted on a weapons charge.)

This film takes our understanding of this disagreeable process of entrapment to a new level, adding credibility to earlier reports of questionable FBI practices. In the highly publicized 2009 case of the Newburgh Four, the blinds came off. Journalists and civil rights lawyers stepped in to take a closer look at government tactics and investigate their devastating effects on the Muslim community. “Mohamed’s Ghosts” by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Stephen Salisbury started a conversation about the US government ‘stage-managing’ its war on terror. In a 2011 exposé by “Mother Jones”, author Trevor Aaronson asks: “… is the FBI busting terrorist plots—or leading them?”

Most recently we have an exhaustive report from Projectsalam.org and civilfreedoms.org answering Aaronson’s question. This and “(T)ERROR should leave no one in doubt that things have to change.

Next time, how long will it take to expose government lies?

 

 

 

 

[ (T)ERROR: A Filmed Exposé of FBI’s Entrapment Program ]

Extreme is The New ‘Normal’

April 15, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It seems not a day that passes without an act of violent extremism occurring inside the US. It happens in our neighborhoods, our quiet suburban streets, our bucolic townships. I’m speaking about murders of a particularly shocking sort: like one last month when three children aged 1, 5 and 12 were stabbed to death in their home; that followed five wounded and one killed in a Phoenix suburb; around the same time we learned a man murdered seven people, mostly members of his family, before turning the gun on himself. We were still coming to grips with news of a neighbor blasting away the lives of three North Carolina college students, and how a father, a retired NY policeman, shot dead his two daughters then himself. It’s not just the numbers of dead;  yesterday I read of the equally extreme case--a three-year old shot and killed his baby brother. So many dead children. I could go on, but why preoccupy ourselves such awful stories. Better to reserve thoughts of extreme violence to something far away… like in hostile Muslim places.

Meanwhile, thanks to citizen videos, our media is finally questioning routine police brutality across this country, especially the murder by police of unarmed Black citizens. (Although this violence is nothing new:-- our shameful history of this kind of extreme behavior is well documented by, among others, by John Whitehead.).

Police killings and family murders are habitual here. But does that mean they don’t constitute extreme violence? Because ‘extreme’ is the new ‘normal’ in America.  

Consider this invitation to our favorite family pleasure, the circus. Ringling and Barnum and Bailey Circus, a show every child deserves to experience, is now promoted as “Circus Xtreme”. (As if those massive elephants and roaring cats can’t thrill us without this added moniker.) Extreme circus joins our daily indulgence in extreme sports—from group skydiving to alligator wrestling to skateboard-triple-turn somersaults.

Education is also promoted for its extreme potential: National Geographic, our most edifying institution, has launched the TV series “Extreme Planet”. “Extreme Planet” invites us to “Take an electrifying journey into some of our planet's most extreme environments …”. NG publishes Extreme Explorer, a children’s magazine “Specifically designed for striving readers in grades 6-12… (it) engages and motivates reluctant readers.”

Our children’s video games are populated by bizarre monsters --they make King Kong look like a fuzzy Teddy Bear-- capable of ever more extremes of violence against the “forces of good”. It seems we need to employ extremes to engage and motivate our children.

What about those TV commercials that show us what fantastic things our family automobile can do? Then there’s something known as extreme sex; add to that those bizarre indulgences by normal college students on their spring break. I dare not imagine what extreme pornography is, since normal pornography shocks and unsettles me. And are the abuse of children and torture of captives of war no less extreme?

Which brings us to what we are taught to think of as violent extremism. We reserve this phrase for the behavior of foreign rebels:-- currently they’re Islamic extremists, let’s not pretend otherwise. If not, why isn’t the co-pilot who rammed a plane into a mountainside and murdered its 149 passengers not a violent extremist or a terrorist?  Or those Canadian plotters of an attack on a Halifax mall?

To return those foreign atrocities and our daily extremism, I know it’s a huge leap, and it sidesteps the issue of how rebels like IS and Boko Haram can indulge in extremes on the scale we witness today or why our terrorizing others doesn’t seem to match theirs, here’s a thought-- if it’s true that those foreign rebels are media savvy, perhaps in a macabre way, IS and its counterparts are competing with the extremes they observe in our society? They’re competing with us to inflict grief and to shock.  

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. She was a longtime radio host and producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org and contact her at: info@radiotahrir.org.

[ Extreme is The New ‘Normal’ ]

April's Elusive Promise:

April 07, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

April is a difficult month in northeastern US. By difficult, I mean it’s annoying and at the same time promising. Promising because it marks the end of winter’s discomforts. Yet real relief and signs of new growth remain elusive.

The landscape into which we dreamily gaze in anticipation of that relief is not only colorless. It’s drab and hazy and lifeless. At least winter gave us crisp, clear air, and the radiant contrast of sparkling, white snow and naked, black trees that frame a magnificent eagle gliding through the river valley. Our shy red cardinals are easy to spot in winter too. And the ice! Sheets of ice cling in giant curtains over rock hillsides and rows of glass icicles hang from roofs outside our windows.

Now, with ice and snow melting away, fields are littered with broken branches and other winter detritus. New York City streets not yet rain-washed, stink terribly from the droppings of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers’ pet dogs. Pieces of discarded city life, hidden under snow for months now lie exposed, soggy, and undecipherable. 

But warmer days assure us winter is ending (if not ended). Taking the air temperature as our cue, we have our cars washed of months of accumulated mud and salt; we enthusiastically pack away woolens and boots and optimistically pull off plastic insulation from windows. We let our shoulders relax and open our necks to the wind and lift our faces to speak real words to our neighbors who during winter only got a nod from behind our knit-wrapped heads.

Suddenly the thaw ends. Temperatures plummet and we awaken to four inches of spring snow. Puddles of water and mud in driveways and streets freeze, so that stepping on this tender snow-cover becomes particularly hazardous.

We search the landscape for color. That corner patch of earth catching some midday sun? Alas, a budding crocus. (Perhaps an early daffodil.) I recognize emerging green leaves that might release a blossom tomorrow.

Newly arrived birds bring color too:--blue of blue jays, red of robin, and rust of merganser ducks. With these flecks of color we become more assured that spring’s really here. Our confidence grows when we detect new smells:-- the unmistakable aroma of healthy, rotting earth, tree bark falling away to release the odors of new growth.  I inhale deeply.  

[ April's Elusive Promise: ]

Countering Racism: Homework for Every Next Generation

March 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My friend Amer Zahr’s testimony about racism in the USA points to parallels between what Arab kids experience today and what he faced a quarter century ago when he was 13. On the surface it seems there’s been scant progress for us, as for African Americans, especially Black men for example in how they’re treated by police.

Remarkably, we hapless citizens on the receiving side of prejudice and ignorance continue to believe it’s possible to educate our foes and our rude friends. How many times have we heard how they “honestly never spoke to a real Muslim” or “never sat with a Black family”, how they “never knew”….until they viewed one of our prize-winning films, watched Muslims comedians or read a mind-blowing novel by an Arab woman?

Today, recharged by a battery of immense talent—comedians, authors, actors, musicians and TV hosts-- we forge ahead with the dream of overturning the shortcomings of our purported democracy, a distracted free press, our abused free speech and our trivia-laden social media.

The latest talent to come to my attention in the search for justice through powerful story-telling is Rafia Zakaria. She’s author of a new memoir "The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan", published by Beacon Press in Boston. I read it and swiftly arranged to interview Zakaria.

The book is a portrait of the author’s Karachi family woven into Pakistan’s history since independence, with the aim of illustrating how divisions and fragilities inside a household can mirror the vulnerability of a whole nation, manifest through women’s lives-- from Zakaria’s own hapless Aunt Amina, to protesting college girls, to the ambitious leader Benazir Bhutto. These lives intersect with one another and within the promise and pain of nationhood.

"The Upstairs Wife" joins a growing body of literature that reinvents how history is made more accessible and more realistic. But my phone interview with Rafia revealed something more personal and significant for me. Choosing journalism as a career, we share a commitment to erase misconceptions implanted and perpetuated about us by a patronizing and biased western press.

 Both Zakaria and I (along with Amer Zahr, Nermin Al-Mufti and others) declare an unwillingness to accept imperialist characterizations of our existence, and a determination to establish a new discourse. I set out a generation ago to portray multi-dimensional Arab lives (not ‘victims’ who liberals so eagerly embrace), bringing years of anthropology research to my journalism. Today’s generation is fighting the same stereotypes and professional battles we were certain we could obliterate. We didn’t fail; we simply need our children with their energy and their own rationale to maintain the momentum.

Zakaria explains: “You have to present stories of ordinary families: how they endure history, the mistakes they make, their victories and joys. Those are universal experiences; they bring people of the world together. If you know someone’s story, it's more difficult to hate them.”

It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Zakaria repeats my assertions when I took up journalism in 1989. I'm heartened, not dismayed by her statements. She too understands the process: “If you call a country a failed state over and over, that becomes the country’s identity not only for people applying those terms, but for the people of that country itself.” She concludes by admitting how hard it is for her and other citizens to deal with the reality of Pakistan, not because of its flaws, but because the idea of promise and potential, whether within a nation or in personal relationships, is something very fragile.

[ Countering Racism: Homework for Every Next Generation ]

Our Legacy of Women Authors

February 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A beneficiary of recent memorials to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Malik El-Shabazz, I’m rethinking what I say below about dead women writers. Death anniversaries can be inspiring— called “teaching moments” here—so bring them on.

Should we welcome news of the passing of women writers? Last month we learned of “The Thorn Birds” author Colleen McCullough’s death. I admit it; I read “Thorn Birds” only recently, then excitedly called friends to discuss this gripping family epic set in Australia. Ahh yes, they said. They knew it:--not the book but the film adaptation (in this case a TV-series). They remembered the handsome priest played by American actor Chamberlain. And the author? Hmm; maybe it was a woman. To compound this injustice to McCullough, Wikipedia characterizes “The Thorn Birds” as (just) a love story and devotes more attention to the film than the book and its author.

With McCullough’s passing we read that this bigger-than-life Australian – an ‘outspoken’ woman, they note-- penned 20 books including a 7-volume Masters of Rome series that shone light on her research proficiency and earned accolades from historians. And how about this: McCullough’s inspiration to write began while working as a neuroscientist (neurophysiology was her first vocation) in New Haven; earning half what her male counterparts made McCullough took up writing to supplement her income. After she’d become wealthy from the success of “The Thorn Birds” in 1977, she thoroughly indulged herself living how she pleased while continuing to write. Good for her.

When British author Doris Lessing died in 2013 we revisited her award-winning “The Golden Notebook” portrayal of free women written decades before the American feminist movement emerged. This story isn’t easy to follow but once into it you grasp what a brilliant piece of literature it is.

So overwhelming is our celebrity culture today that cinema eclipses all. How many of us who enjoyed the audacious film “Thelma and Louise” champion that feisty actor Susan Sarandon yet can’t name the screenwriter? Well, she’s another woman-- Callie Khouri-- who is moreover an American of Arab heritage!

Last year young people were fawning over “Hunger Games” film star Jennifer Lawrence and the story’s heroine Katniss Everdeen. But do they recognize the name Suzanne Collins who wrote that book? And how about the award-winning film “Theory of Everything” based on the book “Traveling to Infinity”   by Jane Hawking?

We still talk about “To Kill a Mockingbird”. But it’s the 1962 film with Gregory Peck that leaps into our minds. And if we can recall the author, we’re uncertain if Harper Lee is male or female. Or we may know her from the 2005 film “Capote” where Lee is a literary companion of Truman Capote.

We’ve just had news that may resuscitate Laura Ingalls Wilder. “Pioneer Girl”, a lost autobiography of Wilder, is to be released soon and will surely revitalize interest in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series for children. (Children’s books are one of the most invigorating areas of American literature.)

We’ve just had the 50th death anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun”—Yes, I know: you remember the film-- with Sidney Poitier. But what about Hansberry’s political career? 

Women will forever be compelled to pen stories from rich imaginations, curiosity and pride, pains and losses… and from inspiring foremothers. If it takes an obituary or a film for us to discover them, so be it. Along with libraries that still house books, we now have search engines to mine the web for more history.  END

[ Our Legacy of Women Authors ]

Three New Martyrs from North Carolina

February 16, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Could the deaths of three young Muslim college students in North Carolina be a turning point for Muslim Americans?

During more than 30 years after we became a recognizable part of the American scene, Arabs and Muslims have suffered insults, physical attacks, abuse, harassment and discrimination—all in relative silence. At times those incidents were violent; more often abuse was deceptively subtle. But it was always harmful and frightening. Our homes and places of worship have been attacked, our ambitions thwarted, our children intimidated, our fathers humiliated. Many American immigrants of Arab and Muslim origin have been stabbed, insulted and beaten, with assaults directed at those “mistaken for Muslim”, e.g. Sikh Americans. The August 2012 murders of six Sikhs at their place of worship in a Wisconsin town was the worst but not the only attack Sikhs sustained as a result of anti-Muslim hatred.

Islamophobia seems to be inexorable. Countless US citizens returned to their native counties because of the hostility they and their children sustained here. Others have been swept up on minor immigration charges either to be recruited as FBI informants, or detained and deported. Vacationing Muslim parents from overseas have been denied entry to the US to visit their children here.

In too many of these cases, the racism and hatred experienced by Arab and Muslim Americans went unreported. Despite being highly educated our members have, ironically, been reluctant to register these injustices. Whether from fear, from self-deprecation, or from ignorance about legal protections available in the US, immigrant victims of assaults, physical and verbal, often downplay or hide those frightening experiences.  

As a journalist I witnessed at close hand widespread abuse heaped on community members at times of heightened political tensions, e.g. the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait when Iraq held American workers hostage, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, following the 9/11 attacks, and the Boston bombings. Only recently reports emerged that some American movie goers, after seeing “American Sniper”, lashed out against people they perceived to be Muslim.

For too long victims of attacks and their families shied from taking legal action. Just as young Black men are advised to keep their eyes down and yield to police intimidation, Muslims recoiled from confrontation. “We don’t want to make trouble”, they said.

Slowly--too slowly-- that attitude has changed, partly with the realization that this hostility is inescapable but also with the emergence of our own legal services. Foremost among these is CAIR (Council of Islamic American Relations www.CAIR.net), which since its founding in 1994 has employed its nationwide network to assemble a data base documenting attacks on Muslims in particular. (Sometimes in its attempt to gain points with the government and prove its patriotism CAIR has too readily supported government surveillance of Muslims and prematurely reacted to media judgments and hastily commended the FBI when it apprehended ‘suspects’.)

Besides lobbying against the inclusion of Islam-haters in public seminars and police training programs, CAIR led the way in advocating legal action against mistreatment. In the past 20 years we have seen the growth of Muslim civil rights agencies: Karamah Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights was among the earliest, followed by Muslim Advocates, Muslim Legal Fund, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms). Whereas in 1990, one could hardly find a Muslim American drawn to civil rights work, today we see hundreds, mainly young people, joining the profession and working with frontline organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and ACLU. So while victimization of Muslims and Arabs was generally not visible to the public, years of sustained personal injury led to positive changes in how to confront this. Perhaps we also stopped denying that in these injustices we have much in common with Black and Latino Americans. So that we might find common solutions and join in solidarity with the wider society. Surely the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter is a genuine illustration of that bond.

If we needed a high profile, unarguable illustration of the Muslim American experience, we surely found it in North Carolina last week. The savage killings of these three young Americans is a shock. While some argue about the motive of the murders of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her new husband Deah Shaddy Barakat, and her younger sister Razan, Muslims and other minorities understand the undeniable nature of that attack.

The packed out funerals of these promising young people and the widely televised statements by families and friends shone a light never brighter on the real American face of Muslim Americans. The tragedy and the testimonials have exposed our vulnerability, our love for one another and our Americaness like nothing I have witnessed. END

[ Three New Martyrs from North Carolina ]

Deportation as a Solution to Injustice?

February 12, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

What are we to take away from the disappearance of Sami Al-Arian? I mean his disappearance-- by deportation-- from the struggle for civil rights in the USA. For more than 15 years, Al-Arian has been a symbol of resistance to intimidation from the daunting and deadly alliance of Israel and the US government to deny Palestinian aspirations, to quell support for Palestinian rights, to smother Arab American and Muslim American leadership, to strengthen anti-terror legislation and to erode the civil rights of all Americans.

Few men and women from our community have been able to sustain the kind of resistance the Al-Arians have waged for justice. Sami Al-Arian confronted a succession of obstacles that would have broken most of us. First was his support for his Mazen Al-Najjar (his brother-in-law) related to their Florida-based think tank, WISE  (World and Islamic Studies Enterprise http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_Al-Arian  ) when Al-Najjar was targeted by well known pro-Israeli agents. (We’re return to Al-Najjar’s persecution later).

After charges against Al-Najjar were dropped, although continued harassment eventually ended in his deportation, the anti-Palestinian campaign turned to Al-Arian. First it targeted Al-Arian’s professorship with the University of South Florida. (He was dismissed in October 2001 but put up a vigorous fight and in the process drew wide attention to his unjust treatment.) Al-Arian pressed ahead with challenges to human rights abuses, especially government use of secret evidence, co-founding the National Association to Protect Political Freedom (NAPPF) and a Tampa Bay civil rights group. NAPPF’s chief goal was to call attention to the government’s use of secret evidence following the passage of the Antiterrorism Act of 1996.

Then came a charge against Al-Arian as a Palestinian rights advocate of supporting terrorism. His successful defense in that case and subsequent government denials of his freedom are reviewed in a recent Firstlook article.

Throughout his ordeal Al-Arian stood firm, rallied a vigorous defense team and emerged as a major Muslim and Arab civil rights leader in the US. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., he consistently asserted his faith in the US judicial system democracy. The price he paid was high. Years in prison included months in solitary confinement and government surveillance of his family. Even under house arrest after his 2006 plea deal, his freedom to write and speak was restricted.

Al-Arian and his family have shown immense energy and stamina during this period. Their dignity and clarity over the issues doubtless accounted for sustain legal and moral support over the years.

While at the outset of his dilemma, few Muslim and Arab Americans recognized Al-Arian’s leadership quality, in time many conceded that this man tackled head-on the injustices and threats they themselves faced. If one of the aims of the government’s persecution of Al-Arian was to intimidate other leaders in our community, they succeeded. Where countless others gave up the challenge, “co-operated”, were jailed or were deported, Al-Arian pressed ahead, supported by national civil rights groups and a fine team of attorneys. The success in 2007 of the LA8, also persecuted for their Palestinian association, surely encouraged  them.

Like the LA8, Al-Najjar was an early target of Palestinian foe Steven Emerson who waged a tireless fraudulent campaign against him. In my 2000 interview with Al-Najjar from a Florida prison, this Palestinian intellectual summarizes his experience. Al-Arian and others including Muslims represented by attorney Lynne Stewart successfully fought the US government’s illegal use of secret evidence against Al-Najjar and others, and Al-Najjar was among those released in December 2000.

After 9/11, everything changed. Secret evidence was again permitted, terror laws were reinforced with the Patriot Act, Al-Najjar was re-imprisoned and, although never charged with a crime, deported in 2002.

In Al-Arian’s statement to the press at his deportation a few days ago, he no longer makes any reference to American principles of justice. But advocates here are turning their energy to a relatively new Palestinian target of the same forces that drove out the Al-Arians: Rasmea Odeh.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

[ Deportation as a Solution to Injustice? ]

Karen Armstrong’s Appraisal of Religion and the History of Violence

February 07, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

British author Karen Armstrong’s latest book is necessarily ambitious. Today when so much misinformation dominates the public debate over religion (we mean Islam, of course) and its relation to politics, serious efforts to explore their interconnection is daunting.

Comparative religion scholar Armstrong is known for tackling big subjects. Her History of God was a daring work that invited the public to reach further than their own faith. Her studies on Buddha and Muhammad were no less ambitious. Now we have an even more daring adventure, "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence".

"Fields of Blood" seems audacious at a time when Islam and violence are in the forefront of our minds and government policies. Outrage at the killings in Paris and the consequent debates over what constitutes free speech, while necessary and healthy, are polarizing our communities and putting Muslim leaders (and Islam) on the line. (I could find only a single reference to Armstrong in this recent debate. Perhaps she feels this book says it all.)

"Fields of Blood" begins at the dawn of human history with a review of ancient Sumer, moves through Indus civilization of 4000 years ago, Chinese progress from the earliest records, Hebrew history, the rise of Christianity, across the Roman and into the Byzantine Empire. In each period Armstrong draws on mythology as well as documented history to understand how war fuses with religious ideals and symbols.

In a 2014 interview with Salon.com, Armstrong  summarizes--“Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state. Without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.” There is hardly an era when Armstrong can find they are not handmaidens. It seems Armstrong is reluctant to attribute a causal relation. She demonstrates that religion itself does not give rise to warfare, although expansionist ambitions may foster an upsurge in religious faith.

In her review of modern history, Armstrong suggest that the establishment of secular states may itself have given rise to a particular kind of religiosity, fundamentalism. “Blaming religion”, Armstrong argues, “allows Westerners to ignore the essential role that violence has played in the formation of our own societies — and the essential role that our societies have played in seeding violence abroad.”

The book’s final chapters concentrate on how religion's ‘fight back’ becomes manifest as a ‘holy terror’; she offers examples which, when we’re faced with today’s attacks, we overlook; e.g. the 1978 Jonestown Guyana suicide of 913 Americans, the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Armstrong proposes that perhaps the death wish embedded in acts of terror “suggests a flaw in the purely secular ideal that eliminates holiness from its politics—the conviction that some things or people must be “set apart” from our personal interests. The cultivation of that transcendence –be it God, Dao, Brahman, or Nirvana—had at its best, helped people to appreciate human finitude. But if the nation becomes the absolute value (in religious terms, an “idol”), there is no reason why we should liquidate those who appear to threaten it.” (p 341, Fields of Blood)  

Armstrong proceeds to today’s all-too-familiar clashes--what is widely known as global jihad—emerging from the Muslim East. She offers background to the rise of religious leadership in Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine which we’d do well to review since media sources and contemporary books largely ignore critical details of American and European role in that history. Confronted by her arguments, we are compelled to reread the long history of religion and imperial interests offered in the first half of this book.

Still, how can attacks by individuals and groups against western symbols of liberty end? Even if our leaders and academics accept the West’s responsibility for the anger and retaliatory acts now directed at it, the West seems to lack the moral capacity to invent a humane response to halt this cycle. Can we really admit, as Armstrong suggests that “we are all implicated in this violence”?

"Fields of Blood" is not an easy read. But Armstrong has done the homework for us, assembling an overwhelming wealth of facts that is worth our attention; they can at least help us bring balance to the current debate. END

[ Karen Armstrong’s Appraisal of Religion and the History of Violence ]

Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 4

January 31, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The Order of Islam (fourth and final part)

Against Western claims that Islamic "fundamentalism" feeds terrorism, one powerful paradox of the twentieth century is often overlooked. While Islam may generate more political violence than Western culture, Western culture generates more street violence than Islam. Islam does indeed produce a disproportionate share of mujahideen, but Western culture produces a disproportionate share of muggers. The largest Muslim city in Africa is Cairo. The largest westernized city is Johannesburg. Cairo is much more populous than Johannesburg, but street violence is only a fraction of what it is in the South African city. Does Islam help pacify Cairo? I, along with many others, believe it does. The high premium Islam places on umma (community) and ijma (consensus) has made for a Pax Islamica in day-to-day

life.

    In terms of quality of life, is the average citizen better off under the excesses of the Islamic state or the excesses of the liberal state, where political tension may be low but social violence has reached crisis proportions?

Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a city of some ten million. Families with small children picnic in public parks at 11 p.m. or midnight. Residents of the capital and other cities stroll late at night, seemingly unafraid of mugging, rape, or murder. This is a society that has known large-scale political violence in war and revolution, but one in which petty interpersonal violence is much rarer than in Washington or New York. Iranians are more subject to their government than Americans, but they are less at risk from the depredations of their fellow citizens. Nor is dictatorial government the explanation for the safe streets of Tehran – otherwise, Lagos would be as peaceful as the Iranian capital.

    The Iranian solution is mainly in the moral sphere. As an approach to the problems of modernity, some Muslim societies are attempting a return to premodernism, to indigenous traditional disciplines and values. Aside from Iran, countries such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia have revived Islamic legal systems and other features of the Islamic way of life, aspects of which go back 14 centuries. Islamic movements in countries like Algeria, Egypt, and Afghanistan are also seeking revivalist goals. A similar sacred nostalgia is evident in other religions, such as the born-again Christian sects in the United States and Africa.

    Of all the value systems in the world, Islam has been the most resistant to the leading destructive forces of the twentieth century – including AIDS. Lower levels of prostitution and of hard drug use in conservative Muslim cultures compared with other cultures have, so far, contributed to lower-than-average HIV infection rates. If societies closer to the sharia are also more distant from the human immunodeficiency virus, should the rest of the world take a closer look?

    One can escape modernity by striving to transcend it as well as by retreating from it into the past. Perhaps the Muslim world should explore this path, searching for postmodern solutions to its political tensions and economic woes, and pursuing the positive aspects of globalization without falling victim to the negative aspects of westernization.

The Dialectic of Culture

Western liberal democracy has enabled societies to enjoy openness, government accountability, popular participation, and high economic productivity, but Western pluralism has also been a breeding ground for racism, fascism, exploitation, and genocide. If history is to end in arrival at the ultimate political order, it will require more than the West’s message on how to maximize the best in human nature.

Humankind must also consult Islam about how to check the worst in human nature – from alcoholism to racism, materialism to Nazism, drug addiction to Marxism as the opiate of the intellectuals.

    One must distinguish between democratic principles and human principles. In some human principles – including stabilizing the family, security from social violence, and the relatively nonracial nature of religious institutions – the Muslim world may be ahead of the West.

    Turkey is a prime example of the dilemma of balancing human principles with democratic principles. In times of peace, the Ottoman Empire was more human in its treatment of religious minorities than the Turkish Republic after 1923 under the westernizing influence of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk. The Turkish Republic, on the other hand, gradually moved toward a policy of cultural assimilation. While the Ottoman Empire tolerated the Kurdish language, the Turkish Republic outlawed its use for a considerable period. When not at war, the empire was more humane than the Turkish Republic, but less democratic.

    At bottom, democracy is a system for selecting one’s rulers; human governance is a system from treating citizens. Ottoman rule at its best was human governance; the Turkish Republic at its best has been a quest for democratic values. In the final years of the twentieth century, Turkey may be engaged in reconciling the greater humaneness of the Ottoman Empire with the great democracy of the Republic.

    The current Islamic revival in the country may be the beginning of a fundamental review of the Kemalist revolution, which inaugurated Turkish secularism. In England since Henry VIII, a theocracy has been democratized. In Turkey, might a democracy by theocratized? Although the Turkish army is trying to stop it, electoral support for Islamic revivalism is growing in the country. There has been increased speculation that secularism may be pushed back, in spite of the resignation in June, under political pressure from the generals, of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party. Is Erbakan nevertheless destined to play in the Kamalist revolution the role that Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin played in the Leninist revolution? Or is Erbakan a forerunner of change? It is too early to be sure. The dialectic of history continues its conversation with the dialectic of culture within the wider rhythms of relativity in human experience.

Originally published in the fall 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs (Vol. 76, No. 5, pp. 118-132) Thanks to AlHewar Center for bringing this to our attention in 2014.

Further reading: a) , b), c)   Also see Mazrui’s TV series: “The Africans: A Triple Heritage”

[ Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 4 ]

Producing War Heroes : American Of Course

January 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There must be something wrong with a nation when it has to constantly invent its heroes. As if to neutralize in the American mind any unfavorable ramifications of the US government’s summary of the CIA torture report and the growing number of suicides among its veterans, we have another war story for national consumption. This time it’s the film “American Sniper” by Clint Eastwood, one of our most acclaimed directors. His “Sniper” is yet another reminder of how noble and fierce American soldiers are, also how “we won”.

Some critics of the film have weighed in on the racist, hate-filled language used by the hero, Chris Kyle: a killer who “saves lives”. Others reveal falsifications in the film treatment of Kyle’s autobiography and raise questions about his private life.

Unfortunately, for most Americans those criticisms really don’t matter. What attracts our public, and there are tens of millions of them, women as well as men, adults as well as children, is that this is a heroic story. And killer Chris Kyle somehow represents worthy American ideals— patriotism, saving American lives, technical skill.

What most upsets me is that this highly popular film “American Sniper” is not at all unusual in its subject and theme. By chance I found myself on the History Channel last week, viewing “Sniper: Inside the Crosshairs”. This film, viewed almost 800,000 times on YouTube, is a documentary. No apologies whatsoever here; soldiers interviewed speak with great pride in the skill with which they kill. The segment I viewed focuses on the high tech nature of sniper training and weaponry. (This “Sniper” is one of dozens available for people seeking such ‘history lessons’.)

These are the latest in a flood of war films and books, among them the award- winning “Hurt Locker”, that entertain, enhance the glamour of war, present a justifiable and ugly enemy target and leave viewers with the clear idea that ‘America won’. (At best, Iraqis-- women and children only please--are presented as people who need US protection.)

Americans are fed a steady diet of war in a multitude of forms. Amazon.com’s algorithmic calculations based on my innocent web searches, sent me an unsolicited list of books. Most are autobiographies by American veterans-turned-literary-celebrities; two were biographies of US soldiers by journalists. If I wanted to learn about Iraq, Amazon advises, I could read these accounts of the patriotism and the fine conscience of American veterans.

Thirty years ago, a decade after the end of the Viet Nam war, I found myself in an American university seminar where war was under discussion. When a student declared that "(some foreign power) was upset because we won the war”, no one corrected him, neither fellow students nor the presiding professor. I suspect that today, a survey of college-age Americans would likely reveal how they too believe the US won that war; the same may prove true in regards to America’s memory of Iraq.

Apart from historical inaccuracies, these films are simply damned entertaining. Clint Eastwood is a brilliant director. And you can bet his “American Sniper” is top priority for Carl, our promising military recruit 

 

[ Producing War Heroes : American Of Course ]

A Young Man In Search of a Future

January 16, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Carl is looking forward to his meeting tomorrow. A US army recruiter is coming to his home to see him and his mom and give Carl his first test.

Carl is barely 19. He lives with his mother, grandmother, two sisters and a brother in a depressed New York town. I met Carl when I hired him to assist with some data entry work, recommended by my librarian who also employs him 12 hours a week. During our first meeting Carl told me he was preparing for college. He’d been accepted, he said, but was awaiting approval for state financial aid. With a phone he uses only for texting, without any computer at all, it’s apparent Carl’s family is poor.

Our second session, he announces that he’s found a new girlfriend; but, he explains, she lives 20 miles away and informs him he has to have a car to pick her up. (He reports this as if her demand isn’t unreasonable.) The next week he didn’t mention her; he’d stopped talking about college too.

Carl often speaks about his mother. She drives him five miles to the library on her way to work two hours before it opens; that’s the only way he can get here. He stops at the local Laundromat where it’s warm and there are people to talk to.

I guess this is the reality for many American youths: -- bleak job prospects; a mom working long hours; no way to have a girlfriend; depending on financial aid for college.

This week Carl announces he intends to become a military policeman. (That’s where the army recruiter comes in.) He’s excited about this, maybe dreaming. “I’ll tell them to pay my salary directly to my mom, some is to help her, the rest she can use for my brother and sisters.”

Are you looking forward to being a soldier? I ask. “No. I really want to be a military policeman.” What about combat; you may be sent to a war zone. Does that worry you? Killing others? “No. I won’t be doing any of that…”, he assures me. Hopefully,” he adds awkwardly.

“I’ll go to college when I’m in the army”, he says, disputing my claim that only after active service could he qualify for that. “No. They’ll send me to college; when I finish, I’ll train as a policeman.” He pulls back his shoulders confidently, stands erect. I’ve always found Carl polite; he’s conscientious, attentive, honest.

As gently as I can, I raise the issue of America’s foreign wars. You may be sent to Afghanistan or other places where Americans are killed and wounded. Silence. Are any boys from your town in the army? He doesn’t know. None of his friends signed up. I again mention US combat. “Well”, he says, “The war in Iraq was a mistake, for real sure.”

This takes care of Iraq. Afghanistan? “In Afghanistan all we’re doing is training the people there to protect themselves. That’s why we’re there.”

What about our invasion of that country? “No; we’re only there to teach them to use weapons.”

I can’t resist and I press on with some facts about the US invasion:-- overthrowing the Taliban led-government, pursuing Bin Laden, installing an American-picked leadership, pouring billions of dollars into warfare, withdrawing after thousands of Americans and others are killed. Carl looks blankly back at me. “I told you what I learned in school-- that we went there to train them.”

Although faced with this youthful naïveté, I persist. Did you know the US trained Afghans and others as fighters to overthrow their own government backed by Russia in the 1990s? “I only know what our history teacher told us,” Carl replies languidly. “Anyway, I’m going to be a policeman.”

Have I been too hard on Carl? I tell myself, forget about the morality of war and the Afghans and Iraqis killed; just remind him of American casualties; suggest he read a war memoir; there are dozens right here in the library, I think, sardonically. American Sniper, perhaps a book his history teacher consults, sits on the shelf near us.

The thing is: I like this lad; he’s neither charlatan nor blockhead. He’s genuinely seeking options for his future.  END

 

[ A Young Man In Search of a Future ]


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