Blog Archive

Blog Archive – December, 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 ]


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