Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2016

Who Is to Blame? Post Election Thoughts

November 10, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I hear that crowds of Americans across the nation are protesting the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US head of state. They blame the president-elect himself.

Who is really at fault? And to whom or what should these disillusioned voters address their demands?

Unhappy citizens have to blame someone, or something; I understand this. So here are some suggestions:

The celebrated, pervasive and multifaceted, right-center-left US media are first and foremost responsible. Our press, the ‘fourth estate’, regarded as the ultimate check on abuse is, in my view, guilty of gross exploitation, motivated by profit, creator of teams of shoddy pundits, polls, and personalities. The US public and perhaps global viewers too have been lured, misinformed and manipulated for eighteen months while media giants, both print and broadcast corporations, indulged themselves in their free speech license. They focused on presidential personalities of any caliber to the exclusion of real issues and their task of educating the public. They sought out and exaggerated salacious detail – tempting us with sexual scandal and financial abuse. Commentators Glenn Greenwald and Wayne Barrett rightly focus criticism here.

Those forlorn protesters in the streets ought to shout not in front of Trump Towers; they need to hammer real hard at the gates of the NY Times, WaPo, Fox News, ABC, NBC, and even the breaking-with-the rulers-Democracy Now. Journalism students: start questioning your professors’ habitual invocation of purportedly liberal NYT coverage. Aspiring journalists: reject invitations to these deceivingly biased, self-serving news manufacturers.

News agencies themselves will be leading the call for the capture of Wikileaks director Julian Assange. With his masterful hacking service, even while exiled for four years within the Ecuador embassy, Assange has arranged releases of emails exposing Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign plotting. This party and their candidate’s campaign have indeed rigged the election process.

Unquestionably the Democratic Party must answer for their illegal methods to lockout rival Bernie Sanders. It hasn’t even apologized for its insider dealing, which are more damaging to democracy than Clinton’s email irregularities as secretary of state.

Related to this was the involvement of FBI director Comey, announcing just before election day that more email investigations were underway. What? Clinton-supporting news media were outraged by this reprehensible government meddling, but not by internal party plots.

This is the second US election where social network platforms, especially Twitter and Face Book, are considered essential and reliable democracy handhelds (part of what is now called Fifth Estate. Millennials and media professionals engage themselves in these communication tools as a sure means of free speech, inclusive citizenship and truth. With these in hand, their liberal views will surely prevail. So convinced are American free speech advocates of the merits of these devices, that youths in China, Syria, Venezuela –whichever governments the US seeks to undermine-- must have them too. (Although social networking seems to have flummoxed American Clinton supporters, they are supposed to help stir democratic revolutions abroad.)

Nationalists will claim foreigners are responsible for November 8th’s  failures. Not Russia but Syria will top the list, with Afghanistan and Somalia as seconds. After all, those hordes of fleeing citizens threaten US stability and security--thus the success of Trump in winning over so many Americans. Cheap Mexican labor dislodging US workers is another culprit that won Trump votes.

One sees little attention directed to the flawed US electoral system however, or to the imperfect American constitution. The US is run by a party duopoly that chokes us between two megastars. Then, the Electoral College (capitalized, as it is by Webster dictionary!) defies the popular vote.

Have you ever heard of a coalition government in the US? When fellow Americans are questioned about why the constitution can’t be changed to remove its proven flaws, they respond with blank stares and wonder. What: question the wisdom of America’s founding fathers?

Then what about finding a way to dislodge an incompetent or criminal president without launching a long, disruptive process of congressional impeachment and court procedures? Ever heard of a simple vote-of-no-confidence, a snap election? No; American presidential and congressional elections can occur only every four years. Period.

Finally, although this list can be expanded, we have to admit sloppy procedures at the many polling stations. A country engaged in the electronic collection of mega data on citizens and foreigners could surely streamline its election process to ensure that no citizen has doubts or fears about their eligibility and where and when to vote.   END

[ Who Is to Blame? Post Election Thoughts ]

Americans Embarrassed? Never.

November 04, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Aren’t you people in the States embarrassed by all this?” It’s my sister in Canada again. She seems unable to ignore news from the US—the continuing recriminations and anxieties emitting from our presidential election process. In the grip of Canada’s prevailing Christian Presbyterian morality (Toronto-the-good of our childhood), she is concerned for our embarrassment.

Americans embarrassed? Never.

If Americans were, first we’d never admit it; secondly it would be concealed within piles of satire generated in cartoons and nighttime television comedy.

Are Americans fearful? Yes. Despondent? Certainly. Are people sinking into a malaise? Possibly. Are they confused? That too. Are they revolted by the spectacle? At least many women are. Have they decided to forgo voting altogether? So we hear.

 If we were not embarrassed by what American soldiers did in Vietnam, by our treatment of Iraqis illustrated in the Abu Ghraib revelations, by our amnesia over 13 years’ murderous embargo on Iraq, by suicide rates of our veterans, by our bullying the United Nations, by Snowden’s exposure of mass surveillance, by the imprisonment of 2.3 million US citizens, by class and racial prejudice revealed in the treatment of Hurricane Katrina victims, by the racism underlying police brutalization and murder of our Black citizens, why should we be embarrassed by personal stories and statements associated with candidates for the land’s highest office?

Political discomfiture is however an issue worthy of attention. Embarrassment would indicate a moral sensibility; in politics here, that doesn’t exist. Or if it does, it’s dismissed and quickly buried in a deluge of trivia introduced by media as more newsworthy.

 I don’t recall media critics or concerned friends expressing embarrassment about what’s going on here. Outside the USA, attitudes diverge from ours. Many Canadians, I suspect, view the issue similar to how my sister sees it--: Americans ought to be embarrassed.

Further afield, some associates in the Middle East and Asia are laughing at this democracy-media spectacle while others unequivocally say Americans should feel ashamed. One displeased colleague in Nepal suggests the deteriorating situation results from too much campaigning; he says all of the substantial issues were raised and addressed during the primaries, so that now a depleted, exhausted press is resorting to personal issues to keep the conflict active. (A worthy point.) A veteran journalist in Iraq asks me: “Why all this debate? We know that for us and our neighbors there’s certain to be more war, whichever candidate wins. Why are they prancing and posturing like this?”

 We can expect that people around the world, not only viewers in Russia, Venezuela, or Iran—especially where Americans have interfered with their elections--must be watching with a certain glee? Others will doubtless be dismayed however. A few may be uncomfortable for their American friends.

 I’ll tell you one group of Americans who surely feel chagrined:-- our diplomatic corps who has to face counterparts at their posts across the globe. I really pity US diplomats. Normally, on election night US embassies host parties at their (walled-in) residences and consulates to share their congratulatory democratic process with professors, journalists and officials. Private US citizens living abroad often invite foreigners to witness the selection of their ‘leader-of-the-free-world’ (a term no one but Americans uses). Before satellite TV, an embassy invitation was the only way one could see election coverage live. Even with every house now hooked to multiple satellite news channels, election night at US embassies across the globe would be a festive occasion. This week, will US embassies dim their lights, pretending they’re not home?

 And what about those global citizens traditionally invited to the US to witness the process firsthand? I think it was at the 1980 election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that I met Nepalese leaders who’d been flown to D.C. and New York solely to observe and join in the pre-election atmosphere. They noted that invitations were regularly extended to dignitaries from across the globe for this four-yearly event. One assumes the practice continues today, embarrassing or not.

Just yesterday a Palestinian friend in Jordan sent this ode by poet Kahlil Gibran: here are some notable lines from it:

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.  Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave  and eats a bread it does not harvest.  Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, 

and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful. … Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,  whose philosopher is a juggler,  and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking… 

END

 

[ Americans Embarrassed? Never. ]

Less Than A Week

November 03, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Days before the US countrywide election (beyond the Oval Office) our democracy is leaning on what are called ‘down ballot’ races. Finally!

While national media indulge in the vicissitudes of the sleazy behavior and financial machinations of our two presidential candidates, local papers and broadcasters are making some last minute effort to help lowly citizens understand what choices we have in our own congressional and state races.

The very term ‘down ballot’ I find disturbing, implying as it does things less important, less worthy --like ‘going south’, a common trope for ‘failure’.

This belated attention to ‘down-ballot’ sums up the low priority given to hundreds of (non-presidential) races. Yet they are not insignificant. They include thousands of candidates running for the two houses of congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and for senate and assembly seats in 50 state legislatures. It’s the winners of these contests who make laws, who formulate environmental, agricultural, health, judicial and educational policies, who draw up budgets, and who are the real checks and balances on higher leadership. It is their ideals and their decisions which shape Americans’ day-to-day lives and our children’s futures.

I’m not the first one to note that democracy here is dysfunctional. What’s wrong with the Democratic Party? (I plead, to blank stares.) The Republican Party too. First, together they ensure that other parties, worthy but smaller, never become a serious challenge to their co-control. Second, both these major players are equally committed to the success of capitalist philosophy and the dominance of US military might across the globe.  

The Democratic Party for all its moralizing and its intellectual chauvinism is well known to be notoriously negligent when campaigning beyond (and below) the presidential ticket; it seems to hibernate during what are called ‘off season’ (non-presidential) election years. Thus the loss of the Democratic majority in the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, resulting in influential committee chairs taken over by Republicans who could (and did) proceed to advance or withhold legislation in their own party’s interest. Thus we find ourselves with a blocked and bickering US Congress that also stonewalls President Obama’s attempts to lead.)

The brilliant and tireless civics educator Ralph Nader details this unhappy history in a recent article. An outstanding intellectual and civic campaigner, Nader asks why we repeatedly let this happen.

Even in these last hours of this shameful demonstration of how our democracy has deteriorated, when some local candidates are desperately trying to wade through their parties’ muck to inform voters about their personal values and qualifications and to discuss local concerns, they too are obliged to devote resources to countering lies and half truths broadcast by opponents. Local candidates are also distracted by media’s relentless questioning about Trump’s personal character and Clinton’s emails and lecture fees.

Like hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of citizens, I am deluged with campaign messages; rather than speak about policies, partisan campaigners like Moveon.org, DailyKOS, turnoutpac, DSCC (dscc.org) Senators Pelosi, Warren, Schumer and Sanders, the Committee of Concerned Scientists and more, plead for money to stave off the specter of a Trump victory.

People I meet and radio commentators I listen to heartily engage in gossip around the latest presidential contenders to the neglect of what’s happening in their own backyard. One example is WAMC Radio in Albany which, whereas it does a fine job covering state affairs for New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut, during this election cycle it seems to ignore local elections while devoting excessive air time to the scandals (or potential scandals) related to presidential candidates

Media, a major culprit in the deterioration of our democracy, focuses where the drama and dirt are, tapping into the abundant whistle blowers and cynics who feed this sleaze-hungry machine. For months media has gleefully joined the fray. With vigor and expectations of profit, it may have entertained us with this indisputably colorful circus. But with what aim, except to suck up our energy and crush our ideals.

Citizens are irresistibly drawn into the drama. As dismayed and despondent and exhausted as they are, they still feed off the daily revelations, caught in the whirl of twitter and facebook posts.

We may join the gossip but I suspect many are less and less inclined to vote. Come actual election day balloting at local stations may be meager.

Starting Friday one congressional campaign I ‘m familiar with is putting all its energy into what’s called GOTV—GetOutTheVote. In other words, just get people to the polls next Tuesday!

 

 

[ Less Than A Week ]

It's Only A Car! a media story

October 26, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“It’s only a Car!”     Oct 25/16               by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Yes, I listen when I first wake up, maybe while getting the children ready for school; sometimes in the car too.” They’re talking about radio. Radio was supposed to become a marginal medium, surpassed first by TV and then, surviving that, it would be buried by the internet. Yet radio is still with us. More than surviving, radio has introduced new ways of speaking, conversing and telling stories. A whole new sound has been created for example by Atlantic Public Media. Meanwhile some traditions continue.

Except that my very favorite radio show for almost three decades fits no tradition:—it’s part comedy, part advice column, part phone call-ins. (Listener call-ins gave radio a tremendous boost in the 1960s.)

I continue to be a radio addict. As a critic of government policies, an aficionado of literary readings, and a producer of “RadioTahrir” (www.RadioTahrir.org) for 23 years on the avant-garde and activist Pacifica Network (www.Pacifica.org) you’d expect my favorite to be a show related to political or literary enterprise. Actually, the program I listen to most faithfully is one that’s impossibly dissimilar. It’s CarTalk. This, though I’m not even a car enthusiast.

CarTalk is a hilarious, practical advice call-in show. It originated in Boston 30 plus years ago by two feisty Italian brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, both garage mechanics (the do-it-yourself-sort; but to figure out their degree qualifications), a perfectly paired team with a shared irrepressible sense of humor.

Think about it. How often while listening to a non-comedy radio broadcast do you find yourself chuckling? Not only this: these hosts engage in banter and howls of laughter while dispensing serious counsel --all having to do with cars! Threaded though the humor is lots of useful (and reliable) car advice. (They really have to be good because of safety liability, the reputations both of cars they discuss and garage mechanics their guests already consulted.) The stimulus for Tom’s and Ray’s comments are calls from listeners challenging the brothers with simple, complex and silly car problems: mechanical problems, disputes with their local mechanic, family predicaments around co-ownership, repair costs, holiday motoring anxieties, and inheritance problems (cars often pass from parents to children). The issues are actual problems which cars, especially older models, experience. And Americans keep their cars for a long time.

CarTalk, in my view, is the most engaging program on US radio, on radio anywhere. A weekly one hour show, it’s been airing every Saturday morning as long as I can remember. With the passing of Tom the older member of the team in 2014, the live broadcast ended. Today the program continues as The Best of Car Talk, edited from their archives. Meanwhile www.cartalk.com carries a full show, highlighted moments of fun (or guidance), automotive news, and abundant free car advice.

Part of the success of the program, in addition to the spirited character and compatibility of the brothers, lies what cars symbolize in American history and culture. People grow very fond of their cars and are reluctant to part with them, thus the need for repairs to keep them functioning well past their dump-yard date. (We think we can fix our car ourselves—with a little advice.) An owner feels proud that her car’s odometer registers 200,000 miles, or if it approaches 170,000 (as my 1985 Toyota did) we’re determined to keep it running (as I did), whatever the cost, until it cracks 200,000. No car owner likes to spend money on repairs either, so Tom and Ray’s advice mustn’t require a lot of expense. Then there are the mechanical mysteries that emit from a car: you know, those rattles under the hood or the scraping below the passenger seat. So we turn to CarTalk to address our doubts or after our own local mechanic hasn’t performed a cure for our ailing 1968 Chevy pickup, or our limping 1992 Honda Civic..

The brothers seem to know every car model ever made, from 1950s vintage Fords to the latest Swedish, Chinese and Indian brands. After ID'ing their location a caller starts with: “I have a 1978 Volkswagen bus whose windshield wipers don’t work…..”, or “I and my husband are going to take cross country trip with our 3 dogs, two rabbits and a parrot; we can’t pay more than $3000. and plan to dump the vehicle once we arrive; what should we buy?” Tom and Ray try to diagnose the issue and dispense advice, injecting guidance with abundant hilarity, while never, never reproaching or ridiculing a caller. The hour is upbeat, always hilarious, and the advice is highly reliable and, it seems, mostly spot-on.

The personalities of the brothers and the chemistry between them explain much of CarTalk’s popularity. But this program taps into our American romance with cars and our attachment to these celebrities of manufacturing history. Cars enjoy an unparalleled place in American life. Desoto, Mustang, Studebaker, Roadster, Impala:-- these names are deeply embedded in the American lexicon. Each represents an image fixed in our memory, in the brains even of young people born long after a model ceased being manufactured. Cars represent key points in millions of Americans’ lives, in the latter 20th century if not now. Famous songs eulogize cars; cars are the subject of poems; “Motown” is the trope for Detroit city, center of auto manufacturing for decades, and the music genre that emerged there.

A driving license, not a pair of Nike trainers or the latest iphone edition, was and still is for many, the primary goal of a US teenager. We started saving for our first car even before we had our driver’s license; cars compete with sports to occupy 90% of young men’s conversations. We concocted quiz games about cars and car models. There is an entire industry in the U.S. devoted to auto museums, small scale car models, and road functional antique cars. Cars parked in residential driveways are part of American architecture. In my town, I recognize my neighbor by the color and model of their passing car. We can usually gauge a person’s income by the model of their car.

Whatever the caller’s car model, one of the brother’s recognizes it—1972 El-Camino, 1959 Ford Torino, 1990 Dodge Viper, 1980 Desoto Adventurer, or 1966 Volkswagen bus. (Most callers seek advice for only 20 plus year-old vehicles.) These radio hosts seem to know any car’s mechanics and particularities that could cause problems. Instead of saying “Take it to the junk yard; it’s past 250,000 miles”, they do their utmost to help extend its life. They treat the car like it’s a family pet. Only occasionally Tom would advise—“It’s only a car!”

[ It's Only A Car! a media story ]

Less Than Two Weeks

October 19, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

In response to Ralph Nader’s relentless calls --now there's a long distance runner-- high school social studies classes may devote a special hour this month to teach school children about the American electoral system. But it’s their parents, the voters, who need the crash course in civics. And quickly. We have less than two weeks to become real participants in our democracy. How can this happen when citizens are gripped by 24/7 coverage of a made-for-TV national blockbuster fed by ceaseless new corruption and sex revelations and deepening personality clashes of celebrity candidates? 

In the days remaining before we cast our votes, there’s little likelihood that ignorance and confusion about the 435 House races can be addressed so that voters can make intelligent choices. Since their outcome will decide the balance of power in the US Congress, why are we not preparing ourselves, to make our vote in our home districts count?

                Take the state I am familiar with--New York. New Yorkers pride themselves on having a political sophistication, but are actually woefully ill-informed. About the presidential circus, everyone I meet can volunteer lengthy comments; they quote press accounts of gaffs, policy shortcomings, poll numbers and the latest satirical skit. They may know the name of their incumbent congressman or woman, but not if they’re running again, how many terms they’ve served or who their opponent is. And races for the state senate or assembly? Forget those.

In just one campaign in this state, the problem is readily apparent from a sample of neighbors: “I want to know what a congressperson actually does,” announces Kathryn, a short-tempered resident who’d all but given up on politics. She plans to attend our meeting with District 19’s candidate and it’s evident that even though she’s 60ish and a professional who works with the public, Kathryn has never spoken to a member of the US Congress, not even to a congressional candidate. Her newfound enthusiasm to break this pattern is because this weekend she’ll have a chance to meet one.

Privately—by necessity since we could arouse neither interest nor help from our state or country Democratic party-- a few residents managed to lure one candidate to a town hall gathering. (New York is not a “swing state”. It’s expected to go wholeheartedly Democrat and as a region which the Democratic Party takes for granted, there’s no aggressive campaigning here --i.e. no significant funds are allocated by the national party.) Ours is one of four or five US House seats in NY where incumbents have resigned or otherwise will not run.These seats are open and present fair competitions whose outcomes could alter the balance of power in the House of Representatives. Don’t they count?

Urged on my some residue of hope for this country and an anthropologist’s curiosity, I’m devoting time to move through my neighborhood, risking rude rebuttals and challenging beware-of-dog warnings to urge residents to vote November 8th and to inform them of the candidate I’m supporting.

After Kathryn, I run into Lebron who’s in town for casual work as a housepainter. (He’s actually a professional cook.) Handing him a campaign flyer I ask: “You live in Middletown, so you’d be voting in this district, right?”

“Well, I’m now registered. But district 19, I don’t know.” I check my map; Middletown lies on the border of Sullivan and Orange counties. I’m uncertain too.

Steve working nearby overhears us and offers that he too isn’t sure if he votes in district 19. “My house is in Sullivan but my business is here in Delaware County; are they in the same congressional district?” (It’s a legitimate question since District 19 includes 7 whole counties and shares 5 counties with other electoral districts). This uncertainty also suggests that Steve, and maybe others too, haven’t visited their ballot station—they haven’t voted--in many years.

                Sharon, down the street, steps out of her house to talk. We rarely see Sharon at our pancake breakfasts or summer Bar-B-Qs, so her eagerness to come to the coming town gathering is a good sign. “I think I have some things to ask her; I’ve seen some TV ads; there are pros and cons. What about the tax cap; what’s her position on that? I heard she wants to raise taxes.” “Come and ask her yourself”, I retort. “I will.”

(I make a note to phone Sharon on Friday to remind her of the meeting time.)

Taxes seem to be the overriding issue; no comments on foreign or energy policies, jobs, educational reform, or Citizens United (unpopular with the left because of the liberty it grants wealthy individuals and corporations to donate to candidates).

                Even as Election Day nears a lot of people here haven’t yet made up their minds, certainly not about congressional candidates (they seem clearer about their presidential choices). More than once, before I have a chance to properly identify myself at their door, the householder assaults me with “Oh, no, I’m not for Hillary”, or, “I was for Sanders, but he’s out. So I’m undecided.” If, before the door closes I can explain which candidate I’m here to talk about, unfriendliness turns to curiosity. “Who?” Accepting a brochure, they ask: “What party is she? Oh, yeh, I think I saw something about her—she’s not from this area.” Or,” I saw a TV ad and have my doubts.”

“Well, do you expect to vote on Nov. 8th”? I retort, trying to end our exchange on a positive note. “Let’s see; I’m undecided. I need to know more”. Ten replies like this are erased when a door opens and a smiling citizen announces, “Oh she has my vote for sure. She’s terrific.”

Does he know more than the others? Is he a party faithful? Does he simply believe he counts?

And another thing: the state assembly and senate races! On Nov. 8th do we have to vote for candidates there too?

[ Less Than Two Weeks ]

Beware Liberals, Ridicule Wonít Help Defeat Opponents

October 06, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

What a year for political satire. It’s nourishing; it lowers our stress level; it breaks taboos. Every democracy needs satire but one wonders how much it will count when it comes to votes on November 8th.

For many months following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 when demonstrations of patriotism and US prowess, heartily broadcast and reinforced by US media, criticism of America’s war policy was barely tolerated. The nation’s wimpy image (military defeat, reprocessed as “The Vietnam syndrome” http://thevietnamwar.info/vietnam-syndrome/, was buried; and a new era of ‘just wars’ was launched-- so Americans believed. After they successfully (sic) routed the Taliban in 2001, then overthrew Saddam, US troops were unassailable, the Iraqi victims so welcoming of liberation. (We tend to forget how it was only when body bags started arriving home that criticism, beyond marginal anti-war activism, surfaced.)

Dissent took more than a year to emerge and even then criticism came initially only in the form of satire, e.g. Jon Stewart in The Daily Show. Stewart’s mockery of these wars awakened Americans to the lies they’d been consuming. His funny exposes pricked their conscience.

Military folly remains sacrosanct in the USA but parody and satire were essential to renewed critical discourse on the government’s aims, its strategies, and the behavior of its troops. Political satire has its place in any culture, in any period.

What I’m witnessing from our witty satirists (many of them based in the ‘liberal’ centers of New York and California ) in today’s US election season is not satire. It’s ridicule. Yes, these skits and caricatures make us laugh. They are undeniably clever and The Donald provides abundant fodder for comedy. (Clinton too, but to a lesser degree.)

What these comics’ ultimate aims are, I’m uncertain. Evening entertainment, no doubt; and kudos for their wit. However, if they hope that brilliant ridicule will motivate people into political action and genuine debate, they are misguided. I suspect, regrettably, that fans who enthusiastically distribute these nuggets of funny wisdom will accomplish nothing-- beyond feeling themselves more informed and more intelligent. Their indulgence may. moreover, move them utterly further from those --not only The Donald but also his many loyalists-- whom they view as dumb, ill-informed, gun-totting religious hardliners.

Cartoonists are having a field day this election season: The Onion, Wapo, Truthdig, are joined by many others. I’ve no problem admitting they’re clever and fun. But ridicule has its limits; it can undermine healthy dialogue. By definition ridicule is: speech or action intended to cause contemptuous laughter at a person or thing; derision.

Engaging examples of ridicule I receive come from well informed ‘liberal’ colleagues who, moreover, consider themselves political activists. They are not shirkers; they aren’t so disenchanted that they’ve eschewed news channels for basketball, cartoon and cooking shows. No; they indulge in sharing these ridiculing images as if they’re somehow engaging in political action. It won’t work.

Misunderstanding how ridicule operates meanwhile imbues these would-be activists with a sense they are doing something, that they’re so funnily effective that they’ll turn the tide of public opinion and defeat their opponents. They’re misguided.

New York City is a notorious enclave of political and personal ridicule. It’s a lifestyle here, a putative sign of its inhabitants’ sophistication and intellectual superiority. It’s invoked during this campaign season as a means of being politically enlightened, and active. Ridicule is good for laughs, yes. But it’s ineffective in terms of changing the behavior of their objects of derision. Indeed I suspect that partisans of the target of that contempt interpret this humor as a kind of racism. So they may instead rally around the target (as a victim)—in this case Donald Trump—with a sense of injustice and evermore energy.

They need to read Strangers in their own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a timely survey by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild who devotes her anthropologist’s temperament to understanding a part of America that others make little effort to comprehend. Hochschild’s mature investigation challenges ‘liberals’’ views of fellow citizens in Louisiana who they are likely to dismiss as occupants of ‘Trump territory’, justly worthy of ridicule. Basing her conclusions on extensive research, admitting that we all (even sophisticated Berkeley and New York liberals) “live in enclaves”, Hochschild is able to show considerable compassion for white, Christian Louisianaians whom others often deride [1]. In her recounted interviews she vividly demonstrates this community’s political intelligence and she suggests they are grossly and dangerously misunderstood by other enclaves. She concludes: if “we can find common ground… there are possibilities”, and advises liberals that “the shoe is on our foot to reach across.”  

========================

 

[1] In the presidential primaries earlier in the year, it was noted that as few as 29% of New York voters cast their ballot. This New York rate was only exceeded by Louisiana voters.

[ Beware Liberals, Ridicule Wonít Help Defeat Opponents ]

"Yesterday" - (earliest questions and fears) by Barbara Nimri Aziz [pulled from my 2001 archive]

September 12, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/09/12/yesterday-2001/

Sept. 11, 2001, yesterday was a Tuesday, the day I head to New York City for my radio show. I make my way out of the quiet hills 200 km northeast of the city to drive to the metropolis. WBAI Pacifica Radio where I broadcast two weekly programs is located in lower Manhattan.

I would not reach there this Tuesday.    

An hour out from the city limits at 9:30 a.m I casually turn on the car radio. I hear accounts of the catastrophic events just down the highway from me. I pull off the road to listen carefully to what I hear. It doesn’t take long for me to absorb the magnitude of this news. I find myself weeping uncontrollably. This lasts a few moments. I look around me to see cars passing me silently. Do they know? Have they too heard? Do they too grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe we have entered?

Newscasters repeat:-- All bridges and tunnels into Manhattan are closed. I decide nevertheless to continue southwards in that direction. I can stop at the home of a friend en route. Before restarting the car, I open my phone. My first call is to colleagues at the radio station. Silence. I try again. Nothing.

The studio from where we broadcast is just 400 meters from the World Trade Center. Somehow I do not expect our building is in imminent danger. I want to join my fellow broadcasters doing what journalists must do at such a time. I abandon the phone and switch my car radio to 99.5 fm. Ahhh. We are sending out signals. I hear the voices of Jose and Sally, Bernard and Deepak. They are calm, professional, as they try

to make sense of the terror in the streets below. I wish I were there with them--not for the scoop; there is no scoop today.

Any seasoned announcer knows how to use her voice and experience to help our stunned public through this. I need to be with my colleagues, suspecting the political magnitude of this calamity. This is the job of a journalist especially broadcasters in moments of crisis.

    At 20 kilometers from Manhattan I reach Mountain View, the crest of a hill on the six-lane highway funneling traffic towards the city. From here, one can see beyond surrounding hills to the iconic Manhattan skyline. On this unhappy morning, reaching this summit on the road, something is missing. The air is clear but I cannot see those distinctive towers at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. What I can distinguish is a cloud of smoke seeping skyward. I begin to weep again.

I have no doubt that I will be turned back at the George Washington Bridge. So before reaching there, I detour to the home of friends. I exit highway 4 and within a few moments, pull into their drive. Their television is on, and I am pulled slowly, hesitatingly forward to gaze at the catastrophe close up. All the channels--news, drama, marketing, sports, history-- replay shots of the crashing of the planes into those enormous buildings, then the soft, crumbling towers, sinking to the pavement.

I reach for my phone. Still no connection with the radio station. I try the homes of others who live in lower Manhattan. Nothing. I manage to reach my sister in a far away city, then, surprisingly connect to the phones of my guests -- civil-rights activist Sami Al-Arian and feminist author Fadwa AlGuindi--scheduled for tonight's live broadcast. The show will be cancelled. Of course.

    I return to the television. My companions and I hardly speak. As I watch the spectacular images (a spectacle indeed, so crushing--you have all seen them) of the impacting planes and the collapsing buildings, I feel sick. Inside that inferno and fuming rubble are thousands of women and men being incinerated, pulverized. The replays go on. And on. Each cycle takes only moments. But this rumble begins to deepen, to erode a status--a truth--that I know will last a generation. I watch, stunned, wanting this to be just a film. Just a film.

    Weekly, en route through the city to our downtown studios, I passed through the World Trade Center. Usually I exit the subway train that terminates underground, beneath that maze of towers. I walk through the busy mezzanine, to the street and proceed to the east end of Wall Street. This subway stop is now a mass tomb.

Those two towers are--were--so colossal. I’ve always been aware of their immensity. They spread over large blocks across the city pavement and sweep upwards. They dwarf everything around, even the 19-story building where I work.

That was yesterday.

Today, Wednesday--the day after, our station, although undamaged, has ceased transmitting along with other communications centers in lower Manhattan. Were we forced to evacuate? Perhaps our transmitter is damaged; perhaps electrical cables are cut.

    My thoughts shift from the dead and grieving to the future, not a distant future, just weeks and months ahead. This catastrophe is bound to affect Arab and Muslim Americans. Already newscasters are speculating that the perpetrators are of Arab origin. This is going to bear down on every one of us, wherever we are in the USA. Not because of more terror attacks here; because authorities will launch a hunt. Expanded intelligence activity across the country is inevitable.

After earlier, less horrific incidents our Congress hastily passed anti-terrorism laws that already began overriding our civil rights. Most citizens are unaware of this because the immediate target of these laws is one community-- Muslims and Arabs. The press was not alarmed. But regulations are in place, here and abroad. Congress had already granted greatly expanded powers to our intelligence agencies and the civil liberties of our people has already felt the terror of the anti-terror laws.

Thirty hours have passed since that morning. I returned home, mournfully, slowly, silently that same Tuesday. I do not seek out neighbors. In coming days we encounter one another on the street. We exchange few words. Yet I find myself disputing their “get them” threats, pulling back from their wild emotions—“wipe them all out”.

"We are grieving; we must be united. We still know so little, really", I try to address their panic. They do not hear me. I abruptly cut off these discussions to be alone at home, with my hand on the radio dial, switching from one radio station or another. I am indolent. I cannot think logically.

We are afraid. All of us are afraid for our future (yes, the future of this disneyland of democracy and all the stuff we strive to possess, stuff that we take so for granted-- for ourselves). I think many are very angry because they are overcome with a sense of sudden vulnerability in this hitherto invincible land. I expect that this country will answer with revenge, not reflection. This frightens me most.

I ask myself: what about our much lauded surveillance intelligence system. Isn’t it built to protect the nation, to safeguard the money centers and fun parks and military research complexes? I ask others this question; they’re not interested. Neither are our newscasters, neither the clever commentators, neither our civic leaders.

Surely this tragedy is a huge intelligence and military blunder by our own government. Why is no one else questioning its failure? How could a hijacked plane get close enough to fly into the pentagon? The pentagon! That's the American defense center, probably the most secure structure on the planet!

The citizens pay heavily for that supersafe, invincible complex. With its bravado and its secret budget and hoards of heroic generals and intelligence agents, how could they not have foreseen this invasion? Tell me.

And now, in the failure, the shirkers will lash out at others. They will call for more spies and more enhanced spying, more equipment and more reports by experts. They’re already launching investigations of those they failed to identify beforehand.

Today, somehow, our security agents are certain who did this. We hear news reports naming the men who carried out the attacks. Swiftly and with such certitude, authorities now zero in on the culprits. Just days after the fact, we are given details of the criminals they say flew those planes into America.

    Thus far, I personally feel unmolested, thus far. But now my personal and professional missions seem in jeopardy. For thirteen years, at considerable risk, cost and hard work, I've devoted all my energies and resources to fighting stereotypes and educating the US public about our Arab culture, our people, Islam. At times, as a journalist I think I helped people understand our dreams and our common values. Whatever small successes we had building the bridges may now be wiped out. Just as the Gulf War in 1991 erased our efforts in community work and education in the previous decade. Today, we do not start at zero, but far earlier than zero.

It’s still possible that emerging 'facts' that first lead the government and media to identify Arabs and Muslims as the perpetrators of this awful crimes turn out to be mistaken. It may not matter if they are wrong. Because in the end, ultimately, it is the American government that must change its policy towards the world's peoples. It is our administration and our citizens who must reverse their actions and attitudes. It is here that the humiliation and devastation of millions if not billions of people began.

I try to be optimistic. Perhaps unseen, behind the militant posturing and threats, the leadership of this nation will indeed reflect. Perhaps it will reconsider its own barbarous military policies across the world. Perhaps it will change itself.

    Will our new American experience of fleeing through the streets of a city in terror, facing daily uncertainties about our security, searching for the dead and watching so many perish, finally connect us to so many others around the world for whom these are all too common experiences? END

 

[ "Yesterday" - (earliest questions and fears) by Barbara Nimri Aziz [pulled from my 2001 archive] ]

Trumpís Latest Insult: The Best Thing Thatís Happened to Muslim Americans in Forty Years.

August 03, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Muslims have been trying to build alliances with fellow Americans with halting success for four decades. We have Muslims (Americans) against Hunger, Muslims for Republicans, Muslims for Peace, Muslim online dating, Muslims for Progressive Values and a Muslim writer’s guild. Muslims perished along with others when the World Trade towers fell and Muslim students are among the highest scorers in US college assessment tests. We have Muslim policemen, Muslim intermarriages, Muslim-Jewish Alliances, Muslim members of Congress, Muslim-Christian dialogues, Muslims Health Professionals, Muslims at the White House, Muslim Advocates, LGBT Muslims and Green Muslims. We even had the “Hijabi Monologues”. All aim to educate others and, yes, to prove how American we are.

Progress has been slow. At times we seemed to be retreating in the face of never-ending attacks on individuals and mosques, scapegoated for things which we have absolutely nothing to do with, indeed, which we ourselves abhor. Our children are bullied in school; we’re removed from airplanes; our gifts to family and other fellow Muslims abroad are tracked and even used as evidence against us and our charities. The list of injustices increases every year.

Then came Trump with his anti-Muslim proposals and tirades, allowing rude people at his rallies to utter racist remarks and incite suspicion of Muslims. Month after month, physical as well as verbal attacks on our people rise as Trump’s campaign advances. When he proposed Muslims not be allowed into this country it seemed that candidate Trump had crossed the line. “Hey”, some rejoined: “What about the men and women in our armed forces? What about diplomats? What about United Nations employees, invited scholars, football teams?"

We are all too aware of how any ban of this nature conjures up the terrible and shameful restrictions imposed on European Jews. Perhaps no people are as frightened and troubled by Trump’s declaration than Jews themselves; they remember too well how their community suffered when explicit bans were declared.

Trump later qualified his Muslim ban. But he couldn’t repair the damage. He’d gone too far. People who had previously tolerated Trump’s tirades began to think and to consider the implications of his religious proscription. (Republican sympathizers had also heard the bizarre statement by Ben Carson --that no Muslim should be nominated for high office.) The US constitution which citizens invoke to assert state rights and to protect their freedom to bear arms is the same document that will not distinguish or prejudice Americans according to their religion.

Finally it was the martyrdom of Muslim-American soldier Humayun Khan that seemed to consummately demonstrate the reality of Muslim Americans’ patriotism. Khan’s father, in his attack on Donald Trump at the height of the Democratic National Convention last week, became a spokesman not for Muslims in particular or for his lost son, but for all “Gold Star families” (the term for those who have lost loved ones during military service). His challenge to Trump received thunderous applause, a show of support perhaps unprecedented in any forum addressing Muslim affairs.

Khizr Khan, with Humayun‘s mother at his side, challenged the very patriotism of the Republican candidate with a ferocity and clarity we hadn’t seen. His statement drove home the real experience and the investment which Muslim citizens have in the USA. As a Gold Star family, the Khan immediately forged a link not only with other families of martyred children, but with the millions of veteran and military families, and through them, to the American street.

Trump’s discourtesy and vulgarity were further exposed by his remarks about Humayan’s Khan’s mother, Ghazala Khan. Public backlash to his distasteful comments on Sunday’s ABC News was swift and unambiguous.

The world has witnessed unarguable evidence, time and time again, of Trump’s ignorance and boorishness during the months of this long, dramatic campaign. Some of his outrages were dismissed or eclipsed by worse examples. Even if this one is superseded, and his insensitivity and arrogance barrel along unopposed, one outcome is certain, namely, the depth of the new roots planted between Muslims and their fellow Americans.

[ Trumpís Latest Insult: The Best Thing Thatís Happened to Muslim Americans in Forty Years. ]

Fiction Is Sometimes The Best Journalism: A Muslim Case Study-- book review

July 26, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A Muslim youth commits a terrible violent crime and then takes his own life. His suburban family, immigrants in the US for more than two decades is advised to relocate; his parents are divided over how to handle the crisis; his teenage siblings, shunned and mocked by classmates, retreat into fantasy; the community in which they were once so nicely integrated spurns them.

The scenario could be any national news story. Whatever the perpetrator’s motive or mental state, his crime is a ‘Muslim’ one-- an uncivil act; everything associated with him becomes tainted. The religion itself is blighted and criminalized. The violence is seen as further evidence that Islam bears responsibility.

Our media’s preoccupation with and prejudgment of this category of crime is so intense that Muslims find themselves floundering in its wake. With regular frequency, Muslim writers pen commentaries explaining our angst, and cohorts of Muslim spokespeople appear on TV to refute generalizations about Islam and to assure others of the peace-loving nature of our religion and our community.

We know the scenario too well. Yet those eloquent efforts seem naïve, ineffective and superficial. At the same time we find precious few attempts by our Muslim creative community to explore the human repercussions of these events at a deeper level:--through novels, film and drama.

I can think of just three writers, Hanif Kureishi, Wajahat Ali and Laila Halaby who’ve addressed Muslim family experience in these turbulent decades in the West where our social lives are thrown into turmoil, where we are psychologically traumatized, and where our own spiritual values are undermined.  (“My Son the Fanatic”, a 1994 story by London-based Kureishi was made into an excellent film; Ali’s 2005 play “Domestic Crusaders” was later published as a book; Halaby’s novel “Once in a Promised Land” appeared in 2007. I suppose we could include “My Name Is Khan”, a 2010 Indian-produced film set largely in the USA.)

We now have a novel that tackles this contemporary theme in a fresh and effective approach. Rajia Hassib’s In the Language of Miracles explores how one American Muslim family is impacted by violence. I don’t know if Hassib intended her fictional piece to be a domestic prism through which to view the American Muslims’ experience of “terror” in our midst. Because there’s nothing explicit here about what’s commonly labeled “Islamic terror”. For me however, her story is essentially a metaphor of our recurring nightmare– “Islamic violence” directed at Western targets.

The plot of In the Language of Miracles is an astute tactic to remove the crime from its normally fraught political context to explore what transpires when a simple youth, motivated by jealousy, family tensions and personal stress, carries out an ordinary (American) killing. What happens to his family and his community?”

This cleverly crafted story opens with a veiled reference to a past family tragedy when Cynthia, a (white) neighbor invites the Al-Menshawy (Muslim) family to a forthcoming event; it’s the first anniversary memorial of her daughter Nathalie’s death. The invitation precipitates divisions among family members: Samir, the father and a successful doctor, his wife Nagla suffering from unspecified ailments, their son Khaled, their daughter Fatima, and Nagla’s mother Ehsan visiting from overseas. Each reacts differently to the neighbor’s invitation and we are pulled into the evolving drama over the few days between that awkward announcement and the ceremony itself. We soon learn that the al-Menshawys not only also lost a child, Hosaam, by suicide; it was their son who killed Nathalie, his longtime childhood friend.

We hardly have time to mourn Hosaam or to learn his motives since author Hassib’s story focuses around Nathalie’s approaching memorial which is to be a community affair with speeches and a tree planting. Flyers are posted on social media and across the town, stirring up the community’s grief and anger; not unexpectedly much emotion is directed at the killer’s family.

What should they do? Samir insists they attend the memorial where he intends to make a statement. Nagla rejects this; she’s unfocused and indolent, a condition likely precipitated by the death of Hosaam. Her surviving son Khaled is withdrawn while Fatima tries to ride above the fray. (She has recently befriended another Muslim girl and is perhaps becoming more devout.) Khaled, rejected by all but one school friend, retreats into social media and seeks out a young woman in New York City. With this stranger he’s able to share his distress and revisit events leading to Hosaam’s action. He returns to his troubled home in New Jersey in time for the memorial but too late to rescue his father from his blundering performance there.

The story is presented through Khaled’s eyes, from his grandmother’s pseudo-Islamic incantations and dream interpretations during a childhood illness to his alienation from his brother, the son for whom Samir had high expectations. (In the final chapter we find Khaled and his sister residing in the US while their father, humiliated after his misstep at the memorial, has returned to Egypt with Nagla and their grandmother.)  

To build the character of Samir whose psychology Hassib seems most interested in exploring, she takes us back to his arrival in New York as a medical graduate from Egypt to begin his residency. While achieving his ambitions of establishing his own clinic and enjoying social acceptance among Americans, Samir has eschewed his Egyptian culture and his religion. Yet he misreads the very culture he feels so proud to be part of; his children are unanchored and his wife is ill. Worst, he completely disregards his own son’s death anniversary.

Tellingly, the least acculturated family member, grandmother Ehsan, offers her folk remedies, common sense, and some invocations of Islamic texts that she barely understands to address the pain of her traumatized family. She alone seems to possess the cultural integrity to properly recognize the death anniversary of their child Hosaam. In familiar simple Islamic tradition she prepares special pastries and goes to the cemetery to commute with his spirit (and to scrub offensive graffiti off his gravestone) where she also consoles a grieving stranger at a nearby grave.

[ Fiction Is Sometimes The Best Journalism: A Muslim Case Study-- book review ]

Putting Nepal's Earthquake in Context

July 13, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Basics in Nepal Were Absent Before the 2015 Earthquake

If you think about Nepal today, you may be contemplating a yoga course in a hilltop nunnery; if you follow international news, you’ll recall the 2015 earthquake and those distressing images of damaged temples. Alternatively you could know someone operating an iNGO in Kathmandu for trafficked women or shoeless youngsters. Perhaps you have a vague memory of a film, exotic even if it profiles an unemployed carpet weaver or a doomed mountain ascent.

True, trekking companies experienced a lull following the recent earthquake. The reduced flow of tourists to Nepal due to reports of damaged roads and cracked buildings is the least of the nation’s worries however. Tourism, only 5% of the economy despite its exalted position in Nepal’s international profile, cannot yet address the need for electrification in growing cities and cannot provide satisfactory water supply to the capital’s four million plus residents. Householders here need to pay exorbitant rates for their water needs, and additionally endure more than 12 hours daily of what’s called ‘loadshedding’ i.e. electricity cuts. Neither Nepal’s government nor generously-funded international development projects have made substantial progress after years of research and planning towards providing basic services to its citizens. Year after year cities swell with migrants from rural areas. Residents, workers and expanding institutions place higher demands on water and electricity resources. Road conditions are similarly notoriously inadequate.

What I find so startling about this is how 900,000 or so yearly tourists and the sizable international NGO community manage to float above this status quo. Likewise visitors enjoy their yoga course and trekkers their mountain walks unconcerned or oblivious to the everyday hardships of citizens they see around them. (Facilities and comforts available to foreign NGO personnel may exceed those they might find if working in their own countries.) 

These exceptional populations are well provided not only because they are richer but also because they operate in a second tier, one that isolates them from reality; this isolation meanwhile acts to reinforce hardships for the masses. It’s easy for them and for development officers writing up yet another analysis of Nepal’s needs to forget how Nepal’s citizens live.

You will hardly detect shortages in any tourist lodging; both modest and luxury hotels have abundant water, supplied through private (mostly illegal) wells and provide backup generators and batteries. They ensure visitors have 24-hour showers and flushing toilets on demand, power for their gadgets, and unlimited restaurant delights. Even in the low-end tourist quarter a $15-a-night room guarantees hot baths and laundered sheets. NGO offices throughout the valley, some isolated in essentially gated communities, have private wells and generators too. As for rural lodges along trekking routes, they use wood or imported kerosene to cook a variety of omelets and to provide hot showers. Increasingly, simple hydropower stations are installed in mountain areas so that villages and roadside lodges are electrified.  

 Only if you spend time in private urban homes, apartments of the poor or in middle class bungalows, are you aware of chronic shortages and the unavailability of government utility services. Arranging water for household needs is a constant preoccupation of families. Occupants have to install water tanks in their yards or on rooftops; they need to hook up solar panels and purchase batteries and generators. In any residence, before 5pm for example, when municipal electric service ends, a family should have cooked their meal and set it aside until suppertime. For the few who can afford backup batteries, when house lights flicker warnings of the scheduled cut, the system is set to shift over to battery power. Imagine running a school for 400 children without a reliable store of water. (Forget about electricity for overhead fans, for lights or for classroom computers.)

Anyone concerned with energy sources and with public health knows about the abysmal state of utilities and the rising shortages along with Nepal’s history of abandoned projects for hydropower plants and water supplies. This in a nation known for its mighty rivers and glaciered mountain tops!

The irony is summed up by one elderly resident: “Look how people come here from around the world to enjoy our country’s beauty; at such low cost, they paddle our rivers, photograph our glaciers and dine in fine cafes. What do we get from their cheap holidays here? Nothing. If my children can’t find work driving a taxi or waiting tables, they have to sell their labor in Arabia and suffer there for four years.”

In May, before the monsoon rains began and when water shortage was so acute, people were talking about the all-too-familiar Melamchi Hydro Water Project with new enthusiasm. Even when Kathmandu’s population was half its present size, water and electricity crises were common and widespread illnesses were attributed to poor sanitation. Construction of a major water supply was seen as essential long ago. Since 1998, citizens were informed that the Melamchi Water Project would bring water to the city within five years. After being abandoned for 17 years, reports are circulating that the project is again underway and will soon be complete. Water specialists, a common fixture in Nepal’s iNGO network broadcast their services while they warn of poor sanitation and other water needs. Local bloggers are also trying to monitor conditions.

Arranging Nepal’s basic electricity supply is no less dismaying than addressing water needs. It looks as if the Melamchi Water Project will duplicate the experience of hydroelectric projects designed three decades ago. Construction of the Marsyangdi hydropower project commissioned in 1986 was to start by 1989. Thirty years on it is still ‘in progress’. Managers suggest more time is needed before power is generated from any of the three sections of this project.  Marsyangdi-A implemented by China’s Sino Hydro and Nepal’s Sagarmatha Power Company has experienced delays; if completed in September of this year as announced this will be the first one to actually start producing electricity. Another is the Middle Marsyangdi project initiated in 2001 and commissioned in 2008; by 2013 it was  unclear if it was operational. A third project in the same area, Marsyangdi-2, is described by a Nepal government source as “becoming functional by 2025/26”!

Unable to arrange such basic infrastructure even though Nepal has abundant financial resources and technical aid, you can appreciate how reconstruction of homes and schools damaged by the recent earthquake is languishing. Money is not in short supply for development, for daily utilities and for disaster relief.  Close inspection of any of the projects discussed and delayed earthquake repairs will quickly expose the lack of co-ordination and deep distrust between all the actors in the process.

Meanwhile tourists are returning (in selected seasons) to meditate on Himalayan sunsets and to join whitewater rafting expeditions.

END

[ Putting Nepal's Earthquake in Context ]

Four Morning Ducks

July 01, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I live alongside a river. At times this waterway swells unexpectedly, uncontrollably and terrifyingly. We residents retreat, shocked by how our murmuring brook has turned so menacing. Because most of the time this river is an intimate, soothing companion for people and animals who live nearby.

During spring and summer days there’s abundant life above and in the water. Merganser ducks arrive in April, when chunks of ice still cling to the shady corners of the riverbank and before reeds and bushes can offer a secure nesting place. Deer and fox and heron come to drink and to search for food; above us, white-headed eagles perch, ready to dive at the water and sweep fish into their claws. An occasional black bear ventures here; and beaver, frogs and crayfish share the pools with abundant trout.

Early summer mornings along the river always offer something startling, so I frequently halt and follow the slightest movement on the water or in the sky. No rare birds are in sight but I nevertheless feel I’m witnessing some phenomenon for the very first time.

The Merganser are the most common wildfowl on this stretch of the river. They mate early in May so that their young have hatched by June. I followed a mother with a clutch of seven ducklings swimming downstream in early June, noting the time since these family outings follow a routine and thus pass my house at the same hour every day. I never saw that group again, but today, I spotted another Merganser family. How many days after hatching do young ducks venture into the current, I don’t know, but these chicks appear too delicate to navigate this river. You could hold one in the palm of your hand, and doubtless prefer as I do that mother waits another week or two before leading her young into the river.

However fragile looking, the chicks are waterborne and paddle along in a pack, each only inches from the next and huddled close to their mother (not their father).

This morning I count four—a mother and three chicks (many fewer than usual). They are heading upstream. Mother Merganser cannot proceed in a direct line because of fast moving water pouring over the slippery rocks. The chicks stay close, placing themselves directly in her wake. Progress is slow for the mother, so the chicks are struggling too. One chick manages to place itself directly behind mother and hop onto her back and stay there for a meter or so, then slip off (or was it shrugged off by mother?). Its two siblings make no attempt to do the same so there’s no competition among them for a help from mother. On her part, mother Merganser doesn’t appear alarmed about the chicks floundering behind her. Nor does she strike out for the riverbank to lead her family upstream by foot. She continues zigzagging around boulders, occasionally pushed back by the current, but making steady progress upstream. Meanwhile that same chick keeps its advantageous place directly behind mother, climbing on and off her back as they move forward together. I wonder: is this feathered ‘hitchhiker’ the weaker one? Or is it the smarter chick of the three?  END

[ Four Morning Ducks ]

Women as Pawns in the Political War Game

June 23, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

In 1990, it was a Kuwaiti woman testifying how marauding Iraqi troops charged into a Kuwaiti hospital and tore babies from their incubators. In 2001, it was videos of an Afghan woman tied to a pole, stoned to death before a cheering crowd http://www.rawa.org/stoning.htm. (These practices continue despite that nation’s ‘liberation’ by the US and allies).Today, we have a Yazidi sex slave testifying to the American Congress how she was brutalized by her ISIS captors. She pleads: “The US must act”.

The 1990 Kuwait “incubator story”, later exposed as a fabrication, was presented by the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador, part of a major PR campaign by Kuwait and USA. It helped sell the Gulf War/Operation Desert Storm that introduced American troops into Arab Gulf States (they’re still there) to occupy Kuwait and repel the Iraqis, driving them out with brutal, inhuman means that elsewhere would be designated as war crimes. In 2001, images of the Taliban as heartless beasts were spread with the help of western women in their newfound compassion for downtrodden Afghan sisters. (Never mind how Afghan women fared during the Russian occupation, and earlier.) If any liberal anti-war citizens of western democracies had doubts about a military invasion of Afghanistan, they were won over by that widely distributed image of the blue-shrouded female corpse in the execution stadium.

In 2003, unable to locate downtrodden Iraqi women, or desperate Libyan women in 2011, our human rights-driven military planners found other means (Weapons of Mass Destruction and Responsibility to Protect) to destroy those nations.

Things have been somewhat delayed about how western democracies should take Syria and reinvade Iraq. After the Syrian leadership, ISIS is the stated target. For the time being voices of caution prevail-- those aware of the economic costs and the tens of thousands of dead and maimed US military personnel. But the war heroes (“hawks”) in the US legislature and the military establishment are endeavoring to devise a ruse to justify invasion. Enter the Yazidi people—both minority and non-Muslim--with ready women victims. The testimony last week by a Yazidi woman sex slave is the latest in this inexorable campaign. Forget about any Shi’ia widow or orphan, any lost boys and uneducated Sunni girls; forget about poverty and separated families or the rise in heart attacks and PTSD lived every day by millions of Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis; ignore highly educated women and men working as servants in exile or those millions of parents forced to send their children abroad. Those stories have become humdrum “horrific tales of refugees”. We need a dramatic woman victim.

Yazidi women are not only impoverished and homeless; they are sex slaves too! Somehow these women were able to escape their captors to bring us firsthand accounts. Our media launched its Yazidi campaign last September offering a sequence of unarguable testimonials. The culprit is not war, not occupation, not militarization, not a crushed, dysfunctional state’s inability to provide. It is ISIS!

Somehow these select victims find human rights organizations to introduce them to CNN’s Amanpour; one “brave victim” provides details of the rapes and how, for example, her ISIS brutalizer prayed before and after his assaults on her. Most recently human rights agents brought a woman we know as “Bazi” before a US congressional committee. “The US must act”, this former sex slave tells Congress. She calls “on the USA and other countries to establish a safe zone for Iraqi and Syrian religious minorities…or they’ll be wiped out.”

No one asks about the chaotic outcome of the “responsibility to protect--R2P” rationale for the invasion of Libya, or about how women and men survive there today. In Afghanistan, we hear from the occasional women community leader. But what about the general population of Afghan women, still closeted, still shrouded, probably poorer than ever, subject to drone strikes that kill their children, their uncles and fathers on the only happy occasions, weddings, in their more severely circumscribed lives?

John Pilger is a tireless critic of biased journalism and the supporting role of media in war policies and. He would also agree that human rights organizations work with media to carry out the west’s war agenda, and the exploitation of women are a handy pawn in these assaults.  END

[ Women as Pawns in the Political War Game ]

India or China: Has Nepal A Realistic Choice?

June 18, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I was crossing the airstrip to a small aircraft that would take me to Nepal’s interior. We had left the disarray of the departure hall in Kathmandu airport with its melee of early morning hopefuls anxious to escape the polluted city and fly to a trailhead in search of fresh mountain streams and clean air. Planes are in short supply here and cancellations of domestic flights are common. Although those waiting foreigners seemed remarkably patient with the delays, perhaps attributing the disorder to high altitude. Politics wouldn’t figure into any charming anecdote sent from their holidays in the Himalayas. Neither was I thinking about Nepal’s political troubles at that moment. Not until my colleague directed my attention to a medium sized plane parked on the edge of the tarmac.   

“That Turbo Prop M16 is Chinese-made; it was bought by Nepal. Another of the same model, a gift, is expected: two-for-the-price-of-one, you can say.” Nepal could use more aircraft, with not infrequent crashes and regular over-bookings on domestic flights. As for the undelivered Chinese turbo prop, “It’s being held up”, my companion replied. He exhibited the lighthearted cynicism that Nepalese now apply to all public announcements, especially when officials are involved. 

I recalled seeing a recent front page article where a minister announced that irregularities in the registration of a Chinese aircraft would delay its arrival. “Too much aid from China is not welcome.” Was this another case of India blocking Nepal’s economic exchanges with China?

“Maybe. Or maybe Boeing, American. Or Airbus. Europeans and Americans may be unhappy with China’s overtures in Nepal. India too; Delhi influences everything that happens here.”

India and Nepal are bound together in a myriad of ways with India being the overwhelmingly dominant partner. Nepalese were painfully reminded of this when India supported a severe and sustained economic blockade on its land-locked northern neighbor. With Nepal’s dependence on India for heating fuel and petrol for transport— two of many essential commodities ranging from paper and wood to rice and fruit, also manufactured items and packaged/processed food and beverages—life across much of Nepal came to a halt. It was the heating gas and transport fuel embargo that caused unprecedented hardships in population centers, especially the capital. It left people embittered and reassessing their relation with India.

The boycott was launched by the Mahdesi people unhappy at what they considered marginalization, when last July, after years of delays, Nepal’s new constitution was signed. Mahdesi-Nepalese, inhabiting a wide belt of land along their shared border, maintain close ties with India. They decided to utilize this strategic position to express their discontent with the constitution and press for better representation; thus the blockade of goods (from India) entering Nepal through their region.

That internal Nepal crisis took on greater significance when the Indian government was seen as reinforcing Mahdesi demands. Indeed India instructed Nepal to amend its constitution in line with Mahdesi requests. Nepal’s leaders were neither able to secure India’s co-operation nor to negotiate a solution with the steadfast Mahdesi.

As the blockade wore on (lasting for seven months, including winter, although it began to ease somewhat earlier) Nepalese began to seek an alternative. Not easy, since its northern border cuts through the almost impenetrable Himalayan mountain range. Tibet to the north is vast and undeveloped but is nevertheless Nepal’s best access to China. It would be years before a viable route through there could bring essentials like fuel on the scale needed. Although during the blockade China began sending limited supplies to its stricken neighbor.

Even with the end of the blockade, anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal remains high. Over many decades observing Nepal at close hand, I’d not seen Nepalese so angry and disappointed with their neighbor, a place where many of them have studied and where they seek medical treatment, with a culture close to their own, the source of their evening television entertainment. Those millions of children who experienced hardships created by the blockade may well remember that injury for years to come.

Enter China: ties between it and Nepal have moved far beyond a few specialized items produced in Tibet. Today Chinese travelers are a common sight in the capital and on trekking trails. Chinese retailers operate shops in the tourist quarter of Thamel, selling curios and garments and managing hotels and restaurants. Chinese-made household items, electrical goods (in competition with Indian manufactured goods) are for sale across Nepal. China also provides significant development aid to Nepal. An indication of envisioned future growth is the offering of classes in Mandarin at least one major Kathmandu language institute.

When the earthquake struck Nepal last year, China was seen through a new and favorable prism as it competed with India to provide disaster relief. Both neighbors rushed to Nepal’s assistance and they’ve matched each other in terms of pledges for reconstruction. On the ground at that critical time, I myself witnessed the efficiency with which Chinese aid workers operated; one heard frequent complimentary remarks by recipients of that assistance. Urgent supplies arrived from China by air while Chinese bulldozers opened the blocked roads along the quake-damaged Tibet-Nepal route. Contrasting with praise of Chinese relief efforts were complaints about India. (Rumors circulated that India’s military charged into Nepal when the quake struck without Nepal’s approval, also that Indian media exaggerated India’s relief contributions. Although it is acknowledged that huge quantities of needed supplies arrived from India, and India facilitated overland shipments sent from other parts of Asia.)

The Madhesi embargo was started before earthquake relief ended and long before collapsed homes and schools could be rebuilt, also just as winter was approaching. In Nepal’s desperate search for fuel at that time, China came to the fore. It would not be a simple solution since the quantities needed could only be provided by road through Tibet and across Himalayan passes. Supplies might be insufficient but the concept of expanding routes from the north was pursued. (By October, at the height of the blockade Nepal and China signed two treaties, one on trade and a second on fuel supplies). A viable rail link or a pipeline into Nepal from the north seems implausible; in the recent crisis the China option was of limited benefit.

Yet China’s reputation in infrastructure engineering is legend; having achieved a rail route across China into Tibet, an extension through the Himalayas, however fantastic, is possible. Indeed a month ago, China dispatched what appears to be a symbolic train delivery to Nepal. The international shipment departed from Lanzhou westward covering 2,431 kilometers of rail up to Shigatse (Tibet); the next 564 kilometers are by road from Shigatse to Kyirong (on Nepal’s border) with the final 160 of highway ending in Kathmandu. Accompanying this news there’s talk of a tunnel from China into Nepal right through the Himalayan range. Given what Chinese engineers have accomplished elsewhere, such a venture is not unattainable.

What eventually happens depends more on Nepali politics, and China and India’s determination not to jeopardize their own growing co-operation. Internally Nepal’s leadership is weak and unstable, subject to factionalism and corruption. Leaders from across the political spectrum lack negotiating power, political support, or any vision to follow through with a substantive long-term Chinese policy. On its side, it’s doubtful if China would jeopardize a stable relationship with India to change the status quo in Nepal. Meanwhile India and Nepal are reportedly finalizing plans for an oil pipeline from the south. END

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/06/17/china-or-india-does-nepal-have-a-realistic-choice/

[ India or China: Has Nepal A Realistic Choice? ]

Muhammad Ali Revisit? Yesterday, We Primed Ourselves to Proudly Declare Who We Are. Today, Is This A

June 13, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Muhammad Ali Revisited? Yesterday, We Primed Ourselves to Proudly Declare Who We Are. Today, Is This Agenda A Judicious One?         By Barbara Nimri Aziz

Attorney Hassen Abdellah, my colleague and erstwhile radio co-host had just returned from the jenazah service for Muhammad Ali in Louisville. Abdellah and I plan an hour-long radio special this Wednesday at 7pm on a local radio station . It would be an opportunity to share Hassen’s testimony, to talk about sports and social activism, and to dialogue with listeners about the great, departed Muhammad Ali.

Now what?

The full impact of Sunday’s mass shooting at an LGBT club in Florida has not yet hit America’s public consciousness; be assured however, it will soon be taken over by the monster anti-Muslim anti-immigrant machine here. That horrible and saddening event in Orlando will surely feed Donald Trump’s alarmism and his campaign against Muslims. It will provoke even the most tolerant and patient to reassess their positions.

Before Wednesday evening, our WJFF station director may cancel the planned program. If not, how can we proceed with our celebration of Muhammad Ali in what will doubtless be a volatile atmosphere when the media begin their attacks? I am unsure how we can handle it.

Most troubling is how this kind of disruption, interruption and diversion from our essential activist and educational agenda occurs with awful regularity month after month for decades. Whether a dictator’s dangerous whims, or a raging Zionist campaign, The Hague tribunal’s pursuit of selected war criminals, a careless remark by an inarticulate member of our community or by a Muslim head-of-state, a lop-sided TV debate with a media-illiterate Arab spokesman, a PLO miscalculation, a school textbook with too much truth about Palestinian history, humdrum statements by our talented writers decrying violence and reminding the public what we are not --always what we are not-- never getting to what we are; daily bombings in our homelands, young talented journalists assigned to cover war and suffering rather than education, architecture or literature, relentless accounts of hardships endured by any Muslim woman, kidnapped schoolgirls, flogged journalists.

It’s so hard to maintain our noble agenda— to follow the sisters’ proud declarations at last week's beautiful memorial: “I Am Muhammad Ali”.

Stay tuned Wednesday evening (www.wjffradio.org). Pray that Allah awards us the patience and journalistic prowess we so need moving forward.

Meanwhile consider setting aside a few hours to view the 2 hour, 15 minute procession of Ali’s final journey through his hometown in Kentucky  and the full 3 hour memorial service (now distributed –co-opted, as always--by NYT but originally filmed, I believe, by Fox10 TV Phoenix, Arizona). Then decide for yourself what Muhammad Ali signifies and can still give meaning to.

 

[ Muhammad Ali Revisit? Yesterday, We Primed Ourselves to Proudly Declare Who We Are. Today, Is This A ]

Muhammad Ali: His Faith Was Part of His Revolutionary Spirit

June 06, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When someone famous or very wealthy dies, individuals rush to the fore with anecdotes about when their personal encounters with him or her, all to demonstrate perhaps that they too may have had a role in his/her greatness. So my first reaction to some of the fatuous statements in today’s media, reported by (mainly) men who had met Muhammad Ali, was impatience. They’re opportunists, I thought. Theirs is another testimony to record the passing of a special person yet by someone who had no role in his greatness, they are insignificant. Yet, as one of those insignificants, I now find myself wanting to give testimony, even from my distant perch.

Praise to this man who graced the earth and offered such beauty and truth to so many of us, in so many places in so many lives and across the planet.

He proffered so, so much--athletic excellence, grace and humor, pride and courage, political sophistication, teaching by example and by his prowess in boxing, his gentle, determined assertion of his beliefs and his principles.

I would like to think that Muhammad Ali’s embrace of Islam contributed to the excellence of his accomplishments. Certainly he felt so. He said so. His Black Nationalist statements and beliefs were eventually underpinned by his identity as a Muslim and his assertion of his values as a Muslim, this against widespread opposition and resistance from others. (Although there may be many today who’d deny this.)

Muhammad Ali’s pride in his Muslim name, his rejection of his ‘slave name’, his public worship as a Muslim, his defense of his Muslim beliefs were all part of his growth and his truth. Certainly he learned from Black Muslims like Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X, but that was still a time in American history when religious enlightenment of this kind was hardly recognized. For such a public figure, a hero to so many especially outside the US, and as an undisputed champion in a highly competitive sport, to publically and with such exaltation, embrace Islam was part of Muhammad’s revolutionary power.

Then, in what might be called the second phase of his life, his illness with Parkinson's disease, surely his faith fortified his willingness and ability to continue to work as a public figure, to harvest charity for others and remain a living source of joy for those who might meet him and touch him. Few public figures who endure a handicap on that scale can continue to give so much to others.

No one would dispute that Ali is in a class unto himself. There is-- there was-- no other like Muhammad Ali. Today his passing into the realm of Allah has given us another chance to remember some of what he accomplished, to listen to his words, to watch videos of him in action, to learn more about his achievements and to better comprehend what a gift he is.

I became aware of Muhammad Ali only with my emerging political consciousness late in my life. Not living in the USA during the 1960s, my gaze was never directed to this controversial, flashy youth when he first won accolades as a sports champion, not even during his Viet Nam anti-war declarations, nor following that when he was banished from the sport and publicly vilified. Finally however, in 1997 I was introduced to a newly released documentary film “When We Were Kings” (http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/06/05/when_we_were_kings_captures_muhammad_ali_in_his_prime.html) that recorded the 1974 boxing match in Zaire, Africa. Apart from Ali’s boxing talent, there was plenty in that film that demonstrated to me the exceptional character, brilliance and pride of this young man. I was smitten.

Thus began my drive to learn more about Muhammad Ali. Repeatedly I was rewarded with joyous, funny wisdom, winsome images and sounds and declarations that firmly remain in my memory and my heart. I nourish a quiet admiration and inspiration from all that I’ve learned about Muhammad.

How could such an irrepressible brave and spirited ‘pretty’ soul emerge out of a country I had become ashamed of, this ruthless warring nation, a country that seems mired in self deceit, committed to its imperialism, a nation that harbors such divisiveness and inequality? Could this ugly ‘America’ take credit for the beautiful spirit in Muhammad Ali? Could this Muhammad have emerged in any other oppressive, apartheid nation? Could a rough and sometimes brutal sport have nourished such grace and joy? Could Muslim faith sustain such courage and poetry?

I guess that is why Muhammad Ali is so special. The world rejoices in this gift.

 

[ Muhammad Ali: His Faith Was Part of His Revolutionary Spirit ]

One Happy Man- A Nepal Case Study

May 10, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/10/one-happy-man-a-nepal-case-study/

Only occasionally, in contrast to anecdotes of the fashion conscious Nepali upper class occupied with tech trends, music and new eateries, I meet someone whose personal life is advancing with optimism and pride, also without reference to luxuries their Nepali relatives enjoy in Texas or Sydney.

It was an hour-long ride through Kathmandu’s slowly moving traffic on a sultry and dusty pre-monsoon morning. So I had ample time to talk with Purna Tamang. From the moment I peer into his cab, I’m warmed by his smile. His round golden-hued face is inviting and obliging. Inside, I ease into the comfort of a new car, one of a fleet of over 1,500 vehicles recently imported, many of them this India-Hyundai model (an India-Korea partnership) that further clogs the streets of Nepal’s capital.

The windows can be closed so dust and noise is somewhat less than usual; and the car’s functioning springs makes our ride over the city’s severely potholed roads infinitely more bearable. The car itself leads to a delightful conversation on the progress of Purna’s life. Hyundai’s a good car. How long since you bought? I begin. “Yes, India-made. Six months only. I buy with a bank loan—low interest. (Purchase price is about 640,000. rupees--$6,400.--  but Nepal’s 252% tax on what is considered a luxury takes Purna’s cost to 1,800,000 Nepali rupees (~$18,000.).

We would talk later about his business. Meanwhile, always curious about personal histories, I ask Purna the question that starts any introduction in Nepal—Your hometown?

“Kavre”, he replies. I recognize Kavre only because it’s one of the five districts bordering Kathmandu Valley badly stricken by the earthquake a year ago. Before I can pursue that topical subject, Purna continues; “But my house is here, in Dallu”, the neighborhood where I found him. He continues: “I live here with wife, my children. My daughter’s in class 8, my son, class 3”. In the next hour I learn this man is Purna Tamang, so he’s of the Tamang ethnic group; his wife is Sherpa and he knows Solu Kumbu --it’s in the middle hills NE of Kathmandu—her birthplace. He eagerly volunteers: “love marriage”, then chuckles (love marriages are uncommon; and to volunteer this personal information to a stranger is even more unusual).

Purna’s parents live in Kavre where they have 16 ropani (about 2 acres) of good land, which his brother farms. “My father-mother are 70-75, too old for farm work. My father, he sees everything, looks, orders.” They grow vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes--selling all in Kathmandu’s market. His land is hardly 90 minutes by road from the capital so the urban market is handy and profitable.  There is more: “My brother has a tractor, a small one; 500 ($5.) an hour to service others’ lands in Kavre. A good business.” He repeats approvingly: “Good business: one hour—rupees 500”. Still more: “and buffalo- not cow- buffalo, good fat in buffalo; one buffalo gives rupees 30,000 monthly milk. We sell to government in Kathmandu—to DDC (Dairy Development Corporation)”.

So why don’t you join your brother? Surely such a productive family business is better than taxi. “No. I stay in Kathmandu for children’s education. My daughter is very clever; she is 14 and I wait she finish high school, then go to college, then later I and wife go to Kavre village. “I will buy buffalo.” (Purna is unambiguous about this plan.)

And your young son? “My daughter, she will look after him when she is in college; he is not well, not clever; she will take care. She can do anything- my daughter will be successful. I send them to a good school here--private school: rupees 4000. one month for daughter; one month 1000 for my son.” Every year 60,000.—more-- for my children education.”

I start calculating; if his wife is not an income earner (although I later learn that she’s currently in the village and involved in marketing their farm produce), can a driver support this lifestyle? “I have 3000 daily from this car after petrol, my food, after my bank loan. I have another car, another driver. He pays me 1000 daily; all petrol costs/fixing car, he gives. So I have 4000 daily.” when I opine that it seems not much, he retorts: “It’s good; I am happy. I love Nepal.”  

Purna, now 50, must have been one of the first of what has become a deluge of Nepali laborers to Saudi Arabia. It was long ago; he altered his age so he could qualify and came back here when aged 35, 15 years ago. With some of his earnings, he purchased his vehicles. He tells me with pride: “I speak Arabic; it’s easy” and proffers a few words. “I learn my English in Saudi, not good, not like my daughter; but I can speak. I speak Newari (a language with its own grammar and script which few outside Nepal’s Newar community manage); I speak Tamang.” And Sherpa? I challenge; “Of course, I speak Sherpa. My children’s names are Sherpa too: my daughter is Tashi Dolma Lama; my son Ang Norbu Lama.”

[ One Happy Man- A Nepal Case Study ]

Life Without A Recipe--from the Arab American Pen

April 15, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

If an Arab writer comes to mind it’s likely Nawal El-Saadawi, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, or Kahlil Gibran --all non-Americans. But it’s the 21st century and new names claim attention and respect: e.g. Diana Abu-Jaber, an American writer who for 20 years has woven Arab themes into her stories of life in the USA. This skilled writer and storyteller consistently offers us something others cannot:--subtle and intimate portrayals of Arab culture and people. Her new book--her sixth-- “Life without A Recipe”, adds to her repertoire of American life with an Arab ‘flavor’ (her last two books-- “Origin”, a crime story, and “Birds of Paradise” about a runaway daughter—are exceptions).

One of the first Arab American novelists to gain wide recognition, Abu-Jaber now represents an established community of women writers in the USA who contribute to feminist thought and to what’s known as ‘ethnic narratives’. This is a literary community where women far outnumber men writers, a fact that begs explanation and comparison. (Does one find parallels among American East Asian, South Asian and Latino writers?)

During the initial phase in the history of Arab American literature, i.e. writing by Americans of Arab heritage, fiction did not figure in our artistic expression. What literary image we claimed was though poetry, established mainly by Gibran, Samuel Hazo and Etel Adnan. Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, (he’s now 88 and still writing) is barely recognized as Arab; the same is true for Jane Brox whose essays offer scant reference to her Arab roots. Apart from them, our most accomplished writers are poets; with Hazo stand Sam Hamod, Naomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Lawrence Joseph, DH Melhem, Mohja Kahf, and Suheir Hammad-- a few names from scores of established contemporary Arab American writers.  

As literary output by Arab Americans grows, poetry remains dominant, and our men are more prolific in this genre.

Just as novels and memoirs arrived late in Arabic literature, they have been slow to take hold in Arab American and Diaspora Arab literary expression. Hanan Al-Shaykh, Nawal El-Saadawi, Fadia Faqir and Adhaf Soueif—all women, although not American -- are well established fiction authors writing in English.

Diana Abu-Jaber is one of the first American writers from our community to establish a reputation as a novelist. She joins Rabih Alameddine whose rich, prize-winning style propelled him into mainstream, with Laila Lalami, a brilliant storyteller moving into the top ranks of this country’s writers with her latest book “The Moor’s Account”. Compared to them, and to Rawi Hage, Patricia Sarrafian Ward and Kathryn Abdul Baki whose tales are set in the Arab homelands, Abu-Jaber’s narratives are (contemporary) America- centered. Today Jaber represents an emerging voice of mainly women authors, e.g. Laila Halaby, Randa Jarrar, Frances Khirallah Noble, Evelyn Shakir, and Susan Muaddi Darraj.

“Life without A Recipe” is a woman’s exploration of a career as a writer told through the influences of her Arab father, her maternal German grandmother, and her decision (with her husband) to adopt a baby. Hers is not a typical woman’s story –two short-lived marriages, a childhood filled with tension between father and grandmother, the decision to adopt, and then raising her child while resuming her career. Yet it is one which many writers and many more women will enjoy and imbibe as they reflect on their own (American) lives. Abu-Jaber shows us that life need not—cannot-- follow a prescription. Added joy awaits us in Abu-Jaber’s masterful imagery and in her delicious way with words.

[ Life Without A Recipe--from the Arab American Pen ]

An Impossible Syrian Victory

April 06, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“…before it fell back into government hands last weekend”, notes a National Public Radio reporter Monday morning. He’s clearly disappointed, unable to utter even a suggestion that that event marks a military success against ISIS (IS, ISIL, Daesh). What’s this about? Well, it’s the Syrian army, working with Russian air power, retaking Palmyra, a major city in central Syria which in May 2015 was ransacked and occupied by ISIS.

As far as I’m aware ISIS is still the number one enemy of civilized society, the acronym that sends shudders across the globe, the most reviled evil entity in modern times, defined days before that episode by US secretary of state Kerry  as a “genocidal’ agency, also a force which during its three years of existence has eluded the strategic thinking of western governments, their military experts and their rebel allies within Syria. Yet, here was a notable (and unexpected) turn of events: an ISIS defeat! Oughtn’t we to celebrate? At least, if we’re unable to bring ourselves to acknowledge the merits of Syria’s government forces, some credit is due its Russian partner and ally.

At their most generous, US commentators describe the success of Syrian and Russian efforts against ISIS as “a mystery”. Just today US secretary of defense Ashton Carter, asked about US strategies to combat ISIS, utters not a word about the retaking of Palmyra and instead mutters some vacuous remarks about how ISIS’s defeat remains a target of US policy in the region.

Western media responses to Washington’s embarrassment of the Russian/Syrian success takes two forms, both manifestly biased. BBC, NPR radio, TV networks and print media chose to highlight Palmyra’s ancient Roman ruins over examining what that military success really meant. Our defenders of western civilization seem in need of assurance from archeologists about the fate of the Temple of Bel and the “arch of triumph”. They agonize over what relics had or hadn’t been destroyed by ISIS? (How many of these concerned people dared to visit Syria before 2011 to witness the country’s many achievements, enjoy its theater, contemporary arts and ancient wonders?)

In recent news reports, one finds no reference to the (liberated) people of Palmyra city—you know, that “horrific humanitarian situation”. Have any residents of the region survived? What about Syrian soldiers captured in the initial ISIS occupation of Palmyra? What about the notorious Palmyra prison where many Syrians languished? Had they been unchained only to be recruited by ISIS in 2015 to vent their fury against their own land (like Saddam Hussein’s prisoners in 2003 and inmates of Kuwait’s prisons in 1991 who, it is rumored, were let loose to savage and pillage the libraries and museums of Iraq)?

The New York Times predictably cast the recent Syrian military achievement in a negative light, charging that it bolsters Bashar Al-Assad’s confidence and ambitions, referring to Al-Assad as ‘stubbornly confident’, ‘a survivor adept at juggling allies’, yet further evidence that he is a ‘master of survival’.

If the victorious forces over ISIS had been headed by any US ally, however extremist or brutal its reputation, we’d see Americans cheering in the streets like they did after their murder of Bin Laden, with book contracts readied for personal testimonies of our heroic American forces, pages of profiles of rebel allies and speculation of who among them might be Syria’s ‘first democratically elected president’.

Scanning the media, one has to credit Russian sources with providing a reasonable assessment of military operations in and around Palmyra. One is hard pressed to find mention of ‘victory’ in other press accounts, although an Indian magazine with a more balanced take cites how many Syrian fathers, sons and brothers were martyred in this action. (It is rumored that during this conflict, close to 100,000 Syrian soldiers have been killed.) What about a thought for these young, anonymous conscripts?

[ An Impossible Syrian Victory ]

Iím Unwelcoming Spring -- end of March 2016

March 25, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Until I caught sight of those Merganser ducks darting up the river, I was trusting on a late winter. I admit: this lingering hope is less a concern over global warming that my profound affection for winter’s cold and snow.  

In a part of New York State known for its blizzards and low temperatures, year-round residents expect that even by March, some sign of the season’s snow accumulation still will be with us. Alas, there’s not a hint of it.

You don’t live in this part of the world unless you appreciate winter’s magic and learn how to cope with its hazards. I have fond and still vivid memories growing up in Canada plodding through passageways banked by heaps of clean snow. We never glimpsed the earth itself for three full months when automobiles were outfitted with tire chains for the season too. Every driver learns how to manage a car on packed snow and all children skate on nearby frozen ponds, even though each winter was marred by an accidental death of someone falling through the ice. Even we Arab immigrant kids learned to protect ourselves from frostbite and handily pull off chunks of snow stuck to our clothing and our hair.  

Winter still means a lot of preparation, even with today’s amenities. Last fall, I added a space heater for supplemental heat in my office; I had the basement ceiling newly insulated with six inches of foam; I ordered a cord of seasoned logs and arranged extra kindling; I topped up the oil tank; and I purchased new tights, socks and shirts from UNIQLO, the Japanese company that manufactures ‘heattech’, a remarkable warmth- conserving fabric.

I was ready. Confident I’d enjoy this season even more than winters past, I waited. When New York City was struck by a ‘superstorm’ --everything there has to be supersize-- I felt envious. Especially since it never arrived here. (Anyway I doubt their blizzard was as severe as they allege. You know how New Yorkers are. They claim it was a record--the third or fourth worst in their memory; but third or fourth is not a record.)

Upstate towns did have one brush with winter—on Valentine’s Day-- when the pipes froze. Yet still no snow. Once we had some ‘precipitation’ that stayed on the ground one night, enough that school was canceled and the heavy snowplow was called out. I usually curse these rattling machines roaring by at 4:30 in the morning. But this year I pitied the driver who, paid by the hour, has had skimpy winter paychecks. Only twice all winter was I awakened by the plow scraping up what flakes it could manage along its path.

There wasn’t enough snowfall to create that magical wonderland where we feel suspended in a crystal ice bubble-- total silence and stillness. Awakening in the morning after a heavy downfall you know from an eerie calm that the world is covered in a foot, perhaps (hopefully) more, of pure white snow.

I suppose that ‘snowbirds’ -- northern residents, especially grandparents, who head to Florida these months-- will be disappointed. All that dislocation and expense while the folks back home enjoyed record low fuel bills.

I’ve know a freakish snow to arrive in May; so winter might yet appear. They say snow is essential for some spring flora to blossom. And what about maple syrup? Surely maple tree sap can’t run without a healthy input of heavy snow.  END

[ Iím Unwelcoming Spring -- end of March 2016 ]

Cubaís Forbearance of President Barack Obama

March 24, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The US president began his address to the Cuban people invoking parallels between America’s and Cuba’s political histories: “We both live in a new world colonized by Europeans; and Cuba, like the US was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa; Cubans, like us, can trace our heritage to slaves and to slave owners”.

Then Barack Obama then listed cultural commonalities before turning, however gently, to differences before launching his American democracy sell. He did so without a hint of awareness of the 99/1% split here, disregarding the $1.3 trillion student debt, amnesia of sanctions by which the US terrorizes other nations, coercing others into exploitative trade deals, the record of US police brutality against our Black people, the 2.3 million imprisoned Americans, and more. Does he really think he can get away with such whitewashing as a prelude to boasting, especially to Cubans, of America’s merits, topping it off with a hard sell on behalf of Cuban Americans?

In the March21 press conference the day before with President Raul Castro, after some heartfelt remarks, Obama raised the hackneyed human-rights arguments that obsess western diplomats. Why Obama is compelled --I suppose because, after all, he IS American-- to shift from noble dialogue and grace to political posturing, I can’t understand. His condescending remarks reduce Obama from outstanding individual to humdrum spokesman. Raul Castro, prepared for the American's subtle assault, made a firm rejoinder, pointing out just how inclusive the concept and application of ‘human rights’ really is, and where the US falls short. Castro too reminded us that the US embargo is still in place, an issue we might forget, given the press’ attention on not what the US is withholding but what Cuba is offering: tourist pleasures and profits for US businesses.

By Tuesday, both of Obama’s presentations were overshadowed by news of the terror attacks in Belgium. Maybe TV networks welcomed the diversion, with a lineup of terrorism experts within easy reach. Covering bloody terror scenes is easier than showing us how gracious and resolute the Cubans are, simpler than questioning a spiteful embargo.

US press coverage of the historic visit of President Obama began with little substance. Reporters, perhaps contemplating their next book, opine how tourists won’t be able to see (quaint) old Cuba, with its 1950-model autos and deteriorating manors.

I regret not visiting Cuba during its hard years to feel that revolutionary wetness, when it established its powerful global reputation. My colleagues at WBAI Radio Rosemary Mealy and Sally O’Brien kept us informed of the stalwart Cuban spirit, their social achievements and steady diplomatic successes. They reminded us of the unjust embargo, and highlighted the succession of US vetoes against Cuba at the United Nations.

While these colleagues focused on Cuba, I was in Iraq documenting the newly imposed US-led and policed embargo there. Iraq’s isolation was more severe, abandoned by Arab neighbors and largely ignored by the world press. (Not to compare this barbarian form of collective punishment in the two nations. It was dramatically different.)

I recall how, from 1991 on, Cuba’s embargo history arose obliquely each time I arrived in Iraq. I was repeatedly confronted by: “When will the embargo end?” Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis perished in that bloodless assault; it penetrated every home; the economy collapsed; medical care was shredded, agricultural production plummeted, disease flourished. (Four million fled their homeland.) To Iraqis’ naïve question, I initially replied, “Look at Cuba”, meaning look how long the US has imposed sanctions there. What I should have suggested was that Iraqis look to Cuba for ways to survive and counter such punishment.

If only Iraqis had learned from Cuba. If only Iraq hadn’t been a leading Arab champion of Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, a position unacceptable to US-Israeli interests. If only Iraq and fellow Arab states succored one another with a healthy revolutionary spirit. If only Iraq hadn’t exhibited such prowess, and hadn’t invaded a neighbor with a military power encouraged and bolstered by the West (mainly USA) to fight its greater enemy Iran. 

Just as the two peoples and two embargoes are not comparable, neither is the outcome. Eventually, after 8 years of that tortuous blockade, in 1998 Iraq abandoned attempts to appease the US to win UN approval and instead adopted other means to reverse its course. It had begun to rebuild when Washington announced its sanctions strategy had failed and in 2003 proceeded with plans to finish Iraq off with a massive military invasion and occupation.  

Cuba was smarter, more self-sufficient; and it didn’t have oil. Havana furthered revolutionary ideals with friends while establishing good living standards for its citizens. Cuba build its outstanding medical service while a succession of Latin American neighbors proceeded with their own social and political revolutions, until finally it was the powerful USA who found itself isolated, its meanness and hubris exposed for all to see.

[ Cubaís Forbearance of President Barack Obama ]

New RadioTahrir podcasts on Syria; Mazin Qumsiyeh's Women's Day Letter from Palestine

March 08, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Friends: Marhaba-- On March 3, in an addenda to my teach-in "An Other Syria: Returning to The Nation" at SUNY Purchase, NY, I assembled interviews I conducted in Syria before 2011. To hear these podcasts, punch in 'syria' and listen. You can also access my audio archive through iTunes. Go to iTunes store; punch in "Tahrir" and scroll down to 'podcasts' where the first item is RadioTahrir. Click our logo and select from the list, then listen. It's free; and the audio quality is pretty good. Search 'Syria' for my articles on Syria.

Today, in lieu my blog, I forward this letter from Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh my colleague at Bethlehem University.

On this International Women's Day, I am in Amman attending the Lancet Palestinian Health Alliance Conference where most presentations are by brilliant women (thank you Rita Giacaman for excellent coordination/organizing). In this conference public health issues are discussed in the regional context and in the context of Israeli colonial occupation. I was inspired mostly by people here: good dedicated experts who present the data regardless of how they get attacked by the powerful elite who profit from war, conflict and inequality. We saw sobering numbers about health access inequality, lack of accessibility to medical services, political interference in health, increased cancer rates, increased congenital birth defects, communicable disease, deteriorating mental health, torture and forced feeding and much more. From my lab, we had a poster on genotoxicity. Here is a report on last year's conference held at the American University of Beirut.   I celebrate Women's Day in Amman (Jordan) and then in Palestine (I will be on my way back to the besieged homeland today). I lament how the mainstream media misses the point  intentionally. They highlight elite women (some who make the lives of women everywhere more difficult such as Hilary Clinton), and they fail to give credit to those women on the front line who change things (like colleagues and friends Rana Bishara, Rehab Nazzal, Rita Giacaman, and a million other activists). The media even fails to explain the origin of this day. Having an annual dedicated day for women (action) was proposed in 1910 by Clara Zetkin of Germany at the International Conference of Working Women. Inspired by women socialist movements for fair working conditions in the USA in 1908 and 1909, movements grew of women demanding their rights (until then they did not even have a right to vote). The first women’s day on 8 March 1911 launched demonstrations for women workers’ rights (right to vote, right to fair work condition, right to live free from oppression, right to life, against wars etc). After a long struggle and many lives lost along the way, the UN recognized 8 March as an “International” (I prefer global) women’s day in 1977, 66 years after it was launched by brave socialist women. Thus women’s day is about actions against injustice not about Hilary Clinton who stands in the way of change and pledges allegiance to Zionist lobbies! On 26 October 1929 in Jerusalem, the First Arab Women’s Congress of Palestine gathered about 200 women. The demands were rights of women and against the Balfour Declaration, against the racist idea of Zionism, for self-determination, and for full equality (gender, religion etc). They elected a 14 member Executive Committee headed by Matiel E. T. Mogannam, author of a book titled “The Arab Women and the Palestinian Problem” published 1937.  Moghannam explained the innovative strategies of Palestinian women in the 1920s: they lobbyed the colonial power, wrote in newspapers, and in 1928 held the first demonstration in history that used automobiles with 120 cars arriving in the streets of Jerusalem from across Palestine). See my book Popular Resistance in Palestine: A history of hope and empowerment The struggle of women in Palestine continues. Many people like me believe sincerely that had women been in charge here, we would have had a free Palestine today. My mother, now 84, showed us by example what giving and self-sacrifice and love of people and land means. My wife and three sisters are likewise examples of what we all should aspire to do: kind, dedicated, and hard-working human beings. Like millions before them and millions of their contemporaries, these women make life livable while many men (and a few women) engage in hurting others and pushing for conflicts and war. Words are too mediocre and inadequate to express our feelings but I simply want to say to all the women working for peace and justice: thank you and to pledge that we will work with you for more progressive change in our societies. As males, we must challenge the system we inherited of giving privilege to men (Patriarchal societies we live in). This must be in deed not in words. For the local situation of Palestinian women today, I urge you to read this remarkable new issue of the excellent magazine “This Week in Palestine” dedicated to our better half.

Keep abreast of developments sent by Qumsiyeh through

[ New RadioTahrir podcasts on Syria; Mazin Qumsiyeh's Women's Day Letter from Palestine ]

When Canadians Become Alarmed, Itís Serious.

February 29, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My sister phoned me from Canada this morning. I can’t remember her being so upset. It’s not about the grandchildren; it’s not anything I said, not a recurrence of her cancer, not winter’s icy roads or frozen pipes.

“What are you going to do if he becomes president? Can your Congress vote him out?” she asked determinedly. “What are you going to do?”—you being ‘you out-of-control Americans’. My sister is talking about Donald Trump’s ascendancy (if not his ascension).

This concern uttered by a woman who rarely talks politics, not even Canadian politics, from the same sister who routinely dismisses my political outrages, conspiratorial analyses, and opposition to Zionist occupation. I could never draw this lifelong sibling into a debate, especially about American politics. (She’s more of a royalist—they still exist in Ontario, I suppose in British Columbia too-- than a party member, left or right.)

Canadians habitually view their giant neighbor as excessive and unpredictable, not simply a source of new market delights which they travel south to buy, but also a target for Canadian satire. Preferring to avoid acknowledging their own military coalition with the Pentagon, their diplomatic alliances for US imperialist polices, their membership in ‘The Five Eyes’ global intelligence spy program, and their acquiescence to US anti-terror strategies, Canadians try to ignore the race-based dramas and costly principled struggles that beset USA. ‘It will pass like any teenage tantrum’, they snicker.

So, if my sister is alarmed about the emergence of the flashy Manhattan billionaire as the frontrunner in the US election campaign, this is serious. Despite themselves Canadians, impatient with the drawn out 10-week election cycle that overthrew their Harper administration last year, are now following America’s 15-month election drama with growing distress. Like many of us here, the personalities and volatility of the presidential campaign is no longer a laughing matter. Trump could actually win the Republican nomination, and the White House.

Unlike in Canada where parliament can simply force a vote-of-no-confidence if their leadership is off-track, ridding ourselves of an unmanageable leader is more problematic. 

Stateside, confronting this specter, we ourselves are desperately seeking options. Friends who favored Bernie Sanders announce they’re shifting to Clinton because she would seem to have a better chance against ‘The Donald’, allied as she is with the Democratic Party machine and Corporate America. Others assert they’ll sit out this election altogether. On the conservative side of the political arena, voters and the Republican Party itself (the GOP), admitting that ‘The Donald’ has become an embarrassment, appear to be mobilizing around young Mark Rubio.

Then there’s the gorilla in the room, the unparalleled American political force underlying everything in our lives—our media. US media is a formidable power which my sister and others watching from a safe distance may not appreciate. Network leaders now acknowledge that their romance with Trump and their initial delight in his celebrity skills helped create the monster he’s become. (Their profits have soared with his rise .)

This brash contender would not be the first rising star to become the target of a vicious media assault. I expect the new game in town will be between ‘The Donald’ and our media. Journalists have a toolbox of weapons to politically assassinate brash and bombastic contenders. They can create scandals, saturating the public with misinformation, poisoning any name and cause; they can uncover buried facts, blowing them out of portion to intimidate and embarrass. They can summon any comedic talent to ridicule their target. They can suggest alliances with the most extreme elements. (They’ve begun with a suggestion Trump is allied with the discredited Ku Klux Klan.)

And of course citizens can reject the TV process that drugs them into passivity and rouse themselves to really participate in the election process. They might organize to reshape the two houses of congress. Just as the GOP has hobbled Obama by taking control of Congress in the 2012 mid-terms, Democrats can do the same if a Trump or any Republican wins the presidency.  

[ When Canadians Become Alarmed, Itís Serious. ]

Why Am I Watching These Phony Campaign Debates?

February 17, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Some friends have given up watching televised news programs altogether. They’re disgusted by what our election has become: a spectacle. “I’ll check the highlights of this charade tomorrow”; “It insults our democracy”; “It’s all rigged”, they claim. “It’s only about money.”

I confess, I’m still watching. If it’s a choice between the Grammy awards and these debates, both viewed by millions of Americans, I’ll choose the latter. I’m more engaged by the insults, the claims and these personalities on the US political stage than by any other kind of entertainment.

Never before have I followed political campaigning with such keenness. Others say the same. But then, did US networks sponsor so many debates in the past? And have we had such a colorful lineup?

Yes, our media generate this pizzazz for their own profit and to maintain political clout. We recognize how candidates’ statements and banter are thin on substance. But the process offers wonderful opportunities for post-debate reviews and analyses by battalions of wise (sic) consultants, correspondents and news anchors. Yes, we acknowledge that we’re witnessing what may be a performance staged and managed by party bosses-- Democrat and Republican-- to proffer the semblance of a genuine competition for public consumption, while their nominees are already decided.

Soooo: why am I following these debates? Frankly, I don’t know why. Normally I prefer radio and print over television. Until these debates, I was unaware which networks favor which candidates and slant their commentaries and pick their guests to reinforce their editorial position.

There’s the additional dilemma of where to assign my humble vote. I still believe everyone counts-- at our local level if not the national. I’ve argued that state elections—choosing people who represent my state and congressional district in the US Congress, and my county in New York’s legislature-- are more important than the presidential campaign.

Local campaigns will get underway much later. Meanwhile I’m faced with this noisy presidential lineup. I wouldn’t support Clinton (although I’m her generation) because, while she may seem “experienced”, she didn’t achieve anything noteworthy during her political career. I can’t support a woman just to help the US prove it is as enlightened as the rest of the world.

I was ready to back Elizabeth Warren. But after she decided against entering the race, I moved towards Sanders by default. (I’m still waiting for him to explain exactly how he’s going to win US Congress’ support for the commendable socialist platform he promises to unleash on America. If Republicans continue to dominate the US Senate and House, they will surely thwart Sanders as effectively as they have Obama.)

Back to the media circus of our debates: I admit the process unfolding day by day is packed with suspense. I’m as engrossed with the media maneuverings and mutterings as much as with individual candidates. Besides the money flowing into networks’ bank account, journalists’ careers are being made, among them a new crop of capable young women.

Scanning news coverage by 7 channels, I’ve become an admirer of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Maddow uses the campaign to teach us about our American political process; she draws attention to what isn’t discussed; she reviews US election history and explains regional differences.

Then there are the absences: absent from all discussions among candidates are US-Israeli policy, US-Saudi policy, and US-India policy. Not only is Israel a taboo subject for candidates, it’s also absent in discussions of voters’ values. Among all the talk about interest groups, do you hear anything about Jewish voters? Candidates are wooing Asian voters, Latino voters, young voters, elderly voters, the Evangelical vote, the Catholic vote, the Muslim vote, the Mormon vote, the gun owner vote, the farm vote, the urban vote and the unions. They are shamelessly courting the Black vote. But the Jewish vote? Not a whisper.

Our Jewish citizens are unarguably involved. Any serious political candidate must court the Jewish American vote. But it’s not discussed publically along with other ethnic voting patterns. Competing candidates do not mention this constituency, and thus far, media analysts and polls avoid it. Why? I don’t know.

I’m not unhappy with the excessive positions and behavior of Trump, or Cruz, or Carson. We need to witness their frightening opinions and thereby face the reality of American extremism. These men inadvertently expose the ugly but undeniably ugly underbelly of America.

Finally I enjoy watching because, I believe, even if party bosses are manipulating the process, no one-- no senior pundit, no rookie correspondent, no veteran host, no millionaire donor, no political science professor-- knows the final outcome. No one’s sure how this game will end. Which reminds me: I must check when the next debate airs, and which party’s performing.  

[ Why Am I Watching These Phony Campaign Debates? ]

ďThe MartianĒ: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too

February 04, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Many claim that books and films-- politicians too—are frequently the result of a deliberate marketing strategy, that they’re designed by a team according to formulae based on earlier successes and applied like an algorithm to the market:--to win. “The Martian” may be one of these made-to-order productions, containing as it does, all essential ingredients-- a star actor, an ethnically diverse cast, a futuristic theme, spectacular cosmic sets, high tech knowhow, and a heroic American plot.

Americans will never tire of their need for muscular heroes engaged in the struggle between good and bad, challenging the forces of nature, triumphing in a valiant rescue. But maybe such needs are not limited to American tastes. Who doesn’t seek heroic resolutions and reassurance that a man’s (sic) intelligence and ingenuity will save us from human folly and tame the power of nature?

I can’t help wondering if Crown Publishers, who plucked “The Martians” from a self-published unknown (Andy Weir), and 20th Century Fox-- within months of the book’s release they secured film rights, released the film in under two years, and rapidly snagged an Oscar nomination-- had been searching for this very story. Following the new “Star Wars” and building on the popularity of space science and its spectacular recent discoveries, a human drama on Mars was inevitable.

The movie’s plot is as credible as a person washed up on that desert island in “Castaway”. In “The Martian” we have a cosmonaut botanist Watney (Matt Damon) lost in future space (on Mars), using his wit and science knowhow to survive, and doing so on less than Tom Hanks had available in “Castaway”.

In the end our space hero is rescued by the woman spaceship commander and her multi-ethnic crew, after tense months of negotiations between them and officials at NASA headquarters on earth. This drama equals that of “Apollo 13”, with Damon’s heroism matching that of Hanks (again). Except that “The Martian” tags a new partner: China.

Filmmaking, like any industry, is sensitive to marketing statistics. Examining these, one begins to speculate about what drives films like “The Martian”. In 2014, one research agency announced how film entertainment worldwide was expected to grow from $88.3 billion in 2015 to $104.6 billion in 2019. Another survey notes how the international box office market is expanding rapidly in the Asian-Pacific region, where, we are advised, China is the market to watch. Thus film companies have their sights set on China’s filmgoers.

Overseas auto sales may be declining but entertainment is an expanding revenue source for the USA. From science fiction (“The Terminator” series) to children’s education (“Sesame Street”), hundreds of US produced TV series and films are translated into dozens of languages and franchised for production by other countries. Futuristic spectacles like “The Martian” become big foreign revenue earners. Everyone enjoys drama; when it’s combined with credible science, special effects and a hero like Matt Damon, it’s a box office success.

It’s also a political winner. As poet Amiri Baraka emphasized and filmmaker Spike Lee reinforces in his productions, everything is political. On the surface, unlike a Lee film, “The Martian” lacks any explicit political message. There are no fearless Marine snipers, no gallant lawyers defending minority rights, no environmentalists challenging corporate polluters, no journalists doggedly pursuing truth at any price.

“The Martian”’s subtext lies in its demonstration of the brilliance of the American scientist and how far his team will go to save one American life. This film is also on target with its ethnic diversity. (Although the hero is still a white man.) While some personalities differ slightly from the book’s characters, they nevertheless represent what’s described as an A-1 cast: stranded Mars cosmonaut Watney (Damon); smart women, headed by the space ship’s commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain); Purnell (Donald Glover), a genius African American mathematician; Martinez (Michela Pena), a compassionate Latino pilot; and Ng (Ben Wong), the capable Chinese Jet Propulsion Lab director. Finally, we have Dr. Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), charged with the rescue of Damon, declaring that his mother is from India. (Everyone except a hijab-crowned physicist, an Arab geneticist, and a Native American chemist is present.)

If we look back at the 1995 all-white-all-male “Apollo 13” cast, it’s clear we’ve advanced on some fronts. Of course “Apollo 13” was based on reality while “The Martian”, like “Star Trek”, is futuristic. And for America, true ethnic parity, while not science fiction, is not present-day reality.

The main hidden text of “The Martian” is found in the role of China-- Communist China, not the scientist played by Ben Wong. China enters the story at the moment of NASA’s despair and saves their seemingly doomed rescue plan. From their Beijing headquarters, watching the drama on live TV, Chinese space officials determinedly put aside their own project and offer to rocket supplies to the stricken Americans. A possible American failure is turned into an international victory, and Damon (he’s always Damon on screen) is reunited with his spaceship. Cheers erupt among crowds watching the rescue in Times Square, in London’s Trafalgar and at Tiananmen Square. (A good time was had by all.)  END

Comments welcome

 

[ ďThe MartianĒ: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too ]

"The Donald" and the American Media

January 31, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Is “The Donald” Really One-up on US Media? If So, Should We Not Champion Him?

Why are we so surprised by the audacity and rise of The Donald? We made him. America made him. Our free, uncensorable press made him. For as long as I can recall being a media critic, we’ve been decrying our out-of-control, profiteering American media empire. We have charged the media with commandeering our elections, with making or breaking political aspirants according to how they ‘appear’, with caring less about facts than image, with reducing essential policies to sound bites, with skewing discussions and analyses with their hand-picked, biased pundits.

Remember Nixon’s triumphant 1952 “Checkers Speech”  http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2008/01/17/the-dog-carries-the-day-for-nixon in the newly launched medium of television? And the homey images of J.F.K. that propelled him into the hearts of the nation? And those hard-nosed TV hosts like Ted Koppel whose reputation was built on bold confrontations with politicians?

Our corporate media rings up their cash registers along the way too, with TV ads absorbing the bulk of campaign budgets. We charge that elections are bought with unchecked contributions by rich donors who can saturate the media for their favorite candidates. News networks have us at both ends. Doing our civic duty largely from the sofa, we depend on network commercials for candidate’s promotional ads. And we seem to need televised interviews and analyses to help evaluate, to shame, or to promote the choices we make at the ballot. Not only has US media culture made a mash of competition for high office; it has established a pattern of pseudo news and dependence on TV election coverage that became a model across the world. Leadership is not only subject to media image; aspirants seek to gain control of media, as Italy’s former boss Silvio Berlusconi, himself a media tycoon, proved. Or like India’s Narendra Modi, they become expert media mavens. Recent scandals in the UK have pointed up the coziness of Tory leader Cameron and media mogul Rupert Murdock.

Across the world, in democracies and monarchies alike, effective leaders learn how to accommodate media demands, always in the hope to turning it to their advantage. Even our own Barack Obama is surely trying to play the media to his advantage by his frequent appearances on TV comedy shows. (To what success is another question.) One doubts he’s chatting with Jay Leno or Ellen DeGeneres merely to fill a free afternoon.

But back to the most shameless media man: The Donald. It seems to me, as I follow his stage appearances and interviews, that he is able to somehow make media serve him. So much so that, unlike other candidates, he seems to avoid spending his personal millions on paid ads. And he calls the shots.

Trump’s political incorrectness is galling, and frightening. I find him shameful, believing as I do, that some threads of democracy still hold us together. With the prospect that The Donald’s espoused principles could become US policy under his leadership, I may not want to live in this country.

Some political commentators now suggest that the US news media itself could be responsible to allowing Trump to gain the traction he has over these recent months. Oh, now they notice? Have they not fed his bombast and daring, his quips and his off-the-cuff behavior? His style may appear refreshing compared to formulaic presentations by other candidates--DNC and GOP. Now, they find that he’s uncontrollable?

They accorded The Donald super coverage to increase their own ratings; now  they can’t shut him down. More worrying, through our playful media The Donald has built what appears to be a serious audience and following.

Scrutiny and pressure by some TV hosts has exposed the weaknesses of candidates like Carson and Jeb Bush. Not The Donald however. In the case of Fox Network’s Megan Kelly who he refuses to face, he simply bypassed the debate altogether, and later mockingly shouts: “I’m on the front page of major papers without having been at the (January 28th) debate”. Then there’s the GOP who welcomed him to the party but can’t seem to ‘handle’ him. He defies their rules and procedures. Isn’t his something that we should welcome, given what we know about backroom deal-making? Isn’t he defying the decision of Citizens’ United as well?

[ "The Donald" and the American Media ]

Geraldo Rivera, my favorite talk-radio host: where are you?

January 21, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When he initially disappeared from the airwaves I thought my favorite talk-radio host had taken family leave following his daughter’s traumatic experience in Paris during the November attacks there. By end December however Rivera hadn’t returned to his nationally syndicated slot on WABC Radio. His was the sole show I tuned to on that notorious, conservative media outlet. WABC Radio, broadcasting across the country from New York, is often scary. It permits hosts to utter shamefully venomous comments, sometimes bordering on illegal, on the airwaves.

I can never discuss with my friends what I hear on WABC; not only do they reject the network for what they find fascist and hateful; they assume that if I myself tune in, I’ve eschewed our shared progressive values. A wall rises between us. Admitting I listen to WABC is like confessing that I occasionally consume a McDonalds double cheeseburger; I’m thereby supporting global warming and contributing to America’s obesity epidemic.

Why do I tune to the station? Because I want to experience firsthand how those putative right-wingers talk; I want to the hear what Americans who I normally never meet—you know: those obese illiterates who carry guns and drink gallons of beer—say about issues being debated here. To me, both as an anthropologist and as a journalist, everybody counts. Shouldn’t I hear them directly rather than as objects of satire on “The Daily Show”?

 It was out of this compulsion that in 2012 I became a regular morning listener to Geraldo Rivera’s show. Promoted as “not red (left), not blue (right) but red-white- and-blue”, Rivera tries to tread a middle road. More to the point, he attracts listeners from across our social and economic spectrum—positions less heard in our increasingly polarized society. Geraldo always, always listens to his callers, even when they’re far right of him politically. And unlike many others on this network (and Fox TV), Rivera’s guests represent a wide range of positions. I first heard Donald Trump on his show (I don’t recall what they discussed); my colleague, comedian and commentator Dean Obeidallah was a regular on Geraldo too.  

In contrast to other voices on WABC (and Fox TV), Rivera is an advocate for immigrant rights. Not only because of his Hispanic heritage through his Puerto Rican father; he reminds us that like most newcomers here, immigrants are hard working, they’re needed, and they’re --we are-- the history of this country. While he’s pro-military and veterans’ rights—who cannot be in today’s fierce nationalist atmosphere?-- Rivera isn’t an advocate for military intervention in countries whose policies don’t conform to US dictate.

Another three weeks pass absent Geraldo’s voice on my radio; I decide to Google him. (I’ll follow him to his new network, I optimistically think.) And I learn that he’s been fired! How did this happen? In an FB posting Rivera details his termination by WABC referring to a shakeup in network management. He doesn’t explicitly say WABC has a new editorial policy that won’t accommodate his liberalism. But I wonder if, in this election year when the ‘right’ and ‘far-right’ are battling for big stakes, Rivera might have become a liability-- out of step with Republican and Tea Party agendas. (Contrary to the power attributed to American television, radio talk shows are highly influential, e.g. Limbaugh and Beck who’ve made conservative talk-radio a national political movement.) Thus, right wing media bosses may demand that everyone march to their tune; so Rivera, known as a ‘loose cannon’, is jettisoned.

His personal life and his reputation for sensationalist encounters aside, Rivera is a media specialist who fused law and journalism to raise American journalistic standards. He arrived on the scene in 1970 with a television expose on the abuse of intellectually disabled patients in Willowbrook, a New York care center. He was the attorney for the nationalist Puerto Rican ‘Young Lords’, and before that an investigator for NYPD. He’s variously described as an attorney, author, TV personality and reporter. He’s a first class journalist too.

Details of his eclectic career are easily available, so find out what makes this bombastic fellow tick and why we need him in that lonely middle ground of US politics. 

What's your experience with Geraldo Rivera? Comments welcome

[ Geraldo Rivera, my favorite talk-radio host: where are you? ]

The Vicissitudes of Al-Jazeera TV Network

January 18, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

No one need be surprised by news of the demise of AJAM: Al-Jazeera America. In 2013, people unfamiliar with the history and politics of the Doha-based Al-Jazeera media group welcomed the American edition as a valued addition to international(ized) news sources. Early enthusiasm was likely based on an outdated reputation of the original Al-Jazeera’s satellite network, launched in 1999 and funded by Qatar’s rulers. That Arabic language service dazzled the world when it arrived, its reputation for hard-hitting news stories reinforced by the Jehane Noujaim’s 2004 film “Control Room”.

The original (mother) Al-Jazeera offered news coverage and commentaries by non-Europeans, talents generally unheard and unimagined from Arabs, concerning their world affairs.

Why AJAM was set up is a mystery. The American public could benefit from wider perspectives. But AJAM did not offer that; it exhibited no enlightened Arab or Muslim viewpoints, neither in its productions nor editorials. Neither were Arab and Arab American staff in evidence in its productions.

If American viewers don’t tap international sources like Euronews, France 24, Press TV (the Iranian English language channel), or Russia’s RT, to name the major English sources beyond CBC (Canada) and the UK’s BBC, why subscribe to AJAM? Long before, in 2006 Al-Jazeera English (also Doha-based) was launched and has established itself of an innovative and distinctive network. Originally accessible in the USA online and by satellite, it boasts a strong international team who produce hard hitting programs like “Witness” and “Empire”, with a network of correspondents across the globe. It attracts left-leaning audiences for its critical approach to American policies and its support for the Palestinian struggle, with coverage from Occupied Palestine unseen on American networks. Its website also carries insightful opinion pieces, many by well informed American Arab writers whose perspectives you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

(With the founding of ALAM, Al-Jazeera English became unavailable in the US online.)

The original Al-Jazeera (Arabic) news channel has changed dramatically since its spectacular arrival in 1996. Then it was marked by a high professional standard of journalism and an aggressive approach to international affairs previously unknown in the Arab lands whose exclusively Arab staff equals –no, excels—British and French Arabic language channels. (Although, Al-Jazeera Arabic initially drew its technical and editorial staff largely from the BBC.) It attracted Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian and Egyptian expatriate journalists whose homelands were either in turmoil or where opportunities and facilities were limited. Al-Jazeera tapped the most dynamic, creative and courageous Arab journalists in the world; it’s work generated new pride among the Arab public, encouraged by quality public dialogue happening within its own ranks. Arabs’ economic resources were finally being put to good use. By 2003 the network boasted 70 correspondents and 23 bureaus around the world, from Cairo to Jakarta, Islamabad to Kabul, London to Moscow.

Initially Al-Jazeera Media Network, although funded and managed by Qatar’s ruling family, seemed to be independent of government control; it appeared to be beyond US interference too. Indeed Washington suggested the network was a mouthpiece for terrorists, when for example, after 2001, it regularly aired videos produced by Al-Qaida. American military attacks were launched on Al-Jazeera twice. Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office was bombed and its correspondent Tarek Ayoub was killed in American strikes during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before that, in the early days of the US assault on Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera’s Sudanese cameraman was held by US authorities at the Guantanamo prison.  

Although Qatari and other Gulf area leaders escape criticism by Al-Jazeera, other regional dictators do not; at times, in e.g. Algeria and Jordan, its correspondents were banned. Although by 2003 satellite TV was ubiquitous and every Arab home has had access to Al-Jazeera news which also sent reports direct from Jerusalem (with a sympathetic eye to Palestinian aspirations). Its broadcasts brought Israeli officials and commentators into Arab homes for the first time.

As the company grew in popularity—a reputation that’s declined since the Arab Spring--it greatly expanded its services. Al-Jazeera Media Network is now a vast communications empire with several sports channels, a children’s channel and a documentary channel, all commercial free. Before it opened AJAM, Al-Jazeera established a Balkan unit and a Turkish unit.

Al-Jazeera’s appeal for its early presentations of regional political issues waned among Arabs as the US occupation of Iraq turned ugly, and after 2011, when with the rise of the so-called Arab Spring, Qatar’s policy towards Libya and Syria moved in synch with Washington’s. Indeed, the Doha news channel explicitly advocates regime change in Syria and Libya.

Meanwhile Al-Jazeera enjoys considerable soft power through its sports and documentary channels. Screened documentaries, many produced by US filmmakers critical of American policies, are popular with the Arab public. But the sports channels likely draw most viewers. As a depressing political status quo settles across the Arab world, public need for escapist entertainment is stronger than ever, and Al-Jazeera is there to help. 

 

[ The Vicissitudes of Al-Jazeera TV Network ]


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