Blog Archive

Blog Archive – July, 2016

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 ]


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