Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2017

Margaret Mead: Where Are You Now?

December 01, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 “I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples -- faraway peoples -- so that Americans might better understand themselves.” M.M.

The above is a pronouncement from the celebrated culture commentator, Margaret Mead.

The famed anthropologist’s insights were in demand during the volatile 1960s when so many social norms were discarded. She regularly appeared on television, called on to help steer forlorn parents into the modern era of social excesses-- drugs, free sex, self-determination --and a perceived decline of the nuclear family.

Mead gained recognition for her kindly accounts of male-female relations and child rearing among Samoans and Balinese Islanders in the 1920s and 1930s. Those field studies demonstrated how gender roles differed from one society to another depending as much on culture as on biology. A clear thinker and gifted writer, Mead’s books gained her worldwide fame.

Later, breaking with academic tradition, the noted anthropologist applied findings from those exotic field studies of Pacific Islanders to contemporary America behavior. And why not? Doesn't one expect cross cultural studies to identify universals and suggest ways one people’s solutions may solve problems elsewhere. Thus my question: where are today’s anthropologists to help us address, and redress, ugly truths about our highly advanced (sic) culture? This appeal stems from the newly recognized (cultural) problem of unchecked predatory behavior by men, mainly against women; and about women’s habitual silence in the face of sexual harassment.

While daily revelations continue, many commentators are joining the debate over how misogynist our society is. How can we explain the bad habits of so many powerful men? Noted classicist Mary Beard’s Women and Power, a Manifesto, a book based on earlier lectures, draws on Greek and Roman antiquity to explain the ‘silence’ of women in the sphere of speechmaking. Although written before today’s revelations, one reviewer finds Beard’s argument a “dreadfully convincing” explanation of how sexual harassment persists. “Mute women; brutal men; shame as a mechanism for control… all ring too loudly for comfort”, concludes Rachel Cooke.

From another perspective, masculinity as portrayed in film, author Nancy Schoenberger examines how director John Ford, working with John Wayne early in the actor’s career, fashioned the American icon of masculinity. According to one reviewer, Schoenberger suggests that “when masculinity no longer has an obvious function, as men become less socially relevant… (become) recognition-starved… ‘being a man’ expresses itself most primitively, as violence”.

Then, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, known for her well-researched exposés on women and work, reminds us how “class-skewed our current view of sexual harassment is”. She turns the lens away from film stars to point to widespread sexual abuse of women working as housemaids, waiters and factory employees.  

Steven Rosen puts sexual misconduct in a historical context, with a look at the rise of sex crimes, how they are defined and how they at times served as morality tales to shame and punish perpetrators. Drawing on the 2017 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report, he offers some sobering facts—e.g. incidents of sex crimes in the U.S. rose 37% between 2005 and 2014”. The number of jailed sex offenders in the country is already staggering, and likely to rise with convictions expected to emerge from this season’s public accusations.

Peter Montague https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/11/24/men-in-power-abusing-women-what-a-surprise/ citing A Sexual Profile of Men in Power by Samuel and Cynthia Janus, reminds us how deeply rooted this problem is. Conducted between 1969 and 1976, the Janus’ research demonstrates how what we are learning in today’s news headlines about men in power was known and documented half a century ago.

Back to anthropology and what it might offer: one anthropologist whom we might consider a contemporary Margaret Mead is Helen Fisher. An expert in love and sexuality in our time, she is now a Fellow at the Kinsey Institute and a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. Her 1982 The Sex Contract was followed by Anatomy of Love in 1992, establishing her authority in the natural history of love and the sex drive.

Unlike Mead, a cultural anthropologist whose conclusions are based on outwardly observable behavior, oral accounts and attitudes, Fisher is a biological anthropologist. She represents the rise of socio-biology in the 1980s which views behavior as more chemically and hormonally driven, and thereby quantitatively measurable. (Cultural anthropologists maintain their more qualitative approach.) Fisher’s generation of socio-biologists flourished with the application of sophisticated methods of measuring human chemistry and identifying genetic coding.  

Cultural anthropologists, especially women researchers, meanwhile turned attention to a subject they had overlooked—women. Students of Margaret Mead were taught how we were ‘honorary men’ with easy and wide access to our subject society. Awakened by the feminist movement, we realized our predecessors had largely ignored women, so, starting in the early 1990s, we set out to undertake a more balanced view of human society. Many earlier interpretations of human history were overturned as a result of our research. We gained new perspectives of women’s role in society. There was new attention to girls’ puberty rights (boys’ rituals of manhood were well documented), to marriage and motherhood, goddesses, food preparation and symbolism, and to women’s work in general.

Sexual perversion--I categorize the kind of predatory behavior we are witnessing today as perversion-- generally by men in power vis-à-vis women, never attracted much attention in cross-cultural studies. Which may explain why we find almost no anthropologist, not even Fisher, joining the fray to help explain predatory sex.

How universal is it, and how do other societies address it? I have no doubt that doctoral theses are being designed as we speak: What about public masturbation among the ‘fierce’ Yanomamo? Do polyandrous Tibetan women use their sexual dominance to harass others, men or women? Can Tuvan shamans drive the demons out of their sexual predators? Is nonconsensual sex acceptable in Inuit society? What about the matriarchal Native Americans; they may have some insights on sexual harassment. And how do San Bushmen of Central Kalahari treat sexual miscreants like Weinstein, Sandusky, and Stacey?

It will be a decade before studies of that kind can bear fruit. Meanwhile, our desperate and embarrassed public have immediate, doable solutions: make way for more women to move into positions of power—in journalism, filmmaking, management, sports, and government; women need help to toughen up and call men out; we can create an environment to speak out not as victims belatedly but as feisty, shameless advocates; ensure human resource offices are proactive and will streamline how they handle complaints.

So very many people- men and women-- and institutions are affected, we can be confident that whatever sexual harassment we experience, it is never personal.   END 

[ Margaret Mead: Where Are You Now? ]

An Alleged Communist and Prostitute in Nepalís Grade Ten Schoolbooks!!

November 24, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It was just a local rumor in a remote Himalayan village. Now it’s a history lesson for children across Nepal.

I doubt if an entry in grade 10 English textbooks is what a normal anthropologist aspires to? I certainly never dreamt of it. But it happened.

Am I thrilled? You bet.

My longtime colleague in Nepal, Sukanya Waiba, informed me yesterday that her nation’s standard grade 10 textbook added an exercise for students based on the history of a rebel lady. The extract is from “Heir to a Silent Song” my 2001 book on the revolutionary activist Shakti Yogmaya Neupane who lived from about 1860 to 1941

(Happily, the passage includes a selection of her fierce poems too.)

What more could a student of culture and history ask of her labor? This news means far, far more than reviews of my book in a prestigious literary or academic journal—there were none; it surpasses any academic honor.

Imagine: my unearthing of a controversial Nepali leader denounced, slandered, then purposely concealed from her nation’s history almost 80 years ago, is today offered to the nation’s schoolchildren. No matter that 36 years have transpired since I began my journey into this woman’s political career. (It’s always the time to review, correct and deepen our histories.)

            I’ve constantly argued that anthropology, at its best, is a recording of history.

In 1981 when I began that work, Nepal was ruled by a dictator monarch; free political expression was prohibited just as during Yogmaya’s life. Years of review and reflection on my side were necessary. It took time for me to digest what I had learned in that remote hill settlement. I needed daring and astute Nepali colleagues to support my pursuit. My teachers – (scientists call them “informants”)-- all now diseased, were Hindu ascetics, mostly elderly women, in 1981. But when their leader was alive, young and resolute they were members in her revolutionary movement.

Yogmaya’s political philosophy survived in a secretly published collection of her utterances-- beautiful and poignant quatrains. These needed time to comprehend and translate. Combined with the oral testimonies, those poems made Yogmaya’s position in history irrefutable.

My personal political growth, a maturity essential to write about any revolutionary, would require much more time. So did my writing. (Standard anthropology templates proved unable to embrace this history.)

Since 2001, others in Nepal have enthusiastically taken up traces I gathered and they are fleshing out the story and moving Yogmaya into her rightful place in their history. Before these gratifying developments within Nepal, a political acumen awakened in me and I began to grow in an altogether different direction. Pursuing Yogmaya was for me an epiphany. By 1989 I left Nepalis to struggle with their historical inheritances. I turned my attention to my own Arab heritage.

[ An Alleged Communist and Prostitute in Nepalís Grade Ten Schoolbooks!! ]

A Desultory Election Day in America

November 13, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A Desultory Election Day in America

By 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, voting would have trailed off in some polling stations, after “workers” stopped in before setting out for their jobs--in schools, restaurants, county offices and on construction sites. There might be a rush after dark when people head home. That‘s why polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 9 at night.

In our small town however, when I arrive mid-morning, it’s busy-- relatively.

A few moments earlier, heading for the fire department hall that functions as our voting center, I meet a neighbor at the bridge. We halt our cars and roll down the windows; “Who should I vote for?”, Susan calls out.

I don’t hesitate even though there’s little to offer: “Look for the 3 propositions: the first is about a new constitutional convention for New York state; people who I know are voting against. Of the other two, one is for protection of wild land; you’ll want to vote ‘yes’ there. I forget the third”. (It was pensions being withheld or retained for any official convicted of a crime.) Susan is listening but I see her interest waning.

What more is there to advise? “There are no candidates on the Democratic Party ticket” I admit, lowering my voice out of shame. “All the incumbents –Republicans, it seems-- are running for a second term, unopposed.” Those are for the officers and council members who run our town, and dispense our tax revenue. (Examining the ballot later, I learn that indeed, the town sheriff is an elected position. He is one of those 8 or 9 unopposed incumbents.)

Later that day, I meet Diane. “Yes, I voted. It makes no difference”, she laments. Still, she did cast a ballot, and so did another 125 villagers. It’s considered a good turnout—for an “off-election” year. (That’s what they call it, sadly.) Or is it an off-year election? Either way it refers to non-presidential and non-Congress competitions. Stupidly, people don’t take these local affairs seriously.

            At the polling station itself, I linger after submitting my ballot. Not to do a private exit poll, but to socialize with the election monitors. (Three of the four are my neighbors.) They’d been on duty since 5 a.m., setting up the ballots, voter lists and private booths. Although not allowed to campaign or discuss candidates or balloting, we can enjoy coffee and biscuits together and talk about past elections.

By 6 p.m., listening to New York area news, I learn the Democratic NYC mayor has done well, and will have a second term. Also the referendum for the state constitutional convention was defeated. There’s no change in our “upstate” political profile however. Maybe in 2018? 

The next morning, all the “progressive” orgs are flooding my inbox, celebrating huge victories. The tide is turning, they shout. Two new Democratic governors are in—one in Virginia and one in New Jersey. This news and some announcements about a county office, a mayoral post, here and there, turning over to Democrats are hailed as if Donald Trump, the Alt-Right, the banks, the Supreme Court and rest of the US establishment are routed, and the underdog Dems have taken over Washington.

 Maybe the exaggeration is a strategy to mobilize lethargic and despondent “progressives”. Even the smallest victory can re-energize the base. Maybe it’s a tactic to garner cash donations for the party.

Meanwhile Republicans still control Congress--the Senate and the House of Representatives-- and most of the governorships.

Two years is not much time to mobilize, especially when the nation’s (only) alternative party is in disarray, and the party machinery at the local level (in New York for example) is dysfunctional. But this is a temperamental nation where major shifts can occur in a very short time. In some parts of the world, they would call this instability.

 

[ A Desultory Election Day in America ]

Politics is Hard Work

November 06, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Politics, especially local politics, is hard work. Easier to share headlines flashed at us through the national press. There’s always another juicy or outrageous anecdote to absorb, dismiss, or share. So our political conversations keep advancing. Maybe.

Following local political trends at my county level (in upstate New York’s Catskills [1]) is another matter. I suspect my problem would apply to downstate too.

I just want to carry out my democratic duty at election time. Voting could help build a local political barrier to thwart threats charging towards us from Washington. Yet I find myself facing one obstacle after another. Perusing local political issues in advance of Tuesday’s nationwide election, I feel stymied and isolated.

If I weren’t so dogged, I’d forget about democracy altogether; this business of voting responsibly needs sustained attention and real commitment. Take the question of who’s running for office in our towns (in this “off-election” year): now is when we select our supervisors, judges, and town councils, among others. It’s not only a humdrum affair; it’s often obscure. Most voters don’t know who presently holds these offices, and, for example, if the sheriff is an elected official. And new candidates? Not easy to learn their identities and what party they represent.

Since the last local election (two years ago?), admittedly I’ve not been as active as I might have. So I ask others: “What happens at town council meetings between elections? Few can tell me. (It’s a drag getting to a town meeting after work and tending to family needs at suppertime.)

I know town councils assign our tax money. But do citizens approve the budget? I don’t know. Would that be on the November 7th ballot?  What about our dwindling fire department—is its future a town issue? Can we take problems in the district school to our council? What about the decrepit bridge on South Street? Our local opioid crisis?

I’ve been a fulltime resident here for 20 years. As a registered Democrat, I usually check any democratic candidate box on the ballot. Afterwards I forget about council business. I rarely follow these election results anyway. (You may think I’m a shirker but I’m sure I’m typical of folks here.)

I confess, I may have been inattentive, initially. Six years ago, I decided to better prepare myself before casting my ballot. I would do my homework. My good intentions notwithstanding, I could learn little about local candidates: campaign literature was scarce; some lawn signs planted here and there, but no calls and no personal canvassing. Worse, perusing a ballot on Election Day, I found I had few choices –incumbents were running unopposed. Often the names meant nothing to me.

One year, seeing an invitation to meet candidates for town offices before a local election, I stopped in at our fire hall. I found more candidates than potential voters present. Moreover, this was a Republican Party event, and all four candidates greeting us were Republicans. I was welcome however; the pastries were tasty and I could ask about the offices being sought—town judgeship for example.

Optimistically, I phoned the Democratic Party office. Maybe it would sponsor a candidates’ gathering here. I called several times. No reply, not even to steer me to a webpage. Speaking with neighbors, I learned many are on the same page as me politically. About candidates and the local party committee, they shrug. “No use voting.” As for local governance: no one I ask is clear when town meetings take place, who are the supervisor (mayor), highway chief, council members. “Phone the town clerk,” I’m advised. “Try the board of elections.”

A party committee member helped explain the local structure to me. “You’re represented by so-and-so, a good fellow but can’t attend meetings. Do you want to be a committee member? You wouldn't have to do anything.” They just needed a name.

Any resident can sit in on a local party meetings; same for the town council. “Very boring; they do what they want”, I am told by my neighbor, Elena.

Sometimes people get stirred up—if a child dies from substance abuse, or if crime is on the rise. Disputes about sharing resources get attention too: water management, which district should pay police, enforcing zoning laws. These issues can bring out citizens and often involve lengthy legal disputes. Otherwise it’s humdrum bureaucratic stuff, and difficult for an outsider--a citizen--to follow.

The widespread victory of Republicans in January saw a flurry of activity from the opposing side, generated mainly by shock (and embarrassment). Attendance at party meetings spiked. People networked, sharing their fears and outrage, vowing to become ‘politically engaged’—some for the first time in their (middle-aged) lives. Activist groups blossomed.

Here in New York State an important referendum is on Tuesday’s ballot—do we want a new state constitution? It’s complicated. So we’ve seen many public forums and debates over the past weeks. Newspapers and legal organizations, the League of Women Voters and some unions have endorsed, or opposed. At one presentation in a sizable town nearby, about 15 people sat scattered through a large hall to hear details and ask questions. When the discussion ended, half the audience left hurriedly. Among those remaining, five were candidates running for seats in the town’s administration, there to address voters.

All our regional papers have noted how few seats are being contested. “Sullivan County has 55 uncontested races” shouts The River Reporter. The Walton paper notes that most candidates are incumbents running unopposed. October 3rd front page of another concurs : “General election marked by lack of candidates.” Perusing the past three issues our main regional paper, I see a flurry of 30 ‘letters to the editor’—each one espousing the merits of a candidate. Maybe that’s the most a reader will learn about the names they’ll find on Tuesday’s ballot.

Oh well, there’s always another election.

 

[1]  Sullivan County with a population of about 78,000 and Delaware County with almost 48,000 residents)

[ Politics is Hard Work ]

Weinstein Empire: Extreme As Normal

October 25, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“A serious problem in America is the gap between academe and the mass media, which is our culture. Professors of humanities, with all their leftist fantasies, have little direct knowledge of American life and no impact whatever on public policy.” ― Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae, 1990, and Sex, Art, and American Culture, 1992

I’ve waited two weeks since news about Harvey Weinstein’s malignant power exploded in the New York press. How long do I hesitate before joining the debate, a debate that must expand, drawing in more people, searching all levels of our culture which this occasion demands?

I suppose every woman, young or old, ambitious or docile, abused or not by a man-- by anyone, perhaps herself an accomplice in abuse--- has something to contribute here.

But what happens after the ten millionth testimony is proffered?  After the trauma is identified? Does it help to say I too am a member in the same shamed and traumatized club along with Olympic champions, film stars and directors, fashion designers, and celebrity journalists as well as secretaries and research assistants, clients and patients? Does it help to confess, to listen, to empathize, to embrace a confessor, or to expose a predator? In the short term, perhaps. In the long-term, unlikely.

Does it help to disguise my feminine lines, veil my breasts, lower my gaze, and extinguish my body odor with mint flavored salve? Is it liberating to confide to my mother or sister, teacher or psychologist exactly what that rat did to my body, to recall my first experience of being violated, the unarticulated shock of what powerlessness really means? I doubt it. In the end, at the cultural-institutional level, none of these are remedial.

Where do we go after all the confessions are in, after the tweets have gone viral, after all the molestations are quantified, even after a court conviction?

I see no solution on the horizon. Because we are inextricably bound into a culture which celebrates the body, male and female. Our civilization encourages full explorations of sex, rewards ambition, and, most of all, it glorifies power, especially if that power is attached to wealth. These ideals are unassailable and no one is suggesting they be expunged. 

This condition is evidenced by the abysmal record, near failure, of the very campaign that claimed to solve women’s problems—the Western feminist movement. A movement moreover, which, sanctioned by the UN, proudly and energetically exported itself to every corner of the world. Instead of weakening the patriarchal, misogynist culture that grips America at home, feminists of the 1980s adopted the paternalistic mantle they claim they had shed. Thus misguided, they set out to teach the world about true (women’s) democracy. I recall in the late 1980s, after the “opening” of China, a US press notice announcing progress in China:--a beauty pageant was planned in the communist state; multiple shades of lip paint were available to China’s women. China was advancing!

I do not recollect newly liberated American feminists applauding advances in civilization when women in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines or Argentina won presidential office.

After the Middle East and Islam became topical in the 1990s, western women ignored their own unfulfilled goals to become global protectors, setting their sights on naughty men who mistreat Kurd, Afghan, Arab, Dalit, or Yazidi women. Feminism gladly brandished its new cudgel to strike at anything in the vicinity of Islam.

What might help reform the entrenched misogyny that’s been exposed in the Weinstein scandal is this: explore how and why we-- young men as well as women-- are attracted to power; why our self esteem depends so much on our beauty, being gazed at. Why do we dash after anything that ‘goes viral’? Why do we want far more money than we need to live? Why can we not say “No” to a cleric’s advances, to a sport star’s invitation, to a boss’ wink, to promises of greater success?

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

   A feature of youth is short attention span; this could apply to youthful America, with its tendency to believe that when its wrongs are revealed, it expresses remorse and then moves forward. Having admitted its misdeeds, it matures. Alas, this is not America’s way. It coats itself in cosmetic confessions. For an example of our enduring immaturity, look at the hugely popular TV series, Mad Men. I completely missed Mad Men from 2007 to 2015 when millions of Americans followed its weekly episodes. Being a media critic, however belatedly, I set out to examine the source of its acclaim. So I began viewing Mad Men. That was last month, before the Weinstein exposé ignited the debate about sexual predators. Discussing the Mad Men phenomenon with others, we recalled how poignantly the series portrayed verbal and physical debasing of women by husbands, lovers and office colleagues. “Yes, that was how men behaved in the sixties; that’s what women accepted. It was the culture then (before the feminist movement). Men couldn’t get away with that now.” Can’t they? “No. Well it’s more subtle, more circumspect, today.” Is it?

“If you live in rock and roll, as I do, you see the reality of sex, of male lust and women being aroused by male lust. It attracts women. It doesn't repel them.”  ― social critic, Camille Paglia

We have to recognize that the foundation of our culture, dominated as it is by male energy and sexuality, remains intact. This, despite some cosmetic and legal adjustments. How much are women willing to risk in their search for esteem and other rewards.

Sexual abuse and harassment of women must be viewed within a wider portrait of this unwholesome nation. Progress has faltered on many fronts: we’ve returned to Jim Crow incarceration and racism we believed was far behind us, a condition documented by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. Human trafficking, approaching slavery, is rife. Child abuse and kidnapping continue; pornography has surged with the application of digital tools. Rape of women by the military is carried out against captives but also fellow soldiers. And we all know something about torture in the 21st century.

Back to the ‘Weinstein problem’: the press continues to engage us with yet more stories of celebrities’ encounters with this pervert. Yes, just like fellow media moguls Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes. But surely this is part of a ‘cultural condition’ we’ve known about and debated for some time, e.g. campus rape, the violation of women by fellow college students. Like Hollywood insiders, university authorities ignored or minimized the violence. They treat the scourge by referring cases not to police but to college grievance committees. A 2015 film treatment of the issue does not indicate the problem is solved. University cover-ups, we learn, serve to maintain a reputation attractive to philanthropists.   

The ongoing problem of sexual abuse of women (on campus or in the film and TV industries) was a subject of acerbic exchanges among feminists 30 years ago. On one side, almost single-handed—the “anti-feminist feminist” culture and art critic-- Camille Paglia boldly took on mainstream feminists. In a sustained series of exchanges, many of which appear in her 1992 collection Sex, Art and American Culture she declares, “Feminists keeps saying the sexes are the same…telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything or wear anything.

“No they can’t.” Paglia exclaims. She attacks what she sees as mostly white, educated feminists for their “pie-in-the-sky fantasies about the perfect world (that) keep young women from seeing life as it is.” As a result, she argues, “Women want all the freedoms won, but they don’t want to acknowledge the risk. That’s the problem”.

I’d like to hear Paglia’s take on today’s debate around the Hollywood scandal (it’s bigger than one disgraced pervert). She might help us more fully explore issues of risk and responsibility, not men’s-- women’s. How can that be taught? Children are supervised ever more closely via their cell phones. Can this prepare them too handle risks as adults, faced with predators like Weinstein?

[ Weinstein Empire: Extreme As Normal ]

Kirkuk, A Counterfeit Prize

October 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The Iraqi government has every right to assert control over Kirkuk and its environs. (One only wonders why it waited this long. The city had never been a Kurdish center and only after it repulsed threats by ISIS three years ago, did Peshmerga replace Iraqi government forces in the area. Peshmerga has been a coddled and abetted military presence in the US-UK-Israel plan to divide Iraq. (No Kurdish force has had any legitimate presence there.) So recent references by both National Public Radio and BBC news hosts about Peshmerga fighters representing Kurdish sovereignty in Kirkuk are misleading at best.

No one yet knows what the outcome will be of Baghdad’s belated move to affirm authority in the area with its surprising military victory in and around Kirkuk earlier this month. Interested foreign parties from Turkey to Israel have remained silent, thus far. Meanwhile Kurdish spokespeople are making alarming claims in the international press about the deployment, even suggesting those Iraqi forces are ISIS-linked, also invoking the trope of Shia militants taking over their (sic) city, assertions left unchallenged by an acquiescent NPR and BBC.  

Why is there so little willingness by US and British media to acknowledge the character and legal status of Kirkuk in Iraq? One hears no reference to the strategic transformation of the city and its environs by nationalist-secessionist Kurdish interests from a majority Turkmen community to a Kurdish one starting in 1991 when the US and UK helped establish an inchoate Kurdish sovereign state in northern Iraq?

The day of the Kurdish referendum in September I noted the process by which Iraqi Kurdish leaders worked to convert Kirkuk into a Kurdish city, with the intention of annexing it when the time came (last month) for their claim of independence, and ignoring the Iraqi constitutionally defined border outside Kirkuk and nearby areas.

It is mystifying why the Turkmen of Iraq, a fiercely Iraqi nationalist, significant minority, has been so invisible in international press coverage of the region. This while they embody a remarkable ideal that opposes any military action. Visiting Kirkuk on two occasions before American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, I saw the displacement of Turkmen families (begun in 1991) in progress and I’ve followed their growing fear of Kurdish dominance, all without threat of armed retaliation. Their population is not small—at least three million-- and many Turkmen are well placed in Iraq’s government. Although that proved insufficient to thwart Kurdish ambitions over Kirkuk.     

Turkmen’s marginalization in their heartland has won little sympathy outside; their identity and ethnic rights are completely overshadowed by Kurdish separatists and their foreign partners and lackeys, such as Peter Galbraith. Are we to accept comments by BBC guest Nadhim Zahawi as a fair assessment (BBC World News 10.17.17)? Zahawi is a British-Kurdish millionaire, a UK member of parliament, also director of Gulf Keystone Petroleum GKP operating in Iraqi Kurdistan; he moreover chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for Kurdistan. This in addition to his many controversial legal involvements.

The wider public, it seems, is only permitted to know that Kirkuk sits on major oil deposits. (Of course that explains it being coveted by the Kurds in alliance with the West.) But what about the longtime Turkmen character and history of the city? What about the sustained opposition by Turkmen Iraqis and the Baghdad government to surreptitious tactics by the Kurds to make it appear the city and surrounding areas is Kurdish and lies within the three Kurdish-dominated governates (Erbil—a once Turkmen-majority city for 700 years, Sulaimania and Duhok) that have enjoyed considerable autonomy since 1991. Kirkuk is no more a part of Kurdish Iraq than nearby Mosul is, and Kurdish rights to Kirkuk has never been part of the semi-autonomous understanding between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad.

[ Kirkuk, A Counterfeit Prize ]

In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees

October 11, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I received the invitation from Magnolia Pictures to preview a forthcoming film by artist Ai Weiwei, recognizing the name of its celebrated Chinese director, I was eager to screen it. I have a scant impression of the visual extravagance of Ai’s art work, but knew nothing of his filmmaking before my research for this review. Now I learn of his copious filming explorations resulting in more than 20 video productions between 2003 and 2013, some rather lengthy, e.g. Chang’an Boulevard (10:13 hrs), or So Sorry, and mostly completed in his homeland.

                Ai Weiwei’s early videos are largely investigative visual documentations of injustices, tragedies, dissident profiles and autobiographical projects. A prolific artist who also identifies himself as an activist and dissident, Ai gained international attention, predictably, when in 2011 he was detained for some 81 days in his city, Beijing.

He works in multimedia, often on a grand scale. This may explain his attraction to the theme of this film, Human Flow @HumanFlowMovie @aiww, due for release October 13th in the USA. More than two hours long, taking us into fourteen refugee camps across more than ten countries from Bangladesh to Kenya to Mexico (notably, this project omits reference to Tibetan or Qinghai refugees from China), employing some 100 staff and 60 translators, Human Flow is of epic scale in more than its title.

                Human Flow is essentially a human rights message—a visual statement of the unfulfilled rights – or dreams, if you will-- of refugees across the globe. His tens of thousands of subjects—representing tens of millions worldwide--are souls in transit: South Americans slipping across the Mexican border into the USA, Palestinians driven from their lands, Africans escaping from various homelands by boat across the Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern families walking into the European mainland. It’s about fences and guards, and waiting huddled families.

Most of those offering testimonials, Ai Weiwei films inside refugee camps. Stark, somewhat formal, on-camera interviews with individuals provide first hand accounts of their victimization, anxiety, and bitterness.

Little of what we witness in Human Flow will be new to anyone following international events. In recent years, with the massive exodus of people from the Middle East into Europe, the military conflicts, the controversial status of undocumented workers, the deaths of thousands crossing the Mediterranean, and subsequent debates about what host counties ought to do, even the most disinterested of us is aware of the “human tide” pressing upon our shores.

Testimonies by refugee families in the film are interspersed with statements by officials-- professionals in the refugee business: we hear from doctors inspecting camp conditions, from human rights lawyers citing UN conventions, from a diplomatic Jordanian princess, from Hanan Ashrawi, Palestine’s most articulate representative, from UNICEF’s spokesperson in Lebanon, from Israel’s B’Tselem director, from the Carnegie Middle East director, from a UNHCR spokesman in Kenya. All offer choreographed, disembodied statements about the need for more, more, more…  

A short segment with the single politician in the film, Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt, is noteworthy for its candor. About migrants, Jumblatt declares, “without memory you are nothing”; about refugee management he points to the hypocrisy of international refugee policies. In skimming over Jumblatt’s blunt assessments, Ai Weiwei missed the chance to explore more fundamental issues behind those pompous, exploding human rights’ businesses. He could have offered us a really piercing story, introducing Human Flow with Jumblatt’s provocative assertions followed by dialogue with Jumblatt about the financing of camps, the wars generating these exoduses, the pornographic use of pitiful images of victims, threaded together with the powerful visuals that Ai’s cameras capture. A lost opportunity by a man known for provocative, daring work.

As with his other projects, Ai Weiwei wants us to know he is there:  on the ground with sobbing refugees, beside his camera crew at a tense frontier, his hair disheveled by sand-laden desert winds. Here is the anthropologist, there-but-not-there, allowing refugees and their surroundings speak for themselves, images superimposed with an occasional news headline or quote from a Turkish or Arab poet to augment the pictures.

Which brings us, finally, to the images. What is new to our refugee portrait are spectacular aerial shots presenting a panorama of refugee living:—we are taken high above an endless, blue sea, a boat laden with escapees slowly moving into the frame; we gaze through a wide angle photo of a camps’ columns and columns of orderly white structures; another aerial encompasses countless scattered huts amid the detritus of their impermanence; we are held beside tents haphazardly pitched at a railway station, dwarfed by an enormous, slowly moving train passing resolutely behind. This is the “flow”-- perhaps more accurately termed “stagnation”-- that impacts the viewer more forcefully than faces and statements of refugees and administrators. 

Because of the director’s celebrity, a lot of people will want to see Human Flow. Still, given Ai Weiwei’s objective of using art to change perceptions, we need to ask: can this film do that?

 

 

[ In HUMAN FLOW, Ai Weiwei Turns His Activist Art to Global Refugees ]

ReReading "Grapes of Wrath" -- an early case of "disaster capitalism" at work

October 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects….They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it… across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

                “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man: gloved, goggled, masked he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat…   …the tenant stared after it ...his wife… beside him, and the quiet children behind. And all of them stared after the tractor…”

This merciless machine might belong to Israeli militants preparing another Jewish colony-- a common scenario on Palestinian lands. The watching silent family could be the indigenous peoples of Brazil’s disappearing forests. Or farmers of Gujarat, India, relocated by the Sardar Sarovar dam. Just as First Nations’ livelihoods and wildlife habitants of Canada’s boreal forests were invaded to make way for Alberta’s massive oil extraction operation.

                That opening passage some will recognize from Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel -- perhaps the most powerful portrayal of a people uprooted, forced into poverty-- internally displaced refugees. It’s a process newly identified by Canadian researcher and author Naomi Klein as “disaster capitalism”. Klein brilliantly and poignantly defines the occurrence in her 2007 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Shock Doctrine describes in unequivocal terms how corporations and companies  – I would include “non-profit” NGO institutions and human rights agencies among them--have learnt to respond with rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock to profit from a multitude of disasters:-- man-made catastrophes, wars, reckless economic policies, economic embargoes,  climate-induced disasters, or other world changing crises.

                Grapes of Wrath, written following droughts in the American West, recalls the removal of farmers from their homes and livelihoods across Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. Those droughts arrived in waves between 1934 and 1940, precipitating a series of bad harvests, with wind erosion aggravated by an absence of dryland farming methods. After farmers’ credit was exhausted, banks foreclosed on family properties and turned over much of that ‘dust bowl’ to agribusiness which capitalized investments with the timely rapid mechanization of farm equipment. Tens of thousands of dispossessed families become migrants, moving westward with whatever they can carry atop their old vehicle, to answer a fraudulent promise of abundant jobs in California. As they move, many perishing on the way, they are confronted by distrust and contempt. They find themselves derided as ‘Okies’ by those met along their trek —“Keep moving; we don’t want your kind here”, they are warned.    

Steinbeck paints a poignant image of commercial bankers in league with those machines:

 “Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics, because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said The Bank-- or the Company—needs-- wants—insists-- must have---- as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling which had ensnared them. These lasts would take no responsibility …” …”the bank--- the monster has to have profits all the time.  It can’t wait. It’ll die.”

Standing with the bosses, ready to enforce the corporate plan, are vigilantes and mean-spirited police wherever the migrants stop. Anyone daring to dissent is threatened with jail, blackmailed, ‘disappeared’.

The poor press silently on. 

At the end of their journey, desperate surviving refugees arrive in the green orchards of California eager to regain their dignity and family cohesion only to face new company men, also finding themselves competing with other hungry job seekers for lower and lower wages. Here too they are met by bosses allied with police authorities to maximize their own gains, driving the uprooted families to greater degrees of desperation.

Are those 1930 ‘Okies’ not ancestors of our estimated 25 million refugees now wandering over our globe? Not only are today’s ‘Okies’ viewed with suspicion; their homelands are occupied by one kind of disaster capital complex or another, diverting national resources into foreign assets, fishing coves into tourist resorts, mixed farmlands into single cash crop ventures, and bankrupting their governments with US-made defense imports. 

                Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the earliest dramatization in English of what we now recognize as “disaster capitalism” (although nothing of that is indicated in summaries of the story https://www.arts.gov/partnerships/nea-big-read/the-grapes-of-wrath.) The epic journey of Steinbeck’s Joad family began with a climate disaster—droughts that turned vast farmlands into what became know as the dustbowl, invoked in Wood Guthrie’s 1940 collection Dust Bowl Ballads..

Some may recall, as I did, a passionate story of the Joad family, with the noble Tom Joad striving to keep hope alive; and Ma Joad, the optimistic matriarch directing her forlorn, dwindling family forward.  What I remembered from the novel and the film are beautifully crafted characters with their personal hardships and disparate responses to misfortune. In the character of Tom Joad, artists have found inspiration: there was singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, himself a dustbowl refugee from Oklahoma; two generations later, Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced a stage version of Grapes of Wrath; and in his 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Bruce Springsteen draws comparisons between the dustbowl and modern times.

Today, temporarily immobilized by an accident, I’m rereading Grapes of Wrath after a 40 year hiatus. Now Steinbeck’s political message moves into the forefront. This is not the history of a climate refugee family. It is the history of capitalism in America—disaster capitalism-- with an alliance of police force and wealth, where machinery is supreme, where honest labor is not enough, and where the family is secondary--a worthy reread in modern American times.  END

[ ReReading "Grapes of Wrath" -- an early case of "disaster capitalism" at work ]

A Risky Referendum for Kurdistan Is Underway in Iraq

September 25, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

At least the combative and haughty Israeli prime minister was forthright: he supports a free and independent Kurdistan. Today's vote by Iraqi Kurdish parties to secede from Iraq may well push the country into another war, a civil war. (Doubtless nothing would please Israel more.)The referendum is opposed by neighboring powers, but most significantly by the central government in Baghdad. It is a far more serious move that the well publicized October 1st Catalonian vote in Spain, also more perilous than Middle East watchers let on. Why the Iraqi referendum is receiving so little scrutiny, I don’t know.

Our revered English language “fake-news” establishment (e.g. The NYTimes and The Guardian among them) is underplaying the significance of a Kurdistan secession, also denying American and British endorsement for it. In reality the US and UK are totally with Israel in promoting and supporting north Iraq’s independence. Iran’s and Turkey’s opposition is well known; Syria would also be in that camp although no one publicly listens to Syria these days. (Remember that US troops are closely collaborating with Syrian Kurdish forces in opposition to Damascus.)

Reading the buried articles on Iraqi Kurdish national aspirations, one would gather it’s a scheme conceived after the 2003 US invasion, advanced only by Kurdish leaders. This is nonsense.

Although the British divided the large, strategic area occupied mainly by Kurdish-speaking people among Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey with their Sykes-Picot “Agreement” during World War I (part of the dissolution of the Turkish Empire), more recent plans by the imperial powers and Israel involve reconfiguring the modern Middle East into smaller and smaller pieces, starting with Iraqi Kurdistan. (Talk of Iraq’s division into three parts arose in 1991; similar scenarios are applied to Syria today.)

Public discussion of an independent Kurdistan has been ongoing since the launch of the US-led war on Iraq. Yes, Washington’s war on Iraq began not with the 2003 invasion but in 1991, with what’s called the Persian Gulf War (as if it was confined to that area). The ongoing assault included the murderous, destabilizing and destructive embargo war that continued from 1990 to 2003).

As for the Kurds, readers will recall images of tens of thousands of besieged families fleeing into the mountains ostensibly pursued by Saddam’s army. Without delay, humanitarian-motivated (sic) western powers rushed to the Kurds’ aid, using the opportunity of diversionary assaults in pursuit of Saddam and the Baathists, to essentially occupy the three Kurdish governates on behalf of that besieged minority. With Kurdish leaders’ wholehearted complicity, occupation was easily secured by a band of CIA agents, a low profile US military contingent working with an Israeli team, protected by the insipid northern “no-fly zone” (blessed, I believe, by the United Nations Security Council). The Kurdish region has remained semi-autonomous since then, sanctioned by a clause in the US-framed Iraqi constitution granting Kurds a degree of autonomy. Day by day, year by year, those three Kurdish governates have enjoyed protection, economic development, including a thriving tourist industry, freedom from any sanctions, and at liberty to sell oil from its territory directly to foreign companies; and all unquestioned thanks to its benevolent international image in human rights reports and the press.

During these 26 years, tensions between the central government and the KRG (Kurdish regional government) in Erbil have steadily heightened. Neither US occupiers nor other influential forces in Iraq have attempted to lessen the crisis. American Kurdish experts led by the intrepid former US diplomat Peter Galbraith have consistently argued for an independent Kurdistan.

Then there’s Kirkuk: Iraq’s major city in the north lies outside that semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Until 1991 Kirkuk was overwhelmingly inhabited by Iraqi Turkmen people. Kirkuk and smaller nearby cities (e.g. Tel Afar) have been Turkmen’s homeland for centuries, an area profoundly and unquestionably Iraqi in loyalty. You’d never know this from western press accounts which characterize Kirkuk simply as a center of oil deposits. I say Kirkuk was a largely Turkmen city because this has changed; since 1991 Iraqi Kurds have been steadfastly engaged driving Turkmen from their towns while repopulating them with Kurdish families. Although no mass killings of Turkmen have occurred as far as I am aware, there has been a major ethnic cleansing underway, transforming Kirkuk from a major Turkmen society into a Kurdish one. All this has been in preparation for the inclusion of Kirkuk into the anticipated autonomous Kurdistan, a process known and condoned by US, Israeli and the UK policy makers.

With the coming referendum, although the three regions (minus Kirkuk) enjoyed a marked degree of independence, despite successive Baghdad government attempts to limit this, Kirkuk now becomes the additional prize and a noted target in the coming referendum.

Baghdad opposes the referendum as strongly as Madrid rejects Catalonia’s independence vote. In recent weeks Madrid has taken startlingly firm action to thwart the regional vote. Baghdad’s position is as uncompromising; a federal court has declared the referendum illegal according to the Iraqi constitution, and Baghdad declared its readiness to use military action, at least to hold Kirkuk. Don’t believe news reports that the US and its allies oppose this referendum. Note the absence of any diplomatic effort by Washington to help reach a compromise and avoid another period of strife there.

All Iraqis must be feeling very nervous tonight.  

 

[ A Risky Referendum for Kurdistan Is Underway in Iraq ]

Looking to Leave Your Homeland? Think Again.

September 10, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

So you dream of leaving your class-infected, corrupt, and poor homeland oligarchy for America’s legendary freedoms? All the glamour and freedoms generated by Hollywood is irresistible, I know. Today however, in the wake of a new US administration, the ugliness which our tranquil college campuses, Hollywood creations, and Silicon Valley innovations had obscured, is exposed for all to witness. If you want an American reality check, follow civil rights attorney John Whitehead.

I really don’t like being a downer; better to avoid reality and watch gritty college football, American Idol, Mad Men, or Ellen DeGeneres. Or take up meditation or organic food. For sure.  

Somewhere at the back of my consciousness I had been aware that the USA is a police state. I didn’t let it bother me though; it didn’t seem to interfere with my life agenda.

Perhaps I’m like millions of other immigrants who slide into an economy needing my talents and naivety, along with a fine education acquired elsewhere. No one needed to instruct me about surviving; it was evident: keep your head down (and uncovered), your mouth shut (about abuses you witness), work your butt off, and you may slip below the radar and pass as white. (I didn’t give the price of white privilege much thought, namely my ethnic pride and the challenge all the family faces holding to slivers of our heritage.) Notwithstanding my doctorate from U. London, my quoted academic papers and invitations to international conferences, I remained oblivious to inequities in US society. The police state seemed to operate only in sleazy corners of the underworld.

My career shift to journalism focusing on the Arab lands and my fellow Arab and Muslim peoples changed all that. Witnessing first hand the deceit and murderousness US embargo on Iraq championed by America’s free media, I matured.

I recall a NY gathering in the mid-90s, when those of us challenging US policies complained about newly threatened civil liberties. In response to our alarm, an African American colleague remarked: “Ah, now you feel it. We have been living with this police terror for more than 400 years, since our arrival as slaves here. Now it’s reaching you (non-Blacks); now you too taste it.” He had no sympathy for our anxiety.

Reality sunk in when individuals distanced themselves from me; next, I knew I was being watched; then opponents of my journalistic reports shunned me. (Forget about the professors I’d worked with; they’d slithered away long before).  

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US police state ballooned and restraints lifted on how police/FBI and the courts treated ‘suspects’. In this phase the targets were Muslim residents, and Muslim visitors. From the start of this period to the present white citizens largely ignored the interrogations, jailings and deportations of Muslim residents. Even civil rights attorneys were scared to defend Muslim suspects. (There is no record of the fate of thousands of affected families; only in recent years, commendable investigative work has revealed that many terror suspects were in fact victims of government ‘sting’ operations.)

Today, under the Trump administration, the sweep has broadened; police are more aggressively targeting undocumented workers, bold white journalists, and non-violent demonstrators. Their invasion is more penetrating thanks to enhanced (digitized) state surveillance tools. I shudder when I read attorney Whitehead’s Sept 7th “What Country Is This?” and share a few passages for you to ponder.

Whitehead writes: “Our freedoms—especially the Fourth Amendment—are being choked out by a prevailing view among government bureaucrats that they have the right to search, seize, strip, scan, shoot, spy on, probe, pat down, taser, and arrest any individual at any time and for the slightest provocation.

“Forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies, forced blood draws, forced breath-alcohol tests, forced DNA extractions, forced eye scans, forced inclusion in biometric databases: just a few ways in which Americans are being forced to accept that we have no control over our bodies, our lives and our property, especially when it comes to interactions with the government.

“Worse, on a daily basis, Americans are being made to relinquish the most intimate details of who we are—our biological makeup, our genetic blueprints, and our biometrics (facial characteristics and structure, fingerprints, iris scans, etc.)—in order to clear the nearly insurmountable hurdle that increasingly defines life in the United States: we are now guilty until proven innocent.

“Such is life in America today that individuals are being threatened with arrest and carted off to jail for the least hint of noncompliance, homes are being raided by police under the slightest pretext, property is being seized on the slightest hint of suspicious activity, and roadside police stops have devolved into government-sanctioned exercises in humiliation and degradation with a complete disregard for privacy and human dignity.

“Consider, for example, what happened to Utah nurse Alex Wubbels after a police detective demanded to take blood from a badly injured, unconscious patient without a warrant. Wubbels refused, citing hospital policy that requires police to either have a warrant or permission from the patient in order to draw blood. The detective had neither. Irate, the detective threatened to have Wubbels arrested if she didn’t comply. Wubbels respectfully stood her ground only to be …while hospital police looked on.

“Michael Chorosky didn’t have an advocate like Wubbels … Chorosky was surrounded by police, strapped to a gurney and then had his blood forcibly drawn after refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test. “What country is this? What country is this?” cried Chorosky during the forced blood draw.

What country is this indeed?... forced blood draws are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the indignities and abuses being heaped on Americans in the so-called name of “national security.”

“Forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies and forced roadside strip searches are also becoming par for the course in an age in which police are taught to have no respect for the citizenry’s bodily integrity whether or not a person has done anything wrong.

“David Eckert was forced to undergo an anal cavity search, three enemas, and a colonoscopy after allegedly failing to yield to a stop sign at a Wal-Mart parking lot. Cops…suspected Eckert was carrying drugs because his “posture [was] erect” and “he kept his legs together.” No drugs were found.

“During a routine traffic stop, Leila Tarantino was subjected to two roadside strip searches in plain view of passing traffic, while her two small children waited inside her car. During the second strip search, presumably in an effort to ferret out drugs, a female officer “forcibly removed” a tampon from Tarantino. No contraband or anything illegal was found.

“Thirty-eight-year-old Angel Dobbs and her 24-year-old niece, Ashley, were pulled over by a Texas state trooper on July 13, 2012, allegedly for flicking cigarette butts out of the car window. Insisting that he smelled marijuana, the trooper proceeded to interrogate… “Despite the fact that both women denied smoking or possessing any marijuana, the police officer then called in a female trooper, who carried out a roadside cavity search, sticking her fingers into the older woman’s anus and vagina, then.. on the younger woman… No marijuana was found."

These few examples from Whitehead’s review reflect common US police behavior. More frightening when we consider that this is the nation (like Israel) where many governments worldwide send their police for training.

[ Looking to Leave Your Homeland? Think Again. ]

Surely the Mark of A Great Nation Is Its Ability to Thwart Americaís Scheme to Destroy It

August 28, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I’m talking about Syria here. Knowing that I write this at my peril, I continue. Not as a defense, but as an argument, one from a different and, I believe, a worthy perspective. Because some acknowledgement must be made-- especially by those who are aware of the terrible might of US power and Washington’s determination to destroy Syria at any cost--of that small, ancient nation’s astonishing ability to resist. Just as those who applaud Palestinians’ resolute pursuit of statehood; just as those who now regard Viet Nam with admiration for its emergence as a self-reliant, noble nation.

Syria’s current struggle against multiple assaults is not over by any means. It remains in a highly vulnerable state. Its people are scattered across the globe, its highly educated citizens lost to other nations ready to exploit their skills. Refugees in camps and those suffering at home are uncertain of anything at all. Syria’s military has lost tens of thousands of mortally wounded men. (And what about the injured?) Its youths flee conscription. Syria’s once strong economy is crippled and barely recognizable. Its social institutions are overwhelmed, and its cultural riches, including contemporary theater and television, are shrunken or destroyed.

Yet, more than six years into a war that’s caused such hardship and destruction, after so many attacks against it, Syria stands. Its leader, an inexperienced and fallible man but no tyrant, has thus far withstood Washington’s scurrilous pursuit of his removal. American-led military and diplomatic efforts to overthrow his government have failed, even with the Arab League’s shameless ejection of this founding member.

Not only is Syria still intact, albeit terribly crippled on so many levels. It has managed to sustain alliances with its few supporting powers—from Iran to China. Its military gains (regains really) in the past two years are astonishing by any standard, however high the cost and however unlikely it seemed, considering the formidable opposition it faced. (Compare this with US military impotence in Afghanistan.)

Assaults are directed at Syria by US-supported Arab forces, by ISIS and Al-Qaeda militants, by local insurgents, by Arab Gulf States lined up with the West and Israel, by Turkey on its northern border and by Israel and Jordan along its southern frontier, with Israeli and US fighter jets bombing at will. (One strike by US bombers killed dozens and maimed another hundred Syrian soldiers. What an opposition lined up against a nation of under 30 million people! All this without Syrian (or Russian) retaliation against either Israel or the USA.

Unquestionably Syria’s military achievements have been possible with Russian air support. Russia’s diplomatic assistance has also been critical: first in arranging for the removal of chemical threats, and before that in preventing the UN Security Council backing an American anti-regime agenda.

Early in the crisis in 2011, living in Damascus, I spoke with a longtime colleague, an experienced bureaucrat but no longer a government official. I was struck by his confidence in the Russia-China veto just declared in the UN Security Council. (Both countries rejected the US-led attempt to censure and sanction Syria.) Six months on, when we met again, there was widespread belief among foreigners and some expectation within Syria too that Al-Assad’s government would soon collapse. My colleague however was emphatic in his assessment of the Russia-China veto: “Russia will stay with us”, he declared confidently. I guess government insiders and military leaders shared this judgment. But who could have anticipated how many months of war would follow before the tide began to turn?

In early 2016, Syria (and Russia) achieved the first of a series of impossible victories against its ISIS foes.   Meanwhile the western press (despondently) described successfully recovered territory as “falling into government hands”. Even from afar, with no inside track about military strategies, one could sense that those victories exhibited a resolve of a special order, akin perhaps to the victories of Cuba and of Venezuela under Chavez—also targets of US imperial power.

Some American allies who had once endorsed the removal of the Syrian president now appear to be backing away from that position. Opponents have never been able to convincingly prove that Syria deployed chemical weapons, more so after research findings by MIT chemical weapons expert  T. Postol, and following journalist Seymour Hersh’s investigations on the subject.(Hersh’s report has been ignored by the US media.) Wikileaks’ release of US state department exchanges on Syria that point to plans by the US to overthrow the Syrian government have also undermined Washington’s arguments. 

As for “the people”, this month witnessed some easing of their hardships. Although US air strikes continue, aimed ostensibly at ISIS but taking a heavy civilian toll. A sign of renewed vitality for besieged civilians was the international fair that recently took place in Damascus. It drew hundreds of exhibitors from many nations, and offered rare respite and pleasure to tens of thousands of citizens. That such an international gathering could even be arranged is remarkable. Yet, so threatening was this promise of renewed hope for peace that the site was bombed, resulting in the death of several fairgoers.

During the 1990s and up to the outbreak of conflict, Syria had achieved remarkable progress on a number of fronts-- diplomatic, economic, educational, social and cultural. Yet, Washington and its allies, the U.K and Israel, persisted with their agenda. Sanctions against Syria remained and were enhanced, and vilification of its leader and attacks on Baath ideology by a compliant press persisted. In the face of Syria’s survival as a state, if ISIS is crushed, what are the options for US-UK-Israel alliance which would never admit defeat? END

 

[ Surely the Mark of A Great Nation Is Its Ability to Thwart Americaís Scheme to Destroy It ]

Another Palestinian, an American Citizen, Deported. No Homeland.

August 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Rasmea Odeh is either on an airplane out of her country. Or she’s in a federal holding cell in Detroit or New York awaiting deportation from the USA.

Odeh’s departure marks the end of a bizarre life, one that can evoke admiration. As a young Palestinian, Odeh fought against Israeli oppression. Now after a valiant legal battle in this country, her new homeland, she is departing (by force).

Some Americans may recall with satisfaction their support for Russian dissidents in the 1950s and 1960s when the Soviet Union exiled its critics. If they were not sent to Siberia, opponents of the USSR were denied residence in their homeland, involuntarily banished. However much the US and UK welcomed them and even lionized them, banishment is a hard punishment to bear. Today’s Russia no longer metes out such penalties; which is not to say Russia is completely tolerant of dissent.

In the US, one hardly hears of Americans being banished from these hallowed shores. However rare, it does occur. Often Palestinian Americans are the target of this injustice, with Israeli authorities (somehow, usually) involved in legal cases brought against those Palestinians in U.S. courts.

Perhaps the most widely publicized case is that of Professor Sami Al-Arian. Starting in 1993, after a long, noble struggle against false accusations, years in jail, support from an international campaign determinedly led by his own family, continued harassment from the US government, Al-Arian finally succumbed and left the country in 2015. Before him, his associate Mazen Al-Najjar also spent years attempting to secure justice before he too was deported. [I myself interviewed both men on several occasions between 1993 and 2003 on Radio Tahrir (www.RadioTahrir.org), WBAI, 99.5 fm. While Al-Arian’s case is well documented, Al-Najjar’s history is almost completely scrubbed from the public record.] Both men were brave advocates for US justice and for Palestinian rights.

Rasmea Odeh’s treatment is a troubling reminder that this happens to US citizens who have never committed a crime in this country and never threatened anyone in the US.

Odeh is the latest Palestinian banished from this country. Now 69, she moved to the US (where her father resided) and settled in the Chicago area in the 1990’s. She was pressed to leave her home in the Occupied Territories like countless Palestinians over the past half century, dispossessed people who lost homes, family and hope. They left under duress in search of peace and dignity.

In 1994 Odeh applied for an immigration visa, later for US citizenship. Unlike many immigrants, she dared to become a community leader. Any immigrant, whatever their background, who arrives here quickly learns to keep their head down and their mouth shut—civil rights-be-damned. Just join the American dream for a job and a house.

The long arm of Israeli injustice followed Odeh however, and perhaps because of her visibility, her history with Israeli authorities was disclosed. (Many years earlier, Odeh was convicted for involvement in an attack on Israelis. She was released in a prisoner exchange after serving ten years.) Her American crime? She’d failed to report that conviction in her immigration application, a serious oversight. So when her history came to light in 2013, US authorities brought a charge of “immigration fraud” against Odeh. In her defense a major campaign was launched, and in 2015 the conviction was set aside. Forces determined to destroy her stepped up the attack however and she faced yet another trial, set for May 2017. Although there was considerable public support for her, in March Rasmea’s defense team advised a plea deal. She would serve no jail time, but her citizenship was revoked and she’d be deported. Thus the court’s announcement last week of her removal.

While this conclusion was hardly noted in the regular US press, the Jewish press, in USA and in Israel, hailed the decision, using the news to highlight her 1969 terrorism conviction and to draw attention to a ubiquitous threat of Palestinian terrorism.

Such tactics are part of the ever present Israeli campaign coursing through US culture, a threat that smothers dissent, intimidates and drives academics out of the universities, and in response to the success of the BDS movement, is pressing ahead with S. 720-- a bill in the US Congress, to prohibit Americans who will not countenance Israeli injustice-- from participating in any boycott of Israeli products and institutions.

All the more reason to support vocal critics, including journalists, and American community leaders like Linda Sarsour 

There will always be funds for shelter-less and malnourished children in refugee camps. Today, in the face of stepped up Israeli surveillance and political pressures, immense courage in needed to pursue justice for Palestine and free speech on behalf of their rights. Many Americans (including journalists), nameless and known figures--Arabs and non-Arabs— have moved into obscurity after years of threats and intimidation. Somehow new champions emerge to continue a just cause.

 

 

[ Another Palestinian, an American Citizen, Deported. No Homeland. ]

Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART III

August 11, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

(PART III of 3.) Aama disappears into the darkened house to light the fire. Flames ignite from hot coals stirred out of the ash and she eases a pot of kodo onto the rock grill. Neither an announcement nor a spoken invitation is needed. We rise from our workplaces and move inside, seating ourselves around the hearth. Danamaya takes a ladle, stirs the brew, and pours a spoon of the steaming liquor in each brass bowl set on the ground in front of us.

Mylie follows laying small leaf plates on the ground near our drink, then returns and fills each plate with a black, spicy sauce. I recognize this, a sharp lemony pickle-- a typical popular Limbu achar that accompanies every Nepali’s meal whether we’re eating rice or vegetables or drinking liquor. Some of the workers prefer kodo; others chose raxsi, also warmed to taste.

‘I’m surprised”, I remark. “My friend Monamaya isn’t with us. She promised to help with my naugiri.”

“Monamaya will arrive soon”, murmurs Danamaya, adding “when the raxsi is warmed.”

Just then Monamaya struts into the room and seats herself beside me, gleefully accepting an immodest portion of raxsi from Aama and turning to me says, “Ah, Didi; so you’ll have your very own Limbu jewels; eh eh.” She leans closer, lifts my cigarette from my hand and holds its glowing tip to light her own.

“What a day! A sheep got loose so sisters and I spent the whole morning searching for it,” complains this unapologetic latecomer. Everyone takes a sip of their drink without comment.

In my presence people withhold their opinion of Monamaya. They know she and I have become good friends since my arrival here and they seem to respect our closeness. Monamaya is the only unmarried woman her age that I know in Kobek. She’s the most audaciously raucous and bold, even by Limbu standards. I recognize that she’s a social oddity. She doesn't like to work in the fields, behavior which in this rural community is interpreted as irresponsible. Like me, she doesn’t feel the need for a companion when traveling through the hills. If she needs to go to town, she fearlessly sets out alone on the three-day walk. I was never able to discover the reason for my friend’s unpopularity, and I was left to enjoy her companionship as I pleased.

After everyone has consumed at least three bowls of kodo, we return to the veranda where we’ll stay until our task is complete, now joined by Monamaya. The alcohol seems not to have reduced anyone’s capacity for the delicate work. “Kodo and raxsi are nourishment for us,” explains my friend. “Without it we can’t work at all; drinking this we don’t need any other food.”

Our workforce is next augmented by two newcomers, elderly women from Salaka lineage, thus clanswomen of my host. Buddhamaya is a tall, dry-witted lady with aristocratic features supported by a heavily wrinkled face. We adjust our seating to make space for Buddhamaya on the mat; Danamaya hands her a nylon thread to which she replies, “Who is this for?”

“White Didi here,” explains my host.

“Why do you want this?” the old woman demands of me. “This is for poor farmers. You should have solid gold pieces-- here, here, here,” she shouts, stroking me to indicate just where gold might encase my head and arms  like some Limbu-Aztec warrior princess. (Ugh, the thought is itself an encumbrance.)

Monamaya comes to my defense. “No, no. white Didi is going to wear this to the Chatrapati feast next week; then she’ll take it with her to America. Everyone there will admire it. And Didi will tell Americans all about our poor land.”

I remain silent. I have already passed hours fruitlessly arguing with my hosts about my devotion to their lifestyles. I’ve had no success explaining how this necklace is an example of their art, or their beauty.   They insist that my interest is only curiosity, and this naugiri will be presented outside as a curio, and will stimulate discussion of Nepal’s economy, an economy they expect to be viewed as poverty.

It’s probably true that I’m interested in the naugiri for what it might (or might not) represent about the economy here. I’ve never understood how an average hill farmer affords jewelry like the naugiri and the gold earrings, items which seem extravagant to me, yet which, while essential, are not a sign of wealth. A naugiri is the price of a valued plowing bullock. While every woman wears a naugiri, fewer than ten percent of households possess a pair of oxen.

Certainly one can’t equate the cost of this necklace to the price of an ox. A naugiri is not in the same class as animals or land. Land is highly valued and people work hard to save to buy land and prepare new paddy fields. A naugiri is hard to put a cash price on. It’s an obligatory expense for a family, like a wedding or funerary feast—an integral part of family social and economic obligations.

A Limbu naugiri embodies a whole set of sentiments which I cannot possibly untangle, identify and comprehend. It’s not a dowry. It does not in itself mark one’s marital status. My naugiri it does not reflect a personal indulgence in ornamentation. I myself wear no bangles, bracelets or earrings. (My neighbors had already noted this, with some dismay.) Nevertheless these Limbu companions really want me to take this piece of jewelry with me when I depart. Curio or art, it is a gift to me wrapped in their memories. It symbolizes our bond and the cooperative spirit of our months together.

As for myself? Why am I determined to have a naugiri? Well, from when I first set eyes on one, it symbolized the vigor or Limbu womanhood. I like its combination of a coarse, chunky, undazzling weightiness, and its dull gold luster. It may not be refined, but it’s nevertheless beautiful, somehow more precious because every woman owns one. It’s not for special occasions but an everyday thing she carries on her chest-- as she suckles her baby, stirs pots of kodo and rice, cleans the hearth and sweeps the yard, and plants potato or millet.  It’s a well made object requiring intense labor and constructed to last a lifetime.

 

Where is my naugiri today? Well, it seemed so precious that I made it a wedding gift to the young woman who married my son. Sadly, they divorced after only two years and I’ve lost track of both her and the necklace. I wonder what Danamaya or even Monamaya would think of its fate.  END.

Originally published in Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Jan/Feb, 1978. Edited for republication 2017.   

[ Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART III ]

Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country Part II

August 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

continued from Part I

Chait Purnima morning. The essentials for our day’s work are assembled before our guest workers arrive on our doormats. A five gallon pot of kodo (millet beer) is fermenting inside the house; we also have six bottles of raxsi, the clear gin-like drink distilled from fermented kodo. Kodo is generally not for sale but produced (in every home) for family consumption. (A better quality is made and reserved for special occasions.) Danamaya had only a week to prepare this stock so it is coarser (and less potent). It will have to do. The bottled raxsi is not as refined a quality –sweet and aged for months in cool, sealed pots--as we would have liked. Danamaya sells me three bottles of passable quality, and we add to these another three bottles purchased from a neighbor glad to have extra cash before market day. (She can sell the rest of her stock then by the glass.)

Liquor production and sale is a pivotal item in this culture. First it’s an essential medium by which to pay workers, in this case compensation to the assembly of women who will fashion my necklace. Second, Limbu alcohol facilitates warm memories of times spent together, occasions like this Purnima. Third, sale of liquor in the market is an important source of cash, the foundation of women’s independent economic experience. Exclusive brewers of this highly popular product, these women and most other hill people refine their brewing skills and compete for the cash rewards.

From a young age Limbu women own jewelry. Their attachment to jewelry derives though their family membership and their own contribution to the household economy. Her nose-ring is a girl’s first acquisition; she may be hardly ten when she has her first band of gold. Year by year, as she grows, twirls of gold leaf purchased from her own earnings are added to it. From childhood a girl is allowed to keep what she earns from the goats she’s given to care for. Thus, by the age of 18, a young Limbu woman may be able to purchase her own gold earrings.

The naugiri is a different matter. It is acquired with womanhood and marriage. A gift from her family at the time of her betrothal.

Five women from our household begin the day’s work on my naugiri. Danamaya takes charge at the outset by anchoring a nylon rope to her body. (She has clearly done this many times.) Rubbing the loosened rope ends in her palms, she separates it into individual strands. Forty-five threads spread on her lap, secured at one end by a single knot between her toes. Each of us takes a single strand and arranges ourselves in a crescent becoming a human loom around Danamaya who coordinates the entire enterprise. She takes up each beaded string after we’ve filled it with tiny green glass drops; in exchange she offers us an empty one to continue our threading.

Watching Danamaya manage us I remember how efficiently she organizes our entire household. I noted this because I know Danamaya doesn’t legally reside here. True, this is her natal home, her maitighar. But like any married woman, Danamaya gave up many of her rights here when she married and moved to her husband’s family house taking her dowry with her. Here, Danamaya is a visitor with Deepa, her baby girl. In Limbu culture, it’s not uncommon for women to bring their children on a visit to the maitighar and stay for several months. Meanwhile their husbands are away as well. (They travel to India and Malaysia for work. Danamaya’s husband, for example, is serving in a Gurkha regiment in India.) I could never ascertain what she thought about this separation, or what her mother-in-law might feel about her absence. But Danamaya’s own family in Kobek is delighted to have her around and they let her run the house. (How her sisters-in-law feel about this, I never knew.)

            We begin stringing the beads after our morning meal. Soon, Laxmi, Danamaya’s neighbor and friend arrives and she grasps a nylon thread like the rest of us, joining this circular-loom. She holds it taut and silently feeds the tiny green glass beads, one after another. Kobek is also Laxmi’s maitighar. Unlike Danamaya however, she doesn't intend to return to her marriage house. She remained there only until her baby was born, she explains. The infant is here with her and she has no intention of their returning to her husband. She doesn't like him, she offers matter-of-factly.

A woman once married cannot normally rejoin her maitighar, so Laxmi is fortunate to be welcome here. As long as her maiti is willing to have her, a Limbu woman can divorce her husband. She may also remarry. With no apparent anxiety about her future Laxmi joins in our Chait Purnima project, beads sliding from her fingers onto a thread.

Danamaya coordinates our work, maintaining the tension in each thread: “Enough, give it to me. Good, now take this one.”

After only an hour, Danamaya’s left hand holds only a few unadorned strings. In her right hand she grips a bunch of completed clusters of dense beads, each three inches long.  We rush to complete the remaining threads. This completed, it’s time to add a gold knob. First the cluster of threads is squeezed together and fed through the opening in the red cloth ring, what I call a washer. We sit back as Danamaya proceeds to assemble the elements: red felt ring, gold, red again. We watch the soft golden jewel shimmering down the rope and secured by another ring of red. Since the gold is pure, it’s very soft and needs careful handling. Danamaya grips the threaded strings against the red-haloed golden nugget and signals us to reassemble. We are handed a new thread to bead and resume work, feeding the beads down the string until each of us has completed another three inches.

The seven of us have established a rhythm together and precede independent of Danamaya’s instructions. Another hour and I begin to discern an emerging pattern in the necklace. Sparkling, tiny green glass, then a soft red flare against the dull luster of gold, another red flare, then sparkling glass, red again flanking the next knob of gold. Time for a rest. Watch for part III

Edited for republication 2017 Originally published in Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Jan/Feb, 1978. Part 3 forthcoming

 

[ Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country Part II ]

Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART I

August 01, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

As I cull my writings, I find some articles undeletable. Even as a historical portrait, some seem to be relevant today. In Nepal, land cultivation is declining as young people seek employment abroad to earn cash. Nepal, even for its poorer citizens, including farmers, has become a consumer economy. Meanwhile women continue to produce alcohol for sale and bead jewelry for daughters’ marriage. This edited 1978 story will be posted in 3 parts.

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

PART 1: Chait Purnima, the full moon day (1977), reminds me a month has passed since my arrival here in Kobek village, a Himalayan hamlet in east Nepal. Light spring winds move over the trees and across clear swept courtyards, bringing with it the faint but reassuring voices of neighbors.

At the arrival of the full moon, fields empty of workers. People are freed from agricultural labor for the holiday, and today Danamaya’s neighbors will converge on our veranda. All women here are artisans. They weave the Limbu tartan cloth shawls and skirts worn by everyone, and they knot their own straw mats and baskets. Women are the brewers of beer and distilled spirits as well. Polishing rice and pressing oil are women’s skills too.

This full moon day, our neighborhood artisans will gather at my host’s doorway. They’ve been invited to help make a special ornament—for me.

 

During the better part of a year now, I’ve been moving around this eastern hill region, previously unknown to me, trying to understand rural economy. On a short stay a year earlier I met some Limbu people I’d only read about in anthropological literature. Limbu are an integral part of Nepal society yet very different from the Tibetan and Sherpa I was familiar with from previous research in Solu-Khumbu. Solu is three mountain ranges away, but hardly two hundred kilometers northwest (a ten day walk until the 1990s).

Exploitation of Limbu land rights by high-caste Brahmin villagers had been documented by my colleague Lionel Caplan. Limbu came to national attention as one of a handful of Nepal’s many ethnic groups to publicly criticize the government’s policy regarding minorities; that was during the monarchy when no dissent was tolerated. From medics and development officers impressed by Limbu culture, I also learned these women enjoy unusual economic independence. I decided to visit the area and learn more about them and this part of such a culturally and geographically diverse land.

Limbu would become one part of my limited comparative study of ethnic groups living near the primary north-south trade artery of east Nepal. I’d already surveyed a Sherpa community further north, and I stayed in a village inhabited by Newar and Tamang farmers. Limbu not only appear to be a physically quite different race; their rice cultivation and therefore their economy as well as their social values differ markedly. Living with Limbu, I often feel I might be in Burma or Thailand; whereas with Sherpa, one imbibes its underlying Tibetan flavor. I’ve already engaged with several Nepali cultures: the robust Sherpa herders and farmers, the richest of the highland peoples; progressive Newar traders and shopkeepers, many of whose daughters are in school; Rai hill people, a large ethnic group found in villages all across Nepal, also good farmers; Magar villagers who seem impoverished by the standard of other groups who dislodge them from their modest holdings; members of the Brahman and Chetri higher castes, know for their frugality and industriousness, exert restrictions on women who often become ascetics and join riverside hermitages.

 

I announce my plan to take up residence in Kobek village and join a prosperous family of farmers, selecting a corner of an empty hayloft for myself behind the main house. It affords me the privacy I need while giving me easy access to the main house, where, as the weeks pass I spend almost all my time.

This residence is one of a cluster of two-story farmhouses on a steep hillside. Lemon bushes and groves of bamboo veil neighboring houses from one another. But familiar sounds, human and animal, bridge the boundaries between us.

The dark interiors of these dwellings are used for cooking, sleep and storage. Except to cook, no one works indoors. Routine domestic work proceeds on the veranda and in the cleanly swept courtyards in front. It’s here that villagers gather throughout pleasant, dry winter months and where work and social life are hardly distinguishable. With the arrival of spring, activity shifts from verandas to muddy fields on slopes above and below our village dwellings. Early wheat wants cutting and the earth in the patchwork of terraces must be broken so that tender millet and rice sprouts will take hold.

At Chait Purnima we have prepared for the arrival of seven women who’ll make a Limbu naugiri, a necklace of the nine (nau) golden jewels (giri) set among the mass of stringed beads. All Nepalis wear elaborate homemade jewelry, each culture with its own distinguishing design. Limbu women’s chunky naugiri necklace, worn day and night, in the fields, nursing their infants, to market, and at weddings, seems to express the general reputation of these women. They are known for their industry, their assertiveness, and pride. To me, the naugiri symbolizes that vigor and I want to take one with me when I leave them.

My interest in having my own naugiri delights my host Danamaya and other women. But where am I to obtain one? I wouldn’t want an old one bought from a bank, my friends assure me; those worn jewels have value only as security against land purchase loans. The women insist that I must have a new naugiri. But new necklaces cannot be purchased; they are not produced for a market. A Limbu woman’s naugiri is fabricated especially for her by others in her family at the time of her marriage. It’s decided that my surrogate family here in Kobek will make mine. (Never mind about a wedding.)

                I commit myself to this scheme with the purchase of the key material—pure gold, costing about 500 Nepali rupees ($50.) on the Limbu market (at the time). This thola of gold (about half an ounce) I buy from a Kobek man recently returned from military service in Malaysia. Next, we visit the local goldsmith. His shabby hut is located on the edge of the village because he’s a member of a low ranked (out)caste. We find him seated on the second story veranda occupied with his trade. A regular stream of clients keeps him occupied, but he’s not too busy to accept my order; it will be ready in a few days. I visit him daily to observe him tap that worthless looking metal lump I’d entrusted to him into paper-thin lustrous yellow sheets. The precious metal emerges into its inert beauty in his outcasted hands. Finally he molds and engraves each of the nine leaves of gold into individual hollow spheres-- my very own knuckly, assertive stones that will be the heart of my necklace.

Between each chunk, we women will set thousands of green glass beads. (I buy these at the weekly market, selected from the trays of dazzling bangles and beads imported from India and sold by rows of vendors seated on the roadside, each huddled around her wares.) I’m also directed to buy red felt cloth from which we will cut piece to be pressed like washers on either side of each golden ball. Finally, for the string we need to thread and arrange those beads, we unwind a length of yellow nylon rope cut from my backpack.  END of PART 1

Originally published in Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Jan/Feb, 1978. Edited for republication here

[ Women's Art and Other Work in Nepal's Hill Country PART I ]

Covering Islam: Post Jack Shaheen

July 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The event of 9/11 is unparalleled in history, in drama, in audacity, in the terrorific images, in deaths, in its live transmission, in its ongoing controversies. It remains a traumatizing American experience with continually unfolding consequences. One result is the rise and persistence of hostility by Americans not only towards the perpetrators, Arab agents purportedly motivated by a religious ideologue, but also entire Arab nations and Arab and Muslim peoples worldwide.

This everlasting bitterness exaggerates the tragedy in the minds of Americans. At the same time, it interrupts and distorts Muslims’ self-identity and the daily injustices we experience.

Any conversation, private or public, with other Muslims about our current woes and anxieties-- our prayers and dreams, our relations with fellow students, neighbors and co-workers-- somehow finds its way back to that dreadful iconic date in 2001. It is a shadow haunting us wherever we go—to the ballot box, in our classroom, at a job interview, down our neighborhood street, on a holiday.

That event has become such a part of us, even if we think we buried it, that we unwittingly own it. We write books and magazine essays condemning terror and demonstrating our American-ness; we pen memoirs documenting our victimization; we reply to surveys testifying to our children’s bullying by classmates and teachers alike; we join interfaith sessions; we seek out grants to teach others about the calm nature of our religion and the beauty of our cultures. Even as we do so, that awful event remains the peg around which our existence rotates—favorably or otherwise.

The death of media critic Jack Shaheen earlier this month is an opportunity to offer our post-9/11 generation (there it is again) of activists and commentators an essential historical perspective on the demonizing process in which we are enmeshed.

Shaheen’s work needs to be better known by American Muslims. It warns us: “Go beyond 9/11; that vicious blight consuming our history and humanity has been with us for a long time. It’s not only driven by our nightly news broadcasts; it is embedded in our children’s school books and our most entertaining action films starring our favorite actors”.

As powerful as the medieval Christian crusade, Hollywood’s film industry is behind a century of productions targeting Arab and Muslim peoples—in animated children’s films, exotic tales of romance, and in American war legends.

Shaheen was a professor of communications who focused his attention as a media critic on film portrayals of Arabs; his exhaustive work provides irrefutable documentation of the creation of the “bad arab” in cinema and lore. He expanded his arguments, first published in TV Arab (1984), in his later book, Reel Bad Arabs (2001 and 2012), offering hundreds of examples of the mindless belly dancer, the veiled seductress, the sword-wielding assassin, the hook-nosed desert nomad, the oil-rich despot. You know them well.

Since the early days of the silent cinema those images remain popular in today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters. The terrifying Arab was ultimately given a tangible personality in the form of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). As noted by Rima Najjar writing about the political manipulation of this concept “The pattern of dehumanizing Palestinian Arabs and/or deliberately obscuring their humanity are factors that have facilitated Israel’s project of designating Palestinian resistance movements as terror organizations.”

Although the PLO was distinctly secular and socialist, by the 1980s their image became layered with a religious identity conveniently found in the Gaza-based movement Hamas. As Hamas gained recognition as the image of Palestinian resistance, the threat to Israel was now ‘Islamic terror’.

In 1984 came the highly successful autobiography Not without My Daughter which in 1991 was made into a popular film of the same name starring Sally Fields. Its promotional blurb sums up the storyline thus: “An American woman, trapped in Islamic Iran by her brutish husband, must find a way to escape with her daughter…” Septembers of Shiraz, a 2015 film I plucked at random from my local library only yesterday, assures continuation of filmic exploitation of a ‘revolutionary Iran’ and Islam, and the racist values they perpetuate. We are reminded of our media’s role in this process with a recent admission by the New York Times.

The course by which Islam became such a fearsome concept, effectively manipulated for political purposes primarily through American media is best documented by the outstanding culture critic Edward Said in his 1981 Covering Islam. Even today, with our abundance of so-called experts on Islam, from gadflies to published professors, Covering Islam remains unsurpassed as an analysis of the role of our media in designing a frightening ogre for American consumption, a creation that daily deepens mistrust among peoples and shapes foreign policy. Nothing I have read in these decades of overwhelming attention on Islam supersedes Said’s brilliant, straightforward analysis. Along with Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, it ought to be read and used by every journalism student, every political scientist, every anthropologist, and every Muslim.

Shaheen’s exposé on the role of film in fostering and supporting racism applies to education (sic) about our Native Americans, Black Americans, Asian peoples, even Irish and Italian. Our Black citizens are hard at work using their resources and political savvy to overturn centuries of misrepresentation. Muslims can do it too. We must. Muslim comedians have broken the ground; the next step is to make our own films.

Analysis has its limits; film is a powerful artistic tool that can sweep aside all arguments and misunderstandings. 

 

[ Covering Islam: Post Jack Shaheen ]

Participation Observations in A New Jersey Nursing Home

July 12, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The years when my mother was stricken with dementia—my sister bore the agonizing learning, the burden, and the testament thrust upon the family. So I’ve never felt the bewilderment, stress and agony of supporting a beloved parent--she who had unfailingly represented strength and self-reliance-- that strong, sharp-minded and nurturing woman transformed before our eyes into an exasperating, confused and needy child.

Inevitably however, each of us has to confront dementia-- this now-routine feature of our human evolution. If we are not watching our own identity gradually fragment and escape our soul, then we witness it happening to a close relative or a beloved friend.

Yvonne is one of two dear companions on her way into this matrix.

Like many women and men afflicted by some form of dementia, Yvonne possesses some self-awareness of her haunted status with periods of corresponding lucidity. (Bursts of clarity by Alzheimer's patients are perhaps most perceptively and tenderly documented by the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks; in particular, look for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat and Musicophilia.)

I don’t know if she knows Sacks’ work, but Yvonne has decided she wants to help me, as a writer, record snatches of herself during this moment in her 91-year history. It helps me too: first it prepares me, if anything can, for my march towards this disease; second, Yvonne does this with her characteristic humor and also with uncanny perspicuity, e.g. “I don’t know who I am” (uttered after a troubling episode of daydreams). Thus, as if to escape her sadness and confusion, she welcomes my visits at Vintage Homes (not a completely fictional name), to report her observations-- we can’t call it ‘progress'—to me. 

On each occasion I hear Yvonne's complaint about the morning singsong exercise underway down the hall. Why that annoys her so, I’m uncertain. She likes to sing. But if her neighbors are going to stammer out pre-war songs, she’d rather they be in French; that’s how she learned them when she lived in Dieppe during the war. “’Over here, over there!’ Oooo la la. They tell me these are turn-of-the-century songs. Which century? I ask.”

Well Yvonne, I know how much you like singing. You have friends here. Why not start your own sing-along?

“Yes, but to do that I first have to feel happy.” I know she’s purposefully sardonic and I have no rejoinder.

Yvonne is no activist or reformer. Besides her incessant yearning to go home (“This is a boot camp”), she tolerates her imprisonment here by studying those around her. In the weeks she has lived at Vintage, she’s developed a special compassion for the workers, especially younger staff.

“The workers here: they are young; they are cheerful. I speak in French sometimes with one boy-- maybe he’s from Morocco. All of them seem so lively. Not that new girl, the tall one in red; she was fired. You see, she refused to do her job. I think she was right; because the man who she was in charge of dirtied his pants and she was supposed to wipe his bottom. She refused. C’est son droit. How can she be forced to do that? She has her dignity. Can you blame her? She refused and the head woman fired her. That’s her there by the door; yes, she’s still here because they took her back.

“These helpers are kind, so kind. I respect them. They have to wipe us; front and back too.

“You know there is one girl who goes into the bed with Dorothy, the woman in the room near mine. She cries and cries at bedtime, so the girl herself goes into the bed too, and she holds Dorothy until she’s asleep. Can you imagine? Si touchante.

“We are clean; everything’s clean. The place doesn’t smell; the windows are big. They’re locked, of course. Yes, it is a prison nonetheless. Sans aucun doute. Who are they fooling? No use telling them that I know.

 “‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’ This is what visitors exclaim when they arrive from California to see their grandmother. ‘It’s not so bad’, you say? Well, of course. You don’t have to live here.

“What do they expect?  I think it’s the cloth napkins that really impress them. Clean napkins every meal--likely better than they have in their own home, after all.

 “There’s one woman here who I would like to speak to. I think she’s lesbian. I hear she’s a professor of astronomy, something like that. Speak to her? Me? I don’t know what to say. Anyway, she never speaks. It’s clear she doesn't want to talk to anyone. She just watches. No, I don’t want to talk with her.”

“I remember Bob sometimes.” (Bob was Yvonne’s son who died four years ago.) “And I don’t think he’d be happy, not at all, to see me here. He would never have allowed anyone to move me here.”

One day I arrived at noon and found Yvonne in the dining hall with the three women she shares the lunch table with. Elba insists I should have something to eat with them, assuring me visitors are permitted to join the lunch. So she orders soup for me. Elba and the others are reluctant to begin eating until I’m served, and it’s taking some time because the staff has to first attend to all the regulars. So Clara gives me her bowl, and then Yvonne, feeling badly because I’m her guest gives her soup to Clara. So the soup bowls somehow get shifted around the table. When the server arrives with my bowl she’s visibly upset to find me consuming my soup. She rushes away, returns with a tray and removes all the bowls, even mine. “No; no, every bowl of soup has specific medicine,” she whispers with less annoyance than I’d expect. Yvonne chuckles, “And they think we don’t know what’s going on.

“Yes”, Yvonne declares. “I have lots of time to watch others….

“They fall asleep. That’s what they do. Sleep is the best way to deal with this place.” 

“I don’t want to be with people who are not in this life. Who wants to stay in a place where no one is alive?”

“Of course I want to go out. We are not permitted. And they insist I have to use my cane even here, indoors. They say ‘No. No. We have to watch you. We don't want anything to happen to you Yvonne, do we.’

“What can happen to me? I can only die here, that’s all; that’s why I’m here and not in my home. Are they trying to make me live forever?”

[ Participation Observations in A New Jersey Nursing Home ]

Democracy in Nepal Passes a Second Test

July 05, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Nepal’s 28 million citizens have waited 20 years for the elections that finally took place during recent weeks (with the final 10 percent of ballots still being counted). These are nationwide elections for city, ward and village chairpersons, mayors and councils-- positions vacant for two decades. These newly elected officials might offer some order and hope to citizens’ largely stagnant lives for too long. The democracy they had welcomed with the overthrow of the monarchy brought them little beyond party and ethnic squabbles and ineffective governance from Kathmandu, their corruption-infected capital.

The U.S. public and American media are usually fixated on human trafficking, Hindu goddesses, Buddhist monks and Himalayan lore when pausing momentarily to glance at Nepal. The U.S. State Department has shown little interest in the country’s determined although lumbering course into democracy as well.

This infant republic was created in 2008, brought about in large part by a hard-fought Maoist revolution that forced the government to sign a cease fire and accept Maoist participation in the nation’s governance. A plethora of parties fighting for dominance led to unsteady coalitions, while a succession of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist leaders shared a fragile leadership, almost by rotation. Not the color of democracy the U.S. would endorse and celebrate. Even when the 240 year old monarchy was abolished in 2008, there was no audible cheering in Delhi, London or Washington.

Nevertheless this awakened people forged indomitably ahead. While the central government operated by patching together a constituent assembly to function as a parliament, divvying up the leadership among the major parties to solidify the democracy, a new constitution for the republic was essential. A constitution would define election zones and administrative districts, allocate seats, qualify candidates and voters, and set standards for the campaign and polling processes of the new democracy. Meanwhile identity politics became an increasingly contentious issue, further delaying accord on the constitution.

Finally in 2015 the constitution was voted in, paving the way for these elections. After 20 years without representative local government, citizens--from isolated mountainous regions to densely populated tropical plains, in every city and village--have their opportunity to try out democracy in their own neighborhood.

This long anticipated event drew many aspiring newcomers to declare their candidacy:--young challengers, women (by law entitled to 30% of seats), and dalits (discriminated castes) who, like women, had not previously considered leadership positions. On its side, the citizenry has proved surprisingly engaged in this election. Farmers took precious time from planting season and faced hazardous travel conditions during the monsoon rains, to cast their ballots.

Unhampered by their infancy as a democracy and aware of the opportunity to counter a pervasive culture of squabbling pretenders and corrupt party politics, Nepalis today are somehow optimistic about new possibilities. They still feel the effects of the vacuum in leadership in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. Because no local authorities were in place to systematically coordinate aid, compensation and repairs of damaged buildings and roads were neglected or haphazardly managed.

An astonishing average 70% turnout at the polls has surprised many observers. Especially city people did not expect their uneducated citizens and villagers they had judged as ‘politically illiterate’ to exhibit such keenness. Kathmandu residents closely following the results interviewed in recent days seemed optimistic. Villagers’ response is also impressive because travel is hazardous during the monsoon rains; and this is the planting season when farmers, women and men who constitute majority of the population, are occupied in their fields.

As for the election results, beyond the high turnout, there have been some upsets in party standing: first, we see generally lower support across the country for the Maoist Party; it registers a weak third place in the polls. Maoists played a major role in Nepal’s transition to democracy and the establishment of the republic after the 2006 cease fire with their leaders holding the premiership at various times since then. But during their dominance over the past decade, they’ve earned a reputation for corruption on the same scale as other parties

With almost all the results tabulated for the 15,000 posts being contested, the outcome is clear and consistent nationwide. Leading the polls unequivocally with 133 local units is the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML or MLN) in coalition with the Communist Part of Nepal (CPN). (Note: In regards to the leftist designation of Maoist and UML, none are as socialist as might be expected: e.g. none have carried out land reform.) They’re followed by wins in 115 localities by the centrist Congress Party which dominated politics in Nepal’s pre-republic era. What surprises B. Shrestha, a Nepali colleague contacted by phone, is the outcome in the Terai (the plains area bordering India). There, the UML is leading, taking precedence over small regional ‘ethnic’ parties. The results seem to be a turnaround for the region which had taken a hostile stance towards the dominant parties and held up the signing of the constitution. Its embrace of the UML-CPN is a sign that the Terai is more firmly a member of the republic. (On another front, poor showing by the royalist party suggests that Nepal’s monarchy is truly put to rest.)

Many women candidates succeeded in wining both mayoral and deputy mayoral positions. Their success follows a constitutional mandate and the standard set by three women in Nepal’s top positions, including president, in the central government. This will surely become a watershed for an increased presence of women not only at the national level but also in local leadership.

Last October, as the American presidential campaign was drawing to a close, I joined a family of Sherpa friends around a warming wood stove at their family home in the mountains. When conversation turned for a few moments from their own party politics to the U.S election, someone commented: “Well, if in 240 years the Americans haven’t worked out everything, Nepal, in less than 15 years, isn’t doing so badly.”  

[ Democracy in Nepal Passes a Second Test ]

Two Black Man Films: "Fences" and "Moonlight"

June 28, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Both of these award-winning new releases are exclusively acted by Black Americans and could be seen as slices of African American life. Each focuses on the life of a man, the life of an individual that’s offered to us with such a high level of acting that the black in the story disappears. 

I have long respected the talent of actor Denzel Washington despite his appearance in so many films with violent themes, and even though he usually plays noble men. The first time I saw him was in Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala in the role of Demetrius Williams. There and his many superb performances thereafter is why I decided to view Fences. I wanted to hear his consummate voice again. Washington’s familiar timbre is barely recognizable in Fences. But I was not disappointed.

As strong as Viola Davis is as his co-star, Washington is outstanding, arguably because he’s able to totally disembody himself and build the complex character of Troy Maxson, the central figure in Fences. That performance stands out for me because I forgot that his skin color and that of the other characters is black. Not only this; I forgot that Troy Maxson is the actor Denzel Washington. In Fences Troy completely overtakes Washington; moreover, we recognize him as a type of man who to one degree or another we feel we know personally. Troy is a person I know.

If you’re familiar with the narrative of Fences, you’ll understand what I mean. What many reviews overlook is the complexity of the character Maxson, a hard working man, but a man bent, wasted, and embittered. Troy Maxson is a man with unrealized expectations as a baseball player, a father unable to inspire his sons, a brother carrying a shame he cannot hide; he’s a father who does not enjoy the pride he desperately needs. Thanks to Washington’s artistry, we may walk away from the film reflecting on some failure in ourselves or someone close to us, how we manifest our letdown, and perhaps like Troy, inflict hardships on those dear to us. I hadn’t seen this human experience played so powerfully on screen in many years.

Few actors can transcend either their race or their celebrity with a performance like Washington gives us in Fences. Which takes me to Moonlight, another outstanding recent film with a full cast of African Americans and centered on a Black American family. Mahershala Ali, best known for his fine performance as the self-serving lobbyist in the televised series House of Cards, was awarded an Oscar for his supporting role in Moonlight. But the real talent there is exhibited by the three actors who play the boy, the teen, and the adult ‘Chiron’ whose painful growth we follow into adulthood. Moonlight is also a story about manhood, about feelings unrealized (labeled by others as a “gay coming of age film”). Beautifully constructed and with restrained, spare dialogue, most of the film seems to be a story about one corner of Black American life. But with the final scene when Chiron, powerfully played by Trevante Rhodes, now transformed into a man, confronts his first love, a childhood friend, it rises to another level. It is a love story, pure and subtle. No race, no class; just two men quietly finding each other. 

 

[ Two Black Man Films: "Fences" and "Moonlight" ]

Palestinians Will Never Give Up

June 15, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Every month, it seems, a new book on Palestine comes across my desk for review. I think: “Oh, this reminds me of one I saw last year,” or “She’ll likely pursue the same theme as in her last novel.” Perusing a few pages of this volume, seeing that the stories herein are not really new, I nevertheless declare: “They will never give up.”

I mean by this, the infinite ways that Palestinians-- mother, child, shopkeeper, student, prisoner, poet, exile or resident, teacher or politician, from peasants to scions of established Jerusalem or Jaffa families—devise to narrate their heavily traveled route from the bucolic olive groves and stone houses of the Jordan Valley, across the biblical lands, through wars to prisoner cells, tattered refugee shelters, and uneasy exile.

When I say ‘they never give up’ I am of course aware that countless have. Many perished in their struggle for statehood by one means or another; others have been co-opted into a bourgeois lifestyle and successfully (sic) assimilated, or otherwise lured away. Perhaps for every one still identifying with the struggle, ten times that number has burned out and abandoned the cause. Not to mention countless (millions) of fellow Arabs who championed their cause with their scholarship and poems, through sanctuary, financial aid, diplomacy, and armed action as well.

Still we have at least four generations of Palestinians dispersed throughout the world--from Australia and South Africa to inside Israel, to the Caribbean, Brazil and our NY neighborhoods-- who persist. Many feel compelled to know and value their story, then to make others hear them and be moved. It’s not just the injustices and indignities endured, but the contrary too: stories embedded in found family portraits, in diplomas won, in property deeds folded away, in emblems embroidered into gowns, and in songs. 

Just last month, my colleague Francisco Casanova (Chahin/el-Mufdi) originally of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, now settled in New York via Dominican Republic, circulated a newly unearthed photo of his great-grandparents Yadallah and Ackle Mufdi (~1920), located by his cousin in a magazine in Dominican Republic where Francisco’s family settled in the late 1800s.

This is one example of tens of thousands of narratives that infuse an enduring campaign to resist. Traces make threads and threads are woven into something decipherable emerging into an instrument for action. Defying the Zionist agenda to erase Palestine, more stories emerge, year after year-- from those married to non-Palestinians, even children of families who seemed to have forgotten the homeland. Memoirs pour forth from those with the most tenuous ties to the land, and from those newly dispersed. This “persistence of memory” is discussed in poet Ibtisam Barakat’s latest essay.

What provokes my observation ‘they never give up’ is not just today’s hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, those past daring flotillas to Gaza, inspiring graffiti on the apartheid wall, or words by hip-hop artist Shadia Mansour. It’s the tireless reinvention of the quintessential story.

On my desk is the newly released Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation, yet another collection of testimonials and historical sketches. Designed for young readers it offers maps, notes, interviews and photos assembled by two British writers.

Some may conclude it’s a worn and futile theme. Indeed, the book offers nothing new to those familiar with Palestinian history. But we always find people for whom the story is unknown. The books roll on, even when few Palestinian histories will reach American schoolrooms. A portrayal of military occupation in another part of the world may be welcome by librarians. But given Israel’s vigilance of its international image, this book, if selected for an American school library or listed as a school resource for world history, may find itself banned.

From the testimonies of the children interviewed and comments by school staff quoted in Young Palestinians Speak, the injustices are evident. Like another collection for young readers, Gaza Writes Back some writers, editors and publishers remain compelled to remind us of the story of Palestine. Sameeha Elwan, one of 23 contributors to the Gaza book writes how each tale, “whether it stems from genuine experience, the representation of experiences of others, or those enshrined in Palestinians by virtue of being Palestinian … are worth remembering and telling. Memory is itself the only thing that is left of (our) comprehension of home and identity.”  END

 

[ Palestinians Will Never Give Up ]

Watch Out for ReclaimNewYork-- 'alt-right' prowling your neighborhood

June 12, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

What is RECLAIM NY Up To?   March 15/17    by Joyce St George, New Kingston, NY

There is currently a debate in this area about the appearance of Reclaim NY’s full-page ads in several local newspapers. Reclaim NY is an organization established by Steve Bannon, the current Senior White House Counselor and former publisher of Breitbart News, and Rebekah Mercer, a billionaire who donated heavily to the Trump campaign and served in his transition team. The goal of Reclaim, according to their website, is to make governments in NYS more transparent, and to hold government more accountable for financial waste and corruption.

The organization has already requested all financial documents from more than 250 schools, villages, towns and cities in Orange, Westchester, Putnam and other counties in New York state. Nearly 200 of these entities have provided requested information under the Freedom of Information Act. But several of those, including Peekskill School District and the town of Chester were sued by Reclaim for not being forthcoming or transparent enough for Reclaim’s interest. The school district, town, and others around the state, have had to spend money on legal fees and extra clerk hours to accommodate Reclaim’s requests. They also had to face articles in the local papers with interviews by Reclaim leaders alleging lack of transparency and corruption.

Reclaim NY is now in Delaware County, not only with full-page ads, but with the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce inviting their leaders to speak at an upcoming breakfast meeting in Hancock. After researching the organization, several concerns have emerged.

First, the Reclaim organization is reported to be a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization. However, it does have a heavily “right” leaning leadership and perspective on government. With Steve Bannon, Rebecca Mercer and other conservative leaders formulating the organization and its mission and strategies, it is hard pressed to believe that it is non-partisan. And while it is perfectly appropriate for conservative organizations to have a say in the state, it is not appropriate to hide its political leanings. Shielding itself from its own political perspective creates an insidious, covert shadow to the organization, which seems antithetical to its goal of transparency in governments.

Secondly, there is little said in its website about the purpose of this collection of financial data from schools, villages, cities and towns in NYS. The website indicates that reports will be produced by Reclaim that helps New Yorkers better understand why taxes are so high and living is so costly in NYS. While it is appreciated that an outside organization would care so much about the cost of living in this state, Reclaim does not explicitly say what it will do with those reports. Will they work with the local governments to improve financial management? Will they assist schools struggling to pay teachers adequate salaries? There is simply no way of knowing what Reclaim will do.

Third, transparency is one quality that small towns, cities, villages and schools seem to pride themselves on. The town boards of Middletown, Roxbury and Andes have monthly meetings as do the villages of Margaretville, Fleischmanns. Budgets are openly discussed at these meetings and community input supported. Local public schools open their financial books to the community as well. There are no mysteries to where our taxes going or how our money is being spent. The problem is not transparency, but poverty, infrastructure and limited resources. Reclaim does not address any of those issues impacting communities of NYS today.

I will go to the Chamber of Commerce meeting in which a Reclaim representative will speak, and I will listen. And yes, I do have a bias because of the articles I read from Peekskill and other areas that were sued by Reclaim. If the organization can truly help our rural areas improve conditions, I would support them wholeheartedly. But I haven’t read one article about them that would encourage me in that direction. I hope others will attend the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce meeting on April 7 in Hancock as I will, to learn, and I hope others in our area will do their research on Reclaim to learn what the organization is doing to our state.

See report on ReclaimNY's Hancock, NY presentation-- Catskill Mountain News

Also BN Aziz'  “My View” in The River Reporter (Narrowsburg, NY) Mar 23-28/2017

ReclaimNY sounds innocuous; it might be a movement you’d want to support. To some, it may suggest something that can help improve our lives in Upstate NY. Certainly we all want to hear from anyone who can stem corruption and save us money. Indeed various local Chambers of Commerce and other civic groups seem open to consider what benefits ReclaimNY is offering.

But beware. This is not an organization with an aim to help regular citizens like you and me.

A few watchful residents have revealed that Steve Bannon is behind this movement. In fact he’s its co-founder; the same Steve Bannon lurking in the White House, rumored to have an enormous influence on our president; the same Steve Bannon behind Breitbart News, the powerful media corporation unknown to many of us until its extreme social agenda was revealed just weeks before the election; the same Steve Bannon determined to remove so many of Americans’ social benefits and environmental protections, and scrap the Affordable Care Act—for a start. Take note that co-founder of Reclaim NY is a major Trump campaign donor, billionaire Rebekah Mercer. (Under pressure to eliminate conflicts of interest, Bannon resigned from the board last year.)

We may believe this kind of far-right group prevails in the Midwest or Louisiana. But it’s right here in our own backyard. ReclaimNY’s organizers have been at work in the Hudson Valley and are now planning programs in Delaware County: in Hobart, Delhi, Hancock and Binghamton (in Broome County, for example).

Some alert citizens of Delaware County, NY were able to inform a private business in their area about Reclaim New York’s background. It then decided to remove its sponsorship of a planned meeting, although the Chamber of Commerce hosting the event has not cancelled the program, not yet.

The group seems to be focusing on Delaware County northwest of Sullivan County at present. It has already moved forward with its agenda in other parts of the state: Orange, Westchester, and Putnam for example. In order to gather information to carry out its ‘reclamation’, Reclaim NY requests financial information from schools, villages, towns—they can do this under the Freedom of Information Act. And when those public entities refuse to comply, the group proceeds with law suits against them. Peekskill is a town that had to spend tax income to defend itself from Reclaim’s charges. 

A perusal of the Reclaim New York’s website (www.reclaimnewyork.org ) does not make clear its background and agenda. One finds no mention of Bannon or Mercer—only bios of a number of educated young men and a woman, many in finance and law. The words “Republican Party” do not appear either, or the name of its leader Donald J. Trump; indeed it presents itself as non-partisan, and is a registered 501(c) 3 organization. One finds nothing about why it seeks financial information about our schools and other public institutions. That very agenda is odd given that towns and schools annually present their budgets and financial records to the public.

Slowly—too slowly—the public is learning the unsettling truth about the backgrounds of our elected and non-elected leaders. We are at a time in our history when every citizen needs to be more active than ever in uncovering the forces swirling around us, forces that could take us back decades in our struggle to establish and hold American ideals we once thought were unassailable.

by Barbara Nimri Aziz, PhD

 

 

 

[ Watch Out for ReclaimNewYork-- 'alt-right' prowling your neighborhood ]

Shamless in America

May 30, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian newspaper writes what some may consider a virtuous and urgent charge. In his newspaper’s May 12th edition 

Opining that the US president is shameless, Freedland may be correct. But I disagree with his suggestion that Donald Trump’s behavior is particularly unique and that this shamelessness is immoral. While Trump is acting and speaking in a shocking manner, he is, in fact, giving voice to (a hitherto whispered, backroom) an American tradition.

When will Americans who enjoy huge benefits of citizenship in the world’s strongest economy and in the globe’s pre-eminent cultural, political, and military power realize that its glorious ‘empire’ is itself a shameless beast? Empire is largely effectively above morality. Moreover, isn’t this an integral part of what is called exceptionalism?  

Whether we like (to admit) it or not USA is an empire. As such it can be shameless. Just as it can be arrogant; just as it can police the whole world; just as it demands others adhere to its declared standard of human rights; just as its military cannot be criminally responsible for excesses and atrocities abroad; just as its negotiators can coerce weaker nations to follow its dictate.

Several American presidents in living memory (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, and Obama) provided a veneer of morality with their grace and political intelligence. Trump does not follow that script. In his bumbling, ungracious way, he is the ugly face of empire, exhibiting all the righteousness of what Americans --only Americans-- boast is the ‘most powerful person on earth’. The president, like the empire, is almost above law: he can disregard convention; he can fire the head of intelligence; he can sign edicts to wipe out years of development and progress; he can refuse to submit his tax returns; he can retain his businesses while serving in office; and his flippant tweets can hurl personal insults and instigate political chaos.

American foreign policy flaunts norms in the international arena; why not the head of state in regards to domestic issues? Not unreasonably, if a nation is shameless, its leader too can behave without shame. Donald Trump is shameless enough to challenge the norm. (Although in his arrogance he may inadvertently overstep some solid and sacred law, and be assured that hoards of opposition lawyers are closely following his every step to clutch a tangible legal breach.)

                Perhaps what so disturbs our distraught liberal class who Freedland speaks for is that Trump is directing this arrogance onto domestic issues and the privileges of Americans. As long as US bullying is focused outside, whether towards friends or enemies, it’s ignored or tolerated. Take the spurious principle of ‘mutual respect’ and the verbiage about members’ ‘equality’ within the United Nations. In its embargo wars against Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Vietnam, Washington successfully coerces and threatens others to comply. Even the U.N. cannot withstand US intimidation. A cursory review of reports emerging from infinite U.N. committee meetings around the globe would either shock you or make you ask if anything noble is ever accomplished there, anything except what’s determined by Washington.

(One recent climate change meeting offers an example of what can be accessed by Third World Network.) These daily displays of American prowess are buried in hard-to-comprehend reports laden with mysterious acronyms and a maze of subcommittee reviews. Their itineraries are so imponderable; easier to browse multi-pages of our esteemed press with their doctrines on Kurdish factions, sectarian strife in Muslim lands, or the drama of a dismissed FBI chief than to study how America bullies and obstructs the agendas of others, whether powers like India, or weak or impoverished nations, or respectable European friends.  

                True, not every American leader acts as boldly or as oafishly as Donald Trump does. Certainly his immediate predecessor behaved differently…most of the time. But recall one of President Obama’s foreign speeches—in Havana a year ago— and the former Cuba leader’s knowing response. Fidel Castro’s reply notwithstanding, the American’s imperial message, albeit proffered in a handsome velvet cloak, is clear. Barack Obama, like many American leaders (whether trade negotiators, press aides, human rights advocates, or military officers) may speak and act more discreetly than his successor. It’s just that Trump openly exhibits his nation’s arrogance. Combined with his personal tactlessness, mixed with a degree of bald ignorance, it’s, well, embarrassing.

But Freedland and doubtless many others in our liberal class, symbolized by the self righteous New York Times, do not dare admit America’s own long history of shamelessness and how Mr. Trump merely epitomizes this.

In today’s comments by US historians on how the 45th president compares so unfavorably with past occupants of the White House, there is a highly selective process underway. Since the November election and US intellectual’s misjudgment of its outcome, liberals have jumped onto the moral high ground with their remaking of Mr. Obama’s tenure. As if the last administration were free of responsibility for destabilizing other nations, of gross, illegal surveillance, of unlawful bombings and runaway profiteering by banks.   

Trump’s behavior is ‘difficult’ no doubt. Perhaps it’s because when a leader lies, he reminds us all of the national lies, of the shame (or sham) that American democracy has become, at least of its weaknesses. How can US negotiators and diplomats force human rights standards on others; how can the US insist on democratic principles in countries whose polities are at odds with Washington?

Today Mr. Trump is bullying the hallowed institutions of America. That’s what is insufferable. This is where we recognize shame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ Shamless in America ]

Americans Should Be Embarrassed, But Not About President Trump

May 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A month before the US presidential election, my sister from Canada called asking: “Aren’t Americans embarrassed?” She was referring in particular to the character of the leading Republican candidate, now living in Washington-- in the White House.

Even today few Americans actually say they’re embarrassed by Trump, whether it’s his tweets or his declarations of policy or his interactions with foreign leaders. Many dismayed Americans express anger; others moderate their feelings with ridicule, recounting his missteps and inelegance, surrounding themselves with likeminded associates to stoke their spirits. Certainly the president’s cabinet appointments and threats of policy changes create fear which in turn has motivated the widespread but calm and calculated street protests. Journalists have never been so busy muckraking over presidential appointees, tracking the leader’s ramblings, and fact checking the deluge of data on all sides.

Meanwhile, we (on the left) are indeed embarrassed, very embarrassed. Here’s what I mean.

It’s not the president’s amateurish utterances and his threats that embarrass. It’s about us: we’re embarrassed for ourselves. We—that is, the liberal American community who have such high regard for our sophistication, our grasp of issues, our education, our trendiness, and our facility with social media—couldn’t read our own country. We could not control the democratic process; we could not speak for the country; we could not use our multi-media savvy to effectively inform and communicate; we relied on barely two print sources and no more than two TV news channels who are, we now realize, biased.

There’s the feminists’ embarrassment too. Not only were we-- this land of dynamic, daring, accomplished women-- incapable of lifting a woman candidate over the top. We could not ‘read’ the whole of America’s women, (nor its youth, nor all its minorities). How embarrassing to admit to ourselves that not only does the U.S. lag behind African, Asian and South American nations in our inability to find a acceptable woman president. Fifty-three percent of white American women voted for what appeared to be a grossly misogynist Republican candidate! Hard to admit, but we, the knock-down-barriers know-it-alls, failed. Moreover, however many popular votes went to Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic Party—our self-declared champion of women and minorities-- also failed to read and to touch the pulse of the country. Not only was that boorish fellow installed the White House; 32 state legislatures went to the Republicans and 33 state governors are Republican.

It’s this embarrassment that’s now driving the weekly marches, the protests outside congressmembers’ offices, the plethora of new local committees and get-to-know-our-neighbors gatherings across the country. It’s this embarrassment that is sending reporters and camera crews into towns in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Louisiana and Kansas. Forget about Alabama, the Inner City and the metropolitan suburb. National Public Radio and BBC correspondents are descending on farms, mom-and-pop stores, and hamlets across the county to reveal the ‘real’ marginalized American:-- the less educated, the poorer, the underemployed, and the chronic opioid user.

We are newly interested in rural American wisdom. Today’s journalists are like anthropologists sent out to the dark corners of the hostile empire to study the natives for future conquest. University courses will be created to read newly written monographs on this forgotten, discovered America.

If embarrassment has a positive side, it’s self discovery. Although this doesn’t guarantee an easy overthrow of the current regime.  END

[ Americans Should Be Embarrassed, But Not About President Trump ]

The Legacy of Lynne Stewart: The People's Lawyer

April 26, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Well, sometimes the impossible takes a little longer”, remarked Lynne Stewart, December 31, 2014, on her arrival in New York, released from federal prison in Texas, after a vigorous family and internationally driven campaign on her behalf. (She was suffering from advanced cancer.)

Stewart lived three more years, nearby her family, always with a smile for visitors. This was the woman who dared this mild rebuke to her sentencing judge: “I do not intend to go gentle into that good night” she told him. 

Last Saturday, almost 500 friends and admirers of the brave lawyer who had the courage to challenge U.S. Homeland’s chief John Ashcroft fifteen years ago, gathered to celebrate a remarkable and honorable life.

April 22nd, the same day when tens of thousands were gathering in cities across the country to support our scientific community under threat by Trump administration budget cuts, one is struck by the contrast with those memorializing this “people’s lawyer”.

That modest assembly in a quiet corner of New York, the city where she grew up and where Stewart worked all her life, represented a revolutionary era whose very place in U.S. history is dangerously marginal. Moreover, that history is barely recognized by the rather belated post-November 8th arousal—the new liberal movement-- now gathering with its multitude of committees, mass parades and lefty celebrity speeches: part of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution. Fine. But a far cry from what Lynne Stewart’s celebrants represent.

                Unarguably America needs organized massive resistance to threats posed by the current administration; push back is essential on all fronts: healthcare, the arts, environmental protections, bank regulation, civic rights, and on and on. One hopes that the thousands of communities mobilizing nationwide, from villages to city centers and suburbs will-- after the committees are settled, the speeches made, the funds raised, the petitions signed-- act. They have organizing tools unavailable in past revolutions. Digital platforms flowing into every hand can inform with virtual velocity; Google maps assure you that your small effort is fed into a nationwide net of tens of thousands; you are not alone. Leaders can materialize in weeks with Twitter and Facebook skills at their command, cameras everywhere recording their emergence. Film celebrities join in, drawing even greater numbers to the effort. These are essentially what we have, and they may indeed be what are appropriate at a time when representatives of our police state are more numerous and more heavily armed, endowed with more authority and less tolerance.

                Those gathered to remember Lynne Stewart last week were authentic, tried revolutionaries: poets Nat Turner and Amina Baraka; former political prisoners, attorneys who had stepped forward to defend unpopular characters, teachers, organizers in solidarity with Cuba and Palestinian statehood from the 1960s to today; Vietnam war veterans and the unjustly imprisoned; defiant elected representatives from New Jersey and Brooklyn; the journalist and theologian Chris Hedges who refuses to join the liberal voice that claims it is the rightful alternative to the Republican party.

Each woman and man reminded us what makes a revolution. Each invoked the grass roots experience of Stewart, a librarian and teacher who turned to law in order to fight injustices she witnessed in the lives of her students. Eventually she took on the case of Muslims wrongly accused in the early 1990s when the government was using secret evidence to illegally charge and convict. Where other attorneys shied away from representing terror suspects, Lynne Stewart remained committed. There was some success when the government was eventually prevented from further use of secret evidence.

Then came the 9/11 attacks, and everything changed. Stewart insisted on defending attorney-client privilege (a right the government suspended). She had to be stopped. And they put Stewart, at the age of 73, in jail to do so.

As Brooklyn assemblyman Charles Barron reminded us on Saturday, “Lynne was a sweet person.” Even as she presented her cases and spoke to the media, she was always mild and respectful, always witty and bright-eyed. It’s not simply that she’s missed. We need to believe others as courageous and well equipped as Stewart was can come to our aid today.  END

Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and radio producer in New York. She is a longtime associate of Lynne Stewart, interviewing her during her fight against government use of secret evidence against her clients during the 1990s, then during Stewart’s fight against the department of justice attack on lawyer-client privacy rights, and finally in the campaign led by her husband and comrade, Ralph Poynter, for Stewart’s release from prison on health grounds.

[ The Legacy of Lynne Stewart: The People's Lawyer ]

Veteran Killers in Our American Streets

April 14, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Why do we allow veterans of recent wars to keep their weapons at home? Sometimes I think I’m alone in noticing a troubling American social pattern. When I mention how it keeps coming up again, others admit that they too noticed it. That’s all. It’s not the sort of thing one can easily follow.

Because media ignores it, the aggravation seems to disappear. Then it returns, as it did with the latest school killings—this time at the school in San Bernardino, California, this week.

I expect mine will be a highly unpopular opinion---it’s a hard one for Americans to swallow. But it has to be pointed out that when our military teaches our men and women to kill, legally, there is a terrifying and common spillover here at home, namely: they go on killing.

I have never been privy to the way military authorities pump up soldiers to kill, to revenge their fallen comrades, to hunt what are presented as savage animals who would take away ‘our freedoms’. But I‘ve heard enough to know that military training really hardens men, subjecting them racist and violent language to motivate them on the battlefield. Soldiers also learn to feel comfortable with weapons; they become highly attached to their guns.

We have to own up to it. As much as our presidents celebrate “these gallant men and women who put themselves in harms way”, U.S. veterans are increasingly among the killers in our own neighborhoods. They are among the gun-lovers and gun owners killing us and our children-- in our streets, in airports, in their homes and in our schools. When will we disarm these men who we celebrate for killing Iraqis, Afghanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis?

In the case of Marine Chris Kyle of “Sniper” fame, the six dead in the baggage hall of Ft. Lauderdale airport, and this week’s San Bernardino’s North Park Elementary School killings, focus is on the victims. Yes, teacher Karen Elaine Smith deserves to be known and mourned nationally. So too, 8-year old Jonathan Martinez. That this teacher was dedicated to working with special-needs children, and the dead child himself suffered from an illness, makes the violence against them all the more despicable.

But news reports in this massacre’s aftermath, and likely in the weeks ahead will, according to common practice, fail to adequately investigate implications of the killer being a U.S. veteran who served in American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

                In the case of the famous Iraq ‘war hero’ Chris Kyle, films and memorials celebrated this soldier’s killing power—160 kills, was it?—his victims may also have been teachers, perhaps among them, fathers, and brothers of boys like Jonathan Martinez. When Kyle was later murdered, it was by a fellow Iraq veteran. Eddie Routh was invited by Kyle and his colleague Chad Littlefield for an afternoon’s entertainment at a local shooting range. In the course of their sport, Routh shot dead both of his colleagues.

That event received wide press coverage because of the celebrity of Kyle, where again his prowess as a killer of Iraqis was applauded. Coverage included some history of Kyle’s killer with the spotlight on his mental problems.

There were others—too many. Remember Esteban Santiago-Ruiz? He is the mass murderer of 5 (with 8 injured) at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport last January. He too was a soldier, noted for receiving 10 awards during his time in the military.

Now we have Cedric Anderson, this month’s San Bernardino school killer. While investigations of his background highlight violence against women, he was also held (charges were dropped) for acts involving weapons. (There’s only cursory reference to Anderson’s 8 years in the U.S. navy.)

I recall reading about a man who murdered himself and his two daughters in their home-- a nice home on a nice American street—about a year ago. He too, I recall, was a military veteran. News of that massacre focused on his two unfortunate girls.

                Yes, we know about PTSD. We know these boys have seen their buddies killed and wounded. We know the Department of Veterans Affairs could do better. But what about these men holding on to weapons when back in civilian life? What about the way they are trained in violence and hatred?

What about gathering data countrywide on how many killers in the U.S. over the past 25 years are veterans of recent wars? And how do U.S veterans who kill and maim, once discharged, compare with others across the globe, and in earlier U.S. wars? This epidemic needs urgent attention because we have more than two million of these young men among us. END

 

[ Veteran Killers in Our American Streets ]

Back in Government Hands!, or "Dying to Get Back to School"

April 06, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Back in government hands”; the journalist repeated it twice in the same account of her report from Homs, Syria. Lyse Doucet had returned to the former rebel-occupied (and we know the reputation of those rebel jihadis, don’t we?) Syrian city of Homs last week.

With apparent sympathy, Doucet sought out Bara’aa, now 12, to learn how the girl was managing. It had been three years after their first encounter, following the death of the child’s mother in a bombing.

Doucet, considered an outstanding, fearless and compassionate war journalist working across the region today, seemed touched that the child was doing well, especially pleased to be back in school. Doucet omitted any reference to the high value Syrians, like Iraqis and Palestinians among others, place on education. These are nations where every child since the 1960s was educated, where gender parity in school was standard decades ago.

Apart from the silliness of asking an Arab child, any child, if she likes school, and remarking “You don’t have bad memories, do you?”, Doucet seemed incapable of uttering the word ‘liberate’ at any point in her report. Palmyra was not liberated, nor Aleppo, nor Homs. No, they were simply (maybe regrettably, to some) “back in government hands”.

I don’t know if the BBC instructs its journalists never to use the word ‘liberate’ when an enemy army (in this case the Syrian government) regains territory from rebels and terrorist occupiers. Or if Doucet herself simply cannot conceive that ‘liberation’ is what may allow the child’s return to school, indeed the reporter’s own ability to enter Homs at all.

This attitude to Homs is more ironic when not far to the east, American forces are desperately trying to help Iraqis bring Mosul “back into government hands”. In the course of this assault, we are learning, many hundreds of Iraqis—probably including girls and boys like our Homs’ schoolchild—died… to get back to school. When that happens, and everyone prays it will be soon, there will doubtless be celebrations over the ‘liberation’ of Mosul.

Remember all the fanfare surrounding American forces’ attempt to liberate Falluja (in restless Anbar province) in west Iraq in 2004? Many details of the battle, which not only failed but resulted in huge losses of life, were leaked—the US troops used phosphorous gas, and besieged the city trapping many thousands of residents. The event is also remembered because dozens of American troops were killed in that effort, a major battle marking the first American encounter with Al-Qaeda/ISIS insurgents. (The second battle of Fallujah nine months later is descried as a “coalition victory”; never mind what remains of the city.)

There have been a series of military confrontations in Afghanistan and in Iraq over the years where territory held by U.S. and U.K. troops or their surrogates—were reoccupied by opposing forces. Just days ago a district where 100 British troops had lost their lives “fell to rebels”.

Given the considerable number of failures by Americans and their allies to permanently restore rebel-held regions to government hands, one can only admire a government that achieves this. (Although there is no certainty that Homs is really secure. We saw Palmyra in east Syria retaken by ISIS, then again liberated by Syrian forces.)

Consider, if American and British deaths to liberate territory in those distant places are so well remembered, can we not begin to imagine the cost in Syrian military lives? Why, when we heap applause on U.S. veterans, wounded or not, do we have no concept for their Syrian counterparts. How many Syrian mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces, grandsons and sons mourn their lost fighters, pray daily for their safety, and may occasionally even celebrate their ability, somehow, to liberate Syrian territory from jihadists?

Anyone in touch with a household in Syria will know the anxiety of family worrying when their son or brother will be called. Any young man, who for one reason or another hasn’t yet been recruited, waits in fear. He has friends who’ve been called up, others who’ve fallen on the battle field. Many refugees are youths who managed to escape the country and military service. Others still enrolled in school, are not exempt.

With every “back in government hands”, or “retaken by rebels”, there is unarguably a heavy toll involved in sending one little girl back to school. We owe her the right to feel her home has been liberated.

[ Back in Government Hands!, or "Dying to Get Back to School" ]

What Storm Stella Can Teach Us About War

April 01, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It’s been more than a week but they are still out there-- machines and people --pushing it, chopping it, lifting it-- moving it, somehow, out of the way, out of our routine pathways. Under attack by salt, sand and sunrays, the mountains of snow slowly retreat. Although early April forecasts warn this may not be the end. We groan at the thought.

People will be talking about Storm Stella for a decade. I had never seen so many plows— lumbering monsters, lights flashing, orange twelve-foot-wide metal wings lunging through the whiteness; plows with sand and salt sprayers follow the heavier machines.   Narrower roads are tackled by ATVs, shovels and buckets newly fixed to their bumpers. Snow blowers of all sizes are ferried by truck to inaccessible homes and office buildings.

As we dig ourselves out, we are uncertain if another day of snow is due. Do we have enough food? What if electricity fails?

Following the dig out, neighbors exchange memories of the last blizzard in upstate New York. Gregg says it was 2003; others claim 1996 was the worst in memory.

I don’t remember the winter of ’96. Where was I?

Now I recall: in Iraq documenting the staggering impact of the United Nations sanctions (a U.S. initiated and policed blockade) against the country. (An action which Washington forced the UN to endorse.)

By 1996 the blockade on Iraq had been in effect for almost six years. By 1996 its people no longer waited for the isolation and shortages and illnesses and deprivations and heart attacks to end. By 1996 they ceased expecting any change in the United Nations position or fair treatment from waves of rude inspection teams. So many agencies were making millions (funds allocated by the U.S. from Iraq’s frozen bank accounts) from monitors and conferences, reviews and reports about the crippled nation’s poverty, sanctions compliance, and human rights accounting, there was no incentive to end the embargo.

The assaulted, besieged population adjusted, if adjust is the right word for survival. If anyone can adjust to personal losses and war, deprivations, indignities and manifold injuries. “Whatever we suffer today, we know only that tomorrow will be worse”, she noted. I don’t remember her name, but I know her voice—low and angry, lips pressed together. She was no more than 20. Her words slap against my brain cells, again and again, twenty years later.

                Along with millions of other Iraqis she waited day after day, year after year. (And they still wait.)

Even though the embargo ended after 13 years and elections were held, many millions perished or moved abroad. Except for planning how to get whatever crumbs one may manage to suck out of the government, the only thing to look forward to is escape. A quarter century of uncertainty-- under dictatorship, under occupation, under democratically elected governments--persists.

Feeling the (temporary) assault and isolation created by Storm Stella’s engulfing New York last month, it occurred to me: Suppose it doesn't stop? Suppose another one hits before we have cleared this away; suppose all available plows are diverted to the city and we are forgotten? Suppose this goes on, the snow accumulating day after day, until May, and then suppose a week of rain follows? Suppose the melt-off and the downpour trigger floods, and roads are washed out? I didn’t feel panic; but for the first time, I really imagined what the accumulation of year after year after year of war could create.

I’d been in war zones. In Iraq observing crumbling infrastructure, closed hospitals, abandoned clinics, no flights, no medicines, no milk powder, heading for summer, I was nevertheless able to escape every time slipping in June away to avoid the searing heat. I had moved through Occupied Palestine, hearing tanks rumbling through a neighborhood, witnessing curfews and endless check points, school cancellations, shops shuttered, playgrounds locked. Since 2011, I’ve followed Syria’s trauma, with families and houses isolated from one another, declining services each month, utility cuts, shortages, one hardship piled on anther, no one to call for help.

Spring is suspended indefinitely in all these places. For all these inhabitants, all these souls.

A dystopian winter image set off by barely three days of interruption in my routine created by Storm Stella, brings me closer than anything else I had experienced to what millions are living inside those endless wars where the cruelness of winter storms goes on and on and on.  END

[ What Storm Stella Can Teach Us About War ]

The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?

March 23, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The tall good looking New Yorker, about 25, stands out in the crowd around me. His black curly hair shines, his head raised expectantly, his smile so unlike the sleepy people around us peering anxiously into their handheld devices.

I’ll learn before my trip ends that this warm faced lad’s name is Dijon.

Our fleeting association begins there on the platform waiting for the uptown #6 train. Initially his smile attracts me; then my gaze rises beyond his face to a shimmering red and silver flag; it’s actually a balloon waving above us, and somehow I know this belongs to Dijon. Seeing “Happy Anniversary” scrolled clearly on the shimmering surface, I think ‘Nice. He’s returning from an office party celebrating his marriage’. That explains his smile too.

I’m distracted by a growl from the mouth of the tunnel, a welcome noise to commuters at the end of their workday. Here comes the #6 train. The platform, dense with thick-coated bodies, begins to stir, preparing to press into the car the second its doors slide open. Forget about a seat; I may not even find standing room.

At 4:30 p.m., the rush of workers heading uptown to their homes—one room, maybe two, three at the most, somewhere in the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem or the Bronx-- has begun.

I am unconcerned how Dijon, with his unwieldy balloon and the large carton cradled in his arms, manages to maneuver himself into the train as thirty other commuters lurch through that single door. Then, doors safely closed behind us, there’s that same balloon. And, here beside me, our backs squashed side by side against the door, stands its bearer, with the same quiet smile.

As this isn’t my regular route so I must check: where should I disembark? Instinctively, I look up towards the anniversary flag: “Does the #6 stop at 84th Street?” His voice is soft, reassuring: “We stop at 86th-- good for you. You know you could have taken the #5 express across the platform; you’d reach in just two stops by the five.”

Never mind; with this friendly opener I proceed with my inevitable interview, probing my travel companion’s agenda and introducing me to another New York lifestyle experience. “Your anniversary?” I inquire. “How many years?” “Oh no”, Dijon casually rejoins and, glancing at the balloon above us, explains: “I’m delivering this: Edible Arrangements. We’re a party service (I’ll Google it later) Nodding to the package in his arms now, he explains this service for family celebrations; “They get the balloon and our fruit package -- chunks of fresh pineapple, melon, apple, stuff like that-- arranged on sticks all poking out of a big orange. It’s really pretty, done up like a bouquet.”

And do you sing as you present this gift? “No, no”, and pausing, adds “But I could sing”.

It occurs to me that Dijon may in fact be a talented vocalist-- a singer, an actor, a performer of some kind. He’s probably one of the tens of thousands of gifted young people drawn to the city in search of gigs on stage, hunting for an agent, waiting to be discovered. Yes, that explains his bearing. I miss that cue, and instead ask about his ‘edible’ services; it’s a lifestyle service, the pampering of well-to-dos and trend-obsessed young people who socialize with indulgences, like hand delivered balloons and fruit baskets. “For say $50?”, I guess. “Hmm”, replies Dijon; “Well, $50 and up.”

I think: what could he earn for one delivery (remembering he has to travel by subway)? Maybe $10. I can’t ask him directly,  so I follow up with “And tips? Do your happy anniversaries tip well?” Another “Hmmm” from Dijon. “No tips: not usually.”

(No point inquiring about health insurance or workman’s compensation.)

                These delivery gigs employ battalions of young and energetic do-anything-to-live-in-New Yorkers. Would-be actors, comedians and musicians traditionally wait tables and serve drinks in the city’s many bars. More and more, these jobs are augmented by these delivery services which employ jobless graduates and anyone else willing to serve those who can pay, however indulging and frivolous the service. What’s offered are sometimes routine and tedious (house-cleaning, dog walking), at other times exotic and terribly fashionable (you can’t imagine).

Subway advertisements abound with invitations to do something special for yourself, or a loved one—all by phone apps, and like Uber-- delivered personally by a young man or woman at your door. Handy.com, delivery.com, taskrabbit, upwork.com blueapron.com, redbucket.com, deliveroo.com are just a few examples of what’s available. 

It’s the gig economy; on one hand it’s emerging from excessive joblessness, a serious condition finally receiving attention from workers rights advocates.  On the other hand it’s created by people with abundant disposable incomes. Based on both desperation and trendyness, servitude is a growth industry in American cities. Ediblearrangements.com and bueapron.com are New York chic.

The fashion crowd—i.e. those with monthly salaries, health insurance, social security savings and a company pension fund--- chat in the bar or at office break about these trendy services, similar, one imagines, to how white ladies chatted about their domestic ‘help’.

The Sunday Lifestyle section of your newspaper features the merits of blueapron.com fashion. Meanwhile less noticed reviews expose the inbuilt exploitation and the hardships lived by these young workers.  

Doubtless some of the tens of thousands of wishful, handsome jobless graduates, having glimpsed inside those wealthy apartments to whom they delivered massages and fruit bouquets, gather after hours to invent their own startup service. Maybe they themselves can launch the next trend. 

No one is thinking about workers rights. In fact a new adjunct trend is umbrella recruitment companies. They locate, vet and sign up individuals who they then farm out for hour and day jobs. In the UK this service extends to school teachers—all to save someone else money.   END

 

[ The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On? ]

Letter to My Friend in Damascus

March 13, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I am afraid to ask you you’re feelings about the recently announced American invasion into your country. In our talks these past months, we’ve spoken only about hardships: the increasing scarcity of electricity, water and food shortages, an absence of home heating fuel. This in the capital, Damascus, where people can still go to school and to work, where some local buses can navigate through the mud and debris, where drivers can sometimes find petrol for their cars.

When we’re able to connect by phone, you talk about people I know: parents unable to pay for their child’s surgery, a family with no means of keeping warm in winter.

                You could easily leave to live abroad with your children. But you’re in charge of a children’s home, and you simply can’t abandon the staff—those few who remain. Before, donations were adequate and teachers sufficient. Now teachers are leaving to find work and safety abroad, following many hundreds of doctors who’ve emigrated. You spend more time searching for assistance from the few remaining families offering charity. Syrians have always been especially generous to the homeless (few though they were in the past), and to any charitable effort by any faith. How can able Syrians sustain this deeply embedded principle when they themselves are in need, dependent on their children abroad?

Do you have someone outside who supports you while you provide succor to others inside? I don’t know what sustains you, apart from your love of country, something few speak about these days, and hardly anyone outside Syria recognizes.

On international women’s day here, I broadcast some interviews from my audio archive, conversations with women in Damascus 6-7 years ago. Each spoke with such pleasure about her work, delighted too that their voices, Syrian voices, might be heard (and felt) in America. I don’t know where those patriotic souls are today. None would have chosen to leave, I know that. In 2010 their lives had been full and promising. Yours, too. And those of your office staff and everyone at the children’s center, and your youngest son, just graduated.

You and I witnessed many favorable changes under the new, young president. Tourists were arriving in large numbers. Shopping malls were lively and welcoming. Colleges were vibrant centers of learning and hope; new private universities were flourishing. “Why should our bright young people go to Lebanon or Europe to study?” you declared: “We can educate them here, providing more work for our professors, for contractors who build these colleges, and for staff who drive buses and manage college dorms and cafeterias.”

Nowadays, students who can’t find a way to leave, face military service. There are no figures about all the soldiers killed and wounded; it’s tens of thousands, for certain. Only a few families can manage to pay for their sons to avoid the draft. “We are losing all of our young people,” you sigh. That proclamation lies in the shadow of every one of our conversations.

                Five years ago, after I returned to New York from Syria, I followed news reports and forwarded you an occasional report from writers Joshua Landis, Robert Fisk or Patrick Cockburn which I thought might shed light on events; you asked me what I thought the U.S. administration was planning and what  American commentators were saying about Syria. Then we ended these exchanges. They were useless; they simply offered false hope.

In the months preceding the American election your interest and hope returned; a new U.S. administration might somehow bring the war to a close. Then however, you decided that whoever prevailed, Democrats or the Republicans, Syria could hardly expect relief, peace, a settlement:-- nothing but worsening conditions and the loss of youths, teachers and doctors.

We haven’t spoken about the new U.S. leadership. Nor did I ask you for your reaction to Israel’s bombing of Syria last month, an aggression that garnered almost no attention here. Was that attack more unsettling and ominous that earlier Israeli assaults?

I expect that Syrians can think about little except: “Can it get worse? And, “How can we find some heating fuel, more medicine, a pair of shoes?”  

On top of all this comes this major political development:-- the unconcealed arrival of American military presence on your soil. Marines and heavy armaments are moving into Syria as I write. According to U.S. generals, their troops are deployed to help Washington’s Syrian allies—not the Syrian army-- to dislodge and eradicate ISIS from Raqqa. This move comes in the wake of remarkable gains by the Syrian army backed by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces.

While the U.S. troop arrival is (to the American public) optimistically presented as ISIS-motivated, you and I know that it’s likely a pretext; it’s really another step in The U.S.’s Syria ‘mission creep’. Has Washington ever limited military incursion to the announced goal? Has it left anything behind its wars on Arab soil except destruction and deprivation, chaos and animosity?

Five years ago, following initial uprisings in Syria, many there might have welcomed an American military presence. But in time, you and your compatriots understood America’s support for the cruelest, most extreme opposition (rebel) fighters; Washington’s endorsement of Saudi and Qatari plans to sow chaos in Syria was clear within a few months. As Syrians comprehended the real US agenda--to destroy and disrupt at any cost--their view changed.

So what now? This most nationalist of Arab states is still somehow intact, against all odds. All those Syrian boys martyred; those barefoot children, those empty colleges, those ghostly shopping malls wait.  

I could find no public response here to this week’s American surge in Syria, no indication that it’s a noteworthy U.S. policy change, no journalist asking for Syrians’ reactions. An unsettling silence engulfs the first hours of a new American invasion.

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and writer, hosted RadioTahrir on Pacifica-WBAI in New York City for 24 years. Her 2007 book Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq is based on her 13 years covering Iraq. Aziz’ writings and radio productions can be accessed at www.RadioTahrir.org, Syrian stories at http://podcast.radiotahrir.org/?s=syria

[ Letter to My Friend in Damascus ]

Film Review--"Speed Sisters" by director Amber Fares

February 17, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

One hardly expects a story of political struggle to feature a team of intemperate young women racing their cars around a dusty, fenced-in track. But in a Palestinian context, everything is political. Even if the new film Speed Sisters doesn't chronicle an explicit struggle, it’s a portrait of a people whose determination will remind Israelis that resistance to their occupation is not moribund.

My January review of Ghada Karmi’s memoir Return points to inexorable expressions of what it means to be Palestinian, how memories of Palestine are inexhaustible. Surely a half century of pursuits by writers, journalists, artists, lawyers, and boys-with-stones testify to the compelling Palestinian narrative, propelled by the unquenchable energy of these people and the rightness of their mission.

                Some stories are tragic, some heroic (and at the same time tragic), some little more than nostalgia, and others simply facts-on-the-ground. Some, like Return, are forlorn and, grudgingly, sadly honest.

Filmmaking too documents the unfolding, always unfolding, story of Palestine. There was The Wanted 18, Amer Shomali’s 2014 animated Palestinian film told from the viewpoint of dairy cows deemed a threat to Israeli security. Elia Suleiman’s productions (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) are augmented by Nida Sinnokrot’s documentary Palestine Blues, focusing on the destiny of a farm tractor. Mai Masri, director of nine films, continues a distinguished career with a new production, “3000 Nights”, now opening in several US cities.

Veteran filmmaker Masri is joined by a notable new generation of mainly women, among them Palestinians Annemarie Jacir (Salt of the Sea), and Cherien Dabis (Amreeka). Canadians Ruba Nadda (Cairo Time) and Nadine Labaki (Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?) are well established feature filmmakers. Among newcomers are Rola Nashef (Detroit Unleaded) and Amber Fares, director of Speed Sisters opening in New York this month. A new twist on the Palestinian experience, these ‘speed sisters’ are four feisty women and their team captain. They’re race car drivers spinning and screeching their vehicles through courses in Bethlehem, Jericho, and their hometown Ramallah. In sync with these women, the film is a fast-paced, raucous adventure that follows their pride, their energy and their drive to win.  

Fares sets her camera sometimes from within the women’s vehicles, sometimes in the middle of the dusty course as the racer spins and roars around her, sometimes in her home, sometimes among admiring male fans cheering her on from the bleachers, all this within sight of ubiquitous Israeli troops. (All spaces here are militarily occupied.)

Car racing started in Palestine in 2005 and women joined the sport hardly a year later. One can’t help admiring these women. Each snaps on her helmet and grits her teeth, jaws set firmly on victory even against competing teammates. We have the firm impression that each knows what she’s doing and knows what she wants. Director Fares interweaves raucous racing scenes into the women’s encounters with military occupation—passing through checkpoints en route to Jerusalem, sneaking a day at the beach near Tel Aviv, courting a tear gas attack when they playfully approach an Israeli patrol.

If we as viewers remove ourselves from the excitement of the chase and the energy of each racer’s personality, we might ask: where could this thrilling hobby possibly lead, for the individual women, and for Palestinian political aspirations?

On her drive to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for prayers team captain Maysoon is assaulted by young boys selling balloons. In the moments when the camera catches their stubborn exchange with Maysoon, we can feel the boldness of those boys, the same resolve that infuses these women racers. Their life is really tough, and they won’t give up.

You don’t want to mess with this crowd. 

[ Film Review--"Speed Sisters" by director Amber Fares ]

Return of The Boycott as Political Resistance

February 09, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Return of The Boycott as Political Resistance

www.counterpunch.org/2017/02/09/return-of-the-boycott-as-political-resistance  

How can the American public push back on its brash and prejudiced president while a pliant Republican party in control of the U.S. Congress seems in no mood to oppose their new leader?

Workers’ strikes may be effective in some countries. In America striking is a tool of the distant past. Workers syndicates, with the possible exception of police unions, are hardly extant in the 21st century.

Boycott is an option, but generally not a very effective political instrument where people are too attached to their pleasures and habits, whether sugary drinks, big cars, online shopping, dining or holidaying. (I admit that I myself am facing difficulty—thus far I’m managing—sustaining my boycott of SNL because of Katie Rich’s nasty remark about Trump’s young son.)

But we’re in a new era, aren’t we? A new ball game, where the immediate target of boycott would be very precise, a mortal, and a businessman. A perfect prey. No need to appeal to ethics or justice, when the strategy is to vote with one’s wallet against Trump family enterprises. No court decisions are needed, no mass signatures, no parades at the gates of Trump properties. Consumers can simply stop buying, and there’s plenty to strike off the shopping list, starting with Ivanka Trump’s fashion and jewelry products—carried in upscale stores like Nieman Marcus and Saks and by peoples’ retailers Walmarts and Amazon. (A boycott that overrides class distinctions). From reports of markdowns in store this week, the action, initiated by #grabyourwallet seems well underway.

But wait. Ivanka’s shoe line is the glamorous surface of this movement. Forget about quarterback Brady’s friendship with Trump, and discover an underworld of millions of possible boycotters. I’m talking about academics—an almost invisible and, dare I say, politically conservative American (liberal) population. Our scientists and academics, if sufficiently angry and if they can summon the courage to boycott, could make a tremendous impact. Unexpectedly, tens of thousands have already signed on to what’s become a tsunami wave to challenge Trump’s Muslim ban. University staff, hospital administrators, researchers and professors in all fields of scholarship and science are publicly acknowledging the millions of women and men in their labs, their lecture halls, their conferences and panels, and their classrooms who are recent or settled immigrants, visiting students, invited professors, co-authors—all foreign born, many of them Muslim-- on special visas or with green cards.

In response to President Trumps travel ban, two major academic boycotts are underway: a Canadian boycott with over 4000 signatories arose on the heels of another initiated in the UK with over 42,000 supporters. All are refusing to attend any professional conferences in the USA. To start.

Academic conferences? you inquire smugly. We need millions of plebeians in the streets to make any impact, you claim.

I give street protests their due; they’re essential in demonstrating the reach and depth of public resistance. But don’t sniff at conferences. Hotels thrive on them, yes. But so do our professors, graduate students, the entire research community, and the economy. Academic conferences are where new graduates seek employment, where scholars present research findings and authors hunt for publishers, where accolades are awarded and new leaders are identified, where alumni meet and reaffirm their college’s reputation, where professional networks are strengthened and expanded. These conferences are huge events. Take my field of anthropology for example. As a U. K. graduate we had a community of barely 300 anthropologists in the 1980s. So I was overwhelmed on my initial visit to the U.S., attending the annual AAA (American Anthropological Association) conference, to find myself among 3,300 fellow researchers. (Today that figure is double.) Besides nation-wide conferences, each profession has regional gatherings and state forums. Multiply this by all the professions, from neurology to modern Chinese literature, paleontology to copyright law, and you begin to grasp the scale of this low-keyed professional world.

Conferences are essential to academic growth, to career advancement, to intellectual competition and exchange, events eagerly anticipated year after year. Yet tens of thousands are ready to forego them in support of their ‘foreign’ colleagues. This is serious.

These scientists know how essential ‘foreigners’ are to their own successes, to rigorous intellectual dialogue, and to America’s global cultural and scientific influence. Those foreign students joining research teams win accolades and grants for their departments, many staying on permanently. Visiting professors are welcomed, feted, and often offered permanent jobs in the U.S. The high quality education and love of learning that Indians, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Sudanese, and Syrians bring from their homelands are coveted by U.S. research laboratories, colleges and institutes.

Perusing the 2013 American National Science Foundation survey we can measure the prominence of immigrants. For example, between 2003 and 2013, of 341,000 immigrant scientists and engineers, more than half, 1,873,000, originated in Asia—Far East, Southeast and South Asia, and ‘other’-- likely West Asia/Middle East. (Compare with 632,000 from Europe, and 179,000 from South America.)

Of 21,000,000 scientists and engineers, 15.6 percent are non-native born. Over 80 percent of immigrant scholars enter computer and math sciences, increasingly important fields in our economy.

Engaging in an academic boycott is a real social, political and economic sacrifice. It’s neither common nor easy, as attested in the long, uphill of the academic boycott of Israel. Older professors recall their successful boycott of South Africa (1965-1990), part of the global Anti-Apartheid movement, 50 years ago with nostalgia, partly because of its exceptionality. So today’s boycott against Trump’s policies represents a historical breakthrough.

The lists are growing daily, the most recent being the boycott by an American NGO, a Minnesota nonprofit serving Somali-American youth.  

Over barely two weeks, public boycotts are matching a fortnight of presidential decrees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ Return of The Boycott as Political Resistance ]

Will We Become as Hateful, Insensitive and Boorish as The Opposition?

January 27, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

 The news has been so overwhelming these weeks. So I hadn’t fully grasped the implications of one incident, namely, what Katie Rich, comedy writer for NBC’s popular Saturday Night Live, tweeted about President Trump’s 10-year-old son. Even though she withdrew her invocation that “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter”, it’s still with us. It’s done. And it’s bad. Has her taunt been widely condemned by our liberal press? Or are they taking off their gloves and recruiting her for the forthcoming battle?

Satirists enjoy considerable license. But there’s always a line. Rich apologized, and NBC suspended her. Are we to be satisfied with this? Not this woman or her employer; no, I’m asking if such remarks are to become the norm.

What do we do? What shall I do? How shall liberals who want to resist the Trump agenda respond? What should thousands of SNL followers do if they too feel repulsed by Rich’s words? Do we retort with: “Hey, Trump himself set today’s standard for insults; that makes him and his family fair targets”? If so, where will this lead? Nowhere useful, to be sure.

I’m not a loyal fan of SNL, the long running satirical program which I understand is the mother of American TV parody and satire. (Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Report arrived in US homes much later.) Yet after Alex Baldwin’s parodies of Donald Trump on SNL, I’ve gone out of my way to watch clips of the show. Baldwin is terrific, and although the butt of his caricature himself takes to twitter in reply, Baldwin stays within an established border-- although barely, I admit. You may argue that anyone entering the celebrity spotlight has to grow thick skin. But are celebrity children not protected?

Mr. Trump Sr. is a big boy; as a public official now, he’s fair game. The problem is the standard that these clever comics set for the rest of us.

This brings me back to what I might do. Shall I condone the growing public ridicule against anything and anyone in the other camp? Frankly, I find Katie Rich’s remark repugnant and unconscionable. I expect my condemnation of Rich may garner accusations that I’m a Trump supporter. Still, I must speak out. If I refuse to indulge this nasty dialogue, what’s left? Signing the change.org petition to NBC (only 41,000 names to date) to fire Rich’s seems inadequate.

What are the choices for me? (Perhaps for you too.) I (we) could boycott SNL. In my public platform, I could advocate against these tit-for-tat attacks that have become accepted in our profession—gossip, scandal, candid photos, personal politics. These are a major part of journalism; and they attract real talent.

We’ve got find a bigger, nobler response.

Because today so much that I value is threatened. (Not to mention having personally devoted decades of my life and my career defending my Arab and Muslim people and culture, enhancing the dialogue between us and others, joining a rising community of energetic Muslim comics, educators, writers, poets, performers and filmmakers in the uphill struggle.)

Today we face a bruising time. Institutions we worked so doggedly to build and sustain, and with such hope, are threatened. The education of our own people to assert our rights, to strengthen our efforts in solidarity with others: all that’s in jeopardy. The battle will get uglier than it is now. It could become violent and the gap between opposing views could widen.

I belong to the tribe who calls itself ‘progressive’. Maybe liberal too. Although I digress from American liberals on many issues. I’ve always known Democrats are in step with the Republican Party on many issues, but Democratic Party behavior in this past election alienated me, maybe forever. I’ve had to distance myself from associates whose short memory, whose opinions and attitudes I have found only ‘selectively’ progressive, whose real life experience is increasingly narrow, and whose news sources are even more limited, despite their educational degrees. 

Katie Rich’s tweet about Barron Trump may seem like a passing issue; it’s over, she apologized. Liberal friends will defend her by invoking the intolerance and disrespect Barron’s father habitually exhibits. “This is the son of the monster who now threatens all our values, our human rights,” they plead.

I observed Saturday’s (women’s) march at close hand, embedded among that gleeful, self-satisfied crowd moving through Manhattan. It was a largely White people’s march; that surprised me. Apart from a scattering of South Asian faces and a few groups of Latina women, I glimpsed only an occasional African American there. And, although I searched those faces for fellow Muslims, I couldn’t identify any. I saw only one kaffiyeh, the iconic Palestinian scarf so prominent at protests during the 90s. Three marchers of Turkish origin who I know personally were as inconspicuously Muslim as I am. OK; I accept that many in our community feel especially vulnerable these days; but if we’re not comfortable among this crowd of protesters declaring their alliance with American Muslims, then where? Perhaps these friendly marchers are out-of-touch with the Muslims they now celebrate.

Not to forget Aziz Ansari; he was stunning on SNL last week. But I’m still resolved to boycott the show. It’s a start, until I can figure out my long-term agenda. END

 

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and writer, hosted RadioTahrir on Pacifica-WBAI in New York City for 24 years. Her 2007 book Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq is based on her 13 years covering Iraq. Aziz’ writings and radio productions can be accessed at www.RadioTahrir.org.

[ Will We Become as Hateful, Insensitive and Boorish as The Opposition? ]

Why I Am Not Joining This Weekend's March in Washington (or Anywhere Else)

January 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

On February 15, 2003, when millions reportedly filled the streets of U.S. cities to oppose the invasion of Iraq, I was in Mosul. Yes, the Mosul Iraqi forces are poised to retake, the Iraqi city adjacent to Nineveh, the ancient site trashed by ISIL.

                For 12 years, from 1990 to 2002, it was evident that the U.S. and its chief allies, England and Israel, were bent on wholly destroying Iraq. Millions died (lives lost before 2003 are not figured into ‘Iraq body count’); millions more were stricken by one disease or another, fell into poverty, or fled. That war was carried out under the auspices of our global peace agency, the United Nations, in a multi-pronged U.S.-designed and policed blockade. So successful was that embargo, so intimidated or distracted was the public, that only a handful of individuals, mainly Europeans, dared to enter Iraq to document that onslaught, the resulting ‘humanitarian’ disaster, and the collapse of a remarkable modern society and an ancient civilization.

By 1998, after eight brutal years of punishment and deprivation, unexpectedly and wondrously, Iraq began to reverse its downward trajectory. And, when the enemy (U.S.A./U.K./Israel) saw its embargo was collapsing, they raised the WMD scare and activated their military option. Seeing their government preparing for a massive assault, the American public awoke in panic, afraid not for Iraqis but for their own sons and brothers.

Hoards unmoved by 12 years of Iraqi suffering and deaths suddenly erupted with anti-war fervor: “No blood for oil”, “Not in our name”, “We are the greater truth”. The largest rally in history would be remembered as “an incredible moment”—800 cities. Today liberals of all stripes boast of their anti-war devotions, their respect for Iraqi civilization, their opposition to violence. They all loved peace; they loved Iraqi people. (Later they would claim, “while we couldn’t prevent war, we proved it’s clear illegality”.)

It was sobering to be inside Iraq that February 15th in 2003. Together with my friends in Mosul I watched news of the purported millions rallying across the world on Iraq’s behalf. But no one inside Iraq was impressed. The protests had nothing to do with Iraqis. Where had these peace devotees been for the last decade? Those rallies were, we felt, disingenuous--just a panic attack by a naïve people who wanted to assure themselves that they are kind, moral, knowing.

Within Iraq we felt a confused sadness, and surrender. No one knew from where the enemy would descend. Their decimated forces could not defend Iraq’s borders. There was nowhere to run, to hide. To whom could they plead for intervention? People called their families-- to gather loved ones near. Everyone prayed silently. Millions sat in a daze, waiting. Hearing about that impulsive interest in peace around the globe did not stir us, not at all. It was late, and childish.

How does that history bear on today’s rallies across USA? Like the righteous anti-war upsurge of 2003, this weekend’s march is a demonstration of liberal America’s panic—a belated attempt to redress a wrong, a mistake, a realization of having been coddled and misled, or misinformed. Those retreating to the street to shout “Not my president” are secretly admitting they goofed. It’s not Trump’s or Clinton’s missteps motivating them. It’s their own errors: their misunderstanding of how democracy works.

Week after week these ‘good guys’ used their (first amendment) freedom of speech repeating daily gossip generated over Facebook and the media, a deluge of funny, encouraging, or bizarre utterances by Sanders, Clinton, Carson or Cruz, and especially by Trump, while ignoring the senate races, state legislative elections, their own district politicians and neighbors with different ideas. Like-minded friends huddled in social networks agreeing that they knew best, that their single news source offered the truth.

There were so many clever quotes to relay, so many alarming things said, so much money spent, such good satire. Overwhelmed, liberals panicked and sought shelter with the familiar. Even those who foreswore network news couldn’t resist indulging crazy quotes and caricatures. When Nov. 8th arrived, perhaps many didn’t bother voting, as if only presidential candidates were on the ballot. Some knew Clinton would win from their holy book, the New York Times. After all, Clinton was endorsed by a Nobel laureate, Michael Moore, and Noam Chomsky. And millions of feminists were determined that America must finally catch up to the rest of the world with its own woman leader.  

We know what happened. And we see today, similar to Feb. 15, 2003 preceding the invasion of Iraq, these good guys find that they have been misled, misinformed, misguided, overconfident, and a minority—just plain out of touch. Some actually wept. When conceding defeat, Clinton addressed her distraught supporters as if they were children.

About the failed 2003 anti-war rally, one unapologetic organizer noted: “While we did not prevent the Iraq war, the protests proved its clear illegality....” This weekend’s marches are expressing essentially the same message. As John Whitehead writes in his Rutherford Institute 01/19/2017 newsletter: “If those marches and protests are merely outpourings of discontent … with no solid plan of action or follow-through, then what’s the point?”

 Some Republican TV presenters’ advice to despondent liberals is: “You lost; get over it; suck it up”.

The only value of the marches and protests is to energize, rebuild networks, and identify new leaders. Meanwhile a rush of guidebooks, some humorous, for living in the new America have been rushed though the press. Among them is Gene Stone’s Trump Survival Guide. In a radio interview, Stone offers some solid counsel, invoking successful organizing strategies of the opposition. I would also advise liberals to dump their New York Times subscription   (although I’m dismayed to learn NYT readership rose after Nov 8th);     

The major issue for liberals is: can you learn to cross the isle? America is smitten with a polarized two party system. And liberals thus far seem disinterested in either cleaning up the Democratic Party or building a new movement independent of it.

Let’s not take too long to figure out the way forward.  END

[ Why I Am Not Joining This Weekend's March in Washington (or Anywhere Else) ]

Profile of a Progressive Gun Enthusiast

January 10, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I was returning with other volunteers in our fire department’s SUV after our community training course. This was last autumn, not long after the Republican Party convention. Not unreasonably, our conversation during the long drive home turned to Donald Trump. Frank, usually rather taciturn, turned to a younger member of our crew with uncharacteristic passion: “They’ll take all our guns away. Wait and see,” he declared. Frank was not applauding Trump as much as he was cursing a generic government which he sees threatening his right to own guns. Frank proceeded determinedly to declare how the US government is encroaching on our lives-- not his life, ours-- with its excessive regulations: “Look around us here, look at this beautiful country! They want to control it. Just leave the land alone”, he pleaded.

Frank hunts deer and turkeys in season and is a proud owner of several guns. But I wouldn’t describe Frank as right-wing or violent. He volunteers his time to the local fire department, he opposes fracking (oil and gas drilling technology that has aroused much debate and warnings from environmentalists), and his simple dream is to buy land in the next county to build a small farm. Despite his support for Trump’s candidacy, I felt Frank was neither attacking Democrats nor hailing Republicans. (He is dissatisfied, or fearful-- doubtless partly due to his bleak job outlook.) I suspect that he championed the Republican front-runner as someone who offers him better odds that his prospects will improve.

I first met Frank at our community fire hall. He was stretched out under one of the fire engines attaching a trailer hitch to the chassis. He happily spent several hours there, wrench in hand, shirt soiled, grunting and chuckling. As a volunteer first-responder, Frank is provided with accident insurance, but only if injured on a call. Neither he nor his wife—she works as a waitress for minimum wage at a local café-- nor their son has family health protection.

As a part-time house painter with a local contractor, Frank’s income is low. He left New Jersey for upstate New York two years ago because, at forty-five, he had back problems and had to quit his previous job stacking cement blocks. Notwithstanding his affection for guns—I think it’s the mechanics of guns that he enjoys, similar to his fondness for his old truck and his motorbike-- Frank holds values which people identifying as ‘liberal’ would consider progressive. He’s an organic food enthusiast, for example. And what he can’t grow in the back garden (of his rented house), he willingly pays premium prices for at organic markets. The family’s eggs come from hens he feeds with organic fodder. Not unreasonably, he prides himself on his discerning tastes: he prepares sushi and sashimi, his favorite food. And he drinks only ‘craft beer’, a new industry popular with young liberals. With his wife, Frank visits nearby towns to compare local brews-- a favorite evening pastime for them.   

Although Frank highlights gun ownership in his politics, I doubt if guns are what really draws him to Trump. In fact many people I know in our town who are keen hunters are actually Democrats. (N.Y.’s Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, like Bernie Sanders, endorses the sport and thereby supports gun ownership.) It’s complicated, as they say.

Americans residing outside metropolises are not as simplistic and monocultural—nor are they ‘racist’-- as news articles purport. Gun owners like Frank who live in rural areas (Trump Country?) really do not fit the one-dimensional mould others with different hobbies cast them in. I see no evidence that Frank and fellow beer aficionados are more ignorant, bigoted, intolerant, or racist than anyone else.

This corresponds to what the prolific sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild concludes from her experience in Louisiana. Her fine new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, is based on her comprehensive five-year study of Lake Charles, an “arch-conservative Louisiana bayou” community. A timely project employing anthropology research methods, Hochschild’s work was published just as America’s deep cultural fault lines were exposed during the recent presidential campaign. Hochschild’s story of “anger and mourning in the American right” portrays a community unlike what outsiders have ever seen and known: their members are kind, religious, and not at all intolerant. (This picture is reinforced by another recent release, the memoir Hillbilly Elegy). Indeed, they reject accusations of racism from our ‘liberal press’. And they can argue convincingly for their conservative positions. Their stories, recorded by Hochschild in extensive and vivid biographies, expose ambiguities and differences among people impacted by industrial pollution and low employment prospects. The wider public and journalists in particular would do well to make note of the detailed picture this highly skilled scholar provides.   

Still I would caution that we not accept Hochschild’s portrait as exclusive to this ‘far-right’ (Trump Country) corner of America. Conditions she describes, I would argue, are not confined to a depressed, industry-exploited region. There’s a danger that we assume Lake Charles, Louisiana, represents an alien and unworthy hinterland of the American south. (Examining election statistics for New York, we’d be shocked to learn that in this proudly ‘liberal state’, only 19.7 % of registered voters cast ballots during recent presidential primaries, a record that is second worst in the country to-- guess where? Louisiana.)

What most disturbs me is not the character of these communities, or Frank’s mixed values. More troubling is how putative ‘liberals’ view fellow Americans who are Republican Party supporters as personally and culturally deficient. (Did you notice the distinction pre-election pollsters made of non-college educated and college graduates?)

In October, at Democratic Party candidates’ field offices in my district, I overheard shockingly derisive comments from volunteer canvassers about Republican opponents (comments overlooked by the presiding field officer). If uttered by ‘conservatives’, there’d be accusations (from ‘liberals’) of bigotry and racism.

Had I not known about Frank’s fondness for Japanese sushi, seen his pride that his 14-year-old son forgoes cafeteria meals at school for the organic sandwiches prepared by his father, and had I not witnessed Frank’s commitment to our fire  department and his care for his garden, I might have assigned him to ‘Trump Country’ and kept my distance.

Maybe because I’m an anthropologist and journalist, I’m curious to know Frank; I can easily approach him to learn about his life and his ideals. Most Americans who consider themselves ‘liberal’ would remain aloof from Frank, if not out of some irrational fear, then due to a perceived class or occupational divide. This is worrisome. And I’m not the first observer now questioning the real nature (perhaps the myth) of ‘liberal’ America. It’s evident that this sector of our citizenry is less well informed than it believes it is, more driven by emotion and prejudice than it realizes. And it harbors dangerous biases. Perhaps it is itself guilty of racism. The November 8th election results exposed ‘liberals’’ imprudence of being better educated and more qualified for leadership as misguided. As one Marxist Nepali critic I recently spoke to observed of Clinton’s much heralded pre-election rally in Pennsylvania with music celebrities: “They went to the concert to see the stars, not her.”

[ Profile of a Progressive Gun Enthusiast ]

Inexhaustible Memories of Palestine: A Book Review

January 03, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It had been five years since I last ventured into the Occupied Territories, the shrinking Palestinian homelands. I had stood speechless at the misnomered separation wall, essentially a cement corral and a menacing blight on the landscape of the Holy Land. I had seen the oasis of Jericho become barely more than an imposing hotel where peace conferees and aid agents hide in style from the peace they are unarguably not advancing. I had witnessed how a simple crossroad, Qalandia, outside Jerusalem had become a fenced-in channel through which Palestinians waiting to be inspected by young Israeli guards are humiliated and delayed, only to sometimes be turned back. I had noted increasing numbers of women covering themselves in colorless, suffocating garb. (What their message was and to whom it was addressed, I couldn’t understand.) I had found it embarrassing to revisit families living under occupation who’d earlier spent hours with me remembering martyrs and imprisoned sons, detailing routine violence by an encroaching Jewish population, the armed colonists, and explaining the unpredictability of Israeli military procedures. I had stood with neighbors gazing helplessly as a family’s dwelling was demolished by a three-story high Israeli bulldozer. I‘d sat in a van with anxious Palestinians waiting to enter their homeland at the Jordan-Israeli border, watching in pained silence while happy travelers from a busload of American students casually tossed a football back and forth while their passports were processed.

Following the 1993 Oslo Accord—we can’t call it a peace treaty -- one might have glimpsed the tricolor Palestinian banner posted somewhere on the dry hills between the Allenby Bridge and Abu Dis at the entry to Jerusalem. By 2010, there was no sign of that flag, except perhaps one painted on that foreboding cement wall-- on the Palestinian side.

Even with bleak news continually seeping from inside the occupation, even with the risks of reporting on Israel’s suffocation and murders of Palestinians, I had promised a dear friend that I’d revisit her this winter. Laila remains there year after year. A psychologist, her skills are in increasing demand by the traumatized population.

Travelers not Palestinian can reach Ramallah and return to Amman in Jordan in one day. Within two days I’d be able to witness the latest changes, encroachments and destructions, and also pass an evening with Laila, this extraordinarily cheerful and resolute soul.

I never reached Ramallah, not physically. Resting after my arrival from Abu Dhabi at a friend’s home in Amman, I picked up a newly published volume her book club had recently discussed, Return: A Palestinian Memoir, by Ghada Karmi. I knew the author’s earlier work but I‘d not expected this, her second memoir, to be so gripping.

There are numerous memoirs by Palestinians, most notably Out of Place by Edward Said, another by his own sister, one by poet Suheir Hammad, by Randa Jarrar and many others, now extending into three generations. (Most are in English, the majority by women.)

One wonders how many more impassioned, compelling chronicles we need to inform us of the ongoing drama and injustices in their homeland. Yet, opening the pages of this ‘return’ I found myself following Karmi’s chronicle as if it were a crime story. (At one level it is a crime story.) Unlike many narrators of Israeli crimes, this book begins as an account of ‘soft’ crimes, those by Palestinian officials and the United Nations in complicity with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in their charade of possessing power and winning justice.

I myself had witnessed the gradual transformation of returned Palestinian leaders into a corrupt and impotent club of (mainly) men hanging out in Ramallah pretending to lead, but actually serving as front for independence, their putative authority extending no further than the boundary of this city of NGOs, foreign schools and upscale restaurants. I also witnessed diaspora Palestinians returning to Gaza City after 1993, investing in their forthcoming state, “a Mediterranean Hong Kong”, only to depart within a decade, embittered and often more deeply religious, returning to homes in Austin, Texas and Brooklyn, New York.

Here was a well informed doctor and an experienced leader in the Palestinian diaspora coming to Ramallah not as a visiting correspondent, but with a prestigious insider’s ID. Karmi left a medical career in London to take a job as a UN appointee in the PA’s Ministry of Media and Communications. She was eager to join her compatriots, reasoning, “I would be at the heart of things, and would learn the inner workings of the institution that organized life in the Occupied Territories, although they were under Israeli control” …. happy she “would not join the host of marginal researchers, foreign experts and hangers-on who cluttered the numerous non-governmental organizations in the West Bank.” That was 11 years ago, in 2005, when both Gaza and the West Bank were under the new PA. Surely as a Palestinian born in Jerusalem to a well regarded family, a longtime activist for justice and statehood, Karmi had reason to be optimistic.

“What the hell was I thinking of?” is the opening line of the first chapter of Return uttered as her plane was touching down. This trip would be the culmination of many visits to Karmi’s mythical homeland. Her misgivings and evidence of a doomed mission on her first day at work aside, Karmi persisted, perhaps deciding early on that this could at least be the basis of another book, although this memoir appeared in 2015, a full decade after the assignment she describes--surely an indication of the time the author needed to come to terms with what she experienced and to recount them with such candor. (Anyone committed to the Palestinian cause would have difficulty abandoning it, even when facing censure and personal loss.)

With commendable skill, Karmi forges ahead detailing the routine of Palestinian Authority life, recalling word-for-word dialogues among sophisticated dining businessmen, diplomats, drivers and office colleagues that reveal the competition, the conflicts, the jealousies, the pretenses and disillusionment, the jockeying for favors, and just keeping one’s job. And keeping aid flowing.

The malice of Israeli policy is well known, so too the incompetence and duplicity of Palestinian officials. Karmi is not the first to admit the PA is dysfunctional and an utter failure in the quest for statehood. But she exposes the problems with such candor and literary skill that the reader is committed to follow her to the end.

I found myself feeling emotionally involved, without rancor or impatience, in the personalities Karmi introduces me to. Perhaps this is the result of the author’s respect for these people and her genuine curiosity in the issues they discuss, whether with an office worker, or with a co-founder of the Hamas movement who himself comes across to us as more sincere than Mahmoud Abbas or other PA officials. (Even while questioning this Gaza leader’s strategies, Karmi offers a stunningly convincing rationale for the resistance to which he and his compatriots are committed.)

Our author employs the same technique when chronicling her exchanges with her father in Amman. A learned man in religion, history and culture, Hassan Karmi held Britain and the USA largely responsible for the success of the Zionist plan; he argues with his daughter in defense of the heightened role of religion in Arab lives. In her recounted dialogues, the author expresses genuine doubts about the Hamas leader’s or her father’s positions on the subject at hand, while allowing their argument to prevail, at least for the purpose of edifying us, her readers. This literary strategy Karmi applies throughout her memoir, and with striking affect.

Karmi also invokes those visits with her ailing father to record her personal history and to expose problems she finds with Arab family values, exploring the expectations and challenges of women like herself. In this respect, this memoir is not only the story of a professional woman, but also the chronicle of a daughter, a wife and a mother.

As I proceed though this Palestinian memoir, I happen to be reviewing two very different productions related to Palestinian life-- one a film, the other a theoretical analysis. The documentary film, Speed Sisters, opening February 2017, is by the Arab-Canadian director Amber Fares. Speed Sisters features five young and feisty Palestinian women who while living under occupation, become car racing enthusiasts--the first all-women race car driving team in the Middle East--independent, bold, and free. The women’s indulgence in cars is understandable, given the bleakness of Israeli occupation, but hard to imagine alongside what’s in Karmi’s story. The other production is the ninth book by Steven Salaita whose brilliance and insight were evident even before he was denied a university appointment by a Zionist-influenced discriminatory university dean. Salaita’s Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine is an exploration of shared experiences of Palestinians and Native Americans where the author lays out conceptual ground between American Indian and Indigenous studies and Palestinian studies through concepts of settler colonialism, ‘indigeneity’, and state violence. It’s a groundbreaking study into what should have been obvious decades ago

These three stories may seem at odds with one another. Yet we can see them as continually evolving meanings of what it means to be Palestinian.

[ Inexhaustible Memories of Palestine: A Book Review ]


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