Blog Archive

Blog Archive – November, 2017

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 ]


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