Past Blog Posts
- May 03, 2020
For two decades now, following U.S. invasions of Afghanistan, then Iraq, and as we approach ten years of upheaval in Syria and five in Yemen, interpretation of these wars has been the domain of western observers— journalists, occupying soldiers, and politicians. With others, I pored over and reviewed dozens what regrettably becomes those nations’ modern history.
Now, a new generation of citizens in these besieged lands may overturn what essentially constituted a colonialist record of their lives.
Many writers, mainly Arab and Iranian women (including an active Palestinian literary community) who fled their homelands in the wake of ethnic clashes, devastation and hopelessness, contribute to a growing archive of their national histories. Powerful new film productions (again with women in the forefront, e.g. Mai Masri, Nadine Labaki, and Cherien Debis) join our rich library of published memoirs.
"For Sama", the award-winning chronicle a Syrian filmmaker’s young family, is joined by a second remarkable although less celebrated citizen-journalist’ biopic:—"Midnight Traveler". This Afghan production, an equally compelling story, is extraordinary for being originally recorded on iphones only. (That may also account for the degree of intimacy it captures.)
Midnight Traveler and For Sama are both autobiographical family dramas by individuals, themselves the main characters in these war chronicles. Both are in real time, not recollections retold at a safe distance. Our storytellers do not speak to the camera; the camera hears and sees them in their intimate, vulnerable, endearing moments:--under siege, in hiding, learning the fate of friends left behind, quietly sharing a meal uncertain what tomorrow might offer, then fleeing onwards to they-don’t-know-where.
Midnight Traveler is a record of a capricious 3,500 mile journey by Fatima Hossaini and husband Hassan Fazili (both artists, with Fazili credited as director), and their daughters Nargis (about 7 when the journey begins) and Zahra (aged 4 or 5).
From Tajikistan where their asylum applications to Australia and elsewhere are unsuccessful, they return to Afghanistan to attempt another escape route-- a costly, illegal overland trek to Western Europe. Their handlers seem to be a humane lot, neither unkind nor ruthless; but this is not a story about the smuggling business or threats from the Taliban who forced this flight.
The film’s focus is this small family ‘being together’—always. We witness casual, endearing moments between husband and wife, shared silences, candid exchanges, and vignettes of Nargis and Zahra that highlight the vicissitudes of a long, uncertain but determined journey. Those quiet exchanges are threaded with reminders that they are, in fact, fugitives:-- scurrying across a border, sleeping in forests, confronting hostile townspeople, and waiting idly in one camp after another until they receive permission to proceed.
The story is not a portrayal of victims however. Intimacy and solidarity dominate this family’s narrative. Nargis emerges as the enchanting hero: indefatigable, companionless, in her private reverie dancing to Michael Jackson, shedding tears of boredom, shyly confessing her cold feet during a sleepless night in a wet field, and her poetic encounter with splashing waves on a rocky seafront in Turkey.
Endless columns of refugees making their way by foot --from Afghanistan and Syria, Egypt, Somalia, and Pakistan through Turkey and Greece to Western Europe-- became a daily news spectacle and a documentary film by artist Ai Weiwei.
One might argue that the Fazili family’s account ignores Taliban excesses that drove them from their homeland. But whatever references the filmmakers include are convincing enough of the risks they faced there.
This 90-minute film, a small fraction of three years of cell-camera footage, is what the Fazili family chose to share with us. Their multilayered account from the frontline, Midnight Travelers can stand alone. END[ Family Stories from Ground Zero by a New Generation of Filmmakers ]
- April 27, 2020
“We’re all going to die!” This feeble appeal came in a Facebook phone call with B. Thapa from deep within Nepal’s eastern hills.
Our conversation was in early March when news headlines from Italy and the U.S. began to alarm Nepalis. With no information about the spread of the disease in his country, this schoolteacher presumed a bleak scenario. “If advanced European societies are swamped with this disease, unable to control it, what can we expect?”
Indeed. The country has a porous 1,000 mile border with India; it has no national health system and its Maoist/Communist-led government has promoted private clinics and hospitals over public healthcare; Prime Minister Oli had a second kidney transplant without naming any surrogate leader to handle the crisis; there’s almost no medical equipment of the kind needed to test and treat Covid-19; hundreds of thousands of more than five million migrant workers abroad whose remittances keep Nepal economically afloat are now jobless and heading home, and Kathmandu’s swollen population, concerned about congestion in the city, is fleeing to their villages across the land, possibly carrying the virus with them.
Thapa’s fear is repeated by others I speak to. I know about his nation’s truly weak medical system; I agree that the administration is incompetent and deeply corrupt. Yet, I argue, “Nepal’s medics will ensure no one hides the facts. You have an aggressive free press now; it will expose details of any epidemic and force government action.”
A month ago, Nepal had yet to report a single Covid-19 death, and only three infected individuals—all traced to Nepalis who’d arrived from abroad. No one believed those figures; the public’s experience on a host of past issues and endemic corruption results in widespread cynicism; the government cannot handle this crisis, they say.
Most Nepalis, like millions of people across the globe, depend on remittances from overseas workers, and food imports (since the outflow of labor leaves fields uncultivated). What options do Nepalis have to handle a looming epidemic?
Without warning, on March 24th the government imposed a countrywide lockdown. Everyone was to remain inside. Schools and businesses were ordered closed. The quarantine is as severe as anywhere in the world, perhaps with the exception of China. Only policemen are seen in the lanes and roads. A colleague in Lahan village in Janakpur near India exclaims that traveling by motorbike and cycle-rickshaws is prohibited. Shopping for food is restricted; inter-city buses are halted; remittance agencies and banks are closed. Police and special security forces are deployed to Nepal’s border with India to prevent migrant laborers from returning home, creating Nepali refugee camps inside India.
There was one announcement of medical supplies arriving by air from China (ordered by the U.N. Population Fund and various embassies). Otherwise thirty million Nepalis seem to be on their own.
Six weeks into the pandemic, one has to scroll far down the coronavirus world register (ranked by number of infections) --past New Zealand with 17 deaths, Japan (348), Singapore (12), Cuba, (49), Ghana (10), Lebanon (22), etc. to find Nepal--with zero deaths and just 48 infections reported (as of April 25, 2020).
Many citizens simply don’t believe the government figures, arguing that it’s incapable of even registering cases. Some Nepali news outlets call out the administration’s incompetence. On the other hand, some citizens suggest that that low rate is indeed a result of their strict adherence to the lockdown and the police’s zero tolerance of noncompliance with the quarantine. Privately, people adopt simple home remedies and advice gleaned from the internet. Families remain especially attentive to the abundant deities they live with and worship. And traditional places of refuge—temples and ashrams whose custodians offer hospitality at any time—are expanding their capacity to feed the needy.
Today, criticism of Nepal’s passive administration is surprisingly tepid. For weeks, returning overseas migrant laborers languished at the border camps. Many jobless men were forced to walk 10-14 days from job-sites in distant parts of Nepal to reach their home village. The government seemed insensitive. (Finally, on April 17, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must provide transport to those walking from Kathmandu and other cities to their home destination.)
“We watch what’s happening overseas. Without the service infrastructure of other countries, we must adopt this strict regime,” another colleague insists. “We have no equipment, no medical facilities, no capable governmental services, and no real leadership.”
Nepal is not a country known for self-sufficiency and civic responsibility. Pampered for decades by an excess of foreign aid and favorable press, its people have customarily looked to outsiders for guidance and cash. This epidemic obliges them to find their own solution.
Another month will reveal a clearer picture of Nepal’s state of health. If they somehow escape a battering by this plague, Nepalis’ strict adherence to the simple formula of distancing and quarantine should bolster national confidence. It could lead to a needed move toward self-reliance.
- April 14, 2020
“Madam, how can I have any plans?
“I am searching for medicine for my mother; I’ve no money to repair my car; I have my sister asking me to help her son; I have come to the end of our food ration for this week.”
A reply Americans, Italians, Indians, Brazilians, or Iranians—everyone across the globe-- might offer a curious (or naïve) journalist covering the crisis. (Not to exclude testimonies from exhausted healthcare and other service workers.)
However, the respondent I quote here lived his uncertainty in a different era:—a quarter of a century ago, in Iraq. He’s Ali Al-Amiri, erstwhile poultry inspector for Nineveh’s provincial department of agriculture. We met in 2001, in Mosul, at the height of an epidemic there, namely the 13-year embargo imposed on his nation.
I’d been covering the devastation created by that global blockade since 1990. So my question was indelicate, if not guileless.
I knew conditions there well.
During a decade of assignments to that besieged, forlorn place, I’d witnessed deaths resulting from a scarcity of medicines and stress-related diseases; I’d recording burn victims scarred by fires from makeshift stoves, rising cancer infections, low-birth-weight newborns, unchecked spread of infectious diseases, the collapse of industry and the flight of desperate young people. (All well documented for anyone caring to investigate (including my account from Iraq joined early field reports from the International Action Center, and a belated Harvard Study based on secondary sources.)
Yes, my question to this and other besieged Iraqis may have been misplaced. Nevertheless Al-Amiri’s reply was instructive to those with a limited perception of war. It pointed to a frightfully blank tomorrow.
If Americans (and others who complied with Washington’s policy to force Iraq to its knees) did not grasp the concept then, today we know it: “What are your plans for the weekend? Your graduation prom? Your annual colonoscopy? Your son’s wedding? Grandfather’s 80th birthday?” They’re all on hold; we’re just trying to keep the children entertained, get through another day with a testy partner, stock up on non-perishables, learn to connect by Zoom, gather papers for an insurance claim or patch a cracked windshield.
This blank calendar is as intimate for us as it was for Iraqis. Of course it’s not the same; Iraq was completely cut off through a media blackout, a ban on flights, and by diplomatic and economic blockades. By contrast, in the midst of COVID-19, we have teleconferences and phone networking apps; we have sympathizers around the country and across the world; we can learn from others’ experiences; we can share resources and expertise.
My point here is not to assign blame or compare sufferings. It’s to question the war model invoked by media commentators and politicians to interpret our dilemma; this hinders our understanding of what we’re experiencing. That embargo on Iraq was a fierce assault but it wasn’t interpreted by outsiders as war; embargo-deaths were largely unseen and uncounted by western historians. Just as 20 years of sanctions imposed on Vietnam after the U.S. defeat there, just as decades of embargo against Cuba, Iran and Syria continue, just as the crippling of Venezuela intensifies. Those sieges, like the current pandemic raise deeper moral questions.
It would help to drop our concept of war in this crisis where media commentators and politicians invoke ‘911’ and the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. The military model (including the commander-in-chief image criterion for president) is the U.S. default solution to a problem, whether drugs or a pandemic or a perceived threat to U.S. interests. ‘Smash it to bits. Hit them with all we have.’
Let’s see of Americans can emerge from today’s dilemma with a newly defined compassionate model of responsibility and leadership?
- April 09, 2020
Then, we are millions of immigrants, refugees from wars (often of U.S. making) who’ve witnessed waves of attacks. Day-after-day we lost a loved one, often unable to perform the last rites for our dearest ones. We turned to caring for our wounded, dared to shelter underground resistance fighters. We rushed from one place to another, seeking somewhere to hide. We left behind a child, an aged parent, a sick friend. We also devised ways to avoid nagging mothers or garrulous brothers. Families became closer, and humor emerged from shared traumas. We endured more than bombardments; sometimes we were hunted down by government commandos, attacked by desperate citizens or rebel militias.
A more threatening curse imposed on us by outside enemies was embargo. Our Iraqi, Venezuelan, Iranian, Vietnamese, Palestinian and Syrians citizens can tell you about embargo-created deprivations, death and isolation-- a battering more deadly and invasive than any physical assault. These are contemporary U.S.-perfected and murderous applications of economic and cultural embargoes, sieges sanctioned and extended by the lofty, noble United Nations. (Iraq’s embargo was endorsed in 1990 by the U.N. Security Council/General Assembly, and adhered to worldwide for 13 years! The Vietnam embargo, imposed by the U.S. after its defeat, extended for two decades.)
Documentation of the sanctions-war on Iraq (imposed in 1990 ended only in 2003!) augmented by US-led military bombardment, is hardy remembered today. (My accounts from Iraq during that period published by U. Press Florida, joined those of the International Action Center and published in the 1990s were reports from the field. Later came a Harvard study based on secondary sources.)
Three warning notes from personal experience in Iraq suffice to suggest the trauma Americans, their European and Australian supporters of that war will themselves confront in their neighborhoods very soon.
The first from my friend, sculptor Mohammed Ghani, on my initial visit to Iraq in 1989. Foremost among the memories he felt compelled to share rose from the just ended Iran-Iraq war. “Every day, passed cars with coffins strapped on top, holding the bodies of our sons (back from the battlefield of Al-Faw). Every day, every day; they drove by: one, two, then another, another”, he moaned.
Hardly a year later came the invasion of Kuwait and the first U.S. Gulf War. Among those I interviewed soon after was journalist Kthaiyer Mirey. Among institutions smashed by American bombings in 1991 was Shamaiya Hospital for psychological diseases. Hospitalized for alcoholism, Mirey managed to escape from the bombed smoldering ruins. Many staff were killed; feckless survivors along with some patients escaped. “The dead and wounded”, Mirey told me, “were abandoned; then the dogs entered the debris to clean up.”
Third, was my own witness of an eternal line of martyrs, their portraits imprinted on banners --Iraqi soldiers who’d fought ISIS (under U.S. occupation during the past decade).
- April 02, 2020
We have a natural impulse to extend protection to the very young and to the old first; we offer sympathy and succor to traumatized refugees too.
That’s reasonable. Our seniors and our children require attention as the most vulnerable; immigrants need support in unfamiliar surroundings.
Professors speaking about historical precedents for the COVID-19 emergency invoke the Great Depression and chaotic hospital scenes from World War II. But, hey: we know about that, and more, first-hand!
Yes. So, why not consider us elders, along with our immigrant citizens as assets at this time of crisis and fear--untapped resources? We have abundant practical advice for people fearful and under duress, counsel based on our past experience.
We may not operate computers as nimbly as the young, but priorities are changing. As the COVID-19 crisis makes apparent, some skills become redundant; you’re unmoored from your once brawny anchors. When you’re really scared and grope for alternatives, turn not to apocalyptic movie scenarios but to what seniors have seen and done before you were born, what immigrants were shy to share. Our histories may offer guidance and solace in today’s disaster. We can tell you about our strategies and you can discover how we managed to cope. We’re here as a result, aren’t we?
If elders didn’t suffer a pandemic, we endured other plagues, and we survived because of habits we devised, here not only because America offered sanctuary and opportunity, but also because we rebuilt our lives resourcefully. Heard of ‘rationing’? --A great, simple strategy. Improvisation too. Both painless habits.
We’re grateful to our energetic daughters and grandsons who happily set up our phone apps and install our Netflix. You’ll Google anything—even if we don’t really need it-- from potato peelers to airline bookings, and hearing aids-- all delivered to our distant home. (Yes, we succumbed to that pampering.)
Surely now’s the time we can reciprocate with tips we learned from our less indulgent, less fast-paced and frugal past.
We can tell you how to recycle cardboard and plastics, invigorate a stew for a second meal, review the merits of baking soda, trim your hair, repair a car or bicycle tire, forage for wild edible plants, disinfect fresh vegetables, substitute one spice for another, preserve surplus food, stitch a face mask.
To survive we adjusted our social skills too, learned dexterity needed to endure wars' deprivations.
Separated from loved ones, prayer became more routine; we rationed essentials, prioritized limited resources, reused clothes. We hunkered in underground shelters during a bombing blitz, slept on cold floors, coupled with our husband even with mother-in-law and children just meters away. We used water instead of toilet paper—it works great, left hand only (you can learn). We recycled bath water for cleaning, rewashed cotton diapers and sanitary cloths.
These are a few elders’ memories and tips. We’d welcome a chance to share them, granted you’ll doubtless improve on them too.
Images of overwhelmed morgues and columns of unaccompanied hearses have reached us from Italy and Spain this week. That will become part of the American landscape.
Young Americans are not yet ready for this; perhaps resourceful elder veterans and refugee victims from U.S. wars abroad can help sustain us. (Then there's the comfort of our voice.) END[ America's Untapped Resources: Part 1, High Risk Senors ]
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.
- a poem.. a song..
- "I Knew"
Sapphire Ahmed's prose poem on Ramadan Flash
- Qur'an Surat Al-Qadr, 'Night of Destiny'
Quranic recitation by women is as much a gift to the divine
- Book review
- Monica Ali's
reviewed by .
- Tahrir Team
- Read about Sally Sharif in the team page.