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How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?

January 11, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Every family has someone outside.” Conversations about Nepal’s dysfunctional economy invariably lead to its four million citizens, mainly young men, working abroad. (Some say they number seven million-- either way, a sizable slice in a population of 28 million.)

            Those workers are migrants to Arab Gulf States, Malaysia and India. Their remittances, supporting millions of families at home, form the unhealthy backbone of Nepal’s economy.

            One hardly gets beyond the alarming statistic when a culprit is identified –“The Arabs”. Maybe a suppressed guilt is behind Nepalis’ litany of hardships which “Arabs” and by implication Muslims inflict on their four million compatriots. “Look how Nepali workers are mistreated!” “Someone should protect them.” “Hundreds arrive home in boxes!” “No human rights there.”

            With no check on exaggerations and misinformation, prejudice continues unabated.

            There’s abundant sympathy for exploited countrymen, while any suggestion that conditions within Nepal could be responsible for the exodus is absent. Don’t overseas remittances actually help workers’ families? There’s no acknowledgment of the benefits of employment, anywhere. Consider how many businesses, from rental properties to food services, are sustained by families receiving remittances. Kathmandu has hundreds of low cost private schools enrolling children of overseas workers seeking a better chance for the next generation. Where are the anecdotes of returned workers investing what they’ve saved to lift themselves out of an otherwise hopeless cycle of poverty?

            All we hear are stale, decades-old, stories of “Arab exploitation”, stories that help conceal Nepal’s failure to take more responsibility for its citizens. Let’s be honest: workers look overseas for redress because of hopeless conditions at home.         

             Is it time for me to speak up? Having worked in Nepal for so long, I am viewed as a Tibetan-speaking American ‘friend’, not Arab or Muslim. Taking up the matter, finally, is not about defending Arabs or Islam; it’s about questioning this nation’s policies that allow prejudice against Arab people to distract from its responsibilities. As a ‘friend’, I call on Nepal to admit some liability for its hapless citizens. This country refuses to address fundamental structural problems, its neglect of industry, its shoddy public schools that even poor families are abandoning, its lack of agricultural support programs, its avoidable reliance on foreign aid.

            Much of what we read about Arab state policies is indefensible. Their excesses are embarrassing for many like me who share Arab heritage and faith. Visiting homes in the Middle East, I myself feel embarrassed seeing how some overseas employees are treated (however mild and however much in common with domestic workers’ treatment in USA).

            How can anyone defend workers toiling in extreme weather conditions without proper rest, food, medical attention or protection from harm? How can one not demand action against abusive employers?

            Fifteen years ago, with the collapse of an exploitative carpet manufacturing industry within Nepal (where nobody blamed Tibetan managers’ treatment of child laborers) Malaysia and Arab Gulf countries became a market for Nepal’s millions of jobless. Mainly young, poorly educated men, seeing overseas earnings as a solution to dim prospects at home, joined citizens from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan seeking work abroad. In desperation, they naively signed contracts that left them highly vulnerable and in debt.

            Despite obstacles and fears, migrating is the easiest (sic) alternative to hopelessness at home. (This applies to educated Nepali professionals too.) Traveling to distant lands for work is an established pattern, with departures increasing by the month.

            Ram is one of many who, working as drivers, cooks, carpenters, or plumbers earn as much as 150,000 Nepali rupees (about $1,500) monthly. A few expatiates operate cafes catering to other workers. After 3-4 years they return to Nepal and purchase a car to hire out, or they invest in a business, usually with relatives (also returned migrants). Few resume agricultural work however. Abandoned fields met Broughton Coburn revisiting a Gurung village after three decades; it’s a widespread phenomenon across Nepal, a result of villagers leaving for overseas. (Declining domestic production increases Nepal’s unhealthy reliance on imports too.)

            Yet, speaking with returned workers, I don’t hear tales of despair. Indeed, they report they learned valuable work habits abroad and express pride in having bettered themselves. Past sufferings seem of less concern than the corruption they face at home when applying for licenses or finding an affordable school.

            Migrants’ positive experience is unarguably not 100%. Some recount heartbreaking stories: they were beset by thieves who stole their savings (cash transported in a suitcase); they fell ill, exhausted savings, and returned empty-handed. Some die overseas--from heart attacks, in labor accidents or other mishaps, their bodies shipped back to a family burdened by debt. Some women experienced sexual abuse by employers or brokers. (To address this Nepal passed a law prohibiting women from working in Arab counties.)

            My colleagues, investigative journalist Devendra Bhattarai and filmmaker Kesang Tseten, were the first to report on the hardships of Nepal’s overseas workers and mistreatment by Arab employers. Perhaps because of their exposés, difficulties of migrant workers were widely publicized and some checks were instituted. But anecdotal accounts of “Arab” malfeasance still define the public’s view of Arabs and Muslims while Nepal itself remains unaccountable for its people’s hardships.

            “Hundreds return in boxes every month” is how one colleague opens a discussion of his country’s economy. My rejoinder about irresponsible government policies is met with silence.

            Few Nepalis forget the fate of twelve citizens working in Iraq in 2004; all were executed after being held hostage by extremists opposing the U.S. invasion. The shock those killings created in Nepal  led to anti-Muslim riots; for weeks Nepali Muslims (a long-established minority in the country) feared leaving their homes. The nation had known nothing as cruel, even during their recent civil war. That image of massacred Nepalis feeds persistent anti-Muslim feelings; it’s the prism through which they view any story about migrant workers’ hardships.

            In contrast the public here holds retains its amnesia over the role of Nepali UN peacekeepers in the spread of cholera in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The cholera strain, traced to Nepal through Nepali peacekeepers stationed in Haiti, killed up to 9,000 and sickened tens of thousands. (When investigators finally confirmed the link, the United Nations denied victims’ compensation, while the Nepali press hardly covered the issue.)  

            Prejudice against Arabs festers despite more recent investigative work by a leading Nepali news outlet. The Nepali Times has taken a more sobering look into Nepal’s migration crisis: first is joblessness at home; second, the government neither assists farmers to increase their yields nor helps develop markets for farm produce; third, policy planning does not include supporting manufacturing which would train and employ Nepal’s least educated. Workers’ problems, it notes, begin with officials demanding bribes for permits; applicants are next confronted by fraudulent Nepali labor brokers. Then, Nepal’s embassies in Gulf States offer no help. The Nepali Times series even suggests that the government may hope to avoid unrest among jobless youths at home by encouraging their exodus.

            Nepal’s unaccountability is endemic. Its avoidance of any responsibility is actually bolstered by a lenient and loyal foreign donor base. China’s disregard of Nepali ineptitude, noted in my recent article, is matched by other countries and aid agencies. Examples of failed programs due to corruption and incompetence on Nepal’s side are abundant, and commonly overlooked. Perhaps overseas employment should therefore be viewed as Nepal’s singularly successful aid program. END

Related: https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/01/04/can-nepal-realistically-look-to-china-as-an-alternative-trade-partner/ and

https://www.asia-pacificresearch.com/nepals-economy-can-contented-tourists-match-desperate-migrant-laborers/5628213

[ How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes? ]

Alternatives For Nepal and China

January 04, 2019

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Three sturdy trekkers step out of a van and hoist top-heavy blue, green and orange rucksacks onto their backs. The two young women and a man then set out on foot, headed to one of Kathmandu’s backpackers’ hotels. I ask where they’ve arrived from; “Langtang”, replies one of the women and hurries on. (Langtang is a rugged, remote valley north of the capital popular with hikers). The trio is likely booked at a lodge in Nepal’s newly designated “Chinatown”. That’s a crowded strip of shops, hotels and cafes in Thamel, the low-end tourist quarter of the Nepalese capital.

            Those three young trippers, all Chinese, are part of an international community enjoying the rigors and glamour of Himalayan hiking. Fitted in climbing boots and North Face jackets, they’re hardly distinguishable from thousands of foreigners striding through Nepal’s middle hills to glimpse the spectacular peaks beyond. Although, it’s doubtful if they reflect on the other side of this seemingly impenetrable stretch of the world’s highest mountains. There, after all, lays the Tibetan province of China, their homeland!

            These tourists, along with (Chinese) Tibetans, most of them pilgrims, fly into Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport with other foreign visitors. Their flights originate in Chinese cities however, among them Chengdu, Kunming, and Zhengzhou. With numbers increasing annually, China is reportedly now Nepal’s second largest source of tourists. (China is Nepal’s second largest trade partner, too.) Yet these sightseers represent a minor, although personal, aspect of an established Chinese presence in Nepal.

            Chinese are also visible in Kathmandu’s business quarter. Here, enterprising agents search out products for export to China. It’s not uncommon to see visitors from Shanghai or Shenzhen negotiating with pashmina shawl wholesalers, with dealers in handcrafted wood, silver and brassware, and with distributors of exotic teas.

            Hotels catering to Chinese trekkers seem to be wholly Chinese- operated. Some ask how that’s possible given Nepal’s law against foreign ownership; although silent local partnerships are a common arrangement for foreign businesses here.

            Nepali shopkeepers find it increasingly hard to complete when Chinese operators pay above market rates. However, one hears few criticisms of the Chinese presence, certainly nothing comparable to hostility directed at Indian business interests.

             India and Nepal have a long and checkered relationship-- mainly positive. Nepal’s recently ousted line of monarchs originated in India. And Hinduism, Nepal’s dominant religion, is either indistinguishable from Indian Hinduism or is a fusion of Indian and ancient Nepali traditions.

            Being landlocked and without a manufacturing base Nepal became increasingly dependent on India-- specifically on Indian imports. Its southern neighbor with whom it shares an almost porous border (of 1,088 miles) is Nepal’s main source of electricity, fossil fuels and virtually all manufactured goods as well as fresh produce. This is facilitated by decades of Indian aid for the construction of roads and transmission lines linking the two countries. India has long been the gateway into and out of Nepal.

            Politically, India is a kind of mentor. Nepali opposition figures depended on India’s protection during periods of exile; once in power, newly elected leaders customarily make an inaugural visit to India for sanction and support. Nepal accepts its huge trade deficit with India and its cultural and political dominance as inevitable. But how long can this last?

            The danger of their imbalance was manifest three years ago when India subjected Nepal to a mean-spirited economic boycott. That happened on the heels of the traumatic 2015 earthquake. In support of the Madeshi people (a Nepali population who inhabit the southern border regions) with their strong cultural and economic affinity, India effectively sanctioned a punishing trade ban on the Nepalese. Anti-Indian feeling generated during that six-month period is still palpable, perhaps one reason Nepal would welcome a cross Himalayan rail route from China.

             Chinese economic interests in Nepal are not new and not confined to tourism. In recent years Chinese goods-- phones, an array of electrical and other household items, and clothing and fresh fruits, most entering by air—have become ubiquitous. Chinese products at prices competitive with Indian goods are everywhere, in village and city. But for China to become a real alternative to India, a land corridor is essential.

            For years we’ve heard rumors of a China-Nepal railway route. Today its’ possibility— forged through Himalayan rock and glacier –  is discussed in practical terms. Consisting primarily of bridges and tunnels blasted through the Himalayas from Tibet, it would meet roads approaching the northern frontier from the south. Given China’s engineering successes domestically and advances in its global Belt and Road Initiative, this project is a real option (Nepal would invest nothing). Thus far China seems tolerant of Nepal’s engineering incapacities and rampant corruption that undermined past construction projects. A December 2018 review of China’s economic interest in Nepal suggests rising investments in construction, transportation and tourism. Since 2013, it notes, “there have been 229 contracts signed between Chinese companies and Nepal, valued at $3.32 billion with $1.88 billion already closed.”

            Nepal sees China increasingly as an alternative to Indian domination. Chinese earthquake support was substantial yet low-key; residents still recall the quiet deliberation with which Chinese medical teams worked. This is addition to quake-damaged road repairs and temple reconstruction by China.

            As a major center of living Buddhism, a home to tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees created by China’s harsh anti-religious policies, Nepali’s view of China was negative in the past. That has clearly changed. The number of Tibetan pilgrims from China is rising, while other Chinese visitors show genuine interest in Nepal’s Buddhist institutions. Increasing numbers of Chinese are evident touring the Buddhist shrines of Bauddhanath and Swayambunath in Kathmandu Valley. And it’s reported that Chinese students attend lectures in Buddhism delivered by Tibetan abbots at monasteries here. We should not be surprised if Han Chinese will be found among acolytes taking vows and donning the red robes of Tibetan monk-hood.

[ Alternatives For Nepal and China ]

New Arab Women-centered Films Are Not Just About Women

November 08, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Too often, we are overwhelmed with woeful tales, painful memoirs and worn analyses of Arab/Muslim women. Most depictions, whether we’re besieged in a war, or if we’re just trying to get by making small advances like women anywhere, we are invariably portrayed as hapless victims. We’re in need of succor, or reform, or rescue.

            Writings by our own talented authors are popular if they reveal  exploitations or despairs or escapes. These feed enlightened sisters abroad who may feel better about themselves when they can pity others.

            So I approach announcements of new releases—both these are from North Africa-- with some apprehension. After screening the productions under review here, my fear dissolves.  

            Tunisia (through the films of Moufida Tlatli ) and Egypt are highly regarded in the film world. Particularly Egypt with its glorious history of filmmaking and its distinguished line of actors proves its mettle in “Youm el-Setat” (A Day for Woman). This playful drama about serious issues becomes heartwarming and totally engaging in the hands of director Kamla Abu Zek.

            Three love stories and women’s eternal search for fulfillness is the focus of “Youm el-Setat”. The plot evolves around a neighborhood pool where a day a week is allocated for girls and ladies. Azza who initially appears simpleminded takes the first plunge. Eventually the whole neighborhood follows her and together they assert their solidarity and their rights. Scenes of their celebratory escapades are delightful; pool frolicking along with street encounters immerses us in that Cairo neighborhood. The story rises above place and religion, beyond covered or uncovered heads. Emerging romances threaded within this drama could happen anywhere.

            Young Azza, it turns out, is not so simpleminded. She’s just naturally liberated! She’s attracts others with her naive joyfulness. Samiya too is a free-thinking woman from the moment we meet her although neighbors initially view her as a sassy whore. Her humor and honesty explode into courage and passion when, finally, she approaches Ahmed, a longtime sweetheart—both are by then middle-aged—to consummate their love. Laila, a forlorn young widow, belatedly joins others in the pool and awakens. Finally she can respond to the tenderness of the likable guy who as pool manager had launched this day for women. (A day for women becomes the ‘time for women’.)

             It’s a film to swim along with.

            “El Jaida” (The Jailer) by Tunisian director and actor Selma Baccar takes an altogether different approach to oppression and women’s determination to be free of patriarchal domination. In contrast with the Egyptian film, “El Jaida” is humorless. The lives of these Tunisian women seem irredeemable. Although defiant, they are an unhappy lot. The injustices they face are manifest in the family, but the story points elsewhere. Drawing on Tunisian historical experience, the film underscores how gender relations and politics intersect.

            The story largely takes place in the 1950s when across the region the anti-colonial movement erupts. The story begins with a well-to-do housewife confronting her husband’s infidelity, then finds herself confined with others in jail. Initially adversaries, after learning each other’s stories, the women come together. While outside the prison’s walls, the nationalist movement to end French rule is gaining strength. The story abruptly shifts 50 years ahead to 2017. The occupiers are gone; so is the dictator. Baja, the film’s main character, has become a member of Tunisia’s new parliament where we find her reading the newly promulgated code establishing women’s equal rights in Tunisian law.

            Both films premier in coming weeks at the New York Diaspora International Film Festival For more than 25 years, ADIFF has been introducing to American audiences a taste of the extraordinary filmmaking talent at work beyond American shores.

[ New Arab Women-centered Films Are Not Just About Women ]

Will Democrats’ “Getting Out the Vote” Work?

October 28, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

          There’s a big push underway- it appears to be primarily a Democrat plan-- for GOTV. GOTV is not a videogame; it’s the acronym of Get-Out-The-Vote. Behind this drive is the conviction: ‘If registered Democrats will simply get off their butts, drag themselves to the polls and check boxes for everyone running in their party’s column, this will restore democracy to America’; at the very least it may halt the Trump bulldozer from grinding it deeper into the dust.

            Those embracing GOTV’s strategy and volunteering to work for a campaign are equipped with an array of 2018 genre phone apps. With these gripped firmly in our hands, we can identify, locate, and meet would-be voters, then with one click instantly convey results to a tally center. One of these apps allows phone canvassers to override unanswered calls and jump in when the algorithm stops at a real voice-- someone has picked up! Seeing their name on our screen, we start our pitch.

            Even with this discriminating process, before we’ve finished identifying ourselves, respondents often ring off. But look! My computer indicates one real person seems willing to speak to me! She’s Lorraine, age 55, registered ‘D’. She stays with me for seven whole minutes. This, even though she initially appears diffident, declaring “I don't intend to vote. Have you seen what’s going on there?” she exclaims.

            Is she speaking about the murdered Saudi journalist, the thousands of Honduran hopefuls trudging northwards through Mexico, or NBC network’s threat to dump host Megan Kelly? I’m unsure what to reply and, sensing my hesitation, Lorraine elaborates: “The bombs; explosives in the city! Evacuations of CNN! Are you not watching the news?”

            Mention of these bomb threats seems to remind her that “there’s a Muslim terrorist camp only half an hour from here”. I ask for details and share my recall of a similar report in my district last year, rumors that proved unfounded. Then Lorraine admits she’s unsure about her claim. “It was a while ago; but some car full of ‘people’ was pulled over and there was a big drug bust”.

            I steer the conversation back to GOTV, to the promising Democratic candidate for our district in the state senate race. Although the name is unfamiliar to Lorraine she finally appears interested: “What’s her position on abortion?” When I reply and elaborate on the candidate’s support for the New York Health Act and school finance reform, my potential voter turns less disputatious.           

            Has she met the candidate? Did she see last night’s debate? No reply. Now Lorraine moves the discussion to the governor’s debate, barking about De Blasio (mayor of New York, not currently up for reelection), rather than incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo. Although she names his opponent (Molinaro). I can hardly keep up with her. This woman is not stupid, and, allowing for some factual confusion, Lorraine is better informed than many.

            And she cares; I can tell.

            Lorraine’s not alone in her confusion. Now she starts blaming Obama for the immigrant influx. The Obama administration raised her property taxes, she charges. “$5000 a year now.”

            My I’m-not-voting respondent is angry at the Democratic Party. Even though, like many Americans who feel similarly, she’s a registered Democrat. “There’s no leadership.” By now Lorraine is subtly pleading with me. (Tell me something to believe in, I hear in her voice.)

            She has run out of people to attack. At some point Lorraine actually praises the current White House occupant for what she sees as forthrightness. Although she doesn’t name any specific statement of his, she feels he’s clear-minded.

            What can we learn from this?

            For how long should I engage?

            To end the conversation, I share with Lorraine my own apprehension about the Party; I cite reports of corruption and the irresoluteness I see at the local county level and with the National Democratic Committee. Then I rally; I tell her why I personally am making these calls to support this state senate candidate. I finish upbeat-- “Well it seems you really care Lorraine; I do hope you’ll vote on November 6th. Will you?” Lorraine mutters “Yes, I‘ll vote.”

            How should I register this on my app’s 1 to 5 scale?

[ Will Democrats’ “Getting Out the Vote” Work? ]

What Is It About Bears?

October 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My editor at Natural History Magazine once remarked how, whenever their cover features a bear, sales rise. A koala bear, a young panda, a sunbathing polar bear or a menacing American grizzly; it doesn’t matter. People like bears.

            Occasional attacks on humans and the aversion of many people to any form of wildlife hunting notwithstanding, bears are irresistible. However vulnerable we may be, humans can’t shake our unparalleled attraction to these bulky, really quite graceless creatures.

            We are smitten not only by pictures of bears; we’re enthralled by the sight of live bears. Whether on two legs grabbing berries or bounding across meadows on all fours, bears in the wild are especially mesmerizing; more than deer who, although not necessarily faster than bears, quickly disappear into the foliage. Our ursine creatures seem to prefer open spaces, even during daylight hours. A spectacle for any passerby.

            I’m talking personally only about black bears here; they’re the ones I encounter in my neighborhood.       

            This year we’ve seen more than usual wandering close to our homes. And we don’t live in Montana or Alaska where grizzlies roam. I’m in upstate New York, hardly two hours drive from New York City with its all-night sidewalk cafes and 24-hour home deliveries!

            My Catskill neighborhood proudly identifies itself as trout country. But our bears are not here to catch fish. Fields and forests are their habitant. Our bears are all black, usually not more than 300 pounds (they can go up to 500). And frankly, they’re common. They are often sauntering from yard to yard in search of food; or they’re simply curious, appearing to be in no hurry at all. The wildlife service says our region has abundant natural food sources for bears. But I suspect that the growing number of apiaries cultivated by retirees who moved here from the city draw bears into our villages. Last spring one was shot by a neighbor while it ravaged his dozen beehives.   

            Do you know bears have their very own adjective? Ursine. Cool. And their own candies:--gummy bears. Rather pricey varieties too. Commercial spin-offs exploiting our affection for bears are legendary. And they’ll continue. Nearby in Pennsylvania, for example, bears are a lure for the Milford annual film festival. (No bear films there; only the wooden sculpture outside the theater is as close as a bear gets to that event.) 

            Bear hunting is reportedly important to our economy. It’s part of the state’s tourism pitch, promoted by the Department of Environmental Conservation. The 2018 hunting season is still underway; in 2017 though, 1,420 New York black bears were killed, with the heaviest harvest in counties around me: 151 in Delaware; 147 in Sullivan; and (closer to NYC) 167 in Ulster County. This, out of an estimated state population of 6,000-8,000. Nationwide, black bears number around 900,000, a population that is increasing annually.

            Anecdotally, from sightings around my own neighborhood, black bears seem plentiful. In August a mid-size ursine creature with a long neck trotted casually along the riverfront of four coterminous family lawns; two days later a mother and three cubs had to be chased off a nearby porch. On a morning walk last month I initially took the black, furry creature sauntering down the middle of the road ahead of me to be a lost dog. It seemed unconcerned about whom it might encounter. “His mother mustn’t be far away; keep your distance”, I cautioned myself. Earlier in the season a big adult followed by a smaller bear scampered across the road in front of me towards an open meadow. My most memorable sighting occurred at midday when I was on the highway en route home from the city; I slowed to watch a huge black animal followed by two smaller ones galloping towards me. They crossed two highway lanes, the grass strip between, then two more lanes onto the verge above me. It must have been autumn because their black coats glistened in the sun, and under their fur, their fat-laden shoulders and haunches shook as they leapt along.

            There must be many bears roaming around at nighttime here; I often see fresh bear scat in the grass, easy to distinguish from what deer leave. “A bear’s presence is easy to determine”, a longtime resident instructed; “its droppings emit an overpowering stink”.  

            I am reminded how fondly we regard our bears when I and friends pause in our local library to admire a photo just posted. It’s a family of four bears—local inhabitants. A surge of envy overtook us when the owner of the pictures identified the three cubs as same ones she photographed last May when they were hardly the size of puppies.

[ What Is It About Bears? ]


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