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The Charm of Blackness

April 11, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

By Rachida Mohammedi

A child of the Sahara, an Arab woman, a poet, educated in an Islamic atmosphere, my values are carried to me in simple songs.

Among the most cherished of these is “Kul lil maleeha-ti fi al-khimari al-aswadi: Tell my charming lover--she with the black scarf…”

Through our folklore, anywhere across the wide Arab World, no one can deny how much we enjoy Arab popular songs and poems without a thought about which country these words came from. For us, the song and the poem are beyond any nation.

Kul lil maleeha-ti fi al-khimari al-aswadi, wherever it originated, reminds me that throughout our Arab culture, Black, when it covers the head and shoulders or filigrees our hands, is reserved for the idea of glamour.

Think about henna, that earthy dark paste we use to decorate our palms. Arabs are unable to speak about beauty and adoration, to recount love stories, or to recite a fervent poem without imagining henna on our lover’s hands and feet, without invoking the image of dark henna. Henna, that green plant whose Black essence gives Arab romance its inimitability and value. The darker the henna on the palms of one’s beloved, the more beautiful she is! This is in the realm of aesthetics and love.

What about Blackness in Arab public life? From the 6th to the 14th centuries, during the height of the Abbasid Empire, from Istanbul in Turkey to Lisbon in Portugal, when the world was speaking Arabic, the Abbasids ascribed Blackness to the legal system—the most advanced system of justice the world had known. The Abbasids, the civilization embodying the height of knowledge, innovation and aestheticism across the world, chose Black as the official color of their courts. Yes, the Black cloak worn by its judges, a symbol of the dignity and pride of the Abbasid justice system, is the precursor of the same Black garment (abayah) proudly shouldered by judges and lawyers up to today.

Does the world notice that the Arab woman and man’s common Black abayah is the origin of today’s legal robe? It is also the robe recognized as the symbol of justice worldwide. It is the same robe proudly worn by graduating students. Is there anyone who doesn’t dream of donning this gown when she or he receives their university degree? In our Abbasid culture, more than a thousand years ago, the aalam, scholar, was awarded this Black abayah as a signed of their academic achievement.

From the court of justice to the halls of the academy to the heart of Islam, Black symbolizes esteem. Consider how our holy Kabbah in Mecca is adorned solely in Black cloth. This color that enshrines the holiest site of Islam, expresses the sublime meaning of our Kabbah. This in turn expresses the high regard in which Black is held by Islam.

          From these historical facts to lines uttered by our poets, Black is beautiful. From Arab poetry, rich in the metaphor of Blackness, in its sweet treatment of beauty, to justice across the empire, Black has always been a symbol of pride, beauty, love and the sublime. Who else but we give Black such profound meanings? Compare these facts to others’ claims that everything white is perfect and right.

[ The Charm of Blackness ]

From One End Of Wall Street To The Other

March 15, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

At the southern tip of Manhattan, the opposite end from Spanish Harlem, is Wall Street. A quintessential symbol of supreme power, the street is barely 200 meters long.

WBAI Radio’s offices and studios, where I work, are on Wall Street. So I’m frequently in the neighborhood. Three short blocks away from my building is the financial hub of the country—the New York Stock Exchange. Another 100 meters beyond is the big hole in the air, that awful record of the collapsed World Trade towers.

The neighborhood has become more frequently visited since 9/11/2001. Every day, tourists come by here. They arrive by tour bus, by foot, and by subway. They move around guards and barriers with respect, photographing NYSE, the super-size flags, the guards and gothic columns.

No private cars are permitted.

Nearby the Stock Exchange are offices of hundreds of financial companies where thousands of young people toil, night and day. They are ambitious and hard-working MBA graduates from across the USA—future stockbrokers and company managers. I can’t enter their offices. But I see where they exercise. Numerous sports clubs, some at street level, are located in the immediate vicinity of their Wall Street offices. I glimpse those young wannabe executives huffing and puffing on treadmills and cycling machines. Early mornings. At lunch-time. After work. All young, all fit, all well groomed, they must stay trim to advance in the financial world.

Raj, an aspiring stockbroker originally from India, tells me he’s at the office until after midnight. It’s his job to witness the opening postings of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

This neighborhood is equally busy at midnight and during the day, but not with restaurant and theatre visitors. Lines of black limos park nearby Wall Street waiting for the young executives to come off their shift. Lines of fast food couriers stand in the cold with boxes of pizza and fried chicken-- nourishment for those staying through the night. Whatever the hour, this place is alive.

Since radio is a 24-hour operation too, we journalists also find ourselves leaving our office late, but without a limousine standing by. Our low budget ‘peace and justice’ radio station moved into the neighborhood before 2001, when Manhattan was losing tenants.

After 9/11, things changed. Despite predictions that the city was unsafe and that many residents would flee, that didn’t happen. The city center seems to have more glamour and appeal than ever before.

[ From One End Of Wall Street To The Other ]

Can Radio Really Change Lives?

February 25, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Every now and then, someone I don’t even know contacts me to tell me I changed their life. Imagine! I’ve never met them. But they know me through my radio broadcasts.

For more than 10 years I’ve been host of “Tahrir,” a weekly program from New York-- a talk show with in-depth interviews.

A ‘thankyou’ arrived yesterday from Yvonne Wakim of Syrian (father) and Cherokee (mother, Native American) heritage. Yvonne became a regular “Tahrir” listener a long time ago. Soon afterwards, she began writing. Yvonne has now completed two children’s books. “Because of you, I decided to become a writer,” she says. “I never forgot. Even ten years later I needed to tell you I succeeded.”

Naturally, I’m delighted.

One never knows who’s out there in ‘Radioland’. Radio listeners often become attached to a particular broadcaster. I understand. I myself prefer radio because it offers intimacy; television does not.

Most people listen to radio alone, often in their car. Listeners bond with that unseen voice. The announcer’s outlook affects listeners’ views:-- about being Arab, about their career, about their health, about friendships, even about their purpose in life.

I work hard to appeal to my own community. And, thankfully, young Arabs and other Muslims who before 1995 were not attracted to journalism, seeing me at work, decide to study broadcasting.

Occasionally a listener who is Arab writes me. When they do, they reveal deep experiences. I receive calls from women abused by husbands, seeking support from other Muslim women. I receive calls from men detained for visa violations. I get emails from poets like Zaid Shlah in California who heard my interviews --by internet-- with scholar Dr. Salma K. Jayyusi, from filmmakers in search of Arab actors.

One of those ‘you-changed-my-life’ emails was from Francisco. “Those beautiful poems about the Mother of Ishmael… moved me to tears”, wrote Francisco, after hearing my June 21st program with poets Rachida Mohammedi and Mohja Kahf about Mother Hagar. Their Hagar poems evoked memories for Francisco of his grandmother, Maria Mufdy. Francisco’s next email was longer. “…. I’m a regular listener, from Dominican Republic, originally of Beit Jala, Palestine… I tune into Tahrir to get in touch with my arabness… I finally embarked on a research project to learn about my family in Beit Jala.”

Soon, I hope, Francisco and I will produce a radio program based on his grandmother’s life.

[ Can Radio Really Change Lives? ]

Books, Like Radio, Still Count

February 17, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“That’s it; radio is finished!” cried educators and journalists in the 1950s, when television moved into our homes. Radio was headed for the dustbin, they said.

They were wrong. Radio is expanding today, with internet broadcasting, satellite radio, podcasting, and micro-radio. Radio programs like the Diane Ryme Show www.wamu.org archive their broadcasts so we can download and listen to anything, anytime.

Thus, I’m skeptical when people say the internet will render books obsolete. Doubtless internet reading is appealing. Since our young prefer to read news online, newspapers are expanding online editions. At the same time we learn that internet browsers devote only 45 minutes a week reading news whereas we paper-readers spend 45 minutes each day with printed news! Let’s see how online news competes when it ceases to be free.

In any case, book publishing seems to be unassailable. Look how many people are writing a book, if not a blog! The subjects we can find between the covers of books is overwhelming. And poets never stop writing.

Visiting London recently, I noticed that bookstores were more numerous across the city. Bookstore children’s departments were larger too. I am told more English language books are published than ever before—100,000 new titles a year in USA; 140,000 in Britain!

Surely, book popularity is tied to the proliferation of great stories for children. Harry Potter books are part of a wider phenomena. Children’s books— terribly overpriced-- is an expanding business in the US and UK.

Books offer the promise of celebrity to unknowns and more celebrity to the famous. Look! Clinton’s autobiography is a bestseller! Even Paul Bremer, the disgraced US viceroy to Iraq, wrote a book.

Books lead to TV appearances and book tours. Oprah Winfrey, the beloved American talk-show host, mostly interviews authors on her program. Oprah’s Book Club helped revitalize reading among Americans. So have coffee bars. Many bookstores have lounges where people can meet, sip coffee and buy books. Busboys and Poets (www.teachingforchange.org) in Washington is a literary adventure. Launched by my friend Anas Shallal, ‘Busboys’ is a theater, a bookstore and a café.

As a radio producer, I am deluged with new books to review. Publishers send their latest releases. Authors eager for an interview contact me to announce their availability. Among a lot of rubbish, I always find gems.

Oh dear; I forgot. This is a, ummm, blog, isn't it?

[ Books, Like Radio, Still Count ]

New York Neighborhood

February 10, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Two small friends, book-bags hanging on their backs, amble down a street on their way home from school. An image familiar to us all. In the USA however, it’s a relic of the past.

The west side of Broadway in Upper Manhattan bordering Columbia University has become ‘upscale’ i.e. high-priced. Residents here are mainly white, middleclass families. Few if any children are seen in the street.

East of Broadway Avenue, barely five-minutes away, life is different. The majority of families here are Hispanic. These streets are their ‘al-barrio’—Spanish neighborhood. Hot summer nights find old and young talking on front doorsteps. Residents shop at local ‘bodega’ for plantains, avocados and beans. Everyone speaks Spanish.

Sociologists call these New Yorkers ‘working poor’ compared to West Broadway where annual household incomes approach $100,000.

Al-Barrio families may be poorer. But their neighborhood is clean and respectable, and crime is not above average. Nevertheless, it appears their children are always in danger.

Moving through the neighborhood at 8:00 am, I am reminded of the perils of city life as I watch these children heading to school. One al-barrio school is on 109th off Broadway, another on 108th street. Yet nobody walks to school alone. Even with an older sister nearby, young children must be accompanied by adults. Each is led by hand from home to the school gate. Every day. It’s normal.

Again at 3 o’clock, when school recesses, parents arrive to collect their children. This, even where a school is hardly 200 meters from home. The same applies in Philadelphia and San Francisco, in Arab, Irish, Pakistani neighborhoods, to immigrants and longtime citizens. Why?

First, children here are prey to sex and drug traffickers and other criminals haunting our streets. Second, American society now subscribes to the code called “parental responsibility”. Anyone allowing his child to walk to school alone could be accused of parental neglect!

Families in crime-free ‘suburbia’ and towns across the country suffer the same fate. Drive through any American town in mid-afternoon, you will see columns of buses waiting outside schools to deliver their children safely home.

Perhaps this explains why parents here tolerate their children spending so much time watching television or playing computer games. It may be the reason Americans don’t care about Palestinian children shot on their way to school. News about hardships of Iraqi children don’t concern people here. American parents have their own problems.

[ New York Neighborhood ]
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With visible breath I am walking. A voice I am sending as I walk. In a sacred manner I am walking. With visible tracks I am walking. In a sacred manner I walk.    

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