Past Blog Posts
- March 22, 2018
In the final thirty kilometers’ drive back to my home in the Catskills, along a vacant highway through hills of leafless winter trees colorless and devoid of any sign of life, I inexplicably recall my recent journey in a distant known-but-unfamiliar land. Just a few weeks before, I’d traversed a profoundly different landscape en route from Baghdad to Kerbala city in Iraq.
My Kerbala host and I had quipped that the two hours plus required to reach Kerbala that day was the time I needed to drive upstate from New York city. Except that that holy city is hardly 50 miles from the Iraqi capital. Scores—no, thousands-- of military checkpoints slow every kind of movement within Iraq today.
I first traveled to Kerbala 27 years ago, visiting the magnificent Al-Hussain shrine and the city’s general hospital, also named Al-Hussain. On every visit to Iraq during the fierce 13-year embargo (from 1990 to 2003) against the nation-- starting in April 1991 when evidence of a government attack against rebels hiding there was still in evidence-- I made my way to Al-Hussain General Hospital. On subsequent annual visits, the hospital’s medical staff uncomplainingly helped me document the crime of sanctions, the U.S. campaign deliberately decimating Iraq’s once exemplary health system (along with the entire economy and civil structure).
The four lane highway to Kerbala, the major route into south Iraq, is divided by a wide median. Unlike the vacant fields that stretch to a horizon of palm trees to my right, the median is planted with shrubs and trees. And tributes.
Among the few private cars heading south, I see an occasional small bus. Most vehicles are large transport trucks, and those heading toward Baghdad carry imported goods from Basrah port, or earth from excavation sites in the south.
Although crossing through farmland, viewed from the road there’s little sign of cultivation. Perhaps this is because of the dearth of rain this season. (I would later learn Iraq’s agricultural industry is badly neglected.) Occasionally we overtake a pickup truck loaded with sheep or with vegetables. What roadside structures we pass, auto-repair stations or cafes, look unkempt and uninviting-- part of the generally colorless landscape. Now and then I notice a cluster of children in uniform and toting bookpacks, strolling towards their local school.
In the median in the center of the highway is a sight far more compelling and throughout this voyage my eyes refocus there. This is not because of anything alarming or troubling. It’s the stream of arresting, insistent images posted there:-- each one a different face, each a martyr of the recent wars (the costly fight against Daesh/ISIS). This silent parade constitutes a kind of running panorama of the battles for Iraq, for its sovereignty, for its honor and its history.
The faces are mainly of young men, most likely no more than 30 years old. Although occasionally, the portrait of an older man, probably an officer, enters this landscape.
All the way to Kerbala, and southward to Al-Najaf https://www.britannica.com/place/Al-Najaf and beyond in all directions, Iraq’s roads and highways are adorned with the names and faces of soldiers, a placard every few hundred feet, sometimes two or more photos on a single notice.
These martyrs’ banners are posted high, like flags, in rows-- mile after mile. Each name a story, each a family’s son, each a patriot, each a sacrifice. For me, a visitor, they evidence the history of what war and nationhood mean.
Today, back in the USA, I ask: Is that vista so different in its meaning and impact on Iraqi citizens from how fields of simple white plaques or crosses at French and Belgian Flanders, at Arlington National Cemetery, or the amassed names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, affect Europeans and Americans?
Although martyrdom may be central to Shiite history, belief and culture, it is deeply embedded in other societies. In Arab culture and thought—martyrdom is expressed in our language as well as our religion. A man can be named Shaheed (pl. Shuhadah) in some countries, and street names are prefixed with Shuhadah; the portrait of a martyr has a special place in his family’s home.
A pity that people in the dominant Christian society of the West cannot grasp the universal qualities of the martyr. Was Prophet Jesus Christ not a martyr? As for those who die in battle, sacrifice for the American homeland is visibly displayed today in the high status accorded its soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, in inglorious wars moreover. What is “Gold Star Family” but a title honoring American military martyrs?
U.S. veterans, especially the wounded, are heaped with praise for their service and they’re given unlimited government assistance. Even radio and television features regularly tell Americans of ‘noble sacrifices’ of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those stories of hardships, trauma, and handicaps transmit a feeling of martyrdom.
Then come civilians martyred in the daily racist war on America’s streets, deaths that awaken calls for social change. Not co-incidentally it was a religious leader, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who recognized martyrdom in the death of a Black child gunned down for his race: “We must illuminate the darkness with the light that comes from the martyr, Jackson pleaded after the death of 14-year old Trayvon Martin.
The paths of martyrs are endless and boundless.
BN Aziz recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007
- March 11, 2018
"Scientists Outside History” was published in the September 1996 issue of Natural History, the popular educational journal of the American Museum of Natural History. Authored by me, “Scientists Outside History” was based on research I undertook in Iraq between 1989 and 1996. The article’s subheading: “Faced with international embargo, Iraq’s most progressive community finds itself abandoned.”
Reviewing my early files on Iraq, along with this article I found a readers’ correspondence (that was the pre-digital era) which Natural History’s editor had forwarded to me. Most of these letters were from outraged readers, many of them scientists or teachers, berating and excoriating me for seeing any merits in what they viewed as the ‘vicious and tyrannical Saddam regime’. (Praise Iraq’s earlier four millennia, but not the 20th century.) How dare I claim “Iraq’s scientists and doctors had enjoyed strong government backing, enabling them to pursue their international studies”? (p. 15 in the article.)
Those indignant respondents didn’t object that international scientific and medical journals were freely available in Iraq up to 1990. Nor did they challenge my report of how that embargo went far beyond its mandate, to include cultural and medical exchange, that even by 1996 (it would continue for another six years) it ensured Iraqis no longer received international journals, that Iraqi students were barred from post graduate studies (in U.S., Canada, and perhaps elsewhere) in scientific fields such as physics, and that invitations to international conferences could not be extended to Iraqis. As I wrote at the time, this exclusion “proved as severe as any weapon of mass destruction”.
It was the noted sculptor, Mohammed Hikmat Ghani, one of many Iraqi artists who, sponsored by his government, frequently traveled abroad to meet his peers, pointed out to me in 1991, that (as a result of that vicious embargo) “Iraq is now outside history”.
Visiting Iraq earlier this year, fourteen years into its American-designed and supervised democracy, I found that, as much as during the embargo-- perhaps more so today--Iraq is indeed outside history. It has been plundered of both its human and historical resources.
During my 1989 tour of the resplendent Iraq National Museum, it was Mohammed Ghani who informed me how the government had secreted away and protected the entire museum’s holdings during the eight year Iraq-Iran war. That collection was returned intact and complete following the 1988 cease fire:-- the same treasure which, overseen by U.S. occupation troops in 2003, was ransacked and pillaged. (That was during the early months of the American invasion.)
One need not invoke ancient eras of past millennia to acknowledge Iraq’s contributions to civilization. Modern Iraq, before that embargo, was replete with industrious, well trained, talented men and women dedicated to their arts and sciences, their efforts generously encouraged and published by the government. They advanced more by personal merit than by party membership then.
The world famous architect Zaha Hadid, one of a large community of Iraqi artists and scientists, may have settled in Europe, but the foundation of her energy and imagination can be traced to her childhood within Iraq; there was early recognition of her mathematical genius and the influence of scientists in her own family.
Although not without difficulty, one can find many examples of outstanding 20th century treatises by Iraqi engineers (e.g. Ahmed Sousa and Aliya Sousa), medical specialists, linguists and artists produced within Iraq prior to the sanction regime. That exhaustive embargo targeted Iraq’s intelligentsia as much as its Baathist leadership.
You may ask: Why bring this up now? The embargo ended in 2003; Saadam is gone. Liberated from international isolation and dictatorship, Iraq’s an oil rich nation free to interact on the global stage.
In fact Iraq is still culturally marginalized, and intellectually much weakened. Many teachers, scholars and other talent who represent the high standards of the 20th century and could bridge the three decade-long wasteland created by embargo and war, have departed. Either they have been snapped up by foreign nations who recognize their abilities and fine training. Or as refugees, they’re obliged to accept jobs that do not advance or nourish their talent and imagination.
I was reminded of just how widespread the destruction of modern Iraqi civilization is today by a recent FB post from an Iraqi colleague residing abroad. Now middle aged and without economic security as a non-citizen in a nearby Arab country, following the work of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, he recalls his own research in photon physics as a young engineer. He scans world scientific developments today realizing that Iraq, 30-60 years ago, was well placed to be in the forefront of scientific discoveries, on the cusp of frontiers in medical research, physics, and archeology. In response to his posting, colleagues in his network recalled their own attenuated and derailed careers. Many of these women and men are now exiles, snapped up by foreign companies and European and American universities, engineering institutes and hospitals, all well aware of the high standard of Iraq’s education (both before and during the Baath era). Tens of thousands of these experts are forced to take up work inferior to their level of training and without institutional support for publication and international dialogue.
When did you last see a citation of research authored by an Iraqi scientist? When have you last heard an Iraqi scientific presentation at an international conference? Their absence is indicative of their continued isolation and of their government’s cultural poverty and mismanaged resources.
Inside Iraq today the main concern of citizens (and government) is security. The streets of Baghdad are channels cutting through walled-in lanes. There’s no civic landscape. No conferences take place here; few foreign professional colleagues visit; the government’s resources are consumed by a military budget for tanks and trucks, foreign anti-terror devices, and arming check posts.
Just as there are no conferences and few gatherings of musicians or writers or researchers, there are no open playgrounds, no public football matches, no concerts, and little inter-city travel. Children and families are confined to their homes watching the world pass through television, youtube, and whatsapp.
With corruption gripping all levels of government, whatever resources are available are allocated to cronies and their families; merit is an alien concept now. Even the Ministry of Health, once the pride of Iraq, is today incapable of designing and carrying out essential research to assess the nation’s basic health needs.
In response to the arrival of so many highly trained Iraqis in the West over the past 30 years, surely Americans and others could make an effort to visit Iraq and start a new dialogue with their peers there.
BN Aziz’ recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007.[ Iraq Outside History ]
- January 01, 2018
Rumman is our Arabic word for pomegranate—the fruit and the word embody an Arab essence we all recognize. In English, the word ‘pomegranate’ feels awkward. Uttering ‘rumman’ however, we taste its tingling tartness. Held for an instant, as it rolls off Arab lips, it’s released in a single, soft syllable. A parallel may be in the English word ‘fulsome’ that carries a similar memory of abundance, excess.
‘Rumman’ is a poetry word; it’s imbued with emotion and imagery connected not only to our food but to our literature and songs. More than a fruit, it’s a tea, an herb, a drink, a syrup, a condiment for stews and stuffings, and a sexual metaphor too.
Throughout Palestinian neighborhoods, one sees pomegranate trees in household gardens beside old stone dwellings, those left standing after 60 years of occupation and war.
So a film titled "Land of Pomegranates" will evoke rich images for any Arab, and for Turks, Iranians and Pakistanis too. Our sexy, luscious association of ‘rumman’ is, however, dispelled by this film’s promotional illustration. There we are presented by a pomegranate juxtaposed with a menacing black sphere: a grenade. Then the eye moves to the background—the stark grey landscape stained by the endless line of the “apartheid wall”, the 26 feet high barrier constructed by Israel during the past decade.
You’ve got it—conflict. Soft versus hard. Palestine versus Israel. Again. In this film we have yet another searching-for-peace ‘humanizing’ documentary that examines the ideal of dialogue between these two hostile peoples.
As possibilities of any political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict disappear, hastened by the U.S. president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it’s increasingly unlikely that any Israeli (or Palestinian) is able to present an evenhanded picture of the ‘situation.’
I do not know if Hava Kohav Beller, the Hebrew-speaking director and citizen of Israel, thinks she’s presenting an unbiased picture, starting with the pomegranate which she clearly misconceives. (Was she thinking of the French ‘grenadine’ which besides the name of pomegranate syrup, refers to a grenade-tossing soldier?) Blurbs promoting this film (released in the U.S. January 5th) suggest Beller’s story is impartial: we are told, for example, how “she (shows) us that a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is the only way out of a violent and tragic stalemate”, that she “dramatically and evenhandedly portrays the seemingly intractable problem…” and so on.
The production is framed in the context of a formalized attempt at dialogue—a demonstrably unsuccessful exercise that becomes apparent in the course of the event. That ‘dialogue plan’ is situated in Germany— within a program called Vacation from War whose sponsor we do not know. Nor do we know if it continues today. (The use of eight-year old footage weakens the film’s message, and we might ask why those conversations were not updated by revisits with participants.)
The film uses extensive clips from Vacation from War’s 7th year. (It began in 2002.) On their ‘vacation’, equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, about 30 altogether, are assembled to talk to one another. The film focuses on statements from only a third of the group’s members, five Palestinians and five Israelis, all 25 to 30 years of age. We know little about the individuals, but we watch them listening and questioning each other, giving testimonies about their suffering, their rights, their disappointments, their pain, and their family histories. There is no indication in the clips from these dialogues that participants are moving anywhere but further apart.
A creeping awareness of that futility is, for me, a sad message from within the film, a message in contrast to its claims. Another unsettling feature of these dialogues is a clear disparity in an unspoken persona of the two peoples conveyed in the film:—on the one hand, the Israeli exhibits deep confidence, righteousness and pride; unquestionably the victor, requesting nothing from his/her dialogue partner. On the other side is the aggrieved Palestinian asking for some, any, accommodation. We leave them without any hint of a solution.
As if anyone might feel equivocal about the director’s message, those clips of dialogue (filling over half of the two-hour film) are interspersed with a further message through scenes from the ground—newsreel clips of Israeli victims of bus bombings, and extended interviews with Israeli citizens. Relaxed in their sitting rooms, the Israelis speak about family fears and accommodations, with frequent reference to the holocaust experience, and about their military victories.
The single extended Palestinian story is of Reham, a young Gaza mother accompanying her four-year old boy to an Israeli hospital for a heart operation where she finds acceptance, kind surgeons, and medical help otherwise unavailable.
Besides Reham’s arrival at the hospital, our only glimpse of Palestinians is from afar--in a street screaming at soldiers to desist, rushing a wounded youth to an ambulance, challenging settlers climbing onto their house or invading their fields. Oh yes, there is one joyful wedding dance by men and youth in a Ramallah street. One wonders why the filmmaker could find no Palestinian besides Mohammad from the dialogue project to talk with.
A question hangs in the air: what kind of pomegranate and what land of pomegranate is this film about? And why pretend evenhandedness?
- December 01, 2017
“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? ]
- November 24, 2017
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 Nepal’s Grade Ten Schoolbooks!! ]
We are confronted with the fierce urgency of Now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.
Martin Luther KIng Jr.
- a poem.. a song..
- Iranian poet Farrokhzad
Iran's leading lady poet Farrokhzad is remembered by Fatemeh Keshavarz Flash
- Qur'an Surat Al-Qadr, 'Night of Destiny'
Quranic recitation by women is as much a gift to the divine
- Book review
- Yousry Nasrallah, Director, Egypt's
Scheherazade: Tell Me A Story
reviewed by BN Aziz.
- Tahrir Team
- Read about Jad Abumrad in the team page.