Past Blog Posts
- April 22, 2019
My corner of New York’s Catskill Mountains is shortly due to explode in green. Today however, it’s brown, beige, russet and auburn:-- a wrapping of spindly trunks with naked branches cascading uphill draws my eyes to the horizon. I wait. My neighbors wait. Landscapers and gardeners wait. We wait to plant even a few pansies; we wait before replacing our glass doors with screening. Big Tim waits before detaching his truck plow, so we too keep our snow shovels handy.
Impatiently, in search of soft loam, I strike into a plot in front of the house. Not far beneath dry white grass and pallid corn stubble, the steel of the spade meets resistance—not rock but still frozen earth not far below the surface.
Other warnings of change are undeniable however. First there’s the smell of the air itself-- not fragrant yet still inviting; new sounds floating through the atmosphere invite me to ease open a window early in the morning.
The male merganser ducks arrive and stake out their territory along the riverbank. Small creatures lodged under bark or found in other moist crevices during their metamorphosing months stir. I slap at two insects as they fly past me eager to flee the stale winter air of the house. Though they’ll soon encounter predators gathered in nearby branches.
With snow and ice finally gone, we really don’t want more precipitation, even if it’s spring rain. Sun is enough, we feel. But it’s not up to us, is it? We should not forget the millions of living things evolved to this point and their descendants have survived this winter, awakening only if saturated by tomorrows’ downpours. Indeed rains are forecast to arrive on schedule. They’ll soften the dark loam and soak into it to loosen that ice underground.
In the cities, rain may be welcomed to wash off their smelly, gritty streets. Here, while it may nourish the soil, rain creates acres and miles of mud:—heavy slosh that spatters cars, ruts driveways, sticks to shoes and reaches across hallway floors.
A few days ago when I ventured northward deeper into Delaware County, I was surprised—somewhat envious too-- to survey fields of bright green grass already sprouting across treeless meadows and still unplowed garden farms. Covetousness gives way to the reassurance of winter’s end. Our valley on the south side of the watershed will soon have its turn.
On this drive through the hills my very first recognition of spring is not in green but in red; hillsides covered by naked trees are tinged in burgundy. These are not fruit trees but green-leaf trees, I remark to my companion. Then I’m reminded how those red buds are just protective sleeves; soon all will give way to tender green pushing from within.
Be patient. Nothing is definitive at this point; but it’s there, inside that burgundy mist. In days, if not hours, the green will strike out. If we miss the burgundy signal of spring we may detect it in a new morning light. I fantasize that this change of light is actually the rising energy of photosynthesis, of green creeping out of those billions of buds high on the hillside, across the meadows, lining the riverbank, through a sparse orchard, around corn stubbled fields.
It doesn't matter if we fail to notice the shift from burgundy to tender green. That green will thoroughly capture us and hold us for many months.
In Iraq, spring, always brief, has lingered this year because of good rains. “Merciful rain” is how Iraqis greet whatever precipitation blesses their land. This, after two hard and worrisome years of drought. My friend in Kerbala reports that his garden remains in bloom today, long past what he’d expected. Iraq’s northern wheat fields are high and dense too, thanks to heavy winter rains; we’ll have a normal harvest before summer’s pitiless heat descends. Across the border, after a long and painful arid period, Syria’s northern wheat basket is once more readying to feed its parched and forlorn inhabitants. Colleagues in both nations talk with pleasure and gratitude of extended and abundant rains this winter.
It’s hard not to be mollified by the return of spring here, and by good rains across the Levant. How could these cycles possibly be so distorted by massive global shifts threatening our entire planet? Well, they can. And the sight of the changeover of seasons can impress on us just how vulnerable everything is. Trained people are systematically measuring water temperatures on which so many creatures and plants depend. How populations are decreasing and shifting and how habitations are disrupted at alarming rates are unarguable.
Better accept spring not as a familiar visitor but as a newborn in need very special care. Take nothing for granted—neither spring’s green nor political liberties. END[ Just Another Spring in Progress? ]
- January 31, 2019
Shrugging off what’s called cabin fever, I depart, slowly, to test my car and traction on the roadway. I follow the country road along the Beaverkill River to town.
A mile out, I notice something unusual—cars standing in front of each of two neighbors’ houses. I regularly pass these houses. I know that their owners aren’t here during winter months. And with several inches of snow already on the ground, I’m wondering: With a blizzard is forecast, why are they here at all?
Not suspicious; just curious.
As I drive on, this curiosity leads to fantasy. They’ve come simply to enjoy a day of softly falling snow. Having lived here year-round when the children were young, they’re recalling the enchantment of fresh snow, how they frolicked at night in the fluffy heaps, flakes still descending on them. After the children sleep, she and her husband walk together under a bright midnight sky.
The stillness of fresh snowfall is unsurpassed. Early morning is glorious… before rumbling plows arrive. Gentle whiteness obliterates flaws on the fields-- all that debris flung down by November winds. Through today’s leafless trees, they’ll see a whole new landscape; hopefully they’ll sight the great bald eagles, identify their nests.
Possibly they’ll spot a snowy owl, some winter finches, maybe a sapsucker. Juncos, snow buntings and the tit mouse will be plentiful. Cardinals too, their redness even more pronounced in winter. The best treat would be a pileated woodpecker. Gold finches and grosbeaks too.
(So maybe she’s come simply to refill bird feeders.)
If they don’t see those wild winter turkeys, they’ll certainly hear them. What a noisy lot, sometimes a herd of 60 or more, clacking in the woods. They’re such fun to watch, but skittish. Even months after hunting season ends, those creatures don’t like people.
These neighbors’ visits are brief and practical. After loading the feeders, they’ll check the water. Frozen pipes are a threat; trees too. But what can be done about ice-laden trees falling on wires? With a forecast for freezing temperatures, shut the water main and pour antifreeze through the pipes.
Before leaving they’ll check with Big Tim to have him plow the drive and leave a sack of dirt or rock salt on the porch. Never know, you may really need it, he warns. (Although residents near the river shouldn’t apply salt to the roads.)
Driving slowly at 20 mph feels comfortable. Remember: there are patches of ice under this snow.
The scanty tracks I follow signal that not many villagers have been out. The few vehicles coming from the other direction are pickup trucks, plows fixed in front. Despite hazards, their drivers welcome these snow days—the time when they become heroes. They’ll stop and help anyone, delighted to clear a driveway, often without charge. Need some dirt on that ice outside your door? “Sure. Me and my brother will get a load tonight.”
And what if these fellows vote for Trump or local Republicans? What if they like hunting too? (We assume pickup truck owners here will be Trump supporters.) Should I check their politics before I ask them to plow?
Remember gearshift cars? Now I recall that feeling of control in snow with a gearshift car. Whatever mechanics and dealers say, gears in snowy weather are unbeatable. Anyway, never brake on ice. Seeing an oncoming truck, I’m tempted. Those snow packed shoulders narrow the roadway. Don't, I warn myself.
It’s not a trip where you want to let your mind wander. Forgot to pick up some munchies? The Mail? Never mind.
Don't go out unless absolutely necessary, newscasters advise. Well, I’ve decided I must as least drive out this cabin fever. I bundled up, cleared the passage to the car, placed the shovel in the trunk, etc. and made my way into town. That’s when I’d spotted those cars out of season; maybe their owners were just chucking their urban apartment fever.
- January 21, 2019
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. The United States had been in active combat in Vietnam for two years and tens of thousands of people had been killed, including some 10,000 American troops. The political establishment — from left to right — backed the war, and more than 400,000 American service members were in Vietnam, their lives on the line.
Many of King’s strongest allies urged him to remain silent about the war or at least to soft-pedal any criticism. They knew that if he told the whole truth about the unjust and disastrous war he would be falsely labeled a Communist, suffer retaliation and severe backlash, alienate supporters and threaten the fragile progress of the civil rights movement.
King rejected all the well-meaning advice and said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Quoting a statement by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal” and added, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.
I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel's political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.
Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.
Similarly, many students are fearful of expressing support for Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of secret organizations like Canary Mission, which blacklists those who publicly dare to support boycotts against Israel, jeopardizing their employment prospects and future careers.
Reading King’s speech at Riverside more than 50 years later, I am left with little doubt that his teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
And so, if we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions: unrelenting violations of international law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, home demolitions and land confiscations. We must cry out at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the routine searches of their homes and restrictions on their movements, and the severely limited access to decent housing, schools, food, hospitals and water that many of them face.
We must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as prescribed by United Nations resolutions, and we ought to question the U.S. government funds that have supported multiple hostilities and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38 billion the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel.
And finally, we must, with as much courage and conviction as we can muster, speak out against the system of legal discrimination that exists inside Israel, a system complete with, according to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians — such as the new nation-state law that says explicitly that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of the Arab minority that makes up 21 percent of the population.
Of course, there will be those who say that we can’t know for sure what King would do or think regarding Israel-Palestine today. That is true. The evidence regarding King’s views on Israel is complicated and contradictory.
Although the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee denounced Israel’s actions against Palestinians, King found himself conflicted. Like many black leaders of the time, he recognized European Jewry as a persecuted, oppressed and homeless people striving to build a nation of their own, and he wanted to show solidarity with the Jewish community, which had been a critically important ally in the civil rights movement.
Ultimately, King canceled a pilgrimage to Israel in 1967 after Israel captured the West Bank. During a phone call about the visit with his advisers, he said, “I just think that if I go, the Arab world, and of course Africa and Asia for that matter, would interpret this as endorsing everything that Israel has done, and I do have questions of doubt.”
He continued to support Israel’s right to exist but also said on national television that it would be necessary for Israel to return parts of its conquered territory to achieve true peace and security and to avoid exacerbating the conflict. There was no way King could publicly reconcile his commitment to nonviolence and justice for all people, everywhere, with what had transpired after the 1967 war.
Today, we can only speculate about where King would stand. Yet I find myself in agreement with the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who concluded that, if King had the opportunity to study the current situation in the same way he had studied Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism and militarism would have made him an incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.”
Indeed, King’s views may have evolved alongside many other spiritually grounded thinkers, like Rabbi Brian Walt, who has spoken publicly about the reasons that he abandoned his faith in what he viewed as political Zionism. To him, he recently explained to me, liberal Zionism meant that he believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would be a desperately needed safe haven and cultural center for Jewish people around the world, "a state that would reflect as well as honor the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.” He said he grew up in South Africa in a family that shared those views and identified as a liberal Zionist, until his experiences in the occupied territories forever changed him.
During more than 20 visits to the West Bank and Gaza, he saw horrific human rights abuses, including Palestinian homes being bulldozed while people cried — children's toys strewn over one demolished site — and saw Palestinian lands being confiscated to make way for new illegal settlements subsidized by the Israeli government. He was forced to reckon with the reality that these demolitions, settlements and acts of violent dispossession were not rogue moves, but fully supported and enabled by the Israeli military. For him, the turning point was witnessing legalized discrimination against Palestinians — including streets for Jews only — which, he said, was worse in some ways than what he had witnessed as a boy in South Africa.
Not so long ago, it was fairly rare to hear this perspective. That is no longer the case.
Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, aims to educate the American public about “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment and that continues to this day.” Growing numbers of people of all faiths and backgrounds have spoken out with more boldness and courage. American organizations such as If Not Now support young American Jews as they struggle to break the deadly silence that still exists among too many people regarding the occupation, and hundreds of secular and faith-based groups have joined the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
In view of these developments, it seems the days when critiques of Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be written off as anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.
This is not to say that anti-Semitism is not real. Neo-Nazism is resurging in Germany within a growing anti-immigrant movement. Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017, and many of us are still mourning what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. We must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.
Fortunately, people like the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II are leading by example, pledging allegiance to the fight against anti-Semitism while also demonstrating unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people struggling to survive under Israeli occupation.
He declared in a riveting speech last year that we cannot talk about justice without addressing the displacement of native peoples, the systemic racism of colonialism and the injustice of government repression. In the same breath he said: “I want to say, as clearly as I know how, that the humanity and the dignity of any person or people cannot in any way diminish the humanity and dignity of another person or another people. To hold fast to the image of God in every person is to insist that the Palestinian child is as precious as the Jewish child.”
Guided by this kind of moral clarity, faith groups are taking action. In 2016, the pension board of the United Methodist Church excluded from its multibillion-dollar pension fund Israeli banks whose loans for settlement construction violate international law. Similarly, the United Church of Christ the year before passed a resolution calling for divestments and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
Even in Congress, change is on the horizon. For the first time, two sitting members, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, publicly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In 2017, Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a resolution to ensure that no U.S. military aid went to support Israel’s juvenile military detention system. Israel regularly prosecutes Palestinian children detainees in the occupied territories in military court.
None of this is to say that the tide has turned entirely or that retaliation has ceased against those who express strong support for Palestinian rights. To the contrary, just as King received fierce, overwhelming criticism for his speech condemning the Vietnam War — 168 major newspapers, including The Times, denounced the address the following day — those who speak publicly in support of the liberation of the Palestinian people still risk condemnation and backlash.
Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist of Palestinian descent, was recently terminated for refusing to sign a contract that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating that she does not, and will not, participate in boycotting the State of Israel. In November, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for giving a speech in support of Palestinian rights that was grossly misinterpreted as expressing support for violence. Canary Mission continues to pose a serious threat to student activists.
And just over a week ago, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from segments of the Jewish community and others, rescinded an honor it bestowed upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S.
But that attack backfired. Within 48 hours, academics and activists had mobilized in response. The mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, as well as the Birmingham School Board and the City Council, expressed outrage at the institute’s decision. The council unanimously passed a resolution in Davis’ honor, and an alternative event is being organized to celebrate her decades-long commitment to liberation for all.
I cannot say for certain that King would applaud Birmingham for its zealous defense of Angela Davis’s solidarity with Palestinian people. But I do. In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.
Michelle Alexander, New York Times columnist, civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar is author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
- January 11, 2019
“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? ]
- January 04, 2019
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 ]
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