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Muhammad Ali Revisit? Yesterday, We Primed Ourselves to Proudly Declare Who We Are. Today, Is This A

June 13, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Muhammad Ali Revisited? Yesterday, We Primed Ourselves to Proudly Declare Who We Are. Today, Is This Agenda A Judicious One?         By Barbara Nimri Aziz

Attorney Hassen Abdellah, my colleague and erstwhile radio co-host had just returned from the jenazah service for Muhammad Ali in Louisville. Abdellah and I plan an hour-long radio special this Wednesday at 7pm on a local radio station . It would be an opportunity to share Hassen’s testimony, to talk about sports and social activism, and to dialogue with listeners about the great, departed Muhammad Ali.

Now what?

The full impact of Sunday’s mass shooting at an LGBT club in Florida has not yet hit America’s public consciousness; be assured however, it will soon be taken over by the monster anti-Muslim anti-immigrant machine here. That horrible and saddening event in Orlando will surely feed Donald Trump’s alarmism and his campaign against Muslims. It will provoke even the most tolerant and patient to reassess their positions.

Before Wednesday evening, our WJFF station director may cancel the planned program. If not, how can we proceed with our celebration of Muhammad Ali in what will doubtless be a volatile atmosphere when the media begin their attacks? I am unsure how we can handle it.

Most troubling is how this kind of disruption, interruption and diversion from our essential activist and educational agenda occurs with awful regularity month after month for decades. Whether a dictator’s dangerous whims, or a raging Zionist campaign, The Hague tribunal’s pursuit of selected war criminals, a careless remark by an inarticulate member of our community or by a Muslim head-of-state, a lop-sided TV debate with a media-illiterate Arab spokesman, a PLO miscalculation, a school textbook with too much truth about Palestinian history, humdrum statements by our talented writers decrying violence and reminding the public what we are not --always what we are not-- never getting to what we are; daily bombings in our homelands, young talented journalists assigned to cover war and suffering rather than education, architecture or literature, relentless accounts of hardships endured by any Muslim woman, kidnapped schoolgirls, flogged journalists.

It’s so hard to maintain our noble agenda— to follow the sisters’ proud declarations at last week's beautiful memorial: “I Am Muhammad Ali”.

Stay tuned Wednesday evening (www.wjffradio.org). Pray that Allah awards us the patience and journalistic prowess we so need moving forward.

Meanwhile consider setting aside a few hours to view the 2 hour, 15 minute procession of Ali’s final journey through his hometown in Kentucky  and the full 3 hour memorial service (now distributed –co-opted, as always--by NYT but originally filmed, I believe, by Fox10 TV Phoenix, Arizona). Then decide for yourself what Muhammad Ali signifies and can still give meaning to.

 

[ Muhammad Ali Revisit? Yesterday, We Primed Ourselves to Proudly Declare Who We Are. Today, Is This A ]

Muhammad Ali: His Faith Was Part of His Revolutionary Spirit

June 06, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When someone famous or very wealthy dies, individuals rush to the fore with anecdotes about when their personal encounters with him or her, all to demonstrate perhaps that they too may have had a role in his/her greatness. So my first reaction to some of the fatuous statements in today’s media, reported by (mainly) men who had met Muhammad Ali, was impatience. They’re opportunists, I thought. Theirs is another testimony to record the passing of a special person yet by someone who had no role in his greatness, they are insignificant. Yet, as one of those insignificants, I now find myself wanting to give testimony, even from my distant perch.

Praise to this man who graced the earth and offered such beauty and truth to so many of us, in so many places in so many lives and across the planet.

He proffered so, so much--athletic excellence, grace and humor, pride and courage, political sophistication, teaching by example and by his prowess in boxing, his gentle, determined assertion of his beliefs and his principles.

I would like to think that Muhammad Ali’s embrace of Islam contributed to the excellence of his accomplishments. Certainly he felt so. He said so. His Black Nationalist statements and beliefs were eventually underpinned by his identity as a Muslim and his assertion of his values as a Muslim, this against widespread opposition and resistance from others. (Although there may be many today who’d deny this.)

Muhammad Ali’s pride in his Muslim name, his rejection of his ‘slave name’, his public worship as a Muslim, his defense of his Muslim beliefs were all part of his growth and his truth. Certainly he learned from Black Muslims like Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X, but that was still a time in American history when religious enlightenment of this kind was hardly recognized. For such a public figure, a hero to so many especially outside the US, and as an undisputed champion in a highly competitive sport, to publically and with such exaltation, embrace Islam was part of Muhammad’s revolutionary power.

Then, in what might be called the second phase of his life, his illness with Parkinson's disease, surely his faith fortified his willingness and ability to continue to work as a public figure, to harvest charity for others and remain a living source of joy for those who might meet him and touch him. Few public figures who endure a handicap on that scale can continue to give so much to others.

No one would dispute that Ali is in a class unto himself. There is-- there was-- no other like Muhammad Ali. Today his passing into the realm of Allah has given us another chance to remember some of what he accomplished, to listen to his words, to watch videos of him in action, to learn more about his achievements and to better comprehend what a gift he is.

I became aware of Muhammad Ali only with my emerging political consciousness late in my life. Not living in the USA during the 1960s, my gaze was never directed to this controversial, flashy youth when he first won accolades as a sports champion, not even during his Viet Nam anti-war declarations, nor following that when he was banished from the sport and publicly vilified. Finally however, in 1997 I was introduced to a newly released documentary film “When We Were Kings” (http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/06/05/when_we_were_kings_captures_muhammad_ali_in_his_prime.html) that recorded the 1974 boxing match in Zaire, Africa. Apart from Ali’s boxing talent, there was plenty in that film that demonstrated to me the exceptional character, brilliance and pride of this young man. I was smitten.

Thus began my drive to learn more about Muhammad Ali. Repeatedly I was rewarded with joyous, funny wisdom, winsome images and sounds and declarations that firmly remain in my memory and my heart. I nourish a quiet admiration and inspiration from all that I’ve learned about Muhammad.

How could such an irrepressible brave and spirited ‘pretty’ soul emerge out of a country I had become ashamed of, this ruthless warring nation, a country that seems mired in self deceit, committed to its imperialism, a nation that harbors such divisiveness and inequality? Could this ugly ‘America’ take credit for the beautiful spirit in Muhammad Ali? Could this Muhammad have emerged in any other oppressive, apartheid nation? Could a rough and sometimes brutal sport have nourished such grace and joy? Could Muslim faith sustain such courage and poetry?

I guess that is why Muhammad Ali is so special. The world rejoices in this gift.

 

[ Muhammad Ali: His Faith Was Part of His Revolutionary Spirit ]

One Happy Man- A Nepal Case Study

May 10, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/10/one-happy-man-a-nepal-case-study/

Only occasionally, in contrast to anecdotes of the fashion conscious Nepali upper class occupied with tech trends, music and new eateries, I meet someone whose personal life is advancing with optimism and pride, also without reference to luxuries their Nepali relatives enjoy in Texas or Sydney.

It was an hour-long ride through Kathmandu’s slowly moving traffic on a sultry and dusty pre-monsoon morning. So I had ample time to talk with Purna Tamang. From the moment I peer into his cab, I’m warmed by his smile. His round golden-hued face is inviting and obliging. Inside, I ease into the comfort of a new car, one of a fleet of over 1,500 vehicles recently imported, many of them this India-Hyundai model (an India-Korea partnership) that further clogs the streets of Nepal’s capital.

The windows can be closed so dust and noise is somewhat less than usual; and the car’s functioning springs makes our ride over the city’s severely potholed roads infinitely more bearable. The car itself leads to a delightful conversation on the progress of Purna’s life. Hyundai’s a good car. How long since you bought? I begin. “Yes, India-made. Six months only. I buy with a bank loan—low interest. (Purchase price is about 640,000. rupees--$6,400.--  but Nepal’s 252% tax on what is considered a luxury takes Purna’s cost to 1,800,000 Nepali rupees (~$18,000.).

We would talk later about his business. Meanwhile, always curious about personal histories, I ask Purna the question that starts any introduction in Nepal—Your hometown?

“Kavre”, he replies. I recognize Kavre only because it’s one of the five districts bordering Kathmandu Valley badly stricken by the earthquake a year ago. Before I can pursue that topical subject, Purna continues; “But my house is here, in Dallu”, the neighborhood where I found him. He continues: “I live here with wife, my children. My daughter’s in class 8, my son, class 3”. In the next hour I learn this man is Purna Tamang, so he’s of the Tamang ethnic group; his wife is Sherpa and he knows Solu Kumbu --it’s in the middle hills NE of Kathmandu—her birthplace. He eagerly volunteers: “love marriage”, then chuckles (love marriages are uncommon; and to volunteer this personal information to a stranger is even more unusual).

Purna’s parents live in Kavre where they have 16 ropani (about 2 acres) of good land, which his brother farms. “My father-mother are 70-75, too old for farm work. My father, he sees everything, looks, orders.” They grow vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes--selling all in Kathmandu’s market. His land is hardly 90 minutes by road from the capital so the urban market is handy and profitable.  There is more: “My brother has a tractor, a small one; 500 ($5.) an hour to service others’ lands in Kavre. A good business.” He repeats approvingly: “Good business: one hour—rupees 500”. Still more: “and buffalo- not cow- buffalo, good fat in buffalo; one buffalo gives rupees 30,000 monthly milk. We sell to government in Kathmandu—to DDC (Dairy Development Corporation)”.

So why don’t you join your brother? Surely such a productive family business is better than taxi. “No. I stay in Kathmandu for children’s education. My daughter is very clever; she is 14 and I wait she finish high school, then go to college, then later I and wife go to Kavre village. “I will buy buffalo.” (Purna is unambiguous about this plan.)

And your young son? “My daughter, she will look after him when she is in college; he is not well, not clever; she will take care. She can do anything- my daughter will be successful. I send them to a good school here--private school: rupees 4000. one month for daughter; one month 1000 for my son.” Every year 60,000.—more-- for my children education.”

I start calculating; if his wife is not an income earner (although I later learn that she’s currently in the village and involved in marketing their farm produce), can a driver support this lifestyle? “I have 3000 daily from this car after petrol, my food, after my bank loan. I have another car, another driver. He pays me 1000 daily; all petrol costs/fixing car, he gives. So I have 4000 daily.” when I opine that it seems not much, he retorts: “It’s good; I am happy. I love Nepal.”  

Purna, now 50, must have been one of the first of what has become a deluge of Nepali laborers to Saudi Arabia. It was long ago; he altered his age so he could qualify and came back here when aged 35, 15 years ago. With some of his earnings, he purchased his vehicles. He tells me with pride: “I speak Arabic; it’s easy” and proffers a few words. “I learn my English in Saudi, not good, not like my daughter; but I can speak. I speak Newari (a language with its own grammar and script which few outside Nepal’s Newar community manage); I speak Tamang.” And Sherpa? I challenge; “Of course, I speak Sherpa. My children’s names are Sherpa too: my daughter is Tashi Dolma Lama; my son Ang Norbu Lama.”

[ One Happy Man- A Nepal Case Study ]

Life Without A Recipe--from the Arab American Pen

April 15, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

If an Arab writer comes to mind it’s likely Nawal El-Saadawi, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, or Kahlil Gibran --all non-Americans. But it’s the 21st century and new names claim attention and respect: e.g. Diana Abu-Jaber, an American writer who for 20 years has woven Arab themes into her stories of life in the USA. This skilled writer and storyteller consistently offers us something others cannot:--subtle and intimate portrayals of Arab culture and people. Her new book--her sixth-- “Life without A Recipe”, adds to her repertoire of American life with an Arab ‘flavor’ (her last two books-- “Origin”, a crime story, and “Birds of Paradise” about a runaway daughter—are exceptions).

One of the first Arab American novelists to gain wide recognition, Abu-Jaber now represents an established community of women writers in the USA who contribute to feminist thought and to what’s known as ‘ethnic narratives’. This is a literary community where women far outnumber men writers, a fact that begs explanation and comparison. (Does one find parallels among American East Asian, South Asian and Latino writers?)

During the initial phase in the history of Arab American literature, i.e. writing by Americans of Arab heritage, fiction did not figure in our artistic expression. What literary image we claimed was though poetry, established mainly by Gibran, Samuel Hazo and Etel Adnan. Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, (he’s now 88 and still writing) is barely recognized as Arab; the same is true for Jane Brox whose essays offer scant reference to her Arab roots. Apart from them, our most accomplished writers are poets; with Hazo stand Sam Hamod, Naomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Lawrence Joseph, DH Melhem, Mohja Kahf, and Suheir Hammad-- a few names from scores of established contemporary Arab American writers.  

As literary output by Arab Americans grows, poetry remains dominant, and our men are more prolific in this genre.

Just as novels and memoirs arrived late in Arabic literature, they have been slow to take hold in Arab American and Diaspora Arab literary expression. Hanan Al-Shaykh, Nawal El-Saadawi, Fadia Faqir and Adhaf Soueif—all women, although not American -- are well established fiction authors writing in English.

Diana Abu-Jaber is one of the first American writers from our community to establish a reputation as a novelist. She joins Rabih Alameddine whose rich, prize-winning style propelled him into mainstream, with Laila Lalami, a brilliant storyteller moving into the top ranks of this country’s writers with her latest book “The Moor’s Account”. Compared to them, and to Rawi Hage, Patricia Sarrafian Ward and Kathryn Abdul Baki whose tales are set in the Arab homelands, Abu-Jaber’s narratives are (contemporary) America- centered. Today Jaber represents an emerging voice of mainly women authors, e.g. Laila Halaby, Randa Jarrar, Frances Khirallah Noble, Evelyn Shakir, and Susan Muaddi Darraj.

“Life without A Recipe” is a woman’s exploration of a career as a writer told through the influences of her Arab father, her maternal German grandmother, and her decision (with her husband) to adopt a baby. Hers is not a typical woman’s story –two short-lived marriages, a childhood filled with tension between father and grandmother, the decision to adopt, and then raising her child while resuming her career. Yet it is one which many writers and many more women will enjoy and imbibe as they reflect on their own (American) lives. Abu-Jaber shows us that life need not—cannot-- follow a prescription. Added joy awaits us in Abu-Jaber’s masterful imagery and in her delicious way with words.

[ Life Without A Recipe--from the Arab American Pen ]

An Impossible Syrian Victory

April 06, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“…before it fell back into government hands last weekend”, notes a National Public Radio reporter Monday morning. He’s clearly disappointed, unable to utter even a suggestion that that event marks a military success against ISIS (IS, ISIL, Daesh). What’s this about? Well, it’s the Syrian army, working with Russian air power, retaking Palmyra, a major city in central Syria which in May 2015 was ransacked and occupied by ISIS.

As far as I’m aware ISIS is still the number one enemy of civilized society, the acronym that sends shudders across the globe, the most reviled evil entity in modern times, defined days before that episode by US secretary of state Kerry  as a “genocidal’ agency, also a force which during its three years of existence has eluded the strategic thinking of western governments, their military experts and their rebel allies within Syria. Yet, here was a notable (and unexpected) turn of events: an ISIS defeat! Oughtn’t we to celebrate? At least, if we’re unable to bring ourselves to acknowledge the merits of Syria’s government forces, some credit is due its Russian partner and ally.

At their most generous, US commentators describe the success of Syrian and Russian efforts against ISIS as “a mystery”. Just today US secretary of defense Ashton Carter, asked about US strategies to combat ISIS, utters not a word about the retaking of Palmyra and instead mutters some vacuous remarks about how ISIS’s defeat remains a target of US policy in the region.

Western media responses to Washington’s embarrassment of the Russian/Syrian success takes two forms, both manifestly biased. BBC, NPR radio, TV networks and print media chose to highlight Palmyra’s ancient Roman ruins over examining what that military success really meant. Our defenders of western civilization seem in need of assurance from archeologists about the fate of the Temple of Bel and the “arch of triumph”. They agonize over what relics had or hadn’t been destroyed by ISIS? (How many of these concerned people dared to visit Syria before 2011 to witness the country’s many achievements, enjoy its theater, contemporary arts and ancient wonders?)

In recent news reports, one finds no reference to the (liberated) people of Palmyra city—you know, that “horrific humanitarian situation”. Have any residents of the region survived? What about Syrian soldiers captured in the initial ISIS occupation of Palmyra? What about the notorious Palmyra prison where many Syrians languished? Had they been unchained only to be recruited by ISIS in 2015 to vent their fury against their own land (like Saddam Hussein’s prisoners in 2003 and inmates of Kuwait’s prisons in 1991 who, it is rumored, were let loose to savage and pillage the libraries and museums of Iraq)?

The New York Times predictably cast the recent Syrian military achievement in a negative light, charging that it bolsters Bashar Al-Assad’s confidence and ambitions, referring to Al-Assad as ‘stubbornly confident’, ‘a survivor adept at juggling allies’, yet further evidence that he is a ‘master of survival’.

If the victorious forces over ISIS had been headed by any US ally, however extremist or brutal its reputation, we’d see Americans cheering in the streets like they did after their murder of Bin Laden, with book contracts readied for personal testimonies of our heroic American forces, pages of profiles of rebel allies and speculation of who among them might be Syria’s ‘first democratically elected president’.

Scanning the media, one has to credit Russian sources with providing a reasonable assessment of military operations in and around Palmyra. One is hard pressed to find mention of ‘victory’ in other press accounts, although an Indian magazine with a more balanced take cites how many Syrian fathers, sons and brothers were martyred in this action. (It is rumored that during this conflict, close to 100,000 Syrian soldiers have been killed.) What about a thought for these young, anonymous conscripts?

[ An Impossible Syrian Victory ]


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