Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2013

Passing Pilgrims

December 31, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

They’re gone now. But not long ago, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims passed through this port. They are communities in a common spiritual pursuit yet they thoughtlessly walk past one another meters apart, each returning from their once-in-a-lifetime endeavor-- long anticipated, scrupulously prepared, sometimes painfully endured. One has returned from Mecca, the other from mountain shrines in the Himalayas.

Unknown to one another, they cross paths in the transit lounges of Abu Dhabi Airport. Here is where flights arrive from and depart to Mecca and Jeddah and to and from Kathmandu in the opposite direction. The most recognizable of these pilgrims will be the Muslims. And among them Pakistanis seem the most numerous. Bearded with heads shaven, they glide through the corridors in simple sandals and wrinkled white cotton shirtsuits. Their sisters and mothers, wives and aunts rest in whatever seats they could commandeer to guard suitcases and bottles of zamzam water.

By mid October, we're in the latter half of the 12th Muslim month, Dhu al-Hijjah, and these travelers have completed this year’s hajj, undertaking Islamic rites at Mecca, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah, back to Mina before the final circumambulations of the Kaaba. Exhausted and anxious, they now wait along with Indian, Malaysian, Bangladeshi, Indonesian and perhaps some fellow Chinese Muslims for homebound flights.

None seem interested in fellow travelers, especially the European and American pilgrims who on their side are oblivious to their counterparts returning from Mecca. Although if pressed the Caucasians might admit that they too are pilgrims. For them the Emirati airport is an inconvenient stopover where they’ll board planes to Seattle, Naples, Oslo or Manchester. These men and women are as homogeneous and as self-centered as the Muslims are.

They pace the airport corridors, water bottles in hand, shouldering multi-zippered packs. Their obligatory boots are now scruffy, their baggage augmented by prayer flags, a volume by the Dalai Lama, perhaps a stone picked up on their circumambulation of Lake Manassarovar in Tibet or Annapurna in Nepal, certainly packets of incense purchased at Bodhnath temple in Kathmandu, maybe a statue from Bhaktapur.

Like their Muslim counterparts, these pilgrims avoid duty free shops and bars. Some scratch entries into diaries-- no computers on a mountain trek-- while others doze with arms clutching unwieldy rucksacks. They huddle in pairs, two women, three perhaps. No children in these parties either.

I can’t help thinking what an enchanting conversation might happen if a couple from Nepal and a family from Mecca smiled at one another and asked “Where have you come from? Why did you go there?”

If we could set up an audio booth (like Story Corps in the US) inside Abu Dhabi Airport and invite them in pairs to relate the meaning of their circumambulations to one another.

There’s one limitation to this project: lunar timing. The Muslim calendar will define the Dhu al-Hijjah 11 days earlier in 2014, and another 11 days earlier in 2015. So next October when western pilgrims pass here en route to Nepal, the Muslims will be long gone. We need 33 years before Dhu al-Hijjah moving 11 days a year through the Gregorian calendar arrives in the October season of Himalayan pilgrims.

When I reached New York’s JFK airport 15 hours later, I found myself in the US citizen section with a new group of pilgrims-- the most talkative, happy arrivals I have ever shared this slowly moving line with. American Muslims. I looked around but couldn’t see any backpackers to introduce them to.  

[ Passing Pilgrims ]

Gifts for the Holiday: A Book and A Film

December 20, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Arabs in America are barely heard from nowadays. Either we are Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Egyptian or Iraqi, unarguably moderate, perhaps Sunni, sometimes Christian. Increasingly the ‘Arab’ is missing. This is doubtless related to the demise of Arab nationalism and the end of pan-Arab events that once invited us to explore and affirm common ground. That lost union may also result from the ceaseless wars and uprisings abroad that compete for our loyalties. Finally, we find ourselves overtaken by Muslim interests that more aggressively defend and promote this piece of our heritage.

This is by way of announcing two reasons to celebrate our survival:--one a film, the other a book. Screenwriter/filmmaker Rola Nashef and short-story author Evelyn Shakir recount Arab experience through their art, and they do it powerfully.

First the book. “Teaching Arabs, Writing Self” (forget the title, read the book) is a joyful read by a gifted writer. Evelyn Shakir’s leap from sociologist to fiction writer came with her 2007 collection of short stories “Remember Me to Lebanon”.

This book is a posthumous memoir of equal literary quality. Here Shakir skillfully weaves our elusive ‘arabness’ into contemporary American life. The memoir navigates through several worlds:-- her childhood in Boston, teaching appointments in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Syria, and eventually through the cancer that ended Shakir’s life in 2010.

Her opening essays recall a childhood brimming with family and neighbors, a community of newcomers, all quintessentially 1950s America, more immigrant than Arab. Yet, in her nuanced language Shakir captures our irreducible arabness. Tender humor permeates each paragraph too. Into the chapter where every summer the family converged at Boston’s Revere Beach around uncle’s “Cyclone” roller coaster, she threads vignettes of Lebanon and mother. “I harvest memories of my mother”, Shakir admits.

Shakir devotes half of this memoir to her teaching experiences overseas. Bahrain was a trial for her --it was a test of ethnic identities-- which she documents with candor. Syria, her final tour, was different. Clearly her favorite posting, Damascus was the Arab place where she found friendship and civility. (Are all foreigners so seduced by Syria’s shopkeepers?) One of the best portraits of contemporary Damascus, Shakir’s account seems more precious because of what’s happening there today.  

Wherever she stays, Shakir layers that scene with voices from all the places along her journey.

 Rola Nashef’s testimonial to our US existence is her newly released film, “Detroit Unleaded”. A first feature film, it announces Nashef as a filmmaker to watch, now and tomorrow. Not only a skilled scriptwriter and director, Nashef’s work has a unconventional message. “Detroit Unleaded” invites us to view a slice-of-life of Arabs at work in America.

And where does Nashef place her Arab portraits? A gas station. Yes, most of the film takes place in a gas station in a tough part of Detroit city. Here, a story of class, race, young lives, and economic choices is played out.

As Nashef explained in our interview (podcast on RadioTahrir) after the NYC screening: “The gas station was a great metaphor in a city which can be very segregated. For me, the gas station was where people seemed to come together…you see much more intermingling. I think of it as a turnstile where people come in and out of each other’s lives, yet do so through that (bullet-proof) glass  barrier.”

Detroit’s gas station proprietors are often Arab men. And Arab men are indeed this film’s main characters. Nashef decided this, noticing how little the public knows of economic and social pressures on our Arab brothers, uncles and fathers. “It was a deliberate choice for me to leave out politics and religion… I think it’s important to also show and explore more authentic, daily slice-of-life Arab American characters. No one in my film are political messengers… ; they’re just  everyday people…”. She made this film, she tells me, “to open a window to everyday Arab America… crucial to translating culture and to identifying with us.” Every man is different; my characters are a bouquet,” she adds.

Oh, by the way, “Detroit Unleaded” is a comedy. It’s had superb reviews and its Manhattan run was extended from one week to two.

With this production, Nashef establishes herself as a pioneer and a long distance runner. First, she was able to secure funding (taking several years’ of her time) largely from within Detroit’s Arab business community. Second, Nashef demonstrates that she can develop a powerful script (nine drafts!) and then direct a large production team of actors and crew. Third she studied film, not politics; fourth, she dares to tell the story she believes in, not one that might be easier to sell to commercial interests.  Ask your local theater to screen it.

Note: our last blog was published under a new title in the widely distributed left online site Counterpunch

[ Gifts for the Holiday: A Book and A Film ]

Al-Qalamoun, a pretty name. Today, just another battlefront.

December 04, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Poetic designations like Qalamoun are propelled into international consciousness as new sites of combat and desolation. Because Qalamoon lies strategically on the main route between Damascus and Syria’s northern cities, we learn about it today. 

I note the enchanting name with a sense of unwanted privilege knowing how, not so long ago, this was a place of pride, promise and enterprise. Barely an hour’s drive from Damascus, a new university named for nearby Mount Al-Qalamoun was home to 6,000 students and pursuing affiliations with centers of education around the world. This week press reports cite it as another killing field, as if nothing more significant happened there. We learn that Kalamoon University, the adjacent town of Deir Attiyah and the mountain have been retaken by Syrian government forces. What is left to retake? I wonder.

Certainly not a thriving center of learning with its handsome outdoor amphitheater, its corridors hung with paintings, its well equipped labs, its campus church and mosque, its teaching hospital, and the landscaped townhouses of modern Deir Attiyah. 

I was preparing to teach at Kalamoon. It was 2009, really not long ago. Or was it?

In 2004 Kalamoon opened as the first in a network of private universities licensed by the Syrian government. After 2000, privatization was expanding in all fields, producing a middle class who asked: why enroll our sons and daughters in colleges in Beirut, Grenoble, Houston or Cairo when we can do as well here, and keep our children near us? There was a rush to construct the most modern structures and find the best professors.

Within five years, enterprising academics, investors and architects joined expatiate Syrians to build seven new universities. Kalamoon was the largest. Located 80 kilometers from Damascus, most students opted to commute from the city. Luxury jumbo buses marked with the university’s distinctive logo ferried faculty and students from the city starting at 6 a.m.   

By the time I was meeting with Kalimoon trustees in 2010, the school was facing only educational problems: a drug scandal; Kalamoon’s medical students did poorly in nationwide exams; and too many students needed remedial courses in English. Still, construction of its teaching hospital was underway as well as negotiations to open a humanities department. While facing competition from newer private universities across the country, Kalamoon was still popular.

Today? Qalamoun and Deir Attiyah are battlefronts. We can trace the seeds of conflict there to when the war was just an uprising-- just. The degree of killing and deprivation across Syria today was unimaginable in May 2011, but Kalamoon experienced an incident that surely set it on that course.

Students captivated by public protests in Darra in the south decided to hold a forum to discuss prospects for reform. The debate never took place because one sunny morning the campus was invaded by thugs. “It was very ugly; horrid”, a colleague and professor there told me the next day; she was still trembling from the ordeal. Everyone knew the attackers were government security agents. “They stormed the main building, terrorizing us, bashing bodies and heads and hauling youths away. I myself sheltered several students in a women’s washroom.” She and others witnessed sufficient brutality in that fleeting event to turn them against their government. Scores of families withdrew their children from Kalamoon; students who remained became sullen, and politically polarized.

 While the university stumbled on, the same terror was repeated at other campuses.   

As for the sleepy town of Deir Attiyah, it’s a war zone today too, occupied by rebels, surrounded by tanks. After 1985 this had become a modern, wealthy town, rebuilt by inhabitants who’d gone abroad, mainly to Saudi Arabia, worked as engineers, doctors, and teachers, then returned with their savings to invest in Syria. Its leading families founded Kalamoon University, nurtured it and had watched its growth with pride.

What does it mean to the abandoned empty classrooms and the uninhabited town today when government troops have driven out the rebels? It’s just one strategic place on the main highway to the capital. How many more to go?


[ Al-Qalamoun, a pretty name. Today, just another battlefront. ]

Nepal and democracy? Please Don’t Disturb My Himalayan Holiday.

November 19, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Do we need an ex-US president to observe today’s election in Nepal to make it noteworthy?  Or will violence attract outside attention?

Either way, international media has all but ignored Nepal’s aspirations as a republic. A major democratic struggle is underway in a nation needing its hard-won and gallant uprising, a revolution that started in 1990 and has been stumbling along since then, to become relevant to the Nepali people.

Dismissal of today’s zoo porn election is widespread among Nepal’s citizens. The same applies to our international community, it seems. Whereas Maldives Island with a voting population of just 240,000  received extraordinary global attention in recent days, Nepal’s 12 million voters are essentially overlooked. Could that be because the major contenders are Maoist or Marxist-linked parties? In what little news we have in the international press you’ll find excessive attention to Nepal’s Maoists in all their manifestations, while the real issues confronting this Asian nation of 27 million are largely ignored.

Especially Britain, India and the USA have essentially abandoned democratic aspirations there, first with the guerrilla war that led to the fall of a one party Hindu monarchy, then with multi-party elections that gave Maoists the leadership in two out of five governments since 2006.  (Britain and the USA armed the king in his ultimately unsuccessful fight against the insurgency, with possibly half of the estimated 13,000  Nepalese victims of the conflict killed by Nepal’s troops.)

To be sure, six years after they entered government, the nation’s leftist parties and their leaders have squandered political opportunities afforded by the rebel successes. The public is justified in its disappointments; many people I spoke to on my most recent visit to Nepal say they’ll not vote. Voters declare they are confused by the number of parties and disenchanted with new candidates as well as present leaders.

Public disgust may doubtless be behind some of the violence preceding today’s election. But more than squabbling parties are to blame for the languishing state of the country and the despondency of its people.

First let’s recall the extraordinary efforts that paved the way to this democracy. Starting in 1990, tens of thousands of Nepalese erupted in opposition to injustice and misrule. Costly protests led to important reforms: —multi parties, freedom of association, an open press. But those remarkable transformations left the nation with neither essential economic changes nor a constitution. A suffocating class system remained undisturbed, gender inequalities stood, the monarchy was still the final arbiter, and corruption continued.

The successful guerrilla insurgency led to a cease fire in 2006, the inclusion of Maoists in the political process, and, finally, astonishingly, the end of the 240 year old abusive (Hindu) monarchy. A republic was created and Nepal seemed to be destined for better things.

Those early accomplishments were never really welcomed by the very powers who champion democracy so vigorously elsewhere. Nor by their ally India who helps shape regional geopolitical strategy. India’s grip on its landlocked northern neighbor with its history of weak leadership and corruption is more frightening and oppressive than any left-leaning Nepali administration.

Western interests behave as if nothing changed through the early years of protest, the Maoist movement (it prevailed across rural Nepal) and the anti-monarchy push. Income from tourism was only marginally affected, allowing foreign trekkers to still satisfy their needs undisturbed by political turmoil. So could tens of thousands of NGOs (domestic and international) personnel based in Kathmandu. While they justify their existence with ideals of alleviating poverty and inequality, development agencies work against real revolution, they hold tightly to their privileges while turmoil swirls just outside their gated communities.

Nepal’s huge NGO community is less essential for change among the poor than to maintain a middle class; they offer the appearance of progress, they patronize businesses serving them, and they absorb educated Nepalese who cannot or do not depart for even more lucrative posts abroad.

The top heavy, often superfluous, and not very effective NGO establishments in Nepal may be a major barrier to effective governance as well. When Nepal’s  administration confronts a problem, NGO’s quickly arrive to address issues, even if they rarely facilitate solutions. Overdependence on NGOs and the role of these charities in fostering and maintaining corruption is part of the nation’s dysfunctional state. That is an issue which needs to be addressed by courageous and sober leadership.

Today’s election cannot offer any hope of basic economic reform. Underlying the impotence of the revolution is the absence of a constitution for this infant republic. Essentially Nepal has no government; it still awaits guidelines from a constitution. Today’s election is to elect 601 men and women, representatives not to parliament but to a Constituent Assembly. The last CA, in place for four years, failed. And no one I met in Nepal believes that a new body of 601 members can be effective.

Nepal needs brave, really inspiring leadership. If he or she appears-- and it won’t happen in an election, it will become a model for many struggling nations worldwide.

[ Nepal and democracy? Please Don’t Disturb My Himalayan Holiday. ]

Comedy, Law and Journalism

November 15, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The experience of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef affirms what a precious and precarious thing freedom is. It also demonstrates what a powerful political tool comedy is.

Youssef rose to prominence as an satirical commentator following Egypt’s 2011 uprising when he lampooned the new president as well as the old dictator. Today he’s out of work on the order of Egypt’s military leadership, doubtless a sign of the extent of his influence—the satirist’s that is. Youssef’s success should disabuse us of the notion that you have to go to college and learn unbiased reporting to be an effective journalist.  

Many of my friends in the US, exasperated and insulted by our deteriorating 24/7 national news media, whether it’s the rightwing Fox Network or the left-leaning PBS, have eschewed those channels. They now tune into either ‘The Colbert Report’ or the Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ for intelligent news coverage. These programs are the new models for truth-to-power reporting. They are honest, relevant and professional. Notably, like Youssef, neither Colbert or Stewart studied journalism; Youssef was a medical doctor, Stewart a unremarkable graduate in science, and Colbert an acting student.

Today, all three satirists are arguably the most influential people in the business. If you need more examples of the demise of standard journalism education, look at what lawyers can do in the media. The best example is in the work of Glen Greenwald of The Guardian, know today for his brave and energetic reporting on revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and continuing efforts to see the leaks receive wide distribution. Greenwald is one of many fine writers, former lawyers, working in journalism today.

Another less well known graduate in law is standup comic Dean Obeidallah. I know Dean from his launching of the Arab Comedy Festival in New York a decade ago. After viewing his performances there, I invited him (along with Maysoon Zayid) to host a monthly edition of RadioTahrir. Dean told me how, in those early days, he left his law office at 6 ini the eveing, grabbed a bite and then set out for any local stand-up venue in Manhattan where he could tell jokes to anyone willing to listen. (Audiences were sometimes pretty thin, he admits.) He kept at it, and at it, and at it. Finally, together with the international success of the comedy festival, he is now a journalist, satirizing or not, who’s taken seriously, and in demand.

About 2005, while still producing for us at RadioTahrir, Obeidallah began writing Op-ed pieces for the then new online paper The Huffington Post. Nowadays, increasingly I hear him in conversation with popular and widely syndicated radio host Geraldo Rivera. (Yes, my liberal friends, I really do listen to Geraldo.) And I read Dean’s columns on CNN where our dean of comedy is also a frequent live guest.

While it seems that Obeidallah mostly appears presenting the beleaguered ‘other point of view’ about bias against Arabs and Muslims (ABC’s 20/20, PBS, and—not unexpected since this was his main comedy theme—today, he’s evolved.  He takes on the right, the left, political leaders, and the media itself—and all with an engaging smile. If he can always see the funny side of things, Dean will survive long after schools of political scientists, and the politicians themselves fade.

Every community needs articulate, energetic spokespersons—especially journalists. So consider this: instead of spending up to $60,000. a year for a degree from an crowded US school of journalism, consider Dean’s career path. Fellow comedian Amer Zahr did. He too started as a lawyer, and after years on the stand-up comedy stage, now writes a regular column. Think about it.

Oh yes, and Dean has a new film—‘The Muslims are Coming!’

Comments welcome: 

[ Comedy, Law and Journalism ]

Voting in an Off-Election Year

November 05, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz


Later today I’ll drag myself to my nearby polling station, not reluctantly but somewhat mindlessly. I admit it: I don’t know the names of political candidates or their party affiliation in today’s election. Who will I vote for?

So why bother? It’s a state of mind I probably share with most other voting age Americans today.

These 2013 polls are not even called ‘mid-term elections’. Those happen next year when congressional and senate seats are contested. They’re immensely important because they decide which party holds the majority in Congress; this in turn will determine the potential of the presidency, also who’ll chair the influential US congressional committees. As we see in the current administration, although Democrats hold a slim senate majority, most reforms proposed by the president are blocked in the House of Representatives. Confronted by an unfriendly majority Republican Congress, Obama’s power has been hugely diminished throughout his tenure. Any chance to correct this comes only next year, when American media do their job to inform and prepare us on various national races, at least the close ones, and when some major controversies are hotly debated

But what about today’s election? Since it’s not a ‘president-creating’ event, we voters hear little about it. (Forget about world citizens usually enchanted by US elections.) Today’s contests are local, or town, elections; today we pick our community administrators and vote on referendums having to do with our environment, our taxes, our employment programs. You may have heard about New York City’s mayoral battle, and the races for two governorships—in Virginia and New Jersey. But I don’t reside in any of those places. Today, I can only vote for my local council, judge, and our rural equivalent of mayor. Ho hum.

First, in many regions of this state (and perhaps across the country) a lot of those names on the ballot are unopposed. Yes, only one candidate; thus no real choice for us voters. Second, our local media—regional newspapers, community radio and TV stations--devote little attention to these races. So finding out about candidates calls for a major personal effort-- for me, at least. The few  banners posted on trees and lawns around town listing names—Helen Lee, Tom Sush, Andrea Reynosa, e.g., don’t indicate their political party. To find that I need to peruse a special (finely printed) listing in a local paper. Or I wait until I arrive in the polling station. (One notice I read carries the Democratic Party logo, but a rider says ‘paid for by the candidate’—hmm, what do I make of that? This ad, for Reynosa, says she stands for 3 P’s—Protect, Preserve, and Promote. Not very helpful. Besides, she’s running for Tusten Town Council and I can’t vote there, whatever I may think of her cryptic 3 P agenda.)

Maybe I should take a rain check and wait for a real election. Problem is: I believe in local governance and its role in our democracy.

The municipality is where things are done, or not done, that directly affect my daily life. Here’s where property and school taxes are levied; here’s where roads are maintained, power lines repaired, school standards are checked, where our library is funded, where construction codes are monitored, where police are posted, where our town court and fire department are, and where the budget for community health and welfare services is decided.

Our Town Supervisor (local mayor) and her Councilmen and women may receive only part-time salaries of as little as $15,000. Yet they decide the allocation of budgets of half a million dollars and more. They do the work that maintains the roads and electric lines, rain or shine, keeps schools running and controls crime.

It’s my Town Council’s initiative that may win state and federal grants for major local projects-- grants that boost employment, support the arts, build social centers, repair roads and streams, supplement school educational programs, allocate funds for the needy. In effect, it is these almost anonymous women and men to whom I owe my safety, my opportunities and the quality of day-to-day life I enjoy-- through our winter storms, at my free library and parkland, and in the pure water I drink.

Excuse me. I better get to the polls before closing time.

Comments welcome


[ Voting in an Off-Election Year ]

"Looking For Palestine" by Najla Said

September 12, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

If you’ve seen Najla Said perform on stage or spoken to her, reading this memoir, you’ll feel the same person. “Looking for Palestine” is a conversational memoir—fresh, youthful, and zesty. Najla’s story and that of her parents, with her famous father ever present, begins with her birth and ends with his death when she’s college age. It’s well written, in a breezy style echoing her theatrical and comedy performances. Still her light style is underpinned by serious issues—personal psychological problems, ambiguous relations with the Jewish people who seem to be everywhere, and the painful inevitability of ‘being Arab’… whatever that means.

Said’s is a very New York story—upper class Manhattan American with teenage identity problems — an ‘other’, looking different while still being conventional except that the family excursions to Beirut are interrupted by wars.

As a teenager Said becomes only slowly informed about Palestine. She admits her interests are primarily school, books, friends and music. She also acknowledges enjoying an upper class life, surrounded by classmates who while Jewish are more like her than unlike. Indeed she seems to become aware of her father’s exalted reputation and his mission through these classmates.

All this Najla Said admits to in this candid, fluid review of her young and unromantic although quasi exotic life. Very unpretentious. The revelations have a child’s honest quality, with neither philosophical nor poetic depth. Just as with her on-stage performances, one feels she is in fact on stage in this book. But this makes her disclosures no less genuine and informing.

We are treated to a steady output of memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels from a new generation of Arab writers, mainly women, mainly American, telling their story of becoming Arab— from the Iranian hostage affair, through Sabra-Shatila massacres, the intifadahs, the first Gulf war on Iraq, and of course the 911 attacks in 2001. Each crisis gradually, and only gradually, adds to Najla’s maturity—a track many of us took. She emerges as savvy American artist with a political message.

We are uncertain if Najla’s evolution is special because of a father rooted in the Palestinian cause, or if this is common to Arab American youth. Although he’s woven into her story, I suspect Edward’s mission as a nationalist leader was secondary to his daughter. Possibly his contributions in political thought and literary criticism are more central to Najla’s own maturity and mission.

This is a valuable story of a young woman--definitely Arab-- growing through many traumas associated with our ‘being’. Although an all too frequent experience, this journey has not been told this way before. So, Najla’s memoir add to the ongoing history of our people in America. With this book she can reach many in her generation--not unimportant.

[ "Looking For Palestine" by Najla Said ]

Is the Confusion about Syria Manufactured or Real?

September 03, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I wonder how many of you feel as confused as I do about Syria. I’m bombarded with opinions about what happened, what are the alternatives, who should decide, what could happen, and what’s the endgame. And I’m no further ahead.

Two days after my cynical assessment that the US policy supported a war of attrition in Syria, a member of the American Center for Strategic and International Studies authored an OpEd proffering the Syria war as “an indefinite draw” under the provocative title: “In Syria: America Loses if Either Side Wins

Then the respected veteran journalist Robert Fisk suggests that any US action against Syria’s government puts it on the side of Al-Qaeda

As for that dastardly chemical attack? Some reports suggest it was executed by Syrian rebels, assisted by Israel; they call it an Israeli “false flag” operation. Israel is also named in some articles as a major force behind the current rush to bomb Syria.

I awaken in the morning to hear a former US military advisor assure us that forthcoming US attacks will be more than a deterrent, that many targets have been identified for a series of strikes. Others argue that the aim of an American assault is to force Syria to the negotiating table. Although you to may remember several reports accusing the rebels of refusing to participate in negotiations attempted months ago. Meanwhile we hear pleas that the US wait until the UN weapons inspectors complete their report; even though The UN says its investigation is only to define the chemicals used in Ghouta, not to determine who deployed them.

From morning to late night, purported experts of all shades weigh in with their arguments. It’s a media market bonanza. And the world has been given another week to debate. Elected representatives will be lobbied, then the US Congress will vote, so the “most powerful man in the world” will act with full moral and legal authority. And the French leadership will follow. The result? “Well, it won’t be Iraq, or Afghanistan… or Libya”, we are assured.

Simultaneously we are flooded by waves of stories about a million suffering children, seven million languishing refugees, all scrambling for food and water.  “We’ll be talking about Syria all week”, says popular radio host Geraldo Rivera, anticipating a raucous debate among his listeners.

Does all this talk mean the US public really cares? Does all the information we are fed clarify the issues? Will a debate by elected representatives in Congress affirm our democracy and the wisdom of the US leadership?

If I’m dismayed and frightened sitting here in New York, how do Syrians there feel? Those who will not abandon their homeland; those moving towards the borders; orphans and handicapped living in institutions; those under rebel occupation; the young conscripts; those already in prison; millions of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees who found a haven in Syria; Syrians newly settled in Egypt and Brazil and Canada desperately calling their families clinging to their homes in Aleppo or Deir Attiye, Sit Zienab, Barza or Raqqa or in scattered camps? It’s as traumatizing at it is dangerous for all of them.

And here’s another scenario:-- a psychological war to so agitate the Syrian military that it ignites an internal coup.

Feedback welcome: go to comment box 


[ Is the Confusion about Syria Manufactured or Real? ]

Syria's War of Attrition

August 21, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Strategists in Syria are doubtless eyeing today’s conflict in Egypt. But they’d be better advised to recall the war fought in nearby Iran and Iraq twenty years ago. Although the nature of that conflict differs in many respects from the one engulfing Syria, it can still be instructive for Syria. A look at that earlier war may reveal a similar US strategy at work too.

The Iran-Iraq war, lasting from 1980 to 1988, was innocuously labeled war-of- attrition. The sinister concept behind war-of-attrition is illustrated in a remark attributed to the wily US diplomat Henry Kissinger, i.e. “I hope they both win”. Which of course implies that they both lose. And in some respects, they did. That lose-lose war was supported through the “dual containment” policy of the USA and Israel against Iran and Iraq.

That both parties win (or lose) may underlie the position of Washington and its allies towards Syria today, namely a policy to keep government and rebel forces destroying one other to the point of mutual collapse.

Criticism of the American administration for withholding military aid to Syrian rebels seems to fall on deaf ears. But a strategy of “containment” through promoting mutual self-destruction may already be in effect. A containment policy towards Syria does not mean inaction; it is a strategy to weaken the Syrian government, rendering it ineffective beyond its borders.

First Syria was essentially isolated through the US-led diplomatic and economic embargo. Then by assuring low level arms flow to rebels (mainly from Arab Gulf allies), the Syrian regime is preoccupied with the armed insurrection. Meanwhile Syrian civic society disintegrates and millions flee. Opposing fighters kill each other and lay waste their country with virtually no cost to the primary adversaries-- Israel, the UK and USA.  (Read Venezuelan advisor Raimundo Kabchi’s comments.)

Let’s be brutally honest. The US government doesn’t care about Syrian people or its civilization or any Syrian democracy. What always angered the US was Syria’s ideological, diplomatic and economic independence and its considerable regional influence. Now, with those perceived threats effectively neutralized by its containment strategy, the US may be content to stay the course. No American blood has been shed and only a few hundred million are needed for so-called non-lethal assistance.

Additional signs that a war-of-attrition in Syria is now Washington’s preferred strategy are, first, a statement by the supreme American commander, General Dempsey, that the Syria war will last a decade. This at the same time the EU decides it too will not arm the rebels. (Dempsey’s declaration that US military action in Syria would carry a monthly price tag of a billion dollars is further evidence of Washington’s distance from the conflict.) Then we see increasing support for humanitarian assistance to millions of Syrians in semi-permanent camps outside their homeland. Finally, along with European allies, the US announces it will admit thousands of Syrian refugees for resettlement.

After years of mutual destruction Iraq and Iran, with no encouragement from western powers, eventually signed a cease fire.

Polarization among Syrians is as fierce as it is daunting. In my view no meaningful help will arrive from outside. How much clearer should this containment policy be to drive Syrians to a cease fire?

Feedback welcome; also contact us at 


[ Syria's War of Attrition ]

Courthouse Rally for Attorney Lynne Stewart and Eid Prayers

August 08, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Today is Eid Al-Fitr, marking the end of a month of fasting and feasting, socializing, reading and worship. After morning prayer assemblies, perhaps visits to ancestors’ graves, dressed in gay new clothes boasting our global origins and Islamic fashions, young and old share gifts and depart for parks and playlands, restaurants and picnic grounds for simple pleasures with family and friends. International phone lines buzz as felicitations are exchanged with distant relatives. I feel happy knowing the joy this day engenders. I share Eid Mubaraks.

With American Muslims now part of swelling communities, large and small, across the US, we can get lost in the crowd with abandon. For these few days we can feel that we are everywhere, that we are accepted, that our Eid is an American festival, part of  the country’s unparalleled cultural panorama. Which it is.

So does this make me unMuslim or unobservant if I opt out this year and instead join a political rally? Well, not a political rally as we normally think of them; this is a human rights demonstration, and it will be at the a federal courthouse in Manhattan. It’s a show of support for an individual whose name and history all Muslims in this country should know--Lynne Stewart.

From the 1970s, this noted civil rights attorney championed the rights of citizens unjustly targeted. They were not popular cases but Stewart often succeeded and remained undaunted. About 1993 Stewart turned her attention to injustices – the application of secret evidence, for example-- experienced by Muslims in the US; their treatment, she felt, demonstrated abuse of the Patriot Act and infringement of constitutional rights.

After September 11, 2001, Stewart herself was targeted and ultimately convicted and sentenced, at the age of 70, to ten years in prison. During her trial, while she argued that her charge was an infringement of constitutionally protected client-attorney privilege, the US media (some labeled her ‘terrorist lawyer’) and American Zionist spokesmen, were merciless in their attacks against Stewart.

This at a time when Lynne was already afflicted by cancer. Today almost four years into her imprisonment in Texas Stewart’s health is deteriorating. With last month’s appeal to the Department of Prisons for Stewart’s compassionate release rejected, today’s hearing is an attempt to convince her original sentencing judge (John Koeltl) to overrule that judgment. The defense is asking that Stewart be granted conditional release to be removed to a New York City cancer hospital for treatment and in order to be near her family during what is expected to be her final months. Clemency would be a cause for celebration by civil rights advocates across the US.

US Muslims have been blessed with a largely incident-free Ramadan and Eid. Maybe somewhere, when collective festivities end and we return to school and work and the now routine attacks on our faith, Muslim sisters and brothers will take time to consider the long history and ongoing struggle for civil rights in the USA.

[ Courthouse Rally for Attorney Lynne Stewart and Eid Prayers ]

Syrian Drama of Another Order

July 24, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The blockade on Syria  -on Syrian life not weaponry- reaches into the heart of social, historical and cultural life. This policy is integral to the US-led assault against the country and against Arab national integrity.

No-fly zone, poison gas, foreign guerrillas, sectarian massacres.  These frightening yet alluring, ambitious yet wearying thoughts define Syria today. More reason to take time for other dramas—Syrian TV serials and their politics.

Apart from an opportune ‘Ramadan’ reference, this topic may seem inconsequential or out of place for a nation engulfed in conflict. Yet the subject isn’t too slight a target for US policies.

Extending its aggression against Syria into every corner of the economy, the US has seen TV productions by its longstanding enemy dumped from international satellites, a move that essentially severs global access. This move followed withdrawal of supporting infrastructure for widely popular Syrian programs by US-Gulf state allies, erstwhile co-sponsors, customers and distributors of TV dramas originating in Damascus.

Now, why would anyone censor Syrian TV? Are we not led to believe that Syrian media’s sole purpose is to mislead rather than inform? How could anything of value originate from that “brutal dictatorship”? Anyway, how can “mindless” TV soaps warrant an international embargo?

People familiar with the range of public issues which Syrian producers address through popular drama will understand.

Over the past decade the Damascus-based industry rose to become a major center of high quality TV drama. Its productions won admiration across the Arab-speaking world, rivaling once dominant Egyptian dramas.

What Syrian dramas, mostly made by private companies, offer is best illustrated by two productions:-- Bab al-Hara, first released during Ramadan month in 2006, and a hugely successful 2010 production, Ma Malakat Aymanukum. Bab al-Hara is a colonial period drama typical of the historical productions Syria excels in. This and dramatizations of early epochs hold special significance throughout the Arab world through portrayals and reflections of Arab civilization’s accomplishments and historical events. By contrast with Bab al-Hara, Ma Malakat explores contemporary social concerns: –religious fanaticism, homosexuality, abuse of women. Written by Syrian author Halla Diyab, Ma-Malakat  was directed by her accomplished compatriot Najdat Ansour. The work of these and other brilliant Syrian artists is renowned.

Yes, armed conflict itself thwarts artistic production. Thousands of Syria’s most talented and liberal-thinking people-- actors, designers, musicians, writers, technicians-- are jobless today. Many flee in search of outside employment, like those featured in a CNN token Ramadan story ( 

Theater is one of many institutions devastated by war. But the destruction of this industry is not collateral damage. It’s deliberate. The sale of Syrian series came to a standstill when networks in Saudi Arabia and UAE (locations of major distributors) cancelled orders for Syrian productions. Next, in June 2012 the Arab League itself ordered satellite transmitters Hotbird, Nilesat and Arabsat to cease carrying Syrian media including Syrian TV and Syrian Drama TV. Whereas Syria exported 25 new TV series in 2010,  the following year producers were able to sell only one—a direct effect of the US-designed embargo.

Of course this blockade has significant economic consequences for Syria. But its real target is Syria’s cultural and ideological position in the region.

The Arab public and specialists recognize that Syrian productions are unrivaled in their authenticity and ideology. Syria is known to have the highest standards in historical research (applied to the arts) and in Arabic language. Besides the technical, literary and entertainment value of specific stories, Syria’s dramatic productions represent a struggling political consciousness--the Arab nationalist ideal. (This includes celebration of Palestinian resistance.)

Syrian dramas invoke regional pride and values largely absent in productions from neighboring countries. The industry’s collapse was targeted because these productions embody and espouse values which the West seeks to eliminate. Nothing is overlooked, it seems, in the US design against Syria.

Meanwhile Turkish TV serials, translated into Arabic, and with a focus on romance and family conflict keep people distracted. A coincidence?

[ Syrian Drama of Another Order ]

And the Mountains Echoed

July 20, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

More than a good Ramadan read, a new book by Khaled Hosseini. From the first page I was smitten.

 This Afghan-born author has done it again. I read and reviewed his first book The Kite Runner only several years after its release. It was unarguably a fine, fine piece of writing. I bypassed Hosseini’s second novel and chanced across this one, his latest, during a casual browse in my local library.

Besides being a well-crafted narrative And the Mountains Echoed is a fast-moving, disquieting story about … About what: A boy and his stolen sister? Afghanistan from 1949 to today? Loss and recovery? Daughters? Mothers? Family loyalty? East versus West values? Or, how war forever separates families?

It is hard to say which. That Hosseini’s story defies easy characterization may be a sign of his skill as a writer. Because Hosseini has certainly gone beyond any specific ‘Afghan’ experience in this novel. Employing techniques used by mystery writers, he lifts us out of one place and time, and drops us into another where, for a moment, we are uncertain of our location and we temporarily lose the thread of the narrative, only to find ourselves pondering another episode in an emerging enigma. So And the Mountains Echoed is not a cultural narrative. Avoid this book if your purpose is to understand that exotic troubled land and then, at your dinner tables, compassionately lament the fate of Afghan girls.

If I can’t define the theme, I can tell you how it opens and closes. The book begins lyrically, in 1952, in a bucolic setting. A father is telling Abdullah and his sister Pari a fairy tale; it’s a fable of a loving father who challenges a child-stealing monster in order to rescue his youngest son. Although the man saves the village, he cannot reclaim his lost child and, mercifully perhaps, the monster gives the man a potion that prevents him from remembering the boy and his unsuccessful journey.

In contrast to its opening, the book ends with a rather banal experience in a California nursing home. There, an aging woman (Pari) finds the brother from whom she was separated by a sad event in Afghanistan 60 earlier. Now in advanced state of a kind of dementia, brother Abdullah is unable to recognize Pari (who has come in search of him), or indeed to remember anything about his homeland.

But And the Mountains Echoed is not a sad story. It is filled with engaging characters of dazzling and credible diversity who Hosseini makes us care about-- from Uncle Nabi who negotiated his little niece’s sale, to this same girl’s early lovers and then her husband and children in France, to her suicidal poet-step-mother self-exiled in Paris, to capricious foreign NGO staff in contemporary Kabul.

Nabi (uncle to Abdullah and Pari) is a runaway lad from Shadbagh village who finds employment as chauffeur and cook to a Kabul family. Nabi is secretly loved by his employer and remains at the grand house with the man after his flighty wife (the poet) has departed for France with their ‘adopted child’ (the lost sister Pari). Nabi becomes increasingly pivotal in the narrative as a link for his fractured family. He eventually passes the task to the Kabul residence’s next occupant Dr. Markos to whom, in an early chapter, he recounts the family history in a long letter (extending 90 pages here) which finds its way to Paris and into the hands of the stolen sister of Abdullah.

Markos, a surgeon working for an NGO in 2010 in Kabul, is a caring man. But it is not in a Kabul hospital where we glimpse what underlies Markos’ compassion. Instead author Hosseini has Markos narrating another long chapter where he flashes back to his childhood in Greece, an enduring friendship with a disfigured girl his own age, and his upbringing by his mother, a wise, strong woman.

From Nabi, Markos assumes the role of envoy, joining separated generations from Shadbagh village with Kabul, then Paris, then California. We meet a classic Afghan warlord, former fighter, now village patron who has in fact stolen (and remade) Shadbagh village; but it is his young son and this boy’s chance friendship with an angry, homeless lad that somehow eclipses the ills of the warlord. We meet Amra Ademovic working in a Kabul hospital who in turn is an entry to stricken children, war veterans and touring foreigners. We also share the strange relationship of two village sisters Parwana and Masooma whose role in the story may simply be to enhance the theme that although people make some hard decisions, some less benevolent than others, no one is really judged as bad and no action is inherently wrong. There is little place for blame or remorse in And the Mountains Echoed.

2013 Penguin Riverhead Press

[ And the Mountains Echoed ]

A rite for a right:-- the US Department of Justice’s solution to hunger strikers during Ramadan

July 07, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A Ramadan gift to eclipse all others:— in these multicultural-sensitive times, the American Department of Justice has surely set a new standard. Either some creative criminologist or an imaginative Muslim chaplain seeking to justify his post, or an hurriedly updated Ramadan guidebook, has prevailed on Guantanamo prison authorities just in time for the Muslim holy month.

What has our justice department done in response to a petition to end force-feeding of striking prisoners? It will feed the men by nasal tubes only after sunset and before dawn! This, we are told, is to make the justice department compliant with religious precepts. No human rights; instead, a rite. Surely this is a contemptuous reply by the DOJ to legal appeals representing hunger-striking inmates in its infamous island prison.

So when fasting in coming weeks, should I and a billion other Muslims feel we are in synch with our desperate brothers at Guantanamo gasping as feeding tubes are forced through their nasal passages and into their stomachs. The striking men’s religious precepts will be respected while the prisoners’ demand that they not to be fed at all are firmly denied.

This decision adds to the many injustices Guantanamo detainees have had to endure for more than a decade. Who could have thought up this resolution? 

But there is a cheerless irony in the action. Even though the DOJ may consider itself religion-compliant in this decision, apparently no one suggested to them that obligatory fasting rules might be lifted under the circumstances of these prisoners’ conditions. As bizarre as the practice is, force-feeding could be interpreted as a ‘medical procedure’ and would thereby exempt these Muslims from fasting. Or, since fasting regulations specify that nothing should pass one’s lips during the month, then force-feeding through the nasal passage may not, strictly speaking, be interpreted as imbibing food or drink. This argument too would allow authorities to bypass (sic) fasting parameters.

Surely this complex problem calls for a ‘fatwa’. Could this be the first time in Islamic experience that force-feeding has confronted our community of scholars, men who eagerly pronounce on the most humdrum and fatuous habits of Muslims’ domestic life? And we will need a revised Ramadan Kit produced by CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations;, a US Muslim rights organization that prides itself in its close co-operation with US justice authorities.

While some Muslim rights organizations called for the end of the force-feeding procedure, all are silent on the absurdity of the DOJ Ramadan decision for Guantanamo’s protesters.

Comments welcome:

[ A rite for a right:-- the US Department of Justice’s solution to hunger strikers during Ramadan ]

Globalization reaches its apogee-- spying on European friends, foreign suspects...and you

June 29, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Recent revelations about NSA’s worldwide practices are globalization’s toxic perfect storm. Technology we celebrated as a life-changing and everyman’s (and child’s) tool, we now find applied to spying on everyone with a phone, a computer, a bank account. It’s chilling. In a country that historically prides itself for its civil liberties, led moreover by a constitutional lawyer whose election represented new heights in American civic consciousness, it’s also humiliating that this should happen under Barack Obama’s watch.

There’s no cold war motive behind today’s NSA spy plan; it’s routine management of data—any data, even that of political allies. Sobering news for the US public but for friendly European states too

Should we not have expected these data-mining practices to emerge from the fundamentals of globalization and the worldwide net? A massive electronic ‘net’ is what the US surveillance system is, capturing anything that’s swimming in our virtual rivers of data. Ask yourself: Why would any modern day CIA type spy machine limit itself to Chinese or Iranian targets?

Still, I like you am stunned by what’s emerged from Guardian newspaper reports on US and British surveillance revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s disclosures also detail how British spy agency GCHQ works with its American counterpart to target European allies. This revelation is bound to cause political fallout, if citizen outrage is not enough.

Pausing to reflect on how vast this cyber spy-net is, we would have to admit that this system is a logical if loathsome outcome of the interconnectedness of all of us today. If any child can so easily access friends and information through common search engines, why not a nefarious force with unlimited resources? If newspaper reporters can hack phones in search of scandals, why not governments? If young geeks can pierce a nation’s military files, why can’t the latter do the same through its super computers and by intimidating the private companies to whom we surrender data about personal habits and finances?

We thank people of conscience like Snowden for alerting us that there is another side to our open access society. His disclosures complement the observations of longtime media critic Robert McChesney.  In his prescient new book Digital Disconnect, How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. McChesney points to the erosion of our democratic ideals by people-friendly companies that collect our data. Google and the like are the Fords and General Electrics of the modern era, as driven by capitalist ideals as those early pioneers. In Digital Disconnect,  McChesney warns us that contrary to our notion that internet access is a protected democratizing tool, in fact, it is turning out to be a modern way for corporate interests  to control and exploit the public.

What can we do? We can self-censor, i.e. disconnect Unlikely. Impossible, in fact. But we can unite and invoke our legal rights. Communities across the board—educational, medical, media, legal, ethnic groups must comprehend our shared vulnerability and our common tools. Muslims no longer need to view themselves as a select target of these odious systems, while the rest of us must acknowledge that ‘Muslim danger’ is a pretext to sweep us all into the net.

[ Globalization reaches its apogee-- spying on European friends, foreign suspects...and you ]

Nepal: Earth Tremors Fading, Monsoon Looming.

June 25, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Kathmandu is gradually repopulating with residents like Anil who left soon after April’s earthquake. He explains that he returned to the capital from Chitwan (in south Nepal, bordering India). “I went for 20 days with father (also a taxi driver) and my stepmother; we have no house in the village, so we slept here”, he says, gently pounding the steering wheel of his taxi. Small boned and lean like many poor youths, Anil nevertheless sports a silver earring, head shaved on both sides with his silky black forelock flopping forward. Just 18, Anil is a licensed taxi driver, having learned to drive at 15, taught by his father.

Today Anil’s family lives in this vehicle and another his father operates (probably as tattered as this one, and also leased). They enter their former lodging only to cook, wash and change clothes, then back to the cars to sleep. Their rented rooms are unsafe to stay in. “Destroyed; like that”, says Anil, pointing to a crumpled one-story brick structure we pass on the roadside. (His family is not yet able to think about a permanent alternative.)

Following the first tumultuous shaking of their land, many Nepalese had set out for the worst hit areas to find (and perhaps conduct funerary rites for) loved ones and to inspect ancestral fields and homes. Fearing more convulsions in Kathmandu Valley, Anil along with an estimated million plus residents (representing a large part of the valley’s population) sought safety in distant native villages across Nepal and in India.

Nepal’s capital-- empty of traffic and commerce, absent its Indian vendors and factory workers, its tourists and cleaners and drivers-- turned eerily stagnant for a month. Hearty permanent residents eschewed their workplaces and cafes to remain at home with families during anxious days and nights. It was hard for even the most self-assured citizens to not fear another calamitous eruption.  

And it happened. The May 12th quake dislodged any sense of calm that had begun to ease fears after the earlier cataclysm. Although less severe, the second upheaval erased confidence in scientific assessments; it further destabilized and imperiled structures already cracked and it exposed dangers hidden within every dwelling—home, hospital or office. That May 12th eruption extended the first’s destructive path, collapsing more schools, setting off deadly avalanches in Langtang Valley and damaging monasteries and houses in hitherto untouched parts of Solu-Khumbu further east.

By the end of May, relief efforts which had slowed after the second upheaval gradually resume; house and school inspections become more urgent and determined; pressure increases to clear impassable mountain roads; and demolitions, although sluggish and seemingly random, continue. All this while the government announces yet again that more assistance is on its way, although we see no sign that it’s capable of handling the resources it has in hand. At the same time Nepal’s United Nations relief coordinator appeals for additional international contributions.

There was no all-clear siren and no message from any source that we are safe. There’s no report from recovery teams that all bodies have been retrieved, no cessation of tremors (however slight they’ve become), no assurance from seismologists or earthquake apps or weather reports that we are out of danger. Although rumors attributed to astrologers continue to circulate that forthcoming Tuesdays and Saturdays are ominous, we pass Tuesday and another Saturday without incident.

With a government announcement that schools should reopen by the first of June (whether or not structures are repaired) principals mobilize their staff and parents ready their children. Schooling would recommence, if only for a few hours a day, with each school deciding how to adjust to new conditions—physical and psychological-- and deal with whatever traumas their pupils bring with them. Doubtless, the discussions I hear at Amrit School are repeated in all staff meetings. Teachers share stories of difficulties in their neighborhoods, yet they recognize how even without training they bear the additional burden of counseling their wards. Then, with several classrooms marked by engineers as unusable, they agree on a new routine to start. (They are luckier than others where tent classrooms are being erected beside the rubble of collapsed schools. It will take years for over a thousand damaged government schools to be rebuilt.)

Food supplies, blankets, tarpaulins, and essential household utensils are being mobilized for many thousands awaiting help. Although there are complaints about unfair ‘selective distribution’, teams of workers—private ad hoc volunteer groups and employees of service agencies—are laboring to ensure aid reaches the helpless and the deprived. For the coming months, several hospitals in Kathmandu Valley and beyond, with their added load of patients and damaged facilities, will, like schools, operate out of specially equipped tents.

A sense of urgency has emerged with the approach of a new menace: the monsoon rains. “We have only a week to ten days to move supplies from airport storerooms and transport them into the hills. It’s not just the threat of water damaging our provisions; we urgently need to get trucks loaded, on the road and to their destinations”, explains N. Tendup Sherpa of the Himalayan Health and Environmental Services Solukhumbu. HHESS is one of many domestic NGOs forced to redirect its energies, in this case to support World Food Program‘s efforts to get aid to outlying villages. “Once the rains arrive, these roads are treacherous; today, with hillsides unsettled by the earthquake, travelling conditions are more precarious.”

And so we have arrived at Asia’s time-honored monsoon rains: the nourishing, cleansing, drenching, unstoppable monsoon that takes shape at the highest points of these Himalayan ranges and moves south across the entire subcontinent. Everyone knows Nepal’s rains are due. There’s no doubt about their appearance, intensity and duration. Farmers need them for newly planted crops; urban dwellers normally welcome their relief from the hot dust and heat that has enveloped the city and polluted the air. These showers help nourish potted plants, ubiquitous in any courtyard and rooftop. Rainwater unclogs the grey, sluggish and stinking Bagmati River and Dhobi Khola meandering through the capital. The monsoon washes away the detritus of months of accumulated human waste and undecipherable rubbish and animal corpses that fill the waterways around Kathmandu and other valley towns. Rains fill dangerously low government reservoirs as well as rooftop tanks and other vessels set by individual families. Shortages and rationing endured for months will ease.

These rains brings wonderful sunsets too, and more flowers, although even during dry months, flowers—roses, sunflowers, mimosa, bougainvillea and many more blooms-- seem to manage.  

How much will the rains exacerbate the tribulations and suffering of these people this year? No one knows, but the fear is palpable. Without identifying new points of weakness, effective preparations are impossible.

Still in the traumatic grip of the earthquakes, uncertain about the stability of any dwelling, people move cautiously. The shock of the earthquake will not dissipate. An incompetent government of squabbling self-interested parties just worsens an already unstable condition.

[ Nepal: Earth Tremors Fading, Monsoon Looming. ]

Our nation of sleuths—a watershed scaled in our hunt for bad guys

April 29, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I think it was the cheering on that Friday night which most disturbed me. With thousands of police spreading through tranquil neighborhoods, FBI massive search engines working overtime, an army of tactic-geared men swarming through the city, military helicopters churning the night sky, SWAT teams moving from house to house, it would not be long before the wounded 19 year-old suspect was seized. So his eventual capture was, I felt, hardly anything to cheer about.

I became disturbed by the feeling that that chorus of shouts was a self-congratulatory outburst. Because the chase for the terrorist had become a nation-wide effort. Indeed, an obsession.

The US public was brought into the manhunt on a scale never seen before.  Executed as a singular mission, it unfolded with shared excitement and purpose. For millions of onlookers this hunt became a personal pursuit.

Whether we approve or not, we have to give US authorities credit for their superbly orchestrated outreach to the nation.

Their strategy seemed totally transparent. Homeland Security and the people merged into a single-minded patriotic force. Not only Bostonians were recruited. With national media mobilized into the chase with their on-the-spot reportage and dynamic sketches, their seemingly spontaneous interviews with anyone somehow connected to the suspects, every onlooker was made to feel they had a stake in the event.

Each detail seemed available for sharing—suspicions, personal testimonies, boxing matches, anything with the remotest association with the culprits.

While talk is now focused on the brothers’ family history, Chechnya, Miranda rights, self-radicalization and immigration policy, we need to realize that this case plugged into social networking on a new level and thereby transformed surveillance into a public duty. What a coup for our police and intelligence forces!

During the past two decades, well before 911, US citizens were encouraged to inform authorities about suspected Muslims. Many anti-Muslim sting operations executed by US law enforcement agents built their cases on such tips. Our mosques have become no-pray zones for many simple Muslim adherents because FBI operatives are rumored to frequent Islamic centers trolling for suspected radicals or informants. US students retreated from their Muslim Student Association gatherings after learning they too had been infiltrated.

If that was the status quo before the Boston bombings, imagine where our newly endowed population of citizen sleuths might lead us. There are plenty of anti-Arab racists and islamophobes out there to take this challenge really seriously. Moreover if the exalted occupant of the US-vice presidency can call Muslim perpetrators “knock-off jihadists”, doesn’t this give license to others?

My fellow Muslims—we are in for another rough ride.

[ Our nation of sleuths—a watershed scaled in our hunt for bad guys ]

Who is Lynne Stewart?

April 18, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There are an estimated 2.2 million men and women in American prisons. Thousands of them are designated political prisoners by human rights organizations or their columns of supporters. Lynne Stewart is one of these prisoners. She is also a civil rights attorney, although disbarred when she was sentenced and imprisoned 6 years ago. Stewart was 70 years old then, diagnosed with cancer and awaiting surgery.  Sentenced to 10 years, the judgment shocked many within and outside the American legal profession. Stewart is now in a cell in a Texas federal prison far from her home and family. When under treatment for her advanced cancer at a prison-designated hospital in Fort Worth, this 73-year-old gravely ill woman, a grandmother, is shackled and chained to her hospital bed.

We who know Lynne Stewart as a brave and committed civil rights attorney are asking people of conscience to join the international campaign to have our indefatigable sister released from prison on compassionate grounds in order to return to her New York home and be treated for her cancer in a nearby hospital. Join more than 9000 other signatories. As human rights supporters we can demonstrate our solidarity for an individual who sacrificed so much for those of us who needed legal defense over the past 30 years. You can find the petition on any number of activist websites, and you can read Chris Hedges recent appeal in TruthOut. I also suggest you go directly to Stewart’s own site where you can add your name to the petition, read Lynne’s comments and learn more about her remarkable history, her prosecution and the status of her health. You can also hear clips from our earlier interviews with the attorney on

[ Who is Lynne Stewart? ]

Comrade Hugo Chavez

March 24, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

World attention has moved away from Venezuela. So excuse me if I am slow to follow, my thoughts remaining just a little longer with Hugo Chavez and what his life represents to me. I must be one of millions on the sidelines of history who wants to be on record as an admirer of this man. Charisma aside, he was brave, he was smart, he was audacious. The world was gifted a remarkable leader in Hugo Chavez.

The Bolivarian revolutionary’s policies didn’t directly affect me. I follow international developments but I never studied Chavez’ career or tracked Venezuela’s fortunes. It’s apparent nevertheless that Chavez  was indeed an outstanding figure in the modern world. A true revolutionary, he seemed to fully live the path he advocated, knowing he’d be reviled by the USA. It’s not an easy position to take… and to sustain.  

Chavez not only set out to reform his own country, as unfinished as that mission is. He helped to politically re-orient Latin America. Moreover, his alliances worldwide challenged our unipolar world with USA at its summit. It may not be apparent to myopic Americans. But the US-dominated globe of 1990 is gone. This, we must acknowledge, is in part a result of the coalition building by this visionary Venezuelan. Yes, visionary. Look at the solid alliances among Latin American nations today; look at their growth rates; notice the prevalence of peace across the region.

There was once something called the Monroe Doctrine. Authored by US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and enacted in 1823, the policy corralled Latin America into the US’s backyard and snugly held it under Washington’s ‘protection’, declaring that no other foreign power venture into this bountiful neighborhood of 23 states. Implicit in the Monroe Doctrine was obeisance of regional leaders to Washington. It held sway for over two centuries, during which the US waged war against anything that challenged it. Today, the Monroe policy lies in the dust heap, a fate significantly omitted in US commentaries on Latin America.

That doctrine’s demise is in part thanks to a new balance of power established by the skill and will of Hugo Chavez.

Let’s face it. America really doesn’t care about the welfare of Venezuelan or other Latin American citizens. US concern is with easy access to resources and a country’s political alliances vis-à-vis Washington. That’s where Mr. Chavez was a problem. He changed regional political dynamics using convincing ideology, effective rhetoric, diplomacy, energy resource management, new media networks and economic reform.

Why would USA be afraid of Hugo Chavez except over his international successes? Why dismiss him as a flamoyant, communist-embracing upstart if he did not in fact effect fundamental changes, if he did not show other possibilities exist to address world problems, if he did not demonstrate how alliances can blossom without US design and approval?  

What a pity. USA, a country that so prides itself on its democratic attributes, is intolerant of any unarguably democratic achievements of others, like Venezuela. All without US tutelage.

Ahhh. Imagine what a leader like Chavez in the Arab world could do.

[ Comrade Hugo Chavez ]

Is She Muslim?

March 15, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Many years ago, I accompanied Arab feminist and writer Nawal Al-Saadawi to an interview with National Public Radio at their New York studio. Saadawi was already recognized as a dissident and a provocative thinker. The host began by asking: “Are you a good Muslim?” Unshaken, perhaps accustomed to to simplistic, seemingly innocent challenges, Saadawi calmly retorted “That is between God and me”.

That rebuke was and remains the appropriate and also the wisest answer. Nowadays few seem to grasp the significance that interrogation, as Saadawi did, and then reply as sharply as she could. Today it is not: are you ‘good’? It is whether we’re shiia or sunni, salafi or alawi, caldean or copti, kurdi or turki. Oh yes, how can we forget sufi?

Questions refer not to theological or ritual considerations, but to a conflict highlighted in our media. They reflect the interrogator's savvy; because using such terms endows the journalist or the curious colleague with authority, with insider-information.

Women’s month calls me not to rethink my relation to Allah, but rather where we –Arab women--have arrived. Who speaks for us? Who are our pioneers? Who do we champion, study and celebrate?

Thirty years ago, the Arab woman was recognizable, vocal and visible. She's embodied in individuals like Nawal El-Saadawi, Hala Maksoud and Intissar al-Wazir. Today she has all but faded (or has she been sidelined?) behind the more current- that is to say, more controversial and provocative --‘Muslim’ woman. A generation ago no one asked, ‘What kind of Muslim are you?”. That issue was between ourselves and Allah, as Saadawi said.

Today, we should be Muslim-- ideally head-covered--to be recognized, invited, discussed. Our headwear becomes central to our dialogue. Our Muslimity helps secure funding, invitations to seminars and performances, inclusion in collections and exhibitions. Especially for those of us residing in Western countries, to whom religion had been private and between ourselves and the divine, we now find ourselves submitting to the currency of Islam.

In my March 1st blog, I identified a number of women as Arab leaders. I didn’t know who among them was shia or sunni, caldean or turkman. To those who admired them and followed them, and celebrated them, it did not matter then. Why does it today?

Remember “Can she type?”--the parodied phrase invoked among early  American feminists. We chuckled over this pithy summary of women’s identity of the old days. We finally recognized the poignancy and the disarming power of that  question.

[ Is She Muslim? ]

Arab Women: this month, this year, this century. Who am I missing?

March 01, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

March: women’s history arrives with a rush of media specials, awards, new books, lectures, performances.

Every year I welcome these occasions. It’s so essential that we revisit and celebrate our accomplishments—individual achievements, transformations by whole communities, legal gains, fresh insights, newly uncovered ‘herstories’-- and further our goals.

I happily share today’s celebrations of my global sisters. This energy propels me towards my Arab peoples, my Arab sister. Today ‘Arab woman’ is subsumed into the wider exotic identity, that of Muslim woman. OK, we are part of that world. (As an anthropologist I accept the ever changing boundaries of social identity; sometimes they narrow, sometimes they broaden. I’m OK with this.)

So, Arab or Muslim, where are we in today’s ‘herstories’? In the celebrations; in the national archives; in the films and awards? In the victories?

Here are eleven sisters-- Etel Adnan, Azizah AlHibri, Intisar AlWazir, Nawal ElSadaawi, Tawakkul Karman, Hala Maksoud, Mai Masri, Fatima Mernissi,  Asma Mahfouz, Alice Nashashibi, Helen Thomas. Some are revolutionaries; others use their pens to change and inspire. Film is the medium of another’s message; the next organizes the city’s cultural center; her sister teaches law.

I haven’t included the promising generation of young professionals—comedians, actors, journalists, novelists, lawyers, activists, teachers. I know they’re there. Somewhere. I have to believe they will emerge from unseen corners, from unpublished manuscripts and quiet meetings; that they will flourish and take the risks every leader must. (Even if it means martyrdom.) And when she does, she makes proud not only her Arab sisters, but all women. She benefits all of us.

The many I’ve overlooked: I need to know them. Tell me their names; write me a few lines of herstory, and we’ll share them in our next blog. On the radio too.

[ Arab Women: this month, this year, this century. Who am I missing? ]

Al-Jazeera TV is not your panacea.

February 15, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

To my liberal friends searching for better international news sources. Take note: Al-Jazeera is not your panacea.

Desperate for alternatives to corporate and Zionist-controlled US media, we long for unvarnished truths and fresh opinions. What is really happening in that far-away world? The world we ourselves dare not step into, the world we are helpless to affect, neither by street protests nor our presumed expertise.

Limited to English-language sources, American sights and hopes are now set on Al-Jazeera English. That the network’s parent company has bought Current TV seems encouraging. This purchase gives the Qatar-based group wide access to American homes-- to help you and me better understand the Middle East. Maybe.

I am for anything that offers more choice. But is Al-Jazeera a real alternative? Is it untainted?

Discerning viewers know they must scrutinize the politics of owners and sponsors of American media companies. Guess what: we have to do the same with foreign sources, even this wholesome-looking Al-Jazeera English. Who controls it and what are the evolving polices of Al-Jazeera’s sponsor?

Qatar owns the 24/7 network that swept the region with quality reporting, provocative debates and sharp analyses. Originally pitched as impartial, Al-Jazeera Arabic injected pride into 400 million Arabs and projected a modern image of their world. It showed the professionalism of Arab journalists and scholars. With its launching in 1996 by Doha-based Al-Jazeera Satellite and Orbit Communications companies, Al-Jazeera Arabic shaped the thoughts and opinions of the Arab-speaking masses. It reported news from places otherwise inaccessible; it showed its mettle by angering selected regional monarchs. It expanded to include children’s and sports channels, all of similarly high quality.

Today Al-Jazeera Arabic has evolved into a political machine that wages war for and against Arab sister states. Its news coverage and analyses are a clear reflection of the Qatar government’s politics, policies  in step with Washington and London. In Syria and Libya, Qatar is a leading media voice for the overthrow of those governments and it arms rebels there. On governance in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other undemocratic monarchies, like Washington, Qatar and Al-Jazeera maintain a low profile.

Doubtless you’ll be charmed by some Al-Jazeera English programs. Meanwhile consider an equally important Middle East news source, English-language PressTV from Tehran. Now here’s a news network worth our attention. ‘Though less slick than Al-Jazeera, PressTV is replete with real alternative news and views.

Too late: This month PressTV disappeared from our airwaves, dropped by Galaxy 19 Satellite. But there’s no censorship in the USA, is there? Never mind; you'll have Al-Jazeera.

[ Al-Jazeera TV is not your panacea. ]

Ramsey Clark’s 85th Birthday: A Celebration I Wouldn’t Have Missed

January 26, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The banquet opened with a robust invocation-- a song for the recovery of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez—sung appropriately in Persian by Iranian vocalist Hussain Ajhabeizadeh who accompanied himself on a guitar… no less. Surely this couldn’t have happened in the USA? But it did. New York was indeed the venue of this extraordinary evening, one celebrating the 85th birthday of an extraordinary person, Ramsey Clark.

“Whereas today most Americans do not know the name Ramsey Clark, across the world millions do—wherever people are fighting for justice”, noted the party’s host. She wasn’t speaking of ‘convenient’ justice for ‘selected’ victims as defined by US policy makers, their UN lackeys and a compliant media. we knew she referred to a justice for nations, a justice for truth and parity.

What endears Ramsey Clark to people worldwide is his insistence on a universal justice that respects national integrity and independence, that rejects demonization and marginalization of people who refuse to bow to American demands and accept roles the West assigns them. Nicaragua, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, Palestine are among nations Ramsey Clark focused his attention over the past half century. Also individuals in US jails: the Cuban Five, Lynne Stewart, Mumia AbuJamal, Leonard Peltier, Aafia Siddiqui, Jamal AlAmin. Few in this country know their names, locked away for decades, imprisoned far from their families. Ramsey’s unremitting role in their struggle is documented by the organization he founded, the International Action Center, celebrating its 20th anniversary this night too.

Attorney Clark and IAC go where even journalists won’t dare. They go there long before professional humanitarians will acknowledge suffering generated by western governments themselves. They go as witnesses to truth. Fortunately for us, IAC is not only dedicated but diligent and productive. Perhaps more important than succor, IAC has assembled a unmatched body of video and written testimony documenting, for example, the years of sanctions against Iraq, the US invasion of Panama, NATO’s Balkan war. Along with the record of Clark’s International War Crimes Tribunals, you can find these on IAC’s rich web site too. And for those curious about Clark’s exceptional career as a lawyer in the US Justice Department, the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, find that online too:

As for the celebratory evening, it was not only affirming but great fun too-- something all activists need from time to time. Nothing wrong with celebrating ourselves, especially behind a figure like Ramsey.

[ Ramsey Clark’s 85th Birthday: A Celebration I Wouldn’t Have Missed ]

Cycling, doping, and interviewing. The Armstrong affair

January 20, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

If anyone came out of that widely viewed TV program looking good, it is host Oprah Winfrey. She was well-prepared, blunt, persistent, human and humane. Her guest, the now notorious Lance Armstrong, was by contrast wooden, unconvincing, inarticulate and, I felt, shallow… despite his confessions and emotion.

Although I myself bicycle, I was never impressed by the competitive nature of cycling. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to tune in. I actually phoned neighbors so I could watch last night’s Winfrey TV interview with Armstrong.

Why? ‘Though I’d not viewed the champion American cyclist in action, I know Armstrong’s helmeted face from magazine and news articles. Like many of you I read about the doping scandal, Armstrong’s unrelenting denials and the report by the anti-doping agency. Oddly, I found that I had no opinion about whether he doped or if he lied. Not because I didn’t care. But because I’ve become inured to the widespread use of chemicals --to enhance performance, whether in sex, strength, endurance, longevity, beauty— among the famous and the wannabes. It is part of our culture, not only American, but universal. 

No; I tuned in to watch how both host and guest would handle the issue. I wanted to see the masterful TV host Oprah at work with this guy, to witness her empathy and discipline tackling a highly complex issue. How was she going to draw out Armstrong and move him beyond just telling the truth, beyond facts, and into deeper moral issues? A tricky business, notwithstanding legal constraints from lawsuits underway in the case. Oprah did well, and Armstrong confessed. But he was simply unable to explore at a meaningful level, issues of greater significance to us: the power of success, motive, trust, treachery, dishonor. An airing of these questions would have  helped us understand what makes champions, what corrupts power, what feeds the cult of celebrity that drives our society. He could have helped parents and especially our children, intoxicated by celebrity, understand how we are so enchanted by ‘idols’. Surely the level of idolatry associated with sports today is connected with the toxic indulgences of so many celebrities. (Would Barbara Walters have extracted more from Armstrong? I doubt it.)

[ Cycling, doping, and interviewing. The Armstrong affair ]

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