Blog Archive

Blog Archive – December, 2012

Only in New York: one December ride downtown

December 24, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

At 72nd street, I boarded the downtown train that would take me straight to lower Manhattan. Instead of turning to read my newspaper, I became absorbed with a fellow passenger. I first noticed him because when I entered the subway car, he gazed directly at me, as if assessing me. Was I someone he knew?

He was perhaps 30, dressed in a light jacket, too light for this winter day, I thought. Although he had on sturdy boots. With knees pressed together, he sat erect, surveying passengers as they boarded.

When the train started up he turned to what lay on his lap. His hand was moving rapidly, his body tense, his eyes animated. Boyd’s hand was sketching something. No. Someone.

I was seated opposite him in the subway train and learned his name was Boyd when the man sitting to his left passed him his card, and I heard the artist volunteer “I’m Boyd” in reply.

My eyes remained on Boyd all the way downtown. His wrist moved in short jerks over the paper on his knee; he momentarily glanced at the woman seated beside me, then down to his worksheet, then back to her. While she gazed at the screen of her mobile phone, Boyd proceeded with the portrait, unconcerned by his subject’s indifference. He worked rapidly expecting she wouldn’t be there for long. Indeed, barely half a minute later, she rose. The train was pulling into 42nd street.

Boyd slid the paper out of his pad and handed it to the woman as the train doors opened. She took it without hesitation and, smiling shyly, glanced back at Boyd as she disappeared onto the subway platform. Our car took on new riders and proceeded southward on its mid-day run to Brooklyn.

The train was not crowded so I continued observing Boyd unimpeded. He looked from right to left for a new subject, his hand poised above his paper, then settled on the passenger seated right beside him. She too seemed unaware of his attention.

Barely two minutes passed before the train slid in to 14th street and now, as this woman left her seat, Boyd again gently handed over the portrait he’d drawn.

“Oh, that’s me. Why thank-you.” She too stepped out of the train looking pleased, holding the sketch in front of her while she fumbled with her bag trying to decide where to safely put it.

As the train moved on with a fresh assembly of New Yorkers replacing those who’d disembarked, Boyd’s roving eyes fixed on a tall woman gripping the pole near the doors. She stood motionless, two bags held close to her chest, her head held high. I noticed her smart high-collared off-white coat. She stood very still, eyes fixed on the windows opposite. Outside, steel columns of the subway tunnel flashed by.

Boyd had only a side view of this traveler-- hatless, hair pulled back from her face, the stiff collar rising to her cheekbone.  This would be a profile.

Boyd finished this sketch in no time at all. Now he half stood, leaning sideways across another rider to hand the paper drawing to the woman. Trustingly, she took it, and without looking directly at Boyd she leaned against the pole as she examined the portrait in her hand. The train sped through two local stops while she paused, then fumbled through her bag and extracted a bill, shoving other loose dollars back into her purse. Then she leaned towards Boyd and passed the money to him.

One dollar! I was disappointed. But Boyd accepted it graciously.

We’d reached West 4th street. The lady with the high collared coat remained standing while the New York artist rose and left the car, his spent pad of paper clutched under his arm.  

[ Only in New York: one December ride downtown ]

Gather little children...

December 16, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There is surely nowhere in the world, from the open Mongolian steppe to a cramped lane in Gaza City, where people do not know the sound of children in school. It’s a dear sound--  half-finished sentences and jostling little bodies, high pitched singing and new friendships, uninhibited yelps and teachers’ gentle proddings, a row of chatting parents waiting outside at the end of the learning day.

However undeveloped a place, universal education exists across our globe. So while we may not be familiar with a college campus or a multiplex cinema, we know the place where our children begin to learn. In this tender setting, little ones make their first venture into the world.

Whether our own children have long ago moved on, or if we live in a bustling city or on a quiet country lane, our days are somehow marked by children setting out for school. 

The primary school I know best and whose children I recall so vividly today happen to live in Nepal. The buildings sit on the edge of Kathmandu city near Balaju bridge, off noisy Nayaa Bazaar. A poor neighborhood by some standards but it’s the most important place to the 400 children who have begun their learning here. These Nepali 2nd graders are surely the same height, with the same bright eyes, the same pitched squeals exchanged with playmates, the same shyness, the same small fingers gripping a bright crayon as those little boys and girls at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut.

The events in USA last week make those sounds across the globe more precious today. As we connect them, maybe grieving Americans can better understand the silence of little Palestinian and Pakistani and Iraqi corpses.

[ Gather little children... ]

Generals and other leaders

December 14, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It’s the time when journalists review the past 12 months to tally blunders, setbacks and successes. It’s a time too, to reflect on leaders—media leaders, financial leaders, political leaders. What they do not look at is the moral standard by which men— leadership is still about the actions and qualities of men—are judged.

Earlier this week, a fleeting news item revealed that the former head of the International Monetary Fund and possible French presidential aspirant had reached a settlement with the NY hotel maid whom he’d assaulted. At the time of the incident, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was portrayed in very bad light; the US media had a field day with his appearance in court. A year later the once powerful international figure maintains a quiet life and, we assume, the future holds no political prospects for him.

The case of Strauss-Kahn will remind us what happened to the celebrated American military leader, ex-CIA chief David Petraeus. (According to some, Petraeus too was presidential material.) The US  media was easier on Petraeus than the IMF chief. Still, he too has slipped from the stage… for the present. Given the capriciousness of the press and its capacity to forgive the wayward ways of ambitious men,  one or both of these naughty boys may one day return to public life. We have sufficient historical precedents for that.  

None of that interests me. Because something more basic is being missed in both these judgments, namely the business of war that generals and their civilian commanders work in. How is it that today, sexual morality trumps the evils of war? Take recent American wars—the wars Petraeus himself (in a line of military heroes) executed under a series of US presidents.

Why is sexual philandering judged more harshly than our treacherous, bloody and failed war-making? By failed wars I do not simply refer to failure to achieve military goals. I mean wars conducted with a failed morality, wars justified by lies. No one is held responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives and many more wounded, civilian and military, for billions of misspent funds and widespread poverty. Today few will argue that these wars were worthwhile. Who dares to claim that the US sanctions-war and subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq were morally justifiable or strategically sound? Surely the war against Afghanistan is equally ignoble and wasted? Today American leaders seek no more than a successful ‘exit strategy’ from Afghanistan, one they can sell to US citizens and lawmakers as equal to their military departure from Iraq.

In acknowledging strategic failures, tallying of trillions of wasted defense dollars, witnessing the utter destruction of nations, admitting that countries America claimed to liberate may actually be in far worse condition now than before, who is held responsible? With US torture practices revealed, shameful behavior of soldiers exposed, the rage and antagonism US wars engendered, although a handful of journalists reveal US war crimes, in fact no US leader has been fired, removed in disgrace, or charged with war crimes or incompetence. Simon Jenkins makes this point in his review of the David Petraeus scandal “Fire leaders for failure, not for cheating”  (The Guardian Weekly, Nov. 23, 2012). In modern times US military leaders are remembered as valiant heroes; they lecture to university audiences and write popular books about their exploits.  Why do we buy them?

[ Generals and other leaders ]

Never have their words sounded so hollow...

December 05, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I’m speaking about American leaders. When Susan Rice, US representative at the United Nations, responded to the November 29th UN Assembly vote on Palestine, she was followed by equally fatuous remarks by Hillary Clinton, US Secretary State. Listening to them, I had to ask: do these exalted representatives of America not comprehend their marginalization and illogic? They are out of touch with reality. Even Israel effectively dismissed Rice’s shameless defense of Israel by initiating more settlement construction and collective punishments to the occupied Palestinians.

OK; the Palestinian leadership has still a long road to walk. Based on its own pathetic negotiating skills and the endless rejectionist maneuvers by Israel, it is difficult to see what real gains on the ground the UN vote will offer Palestinians, especially since Rice warned this very futility (surely by contemplating an American regime of punishment and embargo). But the American objections to the UN vote last week were nothing if not dishonorable.

Ambassador Rice brazenly declares “Progress … cannot be made by pressing  a green voting button here in this hall”. What arrogance! And what disregard for history. Was Israel not recognized by a vote here in this hall? And this counsel from a nation that attacks and embargos sovereign states and imposes itself into others’ elections to see that they ‘push a voting button’. What best symbolizes democracy but the ballot? What most inspires us more than to witness responsible, hopeful women and men taking their place to cast their ballot?

The American rationale to oppose the overwhelming statement by world representatives regarding Palestine is like that of a delusional dictator.

I note that it’s only Americans refer to their president as ‘leader of the free world’.  Yes, the US can lead by bullying; its president can charm; its military forces and diplomats can threaten and bully and bomb. But it cannot lead by legal and moral example.

[ Never have their words sounded so hollow... ]

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