Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2020

Muslim Heroines Find Their Way into New American Literature

June 22, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Years ago, in John Killens'  Brooklyn writers’ workshop of largely African Americans, one member woefully explains the thwarted plot of her novel in progress: -- how, despite her effort to feature a Black hero: “By the second chapter, I had killed him off”. That Black character, even in her imagination, was irretrievably doomed; in a fictional scenario she still can’t rescue a Brother from his overriding Black American destiny.

            My memory of that dilemma becomes personal as I review more and more books authored by American Muslims. These writers may find themselves in a similar quandary, namely how to overcome, in our case, the established Muslim terror scenario, and re-imagine our heroes.

            Forty years ago, our history included no 911 attacks, no American assaults on Middle East nations, and only a handful of Muslim mosques. Most of us originating from those yet-to-be-targeted lands were not ‘Muslims’ then; we were simply immigrants-- Arab, Turkish, Iranian --trying our best to pass unnoticed.

            How fellow Americans view Arabs and how we perceive ourselves under their gaze has dramatically changed these past decades. Today, while scanning the range of our literary output, I wonder: will we ever break through our fraught and stereotyped identities?

            Racist-based school bullying of our children, endless wars in our homelands, misconceptions of our faith, alarming news headlines and pressures from our overriding culture are so insistent, we feel compelled, even through art, to explain ourselves in terms of the smothering American framework.

            Muslim writers are caught in this net. Honing our artistic skills and determined to speak for ourselves, we are turning to fiction, devising new themes and redefining our heroes. Still, unceasing references to terror threats and pressure to explain or defend our faith worm their way into novels, even by writers only faintly Muslim.   

            Afaf Rahman is the heroine in The Beauty of Your Face, a first novel by Chicago-based writer Sahar Mustafah. We’re just introduced to challenges Rahman faces as headmistress of Nurrideen School for Girls when a crisis explodes:--the school is under armed siege. But we barely detect the attack when the author abruptly transports us back when Afaf was 10 and one of three children in a family of struggling Arab immigrants. Alienated from the surrounding American culture, the Rahmans are adrift with no cultural or religious bonds to anchor them.

            Nada the oldest child has run away leaving Afaf and her brother to muddle on, their fate complicated by an embittered mother and an inattentive, discomfited father. We follow Afaf through her teenage years, aimless and friendless, incapable of dealing with bullying classmates and the disdain of teachers. How this floundering child stumbles through a tangle of impediments becomes the core of the novel.

            This portrait of Arab and other peasant immigrants who settled in the U.S. between World Wars I and II isn’t completely fictional. With ties to their homelands ruptured, many newcomers lacked meaningful cultural foundations, including religious faith.  (To personify that cultural barrenness, the author gives us Muntaha, Afaf’s hapless mother. Muntaha’s perfunctory offerings of Arab food are no substitute for love; they neither save her marriage nor redeem her children.)

            Ongoing crises in the Rahman family reach a climax when the father, a heavy drinker, has an auto accident. After members of a local mosque reach out to assist him, he begins to rebuild his life, joined by Afaf but not Muntaha or his son. (Mosque membership is not the answer for everyone.) 

            The author, drawing on a sober picture of Arab-American life, offers her heroine redemption less through lofty Islamic ideals than from solid emotional sustenance proffered by a community of confident women. Among those sisters, Afaf finds friendship and respect she’d never known. Moving forward with pride and direction, she learns to pray with others and covers her hair in a gentle rite of passage.

            The only interlude in this long narrative is a brief return to the siege where we find ourselves with the killer rampaging through the school. We learn how his own unhappy childhood, a lost brother, and his personal failures had bred the vengeance he eventually directs at Muslims.

            The siege ends. Afaf recovers from a gunshot wound, although many students have perished. And the terrorist is captured and convicted.

            The issue of how Muslims might move on after such trauma is never resolved, however. This dilemma is manifest in Afaf’s naïve determination to visit and dialogue with the imprisoned killer. There’s no satisfactory resolution. Although Afaf resumes her life reasonably healed, her society is unrepentant.

            Another newly released Muslim family’s story is No True Believers. It’s by Rabiah York Lumbard, an award-winning children’s author, also Muslim-American. The heroine in this invigorating, fast-paced conspiracy thriller for young readers is 18-year-old Salma Bakkioui, a computer geek at Franklin High in Arlington, Virginia, where we (again) find anti-Muslim bullying entrenched.

            Unlike Afaf, Salma enjoys solid friendships and savvy parents (Moroccan-origin father and Georgia-born Muslim-convert mother) who are with her all the way. This spunky, non-nonsense teenager invokes her hacking skills to counter attacks by fellow students whose spite and bias are reinforced by school staff and police.

            Author Lumbard exhibits masterful skill in contemporary teen language while her young Muslim sleuth uncovers and foils a white supremacist plot against the town. It’s a fast moving adventure offering suspense, action and a rich cast of characters at the same time that it educates readers about the ‘cool’ daily life of a hip Muslim family.

            These two novels signal a real advance in Muslim literary narratives. Yet, terror threats seem to remain essential to their plots.  

[ Muslim Heroines Find Their Way into New American Literature ]

Eight Minutes, Forty-six Seconds

June 05, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Eight minutes, forty-six seconds is a long time: a long time when you are meditating; a long time while waiting for a protest march to pass; a long time with your finger on the video button of your phone following a scene of terror; an unimaginable time when you are being slowly crushed by human weights on your neck, perhaps detecting some mildly agitated bystanders through the haze of your dying brain.

            I realized how very, very long 8:46 minutes can be when participating by video in George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis Thursday evening. I activate the PBS video link to the celebration and eulogy, then without knowing how it will end, I find myself compelled to follow the entire recording.

            At 1:32:25, following Rev. Al Sharpton’s rousing and resolute eulogy, this indefatigable American activist invites us to join their 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silent tribute to George Floyd.

            Sharpton does not end his summons here. He challenges me in the next 8:46 minutes, to ‘feel’ what this space-in-time meant to George Floyd, namely the extinguishing of the person George Floyd, pinned under three American policemen, crushed to death, with the man’s final three lifeless minutes held there by their combined contempt.

            In the past, I have bowed in prayer for 1 minute, even for 2 minutes in tribute to I-cannot-recall-what. I’ve kept abreast of news reports of Back Americans murdered and brutalized by police. I know the names and some details of the most notorious cases—twelve or fifteen in recent years. I’ve viewed historical footage of public lynchings of our Black Americans. I review videos of U.S. police terrorizing citizens, of guards brutalizing prisoners, of U.S. troops wantonly humiliating Arab and Asian captives.

            I claim I can share the anger of Black colleagues, the fears of parents of Black children, the conviction of their prayers and abiding faith. I’ve listened attentively to African American civil rights orators. I post quotes by Martin Luther King Jr., invoke the simple counsel of Jesse Jackson, reference Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, celebrate Colin Kaepernick’s ‘taking the knee’, scrutinize essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and repeat Maya Angelou’s pithy wisdoms. Yet, I’d never directed my compassion for eight minutes and 46 seconds—neither during an anthem, nor Barack Obama intoning Amazing Grace, nor a Qur’anic ayah or Arab nasheed, nor any Christian psalm – on the concept of an individual’s martyrdom in a finite incident of Black American life.

            This 8 minutes and 46 seconds is inimitable.

            The almost two hour pre-recorded ceremony ends in 15 minutes. Here in my home it’s approaching midnight; I could fast-forward this segment or watch just one minute of the 8:46 minutes. I could simply close my computer.

            No. I cannot disengage from this call to prayer.

            My concentration breaks after a few seconds, distracted by camera shots scanning the room of weeping, embracing mourners. I resume my meditation, taking up Sharpton’s invitation to enter the body of George Floyd lying on the street for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I concentrate for a further minute as I gaze at that gleaming copper coffin cradling Floyd’s body. My meditation breaks again. I refocus: feel Floyd’s weakening heart beats; listen to the murderers’ mocking; then hear George Floyd’s final call: “Mama”.

            “America?”

 

 

 

[ Eight Minutes, Forty-six Seconds ]

Mocking Birds in 2020 Spring

May 20, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Our seas and rivers look clearer; our air feels fresher, quieter; our streets and roadways are abandoned. Panic shopping for household supplies has passed, only to be replaced by lines of mothers and fathers at food banks while UberEats and Grubhub hand-deliver to others at any cost. In U.S. detention camps, miserable crowds are shamelessly left to an undetermined fate while our prisoners and nursing home residents haven’t even the solace of an occasional visitor even at Easter-time and for Eid Al-Fitr.

            Every human activity is not only in transition. We dwell in a state of abeyance. With our singular awareness of ‘self’, we turn to poets, musicians and philosophers to guide us. If they cannot move us forward, at least their voices might ease us through this night.

            Ironically, while we wonder and fret, measure and blame, other sentients sharing this earth appear newly liberated. I can’t plan a family visit or my book release, but tulip blooms emerge on schedule, their color a deeper, more resolute hue than I remember; bright petals open despite how readily they attract white-tailed deer and burrowing rabbits.

            Look there: a fortnight longer than normal, my fickle forsythia bush is clothed in yellow flowers! (So it’s prospering.) Clusters of wild fern slowly unfold exactly where they do every year in that corner of the field; even the bothersome Japanese knotweed looks certain to endure, driving upwards day-by-day through mud in the riverbank.

            Migrating merganser ducks arrived in late winter, and by the time Covid-19 reached our neighborhood, their nests were readied. Now the males have left their mates to mind the brood while they dash upriver, so swift and low, over the water’s surface.    

            This pattern of normality is reassuring; I should be comforted. I am… to a degree.

            Frankly speaking, I’m peeved. It’s off-putting that these neighbors of mine seem so unaware of how my routine, all my expectations, all my personal relations have collapsed in total disarray.

            Winged creatures are especially annoying, flitting and diving so determinedly outside my window. Even as I refill the feeders to draw them near, I’m miffed by their urgent calls. I awaken to their sweet morning melodies to find my day is still under threat. How can they be so unaware of my fear, my unhinged life?

            “Don’t you know what’s happening?” I whisper to them. “Aren’t you nervous about our monster virus crawling into your throats too?”

            I don’t want all your lives suspended as ours have been. Not at all. But we’d been working hard on your behalf:-- building bee hives, lobbying against plastics, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered seeds and carbon-based fuels, over-fishing and excessive meat consumption.

            That wasn’t for us only; it was for you too. We had begun to realize how, with your loss, our demise would inevitably follow. You were the focus of our noble struggle; you were the declining, threatened species down the food chain. Now, when our vulnerability is so exposed, you seem immune, so carefree, mocking us with your twitters and chirps. How can I continue to protect you if, so preoccupied with my own race my power is undermined? END

[ Mocking Birds in 2020 Spring ]

Family Stories from Ground Zero by a New Generation of Filmmakers

May 03, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

For two decades now, following U.S. invasions of Afghanistan, then Iraq, and as we approach ten years of upheaval in Syria and five in Yemen, interpretation of these wars has been the domain of western observers— journalists, occupying soldiers, and politicians. With others, I pored over and reviewed dozens what regrettably becomes those nations’ modern history.

            Now, a new generation of citizens in these besieged lands may overturn what essentially constituted a colonialist record of their lives.

            Many writers, mainly Arab and Iranian women (including an active Palestinian literary community) who fled their homelands in the wake of ethnic clashes, devastation and hopelessness, contribute to a growing archive of their national histories. Powerful new film productions (again with women in the forefront, e.g. Mai Masri, Nadine Labaki, and Cherien Debis) join our rich library of published memoirs.

            "For Sama", the award-winning chronicle a Syrian filmmaker’s young family, is joined by a second remarkable although less celebrated citizen-journalist’ biopic:—"Midnight Traveler". This Afghan production, an equally compelling story, is extraordinary for being originally recorded on iphones only. (That may also account for the degree of intimacy it captures.)   

            Midnight Traveler and For Sama are both autobiographical family dramas by individuals, themselves the main characters in these war chronicles. Both are in real time, not recollections retold at a safe distance. Our storytellers do not speak to the camera; the camera hears and sees them in their intimate, vulnerable, endearing moments:--under siege, in hiding, learning the fate of friends left behind, quietly sharing a meal uncertain what tomorrow might offer, then fleeing onwards to they-don’t-know-where.

            Midnight Traveler is a record of a capricious 3,500 mile journey by Fatima Hossaini and husband Hassan Fazili (both artists, with Fazili credited as director), and their daughters Nargis (about 7 when the journey begins) and Zahra (aged 4 or 5).   

            From Tajikistan where their asylum applications to Australia and elsewhere are unsuccessful, they return to Afghanistan to attempt another escape route-- a costly, illegal overland trek to Western Europe. Their handlers seem to be a humane lot, neither unkind nor ruthless; but this is not a story about the smuggling business or threats from the Taliban who forced this flight.

            The film’s focus is this small family ‘being together’—always. We witness casual, endearing moments between husband and wife, shared silences, candid exchanges, and vignettes of Nargis and Zahra that highlight the vicissitudes of a long, uncertain but determined journey. Those quiet exchanges are threaded with reminders that they are, in fact, fugitives:-- scurrying across a border, sleeping in forests, confronting hostile townspeople, and waiting idly in one camp after another until they receive permission to proceed.

            The story is not a portrayal of victims however. Intimacy and solidarity dominate this family’s narrative. Nargis emerges as the enchanting hero: indefatigable, companionless, in her private reverie dancing to Michael Jackson, shedding tears of boredom, shyly confessing her cold feet during a sleepless night in a wet field, and her poetic encounter with splashing waves on a rocky seafront in Turkey.

            Endless columns of refugees making their way by foot --from Afghanistan and Syria, Egypt, Somalia, and Pakistan through Turkey and Greece to Western Europe-- became a daily news spectacle and a documentary film by artist Ai Weiwei.

            One might argue that the Fazili family’s account ignores Taliban excesses that drove them from their homeland. But whatever references the filmmakers include are convincing enough of the risks they faced there.  

            This 90-minute film, a small fraction of three years of cell-camera footage, is what the Fazili family chose to share with us. Their multilayered account from the frontline, Midnight Travelers can stand alone.  END

[ Family Stories from Ground Zero by a New Generation of Filmmakers ]

Has Nepal Managed a Healthy Breakthrough in the Covid-19 Crisis?

April 27, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            “We’re all going to die!” This feeble appeal came in a Facebook phone call with B. Thapa from deep within Nepal’s eastern hills. 

            Our conversation was in early March when news headlines from Italy and the U.S. began to alarm Nepalis. With no information about the spread of the disease in his country, this schoolteacher presumed a bleak scenario. “If advanced European societies are swamped with this disease, unable to control it, what can we expect?”

            Indeed. The country has a porous 1,000 mile border with India; it has no national health system and its Maoist/Communist-led government has promoted private clinics and hospitals over public healthcare; Prime Minister Oli had a second kidney transplant without naming any surrogate leader to handle the crisis; there’s almost no medical equipment of the kind needed to test and treat Covid-19; hundreds of thousands of more than five million migrant workers abroad whose remittances keep Nepal economically afloat are now jobless and heading home, and Kathmandu’s swollen population, concerned about congestion in the city, is fleeing to their villages across the land, possibly carrying the virus with them.

            Thapa’s fear is repeated by others I speak to. I know about his nation’s truly weak medical system; I agree that the administration is incompetent and deeply corrupt. Yet, I argue, “Nepal’s medics will ensure no one hides the facts. You have an aggressive free press now; it will expose details of any epidemic and force government action.”

            A month ago, Nepal had yet to report a single Covid-19 death, and only three infected individuals—all traced to Nepalis who’d arrived from abroad. No one believed those figures; the public’s experience on a host of past issues and endemic corruption results in widespread cynicism; the government cannot handle this crisis, they say.     

            Most Nepalis, like millions of people across the globe, depend on remittances from overseas workers, and food imports (since the outflow of labor leaves fields uncultivated). What options do Nepalis have to handle a looming epidemic?

            Without warning, on March 24th the government imposed a countrywide lockdown. Everyone was to remain inside. Schools and businesses were ordered closed. The quarantine is as severe as anywhere in the world, perhaps with the exception of China. Only policemen are seen in the lanes and roads. A colleague in Lahan village in Janakpur near India exclaims that traveling by motorbike and cycle-rickshaws is prohibited. Shopping for food is restricted; inter-city buses are halted; remittance agencies and banks are closed. Police and special security forces are deployed to Nepal’s border with India to prevent migrant laborers from returning home, creating Nepali refugee camps inside India.

            There was one announcement of medical supplies arriving by air from China (ordered by the U.N. Population Fund and various embassies). Otherwise thirty million Nepalis seem to be on their own.

            Six weeks into the pandemic, one has to scroll far down the coronavirus world register (ranked by number of infections) --past New Zealand with 17 deaths, Japan (348), Singapore (12), Cuba, (49), Ghana (10), Lebanon (22), etc. to find Nepal--with zero deaths and just 48 infections reported (as of April 25, 2020).

            Many citizens simply don’t believe the government figures, arguing that it’s incapable of even registering cases. Some Nepali news outlets call out the administration’s incompetence. On the other hand, some citizens suggest that that low rate is indeed a result of their strict adherence to the lockdown and the police’s zero tolerance of noncompliance with the quarantine. Privately, people adopt simple home remedies and advice gleaned from the internet. Families remain especially attentive to the abundant deities they live with and worship. And traditional places of refuge—temples and ashrams whose custodians offer hospitality at any time—are expanding their capacity to feed the needy.

            Today, criticism of Nepal’s passive administration is surprisingly tepid. For weeks, returning overseas migrant laborers languished at the border camps. Many jobless men were forced to walk 10-14 days from job-sites in distant parts of Nepal to reach their home village. The government seemed insensitive. (Finally, on April 17, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must provide transport to those walking from Kathmandu and other cities to their home destination.)

            “We watch what’s happening overseas. Without the service infrastructure of other countries, we must adopt this strict regime,” another colleague insists. “We have no equipment, no medical facilities, no capable governmental services, and no real leadership.”

            Nepal is not a country known for self-sufficiency and civic responsibility. Pampered for decades by an excess of foreign aid and favorable press, its people have customarily looked to outsiders for guidance and cash. This epidemic obliges them to find their own solution.     

            Another month will reveal a clearer picture of Nepal’s state of health. If they somehow escape a battering by this plague, Nepalis’ strict adherence to the simple formula of distancing and quarantine should bolster national confidence. It could lead to a needed move toward self-reliance.

 

 

 

 

[ Has Nepal Managed a Healthy Breakthrough in the Covid-19 Crisis? ]

Plans? How Can I Have a Plan, Madam?

April 14, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“Madam, how can I have any plans?

“I am searching for medicine for my mother; I’ve no money to repair my car; I have my sister asking me to help her son; I have come to the end of our food ration for this week.”

            A reply Americans, Italians, Indians, Brazilians, or Iranians—everyone across the globe-- might offer a curious (or naïve) journalist covering the crisis. (Not to exclude testimonies from exhausted healthcare and other service workers.)

            However, the respondent I quote here lived his uncertainty in a different era:—a quarter of a century ago, in Iraq. He’s Ali Al-Amiri, erstwhile poultry inspector for Nineveh’s provincial department of agriculture. We met in 2001, in Mosul, at the height of an epidemic there, namely the 13-year embargo imposed on his nation.

            I’d been covering the devastation created by that global blockade since 1990. So my question was indelicate, if not guileless.

            I knew conditions there well. 

            During a decade of assignments to that besieged, forlorn place, I’d witnessed deaths resulting from a scarcity of medicines and stress-related diseases; I’d recording burn victims scarred by fires from makeshift stoves, rising cancer infections, low-birth-weight newborns, unchecked spread of infectious diseases, the collapse of industry and the flight of desperate young people. (All well documented for anyone caring to investigate (including my account from Iraq joined early field reports from the International Action Center, and a belated Harvard Study  based on secondary sources.)

            Yes, my question to this and other besieged Iraqis may have been misplaced. Nevertheless Al-Amiri’s reply was instructive to those with a limited perception of war. It pointed to a frightfully blank tomorrow.

            If Americans (and others who complied with Washington’s policy to force Iraq to its knees) did not grasp the concept then, today we know it: “What are your plans for the weekend? Your graduation prom? Your annual colonoscopy? Your son’s wedding? Grandfather’s 80th birthday?” They’re all on hold; we’re just trying to keep the children entertained, get through another day with a testy partner, stock up on non-perishables, learn to connect by Zoom, gather papers for an insurance claim or patch a cracked windshield.

           This blank calendar is as intimate for us as it was for Iraqis. Of course it’s not the same; Iraq was completely cut off through a media blackout, a ban on flights, and by diplomatic and economic blockades. By contrast, in the midst of COVID-19, we have teleconferences and phone networking apps; we have sympathizers around the country and across the world; we can learn from others’ experiences; we can share resources and expertise.

            My point here is not to assign blame or compare sufferings. It’s to question the war model invoked by media commentators and politicians to interpret our dilemma; this hinders our understanding of what we’re experiencing. That embargo on Iraq was a fierce assault but it wasn’t interpreted by outsiders as war; embargo-deaths were largely unseen and uncounted by western historians. Just as 20 years of sanctions imposed on Vietnam after the U.S. defeat there, just as decades of embargo against Cuba, Iran and Syria continue, just as the crippling of Venezuela intensifies. Those sieges, like the current pandemic raise deeper moral questions.

            It would help to drop our concept of war in this crisis where media commentators and politicians invoke ‘911’ and the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. The military model (including the commander-in-chief image criterion for president) is the U.S. default solution to a problem, whether drugs or a pandemic or a perceived threat to U.S. interests. ‘Smash it to bits. Hit them with all we have.’ 

           Let’s see of Americans can emerge from today’s dilemma with a newly defined compassionate model of responsibility and leadership?

 

[ Plans? How Can I Have a Plan, Madam? ]

America's Untapped resources in Covid-19 Era: Part 2, Refugees and Immigrants

April 09, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

  Then, we are millions of immigrants, refugees from wars (often of U.S. making) who’ve witnessed waves of attacks. Day-after-day we lost a loved one, often unable to perform the last rites for our dearest ones. We turned to caring for our wounded, dared to shelter underground resistance fighters. We rushed from one place to another, seeking somewhere to hide. We left behind a child, an aged parent, a sick friend. We also devised ways to avoid nagging mothers or garrulous brothers. Families became closer, and humor emerged from shared traumas. We endured more than bombardments; sometimes we were hunted down by government commandos, attacked by desperate citizens or rebel militias.

            A more threatening curse imposed on us by outside enemies was embargo. Our Iraqi, Venezuelan, Iranian, Vietnamese, Palestinian and Syrians citizens can tell you about embargo-created deprivations, death and isolation-- a battering more deadly and invasive than any physical assault. These are contemporary U.S.-perfected and murderous applications of economic and cultural embargoes, sieges sanctioned and extended by the lofty, noble United Nations. (Iraq’s embargo was endorsed in 1990 by the U.N. Security Council/General Assembly, and adhered to worldwide for 13 years! The Vietnam embargo, imposed by the U.S. after its defeat, extended for two decades.)

            Documentation of the sanctions-war on Iraq (imposed in 1990 ended only in 2003!) augmented by US-led military bombardment, is hardy remembered today. (My accounts from Iraq during that period published by U. Press Florida, joined those of the International Action Center and published in the 1990s were reports from the field. Later came a Harvard study based on secondary sources.)

            Three warning notes from personal experience in Iraq suffice to suggest the trauma Americans, their European and Australian supporters of that war will themselves confront in their neighborhoods very soon.

            The first from my friend, sculptor Mohammed Ghani, on my initial visit to Iraq in 1989. Foremost among the memories he felt compelled to share rose from the just ended Iran-Iraq war. “Every day, passed cars with coffins strapped on top, holding the bodies of our sons (back from the battlefield of Al-Faw). Every day, every day; they drove by: one, two, then another, another”, he moaned.

            Hardly a year later came the invasion of Kuwait and the first U.S. Gulf War. Among those I interviewed soon after was journalist Kthaiyer Mirey. Among institutions smashed by American bombings in 1991 was Shamaiya Hospital for psychological diseases. Hospitalized for alcoholism, Mirey managed to escape from the bombed smoldering ruins. Many staff were killed; feckless survivors along with some patients escaped. “The dead and wounded”, Mirey told me, “were abandoned; then the dogs entered the debris to clean up.”

            Third, was my own witness of an eternal line of martyrs,  their portraits imprinted on banners --Iraqi soldiers who’d fought ISIS (under U.S. occupation during the past decade).

           

[ America's Untapped resources in Covid-19 Era: Part 2, Refugees and Immigrants ]

America's Untapped Resources: Part 1, High Risk Senors

April 02, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            We have a natural impulse to extend protection to the very young and to the old first; we offer sympathy and succor to traumatized refugees too.

            That’s reasonable. Our seniors and our children require attention as the most vulnerable; immigrants need support in unfamiliar surroundings.

            Professors speaking about historical precedents for the COVID-19 emergency invoke the Great Depression and chaotic hospital scenes from World War II. But, hey: we know about that, and more, first-hand!

            Yes. So, why not consider us elders, along with our immigrant citizens as assets at this time of crisis and fear--untapped resources? We have abundant practical advice for people fearful and under duress, counsel based on our past experience.

            We may not operate computers as nimbly as the young, but priorities are changing. As the COVID-19 crisis makes apparent, some skills become redundant; you’re unmoored from your once brawny anchors. When you’re really scared and grope for alternatives, turn not to apocalyptic movie scenarios but to what seniors have seen and done before you were born, what immigrants were shy to share. Our histories may offer guidance and solace in today’s disaster. We can tell you about our strategies and you can discover how we managed to cope. We’re here as a result, aren’t we?

            If elders didn’t suffer a pandemic, we endured other plagues, and we survived because of habits we devised, here not only because America offered sanctuary and opportunity, but also because we rebuilt our lives resourcefully. Heard of ‘rationing’? --A great, simple strategy. Improvisation too. Both painless habits. 

            We’re grateful to our energetic daughters and grandsons who happily set up our phone apps and install our Netflix. You’ll Google anything—even if we don’t really need it-- from potato peelers to airline bookings, and hearing aids-- all delivered to our distant home. (Yes, we succumbed to that pampering.)

            Surely now’s the time we can reciprocate with tips we learned from our less indulgent, less fast-paced and frugal past.

            We can tell you how to recycle cardboard and plastics, invigorate a stew for a second meal, review the merits of baking soda, trim your hair, repair a car or bicycle tire, forage for wild edible plants, disinfect fresh vegetables, substitute one spice for another, preserve surplus food, stitch a face mask.

            To survive we adjusted our social skills too, learned dexterity needed to endure wars' deprivations.

            Separated from loved ones, prayer became more routine; we rationed essentials, prioritized limited resources, reused clothes. We hunkered in underground shelters during a bombing blitz, slept on cold floors, coupled with our husband even with mother-in-law and children just meters away. We used water instead of toilet paper—it works great, left hand only (you can learn). We recycled bath water for cleaning, rewashed cotton diapers and sanitary cloths.

            These are a few elders’ memories and tips. We’d welcome a chance to share them, granted you’ll doubtless improve on them too.

                      Images of overwhelmed morgues and columns of unaccompanied hearses have reached us from Italy and Spain this week. That will become part of the American landscape.

            Young Americans are not yet ready for this; perhaps resourceful elder veterans and refugee victims from U.S. wars abroad can help sustain us. (Then there's the comfort of our voice.) END

[ America's Untapped Resources: Part 1, High Risk Senors ]

Nepal--Turn Around and Realize Your Neighbor is China

March 30, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Involuntarily, week by week Nepal’s population, joined by the global community, will find itself compelled to abandon hitherto starry-eyed views of ‘America’ as redeemer, source of truths, and all things good. (It’s already happening.)

            Working in your country for over four decades, I’ve never met people more enthralled with the U.S. as you are. Everyone I know strives to send children here. You order your iphone direct from U.S.A.; you quote the NY Times and CNN; villagers too consult Facebook for ‘reliable’ news; Kathmandu residents patronize your local reproduction of Starbucks and Pizza Hut. (The only exception to these addictions is Hindi dramas; they’re accessed from India.)

            On its side, America too is charmed by Nepal. We admire your beguiling, robed monks, your extravagant and vibrant Hindu rituals, and docile residents welcoming us on treks through your Himalaya.

            Appreciating the value of your exceptional loyalty (perhaps based on historical Gurkha-British alliances (www.gwt.org.uk/news/gurkha-regiments) the U.S. extends an open door to Nepalis: with your abiding charm, your industrious  graduates and Buddhist gurus, and your 6,000 earthquake victims, (admitted on TPS-visas in 2015, ignoring largely fraudulent claims, then granted extensions last year).   

 

            Politically, Nepalis are inexplicably complacent at home. For most of your history you were subjected to the rule of absolute monarchs. Although never occupied by foreign invaders. Following your successful 10-year Maoist guerilla campaign, you eventually rid yourselves of that oppressive sacred kingship. That was followed by your declaration as a republic, multi-party involvement, a democratic constitution and a 2015 election that endowed the winning Marxist/Leninist Party with power. Few lives had been lost in that process and expectations were high moving ahead. Despite the ended monarchy, an expanded free press, a vibrant tourism industry and the injection of foreign aid, your nation’s economy was never reformed, your class disparities never addressed. The elite remained entrenched; favoritism, corruption, graft, and nepotism deepened.             Corruption is worse today than ever. Although officially secular, consumptive spending on temples and rituals has increased, and high caste privilege remains. Your economy is crippled: as new plutocrats sap the wealth, your administration grows fat on bribes while allowing ordinary families to depend on overseas remittances; (5-7 million jobless, a fifth of your 28 million, are migrant workers in Malaysia and Arab Gulf states). https://www.globalresearch.ca/long-nepal-blame-others-woes/5665412?print=1 

            The U.S.’s open door combined with the generosity of foreign social service organizations lodged in Nepal, maintains this status quo. 

            It was to be expected that you and your government would await the arrival of foreign medics and health supplies along with instructions from here about how to treat your COVID-19 victims. Instead, growing awareness of that plague arrived with waves of those sons and brothers sent home from their curtailed employment overseas. (This influx may reverse the drop in agri-production after farms were abandoned or mortgaged, resulting in cash-dependency, more reliance on imported food and other needs, more demand for iNGO assistance.)

            Meanwhile, by March 15th Nepal reported only a single case of infection—a figure no Nepali accepted.

            Your government (neither as impoverished nor indebted as outsiders suppose) is unabashedly corrupt and inattentive; so you’re unsurprised at its negligence in identifying infections and moving to protect you from the spreading scourge.

            According to those of you I speak to on a weekly basis, the Nepali leadership was as slack as America in quarantining your population. You bide the time, accustomed to mismanagement and lies waiting for America’s magic pill to arrive. (By March 28th, only 4 positive cases had been announced, again causing public skepticism.) Now on lockdown—imposed on the heels of U.S. orders for its citizens -- you can’t even take your demands to the streets, a strategy used so effectively against your monarchy.

            While the American leadership has finally awakened to the severity of the pandemic, now rushing to contain the damage; it can draw on abundant resources, however belatedly. Nepal is slowly rousing itself, but it lacks those resources.

            In our phone conversations, it seems you feel forsaken, not by your government but by the U.S. and elsewhere. You must be shaken by witnessing the depravity of your hero.

            As you see, every government is occupied with its own overwhelmed health systems.

            If anyone comes to your rescue I expect it will be China, your northern neighbor and a steadfast benefactor. Beijing’s earthquake aid in 2015 was immediate, efficient and unmatched. (China has had major infrastructure projects underway there—partly to balance your traditional reliance on India.) Just yesterday, responding to today’s crisis, Chinese help is on its way to Kathmandu. Your government’s incompetence will be ameliorated, for the present.

            In the long run, your romanticized image of the omnipotent richest-country-in-the-world, will dissolve. You’re not the alone. The world had already glimpsed the unmasked face of the global bully in the person currently occupying the White House. Now your view is further refined by the U.S.’ presumption of immunity, our sloppy response to the epidemic, our ill-equipped medical system, the impotence of our military might.

            It’s time for Nepal to consider a new policy, not one that transfers overdependence to China, but one of resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, perhaps on the model of Cuba or Vietnam. A logical step for a Marxist-led government, don’t you think?

[ Nepal--Turn Around and Realize Your Neighbor is China ]

Rethinking Commander-in-Chief in American Leadership

March 20, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

https://www.globalresearch.ca/rethinking-commander-in-chief-american-leadership/5707092 

              Ask Americans who’s commander-in-chief, most will respond: our president. Citizens only think about this just before a presidential election every four years when their final, ‘supreme criteria’ of U.S. leadership is raised: “Does she or he have it:-- namely the wisdom (or courage, or resolve) to control the nuclear (war) button?”

               It’s a vague term whose specifics are not publicly explored; but I think we can agree it’s singularly associated with military conflict.

               I haven’t heard the term commander-in-chief applied to other heads of state, but some variety of it doubtless exists, where a military officer heads a government as Egypt and formerly Pakistan today. Notwithstanding Americans’ first president was a general-- one among 12 who became president https://www.theglobalist.com/generals-and-the-u-s-presidency/ (of 26 American presidents who’d served in the military).

               (Joe Biden, although never a military officer, is clearly projecting this ‘commander-in-chief image’ in debates, invoking his presence in ‘the situation room’, etc. He understands war, he assures the public.)

               Leadership was an underlying issue during recent primary debates. They’re essentially over now, eclipsed by the growing pandemic where the focus of leadership has rightly turned to management and moral vision.

               Surely our current unprecedented crisis reveals it is time to reconsider the concept. My point here is not Trump’s capacity, but the general underlying American criteria for the nation’s person-in-charge.

               Crisis strategists admit this pandemic is a ‘war’, even invoking 911 when Americans perceived they were under siege. (Although-- with the exception of immigrants who’ve fled conflicts, by-and-large generated by American bombardments and sanctions on their homelands—most really don’t grasp the realities of siege: economic, diplomatic, medical, cultural or military.)

               Now a major health, social and economic crisis—a catastrophe, not to be too alarmist—has arrived in the name of COVID-19.

               Whether or not we had doubts about the moral character and management ability of Trump, today we can testify to the gravity of his silliness, racism, ignorance, ugliness, meanness and misplaced priorities. It is far, far more serious that we could possibly have imagined. It forces us to scan the horizon for leadership.  

               A resident of New York State I’m most closely following the response to this crisis by our governor. (I fervently hope other governors are acting similarly to Andrew Cuomo.) https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/20/watch-live-ny-gov-cuomo-holds-press-conference-on-the-coronavirus.html. Because, the more I hear from Cuomo day-after-day, the more I feel (along with neighbors, family and friends overseas as well as in the U.S.), we have a profound example of the kind of leadership needed at this moment.

               In his presentations Governor Cuomo exhibits no commander-in-chief attitude, but rather that of a capable manager, also someone with –dare I say?—emotion and compassion, approaching that of a ‘father figure’. Perhaps his presence reminds us of President Roosevelt’s legendary fireside chats https://www.britannica.com/event/fireside-chats.

               Post-pandemic changes are inevitable. Friends talk about their offices and companies, their universities and hospitals rethinking long-term goals to offer different and better service; one talks about perceiving her neighborhood differently, seeking a new family dynamic, rethinking how we educate our children.

               Likewise we need to seriously rethink the concept of commander-in-chief. America’s criterion for presidency is redundant. It is neither a humane concept, nor a relevant one in times of nationwide social crisis. Also absent from this concept is emotion, compassion and morality.

               Although not hitherto a particular admirer of Andrew Cuomo, I now perceive him not only as a brilliant manager but also a person with the apparent morality required at this moment. Maybe other governors whose work I am not following are acting likewise. (And please don’t cynically rejoin that Cuomo is working with his eye on the White House in 2024. We’ll talk about that later.)

[ Rethinking Commander-in-Chief in American Leadership ]

Kaia Rolle, Handcuffed and Arrested at 6; at Her American School

March 04, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Handcuffed and Arrested at 6—How Many More, and for How Long is This America?   

While fretting over refugee children in freezing tents along Turkey’s border, or Nargis Fazili’s family fleeing Afghanistan across Asia to Europe (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/24/midnight-traveler-refugee-documentary-afghanistan, or lone migrant children caged in U.S. detention centers, we may barely register what happens to American children like Kaia Rolle; she’s a 6-year-old student at a not unusual neighborhood school in Florida.

            I suppose we should feel grateful for the body cameras which most American police are now required to wear to document their on-the-job encounters. Some police videos are made available to the public; some are lost. One recently released https://abcnews.go.com/wnt/video/officer-fired-video-shows-arresting-year-69213056 records an incident last September https://nypost.com/2019/09/22/florida-6-year-old-arrested-handcuffed-for-elementary-school-tantrum/ :—the handcuffing of Kaia Rolle by policemen at her school. The manacled child was led to a squad car and, unaccompanied by any school official or relative, and taken to a detention center to be finger-printed and photographed. The video was likely edited to hide the child’s face, probably in compliance with a ‘civil-rights’ law that protects minors—thank you. But it illustrates enough for us to witness an all-too-common injustice.

            It’s not the pleas of the weeping child that I find most disturbing; it’s the school staff’s passive witness to the child’s torture. None of the three women in the camera’s scope makes any attempt to protest, or to question the decision by we-don’t-known-whom, to subject the child to this unconscionable treatment.

            To further emphasize the egregious behavior by the police, we hear one man –likely the school resource officer --chatting with the staff members without any hint of regret or hesitation about how he regularly arrests children. Arrests are a source of pride for him, it seems. “Six thousand arrests over 28 years”, he boasts, “the youngest, 7-years-old.” When informed that the latest victim is six, he quips: “She’s six; now that’s a record.” Dennis Turner is a policeman who, like many in his position, are hired after retirement as “school resource officers”.

            These resource officers constitute a new class of law enforcement personnel employed by schools across America— they’re in my New York neighborhood schools too-- our solution to school shootings, a nationwide policy to protect our children from gun wielding maniacs. While they wait for anything that threatens the school from outside, these officers are engaged in student discipline inside. Parents and school administrators, out of fear of armed assailants, are empowering these unsupervised, armed retirees and veterans of foreign conflict --men accustomed to manhandling mostly adult male suspects-- to discipline troublesome children.

            (In addition to their school salary, a wage often higher than teachers’, many of them enjoy a generous pension from their police or military service. What a boon for the profession of law enforcement!)

            Attorney John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute’s warning https://www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/john_whiteheads_commentary/the_illusion_of_freedom_the_police_state_is_alive_and_well about our expanding police presence is so alarming that we are either too disturbed to register the details or we think he’s exaggerating. He is not.

            Viewing this single video of an on-duty school guardian entrusted to protect children, one has to question how much more goes on that we are not privy to? And this in inside U.S.A. with its celebrated freedoms! (I cannot bear to imagine the experience of countless Iraqi and Afghan families subject to abuse by American military personnel.)

            We are told Kaia was released and isn’t facing any charges. This doesn’t mollify me; nor am I gratified by the firing of that officer.)

            The video of the child’s arrest is revealing about how the child is handled too. A school staff member calmly tells Kaia to “Go with them, baby girl.” As Kaia is handcuffed, we hear one officer gently say: “Come over here honey”; then “It’s not going to hurt”.

            Later news clips of Kaia with her grandmother report that she is doing fine. That’s today. What about in the coming years?

            This experience may embolden little Kaia to become an attorney or a civic leader, perhaps a policewoman to protect others from the cruelty she would never forget. Can we fault her, though, if she chooses violence as a way to defend herself when gentle people nearby fail her or if they’re better informed about child victims of foreign aggression?

[ Kaia Rolle, Handcuffed and Arrested at 6; at Her American School ]

Being a Democrat—Ugh

February 09, 2020

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It’s a rough time to be a Democrat.

                Notwithstanding the impotent Senate Minority. Not those ill-fated bills championed as victories by House Democrats only to be spurned by the upper chamber; not smug, elitist party fundraisers; not funding strategists and millionaire celebrity donors; not even bumbling Iowa Democratic party officials.

                I mean this forlorn orphaned democrat—me. A registered party member who every two years pens as few op-eds, who sends a check to a favorite candidate, who puts in volunteer hours to GOTV (Get Out The Vote), and wholeheartedly campaigns for any Democratic candidate whom she believes is honest and competent.

                I don’t need to add to today’s punditry and partisan analyses spinning through media, much of it self-serving. And I eschewed the wondrous humor of SLN or Stephen Colbert following last week’s dizzying post-impeachment-trial-post-State-of-the-Union-post-Iowa-caucus.

                Put aside the shortsightedness of our overrated “founding fathers” and the ugliness of America’s current president. Put aside the deepening cultural war.

                I have a simple personal question: What am I, voter and local activist, to do now? By June, county committees and ad hoc citizen groups will begin training to prepare for the canvassing and fundraising that’s precedes every November election. A lot is at stake; even at county and state levels, enthusiasm and commitment are essential.

                For the first time in decades I’m not sure I want to continue. How can I go to college events to urge our young voters to engage in American democracy by embracing this party? How can I solicit funds for a candidate? How can I try to persuade the “undecided”-- that burgeoning population of marginalized and disenchanted voters-- to commit to a Democratic candidate? These unaffiliated citizens, we are told, are critical to  an election’s outcome. One friend, who when I shared my dismay over last week’s events, replied simply: “In this era, democracy requires repose.” 

                Oh dear. If repose is the answer, democracy’s not working.  

                Forget about the disgusting, shamelessly victorious Trump and his gloating Republican party for a moment. Don't mollify us by theorizing who’ll be on history’s side. (Let history take care of that.) What are we going to do about a corrupt mealy-mouthed Democratic party? Why did Mrs. Pelosi extend her hand to Trump before his address to the nation? Would you have? And tearing up the speech after she’d applauded Trump’s statements several times? Better to walk out. Decorum be damned-- Trump’s words themselves demonstrate that.

                What about our other congressional leader, the Senate Democratic minority guy? Where was Charles Schumer’s wisdom, daring and political acumen during that flawed and pompous process of impeachment? I hear not a whisper about his ineptness. Surely his failings contribute to Mitch McConnell’s brilliance and victory.  

                While the gross incompetence of our so-called progressive (left, moderate or center) party is in the spotlight, on the sidelines we have  newly exposed corruption within the DNC:-- its attempts to delegitimize (as it did in 2016) the formidable old Socialist from Vermont; its shifting rules for who may and may not participate in the once-proud American process of public political debates; its shady business interests and ineptitude exposed in the recent Iowa caucus-election.

                America’s Democratic Party is not the place for anyone who calls herself progressive today. It was easier to blame it on Russian hackers, wasn’t it?

[ Being a Democrat—Ugh ]


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