Recent Blog Posts
- September 13, 2020
News from the Himalayas is scant this year. No Everest or K2 summiting; nothing about the railway from China; no new Sherpa biographies.
Demonstrations in Kathmandu protesting India’s territorial claim on Kalapani, a spur of land at Nepal’s furthest northwestern border subsided after a talk between their respective prime ministers.
As for how the pandemic is affecting Nepal, scant news might lead to a conclusion that the country’s thin air or its pantheon of well-attended deities immunizes residents from Covid’s ravages. Nepal’s low death toll—336 (with 53,100 cases reported to date, although rapidly rising)—for a population of 30 million is remarkable, also inexplicable given the government’s weak public health policy and shoddy management. Some citizens timidly suggest they might share a genetic immunity; others advocate popular herbal bromides will protect them. Cynics accuse the government of hiding the real death toll, or worse, that it simply doesn’t know the count.
Lack of information and public distrust heighten tensions. Throughout early summer, while Covid-19 wreaked havoc across Europe, U.S.A. and in nearby India, Nepal’s death toll remained below 100. This did not mean the population was unaffected: migrant workers were stranded; essential imports were threatened and business in general came to an abrupt halt; tourism ceased too. When India and the U.S. imposed lockdowns, Nepal’s administration followed suit. Except it did so as a knee-jerk reaction; it had no short-term relief plan and no long-term management strategy.
The government made no arrangements to mobilize social and economic services to help citizens cope. All schools and colleges closed (and remain shuttered); inter-city bus transport was halted and international air travel and domestic flights that link remote hill regions to lowland cites and the capital ended. All these closures were strictly, often pitilessly, enforced by a heightened nationwide police presence.
Exacerbating Nepal’s crisis was an influx of returning migrant workers: -- tens of thousands of more than four million, mainly men, employed in Malaysia, the Gulf States and India. Jobless laborers walking long distances to their homes across India included Nepalis who, when they reached the border of their homeland, found entry barred, and were then quarantined in camps inside India. The Nepal government’s unkind response was matched by more obstacles for those who managed to cross the 1,088-mile frontier.
Once inside their homeland these beleaguered souls found themselves unwelcome in border cites and in Kathmandu en route to the interior. City residents feared new arrivals might be carrying the virus with them. Then, many returnees who reached their home village (usually by foot) were banned from entering until they passed yet another quarantine period.
Added to medical threats are lost incomes; so families who’d grown dependent on workers’ remittances are also negatively impacted. Doubtless, Nepalis are among millions of other laborers caught in limbo in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Nepal is not without resources of its own to alleviate Covid-related hardships but the government has been stingy, relying largely on lockdown enforcement and on a vigorous public information campaign about safety measures to follow.
Several million dollars donated by the WHO was to provide for testing and for PPE and treatment facilities for stricken Nepalis. This finances limited testing at regional centers and pays for the construction of quarantine shelters. Beyond Kathmandu Valley and major cities, hospital treatment for serious Covid cases is scarce. (The ‘socialist’ government is hardly socialist in practice, promoting private hospitals over establishing a national health system for example.)
Many citizens feel their government must do more and they suspect Covid-targeted aid is yet another avenue for corruption. Growing discontent at Kathmandu’s handling of the pandemic seems to have no effect on policy. The government response to the crisis remains simply an on-off imposition of the lockdown. The public and ministers alike watch international news for a hint of a successful Covid vaccine.
Businesses in the capital are suffering badly, and many will fail. Lines for food handouts are longer.
As in many Asian societies, Nepal’s elderly are well cared for by their children at home. So this country will not see the nursing home death toll that Americans and British experienced.
During the crisis Nepalis have made good use of IT facilities and their readily chargeable cell phones to weather the Covid storm. Nepal’s media have remained vigorous; and teachers and officials (urban and rural) have adapted to the use of zoom meetings, and online teaching, once limited to elite schools for children of the wealthy, is now widely used.
What citizens most lament is their incompetent, corrupt administration. Many had thought that with the unification in 2018 of squabbling dysfunctional leftist parties, they could build a stronger nation; they are sadly disappointed. As the eminent Canada-based Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa http://www.manjushreethapa.com/ notes: “I think about how high people’s expectations were of Nepal’s governing party (an alliance between Marxist-Leninist and Maoist communist parties) when they voted it into a majority. It’s all just deteriorated into a cabal of “high” caste men.
- August 28, 2020
If you’re gathering evidence of the victimization of Muslim women, this is not your film. Yes, Made in Bangladesh highlights exploitation in a country, most of whose citizens are Muslim. But this film’s focus is women workers: people working to support their families, as most women do, and fighting for parity, as most of us do.
Some film reviews underscore the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka where many women perished. Made in Bangladesh is not an account of that catastrophe.
While the venue of this film is a clothing factory and the main characters are women laborers, its inspiration is union organizer Daliya Akter who, fleeing her village home, found work in a Dhaka garment factory, one probably not unlike the setting of this film. She eventually realized that the only way out of untenable working conditions she experienced was to build worker solidarity and gain legal protection, and so began organizing a union of fellow garment workers. Made in Bangladesh is based on her struggle and ultimate success, a story so compelling that film director Rabaiyat Hossain, herself Bangladeshi, reached out to Akter to collaborate in the writing and film production of her tough but heartwarming career.
This is director Rubaiyat Hossain’s third feature film, and since its 2019 release through Indie film festivals, she has won recognition as an outstanding young filmmaker. She is unapologetically committed to women’s empowerment both in the themes of her films and also by employing professional women in her production teams, assembling a crew of talented Bangladeshi women to handle the cameras, the sound, editing, casting, and other production work that go into serious filmmaking. In a 2019 interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hossain explains her determination to bring women into all levels of production.
Hossain is forthright about the political motive behind her themes too. She emphasizes that the women she portrays are not victims. Her aim is to direct attention to women’s search for political solutions to injustices they experience. She joins rejection of boycotts by sympathetic foreign consumers of those garment sweat shops after the 2013 tragedy, explaining: “These (factory) jobs have the potential to redefine life for young women in Bangladesh; the struggle of garment workers to be able to collectively work towards realizing their rights must be supported by everyone who wears the clothes they make. Only a tiny percentage of Bangladeshi factories are unionized; the answer (to exploitative factory management) is that these women are respected and that bad (working) conditions are not tolerated.”
The film has deservedly won Hossain’s team international acclaim. Made in Bangladesh is laboriously and skillfully filmed in situ (in contrast with those lavishly staged Bollywood productions and made-for-America Indian features). Director Hossain swamps us in the deafening noise of a factory floor where rows of undistinguishable workers bend over machines. She maneuvers us along dusty, clamorous Dhaka streets. She leads us through unlit corridors of the labor ministry where our heroine repeatedly returns, petition in hand. She holds our gaze behind mosquito netting to overhear a forlorn couple review their bleak options. She draws us into a cluster of coworkers gathering to strategize their campaign. Anyone who has walked through urban neighborhoods in Nepal, Pakistan, India or Bangladesh will appreciate the authenticity that Hossain and her crew achieve in Made in Bangladesh. (It’s evident that her aim is not to exhibit Dhaka’s poverty. It is what it is—the daily routine of laborers, many of them rural migrants to the city.)
And the actors: Made in Bangladesh’s main character is Shimu, beautifully rendered by Rikita Nandini Shimu. Our heroine emerges from silent humility to step on a risky path, facing one obstacle after another, yet refusing to retreat. Two other noteworthy figures are an NGO worker who recruits Shimu to gather signatures for her campaign but offers no real political support, and another unsympathetic character, a secretary to the ministry of labor official who reviewers union applications. Both these women could facilitate Shimu’s agenda, and their portrayal as passive characters emphasizes the courage and determination needed by our heroine.
This Bangladeshi production also propels the country’s film talent onto the global stage, adding to the growing body of work that is countering established stereotypes and white-hero-focused films that have hitherto shaped and dominated our perceptions of the world’s people.[ Film review: Made in Bangladesh-A Union Story ]
- July 22, 2020
USA needs help. Let’s face it: our democratic institutions aren’t working well; our president is behaving like a depraved, spiteful monarch; our police, with almost 19,000 independent units nationwide, are unmanageable; our unprecedented social and economic divides are growing; the health of our citizens is declining; new digital platforms are sources of unprecedented hate and threats; media is so polarized, we don’t know whom to believe. (Then there’s the Covid-19 pandemic.)
Across the globe, wherever a nation is in crisis—by hurricane or earthquake, mounting disease or plunging poverty, military attack or teetering government--- whether requested or not, others are alerted and assistance from abroad is mobilized. The U.S. (as projected by American media) is in the forefront of concern for others (except those on its sanctions list— e.g. North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Yemen). Genuine humanitarian aid is dispatched from NGOs and private, religious and government agencies. Assistance flows in cash, in materials and advisors, observers and medical experts (along with military intelligence and troops where it’s determined to be advantageous to American policy).
Today America itself is a nation under internal threat, and in dire need. Along with signs that the U.S. healthcare system and its leaders cannot control the Covid-19 disease, more examples of police brutality are exposed. Underpinning and exacerbating both ailments is political instability (although few would identify it as such).
If Americans will not admit that they’re engulfed by this unprecedented crisis, outside observers note it with growing alarm. Countries close their borders to Americans while the pandemic spirals out of control. Across the world, people are questioning the very idea of American democracy. Longtime U.S. allies are flummoxed by its unpredictable foreign policy. Even before these multiple crises emerged, commentators pondered our teetering democracy.
We’ve had flawed, embarrassing state primary elections in Georgia and Wisconsin; we had the Democratic National Committee interrupt the presidential primaries to install its preferred candidate Joe Biden. Public doubts are increasing about how November’s election can be legitimately conducted. Every week presents us with more fears about this democracy. Management of the pandemic is undermined when the CDC, one of America’s most highly regarded health agencies, is bypassed by a White House order to divert medical data to a branch of Homeland Security. Most recently we have unidentified paramilitaries circumventing state and local authorities to confront protesters, first in D.C, now in Portland. with threats of similar directives to other cities.
This slide towards greater political instability looks unstoppable.
Another country experiencing a similar crisis will surely be the object of outside assistance, or interference. There’ll be offers of economic assistance, dispatch of intelligence advisors; international peacekeepers might be sent; a U.N. Security Council resolution would be proposed.
But who will help America? Who could? In 2007 Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez donated heating oil to American families struggling through the winter months. Cuba’s offer of help early in the Covid-19 crisis was spurned, (while from its side Washington blocked Chinese assistance to Cuba, interfered with a shipment to France and essentially commandeered a Chinese Covid-19-related supplies meant for Canada ).
I can think of just three states—Israel, Australia and the U.K.-- who might offer assistance. Israel is a dependable training site for American police, and a highly valued intelligence service for the U.S. Australia maintains an opaque but firm military alliance with America, readily falling in with the Pentagon’s needs. On intelligence sharing, the U.K is a solid partner. Although one wonders how much economic assistance England could offer, preoccupied with its own pandemic. Plans for new U.S.-U.K. trade agreements to thwart the European Union are delayed. As for guidance from England on democracy, its parliamentary system differs markedly from U.S. federalism and few British understand America’s election processes. The White House occupant might reach out to Russia, but that would raise other problems, even among Republicans.
What about India? Historically beset by discord between two major ethnic groups, multi-cultural India might be a model. But the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Modi has been fiercely uncompromising. Advice from India is out.
Maybe South Africa would step up to help. The U.S. backed the anti-apartheid struggle there, and South Africa’s victory established an exemplary racial reconciliation system.
Scanning the rest of Africa, the Middle East, and South America, we fine few candidates who might help us out.
But wait! We have billionaires, lots of them—609 out of 2,208 globally.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg and his peer Apple’s Tim Cook responded to Governor Cuomo’s call for help during New York’s Covid-19 crisis, and George Soros promises more support for Black Americans’ struggle for justice. Some very wealthy Americans offer to pay more taxes.
An alternative to these proposals: citizens in the streets.
- July 12, 2020
I suspect most Americans would approve of what they understand to be this nation’s global cultural reach as expressed through its ‘soft power’. A term coined by an American political scientist, soft power “involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”. Contrasted with coercive measures, it’s achieved largely through cultural means, although nevertheless a feature of foreign policy. Probably as old as politics itself.
Soft power politics are long-term, sociable and gentle. (Certainly nothing dangerous!) To say that they’re ideologically driven would be guileless. Some definitions are less circumspect, describing soft power as “using positive attraction and persuasion to achieve foreign policy objectives”. When at work domestically, it may be akin to kneeling-softly-on-the-neck, persuading Americans how this is a land of equality and unparalleled freedom.
U.S. citizens may even consider America’s soft power abroad with pride: “This is how we’re helping others-- securing democratic principles, sharing advanced (sic) intellectual, medical and cultural resources. American films, so popular (and lucrative) globally, augmented by satellite-enabled news and entertainment channels are, I would argue, among the most effective examples of this power. Music and literature cannot be excluded too.
Boosting commercially-driven exports are government-funded programs like Peace Corps, high school scholarships, youth exchanges, anthropological research and conferences. All proceed at an undiminished pace, whichever party rules. These programs also carry that ‘cold light of reason’ imparted to foreign peoples held to be short on ‘objectivity’ or ‘reason’. Implicit in this largesse is an intellectual and aesthetic superiority on the part of the donor.
Globally, tens of millions indiscriminately embrace soft power projects originating in European (white) nations. They search them out and compete for any awards offered. Soft power programs can foster the belief in people that their own government is evil, hopeless— at least uncaring -- leading such romantics to conclude it should be overthrown-- if not internally, then by an invading force. They feel they are a doomed, emotional people unable to advance as long as they live in the smothering atmosphere of ‘tradition’ and of ‘tribalism’. To escape they must remodel their hair, learn to wear neckties and speak correctly, eat with a fork and acquire quality foreign accoutrements—from mountain bikes, Cuisinart toasters and Victoria’s Secret underwear, to Boeing fighter jets.
Let’s face it: that cultural bounty and the fabulous stuff associated with it is propaganda. Originator of the term soft power, Joseph Nye, admits “the best propaganda is not propaganda".
What’s propaganda and what’s not is an ongoing debate. Leading American critics of imperialism as it’s dispensed via soft power include Edward Said, Malcolm X and Cornel West. They join generations of intellectuals and dissenters warning of its hazards. Across the world the destructive impact of that soft power is not wholly unopposed. Political prisoners and martyrs, armed rebels—women and men engage in the eternal struggle to lift off the imperial “knee on their neck”—both its soft and coercive iterations.
That oppressive “knee on their neck” has become the symbol of the American police state, manifest so compellingly and undeniably in the famous video of George Floyd’s murder.
America’s Black, Brown and Native populations are familiar with the brute force of that killer knee. They equally recognize the effectiveness of the knee’s soft power (unnoticed by others) in maintaining the status quo. The soft knee works into centuries of renegotiated treaties, temporary fixes, pleas for more time; it resists reform; it offers gratuitous sympathy, compromises and inclusion programs. Soft power is powerfully seductive, reinforced among all classes by a steady diet of Hollywood’s white savior tropes.
Often people are mollified by small gains and minor adjustments. Many become weary; they simply surrender. She learns to hold her breath, turn her eyes down and rush away to weep and scream in private. Daughter removes her head covering; brother marries out of his faith, shaves his beard; mother joins a temple or mosque.
Demanding real change is very risky. In 2016, a short-lived event although less dramatic than the removal of an inglorious military statue poignantly carries the weight of America’s soft-power-enforced history. Corey Menafee, a longtime kitchen employee at Yale University regularly passed under an image, a stained glass window which others, if they even noticed it, may have viewed as inconsequential, a quaint reference to the distant past. But Menafee’s ire rose each time he thought about it. He may have vowed to either leave his job or formally appeal for the image’s removal. To Menafee, it was a symbol of his enslaved ancestors and a romanticization of America’s crime of racism. That image of Black women cotton pickers reminded this man of the exploitation of his people: -- a crime neither recognized, seen nor felt by others.
Surely knowing it would cost him dearly Menafee made a courageous decision: he smashed the window. That supreme act may seem reckless but to this Black American-- to anyone who knows the insult that that image speaks and the risk involved in challenging it-- it’s a big deal, a very big deal.
This kind of protest, a mark of the Black American movement’s mission, compels us to recognize the seemingly innocuous effect of the soft power we inhale every day. That unchallenged window in a reputedly liberal university suggested that there’s no political implication there; it’s just art, just culture, decorative and hardly noteworthy.
To Black Americans it is an agonizing image, one of millions existing across our cultural and linguistic landscape. It’s more egregious, the rising call to action more urgent, because whites do not perceive their racial implications. That window remained embedded in the wall, year after year, generation after generation, seen by thousands of smart (sic) people while its hurtful and humiliating power went unopposed.
Al Sharpton, in his peerless eulogy at George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis, helped define American history for us this way:
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to being is you kept your knee on our neck. We were smarter then the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck. We had creative skills, we could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck. What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life, it’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks. That’s the problem no matter who you are. We thought maybe we had […], maybe it was just us, but even blacks that broke through, you kept your knee on that neck. Michael Jordan won all of these championships, and you kept digging for mess because you got to put a knee on our neck. White housewives would run home to see a black woman on TV named Oprah Winfrey and you messed with her because you just can’t take your knee off our neck. A man comes out of a single parent home, educates himself and rises up and becomes the President of the United States and you ask him for his birth certificate because you can’t take your knee off our neck. The reason why we are marching all over the world is we were like George, we couldn’t breathe, not because there was something wrong with our lungs, but that you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck. We don’t want no favors, just get up off of us and we can be and do whatever we can be.”
That knee on the neck is more than a physical force. It’s the cultural conditioning, the light of cold reason, the deflection, the imbibed message that Blacks are not quite up to the arbitrary standard set and maintained within soft (white) power. That folksy depiction of women in the cotton field is simply a pleasing piece of art. The slave supporting the warrior that crowns a national museum is just an aesthetic compliment to its central (white) figure! African and Muslim headwear is impractical. Lungi wraps on men are unprofessional. And on and on.
Soft power is so dominant and simultaneously appears so innocuous, so embedded and integrated into white privilege and white’s assumptions of their dominant historical place that they fail to see its propaganda. It also works on newcomers, notably Asian and Arab immigrants, who buy into the American dream. Having absorbed a steady diet of soft power in their homelands, they easily sanction and join the American status quo.
(Anthropologists --and I am one--are slow to admit their role in advancing the soft power of imperialism. After all, anthropology itself emerged hand-in-hand with the expansion of European imperial rule. We might do better to turn our analytical skills to exposing the soft-knee-on-the neck and vigorously work to demolish it.) END[ Soft Power: Americans in Its Grip at Home Must Face the Mischief It Wields ]
- June 22, 2020
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 ]
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