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March 7, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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Meghan McCain’s blubbering

Molly Crabapple: The most offensive thing to me as a Jew is seeing Meghan McCain blubber while saying she’s terrified of Ilhan Omar on my behalf.
— so much to say about mccain’s orwellian blubbering. could write an essay.

March 6, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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Knowing is Beautiful

This is a piece I wrote last year for a reading at Rochester Spoken Word. It talks about all the places, languages, sounds and smells, light and music that are a part of me – memories and sensations that come together in mystifying ways and make us who we are. It’s kind of stunning to think of how much diversity there is on our planet, how many worlds within worlds. So much to discover and share. Thank you Darien Lamen for the brilliant sound design on this, my first audio story. Pls listen and don’t forget to “like” on Soundcloud 🙂

March 5, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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stand with ilhan

call nancy pelosi, as i did, at 202-225-0100, press 1 to leave a message, tell her to withdraw the resolution against #IlhanOmar, support omar’s right to free speech, and engage with the legitimate points she has raised. tell pelosi to support omar against the racist, misogynist, anti-muslim attacks and smear campaign being directed at her. the dems won’t win next year, unless they listen to us.

March 2, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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Difference as liberatory politics

my new piece in which i talk about difference as liberatory politics, in the context of lessons learned from the partition of india (and a documentary i produced along with my friend, filmmaker surbhi dewan), white supremacy in america, and the work of edouard glissant.

It’s ironic that I found out about India’s air strikes across the line of control, inside Pakistani territory, from a friend in New Delhi. Surbhi Dewan and I were texting each other, late at night on Monday, February 25, about the passing of her grandmother, Leela Dewan, one of the beautiful women who shared their testimony about the partition of India in our film ‘A Thin Wall.’ In the middle of the conversation, Surbhi sent me a news link, along with the words, “Just heard. Feeling terrible.”

Since then, Pakistan has claimed to have shot down two Indian jets inside its air space and to have captured at least one Indian pilot. As tensions escalate, Surbhi and I continue to talk about her grandmother, a woman who chose to humanize the other, who had immense affection for her home in Multan (in Pakistan), and who is part of a precious generation we are losing – our last, lived-in link to a common past and culture, a connection that is becoming dangerously removed from reality and is hurtling toward intemperate jingoism and military preening.

It took me seven years to make ‘A Thin Wall’, a documentary about the partition of India. It focuses on displacement, memory, and the possibility of reconciliation, rather than rely on the larger-than-life male politicians who have come to frame this historical event. It’s a personal take, told in two voices: mine, a Pakistani American perspective, and that of my Indian co-producer and friend Surbhi Dewan. Our families were dislocated in 1947, when British India was carved up to create a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India. The film is shot on both sides of the border, in Lahore and Delhi. It aims to decolonize our understanding of the partition, by rooting it in 200 years of British colonial rule, and hopes for a regional future that centers the needs and dreams of South Asians.

During those seven years, I thought deeply about nationalism, the colonial divvying up of the world, the drawing up of borders, and the idea of religious, ethnic or racial homogeneity, which is often the justification for the creation of modern nation states.

It became apparent to me that although nationalism can be a used as a rallying cry for freedom and self-rule, especially in a colonial context, it can also reduce complex struggles for justice to the black and white language of national borders, and the separation, forced assimilation or erasure of difference. Here in the U.S., Muslim bans, the militarization of our border with Mexico, and the massive deportations (that had already started under Obama), are all ways of ejecting diversity. Purity struck me as an aberration of nature – only enforceable by violence.

Myths about monolithic national identities are just that, myths. It’s not a coincidence that illusions of homogeneousness work in tandem with the capitalist enterprise. Rabindranath Tagore wrote about the “national machinery of commerce and politics” that “turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision,” and in the end, hardly human.

At a time when the U.S. is teetering on the verge of white ethno-nationalism, it’s imperative to understand the full dividends and implications of “difference” from every possible angle, and learn lessons from history.

The idea of separating what is different, by erecting electrified fences and borders, is a way of ignoring broader issues of inequity. We see this with the partition of India, which was supposed to solve the minority problem. Yet all it did was re-articulate that question vis-a-vis two nation-states. Both India and Pakistan have a troubling history of violence against minorities. They have fought four wars and are on the verge of another alarming military entanglement. At the core of these conflicts is Kashmir, a Muslim-majority territory that has been disputed since the partition in 1947. With 700,000 Indian soldiers positioned in occupied Kashmir, it has become one of the most brutally militarized places in the world.

Building walls and suppressing protests with pellet guns are cruel, ineffectual strategies that are bound to fail in the long-term. Instead there is a need to confront injustices head-on and engage in the hard work of rethinking diversity, beyond the facile jargon of multiculturalism and (token) inclusion. Diversity must mean full equity and social revitalization through the deconstruction of dominant racial, cultural, and religio-political systems and narratives.

Angela Davis warns us not to accept as standard and normal those who are located at the center of institutions we wish to dismantle. “Why would women want to become equal to men?” she asks. “Why would Black, and Latinos, and Arabs and Muslims want to become equal to white people? Why would the LGBT community want to become equal in the context of heteropatriarchy?” She describes how racism is kept alive, and transformation eschewed, by integrating people of color into a white supremacist society. This is inclusion without equity.

Similarly, in ‘Inclusion in the Atrocious,’ a piece about the trans ban on military service, Eli Massey and Yasmin Nair write: “a diversity agenda is morally meaningless unless we examine the institutions we are diversifying.” Although they agree that any kind of discrimination is unacceptable, they argue that ‘the push for trans inclusion in the military, much like the push to include women and gays and lesbians, can’t simply be framed as a matter of “inclusion” versus “discrimination.” That’s because, given the brutal history of United States military action, we also have to ask important questions about the meaning of participating in unjust institutions. Singling out the issue of inclusion without examining the institution itself produces morally incoherent stances.’

The benefits of diversity are apparent in nature whether in ecology, where the landscape’s structural heterogeneity and biodiversity endow plant and animal systems with resilience, or in the hybrid vigor that strengthens our own genetic make-up. Nature seems to abhor homogeneity and is, in fact, driven to recomplexify when faced with uniformity.

In addition to ethnic, religious and cultural multiplicities, we must also recognize body diversity. In her New York Times article, ‘If you’re in a wheelchair, segregation lives,’ Luticha Doucette describes ableism as a form of segregation and explains how inclusive design can create public spaces that enrich all of our lives. Body diversity should be accepted as the norm rather than the exception, with a keen appreciation for what Sejal Shah calls “invisible disability” or neurodiversity. In her moving essay in the Kenyon Review, she describes the stress and isolation that come with depression, the leading cause of disability worldwide, because of “the pressure to display a wellness [one does] not entirely possess.” It’s the demand to dissolve difference and be absorbed into what is mainstreamed as normalcy.

Similar thoughts are echoed in Judith Butler’s article, ‘The backlash against “gender ideology” must stop’:

‘Ultimately, the struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom seeks to alleviate suffering and to recognise the diverse embodied and cultural lives that we live. Teaching gender is not indoctrination: it does not tell a person how to live; it opens up the possibility for young people to find their own way in a world that often confronts them with narrow and cruel social norms. To affirm gender diversity is therefore not destructive: it affirms human complexity and creates a space for people to find their own way within this complexity. The world of gender diversity and sexual complexity is not going away. It will only demand greater recognition for all those who seek to live out their gender or sexuality without stigma or the threat of violence. Those who fall outside the norm deserve to live in this world without fear, to love and to exist, and to seek to create a world more equitable and free of violence.’

It bears repeating that diversity does not cure racism – multiraciality can exist in parallel with white supremacy (or casteist/ethnocratic ideologies) and racial mixing does not guarantee an end to discriminatory systems. In the U.S. context, a majority-minority shift in demographics or the “browning” of America does not imply full equity. In fact, “inclusion in the atrocious” can lend credence and longevity to racist institutions. This is why diversity should not be limited to the framework of minority rights and should instead be seen as collective liberation.

The Martinique poet and philosopher, Édouard Glissant, offers us the language to articulate such a conception of diversity, such that the most minor human differences are acknowledged all at once, and are in equal relationship with the rest of the world. Such an open totality would lead to constant negotiation, exchange and mixing between a multitude of identities and in doing so, it would produce unknowable outcomes.

Unknowability, as espoused by Glissant, is a repudiation of stability and the model of extreme/100% safety that we are told to desire and strive for. Aren’t all our present wars, including the monstrous War On Terror, preemptive violence branded as righteous security?

In Glissant’s chaos world – his thinking of the manifold – people would learn to cope with incompatibility and unpredictability, and become adept at withstanding tensions.

The idea of the archipelago, with its multiple rich and diverse parts existing in an equal and simultaneous relationship with one another, is the opposite of European Universalism, which offers a kind of unity – a dictate to soak up diverse identities and achieve a one size fits all, Eurocentric ideal – what we call modernity.

Of course, the economic disparities between countries, and between people within countries, are real. These are not the differences Glissant speaks of. They do not represent atavistic identities but rather the theft and exploitation of labor and resources, facilitated by global or domestic power and its capitalist infrastructure, in direct contravention of Glissant’s egalitarian vision.

Another essential component of this non-hierarchical vision is the concept of opacity: the idea that identities and cultures need not be evaluated on a scale of transparency. It challenges rationality and the demand for complete comprehension, on Western terms.

In short, we must accept the world we live in – a chaos world we can never fully grasp, and parts of which will always remain opaque. Rather than try to shape or rationalize it, using hegemonic systems, we must learn to make peace with uncertainty.

We can map this process of exchange by looking at liminal spaces, borders and borderlands, for this is where “relation and difference link entities that need each other’s energy to exist in beauty and freedom,” according to Manthia Diawara in ‘Édouard Glissant’s Worldmentality: An Introduction to One World in Relation’.

It might be a tall order to flip our worldview and reinvent our understanding of difference, but new paradigms and possibilities matter.

My film, A Thin Wall, tries to imagine a decolonial South Asia, in which our common past and pressing present would allow us to jettison the colonial psyche we’ve been stuck in for the last 70 years. If only we could see through the thin wall that separates us, we would recognize some of our sameness. The last words in the film are: “nothing happens, unless we dream it first.”

Dreams matter. They show us a way forward.
More here.


March 1, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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Biocultural diversity

‘It’s no coincidence that the world’s tallest trees grow in a region that’s also one of the world’s most linguistically diverse. That relationship between nature and culture is called biocultural diversity, and it is, as Terralingua says, both the source and the expression of all the beauty and potential of life on Earth.’

March 1, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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How a Private Israeli Intelligence Firm Spied on Pro-Palestinian Activists in the US

Adam Entous: Psy-Group’s intelligence and influence operations, which included a failed attempt in the summer of 2017 to sway a local election in central California, were detailed in a New Yorker investigation that I co-wrote earlier this month. Before it went out of business, last year, Psy-Group was part of a new wave of private-intelligence firms that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services and described themselves as “private Mossads.”

Psy-Group initially stood out among its rivals because it didn’t just gather intelligence; its operatives used false identities, or avatars, to covertly spread messages in an attempt to influence what people believed and how they behaved. In 2016, Psy-Group held discussions with the Trump campaign and others about conducting covert “influence” operations to benefit the candidate. Psy-Group’s foun
der and C.E.O., Royi Burstien, a veteran Israeli intelligence officer who established the firm in 2014, told me that his talks with the Trump campaign went nowhere. The company’s posturing, however, attracted the attention of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, who has been investigating interference in the 2016 Presidential race.

Psy-Group’s operations against B.D.S. activists on U.S. college campuses began in February, 2016, according to internal documents describing the campaign. The company raised money in New York from Jewish-American donors and pro-Israel groups, and assured them that their identities would be kept secret. Psy-Group told them that its goal was to make it appear as though the donors were not involved in any way.

The campaign, code-named Project Butterfly, initially targeted B.D.S. activists on college campuses in “a single U.S. state,” which former Psy-Group employees have told me was New York. The company said that its operatives drew up lists of individuals and organizations to target. The operatives then gathered derogatory information on them from social media and the “deep” Web, areas of the Internet that are not indexed by search engines such as Google. In some cases, Psy-Group operatives conducted on-the-ground covert human-intelligence, or HUMINT, operations against their targets. Israeli intelligence officials insist that they do not spy on Americans, a claim that is disputed by their U.S. counterparts. More here.

March 1, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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Our Captured, Wounded Hearts: Arundhati Roy On Balakot, Kashmir and India

Arundhati Roy: The war that we are in the middle of, is not a war between India and Pakistan. It is a war that is being fought in Kashmir which expanded into the beginnings of yet another war between India and Pakistan. Kashmir is the real theatre of unspeakable violence and moral corrosion that can spin us into violence and nuclear war at any moment. To prevent that from happening, the conflict in Kashmir has to be addressed and resolved. That can only be done if Kashmiris are given a chance to freely and fearlessly tell the world what they are fighting for and what they really want.

Dear World, find a way.
More here.

February 27, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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A tribute to Leela Dewan

On February 24, just a few days ago, Leela Dewan, one of the beautiful women who shared their testimony about the partition of India in A Thin Wall, left us for a better, eternally peaceful world. She was Surbhi Dewan‘s Daadi ji and an important voice that chose to humanize the other. She was part of a precious generation that we are sadly losing – people who experienced coexistence on the other side of the border and who represent our last lived-in link to a common past and culture. This connection is especially needed now, at a time of military escalation between Pakistan and India. 

Leela Dewan was an incredible woman. More than 800 people paid their respects at her funeral – a testament to the lives she touched with her kindness and joyful energy. 

This is how her granddaughter, my dear friend Surbhi, remembers her:

My grandmother had a very apt name. Leela literally means play/amusement. Daadi ji was playful in an effortless way – making all of us laugh even at the most serious time. We carry her innocent, khule dil wali hasee, her whole-hearted laughter in our hearts.

Since the day Daadi left us, we have been overwhelmed by so many memories. One thought keeps coming to me, stronger than anything else – that my story begins with her. So let me tell you a story.

One day in 1947, a 12-year old girl, was playing with her friends in her village in Dera Ghazi Khan in Multan. Suddenly, she was asked to join her family who were preparing to leave their home. Along with her family, she narrowly escaped and crossed over to the Indian side to start a new life as a refugee. 

I can’t remember when I first heard this story about my Daadi’s journey across the border. I don’t remember because she began telling me the story before I was old enough to understand it. She also narrated stories about her happy childhood memories and her deep affection for the land across the border. Her love for her lost home in Pakistan, and her skillful storytelling, both became a part of me. 

Now I tell stories for a living and all my stories, each one of them, can be traced back to her.

I feel so thankful, so lucky, to have a Daadi who was so many things – loving, generous, kind, funny, a sugar junkie – but most importantly for me, a master storyteller, who chose to remember her stories and share them with me, who showed me the power of storytelling, who gave me a beginning to my story, in so many ways.

I know that she lives on – in our joy and laughter, in our playfulness, in all the funny, moving, fascinating stories that are yet to be told…

February 27, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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Pakistan shoots down two Indian fighter jets

when a show of machismo becomes terrifyingly real. neither pakistan nor india are truly invested in a full-blown war. let’s talk about an independent kashmir instead of flexing our military muscles. let’s stop conforming to the colonial paradigm of “divide and rule” and de-escalate. #SayNoToWar

February 26, 2019
by mara.ahmed
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Don’t start wars

Mirza Waheed: India, Pakistan, guess what, resolving Kashmir is an infinitely better option. You’ve fought a few times before and the fact that you’re still at it means only one thing: it hasn’t worked for either country. Most certainly not for Kashmir.
As for people dizzy with glee at the prospect of war, it’s quite clear you cannot turn them into agents of peace. Ultimately, they will be unpleasant little footnotes in history, if anything at all.
#DontStartWars