All posts by mara.ahmed

two book reviews

“train to pakistan” by khushwant singh

one of the seminal books about the partition of india, “train to pakistan” is a relatively short book, at about 190 pages. yet it encapsulates the madness and ambiguity of partition with masterly precision. the plot is brilliantly structured – an impressive architectural feat of realistically-drawn characters milling about an impending vortex and banging into one another with increasing frequency. khushwant singh captures the habits and culture of simple punjabi villagers with acute observation, in flawless english. the language is a feat in and of itself – it remains clean and uncluttered while representing people, places and situations packed with cruel contradictions and appalling extremes. the story proceeds surely, like a cable that is constantly coiled and stretched beyond endurance. we reach the end of the book with escalating tension and breathless suspense. and like it should, the cable finally snaps and we are left thinking about what happened for many days to come.

“three lives” by gertrude stein

stein’s incantational writing style is charming in the first story “the good anna” but becomes difficult to bear in “melanctha”. we are so close to the characters and their hour by hour psychosis that it becomes hard to breath. this is unique, unflinching writing. it reminded me of the urdu writer ismat chughtai, especially her masterpiece “the crooked line” which is a brave, intensely intimate, rich examination of women’s lives.

from the ashes of gaza

from the ashes of Gaza, by Tariq Ali,, December 30, 2009

In the face of Israel’s latest onslaught, the only option for Palestinian nationalism is to embrace a one-state solution

The assault on Gaza, planned over six months and executed with perfect timing, was designed largely, as Neve Gordon has rightly observed, to help the incumbent parties triumph in the forthcoming Israeli elections. The dead Palestinians are little more than election fodder in a cynical contest between the right and the far right in Israel. Washington and its EU allies, perfectly aware that Gaza was about to be assaulted, as in the case of Lebanon in 2006, sit back and watch.

Washington, as is its wont, blames the pro-Hamas Palestinians, with Obama and Bush singing from the same AIPAC hymn sheet. The EU politicians, having observed the build-up, the siege, the collective punishment inflicted on Gaza, the targeting of civilians etc (for all the gory detail, see Harvard scholar Sara Roy’s chilling essay in the London Review of Books) were convinced that it was the rocket attacks that had “provoked” Israel but called on both sides to end the violence, with nil effect. The moth-eaten Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt and Nato’s favourite Islamists in Ankara failed to register even a symbolic protest by recalling their ambassadors from Israel. China and Russia did not convene a meeting of the UN security council to discuss the crisis.

As result of official apathy, one outcome of this latest attack will be to inflame Muslim communities throughout the world and swell the ranks of those very organisations that the west claims it is combating in the “war against terror”.

The bloodshed in Gaza raises broader strategic questions for both sides, issues related to recent history. One fact that needs to be recognised is that there is no Palestinian Authority. There never was one. The Oslo Accords were an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinians, creating a set of disconnected and shrivelled Palestinian ghettoes under the permanent watch of a brutal enforcer. The PLO, once the repository of Palestinian hope, became little more than a supplicant for EU money.

Western enthusiasm for democracy stops when those opposed to its policies are elected to office. The west and Israel tried everything to secure a Fatah victory: Palestinian voters rebuffed the concerted threats and bribes of the “international community” in a campaign that saw Hamas members and other oppositionists routinely detained or assaulted by the IDF, their posters confiscated or destroyed, US and EU funds channelled into the Fatah campaign, and US congressmen announcing that Hamas should not be allowed to run.

Even the timing of the election was set by the determination to rig the outcome. Scheduled for the summer of 2005, it was delayed till January 2006 to give Abbas time to distribute assets in Gaza – in the words of an Egyptian intelligence officer, “the public will then support the Authority against Hamas.”

Popular desire for a clean broom after ten years of corruption, bullying and bluster under Fatah proved stronger than all of this. Hamas’s electoral triumph was treated as an ominous sign of rising fundamentalism, and a fearsome blow to the prospects of peace with Israel, by rulers and journalists across the Atlantic world. Immediate financial and diplomatic pressures were applied to force Hamas to adopt the same policies as those of the party it had defeated at the polls. Uncompromised by the Palestinian Authority’s combination of greed and dependency, the self-enrichment of its servile spokesmen and policemen, and their acquiescence in a “peace process” that has brought only further expropriation and misery to the population under them, Hamas offered the alternative of a simple example. Without any of the resources of its rival, it set up clinics, schools, hospitals, vocational training and welfare programmes for the poor. Its leaders and cadres lived frugally, within reach of ordinary people.

It is this response to everyday needs that has won Hamas the broad base of its support, not daily recitation of verses from the Koran. How far its conduct in the second Intifada has given it an additional degree of credibility is less clear. Its armed attacks on Israel, like those of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or Islamic Jihad, have been retaliations against an occupation far more deadly than any actions it has ever undertaken. Measured on the scale of IDF killings, Palestinian strikes have been few and far between. The asymmetry was starkly exposed during Hamas’s unilateral ceasefire, begun in June 2003, and maintained throughout the summer, despite the Israeli campaign of raids and mass arrests that followed, in which some 300 Hamas cadres were seized from the West Bank.

On August 19 2003, a self-proclaimed “Hamas” cell from Hebron, disowned and denounced by the official leadership, blew up a bus in west Jerusalem, upon which Israel promptly assassinated the Hamas ceasefire’s negotiator, Ismail Abu Shanab. Hamas, in turn, responded. In return, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states cut funding to its charities and, in September 2003, the EU declared the whole Hamas movement to be a terrorist organization – a longstanding demand of Tel Aviv.

What has actually distinguished Hamas in a hopelessly unequal combat is not dispatch of suicide bombers, to which a range of competing groups resorted, but its superior discipline – demonstrated by its ability to enforce a self-declared ceasefire against Israel over the past year. All civilian deaths are to be condemned, but since Israel is their principal practitioner, Euro-American cant serves only to expose those who utter it. Overwhelmingly, the boot of murder is on the other foot, ruthlessly stamped into Palestine by a modern army equipped with jets, tanks and missiles in the longest-armed oppression of modern history.

“Nobody can reject or condemn the revolt of a people that has been suffering under military occupation for 45 years against occupation force,” said General Shlomo Gazit, former chief of Israeli military intelligence, in 1993. The real grievance of the EU and US against Hamas is that it refused to accept the capitulation of the Oslo Accords, and has rejected every subsequent effort, from Taba to Geneva, to pass off their calamities on the Palestinians. The west’s priority ever since was to break this resistance. Cutting off funding to the Palestinian Authority is an obvious weapon with which to bludgeon Hamas into submission. Boosting the presidential powers of Abbas – as publicly picked for his post by Washington, as was Karzai in Kabul – at the expense of the legislative council is another.

No serious efforts were made to negotiate with the elected Palestinian leadership. I doubt if Hamas could have been rapidly suborned to western and Israeli interests, but it would not have been unprecedented. Hamas’ programmatic heritage remains mortgaged to the most fatal weakness of Palestinian nationalism: the belief that the political choices before it are either rejection of the existence of Israel altogether or acceptance of the dismembered remnants of a fifth of the country. From the fantasy maximalism of the first to the pathetic minimalism of the second, the path is all too short, as the history of Fatah has shown.

The test for Hamas is not whether it can be house-trained to the satisfaction of western opinion, but whether it can break with this crippling tradition. Soon after the Hamas election victory in Gaza, I was asked in public by a Palestinian what I would do in their place. “Dissolve the Palestinian Authority” was my response and end the make-believe. To do so would situate the Palestinian national cause on its proper basis, with the demand that the country and its resources be divided equitably, in proportion to two populations that are equal in size – not 80% to one and 20% to the other, a dispossession of such iniquity that no self-respecting people will ever submit to it in the long run. The only acceptable alternative is a single state for Jews and Palestinians alike, in which the exactions of Zionism are repaired. There is no other way.

And Israeli citizens might ponder the following words from Shakespeare (in The Merchant of Venice), which I have slightly altered:

“I am a Palestinian. Hath not a Palestinian eyes? Hath not a Palestinian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Jew is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that … the villainy you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

the color of paradise – a film by majid majidi

this film, by the amazing iranian director majid majidi, is tender and lyrical. it is more like a poem than a film and watching it is much like a profound, religious experience.

the film starts with 8-year old mohammed learning to read and write braille at a school for the blind. we can immediately tell that mohammed is an exceptional boy. his hands are an extension of his soul. he feels everything with them – the physical world around him but also much more intangible things, like beauty and love. yet to mohammed’s father he is just a liability.

when mohammed goes back to his village for summer vacation he revels in the rich tactile and aural environment around him. he also revels in the warmth of family – his two sisters and most of all his doting grandmother. through stunning cinematography and crisp sound we are treated to scenes of immense beauty. mohammed’s grandmother takes the children on a trip. silently they light a candle and pray at a shrine. on the way back, they pick wild flowers. as they toss handfuls of brightly colored petals in vats of boiling water, we see the miraculous creation of color. this is how wool yarn is dyed, not with chemicals but with water and flowers. the simplicity of people’s lives in the village is shown with such honesty and grace that i could not help thinking of how lightly they tread upon the earth and how vastly different our lives are – bloated, selfish, acquisitive but spiritually poor.

throughout the film, we cannot help but fall more and more in love with mohammed. when he is abandoned once again by his father, he gives voice to his inner most feelings – in the most lucid, sincere and unbearably painful words of a child. mohammed expresses his doubts about being loved and wanted, by his family, or even by god. if god loves him, like his teacher says, then why did he choose to make him blind? he cannot see god. his teacher told him that he could feel god with his hands. and so he has been looking – touching, absorbing everything with rapt attention, trying to read god in grains of sand, ears of wheat and rocks at the bottom of a river.

the film is a quiet meditation with no overwhelming musical score or hollywood chicanery. by being honest and unflinching it unleashes a torrent of emotion. how many exceptional children do we sacrifice daily to all the sadness and hardship in the world…

the color of paradise

gaza: hospitals struggling to cope as fighting intensifies

from the canadian red cross website:

Amid fierce fighting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is moving swiftly to assist Gaza’s hospitals, which were overburdened even before the sudden influx of casualties. The priority is to get more medical supplies to the hospitals immediately. The first ICRC truckloads of supplies entered the Gaza Strip this week.

According to the ICRC office in the Gaza Strip, the humanitarian situation remains alarming. The streets of Gaza are mostly empty with the exception of long queues forming in front of bakeries. Meanwhile, prices for basic commodities are reportedly rising quickly.

The situation in hospitals is described as chaotic. Palestinian sources indicate that over 350 people had been killed and more than 1,200 injured. Medical teams have been dealing with a constant influx of wounded since December 27th and are stretched to the limit. “We are completely overwhelmed by the number of people coming in with very serious injuries. I have never seen anything like this,” said the head of the surgical ward of Shifa Hospital, in Gaza City. In addition, further medical supplies are urgently needed.

Some neighbourhoods are reported to be running short of water, either because the water network was damaged in the attacks or because of power shortages.

ICRC staff have been mostly unable to move inside the Gaza Strip due to the continuing attacks. However, the organization is in regular contact with both conflict parties and with hospitals and other public services. The ICRC currently has eight international staff and about 65 local employees working in the Gaza Strip.

In Israel, a third person was reported killed and several more injured by rockets fired from inside the Gaza Strip.

The ICRC’s main priority is to assist hospitals in Gaza. The organization has so far provided kits sufficient to cover the needs of 200 wounded persons as well as intravenous fluids. The ICRC also succeeded in bringing five additional ambulances into Gaza for use by the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

The ICRC has brought six trucks into Gaza carrying drugs and disposable materials provided by the Palestine Red Crescent Society, spare parts for ambulances and for medical equipment such as blood-pressure machines, heart-rate monitors and patient ventilators, plastic sheeting, food parcels and hygiene parcels.

The ICRC is preparing for the possible deployment of additional staff, including a surgical team.

An ICRC-chartered aircraft carrying enough items to cover the needs of 500 war-wounded people has arrived in Tel Aviv from Geneva. As soon as possible, these items will be forwarded to Gaza.

The ICRC continues to cooperate closely with the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

The ICRC reminds the parties to the hostilities that international humanitarian law requires that a clear distinction be drawn between military objectives and the civilian population and civilian objects. In particular, the ICRC underlines the obligation of the parties to take all feasible precautions to spare the civilian population the effects of hostilities. Medical facilities and personnel must also be protected.

Canadians wishing to help support ICRC Gaza response efforts are encouraged to contribute by donating online, calling 1-800-418-1111 or contacting their local Red Cross office. Cheques should be made payable to the Canadian Red Cross, earmarked “ICRC Gaza Response” and mailed to the Canadian Red Cross National Office, 170 Metcalfe Street, Suite 300, Ottawa, Ontario, K2P 2P2.

Donate Now!
In-kind donations of food, clothing and other items, while well intentioned, are not the best way to help those in need. There are tremendous processing and transportation costs involved in shipping these items to beneficiaries. Local purchases of food and clothing are more culturally appropriate and effective. Red Cross supplies can be purchased in the immediate area, thereby reducing transportation costs. Cash transfers to the affected region provide the optimum flexibility to our Red Cross colleagues so they can meet the most urgent needs.

harold pinter dies at 78

one of my heroes, harold pinter, died last week on dec 25th. he was a man of uncommon intellect and integrity. he was also, of course, a man who understood the power of words.

in “weasel words” by john lahr (new yorker, dec 19, 2005) lahr talks about pinter’s obsession with the “psychological truth that he continued to explore brilliantly for half a century: mankind’s passion for ignorance. blindness, as pinter has dramatized it over the years, is something internal. the habit of not seeing is for his characters a sort of narrative device, an evasion of self-awareness that allows them to sustain their stories of themselves; the very syntax of their speech carries them ever farther from a real understanding of their emotions”.

profound – and, in this age of linguistic manipulation, so very relevant.

here is democracy now’s tribute to harold pinter.

the dark knight

“the dark night” is really dark – and hectic and relentless. after 2 ½ hours of psycho violence and head-spinning action, i was ready for some kind of conclusion, even if evil was going to win the day.

yes, the cinematography and action scenes are top notch and choreographed with impossible precision. yes, heath ledger is truly terrifying as the joker – a great talent whose loss we still mourn. yes, nolan elevates the batman franchise from two-dimensional, comic book caricature to michael mann-like, meticulously crafted thriller. and of course, christian bale, michael caine, gary oldman, morgan freeman and aaron eckhart aren’t too shabby a cast. but there was something missing in the film. it doesn’t have a heart, a center – not even an evil, dark one.

since chaos is what we’re exploring through the twisted mind of the joker, that’s what the film ends up becoming: an endless, torturous, masochistic descent into bedlam, replete with visual disorientation and brusque, jarring sound. i can appreciate the metaphor and its artistic realization but i can’t pretend i enjoyed it.

ledger as the joker

9 is not 11: (and november isn’t september)

amy goodman interviews arundhati roy on democracy now.

many of the things arundhati says make a lot of sense to me. the idea of expanded terrorism (especially in south asia) is not in spite of but because of the “war on terror”. violence and chaos have spilled into pakistan and india, from an increasingly volatile afghanistan. india’s alignment with america and its aggressive super-power policies with only create a world of hopelessness and therefore more terrorism. terrorism results from the elimination of all prospects for non-violent change, it is a sign that recourse to justice is a sad illusion.

i also agree with her assessment of the situation in pakistan. the 180 degree turn in american policy in the region has taken a toll on pakistan. pakistan is the crucible in which dangerous experiments have been conducted with american and saudi money -indocrinating and recruiting jihadists from all over the world in the 1980s, then hunting down and exterminating those same jihadists in the 2000s. pakistan’s army and its intelligence agency, the isi, have acquired so much power in pakistan that elected governments hold little sway over them. the country is on the verge of civil collapse. do we want to stabilize pakistan by strengthening its elected government and pushing for human development or do we want to go it alone in “capturing and killing” the terrorists? bombing pakistan will only destabilize a country of 170 million people (the world’s 6th largest population). we have already destabilized iraq. afghanistan has ceased to exist as a viable state. do we want to expand this area of lawless, militant anarchy? and do we even care about the human cost?

you can read arundhati roy’s complete essay, “9 is not 11: (and november isn’t september)” here.

arundhati roy

60 years of universal human rights

today’s my birthday but also the 60th birthday of the universal declaration of human rights. i would like to celebrate by joining amnesty international in their campaign to protect the human.

i would also like to join amnesty international in urging u.s. president-elect barack obama to make human rights central to his new administration by taking certain concrete steps in his first 100 days in office that would demonstrate a genuine commitment to bringing the united states in line with its international obligations.


in the first 100 days, amnesty international is calling on the new administration to:

1) announce a plan and date to close guantanamo;

2) issue an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment, as defined under international law;

3) ensure that an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the u.s. government in its “war on terror” is set up.

howard zinn on “american empire”

as i screen my film “the muslims i know” on more and more campuses, and engage with students on how to solve the problems of the world, my mantra has become more and more clear-cut. we must aspire to try something new in the face of fear and hostility, use human development to connect with people rather than bomb those we suspect of being different, fall back on our common humanity when in doubt and not give in to indiscriminate violence. that same message is echoed beautifully by the end of this video – “a people’s history of american empire by howard zinn”:

arundhati roy on mumbai attacks

here is a video i just saw courtesy of my friend polly miller. i agree with the first part of the analysis – pakistani intelligence agencies and other ragtag radical groups that use the brand name of the taliban or al-qaeda are now operating as independent agents and are no longer under the control of the pakistani government. how else can we explain the high level of terrorist activity within pakistan itself – for example a similar attack on the islamabad marriott hotel that killed close to 60 people and injured hundreds more. the extremists have taken over swat and parts of peshawar, removing the pakistani flag from government buildings and replacing it with their own.

the second part of the video is a conversation with arundhati roy. i am a big fan.

here it is:

attacks in mumbai, on thanksgiving…

thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. the idea of getting together with family and being thankful for all that we have is apt and beautiful. but this thanksgiving has been marred by the horrible terrorist attacks in mumbai.

this violence is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks in both pakistan and india and deserves the condemnation and opprobrium of all. the perpetrators are not yet known, but they have been described as islamic militants. by donning the mantle of islam to cover their political, ideological and territorial objectives, these people have sullied the name of islam and muslims. the killing of innocent men, women and children cannot be justified by any ideology, and especially by islam, which is a religion of peace and compassion.

violence this random is too surreal to comprehend. the world is complex and scary but one thing i know: the more violence we put into the system, the more violence will come out. murder and mayhem are not the answer. could it be something totally different?

Reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” – A Practice for the Anniversary of 9/11, by Roger Housden

“Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing,” Naomi Shihab Nye wrote in her email response to the 9/11 tragedy. With its unique ability to capture the significance of what the ordinary imagination cannot grasp, poetry took on a heightened value for the culture during those dark weeks. Poems circulated all over the Internet. Nye’s poem “Kindness” was sent to me soon after September 11. Reading poetry like this is a spiritual practice.

In this rending yet redemptive poem, Nye reaches down to the roots of our humanity, which lie in the great heart where we all cry together. Nye, an Arab American, has been writing poetry since she was five. She has published six books of poetry and several chilren’s books. Born of a Palestinian father and an American mother, she has lived her life between those two cultures.”

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes any sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

“the pakistan test” by nicholas kristof

here is an excellent article by nicholas kristof, the new york times, november 22, 2008:

Barack Obama’s most difficult international test in the next year will very likely be here in Pakistan. A country with 170 million people and up to 60 nuclear weapons may be collapsing.

Reporting in Pakistan is scarier than it has ever been. The major city of Peshawar is now controlled in part by the Taliban, and this month alone in the area an American aid worker was shot dead, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped, a Japanese journalist shot and American humvees stolen from a NATO convoy to Afghanistan.

I’ve been coming to Pakistan for 26 years, ever since I hid on the tops of buses to sneak into tribal areas as a backpacking university student, and I’ve never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but it’s very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here in Pakistan.

“There is real fear about the future,” notes Ahmed Rashid, whose excellent new book on Pakistan and Afghanistan is appropriately titled “Descent Into Chaos.”

The United States has squandered more than $10 billion on Pakistan since 9/11, and Pakistani intelligence agencies seem to have rerouted some of that to Taliban extremists. American forces periodically strike militants in the tribal areas, but people from those areas overwhelmingly tell me that these strikes just antagonize tribal leaders and make them more supportive of the Taliban.

One man described seeing Pashtuns in tribal areas throwing rocks in helpless frustration at the American aircraft flying overhead.

President Asif Ali Zardari seems overwhelmed by the challenges and locked in the past. Incredibly, he has just chosen for his new cabinet two men who would fit fine in a Taliban government.

One new cabinet member, Israr Ullah Zehri, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (three girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and two women tried to protect them). “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them,” Mr. Zehri said of the practice of burying independent-minded girls alive.

Then there is Pakistan’s new education minister, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered him arrested for allegedly heading a local council that decided to solve a feud by taking five little girls and marrying them to men in an enemy clan. The girls were between the ages of 2 and 5, according to Samar Minallah, a Pakistani anthropologist who investigated the case (Mr. Bijarani has denied involvement).

While there are no easy solutions for the interlinked catastrophes unfolding in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are several useful steps that we in the West can take to reduce the risk of the region turning into the next Somalia.

First, we should slow the financial flow to Pakistan’s government and military. If the government wants to stop the Talibanization of Pakistan, its greatest need isn’t money but the political will to stop sheltering Taliban leaders in the city of Quetta.

Second, we should cut tariffs on Pakistani agricultural and manufactured products to boost the economy and provide jobs. We should also support China on its planned export-processing zone to create manufacturing jobs in Pakistan.

Third, we should push much harder for a peace deal in Kashmir — including far more pressure on India — because Kashmir grievances empower Pakistani militants.

Fourth, let’s focus on education. One reason the country is such a mess today is that half of all Pakistanis are illiterate.

In the southern Punjab a couple of days ago, I dropped in on a rural elementary school where only one teacher had bothered to show up that day. He was teaching the entire student body under a tree, in part because the school doesn’t have desks for the first three grades.

One happy note: I visited a school run by a California-based aid group, Developments in Literacy, which represents a successful American effort to fight extremism. DIL is financed largely by Pakistani-Americans trying to “give back,” and it runs 150 schools in rural Pakistan, teaching girls in particular.

Tauseef Hyat, the Islamabad-based executive director of DIL, notes that originally the plan was to operate just primary schools, but then a group of 11-year-old girls threatened to go on hunger strike unless DIL helped them continue their education in high school. Ms. Hyat caved, and some of those girls are now studying to become doctors.

Mr. Obama should make his first presidential trip to Pakistan — and stop at a DIL school to remind Pakistan’s army and elites that their greatest enemy isn’t India but illiteracy.

further comments by kristof on the response to his article:

My Sunday column is from Pakistan, which is a mess. A scary mess, particularly in Peshawar and the tribal areas. Some Americans have pinned their hopes on President Zardari and the new army commander, General Kayani, but I don’t see much reason for hope there. As I note in the column, Zardari just chose a cabinet member who believes that burying girls alive is an honorable tradition, and another who believes in seizing little girls and handing them over to enemy clans as a way of resolving feuds. As for General Kayani, don’t forget that he headed the I.S.I. intelligence agency as it was busy protecting and supporting the Taliban.

At a personal level, I found little sign of change when I applied for my visa. The old president, Pervez Musharraf, detested me and at times denied me visas, but usually grudgingly granted them. I figured that the new government, which had always cheered my criticisms of Musharraf, would be no problem. But it took months and months to get one; my visa finally arrived on the very day I was leaving on the trip, and then it was only good for Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (although nobody seemed to pay attention to that in Pakistan). When I applied to the president’s office by email for an interview with Zardari, the press secretary tried to forward my message to someone named Khalid whom he asked something like: Isn’t this guy Kristof blacklisted? Unfortunately, instead of hitting “forward” on his blackberry, he hit “reply,” so it came right back to me.

The larger challenge is that the Pakistani military still prepares itself for fighting India, when the country’s greatest threat is poverty, illiteracy and extremism in the west. And Pakistani elites are not typically very concerned with ordinary citizens (the former Supreme Court chief, still barred from power, was an important exception, yet the lawyers’ movement never received adequate U.S. support), so the state education system is a disaster.

In the column, I lay out some suggestions for how the U.S. might help, such as cutting tariffs to encourage jobs and manufacturing industries. I also cite Developments in Literacy, a wonderful group trying to educate girls in rural areas, as an example of what we need more of — do check out their website (it’s also an example of Pakistani elites tackling poverty, in a way that we need much more of). And I’ve previously written about the extraordinary work of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea. I’d welcome your thoughts, particularly from Pakistanis, about other steps for the future.

(An Update: Many Indian readers are taking me to task over my suggestion that the U.S. put more pressure on Kashmir. Let me clarify that this is not just to “appease” Pakistan, but because India’s own behavior in Kashmir has often been shameful. Paying more attention to Kashmir and to human rights violations (in both Kashmirs) is not only geopolitically correct, but it’s also the right thing to do. Incidentally, I heard on this trip that Islamabad is now again allowing more Pakistani militants to infiltrate across the border into Indian Kashmir, which, if true, is a disaster that will aggravate Pakistani-Indian tensions and focus attention away from issues like education.)


recently saw “persepolis”, the animated film by marjane satrapi. the film is inspired by satrapi’s comic books persepolis 1 and 2 about her life in iran and europe, but the drawings have not been simply transferred to another medium. instead there is cinematic transformation. persepolis is strongly influenced by german expressionist films – the artwork is spare, elegant and luminous and the results are stunning. satrapi drew all of the hundred or so original characters herself. her involvement in every aspect of the film gives it coherence and intimacy – she lends it her personality. there is sharp analysis, easy humor and consistent heartbreak. there is also much nostalgia – most of the film takes the shape of a black and white flashback. we are drawn in, seduced by satrapi and her world.

but the most ground-breaking aspect of the film is how it refuses to locate the story of a young woman struggling with social upheaval and the private pains of growing up. by being animated it purges the plot line of cultural exoticism and makes the story universal. the fact that the entire film is in french is also crucial (although its import in terms of filmmaking was probably more practical than aesthetic). all iranians in the film (even those based in iran) speak flawless french. austrian or british characters are the ones with heavy accents. by taking culture out of the equation (no funny accents or weird clothes except for the pivotal issue of the scarf, no strange locations or foreign faces) satrapi is able to do away with all the historical baggage and instinctive judgements associated with “others”.

one thing is certain – marjane satrapi is immensely talented and she has a lot to say. check out this interview by michelle goldberg:

“sexual revolutionaries”“persepolis” author marjane satrapi talks about why iranians don’t think sex is sinful, the hypocrisy of american saber-rattling over iran, and why george bush and the mullahs are the same.

proud to be american!

november 4th 2008 will go down in history as the day when america reasserted its leadership role in the world, by living up to its promise and showcasing the full force of democracy. a door was opened and we leapt into the future – a future unencumbered by skin color and genealogy and energized by youth and diversity. the differences between what had been and what could be were clear. you just had to look at the crowd that booed mccain’s concession speech and that which was assembled at grant park – we were saying no to racism and small-minded, parochial nationalism by making it irrelevant.

but this is no time to rest on our laurels. harry belafonte said it best on tavis smiley and i quote:

“well, i think of all the people in this country who have earned the right to celebrate, none have earned that right more than the african american community. however, it is not a standalone community, and i think that we have been here before. when slavery was overthrown in the great civil war and we went into the post-civil war period and elected black officials to our congress and our senate, it was not too long after that that we introduced 100 years of apartheid – the cruelest and the most oppressive segregation system known to the world was introduced, and lingered.

we’ve had other occasions when at the end of the second world war, when we all came back with a great sense of hope for america’s future and the fact that we’d defeated fascism and that white supremacy should have no place in the mix of civil society, we went into this period of mccarthyism and emmett till and all the violence and all of the pain and oppression that evoked the need and the hope for a dr king, who came to service.

so i think that although we’ve earned the right to celebrate and we should celebrate, i think we must also understand that we’ve been here before, and now is the time when we are most required to be vigilant and most required to stay the course, because this thing that we have just achieved could be easily taken away from us.

[…] america has always been in a place of great dichotomy. the very inception of this nation, founded by the founding fathers – what a magnificent document they wrote in the creating of the constitution. how ironic that the very same men who wrote that constitution and spoke so passionately about democracy and governance should have been the very same men who were the holders of slaves and who supported the slave tradition.

it was a split in our character, in our personality, in our morality. and all through the years, america’s shown this duplicity, has shown this double standard. i think we’re still the same america with the potential to go wrong very much in our midst. it is up to us to learn from that history and to know that we have another opportunity knocking at our door to turn this country around and to make the world the place the world very much wants to be.”

let’s stay the course this time and live up to our full potential!