All posts by mara.ahmed

bah habah lives up to its rep!

we spent the second last week of august in bar harbor, maine. it was everything we had heard about – beautiful, pristine landscape with its own eco-systems, lots of outdoorsy activities, acadia national park’s easy accessibility and a lovely downtown area replete with new england charm. having lived in connecticut for seven years (my first taste of america) i fall for new england easily, every single time. it’s hard to describe. it’s the opposite of nouveau riche. not tacky or too self-consciously granola. simple elegance and old buildings, breathtaking autumns and brilliant gastronomy. it’s culture in pastoral garb.

i took this picture at 2 cats (an outstanding place for breakfast in bar harbor) – it epitomizes the magic of new england…

small fountain at 2 cats

since i was committed to making this a truly active vacation, the first thing i did after we got to the bar harbor motel (where we were staying along with our friends), was to go for a brisk walk. there was a small pathway from the motel that opened onto a quiet carriage road. i felt refreshed. we ate that night at a restaurant right on the pier. obviously i went for the lobster roll. we decided to walk back to the motel instead of taking a shuttle – this is free, clean, reliable transportation bar harbor style. the following day was whale watching day on a 140 feet long catamaran – okay, so boat rides are never painless for me (i spend quite a lot of the time just praying not to pass out or throw up), but i did get to see some whales – 3 of them up close and personal. humpbacks are sleek and quick and can be identified by the unique patterns of black and white on the underside of their tails. we met sonogram and his mother P.D. we also saw some dolphins.

after whale watching we took it easy. dinner consisted of picking up some pizza from anthony’s – service was too slow and the kids didn’t enjoy the bland meatball. over the next one week, we went to cadillac summit and sand beach in acadia park, hiked along beautiful jordan pond and went kayaking in the ocean. we savored an expansive sunset from blue hills overlook and took a million pictures. there was also a biking trip in the rain and lots of shopping downtown. on the way back we stopped over at a small art store and bought dangly silver earrings made by terry strickland and “black-eyed susan” prints by charlotte bridges.

we spent a night in boston and took the kids to our old haunts – quincy market and the boston harbor. some things had changed dramatically. the highway and parking lots have disappeared underground (thanks to the big dig – which took $15 billion and a dozen years to complete) so after years and years of going to boston, we still needed a little bit of help in getting oriented.

HerRochester’s women to watch

Mara Ahmed

Occupation: Filmmaker (producer, director, writer), artist and senior financial analyst (in my past life).

Community activities: Member of Rochester Against War, Women in Film and Television Rochester and interested in interfaith dialogue and social activism.

My favorite thing to do in Rochester: Java’s on Gibbs Street, Starry Nites, Geva Theatre, Little Theatre, California Rollin, Park Avenue, Highfalls Film Festival and the Jazz Festival.

Biggest challenge I’ve overcome and how I did it: To make a film I thought needed to be made and then proceed to make it from scratch after just two weeklong workshops in filmmaking.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do but never have: Write and stage a multimedia play including performance art, music, video and dialogue.

Something people don’t know about me: When I’m really mentally exhausted, I can actually watch TV.

The one thing I can’t live without: The Internet.

The song that best describes my life: “It’s a Beautiful Day,” by U2.

Favorite guilty meal: Pad thai and really good tiramisu.

Favorite artist or musician: Robert Rauschenberg and Amy Winehouse

Actress I’d like to portray me in a movie about my life: Cate Blanchett (although we don’t look anything like each other, I like her passion and intensity).

photograph by matt wittmeyer

musharraf goes bye bye and why that’s a good thing

it is a fine day when the people of a country are able to oust a military dictator through sheer gumption and tenacity – congratulations to the people of pakistan on this unprecedented achievement. i am no fan of asif ali zardari (or of his late wife benazir bhutto or of his soon to be coronated son bilawal) but i applaud the lawyers, journalists and activists of pakistan who stood up to musharraf’s disregard for the law, forced him to hold elections, enabled elected political parties to think impeachment and finally got rid of musharraf in direct defiance of the u.s. government’s plans for pakistan. well done!

some americans, but more surprisingly, many pakistanis (who are not lawyers, journalists, activists or sometimes even residents of pakistan) take issue with the concept of democracy as it applies to pakistan. many of their questions and fears are expressed in an interview i saw on pbs several weeks ago. filmmaker sabiha sumar was interviewed by david brancaccio on NOW about her film “dinner with the president“.

in a prime example of insipid, armchair journalism and of lazy paraphrasing rather than incisive questioning, brancaccio lets sumar pass off her misguided personal impressions and inaccurate statements of fact as unchallenged truth. in her interview, sumar said some things that made sense (e.g. the u.s. should stop interfering in pakistan) but much of what she declared with complete confidence was ridiculous. here are some of sumar’s problems with democracy in pakistan:

(i have used excerpts from an article called “pakistan’s politics and the urban middle class” written by an anonymous contributor to the blog to address some of sumar’s issues with democracy – in italics)

1) pakistan is feudal. the business class hardly has any say. there’s not one political party in pakistan that represents the interests of the business class.
nawaz sharif, head of the pakistan muslim league (one of the strongest political parties in pakistan) was elected prime minister twice. his father established the ittefaq foundry in 1939, now the ittefaq group, which happens to be one of the largest business conglomerates in pakistan.

2) democracy is born of a certain struggle in society. in pakistan, we don’t have a very developed, industrial base. it’s really a feudal country.
i will go back to barsamian’s analysis of how a latin american model of sustaining and working with the military has led to the stunted development or in many cases the deterioration of civic institutions. the military is the source of the problem, not a solution. as far as the oft-repeated accusation of being “feudal”, here’s the beef:

Quite often, the middle class critique of Pakistan’s politics is based on rejecting its “feudal” nature. Urban professionals tend to describe any rural politician who owns some land as ‘feudal’, which is incorrect. Feudalism refers to a system of land tenure that creates reciprocal obligations upon Lord and Vassal. It exists in parts of Pakistan but in many cases, those described as feudals in Pakistani political discourse are simply influential landowners who succeed in politics by acting as intermediaries between poor peasants and the overbearing (and in many cases ‘external’) state machinery. Thus, the landed gentry of Sindh and Punjab do not “own” their peasants or sharecroppers. They earn their loyalty by creating a parallel system of dealing on behalf of “natives” with the civil service, police and military that usually comes from outside the local area. […] It is interesting that even non-feudal rural politicians are identified by urban professionals mistakenly as “feudals.” Thus, Tehmina Daulatana who ran a school in Lahore before entering politics is identified through her relationship with the erstwhile Punjab Chief Minister and Ambassador to London rather than as an educator. Nisar Khuhro, a humble self-made lawyer from Larkana who studied in England on scholarship, is often confused with the feudal Khuhros because of the same last name. No one recalls that the Chaudhries of Gujrat and their rivals the Pagganwalas and Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar are not feudals but industrialists. The original feudals from Gujrat district, the Nawabzada family, has long been marginalized in politics.

3) the idea of democracy is quite alien to pakistan.
actually, only when the u.s. is engaged with pakistan on some level – because of america’s need to deal with and lavish money on the pakistani military exclusively. when america was not interested, for example after the end of the cold war and before the inauguration of the war on terror – democracy flourished in pakistan. it wasn’t all that pretty to start with but then there is an inherent messiness that accompanies democracy everywhere in the world. the democratic process can only be somewhat tidied up through practice, not abstinence. look at the last two elections in america – both less than kosher. does that mean that we should root for a military coup?

4) ballot box democracy is really about legitimizing feudal rule through the ballot box, which is a very dangerous idea.
Many of the famous feudal names have been marginalized since independence but the myth of feudal dominance endures. Among those wiped out electorally (except for occasional inclusion in caretaker cabinets by the army): Khuhros of Larkana, Tiwanas of Sargodha, Daulatanas of Vehari, the Qazi Fazlullah family of Sindh, the Gardezis of Multan, the Nawabs of Qasur and the Mamdots of Ferozpur/Lahore. […] Reform of the feudal structure in Pakistan is important and desirable. It is equally important to stop using it as an excuse to put off democracy in Pakistan, which unfortunately urban professional supporters of military rule have consistently done since 1958. If India, Sri Lanka and the US can evolve democracies with political dynasties so can Pakistan. Reform of land tenure and feudalism can be part of the democratic process, not something that must precede democracy. The remaining feudals would lose influence over time and after successive (and honest) elections. Considering that successive military regimes have failed to accomplish it, quite clearly a non-democratic approach to ending feudalism has not worked.

also, isn’t the political system in america set up to legitimize corporate rule? same difference! and aren’t people pressured to vote a certain way by their church or synagogue? how informed is the average american voter and therefore how independent, how well-thought out and how transformative is his or her vote?

5) there has been a triumvirate which has been dealing with pakistani politics all along – the feudals, the army and the mullahs. after musharraf took over, he started banning jihadi organizations.
just to refresh everyone’s memory – who created the taliban in the first place? the isi – pakistan’s military intelligence. when? during general zia ul haq’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. how can the army disengage from the monster it thought up? musharraf is well-known to have negotiated with radical elements. their very existence ensured his own power and the leverage he enjoyed with the u.s. how else could stick-wielding ninjas take over the red mosque in the middle of islamabad, the nation’s capital, kidnapping policemen, amassing weapons and harassing the populace at will for months on end? musharraf had to finally grapple with the problem when some chinese were abducted and china got miffed. since the situation had been allowed to grow out of hand, the final confrontation was unnecessarily bloody. yet musharraf emerged as a hero, especially in the eyes of an american government eager for a good show to justify the millions of dollars it pours into the pakistani military.

6) musharraf is a very democratic-minded person even though he is uniform. that really doesn’t make any difference because his policies, his actions really show him to be very democratic.
even if we make a huge leap of faith and decide that a dictator who came into power thru a military coup and removed an elected prime minister from office, can somehow be democratic, are human rights violations the laudable actions sumar speaks of? is declaring a state of emergency, firing the supreme court and refusing to resign in the face of massive street protests a sign of being democratically-minded? this leads us to sumar’s most egregious assertion:

7) we have to see this whole crisis of the judiciary in the context of the fact that in pakistan, the judiciary is really not as independent as you would imagine a judiciary in america. it’s still very feudal minded. and it was very much against the modernization that musharraf was part of.

this is simply delusional. here is the real story on why the supreme court was fired. three points of contention between musharraf and chief justice iftikhar chaudhry and his supreme court:

(1) instances of “enforced disappearances”, or extrajudicial detentions and extraditions: many of the “disappeared” later resurfaced in guantanamo. these were not terrorists but activists and journalists who were a thorn in musharraf’s side, or sometimes just people with beards. at the behest of families looking for their disappeared husbands and sons, the chief justice ordered all “missing” persons to be produced by the government. investigations ensued. musharraf was cornered. so much for musharraf’s democratic policies! check out this terrific documentary by ziad zafar called “missing in pakistan“. this film, and not sumar’s vapid ode to musharraf, should have been shown on pbs, except that “missing in pakistan” does not fit washington’s promotion of musharraf as a “good guy” fighting terrorism.

(2) the sale of pakistan’s mammoth steel mill: pakistan’s only steel mill was being privatized by musharraf and his citibank-trained prime minister shaukat aziz. the supreme court refused to ratify the sale contract when it was discovered that huge kickbacks were involved and pakistan steel was being sold way below its market valuation.

(3) chaudhy had made the case that musharraf would not be able to contest the upcoming elections as he could not be chief of army and president simultaneously.

so if we can say anything about pakistan’s judiciary, it is this: the judiciary is more independent, more concerned with the rights of citizens and more brazen about standing up to the government (a military regime no less) than the american supreme court can ever be. that’s why the chief justice has become a hero of the people.

if you ask me to go back to the tribal areas, i think i’d be very hesitant. because, today, the government is actually working together with islamic extremists.

sumar blames the recently elected govt for the advance of the taliban in the north western frontier province of pakistan. the elected govt hasn’t really had time to establish new policies and begin to see results. the taliban had already started their takeover. in fact the northern region of swat had already been lost to the taliban during mush’s rule – the pakistani flag having been audaciously replaced by the taliban flag. mush’s military rule also saw the beginning of suicide bombings – something alien to pakistan before this time.

encouragement is being given to islamic extremists by politicians saying, “let’s have a dialogue. let’s not fight.” they’re really emboldened by this because they know that politicians can’t survive without their support.

first of all neither can the military, because of its incestuous relationship with the extremists. secondly, it has to be understood that a war against a specific group like al-qaeda was first expanded to include the taliban and then the entire pushtoon population. the pushtoons live both in pakistan and afghanistan. they make up most of the north western frontier province of pakistan. all of them are obviously not “extremists”. they have their own culture. they are a very proud and independent people. they have always enjoyed autocratic rule, even during 200 years of british rule in the sub-continent. having the pakistani army killing pakistani citizens indiscriminately, under the command of a foreign power that understands little to nothing about that part of the world, is probably not a good way to go. but the proof is in the pudding. this has been mush’s strategy since 2001 (for 7 long years). has it worked? have we marginalized the radicals? have we been able to garner the good will of the pushtoon people in order to isolate a few violent elements? and how has it been for the pakistan army: unprecedented losses, demoralization, massive defections from its ranks. and what about the resulting suicide bombings – in peshawar of course but also in lahore, in islamabad. musharraf has started a civil war. just imagine what would happen if the american army attacked the state of ny, killing american citizens randomly under a military strategy drafted by pakistan…

i don’t see any role for america in trying to bring values of freedom or individual rights to any other country because it’s just not your business to do that. it’s for each country to decide for itself how it wants to find its own way towards more freedom. and i think that’s a process, and every country has to go through it.

agreed, but how can that process evolve if civil society is permanently choked by dictatorships. the army’s penetration in pakistan’s civic life is quite astounding. mush went farther than previous military dictators. he replaced pakistan’s bureaucracy (a constant in the country’s eventful history) with military personnel. this had never been done before. the civil services academy, the national institute of public administration, and pakistan’s administrative staff college were all brought under the military. this kind of parasitic takeover is not conducive to building strong civil institutions which can then produce a struggle for freedom and democracy from within.

sure america can’t help, but neither can their proxy army-wallas!

anti-muslim bias post 9/11 – bayoumi on npr

my friend ruth peck urged me to listen to moustafa bayoumi’s interview on npr today.

bayoumi, who is professor of english at brooklyn college, the city university of new york and co-editor of “the edward said reader”, has written a book called “how does it feel to be a problem? being young and arab in america”. in mostly bayoumi’s own words, the book is a collection of stories about the lives of young arab and muslim americans post 9/11, about how they are forging lives for themselves in a country that often mistakes them for the enemy. arab and muslim americans are the new, largely undiscussed “problem” of american society, their lives no better understood than those of african americans a century ago. under the cover of the terrorist attacks, the wars in afghanistan and iraq, and the explosion of political violence around the world, the vilification of islam and muslims has become socially acceptable in america. no other group can be as easily maligned, with absolutely no protection from hate-speech or blatant racial profiling.

much of what bayoumi said in his interview is similar to the issues i discuss in my film “the muslims i know”. what surprised me were the questions that were directed at him. it still shocks me to find out what people really think about muslims – much of it is small-minded and ignorant, so generalized that it is quite meaningless, and so opposed to basic common sense that i do begin to feel “politically fatigued”. how many times can you answer the same vapid, stereotypical questions that are being constantly bounced around and kept alive by the media without despairing of ever being actually heard? for how long can you defend your humanity when the very language you are asked to use is slanted in favor of your interrogator? is it possible to make any kind of headway?

maybe the very fact that bayoumi was on npr is a step forward. it is good that we are airing our dirty laundry and that one in every four americans is admitting to anti-muslim bigotry. maybe confessing is a necessary prelude to change. maybe tolerance is the norm in america, we’ve just strayed too far away from the mean.

bayoumi’s book

“raj, bohemian” and questions of taste and identity

read this fiction piece in the new yorker, dated mar 10, 2008. it’s called “raj, bohemian” and it’s by hari kunzru.

the story revolves around this group of urban taste-makers who in the “midst of [their] social gyrations, … liked to do something for one another”, like go to their friend sunita’s cool parties. on one such occasion the narrator/protagonist of the story meets raj for the first time – “Are handsome men doomed to become skin-care obessed dullards simply because no one talks to them about serious things?”. but raj is charming and harmless. he pours shots of a new vodka he’s discovered and which is incredibly smooth. he takes pictures with his cellphone. those pictures turn up on the internet and it’s discovered that raj’s “… whole conversation had been a sales pitch”. this incident sets off a deep personal crisis for the protagonist: “something precious to me had been violated, something i’d been holding on to. a secret pleasure that i hadn’t wanted to throw into the big commercial vat with all the rest of the stuff”. however, his friends don’t seem to get it and are quite comfortable with their “placements” and their need to “monetize [their] social network”: “you’re actually so old-fashioned, like some kind of communist. i have the right to perform acts of rational consumer choice: our ancestors fought wars for it. and i think i’m clever enough to filter a little bit of spin, don’t you?”

the narrator’s fears are not allayed: “i found parties increasingly traumatic: the bombardment of messages, the pitches coming at me from every side. […] people seemed to zone in and out of existence. sometimes they were fully present, animated by something original and real. but mostly they were zombies, empty vessels operated by corporate remote control”. his entire sense of identity is shaken: “my taste had been central to my identity. […] now i realized that what i thought had been an expression of my innermost humanity was nothing but a cloud of life-style signals, available to anyone at the click of a mouse. […] what was i? a sorting device. a filter. a human bivalve, culture accreting in me like mercury deposit.”

but he soon comes to his senses – “this was the world, just the same indoors and out, a place of total nullity. unless you manage to keep your head underwater, to immerse yourself in the endless metonymic shuffling of objects, it would be intolerable” – and gets a contact number for the next cool party in town!

terrifically written and about one of my favorite subjects: the beauty of being controlled by pleasure vs fear, of being caught in an interminable cycle of over-consumption and bonded labor and mistaking it all for “rational consumer choices”!

raj, bohemian

david barsamian on pakistan

on july 1st amy goodman interviewed journalist and author david barsamian about the situation in pakistan. barsamian’s comments were simple, spot on, lucid. much is made of pakistan in western media but most of the analysis is either theoretical/ivory-tower or just plain cuckoo. this was the first time i heard something that made sense to me. here are some excerpts from the interview:

1) on pakistan’s relationship with the united states. i have always felt a particular kind of kinship to latin america. now i know why – barsamian’s analysis is brilliant:

“It was the classic Latin American model, now applied to South Asia. Historically, the U.S. has always aligned itself with the military in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and now this was being expanded globally, and specifically, to Pakistan. What this has meant to Pakistan as a country is that the military has been highly privileged—it has been foreground because of U.S. attention and intention. It has been lavishly supplied with money and with arms, and at the same time this has created real fissures in civil society, which has not developed along so-called normal lines, whatever that might be.”

2) on how the disproportionate building up of pakistan’s army has affected pakistani society:

“It’s quite astonishing to learn and to know that the penetration of the Pakistani army as an economic institution into all facets of life in that country is truly breathtaking, from banks, from strip malls, from housing estates. There are 22 feudal families that have a great deal of land in the country and I make this quip, quoting the great American philosopher Yogi Berra, that if you want to understand Pakistan, 50% of the country is controlled by these 22 feudal families, and the other 90% is controlled by the military.

Billions of dollars have gone into Pakistan, but the Pakistani people have not seen any of that money. It has all gone into the military sector. And so, again, this has created enormous imbalances inside the country and a huge amount of resentment toward the United States.”

3) on what we are now fighting in afghanistan and increasingly in pakistan, and how it all came about:

“The Taliban students were actually created by the Pakistani ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, probably the most powerful and secretive organization operating inside of Pakistan. This is all an outgrowth, incidentally–again the context and background, which is so sorely missing in most reporting–of the great jihad of the 1980s, when the U.S. brought militants from all over the Islamic world. I remember one Pakistani telling me once that he saw planeloads and planeloads of these jihadis being brought in from Yemen, from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, from Algeria, to fight against the Soviet Union. Actions have consequences. Many of the Taliban today, and Al-Qaeda as well, are not just the actual members from that period, but their sons and grandsons are now fighting.”

4) on how pakistan’s baluchistan province is being used by the u.s. to launch terrorist activities in iran – a revelation to me but apparently a story pakistani newspapers have covered for a long time:

“Pakistan has a long border with Iran in Baluchistan. When I was in Iran last year, formations across the border from Pakistan blew up a bus, killing more than 20 Iranians. There has been in Pakistani Baluchistan a longstanding resistance to control in Islamabad. There has been an independence movement there. Many have reported, and I think with credibility, that the U.S. has been funding groups inside of Baluchistan to cross over into Iran, to create incidents and destabilize the regime in Tehran. Pakistanis have a very close affinity with Iran, and any U.S. military action on Iran, I think, will again produce an enormous amount of resentment and already fuel what is called anti-American hatred. It is a little more subtle and complicated than that.”

5) on benazir bhutto and what her prime ministership would have meant:

“Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1991 and then a second term from 1993 to 1996. Both of her terms were marked by an enormous amount of corruption, particularly involving her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is now the titular head of the Pakistan Peoples Party. One of the internal problems in Pakistan is that the political parties have basically been family-run businesses. They have not really existed as part of a much larger organization, and this is exemplified by Benazir Bhutto, who declared herself chairperson for life. When she was assassinated on the 27th of December in 2007, in her will, she bequeathed the party to her son. Until her son matures–he is now 20 years old–the party will be run by Asif Ali Zardari. So Pakistan has had a deeply problematic political system, again, from its very origins. The military has had primacy within the political system. It has been very influential.

One of the things that Benazir Bhutto agreed to in a deal brokered by the Americans for her to return to Pakistan—you will recall she was in exile for eight or nine years—one of the components of that was Benazir Bhutto was going to allow U.S. troops to openly operate inside of Pakistan. They had been doing so clandestinely for a number of years, particularly in the contested so-called tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Now the war is coming closer to Peshawar, which is a city of 3 million. It’s the capital of the northwest frontier province. There’s a garrison of some 50,000-60,000 Pakistani troops there. But the Pakistani military, large segments of it, have no stomach for this fight. They are highly demoralized.”

you can listen to the entire interview at
also check out barsamian’s alternative radio website.

david barsamian

the hedonists of power

my friend nancy o’donnell sent me this article. it speaks of how skeptical we should be of the media, at all times but especially when we are at war with an intractable enemy like terror. the article also echoes a fear of mine. although i voted for obama in the primaries (mostly on account of his wife) i don’t hold much hope for things to change if he gets elected (in spite of the campaign slogan). in fact, some of the activism that has come to the fore in the wake of bush’s illicit rule might wither away without good cause.

The Hedonists of Power
By Chris Hedges (from

Washington has become Versailles. We are ruled, entertained and informed by courtiers. The popular media are courtiers. The Democrats, like the Republicans, are courtiers. Our pundits and experts are courtiers. We are captivated by the hollow stagecraft of political theater as we are ruthlessly stripped of power. It is smoke and mirrors, tricks and con games. We are being had.

The past week was a good one if you were a courtier. We were instructed by the high priests on television over the past few days to mourn a Sunday morning talk show host, who made $5 million a year and who gave a platform to the powerful and the famous so they could spin, equivocate and lie to the nation. We were repeatedly told by these television courtiers, people like Tom Brokaw and Wolf Blitzer, that this talk show host was one of our nation’s greatest journalists, as if sitting in a studio, putting on makeup and chatting with Dick Cheney or George W. Bush have much to do with journalism.

No journalist makes $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that acting as a conduit, or a stenographer, for the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike real journalists. Ask Seymour Hersh and Amy Goodman how often Bush or Cheney has invited them to dinner at the White House or offered them an interview.

All governments lie, as I.F. Stone pointed out, and it is the job of the journalist to do the hard, tedious reporting to shine a light on these lies. It is the job of courtiers, those on television playing the role of journalists, to feed off the scraps tossed to them by the powerful and never question the system. In the slang of the profession, these television courtiers are “throats.” These courtiers, including the late Tim Russert, never gave a voice to credible critics in the buildup to the war against Iraq. They were too busy playing their roles as red-blooded American patriots. They never fought back in their public forums against the steady erosion of our civil liberties and the trashing of our Constitution. These courtiers blindly accept the administration’s current propaganda to justify an attack on Iran. They parrot this propaganda. They dare not defy the corporate state. The corporations that employ them make them famous and rich. It is their Faustian pact. No class of courtiers, from the eunuchs behind Manchus in the 19th century to the Baghdad caliphs of the Abbasid caliphate, has ever transformed itself into a responsible elite. Courtiers are hedonists of power.

Our Versailles was busy this past week. The Democrats passed the FISA bill, which provides immunity for the telecoms that cooperated with the National Security Agency’s illegal surveillance over the past six years. This bill, which when signed means we will never know the extent of the Bush White House’s violation of our civil liberties, is expected to be adopted by the Senate. Barack Obama has promised to sign it in the name of national security. The bill gives the U.S. government a license to eavesdrop on our phone calls and e-mails. It demolishes our right to privacy. It endangers the work of journalists, human rights workers, crusading lawyers and whistle-blowers who attempt to expose abuses the government seeks to hide. These private communications can be stored indefinitely and disseminated, not just to the U.S. government but to other governments as well. The bill, once signed into law, will make it possible for those in power to identify and silence anyone who dares to make public information that defies the official narrative.

Being a courtier, and Obama is one of the best, requires agility and eloquence. The most talented of them can be lauded as persuasive actors. They entertain us. They make us feel good. They convince us they are our friends. We would like to have dinner with them. They are the smiley faces of a corporate state that has hijacked the government and is raping the nation. When the corporations make their iron demands, these courtiers drop to their knees, whether to placate the telecommunications companies that fund their campaigns and want to be protected from lawsuits, or to permit oil and gas companies to rake in obscene profits and keep in place the vast subsidies of corporate welfare doled out by the state.

We cannot differentiate between illusion and reality. We trust courtiers wearing face powder who deceive us in the name of journalism. We trust courtiers in our political parties who promise to fight for our interests and then pass bill after bill to further corporate fraud and abuse. We confuse how we feel about courtiers like Obama and Russert with real information, facts and knowledge. We chant in unison with Obama that we want change, we yell “yes we can,” and then stand dumbly by as he coldly votes away our civil liberties. The Democratic Party, including Obama, continues to fund the war. It refuses to impeach Bush and Cheney. It allows the government to spy on us without warrants or cause. And then it tells us it is our salvation. This is a form of collective domestic abuse. And, as so often happens in the weird pathology of victim and victimizer, we keep coming back for more.

Chris Hedges, who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times, says he will vote for Ralph Nader for president.

the big day: world premiere of “the muslims i know”

my first feature length documentary “the muslims i know” opened on june 8, 2008 at the dyrden theatre in rochester. about 300 people showed up. the response to the film was terrific and it was followed by a robust, hour long discussion.

june foster, the executive director, rochester/finger lakes film & video office, introduced me and the film. i spoke briefly about why i made the film and thanked many of the people present that afternoon who had helped with this project. here is my speech:

Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the world premiere of “The Muslims I Know”.

Today is a big day for me. It is the culmination of two years of hard work and the realization of a dream. Since 2001 there has been a concerted effort by the media to paint Islam and Muslims with one broad brushstroke – that of the radical, anti-modern, warmongering jihadist, a growing threat to our so-called way of life. The endorsement of this propaganda by the government has produced a culture of fear. The results have been devastating. This language of “us” vs. “them” has created distance and misunderstanding rather than what is needed, which is dialogue. This is the goal of the film you are about to see. It re-iterates something we all know instinctively – that rapprochement is always possible.

I wanted “The Muslims I Know” to open in Rochester because so many people here today have been instrumental in the making of this film starting of course with all the compelling, charismatic people who appear in the documentary and whom you will meet shortly.

But I would also like to thank:

Thom Marini for being an excellent cinematographer and an even more excellent human being,

June Foster for being my mentor and a source of unwavering support from the get go,

Nora Brown, Barry Goldfarb and all the volunteers today for their invaluable help with this event,

Cat Ashworth, Chuck Munier and Dave Sluberski for their amazing talent and their advice,

Teagan Ward for her beautiful songs,

Sarita Arden, Ruth and Russel Peck and Judy Bello for becoming brilliant ambassadors for this project,

My brother who drove from NJ to be here today and who also did the film’s musical score,

My beautiful family, and finally

All the wonderful friends who gave me feedback and support, posted flyers, sent out emails, spread the word about this film, and are present here today –

Thank you all.

I hope you enjoy the film and I look forward to your questions after the screening. We will invite some of the people featured in the film to join the discussion as well.

Thank you.

“Filmmakers’ lenses never even blink” by Jack Garner, Democrat and Chronicle

Filmmakers’ lenses never even blink
By Jack Garner, Friday June 6, 2008

Let’s celebrate two movies by local filmmakers that are tackling important topics too often ignored elsewhere. Each film spotlights an underappreciated and misunderstood segment of our society:

The Muslims I Know by Mara Ahmed examines the lives and attitudes of the many moderate Muslims who are our neighbors, fellow workers, physicians and classmates.

American Harvest by Angelo Mancuso follows the migrant worker population as it works its way up the East Coast each season, making itself responsible for much of the food on our table.

In The Muslims I Know, Ahmed melds a series of insightful interviews, conducted largely in this area, with a good mix of archival footage. Home movies that reflect a family-next-door existence stand in marked contrast to news and propaganda footage of the Islamic extremists who, unfortunately, get the lion’s share of attention in our media.

Though she has an extensive education in a variety of fields, Ahmed was trained as a filmmaker at Visual Studies Workshop and at Rochester Institute of Technology, and worked two years compiling this important, eye-opening film about the realities of Islamic life and belief. The result is colorful and well-shot by veteran local cinematographer Thom Marini. It also features an appealing background blend of Pakistani, Islamic and Western music.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to see her hourlong film, and hope it achieves broad exposure, for it’s just the antidote we all need to the narrow-minded attitudes of the West in the post-9/11 era.

The Muslims I Know will have its world premiere at 1 p.m. Sunday at the George Eastman House’s Dryden Theatre, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and some of the interview subjects. Admission is $10.

Mancuso’s American Harvest has had area screenings, including one at the recent Rochester High Falls International Film Festival, but now it’s earned a regular opening slot for at least a week at the Little Theatre. Mancuso, who has long been active locally as a writer, filmmaker and critic, brings considerable passion to his feature-length documentary. The film examines the undeniable importance of migrant labor to farming in America, and it raises important questions about the current hot-button topic of illegal immigration.

American Harvest opens tonight. Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. screening will be followed by a conversation with Mancuso; Jim Allen, head of the New York Apple Association Inc.; and Sister Janet Korn, social justice awareness coordinator for Catholic Charities.

“The Muslims I Know” by Dayna Papaleo, City Newspaper

the muslims i know

FILM: “The Muslims I Know” (6/8)
By Dayna Papaleo on Jun. 4th, 2008

I hate to blow the ending of a movie, but the Muslims that local filmmaker Mara Ahmed knows are pretty much like the people of faith that you know, cherishing family, tradition, knowledge, and peace. The difference is that your Christian, Jewish, and Druid pals haven’t been subjected to intense scrutiny for most of this young century, so Ahmed’s reflective, graceful debut picks up where the press repeatedly leaves off, depicting what’s known as the moderate Muslim. In “The Muslims I Know,” Ahmed weaves vivid images of her Pakistani culture through dialogue with a cross-section of Rochester’s Muslim community about their experiences, as well as perspectives from scholars on the teachings of Islam. Ahmed also speaks to non-Muslims about their often biased preconceptions, in large part due to the American media because, as summed up by a sharp young man named Ibrahim, “Terrorism sells.”

“The Muslims I Know” has its world premiere at the George Eastman House’s Dryden Theatre, 900 East Avenue, on Sunday, June 8, at 1 p.m. Tickets cost $10, and are available at the door, or in advance at all Wegmans locations. Visit for further details.