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Tunisia 2012: “Rien n’a changé.”

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The Medina, Tunis.

The Medina, Tunis.

April 2012. I have an opportunity here. It is slightly more than a year after Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and I will try to observe, as best as one can with the limitations of time, networks, and language, my impressions of a country vitally important in this outstanding period of the region’s history.

The blue-eyed cab driver waves at me with enthusiasm. I am certain he is going to rob me.

Well-intentioned travel guides insist that travellers approach cabs at the departures entrance and not the arrivals section when exiting Tunis-Carthage Airport. That way, one’s chances of being overcharged by cabbies is significantly reduced.

I do exactly that, making my way to the second floor departures, seeing the first cab driver who seemed free. I ask him in broken French if he was free. He says yes and waves at me to come in. I ask him how much. He yells “vas-y, vas-y” and insists I enter, his light eyes underneath a white skullcap iridescent in the spring light. He tells me the trip to my hotel will cost ten dinars the moment I entered. Any charge more than five and you are being cheated. I was to be overcharged and I didn’t care.

April 2012. I have an opportunity here. It is slightly more than a year after Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and I will try to observe, as best as one can with the limitations of time, networks, and language, my impressions of a country vitally important in this outstanding period of the region’s history.

The road to my hotel is blocked by protesters outside what I would learn later is Tunisian state television, demanding the station be “cleansed” of journalists more loyal to Ben Ali’s regime than the post-revolutionary government led by the Islamist Ennahda party.  I hear loud noises from a crowd carrying banners and waving flags outside a solitary, monolithic building. The cabbie suggests I alight and walk to the hotel with my luggage, as apparently the police have set up a roadblock. He then asks for twenty dinars, which I hand over with exhausted brevity.

Aside from the television protests, all seems unusually placid. I check in my room and explore the city as soon as I can. The Medina is my first destination. Approaching the entrance to the souk, I try to push cliches out of my mind of a medieval casbah without success. The narrow passageways, some barely wide enough for humans let alone vehicles, prohibit light, leaving alleys without both illumination, leaving me the impression that the old Tunis exists solely in an Orientalist fantasy. Street names exist, but feel useless, rendering my guidebook’s map irrelevant. I walk with little direction save a desire to see the Zaytouna mosque. Every step I walk alone, occasionally taking photos when sparse light peers from gaps above, staying close to the walls. It’s a disconcerting place, the Casbah. Spaces exist within it empty of people and sound. I’m aware of why silence can be described as “deafening”; when silence feels present for so long in a place it seems to overtake everything, pushing out even one’s own thoughts.

I don’t find the mosque. The people I meet are mostly hawkers who give me directions without my asking, really an excuse for them to lead me to their own stalls and sell their wares. I resist every time except one. I let a spectacled man lead me to what I thought was the Zaytouna mosque. Instead, he takes me to a roof top in a souvenir shop where I can take pictures of the mosque, a mosque, that I cannot locate once I arrive. I resign myself to the situation I am in: Despite my best efforts, I have been conned. I go downstairs to face the mercantile pushiness of the shops owners. Their demeanor is both enthusiastic and overly-assertive. Their small talk approximates friendliness without genuine warmth. They ask me where I’m from.

“Pakistan—” I say.

“Ah Pakistan,” interrupts the short one. “Can I say asalam aleikum?”

Place de la Kasbah

Place de la Kasbah.

Waleikum salaam. I’ve actually been living in Canada for years.”

“Ah Canada. Better than Pakistan.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Better than Tunisia, too,” he says, an underlying frustration coating his words.

Out of sympathy, out of a desire to get a keepsake of Tunisia for my family, out of a will to simply leave the shop without the borderline harassment of the owners, I buy a jewellery box, a small, hexagonal case with a Moorish-patterned cover. I haggle the price down from 120 to 90 dinars. Feeling proud of myself, I leave the store. Five minutes later I recall a brief line from my guidebook stating in clear terms that 10 to 15 dinars is the most anyone should spend for one item in these notoriously overpriced tourist traps.

I leave the Medina with  uncomfortable haste. I leave my guidebook alone in my bag and walk without aim outside of the Casbah. Much of Tunis is coloured in blue and white. The city gleams in the Mediterranean sun along some streets. Without the exhausts of cars, the sweet smell of jasmine wafts in the air. On other streets, vehicles struggle for room along avenue narrow and wide, colonial-era edifices line the passage with satellite dishes blemishing every other apartment.

There is no visible sign of that a revolution had occurred, no indication that the changing trajectory of a region’s history came from any of these streets. I walk in the Place de la Kasbah, where the elevated National Monument lies still and monolithic in the middle of poles bearing Tunisia’s white and blood-red flag. Children play around the flagpoles under the watch of an anxious-looking middle-aged women in a hijab and flowing gown. The monument itself looks like several boomerangs made to stand next to each other. Undeniably pre-dating the revolution, it strikes me as the sort of sterile, cement marker typical of so many regimes obsessed with brutalist, modernist architecture as a representation of the country’s ostensible progress. Almost a year ago there were protests in this very spot against a regime that had marketed itself as progressive and modern. If there is still a revolutionary spirit, it cannot be seen here in the empty solitude of the Place.

I want to see some more of the city; instead I give into exhaustion and jetlag. I see a lone taxi away from the Place. The driver, bearded, thin, impressively quiet wind his way out of the city centre to where my hotel is. We approach the hotel’s rising entrance. There is a roadblock. A uniformed policemen—clean-shaven, tall, dressed immaculately in a clean, dark-blue uniform—halts the taxi. He stands next to what I can only guess is a plain-clothes security official, his cigarette, mustache and a look of confident smugness giving an impression of calm authority. The driver lowers the window and tries to understand the situation. He mentions something about the protests from earlier in the day; apparently the area, including the drive to the hotel, has been cordoned off as a security precaution. He pleads to the police officer to let him pass. When the officer says no, a button is pushed in the driver: All sense of deference or fear of authority is thrown away. Any desire to plead one’s case to an armed security official is non-existent. The driver screams at the policeman in a blizzard of gesticulation and anger. The policeman responds with his own aggressive language. I understand nothing verbally; they speak in harsh-toned Maghrebi Arabic, and all I am left with shrill motions, a fiery back-and-forth, hands raise, gestures of contention. The fight ends when the plainclothes officer—up until now attempting to placate the driver—convinced the officer to let him go through.

The exchange is over. The driver’s anger does not abate. “Rien n’a changé, monsieur,” he says. Nothing has changed. 

Depuis Ben Ali?” I ask. He says yes.

He drives me to the hotel entrance. The meter says two dinars. He asks for no more than that. I give him ten.

I think about the encounter much later. I leave for Cairo the day after. I speak to a colleague about this incident. We agree that perhaps the Arab Spring has changed little of substance. Beyond the cosmetic changes in the political status quo, systemic issues have remained: a class divide, an unaccountable security culture, a divided political culture. “At the same time,” he says. “You have to realize one thing.”

“What would that be?”

“That taxi driver would  never have dared to argue with a police officer or any security official when Ben Ali was still in power.”

Pakistan’s Inspiring Banality

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Meeting a friend prior to my departure to Pakistan last December, I was left with a final message as we shook hands and parted ways: “Come back safely.”  This was said with genuine concern rather than as a simple parting farewell, as if by merely setting foot in Pakistan I was brazenly putting myself in harm’s way. An Iranian colleague made a similar assessment of Pakistan, sympathetically comparing his country to mine.  “The situation’s messed up,” he said.  “For both countries.”

“It’s not quite the same situation,” I tried to explain diplomatically.

He didn’t seem to understand.

It isn’t quite the same situation, but I understood the perspective. Pakistani life seems bleak, dangerous and cruel, the ultimate rogue state amongst rogue states.  Like many expatriate Pakistanis who have spent most of their lives abroad, I always take a defensive posture when acquaintances and friends ask if “everything is ok over there”, as if the entire country is on the verge of collapsing in on itself like a condemned building.

This past visit was the sixth one to Pakistan since 9/11, and one of innumerable other trips to the country since I was born.  Since 2001, the state of affairs in the country has been dynamic if not chaotic: domestic terrorism has increased, military rule has come and gone, food prices have augmented exponentially, and floods and earthquakes have foisted more misery on the country.  Yet my Pakistani experience—one I have experienced since infancy—has always been a prosaic one: The Pakistan of middle-class traditionalism, weddings, obligatory family visits and shopping trips.

This quotidian existence was in my mind on my last trip to the country, where much of my time was spent performing similar unremarkable activities.  One afternoon in Lahore, the day after arriving in the city, I accompanied my father to the Anarkali bazaar to buy a dress for my niece. The bazaar is well-known in Lahore, supposedly named after a slave-girl said to be buried near there, herself executed by immurement by a Mughal emperor for her supposed seduction of the heir apparent to the throne. The legend seems to embody some of the social injustices faced now in Pakistan: class conflict, immutable patriarchy, violence as a tool too easily wielded by the elites against the weak.

We passed through alleyways full of jewelry stalls, dyers, and darzis (tailors). My father spotted a long, pink skirt in a stall full of hundreds of clothes for children of all ages.  The dukhanwallah (shopkeeper) and he engaged in the usual mercantile game, where the former extolled the virtues of the fabric and the stitching, while the latter picked at flaws to lower the bargaining price.  The dukhanwallah agreed to sell for 1300 rupees; the price spontaneously rose to 1400 rupees moments before my father paid him.  This prompted another fierce discussion between vendor and client.  Possibly amused by his audacity, my father acquiesced and paid the higher price.

It was an episode that was banal and ordinary, and all the more inspiring for it. I was struck by the enthusiastic and wily performance the shopkeeper engaged in, all for the sake of a presumably much needed sale. If the dukhanwallah represented a typical citizen, the average Pakistani was hardly a benighted creature suffering under miserable circumstances. This said more for me about Pakistan than gloomy, Western media punditry ever did: A suffering country, but one where pluck and a survivor mentality govern everyday life.

A part of me didn’t quite believe this observation.  I was, perhaps, too inundated with the worst-case-scenarios of Pakistani life from both foreign and Pakistan media to believe in something so simplistic.  Conversations with relatives about the current state of the country revealed little. I asked them frankly about their perceptions of the country solely revolving around geopolitics, the 2010 floods, life after Osama, perceptions of security, and so forth.  Almost universally, I got the impression that the question itself was irrelevant: Yes, problems are there, but the country has bounced back (to a degree) from the floods, and safety is not something of more concern than it has been for years.

People were living their lives.  Perhaps things weren’t that bad.

Those moments, with family and the shopkeeper, were those I wish my more doubtful foreign acquaintances could have partaken in.  They would be moments when they realized that Pakistan is much more than a Talibanized source of world chaos, a perpetual land of corruption and self-inflicted violence. Undeniably, the violence, environmental damage, religious strife, and female disempowerment affecting the country is all too real. Yet, although Pakistan may not thrive the way it should, like the dukhanwallah it survives and lives on its own terms.

28-06-2011 Thoughts on the “House of Terror”

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I had the opportunity to visit Budapest this year, a city remarkable for its beauty, certainly, as much as it is remarkable for the way it has not quite outlived its Soviet bloc  aura.  For every Hapsburg-era edifice there are trams that apparently have apparently been retained since the Cold War, products of the USSR that have not quite been modernized.  Hungary obviously has moved beyond its past in many ways, it’s absorption in to the EU and NATO being one of them.  Old ghosts refuse to wither into the afterlife of history in this city, and nowhere is this more true than when one visits the Terror Háza (“House of Terror”).

Inside the House of Terror

Pictures of the dead, victims of Communist repression.

Andrassy Avenue is a lively artery that runs through the centre of Budapest.  Walking along the boulevard, you get a picturesque indication of the city’s Austro-Hungarian legacy, every building looking like it was constructed in the belle epoque years before the First World War, where autocracy reigned supreme, certainly, but also where Old Europe’s elegance had not been marred by the hideousness of the twentieth century. It is a lovely, chic part of the city, even under leaden skies where the rain and unusual cold could easily sully would should otherwise be a beautiful early summer’s day.  At the very least, it’s clear why Budapest has become increasingly more attractive for Western tourists.

The moment you reach 60 Andrássy út, you feel the presence of a considerably less ornate past.  The House of Terror announces itself quite boldly – and literally – with the word “Terror” etched in a metal entablature that lines the top of the three storey building.  The design was meant to make the building stand out; considering the boldness and frankly idiosyncratic design it is impossible to miss.

The House of Terror was designed specifically as a museum devoted to Hungary’s fascist and communist past.  As the description on the museum’s website states: “Having survived two terror regimes, it was felt that the time had come for Hungary to erect a fitting memorial to the victims, and at the same time to present a picture of what life was like for Hungarians in those times.” Starting as the central headquarters for the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, it was converted at the end of World War II to serve as the HQ for the State Protection Authority (AVH) in 1945, the Hungarian equivalent of the Soviet NKVD.

Creating a museum in such proximity to the history with which it is dedicated to has its advantages, none the least being the palpable sense of sadness conveyed to the visitor simply by being there. You enter the museum the standard way, with a tickets being sold, a mandatory coat check, and brochures being handed to you.  The ground floor (the only floor where pictures are allowed) directs you toward a replica of a Soviet tank.  Rather than start at the first floor, however, visitors are directed to the second floor for reasons that become clear once the exhibits end.

The exhibit starts off with a briefing of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party.  Controversy apparently arose from this segment of the museum when it first opened, not because of anything intrinsic to the presentation, but for the sheer brevity the museum devoted to this era in favor of a concerted emphasis on the wrongs committed by the USSR and Hungarian Communist Party.  While some of this criticism may be misplaced – Communist rule far outlasted the Arrow Cross Party’s reign – one gets the impression that the museum could have benefited from an clearer presentation of the Party’s role in Holocaust.  That degree of introspective self-reflection on the fate of Hungary’s vibrant Jewish population would have given more substance and context to that portion of the museum.

The House does make it clear, however, that the transition from fascism to Stalinism was shockingly seamless.  In a segment entitled simply “Changing Clothes”, you literally see an Arrow Cross uniform standing back-to-back on a revolving platform with that of a Soviet commissar, making it clear how Arrow Cross members opportunistically changed loyalties to the opposite end of the political spectrum as the Soviets fought westward.

Much of the rest of the museum consists of tableaus representing daily life under Soviet occupation and during the reign of the Hungarian Working People’s Party (MDP) and the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party (MSzMP).  The “Gulag” exhibit was particularly stark, being composed of multiple monitors designed to randomly turn on and display first-hand, black and white interviews of Hungarian gulag survivors narrating the multiple horrors they had had to endure: beatings, gang rapes, beheadings, and temperatures cold enough to cause prisoner’s teeth to break at the gumline.

The other empty offices of secret policeman long since retired and (presumably) passed away were less interactive, but certainly vivid enough of paint a general picture of the totalitarian control Communist authorities had over every aspect of daily Hungarian life, a world of rigged elections, dismantled religious institutions, show trials, unending quotas for the Hungarian peasantry, and the ubiquitous and well-founded fear of constant surveillance by state security and fellow citizens alike.

While I found them intrinsically interesting, I have to confess, I found these exhibits prosaic and ordinary, like an encyclopedia come to life, albeit with impressive and impassioned detail.  The cold, pedantic impression the first and second floors gave me turned into something more visceral, more palpable at the very end of the trail.  From the first floor, one is led by guides to the elevator.  There isn’t much preparation for what is supposed to be seen or experienced; rather, you simply enter the lift, wait for it to descend, and listen to the voice emanating from the monitor behind you.  The voice is of an interviewee, a guard apparently, calmly describing the process with which prisoners were executed by the AVH.  Prisoners marked for death were hanged – or to be more accurate to the actual method, garroted – on short, low gibbets.  Rather than the long-drop method of hanging seen in public executions in the West, the prisoners were hooded and led up a short, two-step stool.  The moment the noose was placed around their neck, the stool was kicked away, while a guard pulled on the drop on the other side of the gibbet.  Often, another guard pulled on the body to make the decrease the time needed to strangle the prisoner.  I recall the guard mentioning the average time for death was twenty minutes.

This method was meant to be expedient and efficient, although I couldn’t help thinking the description seemed less like a professional execution (brutal in itself) and more a crude murder carried by amateur, inexperienced gangsters.  When one steps out of the elevator, that sense of crass death and meaningless cruelty is made all too apparent as one is guided towards the basement of 60 Andrássy út, in what is essentially a dungeon.  I say “is” rather than “was” deliberately.  The basement cells – where enemies of the state were interrogated, starved, beaten, made to experience unbearable cold and sleeplessness, constant light or constant dark (depending on the whims of captors) – are reconstructions (according to the website).  The sense of artificiality, however, that accompanies any contrived reconstruction of historical artifacts is nauseatingly absent.  As I walked and saw each cramped cell, with the paint partially peeled,  the few metal objects within rusted and decayed, and displays of various straps and studded truncheons used for the constant beating-sessions, I felt the distance between my present and the sadism of the past I was meant to experience cut in half.  Not considering myself particularly sensitive to these things, I can say with all sincerity that the basement of the House of Terror accomplished its educational goal by immersing museum patrons in an environment that I found completely repugnant.

A part of a gibbet I surreptiously photographed displayed in one of the cells in the basement. Like most of the exhibits, photography was technically forbidden. This particlar piece was moved from a different location than 60 Andrássy út where executions were actually performed.

I have to say, however, than in retrospect this repugnance was valuable.  The museum ends with several tributes to the 1956 Revolution.  These tributes, coming straight after the palpably disquieting experience of the holding cells, seemed poignant in its depiction of sacrifice in the face of an immense odds (the Soviet invasion killed thousands) and was thus satisfyingly free of triumphalism one would normally expect in museums of a similar nature.  As sad and moving as this section was, the very last exhibit changed my entire perspective of the House of Terror.  Coming right before the official end of the exhibition, below the staircase leading to the museum’s exit, is the “Gallery of Victimizers”.  It is a simple title for a simple presentation, a gallery of official photos of:

Perpetrators are all those, who took an active part in establishing and maintaining the two Hungarian totalitarian terror regimes (Arrow Cross and communist), as well as those, who held responsible positions in the executive organs of these two regimes. The majority of these people served or held responsible positions in organizations where crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed, acts which were incompatible even with their own legal systems. The perpetrators either took part in such crimes, or gave orders for their implementation, or sanctioned such decisions, or supported them as instigators.

Aside from the names and titles beneath each photo are dates of birth and death.  The fact that many of the names of these perpetrators were of people still alive to date struck me as slightly chilling, as if it making clear to visitors the tragedy that so many collaborators of such a destructive system were still alive and free.  It was with that thought that I was left with after I left.  Rather than being just a well-designed museum or a historical artifact, the House of Terror was emblematic of one central impression I had of Budapest:  at a spiritual level, it has not absolved itself of its past.  That any city or country would be haunted by its past is a bit of a trite cliché, it is one that I cannot change or alter or express any differently.  Unlike Prague, another city I visited at the same time that suffered behind the Iron Curtain after a brutal experience under fascist rule, it struck me as a city more willing to forget than Budapest.

As I left Hungary, I thought more of its recent past, wondering if its present generation of my age thought of the last half of the twentieth century with the same intensity and bitterness as so many members of the generation before.  The obvious answer is quite probably no, although I would have to have spent more time in the country to gauge that fully.  I am certain, even as a foreigner, that amongst those who spent their entire lives during that time, there are thousands of Hungarians who cannot forget that time, as they lived under a system where forgetfulness (like absolution or forgiveness) was made to be out of the question.

Seduction: A Short Film – Please Support

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The following is a message from a filmmaker friend of mine.  Please feel free to spread widely:

Quite simply, we want to finish making the short film Seduction.

Earlier this year we shot the film on the RED camera over 3 days in London. We had a crew of 18 people which included the London-based actors Rakel Dimar, Andrew MacDonald and Philip Dinsdale.

We produced the film on a shoestring budget but now need $5,000 to take us through the last stage of the filmmaking process – post-production.

Post-production is one of the most exciting stages, where we take the raw material (what is called ‘the dailies’ in America and ‘the rushes’ in the UK) and shape it into a narrative complete with sound design, titles and music. You wouldn’t believe how, without these elements, how different your favourite films would look and sound.

With the $5,000 we hope to raise from Kickstarter we will be able to work with a talented team of people to complete the off-line and on-line edit, the sound design and sound mix and write the score for Seduction. 

Seduction is about the journey of Adriana, a young woman estranged from her psychoanalyst husband. Behind her husband’s back she turns to her own psychoanalyst for answers about the nature of intimacy. But then a misunderstanding forces Adriana to confront the fantasy world she has constructed.

Seduction is about that feeling when one realises the truth they have built their life around may have only been an illusion.

We are looking for people like you to help us raise the money to finish the film so that we can submit it to film festivals around the world.

You can donate any amount you like, the structure we created below is only for rewards.

Thank you for considering our project and for helping us spread the word to people you think would be interested in watching Seduction.

For information on how to support this project, please visit their Kickstarter website: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/914992179/seduction-a-short-film.

More information about the filmmaker:

Meghan Horvath is an American filmmaker based in London. ‘Seduction’ is her first fiction project.

Prior to this adventure she directed the award-winning documentary ‘The Middle Men’, as well as ‘A Dollar & A Dream’ and ‘Anyway, Who Are You?’

Before moving to London she was an associate producer on Ken Burns’ award-winning television documentary series ‘The War’.

People now ask her: Does ‘Seduction’ mean you are abandoning documentaries?

Her answer: Of course not! Let the most approprite genre for the story and content prevail.

Theatre Review: Montparnasse

Montparnasse, Theatre Passe Muraille, dir. Andrea Donaldson

Paris in the twenties was a beacon for bohemians willing to scrape away funds to travel there.  For most, presumably, that scraping would continue on as they created new lives in the city: as butchers, waitresses, part-time teachers, and any other quotidian day-jobs they could find in order to find their creative muse.

Or they could make ends meet by being the muse itself.  Montparnasse illustrates the lives of Canadian expats Margaret (Erin Shields) and Amelia (Maev Beaty) in Paris.   The former is a relatively long-term resident in the city of lights, an energetic bon vivant who sells her nude form to the most germane artists of the day as if it was her personal tribute to the creative forces of the city.  The latter, an artist in need of both inspiration and cash, comes to Paris and is welcomed by her friend into the oscillating life of modern art and nude-modelling, full of desperation and fulfillment in equal measure.

An evocation of Paris during the period of the  génération au feu it most certainly is, seen best during the character’s transitional monologues that skip across time.  At it’s best Montparnasse asks the audience to consider who truly creates art, whether it’s genesis lies in the creator or the subject, and whether the process of female objectification can occur even when it is another woman doing the objectifying.  The ease with which Beaty and Shields don and abandon both clothes and supporting characters is praiseworthy.  The level of physical exposure accepted as part of the acting process must have appealed to the actors, almost as if they were consciously channeling the curious mix of self-empowerment, enthusiasm, and vulnerability nude models must have experienced, especially under the gaze of the groundbreaking (and undoubtedly narcissistic) artists of the era.

It’s unfortunate that that vulnerability rarely manifests itself as emotional candidness or character development.  The best moments are the brief monologues when Amelia, the more inhibited and less dilettantish of the pair, expresses her longing for connection and inspiration.  Those moments are given short shrift to the name-dropping and allusions to the atmosphere and colour of Paris in the postbellum era.  Whatever trajectory in their personal lives that projected these women to Paris in the first place goes unexplored. As their lives switch places, from struggling artists to ebullient creator, from muse to resentful object, Montparnasse mutes itself the moment the crescendo goes to its upswing.

This is not to say there was nothing compelling about the experience.  The agility with which Shields and Beaty weave through characters with the bare minimum (pun unintended) of external props is captivating in its energy and verve.  And when Amelia, newly confident in her art and vocal in her disdain for her model-friend inadvertently causes the destruction of her own canvas we see a perfect metaphor for the illusory and fragile nature of art: an empty stage, naked in its own way, a nudity more tragic than titillating.

24-12-09 Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia

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24-12-09

Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia

It’s only at 5.55 am where one can think of writing in one’s blog, out of a sheer lack of anything else to do.  Jet lag affords few options that way.  I realize after looking at my previous passages that I had much more to write about my experiences in Pakistan last year, anecdotes and thoughts both trivial and (relatively) large.  Unfortunately, those still remain in thin black notebooks for the time being, resigned to stay that way out of a lack of time this year to transcribe them in a more public, Information-Age friendly format.

I write little anyway through much of this year.  Lack of time obviously has much to do with that, although the real reason is that travel, or at least the type of travel with many spare moments are the only opportunities where you feel the need to.

This leaves me here I suppose, Christmas Eve in Kuala Lumpur, staying in an admittedly beautiful hotel through the financial kindness of other benefactors.  There is a nostalgia here for me.  Largely, the past five years have involved me visiting and living in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan, but I realize this is the first time I’ve been back in this part of Asia since probably the eighties.  Whatever sense of place KL gives me right now isn’t simply the location, but the immediate surroundings.  There was a time when our family used to spend large spaces of time being spoiled by in hotels like this paid for by a bank that now no longer exists.  Hotels like this seem to look the same.  Not exactly sterile, but uniform, off-white rooms and marble bathrooms, ebony desks and side-tables with a host of placards advertising every possible service a place like this can provide.
The hospitality you receive is real, perhaps typical of any 5 star hotel chain, but something I always feel is typically Asian, a genuine fawning but dignified cultural warmth, but also something directed towards those higher on the invisible financial hierarchy (in other words, I am treated special because they think I’m rich).

But, as I said, the warmth and politeness is real.  I have a strange sense of comfort here.  It’s warm and humid without being oppressively uncomfortable.  KL is as urbanized as any large “Asian Tiger” economic capital would be, but you can see palm trees sprouting in every spare bit of land not occupied by some ultra-modern edifice.  Most of the people I have been seeing and interacting with are a mix of Muslim Malays and Ethnic Chinese.  The Muslim population here truly wears their Islam on their sleeves.  I mean this slightly literally, as I am seeing many working women in hijab here, but also in the way the Malay population at least opens up to me in such a familial way once they recognize me as a co-religionist.  The city, on the surface, is clean, orderly, well-developed, and I can now see why so many other Muslims I know speak in admiration of Malaysia in the way they have moved ahead economically while committing themselves to preserving their cultural and religious roots.  There seems to be no reason to emulate North America or Europe to be (at least close to) that standard of living, a standard of living I’m at least seeing  seems relatively high.

(This is all to say that this is on the surface.  Anyone who knows or write about Malaysia is well aware of the fractious nature of ethnic and identity politics here.  There is a surface commitment to preserving the orderly “face” of Malaysia, but ethnic divisions between Malays, Chinese, and Indians are there and seemingly ever-present, although not as balkanized as it could be.)

I’m wondering now if I will have the opportunity to see more than just this surface, orderly aspect of Malaysia.  It would be nice to see something equally pleasant but more “real”.

In my mind right now so many people I know will be celebrating Christmas soon.  It’s a time that slips my mind because I simply don’t celebrate it, and it has no religious, cultural, familial, or emotional resonance with me.  For whatever sentimental reason I’m thinking very warmly of those I know who do have that resonance.  I’m not sure if these words (that will probably be read by few) convey that, but seeing this is a journal of sorts I suppose I am obliged to say what I feel, maudlin as it may be.

13-11-08 Performances

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Gadhafi stadium

Gadhafi stadium

It’s warmer than usual in Lahore for November.  Just came back from Friday prayers, from the same mosque in Liberty that we’ve always gone to. White on the outside with black and white marble tiles covered by thatch prayer mats it has always been certainly well-maintained without being uniquely beautiful.  As usual, getting a space to pray involved much pushing and shoving.  While not exactly a symptom of a spiritual atmosphere, you still get a sense that something spiritual does exist in that bustle, as if it was out of a desperation to please and perform one’s divine duty than out of mere rudeness.

Yesterday we went to the World Performing Arts Festival at Gadhafi Stadium (named apparently after the Gadhafi, its benefactor).  This was Sufi night, and most of the performers, like Pappu Sain, seemed like they were straight out of a mazar (shrine).  The stadium can hold a number of people, in the thousands, although that night there were maybe a bit less than two hundred.  My father attributed that to a decline of “aesthetic value” that used to mark the city, in both the cultural elite and the average person on the street (this was, essentially “their music” and I think my father would have expected there to be a more support for this type of endeavor from them).  Perhaps the worldwide financial crisis has something to do with this as well – culture is a luxury in hard times.

11-11-08 Black Magic

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12pm Something strange just happened.  I walk out of our gate with my sister towards her car.  An old man is having some sort of interaction with Bilal, my sister’s driver.  He wears a red, multicolored turban that makes his head all the more imposing.  He has a long beard and an expression of pure madness, as if he’s either lost his mind or he knows something about life that we don’t.  Bilal quickly ushers us into the car quickly.  Inside, as we drive off he tells us the story.  Apparently this old man comes around here infrequently.  He comes to Bilal asking for a 50 rupee note, which he duly gives.  He asks Bilal to cup the note in his hand and then to open them, after which is revealed …. red dust.  Bilal showed it to me and, lo and behold, it was actual dust, as if through some magic this fakir had made the note crumble into powder.  Kaley jadoo, my sister remarked.  “Black magic”.

I’m not certain whether magic had to do with anything.  It could have been some soil the old man had supplanted into Bilal’s hand through some very sophistcated slight of hand, who knows.  At the same time, Bilal, my sister, and even I was glad to leave.  Some small bizarre moments are past left in the dust of a speeding car.

07-11-08 Spirit of the Times

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10.25 am
I just had breakfast with my aunt and mother; it was one of those meetings where you one gets a quick glimpse of the current zeitgeist.  The topic of conversation didn’t start with international terrorism but the international food crisis that seems to be crippling Pakistan and everywhere else.  (“You feel guilty just for even having this [in your house],” said my mother, pointing to a bowl of fruit.)  In the grand scheme of things, it seems natural that the malaise that seems to be everywhere starts with food…the distress and despair over it seems ubiquitous in this country, and long before my coming I had heard complaints of skyrocketing prices and woeful tales of food riots and suicides.  With an atmosphere like that, random bombings and an increasing presence of Taliban in the Frontier seems almost peripheral. Obama was an obvious topic of conversation as well.  (“He’s still against Muslims…his policies are the same [as Bush],” said my aunt.)  Be that as it may, Obama seems to be more popular than I imagined, and local satellite channels have been singing his praises in brief two-minute public advertisements.   Perhaps here, where many non-PPP supporters feel appalled by the fact that someone like Zardari can be president, anyone from any country who seems to exude competent leadership is worthy of media-deification.

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(“What do you think of ‘our president’?” asks my aunt.  Before I can even muster an answer in my jet-lagged state she blurts out the word ‘chor’.  Thief.)

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10.45 am
I’m flipping channels.  I reach Dawn News, one of 50 new news channels on Pakistani cable.  The topic of conversation on this particular talk-show (by Sara Jaffery) is “Understanding Puberty” and how to talk to your children about it.  Quite a far cry from the eighties when we used to visit Pakistan from abroad and the only channel was state-owned PTV (Pakistan Television).  I’m not exactly sure what the management of that channel would have thought of this during the days of Zia’s public Islamization.

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There is also and endless array of cooking shows at this time. There seems to be at least one every half-hour on most channels.  I watch a few of them with my mother.  She turns to me and says, with an appropriate apprecation of irony “There’re about ten cooking channels on, and people can’t afford to but food.”