Save the Rich

How long must the Rich sacrifice that last bit of opulence? Why can’t they catch a break? Why are the Poor so needy? Why so …erm …so …poor? When all signs of what is wrong with the world doesn’t get through – epic ballads remain the only way.
But, are the Poor listening?

Reciprocity

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(Painting from Patsober.wordpress.com)

What Reader roams the city where reading books is frowned upon and reading Minds, outlawed? Where the vast wonders of the youngest minds are handcuffed to workstations and leveraged by merchants?

What Wanderer stops at the porn & pamphlet stall selling Happiness that dies a slow death at his feet? Where Neons drown out the moon and diesel engines silence lovers’ quarrels?

What Chronicler walks into houses where the gold is safe but the children, hungry? Where upbringing is outsourced and hugs, scheduled?

What Spirit stays rooted in the graveyards full of broken promises and freshly-baked memories? Where Remembrance is a rare thing, but incense-sticks, common?

What Seeker investigates minds that have withered and speech that has dried up under the pretense of Custom? Where hands are tied by Doubt and eyes, taped by Propriety?

‘Each looking to give to the Light’ – this, the prophets offer. And may favor be returned unto them: the Reader be read, the Wanderer, discovered, the Chronicler, eulogized and the Spirit, remembered.

For, what else does the Seeker seek, if not to be found?

Bob Dylan’s Music Video is 50 Years Late. But It’s Worth It!

‘Like a Rolling Stone’ Interactive Music Video (Full Version)

Bob Dylan has just released the much-awaited music video to his timeless classic, Rolling Stone Magazine’s Greatest Song of All Time and my all-time favorite song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. But it’s not just an ordinary video. It’s also a TV screen where you can flip through channels, without stopping the song.

The stations you can flip through include a cooking show, The Price Is Right, Pawn Stars, local news, a tennis match, a children’s cartoon, BBC News and a live video of Dylan and the Hawks playing “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1966 – Rolling Stones Magazine.

“I’m using the medium of television to look back right at us,” director Vania Heymann told Mashable. “You’re flipping yourself to death with switching channels [in real life].” Adds Interlude CEO Yoni Bloch: “You’ll always miss something because you can’t watch everything at the same time.”

I am absolutely ecstatic that this brilliant, epoch-making song got such an intriguing, provoking video.

More on the interactive video and coinciding releases

Kony: Riding the Rogue Wave

If you were on social media in 2012, chances are you have heard of Joseph Kony. Yes, he’s the villain from that inspiring video dubbed Kony2012. Remember how it went viral in 5 days? And then suddenly people were saying Invisible Children Inc. had probably pulled a fast one? I just discovered my March 2012 article on Kony2012 and went browsing to find out where the hunt for Kony was.

It turns out that, even at the end of 2013, people think there’s more money to be made by selling (the ghost of) Kony. Adventurer journalist (yes, that’s a thing) Robert Pelton is crowdfunding a trip to locate Kony. If you didn’t know, ‘crowdfunding’ is another word for begging; but it’s classier because its a clever portmanteau, politically-correct and reeks of things high-tech.

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Robert Pelton provides his own pictures: seen here in full adventurer-gear and a journalistically detached mood (photo: dailybeast)

There are certain challenges still. Firstly, Pelton doesn’t know where Kony is. So he’s planning to go to four African countries, but won’t tell anyone which. If you ask me, I don’t think he’s decided yet. I’d recommend Kenya …for the safaris. And pygmy-land if that’s a country. The one vital clue Pelton does have is Kony’s name. It’s Joseph Kony. And Pelton will try shouting ‘Kony! Kony!’ in front of the 21000 villages he’ll come across.

The fact is, even Pelton doesn’t know why he should find Kony (when trained US Special Forces haven’t). In fact, he has “no agenda” at all. He’s just going. If he finds Kony what happens from there is “up to Joseph Kony”. Of course, Pelton doesn’t think he will surrender. No one else thinks that either. Pelton can’t arrest him, because he has no mandate. In fact, there’s nothing to suggest that the country’s soldiers (or Kony’s rebels) won’t riddle him silly …with bullets.

What Pelton has got right is the advertising part. He is raising mo… ahem, crowdfunding – the media side of his project, so people can follow, film and post about his adventure. He will be taking a filmmakers, journalists, medics, security and translators. The moment it’s beginning to look like a circus, he claims, “what we’re trying to do is not to use people’s misery as entertainment, but we’re trying to solve their problems.”

Good thing is Pelton has raised only $8407 out of his goal of $450,000.

***

My Daily Star article on Kony2012 (from March 20, 2012)

In February 20, 2012, the San Diego based not-for-profit organisation Invisible Children Inc. uploaded its superbly-produced, uplifting 30-minute documentary ‘Kony 2012‘. Their goal was to get 500,000 views and eventually, get the Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony arrested by 2012. Six days later, it reached an aggregate 100 million views – faster than other pop-culture phenomena like Susan Boyle (9 days) or Rebecca Black (45 days). Kony 2012 is now the most rapidly disseminated human rights video ever.

Long story short, in 2003, three filmmakers including Kony 2012 director Jason Russell travelled to Africa to document the Darfur genocide. There they learned of the rebel LRA’s war against the government, decided to do something and formed the non-profit organisation, Invisible Children. The Kony video, directed and narrated by Jason Russell, features clips of his time spent in Africa and footage of Russell’s conversations with his son. The video details Kony’s history followed by instructions to spread the video and donate to the organisation. The rest, is far from history.

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Kony2012 promotional poster

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a Ugandan guerilla group inspired by a breed of Christian Fundamentalism and aims to establish a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments. The LRA, declared a terrorist group in 2008, has long been accused of abduction of children who have been used as soldiers and sex slaves. Its leader Joseph Kony is a shaman of a warlord, a self-proclaimed Spokesperson of God, a husband to 88 women and a war criminal of the worst kind. He remains wanted by the ICC and hunted by US Special Forces in four Central African countries.

Kony 2012 is not just a video but an online vigilant campaign with a ‘join the revolution’ appeal, capitalising on viral media content. It set Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, news sites, YouTube and Vimeo afire with the hottest new supervillain. The hashtags #kony2012 and #stopkony became globally trending terms on Twitter, some ranking higher than the new iPad! In addition, virtual stores were selling posters, campaign buttons, posters, bracelets, stickers and other merchandise to help people organise demonstrations and voice their support for Invisible Children’s viral campaign. The promotional ‘Cover the Night’ event entails virally spreading Kony 2012-related media in major cities from sundown on April 20th, 2012. All major news outlets including CNN, BBC, Reuters, Huffington Post, The Guardian have covered the Kony story till date.

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Invisible Children, which is an advocacy organisation, also (albeit adroitly) targeted celebrity ‘culture makers’ and as Kony 2012 went viral, celebrities like Justin Beiber, Bill Gates, Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Emma Stone were retweeting and endorsing the campaign. Oprah Winfrey’s (9.7 million Twitter followers) endorsement sent hits skyward. The White House press secretary announced that President Obama (who appears to support the movement in the film) had praised the people who responded to this ‘unique crisis of conscience’ and pledged to continue the disarmament of the LRA.

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Of late the Kony campaign has fallen victim to the Icarus Syndrome – its overwhelming success being its biggest problem. Fame has brought scrutiny and eventually, helped uncover certain inconvenient facts. The LRA, it seems, is a problem of a bygone era – reaching its height during the 1990s. Remnants of Kony and LRA were finally pushed out of Uganda in 2006 and have now become quite insignificant. The ‘Nodding Disease’ is a much more potent threat to Ugandan children. The LRA numbers are estimated in the hundreds and not the 30,000 as the documentary suggests. The content and tone, which doesn’t consider Ugandan audiences, has been dubbed insensitive, frivolous and misleading.

Chris Blattman, political scientist at Yale, stated Invisible Children’s programme ‘hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden… the saviour attitude’. Another Ugandan journalist asks what justifies such a massive production campaign and lucrative donation drive? Invisible Children expertly ‘commodifies white man’s burden on the African continent: Buy a bracelet, soothe some guilt’.

Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi got on YouTube to declare ‘the Government of Uganda is acutely aware of the grievous damage caused by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. We do not need a slick video on YouTube for us to take notice.’ Mbabazi has also taken to Twitter to invite the targeted celebrities to come to Uganda and see the country for themselves.

“I just hope it sows the seeds of a new generation with a real interest in how Africa and its people can progress, in understanding why the world is like it is, not ‘lots of Africans just kidnap and kill each other, but white people can help.” Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam GB

Invisible Children’s rather irresponsible, albeit supercharged, campaign has drawn a lot of flak. Their fundraising attempts have attracted attention to their financial practices. According to their own financials, Invisible Children spends a whopping 70% of its funds on production of films, overseas travel and staff salaries – the rest going to direct services. The organisation has defended its expenditure saying it’s not a typical aid-agency – but an advocacy firm.

At the height of the controversy, Jedidiah Jenkins, Director of Idea Generation at Invisible Children, suggested that their film had been developed for school children – and shouldn’t have been subjected to the scrutiny of The Guardian. Recently, director of the film Jason Russell was found running about in an indecent state, arrested and admitted to an institution. His family claimed that widespread criticism had brought on the episode.

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We need not wait till 20th April to realise the campaign has gone viral. That Kony 2012 is unleashing so many exuberant activists, albeit armed with very few facts, leads one to wonder the secrets of this success. Which is just too bad because this campaign has the makings of a truly transformational development-communication experiment. Still, their strategies may be replicated in development and health communications as social-media gains momentum in Bangladesh. Social-media movements like those against BSF Brutality and Tipaimukh Dam can learn from Invisible Children. Leaders can learn how to channel youthful energy to worthy causes. They seem to have got the basics right.

The easiest answer may be that Kony 2012 engenders the most timeless, most tried and tested recipe in communications or story-telling: a villain, a problem, a solution and a hero. Invisible Children first created their own story – a bunch of passionate development workers with a dream. They mainly targeted young, white students – change-maker types-playing on the cultural ‘white savior’ complex. The distinction between dichotomies of ‘us vs. them’, ‘young vs. old’, ‘propaganda vs. activism’ helps the audience identify with the cause. It may not be Kony that drives them – but rather a need to belong. Youth cutting across geographic boundaries and ideology by way of social-networking is a potent motivational force too. The audience, young and probably first-time involved in anything that smells like activism, is ripe. Green of Oxfam points out that ‘(Kony 2012) adds dollops of Hollywood feelgood schmaltz to that equation – ‘we can do it!’ ‘Hey, they’re just like us!’ ‘Feel the love!’ ‘Kids are cute!’.’ They are, in fact, speaking the language of the youth. And explaining as though to a child (the film-maker’s son Gavin) helps (over)simplify the issues too.

The setting is a distant Uganda, a land of perceived misery and murder that can never graduate without the white man’s development work. While condescending, it actually appeals to a genuine sense of philanthropy in idealistic, young people. At a time ripe for activism, Invisible Children started out with a specific villain: Kony …not a faceless affliction like poverty, war or AIDS. His crime is against children – the global charity-magnet. The message is clear and concise: stop Kony. How do you do this? Simple: make Kony famous. In this ingenuous ‘you can run, but you can’t hide’ assault, audiences are not passive viewers – but active campaigners – heroes, who are to stop Kony. There are very specific, actionable instructions in achieving this: share video, buy bracelet, give money.

The goal is clear: get Kony arrested; the strategy is simple: make Kony famous; the deadline is set: end of 2012. That’s more than enough direction. And with his sort of clicktivism, people can engage in without hampering their everyday lives. And lastly, the optimised mix of virtual networks, social media and merchandising helps access and motivate the specific audience and greatly expedites the single success factor for the campaign: reach. That Kony 2012 has gone viral like it has – is not coincidence, its elementary.

So You Think You Know Me, Google?

I hate the way you act so familiar, Google. The way you’re all smooth and suave as you slip in a suggestion or two before I can finish typing in my search. Why am I even typing if I don’t already know the question? Just give me the answers. Oh! I forgot! You don’t have any answers. All you have is snooping data: X site has answers. So, why are you so haughty, you voyeur? “Relax O Mortal – I know what you seek. Is it …this? Erm …this? How ’bout this?” No, Google. You don’t know me! You don’t know what I’m looking for today …or any day! I am unpredictable. I will bank left, duck and run to the right. Like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. I will type in questions that I don’t need answered, just to see you kick yourself. Autocomplete that, jerk!

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Google seems to imply that men, dogs and cats are constantly intrigued by nipples, poop and St. Patrick’s Day

Despite your claims that you can predict Box Office hits based on search patterns – you have no knowledge of the Future. You’re no prophet. Recall that a while back, I was Googling (I hate that pseudo-verb!) ‘how can government shut down?’ and only managed to type up to ‘can’. And you were there in a leap – like a chivalrous, presumptuous geek – with your suggestions. “How can …”

  • …I keep from singing
  • …she slap me
  • …you get herpes

Why were you making me sound like an obsessive crooner who’s probably also a part-time serial-killer? And why would I be seeking to rationalize why she slapped me? Besides, there were no witnesses (I know, I tried to sue). You would probably suggest that it was the singing. And the Herpes! Sheesh! You show one STD or the other to everyone Googling ‘how can’. It’s a sickness, Google! Get help. And you don’t have to finish my sentences. You’re not my girlfriend! You can’t give me STD! Listen Google, an invitation to hang for a bit is not the same as a license to snoop through my wallet …if you get my drift. But I know you don’t.

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Monkey business running amuck on Google (photo: Buzzfeed)

Pretentious articles claim that your autocomplete uses an algorithm that factors in the popularity of search phrases, my location, freshness of query and my previous searches. Given that I’ve never had reason to suspect I have Herpes and it’s somewhat uncommon in my location (as is the Internet) – Bing suggests a 88% probability that it is you who’s been secretly researching Herpes, causing it to show up on my taskbar. But before you rush off to clear your browsing history, look at these ads that UN Women developed, utilizing your bigotry and compulsive-profiling to raise awareness and better our society.

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But that we can make lemonade with the metaphorical lemons you offer – doesn’t change anything. I still hate that a new tab on Chrome shows 8 most visited sites. It’s really quite simple: I KNOW WHAT SITES I VISIT! And no, I’ve never been to that pornsite that you keep posting there. Neither is the pharmaceutical site peddling cheap antidepressants any reflection of what I’ve searched. It was, in all probability, you, Google! And even on YouTube, you are constantly recommending ‘Green Paradise – Erotic (Full Movie)’ and ’4 Midgets Relay Race Against a Camel’. While I have been occasionally amused by breakdancing little-people – it is wrong of you to reduce me to my search phrases & clicks.

Stop assuming that I am incapable of spontaneity and evolution.

Of Course the ‘Assam Rape Festival’ Isn’t Real! It’s Target, However, Is.

Five days ago, US-based nationalreport.net ran the piece ‘Assam Rape Festival in India Begins in a Week‘. It was a hideous, repulsive story about an inhuman tradition. A Rape festival; an age-old tradition that originated in 43 BC when B. Tamil Nadu raped everyone in his village Doomdooma. This act was being celebrated even in 2013!

“We rape the evil demons out of the girls, otherwise they will cheat on us and we will be forced to kill them. So it is necessary for everyone.” explained Madhuban Ahluwalia, the convener of the Assam Rape Festival. Participants talked about how they were ‘practicing rape’ (?) on their sisters and their friends. There is also the quintessential white-tourist interviewee – Brian Barnett – who is appalled and passes judgment on such savagery and promises to leave India as soon as possible.

The piece has gone viral over social media – leaving people stunned, shocked, aroused, intrigued, repulsed, hurt or ready for activism. But, of course, the truth is there IS no such festival. It was a satirical piece that tried to target the rise of sexual assaults on women in India. But the site found themselves to be the butt of the joke as thousands saw, shared and commented on the piece – without realizing the glaring signs of inept satire. In fact, someone even started a petition to stop the festival. The very fact that people all over – even in Bangladesh – thought the Assam Rape Festival a real phenomenon, reflects poorly on India and has left the State of Assam seething.

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The satire used pictures from a ‘Kumbh Mela’ – a mass pilgrimage of the faithful, who gather to bathe in a sacred river. The alien image of unclothed Sadhus / pilgrims may have unwittingly contributed to the credibility of the piece (photo: religion.dk)

For anyone who knows anything about India (or the world today), there were telltale signs: girls as young as 7 getting ready for some raping, trainee rapists practicing on sisters, a rape-free-zone, the nonchalance of reporters covering the event, trophies for champion rapists, 12-year old girls recovering from rape to partake in this year’s festival and above all, the overall journalistic detachment with which the story was narrated.

But the unfamiliar website, quite believable Hindu names (Balakrishan, Jaitashree), referring to actual places like Assam and Doomdooma (yes, it’s a real village), that disconcerting image of charging, naked men and most of all, a real charity website link (giveindia.org) – all worked to confuse the average reader. No wonder over a dozen other sites picked it up and ran it as ‘news’. Well, in their defense, most posts with nudity is considered news these days.

I think, three things may have caused it to go viral. These, in a screwed up order, are:

  1. Hunger Games (the movie): consider the mental image for this line, “every non-married girl age 7-16 will have the chance to flee to safety or get raped.” And then 12-year old Jaitashree talks about how she almost made it to the rape-free-zone last year – but was jumped by nine men at the last minute. Tell me that doesn’t conjure images of J.Law running through the woods with her bow-arrow. Only all tributes were girls and the men were looking for something far more …for lack of a better word, kinky.
  2. Image of the Subcontinental Man: the rules of engagement between the two sexes are fundamentally different in Asia. Males must do more – since the females opt not to actively pursue relationships (dating and one-night stands are nascent phenomena). So, worldwide, subcontinental men are seen as a primitive, horny, (reluctantly) monogamous, sex-starved, hungry species that can’t stop staring at (white) women. Though this is not the case, the out-of-context image of naked pilgrims didn’t help in this case.
  3. A Spate of Reported Rapes in India: India has had more than its share of publicized rape cases, most notably the fatal assault on a 23-year old medical student. Out of public adoration, the victim became known as ‘Nirbhaya’ (Fearless) or the Delhi Braveheart and  More recently, an American student wrote about her harrowing experiences as an CNN iReporter. Her story was promptly picked up by the editors and soon became a pivotal account that gave birth to innumerable articles and blogs on the topic.
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Women came out in droves to protest India’s rape culture (photo: feminist wire)

Despite the incidents, the satire was badly-written and in poor taste. Even if ‘controversy’ was the goal! The very fact that it was plausible, caused indignation and embarrassment was a sign of bad writing and judgment. Taking advantage of India’s ancient, cultural mosaic and it’s mystic sadhus to conjure a repulsive story about savagery, was deplorable and in my mind, racist. The piece failed to account for a diverse audience, wrongly-assumed intimate cultural knowledge and irreversibly tarnished the image of Assam (and in a previous piece, Punjab). Assam Police’s CID has already started probing further into the matter. But one must also add that the confusion over the satirical piece just goes to prove what many of us were already suspecting. With increased reporting and incidents of rapes in India (and by extension, the Subcontinent) – the world is concerned and keeping its eyes trained on the developments. There is most definitely an image-crisis which had lent credibility to the ridiculous Rape Festival piece in the first place.

Thou Shalt Not Drive: Why Islam Prohibits Women Behind the Wheels

Protests to lift the Saudi ban on women’s driving have taken by storm the inner pages of newspapers all over the world; the Kingdom’s decades-long efforts to subdue these women, haven’t. But before jumping on either bandwagon, why do you think Islam bans women from driving?

  1. Women are typically bad drivers
  2. Women are effectively blinded by their veils
  3. Cars are known to molest women
  4. It makes men even more useless
  5. Women are too emo to handle road-rage
  6. It messes with the ovaries

Yeah – I know you’re thinking it’s #3 and an Arabian judicial advisor has actually suggested #6. But actually it’s none of the above. Islam doesn’t ban women from driving, Saudi Arabia does. That’s why none of the fifty other Muslim countries fight tooth and nail to keep women from the wheels.

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What does Islam say about driving-women? Obviously: nothing. But there are accounts of the earliest Muslim women making their pilgrimage to Makkah independently. The Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadija (PBUT) is known to have traveled on camelback for trading purposes. What we do find is a debate over is if women should be making long journeys alone or with guardians.

In Saudi culture, women have traditionally been conservative and protected (face-veils, for example, are derived culturally). In the 1990s, only 8% women were employed and none drove. But then female US troops were seen driving freely through Saudi streets during the 1990 Gulf War. Feeling that they too should be able to do the same – 47 Saudi women organized a convoy. They were promptly arrested. Soon after, the Grand Mufti (senior most religious authority) declared a fatwa, or religious edict to quasi-formalize the ban – because driving would expose women “to temptation” and lead to “social chaos.”

What’s interesting to note is that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an actual law supporting the ban. It just prevents women from getting licenses. There are murmurs of certain Hadiths that call for women travelers to be accompanied by mahrams (husbands or men who may not be married e.g. fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers). But as Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz Bayindir of islamandquran.org thinks, these Hadiths, in essence, are about the safety and security of the women. So, if safety is ensured, Bayindir argues, then women may travel alone. But this blog is unsuited for that debate.

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One must concede that in this highly conservative society, a woman driving is undoubtedly a cultural affront. It is new, it is change. And that may be why one-third of Saudi women and half of the men think women have no business behind the wheels. And most do it – not for religious reasons, but fearing social consequences.

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The driving ban has its share of supporters, both among Saudi men and women (photo: salon.com)

“Women in Saudi Arabia are safer, and better taken care of, and have more status and privilege than women in the West,” says writer Lubna al-Tahlawi. Western women are viewed as sex objects, suffer from a high rate of prostitution, and don’t even make the same salary as men for the same job, as women here do, she argues. “Driving has not improved their lives.” Faiza al-Obaidi, a Biology professor, says she thinks the attempts at Western-style female emancipation are part of a religious war being waged by the United States, “an intellectual rather than physical colonization.”

Abdel-Rehman wrote on The Guardian that according to a rapid survey, many women themselves aren’t that crazy about driving. They are allegedly terrified that it could unleash sexual harassment, family disintegration, adultery and even sedition in the KSA. These attitudes are reinforced by ‘scientific’ reports demonstrating on how driving will lead to increased homosexuality and pornography. Within ten years of the ban being lifted, the report’s authors claimed, there would be ‘no more virgins’ in the Islamic kingdom. Mrs. Rowdha Yousef was so outraged by the Women2Drive campaign that she started her own counter-campaign titled, ‘My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me’. The government helped out by shutting down her rivals’ site.

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It is difficult – perhaps even wrong – for an outsider to judge a custom before understanding that society’s attitudes, values and beliefs. Saudi authorities have often defended the ban with “society is not ready” – which may indicate that they think there will be a right time. In a 2005 address, King Abdullah declared, “the day will come when women drive.” The 2013 protests were treated less harshly by Saudi Police, compared to the 1990 arrests. Three of the thirty Shura (advisory) council’s women-members have requested that the ban be reconsidered. There are signs that the Saudis are beginning to think that the right time is now.

Recommended Video No Woman, No Drive (Comedian Hisham Fageeh singing a mock homage) Read more

Veins of the Himalayas

From the aircraft’s oval window, I watched the velvety, grassy plains gradually rise up to foothills, which undulated into vast green mountains, which – in turn – soared to windswept, icy peaks. ‘Himalaya’, in Sanskrit, means ‘Home of Snow’. And at one point, its vast, snowy summits seemed so near that one could probably just hop down from the plane.

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Himalayas from up in the air (photo: thestunzfamily)

The real monster peaks of the Himalayan Range – that stand guard between Bangladesh and Nepal – can rise over 25,000 feet. So we were flying around them and entering through Nepal’s underbelly. Our Boeing 737-800 abruptly banked right and in five minutes, we made a clipped landing on the cracked runway of Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu.

The first Ruslan Beer/Music sign that grabbed my attention said, “Nepal runs on its own time. So relax and have patience”. It was fair warning, evident from the fact that no one in immigration or the taxi-stands seemed to be in any kind of hurry. They were as relaxed as tourists, while the tourists got increasingly agitated. Every little task was an uphill battle. But the sloth grew on me quickly. It was as though the impenetrable mountains shut out the bustle of outside world and nurtured a quiet, little valley of idle tranquility. Here, clocks ticked reluctantly and people aged slowly.

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Sweaty and wilted, we headed East from the airport – stopping only for a fill of Buff Momo (Beef is a rarity since cows are sacred in the Hindu religion; ‘Buff’ or Buffalo is a close substitute). Nagarkot is a little village atop a winding, alpine road at 6,500 feet. As our taxis went on a crazy, spiral up the mountain – we sat clutching on to rails, ears popping and sweat drying in the heavy, cool air that smelt of sagebrush and freshly-dug soil. Dappled sunlight streamed in through the thick foliage and danced on unsuspecting cheeks and squinting eyes.

Kathmandu Valley (Photo: Jonah Kessel)

Kathmandu Valley (Photo: Jonah Kessel)

With increasing altitude, the Kathmandu Valley began to reveal herself in the dusk light. Beyond the narrow alpine road lined by colonial era cinder-blocks – lay sheer mountainsides that dropped precariously onto a vast valley peppered by multicolored cropfields and lonely abodes. Down below, a sparse Lilliputian population moved about their Matchbox cars and make belief houses. Over the valley, an absolute, palpable stillness hovered like forgotten regrets.

Across the chasm that was the Kathmandu Valley, as far as the eyes could see, were strings of mountains – least bothered about what range Royal Cartographers had grouped them into. A few of the mountains had obviously been scaled – as evidenced by a stream of trucks, vans inching up around them and clusters of pink and turquoise houses on the rockface. But the rest seemed untouched, untamed – quivering with an ancient energy in the same frequency as the planet and ringing out with loudly buzzing field-crickets. The crickets only got louder as it got darker.

In Nepal, the sun takes its sweet time to rise, but sets suddenly. The old women, with massive loads hanging on their backs from the forehead, quickened their pace. Kites disappeared from the sky. By the time we landed in Hotel Chautari, a heavy, otherworldly silence had descended and faraway mountain settlements, transformed into glimmering swarms of fireflies. Night had arrived. Hot water, not nearly. I reminded myself of Nepal’s own time and slipped in a cold shower. It is not recommended.

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A mist-covered Langtang Range snoozed in the background the next morning. The sun was being lazy. But you could still see the hundreds of miles of valley, dunes, foothills and mountains that lead to the icy peaks. The entire region was so isolated and desolate that I could imagine a Yeti or two prancing around there. Far below us – clouds were slowly, reluctantly starting to recede from the valley, where they had camped overnight. Only pointy mountaintops peered above the sea of cloud and looked eerily like the island from Lost.

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It almost felt rude as I left the grand scenery and headed out for quick walkabout. Outside, there were no flat roads or terrain anywhere. Time taken to reach a destination must depend on whether it’s up or downhill, I mused. Perhaps that’s the mystery of Nepalese time. Thirty minutes downhill, the Chawk Bazar was the first real settlement. Women and girls were already out in droves, bathing and doing their laundry at roadside water-points. At this altitude, they made quite efficient use of their water. The wet clothes they thumped twice against stone slabs with both hands, before gathering and flipping them and then thumping twice again. Repeat till infinity.

It struck me that this was a poor locality. Typically South-Asian cultures accommodate their bathing women within boundaries. But not here. Here the women were bold, impervious to nosy tourists and getting ready for business at the crack of dawn. Most of the businesses around – breakfast joints, grocery & spice shops, firewood stalls and collectibles splayed on tables – were run by women. They were definitely family-owned. So at the wayside eatery, a young girl took my order, her brother got the omelettes started and her mother brewed the coffee with fatty buffalo-milk. Her father chatted about the benefits of tourism in fluent Hindi (both Nepalese and Bangla have lots in common with Hindi). I had – I was mortified to discover – picked up some Hindi from watching the interminable, chaste-wife-evil-mother-in-law soaps (these were likely devised to destroy Bangladesh’s future).

On the bright side, Hindi created a bridge for me. A Bangali and a Nepali speaking in Hindi was a testament to India’s rise as a regional powerhouse. That’s also where most tourists came from, the father told me. These families depend on tourists and the money they bring. So I decided to quit haggling for once, despite what I had read in travel blogs. We spent our remaining time in Nagarkot lazing about in front of the Himalayas, eating Momo (dumplings) and tuning out the annoying clicking of cameras. I refuse to take too many photos of scenic beauty – because photos never do Nature justice. Eventually, when memory wavers – these listless, nondescript photos become the only means of recollection. And every story is better with a sprinkling of imagination, exaggeration and romanticism.

***

Thamel, in Kathmandu, is the typical touristy neighborhood. We had taken a brief tour of Bhaktapur Darbar Square – the plaza in front of the old Bhaktapur Royal Palace. It’s Palace of Fifty-Five Windows had been built in 1427 AD and the arches, inlays, terracotta and columns around the remaining 6 (out of 99) courtyards are still mesmerizing.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu

From this humbling lesson in history, Thamel was a big change. Thamel is a complex maze of narrow streets, lined with souvenir shops, shawl displays, hotels, restaurants, hookah bars, live music cafés and massage parlors.

Shop in Thamel.

footlooseinasia

Thamel shops (photo: footlooseinasia)

People of all colors thronged the streets – trying out Nepali caps, browsing in cafés, munching on some chicken feet or trying to score some Afghan Hash. Indian couples got stingy over brass statuettes and mandalas. Rugged adventurers bargained over North Face climbing equipment, trekking poles and kayaks. A couple of elderly women – Europeans I gathered – chatted up their handsome tour guide. Young Nepali girls slipped in and out of ill-lit massage parlors. Kashmiri families who had fled from their violence-torn heaven on Earth – beckoned pedestrians to touch – just touch – their softest Pashmina and Kashmir (Cashmere) shawls and scarves.

Before heading West, I insisted on a mandatory visit to the Gurkha Museum. You should too. Named after an 8th century warrior-saint, the Gurkhas – a Nepali and East Indian indigenous people – are legendary warriors in modern history. Their inhuman endurance levels, martial skills, sense of discipline and honor made them a formidable rival to the British colonial forces in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814.  The British were tormented by these warriors wielding their signature, curved knife or Khukuris - which, in the hand of the Gurkha, became an unstoppable, menacing weapon.

gurkha

Eventually, the British contracted defectors to raise their own Gurkha regiments and fought the locals (trust the British! Eh?). Ever since, Gurkha forces have fought all over the planet – in China, Cyprus, France, Suez, Persia, Syria and Singapore among others. In World War 1, 200,000 Gurkha soldiers fought alongside the British Army. They have even fought in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. For Gurkha soldiers, honor is a way of life. At the museum, I also hear recounted the story of Bishnu who brandished his Khukuri against a band of train-robbers to save a girl from rape. I came away awed and suspecting that we all owe part of our freedom to these valiant Nepali warriors – in one way or another.

***

The next leg led us through the veins of the Himalaya: narrow, alpine roads, carved out from the sheer mountainside, that transport vital supplies to and from the Annapurna Region. A 5-hour, winding, topsy-turvy ride over mountains and through valleys took us to Pokhara: a serene city by the sprawling Fewa Lake, the color of which mimics the sky all day.

pokhara

Fewa Lake mimicking the skies

The summit of Annapurna-1 gleamed at 26,500 feet, making it the 4th highest peak in the world. The craggy, legendary Fishtail Mountain (23,000 feet) rose from the foothills like a proud edifice in magnificent ivory. Three of the world’s ten highest peaks were just 30 miles away and loomed over the city like white-bearded tribal elders watching over their clan.

Pokhara bustled with trekkers and paragliding-adventurers who walked around with the flair of old Spanish explorers. Strapping men, with army fatigues tucked into trekking-boots, inspected Swiss Army knives and sleeping beds. Tourists in shorts and slippers steered clear of them and stuck to buying buffalo-horn statues of Buddha and Ganesha. Multicolored boats floated on the Fewa Lake. The clear, vivid reflection of the Annapurna Range rippled on the water as boats wobbled past. A Chinese group of friends performed a harmonized, indecipherable song over the still waters: their private tribute to Annapurna – the Mother who Feeds. Few others had the time to stare at the miraculous Himalayas. The range had become like backlit billboards of Dhaka – stripped of magic, taken for granted.

sampadainn

There’s nothing more calming than a Fewa Lake boatride (photo: sampadainn)

The next day, our climb to Sarangkot (5,000 feet) started at 4 am. It was dark. Streets were empty, boats abandoned. The ill-lit winding road up the mountain was hardly wide enough for a single vehicle. At every sharp turn, the van seemed to be veering off the cliff. On the top, buses and vans had already queued up. We walked up to the circular viewing platform. Cameras in hand, people waited in anticipation for the sun to come up. Some hugged spouses, lovers or children to forever immortalize the moment. 

Pokhara City and Fewa Lake seen beyond the mountains

Pokhara City (Left) and Fewa Lake seen beyond the mountains

As reddish hues lit up the sky, the dawn light glimmered on a distant Fewa Lake. It now appeared cradled by a garland of mountains, lapping up the lassitude of a cluster of blinking lights: the city of Pokhara. Tufts of clouds swelled and flowed over the sub-Himalayan ridges. To the North, the first rays of the sun set fire to the Fishtail Mountain’s pointy peak. Gradually, the light revealed snowy shoulders, the black-stone body of the mountain and bathed the entire Annapurna Range in a buttery Golden glow. And then, there was nothing else to look at. It was as if the crazy Chinese ladies didn’t exist, Sarangkot wasn’t there, we didn’t exist …as if the world didn’t exist. There was only God’s ancient masterpiece.

***

Some 70 million years ago – when there was a single, global ocean known as Tethys – India collided with Eurasia. The plates folded upwards into massive mountain ranges and the Himalayas were born (in fact, Mount Everest’s summit is made of marine limestone from the bed of Tethys). This was a time when Bangladesh was a part of Antarctica, Australia was drifting Northward and Terror-birds – birdlike Dinosaurs – still guarded our skies. A time when an ancient river was incising a paleocanyon, a descendant of which would become known as the Grand Canyon. A time when a 9-mile radius asteroid was heading for Mexico and would strike the planet to wipe out 75% of world’s species.

These mountains that I gazed upon, had been around when the Chicxulub Asteroid struck with a force 2 million times stronger than a nuclear bomb. They saw the mighty dinosaurs perish. They stood witness to the emergence of the first mammals and apes. Despite being one of the youngest mountain ranges, the Himalayas have had to wait 65 million years for the first pair of humans to come along. From their vantage point, they’ve seen prophets come and go, empires rise and fall, humans love and kill. They’ve seen daring Sherpas making impossible summits. Then came writers of History who followed the Sherpas and wrote themselves into the records. The painters came. And poets too. Hundreds came, thousands even: to see this chain of snowcapped, misty mountains far up in the sky that – like a parent – continue to watch over us. It’s no wonder then that when you truly, intently gaze upon the Himalayas – you can feel the Himalayas gazing back.

annapurna

Animal Sacrifice on Eid Al Adha

There’s an all out effort to prove Islam a barbaric, antiquated religion that cannot – will not – survive without reform. The latest set of complaints is about animal sacrifice (Qurbani) on occasion of Eid Al Adha and the particular piece I refer to was written by a self-proclaimed progressive Muslim. Comments on the piece were quickly closed and this blog remains my only alternative to share my views.

This post is a commentary on “Should Muslims Reconsider Animal Slaughter on Eid?” by Anila Muhammad, printed on the HuffingtonPost. Views expressed, naturally, are my own.

In the article, the writer retraces traditions and cites Qur’anic verses – to make the argument that Muslims have misunderstood Abraham’s story for 1400 years (if not more, considering that Islamic understanding of the story is also informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition). The writer uses references (not the main interpretation) from Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss, an Austro-Hungarian Jewish convert and Islamic scholar) to seemingly prove that God never asked animal sacrifices of Abraham or us (see Quran 22:34 to find the command). It was only Abraham’s impression that He did (she claims without a source or reference). At this rate, all divine inspiration – Adam’s, Noah’s, Moses’, David’s, John’s, Jesuses’ and Muhammad’s – can be attributed to dreams and the entire Abrahamic tradition, effectively nullified. I have no bones to pick with people who outright deny prophetic stories. But one who presents herself as a true believer and then labels prophetic inspiration a sham – warrants little trust.

Ritual sacrifices in Abrahamic traditions date back to the times of Cain (Qabeel) and Abel (Habeel).

Ritual sacrifices in Abrahamic traditions have continued since the times of Cain (Qabeel) and Abel (Habeel) – the two sons of Adam.

The writer also contends that average Muslims are reconsidering animal ‘slaughter’ (as if killing were the prime motive) but manages to name only four such people. A similar article printed in a Bangladeshi newspaper alludes to the Qur’anic verse that says “its not the blood that reaches God; its the piety”. So, this writer argues, animal sacrifice is not required (check out the comments section on the piece). He doesn’t mention verses like:

  • “O you who believe! Violate not the sanctity of the Symbols of Allah, nor of the Sacred Month, nor of the animals brought for sacrifice, nor the garlanded people or animals, etc.” (Surah al-Maidah: 2)
  • “Allah doth accept of the sacrifice Of those who are righteous.” (Surah al-Maidah : 27)
  • “And for all religion We have appointed a rite [of sacrifice] that they may mention the name of Allah over what He has provided for them of [sacrificial] animals” (Surah al Hajj: 34)
  • “Verily my prayer, my sacrifices, my life and my death are solely for Allah; the Rabb of the worlds.” (Surah An’aam: 162-163)
  • “So pray to your Lord and sacrifice [to Him alone]” (Surah al Kauthar: 2).

Both writers failed to mention Hadith sources like “There is nothing dearer to Allah Ta’ala during the days of sacrifice than the sacrificing of animals. The sacrificed animal shall come on the day of Qiyamah with its horns, hair and hooves (to be weighed in reward). The sacrifice is accepted by Allah Ta’ala before the blood reaches the ground. Therefore sacrifice with an open and happy heart” (Tirmizhi, Ibn Majah)Here are some other points/questions raised in the article.

Are we really making the same type of emotional and mental sacrifice that Abraham made? If not, then how exactly are we enhancing our spiritual development by continuing with this tradition?

No. Abraham was a prophet of Allah and asked to make the biggest sacrifice imaginable. Abrahamic traditions remember Abraham’s tremendous willpower and fear of God through Qorban / Qurbani. During the festival, we spend hard-earned money and give to the poor (1/3rd of the meat) and extended family-friends-neighbors (another 1/3rd). Every year, we part with our money and get in touch with the destitute. We remember the difficulty of Abraham’s task and thank Allah that we’ve been spared …for we would’ve surely failed in that test of faith.

One must not forget that Abraham didn’t exactly rejoice at the idea of sacrificing his beloved son. Sacrifice isn’t pleasant. And Muslims don’t enjoy killing animals either. But we endure this sacrifice to demonstrate the submission of our will to the will of the Almighty. That – if you care to know – is the essence of Islam.

However, we must ask ourselves — are we concerned with feeding people for only a few days or maintaining the message of social justice the Quran espouses?

These are not mutually-exclusive. Every year, my family gives out meat to 50/60 people who have little access to protein. But we also continue to give alms, Zakat during Ramadan, gifts to the less-fortunate. I say this not to brag – but to point out that animal sacrifice doesn’t diminish my capacity for contributing to social justice. Anyone who is trying to imply that Muslims / religious people don’t donate enough, is either anti-religion or anti-fact. Here’s my case. More.

Thousands of people find gainful employment in selling, trading, transporting, tending to and managing sacrificial animals. Floating populations help out with the ritual and earn a healthy fee and millions of orphans find good food on their plates. It’s easy for people with great jobs and credit limits to turn a blind eye to the poor woman I met this afternoon; she took her share of meat and then pleaded for the animals’ intestines: the intestines, she would eat; the meat, she would sell. That’s how poor the really poor people are. And there is no other time when religious sacrifice brings so much bounty all round.

If we are concerned with social justice and creating meaningful, long term change then we Muslims must reconsider funneling our money from this sacrifice and make other investments in our communities to help the disadvantaged. 

The key word here may be ‘other’ investments. Why ‘other’? The premise here is that the sacrifice is merely symbolic. That’s incorrect. None of the sacrifice is wasted. The meat is consumed or distributed. The hide goes into production of leather. Apart from spiritual advancement, there is redistribution of wealth, employment (for professional cattle-herders and traders) during this time. That’s more than the development sector can say, where up to 70% money is spent on administrative, staffing and fund-raising costs.

(To forgo the sacrifice) Consider that the livestock industry is the leading contributor towards land, air and water pollution and degradation of our ecosystem.

That’s not even proper logic.

What would the writer have the world do? Annihilate the planet’s livestock? Or did she mean only animals meant for sacrifice pollute the environment? The truth is, humans will continue  to consume meat till the end of Time – and our markets will supply as long as the demand exists. Pollution and environmental degradation is not a result of Qurbani, but of the consumption-focused market economy.

(The) idea of humane treatment of animals in Islam is at complete odds with the reality of how animals are treated. 

This I agree with. Islamic law is quite strict about being humane to sacrificial animals and this is something we all should work on. Recently, Bangladesh has seen the emergence of privately-bred, humanely-treated animals in the market. There is growing awareness about making the sacrificial ritual as humane as possible too.

***

To end my rant, I find it mind-boggling that an ideology (used loosely) that supports the wanton killing of unborn human fetuses, feels so much compassion for animals killed for their meat. Of course, they don’t object if its David Cameron trying to relax the ban on fox-hunting (which happens to be the most pointless, institutionalized form of animal slaughter). They cheer matadors as they repeatedly stab bulls for sport. They don’t care if its KFC or Outback Steakhouse doing the killing. Nor is it a problem if its packaged Turkeys being cooked or goats/rams being slaughtered during Thanksgiving or Dussera. But oh! Should Muslims make a sacrifice – they will pour over it like sharks and yap endlessly about how barbaric we are!

Some societies may find it easier or more convenient to let their children think that meat comes from KFC or supermarkets. They may even consider surreptitiously removing the Food-Chain from textbooks. Others may opt to retain rituals that remind them of the Lord’s kindness and our dependence on Him for our daily bread (meat); remind us that it is perfectly natural to eat of animals, fish and plants though they all have lives. I have nothing against people/ Muslims choosing to avoid ritual sacrifice. I do object to attempts to rationalize such a choice through misleading interpretations of scripture. Besides, for a race that’s constantly condemning its own to death every second – I think its a tad bit pretentious and/or hypocritical.

Freedom of Speech: Getting Past the Speaker

The Outlier Collective (TOC) is a place where fascinating debates are brewing and contemporary ideas, flying. Thanks to my friend Jenny Saia, I got the chance to share my thoughts on “Censorship – when exactly is it okay?” Check it out.