Monday, June 15, 2009

first potatoes

these are the first crop of any kind we have harvested. how exciting it was, to dig them up and wash them off, revealing crisp white spuds. it's too bad our cooking that day did them little justice, stewing in a mediocre curry. but it was still a good feeling eating our own potatoes. maybe tomorrow i'll go out and pick that spinach that has struggled for months to attain even its puny size. . .

yeah, i'm weird

but really, the shape of the bananas was perfectly suited to the curve of my head. . .


as we sat at the birthday party yesterday, the younger son translated a charming bit of iraqi culture for us. the littlest boy was asking his father to throw him into the air and catch him. apparently that game is called "hoob" after the shout of the father as he throws the child upward. "dad, hoob, hoob," the toddler was saying. and the tired dad stood up to do it again. "hoob!" he shouted. "Hoob! Hoob!" the boy laughed happily, in a bit of a daze afterward.

iraqis come to the shoreline

not long after the US media reported on the mere 500 or so Iraqis admitted to the US -- out of a couple of million made refugees by our wonderful war -- this scandal is in a tiny way ameliorated. the scandal was that we had raped their country and were doing nothing to help those directly victimized by our presence, such as the translators who were threatened with death for helping our army. the worst part of it was that the US was terrified of the very people it had pretended to assist with the invasion, terrified that "terrorists" would slip in amongst the desperate and wreak havoc.

i don't know if media attention helped nudge the state department or not, but lo and behold, several iraqi families have appeared on the shoreline. yesterday sara and i attended a small birthday party for the girl in the picture. the 3 kids are adorable. tomorrow i will try a language exchange with the father, who is 3 years younger than me. his english is very minimal, not so different from my arabic, so it could be a good exchange. his younger brother's english is too good to make a good exchange with me.

seeing them here, sitting awkwardly in the suburban quiet, wondering where they are and what they are to do, makes me think. behind them, on their backs, is the violence and death they left behind. i wonder, but do not ask. that limp in the father's leg: was it from birth? or from a bomb? and on and on. . .

it is good to see their affection and love, especially between parents and children.

Monday, June 8, 2009

soul music in madison?

it was an amazing sight, to see a choir of almost all white people swaying and clapping and shouting -- and singing. their athletic director, angela clemmons, professional back up singer and soul music enthusiast, pumped her arms and used her entire energy to keep them moving. they had completed a four week workshop. i was impressed. it was funny to see the four or five men standing stolidly in the center, clapping hands but otherwise incapable of moving their bodies. but around them a sea of pastel-attired women swirled and swayed side to side.

i never would have thought to see soul music sung in madison. but even the mormons now are borrowing some of the verve of black church music, a total departure from the traditional mormon hymn staidness.

when angela began the show with a solo, i felt something was up when the right side of the chapel erupted in clapping and shouting whenever she reached a climax. obviously they had learned a different sociality from the hands in the lap style of white churches. it turned out they were the choir. they had been taught how to perform. and part of performance is knowing how to spectate, how to watch and react. it was inspiring from a cultural and political perspective. sure, class is now the great line dividing communities in this country, now that race is becoming less aligned with class. it is little comfort that a few blacks have moved into the upper and middle classes. but it is still something, something good.

and yes, it was inspiring spiritually too. clemmons invited an experienced soloist from her father's church in norwalk to sing one number, and it was intense. she cried after finishing.

family of the martyr

yesterday i saw part of an iraqi tv show which borrowed, i think, from two unusually different sources: iranian government policy and american television. it was a show featuring the families of men killed in the civil war. and although they made an inclusive statement near the end of the show saying something like all sects and communities were damaged by the violence, i suspect this channel's audience is shiites. so the featured family was shiite i think.

the host, a smartly dressed woman in green hijab entered the battered house. she was greeted by two women in billowing black abayas. they cared for four children. the older boy, of about 12 or 13, worked pushing a cargo cart through the city streets. i could not understand any of the conversation, really, whether because of their informal language, accent, or my preoccupation with the sad scene of human ruin revealed by the camera. the adult women's faces were marked by suffering. the children's faces were uncertain, awkward, eyes moving about.

the camera team dwelled on the chaotic, ruined nature of the house and its grounds.

at the end of the show, a truck pulls up outside the house and a team of men move a refrigerator and washing machine, as well as tables, blankets, and clothes into the kitchen. the women and children offer ritual and profuse thanks to al-forat tv.

it is a melancholy form of commercial populism, the station gaining points among the population for doing good. at the same time it reveals some of the human results of the heroic war unleashed by america's armchair hawks in 2003. i suspect none of the perpetrators will ever get the chance to visit the homes of martyrs. don't they want to get credit for their vicarious valor? what might they be afraid of?

the iranian element (i suspect) is the iranian state practice of designating "martyrs" who died fighting state enemies such as iraq and the mujahedeen militia, and rewarding their families with stipends and preferential treatment. this policy has aroused great resentment among other iranians, and defensiveness among recipients.

the american element, of course, is the popularity of home makeover shows.

Monday, June 1, 2009

teeming rain?

at the peace vigil i attended tonight (it is held every monday evening) in madison, a fellow participant described the "teeming rain" of a few weeks before, when a kind sympathizer brought them a pizza.

his usage of "teeming" was, i think, an inadvertent innovation. cities and streets teem. rain pours, streams, drives, etc in conventional usage. but like language used by non-native speakers, this "mistake" was nonetheless vivid and colorful, more so than the accepted combinations. when words jump the banks of their usual course, they can surprise and please.

yesterday i reflected on a word in korean. korean friends visited (long suffering phd pilgrim) and we enjoyed a beautiful day on the beach and in the yard, soaking in the sun and laughing at their adorable little boy grabbing other people's frisbee and other kids' toys on the beach. once i was pushing their stroller. when sujong, the woman, came over to take over the duty, she maneuvered to take the handles. as she did so, she said "cha. . ." perhaps as we might say, "OK," or "alright."

i realized middle class and wealthy korean women use this word/sound a lot. i am not even sure it is a word to be found in a dictionary. i don't think there is a meaning so much as a function. when she gave the little boy something, she might say "cha," as we might say "there." it is a curious linguistic particle, one indicating a proper femininity.

who was anna dickinson?

in NY a few weeks ago, i saw a book on "America's Joan of Arc" selling for 98 cents. it was an advance copy not meant for retail sale, but turned out to be a fascinating look at politics and culture in civil war-era and reconstruction-era america.

she was a quaker from philadelphia drawn to reformist movements on the eve of the civil war, namely women's rights and abolitionism. she was 17 when the war started, a cataclysm which made her famous. she was a fiery speaker, advocating patriotism and condemning war opponents as potential traitors. her youth and militant ardor won her the sobriquet, "america's joan of arc."

after the war she was one of the top draws in the lyceum lecture circuit, which the writer describes as a form of entertainment for the educated elite. she stayed with serious topics such as rights for ex-slaves and more economic opportunities for women, resisting the urge for lighter entertainment.

by the mid-1870s, she was struggling to maintain her visibility and income, and turned for a while to the theatre. but by the early 1880s she was in trouble. her sister had her forcibly committed to an insane asylum in 1891, which set off a decade of lawsuits and a split in their relationship. she lived out the rest of her life quietly in a NY town.

i got lots of fascinating glimpses of an earlier america. in her day, photo portrait-cards of celebrities were a popular collector's item. there were stores selling them, and people kept them in albums alongside photos of their own relatives.

when she helped out the republican party in the 1872 election, she raised eyebrows when she let loose her fiery, war-era rhetoric at her candidate's political opponent. in just 7 short years, the style that had made her famous was already out of date. america was already slipping into the blandness of the guilded era.

there was significant struggle within radical reformist circles over the 15th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote. most women's rights activists like anthony and cady-stanton (or stanton cady?) opposed the amendment vociferously on the grounds that it left women out altogether. dickinson also wanted woman suffrage, but supported the amendment anyhow. this caused a rift between her and the women's rights leaders who had actively courted her.

these leaders opened a newspaper in the 1870s called "the revolution." it only lasted a few years.

on a visit to san fransisco in the late 1860s she upset her wealthy hosts by taking them to task in her speeches for the horrible living conditions and lack of rights of the city's chinese residents.

in our now-centric cultural and media milieu, it is always pleasantly shocking to look into the past and see that, long ago and long before we imagined, the battles for rights and justice were already taking place. i had learned in middle school that after the civil war the states persecuted and excluded chinese people -- but i never knew that any voices were raised for their interests.

in a southern city she visited in 1875 (maybe columbia, SC), she reported that only recently public entertainments had been recently desegregated by law. but the resident blacks agreed amongs themselves to preserve the peace by continuing to sit in their accustomed section in the theatre. however, she saw one brave man insist on sitting in the previously "white's only" section. it caused an uproar. the theatre manager closed the theatre rather than pay the fine for non-compliance.

one has to think about those black residents, only 10 years after the war, being given certain rights but so traumatized by violence and persecution and habit that they elected to submit voluntarily to their old racial limits. and yet -- one man insisted on asserting his rights. tragically, no one else, not even other blacks, were ready to back him up.

this reminds me of a story i heard, i forget where, from the turn of the century south. a youth sits in a the white section of a street car, inciting white anger. an older black woman intervenes, criticizing the boy and pulling him off the car. only then does the boy realize she had saved him, adopting the mask of dominant society to get him away from an ugly and potentially violent scene.

the book also delved into her complicated personal life, criss-crossing the country, staying in friends' houses (and usually causing several members of the household to fall in love with her) and hotels, keeping in touch with her older sister in philadelphia. susan managed her correspondence. the quotations from letters reveals a luxurious world of correspondence -- the effusions of feeling and passion were so beautiful, and little imaginable in the present age. our correspondence is dessicated on the computer screen, disembodied pixels, words as vehicles for information only.

jordanian tv

today i was unable to get the iraqi tv channel i usually frequent, so i turned to my second favorite, jordan tv, the official government channel. one of its most salient features is its employment of every tall, commanding, long-haired woman east of the jordan river as anchors and talk show hosts -- or so it seems. and they all dress in modernistic blouses and smocks with ethnic patterns -- a model of locally-authentic modernization, the balancing act of elites all over the developing world.

but this morning, alas, it was a male host speaking to a turbaned cleric about the meaning of national independence. it was an interesting exercise, asking a theologian to expound on the politics of one nation. despite jordan's ethnic (arab) rather than sectarian character, it is not completely without a religious connection. the monarchy gains religious legitimacy from its ancestry with the family of the prophet. the cleric discussed the first hashemite king's rejection of ottoman domination, then expressed in religious terms as a "caliphate."

in this discourse we can see how islam is in so many parts of the world a vehicle for anti-imperial and anti-colonial sentiment, even when directed at muslim overlords. american commentators are mistaken in their obsession with islam as a system of religious thought, divorced from the historical conditions of its modern emergence, which was: opposition to colonial rule. hugo chavez, not osama bin laden, is the idol of arab youths. it's the politics, stupid (not the theology).

then i caught part of a rather boring lecture on child birth from a legal perspective. by a man.