31 October, 2003


The fear of terrorism is being mobilized to do a lot of things - sell arms, sell Hollywood movies, sell a lot of extravagantly wasteful wars. Covertly, it is also being mobilized to destroy ethical principles that make up the foundation of democratic societies. This was none more evident than last Friday, when a panel on torture after 9/11 was held at the City University of New York in NYC. Should torture, as an interrogation technique, become legal in extreme exceptions like terrorism in democratic societies? The fact that this question was even raised at all makes clear that that the fear of terrorist attacks is a significant factor that is changing the norms of ethical behavior. And it is a fear that is also cleverly being taken advantage of by individuals and organizations to push forward their own authoritarian agendas.

Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, strongly advocated for torture warrants to government officials who could use that to extract information from "ticking bombs" terrorists. The "ticking bomb" scenario, in which a terrorist is known to have information that could potentially save the innocent lives, is the one case in which an exception for torture should be made in a democratic society, Dershowitz said. Dershowitz, whose tour de force includes The Case for Israel, a book whose dust-jacket states that there is no human rights violations against the Palestinians in Israel, said this would make the process "transparent" and "accountable" and minimize the cases of torture currently practiced in the US and around the world.

Thankfully for America and the world, Professor Dershowitz's mediaeval and nutty proposition (what's been going on with the Harvard hiring department these days? Is a self-proclaimed liberal democrat who claims to "trusts no-one" the right person to be heading up the law dept at Harvard?) was greeted with disbelief and a great deal of lively opposition. American liberals, thought to be gasping feebly for breath under the humongous weight of right-wing takeover, can still present a respectful but no-nonsense opposition during these moments.

Michael Posner, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, stuck firmly to his stance - torture was legally, morally and practically unacceptable in contemporary society, and should be examined and prosecuted wherever it occurred. Britain's use of torture against Northern Ireland did not work. "The Five Techniques caused the alienation of many moderate Catholics; 20 years later, the scars remain," he said, quoting a British official. He also quoted from a US military manual that stated that torture was ineffective in extracting information. All European countries have passed laws that prohibit torture. The US had to follow Europe's lead, he said.

Harvey Silvergate, a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, pointed out that there were moments when even he could imagine using torture. "For instance, if my son was kidnapped and put underground in a box and had three hours of air left, I would probably torture the man myself. But this does not mean I would not expect to be prosecuted for it by the legal institution, and be brought before a jury." Silvergate pointed out that a democracy is based on institutions, and for respect of those institutions. If institutions like the legal system were weakened, democracy would weaken, he said. Legalizing torture, Silvergate said, would let the genie out of the bottle. Security forces would take it as a go-ahead and implement their own rules. If they feared prosecution, they would respect the law. Weak institutions meant a weak democracy, he said.

America has been at the forefront of breathing life into the big bogey of terrorism. Ordinary citizens around the world are now respectably scared of terrorists with bombs and suicidal intentions who commit crazy acts without warning. At the same time, global citizens are less aware of the other bigger and more scarier takeovers - the takeover of democratic principles, ethics, and the right to live without fear - arguably the three most important rights being eroded in this global, psychological warfare against terrorism. Do we have institutions that are strong enough, and citizens that are informed enough, to resist this takeover and to re-create a world where peace is the norm, rather than the exception?

22 October, 2003

Coming soon to a theatre close to you

OCT 23 - I was listening to a radio report on whether the terrorist sleeper cell that was busted in Buffalo was really a sleeper cell, when somebody’s voice came on air. The voice was breathy and stern, clearly belonging to a tough guy. “One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice,” the voice said, making sure to pause between One-By-One to give it the proper dramatic effect. Echoes of cowboys galloping through the prairie, police cars chasing the bad guys, commandos sliding down walls in fast pursuit of deadly danger came to mind. I got chills up my spine. I wanted to run to the mall and stand in line to see this latest action movie.

“That was President Bush on air. This is NPR,” said the bland voice of the announcer. “President Bush is planning to meet with Governor Arnold Swarznegger in California.” “I am going to share with him the optimism with him about this country,” the Hollywood action voice returned. I mentally added the crescendo that should be playing in the background. I saw the Prez hanging with the Terminator. “Goddamit dude, this man is good!” But wait a minute. This is not a trailer, and we are not living in a Hollywood movie, even though the leaders of the free world would make us think so.

Right after 9/11, the Pentagon called up the Hollywood honchos and asked them not to air films that might give ideas to the bad guys. Hollywood said okay and pulled the plug on a film about a airplane crashing on the skyscrapers of New York that had just been shot and edited. Odd co-incidence, huh? Seems like that idea was on more minds than one.

But the Hollywood connection did not end there. “Wag the Dog”, a bitter spoof of the Clinton administration’s bombings of some minor Third World country after the Monica Lewinsky affair, depicts an administration that fakes a war on TV to distract the public about the president’s sexual peccadilloes. But today, Hollywood is far less critical. There have been high level meetings between the Pentagon and Hollywood discussing how that industry can be useful for national security. President Bush, on his famous landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, was given a full media shoot that would have warmed the heart of Jennifer Lopez. Susan Bumiller of the NY Times called it “one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history”. She went on to look at the lights used to light up the Statue of Liberty - lights so expensive she could not get an estimate from the people who rented them out, and used only in Hollywood in the past but which had now made it as a prop in presidential theatre.

Politicians using the film industry to raise themselves to the status of cult leaders is nothing new. Hitler did it in the 1930s, when he used Leni Riesenfeld as his personal propaganda filmmaker. Leni followed Hitler around and carefully framed panoramic shots of the man surrounding by adoring crowds. In the recent elections in California, I was struck to see how the Terminator had been carefully flaunted by a diversity of faces: his approving wife, a young girl, a couple of brownish faces, two approving Chinese grandmas. It was a public relations coup. In case you think I am stretching this fascist analogy too far- after all, Arnold just said he admired the Nazis, he didn’t say he was one himself - listen to what Paul Krugman has to say about revolutionary powers. Krugman, an economist based in Princeton university who writes a column on business and economics in the New York Times, recently came out with a new book: The Big Unraveling. Krugman, quoting Kissinger, says that revolutionary powers don’t give a damn about the old rules. They don’t care what people say about them. And they are so convinced they are right they will take everybody along with them to the bitter end.

Krugman, a staid economist in Princeton, is not the kind to jump to embrace conspiracy theory. At the same time, he points out, the takeover of neo-conservative forces within the US government is something that responsible people can no longer ignore. The current administration is not just cutting back on social welfare programs, they are morally opposed to it. And there is no sign that they will give up their power meekly to a democratic, election process once their time is up - there might be a nominal election, but there is no sign they take the democratic process all that seriously. War is promised on a grand scale: After Iraq, its going to be Syria, North Korea, and anybody else who crosses their path. Krugman points out that dissenting voices within democratic governments was always accepted even at the height of war - Roosevelt was called a “tired old man” by one of his contemporary in the middle of WWII and nobody thought they should kick that critic out of politics, but John Kerry’s questionings of the war is bringing accusations of being a traitor. Krugman gives an intelligent, chilling argument in this new book. Read it. It will give you a new angle when you turn on the radio and hear the trailer of one more politician promising a thrilling new world.Posted on: 2003-10-22 11:50

17 October, 2003


SUSHMA JOSHI, The Kathmandu Post, October 17, 2003

A strong and vocal opposition to the war against Iraq is growing the United States. As President George Bush requests another 87 billion to continue the occupation, thousands of people, fed up with the stagnant economy, the fiscal deficit as well as recent stories about US soldier suicides in Iraq, are mobilizing to bring the war to an end. On Tuesday October 14th, St. John's Cathedral on the Upper West Side of New York was packed as a sizable crowd came to listen to Amy Goodman, a journalist and activist of Democracy Now!, and Tariq Ali, a well-known activist and broadcaster.

"Lies take lives. We understand that clearly by looking at Iraq," said Amy Goodman. She talked about Joseph Wilson, former US Ambassador to Gabon who had made a trip to Niger to investigate if Iraq had covertly purchased uranium from that government. His report, which concluded this was not possible, was ignored and suppressed. A few months later, President Bush said in his State of the Union address that there was evidence Iraq had bought uranium from Africa. Wilson then wrote an article in the New York Times questioning why his report had been ignored. Shortly afterwards, his wife was "outed" as a CIA operative by key people in the Bush administration. This act, thought to be done in retaliation, prompted a flurry of inquiries - to "out" a CIA operative is almost an act of treason, since it jeopardizes the security of the entire nation. It carries a fine and a maximum punishment of 10 years. No individual within the Bush administration has been pinpointed as the one leaking the information.

“There is growing grassroots opposition to the Patriot Act,” Goodman said. The Act, passed hastily after the fear and panic of 9/11 WTC bombings, gives the state sweeping powers of surveillance, and powers of arbitrary and secret detentions. This Act, passed into law by the Bush Administration, has been challenged by local administrations. A county in Tucson recently passed an "Anti-Patriot Act". 150 other local American counties have done the same.

Tariq Ali, well known for his anti-war leadership during the Vietnam War, got a rousing ovation from the New Yorkers as he got on stage. "People in the US and UK seem to have a hard
time understanding why the Iraqis don't want them there. I have to tell them that like most people, Iraqis don't like to occupied," he said in his characteristically ironic tone, provoking appreciative laughter. "Iraqis," he said, "Are people with a historical memory, and a history of resistance. They don't like being occupied by foreign powers." The Iraqis are resisting with low intensity guerilla warfare, a strategy that has made the country ungovernable.

"Noone in Iraq wants this war," he pointed out. "They know the American army is made up of the poorest of the poor, the people who joined up hoping to get an education. They had no idea they would be sent to occupy a sovereign country." “If this is truly a democratic country,” he challenged, lets institute a draft. If you believe that this is truly about safeguarding democracy, then lets send everyone over. But this would be very unpopular. This is a specific kind of democracy, a democracy that only protects capital.”

"When people ask me: how can we remove unpopular regimes, I answer: it is not up to us to do it. It has to come from the people," said Ali. "Change has to be organic. Imperial interventions never work." Quoting Mahmoud Mamdani, a well-known scholar at Columbia University (incidentally, also the husband of filmmaker Mira Nair), Ali pointed out that American intervention in the Middle East and Africa had toppled many secular, nationalist regimes. Starting with the Shah in Iran in 1953, other regimes had also been "changed", leaving people with clerical, repressive, hard-line regimes who control the oil that America desperately needs to run its oil-addicted culture.

With characteristic humor, Ali recounted the story of the failed coup of Venezuela, the world's fourth largest oil exporter. America was known to be a key supporter of the coup that tried to oust elected president Hugo Chavez, who won a landslide victory that involved no hanging chads: 56% of the people voted for him. Millions of people turned out to protest, leading to global embarrassment for America and a re-instatement of the popular leader. A 17 year old bugler outside the Mira Flores Presidential palace was asked to blow the bugle for the fake president. He protested and said he already had a democratically elected president. When the General threatened him, he thrust the bugle at the General, saying: "If you're so enthusiastic about it, you play it."

"We have to build for the future," Ali ended. "If you've recently joined the movement, don't be disheartened. We have weathered many wars."

10 October, 2003

More than Skin-Deep: An update on the beauty industry


Also published at: http://www.nrn.org.np/medianewsdetail.php?id=77

Millions of women in New York City get their hair and nails done every day. Rushing through hectic schedules, they rarely have time to notice the women bending over the manicures. Increasingly, a large number of these beauty workers originate from Nepal.

"There are an estimated 20,000 Nepali immigrants living in New York City," says Anand Bist, of the Queens based Nepalese Democratic Youth Council. Almost half of them are women. Due to the high demand for childcare, many Nepali women work as baby-sitters and domestic help in wealthier households in Manhattan and New Jersey. The remaining bulk of Nepali women work in the beauty industry.

Mingma Sherpa, 26, works in a pedicure business in the Upper East Side. "I work 6 days a week, for ten hours a day," she says. She gets paid $75 a day, along with tips, which add up to $280 a week. She attended a pedicure school in Flushing in order to get the state license.

An overpowering smell of chemicals wafts by my face in the lobby of the Flushing Nail Academy. On the walls are pictures of graduates on graduation day, scientific charts of nails, and a framed "Nail Gallery". I see the American flag, elaborate flowers, and even a Hello Kitty airbrushed on the plastic nails. A Chinese teacher is showing a class, full of Latinas, how to wrap nails on white plaster casts in fluent Spanish.

Pasang Sherpa, 28, who has worked in the industry for three years, says she is getting a headache from the smell. "My nose has been bleeding during work," she says. Her friend, Dechen Lama, 35, tells me that she used to get nosebleeds as well, but now it has stopped. She says the smell does not bother her anymore. The pedicure business, where workers experience prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals, often does not provide adequate ventilation or masks. Women who spend a long time in the industry frequently develop health problems.

The two women are at the Academy because they need their state license. The state exam which certifies pedicure workers can be given in Korean and English - but is not available in any other language. Nepali women end up paying money to attend the school, but end up not able to take the exam because they are not allowed translators. The women also point out that the exam is far too difficult and does not deal with pertinent subjects - the questions range from obscure medical terminology to the composition of the color white.

Nepalis, working for Korean, Chinese and Indian-owned beauty parlors, often experience discrimination from employers who pay them less based on their national origins and their lack of state certification. Roshana Magar, 42, came to New York City six years ago. Her husband, who had worked in a factory in Korea and could speak the language, negotiated a job from a Korean employer in mid-town. The employer paid her half that of the other Korean employees for the same amount of hours.

Sexual harassment is another problem that women deal with in the beauty industry. Sujata Pandey, 32, a recent arrival from Nepal, found out about this the hard way. After getting a job at the Bombay Saloon in Jackson Heights, she worked for a day on a probationary basis. The employer gave her $40 for the first day. She went home thinking she had a job. The next day, the owner invited her downstairs to the basement, which he had outfitted with a mattress and a VCR, and asked for a massage. When she told him she did not give massages, he fired her. The complete absence of Nepali social service organizations in New York, along with the dismissive attitude of men towards sexual violence, leaves women highly vulnerable to harassment in the workplace.

The beauty industry, in spite of its problems, provides a source of livelihood to Nepali women who come from rural areas, sometimes without basic literacy. The $400-$600 they make every week is crucial for supporting family back home. This money pays for tuition fees for children, living stipends for old parents and tickets for extended family who might be in the process of migrating to the Gulf or North America. Due to the high rate of unemployment, entire families depend on remittances sent from family abroad. For many women, America is not the ultimate destination. Often undocumented, they plan to return home in 5-10 years. Yet, as the years pass, they find themselves in the difficult positions of having experienced financial autonomy, and are unwilling to relinquish it.

Every year, hundreds of men and women gather in Queens for Dashain, the harvest festival which falls around October. Stylishly outfitted, her hair perfectly done, nails shining with a French manicure, Roshana Magar steps on stage to sing songs from her country, and forgets for one night the tiredness of her ten hour day.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of informants.

02 October, 2003

Rai Ko Ris

Sarina Rai - Rai Ko Ris
An interview by Sushma Joshi

Why Rai Ko Ris?

The band you mean? Because it's a typical thing we say out here and I am a Rai-nee so it was partly a good Nepali name and partly a good joke. Nothing to do with how great Rais are or anything. All people will behave the same...i.e. what benefits them. You can't say you're different coz you're this or that ethnicity in the end.

What were the three things that turned you into this punk-rocking guerilla artist?

I don't know about artist...I’d say more music-person. I think guerilla is spelt “guerrilla”. I was always surrounded by cousin brothers who played geeetar and I was not satisfied just being an on-looker. I wanted to rock out too. And I was always screaming and shouting my own songs since I was tiny- the squash racquet (guitar) and hairbrush (microphone) act. I loved loud, fast, rock music.
At 17 I had a band in high school called Skinhead Barbie. At 20 I formed a duo band, Bruce Lee. Just me on guitar shouting and a girl, a really good friend Neng Mohammed (Malay) on drums. Our friends called our sound "canto-punk". It was just a natural punk sound. Our lyrics were very socio-politico... a lot about being "asian" in a western dominated media culture.

And then later Rai ko Ris. I was inspired by people like my 'tikka' brother Milan Rai (War Plan Iraq, Chomsky's Politics) who I used to stay with a lot in UK when I was a conflicted teenager..ha ha. He listened to anarcho-punk and was the first to introduce me to the band Crass. Today, Rai ko Ris' lyrics are very socio-political, very 'socialist' in what we talk about, and down right anti-capitalist.

A childhood memory about "home" - where's that, and why? Were you ever homesick - for what?

Boeing 747 was home. My big sister throwing up on the plane and me disposing the air sick bags to a tarted-up stewardess. (They get all dressed up to dispose throw up bags.) I was homesick homesick homesick because in this situation you are a small child, without your parents and a home where you can be you and where people genuinely love you.

Have you ever wanted to beat somebody up? Details, please.

Yeah, I wanted to so I did. They were bullying me and wanting to fight me so I had to fight back. That's why there's something a bit suspiciously intellectual about "peace" sometimes. Like the situation here in Nepal. Everyone, especially the educated elite and foreign NGOs saying peace no violence. But if you saw your sister or mother raped and tortured and then shot in the head, it's hard to talk about peace (man).

Did people ever tell you you couldn't become a musician because you were a woman? Or they always encouraged it?

They just said I SHOULDN'T do it coz I wouldn't be rich. I don't want to be rich so f$%^ off. I got encouraged a lot by all them cousin brothers I mentioned before. Women can take great examples from men more than women sometimes.

What's been your best moment so far as an independent, motorbiking, free-thinking chick?

I don't have a motorbike (I used to borrow one from a friend), I use safa-tempo. It's cheaper and it's convenient. I don't know what free-thinking is. It must mean that you do what you think is right for yourself instead of letting others decide, which is the same as independent I suppose. I don't think I’m very "chick" ish. I never wore make up (that's one of the immediate thoughts that came up when I saw "chick", sorry)...and I’m really not good at fashion. My best moments are when we're playing with the band, rocking out and hopefully introducing another viewpoint of the world through our lyrics that move people to get off their arses and participate/be active to not let bullies run our lives for a massive profit. I think I’m more of a guitar/bass wielding, scruffy-looking, step-mother of two little French girls. Sorry to destroy the image.

If people were to ask you what you live for, what would you answer?

Same as above. Which for me I think means, live for today i.e. apply all the above everyday, not just part-time, half-assed. Action means now. Can I just add, support your local farmers becoz they feed you, not God.

Middle class people from Kathmandu, well versed in critique, seem to agree on one basic issue: the level of discourse in Nepal, from literature to the arts, from social sciences to journalism, has been shimmering gently at the same level of mediocrity for about the last two hundred years. Newspapers bore us with their editorials on pollution. The INGO and NGO reports bore us with their bland litanies on gender and poverty, hashed out year after year by the same class of Western educated all-but-disseration clones. Funny rants in hip papers of the Kathmandu elite bore us because they sound alarmingly similar to the rest of the whining about Nepal as a broken-down, hopeless basketcase. The arts bore us, with top notch artists of Nepal churning out abstract or expressionist or impressionist products, but missing the conceptual handle of ideas, the intertextual dialogue with knowledge that has been crucial to post-modern art movements globally. Literature is stuck somewhere between pulp fiction and the weepy, distraught narratives of lost love broadcast over the airwaves on late afternoons. Music, perhaps, is the only medium that seems to thrive and replenish itself with syncretic changes. Folk music, always popular and perhaps the only viable mass literary form in Nepal, has thrived in recent years, never losing its grounding as it has mixed with guerilla anthems, bollywood, disco, jazz, rap and even hip-hop.
So what is to be done about the mediocre intellectual and creative landscapes in Nepal? Can one argue that the stagnation of the intellectual sphere is partly due to the stagnation of the creative sphere? That this annihilation of creativity is responsible for the current lack of imagination about political solutions in Nepal? That the social change that is inevitable but seem stuck like a butterfly half imprisoned inside its sticky cocoon can only burst forth along with a flowering of the creative imagination? Civil society is built on political and economic institutions, but it is also built on something more fundamental than that. It is built on the foundation of a society's imagination, their ability to project a world before it is even born, their abilities to imagine limitless horizons before it is visible at the present moment. The Maoists understand this clearly - cultural programs featuring satire, singing, dancing and performances are one of the most popular venues for mass gatherings in the People's War.
Fear of change has always been the underlying foundation of Nepali society. This fear imprisons not just the social, but also the creative limbs of our national body. This fear in manifested in our "safe" and shoddy paintings, stories, journalistic reports, social sciences research and performative arts. It is reflected in our safe ideas and our safe boundaries of knowledge which never stretches beyond Ring Road, or beyond Kathmandu, or beyond purbha or paschim. Anybody caught creating anything else than safe knowledge, arguably, is at the danger of being socially isolated, ignored, or worse, thrown in prison. This fear, applied to all levels of society, and keeps people in their own boxes, caste, class and gender-wise. As long as you do not think differently, you are safe, is the message emanating from every direction.
If the arts are a mirror for society to check its mental health, Nepal's stagnating arts world is a reflection of repression that operates not just at the political, but also the creative level. While a fraction of traditional artists and performers have managed to maintain their cultural distinctiveness through old channels of funding, new arts, and new artists, have received little attention or encouragement, and even less appreciation. Our under-funded, under-appreciated, under-noticed and over-worked artists are besieged - struggling to continue their art on one end, trying to make a living on the other. To ask them to innovate, to create individualistic works, to be politically active, to keep up with global ideas is asking too much from a group already spurned by an indifferent society.
So what is the solution? More funding for the arts, like they do in the rest of the world? That would be a start. More funding from expatriate communities in North America and Europe? This has already been started with groups like the Kala Manch in New York, a group of artists who hold events to recognize the work of established artists from Nepal. More opportunities to include art in schools? Private schools have already taken this up, but the unfortunate hierarchy of science, social science and humanities in Nepal means that the "Arts" are still treated with contempt, and reserved for SLC students who pass in the Third Division.
We can change this only by changing our approach to the arts. We need to make room for creativity; to recognize its necessity to human existence, and its role in fulfilling basic need, just as crucially as we acknowledge engineering and medicine. All of this is a step in the right direction. More fundamentally, we need to recognize the centrality of the arts in the process of social change. We need to recognize that nurturing the creative spirit is more than a luxury - it is the fundamental process through which people start to see the limitlessness of their own imaginations, and to create worlds which at present they do not possess.