30 January, 2009

The magic of Malaga







Kathmandu Post, January 23, 2009
Sushma Joshi
Pablo Picasso's name is synonymous with modern art. But people in Malaga, his birthplace, are not impressed. ¨Ah, Picasso, ¨ says a journalist dismissively when I tell him I am writing an article on the maestro. ¨I don't have much to say about him.¨ Instantly intrigued, I asked: So what about Picasso? Do tell. I sense this man has a lot to say about him. And indeed, such is the case.
We are sitting out in a crowded outdoor café in a cool winter night. My companions -- three journalists, two of who cover art -- are instantly fighting as soon as I put the bone out there: can Picasso's work be considered High Art? Or is it Pop? The clatter of Spanish syllables tells me that my two animated companions are at each other's throats and that this is serious, serious stuff. Thrilled to find that the tradition of intellectual discourse is alive and well in Spain, I soon get a translation from my impassioned critic.

¨Picasso is shit-man,¨ he says. ¨He is a communist but he sells all his work to rich patrons in big museums. He says: Nobody in Spain loves me. But what did he do? He lived in Paris during the Nazi Occupation and sold art to them. Did he protest? Did he leave? No, he stayed and sold his art to them.¨ This statement appears unsubstantiated, but the journalist charges that a 45 year old Nazi art dealer used to buy Picasso paintings for the Third Reich.

But no, his companion intervenes. You have to separate the art from the artist, and see his work separate from the context of the artist's life. The same man who stayed on in Occupied Paris also painted the Guernica.

Picasso's Closet, a play by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, deals with this same question. How did Picasso manage to survive Occupied Paris when many of his friends and contemporaries were killed by the Nazis? Should he have sacrificed his art to save the life of his Jewish friend Max Jacob, who was killed by the Nazis?

As the two move on to argue about Israel and Palestine, I realize that what charms me about Malaga is not its most well-known child who was born here. Picasso, after all, only lived here for eight years of his life before moving on to Barcelona and then to Paris. Malaga as a city, ruled by the right wing People's Party and heavily under renovation, doesn't have a great deal going for it. What charms me is that Andalusia, the mixed heart of Spain in which Malaga lies, still beats with the best spirit of Western civilization -- intellectual discourse and inquiry, a great respect for history and culture, and a syncretic sympathy for religious difference.

As I walk down the main square of Malaga filled with the fat sculptures of Balthazar Lobo, I see, all at once, three curious things. Two men in black who sport computer screens in the place of their heads walk up to unknowing tourists and mirror their emotions through their interactive screens. I see my own emotions, first hilarity then curiosity then fear, mirrored as the man hidden behind the computer screen mimics me. Soon, bored, the two artists wander off, carrying their black suitcases. Now a rock band moves down the street -- dressed in rose silk tuxedos they march like a solemn fiesta band, playing hard rock in the late afternoon. This curiosity is replaced by a freak with a pinhead (a plastic adornment attached to the top of an artist's skull) chasing people with a wheelchair which he wheels -- the wheelchair contains a character who acts paraplegic.

When I describe all this to my friend, she assures me she has never seen a pinhead chasing down people in wheelchairs in Malaga. Had I, with my usual genius of finding weird art, stumbled upon a creative corner of town, or was something else occurring? The mystery is solved when a band of artistes hand me a newspaper -- I have managed to enter the city just as the annual theatre festival is taking place. These occurrences -- pinheads, computer-headed people, rose tuxedos, are just a manifestation of this event. It is impossible not to see the influence of the man who came from Malaga even now in the streets as people try to outdo one another with creativity, even though he died at 92 in another country and did not return to his homeland.

And just as Malaga can't escape Picasso, he couldn't escape it either. In the museum started six years ago in his birth town, we see his tiny bronze sculpture of a bull, an image so close to the heart of Andalusia. We learn that he painted 58 images of the girl in the funny skirt which Diego Velasquez made famous during the Spanish Golden Age in a painting titled Las Meninas. And as I walk past the main cathedral at dusk, I see a sudden flutter of two white doves flying past on the cobalt-blue sky -- the doves that he painted and which he named his daughter Paloma after.

Picasso painted his first painting at age thirteen. In the Museum in Malaga, I see the portrait of a girl holding a sailor doll, which he painted at fourteen. From that time, he painted progressively and obsessively. Each year brought new media, new styles, and new techniques. By the time he reached his thirties, a viewer can be forgiven for thinking: ¨Picasso's getting sloppy.¨ Like me, other critics also dismiss his later works. But then he painted solidly ahead for the next six decades, working at a prodigious rate, until the viewer is bludgeoned, after seeing his last painting done at age 91, to concede -- yes, this man was a genius. If genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration, then Picasso fits the bill. But the one percent of inspiration was always perfect, always impeccable, and without a hint of mistake.

Picasso was not a break from the past, its clear. He came from a recognizable tradition of Western art which one can see in each church, museum, plaza, and monument inside Spain and other parts of Europe. What is different about him is the sheer manic energy and his experimentation of media, form, and style which led to a huge popularity.

Several of Picasso's paintings have fetched the most prices in the world. According to Wikipedia, Garçon à la pipe sold for USD $104 million at Sotheby's on May 4 2004, establishing a new record. He had relationships with seven women, and children with three -- and all of them inspired him. How much of this price was inspired by the art, and how much by Picasso the legend? It would be hard to take the man and his art apart.

In the halls below Picasso's exhibit, the works of Max Ernst, another artist from the same period, is also exhibited. Ernst's drawings, drawn from a fanciful imagination and with the meticulous attention of a German draftsman, brings to life marionettes, people with birds´ heads, drawings that evoke scientific diagrams and other curiosities. Undoubtedly, Ernst was the better artist, if one were to think about control over technique. But despite the lavish detail of the works, I, as viewer, just want to rush upstairs and take one more look at Picasso before the museum closes. Perhaps that is the essential ingredient of a genius -- not so much the prodigious output or even the fanciful imagination, but a powerful, intangible draw to the heart.
Posted on: 2009-01-23 20:27:20 (Server Time)

26 January, 2009

Observers France 24: 'Made in China': "the worth of our work is so low, and the price of our materials so immaterial"

One of our Nepali Observers gives her perspective on Asia's dependence on its exports market and the effect this has on the economic crisis.
A butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, and the flutter causes a hurricane on the other side. This causality, so widely cited by everybody from weather experts to scientists to economists looking at causes for seemingly-random but connected phenomena, becomes more relevant in this day and age when a global financial crisis is occurring. The collapse of one mortgage company in America, it appears, could trigger the collapse of the entire house of cards which we call the global economy.
That's why I am fascinated to find that, despite the crisis, the streets of Granada, a city in Southern Spain, is full of shoppers who throng the classy areas, buying clothes and boots and bags, buying jewellery and scarves and other bric-a-brac, all clearly manufactured in Asia. Despite the 'Made in Spain' stamp (written in English), I can recognize a pair of boots-or an entire store of boots-made in China when I see one. So the question presents itself-how can Southern Spain, whose main economy seems to rest on manufacturing pork and cheese and wine and olive oil, command such a strong currency that it's able to buy up entire storehouses of Asia at discounted rates? Are our workers so cheap, and our materials so inconsequential, that a winter coat can cost only €6.99? How is it possible, I wonder, that this kind of frenetic shopping can take place all over Europe, while in parts of Southern Asia we struggle to buy a good pair of shoes? How can the Zacatin (Granada's market street) be full of goods from Nepal, cheaper in price than if I tried to buy them in Kathmandu? I always buy clothes when I have the chance to visit Europe-not just because of the quality, which is always better than consumer goods you can find in the supermarkets of Nepal, but also because of the price, which is always more competitive and affordable. How on earth, I asked myself, is this possible? 
The answer may lie less in economics than in a rather complicated internalization of self-image which I call the 'Thamel Factor'. In Thamel, that storehouse of Oriental goods, I invariably come upon shop assistants who give me an insufferably condescending look when I ask them if I can buy an embroidered cushion cover, or a slightly funky jacket. 'Well, okay, we´ll show you, if you insist', they will say. 'But really this is not for Nepalis. Our main market is Europe. Nepalis can't afford to buy stuff like this'.
And here lies the gist of the matter. That sneer, which bothered me for years, comes into focus as I look at the piles of scarves and t-shirts and jewellery, all made in Nepal, all half price and discounted in the window fronts of Spain. Precious and semi-precious stones of Nepal make it out of the country, meant for consumers other than the ones who produce and manufacture these objects. But in its stead, we get no wine and cheese. And why is that? Is it because the Europeans make us believe our goods are worth so little that they can buy up the entire marketplace for a pittance? Or is it because we, in some way, also believe this?
Yes, of course. An old college saying comes back to me; the colonizer and the colonized are always complicit. This could never happen if employers and factory owners in Asia, and Central America, and Africa, didn't play along.  China brutalizes its people and makes them work at slavery rates. And everywhere else from free trade zones to maquiladoras, from Mexico to Bangladesh, the people reinforce over and over: the worth of a poor human being must remain low.
Does the fault lie only with the First World? Despite all my education in colonialism, I say no. The fault also lies with us, the people of the East who believe the worth of our work is so low, and the price of our materials so immaterial, that we can-indeed, should-sell everything to Europe and that the locals who make these objects can never be worth enough to buy them.
Imagine, for instance, if Ray Kroc had said: 'Be gone you stupid Americans, these luscious hamburgers are meant only for the Australians, who know how to appreciate a good hamburger when they see one'. Or if the Spanish had said: 'Vamooosh Chulos, this ham and cheese is not meant for you, it's only for our special customers, the French.' Imagine what would have happened then? Imagine if the French made their wine only for their special customers, the Americans, and refused to sell it to the locals? Would they be the great civilization that they are now?
But such is the case in Asia. We imagine that our customers are always the 'Others'-white skinned, fair-faced, pockets loaded with euros. We don't know that they are just like us, that they can only afford a closetful of clothes and after that even the most acquisitive of human beings tire of buying, and it would make sense to make less clothes but pay your workers more. Then, perhaps, a Nepali could also have enough money to buy some European oil and cheese, and olive oil owners in Spain wouldn't have to worry about how the market was doing badly.
At the moment, the asymmetry of the world rests on a pure economic illusion that people of one part of the world deserve more than the other. The illusion is maintained not just by the First World that suffers under this glut of overproduction, but also by the people in Third World countries who persist in thinking they are too poor to afford to pay their workers, too poor to buy quality goods, and too poor to have a symmetrical exchange rate.
This is all very well and good, you may think. After all, it's working in favour of one side of the planet so why change it, right? Well, that's when we come back to the butterfly. Because when one side of the world groans from poverty, unable to afford even three meals a day, when their schoolhouses have no electricity and their hospitals lack medicine, when they work years of their lives, for more than eighty hours a week, in foreign countries but return home with less money than when they left, then it's not just the psychic burden that Europe and America have to bear. It is also the fact that the lives of each and every one in the planet becomes inextricably intertwined, and poverty in one part affects the other. Affluence in the Third World would bring a boom in human cultural and economic growth, whereas right now all it brings about are individuals who struggle to find work (on both sides of the planet)-one side determined to dump its cheap goods made by slave-like labour while the other part sinks under the weight of Asia.
How long could such a state of affairs last? Well, now we know. Until 2009, when a butterfly fluttered its wings, and a global financial crisis that nobody understands took over the world. But change is not always bad. This may be the time to renegotiate-not just trade relations, and prices, and financial equivalence, but also the way in which we imagine ourselves as people of the world. The poor have to understand that they are only poor as long as they imagine themselves to be so. In Nepal, that means seeing a human being as somebody worth much more than he or she is today."   
Sushma sent us these photographs to illustrate her story:




See the photographs for this article at France 24 Observer site.
http://observers.france24.com/en/20090121-made-china-worth-work-low-price-materials-immaterial-asia-export

17 January, 2009

THE THAMEL FACTOR


Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post, January 16, 2009

A butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, and the flutter cause a hurricane on the other side. This causality, so widely cited by everybody from weather experts to scientists to economists looking at causes for seemingly random but connected phenomena, becomes more relevant in this day and age when a global financial crisis is occuring. The collapse of one mortgage company in America, it appears, could trigger the collapse of the entire house of cards which we call the global economy.

That´s why I am fascinated to find that despite the crisis, the roads of the cities of Granada, a city in Southern Spain, is full of shoppers who throng the classy shopping areas, buying clothes and boots and bags, buying jewelry and scarves and other bric-a-brac, all clearly manufactured in Asia. Despite the ¨Made in Spain¨ stamp (written in English), I can recognize a pair of boots—or an entire store of boots— made in China when I see one. So the question presents itself—how can Southern Spain, whose main economy seem to rest on manufacturing pork and cheese and wine and olive oil, command such a strong currency it can buy up the entire storehouses of Asia at discounted rates? Are our workers so cheap, and our materials so inconsequential, that a winter coat can cost only 6.99 euros? How is it possible, i think, that this kind of frenetic shopping can take place all over Europe, while in parts of Southern Asia we struggle to buy a good pair of shoes? How can the Zacatin be full of goods from Nepal, cheaper in price then if I tried to buy it in Kathmandu? I always buy my clothes when I have the chance to visit Europe—not just because of the quality, which is always better than consumer goods you can find in the supermarkets of Nepal, but also because of the price, which is always more competitive and affordable. How on earth, I asked myself, is this possible?

The answer may lie less in economics than in a rather complicated internalization of self-image which I call the ¨Thamel Factor.¨ In Thamel, that storehouse of Oriental goods, I invariably come upon store assistants who give me an insufferably condescending look when I ask them if I can buy an embroidered cushion cover, or a slightly funky jacket. ¨Well, okay, we´ll show you, if you insist,¨they will say. ¨But really this is not for Nepalis. Our main market is Europe. Nepalis can´t afford to buy stuff like this.¨

And here lies the gist of the matter. That sneer, which bothered me for years, comes into focus as I look at the piles of scarves and t-shirts and jewelry, all made in Nepal, all half price and discounted in the windows of Spain. Precious and semi-precious stones of Nepal make it out of the country, meant for consumers other than the ones who produce and manufacture these objects. But in its stead, we get no wine and cheese. And why is that? Is it because the Europeans make us believe our goods are worth so little that they can buy up the entire marketplace for a pittance? Or is it because we, in some way, also believe this?

Yes, of course. An old college saying comes back to me; the colonizer and the colonized are always complicit. This could never happen if employers and factory owners in Asia, and Central America, and Africa, didn´t play along. China brutalizes its people and makes them work at slavery rates. And everywhere else from free trade zones to maquiladoras, from Mexico to Bangladesh, the people reinforce over and over--the worth of a poor human being must remain low.

Does the fault lie only with the First World? Despite all my education in colonialism, I say no. The fault also lies with us, the people of the East who believe the worth of our work is so low, and the price of our materials so immaterial, that we can—indeed, should—sell everything to Europe and that the locals who make these objects can never be worth enough to buy them.

Imagine, for instance, if Ray Kroc had said: ¨Begone you stupid Americans, these luscious hamburgers are meant only for the Australians, who know how to appreciate a good hamburger when they see one.¨ Or if the Spanish had said: ¨Vamooosh Chulos, this ham and cheese is not meant for you, its only for our special customers the French.¨ Imagine what would have happened then? Imagine if the French made their wine only for their special customers the Americans, and refused to sell it to the locals? Would they be the great civilization that they are now?

But such is the case in Asia. We imagine that our customers are always the Others—white skinned, fair faced, with pockets loaded with euros. We don´t know that they are just like us, that they can only afford a closetful of clothes and after that even the most acquisitive of human beings tire of buying, and it would make sense to make less clothes but pay your workers more. Then, perhaps, a Nepali could also have enough money to buy some European oil and cheese, and olive oil owners in Spain wouldn´t have to worry about how the market was doing badly.

At the moment, the assymetry of the world rests on a pure economic illusion that people of one part of the world deserve more than the other. The illusion is maintained not just by the First World that suffers under this glut of overproduction, but also by the people in Third World countries who persist in thinking they are too poor to afford paying their workers, too poor to buy quality goods, and too poor to have a symmetrical exchange rate.

This is all very well and good, you may think. After all, its working in the favor of one side of the planet so why change it, right? Well, that´s when we come back to the butterfly. Because when one side of the world groans from poverty, unable to afford even three meals a day, when their schoolhouses have no electricity and their hospitals lack medicine, when they work years of their lives for more than eighty hours in foreign countries but return home with less money than when they left, then its not just the psychic burden that Europe and America has to bear. It is also the fact that the lives of each and every one in the planet becomes inextricably intertwined, and poverty in one part affects the other. Affluence in the Third World would bring a boom in human cultural and economic growth, whereas right now all it brings about is individuals who struggle to find work (in both sides of the planet)—one side determined to dump its cheap goods made by slave-like labor while the other part sinks under the weight of Asia.

How long could such a state of affairs last? Well, now we know. Till 2009, when a butterfly fluttered its wings, and a global financial crisis that nobody understands took over the world. But change is not always bad. This may be the time to renegotiate—not just trade relations, and prices, and financial equivalence, but also the way in which we imagine ourselves as people of the world. The poor have to understand they are only poor as long as they imagine themselves to be so. In Nepal, that means seeing a human being as somebody worth much more than he or she is today.

13 January, 2009

The Audacity of Technology

The Audacity of Technology
Sushma Joshi
The Kathmandu Post

Should a five year old in a rural village lacking a reliable supply of electricity and basic school supplies dream of owning a computer of her own? For Rabi Karmacharya, director of the Open Learning Exchange in Nepal (OLE), the answer is a resounding yes. The audacity of his hope, that many schools in rural Nepal will follow and adopt the successful model he's implemented in two schools near Lakhuribhanjyang, a few kilometers outside of Kathmandu, appears particularly foolhardy to people who say that the computers cost too much, have no reliable technical support, and use a technology that lacks teaching software and tools.
All these objections make perfect sense in the urban clamor of the valley, where I sit sipping coffee at the balcony of the Java Coffeehouse with Chris Hoadley, a Fulbright fellow at New York University whose research specializes in educational communications. Chris shares with me some of the common criticisms against the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptops. OLPC's founder, Nicholas Negroponte, has been pushy about the “all or nothing” model, insisting that countries use OLPC in each and every school if it takes on a country, the fact that cheaper computers of different models are available on the market, and that OLPC often requires proprietory software shipped directly from Boston -- unlike other educational computer models which now piggyback off open source. Also, a laptop for each student decreases collaborative skills and encourages students to be loners. And besides, he asks, should two hundred dollars be spent on a computer when the school itself may lack basic facilities, like schoolbooks?

All of this makes logical sense. My brain tells me he is right. My gut tells me something else. I've already visited Lakhuraybhajyang and I've seen the five year olds from an impoverished Tamang village in their schoolroom, sitting on the floor, opening their little computers and using them with an ease and dedication that left me startled. A little boy with snot running down his nose had hit the spacebar with a distinct pow! The sounds filled up the room -- now all the students were playing what sounded like a videogame. Pow! Pow! Pow! The snot-filled student was on a roll, intent on hitting his target. A little appalled by this sudden transformation of the classroom into what felt like a videogame bar, I turned to Ravi and said: what's going on? He smiled and gestured to the teacher, who explained to me that the children were playing a math game. The boy, who was on the edge of his seat and with his mouth open, was not killing virtual enemies but hitting the right answers to what was, as I scanned the screens, complex math problems. The five year olds were giving lightning fast reactions to additions and subtractions that -- I'll be honest with you -- I'd have a hard time answering with the same speed.

Teachers praised the new technology. One unexpected side-effect -- attendance became more regular as students had to come to school to charge their computers. Not only do students learn faster on the computers, but at times they go home and go through the lessons before the teachers get to them. OLE Nepal encourages students to share their computers with siblings and students in other classrooms, leading to a shared sense of pride and ownership. According to headmaster Shivahari Dahal: “The children are happy with the computers. They seek how to do things on them. They feel like they can do things by themselves.”

In a school system where everything is memorized, the sudden freedom to be able to figure out how to work a technology better than your teacher is surely empowering, especially to five year olds. Would a Nepali schoolchild feel the same sense of empowerment from a textbook which he is made to memorize?

“The children learn by themselves,” was a refrain repeated by different teachers. Indeed, the teachers seem more lost than the students. In a way, the design of the computer itself -- keys meant for tiny fingers, a small screen, a laptop that's unbreakable, all of this turns the traditional power hierarchy between teacher and student.

Computers, of course, cannot erase old problems. For instance, we ask a young boy sitting in the back why he doesn't have a computer. The teacher remarks that he doesn't attend school regularly. When asked why, the boy answers bravely: because my teacher hits me! Corporeal punishment, long walking distances, poverty which drives children to work, language barriers -- all of these issues continue to remain in Nepali schools, and cannot be addressed through technology but only through a school administration willing to work with a diverse student body and a commitment to excellence.

Which is what we saw in the second school. Krishna Bahadur Thapa, principal, has turned the Viswamitra Ganesh school at Lubu as a model of true community excellence. The student body is diverse -- Dalits, Brahmins, Newars all study here. As in other parts of Nepal, there's a shortage of textbooks, but the school has been able to ask for, and get, used books as donations. The difference in the Class Two students was stark. Unlike students in the first school, these five year olds were lively, talkative, and unafraid of their teacher. They took to their work seriously. “How many tigers are there?” The children repeat in perfect synchronized voices: “There are two tigers.”

Tests show children who own the OLPC computers score higher in math and English -- the two subjects which lack good teachers and which are responsible for leading to many SLC exam failures.

The meticulous and careful implementation of the OLE Nepal team, along with their dedicated follow-up, has meant that the technical assistance is consistently on call, and there have been, so far, no issues of maintenance. OLE Nepal is working to create curriculum based interactive education content, and also to add more teacher training components in line with the Government of Nepal's curriculum, and with NCED, the government's training apex body. They plan to finetune their model before applying it to five other different geographical and socioeconomic areas next school year, in conjunction with the Department of Education. OLE Nepal has already signed a partnership agreement with the United Nations World Food Program to deploy OLPC project in Dadeldhura. Talks are ongoing with other potential partners to support the deployment in other districts, including one in the Terai region.

Of course, electricity, or the lack of it, remains the number one problem. So does Internet access and connectivity, which OLE Nepal is trying to add to all computers. Chris Hoadley is quick to say he's not just a naysayer -- he is, after all, a specialist in education and communications. Bringing in computers, he agrees, may have the Trojan Mouse effect -- instead of bemoaning the lack of electricity, communities may wire up their homes and schools because of the computers, which they view as vital to their children's development.

There are 6.5 million schoolchildren in Nepal. Clearly, a laptop for each is impractical. Two hundred dollars, says Hoadley, is a lot for a rural household struggling with basic needs. Yes, it is. But for parents living in remote villages where walking distance is a crucial factor, the possibility and power of these small computers, and the way it could change their children's future through access to information, override other financial concerns. “Forestry groups in Mustang and Dadeldhura have said they are willing to invest in them themselves if they have to,” says Rabi Karmacharya. For groups still cut off from the flow of globalization, these machines are not just a question of economic rationalism, a $200 investment that could be spent in some better way. They are, in all senses of the word, a lifeline to the modern world.
Posted on: 2009-01-02 19:28:44 (Server Time)

09 January, 2009

A harvest of dreams

Sushma Joshi
"Last week, one man hung himself, two died in construction, and seven died in their sleep," says Devendra Raj Bhattarai. We are sitting in a five star hotel in Doha, where I find myself suddenly sequestered after being pulled en route to some other destination. Bhattarai, the Special Correspondent for the Gulf Region for Kantipur Daily, is giving me a list of deaths that have taken place that week. In total, he says, 180 Nepalis died in Doha last year -- about a hundred of them in their sleep.
What do you mean, they died in their sleep? I ask.

There is no post-mortem of workers who die in Doha. There are no human rights organizations in the Gulf emirate, and no UN agencies such as the ILO maintain a presence. The true reason of the deaths, Bhattarai says, will probably never be known.

"I have talked to some doctors, and they give climatic reasons," Devendra says. But the biggest reason, he says, is the weight of the dreams that men and women carry with them. "There´s a harvesting of dreams here. Men pay one lakh to come here, only to find that they make half of the 600 reales promised to them. And 200-300 reales is necessary just for food." At 54 degree centigrade desert heat, many men put the AC on at night after having faced the heat that rises from the roads all day. At night they go to sleep and never wake up.

One Nepali watches a flock of upto 300 sheep in the desert for 500 reales (RS.10,000.) About 5000 others work as camel jockeys, brushing and shampooing camels as they ready for the "Miss Beautiful Camel" pageant that the gender segregated Islamic nation holds in the place of female beauty pageants. The work is tough, but the isolation is tougher. The employers who hire shepherds and farmers will not renew his visa after the initial three month period, after which he becomes illegal. To leave Doha, one needs a khruj, a release letter from the employer authorizing the worker to return home. Five Nepali workers currently wait at the Embassy, their ticket and passport in hand, but unable to leave because their employers have refused to send the khruj.

¨People are given a lot of dreams. So of course they die in their dreams,¨ says Devendra. Doha boasts of having the highest per capita income in the world. But for the workers who toil within the emirates, the dream is sometimes shockingly different from the reality.

Half the problem, says Bhattarai, lies with Kathmandu. Nepali law prohibits women from coming to the Gulf as housemaids. And yet many show up at the Embassy each week, holding papers from the Department of Labour authorizing them to work as housemaids in the Gulf. Manju Baniya, a twenty-eight year old worker showed up at the Embassy after her employer made her give oil massages to the feet of his guests as part of her housemaid duties, and showed a Rs.500 receipt she paid to the Government of Nepal for giving her work authorization.

¨The Department of Labour should not send their own people on fake passports, with labour stamps stuck all over them, ¨ says Devendra. The Ambassador, Dr. Suryanath Mishra, a professor from Janakpur, tries hard to help all the workers who come to him, but even he has limitations. One problem is fake passports. Many Nepalis, gullible and illiterate, come bearing the passports of other people. In one such case, a Kami man died in an accident, but his family couldn´t claim the 40 lakh Nepali rupees that the Gulf Emirates offers as compensation. In a recent case, a man called Prembahadur Lama came bearing the passport of Jeevankumar Gharti.

The kind of informed and activist journalism that Devendra Bhattarai practises is having an impact. Kantipur coverage prompted the manpower agency to quickly send a ticket to send Prembahadur Lama back to Nepal. Devendra recently got a call from two twins in jail -- they had found out his number and asked him for help. The journalist negotiated for two air tickets for the men, and they recently flew home.

¨I get calls from people as far away as Saudi and Iraq,¨ he says. Women, he says, are especially vulnerable. The Nepali Embassy in Saudi has a shelter inside the premises. Eighteen girls currently live there -- six are pregnant, two have broken legs (they fell off the roof while trying to escape rape from their employers), and one is a single mother.

Dolma Sherpa, wrongly accused and given a death sentence in Kuwait, has received a lot of coverage. What is less well known is that there are 31 girls and 2 boys from Nepal in jail with her. Four women are in jail with their children -- the fathers, outraged at the women for seeking paternal rights, called the police and imprisoned them. To become pregnant is a crime. Caught by the police, the women often have to point to fellow labourers as fathers or else they could end up in jail or dead in a bathroom. Pointing to an Arab employer can land you in jail, as in the case of Sita Sapkota (a pseudonym). Her story, reported in Kantipur, says how she is in jail for fighting for the rights of her eight year old daughter. The law of the land says the Arab employer can never be wrong, and his word always holds over the employee.

Outside the five star hotel, a Manhattan of the dreams is built at immense speed. The highrises are awe-inspiring. But in every nook and cranny one can see workers covered in dust, hanging on ropes as they wipe the immense glass windows, hammering and sawing a million window frames. The architectural landscape is merciless in both its beauty and its scale, and the people who work on them look as insignificant as the designers of these edifices meant them to be.

Are the workers slaves? I ask. ¨Not exactly slaves, but kind of slaves,¨ answers Devendra. In one case, two farmers from Nepal were hired to watch pigeons. After two months, they were accused of stealing and eating five pigeons. The men denied this stoutly, but the employer´s words hold weight over the workers. The two men were never paid for their three months of work, and were sent back to their country, their one lakh investment never repaid. ¨If they are not slaves, then what are they?¨ asks Devendra.

¨As long as America rules, there won´t be human rights in the Gulf,¨ says Devendra. The sudden linkage may appear far-fetched, until one realizes that the US is the primary buyer of Gulf oil. With four US bases in Doha guarding the oil so important to the American economy, and with the US giving tacit sanction to the impunity and human rights violations in this small Gulf state, it appears slavery in its modern day form will remain unchallenged -- unless some new American awareness comes of age.

There is a long list of things that could be done so Nepali men and women don´t suffer mediaeval imprisonment and slavery-like conditions in the Gulf. Unethical manpower agencies could be blacklisted. Employment opportunities and education could be scaled up in Nepal. The Department of Labour could re-route women to more democratic countries for housemaid work.

"Baburam Bhattarai came twice and said that all Nepalis should return to their country," says Devendra. ¨When will this happen? Where is our government? Why do we have to call the American embassy for help when our men are stranded in Iraq?¨

As our politicians wrangle about a new Constitution, and fight over who's to be in power, Nepali men in Doha spent 12 reales to buy a bottle of Luma toilet cleaner. The liquid gives a slight feeling of intoxication, unavailable to workers who cannot buy a 30 reale bottle of black market alcohol. They drink this bottle -- then another and another, and then lie down to sleep and never wake up.

It's time for the world to wake up and ask: what are we doing to our people? Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the dream we dreamt for our world?
Posted on: 2009-01-09 21:20:03 (Server Time)