Where Elbows Do The Talking

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It was a mixed week. Sandwiched in between the hartals and the ekushey
barefoot walks and the launch disaster, were news items that led to very
different emotions at Drik. Shoeb Faruquee, the photographer from Chittagong, won the 2nd prize in the Contemporary Issues, Singles,
category of the world’s premier photojournalism contest World Press
Photo. The photograph of the mental patient locked by the legs as in a
medieval stock, is a haunting image that is sure to shake the viewer.
However, the stark black and white image tells a story that is far from
black and white. In a nation with limited resources, medical care for
all is far from reality. Expensive western treatment is beyond the reach
of most, and has often been shown to be flawed. Alternative forms of
treatment is the choice of many. The fact that the boy photographed was
said to have been healed, further complicates the reading of this image.
Shoeb is one of many majority world photographers who have attempted to
understand the complexities of their cultures, which rarely offer
simplistic readings.
It was later in the week, that Azizur Rahim Peu, told me that the
affable contributor to Drik, Mufty Munir, had died after a short illness
at the Holy Family Hospital. I would contact Mufty when I was in
trouble, needing to send pictures to Time, Newsweek or some other
publication. We would work into the night at the AFP bureau, utilising
the time difference, to ensure the pictures made it to the picture desk
in the morning. Occasionally, while hanging out at the Press Club
waiting for breaking news, we would dash off together. Mufty
uncomfortably perched on the back of my bicycle and me puffing away
trying to get to the scene in time.
Wire photography is about speed, and their photographers are known for
being pushy, but this shy, quiet, self effacing photographer made his
way to the top through the quality of his images. We had to push him to
have his first show in 1995, which our photography coordinator Gilles
Saussier and I curated. The show at the Alliance was a huge success, but
Mufty was not impressed by the excitement the show had created. He
simply wanted to get on with his work.
He did have problems with authority, or rather, authority had problems
with him. Despite his shyness, he was a straight talking photographer,
who didn’t hesitate to protest when things weren’t right. Not being the
subservient minion the gatekeepers of our media are accustomed to, he
often got into trouble. But the clarity of his protests played an
important role in establishing photographers’ rights. In the abrasive
world of press photography, where elbows do much of the talking, this
gentle talented practitioner will be dearly missed.
Unknown to the rest of us, the brother of Rob, the gardener at Drik,
died in the launch that sank in the storm at the weekend.

I Will Not

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Today on Earth Day we are celebrating by making promises

But I will not
I will not stop throwing paper on the ground.
I will not stop using plastic bags
I will not go to clean the beaches

I will not stop polluting

I will not do all these things because I am not polluting the world

It is the grown-ups who are dropping bombs

It is the grown-ups who have to stop
One bomb destroys more than all the paper & plastic that I can throw in all my life
It is the grown-ups who should get together and talk to each other

They should solve problems and stop fighting and stop wars

They are making acid rain and a hole in the ozone layer

I will not listen to the grown-ups!

[Student of class five of Karachi High School on Earth Day 1991].

It was in the wee hours of the morning. Propped up in our beanbags Nuzhat and I chatted while Zaheer and Ragni clicked away on their keyboards. I was in Karachi doing a story on Abdul Sattar Edhi, the philanthropist I admired greatly. Nuzhat and I had a lot of catching up to do, and our stories wandered in unplanned directions. We talked of when she and Nafisa Hoodbhoy had started the Peace Committee in Karachi and as she remembered this story her bright eyes welled up. Nuzhat was not the sort of person one could imagine being angry. But as she recalled the words of this little boy, she shook with emotion.

It was a week after they had heard the news of the US dropping a bomb every two minutes on Iraq. They had talked in school of how the world was being destroyed, of how the minds of people were being moulded, of how Pakistanis were looked upon at airports, but how the work of Edhi went unreported. She recalled how at the end of her talk, the chief guest, a woman known for her good work, went up to the boy and quietly told him off. How the prizes went to the other kids who had made presentations that no one could remember.

What can we say to the blind & deaf?
What does education & learning mean?

What should we teach & why do we teach it?

These were questions Nuzhat asked that night. Questions we continue to ask.

As we put together the work for this festival, I have marvelled at the range of statements the artists have made to address ?resistance?. At their modes of expression. At their defiance. To resist, to challenge, to question, to go against the grain, to deliberately choose the untrodden path is a conscious decision. It is a risky route fraught with danger, but a route we must follow, if change is to come.

The festival itself continues to buck the trend. Open air marquees without gates or walls bring rarely seen work to a wider public. Billboards on cycle rickshaws take exhibitions to city spaces that have never known gallery walls. Combining innovative low cost solutions with state of the art technology, video conferences link the virtual with the real, while canvas prints on giant scaffolding scorn the air conditioned confines of exclusive openings. Hand tinted prints rub shoulders with pica droplets on digital media. Fine art, conceptual work, installations, traditional photojournalism, coexist in a strange mix, oblivious to attempts to categorise and label. The future, the present and the past huddle, sometimes uncomfortably, to produce a kaleidoscope of images and woven messages, that question, reflect and celebrate aspects of our existence.

When globalisation has become a euphemism for westernisation, it is this dissolution of borders, this resistance to consumerism, this dream of a world where the might of a few, can be effectively challenged, this belief that tanks and stealth aircraft, and media spin will not subdue an indomitable spirit, that characterises this festival. It is this attempt to subvert, through blogs and handbills and word of mouth, the propaganda machineries that dominate the airwaves, that the artists have taken as their inspiration. The festival is a call to resist, and a declaration of the resistance to come.

Shahidul Alam

5th December 2004

The Price for "Progress"

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http://www.newint.org/issue372/exposure.htm

shinzo-hanabusa.jpg
Shinzo Hanabusa is yet another artist to be featured in the upcoming festival of photography, Chobi Mela III. Hanabusa’s work on Japanese farmers provides a fascinating insight into the cost of ‘progress’, in a nation like Japan.
The Second World War had adversely affected farming in Japan. I began producing a documentary on farming in 1962. The farmers were not getting a fair price for their milk. Then Japan started importing powder milk and things got really bad. In 1966 I heard rumours that the farmers in Akita were setting up a resistance movement. Following newspaper leads I went over to the locality. I was very upset, when I saw them throw the milk from the bridge as a sign of protest, at the fact that they had been reduced to this. But a big publication, Ewanami Shoten, printed the photograph and it helped turn things around a bit, so I felt good afterwards. I have since become known as ‘The Milk Photographer’. I hope the publication of this photograph in Southern Exposure helps farmers around the world get a fair price for their produce.
Shinzo Hanabusa, Japan

Identity Card

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The mail today brought a copy of ?Amader Kotha?. A publication by the American Center in Dhaka. The lead article in this unsolicited newsletter by Abu Naser was entitled ?An International Election in November: A chance for Bangladesh to learn about democracy?. As I landed at Zia International Airport yesterday, my colleague Tanvir, told me of the gunning down of the opposition MP the day before. At night I stopped the rickshaw to photograph the burning cars in the streets. The violence, the protests, the despair, is all too familiar. We saw it during military rule and during all the subsequent regimes. Abu Naser rightly, points to failures in the democratic process in Bangladesh. But to learn about the democratic process from the US! Perhaps it had to do with Rumsfeld?s claim that their failed cover up of military atrocities was evidence of a healthy democracy. Their previous ?exemplary? election is perhaps better left unmentioned.

I remember the surprise in the media in the UK, aghast at what was being reported from Iraq. It is hardly as if this had not been known before, by anyone who might have cared to listen. I am less surprised, when the confirmed atrocities by US soldiers, is suddenly seen as something done by them out there. No talk of coalition forces this time. No talk of united responsibilities, or united blame. I am not surprised when the assassinations in Palestine resulted in merely the predictable ?condemnation? by the UN and western nations. ?Tut tut, you mustn?t do that you know!?

I see the fire raging around me and throughout the globe and remember Mahmoud Darwish?s anger.

Shahidul Alam

Dhaka. May 10th 2004

Identity Card

Write down!

I am an Arab

And my identity card number is fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth will come after a summer

Will you be angry?

Write down!

I am an Arab

Employed with fellow workers at a quarry

I have eight children

I get them bread

Garments and books

from the rocks..

I do not supplicate charity at your doors

Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber

So will you be angry?

Write down!

I am an Arab

I have a name without a title

Patient in a country

Where people are enraged

My roots

Were entrenched before the birth of time

And before the opening of the eras

Before the pines, and the olive trees

And before the grass grew

My father.. descends from the family of the plow

Not from a privileged class

And my grandfather..was a farmer

Neither well-bred, nor well-born!

Teaches me the pride of the sun

Before teaching me how to read

And my house is like a watchman’s hut

Made of branches and cane

Are you satisfied with my status?

I have a name without a title!

Write down!

I am an Arab

You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors

And the land which I cultivated

Along with my children

And you left nothing for us

Except for these rocks..

So will the State take them

As it has been said?!

Therefore!

Write down on the top of the first page:

I do not hate poeple

Nor do I encroach

But if I become hungry

The usurper’s flesh will be my food

Beware..

Beware..

Of my hunger

And my anger!

Mahmoud Darwish ? 1964

An extract from the text of the Berlin Festival Appeal:

“Mahmoud Darwish was one of the best-loved Arab poets of modern times and counts among the most eminent poets in the history of world literature. Thousands flocked to hear his readings, and his volumes of poetry have been published in the hundreds and thousands. Numerous pieces have been translated into more than 30 different languages. His poems have been transformed into folksongs and many of his verses have taken on the character of proverbs.

Darwish‘s poetry draws inspiration from the tradition of ancient Arab poetry and Modernist influences and borrows from the style and language of both the Qur’an and the Bible. Few other poets have displayed such dedication to articulating a vision of a meaningful, real and fair peace between Arabs and Israelis, which furthers a dialogue between two voices and two different outlooks on life, while ensuring that one does not impose its view upon the other.


In the tradition of ancient Arab poetry, the poet assumes the role of spokesperson for his people. And despite Darwish‘s move away from this role since the 1990s, many readers still viewed him as Palestine’s literary ambassador to the last.

Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of Al-Birweh near Acre. In 1948, he fled to Lebanon and returned after the foundation of the state of Israel. He worked as an editor for various political and cultural journals in Haifa. After being imprisoned on numerous occasions, he left Israel in 1970 and went into exile. He has lived in Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Paris and, most recently, in Amman and Ramallah. In 1987, he was elected to the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and helped draft the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988. He left the organization in 1993 in protest against the signing of the Oslo Accords. He received numerous awards, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001 and the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize in 2003.

Darwish died on 9 August 2008 following heart surgery. He was buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah and granted a state funeral.”


Gallerie Publishers
208 Om Chambers
Kemps Corner
Mumbai 400036
India
————————————————————————————

Mahmoud Darwish 1942 – 2008

The Prince Claus Fund honours the memory of Mahmoud Darwish, the quintessential poet of Palestine, a man of exemplary courage, warmth and insight. In 2004 the Fund was honoured to name Mahmoud Darwish the Principal Prince Claus Laureate for his unique literary achievements and in recognition of his role as a beacon of the human spirit in the struggle for justice and peace. Mahmoud Darwish transformed his personal experience of the harsh realities of the Palestinian situation into universal expressions of exile, displacement and struggle. He was an outstanding artist. His work transcends time and place, and draws on collective memories of loss, love and longing.
The Board, Director, advisors and staff of the Prince Claus Fund mourn the loss of Mahmoud Darwish. To his family, friends and fellow poets, please accept our deepest condolences.
13th August 2008

Debunking the Expert Myth

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Experts determine our lives. They decide what we should wear, who we should have as partners, how many children we should have, who we should take loans from. They determine the very characteristics of a ‘civilised society’.

Seven years after I wrote the original piece, this video further cracks the expert myth. A three part series.
—————————————————-

Journalists too fall into the category of ‘experts’, and have considerable clout. While ‘expertism’, which works to preserve the power structures within society, is a trap a concerned journalist will be wary of. There are those within the media, who use the extra clout of a press pass to obtain favours, and use their expert status to sell ideas to a misinformed public.

A journalist’s job is to explain, in simple terms, complex issues in a manner, which is compelling, engaging and meaningful to people, to debunk expertism. In order to do so she needs to gather a fair amount of knowledge on the area of expertise that she reports on. She needs to wade through the jargon, to get to the essential facts. She needs to make sense of numerical data, and have enough rigour in her analysis so it can stand up to intense scrutiny. She needs to interpret things in language that is commonly understood, and to be aware of the cultural contexts that may give altered meanings. Here lies a trap, for in this process of simplification, she may choose metaphors, which may not be wholly accurate; she may leave out data, which may be pertinent; and she may shift emphasis, to make a point. Her position wields immense power. As a knowledge broker she can influence people’s opinion. Her politics may determine the course of social action.

Continue reading “Debunking the Expert Myth”

Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit

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Over the years, February has become our month of resistance. This is the window that successive repressive governments have allowed us, to vent our steam. The open air plays in Shahid Minar, the book fare in Bangla Academy and of course the midnight walk and the songs of freedom on the night of Ekushey, the 21st February, are all tolerated, for one month.
Yuppie Bangladeshis put on their silk punjabis and saffron sarees, and become the torch bearers of our heritage, for one month. Come March, it will be business as usual. It has been difficult convincing development experts of the value of culture in our society. With ‘poverty alleviation’ being the current? buzzwords, one forgets, that it was the love for our language that shaped our resistance in ’71 or that ‘Bangla Nationalism’ has been used to justify repression in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On the 1st February, perhaps we could look back at a collaboration between Drik in Bangladesh, and Zeezeilen in the Netherlands:
Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit
Culture glides through peoples’ consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the currents and the countercurrents. Trends change, flowing in the slipstreams of dominant culture. A few swim against this current, while others get trapped in ox-bow lakes, isolated from the mainstream.
Photography, more than any other media or art form has influenced culture. Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion. The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred on the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more important realisation that photographs largely are manufactured by the image industry, one that is increasingly owned by a corporate world. The implied veracity of the still image and its perceived ability to represent the truth hides the ubiquitous and less perceptible manipulation enabled by photographic and editorial viewpoint. Not only can we no longer believe that the photograph cannot lie, we now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels and newspapers and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before.
Photography has become the most powerful tool in the manufacturing of consent, and it remains to be seen whether photographers can rise above the role of being cogs in this propaganda machine and become the voice for the voiceless.

When a Pineapple Rolls

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Getting hold of a copy of the banned magazine was difficult, but most of the people who were subscribers seemed to have read the article. As often before, censorship had given the Time Magazine piece a notoriety, and readership appeal, it might not otherwise have had. The ban was short lived, and soon the article had been forgotten.
The Bangladesh government’s treatment of its journalists however had not been so short lived. The Channel 4 journalists were predictably, released well before Christmas. For Saleem Samad, and Priscilla Raj, the situation was considerably different. Tortured and terrorised, they fell victim to a government in permanent fear of being labelled `fundamentalist’. When a pineapple rolls it is the grass that suffers, and post 9/11, it is the small states that have felt the pangs of `terrrorism control’.
The ban of the 28th July 2003 Newsweek issue was based on fears at home. “Repeated bans on international magazines on account of articles on Islam constitute a flagrant violation of the free flow of information,” Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to Bangladeshi information minister Tariqul Islam.
The RSF statement fails to address the wider issue of control on the media. Arranging photo ops, planting questions at press conferences, removing access to the `pool’ for dissenters, spin, corporate control of the media and the newly found ally of embedded journalists are beyond the reach of a government with limited media management skills. Fisk, Chomsky, Pilger, Monbiot et.al. have made valiant attempts to overcome media control in the west. But neither their work, nor the excellent independent analyses that have circulated on the Net, have managed to create a significant challenge to a well-entrenched propaganda machinery. They have largely preached to the converted.
The handling of the Channel 4 incident and the ban on Newsweek by the Bangladesh government were at best clumsy. Buying out the limited copies that are imported for Dhaka’s elite, could have far better stymied the tiny readership to Time and Newsweek in Bangladesh. An “Out of Stock” label has far less glamour than a “Censored” sticker. The harassment of Samad and Raj, was unnecessary. These were ill paid professionals trying to make a living helping foreign journalists.
A flimsy majority that depends upon a small but significant Islamic party, makes things further complicated for the government of Bangladesh. Dissent within has to be managed along with keeping in the good books of powerful states. The earlier Time Magazine article on Al Qaeda links, was tenuous at best, and the Far Eastern Economic Review article on the rise of fundamentalism was shoddy journalism. But when it is so important to say one has been a good boy, any slander, no matter how unbelievable, has to be vehemently denied. Banning the award winning film Matir Moina, (now showing in cinema halls, with only minor amendments) was a knee jerk reaction, symptomatic of a nervous government trying to juggle with appeasement outside and appeasement within.
This is not the first time the Islamic parties (Islami Oikya Jote, IOJ) have played a key role in parliamentary dynamics. Popularity for major parties far exceeds the following of OIJ, a small and disciplined party. Despite their low votes however, they have had a key presence in all governments since the elections in 1991. “We could withdraw from the alliance if the demands are not met,” Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini has threatened at strategic moments, and the government does not want to rock its own boat.
While we may be thankful that the Bangladesh government is not media savvy, the more crude attempts to suppress free journalism doesn’t bode well for media professionals. We have now had three largely free and fair elections, but the elected representatives of the people have hardly behaved in a democratic manner. Each of the three governments have resorted to violent means to ensure loyalty. More recently, warrants of arrests, issued against five editors and one executive editor on defamation charges, within a period of three weeks, represents a shift in strategy. The minister’s statement “Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” was really intended for rookies on the streets, and rural journalists. Going for the big boys is a more recent affair.
So how does a nation, scared of big brother, and managing a rickety coalition handle the media? Letting the journalists speak appears to be the most sensible route out. Surely, not all western journalists will be as incompetent as their Times and FEER counterparts. Maybe they themselves, given a more free hand from corporate control, would exercise the journalistic rigour required of them. Strengthening local media would go a long way in providing alternative analysis to western viewpoints. Murdered journalists don’t write too well.
“Not a hair will be touched” the minister had said in 1994, when feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was facing persecution. Not a hair was touched, and Nasreen, still under threat, was provided safe exit to a land of her choosing. In the same July 1994 issue where the NYT covered this story, there was another news, of a US doctor going to work in a bullet-proof vest and being shot in the head. While one tripped over the word fundamentalism in the Nasreen article, religion or fanaticism was never mentioned in the story of the doctor’s death. When journalists regurgitate a state’s values, control is complete. Thankfully, Bangladesh has not reached such levels of state control, and our journalists have not reached such levels of acquiescence.
A responsible media which operates freely, could do wonders for Bangladesh, for its image and its people. But there is a downside to this. A more informed public would be less easily manipulated, corruption would be more difficult, absolute power would be more readily questioned. Government acquiescence in the face of western interests flies against the rhetoric of demands for free press by western states. Secret deals are more easily made in the absence of meddling journalists.
As for terrorism, we would love to see it end. If only the US would stop manufacturing it.
Shahidul Alam
Fri Aug 15, 2003

It's For Your Own Good

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We will kill your children
Destroy your mosques
Grind to dust your citadels
With your oil, we’ll buy you food
Believe you me, it’s for your own good

Regime change, that’s what its about
Jay Garner* instead, what more could you want
You’ll have Big Macs and Coke
As we know you should
Believe you me, its for your own good

Forget your heritage, its so uncool
Face the facts, the US rules
Afghanis blew statues
They were ever so rude
We will raze Baghdad, for your own good

CNN, BBC, they report for our cause
Embedded journalists, they know the laws
Al Jazeera is not cricket
C’mon you dude
You know we care, its for your own good

US contracts, Haliburton rules
Conflict of interest? C’mon you fools
My interest in oil
That’s obscene, that’s lewd
Its Iraqis I care for, its for your own good

It’s freedom I want, get out of my way
A new Middle East map, drawn as I say
Imperialist expansion
Must you be crude
Are you not listening, its for your own good

World opinion, who gives a damn
My latest war cry, Saddam Saddam
United Nations
Step out if you would
Don’t get in the way, its for their own good

US weapons of mass destruction?
Don’t be absurd, we’re a peace-loving nation
Hiroshima Nagasaki
Why do you still brood?
As my God has said, it was for your own good.

I wish you’d believe me. I so wish you would


Shahidul Alam
30th March 2003, Dhaka.

We Did Say No

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My questions are many. Why is there no UN resolution against the United States, for blatantly initiating an unprovoked genocide? Whydoes not the UN Security Council, demand that the most habitual aggressor in recent history, disarm and destroy

its weapons of mass destruction? Why is it that despite our collective strength, the most we can muster is a passive condemnation of a mass murder? Whatever may happen after the bombs have dropped, we will not be able to hide our shame. It may not have been in our name, but we sat and watched. We allowed it to happen. It is a guilt that will haunt us. While I sit in anger, wondering how, despite all our rhetoric, we watched a nation being plundered, without raising a finger to stop it, this quiet reflection from Baghdad University campus brings homethe extent of our complicity. These are the people we allowed to be destroyed. Our lives will go on, and we will face another day. They will not. And we will be content because we had said no
Shahidul Alam
Mon Mar 17, 2003
===============================================================
At the College of English, it is most definitely springtime. Co-eds are chattering cheerily and they smile as we pass.  "We are intent on finishing the syllabus, war or no war," says Professor Abdul Jaafar Awad.  He tells us that during the Gulf War of 1991, he was discussing a doctoral dissertation with a student while American and British warplanes were bombing Baghdad.  Jawad's determination to carry on despite the approach of war is shared by the students at his department.

Students at a class on Shakespeare are discussing Romeo and Juliet when we interrupt them. No, they say, they don't mind answering some questions from the Asian Peace Mission. They are carrying on with Shakespeare, but their answers show that morally they are on war footing. What do they think of George Bush?  "He is like Tybalt, clumsy and ill-intentioned," says a young woman in near perfect English. What do they think about Bush's promise to liberate them? Another co-ed answers, "We've been invaded by many armies for thousands of years, and those who wanted to conquer us always said they wanted to liberate us." What if war comes, how would they feel?  Another says, "We may not be physically strong, but we have faith, and that is what will beat the Americans." A young professor tells me, "I love teaching, but I will fight if the Americans come." These are not a programmed people.  Saddam Hussein's portrait may be everywhere, but there are not programmed answers.  In fact, we have hardly encountered any programmed responses from anybody here in the last few days. Youth and spring are a heady brew on this campus, and it is sadness that we all feel as we speed away, for some of those lives will be lost in the coming war. As one passes over one of the bridges spanning the Tigris River, one remembers the question posed by Dr. Jawad:  "Why would today's most powerful industrial country wish to destroy a land that gave birth to the world's most ancient civilization?"  It is a question that no one in our delegation can really answer. Control of the world's second biggest oil reserves is a convenient answer, but it is incomplete. Strategic reasons are important but also incomplete.  A fundamentalism that grips the Bush clique is operative, too, but there is something more, and that is power that is in love with itself and seeking to express that deadly self-love.

An American journalist I meet at the press centre says the people are carrying on as usual because they are in deep denial of the power that will soon be inflicted on them.  I wish he had been with us when we visited the campus earlier in the day, to see the toughness beneath the surface of those young men and women of Baghdad University.  Like most of the Iraqi we have met over the last few days, they are prepared for the worst, but they are determined not to make the worst ruin their daily lives.

Tomorrow afternoon, March 17, the date of the American ultimatum for Iraq to disarm or face war, we in the Asian Peace Mission will be travelling by land on two vans flying the Philippine flag to the order with Syria. Dita Sari, the labour leader from Indonesia, was offered a ride to the border this evening by the Indonesian ambassador, who was very concerned about her safety.  She refused, saying she would leave only when the mission left. We are leaving late and cutting it close because all of us–Dita, Philippine legislators Etta Rosales and Husin Amin, Pakistani MP Zulfikar Gondal, Focus on the Global South associate Herbert Docena, our reporter and cameraman Jim Libiran and Ariel Fulgado, and myself–feel the same compulsion: we want to be with the Iraqi people as long as possible.

Where Sandals Fear to Tread

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The invitation said `informal’, but I had put on my Friday best. After all, the party was at the French Ambassador’s residence. I had even swapped my bicycle for my 1982 reconditioned Toyota Starlet. It had a fresh coat of paint and looked quite respectable. Road 99, Gulshan, was chock ‘a block. Cars with flags, cars with yellow number plates, cars with flag-poles, cars with drivers. Mine fell at the bottom of the chain, a black number plate, flag/flag-pole less, driver less, private car. Not much better than my bicycle in terms of hierarchy. Since all the other cars were chauffer driven, I had to park my car right at the end of the road, near the lake, and walk
back to the fairy lights. The drivers did look at one another as I walked up the long road. What was a non-chauffer driven person doing at the residence of the French Ambassador?
Not shaken by any of this, I strode up to the brightly lit gate. After all I did have an official invitation. To my horror, I realised that I had left my invitation in the car. The Frenchman at the gate asked me who I was, and I suggested that I go back to the car to get the invitation, but luckily his Bangladeshi colleague recognised me and tried to usher me in. By then, however, the damage had been done.
The Frenchman’s gaze had gone all the way down to my naked toe-nails. Sandals! No longer did he need to know who I was. I obviously didn’t belong there. The Bangladeshi tried to protest, but with a furtive glance, the Frenchman made eye contact with the extremities of my feet. Oh, said the Bangladeshi. There was no need for further conversation.
The glitterati walked past me as they stepped out of their chauffer driven cars. Peering ghostlike through their air condition cooled spectacles which had misted up in the humid monsoon air, they casually shook my hand with one hand as they wiped their glasses with the other. Some did ask why I was walking the wrong way. That I was being turned away because my attire wasn’t considered suitable for such an august occasion seemed quite a reasonable explanation. Some did pat me on the back in a fatherly sort of way for some recent award I had won. Mustafa Zaman Abbasi, the director general of Shilpakala Academy, kindly offered me a pair of shoes to wear. He didn’t live too far away, and had plenty of spare pairs. He seemed hurt at his generous offer being spurned.
The drivers nodded knowingly as I entered my reconditioned car. This was Gulshan. National costumes could hardly be suitable clothing for a party here, and a diplomat’s party at that! So what if my dress code was known to those inviting me. It was after all, the French National Day, and my principled stand of wearing non-western clothes had broken their boundaries of tolerance.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka. 14th July 2002.