Musings on Amtrak: Seth Meyers, Lynchburg and my travel disability

I am off to India by way of Morocco. This is a modest attempt at following one of my heroes – Ibn Battuta – a Moroccan traveler and scholar, who lived in the 14th century. Why is he my hero? for that you must watch this fascinating talk. In short, this scholar-traveler did about 73,000 kilometers on Camels and Ships– yes, you read that right, this was before the Steam engine was invented. And he lived in India for a good 12 years. I am following his footsteps, in a very modest way- though in reverse.

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            I boarded the train to Washington D.C. this morning, from Philadelphia with three pieces of luggage, feeling a bit ‘disabled’ with my lack of ability to move freely. And yes, you guessed it right, I sat in the ‘disabled’ seats right in the front – with lots of legroom – ah, relief at last. I eyed my surroundings to make sure there weren’t another other ‘genuinely’ disabled folk. Thankfully there weren’t any. I did a double-take to make sure I wasn’t breaking rules. I hate breaking rules, when there is no need. If there is a genuine need, and I feel morally obliged to- I break them- with impunity. Nelson Mandela did, so did Gandhi. So, I must be in good company. Anyway I sat down, feeling a bit self-assured.

            A few minutes later, the moral inspector in me started poking me to get up and move back. ‘What if there are three disabled people at the next station’ said the little voice in my head. As I often do, I moved back. Just two seats behind. I couldn’t lift the heavy luggage I had to put it overhead, so just put it on the next seat and sat down, looking out of the window and thinking about my upcoming adventures. Not as frightful and risky as undertaken by Mr. Battuta, but exciting, nevertheless.

            The conductor came. He saw that I had placed my bag on the next seat and asked me to put it on top or ‘move to the front’ i.e., to the disabled seats. Bummer, I told him I couldn’t lift it easily so he asked me to move. So I did. Back to square one. My instincts were right. I was happy to be back to my former location. I should’ve let my initial inertia guide me. Anyway. Nothing lost. In the meanwhile, an older black lady was sitting on the adjacent seats – an Iraq war veteran, who had all sorts of paraphernalia on her. She seemed to want to take a nap, so I did not intrude her. Under normal circumstances, I would have at least said hello and made small talk. She seemed to be an older lady – about 60 or so, and came on a wheelchair, that was sitting right in front of her. The little voice in my head asked me ‘How will she get off’? Will she call the conductor, or do I need to help her get off? Also, how is it to travel as a disabled person? If just three pieces of luggage are making me so ‘disabled’ how the hell to really disabled people manage to get around? Tough luck indeed. God bless the disabled. And the veterans.

            I flipped open the Acela travel magazine with a Seth Meyers photo on the cover – sharp, well dressed, in all blue. I love blue- one of my favorite colors – so I went straight to the cover story on Mr.Meyers. I read with interest how he came to be the person he is. His ‘authenticity’ seems to be the ‘secret’ behind his humor. I suppose it is for most great comedians – Ali G, Charlie Chaplin and Muhammad Ali – though Ali was more of a boxer than a comedian. But I rank him highly as a comedian – more than others would. But that is me.Sorry to be so opinionated. I have been this was since I was four years old. My (late) mom told me so. As I am growing older, Iam trying to be less so, and be more open to other ideas. But I suppose we are all created a certain way. And we must live with who we are. I am trying my best to live with myself. Sometimes it can be hard, for the most part, I am an ok guy. Nice enough to others, but not to myself. I need to learn to be nice to myself. Take my luggage situation for instance.

            My current ‘luggage disability’ owes to a favor I am doing for a friend – whose 16 yr old son requested me to buy a certain electronic equipment – which I agreed to, without knowing how bulky it would be. My heart sank when the shipment came. I didn’t imagine I would have to lug this monstrosity all the way thousands of miles. Along with my luggage. Beat that. Being nice can be a bit hard at times and with my penchant for traveling light, this is the worst thing that could happen. But what to do, I have promised a 16 yr old kid – who I have never met – a gift and I have to keep up my word. So, here I am sitting, with three pieces of luggage, instead of two and feeling sort of sorry for myself. Perhaps I should stop moaning and get on with it. Like a true traveler.

                        I have also noticed that I suddenly become philosophical when I travel. My reservoir of profoundness seems to burst forth when I am on the move. Is it just me, or does it happen with others too? I need to ask a few dear friends about this- only if I remember to. Made a note of that in my journal. One thought that came to me is a hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that life should be lived as if we are travelers – in the sense that we are passing through life – and not getting too attached to people or places. I have tried to incorporate some of this in my life, but I guess attachment is a human weakness. Hard to completely be detached – as most religions in the world teach us – Hinduism has a very strong element of this detachment philosophy too. ‘World rejection’ is the word that Sociologists of religion use to describe this phenomenon.

            I flipped through my phone and noticed on Twitter that Anthony Bourdain said something thoughtful about the ongoing ‘War’ on Gaza. More like Israeli assault on the folk there. Four kids were killed, while playing on the beach and Israeli President Shimon Peres apologized this morning for this. What about the other 200 odd deaths? They were all ‘collateral damage’ I suppose. I am growing sick of the media coverage, the hatred and venom from people on social media. And the valiant efforts of some people trying to post pictures of Jews and Muslims hugging are also somewhat disingenuous. This is NOT a religious conflict, except that some ultra-orthodox Jews are making it a zero-sum game by insisting that God gave the land to them. I think this is about land – and should be viewed as such- and as good intentioned as these efforts are at showing that Jews and Muslims can break bread (and fasts) together, they don’t help much. They only dumb down the arguments and make the reader look stupid. But I guess in America one needs this level of discourse too. Most Americans can’t place Palestine/Israel on a map.

            Finally, there was an ad for Lynchburg, Virginia – a town close to where I live. Why doesn’t Lynchburg change its name? to something live Loveburg or something. I mean, the term ‘lynching’ apparently came after the practice of lynching that took place in the town – many ages ago- wouldn’t that be a good case for re-branding a town’s name? If that isn’t a good reason, I don’t know what is.

And yes, like Ibn Battuta, I intended to stop by Mecca for Umrah, but unfortunately that will have to wait. I need a visa, unlike Mr.Battuta, who traveled within the Islamic empire of his day, sans passport, visa or the hassles of security checks. In some ways we surely seem to have regressed, as a species. Freedom of movement is restricted these days. So is the freedom to really think for oneself. It takes a great effort and courage to speak one’s mind it seems. Too much censorship, self-censorship around us going on. Are we really free, as we imagine? Free to travel, think and live? As a former PR man, I am suspicious of all the branding and advertising of this ‘freedom’ we speak of. More on this later.

Posted in Arab Philnathropy, Education, Egypt, Ethics, food, India | Leave a comment

Lessons in Foreign Policy from Food Cart Vendors

“Cairo, very good city. You go there?” queried the young Egyptian juice vendor, as I was attempting to buy a mixed berry juice, while waiting for my turn to enter the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Another food cart vendor, who was a Syrian pointed out the similarities in spices in India and the Arab world. “We got lots of spices from India. Spices tie us together. We are brothers in spice,” he joked when I asked him to pour more hot sauce on the Shawarma that he was preparing for me. He even did the Indian head nod, in an effort to make me feel ‘at home’, I must confess that it irritated me a bit – it doesn’t feel great to be at the receiving end of a stereotype.falafel3

Later, it was a Bangladeshi worker at a pizza joint who remarked “Indira Gandhi very good. Sheikh Hasina not good,” summing up his understanding of Indian politics. Given that his Hindi was extremely limited and my Bengali is virtually nonexistent, we still managed to talk about various things, as I gorged on the mushroom Pizza on the streets of Manhattan. Despite my new Bangladeshi friend’s understanding of Indian politics being over three decades old, he seemed to have gleamed the broader trends in Indian politics – that there is some level of democracy, no matter how imperfect and (lesser) outright corruption than Bangladesh. I had to remind him that India is no paradise, he was insistent that “India very good. Indian people good people.”

            This was the United Nations of people – an Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Syrian all feeding a hungry Indian on the streets of New York city. While I have always loved the Big Apple for its diversity, openness and positive energy, it can be, at times quite exhausting; I have never lived there long enough to understand how people bring their own understandings of the world and create a city that is a microcosm of the world. But through these exchanges, people were revealing themselves and their modus operandi – of shared cultures, foods, political observations, habits of heart and idiosyncrasies. And through this, they were finding a common ground to communicate – despite the barriers of language.

                        While Americans are famous for not traveling outside of the country, they are often exposed to people from different cultures and lands. This may, in some cases lead to jingoism and a false sense of entitlement. As I read somewhere a few weeks ago, “Americans like Mexican food, Mexican Music and Mexican culture – just not Mexican people.” There is a great effort to remove those who are living as undocumented workers in the U.S. and the sense that immigrants are taking over ‘our jobs’ seems to have become all pervasive. This sense of entitlement and fear of the ‘other’ is unfortunately prevalent and seems to be gaining ground among certain political actors in the U.S.

            The final visit of the day was to the National September 11 memorial, just a few blocks from where I had had the fresh fruit juice. I enjoyed the exhibits, though it was a bit overwhelming, both visually and in terms of the displays themselves. I noticed half way through the visit that the brochure did not have any Arabic language. There were instructions in about eight or so international languages, but to leave out one of the most widely read and spoken languages in the world seemed a rather odd omission. I walked out of the museum wondering if those who made that decision to consciously leave out the language knew as much about the world as these food cart vendors, and if they appreciated others humanity as much as these strangers from strange lands.

 

 

Posted in Charity, Democracy, Education, Egypt, Ethics, food, India, New York City, Sufism, United Nations, USA, War on terror | Leave a comment

Music and the Mullahs – can the twain meet?

The debates about the use of music in Islamic practices specifically and music as entertainment are perhaps as old as Islam itself. These debates are not new reminds a scholar of Amnan Shiloah (1997). In the absence of clear injunctions about music in the Qur’an, secondary texts such as Hadith and other texts written by scholars of Islam have become important in interpreting the role of music in Islam and how permissible it is. Given that many Muslims around the world do take their religion seriously, when it comes to matters of practice, this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. With rap and metal being used by revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia – to get their message across, Sufis organizing music festivals in Morocco, mainstream actors and actresses dancing to Bollywood tunes in India and Pakistan, is music really haram? I will try to address this intricate and complex argument here.

Let’s start with the basics. Music is not totally forbidden in Islam. Even the most die-hard Salafi will admit that the Prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him) was known to enjoy some music from dhaf, a drum like instrument, on special occasions. Shiloah says “Some authorities, for instance, tolerated a rudimentary form of cantillation and functional song, but banned any instrumental accompaniment; others allowed the use of a frame-drum but without discs, forbidding all other instruments, particularly those be-longing to the cordophone family. The mystic orders, for whom music and dance held a vital part in the performing of spiritual and ecstatic rites, were seriously concerned with the debate and participated ardently in the polemics.” This debate is really not part of daily life, with tolerance being the norm in most Muslim societies. It is only in extreme cases such as Saudi Arabia – where public performances are banned that this debate gains salience. Shiloah shows that the first authoritative attack on music came from Ibn abi al Dunya (823-894) A.D., who was in the court of Caliph Al Muta’did (892-902). Dunya’s argument in his book Dhimm al Malahi and the use of the concept of Malahi or distraction (from religious obligations) is key to the development of the notion that music is a distraction from religious observance (since it was associated with gambling, drinking and merriment). On the other hand, Sufis and those mystics who saw benefits of Sama and the use of music argued that music stirred the emotions to worship and brought the believer closer to Allah. As Shiloah further argues “ Another early Sufi scholar al-Sarrij (d. 988) who set forth the true principles of sufism in his Book of the Sparks, distinguished between the sama of the vulgar and that of the elect, which includes various degree.”Sufis were pious, practicing Muslims, for whom music was but one way of expressing their spirituality. The modern day subversion of Sufism for commercial purposes is another matter, and I will address that in another article.

Growing up in India in the 1990s’, the early musical influences in my life were Michael Jackson, Bryan Adams, Backstreet boys and a plethora of Indian musicians including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Sabri Brothers and others. Though my father enjoyed Bollywood music and we heard lots of Qawwali on Fridays, music was somewhat of a taboo, despite being loosely accepted. I remember my father disconnecting the cable TV at home because MTV was too ‘rebellious’ and ‘decadent’ in his opinion. My mother was the more liberal among my parents, who had a greater level of tolerance for things that were not too orthodox or ideas that would be considered rebellious. As I grew up and became more cognizant of the world around me, I realized that indeed Music and the Mullahs – orthodox leaders of Islam- did not get along too well. My father was a Mullah himself, though he did not practice as a religious leader full time, but was trained in theology and finer points of religion, but so was my mother. So, at an earlier age, I got my first education in the value of interpretation of religious laws and social norms – much of it did depend on human agency and aql, or reasoning. While media portrays extremists such as the Taliban as the authoritative agents of interpreting laws on Islam, there is a vast range of interpretations of whether music is permissible or not – from those who embrace Music fully to those who negate it.

Contemporary Music culture around the ‘Muslim world’

Across the ‘Muslim world’ – defined as any country with a significant Muslim population – one can find a rich and thriving music scene – the Qawwals in the Indian subcontinent, the Sufi singers in Turkey, traditional singers and Griot singers in Senegal, Africa. Even if it is not devotional music, music is tolerated in many forms, as long as there is no lewdness or immodesty involved. Youssou Ndour, a griot singer from Senegal is one of the latest global sensations, who has taken the music world by storm and has also taken a firm stand on music in Islam. The success of his album Egypt, around the world, which is chronicled in a film I bring what I love is a testament to the broad appeal of his music, both within and outside of the Muslim world. Another globally renowned singer is the late Nusrat Fatehali Khan, a Pakistan qawwali singer, who branched into mainstream music and is known for his melodious voice as well as his rendering of spiritual classics such as Allahu Allahu. Then there are others like Sami Yusuf, who have captured the imagination of the faithful with their rendering of religious songs. His music is for the Western Muslim, educated, well-traveled and often well-heeled. The market for the faithful is making space for techno-savvy beats and slick music videos, it seems.

          This is not the entire picture, as there are egregious bans on music performances in some other parts of the Muslim world. When certain legislators or governments in the Muslim world ban music, it is coming from a sense of duty to ‘preserve’ religion. In this logic, anything that the prophet Muhammad did not do it not permissible and this includes music, which he perused in a rather limited way. While there are prophetic traditions that permit music, the line of agreement it thin. There is a tension between the two human tendencies – of Rahmah (grace and beneficence) and hawa or desire, which can translate into personal opinion in practice, argues Fatima Mernissi in her book Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world (1992). This tension manifests in all debates that we hear about the clash of creativity and the need to conform to the current rules or authority. Artistic expression in all ways, including music falls into this category of tensions, one that can be interpreted as being ‘wayward’ or out of Islamic bounds by those in power, who can accuse artists and performers of promoting hawa or desire – an evil notion indeed. And when the state is based on maintaining order, this becomes less tolerable. The ‘collective good’ becomes more important than individual agency or freedom and hence some sorts of creativity gets banned. Mernissi further argues that since many of the Muslim majority countries have not fully signed onto the principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantee human freedom in all its manifestations, this can lead to a lot of tensions.

           

Conclusion

            The Fes festival of Music in Morocco is considered one of the biggest music festival in the world. As the festival website says, “The aim of this Festival is to harness the arts and spirituality in the service of human and social development, and the relationship between peoples and cultures,” so to this extent, music has become, over the centuries a common language. There is a rich tradition of poetry in the Persian Gulf too, considered the bastion of orthodox Sunni Islam. In fact, there are popular TV shows like the Millionaire Poet, which has been a hit for the past few years. In effect, the Arabian tradition is all about celebrating the spoken word in various forms. During my stint at a PR firm in Dubai, I managed the account for Dubai International Poetry Festival, a celebration of poetry and performing arts – which included several Sama preformances as well.

The power of music to bring people together endures. This has not stopped the youth from using music to express their anger, sense of freedom and demands to the leaders of the country and to their own countrymen. If there is one thing that can be said confidently, it is that music is an expression of the deepest passions and cannot be curtailed by laws or religious edits. While the mystic traditions such as Sufi orders used music for religious purposes and justified it, other puritanical scholars were harsh in their condemnation of music. This tension has continued to this day and we see the same debates being played out, in various forms. If anything, this debate shows the plurality of interpretation of the laws concerning music and the various ways different Muslim societies have chosen to interpret them. With increased connectivity, greater access to media and proliferation of cheap media technologies, one can only imagine that music, in all its variants will continue to grow and proliferate. While the Mullahs may not be able to ban music everywhere, there are bound to be movements who will try to stop the use of music for religious as well as entertainment purposes. But at the same time, one must not forget that those who are opposed to such puritanical and rigid interpretations are also fighting a battle – and are often in the majority. With the success of stalwarts like Nusrat Fatehali Khan, Sami Yusuf and others, perhaps the Mullahs will realize that music can actually serve faith in a positive way and it can be a force for good. In the meanwhile, we can hope that tolerance prevails.

 

References

Shiloah, A.(1997).Music and Religion in Islam, Acta Musicological, Vol 69. P.143-155.

 

Mernissi, F.(1992) Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world, Perseus Books, Cambridge: MA.

Posted in Charity, Christianity, Education, Egypt, Ethics, Fatima Mernissi, India, islam, judaism, media, Middle East, music, Sufism | Leave a comment

Can democracy take root in the Arab world?

As Syria burns, Iraq implodes and Tunisia and Libya struggle to democratize, one question remains central to framing discussions of participatory governance – Is democracy possible in the ‘Muslim world’? Is democracy an ‘internal wound,’ that has been left to fester for too long, within the Arab/Muslim world, as Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi argues? She says, pointing to Islamic history that, since the advent of Islam, there have been two traditions within Islam – the intellectual and philosophical tradition of the falasifa, of the Hellenized philosophers and the Sufis of Persian and Indian traditions and on the other hand, the Kharijite tradition of political subversion – which has been violent and bloody. This tradition continues, as we look around the Arab world and the struggles for power that are ongoing.

 As Mernissi says “The two traditions raised the same issues that are today told are imports from the West, issues that Islam has never resolved: that of ta’a (obedience to the Imam or leader of the community) and that of individual freedom. Political Islam resolved these issues neither in theory nor in practice, for the idea of representation was never effected, although the idea that the Imam is chosen by the community is deeply rooted in the Sunni Islam.” (1992, p.21). This choosing of the Imam by the majority is a democratic element that has been part of Islamic history, no matter how one reads it. The first caliph and those onwards, till Ali were chosen by consensus of the community, though it was not an ideal participatory voting mechanism, as we know it today. Some of these age-old tensions are still playing out, in many ways. This could be considered a part of the power-struggle within the house of Islam, at the risk of sounding orientalist. But there is a grain of truth to this.

I explored some of these questions a few years ago, when I took part in a two semester course called Democracy in the Middle East at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, as part of my MA in International Relations. This was in 2009, when life was stable in the Middle East and it would be a while till the word ‘Arab Spring’ would become part of everyday lexicon. Some of the bigger questions that we grappled with, as part of the seminar, taught by Dr. Miriam Elman were: Is Islam compatible with democracy, Are the countries of Middle East and North Africa inherently not able to adapt democratic means of governance and to what extent has history played a role in the way things are.

            Vicky Langhour (2002) points to the arguments made by some scholars that substantive democracy may need to be stalled in the authoritarian countries of the Middle class till there is a solid middle class that can demand legitimate democracy. This is operating on the assumption that the only alternative to the existing autocratic regimes is that of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Al’nahda etc…) who are as bad, if not worse than the current authoritarian rulers for democracy – so goes the argument. She says: “The suggestion that substantive democratization be put off until middle classes develop is of limited usefulness. On the one hand, its assumption that middle classes do not support Islamists is belied by Islamist successes in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates; on the other, the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically. Western pressure is needed to push Arab autocracies toward a phased-in democratic opening designed to strengthen opposition parties.” The wide spectrum of Islamists from MB to Hamas to Hezbollah all demonstrate the various stripes in which these parties come. The question really is : Is the West willing to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate party, once it is elected democratically. Now that Hamas does rule the Gaza strip, it is still not treated as an equal partner in dialogue by Israel. So, how does one deal with such hypocrisy from those who purport to promote ‘democracy’? This is a legitimate question and one that is being asked in the Muslim majority countries. Langhour suggests using economic incentives such as trade agreements and other incentives to push Arab governments to move in a certain direction – in terms of allowing greater participation among the political parties etc. But the West certainly cannot pull strings now, as it has in the past, given the recent wave of anti-Western sentiment and ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq.

 

Is the Middle East exceptional, in some way?

Eva Bellin (2004) asks the question if the countries of the Middle East are in some way exceptional, in being resistant to democracy – by virtue of culture or economic development? No, she says and adds “The Middle East and North Africa are in no way unique in their poor endowment with the prerequisites of democracy. Other regions similarly deprived have nonetheless managed to make the transition. Civil society is notoriously weak in sub-Saharan Africa, yet twenty-three out of forty-two countries carried out some measure of democratic transition between 1988 and 1994. The commanding heights of the economy were entirely under state control in eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, yet the vast majority of countries in this region successfully carried through a transition during the 1990s.” She says that there isn’t one or even many preconditions for democracy, as it is a complex process. The question she asks is why there has not been even an attempt towards democratization. Given that she wrote this piece in 2004, that question has been answered now, with the Arab Spring and democratization of Tunisia and Libya, though the latter is struggling to keep it up. Drawing an insight from successful revolutions, she argues (based on Theda Skocpol’s thesis) that “Democratic transition can be carried out successfully only when the state’s coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it. Where that coercive apparatus remains intact and opposed to political reform, democratic transition will not occur.”One can apply this reasoning to Egypt and Tunisia and see why the former failed as a successful revolution and the latter succeeded.

            In conclusion, it could be said that democracy needs not only an ecosystem in the form of civil society, an educated class of people who want change but also some preconditions – which are by themselves not necessary to guarantee it, but may facilitate its arrival. Finally, there is something to be said about the role of super-powers and the neighbors in a country. To what extent are their influences playing into the formation of alliances and networks of people is crucial to understand, as well. Also, it may be wise to remember Mernissi’s reminder that “the Gharib (West) is still Ajib (strange). The strange is always fascinating and as in the tales of the Arabian nights, one never knows that foot to stand on when faced with the unusual. Something that fascinates you, but you don’t understand, can eventually destroy you. Western democracy, although it seems to carry within it the seeds of life, is too linked in our history with the seeds of death. But the death of whom? Of the authoritarian technocrats or the powerless intellectuals? Of the officials who are the watchdogs or the people who raise the challenge?” (p.21).

Mernissi’s is a positive and hopeful vision of the future of democracy in the Arab world. She ends her book using an allegory of the Simorgh from Farid Attar’s classic Poem The Conference of the Birds, a classic written in the 12th century, an equivalent of the modern day classic Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. “The Simorgh is us” she says, arguing that the realization of all the best ideals of a Western liberal democracy and Islamic state are better individuals and a better community. Once we realize this, then the end result would be perfect, she seems to be saying. This is a vision that cannot be wrong or faulted. And in the years and decades to come, one can hope that it is realized by all those who are concerned about the future of the Middle East and its people.

 

References

Mernissi, F.(1992). Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Peresus Books. Cambridge, MA

Langhour, V (2002). An Exit from Arab Autocracy. Journal of Democracy. Vol 13, No.2

Bellin, E (2004). The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics. Vol. 34. No.4

Posted in Charity, Democracy, Democracy in the Middle East, Education, Egypt, Ethics, Fatima Mernissi, India, media, Middle East, Middle East peace, modernity, Morocco, Palestine, Public Administration, Sociology, United Nations, USA, War on terror | Tagged | 2 Comments

Hyper-patriotism in the heart of Manhattan: My visit to the 9/11 memorial

 I visited the National September 11 Museum, more out of curiosity, rather than any sense of wanting to know more about the tragedy that struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001. While most of us know the facts – enough to know the bad guys, the heroism of the people involved and the reactions from dubya and what transpired later on, what is not so well known is the narrative of 9/11 and how it is being shaped. While I respect the sentiment with which the memorial was built – to honor the lives of 2,977 people who died on that fateful day- the execution of this vision leaves much to be desired. While the memorial is beautiful, the museum fails on many accounts.

Photos by author.

Photos by author.

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First off, I must lay bare my own normative biases – I am not a huge fan of memorials – of any kind- and in particular those of the type that are particularly nationalistic or jingoistic. The only exception to this is the Taj Mahal, which is also a memorial, but considered a wonder of the world, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful architectural pieces in the world. While I don’t consider nationalism to be utter nonsense, but let’s say that I am deeply skeptical of a project built entirely on just one identity – often based on exclusion, false pride and a visceral suspicion of the other. That is just not me.

The museum is somewhat of an aberration. It is based in perhaps the greatest city in the world – New York – a city that I truly believe represents freedom, diversity; but ironically is highly securitized and represents ‘unfreedom.’ A fact that Adam Gopnik highlights in this New Yorker story. The level of securitization just before one enters the museum is quite shocking, and one feels as if one is about to take off on an aircraft, bound to enter the ‘free world,’ except that one is leaving this free world to enter a world where one is quite literally held hostage. To the credit of the museum curators, the exhibits are quite well organized and often detailed with audio recordings – of the people who were trapped in the towers, of the fire fighters who risked, and often lost lives saving those of others and also that of an astronaut, who said something thoughtful about this tragedy from space.

The museum itself is hard to find. I took the subway to reach the closest station, near the Financial district. Walking around, I got lost twice, having passed West Street, from where one can enter the ticketing area. On reaching the ticketing area, I was finally met by a line of about 100 people before me and the possibility of entering the museum three hours later. Given the summer season and high volume of visitors, this was the earliest I could go. I decided to buy the ticket ( $18 for students, $24 for regular adults). As someone who frequented Smithsonians in Washington D.C. ( all of which are free entry), I feel this is too steep a price to pay. Thank the lord that I am a student and can get some discounts, even if it is $ 6 – enough to buy me a falafel sandwich on the street side food cart. A more scathing review of the museum is here.

On a positive note, the memorial itself is beautiful. It stands at the exact location of the two towers, and has water falling from all four sides, into something like a huge square bowl. The water then goes into a smaller square and into the ground- viewers cannot see the entire depth of the water falling. But it is a touching memorial in many ways – aesthetically pleasing and it also bears the names of all those who died on the side walls. This is truly the most positive aspect of the whole experience.

Firefighters – the real heroes?

One fact that came home to me was that real heroes that day were the firefighters – the first responders, who came together to save thousands of lives. The exhibits are meant to give a real sense of the tragedy and they do. The reaction that many people who visited the museum was quite strong – I saw a few young ladies cry as they saw videos of the devastation that was wrought that fall morning. Others just stood there, in a daze, not believing what they were seeing. To me, it was as shocking a spectacle as it was normal – in a sense that the amount of imagery that I have consciously and unconsciously been exposed to has perhaps dulled my senses. I did not cry, but I did feel a strong sense of empathy with all those who died and a sense of respect for those who responded to the call for help– especially the first responders, including the ones from Ladder 3 Company, all of whom perished that day. “They died, saving the lives of thousands. You must remember that there were over 15,000 people in both towers that the fire fighters tried to save. We lost very few, compared to how many were there in the buildings,” pointed out the old lady who was volunteering as the point of contact at the burnt display of one of the fire trucks.

 

The ‘essentialising’ of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

While there is large consensus that Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks and extremists who used the rhetoric of Islamic jihad were behind the planning, there is definitely a problem in the way that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is portrayed in the Museum. Some commentators have taken issue with how the rise of Al-Qaeda is portrayed and the word ‘Islamic’ terrorism is a misnomer and that it is terrorism carried out by those who were claiming to follow Islam. Nothing Islamic about their actions. While this may be a linguistic nuance, and one that I would agree with, vast majority of academics and intelligentsia seem complacent and happy with ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the word has gotten a lot of play. It seems almost banal to bring it up. Except that it is not banal and harmless.

Consider this: For all the effort at portraying and including all evidence and narratives, the Museum brochure does include a few languages – to ensure that people from around the world understand what they are seeing. I did see Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and German – but noticeably there was no Arabic script. Are the Museum staff telling something through this omission? I find it hard to believe that they left out Arabic – one of the world’s most widely spoken languages from the brochure, in a city that has a large Arab population and also hosts millions of Arab speakers on an annual basis. And I don’t think it is an unconscious omission. There is more to it than just a slip on someone’s part. I find that disturbing. The museum also fails on this account, of leaving out close to a billion people. And is there a valid reason for this?

 

 

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Interview with Arjen De Wit, PhD Candidate from VU University, Amsterdam

Interview with a young scholar, Arjen De Wit, who is participating in the 2014 Social Impact Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, which, incidentally, I am a part of too! I decided to interview Arjen about his research on philanthropy in the Netherlands, USA and any insights he has about the role of philanthropy in both countries in addressing deeper societal issues.

Q: Tell us a bit about your background in terms of philanthropic studies?

There’s two things that have always been attracting me: doing research and improving the world we’re living in. I started a Research Master in Social Sciences after my bachelor Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and a gap year in which I traveled and did some work in journalism. The international and interdisciplinary Master’s program offered me a lot of methodology courses and international contacts.

 

Photo credit: Arjen de Wit

Photo credit: Arjen de Wit

 

Q: What is your current research and how did you come to be interested in it?

Arjen : My initial interest was in political trust, but I wanted to focus on a question that is closer to my personal connection with the world surrounding us. After reading the work of two political scientists from Canada on the development aid provided by different welfare states I realized that there might be a trade-off between redistribution strategies of governments and its citizens.

 

Q. What do you make of the ‘state of philanthropy’ in America?

Arjen: American governments are incredibly stingy concerning international development but, as conservative thinkers continue to emphasize, the levels of their private giving is very high. Why is that? Just culture? Or is there really an effect of government policies on individual behavior?

 

Q: How did you arrive at your current research topic and what are your key influences, as a scholar?

I switched topics and did a research internship at the Center for Philanthropic Studies at VU University Amsterdam, one of the two centers in the Netherlands on philanthropy, the other being the Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy in Rotterdam. At VU University I met René Bekkers, an amazing professor in the field of philanthropy research, who heads the Research department of Philanthropic Studies at VU University. The center is well known for its Giving in Netherlands Panel Study (GINPS). Fortunately the center was able to hire me as a data manager and later as a PhD candidate, so I had the opportunity to further pursue my research interest. My PhD project concerns the crowding-out hypothesis that claims that people increase their contributions to a goal in society when their government cuts budgets on this goal. Findings in this area are highly contradictory and most evidence is found in laboratory experiments where participants make decisions in an artificial environment. In my belief this is not how people in the real world behave.

 

Q: Tell us a bit more about your work in The Netherlands.

Arjen: Most research on nonprofits and philanthropy is from the United States, and it is the question whether all of the claims that are made in the literature are equally applicable in the United States and in other countries. People in Europe have higher expectations of the government and a lot of services that are private in the US are public in Europe. The Netherlands has a rich history of philanthropy, with for example museums and housing for the poor that are privately founded centuries ago, but ‘Father State’ adopted a lot of these services during the growth of the welfare state after World War II. Our center runs the high-quality Giving in the Netherlands Panel Survey (GINPS) so we are able to come up with evidence-based arguments about philanthropy from a context other than America, which is a huge contribution to the field. We are more than happy to share our data with other students and researchers, by the way.

 

Q: What is your research agenda, direction of your future work?

Arjen: Besides my PhD I’m working on a variety of related topics including gender differences in giving, social innovation, consequences of volunteering, giving motives and immigrant participation. After finishing my PhD I hope to continue to work on these and other topics with scholars all over the world, in order to do good research and to make the world a better place.

 

 

 

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The Art of the Steal and lessons in philanthropy

I watched The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the Barnes Foundation, possibly the greatest private collection of modern art in the world, last night. It was my fourth time watching it and each time I see it, with a different set of friends, I am reminded of a few lessons in philanthropy. But the central tension seems to be  the public vs. private nature of philanthropy’s impact. While the key tension in The Art of Steal is about the execution of Dr. Barnes’ will – that comprised art work worth over $25-$60 billion, and how the city of Philadelphia, with others managed to ‘steal’ it to put it up in a ‘public’ space where everyone could enjoy it, the question of who does art belong to, what is the nature of philanthropy and who is to benefit from it, comes to the fore. The public nature of philanthropy is evident in this strange and perhaps, sad story. In Julian Bond’s words, this is “the scandal in the art world, of the twentieth century.”art-of-the-steal_970x390

While most scholars and practitioners agree that philanthropy, by its being ‘public’ in orientation – in impacting issues in the public domain – can be problematic. Peter Frumkin, Professor of Nonprofit management at University of Pennsylvania argues that this is precisely why it can be effective. “Indeed, one of the central claims of this book is that the special interaction of private values and public interests in philanthropy is what gives giving its distinctive identity and the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the public sphere,” he says in his book Strategic Giving. Earlier on in the book, Frumkin outlines four positions that philanthropy can take vis-à-vis the government:

  1. Supplementary role – Where if there is overlapping work between the government and private sector, this model would suggest adding funds where the government is falling short
  2. Complementary model – This model envisages division of labor between the parties – government and private sector.
  3. Adversarial model – One in which the private donor/foundation actively takes a position in contrast to that of the government. Think of George Soros in former Soviet Union countries. This position put them in a lot of trouble and effectively got kicked out of Russia, recently.
  4. Autonomous position – Thus taking a position where giving is shielded from government initiatives.

While The Art of Steal does bring up the issues of private wishes of an individual, one question that kept going in my mind was: But isn’t Art supposed to be enjoyed by all and even if it exists in the possession of an individual or an educational institution, should it not be widely available? The counter to that would be that the execution of his will, which stipulated that his art work not be sold, auctioned, rented or otherwise moved, in any way. This may seem a tall order, especially if there are no heirs to this vast wealth and all the trustees of the board can be manipulated or art-twisted. The integrity of one man’s ideas can only last till he is alive or perhaps if he/she has a strong heir who will execute them, after one dies. In the absence of this, there will be manipulation by people, whose interests matter more than the will itself.

photo credit : en.wikipedia.org

photo credit : en.wikipedia.org

This brings us back to the central debates about the private intent of Dr. Barnes, who wished to present his art to the ‘common man’ and not the elite of Philadelphia, versus the contrary claim made by the city of Philadelphia, that argued that since the Art was meant for public consumption and it wasn’t sufficiently being cared for, the city had to step in to take possession of the entire art collection. While the film is definitely made from the perspective of Dr.Barnes and his will, the larger question of the nature of philanthropy and its intended purpose remains (in my understanding) in the grey zone. While the actions of all the officials shown – including those of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Mayor of Philadelphia and others seem manipulative, they seem to be genuinely doing what they think is best for the art world. The only problem is that all of this goes against the will of the individual, who owned it. Given how key the notion of private property is to Americans, this is the sin that they commit – trespassing on another man’s will and taking the high moral ground. In this, they also violate the principle of donor intent.

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