Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

469. Return

In blogs and blogging, Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, singing, Stories, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases on April 22, 2020 at 6:43 pm

This is the eighteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Here in the United States there is a general impression that, given the choice, just about everyone in the world would want to immigrate to this country. But in fact, this is far from the truth. The experience of emigrating from the place of one’s birth is a wrenching one, and migration is never taken lightly, whether or not it is driven by choice. Even when a migrant has settled into their new home, they continue to have home- thoughts (from Robert Browning’s poem), and even a parallel phantom-life, comparable to phantom limbs felt by amputees. What Americans may not realize is how many immigrants eventually return to the countries of their birth by choice, sometimes even resulting in a net loss, with more leaving the U.S. than coming to it.

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins (Jim Sullivan)

Let’s take Mexican immigrants, for example. It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that Donald Trump and his administration have given the impression that hordes of Mexican immigrants are overrunning the United States, threatening our livelihoods and our daughters. However, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, between 2009 and 2014 there was a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans, as fewer came to the U.S. than returned to Mexico. In its discussion of return migration, the 2015 Handbook of the Economics of International Migration reported that “until recent decades, most Mexican migrants did not settle in the US. Instead, they spent an average of six months to a year in the US per trip and made four to five such trips over a lifetime.” Ironically, they found that the harsher border enforcement in recent years has had “a significant negative effect on migrant outflows” because it “deters return migration, leading to permanent settlement among illegal immigrants from Mexico.” What I take from these studies is that, left to themselves, immigrants would come and go freely, based on need. They need to support their families but their greater desire is to be with their families. So U.S. anxiety about a Mexican “invasion,” is actually having the opposite of the desired effect, because it is no longer possible to move back and forth seasonally, as needed.

Recently I watched an interview with one of my favorite singers, Linda Ronstadt, who is Mexican American and grew up in Arizona, close to the Mexican border. She remembers a childhood of easy, fluid back-and-forthing across the border for shopping, socialization, visits with family and friends. I don’t see why it couldn’t continue to be like this if we in the U.S. would let go of our siege mentality. By the way, here she is talking about the lack of interest in Spanish recordings on the part of the U.S record industry, until she became a superstar and could prevail on them to release her Canciones de Mi Padre. Here she is singing Mexican songs with her father Gilbert Ronstadt and Mexican singing star Lola Beltran and here, a song of my Indian childhood, Perfidia, in Spanish.

Returning to return migration, a 2018 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two scholars at the University of Washington, Jonathan Azose and Adrian Raftery, used a new statistical method to estimate the global flows of migrants found that yielded higher immigration numbers, that also showed, over time, a much higher percentage of migrants than previously thought returned to their countries of origin.

Estimated global migration flows by region from 2010 to 2015. Numbers indicate millions of people (Azose and Raftery, PNAS, 2018)

Azose and Raftery . . . broke down migration rates by emigration, return migration and transit migration, in which migrants move between two countries that are not their countries of birth. In general, from 1990 to 2015, more than 60 percent of migration was emigration. Transit migration never topped 9 percent. Return migration accounted for 26 to 31 percent of migrants, more than twice the rate of other migration estimates. That high rate of return migration added up over time. From 1990 to 2015, approximately 45 percent of migrants ultimately returned to their home countries. (Urton, UWashington News)

Focusing their results on migration between the United States and Mexico from 2010-2015, they found that during that period 2-1 million people migrated from Mexico to the United States, but 1.3 million returned from the U.S. to Mexico.

Americans may similarly assume that the flow of immigrants to the U.S. has historically been a one-way movement. However, Immigrants Who Returned Home: You Can Go Home Again, a short but informative essay by genealogist Donna Przecha shows that the real story has always been more complex, with immigrants moving back and forth, and a substantial number return permanently. She lists eight major reasons for return, whether temporary or permanent, and significantly, notes that women tended to have less reason to return than men did, since they found they enjoyed a greater degree of freedom in the United States. I can attest to the fact that many immigrants or children of immigrants I know maintain dual citizenship if they can, and flow back and forth as often as they can afford to do so.

During the recent era of rapid transnational networks and globalization, it seemed more likely that this two-way flow would only accelerate with time. However, from the current vantage point of the coronavirus lockdown, our families and ancestral homes across the oceans seem very far away indeed, and we wonder when we will be able to make the pilgrimage again.

There is another kind of return that I must mention, though I hesitate to do so, and that is the forced return or deportation of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, something that ICE, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, is prosecuting aggressively, both at the border and in cities and towns across the country. In 2019 alone, according to their own statistics, ICE deported (“removed”) more than 267,000 people. The coronavirus lockdown has not slowed their activities; deportation flights are continuing from detention facilities, risking the spread of coronavirus to countries like Haiti and Guatemala that are ill-equipped to handle an outbreak.

Here are some prominent artists, writers, and activists who have been deported from the United States over the years: Charlie Chaplin, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Emma Goldman, Claudia Jones, and Mohamad Mustafa Ali Masfaka; and two well-known figures who fought deportation and won: Dennis Brutus and John Lennon.

To close with some highly recommended reading, here are two novels that address the issue of return or being returned: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, and The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai.

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466. Originals and Adaptations

In 1990s, 2000s, blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Media, postcolonial, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 18, 2020 at 7:16 pm

This is the fifteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Originals and Adaptations.

There was a while in the 1990s and early 2000s when it seemed that every other book was a contemporary rewriting of another book and every film either an adaptation of a book or a remake of an earlier film. Whether or not this was a new phenomenon, it was something everyone seemed to be talking about and, increasingly, a cause for concern. It was as if we were afraid that we’d run out of things to say, and that all we could do was to recycle old stories in new guises.

There was Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours, each of whose three interwoven subplots engaged differently with Virginia Woolf’s brilliant 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. One imaginatively follows the struggle of the author herself, another explores the inner emptiness of a 1949 version of Clarissa Dalloway, and a third focuses on a New York woman’s party preparations in the 1990s for a friend dying of AIDS. The Hours was wildly successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and later being made into a 2002 Oscar -winning film, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. (Incidentally, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite novels of all time and happens to be a favorite of readers in coronavirus quarantine.)

Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001), billed as an “unauthorized parody” of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 blockbuster novel, Gone with the Wind, challenged the powerful myth of a pre-civil-war good life among Southern white people, and got into legal trouble with Mitchell’s estate. Unfortunately, although the novel importantly addressed matters that were regularly swept under the rug (in this case the mixed-race children born of white slaveholders’ unwelcome dalliances with black women), the rewrite was unable to challenge the seductive nostalgia of the self-justifying original.

Aladdin was criticised for its Orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East and Asia (Credit: Alamy)

Disney’s blockbuster, Aladdin (1992), was a heavily Disneyfied cartoon adaptation of that oft-retold Arabian Nights tale. I must confess that I refused to watch it on principle, much as I adore Robin Williams, who did the voiceover for the genie, because of the Orientalist stereotyping in the movie’s representations and song lyrics. Sophia Smith Galer, on Dr. Jack Shaheen’s successful campaign to change some of them, noted “The original lyric in the first verse of the song “Arabian Nights” described Arabia as [a place where] ‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.’” This was changed; however, many of the crude stereotypes remained.

A well-known 1990s example of a contemporary movie based on a classic novel is Clueless, the 1995 remake of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, Emma, set in the wealthy city of Beverly Hills, bordering Los Angeles and Hollywood  instead of among the landed gentry in the countryside around London, and spoiled, self-involved valley girl Cher (Alicia Silverstone) playing the Emma character. It’s not clear whether the audience of the movie were spurred to read the novel, or even how many of them made the link between the two. However, viewers of Clueless do make the link to Autumn DeWilde’s Emma (2020), yet another more direct movie adaptation of Austen’s beloved novel (which—another confession–my mother presented to me when I was about ten, but I didn’t actually read until I was well into adulthood).

Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was just one of numerous film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel going all the way back to James Whale’s 1931 sci fi horror film. Branagh’s adaptation, also a horror film, made much of its faithfulness to Shelley’s plot, just as he signaled in the title itself. And this is the point I want to make here regarding the relationship of an adaptation to the original. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein protested too much, anxious to bill itself as closer to the original than many of its predecessors, and indeed it was, at least, as far as the plot went. But the overall effect was merely gruesome. Consequently, I don’t remember much of the film except for the blood and gothic horror of some of the scenes featuring Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth.

In different ways, both the theorists Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard, point to a post-modern nostalgia in late twentieth-century works that signal the “loss of the real,” that is, the lost ability to distinguish between the real and the reality-effect, or simulation. Hence Branagh’s anxiety to point to his film as authentic because of its faithfulness to the original. I don’t know if either Jameson or Baudrillard would have said this, but I wonder if our need to link fictional works to the authors’ actual lives, as in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, or the effort to make an adaptation “relevant” by setting it in the present moment, also bespeak this anxious need for “authenticity”?

Postmodern works are particularly known for the self-reflexive “metacommentary”, that is, their tendency to dramatize and draw attention to what they are trying to do, instead of just doing it. The 2002  Adaptation was the epitome of this genre, a “meta-film” that drew attention to the anxiety of adaptation, with one brother writing an adaptation of a novel while the other brother is working on an original screenplay.

Back in the 1990s I was decidedly old-school. Having been raised amidst books and hardly having seen any film or television until I came to the U.S. as a teenager, I was a snob about literature, the literary, and the value of originals over adaptations. I never ceased to be horrified whenever my students hailed Disney’s Jungle Book as a classic, whereas I winced every time I heard Baloo the bear mispronounced. Had they never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and All the Mowgli Stories? I would ask in scandalized tones, remembering my father lovingly reading them to us at bedtime. But they hadn’t, and their warm fuzzy feelings were routinely reserved for films that made me shudder.

However, the times have changed and so have I. Now I believe that a well-made film adaptation of a novel can actually improve on the original (case in point,  director Mira Nair’s film of The Namesake over Jhumpa Lahiri’s original novel of the same name). I also argue against the very idea of an original. For example, can we ever reach back to an original of the much-travelled, much-translated Arabian Nights, which has always been a compilation of disparate tales, loosely connected by a frame story? Even my beloved Jungle Book—how authentic could it be, springing out of the nostalgic imagination of an Englishman full of contradictions, desperate to recover the beloved India of his childhood but known for his jingoistic nationalism and justification of British colonial rule? Nowadays I suspend my judgement a little and just set out to enjoy the novel or film. Whether it is faithful to a supposedly authentic original is no longer so much of an issue for me; I’m more interested in how and why it speaks to me now, in this moment.

Of course, as an immigrant and a postcolonial critic I’m attentive to whose story a given work tells and from what perspective, and how the different characters are represented. Postcolonial literature is known for challenging dominant elite and colonialist representations and for privileging the voices and stories of the marginalized.

If Baudrillard and other critics were warning us of the Loss of the Real in the late twentieth century, the manufacture and marketing of fake news on social media today has taken it to the nth degree. The press briefing is the reality show, with avid fans following the conversation on Twitter after the show. In this post-truth era, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the powerful are telling the truth, as long as what they say confirms the pre-existing beliefs of their target audience (confirmation bias).

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is so terrible that it is certainly understandable why one might want to deny or soften it, but unfortunately things will get a lot worse if it is not faced-head-on. Nowadays references to originals and adaptations are returning to earlier outbreaks and pandemics, such as the yellow fever outbreaks in Louisiana that kept recurring in the mid-19th Century; or the global flu pandemic in 1918, that followed hard upon the (First) World War and killed at least 50 million people worldwide; or, much closer to the present, how some countries have responded more effectively than others. Returning to these old stories is valuable if it teaches us how to avoid the mistakes of the past. Whether or not COVID-19 is like other coronaviruses or entirely different from them is for the scientists to determine. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s an original or an adaptation; what matters is how we respond to the crisis, how we learn from the experience, and how we protect the most vulnerable among us.

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

This is the twelfth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.


Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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453. Bangladesh

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, postcolonial, Stories, United States on April 2, 2020 at 11:48 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


We had been in the United States for little more than a year when the news from the subcontinent started to get dire. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League had won the regional elections in East Pakistan (as it was called in 1947 after the British Partition of India), previously Eastern Bengal (after the British Partition of Bengal in 1905), previously still part of an undivided Bengal, but the Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan had refused to recognize the results of the election. Instead, he launched Operation Searchlight, a brutal military campaign of mass killings and rape designed to crush the resistance and resolve of the people of East Pakistan, a campaign that many, including the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared to be a genocide. The Awami League’s popular movement for recognition and then for autonomy had turned into a full-fledged war of independence as West Pakistan refused to acquiesce to any of its demands, and on March 26th, 1971, it declared its independence from Pakistan and a nine-month war of liberation ensued.

Bengalis fleeing for a safe refuge. PHOTO: (Mark Godfret/Muktijuddho e-Archive)

By the summer of 1971, millions of Bangladeshis had fled from the East into neighboring India,, which had been forced to set up dozens of makeshift refugee camps. Rape was deliberately used as major weapon of the war, and West Pakistani troops were under orders to rape Bangladeshi women. It is was estimated that more than 200,000 women were held in rape camps by the West Pakistani army. On December 3rd India stepped into the conflict and fought a short and decisive war, forcing the West Pakistani Army to surrender in Dhaka on December 16th, 1971, which today is celebrated in Bangladesh as Bijoy Dibas, or Victory Day.

But why does the bloody formation of Bangladesh loom large in the year after my immigration to the United States? For three main reasons: as preoccupied as I was with my own teenage concerns: my boyfriend, graduation from high school and the imminent start of university, a growing feminist consciousness sparked by the women’s liberation movement, and the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I was also aware that a war was raging in my part of the world, among people who spoke the same language as our Indian state of West Bengal, but that no one in the United States seemed to know or care. As the situation grew to crisis proportions, an even more disturbing truth emerged: the United States was supporting West Pakistan, building up its military and entirely complicit in the genocidal war. Why? For strategic Cold War purposes, to strengthen Pakistan’s hand and, through Pakistan, to build a diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China. And then there was the Concert for Bangladesh.

Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned sitar player under whom George Harrison had studied and who had famously performed at both the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California and the 1969 Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, approached George Harrison for his help in raising awareness of and funds for the refugee crisis in Bengal, where there were some 10 million refugees from the terror of Operation Searchlight. George, who had not played in public since the Beatles had broken up, galvanized into action, called in favors from friends, and in a matter of weeks, put on the first-ever big fundraising rock concert on August 1st, 1971, with a star-studded line-up including Ravi Shankar and sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George Harrison himself and Ringo Starr, formerly of the Beatles, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. A three-album boxed set was released just on December 20th, 1971, and I’m pretty sure it was my big Christmas present that year. I have it to this day, its outer box battered and well-used, but the vinyl discs inside still scratch-free.

To tell you the truth, the only three tracks I listen to again and again on that album are Ravi Shankar’s heartbreakingly beautiful Bangla Dhun, George Harrison’s call for empathy with Bangladesh (and though I could not feel the pain I knew I had to try), and his moving rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Concert for Bangladesh made Ravi Shankar the only artist to have performed at every one of the big three rock festivals. The clueless crowd cheered rapturously after the Indian musicians had finished their tuning, to which Ravi Shankar famously quipped, barely hiding his annoyance, “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the music more.” When I listen to old interviews and recordings now, I can never help cringing at what seems to me to be a willful mispronunciation of Ravi Shankar’s name, global superstar as he was, when there was no excuse not to know better. None of the musician save George, few among the crowds who bought the records or cheered wildly through the tuning at the concert, knew or cared about Bangladesh; it was only George and his rock-star friends they wanted. But as Ravi Shankar noted, at least by the end of the concert they recognized the name.

As I was starting to write this piece, I remembered that I still had the October 31st, 1971 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with its cover story about Bangladesh and what became an iconic cover that I had kept all these years, but had somehow never read. Amazingly, I was able to lay my hands on it in pretty short order, and there was the cover photograph, of a young Bangladeshi woman in a refugee camp nursing her baby, that was and remains so painful to look at that it felt, still feels like a violation; in fact, a second violation when the viewer knew from the evening news that this young woman was a rape survivor, her baby born of repeated acts of war upon her body. Here she was blown up, mass-produced, and exposed to the American gaze, as she had been to the perpetrators of Operation Searchlight before it. And this was the country that had systematically built up the Pakistani military for its own strategic purposes ever since Independence in 1947, precipitating between the two neighbors so recently one country, a devastating arms race which still shows no signs of abating.

I read the cover story, by none other than the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, close friend of John F. Kennedy, and his Ambassador to India (see what he writes about the U.S. role in the military build-up between India and Pakistan). It is necessary here to recall the role of then-President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Bangladesh war, discussed in The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget. Nixon had supported Pakistan throughout Operation Searchlight, in the midst of a world outcry and against all advice, even from his own appointees. After Nixon left office ignominiously in the wake of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, the notorious White House tapes that had revealed his guilt also revealed  a conversation between him and Kissinger at the time of the Concert for Bangladesh. In Unholy Alliances: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Bangladesh Genocide, journalist Pankaj Mishra describes Nixon shrugging off the mounting criticism of Pakistan’s military operation and the humanitarian concerns for the Bangladeshi refugees that were being inspired by the concert and by Ted Kennedy’s visit to the refugee camps in India as follows: “Biafra [the civil war in Nigeria] stirred up a few Catholics, … But you know, I think Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan, because Pakistan, they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Muslims.”

In contrast to the crude racism of Nixon and Kissinger, the piece of writing that has moved me the most about the Bangladesh war was a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri that captures poignantly the feelings shared by South Asians in the U.S. at that time. Funnily enough, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” my favorite story in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 collection, Interpreter of Maladies, is set at Halloween in 1971, the exact publication date of the New York Times Magazine I have kept all these years. It is narrated by a girl much younger than I was at the time, but old enough to sense that her Indian Bengali immigrant parents bond closely with their Bangladeshi dinner guest, Mr. Pirzada, who is a visiting professor stranded in Boston while his wife and family are in the midst of the violence unspooling in his country. Timidly joking, he says to his Indian hosts, “Another refugee, I’m afraid, on Indian territory.” Every night the narrator’s parents and Mr. Pirzada are glued to the television, anxiously waiting for news of home, a place which nobody in their neighborhood or in her school knows or cares of. While carefree Americans roam the neighborhood in the dark wearing menacing masks, Mr. Pirzada’s helpless fear for his family back home comes out in his concern for the little girl’s safety among the trick-or-treaters, and she in turn feels protective of him. Everything in that gem of a story is understated, but as a 16-year-old I shared the same tender feelings for Bangladesh, the other half of the Bengal I had grown up in, and followed it whenever it was on the news, keenly aware that most Americans didn’t know or care to know its name.

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451. Life Depends on It

In Books, health, Inter/Transnational, reading, reflections, Work on March 22, 2020 at 3:37 pm

Still from David Gladwell’s film adaptation of The Memoirs of a Survivor

A friend just wrote to me that she feels as if she is living in Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor; so do I. So do I.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly we can make drastic changes in the way we live if our lives depend on it and if the authorities tell us that it is essential to do so. One day we hear the term social distancing for the first time and the next day we are practicing it (and rightly so). One day we are getting up and going to work and the next, we are working from home indefinitely (with or without pay). One day we are in the thick of a critically important election campaign and the next, primaries are being postponed with little to no opposition, despite fears of the general election going the same way. No such drastic action followed when more than 50,000 children died of starvation in Yemen in one year alone; or when we received dire warnings of impending climate catastrophe from the scientific community; or on the numerous occasions when the current U.S. President has overstepped the limits of his constitutionally defined powers for what seemed like one time too many.

Passengers in a train in Chennai on March 19, 2020 (PTI)

We are living in conditions we never dreamt of just a few short weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, I’m sure that even as each of us goes through the motions mandated by our leaders, a part of us is watching and seeking to understand what it all means. What kind of a world is going to emerge at the other side of this crisis, and what can we do to help shape what that world will look like? We feel the need to act, not only for ourselves but for the future.

COVID-19 scenarios and benefits (Washington State)

We know that the wealthy and powerful are working hard to ensure that they come out of this on top, that even as patients gasp for breath, healthcare workers run out of masks, and hospitals out of ventilators, they are in the process of restructuring the system to consolidate their power still further. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, has called it a pandemic shock doctrine; in a March 16th video, Coronavirus Capitalism—and How to Beat It, she warns of this opportunism but suggests that the unfolding  global disaster also offers the opportunity for transformative change from below—if we demand it with the same urgency that we are now putting into hoarding toilet paper.

Yesterday I read an article about the millions of workers in India’s informal sector who are suddenly out of work; there are no provisions or protections for them. It’s the same with gig workers around the world, or part-timers without benefits. Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, pointed out on March 15th that because the United States doesn’t have a public health system worth the name, millions of Americans will be left without adequate care and coverage. In the face of this crisis, authoritarian rulers around the world are acting to protect themselves and their own but, aside from empty posturing, have little of substance to offer their people except for draconian measures that may well become permanent, unless we act and keep on acting to create a different future.

In the meantime, we do what humans do: we hunker down, obey orders from above, share frenetically on social media, and do our best to ensure that we and our loved ones survive. But we are also working hard—albeit  in place—to gain an understanding of this developing situation, reaching beyond and deep within ourselves to help create a just and sustainable future for us all. Life that’s worth living depends on it.

P.S. If you read The Memoirs of a Survivor, do let me know what you think. Love, J

Shelves at a Tesco supermarket after panic buying (Picture: Michelle Davies)

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450. A Virtual RUSH

In Books, culture, Music, singing, Stories on March 14, 2020 at 11:10 pm

Nearly every month for nigh on ten years I have been heading up to the Pelham Free Public Library of a Saturday night for RUSH, Rise Up Singing in Harmony, founded by Roger Conant, who passed away less than nine months ago. RUSH is based on the group singing songbooks compiled by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson which have given rise to hundreds of groups like ours all over the world. You show up, with or without musical training, with or without a musical instrument, with or without the Rise Up Singing (1988) and Rise Again (2015) songbooks (there will be extra copies on hand if you don’t own one), and go round the circle singing your hearts out for as long as the group agrees to stick around.

We all count on RUSH for camaraderie and courage through good times and bad. Roger passed the baton to Dan and Nancy, and they have faithfully carried it forward, until just yesterday, when the coronavirus shut just about everything down, including the library. We received two messages from Dan and Nancy, the first one saying stoutly that we would meet as usual and just sit a little farther apart; and the second, just a few hours later, sighing, “The guitarist is willing but the library is closed.” And with it, RUSH. I suppose it’s just as well, since it must be said that most of us are in getting up there in age, and therefore in the population most vulnerable to the virus.

Today, as the afternoon wore on, I found myself singing on my own and lamenting the sad, RUSH-less state of affairs,
until I decided to take matters into my own hands by selecting a handful of songs from each songbook—a baker’s dozen in all—and sharing them below with hyperlinks. Many of the Youtube listeners have posted the lyrics, so perhaps some of you will click on a few and sing along in the spirit of RUSH, even if you don’t have the books.

From the Old Blue Book (Rise Up Singing):

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore (p. 6)
This is the original, by John Prine, from his first album.
Pack Up Your Sorrows (p. 67)
Richard and Mimi Fariña with Pete Seeger on his television show Rainbow Quest. (Check out Mimi’s beautiful descant.)
Banks of the Ohio (p. 99)
Doc Watson sings with Bill Monroe. (Oh, the harmonizing!)
Catch the Wind (p. 122)
Donovan (at 19).  And here’s Sara Lee Guthrie’s cover.
Shake Sugaree (p. 185)
Elizabeth Cotten on the guitar, with her granddaughter singing.
John O’ Dreams (p. 133)
Christy Moore sings Bill Caddick’s beautiful lullaby.

And from the New Brown Book (Rise Again):

Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie (p. 9)
I love Sweet Honey In the Rock’s rendition, and their harmonies.
Dump the Bosses off Your Back (p. 284)
from the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook (“to fan the flames of discontent”)
Dear Abby (p. 90)
John Prine again (I can’t help it), a bracing tonic for these hard times: get over yourself!
Many Rivers to Cross (p. 136)
Ah, Jimmy Cliff, from The Harder They Come.
Don’t Worry Be Happy (p. 104)
Bobby McFerrin, with some advice we could all use.
On the Sunny Side of the Street (p. 145)
Billie Holiday’s version has always been the only one for me.
Iko Iko (p. 105)
A New Orleans favorite, sung here by The Dixie Cups (1965). (And here’s another, grittier, version, by the late Dr. John.)

Until we meet again, take care of yourselves and let’s take care of each other.

P.S. Here are a couple more RUSH-related stories from the TMA archives:

No Rush (May, 2015)
“I never died,” says he (August, 2019)

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449. The Farthest Field

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, Music, Nature, parenting, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on February 15, 2020 at 11:47 am

painting by Jim Turner

As I advance farther and farther into the territory of old age, I notice that time is doing funny things. It’s a truism that time speeds up as one gets older, and so far I must report that it appears to be true. (It’s mid-February already; weren’t we just marking New Year’s Eve? My friend’s granddaughter is ten already? Surely not; didn’t we only just celebrate her third birthday?) The events that follow inexorably upon each other—daily, weekly, semester after semester, annually—seem to be scrolling by until they are almost a blur. I used to be pretty good at anticipating, preparing for, and keeping track of them; now I can barely nod to them as they gallop by, while—unless I exert a tremendous effort of will—I am increasingly a bystander rather than a participant.

It’s not just the pace of life that I notice, but also the problem of desire. Increasingly, if I miss a meeting or a deadline, I find that I don’t much care. As Arundhati Roy wrote (in a very different context) of her main character Rahel (at the “viable-dieable” age of 31) in The God of Small Things: “Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered.” Am I letting myself go, as my mother would have put it? Succumbing to inertia, as my father warned me when he was the age I am now? (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself.) Is this a phenomenon I am simply to stand back and observe, or do I force myself to jump back into the fray?

The thing is, I do care, deeply, and have never stopped caring, about the people whom I love and the struggles and injustices in this world. I want to keep acting in it until I can do so no longer. But, as John Prine wrote in the voice of an old man in Hello in There, “all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream”(see TMA 333).  As I watch history repeating itself I’m still trying to sound a warning note, but increasingly allowing myself to let younger people take the lead.

I realize that the mere fact of getting older doesn’t let me off the hook. I have responsibility for those around me. Roy’s “the less it mattered, the less it mattered” is a real thing, and at the core a symptom of depression, as indeed it was in Rahel’s case. Surfacing from those depths requires more than an  act of will. But there’s another responsibility I have now that I am officially an Elder, and that is to step back and take a long view of the frenetically unspooling action of the world. As long as I am alive I can’t stop acting, and I certainly can’t stop the world, but it is high time that I gave as much time and attention to reflecting upon action, most especially my own.

If I can’t stop the world, I can endeavor to slow it down, at least long enough to hold it for a moment in my mind’s eye. Looking back at the events of the past month, decade, fifty years—for February 6th marked the 50th anniversary of my first arrival in this country—not with nostalgia, but with as much honesty and insight as I can muster—I must try to learn something from it all while I still can. Last month I found a bag full of diaries, including my schoolgirl diaries from 1966 and 1968, and hardly dared read through them in my jaded hindsight, to look with compassion on the mostly-clueless young me, emoting and reacting and taking so much for granted. I made myself do it, though, and among the typically adolescent banalities, found threads that carry forward to the person I still recognize today, in all her flaws and fierceness. I see now why people of a certain age write their memoirs, not so much for others—although no doubt they hope to be able to pass on something that they have learned—but for themselves, as they try to make sense of all that has unfolded in their time and their place within it.

Two more observations before I put the laptop away, dress, and plunge into this busy Saturday.

I want to note the distinction between the words farther and further. In the United States, according to Merriam-Webster, “farther” tends to refer to physical distance while “further” more often refers to metaphorical distance. “Further” also means “moreover” or “additional”, depending on whether it is used as an adverb or a verb. But Merriam-Webster further observes that the two words have been used interchangeably for a long time, and the distinction is by no means a clear-cut one. While The Cambridge Dictionary (U.K.) makes similar but more nuanced distinctions between farther and further, it ultimately maintains their interchangeability. In its book, “farther” is used to refer not just to distance (for which it says the more common word is “further”) but to distance away from the speaker. Since we experience the past and project the future in terms of their distance from ourselves, “farther” is the operative word here, for my purposes. But why does this matter here?

Roger, the beloved founder of RUSH, the singing group I participate in every month, recently passed away, to our abiding sadness. In the last couple of years he had introduced us to a number of songs that looked ahead to the as-yet-uncharted territory of death and dying, and retrospectively I see that he had been preparing himself and us all to face what was to come with courage, and even with gladness. One of those songs was The Farthest Field, which I now sing with gratitude for his farsightedness. Death is not metaphorical.

And a memory of my dear mother, who died nearly two years ago. As the Alzheimer’s advanced, that dreadful disease that progressively blocked her cognitive pathways and ultimately took away her voice, all time seemed to her to fold, like a closing concertina, into the present. Of course I can’t know exactly how she experienced it, but one Christmas season found her taking out all the old cards sent over the years by her distant family members and lovingly displaying her favorites all over the house. Our first reaction was one of annoyance: why was Mum taking out all these old cards, and mixing them up with the new ones that were starting to arrive? How would we be able to tell who had sent us cards this year? But upon reflection I thought differently: Mum had always treasured the Christmas cards sent to us by her family in England, no matter where in the world we were living. Now, as the significance of any time of year— indeed, of Time itself—was fading rapidly, what mattered to her what the joy which welled up in her as she handled each of these precious expressions of love. Increasingly, I too find myself sharing Mum’s feelings about these cards. It is February, and I have put away the cards with overtly Christmassy images on them, but have left some of the others up, simply because they are beautiful and continue to bring me joy.

Oh my dear friends/I truly love/to hear your voices
Lifted up in radiant song;
Though through the years/we all have made/ our separate choices
We’ve ended here where we belong.

There are further adventures ahead to which I look forward with anticipation and, of course, with some quickening of the heart. As the songs tell us, this path is each of ours alone but also, that we are all on the journey together, and I take heart from that fellowship. Until Time folds up like a concertina for me I will make the effort to stay engaged, but must increasingly take time out to pause and reflect on what it all means and how far I have come.

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448. Returning to Little Women

In Books, Childhood, history, reading, writing on January 1, 2020 at 5:01 pm

I’ve returned from watching the new film version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig (2019). I haven’t got my critical glasses on because I’ve wept buckets of tears. Was I crying for my lost childhood, the love the sisters had for each other despite the inevitable sibling tensions, the fulfillment of a writer in seeing her first book published, the beautiful scenes of Massachusetts, where I’ve lived nigh-on fifty years (including in Concord, home of author Louisa May Alcott and where the novel and film are set), the evocative letterpress printing and book-binding scenes, taking me back to the days of running our own press, and before that, working together at David R. Godine Publishing? All I know is that I thought I was sniffing surreptitiously until Danielle, who was sitting next to me, offered me a tissue to wipe my eyes. There was little left of it by the time the film was over, just a damp wad of something resembling papier-mâché. We all—three adults and two children—sat in the dark, emptying cinema until all the credits had stopped rolling, and then emerged, blinking and still sniffing a little (me), into the local mall on New Year’s Day, 2020.

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There is a lot to be said about the various film and television adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel. The only one I’d seen before this one was the 1994 Gillian Anderson film starring Winona Ryder as Jo. I remember reading a newspaper article back then that I used in a first-year composition class which noted that a new Little Women was made just about every decade, and each adaptation reflected the preoccupations of its day. That was the fashionable way to think about history at the time—that it serves the needs of the present—and I still think that it’s patently true. Still, there is more to the experience of reading the novel (or watching the film) than how it speaks to us at any particular moment, something—dare I say—universal. I had gone to the theater this morning expecting, somehow, to feel cynical about it, but the sodden tissue is all the evidence you need of what actually happened. I don’t remember weeping when I read Little Women as a child, but a whole lot more of life has unfolded since then.

From left, Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes in the 1994 movie. (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Mary, my old writing-group friend, invited us to the New Year’s morning screening, and her two children came too, her teenage son as well as her nearly-ten daughter. I gave her daughter, who is only a year older than I was when I was presented with my first copy of Little Women, an old but completely untouched Puffin edition, but brought along with me for show-and-tell my original hardcover copy, its spine fallen off, its frontispiece loose. Our family friend Pranab Chakrabarty had presented it to me in Athens, Greece, in June 1962, for my eighth birthday. (Pranab: we met and re-met on three continents, starting in Greece, then  back in India sometime later in the sixties, and then in the 1970s in the San Francisco Bay area, where I introduced him to Andrew—my future husband, though I didn’t know it then. Then we lost touch; my father mentioned that he had moved to a new continent, South America—Venezuela, I think. We never visited him there and somewhere along the way the Christmas cards and letters stopped coming.)

(photo: Sony Pictures)

Mary told me that her daughter still hadn’t read the novel in its entirety. Unlike most girls who favor Jo, Beth was her daughter’s favorite, so (spoiler alert!) Mary warned her of Beth’s fate ahead of time. But her daughter came back to her and reported that Beth hadn’t died, which is when they realized that the edition they own was only Part One. Then I told the story of my own reading experience as a girl, in which I somehow skipped right over Beth’s death; in one chapter she was burning up with fever, in the next, she was gone, with no explanation. I deduced that she must have died, but when I went back to find the missing scene, combing carefully through the pages, it was nowhere to be found; only, at the end of a chapter, this: Jo “thanked God that Beth was well at last.” I assumed it was a euphemism to cushion young readers from the shock. But now I’m not so sure.

Opening my old edition just now to photograph Pranab’s inscription, I turned to the title page and came upon something I had never noticed before: my childhood Little Women, the one I had thought of as the Urtext, was in fact abridged. Horror of horrors! All this time I have never actually read the original novel. So Mary’s nine-year-old daughter and I will both be reading, for the first time, how Beth’s death was actually written. In the latest film adaptation it was handled with delicacy and power. I won’t spoil it for you with any further details. But I do know that I’ll probably cry my eyes out all over again.

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434. Friends from Way Back

In Books, people, reflections, Stories, United States on May 26, 2019 at 9:59 am

In Chinua Achebe’s modern classic, Things Fall Apart, the hypermasculine, highly-strung protagonist Okonkwo has a best friend and agemate, Obierika, who is the only person who can speak home truths to him without making him fly into a rage. They are both well-placed, well-respected family men, but Okonkwo, bull-headed and defensive, is perpetually falling afoul of the community because of his uncontrollable temper, while Obierika is a much more deliberate, thoughtful man, with a wry sense of humor. Even though he is the stereotypical strong silent type, Okonkwo will regularly go over to Obierika’s place where they may share kola nut and palm wine and sit quietly for a while, until Okonkwo blurts out what’s on his mind, or his friend raises the subject more delicately and then gives Okonkwo a piece of his. In Igbo society back at the turn of the twentieth century, agemates had gone through the circumcision rituals together in adolescence; having shared that arduous coming-of-age experience, there was little they could hide from each other ever after.

As I get older, the people in my life who have known me since childhood and youth get fewer but all the more precious. Yesterday old friends visited who go all the way back with our family. The parents were good friends of my parents, who met them on the IIT campus in Kharagpur in 1955 when they were still newlyweds and I was just six months old and “still crawling”, as Mona remembered yesterday, visiting us with her daughter Ginny on her 92nd birthday. Mona’s son Jim, just a little older than me, was my playmate, and when our families miraculously crossed paths again in the U.S. after having lost touch with each other for fifteen years, we took up the friendship as if it had never been interrupted. By now each of them had had another child, and the two daughters were also agemates whose lives proceeded to take parallel tracks. Fast-forward 33 years, and Mona and Bajirao attended my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, bearing the ceremonial cake. Like my parents, they had a mixed marriage, Bajirao coming from the same part of the country and the same community as Dad, and Mona, like Mum, a foreign wife in early post-Independence India, though Mona was American and Mum English. Bajirao was the first to pass away, nearly nine years ago, and as my sister Sally and I drove back in the snow from his wake, Sally pointed out that our friends had shown us the way we, as fellow half-and-halves, might honor the passing of our parents in a foreign country. At Dad’s memorial both Jim and Ginny spoke eloquently, and Jim’s heartfelt words for our father brought tears to his family’s eyes as they no doubt remembered their own. Now, after our families’ lives have been intertwined for nearly 65 years, there is little that we can’t share with each other.

This is Old Home weekend for us. Today we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our dear friend Michael, Andrew’s best friend from eighth grade on, sharer with him of teenage exploits of all kinds, who now lives in New Mexico and is driving down to us from Maine where he has just scattered his parents’ ashes by the ocean. Michael and I go way back, too, back to 1970 and my very first day at Brookline High, a new immigrant entering an entirely foreign school system mid-year. I took the first joyride with Michael and his then-girlfriend Laura the day they got their drivers’ licenses, an important American rite of passage, and when I met Andrew it turned out that he and Michael were best friends and that they had built a treehouse together, a dream of a treehouse in which we three shared many happy hours and which helped us all survive high school (see TMA#4, The Tree House). Later in the decade, Andrew and I drove out to New Mexico in our 1950 International Harvester milk truck (which Andrew had bought at the same time and from the same man who sold Mike a 1964 Triumph TR-4 sports car) and lived with Michael in Albuquerque for nearly a year, sharing another defining period of our lives. His parents retired to Portland, Maine, so as they grew older, Michael made the pilgrimage Back East to visit them more and more frequently, and we got together almost every time. Once he brought his parents to visit us in Amherst, where his father had attended “Mass Aggie,” as UMass, then the state agricultural college,was called, and he pointed out some of his old haunts. We gathered to toast his parents’ on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated landmark birthdays with them, and attended Mike’s father Pete’s funeral. Pete, who managed the farm and greenhouse on the Brookline estate where Andrew’s family rented a house, was Andrew’s first employer, and later, for a few months after college when I worked at the same greenhouse, he was my employer too. The last long car ride Mike’s mother Velma took was down to Amherst with him to attend Andrew’s father’s memorial, and we went up to Maine to dear Velma’s funeral just before my own mother passed away. This weekend I look forward to the three of us sitting out back just hanging out, Andrew and Michael agemates from way back, both men of few words, and for once I think I will quiet my chatter and be content to just be.

Here’s Jimmie Rodgers singing My Old Pal. Thinking of all my old pals with love and gratitude.

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430. Walls

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Inter/Transnational, people, Politics, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2019 at 5:17 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. You can catch up on the posts you’ve missed here. Today the letter stands for Walls.

I suppose I can’t write a post on walls without addressing the wall that’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room—the current U.S. President’s border wall. At every one of his campaign rallies his supporters are whipped up into a frenzy, chanting  “Build the Wall, Build the Wall,” replaced periodically by “Lock them Up” or “CNN Sucks.” But it emerged recently that Donald Trump’s speechwriters  originally put forward the “wall” not as a policy proposal but as a metaphor–in fact, as a mnemonic to remind him to talk about border security in the course of his rambling speeches. Apparently the fans loved his fairytale so much that he got locked into it as a campaign promise that he had to deliver.

I am anxious to turn my attention from this particular wall, but thought you might like to see this little bedtime story, Donald Trump and the Big, Beautiful Wall, courtesy of Late Night with Seth Myers.

Now that we’ve dispensed with that, where was I? Oh yes, fictional walls.


There is a brilliant metaphor of a wall in Amitav Ghosh’s 1988 novel, The Shadow Lines. After the Partition of India and Pakistan by Britain, two brothers in Dhaka, East Pakistan (formerly partitioned by the British as East Bengal, later to split off from Pakistan as Bangladesh), have become estranged, and the hostility between them is so great that one brother partitions the house. The resulting wall runs straight through the lavatory, “bisecting an old commode,” obviously making it exceedingly difficult for any of the house’s residents on either side to perform their natural bodily functions

Then there is Wall, an actual character in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play in William Shakespeare’s 1595 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A story of star-crossed lovers performed by rude mechanicals, skilled

PTTP production of “A Mid Summer’s Night Dream” by Shakespeare.

laborers, on the occasion of a royal wedding, it indirectly provides the means of reconciliation for the three pairs of estranged lovers in the main plot. In Pyramus and Thisbe, the parted lovers, separated by a wall, manage to commune with each other through a chink in it, after which the wall exits the stage, to hilarious effect. In the end, the heartbroken lovers both kill themselves, and Wall is left to bury the dead. But to please the king by turning the tragedy into a comedy, Bottom the Weaver assures him that now “the wall is down that parted their fathers.”

Indulge me in one more wall story, this time a real one from my boarding school years in India: one night, in one of the built-in clothes closets in the girls’ dormitory, we discovered a small hole in the back wall. On the other side of the wall was a backstage room of the main chapel where students rehearsed school plays in the evenings. What a thrill! Some of our boyfriends happened to be rehearsing in there, and we were able to whisper to them clandestinely through the wall.

What is  the upshot of these three stories? Walls are ridiculous and unnatural; they only serve to divide us; and though they may have parted our fathers, we must find a way to get through them, or to take them down. Otherwise, tragedy will surely ensue.

Marathon, Bethlehem, April 21, 2013. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

And now, from fictional walls to an all-too-real one: the heavily militarized Israel-Gaza border barrier that runs between Israel and the Gaza Strip, controlling movement from the Palestinian Territory to Israel. This wall, constructed to make Israel more secure from armed incursions, has done nothing to improve the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians or to help resolve the underlying conflict over the land, which both groups claim. Today, most Israelis and Palestinians  hoping for a resolution look to a two-state solution; however, not only is there currently no constructive movement in that direction, but that in itself would not get to the heart of the matter. The current regime in Israel, led by the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, is taking a hardline stance whereby he has declared Israel to be a Jewish ethno-state, rather than a democracy in which all its citizens have equal rights. Sadly, his “solution” to the problem of Palestine appears to be not so different from the Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The late Edward Said was an important commentator on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and a rare voice in the U.S. who spoke for the Palestinians; sadly, he died in 2003 and his clear and erudite voice of reason is sorely missed. Said advocated for a one-state solution to the conflict, in which everyone learned to live together in one democratic state. While that solution may seem wildly utopian today, it’s worth revisiting. In a 2014 article in the Middle-East Eye, In Memory of Edward Said: the One-state Solution, Ibrahim Halawi wrote:

Edward Said described the claim that Palestine is “principally and exclusively” Arab as a nationalistic myth and a radical simplification of “a land of many histories”. This is not to feed the Zionist myth either, but it is to acknowledge the rich multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious nature of Palestine which is perpetually threatened by Zionist hegemony. In a realistic yet principled stance, Said admits that both the claims of a God-promised land for the Jews and of an Arab land for Palestinians must be “reduced in scale and exclusivity”. This can be done while preserving both the Jewish culture and the Palestinian culture, and all the other diverse subgroups in between…

Said believed that the most important social feature for a successful one-state in Palestine is the practice of citizenship in a modern sense of the term. In other words, by sharing rights and responsibilities under a law that treats all as equal, citizenship prevails over ethnic and religious chauvinism. When the same privileges, resources, and opportunities are available to all, the legitimacy of nationalistic ideologies and exclusionary dogmas will be forever lost.

In order to trigger a citizen-driven culture, Said suggested drafting a constitution and a bill of rights that acknowledges both peoples’ right to self-determination – as in the right to practice communal life freely under the law…This humanistic alternative that Said and many other scholars from both sides argue for is the alternative to further outrageous colonial partition and/or continuous war. (Halawi)

In a 1999 article in the New York Times, The One-State Solution, Said himself wrote:

The alternatives are unpleasantly simple: either the war continues (along with the onerous cost of the current peace process) or a way out, based on peace and equality (as in South Africa after apartheid) is actively sought, despite the many obstacles. Once we grant that Palestinians and Israelis are there to stay, then the decent conclusion has to be the need for peaceful coexistence and genuine reconciliation. Real self-determination. Unfortunately, injustice and belligerence don’t diminish by themselves: they have to be attacked by all concerned.

Waiting near the Bethlehem checkpoint to attend Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque         Aug. 10, 2012. (Photo: Anne Paq)

Given the conditions in Israel and the Palestinian Territory today, one might ask, How realistic is Said’s vision? However, the alternative does not bear contemplation. Said felt strongly that in this shrinking, globalized world of greater mobility, growing population, and dwindling resources, different peoples were inevitably going to rub up against each other, and that attempts to keep them apart would only be disastrous. Learning how to live together in one democratic polity was the only way forward.

To this end, I offer examples from a 2016 Guardian article, The Israelis and Palestinians who work together in peace. Against all the odds, “in hospitals, schools and businesses, Israeli Arabs, Jews and Palestinians are working side by side to forge a better future” (Shuttleworth).

Nadira Hussein with her students at Max Rayne Hand in Hand school. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

Siham Sheble Masarwa, an Israeli Arab and head technician of Hadassah Ein Kerem’s catheterisation lab, teaches Jewish Israeli students. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

Children playing at Max Rayne school. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)


Together We Stand is one of my favorite songs by the band Canned Heat. Listen, and take heart. Building walls is no solution; working together is the only way forward.

And a reminder: every wall will eventually fall. Here is Paul Robeson, singing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. 

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