Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘people’ Category

506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

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501. The Small Things

In Books, Childhood, culture, Family, parenting, people, reading, reflections, Stories on August 15, 2021 at 12:36 am

Dad would read Anatole and the Cat (“Quelle horreur!) in his inimitable French accent.

It’s the small things I remember these days, but they seem to come all the more freighted with meaning. Things that might have irked me at the time are endearing now, and I long to hear them just one more time: Dad joking, when we children protest at his insistence on reading to us in a pseudo-French accent, that he can’t help it, he has been speaking like this ever since he visited gay Parree. My Uncle Ted insisting on teaching his one-year-old grandson Jon to jump with glee into muddy slush-puddles, shouting “Splash”, when his exhausted young mum has just finished washing and drying his snowsuit. Bob, beloved partner of my dear friend Cylla, teaching our five-year-old son to say “bottle” with a Cockney glottal stop (“bo’l”). Mum crying out with a pang of loss when I first pronounce an ‘r’ American-style. All of them gone now. All of them larger than life in my memory.

I remember those loved ones who are grown and gone, one in particular whose childish charms lit up my life for a spell. When being dressed for bed in a new all-in-one sleepsuit, a little toddler’s voice chirping, “ Is it one hundwed pooercent cotton?” (For once it wasn’t, and he could tell.) When it became clear, playing his first board game at age 3 or 4, that he was about to lose, I remember him sweeping all the pieces and players off the board in a fit of fury. But when, ten years later, mother and tween were playing a truth-or-dare-style board game and the youth answered a question about his mother’s maturity with ruthless honesty—”she is immature”—this adult role-model proved it by ending the game then and there in a fit of petulance. On the only occasion this indifferent cook made calzones—with two different fillings, on a real terracotta baking stone, mind you—the appreciative young teen declared that it was the best thing his mother had ever made, filling her with guilt about her distinctly unmemorable performance in the kitchen for the past 15 years. (She has never made them since.)

 

Memories of watching movies as a family, two in particular. The violent fight scenes, filled with stereotypically racialized bad guys, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) sending the older boy-next-door bouncing off the walls in paroxysms of manic glee; whereas our son the budding film aficionado, no older than seven, seemed hardly to notice them, commenting instead on words of wisdom uttered by the Turtles’ mentors.

Watching Amadeus (1984) at about the same time, he had to leave the room, so upset was he by Salieri’s murderous envy of the young Mozart’s virtuosity. As he put it, “I would feel happy for Mozart; why couldn’t he?”

Some of these memories are glorious, some ignominious, all of them infinitely precious. Small things, but so telling.

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499. Thoughts on Fathers and Fatherhood

In Childhood, Family, parenting, people, reflections, Stories on June 20, 2021 at 5:33 am

As the hour clicks over into Father’s Day I can’t help but think of the fathers in my life, especially my dad and Andrew, my husband and our son’s dad. I can’t gush about them Hallmark-style, though; I love them both too much for that.

It is hard to be responsible for another person’s life. Fathers have long had to bear the responsibility for supporting their families financially, for literally keeping a roof over their heads; but in addition, many fathers provide so much more security for their children by their loving presence, the quality of their attention, and the model provided by their active parenting. Both my dad and Andrew provided that kind of security, each in their own distinct ways.

My father did everything wholeheartedly, with tremendous energy and conviction. He sang me to sleep, patting me rhythmically on the back as he did so. He read to my sister and me, throwing himself into each of the characters—voices, accents and all. He always believed us when we told him of a wrong done to us at school. When the nuns told me that left-handedness was a sign of an untidy mind and tried to make me use my right hand instead, he marched right over to set them straight. If we wanted something he would make it for us in secret—stilts for me, a doll’s house for sister Sally, Christmas cards for our mother to send to her family. Although Mum disapproved of my reading at the dinner table, Dad set an example for me by doing so, and I gladly followed his lead. He taught me how to swim by making me jump off the end of a jetty into the sea. He raised his voice when he got animated, agitated, or argumentative and inadvertently taught me to do the same.

Dad wasn’t afraid of trying new things, traveling to places where no one in his family had gone before, where he didn’t know a soul. He shared his adventures with us by taking us with him wherever he went. How can I ever forget the trip to Bhutan that we all took together in 1964, when I was ten? He emigrated to the United States from India when I was fifteen and Sally ten. Unsettling as that move was, we made it together, and Dad plunged into our new life as he did everything else—unafraid of meeting new people, doing things he had never done before from cross-country skiing (actually, Mum made him do that) to barbecuing, and teaching Americans things he knew and they didn’t.

My father was a teacher and an urban planner by profession but also an artist—a talented painter. His work involved interactions with all sorts of people, and he was a good communicator and a social animal. But his art was a personal passion and he followed it alone and single-mindedly, never forcing it on us unless we expressed interest in it, in which case he was delighted to share it. Same with all his pursuits, from tennis to swimming to leatherwork to orchid-collecting to weight-lifting to yoga. He practiced them avidly but didn’t impose any of them on us—except when he took up Maharashtrian cookery; then we were glad to be his guinea pigs as he worked his way through the cookbook.   

Thinking back to Andrew as a young father, he plunged into the new and unfamiliar role even before our son was born, attending birthing classes with me and driving me to the hospital in the snow with a midwifery manual in the back of the car. He gave Baby Nikhil his first bath—I was too afraid that I might scald or drop him—and pampered me so much after the birth that I didn’t have to change a single diaper for at least two weeks.

When we lived on the farm Andrew always played actively with little Nikhil and Eric, making building blocks for them and building teeteringly tall towers with a string tied to the bottom block for the boys to yank gleefully and cry out, “Accident!” Guess who picked up all the blocks every time only to build them up all over again? (It certainly wasn’t me.) In the winter he helped the children make snowmen and a built a Zamboni to smooth the ice on the pond so that we could pull them around and around on sleds. In the early spring he took them with him to tap and collect the sap from the maple trees; and in the summer he trundled Nikhil to the garden to pick tomatoes in the little red wagon. He built an easel that was permanently set up in Nikhil’s room with a fresh sheet of paper and watercolors at the ready, where Nikhil drew his first stick figures and, after watching 101 Dalmations, a terrifying painting of Cruela de Vil with fingernails almost as long as her hair.

Later, when Nikhil was a schoolboy, Andrew carved and decorated wooden swords and shields for him and, at one memorable birthday party, made a sword for each and every one of his friends. When he had map-making or model-building homework for school or Cub Scouts (which were notorious for assigning complicated projects like go-carts that only the parents could make), Andrew was right in there with him, problem-solving and thinking it through systematically. He assistant-coached when Nikhil was in Little League baseball and again, in high school, for Ultimate Frisbee. I don’t think he missed a single one of his games.

My first job after completing my graduate studies was too far away for a daily commute, so for several years I had to spend two nights a week away from home. During those years Andrew was responsible for getting Nikhil up and off to school on time. The task became progressively harder, since teenagers are notoriously sleep-deprived. Because Andrew couldn’t bear to jolt Nikhil out of bed he would invariably let him sleep a little longer, missing the school bus. In senior year of high school I don’t think there was a single day that Andrew didn’t drive him to school in the morning, even though the bus came to the door.

how to cut a pomegranate (az cookbook.com)

Looking back, I see that Andrew was the laid-back parent where I was the anxious one. When I fussed and fretted too much over homework, a messy room, troublesome teachers, or college applications, Andrew would find a way to defuse the tension. During the seven months we lived in India while I was doing my dissertation research, Andrew played cricket with Nikhil and his cousins, bought and filled brass pichkaris (super-soakers) for playing Holi, learned and showed Nikhil how to break open a pomegranate into a perfect star-shape. I, on the other hand, was making sure that he addressed all his aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles correctly or that he ate using his right hand (hard, that, since he was left-handed).

While I graded student papers or sat for hours at the computer, father and son would play boisterous games of darts and watch movies together (some of which I might not have approved of had I been there). Later, when Nikhil was a budding filmmaker his dad was his biggest fan and supporter, always on hand to make or repair anything that needed his carpentry or design skills, taking on every project as if it was his own; later still, reading his screenplays and giving him feedback; or dreaming up his own movie plots and sending them to Nikhil; or making bound notebooks for every member of the cast and crew.

As a father, Andrew was very like my own dad in one respect: he would never force his child to do the things he himself did, especially chores that involved hard physical work. While many fathers would make their sons mow the lawn, shovel snow, chop firewood, or work on the car, Andrew would quietly go out and do all those jobs himself, giving Nikhil the time and space to develop his own interests and skills.

This Father’s Day, I honor my own father and the father of our son. Even at times when they themselves may have been struggling, they remained loving, active, and supportive presences in their children’s lives; they both gave of themselves unsparingly without pressuring their offspring to follow in their footsteps; and they both took tremendous pride in their children’s accomplishments. It’s going on five years since my father passed away, but hardly a day passes when I don’t remember something he taught me or smile at one of his exploits, sayings, or quirks. It’s going on fifteen years since our son grew up and left home, but I feel sure that he could say the same of his dad.

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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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444. Mind Cleanup

In Aging, blogs and blogging, Family, Food, Music, people, reflections, seasons on October 30, 2019 at 9:34 pm

By this time of year I’m pretty ragged around the edges and this year those edges feel raggedier than usual. It’s late October, with a full month to go until Thanksgiving and six weeks until classes end. Student essays are getting the better of me and sleep deprivation has become my default mode. Thank goodness Daylight Savings Time is ending this weekend and we’ll gain another precious hour. There’s such a fog churning around in the world at large and in my own head that I can’t see my way forward, not even to make a To Do list. Even our usually peaceful neighbourhood has turned against me: there’s a machine outside the bedroom window that has been grinding down the stump of our neighbor’s tree since the crack of dawn, and with it, my head. So I thought I’d try something that Epi, a fellow-blogger I met during the A-Z blog-a-day challenge last April, does from time to time: a mind cleanup.

The World
Authoritarian rulers are sprouting up and clampdowns coming down everywhere you look: India: Modi and Kashmir; Britain: Boris and Brexit; the U.S.: Trump and just about everything; Turkey (and the U.S.): Erdogan and the Kurds; Brazil: Bolsonaro and the Amazon burning; Russia and Putin, Poland and Duda, the Philippines and Duterte, the list goes on. But so are the mass protests: in Lebanon, Sudan, Hong Kong, Haiti, Ecuador Chile, Iraq, London and, close to home, Puerto Rico; the people cannot be kept down and neither should we. Here’s the Clash, with (Working for the) Clampdown, an anthemic song that inspired us in the 1980s. (I just learnt that word, anthemic, from Patti Smith, talking about her 1978 Because the Night (belongs to Lovers).

Mass protests against army rule in Sudan (AFP/Getty Image)

My Life
I’m chronically behind with everything, my best efforts making only small nibbles round the edges of things. (Speaking of nibbling around the edges, here’s a crab nibbling at a cherry; a distracting youtube video that is making the rounds.) There’s little to show for all the late nights and all-nighters but small inroads into the backlog. I feel like the woman in the Grimms’ fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, charged to spin an impossible heap of straw into gold overnight or lose her firstborn child. (By the way, one of my earliest stories on Tell Me Another was called Rumpelstiltskin, about a recurring nightmare from my childhood.)

Driving
Thank goodness for my new (gently used) hybrid car, which transports me to work and back on my long commute with a minimum of effort on my part; so easy to drive that it almost feels like a self-driving car.

Students
Students keep one honest. They are young and hardworking and they have expectations. One strives to meet them. My first-year students are currently writing about environmental citizenship and climate justice. Apparently, they tell me, they weren’t taught about climate change in school, so now they’re shocked to find that we’re facing a climate emergency. As I get older, I wonder if I seem to them like someone from another planet. Well aware of my oddness, I notice myself performing it, and fear becoming a caricature of myself. But then I retort to myself, “Well, and why not? Why should not old women be mad?”

Friends
Visits: This has been a season of traveling and of visits. In September, I took a flying trip to University of East Anglia in Norwich, England for a conference marking my favorite writer Doris Lessing’s birth centenary. The conference, which must rightfully claim a post of its own, was held in the Julian Study Centre, named after Julian of Norwich, that 14th-century anchorite who was the first woman to publish a book in English, Revelations of Divine Love. I taught excerpts from this collection of mystical devotions a couple of years ago in a Women and Literature course. But what is the most associated in my mind with Julian of Norwich is this song, The Bells of Norwich, her words set to music by Sydney Carter. Its refrain: “All shall be well again, I know.” And indeed, all was well when, before the conference, I squeezed in a short visit with my cousin Lesley, and afterwards, took the bus to the my cousin Sue and spent a precious weekend with her before the long journey home.

Later in September, our friend Sabine, who lovingly hosted me five years ago, graced us with a visit from Bremen, Germany; so did Hayat and Joseph, whom we met in 1977, protesting the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. We attended their wedding, way back in the mists of time, and Hayat has been a voice of wisdom and encouragement at major turning points in my life. In early October, we had a reunion of our cohort from a Co-op House in college, 17 of us in a beautiful house on the Kennebec estuary in Maine, a place where rivers meet the sea, a place to reflect on beginnings and ends. We cooked together as we used to, caught up with each other after nearly 45 years, and reflected on shared values and experiences with old friends and agemates. Most recently, just last weekend, a visit from Tamara, who lives in North London walking distance from where my mother was born, and who has known me and Mum since before I was two years old and before Mum was thirty. A series of jam-packed weekends followed by all-nighters to catch up with grading.

Losses: In the world, there has been the death of beloved Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings, who has been mourned deeply by his family, former Presidents, and the entire nation. At home in India, earlier this month, our family lost my atya/aunt, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege. At times like this one feels so far away. Just the other day Rohna Shoul, our old friend Mark’s amazing mother, breathed her last, and we have yet to take it in. And this weekend we gather to remember my friend Ann, who died too young just a few months ago. That line from John Prine’s Angel from Mongomery comes yet again to mind: the years just flow by/like a broken-down dam. But so does that place where the river meets the sea.

Food
I’m not much of a cook in the term-time; it is Andrew who has been experimenting this fall with delicious new recipes. But it has been a good year for apples, and thanks to all the apples Andrew rescued from old trees on the UMass campus, I have made German apple pancake, an old favorite from The Vegetarian Epicure, four times in the past month. (Here’s a TMA story about the importance of cookbooks in the first decade after our immigration to the United States.) Other seasonal foods we have enjoyed this month, thanks to the Simple Gifts Farm: delicata squash, peppers, and basil pesto.

Weather
Stormy, with an “event” a couple of weeks ago called a bomb cyclone which cut off the power for awhile and downed trees and tree limbs everywhere. Our garden wasn’t spared, and one massive treetop knocked down the bird feeder but stopped just short of the house when it got caught up in another tree. Now the logs from the fallen tree trunk are stacked neatly in a pile, the house plants are in for the winter, and the garden is awash with coppery-yellow maple leaves.

Fall Festivals
Last weekend was Diwali, festival of Light and celebration of a new year. We had a quiet day, lighting candles for our parents and absent family members. But in a week our local Indian organization will celebrate Diwali and I must face the ordeal of dancing with the women, who have been practicing a choreographed number for weeks. So have I, but with my two left feet (and as a leftie I can say that) I’m still light years away from knowing the moves. The rehearsals remind me of all the times I messed up in dance performances in my childhood and youth. Can I master it in time or will I embarrass myself yet again on the stage?

For Halloween tomorrow, Andrew has been carving a Cheshire Cat pumpkin. We have our trick-or-treat candy ready for the children of the neighborhood and I’m looking forward to them; though I’m hoping that they don’t eat us out of the mini-dark chocolate Kit-Kats, since I’ve hidden away the all-natural Halloween fruit gummies for myself. But if they go, we’ll still have the roasted pumpkin seeds.

Work
Good news at work today: my sabbatical proposal has been approved, and I should know next week whether or not it has been funded. So, inshallah, this time next year I should be preparing to celebrate Diwali in India.

After a delicious dinner (salad, basil pesto, green beans, and butternut squash pasta in the shape of little pumpkins), I’m preparing to take the plunge back into the pile of student essays, fortified with a cup of tea (Sainsbury’s, Fair Trade, thanks to Tamara). I’m still tired, and ragged, and know it’s going to be a very long evening, but I feel thankful. And calmer. Let the winter come and go/All shall be well again, I know.

O Saraswati, Goddess of Learning, help me clear and strengthen my wayward mind.  

 

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438. “I never died,” says he

In Family, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Stories on August 19, 2019 at 2:23 am

This past weekend, August 16-18, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the “three days of peace, love, and music” on a dairy farm in New York State, attended by 400,000 people and including musicians Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Although my father came to the United States that same month, in August, 1969, my mother, sister and I didn’t follow until February of the following year, and I always felt that my arrival was somehow belated, that at not-quite-sixteen I had already missed the height of the youth movement that found its expression there. When the three-hour concert film came out, just a month after our arrival, and the triple album a few weeks later, I watched and listened avidly, again and again, until it became, if not entirely part of me, then certainly a part of how I saw this strange new country and my generation in it. Watching the PBS documentary, Woodstock, the other night, and listened to a young and pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill”:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died,” says he
“I never died,” says he.

I thought about what that song had come to mean to me since. Joe Hill or Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (1879-1915) immigrated to the U.S. from his native Sweden in 1902 and became a union organizer. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies,” and wrote labor organizing songs for them, fought in the Mexican Revolution, and then was charged and executed for two murders that he hadn’t committed. Joe Hill, sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock, was written by Alfred Hayes, set to music by Earl Robinson, and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by the great Paul Robeson.

In the 1980s, while we were in our twenties, Andrew, Eve, and I founded Whetstone Press, a letterpress print shop, and made the IWW our union label. We delighted in being part of the Wobbly heritage and in The Little Red Songbook (first published in 1913), full of songs by the likes of Joe Hill and Utah Phillips. Through the years, in the movement against nuclear power and weapons, protests against U.S. interventions in Central and South America, solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, forming a graduate-student union, these songs became old standbys.

Much later, around 2011, now in my 50s, I joined a monthly singing group called RUSH (Rise Up Singing in Harmony), based on Annie Patterson and Peter Blood’s songbook, Rise Up Singing, and organized by the indefatigable Roger Conant, who, in the tradition of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, believed in the power of song to bring people together in solidarity. It was a loose fellowship, and people came and went, though there were regulars, and I became one of them. One of the people who attended from time to time was an elderly gentleman called Ward Morehouse, whom I didn’t know outside of the group, but who always requested labor and union songs, like The Banks are Made of Marble, sung here by Pete Seeger; “Joe Hill” was one of his favorites.

Not long after Ward and his wife Carolyn Oppenheim had started coming to RUSH, we received the sad news that he had passed away. It was only then, after reading his obituary, that I learned that he himself had been an active labor organizer and, furthermore, that he had led the movement in the U.S. against Union Carbide on behalf of the workers killed and incapacitated in 1984 by the deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, India. That led me to write a new verse of “Joe Hill” in his honor* and to attend Ward Morehouse’s memorial service along with my mother.

In 2012 Mum was 85 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for at least five years. However, she could still sing along to the songs on the programme for the service, and it turned out that she knew most of them. Carolyn had asked Roger Conant to lead the singing, and I was happy to see that Mum was really entering into the spirit of it. While everyone was singing the international workers’ anthem, “The Internationale”, I glanced over at her, and as she sang the rousing chorus, her fist was raised high in the air.

Here are the lyrics to Billy Bragg’s updated version of The Internationale. And here is a moving rendition of it being sung en masse in Leicester, England. One verse in particular speaks to me loud and clear at this moment in time:

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We’ve but one Earth on which to live
.

My dear mother has since passed away and, just recently, so has Roger Conant. They are sorely missed. But just as the spirit of Woodstock lives on, wherever people gather in solidarity and song, they will be with us.

Joan Baez at Woodstock

 

*The verse of “Joe Hill” for Ward Morehouse:

From Bhopal to Atlanta,
When companies don’t play fair
Where working folk defend their rights
Ward Morehouse will be there
Ward Morehouse will be there.

 

 

 

 

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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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433. No particular place to go

In Education, Family, people, Stories on May 12, 2019 at 2:20 pm

For the first time ever I’m starting a post with nothing particular in mind. It’s a cold, rainy Sunday, and there’s a pile of student papers waiting on my feedback. It wasn’t on my radar that rain was forecast, so when I woke up the cushions on the outdoor furniture were soaking wet and I’ve brought them indoors to dry on a tarp and turned the heat on for the first time in a couple of weeks. There’s laundry to do, and a long To Do list. But the past two days have had more highs and lows packed into them than I can process, so after a Sunday morning lie-in I’ve made a pot of tea, eaten the last Digestive biscuit with my first cup, and am sitting at the dining table looking out at the raindrops dripping off the pine needles and onto the ivy.

Andrew just texted a Mother’s Day message from a family breakfast in New Jersey. He and my sister-in-law Vera will soon be heading back from the funeral of John, Andrew’s dear cousin Juliana’s lovely husband, who passed away earlier this week. I rode down with them on Friday for the wake, and rode back with Nikhil and Melissa for my nephew Tyler’s graduation from UMass Amherst. It was a fittingly overcast Friday in New Jersey for the wake, and a fittingly glorious early-May Saturday to celebrate our graduate with all the trees on the campus dressed in their Spring finery. So, two days of sharing rites of passage; first with Andrew’s family—all his siblings, Juliana, her beloved and dearly remembered sister Nadia’s two sons, Matt and Phil, who were there to support their aunt every step of the way, Nikhil, who had his car totaled at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel on his way down and had to get it sorted and then drove down with his girlfriend Melissa in her car. Thank goodness no one was hurt. So many memories, since Juliana and John’s wedding 45 years ago was one of the first big occasions I celebrated with Andrew’s family, and Juliana and John had held the family together, always inviting the elders, hosting Easter feasts at their home, and meeting at Mount Olivet cemetery on Cemetery Day (the first Sunday after Orthodox Easter) where we would visit all the graves on both sides of the family. Yesterday Andrew and the family, including John’s two brothers and their families, drove from the funeral home to the church for the funeral, then the church to Mt. Olivet for the burial ceremony, then out for a meal together, and finally back to Juliana’s house. As the Ukrainians say, Memory Eternal!

For our part, Nikhil, Melissa, and I took our leave on Friday night for a long drive back to Amherst in the rain and a few short hours of sleep before heading down to the Mullins Center the big indoor stadium at UMass where justly-proud parents Sally and Kevin had saved us seats, a brass band was playing and everyone was in celebratory mode. We cheered Tyler as he processed in in his robes and accepted his diploma in Environmental Resources Conservation (with a minor in Environmental Science) and then went on to celebrate at a department reception, a last lunch at his dining hall (the food at UMass Dining was deservedly voted #1 in the country), and finally basking in the afternoon sun on our terrace with the Man of the Hour popping a bottle of bubbly for a toast. Mum and Dad would have been so proud and so happy to see us all together.

Now I know why I don’t start my blog posts with no particular place to go (thanks, Chuck Berry). I wrote and posted a piece almost every day throughout the month of April, hoping that it would jump-start my blog again after it had been lying fallow for more than two years, since my parents’ deaths. I’d like to return  to writing a new story every week; but for now, I’m still sitting here at the dining table looking out at the rain and my first cup of tea has gone cold.

It is Mother’s Day, and a day to honor my dear mother, who passed away a little more than a year ago. I spent an hour in bed this morning looking through photographs of Mum to post on my Facebook page, but eventually gave up. Instead, I’ll light a candle for her and remember her sweetness. Her Easter cactus, a gift from Kimberly, is blooming, and on Friday Andrew picked a posy of flowers for me, including some of Mum’s primroses, which come up anew every year.

Now I know why I started writing this morning, although it took me a while to get here.

Love you, Mum.

 

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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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420. M: Migrant Crisis

In blogs and blogging, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, people, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases on April 17, 2019 at 12:03 am

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Of course M must stand for migrants, but since migrants are my subject for the entire month, I want to focus today on the term “migrant crisis.” How tiresome, you might well say, these pedantic English professors who quibble about words and put everything in quotation marks. What on earth does she mean to imply by calling it the so-called migrant crisis? Pedant and socialist fanatic, I shouldn’t wonder. Perhaps you’ll find me guilty as charged, but allow me to explain. I’ll try to be brief.

More perilous than ever (Reuters: Yannis Behrakis)

Take a recent example—not the only one, by any means: the European migrant crisis that began in 2015, when refugees from the Middle East and Africa traveled across the Mediterranean Sea and overland through Southern Europe to the European Union from the Middle East and Africa, their numbers driven by war and swelled by “drought, poverty, and violence linked to human-caused global warming.”According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “the top three nationalities of entrants of the over one million Mediterranean Sea arrivals between January 2015 and March 2016 were Syrian (46.7%), Afghan (20.9%), and Iraqi (9.4%).” More recently, after Turkey was given incentives to take back the migrants from Greece, the eastern Mediterranean route has been mostly closed off; now the traffickers ply the central Mediterranean route, carrying migrants mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. Though the numbers of people making the crossing have fallen dramatically since the 2015 high, the UNHCR has revealed that larger percentages of them have been dying at sea. More than 1300 people died in 2018 taking the central Mediterranean route.

Now let’s just look at the crisis in Syria for a moment: did the war in Syria begin in 2015, the year that all Europe panicked over the “migrant crisis”? No, it began in March, 2011, four years earlier. Why, then, did the EU start talking about the crisis so belatedly? The answer is that it wasn’t Europe’s problem back then, because the lion’s share of the millions of Syrian refugees (5,637,575 registered refugees as of November, 2018) was taken in by the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as Egypt. It is only when the refugee camps in these countries were completely overloaded and the process of applying to host countries as refugees seemed to be going nowhere, that they resorted to desperate measures, setting out on foot on the long trek overland and, much more costly and dangerous, draining their meager resources to hire unscrupulous operators to carry them across the Mediterranean in those treacherous tubs. (What, by the way, did Europe do in response? With the notable exception of Germany, many EU countries abandoned their Open Borders policy, raised their drawbridges, closed their refugee camps, and started sending large numbers of refugees back. They also stopped sending rescue boats to shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.)

ROSZKE, Hungary August 29 2015
A group of migrants waits at a makeshift detention camp for Hungarian authorities to register their arrival in the European Union.

If this situation sounds dire, it was. So why did I put the term “migrant crisis” in quotation marks? First of all, the so-called migrants were not migrants “looking for a better life,” they were refugees who had fled their war-torn countries for their lives.

In her 2015 article, The battle over the words used to describe migrants,  Camilla Ruz points out that migrant is a neutral term that simply refers to a person who moves from one place to another. However, many news organizations from the news website Al-Jazeera to the Washington Post to the UN have criticized its use, suggesting that it can become “a tool that dehumanizes and distances” and further, that “it implies something voluntary but it is applied to people fleeing danger.”

In a 2018 article on the European Border Communities website discussing the language used to describe the “European Refugee Crisis” (by now the word “migrant” has been corrected), author Neske Baerwaldt points out that it is that of a continent under siege, “flooded” by a “tide” of Others, positioning these alien Others “outside of society’s…sphere of empathy.” The use of “crisis” suggests that these outsiders are a threat to European society’s stable way of life, despite the fact that it is the refugees who are the ones who have been facing unspeakable dangers. She concludes: “We must open our eyes. . .not just to the violence rendered visible to most Europeans in moments of crisis, but also to the violence committed in the name of stability. When there is talk of a crisis, we ought immediately to ask: Crisis for whom?”

A group of Central American migrants cross the Tijuana River in an attempt to get to El Chaparral border crossing on the Mexico-US border. Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

The European “migrant crisis” may call to mind the United States President’s continual use of the term “migrant crisis” to heighten the situation at the U.S. Southern border with Mexico in order to justify the use of extreme measures. The people seeking entry to the U.S. have been driven by desperate poverty, violence, and climate change in their countries of origin and have undergone unspeakable dangers to get there; many of them are refugees seeking asylum, a process governed and protected by international law. Most people agree that there is indeed a crisis at the border. But a crisis for whom?

You may remember this heartbreaking photograph depicting the lifeless form of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee child, on a Turkish beach after his family’s flimsy inflatable boat had capsized. The photograph made global headlines in 2015 and created a wave of compassion and an outpouring of support for the refugees. Sadly, that wave has since been eclipsed by larger waves of fear and hate. Let us refuse to allow the language describing the suffering of our fellow human beings to be used to push them out of reach of our empathy.

 

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