A Moral, if Meaningless, Victory

A Facebook friend shared a video last week titled "Slap on face of Jamat islami fanatic Fareed Paracha."  I've never heard of him, but I do know of the JI - anybody with a passing interest in Pakistan would have heard of the religious fundamentalist party -  so I took a look.

The video is from a panel-discussion type of show called "Frontline" which airs on Pakistan's Express News Channel. I don't know what the discussion prior to this clip was about for sure, but the first woman they refer to is Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist extradited to and convicted in the US of attempting to kill US army personnel who were interrogating her in Afghanistan.  The second woman referred to is Asiya Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law. She has appealed the verdict and has been receiving some amount of support from politicians, but it seems if you support her and - implicitly or explicitly - criticize the Blasphemy Law, there is a strong likelihood that fanatics will kill you. Salman Taseer, former Governor of the Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the former Minister for Minorities, found that out the hard way.

So as Pakistan rushes headlong into a future bleaker than its past, seeing someone really lay into one of the (many, many) architects of that collapse elicits a certain amount of glee. The first speaker is lawyer and activist Asma Jehangir, who is well known for speaking out against fundamentalism and the oppression of women and minorities in Pakistan. Her comments, while accurate, are reiterations of things she has said - and no doubt will have to say - hundreds of times before.

The second speaker was a complete surprise however. As I watched the video, I realized that the very familiar-looking commenter from the audience is Zarina Saeed, one of the most inspirational teachers I've ever studied with. How's that for a bonus?

Most of the discussion is in Urdu, so I've added a translation after the video.

Asma Jehangir, mid-discussion: Did you see no women other than Afiya Siddiqui? We petitioned for her; when the ISI took her, you stayed quiet. You didn't say a word.


Fareed Paracha: What can we do? We're obliged to work. We talk about everyone (meaning we represent everyone, I think)


AJ: Look, what I'm saying is that this debate should not be twisted. They claim to be the friends of the poor and the enemies of the US when they spent ten years with Zia-ul-Haq working shoulder to shoulder with the US. After that, how can they...?


Host: [indistinct]


FP: I'd like to say a word here...


Other panelist: [inaudible]


AJ: We [The NGOs working for women and minorities] were never with the US [repeats over the babble]. When the US was working with/through them [the Jamat] we were out there organizing protests for the rights of women. There was no Afiya Siddiqui back then.


When the ISI took Afiya Siddiqui, I filed a petition in the Supreme Court, Petition no.5, that very same day. They stayed silent. Nobody spoke up then.


When they took her to the US, when she was out of our jurisdiction, that was they day they decided to make it an issue. Other than Afiya Siddiqui, do other women live here or not?


FP: [talking over AJ] We talk about all of them.


AJ: Why don't you talk about them too? I am threatened daily. Talk about me too. People have tried to kill me, people have insulted me, and yet you have never spoken about that.


FP: [sounds like he's asking the host to intevene] I just want to say one sentence...[Drowned out by applause]


Audience comment:


Zarina Saeed: These panelists seem to be in a kind of denial, that there is no extremism, no intolerance, no nothing. Tell me something, what is the definition of intolerance and extremism? When a society is extremist, there is some parameter against which that can be checked. And that parameter is that those who are weak, those who belong to marginalized communities, how are they living? What is the status of women in our country? What is the status of minorities in our country? Are they prospering?


You're all sitting here...our Mall Road...once upon a time, there were lots of properties here that were owned by minorities. Where are those property owners now?


Host: Who got rid of them?


ZS: They...you...this is an intolerant community. The Mafia can take them...you can put a notice up in front of a house saying that the owner is a heathen or a _munafiq_ and the community will harass them and force them to leave. That's what happens in our country.


Then there's Asiya Bibi who we've been talking about. Asiya is...we're  talking about an illiterate, uneducated woman and we think Islam is in danger from her? Our religion isn't so small...for God's sake...don't make Allah out to be so small...that is the biggest of blasphemies..when you reduce God to human beings. This [God, I imagine] is something beyond us.




I am amazed that there is such outrage over Asiya Bibi, who is uneducated and illiterate, and yet when one of your ministers from Balochistan buried women alive, nobody issued a fatwa.


[Host: He's a People's Party minister.]


ZS: That is a heathen. He is a heathen. He committed blasphemy. Because he turned around and said that this was a 'tribal custom'.


[Host: [echoing ZS] 28 August, 2008]



Did any political party accuse them of blashpemy then? They did not. Why were you quiet at that time? Why were you silent at that time?


Now you're talking.. the Jamat people are talking... Mr Paracha is very respected...he's talking about how they've served the poor. Putting the poor aside, this rich man, this feudal as you'd call him, his power scared you off?


FP: I would very respectfully like to say that her own tolerance is so low that she refers to a person who has a PhD and academic distinctions worldwide, three times as uneducated and illiterate simply because she professes a belief in Islam, simply because she...


Host: [interrupting] She's talking about Asiya Bibi, not Afiya Siddiqui.


[Brief discussion - I can't make out who says what, but eventually Paracha realizes his mistake]


ZS: My response...my response...my reponse to this is only that they are reinforcing my point. We are in a state of denial and we are not willing to listen to the Other. We are that biased.




None of this means anything, of course. The country - at least the idealized one I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with all my life - is pretty much gone. Displays like this can make us feel good for a moment or two, but the "crossroads" that everyone seems to think Pakistan is at, as Ahsan Butt suggests, are actually fast disappearing in the distance.

Skeptical Humanities

The best sentence I have read all week:

Postmodern criticism that finds the meaning “outside” of the text is especially vulnerable to this type of goof, and when you fuse the two in Lacan, you get unfettered bollocks.

That's from a blog post called Psychoanalytic Literary Theory: Where Freud Ended Up, by Bob Blaskiewicz at Skeptical Humanities.

The post itself is a wonderful takedown of one of my pet peeves. I find Freud interesting and important as a historical figure and as one of the people responsible for the development of psychology--even if he was wrong about the specifics--but I am often frustrated by the uncritical use of psychoanalytic theory as if it were some sort of universal truth handed down by the ancients and not something that has been largely discredited by newer research. You can imagine, then, just how happy I was to read this post and this sentence in particular.

Organic Investigations 1 - Potatoes?

I've been curious about what exactly 'organic' means in Australia. I started off thinking it was pretty much the same bullshit as it is in the US, as Brian Dunning points out here and here, but given I have very little information on Australian farming practices or corporations' involvement with organic produce (and very little time to look these things up) I'm reserving my judgment. I don't buy organic though - not the produce and certainly not the rhetoric - but I have vague plans of conducting some research into the subject as and when I can before I write it off completely. At the moment, this consists of little more than taking a claim and comparing it to what I can observe personally and/or find out from a reliable source. Information, comments, suggestions are all welcome.

Today, for instance, Rebecca Blood linked to an article titled The 7 Foods Experts Won't Eat. Ignoring for a minute that this article quotes 'nutritionists' among other 'experts' and is therefore suspect, the potato example raised a few questions for me.

4. Nonorganic Potatoes

The expert: Jeffrey Moyer, chair of the National Organic Standards Board

The problem: Root vegetables absorb herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides that wind up in soil. In the case of potatoes—the nation's most popular vegetable—they're treated with fungicides during the growing season, then sprayed with herbicides to kill off the fibrous vines before harvesting. After they're dug up, the potatoes are treated yet again to prevent them from sprouting. "Try this experiment: Buy a conventional potato in a store, and try to get it to sprout. It won't," says Moyer, who is also farm director of the Rodale Institute (also owned by Rodale Inc., the publisher of Prevention). "I've talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals."

The solution: Buy organic potatoes. Washing isn't good enough if you're trying to remove chemicals that have been absorbed into the flesh.

I don't buy 'organic' potatoes. I buy the 'conventional' ones you get at Woolworth's, and I've left mine lying around long enough for them to start sprouting on several different occasions over at least 3 years of living here.

So are potatoes sold/grown in Australia are not treated with the same cocktail of pesticides and fungicides or is Mr Moyer simply wrong about their effects?

Australia may have different environment from the US, but it stands to reason that the same crops grown in both places would require the same conditions and be vulnerable to the same infestations, and would therefore require the same treatments. But I don't know that for sure. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for proponents of organic produce to overemphasize the use (and implied harmful effects) of 'chemicals' in conventional farming and gloss over their use in organic farming, but that doesn't mean that everything they say is automatically unsound.

I also wonder what measures against fungus and insects the potato-growers mentioned above use to protect the potatoes they grow 'without all the chemicals', given that 'organic' pesticides are also 'chemicals' - just sourced from plant or animal matter as opposed to manufactured in a big scary lab.

Like I said, I haven't got any answers at the moment, but if I find any, I shall post them here.

Losing Things

I just read Gina Barreca's post, Everything You Lose Makes Room for Something New and it reminded me of two things. One, a vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop that I have a love-hate relationship with called 'One Art'. Although it's 'about' the death of her partner, my favorite lines are:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

The whole poem is here.

The second thing this post reminds me of is my own just-so postcard that Shanti sent me from Geneva when I was studying in Lahore. The quote, from Jules Renard, reads:

Ecrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu.

Robot Dancing

What better way to spend a sunny Tuesday afternoon than attempting to break a world record for the largest number of people to do the robot dance at once? Yes it completely derailed my day, but it was fun and silly and I learnt to do a dance I didn't know before (though admittedly I'm not going to be breaking those moves out in a hurry).

The ABC reports that we have broken the world record, but I don't know how official that is.

Stuff I'm Reading: Identity

From Amin Malouf's On Identity (translated by Barbara Bray.):

But let us return for a moment to some examples I quoted at the beginning of this book. A man with a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, and who manages to accept his dual affiliation, will never take part in any form of ethnic "cleansing". A man with a Hutu mother and a Tutsi father, if he can accept the two "tributaries" that brought him into the world, will never be a party to butchery or genocide. And neither the Franco-Algerian lad, not the young man of mixed German and Turkish origin whom I mentioned earlier, will ever be on the side of the fanatics if they succeed in living peacefully in the context of their own complex identity.

Here again it would be a mistake to see such examples as extreme or unusual. Wherever there are groups of human beings living side by side who differ from one another in religion, colour, language, ethnic origin or nationality; wherever there are tensions, more or less longstanding, more or less violent, between immigrants and local populations, Blacks and Whites, Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Arabs, Hindus and Sikhs, Lithuanians and Russians, Serbs and Albanians, Greeks and Turks, English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, Flemings and Walloons, Chinese and Malays - yes, wherever there is a divided society, there are men and women bearing within them contradictory allegiances, people who live on the frontier between opposed communities, and whose very being may be said to be traversed by ethnic or religious or other fault lines.

We are not dealing with a handful of marginal people. There are thousands, millions of such men and women, and there will be more and more of them. They are frontier-dwellers by birth, or through the changes and chances of life, or by deliberate choice, and they can influence events and affect their course one way or the other. Those who can accept their diversity fully will hand on the torch between communities and cultures, will be a kind of mortar joining together and strengthening the societies in which they live. On the other hand, those who cannot accept their own diversity may be among the most virulent of those prepared to kill for the sake of identity, attacking those who embody parts of themselves which they would like to see forgotten.

On race

PBS in the US did a documentary on race a while ago. I haven't seen it, but I did come across the companion website, Race - The Power of an Illusion, recently. Being a show made by and for Americans, it traces the history of race in the US, but it does give a glimpse of what race meant - or didn't mean - before European settlers arrived in the Americas. It also points out, as the title suggests, that race is not a biological fact but a social construct. The terms we use so casually today - 'white', 'black', 'caucasian' - have an interesting history. It doesn't call for the abolition of racial categories though because they are useful in determining such things as social equality, which suggests that current social inequality is a function of the arbitrary classification of human beings into nonexistent subcategories, and not vice versa. And if you'd like to see evidence of how arbitrary this classification is, take a look at this page, where you are given 16 photographs to classify under four racial categories. Give it a go and see how many you get right.

But what's most interesting and, I think, most relevant to Australia is the section titled What's Race Got To Do With It? The third presentation, called "The Elephant in the Room" seemed the most directly applicable to what I've seen in Australia. I should point out that I don't know all that much about the social and racial history of Australia and what I do know comes from references made in articles and conversations about current issues (such as the Apology to Indigenous Australians made by the Prime Minister earlier this year, the portrayal - or lack thereof - of Indigenous Australians in the media and art, and Australia's rather intersting immigration policies through history). I have however been living here for just over two years now and while I honestly find it a wonderfully welcoming place, I have also found it to be one where racism is incredibly deeply ingrained. Not in the classic American sense of being discriminated against on the basis of your skin color (though it's been known to happen) but in the constant classification of people into categories and sub-categories. People born and bred in Australia are still referred to by their parents' race or, if they are of European ancestry, by their forebears' country of origin. Nobody, it seems, is just Australian. Given the intermittent noise in the media about 'Australian values' and identity, that's just bizarre.

The racism is so casual you almost don't notice it. For instance, upon meeting my husband, several people have remarked that he wasn't what they expected. They were expecting a Pakistani - and therefore presumably Muslim - male but he 'doesn't look like one.' As if that wasn't galling enough, some have remarked on how lovely that is and how lucky I am.

Another example is language. I have lost count of how many times I've received compliments on my command of English or been asked outright where I learnt it because it's really rather good. I don't think any of the people who have complimented me have meant any harm by it and have no idea that they were being insufferably patronizing. I have decided however that, rather than get annoyed, the simplest thing to do is to compliment theirs in return. You know, one native speaker to another.

My personal favorite is people who must assert a cultural difference no matter what. Everyone being spoken of belongs to some neat little category that immediately explains everything about them. What a convenient way to view the world.

Given the history of racism, these are minor irritations. But they indicate nonetheless how deeply ingrained the assumptions based on race actually are, even though most people would be hard put to explain why some people are categorized according to race while others are defined by their ethnicity, nationality, or religion and would be surprised to learn how often they conflate these categories themselves.


Two things kottke posted recently that I had to share:

This is what A-Ha's Take On Me would sound like if the lyrics actually had anything to do with the video.

In a similar vein, a song where the lyrics are about the lyrics. It's worth listening to the end.

That's my neighborhood.

You've probably seen the images of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad up in flames, heard all about the truckload of explosives going off, the scramble to save people, the 60 dead so far and the over 200 people injured.

About 200m from the Marriott is my grandmother's house. My grandmother, my mother, my brother, our cook and his helper, and the maid and her husband were all home. They all heard the explosions (two of them) and then, moments after my brother stepped away from his bedroom window because he couldn't see anything, the shockwave from the explosion shattered every single window in the house and ripped out most of the panes and doors. If the curtains hadn't been drawn, they would all have been severely injured, my mother most of all, I think, since she was sitting right under half a wall of glass. For the past 24 hours, my family has been attempting to clean the place up.

All things considered, they were extremely lucky. Less sound houses have sustained far more structural damage. Less fortunate people are dead, dying, or lost somewhere in the rubble of what was one of the oldest and most well-known buildings in the city. There were about 1,500 people there - they're not all accounted for and I have no idea how long it will be before they are.

In the mean time, my family is cleaning up and repairing the damage to the house. They've been at it for 24 hours now. I have no idea how much more time it will take to get rid of all the glass that's lying all over the place or how long it will be before new windows and doors can be fitted.

I keep doing that. Shifting focus from my house and family to the larger, more horrific picture of a hotel full of people being attacked like that. I'm only just beginning to be able to stomach looking at footage of the blast, and images of the damage and of people being pulled from it. It still makes me cry, but that's to be expected for the time being. There's lots to be thought about - big-picture stuff like how all this fits into the political situation and all this talk of 'uniting' and 'common enemies' from the Americans and the Pakistani government, but at the moment it's the 'smaller' stuff like getting help to people directly affected by the explosion that's on my mind.

You need to read this

This was published over at the Science-Based Medicine blog a few months ago and caught my attention thanks to today's blog post over there. It's a droll account of how the nonsense that is 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine' managed to sell itself not just to the public but to the medical establishment to the point that it gets written about in medical journals and taken seriously by people who should know better.

What is particularly interesting to me in this is the use of language to effect this coup. Change language and you change perception indeed.

Well, Jeff, quackery is a pejorative term. Some time ago we recognized that words raise emotions and mental pictures. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised by them, so we tried to eliminate quackery. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised when one discusses acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, and healing at a distance as if they were quackery when we made claims. For a century, most people just could not allow for the possibility that these things really work.


So over time we recognized that we had to do something about our language. That would be the first step in enabling the thought revolution that is upon us, and changing the paradigm in medicine and science. We simply changed the adjectives, and gave alternate names to the methods, added a few phrases to eliminate negative reactions, and shifted the negative terms to descriptions of the Medical Establishment (and, note the caps in that one.)

And along with that, we took advantage of a shift in perception, to be sure that the public would adopt a non-judgmental attitude. Of course, we had to wait decades for that attitude to mature to the point that they would be willing to give our claims a hearing, whereas just thirty years ago they would have dismissed the claims out of hand.Not only did we get that non-judgmental mind-set, but with it, a strong negative reaction to a description that contained an opinion or one that used any kind of loaded language to describe an underdog - no matter how true or justified that language happened to be. Fortunately for us, a wave of change spread across the intelligentsia, especially in the universities and the literary community, reinforced by the press.

Thoughts inevitably turn to Orwell, but also to Deborah Tannen, Francis Wheen, Barbara Ehrenreich and many others who've been trying, each with the tools at their disposal, to point out that what we're doing is tantamount to, as my brother put it, 'shooting ourselves in the foot while being chased by a steamroller.'

Food around the world

What the World Eats, Part I is a photo essay documenting what 15 different families around the world eat during an average week. It's from the book Hungry Planet, which features many more families and apparently deals in some detail with their lives and their relationship with food. It doesn't sound like it'll be all that interesting, until you start looking at the pictures. Even with very little text accompanying them, they speak volumes.

Fourteen Passive Aggressive Appetizers

Having people over that you'd really rather not? Or just feeling a teensy bit, you know, vindictive? Trust the New Yorker to be able to tell you what to do:

4. Blend fresh crabmeat with diced avocado, scallions, and a dollop of mayonnaise for a canapé topping so delicious that it will take your guests a full minute to realize that they’re eating it off dog biscuits. Once they catch on, act mortified and stammer that you must have “mixed up the boxes,” until everyone calms down. Then start crying because the biscuits remind you that today marks exactly eight weeks since you had to put down Buster, and you just miss him so much.


6. For a taste of the U.K., fry up mini-servings of fish-and-chips. Take it to the next level by wrapping them in small pieces of newspaper, which, oddly enough, all seem to be printed with unfavorable reviews of Jeff ’s novel.