Archives for : September2010
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I am opposed to the building of the “mosque” two blocks from Ground Zero.
I want it built on Ground Zero.
Why? Because I believe in an America that protects those who are the victims of hate and prejudice. I believe in an America that says you have the right to worship whatever God you have, wherever you want to worship. And I believe in an America that says to the world that we are a loving and generous people and if a bunch of murderers steal your religion from you and use it as their excuse to kill 3,000 souls, then I want to help you get your religion back. And I want to put it at the spot where it was stolen from you.
There’s been so much that’s been said about this manufactured controversy, I really don’t want to waste any time on this day of remembrance talking about it. But I hate bigotry and I hate liars, and so in case you missed any of the truth that’s been lost in this, let me point out a few facts:
1. I love the Burlington Coat Factory. I’ve gotten some great winter coats there at a very reasonable price. Muslims have been holding their daily prayers there since 2009. No one ever complained about that. This is not going to be a “mosque,” it’s going to be a community center. It will have the same prayer room in it that’s already there. But to even have to assure people that “it’s not going to be mosque” is so offensive, I now wish they would just build a 111-story mosque there. That would be better than the lame and disgusting way the developer has left Ground Zero an empty hole until recently. The remains of over 1,100 people still haven’t been found. That site is a sacred graveyard, and to be building another monument to commerce on it is a sacrilege. Why wasn’t the entire site turned into a memorial peace park? People died there, and many of their remains are still strewn about, all these years later.
2. Guess who has helped the Muslims organize their plans for this community center? The JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER of Manhattan! Their rabbi has been advising them since the beginning. It’s been a picture-perfect example of the kind of world we all want to live in. Peter Stuyvessant, New York’s “founder,” tried to expel the first Jews who arrived in Manhattan. Then the Dutch said, no, that’s a bit much. So then Stuyvessant said ok, you can stay, but you cannot build a synagogue anywhere in Manhattan. Do your stupid Friday night thing at home. The first Jewish temple was not allowed to be built until 1730. Then there was a revolution, and the founding fathers said this country has to be secular — no religious nuts or state religions. George Washington (inaugurated around the corner from Ground Zero) wanted to make a statement about this his very first year in office, and wrote this to American Jews:
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. …
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens …
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
3. The Imam in charge of this project is the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. Read about his past here.
4. Around five dozen Muslims died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hundreds of members of their families still grieve and suffer. The 19 killers did not care what religion anyone belonged to when they took those lives.
5. I’ve never read a sadder headline in the New York Times than the one on the front page this past Monday: “American Muslims Ask, Will We Ever Belong?” That should make all of us so ashamed that even a single one of our fellow citizens should ever have to worry about if they “belong” here.
6. There is a McDonald’s two blocks from Ground Zero. Trust me, McDonald’s has killed far more people than the terrorists.
7. During an economic depression or a time of war, fascists are extremely skilled at whipping up fear and hate and getting the working class to blame “the other” for their troubles. Lincoln’s enemies told poor Southern whites that he was “a Catholic.” FDR’s opponents said he was Jewish and called him “Jewsevelt.” One in five Americans now believe Obama is a Muslim and 41% of Republicans don’t believe he was born here.
8. Blaming a whole group for the actions of just one of that group is anti-American. Timothy McVeigh was Catholic. Should Oklahoma City prohibit the building of a Catholic Church near the site of the former federal building that McVeigh blew up?
9. Let’s face it, all religions have their whackos. Catholics have O’Reilly, Gingrich, Hannity and Clarence Thomas (in fact all five conservatives who dominate the Supreme Court are Catholic). Protestants have Pat Robertson and too many to list here. The Mormons have Glenn Beck. Jews have Crazy Eddie. But we don’t judge whole religions on just the actions of their whackos. Unless they’re Methodists.
10. If I should ever, God forbid, perish in a terrorist incident, and you or some nutty group uses my death as your justification to attack or discriminate against anyone in my name, I will come back and haunt you worse than Linda Blair marrying Freddy Krueger and moving into your bedroom to spawn Chucky. John Lennon was right when he asked us to imagine a world with “nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too.” I heard Deepak Chopra this week say that “God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion.’ ” But John Adams said it best when he wrote a sort of letter to the future (which he called “Posterity”): “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.” I’m guessing ol’ John Adams is up there repenting nonstop right now.
Friends, we all have a responsibility NOW to make sure that Muslim community center gets built. Once again, 70% of the country (the same number that initially supported the Iraq War) is on the wrong side and want the “mosque” moved. Enormous pressure has been put on the Imam to stop his project. We have to turn this thing around. Are we going to let the bullies and thugs win another one? Aren’t you fed up by now? When would be a good time to take our country back from the haters?
I say right now. Let’s each of us make a statement by donating to the building of this community center! It’s a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization and you can donate a dollar or ten dollars (or more) right now through a secure pay pal account by clicking here. I will personally match the first $10,000 raised (forward your PayPal receipt firstname.lastname@example.org). If each one of you reading this blog/email donated just a couple of dollars, that would give the center over $6 million, more than what Donald Trump has offered to buy the Imam out. C’mon everyone, let’s pitch in and help those who are being debased for simply wanting to do something good. We could all make a huge statement of love on this solemn day.
I lost a co-worker on 9/11. I write this today in his memory.
“The man who speaks of the enemy / Is the enemy himself.”
– Bertolt Brecht
India’s brutality has turned Kashmir into a living hell
“But you’re a Westener. You see how
things are here. We have been living like this for twenty years. When
you go back to your country you tell them. You ask them why they aren’t
By Giorgiana Violante on Sunday,
August 29th, 2010 – 1,325 words.
This is the first time in weeks I have had access to the
internet. I have not been allowed to receive or send text messages for
three months. Just like all Kashmiris my telephone has been barred from
such contact. The local news channels have been banned. India controls
everything here. And then kills it. The situation is horrific. Over
these months of food rationing and persistent curfew whereby all is
closed and the streets totally deserted in utter silence, suddenly a
protest arises and then spreads throughout the whole city in a surge
of frustrated and famished rioters shouting ‘AZADI AZADI AZADI’
(freedom) until it dissipates suddenly into a cacophony of gunshots and
clouds of teargas.
I observe all this going on at a safe remove of only one metre
by a big thick brick wall interrupted by the Mevlana Rumi gate to
Kashmir University, where I am residing. I see through the iron bars
hordes upon hordes of protesters being shot at randomly, and I stand
there repellently incapable of doing anything. An endless cycle of
silence and violence. The Indian army own total control and freedom to
shoot at will, to shoot to kill, anyone whom they choose to.
Last week a seven-year-old child was beaten to death. You
cannot accidentally beat a seven-year-old to death. It is not like a
bullet that goes astray. I cannot see how a stone thrown by a
seven-year-old child can do sufficient damage to any man to warrant his
being beaten to death. Children in this part of the world are tiny. A
seven-year-old is the size of a three-year-old westerner. So what kind
of person beats a tiny child to death when his stone throw must carry
so little force that it barely deserves a shrug? This is such a common
The other day I left the university grounds to visit a
professor only one minute away. True there is curfew but his house is
in a private road attached to the university so I thought I would risk
it. When I returned a roofless sumo vehicle full of ten Indian army
thugs laughing and shouting came charging through the street waving
their batons and guns. They headed for an old man and tried to hit him
and then they knocked a four-year-old boy off his tricycle. For fun. He
was only 50 centimetres outside his house’s garden so that hardly
counts as disobeying the curfew and yet they charged at him on purpose.
They knocked him off the tricycle and then headed for me, which as a
western woman I did not expect.
I am living here within the deserted university grounds, alone with
the security guards and a few random professors and clerks. The
university was evacuated three months ago when the troubles commenced
and the students and school children all over the valley have
experienced, as they always do, a great void in their education.
The Indian army gun down eleven-year-old girls banging on the doors
of pharmacists when it is clear that their disobedience of the curfew
is purely out of desperation. How can a full grown man gun down and
kill an eleven-year-old girl banging on a pharmacy door in an empty
street? A woman kneeling on the pavement covering her face with her
hands had her hands beaten to a pulp and they had to be amputated. Two
weeks ago, on a Friday, I heard the usual impassioned pleads for
freedom hailing from Hazratbal Mosque, which is just outside the
university. For an hour the calls of ‘Azadi’ escalated and escalated
until suddenly I heard a spray of gunshots. The shots continued
sporadically over the next hour. I later found out that the mosque was
raided by the army and people were beaten severely. Some died, of
The Indian army have the right and the freedom to behave like
this, invading places of worship simply because of impassioned calls
for freedom by a people who are being totally crushed and obliterated.
This sort of thing happens every day. Total abuse of power by the
occupying forces. But the people of Kashmir have no right to retaliate.
Nor the freedom to even leave their homes. I cannot bear my complete
and utter uselessness in this situation. As a rich westerner even I
cannot get food. The other day myself and seven boys shared two carrots
between us and a handful of rice.
So how can these Kashmiris be managing when they have not
been able to open their businesses for three months? How can they even
have the money to afford food, even if there WAS food to be had from
somewhere? You risk your life in order to get food. How can you get
food without leaving home? Yesterday a young boy working as a clerk in
the university showed me his mauled arms and the gash in his thigh.
His arms were black and purple with crusted blood from last week. His
legs were obscene. Flesh made hell.
‘I went to get medicine’ he said, ‘and the army caught me’. I smiled
and said, ‘Oh you people are always getting caught on the way to get
medicine. Rubbish it was medicine. You went to get biscuits.’
‘Aren’t biscuits medicine?’ he replied, smiling the same smile as
Last week as I circled the admittedly beautiful university grounds, a
forest of chinar trees and endless rows of roses in full bloom, moghul
gardens outside every department (Why are these gardens perfectly
tendered? Given the situation outside how do these people have the
strength and hope to even care to tend their gardens? Everything here is
death and hopelessness. I would have expected the gardens to have been
left to run to desolation), I saw a thin little old man with a cotton
bag full of lumps. Usually one doesn’t see bags. Certainly not ones
with lumps in them. Not in these conditions. My mind viciously wondered
how he got the food? Who he got it from? Had he bribed one of the army
pigs at the university gates? I suddenly realised I was frowning and
in a very ugly-minded manner. The ugly things hunger does to a person’s
mind is shocking. His bag was probably full of dirty laundry.
Sometimes someone will address me angrily as I pass by, something
along the lines of:
“Hey you, America! Why aren’t you helping us? You do something.”
“What can I do?” I reply, “I’m neither a politician nor a journalist.
I’m just trapped here like you.”
“But you’re a Westener. You see how things are here. We have been
living like this for twenty years. When you go back to your country you
tell them. You ask them why they aren’t helping us.”
“It’s your own fault,” I reply. “Why should we bother saving your
country when its got no natural resources worth raping? All you’ve got
is apples, goats and saffron. You’re doomed.”
A few seconds of silence will be followed by a warm invitation to
tea. Muslim hospitality. At this time when every tea leaf is precious
these people will share even their last few crumbs of powdered milk
with you. And you sit there sipping the tea wondering how and where
they managed to procure it and how much it cost them in beatings.
What’s the most valuable player on your own USB drive? What tools make your thumb drive fit into your workflow? We’re all ears in the comments.
The last days of old Kashgar
Kashgar, in China’s remote far-west Xinjiang province, lies on a fertile crescent at the convergence of ancient caravan routes linking India, Central Asia and China. For over a millenium, this fabled city was a crucial link in the Silk Route economy, and its culture thrived.
I have long wanted to visit Kashgar. In May 2009, traveling there took on some urgency when it became apparent that the Chinese local government had begun implementing plans to demolish 85% of the remaining old town. The New York Times sounded the alarm; the news raised hackles from preservationists around the world, because Kashgar’s old town was until then regarded as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.”
I finally managed to visit Kashgar in late July 2010, and stayed for over a week, walking through practically every alley I could find, documenting the the old town’s transformation and photographing its people.
The photos I took are up on Flickr, but a project like this is made to be published on Google Earth, so I georeferenced the photos using GPS. I also mapped the demolished areas as I walked through them. The resulting files — georeferenced photos, GPS tracks and a superimposed map — can be downloaded as a KMZ file for Google Earth. This is a documentary snapshot of Kashgar circa August 1, 2010.
What did I find? I can report that almost half of the remaining old town has been razed, and much of the rest is set to go. Most of the buildings facing the old town’s main streets have been preserved, but the areas behind them are being hollowed out. Many alleys now end in wide-open spaces, empty save for the occasional denuded hold-out home whose exterior walls show the interior decorations of vanished neighbors. Here and there, a lone tree marks the spot of a demolished courtyard. Children have colonized these open spaces as a massive romping ground, for now.
In other parts of the old town, where the bulldozers were only just beginning to venture, I found families busily gutting their own homes, dragging out metal staircases, recovering bricks, salvaging what is salvageable for use in their new home. They looked resigned but not despondent, and were always happy to have me around taking photos. (Kashgaris are extraordinarily friendly and engaging, young and old alike.)
I have learned from living in Shanghai and now Beijing that Chinese authorities — and to a certain extent mainstream Chinese culture — do not attach much importance to protecting traditional vernacular architecture. Imperial palaces and grand religious temples are worthy of preservation or even reconstruction, but not on the whole the hutong of Beijing or the lane houses of Shanghai, which are deemed too ordinary, especially when there is money to made building high-rises in their stead.
In Europe, by contrast, entire towns can remain unmolested, from Óbidos to San Gimignano to Visby. The West’s record is not unblemished, of course: In New York City, Robert Moses was able to do some damage before he found his match in Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities redefined how we view and value lower-income urban communities. In Europe, wars did far more damage than Moses ever could, but even there the destruction set in place a process of valuing what was lost, with towns like Ypres and Dresden choosing to meticulously reconstruct their destroyed cores.
Moses might also have had a go at Kashgar, so we Westerners shouldn’t feel too smug; as recently as 1961, when Jane Jacobs’s book was educating us, the Chinese had far more pressing concerns, namely avoiding being among the 35 million who perished through famine in Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
As anyone who has been to Kashgar can attest, the alleys do not divulge much by way of opulence. The public-facing walls of the old town’s homes are bare — made of mud- or baked yellow brick rising 2-3 stories. A wooden door, if open, reveals a curtain preserving the privacy of a shady courtyard inside. The exteriors are not beautiful in an aesthetic sense, though that is not where the effort lies; it’s on the inside that these homes reveal their real wealth, through the ornate woodwork on covered verandas and the intricate stucco interiors.
As old Kashgar is dismantled, the remaining homes are losing their shared exterior walls, affording just for a brief moment a view into their covered courtyards. It’s a swan song, however; soon enough these homes too will disappear, once compensation is agreed to.
(Or if their owners hold out indefinitely they’ll be denied electricity and water until their cause is made irrelevant by “facts on the ground”:)
How are these empty spaces being refilled? It is already possible to discern a two-pronged strategy. Encroaching on the perimeter of the old town, contiguous to main roads or previously built modern construction, 4-6 story medium-rise residential buildings are sprouting. Meanwhile, in the interior of the old town, work crews are constructing 2-3 story reinforced concrete frameworks, at roughly the same scale as the structures they replace. In at least a few cases, I saw new owners filling in the walls themselves with bricks recovered from their old homes. The new construction I’ve seen differs from the old in three ways: It does not in the main conform to the traditional layout of a central covered courtyard; the new alleys are wider, allowing vehicle access; and because they are wider, there is little opportunity to expand homes by building across alleys, as was often done with the old homes.
Work is progressing rapidly. The most recent imagery in Google Earth right now, dated October 26, 2009, shows just the beginning phases of the demolition. When a section has been demolished, crews start prepping the ground for new construction while the next section is cleared. The razing and rebuilding of Kashgar is thus happening concurrently. At this pace, it looks to me like they can get all of it done by mid-2012.
But why does this need to happen at all, let alone so quickly? Some reports (such as the one in Time Magazine) espouse theories portraying the demolition of old Kashgar as an attempt by the majority Han to better subjugate the Uyghurs. The problem with this theory is that demolition on such a scale is not just foisted on China’s ethnic minorities. In Beijing I cycle daily past newly demolished hutong districts. Here too, the process is not transparent, residents are not consulted, and in general are told only at the last possible moment when to vacate homes up for demolition. (Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing is a great read if you want to know more.)
One reason given to journalists for the demolition is that the whole region is earthquake-prone, and thus the only way to preëmptively save Kashgari lives is to destroy their unsafe homes. I mooted that explanation to a local Uyghur guide, who scoffed at it, pointing out that these buildings have survived for centuries. More likely, I think, is that Chinese bureaucrats surveying old Kashgar saw only embarrassing poverty, and unilaterally decided to drag it into the 21st century. These officials may never have been inside a meticulously decorated Uyghur courtyard home, or perhaps they visited a few but did not care much for them. The prospect of handing out building contracts could also have helped the decision to demolish.
But even if I were convinced of the need for a Kashgar makeover, why does it need to happen so quickly? Why not gradually renovate over a 10-15 year period, one neighborhood at a time, replacing just the most precarious structures and bringing modern amenities to the rest? To make a forestry analogy, why clearcut when you could fell selectively, removing just the dead wood, preserving the special character of an old-growth forest?
I can think of a few reasons. First, blunt instruments are cheaper. Second, just as in Beijing, speedy implementations of opaquely arrived-at demolition orders thwart opportunities for organized local resistance. Third, 10-15 year-long projects take too long to be compatible with the hoped-for career trajectories of the local Communist Party bosses, eager to take credit for their initiatives now. (Separately, I fear to think what happens to all the archaeological material that must become visible when an entire city strata is churned over. At this pace, there cannot possibly be time for proper excavations.)
Why hasn’t tourism been a better incentive for preservation? You do see the occasional westerner exploring the town, but the overwhelming majority of tourists in Kashgar are affluent visitors from within China, and they uniformly travel in bussed tour groups, deposited at various locales where they are led to photogenic spots by guides bearing portable loudspeakers. Among these destinations are the two officially protected parts of the old town, the 15% where bulldozers won’t tread. These neighborhoods have been turned into open-air museums, with an entrance fee (RMB 30, USD 4.40) that entitles access to various courtyard homes and souvenir shops. I suspect that the Chinese authorities think these two areas should suffice for the majority of tourists. Depressingly, they may be right.
But tourism alone shouldn’t motivate preservation. Traditional urban geography anchors local culture through the unique social interactions it facilitates; Kashgar’s alleys, with their many small mosques and nearby teahouses, foster micro-neighborhoods safe enough for bare-bottomed toddlers to play unsupervised. Preserving a token part of the old town for touristic purposes is of no value to the ex-residents who have lost their particular neighborhood.
Will old Kashgar’s urban culture survive the wholesale uprooting of its building stock? A number of residents are opting to spend their compensation on apartments in new high-rises at the edge of the city, which promise decent plumbing and insulation — as did one guide I talked to. (I too like my amenities, so I cannot blame them). Perhaps the new 2-3 story buildings at the center of the old town will be similar enough in scale and function that they can simulate the old urban geography. I hope so, though I fear that the character of old Kashgar will soon change irrevocably, not through necessity or war or natural disaster, but through fiat. And that would be a great pity.