Another Minal-ism: So everything you read in the news isn’t the truth?
She’s been listening to René and me talk about western news coverage of he Israeli bombings on Gaza. When I was eight, I wasn’t so astute.
In 2012-13, I’m serving as Artist-in-Residence at the Mitchell Center for the Arts (University of Houston). I’ll be working on a project called Borderlines.
Check out my new blogposts on Poets & Writers. My blogs will be appearing online for the month of October.
Terry works in a house that serves as a storage unit for the church. The building contains painting equipment and other construction supplies. I park my car on Cleveland Street, walk by some boarded homes owned by the church toward where Terry works. A woman sits on the outside porch. I nod hello to her and she nods back. Before I can call out Terry’s name, I hear his voice through the netting. “There you are!” He steps out into the porch and we exchange Tuesday morning niceties.
But instead of being interviewed himself, Terry wants to take me to meet Jackie Beckham. I know the name – Catherine Roberts has also mentioned Ms. Beckham to me; she’s one of the oldest residents in the neighborhood.
We decide to walk over to Ms. Beckham’s home, five blocks west. Up until now, I’ve mostly been driving around the neighborhood, but today the temperature feels comfortable. We turn on Andrews Street along the brick street, passing by the Yates Museum as we head west.
Terry points to the old bricks and the tram line. “These bricks were burned by the freed slaves,” he tells me. “But now they want to tear them down.”
Ms. Beckham’s house has a historic marker on it and metal fence closes off the front entrance. She steps out soon after Terry calls out her name.
When I tell her I’m interested in interviewing her, she nods. “Well, you can do that. But not right now…” Her daughter is getting married soon and that she has a lot of work to do. Noticing that both Terry and I are sweating on the street, she invites us into the house. We chat a little more with television news in the background and by the time we leave, we have pinned down a time to talk.
Today I head back to the African American Library at the Gregory School to speak to Mike Moore, the Community Liaison. He tells me he’s been working hard to connect with the neighborhood residents.
“So many people who live near the Library don’t even know of our resources,” he tells me. “But in the evenings, many students camp out in the benches outside our building. We have free wi-fi, you know…and many of them don’t have the service at home.”
Later on in the afternoon, he sends me a link to an oral histories archive that the library has been collecting.
My friend Christine arranges a breakfast meeting with Catherine Roberts, who serves on the board of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, that’s close to my friend’s house on Andrews Street in the heart of Freedmen’s town. I’m meeting with Catherine to see if perhaps VBB can use the Museum as part of our December 1 living room art production, Homes and Histories.
The R.B.H. Yates Museum is “dedicated to preservation of the cultural history, brick streets, archaeology, and architecture of the early residents of Freedmen’s Town”. Built between 1898 and 1900, the home was the home of Reverend Ned P. Pullum. Today, an archeological museum has been created in the space.
After breakfast, Roberts takes me on a tour of the house, which is now marked as historic. Inside the museum, the foundation exhibits neighborhood artifacts, photographs, newspaper clippings and objects. One room contains a tall stack of boxes containing material that still have to be sorted through and tagged; in the backyard are areas that are marked for digging and exploration.
“This room,” Roberts says, opening a door to side room, “was the ‘guest room’ where out-of-town visitors stayed. There were no hotels for African Americans to go so they came here and these homes were built so visitors could have a place to stay. THey were given separate entrances…”
We walk out on Andrews Street and Catherine points to the cobbled street. “The city wants to tear these historic red bricks. They say they want to redo the streets and they’ll put the bricks back…but these are the last of the bricks that were made by the Freedmen’s Town’s first residents….”
Danielle Smith, a curator at the Houston Public Library System, visits with me at the African American Library at the Gregory School, a library that archives history about Houston’s black community and about Freedmen’s Town, where the library is located. She’s been interested in helping out with VBB project in the neighborhood and has offered to help by introducing me to different homeowners and others that she knows. Today, as we talk, she sees a truck across the street.
“I see someone who might be able to help you,” she says.
We walk across the library’s parking lot the street. The door of the corner townhome is open and the inside smells of fresh paint.
“Kenny!” she calls.
No answer. We step through the doorway to the back of the house and Kenny greets her with a hug and smile. I get a warm handshake.
“Sure,” he says, once I explain VBB’s newest living room art project to him. You can use the house. But you’d have to have the show soon. I’m tryin’ to rent the place real soon.”
“Maybe we could have a dinner here?” I ask.
“Maybe. Let’s see how quickly I can rent. I need the money soon. But later on I might buy more property here,” he says. “There’s another home in this strip that’s for sale.”
Kenny’s openness is touching. Even though the home is relatively new – it was constructed in 2000 – Freedmen’s Town has been a tough neighborhood to find a home to host a production. The houses are either too new or else they are occupied and there’s little space for art installation. And then, there are rows of old homes that are boarded up. I’m also aware of a vanishing history. The corners of Freedmen’s Town are now crunched in a grid of ten one way streets that run east and west between Heiner and Genessee streets (and the I-45 Freeway feeder), while the seven streets that run from north to south are marked by West Gray and West Dallas. North of West Dallas is the Allen Parkway Village , of which only a piece remains, while the old Jefferson Davis hospital has been replaced by newer homes and now there’s a large state reserve bank along the bayou.
The houses in the grid are a mix of older shotgun homes, some still in use while others have been boarded up while yet others are marked as historic homes. One such home is the Rutherford Yates Museum on Andrews Street. Many aluminum townhomes have sprung up in the neighborhood, while other townhomes were built as part of an assisted living project.
As we talk, Danielle suggests we visit Terrence who takes care of housing properties around the corner.
Terry also welcomes Danielle with a warm hug and tells me: “I can introduce you to people. I’m not really from here…” He tells me he’s been involved in living in Freedmen’s Town for more than 30 years. “I’m from Ohio – and I lived here for a long time. But now I live in the Third Ward because there’s no housing here.”
The rental car turns onto Mai Kolachi road, and I look on both sides to mourn the loss of the mangroves that paid the price for easy access to the port from our side of town. As we head further south, we pass the new US consulate, a fort that is different from the open space I remember from the eighties when I stood in line for my first US visa to go to college. Now, the structure is fortified, and somewhere in the distance, high above the steep walls protected by glass and barbed wire, waves a lonely US flag. Everyone is happy that the consulate has moved away from Abdullah Haroon Road so once more the street can be open and Frere Hall can be visited.
Today, my sister Beena Sarwar, Aslam Khwaja (a social researcher) and I are taking this route so we can visit Rahim Bux Azad in Lyari. According to my cousin Haris Gazdar, Rahim Bux Azad has stories to share about Lyari, and this interview is a kickoff to the research project I’m doing for VBB’s next living room art productions.
Once we reach Jinnah Bridge through which we can drive to Lyari, the traffic comes to a standstill. All around us are rickshaws, trucks and buses and we seem to be the lone passenger car heading to the harbor this evening. First we think that this is just the rush for iftaar, but when the car doesn’t move for the next 30 minutes, we get worried, especially when the driver turns off the car’s engine and extracts a Sprite bottle from the trunk. He pours the liquid from the bottle into the front engine and tells us that he’s put water into the engine. “Let’s hope the traffic jam clears soon,” he says.
But another 45 minutes pass and we have only moved half a mile. When we reach the top of the bridge above Karachi Port Trust, all the drivers turn off their engines and there is an eerie silence on this highly trafficked road. I step out of the car and can hear the koels singing. As we watch, a rickshaw driver, pushes his three-wheeler onto the pavement and the next thing we know, he has turned around and has left the trap.
After a while, we decide to abandon the car. We give our phone number to the driver and tell him to find us in Lyari once the traffic clears. As we start walking down the main bridge, we see a rickshaw; the driver is the same man who left the traffic earlier. We pile into his rickshaw and he jets down the bridge. In just 15 minutes, he manages to work his way down one-way roads (going the wrong way, of course) and is able to drop us at the street corner where we need to be.
In Houston, protests are rising – as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) goes on strike to demand higher wages for janitorial staff.
Local organizers are participating in daily marches in Tranquility Park in downtown Houston. Tomorrow, there will be another march at 4 pm.
Last Thursday’s protest was broken by police on horseback….
“Why aren’t there any women leaders being remembered today?” Minal asks. She’s happy that she knows more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but is also curious about pieces of history that she still hasn’t learned.
We talk to her about Rosa Parks and play Thank you, Sister Rosa,” the Neville Brothers song that I was introduced to years ago by my friend Robin. If she were a little older, we could plan to take her to see Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock that will be playing at Rice Cinema in a few days.
Minal stares at a pink bag in a grocery store. She reads the words: Buy me now. Save Texas – purchase your own grocery bag.
She turns to me. “Actually, you can save the world if you don’t cut trees.”
It’s been a few years since I’ve spent time in New York. This time, I am here to participate in a panel and give a reading / screening at a conversation set up by Bronx Community College (BCC) faculty member and my friend Dr. Sandra Tarlin, who used to live and work in Houston and was very involved with Voices Breaking Boundaries. Sandra has created a panel of women from neighboring countries(Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) to talk with BCC students about the work we do with women in and about our homelands.
In the morning, as I walk into BCC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, I feel as if I am home. The stairs are old, hollow and as we descend to the lowest level, I see the bulletin board with new posters mixed with older announcements. At an informal lunch gathering, I screen Yunuen’s documentary about VBB’s living room art project, and visit with BCC faculty. We end the energized conversation with ideas to expand VBB living room art productions to explore neighborhood in the Bronx.
Later on in the afternoon, I join in with Shayma Daneshjo (UNICEF), Dr. Elhum Haghighat-Sordellini, (Lehman College), Dr. Vrunda Prabhu (BCC), and Dr. Farnosh Saeedi (BCC) to a packed auditorium filled with students from all backgrounds. With the conversation moving from Iran to Afghanistan, India and then into Pakistan, there is no shortage of materials to cover. The students sit through two hours of presentation and conversation and remain till late after the formal presentations and question and answer session is over to visit with each of us.
Some of the moments that I remember from my trip: the intense conversation with three young Pakistani women and a Palestinian man who talk to me about borders and identity and issues they confront in their daily lives after viewing my short video collage Why Are You Looking At Me Like That?; my exchange with student and performance artist Nirvana, who shares a poem with me and wants to remain in touch to talk about writing and performance; my visit with Sandra, who I hadn’t seen in more than seven years and with whom I share much artistic and activist history; the rich conversation with the panelists and the students about the challenges that women confront in the region that we discussed as well as those faced on a daily basis in the Bronx; and my airport ride with BCC English faculty member H. Elizabeth Smith, who has her father buried in the Rawalpindi graveyard and a mother who is now in Baltimore but yearns to return to Pakistan. There is an energy and pulse to the overall experience of being on that campus, which leads me to think that I will be back there again.
And with all the action on the BCC campus, I still manage to spend quality time with college friend Sophie, who picks me up from Newark, introduces me to her Jordanian friend Lara, and we hang out together at a fabulous Italian seafood restaurant on Lexington, reliving our young college days on that island. I even manage to meet up with my cousin Asif who takes a stopover in Manhattan so he and I can hang out for a night and walk from Soho to Times Square in memory of old times.
There are no such things as coincidences, says a college friend Nema, who I will see in Houston. I am glad that though my trip is short—and intense—that I still have time to enjoy friends and family.
I don’t often watch mainstream news, but every now again when René turns it on and something catches my eyes, I sit down for a moment. Today, I’m reminded once again why I stay far from news outlets such as mainstream TV. As I walk by the family room, I hear Brian Williams talking about the floods that are ravaging the land around the River Indus in Pakistan. Twenty million people have been displaced – they are without home and are desperate for basics such as shelter, food and water. Brian Williams tells us that the disaster is getting worse and there is no relief in sight.
After a few shots of one family that’s lost a home, the camera zooms in on the homeowner who shouts into the camera (not word for word): “Our government is useless. We’d be better off under military rule.”
And then the story moves to commentary on how the US must send support to Pakistan before religious extremists win the hearts of those who are suffering, glossing over the fact that 1,500 people have died, 20 million people are without homes, and there will be more deaths as illness spreads. (In today’s New York Times editorial the emphasis is once again on stopping ‘terrorists,’ and not as much about human beings who have lost so much.)
As I absorb the information being telecast to millions of US viewers, I ask myself if any government is ever ready to deal with disaster in a manner that all suffering will be relieved. And if the government cannot be there, why is NBC news giving airtime to a man who wants a military dictatorship? When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, did we find US mainstream news airing opinions of enraged citizens asking for the US army to take over? Governments should be viewed critically – and there was certainly a lot to criticize in the way the US government at the time handled the disaster in New Orleans – but is criticism of government synonymous with demanding dictatorship? Or does the ‘dictatorship’ option just apply to countries such as Pakistan that are struggling to strengthen structures of democracy?
Since I’m stuck to the TV now, I end up remaining on the sofa. René switches to PBS news, and there, too, is coverage of the situation. Gwen Ifill is talking to Saima Mohsin who’s reporting from Karachi, and the story is much more balanced – about the risks, hunger, and the losses faced by 12 percent of the overall country’s population since the flooding began almost three weeks ago. This is not a blog in support of PBS, because I’m not often satisfied with the reporting there either.
I’m also getting a lot of emails and phone calls from concerned friends about where to donate.
My friend Sorayya Khan compiled a great list of NGOs in Pakistan:
Howard Zinn, we will miss you. You will continue to inspire us.
Today is Benazir Bhutto's second death anniversary, and she is being remembered and mourned around globe. I clearly remember 5:30 pm, December 27, 2007; Minal and I were in Karachi, and I was blogging intensely at the time. So much has happened over the past two years, but even now, Benazir's murderers haven't been exposed. But today, Pakistan is functioning under a democratically elected government, even as the country and government faces harrowing challenges from all sides. As a new decade unfolds, I hope democracy prevails in Pakistan, and that the country does not fall under military rule.
Doc 101: Intro to Life and How to Live It
Dr. Mohammad Sarwar 1930-2009
1. Friendship: Find
not geography age
religion. Once connected, stay
2. History: Explore
beneath it, around it
over it, and read between lines.
Once you think you
understand, ask questions.
3. Work: Reach out
to your neighborhood,
your city of the past
And organize with the world
4. Life: Live
especially when reminded
of your journey as a speck
in the arc of time.
Eat drink (smoke)
[LINK] | Monday, June 01, 2009 By Shahid Husain Karachi
Eminent jurist and former governor of Sindh, Justice (Retired) Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim said on Sunday it was high time a “left-oriented” think tank was established in Pakistan. Speaking at a memorial meeting for the late Dr Mohammad Sarwar at the PMA House Sunday evening, he said people said that Pakistan was a failed state but one should remember that it was the establishment and not the people of Pakistan who had failed.
“Things are changing for the better,” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with us. Religion has become a cause of killing,” he remarked. He said people were ready to listen today and this was evident from the fact that there were few people around when the Judges’ movement kicked off but it culminated in a huge success. He said it was time to live up to the ideals of Dr Sarwar since “it’s our time to say.” He said the people of Pakistan needed a new leadership since the old leadership had failed totally. He said Dr Sarwar fought for a just society, a society free from exploitation and it was time to create a just society.
Dr Badar Siddiqi, former General Secretary of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) said death was more universal than life because every body dies but there are people who live on even after they’re gone through their noble deeds and universal love. Dr Sarwar, he said, was one such person who strove for the establishment of a just society. He said Dr Sarwar established the Democratic Students Federation (DSF) that happened to be the first students’ organisation in Pakistan. Thereafter, he also established the All- Pakistan Students Organisation (APSO) and the Inter-Collegiate Body that comprised students unions from across the country.
Dr Siddiqi pointed out that Dr Sarwar led the historic 1953 student movement that forced the authorities to accept many demands of the students, including the establishment of the University of Karachi. He said Dr Sarwar was injured when police resorted to firing on a student’s procession on January 8, 1953 in which seven students and a child were killed, and he also was arrested. He said after he was released from jail, he along with his colleagues, including Dr Adib-ul-Hasan Rizvi, Dr Syed Haroon Ahmed, Dr Moinuddin Ahmed, and Dr Jaffer Naqvi played a vital role in the affairs of the Pakistan Medical Association and transformed it into a strong and dynamic force. He said Dr Sarwar struggled for provision of health cover to the people and was never overwhelmed even by ferocious dictators such as Gen. Ziaul Haq while negotiating on behalf of PMA.
“I will not classify him as an individual; he was an institution,” he said. He said the number of people who visited Dr Sarwar’s residence was unbelievable and they included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Syed Sibte Hasan, Habib Jalib, Zohra Nigar, Ali Imam, and Bashir Mirza, just to name a few. Former student leader Mairaj Mohammad Khan said Dr Sarwar was an institution whose roots were very deep in society. He said 1953 movement led by Dr Sarwar was not confined to the students but impacted the entire society. “It was movement to change Pakistani society,” he said.
He said the DSF was banned in 1954 because it was against imperialist military pacts and was against a dependent economy. Prof. Dr Jaffer Naqvi said Dr Sarwar was a phenomenon and a staunch enemy of dictatorship. Prominent singer Tina Sani sang a poem of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Messages of Asif Hameedi, Eric Rahim, and Dr Mangi who are abroad were also read at the ceremony. A six-minute documentary on Dr Sarwar was also shown in the programme.
[LINK] Tuesday, 26 May, 2009 | 06:10 PM PST | KARACHI: One of Karachi’s oldest general practitioners, well known physician and former student leader Dr Mohammad Sarwar passed away peacefully in his sleep at home early Tuesday morning in Karachi, after a prolonged bout with cancer. He was 79.
Born in Allahabad, he came to Karachi for ‘sightseeing’ in 1948 and stayed on when he got admission in Dow Medical College. He was instrumental in forming Pakistan’s first student union, the Democratic Students Federation (DSF). He served as DSF’s President and Secretary General before the Mohammad Ali Bogra government banned it in 1954. He was also the driving force behind the Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB) comprising student unions in different colleges and the All Pakistan Students Organisation (APSO), established in 1953.
Sarwar spearheaded the January 8, 1953 ‘Demands Day’ that spelled out the needs of students, including the establishment of a full-fledged university campus (now Karachi University). He tried to prevent the students from surging forward in the face of the police threat when the procession reached Saddar. Sarwar was injured in the police firing that killed seven students that day, commemorated for years as a ‘Black Day.’
APSO brought together college students from all over the country to demand students’ rights regardless of their politics or ideology. The organisation’s influence was visible in the 1954 elections in former East Pakistan when a student leader defeated seasoned politician Noor-ul-Amin.
DSF also published the fortnightly award-winning journal Students’ Herald, edited by the well-known economist S.M. Naseem, then a student activist.
Dr Sarwar received his final medical college results in 1954 while he was in prison for a year — the McCarthy era in the United States impacted Pakistan as well and progressive elements here were rounded up and incarcerated. His elder brother, journalist Mohammad Akhtar (1926-58) was arrested shortly afterwards. Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, then an upcoming lawyer, defended many of these political prisoners, including their friend Hasan Nasir who was later tortured to death.
After graduation, Dr Sarwar worked as a general physician with various health services until setting up his own clinic in Gulbahar (New Golimar) where he practiced for over forty years. He was also one of the pioneers of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) where he was twice elected general secretary. PMA played a vital role in progressive politics during the 1980s. During the Zia years, the PMA was one of the important ‘civil society’ organisations that consistently stood for democratic politics. Dr Sarwar will be remembered for his inspirational leadership, generosity of spirit, warmth of character and clear-headed political vision.
He is survived by his wife, well known educationist and teacher trainer Zakia Sarwar, and three children, Beena Sarwar, Sehba Sarwar, and Salman Sarwar and three granddaughters, Maha, Myah and Minal.
A memorial meeting is scheduled at PMA House on Sunday, May 31 at 6.30 pm.
The funeral will proceed from his residence (F-25/D, Block 9, Clifton, Karachi) after Asar prayers at Masjid-e-Bab-e-Rehmat (main Gizri Road near Kausar Medicos/Submarine Chowk) on May 26.