Tuesday, 30 June 2015

A talk by the departing SRSG

I was asked to attend an event on behalf of Mercy Corps because the Country Director was too busy to attend it. It was a lecture by the departing SRSG and started more than an hour late! 

The talk quite diplomatic to say the least and 

New blogs

Monday, 29 June 2015

Good morning

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Celebrating gay marriage: my favourite online comments

Favourite online comments:
1. You know its going to be an AMAZING day when they only pissed off people in America are Racists, Bigots and Partisans. Party on Wayne! … 
2. Note to county clerks: Unless you work in a church, "your" beliefs are irrelevant while you're working. You job is to issue "paper", a marriage license. Issuing a marriage license is "NOT" marrying the couple, it's handing a certified document to them. That's it. Handing a piece of paper to a gay couple has "NOTHING" to do with "YOUR" faith.....so do your job, or find work elsewhere. How bout move to Iran or go fight for ISIL if you wish to impose "YOUR" beliefs on to others....they share your so-called values.
3. Are you kidding? There are Americans who are still pissed over the legalization of interracial STRAIGHT marriages!
We mustn't kid ourselves -- some people live to hate.
4. Butthurt Republicans and fake Christians who hysterically promised to leave the U.S. if gay marriage were legalized, kindly make good on your threats, please.
5. For some reason, I don't think that 6/26 will catch on as a date of national tragedy like 9/11. How many citizens were killed today then?
6. Poor Huckleberry - sux to be you, dude.
7. May we please get a list of the 10,000 pastors, Glenn Beck claims promised to die opposing 'marriage equality'? They may need some help keeping their promise in the eyes of God. Rest In Peace.
8. The nice thing is that now "gay marriage" = marriage. WE don't need to say that anymore!!!
9. The idiot AG in Texas has issued a "directive" to county officials to "delay" issuing marriage licenses to same sex persons until he has the opportunity to "interpret" the SCOTUS ruling this morning...he has not one leg to stand on. Nor does he have one brain to think with...but that's another issue…
10. As conservative heads explode across the nation...


Of course, I celebrate yesterday's US Supreme Court ruling which legalised gay marriage across all states. This is a significant historical moment for the US which despite being developed and wealthy, struggles with the gaping wide between what it pretends to be and is not as the self-proclaimed leader of democracy and civil liberties and freedoms. It also symbolises hope for the struggle for equal rights in other countries.

Societal prejudice, repression and hatred of individuals who orient themselves homosexually is rooted in religious beliefs. Why would a modern, 21st century state be concerned with what law-abiding, peaceful citizens do in their private lives? And, more over, how does a secular state come to ever deny rights of citizens to marry whomever they want? But we fool ourselves into believing that even the most modern state is secular and free of religious prejudice.

Religion is ultimately about the control of sexuality and women's bodies and reproduction. Societies and states have organised themselves around ideas, norms and values that are partially derived from  dominant religious beliefs 

Religion has also been used to justify atrocities: slavery, racism, segregation, apartheid, colonialism, wars, wars in the the name of nationalism, violence against women, destruction of the environment, and repression of women. As we acknowledge and rectify past injustices and their legacy, we move away from religion in our public spheres, which ultimately also limits the space in which privately held backward beliefs can be harboured and practiced. 

The Supreme Court's ruling yesterday represents a milestone in a long history of modern states' unshackling of prejudices and systematic violence based on religious beliefs. This is the societal evolution we are lucky enough to witness and celebrate.

Religion alone cannot be blamed for all oppressive and inhumane ideas, beliefs, and practices. Extreme political ideology has also caused much conflict and suffering. The destruction of the environment is due to a large extent to human greed and, a limited idea of progress.

As human beings continue to evolve as a civilisation and, if we can learn anything about the human need to control others, there will always be a tension between personal freedom and human society's desire for authority and grand sweeping ideology. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

Art Exhibit at the National Museum

The Accountability Lab organised an art exhibit around the theme of - yes, you guessed it - accountability. It was held at the National Museum.

I found myself quite surprised to realise that despite living here since 2003 I've never visited the Museum. It was a pleasant visit and, I was really glad to go. 

The exhibition was held at the top floor. 

Some of the paintings were basic and a little bit amateurish (can you believe this is a word?), especially in terms of artistic technique and, even artistic expression. 

Visitors enjoying the paintings. Haresh chatting with eminent Liberian artist Leslie Lumeh.
Kavita keenly listens to t
he conversation. 

Painting of two students reading by candle light 
"Sleeping Secretary" by Leslie Lumeh. 
One of my favorites at the exhibition.
"Every day Thin"
I bought two paintings, one a Leslie Lumeh "Law Breaker" and the other one more like a political cartoon. I wanted to buy another one - a fantastical historical mural that featured the who is who of Liberia's infamous history -  but another visitor started a bidding war and bought it for $ 300.00. 

I also had a look at photographs of Liberia downstairs on the first floor . Most of the pictures were from before the war. I was quite surprised to see that many of Monrovia's buildings looked exactly the same. I have no idea why I thought pre-war Monrovia had more stunning buildings. Haresh actually casually mentioned this a few times, too. 

One of my friends described a photograph I posted on Facebook (also on my blog) of a new construction in Mamba Point as "Classical Lebano." By the way, the construction is still not completed. 

Nevertheless, there are still some interesting buildings in downtown Monrovia, not only the colonial ones but also some from the 70s. I wish some of the very old colonial buildings could be preserved and turned into public spaces such as libraries, community art centers or museums. Even a boutique hotel would be welcome.

Speaking of the city, the nicer parts of town like Sinkor and Mamba Point have become gentrified by the NGO/UN folks. This has crowded out ordinary Liberians who simply cannot afford to live in town. There are "compounds" all over the place. These gated communities are typically fully furnished apartment blocks (quite ugly looking usually) with 24/7 power and water, DSTV and wifi internet. And, they must always have a pool. Rent at these places is anything from $ 1200 to a whopping $ 5,000 per month. 

To think that the capital city is busy housing a constantly churning and changing horde of do gooders, the development workers, who are not from the city or country, and are not committed beyond a contract

Monday, 22 June 2015

All that is solid melts into the air: New York City

Imagine, the joy of traveling reduced to the stress and agony of finding a place to park your camel legally. Did Ibn Battuta suffer this senselessness during his great travels? 

For quite a number of years, I have been fantasising about New York. I have dreamed about visiting it as a lover tourist, visiting places, landmarks and moods made famous by songs, films and fellow New York lovers. Having studied in London, the other great Western metropolis and center of the world, I always felt New York would be a grander and less depressing experience. 

I have always found myself depressed by London's greyness, its vast sea of loneliness, which despite best efforts never gets dissipated. 

I was able to finally visit New York in 2012, pregnant, on a Baby Moon witHaresh. I was there only for a day and what a wonderful day it was. Haresh and I had sojourned at a hotel on the outskirts of the city the night before. We drove into the city the next day. As we crossed the bridge, I felt exhilarated. The bridge was massive, steel beams, with lower and upper levels. I saw the famed yellow cabs, and felt enormously excited.

We drove straight to Time Square to meet my American Community Schools (ACS) Athens high school friend, who along with her husband, has an office close by. I was going to meet Evie Zambetakis after more than a decade. We had stayed in touch all these years via letters, post cards, e-mails and a common love of pretty stationery. Our reunion was really sweet and I felt nothing had changed. She's one of my friends with whom I have not shared a common physical space since school but have stayed in touch with her as a childhood companion, dutifully updated each other with news in our lives. I also got to try red velvet cake with her for the first time at a Dean & DeLuca cafe!

Later that evening, Haresh and I had dinner with a former UNDP Liberia colleague, Paavani, who took us to a Korean barbecue restaurant. From South India, this friend was the first to educate me about how different North and South India was. I'll never forget how she declared that South Indians drink coffee when I offered her tea.

Later that evening, Haresh and I enjoyed a comedy stand up night, where he and I inadvertently became the butt of many jokes. 

The first visit to New York back in 2012 was a completely different experience. 

This year's one has left me exhausted, drained and confused. Where was the New York of my dreams? I am not even sure whether I love New York even more. 

Granted this time around, there were two additional people with us: Kavita and my mother. Granted, we did not plan our trip. But still…

We arrived in New York late afternoon from DC. We had not planned our itinerary and were going to go with the flow as we had all this time. We were going to find a hotel on arrival, go with our moods and instincts. It had suited us so far, why not in New York, city of infinite possibilities?

But we suffered! We did not find a hotel in our price range (Haresh found a very expensive one and I put my foot down). We put the hotel search off and decided to catch some sight seeing instead. (We later learned that calculating how to spend time against speeding time became the way of doing things as a tourist in New York) The day was coming to an end and we had to figure out opportunity costs and trade offs. We decided to park our car and walk around. But no, that was another parallel universe of stress. Haresh drove round and round until it was pointed out to us that parking was free after 7 PM in certain designated spots. There were 20 minutes to kill, so we drove round and round some more. That and my previous spat with Haresh was really killing my New York buzz.

Imagine, the joy of traveling reduced to the stress and agony of finding a place to park your camel legally. Did Ibn Battuta suffer this senselessness during his great travels?

Despite slightly agitated temperaments, our excitement was still alive. We found a place, took out Kavita's stroller and decide to walk about, and enjoy New York. We were in Manhattan, not too far from Time Square. My mother was also in good spirits, and up to walking around. "Ami, dekhain, kitnee oonchee building hai!" We started walking around, marveling at the tall buildings, and enjoying the mood. We were quite hungry and I was hoping to spot a pizzeria for a famous slice of New York-style pizza or a stylish deli, all these hopes fed by TV programmes of course. We settled for Metro Cafe for a simple, tasty early dinner. We took a photo using my mother's iPad and I posted the picture on my mother's Facebook. My sister immediately commented and wondered what we were doing in a McDonalds.

Foolishly, we decided to browse the Internet on my mother's iPad to look for hotels. We thought we were being smart. I had seen a Trivago ad on TV a few times and, was inspired to use a seemingly fool proof service. We reserved a mildly priced place in Brooklyn (instead of driving out to New Jersey) to 'check out' later. We felt proud of ourselves. Of course, we could trust the Internet!

We kept on walking to Times Square and met a huge crowd of  tourists and New Yorkers, enjoying the neon lights, giant TV screens, in the warm June air. We saw New Yorkers calmly watching a basketball game, sitting on barriers, their faces transfixed on the screen, necks arched, suited types, legs crossed over, staring intently, retired types, sitting on Starbucks outdoor seating, enjoying the game. It was a moment of pause, in a madding crowd. How are you meant to enjoy this madness, I wonder? I felt like I was on a concrete beach, kind of out of place. We spotted Batman and Robin, mingling in the crowd. We spotted nude types, bodies painted in the American flag. Nice.

Kavita of course enjoyed herself, running amok, while the three of us worried. She had a really lousy portrait taken of her by an idiotic so-called artist. It was rendered in charcoal black and white. It had no resemblance to Kavita nor artistic integrity. And, he charged us $ 15 and wanted another $ 5 for a lousy frame. Kavita of course did not sit through the painting and Haresh took a picture of her using Ami's iPad and actually sat for it himself, holding up the contraption.

The $ 15 portrait of Kavita, now hanging up in our kitchen
Ami, Kavita and I ate some warm peanuts from a nearby vendor, watching group after group, couple after couple, loner after loner take selfie shots using those selfie sticks while Haresh posed for Kavita's portrait holding up an iPad with a close up photo of Kavita. What a nice New York moment.

One forgets this is all a first for Kavita: running on New York side walks, running through crowds, eating warm peanuts on a June summer evening in New York, sitting for a portrait. I wish I would remember this often and, try to see the world as she does. In fact, I am going to tell myself in my head: 'Behold, there is a child in this room, in this house, who is pure and discovering this universe.'

After this, we decided to get back to our parked camel and try to find our hotel. If it had just been us adults, we would have caught a movie or another rude comedy stand up but we had to lodge ourselves. Too far too walk back, we hailed another camel to take us back to our camel for a mere $ 20.00. We piled in and drove to Brooklyn to our hotel.

My mother had dozed off and, we left her in the car while we went to check out the hotel. Even before we entered, we did not like it. There was no reception to talk of. There were two make shift counters and, behind, a messy looking office with overflowing carton boxes and Huggies diapers. This is a Sheraton! We wanted to see the rooms but the hotel staff wanted to see our ID first. When Haresh presented his ID, the hotel said it didn't match the VISA card (this is our NATC company card). So, we said, OK, please cancel the reservation. Stunningly, the same genius tells us, our card has been charged already. "What!" we asked! "But the website clearly says the card will not be charged." The hotel blamed the website and, vice versa. The genius asked us to call the website. We got stuck for a good hour or so, on the phone while the Sheraton folks couldn't give a damn.

Kavita enjoyed herself, running around, mingling with other kids with toy iPads and mommies swiping their smart phone screens. An Austria Air crew also arrived, overwhelming the tiny lobby, in their red uniforms. The ladies were literally in all red: stockings, heels, bags, all of it. They reminded me of red lady bugs for some reason. I curiously stared at them while Haresh kept sharing snide remarks with them: "Most awful Sheraton."

The manager finally emerged, apologetic, and made significant amends. She apologised profusely, said she had refunded our card but we would not get the payment back until 5 working days, promised a discount, upgraded us to a suite with two double beds, and promised us breakfast vouchers for the 3 nights.

We trudged up to our rooms while Haresh went to park our camel for $ 25 a day (later it was mysteriously changed to $ 35 a day). The manager offered to push our trolley for us herself.

We did not get much time with my mother and already had to put her on a train back to DC next afternoon but I suppose it was good enough. Most of our time was eaten up by traveling, climbing steps, catching a train and trying to slow down time. All we managed to do with my mother the next day was Colombus Circle, and it was a bad decision. We should have seen a more interesting landmark or place.

Haresh, Kavita and I had two more nights in New York City. After we dropped my mother at Penn Station, we met a SOAS friend of mine, who was also at the wedding, and is now part of the British delegation to the UN. He was sweet to give us a personal tour of the UN building which we thoroughly enjoyed. We bid good bye to Phil and, immediately found a Turkish restaurant. We had a great dinner there and, I got to try Ali Nazik, which was most delicious. We walked on and, found ourselves close to Grand Central. Kavita loved its big halls and, ran amok. Some Army officers posted in a corner kept telling her to come back to me.

I met with Evie the next day for lunch and got to meet her baby boy Andreas. It was another wonderful reunion but we got lost trying to find the restaurant. After meeting her, we walked to the 9-11 memorial which I must say, was beautiful and very meaningful. A security officer told us that one of the floors of the new Freedom Tower was rented for $ 2 million for a Barmitzvah party.

Haresh threw a tantrum that evening and, his tantrum's black hole sucked out at least 8 hours of our valuable time. By the time he was done, all we could manage was a Staten Island ferry back and forth which allowed us to glimpse the Statue of Liberty from a far. That same day we had to catch our flight back to Monrovia.

Despite a limited amount of time, we did see a few of the landmarks but I must say my imagined New York visit was nothing like the New York I experienced. This New York was over priced, dirty, too angry, too big, too overwhelming, and a bit of a scam. I really do not know why people spend so much money to stay at a lousy Sheraton in the wrong part of Brooklyn, travel up and down dirty subway trains, trudge through crowds of tourists to take photos of famous landmarks, sweating in the summer heat, and bear the rude faces of restaurant waiters who can't stand your child.

I kept hoping to find a wonderful New York moment that I could treasure but the whole experience was a mad rush against time. We did see some bits of New York which make it famous, landmarks which one must pay homage to but it was still only a glimpse. I didn't see a few other boroughs. I suppose one needs a lot more time and, one feels dissatisfied instead.

It seems like New York has to be consumed, all of it: its landmarks, its food, streets, signs, sidewalks, taxis, restaurants, corners, images of New York. Does any other city sell itself like it does? Even its dirtiness is celebrated. You can consume everything, grand or not. And, there's still more. But what are you really left with, I wonder?

I mostly felt alienated. How do I admire or relate to its angry, impatient people who are annoyed with a child of all things? You are bombarded with adverts for clothes and perfumes all over the place. Does this city just worship the body?

I saw fashionable people strut the streets of Manhattan, shopping, lunch, meeting people, off to meetings I suppose. Is this the ultimate sign of success? That you made it to Manhattan, can dress really stylishly, afford a very expensive lifestyle?

I had an interesting moment of puzzlement when asking for directions. The person asked us whether we were going down town or up town. I honestly had no clue. It made me think of how geographically concerned Americans are. Even when I was in Chicago, people were always talking about the north, south, east or west. I am simply not used to that sense of a direction, and always felt rather dumb. I mean, am I supposed to carry a compass around? So, even in New York, it is all about the literal geography: Upper East Side, Lower Manhattan, Down Town and Up Town.

We ended our New York trip rushing of course: from sight seeing back to the hotel, buying a new bag quick quick to fit in new shopping, retrieving our camel from the car park, stuffing it with our bags, paying the hotel from another VISA card, and rushing to the airport. We barely made it.

I kind of felt sad that I hardly got to see all I wanted to see (museums, cafes, bakeries, Central Park, Coney Island) and the futility of trying to see it all by emptying your pockets. New York is like a mirage, it felt. I also felt sad that we were leaving a city without actually saying good bye to anyone in person, like a relative or friend. We had bid good bye to my mother a couple of days earlier and she was teary eyed, as she usually is. Farewells are supposed to be personal and tearful. When I think of farewells, I think of hugs, sleepy and anxious parents huddled in doorways praying for their children's safety, and "Khudahafiz" muttered over and over again.

The phrase that kept coming to me was 'all that is solid melts into air.'

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Three films, three reviews

I managed to see three movies during my flights to and from the US via Royal Air Maroc: The Hundred-Foot Journey , St Vincent and Hector and the Search for Happiness. There is something truly magical about being able to watch films thousands of feet in the sky while journeying to other continents. 
Jammed with cliches and lazy stereotypes, the only saving grace for The Hundred-Foot Journey was the amazing Om Puri romancing the equally regal Helen Mirren. St Vincent was a wonderful story of a cynical old man's friendship with a little boy but it could have done without Naomi Watts putting on a Russian accent. Why not just employ a Russian actor? Finally, as much as I love the cast of Hector and the Search for Happiness, I thought it was just as bad as Love, Eat and Pray. I mean really? Find other continents besides Asia and Africa to project your existential angst, please.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

New York

The last leg of our USA trip took us through DC and we are now in NYC. As wonderful as it has been, most our time was spent in finding parking, parking and trying to get back to our parked rented vehicle in these bigger cities. On our first day in DC, all we accomplished was finding the parking and then the day was up, leaving no time for sight seeing, and then we had to go meet friends for dinner.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Charming conversations

"Where did you learn to speak English?" 
"But you do not have an accent." 
"Does she speak English?" [pointing to Kavita]
"That looks fun." [pointing to my shalwar kameez]
"That looks comfortable." [pointing to my shalwar kameez]

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Ice, baby

I continue to find the love of ice fascinating during this visit to the US. Water will be served at a restaurant ice cold with lots of ice. Every inn, motel or hotel will have an ice maker. Every floor in a hotel or inn will have an ice marker, humming loudly late at night. 
Even during my last stay in the US in Chicago in the wintery months, water was served ice cold with lots of ice. I used to find it strange because we desi folks are warned that 'thande paani se gala kharab ho jaye ga' (drinking ice cold water will give you a sore throat). 
Next subject of post is the self service breakfast " "buffet " " in high end hotels and, that guests are expected to eat on styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Blue Ridge Parkway

Driving along the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway, we stopped at one of the scenic points and, snapped some photos. A group of bikers, all with greying hairs or nearly in their 70s, were also nearby. They offered to take our photo. Haresh asked if he could pose on their Harley Davidson and, they agreed. Haresh mounted the shiny contraption, put on the helmet, and posed with me and the whole gang around him, too. As I saw him climbing the beautiful Harley Davidson, I commented "You look really silly."

Immediately the fellow bikers shot wounded looks and reacted "but if he looks silly, we also look silly." "Of course he does not look silly, " they declared.

After this Haresh and the 70-year-old biker chatted about women as all men like to, as if they are discussing a deep intellectual issue. The biker directly asked him, "Does she look after you?" And, Haresh starts confiding in him and tells him yes and no.

The biker, encouraged, further trades his deepest secrets and, admits he has a much younger girlfriend. His ex-wife just could not keep up with his desire to be young and free.

As Haresh and the 70-year old biker talked, I grappled with all the cliches that this conversation was launching in my head, like the thousand ships Helen of Troy's face launched.

After all said and done, photo is not in the camera. It did not take.

The next stop we made was to buy some mountain honey and jams from a lady selling them from her truck. We brought honey with the honeycomb in the jar and a frog jam.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A Liberian Pakistani desi in America

A Liberian Pakistani desi in America

Visiting the US again has been sweet, even nostalgic at times, because this is the country gave my my Indian partner's and my love child neutrality in what otherwise would have been one tricky situation. Last time I was here was for a few months as I waited to deliver Kavita in Chicago, staying with my Liberian-American-Zimbabwean sister friend.

But my relationship with the US is life long. Most of my schooling, up to high school, was completed in international American schools in capitals such as Bucharest, Dakar, and Athens. I memorised the American map in 4th grade, read about the American civil war in 9th grade and had American teachers and friends all my life.

I find it most amusing when people here remark that my English is good. Even Haresh was kindly told that his English did not have an Indian accent and, was really quite good. I usually laugh inside because not only is it patronising but ironic because I keep telling Haresh not to speak to Kavita in English at home. You see, as per our agreement, we want to teach her our respective mother tongues: I, Urdu; and, he, Sindhi. But he keeps speaking some kind of Hinglish to her. "Kavita, room  mein aa jao." It irritates me to no end.

Some people think this will confuse Kavita which I do not agree with at all. I really do think she will be able to learn both languages. Moreover, when folks spend time with her, they seem to think she is very independent-minded and smart.

So, we carry all these different aspects and histories of our identities. Folks ask us, where are you from and, now are our rehearsed response is: My partner is from ___ (other side of the sub continental border circa 1947), we live in Liberia, West Africa since ____ (1982 for Haresh when he first landed in Liberia) and (2003 for me).  Our daughter is American, born in Chicago in 2013 because our countries have been at war since inception. We decided to have her in the US because we needed a neutral citizenship and, Liberia does not grant citizenship.

We arrived in the US last Thursday evening and, drove from NYC to North Carolina trying to make it to our friend's rehearsal dinner. We missed it but managed to make it to the wedding. We were able to meet so many friends and, it was a sweet reunion.

Since then, we have been road tripping across North Carolina.

Visiting from Liberia to parts of the world outside of West Africa is always a physical shock. This part of the world is so utterly different. Here we are in the American mountains, surrounded by woods, wild flowers, fresh crispy air and, a language, food and life style so utterly different to West Africa.

Then of course, there is the awesome sense that no matter what, you can't get lost here, run out of food or ever be out of water or electricity. The night we got to the hotel, we were actually up on the wrong hill at first and, at 3 AM, poor Haresh was trying to find the hotel driving up and down slopes. But thanks to the GPS, he found the hotel. I cannot even compare this road trip to the most adventurous one we had in the south east of Liberia we did together back in 2010, trying to go over tunnels of mud at mid night in the middle of nowhere.

I guess I experience countries on two levels: how do they compare to the very low level of development in Liberia and, the usual food, wine, sights and sounds. I mostly feel bad for how much Liberia lacks and, trails behind in terms of infrastructure, access and comfort.

Social mobilisation, the work I have been involved with at Mercy Corps, seems so far away. The day to day head aches of managing light, power and so on are almost forgotten, too.

I have really enjoyed our trip so far. I am glad I made the effort to attend a wedding for the first time in my life. It was really nice to witness my friend getting married and, how their love was celebrated by friends and family. 

I'm in love with North Carolina's rocking chairs