Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reading Around the World: Bangladesh

Bangldesh sbāgatama!

This week we travel from the least populated country in the world (Mongolia) to the most – Bangladesh is the world's 8th most populace country and the 92nd largest. This makes it the most densely populated large country – the capitol city of Dahka alone is home to 15 Million people.

I tried making Bangladeshi food this week to some success. I made a delicious and easy fried cabbage dish, which you can try for yourself here

Cabbage with Raita and Chipate! A great lunch 

My reading this week explores a principle which may be a reoccurring theme of this blog: white people ruin everything. Bangladesh's short history is a tortured one. The ominous title of the book I read for this week, "The Blood Telegram", foreshadows the deeply tragic story of Bangladesh's fight or independence, and America's nefarious role in this history.

As many tragic histories do, this story begins with the stoke of a colonial administers pen, a stroke which made one country of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh – East and West Pakistan. This country shared a majority faith (Islam), but was separated by language, culture, and hundreds of miles. Such a flimsy arrangement could hardly last under the best governance, and the West Pakistani government did nothing to stabilize the precarious situation. In 1970, a Tsunami devastated the low-lying country and killed 50,000 people. To this disaster, the central government in West Pakistan responded at a snail's pace. Rotting bodies, human and animal, lingered in the open for weeks. Those who survived were left without homes or food while international agencies came to their aid faster than their own government. The president of Pakistan, Yehya Khan, made one curtailed visit several weeks after the Tsunami struck.

Colonial division of Pakistan  

So it was in a setting of grief and rage that the 1971 election occurred. Not surprisingly, the Bangladeshi nationalist party the Awami League won by a landslide. The Western Pakistani government refused to acknowledge the Bangladesh's push towards independence and arrested the Awami league's leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This broke the precarious balance between the unhappily married two halves of Pakistan. Dahka erupted into protests – until troops arrived. The West Pakistani army did far more than suppress political decent. They set out to suppress the possibility of any future descent in a systematic slaughter of intellectuals, the upper class, and the Hindu minority. American observers witnessed university students gunned down in droves. Again, bodies piled the streets of Dahka, left in the open as a warning to anyone who might resist. They were murdered with American bullets.

In this battle for democratic independence, America took the curious position of opposing election results to prop up a dictator, meanwhile aggressively cutting the democratic India off of aid for supporting the people of Bangladesh. This backward policy was primarily determined by Cold War political maneuvering and Nixon's personal relationship with the president of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, a brutish military general whom he liked for his tough straightforwardness. This fond personal relationship contributed to the death of 3 million Bangladeshis. Pakistan was a poor country, dependent on America for military aid to maintain the slaughter in East Pakistan. This, despite the repeated and desperate pleas of diplomats stationed in East Pakistan, continued throughout the war. When congress at last capitulated to public opinion and attempted to stop the flow of guns, bullets and aircrafts destined for use against civilians, Kissenger and Nixon intentionally and knowingly broke the law to smuggle aircrafts through Jordan to maintain Yahya's doomed attempt to slaughter his way to security. Never once did Nixon use his considerable influence to suggest Yahya should temper his violence. This went beyond the non-intervention that later doomed Rwanda – Nixon actively contributed to the genocide of the Bangladeshi Hindus. As is proved again and again throughout history, American values stretch no further than American interests.

Nixon and Yahya

Even American power could not prevent the course of history from bending towards justice, however. India intervened on the part of the Bangladeshis, partly out of moral duty, and partly out of desperation to hid themselves of the 10 million refugees, mostly children, who crowded the poorest regions of their country. India was too poor to support even its own people, and the refugees were primarily left to die in their own filth in India or return to East Pakistan and its hail of American bullets. Eventually though, despite their better arms, the Pakistani army had to admit defeat. All the blood finally bought Bangladesh freedom.

Recent history fares little better. BBC's short Bangladesh time line is scattered with military coups, corruption, stolen elections and conflict. Today Bangladesh is one of the world's many invisible victims of terrorism – Islamic extremists have begun to pick off secular writers, and foreign visitors. The Fulbright English teachers for Bangladesh were sent to Sri Lanka this year.

It is, however, a dangerous trap to focus too much on the sorrow of history. As I have learned traveling in the wake of genocide, there is always more to a country than pain. For this week I also read Gitanjali, a book of poetry by the great Bangladeshi writer Rabindranath Tagore, the first non white man to win a Nobel prize for literature. His words speak to the hope and beauty of Bangladesh, a universal prayer as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. I will let his wisdom and hope conclude this blog.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reading around the world: Mongolia

Mongol tavtai morilno uu! Welcome to Mongolia!

Hamid Sadar-Afkhami has incredible photography of Mongolia and its people! All the photos in this blog are by him - please look here for more of his work. 

As this country is a bit more obscure in western knowledge than North Korea, I'll begin with some basic facts:
  • Mongolia is the least populated country in the world, with a population density of less than 2 per square kilometer.
  • Most people are Buddhist with a small minority practicing shamanism.
  • It is a parliamentary democracy with a directly elected president.
  • Mining and herding are the major industries, and per capita GPD is $4,353
  • 40% of the population remains nomadic, herding livestock through vast territories. This lifestyle is threatened by climate change which has further harshened the Mongolian climate.
  • The capitol city, Ulan Bator, is the coldest capitol city in the world. 
  • For more facts about Mongolia, check out the BBC country profile
A small nomadic tribe rides raindeer much the way the ancient Mongol armies rode horses.

This week I began to add patches of color to my whitewashed understanding of history. I was homeschooled, so as I child I was surrounded by Egyptian gods and mythology from around the world. But when I got older my education had to conform to national ciriculums, and the world became distinctly white. Roman empire. Europe. America. We learn history as if non-white people didn't exist until the Civil war. When our heritage demands we acknowledge the accomplishments a non-white man, like Jesus, we recreate him in our image. So this week I read about the greatest Emperor the world has ever seen – an Asian man we primarily remember as leader of a 'hoard', not a military and social genius. Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan's empire, in black, versus Alexander the Great's in red. 

I read "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" : which, as the title suggests, argues we owe many thing we consider integral to our modernity to Genghis Khan. While he is primarily remembered as a tyrant, Weatherford writes that Genghis innovated many modern values. His army and court were meritocracies, with leaders of small groups of soldiers elected by their peers. Women held positions of power in his court, and sometimes lead troops. He allowed his empire freedom of religion. He was a brilliant social engineer who brought intellectual talent with him around the world, leading to an exchange of ideas which generated much of the innovation of his time. He even changed fashions: Europeans wore robes until the Mongol empire introduced them to pants. The size and scope of his empire was unparalleled until British colonialism many centuries later.

Perhaps the most incredible of all is Ghengi's personal story; which begins as the abused and ignored son of a kidnapped second wife. He and his family barely survived being cast out of their tribe, normally a death sentence in the nomadic Mongolian culture. They lived mostly by the sheer force of will his mother who hunted small game to keep her family alive. When he was 10 he killed his abusive older step brother to prevent him from marrying his mother, and from that day never stopped fighting. In his late teens his wife Borte – his love from childhood – was kidnapped and he forged an alliance with the most powerful Khan in Mongolia to get her back. That began his steady climb to Khan of Mongolia, and from there, a quarter of the world.

Borte, the woman who caused the creation of an empire. 
Art by my talented friend Wendi, check out more of her work here!

The history of a powerful Asian man is a dangerous one. While writers of his time usually described him with a mix of fear and respect, as the centuries passed Genghis Khan transformed into a savage barbarian in western literature. Under Soviet rule, discussion of Genghis Khan was so suppressed researchers were killed for attempting to learn about him. His burial place was turned into a militarized zone to keep out the curious. Academic historical research on him is just beginning.  I can only hope the research continues and the people of Mongolia are fully able to reclaim their heritage: inheritors of the birthplace of the most powerful man to ever live. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

New Worlds

On the train to Kandy 

Somehow I have been in Sri Lanka a month now. The little breakfast roti seller, who has told me every day which way to look before crossing the street, for the first time let me leave his shop unaided. I have officially passed the infancy stage. I'm just as enchanted with this country as when I arrived. Learning Sri Lanka is hydra-like: every mystery half solved opens up a dozen more questions Every new walk or exploration in the city brings something new and incredible. No longer an infant, I feel like a child just discovering a library for the first time.

New discoveries in Colombo - beautiful mosques and art 

We have become comfortable enough with Colombo to leave it. The past two weeks have contained two adventures – first to Kandy and then to Jaffna. Sri Lanka is small enough that a few hours on a bus or train can take you to a different world. That is what Kandy seems like: a town scooped out of the hills. The houses gather in the center of the valley like water in a bowl, sometimes wash up the sides of dark green hills. It a place for meandering. Families and lovers stroll around the lake – families in white from visiting the temple or lovers shyly holding hands. Time seems to calm like the surface of the lake. There is so much life – monkeys dashing along concrete walls and brilliant birds flash between the trees. Along the shoreline great monitor lizards smile in the sun and geese and herons pick for food in the mud. I feel it would be a haven for artists or writers – anyone for whom the interior of the mind holds more gravity than the exterior.

 The view from the train to Kandy

 Kandy from the hilltops 

By the lake 

There is a reason for Kandy's tranquility. It is a sacred space, one of the holiest in Sri Lanka, home to the temple of the tooth. The tooth itself fell victim to its own power – conquered and reconquered and eventually destroyed multiple times. But the metaphor remains holy – a memory contained in an ornate shrine carved with flowers and mandalas, and punctuated with clambering monkeys and lazy dogs escaping the sun in temple shade. Incense drifts around the temple with the chants of students praying before their exams.

Paintings on the inside of the Temple of the tooth and the outside 

We benefited from the enormity of Sri Lankan hospitality in Kandy as well. The father of a friend of a friend is an elephant veterinarian and took us to see elephant 'orphanages' around Kandy. I cannot recommend it to future visitors to Sri Lanka however, the elephants were mostly chained or caged in spaces far too small, clearly there for the benefit of their visitors not themselves. There was one beautiful moment though: when we got to wash an elephant. She loved it – sprawling in a stream while we scrubbed at her thick hide with coconut husks.

Galle was another world entirely, an old colonial town perched on the edge of of the ocean. A paradise woven in the past. We climbed to the top of the old fort – an imposing place softened by families playing in the grass and couples lounging in the sun. Like a stereotype sprung to life some men sat in the shadows with monkeys and cobras, hoping to tempt coins from tourists. Inside the fort is town of crumbling grandeur. Ornate churches and buildings that would look at home in the old city of Barcelona, the illusion broken only by the ferocity of the sun and the twisting flowery trees. Beautiful, the wide quiet stone streets surrounded by slowly fading plaster. Europe transported. We spent the afternoon sprawled on a beautiful beach enjoying a sunset over cheap juice and drinks. I have just begun to learn this new place –  I have only begun to love it.  

Galle Fort 

Sunset over Unawatuna beach 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Reading around the world: North Korea

In the great amount of spare time Fulbright grants me I've decided to embark on a project I've wanted to do for a long time: reading a book every week about a country I know nothing about. Despite a life and education that could easily be described as 'global' much of the world remains a blank for me. Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan. Mauritania. Uruguay. Gabon. Lithuania. Aside from perhaps vaguely gesturing the right direction on a map, I can tell you nothing about these countries. I don't know what language they speak, what food they eat, what form of government they have, what name they use for God. And yet they have histories and cultures as rich and deep as the places I know about intimately – though once upon a time Rwanda meant as little to me as Suriname. This part of learning – the growth of the rich multiplicity of meanings that Rwanda now holds for me – is my favorite. So in these months I am filling in my map. Shedding a little light on the places in the world yet dark to me. 

I won't just read – I will attempt to engage a little more fully by listening to music, catching up on recent news, and sometimes even cooking food from each country as I go. I will share my armchair journey around the world, as well as my physical one through Sri Lanka, on this blog, for anyone interested. If you know of any good books about obscure countries please tell me!

First Stop: North Korea
Book: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

This country is a little more in the news than I would ordinarily like for this project, but my understanding of it falls so woefully short I thought it would be a good place to start. The need for deeper understanding really hit home as I searched for pictures and videos to include in this blog. Most media available on the internet really focuses on the freak show aspect of North Korea – surreal photos of Kim Jung Un with celebrities or babies, or inanely smiling soldiers in impossibly tight formations. What I loved about 'Nothing to Envy' was Demick's commitment to portraying the agency of the North Korean people. She began her book with a vignette about how young couples take advantage of the lack of electricity to sneak into the night together unseen – how technological deprivation can become a gift. And ultimately that is what the book is about: people who triumph against insurmountable odds, not a country of sheeple obediently starving and working themselves to death.

This aspect of North Korea does still baffle me. I am a scholar of evil. I have lived in the wake of war and genocide in 3 countries now, and I have begun to understand the forces and power that may shape a good human into a murderer – how hatred can be sown and reaped for the gain of the powerful. But the powerful in North Korean do not primarily keep their place through hate – they have built a dictatorship on love. Even after 2 million died of starvation in the 1990s. Even when there was no medicine at the hospitals. Even now, when a zipper seems like a magical object. Even the radicals of their society, the free thinkers who later defected cried themselves sick at the death of Kim Il-Sung. People comfort themselves with the belief that they are better off than any other country while they starve to death. Truly the banality of evil – a mother watching her child fade away and yet unable to question the system that is killing him.

Some North Korean Pop music - yes it does exist. 

I marveled at this, and then I considered my participation in the system that I was born in. I too, am part of a system of death. There is horror that generates my comfort. Child slave labor to keep my clothes and baubles cheep. The end of local industry and dignity in the global south as their livelihoods are taken by multinationals. The endemic rape and murder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo over minerals so that I can have a smartphone. In almost anything I purchase I am a tacit participant in evil. While ours keeps our bellies full, we too, are sacrificing ourselves to ideology. Ours is not the quick death of starvation or illness but an apocalypse of our making. Not just ourselves but our whole world may be sacrificed before our greatest God – consumption. Our greed is heating the planet to inhabitability - but we can't stop. Even after the Paris accords we have no plan to keep our world from heating beyond our capacity to withstand. 

I see the system I am in, and I can name it and critique it unlike so many North Koreans. But this an immense privilege – I see this because not only have I had the chance to go outside the world I was raised in, but I have been taught again and again to be constantly wary of the little acts of careless evil around me. Were I raised by MTV and sustained by flipping burgers I have no illusions that I would be challenging the system that kept me that way. In this light, the few hundred North Koreans that risk everything they have, and everyone they love, to slip across the border each year seem far more incredible than their compatriots, starving for the love of their leader.

For more on North Korea:

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Finding your feet

Today I am 23. It is not a monumental age in our culture – I can't suddenly vote or buy intoxicants, and paying a reasonable price for a rental car is still years away. But this birthday seems significant to me. I have at last broken out of the incubating cocoon of undergraduate life. I am exploring a new country. I am working, and getting paid for it (a novel experience in my service career!). I am hunting for my first apartment. I am finding my feet.

Me and my housemates out for birthday dinner. 

Very appropriately I think, I have spent my birthday finalizing this transition to semi-adulthood. I attended a presentation about development in Colombo at my internship, had a meeting about a paper I am co-authoring, and met with my supervisor at the University of Colombo to discuss my teaching schedule. It is a day full of gifts. My teaching schedule, as it turns out, is very light. I am teaching one class 4 hours a week to students about to graduate from the faculty of sciences. I will get to teach the fun things: practicing speaking and presentations and writing for jobs. It is a good use of a native speaker, as many students will work for international companies or apply for graduate schools abroad.

An outdoor hallway at the Faculty of Science 

It also leaves me a tremendous amount of free time. I knew my schedule would be light, but leaving the office I felt I should pinch myself: only 4 hours teaching a week?! One of the great gifts of Fulbright Sri Lanka is that we get free reign of our time, and are encouraged to expand our engagement with Sri Lanka beyond our teaching. So I have begun an informal internship with a think tank called the Center for Poverty Analysis, or CEPA.

CEPA researches questions which fascinate me – has economic development in Sri Lanka benefited the poor, and if so how? What is the relationship between environmental degradation and poverty? How can post war reconciliation be combined with economic redevelopment? My first project is to co-author a paper on forced displacement of the urban poor. Once this project is done I'll write blogs and news articles summarizing their research. This work, too, is a gift. I am in Sri Lanka officially as a teacher, but I have always thought of myself as coming here to learn. This partnership will ensure that I do! For more information about CEPA, check out their website:

So grateful today for everything that I have. Learning – from how to find the best curry I've ever had in tiny grungy concrete storefronts, to the politics of economic development in Colombo. Friends – the amazing and fascinating people exploring this country on Fulbright with me. Beauty – the deep greens and vibrant sunsets of Sri Lanka. Freedom – these luxurious days as we learn Sinhala and settle in to Colombo.

It is a happy birthday indeed.  

The beautiful beach near Colombo. 
This is unedited - around sunset the sky is really that color. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Welcome to Sri Lanka!

Bo Tree at Bellanwila Temple

Sri Lanka hits you like a tropical blanket – the air is a wash of water and car horns and bird song. It is both lush and green and dirty and concrete; bursting with color from the people and buildings and plants. I have stumbled into this chaotic paradise courtesy of Fulbright, for whom I will serve as an English teacher at the University of Colombo for 8 months. I have this next month to work through Sinhala lessons while I luxuriate in the delicious dizziness of culture shock – not quite knowing where I am or what to do at any moment. This stage is one of my favorite things about traveling – for a few weeks you are a child again. You are unsure of how to get from place to place, what to eat, how to speak. That feeling, and the slow satisfaction as you learn to cross the street without looking like a fool, order food, find the right bus. Now I am living with four other English teachers in a house so large we feel like pinballs bouncing through it – a house surrounded by brilliant green and awash in the calls of birds. One night I was kept awake by the scampering of monkeys on the roof, and the next day I encountered them in the garden – we were each as startled and curious as the other.

The monkey encounter.
In my first day or two I think this cow was more adept at crossing the street than I. 

Some context for my new home.

Sri Lanka is a country of transitions right now. I count myself incredibly fortunate to be here for a fraction of their history as they move forward. Sri Lanka is recently out of war. The Fulbright director described it as “post war but not post conflict” - the fighting is done but for the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority conflict is still fresh in memory and continued discrimination and misunderstanding. We stand at this moment on the brink of possibility – a new president miraculously swept out the tyrannical reign of the former president Rajapaksa whose ruthlessness ended the war, but at terrible cost of life and human dignity. All the Sri Lankans who have spoken to us hail President Sirisena as the beginning of a new chapter for their country, but there is much work to be done and many decades of pain to be healed. Conflict between the Hindu minority in the North and the Buddhist majority of the south reached a head in 1983 when government enflamed tension erupted into riots through Colombo, and death to any Tamil who the riots found. The Northern response to this was to create one of the most effective guerrilla resistance groups the world has seen, the infamous Tamil Tigers. The two sides traded atrocities until 2009, when the Sri Lankan government bombed the North to ashes. When they were done, there was no one left to fight. Peace comes slowly, and perhaps has its first real chance under the new government who has changed inflammatory rhetoric about the war and sought to minimize the disparity between resources in the North and South. Whether this will be enough, whether stated intentions will fully materialize, remains to be seen.

Sri Lanka is an island about the size of West Vriginia off the Southern tip of India. I am living in Colombo, while the war and most of the damage remaining from it occurred in the North around Jaffna. 

Sri Lanka is in the midst of economic transition as well. My past two homes – Cambodia and Rwanda were squarely in the “third world” while Sri Lanka seems well on its journey on the imaginary line towards “developed country” . I find myself in shock at simple things like bus tickets, cross walks, functioning (and obeyed!) traffic lights, western style grocery stores – things I rarely would have encountered in my past travels. We went to a fancy hotel for a final dinner after orientation – an ostentatious kind of place with butlers in uniform to open the door for you, sparkling marble floors, and chandeliers complete with bland modern art. I normally hate going to this kind of place because i someplace like Cambodia or Rwanda the patrons would have been solely white, but here the majority of the patrons sipping coffee or cocktails in overstuffed chairs were Sri Lankan. It will take me some time to learn that this is Sri Lanka too – not just the open air markets and clogged streets full of Tuktuks. It is a well educated country with a growing middle class, and an upper class with connections all over the world. Colonial heritage lingers in the excellent English of the upper class which seeps into every part of the country – even the menu at the little takeaway restaurant near our home advertises its curries and rotis in English. But here, more than a reminder of Colonialism, English serves as a bridge between the languages Tamil and Sinhala which have divided the country for so long. I hope my time here will be a tiny fraction of that bridge.

(If you are interested in learning more about the history of my new home I suggest reading “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss who gives a riveting account of the end of the civil war. But please keep in mind that Sri Lanka is more than its tragedies.)  

Photos of the incredible beauty and diversity of this country: Ballanwila Temple, the Red Mosque, and Pettah shopping street.