Thursday, July 14, 2016

Last Lessons

On the verge of leaving Sri Lanka I am struck by how much Colombo has changed in the seven months I have lived here. It feels as if the city is growing beneath my feet – whenever I go down a road for the first time in a few weeks there is a new coffee shop, or an updated sleek storefront. The ultimate symbol of middle class opulence - Sri Lanka's first bubble tea shop – opened just last week. I've watched a crash of technology wash around the island as Uber competes with local taxi apps, food delivery services pop up, first world comforts at the touch of a button in this developing country. I wonder how sustainable this rush of 'modernity' is – will Sri Lanka trip over its own feet in it's rush to grow? Or is this the natural progression of optimism in a country where an international diaspora is streaming back, bringing with them seeds of business ideas from around the globe? More than this I wonder about what seems to me a growing chasm between the wealthy middle class and the poor – where the 500 rupees (about $3.50) I and the urban middle class slurp up in a Latte is more than many people make in a whole day of labor. While according to official statistics Sri Lanka is on par with America is terms of inequality I cannot square this figure with the reality I see here – that dinner for two and a couple drinks in a decent restaurant in Colombo can cost a month's earnings of poverty level wages. The dinners Jonathan and I treat ourselves with once a week or so will never once be within reach of a large section of the population in their entire lives.

This sense of unease at my own comparative wealth has helped to teach one of Sri Lanka's greatest lessons for me: humility. After my first two long stints abroad I thought I had few illusions left about my ability to 'save' or 'help' another society – I knew that my supposedly altruistic Fulbright grant would primarily benefit one person: me. I had no conception of how true this would be. In fact, last month I began to feel depressed, thinking that my grant was a failure because I have worked so little. Rather than wallow I reframed the past months in my mind from a time to work to a time to relax and explore, and then it became an incredible success, a paid vacation miraculously funded by your tax dollars. But really, it was that. In my seven months I ended up only teaching two months, and even then for only 10 hours a week. I thought I could fill my billowing spare time with an internship with the Center for Poverty Analysis, a think tank and research organization whose institutional stance on poverty as systemic injustice enchanted me. I found though, they were not especially interested in the vast skills that I have accrued in my 4 years of undergraduate study, which are namely: how to write a paper, and how to complain about the United Nations. My job there was essentially (excuse me, grandparents) 'Facebook bitch' – while it was interesting to absorb the knowledge floating through the organization, I hardly needed a four year degree to update their social media pages and edit the occasional article. I felt dwarfed by even the junior researchers, crippled by lack of linguistic and cultural competency. Even once I left CEPA to work in flood relief as an extra pair of hands, I felt helpless under these restrictions, unable to participate even in simple conversation about which student should receive which donated school bag.

Sri Lanka has confirmed what I already knew – that to do effective work somewhere you have to really know that place. It is the greatest of Western arrogance to think that we can sweep in from abroad and solve problems in a place where we can neither speak nor listen, and whose history and intricacies we do not know. I have since my teens wanted to work abroad, but I have waffled and wavered about where. I chased after the Middle East, but got discouraged by UVA's draconian Arabic program and the regional tendency to be treat white women with slightly less respect than a dog. I loved Cambodia, but found it over-saturated with all the other do-gooders who also loved Cambodia. I love Sri Lanka, but feel the marginal benefit of returning to work here would be low, given the breadth of the existing Sri Lankan intellectual class. I loved Rwanda, but feel cautious about working there given the Machiavellian machinations of the government to twist development to their own purposes. But one thing is clear: if I am to work abroad without hypocrisy I need to specialize. I need to learn a language. I need to learn a place. I hope that graduate school will give me an opportunity to dive deep, and until I do I will stay in my own country and use one skill that all this jetsetting has given me – overcoming culture shock – to help refugees and immigrants find their feet here. I am grateful for this time – though its main lesson may be that 4 years of writing papers in a library doesn't qualify you as 'skilled'.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Reading around the world: Bolivia and the impossible questions

My book this week “Whispering in the Giant's Ear” asks one of my fundamental questions about development: how can we improve living standards without environmental degradation? How can we minimize inequality without pushing people down the destructive path of overconsumption laid out by the flailing growth of the West. Some partial answers to these question may lie with indigenous peoples around the world, who often hold a less extractionary view of nature. Crushing poverty suits them no more than anyone else, but as shown in Bolivia, they may not be willing to destroy their forests for a job at Burger King.

The Bolivian forest

Bolivia is a country divided by history and ecology. An indigenous majority historically dominated economically and socially by a white minority descended from Spanish colonists, while the rich natural gas resources of the country are concentrated in a small area leading to fierce battles over how the wealth should be used. And this complicated web of wealth and identity is woven around one of the richest natural resources of our world – the Amazon rainforest. The lungs of our earth and home to 10% of the known species on our planet, this territory is a contested ground between loggers, ranchers, conservationists, and indigenous people for whom the forest is a last refuge of a dissipating way of life. William Powers lived in Bolivia a Development officer working in a Amazon-based advocacy organization focused on environmental protection and equipping the local people with the tools to protect their lands. His self-critical take on development and struggles with the ethics of compromise resonated deeply with me (do you take money for Environmental protection from BP to polish their corporate image? How can you help people without eroding their autonomy? Do you help build the paths of globalization to isolated people to increase their yearly income?) though like any good observer of the world, he left me with more questions than answers.

The Bolivian landscape is one of incredible diversity. As well as rainforests, there are vast and beautiful salt flats. 

In some ways the indigenous people he set out to help wanted the impossible: equitable distribution of natural resource wealth, and jobs without environmental degradation. This is a paradox in standard development discourse, but Powers questions the assumption that has long directed our steps towards poverty reduction: that Environmental protection is a 'full stomach problem'. That you have to bring people out of poverty before seeking to protect the world they inhabit. If this is so, he asks, why does Bolivia as one of the poorest countries in the world have some of the most progressive logging laws? From his friends in the indigenous community he learned that people and nature do not have to be competing forces – that people can find value in something beyond dollars. That livelihoods can be made among the trees, not on top of their graves. Of course, it is reductive to describe indigenous people as angels – there were many motivations for protecting land rights, not all of them environmentally minded. He struggled to leave the saints of his movement room to be human. But ultimately, it seems, he learned the power of people who learn their own influence. He lived in Bolivia while indigenous protests paralyzed the country behind road blocks, while people kept up to the protests despite bullets raining from helicopters, when finally they deposed the white kleptocracy which had held a stranglehold over the country for generations. Now, Bolivia has its first indigenous leader, Evo Morales. He too is human, not a saint, but his assent to the presidency represents a shift in Bolivia's history. That at last the indigenous people may again hold sway over the land that was once theirs. For all of our sakes, I hope they keep it.

Indigenous people's protests. 

Evo Morales, the first Indigenous president of Bolivia

For more thinking: 

For anyone interested in South America, Indigenous people's rights, or simply good cinema I thoroughly recommend 'Even the Rain', a deeply self-reflexive 'movie within a movie' set in Bolivia during indigenous uprising over the unfettered spread of profiteering capitalism in their country. It asks tremendously important questions about white saviorism and responsibility, as well as being just a fantastic film in general.

Reading about Bolivia paired well with the last book I finished, “This Changes Everything” Naomi Klein's magnum opus on capitalism and climate change. She, too, focuses on indigenous people's rights as key to protecting the environment. I think this book should be required reading for everyone who participates in the capitalist system, as it is raises important issues about how our economic system interacts with our environmental ones and our role in saving or destroying our world. 

And as always, BBC provides a more decent overview than I for the curious:

Monday, May 30, 2016

Reading around the world: Kurdistan, the Country Which Doesn't Exist

Not what springs to mind when you think of Iraq, is it?

This week I explore the difficult history and present of a country which doesn't exist. Kurdistan lives in the hearts and dreams of 35 million people scattered across Northern Iraq, Southern Turkey, and small sections of Iran and Syria. It is the hope of a people who have fought for their existence for generations, and struggled to maintain their heritage in the face of cultural erasure in Turkey and systematic attempted genocide by Saddam Hussein. Who are the Kurds? For a people separated by so many borders this is a complicated question, but the easiest answer is any native speaker of Kurdish. The book I read, Invisible Nation, focused on the Kurdish population of Northern Iraq, a fiercely independent people whose culture has been shaped by decades of fighting for survival. While Kurds are primarily Muslim, they are far less conservative than their regional neighbors. They drink, women go unveiled, and sometimes even join men on the front lines. But perhaps most surprising to me: they love former president George W Bush.

A map of 'Kurdistan', showing areas where Kurds live in four countries. Iraq is the only one where their dreams of autonomy have come close to being realized. 

I am grateful to have found this book, because while I have lived with the Iraq war for almost as long as I can remember, my knowledge of this deeply complicated event is still colored by my simple child's understanding. Going to anti-war protests under my parents wing I learned the Iraq war was Bad, that there should be No Blood for Oil, and that Bush and his cronies invaded seeking only profit and nationalistic fervor. I I never learned about the Kurds, never heard that there was a whole population in Iraq who welcomed the American soldiers with songs and flowers, and fought alongside them.

The  now iconic image of Saddam's statue being pulled down. In the North, meanwhile, uncaptured by photographers, Kurds were gleefully pulling down their statues without the encouragement or assistance of the watching US soldiers shown here. 

To understand why the Kurds would so enthusiastic greet an invading force, we have to back up and examine their history. Perennial victims of a map, they have been consistently exploited for other's wars, strung along by their hope of a homeland. During the last throes of the Ottoman empire they were used by the Turks as executioners for over a Million Armenians, only to be later despised, never 'Turkish enough'. Iraqi Kurds joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, a disastrous alliance which gave Saddam Hussein an excuse to finally try to solve 'The Kurdish Problem'. In one of the world's most notorious use of Chemical weapons, Hussein poisoned towns full of civilians, and killed thousands in just days. During the first Bush presidency when Bush I invaded to defend Kuwait from being annexed by Iraq, the Kurds were heavily encouraged to rise up in order to create chaos, with heavily implied American support for an independent Kurdistan dangled as an incentive. When the brief war ended and to everyone's surprise, Saddam Hussein was still alive and still ruler of Iraq, this promise melted away. Retaliation, again, was harsh. The slaughter that followed was so terrible that when at last the American grew a conscience and attempted some humanitarian aid, mothers threw their babies onto departing helicopters, rather than let them die together. In the aftermath, the American military began to enforce a no fly zone around Kurdish Iraq, in effect creating the infant nation of Kurdistan.

This nation, having survived Hussein's ravages twice, did remarkably well under the patrol of American jets. While Iraq's currency spiraled into inflation, the Kurdish one stayed stable. The Kurds elected their own government, started reconstructing their bombed cities, and built universities. Things were looking good. They might even achieved independence at last had not political bickering divided the tiny country even further until another Bush came along to unite them.

The capital city of Erbil

Having lived at the edge of security, their existence barely tolerated by every nation surrounding them, when Washington began to growl threats against Saddam Hussein, they were among the old people in the world who cheered. They readily offered assistance in information and manpower. When the invasion finally came, Kurdish Pesh Murga fought alongside American soldiers, and the two armies developed a strong mutual respect. The Kurdish government, well practiced in running their section of Iraq, was eager to offer their experience to rebuild the country. It seemed on the edge of a happy ending for the Kurds, far from the horrific bloodbath I imagined as a child. But it was not to be.

During the initial successful invasion, Bush's envoys to Iraq were veterans of the area, people with strong connections to Iraqis and a good grasp of the complicated politics on the ground. Later though, Washington began to favor politics over pragmatism, and sent people for their loyalty to the White House, not their knowledge of the region. One particularly disastrous ambassador, Bremer, spent most of his career in Europe and then was given the unenviable task of running a country he knew nothing about. He made this harder upon himself by refusing to respect local customs, and horribly insulted every Iraqi politician (whose cooperation he desperately needed) by continually putting his feet up on his desk, soles pointed towards his supposed allies in one the worst insult possible in the Middle East. With clueless bureaucrats the helm, the power vacuum in Iraq quickly turned to a cyclone. Internal politics soured even further, and violence erupted around the country in opposition to the defunct occupation. While the Kurds still maintain a seat in government as the (primarily symbolic) President, they have mostly retreated back behind their invisible border as Iraq disintegrates to less than it was under a dictatorship. Kurdish independence remains at the forefront of everyone's thoughts, but the issue has once again been set aside to deal with yet another catastrophe: ISIS. America may find itself begging their help once again, as the Kurds are one of our best hopes against the rapid spread of ISIS, which they fight with characteristic bravery.  I find the Syrian war hopeless, a battle for the least awful outcome, with no hope for a good one. But after learning about the Kurdish people and their struggles and successes despite the odds I have one hope: that at last, somehow, from the rubble of the modern Middle East, Kurdistan will rise. 

Kurdish pop star Helly Luv sings anti-ISIS tunes, just miles from ISIS occupied territory. 

For more on Kurdistan:

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Anuradhapura: Memory and the Sacred City

A Carving of a elephant playing in the water

There is something magical to me about ancient places. It is a near human universal – this desire to step into the past, to stare at crumbling ruins and try to imagine life in them, to feel some kind of connection to a time we can barely imagine. Why we love this I don't know, but for me it is like walking through a world you can half create: imagine walls around empty foundations and pillars. Fill them with people. In some ways I enjoy the condition of wondering more than the condition of knowing, so my favorite site was the most ruined one. Half covered in grass and trees, sometimes walls emerging from the ground and sometimes only strange lumps of green hinting at the world beneath. Felt like a child again, imagining the kings and gods and ordinary people who filled these palaces and temples.

Jonathan and I navigated the sacred city of Anuradhpura on bikes, enjoying wet air cooled by rain, a world saturated in growth and green. We cycled aimlessly, pausing to admire vast stupas rising out of the fields, or herds of monkeys, goats, and water buffalo that wander through the ruins

These Langiers may have made my day with their acrobatics - we watched them tussle and turn backflips and swing on the wire in the background. 

A random, beautiful, Stupa. 

We visited a 3000 year old Bodhi tree, brought by the Buddha when he came to settle a dispute between Sri Lankan kings. It is the oldest tree in the world continuously cared for by humans. The air hummed with prayer as families in white sang and chanted, offering flowers or incense or plates of food.

The ancient Bodhi tree. 

The only experience comparable to the two great Stupas that I can think of is standing at the foot of the great pyramids – at the time they were built the only things in the world which rivaled them in size. At 70+ meters in size (only half their original height) and made up of 90 Million bricks the scale was astonishing. Barely believable, that such a thing could be made with human hands and sweat before mechanical aid. No words or pictures can describe the feeling of standing next to one – you feel minuscule.

Detail of a ladder going up the Stupa 

But, like everything in Sri Lanka, Anaradhapura has a political dimension as well. After the war the ex president Rajapaksa announced a plan to build yet another stupa in the middle of the sacred city – even taller than the ancient ones – to commemorate the bravery of the (Sinhalese) soldiers against the (Tamil) 'terrorists'. From what I could see of construction the project survived the regime change. It breaks my heart, but this beautiful place has become symbol of triumphant nationalism. Anaradhapura, is, in a way, a monument to nostalgia – to a time when the Sinhalese were the best architects and one of the wealthiest civilizations in the world. Yet, just like when Americans harken back to 'the good old days' (what good old days? The days of 'colored' water fountains? The days when women couldn't vote? The days of slavery?) nostalgia is dangerous. It is almost always built on a simplified, idealized past, and erases those who complicate the present. Not that progress is always positive, Anaradhapura demonstrates the need for a respectful but critical eye towards history, lest it become relegated to a prop for our stories about the present. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Batticaloa and the 'Real' Sri Lanka

This weekend Taryn and Jonathan and I traveled to Batticaloa, a town on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, almost directly on the opposite side of the country. Though it is less than 200 miles away as the crow flies, it is a journey of 10 hours by train, and when you step off dusty and sweat stained, you are in another world. In Batticaloa there is a different language, Tamil, and different faiths - Hinduism and Islam dominate here.There is little in Batti to attract the casual tourist, but we went to visit friends who have lived there as part of their research. Seeing the East through their eyes, mediated by their connections and observations, we saw into a part of Sri Lanka that is hidden from the cluttered streets and shining buildings of Colombo.

After seeing a Tamil action movie with our friends Kim and Sam, and several of Kim's friends.

Colombo is a place of new chances, a place where the enthusiastic proclamations from politicians carry weight, where optimism cautiously circulates around the tongues of an English speaking elite, who watch eagerly for reform, and the flood of Western dollars this will bring. In the East, difficulty crashes back around you – the reality that even when rhetoric changes, this country has lived 12 years under routine torture, kleptocracy, disappearances in the night, bombings. In this world life hovers hesitant, the boundaries between life and death are thin, easy to fall from one side to another by some twist of chance, the whim of some soldier. Even when inflammatory rhetoric cools, the bureaucrats, the police, the soldiers, the monsters these angry words created, still inhabit their positions of power. They will not change overnight at the visit of a United National Commissioner for Human Rights. For Easterners, change is not miraculous with the switch of a president. They see their land, their culture, their language still chipped away at by powerful people imported from the West. Kim tells us how the local Buddhist temple is almost always empty, but for Buddhist holidays buses of Sinhalese from the West are shipped in to worship there, while the Hindu temple next door blasts music in not exactly silent protest. Sam tells us about the bad old days when his Tamil friend's house was firebombed by a 'patriot', and white vans circled the town catching young men and boys, who never reappeared. New buildings are built, new stories are told, but these memories simmer under the surface of the town. The war lingers far closer than in Colombo.

Damage from the  2004 Tsunami 

In Colombo, Taryn and I often talk about how we sometimes feel we are not in Sri Lanka. My life is nestled in the crux of globalized anonymity of Sri Lanka – I live in the wealthiest area of Colombo, next to several embassies. You can go your whole day without hearing a word of Sinhala or Tamil: even in grocery stores people speak English to one another. Our own limited language skills mean we can't make very meaningful relationships outside the English speaking elite, with whom we converse about American politics and TV shows. When I first arrived in Sri Lanka I was primed for intense poverty by my recent experiences in Cambodia and Rwanda, and it took me several weeks to recognize that the facelessly globalized places around Colombo, the business hotels, restaurants serving imitation European food, and Starbucks clone cafes, are primarily inhabited and own by Sri Lankans. They are a part of Sri Lanka too. It might be satisfying to a Westerner to go abroad and find something different and exotic, but who am I to admonish Sri Lankans for not being Sri Lankan enough, to be disappointed in their love of McDonald’s and Pizza hut? This, too, is Sri Lanka.

So I learn to recognize the many worlds contained in this small island, none more 'legitimate' than any other. Is Shakespeare in the Park in Colombo any less 'Sri Lankan' than helping Kim's host sister cook Dhal? Is the hope in Colombo any more 'real' than the fear and resentment in the East? I have to say no, but the danger comes in believing Sri Lanka is limited to one sphere or another. Dangerous to forget that the experience I have had, while it may be a Sri Lankan one, is limited to a tiny minority of the Sri Lankan population. One of the great challenges Sri Lanka faces is the reconciliation of these worlds. And what deserves more priority: the hope for a new future or the need to recognize a horrific past? How can memory be honored without dredging up old fears and hatred? How can you move forward without erasure?

No easy solutions to these questions – they have circled through my mind without settling since leaving the East . One method of reconciling these worlds is addressing the economic disparities between the Western Province and... well, anywhere else in Sri Lanka. It is letting people return to the lands and lives they inhabited before the war. It is improving and investing in rural schools. It is judicious development based on maximizing impact for the people, not the poorly placed and badly designed ego projects of the previous regime. I see these changes moving slowly forward, but I am stumped by the question of memory. How do you memorialize without triumphalism or sensationalizing? I have traveled in the wake of genocide enough to know that the traditional approach – gather bones and stack them high, might impress some NGOs into shelling out some dollars, but the unceremonious and anonymous display of the bits of their loved ones is only hurtful to the survivors. How can you honor the dead and respect the living?

Still circling.  

A Batticaloa Sunset 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump, Rajapaksa, and the Many Faces of Madness

At times it feels the world is goes mad around me. In this calm and beautiful place I barely believe the headlines streaming in from the US, and sometimes I can barely believe what happens here before my eyes. I see the spiraling vestiges of madness whenever I walk down the street. It creeps in at the edges in posters and stickers, and back in the US the insanity has reached a roar which can be heard across oceans. Strange, when on facebook I see as many posts about American politics from my foreign friends as my American ones. When America begins to go mad the world trembles – from my students in Cambodia to my teachers in Egypt to my coworkers in Sri Lanka. We watch the thrashings of a behemoth with baited breath.

Here too, the air is laced with madness. The other night while walking with my friend Taryn to dinner I was shocked to see the ex-president Rajapaksa's face leering at me from the back of a bus. Rajapaksa was a 12 year dictator of a 'president', who ended Sri Lanka's civil war by obliterating the Tamil people in the North, and maintained his popularity by leveraging his people's lingering resentment and mistrust of the 'other'. He stole millions of dollars in state money, and guaranteed Billions to Chinese cronies in useless development projects which now litter the country: a half finished 'lotus flower tower' currently looms over the city like a giant penis. Rajapaksa's ousting was met with visible relief by the intellectual class I have mostly associated with – the kind of people who threatened Rajapaksa with their ability to think critically about his ludicrous statements and policies. But the spectere of his popularity has not faded. The bus, bedecked in Rajapaksa posters, was full of shouting men. The night was full of yelling, streets even more packed than usual. It was an opposition rally where the old president called for power to be handed back to him. As we ate, a stream of middle aged men filtered into the restaurant, wearing baseball caps with Rajapaksa's face that reminded me eerily of 'Make America Great Again' hats.

It is hard not to think of Trump when I see this. We in America are used to watching the antics of dictators and demagogs around the world and wondering 'how?'. Well, now we know. Money and fear. Rajapaksa and Trump gain their popularity from the same thing: telling the privileged majority that equality for minorities means oppression for the majority. It is an appeal to instinct, to 'us versus them', to our basest and most violent natures. It isn't inhuman. It is how humans are when they are afraid.

And now I, too, am afraid. Not for my own safety in either context, but of the madness, and who it will consume. Rajapaksa and Trump are the same kind of leader – men who have made their fortunes off the backs of the unfortunate, but still speak the language of the working class well enough to convince people they are populist. Leaders who create a strong loyalty by defining themselves in opposition to an 'other'. Leaders who grow with bloodshed. Rajapaksa ended a war by exterminating the opposition. And Trump, I fear, won't end violence, but start it. We see the stirrings of it, as he promises to subsidize violence at his rallies. As a student of mass violence, I can tell you confidently that his is the kind of rhetoric which starts it. Tells people they need to strike first. Creates a climate where they are lauded if they do. I am not predicting genocide if Trump is elected. But I urge you not to fall into the trap of believing that violence is something that happens to 'them', somewhere far away. Never say “he couldn't do that, he's such a nice person”. I have met murderers and rapists. They have offered me tea. They love their families. They are nice. Just like me. Just like your neighbor. Just like you. Violence is what happens not when you put bad people together, but when you create the expectation that good people will act terribly. And this is what Trump is slowly doing.

So no, I will not 'move to Canada' if Trump wins. I will not leave my Muslims friends and my trans friends and my friends of color to danger that is unlikely to touch me. How could I live with myself if I ran when so many don't have the resources to escape? I see my role in this world as a peacebuilder, a preventer of conflict where I can, and healer post-conflict where I cannot. When that conflict comes to my doorstep, who am I to disown it?  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Reading around the world: Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, for a country the size of the whole of western Europe, is remarkably invisible. It is telling of the level of invisibility that the only reference any Westerners have for it is Borat, a movie so reliant on racist stereotypes that if it had been made about virtually any other country or ethnic minority it would have been completely reviled. We don't even know enough about the Kazakhs to be offended on their behalf.

Our ignorance is, in part, because Kazakhstan as a country simply hasn't existed for long. The Kazakhs negotiated their independence from the USSR only in December of 1991, making it one year older than I am. Since that time it has slowly, and quietly, begun to shrug off a heavy burden of extractionary economic policies and social terror and oppression leftover from communist rule. Kazakhstan is a rich country full of poor people: the ground swells with oil, minerals, and natural gas which the Russians were quick to extract, but ensure that the finished products and the wealth they generated remained in Russia. Meanwhile, they used Kazakhstan as a dumping ground for human and chemical undesirables – poisoning the environment ad thousands of people with nuclear testing, and filled the country with scattered prisons for criminals and political exiles. The indigenous nomadic culture was crushed under soviet rule and impractical (and often impossible) agricultural projects imposed instead.

One of few eagle hunters whose traditions survived the Soviet purge

So, like so many countries on reaching Independence, Kazakhstan found itself penniless, with gutted government institutions, a broken economy, and a defeated spirit. But despite this, this may be one of the few blogs in this series which ends optimistically. Since independence the country has been dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whom the author of my book seemed a bit star-struck by. He has allowed for little dissent or political opposition, but he has maintained peace in a religiously and ethnically diverse population, and rapid economic growth. Privatization has slowly begun to leak natural resource wealth and a functioning economy to the ordinary person, and the new found wealth built a shining new capitol city, Astana, in just a matter of years. Most impressively, the Kazakhs have embraced their vast array of religious and ethnic diversity. The Kazakh population of 16 million is divided among over 25 ethnic groups, and between two majors religions of Islam and Christianity. But there has been little tension. The new capitol city contains a huge glass pyramid designed to host interfaith dialog and promote religious understanding and equality.

The capitol city Astana, completely rebuilt since 1997

A Kazakh Mosque - the strangest of many beautiful Mosques in the country. 

My past three blogs focused on majority Muslim countries, and critiqued the hypocritical use of faith and extremism by the elite to control and manipulate the masses. Kazakhstan is 70% Muslim, but shows an alternative – an Islam which accepts diversity and encourages peace. An economically successful, peaceful and diverse majority Muslim country hardly fits into the Western dominant narrative around Islam, and I have to wonder if this is part of why Kazakhstan is so invisible to us. We cannot see what we don't expect to find.

While snooping around the internet about Kazakhstan I was enchanted by the pictures I found of natural beauty and strange wildlife, and couldn't resist including a few. 

Kazakhstan is famous for its tulips every spring 

It also has the strange and wonderful Saiga antelope, in the running for my favorite animal. You can learn more about this creature, including why their noses look like that, here 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Reading around the world: Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Capitol, Riyadh

I chose Saudi Arabia not because I know nothing about it, but because what I did know invoked a very unusual reaction from me: one of intense dislike and growing prejudice. Between scraps of knowledge about the place Saudi Arabia has within Islam, most of what I knew came from anguished news articles about yet another Sri Lankan maid being sent home after her Saudi employers forced her to eat glass, cut off her hand, or attempted to stone her to death. Foreign domestic labor can be a quick rout out of poverty – at any one time about 10% of the adult population of Sri Lanka persues higher wages and opportunity outside the country. But the chance comes a huge risk to body and soul, especially in opressive societies which have no legal protections for foreign laborers. This kind of abuse isn't limited to Saudi boarders – a couple months ago the Saudi ambassador to India fled under diplomatic immunity after raping his maid. So my image of Saudi Arabia was that of an exceptionally brutal Qatar or Emirates – a country where citizens live off oil royalties and concentrate frustrated energy on oppressing women and brutalizing the household help.

A Saudi Royal Palace

So when I read 'On Saudi Arabia' I was surprised to learn that 40% of Saudis live in poverty, and 60% cannot afford to buy homes.  Religion may be the opium of the masses, but foreign labor is the opium of labor is the opium of the Saudi economy, keeping it breathing but sedated and stagnant. Social stigmas prevent Saudis from taking the jobs which are plentiful in their country – service sector and manual labor are bountiful, but filled with cheaper and more compliant Philippinos, Ethiopians and Bangladeshis. Meanwhile a decrepit, memorization based education system fails to prepare Saudis for skilled jobs, so even doctors are imported. Coveted government jobs are choked by the leviathan royal family, as each of the 7,000 Princes need an adequately ostentatious official tittle. Women meanwhile, are gradually overtaking their male peers on every level of education, but are prohibited from working almost any job by the risk of interacting with an unrelated male, a possibility made dangerous by the vigilance of religious police to seek out and punish such forbidden fraternization.

A slum in Riyadh 

Clearly, with a economy resting on a limited natural resource and capped by the largess of the vast royal family, the current state of the Saudi economy is unsustainable. Saudi Arabia is a welfare state choked by a serpentine bureaucracy and a royal family of around 30,000 members, who dispense favors, scholarships, even placement at good hospitals on a case by case basis. Saudis watch the growing divide between the royal and the common family with resentment. Karen House presents the country as wavering on the edge of a deep divide in Saudi society: reformers who demand a more equitable, modernized society which allows space for dissent, discussion, and maybe even hints of democracy. The other side seeks to solve Saudi's problems with an even further retreat into Islam, though current Saudi society is ironically far more conservative than it was 1,400 years ago during the Prophet's time. Fundamentalists conveniently ignore that Mohammed readily interacted with unrelated women, invited them into the mosques from which they are currently banned, and respected and consulted his wives.

Change in either direction is likely to throw the country into full social unrest, as it would enrage the other side of the political spectrum. The family so far has chosen to vacillate – making modernizing reforms when confident and falling back on fundamentalist Wahhabism when spooked. The play to radical Islam by the royal family is a cynical one, as wealthy Saudis frequently break the rules they publicly espouse. It has thus far maintained social cohesion and kept the devout more concerned with the afterlife than the injustices of this world. But the facade begins to crack under widening inequality and flagrant flouting of the religious commandment to live a simple life. Islam has escaped the control of the Royals – even people on government business can be harassed by the government employed religious police.

Saudi's future remains uncertain. But one thing for sure – I have significantly more empathy for the people trapped in the stagnant milieu of Saudi Arabia. The look into the country was not a pretty one, but it revealed a very human quest for agency in an oppressive and unjust society. 

For more on Saudi Arabia:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Where the wild things are

At the end of another trip, and again Sri Lanka has left me lost for words. Our last week was inspiring in a way that cannot be captured – by words or by my camera. We traveled with John and John to the most stunning natural places I have been to – Yala National park, and Ella, home of mountains, tea plantations, and waterfalls. Even without the company it would have been an incredible trip, but being able to share my beloved Sri Lanka and it's wonderful and strange idiosyncrasies with family made it perfect. We talked and drank and ATE our way across the country and gathered memories for a lifetime. Rather than try to account everything that happened day by day this blog will again be mostly photos – a tiny fraction of what I took but hopefully enough to give a taste of what we saw. 

Miracle of miracles - we were told going into the park we had a 50% chance of seeing one of the illusive leopards, and less than that of seeing elephants. Somehow, on both days we went in, we saw both creatures. Caught sight of this leopard sunning herself on a rock for just a few seconds, but it was breathtaking. 

We stumbled on a family of elephants as well - several mothers with their calves. Having got very close to domestic elephants here I didn't think it would be too exciting, but something about the animals in the wild was awe inspiring. 

Despite the majesty of these rare animals, my favorite part of the park was the rich diversity it contained. We identified over 30 species of birds, and around 20 species of reptiles and mammals. This lake held dozens of different water birds, a squadron of crocodiles in the center, and a ring of eagles and kites around the edges. 

 Peacocks were everywhere. 

I loved these little Bee-eaters -- they darted across the road like flying jewels every few minutes. 

We saw this eagle eating breakfast - if you look closely you can see the snake in her claws. 

One of my favorite sightings were these mongooses, who liked to run along the edges of the road. 

Wild pigs didn't just live in the park - they snuffled around our cabins at the resort,  and their smell was ever present. 

This large crocodile lived in a lake in the resort. Ready for leftovers! 

My favorite moment of wild-life meets hotel-life.... these black faced Langiers enjoyed drinking from the relatively safe crocodile-free pool, much to the amazement of the child behind him. 

From Yala we moved on to Ella, and stayed on a wonderful organic, local empowerment focused, tea plantation and farm. The view from our 100 year old house was amazing - we got to watch the clouds roll across the mountains every morning. 

We also hiked up Ella rock for another glimpse of the vast panorama of the valleys.

Finally, the four of us at our lovely house in Galle,where we started our trip in a house surrounded by birds and monkeys and fruit trees with a view of the sea. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

To the End of the World

A couple of weeks ago was my favorite of my trip so far. I had the great fortune to go on an adventure with one of my best friends from University: Mari, who is now teaching English in Japan. Mari's arrival gave us an excuse to explore the mountain regions of Sri Lanka. In a life full of beautiful adventures, this was definitely one of the most beautiful. I could try to describe the awe inspiring beauty of these places, but I wouldn't do it justice. My photos can only hint at it, but they are the best rendition I can give.

This place is called World's End, because of the breath taking drop off view from the cliff

Looking out over the clouds at the end of the world 

Looking out over the valley feels like being swallowed up by the Earth 

Gorgeous, endless tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya. 

Sunset from the most beautiful train ride in my life 

At Ella Rock in Ella 

Jonathan and I in Ravana falls in Ella 

The peace of the place was quickly and adorably interrupted by the appearance of troop of young monks