If You See Something, Say Something

A few weeks ago, I visited Hamburg’s vast harbors and storage houses. There, I saw the faded signs of an old network of traders from Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir who came to Hamburg in the 1880s and 1890s bearing carpets and artifacts. I loved that part of Hamburg, and I wished I had had more time to talk to some members of this old Muslim community.

There are parts of Berlin which also evoke past entanglements. The Ahmadi mosque in Wilmersdorf – the oldest in Germany – is an example. I wrote about wandering onto it a while ago. Since then, I have learned a lot more about the post-War Turkish immigration to Berlin, the Muslim (Turkish, Desi, Arab, Iranian) communities in Kreuzberg, in Neukölln, in Wedding, in Charlottenburg. I met families of Sikhs and Punjabis from Ludhiana who have been in Berlin since the early 1970s. I met East Pakistanis. I met PPP jaiyallas still in hiding from Zia ul Haq. Berlin, as it has to many before me, only begrudgingly unveils its seductive charms – and one of its charms has been its matter-of-fact diversity.

And just as matter-of-factly, it shows its racism. When I was vacating my last apartment – in the quite white, old (as in the demographic), rich kiez of KuDamm, I spent an epic 28 hours scrubbing the apartment clean for the landlord’s inspection. The tenure in the place was about 16 months and there was very little wear and tear. Yet, during the inspection, the landlords acted in a ridiculously rude manner – at one point saying that only “animal-like Turks” could live like this.

In my new place in Schöneberg – a neighborhood I absolutely love – my 80 plus year old neighbor looked me up and down.
“Are you Turk – your name is Achmet”
“Actually, that is with a D, not a T but, I am from Pakistan”
“…. Pakistan?”
“Ah! I used to know an Indian. Yes, you are much too dark to be a Turk.”

I was quite happy that we had settled the matter and a few weeks later, I bumped into her again. She began to tell me about the building, the neighborhood and while describing the 1950s and 60s life, she quickly inserted a comment about how those were the days before the “African and Turk” families couldn’t be seen on the street. Afraid that my German comprehension was not up to par, I repeated after her and she elaborated that the Africans started moving into the apartment buildings around us in the late 80s and early 90s. Haven’t I seen them?

These encounters are, however, not the same. While the old landlord was definitely a racist, my new neighbor simply belongs to a world view which is restrictive around class and color lines. I can’t begrudge this casual prejudice to the old and the infirm. And sometimes, I feel that Berlin as a whole has a similar outlook – a casual prejudice against the ausländer (outsider) be they white or green.

Continue reading “If You See Something, Say Something”

Ten Short Years

The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there’s not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. “And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard.”

– “With CIA help, NYPD built secret effort to monitor mosques, daily life of Muslim neighborhoods“, AP, Aug 24, 2011

In the months after 9/11, the FBI deployed its investigative apparatus as a blunt weapon. In November 2001, the Department of Justice began conducting “voluntary interviews” with 5,000 Middle Eastern non-citizens. Hundreds of FBI agents were dispatched across the country to conduct the interviews, with standard questions like “Are you aware of anybody who reacted in a surprising way about the terrorist attacks? Maybe you got to work and maybe a coworker said, ‘Good, I’m glad that happened’?”

– “To catch a terrorist: The FBI hunts for the enemy within“, Petra Bartosiewicz, Harper’s, Aug 2011.

All is Well

I have a more detailed review of Maleeha Lodhi’s edited volume Pakistan: Beyond ‘The Crisis State’ in Dawn’s Books & Authors: All is Well… or is it? I had briefly discussed it in my previous review essay, but this is special care:

Pakistan, as a subject of critical analysis, is ill-served when realities are ignored for the sake of policy. The need to resist a crude stereotype of “failed state” is clear and present but to go “beyond the crisis state”, we must also look seriously to history, to narratives other than the state or military and admit the harsh truths: The Pakistani military is just as fallible as its civilian regime, though the latter needs the explicit support of the population as a legitimate government. The state structure incorporates within it gross injustices towards the minorities — defined religiously, ethnically or culturally. Redressing these injustices — against the Ahmadis, the Christians, the Hindus, the Baloch, the Swatis — is just as vital to the nation-state as the need to prioritise health or education or commercial sectors. This volume is but a hampered beginning in this long process of a national soul-searching.

The Best of All Possible Care

One thing that the First World really gets right is good dental care. The more money you have, the better the teeth. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we Americans (at least those with good dental insurance) have some of the pearliest, straightest teeth in the world, we are seldom grateful for this gift. The word ‘torture’ is probably used far more by Americans to describe visits to the dentist, the periodontist, the orthodontist and the oral surgeon than it is to describe water-boarding or taking photographs of prisoners of war in humiliating poses. That’s why the US Government is so crafty when it shows us images of bad guys in captivity receiving dental care. Take the case of José Padilla, who was shown in a small video being marched down the hall from his solitary confinement to get a root canal (wearing goggles and sound-canceling headphones to keep that solitary real). This little bit of film was so noteworthy that it was even discussed by Graham Bader in Artforum, according to Amitava Kumar, who writes:

Bader’s point is that the most intensely politicized contemporary images are those that concern “the state’s role in authoring the most basic experiences of life and death.” Images like those of “the broken figure of Jose Padilla, shuffling to the dentist down the hall from his cell” enter our conversations about art as new evidence to be examined and understood.

Having not, in fact, read the original Artforum article, I confess that I am flummoxed as to how the video managed to pass directly from the hands of Homeland Security (or the CIA?) directly into the pages of one of the nation’s leading art journals. It’s so hard to keep track of what art is nowadays.

My interest was piqued by the description, however, as it reminded me of one of my personal favorites in the galaxy of GWOT imagery, specifically the Iraq war: the photographs of Saddam Hussain receiving the best of all possible medical care at the hands of the United States military after he was dragged out of his hiding spot and taken into custody. It’s one of those pieces of propaganda that makes it hard to decide whether you are looking at a really clever piece of psy-ops or an elaborate visual gag. How civilized, and how supremely humane of the United States to supply that bastard Saddam with the best possible dental care in the world! And yet, when Americans see the picture, we know what’s really going on: they’ve sent the dentists in; he’s being tortured.