The Favre Legend

Cast your mind back, way back. To a time before cellphone ubiquity, before the advent of email and the Internet. History had just ended, Dan Quayle was our nation's vice president, and William Jefferson Clinton still a relative unknown when Brett Lorenzo Favre started his first game for the Green Bay Packers on September 20, 1992. Fifteen years later just about everything has changed, both within the NFL and the world at large, but number 4 remains a constant. Every fall, rest assured, he will appear in the northern firmament at least 16 times bathed in Green and Gold.

During his unprecedented 258-game streak the native Mississippian won three consecutive MVP's and a Super Bowl and earned All-Pro honors six times, so the legend has grown. But ESPN columnist Patrick Hruby, among others, has had enough. Before turning fiercely anti-Brett, he begins his Monday blog entry thusly: "Usually good. Sometimes great. Always plays. Loves football." Any sportswriter or fan who cannot understand widespread appreciation for an NFL quarterback to whom these descriptions apply must be something of a failure at both. For are these not the very qualities we prize? I do. And these four phrases encapsulate Favre's career: He is usually good; although sometimes bad, he is also sometimes great; the man always, always plays; and last but not least he loves football with an abiding, joyous exuberance.

But Hruby is unimpressed and goes on to explain how Favre is neither a metaphorical raging against the dying of the light or some great bulwark against creeping metrosexuality, as the experts would have you believe. (Where are you getting this excreta, Pat?) After informing us that no quarterback in NFL history has won more games than Favre, without a trace of irony Hruby adds that the Green Bay QB has “long been more myth than man.” This is wrong-headed in more ways than one.

See, Favre's very appeal lies in his humanity, his shortcomings. He's the anti-myth, the everyman hero. Jordan and Federer, Woods and Gretzky. These guys are epic, mythic, more god than man: stunningly, deeply and diversely skilled athletes who at their best cannot be beat and at their worst are still a joy to watch because they are better at their job than anyone has ever been. Supermen. Geniuses, if you will. Brett's no genius; he's a holy fool, with a rocket arm, a bayou-sized ticker, and little else. The tale of his career is one of overcoming faults and adversity and bumbling, in fits and starts, towards glory.

In his rookie year, 1991, Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville tarred Favre as a partier after he repeatedly stumbled hungover into practice. Favre burped and farted and cracked jokes and Glanville famously claimed that only a plane crash would get the rowdy southerner into the game. Glanville might've regretted not keeping his word: Favre's first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown (sometime in the next few weeks, in fact, Favre will replace George Blanda as the all-time interceptions leader). In the routine physical examination after Favre was traded to Green Bay the following off-season Packers' doctors found Favre had the same degenerative hip condition that ended Bo Jackson's career. Packers GM Ron Wolf was advised to void the trade, but refused. A few months later Favre's first pass as a Packer became his first career reception, for a 7-yard loss.

Indeed, unlike many of the great ones, Brett Favre does not make quarterbacking look easy. He makes it look difficult. Nigh impossible, in fact. You won't find any of Tom Brady's cool customer or Peyton Manning's full-bodied confidence here; watching Favre one appreciates the anxiety that is part and parcel with staring down angry, hard-charging 250-lb. men for a living. He taps his feet and fingers in the huddle. He appears tense while under center and makes his audibles peculiarly obvious. The ball is snapped and Brett drops back to become the tin man, all herky-jerky -- bobbing, juking, twitchy-eyed. If he doesn't get rid of the ball within a few seconds he will start hopping and consider an exit strategy. A bad decision is imminent and it is here that any true fan -- and I've been a Packer fan since I could burp – begins to wince and readies a moan. A defensive lineman lunges at Favre, clasps his torso but somehow Brett twists away and after a quick peak down field fires a dart into triple coverage. The ball is tipped by a defender, smacks off the shoulder pads of a receiver, pops high into the air and lands just out of the reach of a diving safety. Then it's back to the huddle to start over again. "Look at this guy!" thinks the armchair QB, the former high school athlete, beer in hand. "If he can do it, so can I. I could do that."

Yet he plays with his heart on his shoulder pads. When he's happy, he's overjoyed, and viewers have borne repeated witness to his infectious, childlike glee. Sprinting 50 yards to tackle a teammate in the end zone. Running thirty yards cross-field with arms raised after a game-winning TD pass. Double, triple fist pumps and chest-bumping teammates after a 2nd quarter touchdown. The day after his father, Irv, passed away in 2003, Brett punctuated 399 yards passing and four touchdowns with bouts of sideline weeping.

Fiery and shaky and occasionally oops-a-daisy, Favre's open-hearted, nerve-jangling style makes first downs cause for celebration. Yet despite a catalog of minor and not-so-minor injuries, an addiction to painkillers, near divorce, and countless family tragedies (the NY Times recounted Favre's off-the-field troubles Sunday), over the years they have arrived with some regularity. Now, almost inexplicably, Favre has become the winningest QB of all time, with several major passing records in his pocket and more on the horizon. Perhaps more any other contemporary professional athlete, he personifies that most appealing of sports contradictions: regular, imperfect guy turned larger-than-life hero.

So, Pat, do me a favor. Try to forget everything you've read or heard or imagined about Brett Favre over the years and just watch. Watch this gray-haired ancient mariner stroll onto the field in his patented bandy-legged strut. Watch him trash talk opposing defenders. Watch him go a little gooey under pressure. Watch him jump up and down like a teenager and chest bump teammates after a touchdown. Knowing it won't be another decade and a half before he hangs up his cleats, watch this guy play football and ask yourself: how does he make you feel?

I bet you'll like what you find.


Burning Down Our House

March 2007 Book Review of Raj Kamal Jha's Novel Fireproof

On a chill, late February evening five years ago, a gang of marauders stopped and torched the Subarmati Express near Godhra, about 150 kms from Gujarat's capital city of Gandhinagar. The case filed later by the police claimed several Muslims conspired to burn the train and its passengers, but two subsequent court decisions were inconclusive. Either way, the deaths of 59 Hindu passengers – including several returning from Ayodhya, where they had been campaigning to build a temple in place of a mosque destroyed ten years prior – sparked an unprecedented communal conflagration across the state. The deliriously violent five-week spree of fire and rioting destroyed 25,000 shops and homes and resulted in over 1000 mostly Muslim deaths.

Award-winning novelist Raj Kamal Jha covered the carnage for Indian Express, where he is executive editor. Sifting through the detritus of Ahmedabad's Gulbarga Housing Complex, which had been torched with residents still inside, he came upon a child's workbook. The cover was singed but inside were several pages of exercises and a number of surprisingly mature poems. One stunningly relevant verse stopped the author in his tracks and inspired him to pen a fictional account of the tragedy, one that could encompass all of the horror and the guilt, the suffering, fear, and denial that pierced the heart of India in the late winter of 2002.

The result is "Fireproof," one Ahmedabad man's fantastical, fearsome hurtling through the anxiety-drenched first days of violence and a visceral fever dream of a book readers will find hard to put down and impossible to shake. Although occasionally stomach-churning, Mr. Jha's new novel is not only a crackling good read – a thrilling bullet train of mayhem, mystery, and magic realism – it is also a wake-up call.

The book opens with the protagonist, Mr. Jay, at the hospital. Due to a difficult delivery his wife is unconscious and his newborn son horribly deformed: wrapped in dark, burnt-looking skin; without arms and legs; and with a slit for a mouth, a two-holed bump for a nose, and a soft, lumpy head. Only the eyes are like other babies', allowing him to keep watch as events unfold. Flummoxed by his progeny, Mr. Jay dubs the baby Ithim, a mash-up of "it" and "him."

While waiting to see his child he spies a woman standing in a window across the hospital courtyard. She scribbles "HELP ME" on fogged-up glass then vanishes along with the words. That night, after Jay has taken Ithim home, he receives a call from the mysterious woman. Miss Glass tells him to meet her the following afternoon at an undisclosed location a few hours outside the city. She says she can fix Ithim. After some indecision Jay acquiesces, leading to a riveting journey through which he begins to fully appreciate the horrors that have gripped his city.

A Greek chorus of soon-to-be-killed bit players delivers a warning shot in the Prologue, making readers aware, right from the start, that this will be no walk in the park. And indeed, tongues are cut from mouths, women raped and killed in front of their children, and bodies rain from the sky. The brutality and gore are presented with such forthrightness the reader finds himself riveted even as the steady drumbeat of death appalls.

"Then they rape the daughter-in-law. They strangle her with a towel. They slit her throat. They wait for her to die. They slit her stomach, all the way down. From her breasts to her pubic bone. They take her baby out. They throw up, at the sight of unborn flesh. And, of course, the blood. They throw up on the kitchen countertop, over the vegetables she was peeling. Then they set the house on fire."

The above is from one of three lengthy eyewitness accounts attached to an email Miss Glass sends to Mr. Jay providing directions for his journey. In these tales the witnesses and victims have names but the perpetrators are simply called A, B, C, and D. And between each chapter a member of the chorus of the dead – Head Nurse, for instance, or Taxi Driver – recounts his or her fiery end at the hands of a similarly nameless, faceless gang. The acts of violence remain vivid but anonymous, for now.

And the gruesomeness of these literary body blows is intended. Gujarat was vile and indefensible – over a month of jaw-dropping communal murder on a vast canvas – and Jha is attempting to recreate the aura of shock and disgust, danger and fear that swallowed the state like darkest night. THIS REALLY HAPPENED, he is reminding us, and such matter-of-fact recounting of horrors – Jha keeps the prose mostly plain rather than purple – rings more of history than fiction.

In an audacious and hilarious set piece at the railway station, however, Jha looses his pen. Jay is awaiting his escort to Miss Glass when a dwarf named Bright Shirt appears. Waltzing through a puddle of trousers, shoelaces, and a lengthy black and white-checked scarf, the stubby one freezes Jay in bemused awe:

"He was running, on the spot, stomping and stamping in this puddle, his clothes flapping like giant tropical birds perched on his body. He was jumping up and down, his elbows and knees jerking back and forth, restless, impatient, like a player limbering up before a game. …
'Forgive my looks, for I am just a clown,
My job is to cheer you up, Whenever you are down.
You look very tired, sir, you look quite beat,
So let's sit down for a while, and get something to eat?'
Then he turned, with a flick of his heel, a stamp of his foot, like a soldier in a parade, and was off. He walked as if there was no crowd, barging right into people, banging against their suitcases and their bundles, almost knocking his head against their knees. This strategy of his seemed to work, though. For the crowd was parting for him, easily and spontaneously, and he was walking, running, jogging, as if this were a playground and he were a child."

The comic relief is short-lived and serves mainly as a bridge between the atrocities of the book's first two-thirds and the surreal fantasyland of the finale. Here we find dead families swimming in water-filled homes, books and towels doing stand up, and juggling, singing fire-wielders. With the last fifty pages Jha floats to heights of silly surreality and stoops to somewhat reductive social commentary. The clash with what has come before is jarring, yet in the cacophony a potent message rings true.

Even as Gujarat burns and hundreds die, this is a story about Jay. We never meet his wife, and in a way we never meet Ithim, either. And all of the lesser characters end up dead. There are clear echoes of Kensaburo Oe's piercing novel Bird, in which the titular deformed son reflects a physically and psychically scarred post-WWII Japan. But in Fireproof it is the protagonist, not his misshapen offspring, who stands in for a devastated Asian nation.

Once upon a time Gujarat was just one of 28 Indian states. A pleasant enough spot snug up against Pakistan and the Arabian Sea; unremarkable, perhaps, but with decent beaches and Asia's lone lion preserve it kept up appearances. Today the word describes not only India's stubby most-westerly appendage but also a time and place one would prefer to forget.

Five years later the violence has waned but tensions have yet to ease. Some 30,000 of the 200,000 Muslims made homeless by the pogrom still live as refugees in 81 relief camps across the state. Afraid of inciting violence, Gujarat's theatre owners regularly refuse to screen controversial films: last year Fanaa was banned because of Aamir Khan's controversial political stance and just last month it was Nasaruudeen Shah starrer Parzania, in which parents search for their young son, one of the countless lost in the madness. And it appears a lack of political will is as culpable as lingering communal animosity: as of June 2006 only 10 convictions had been made in over 4000 criminal cases originally filed by the police in connection with the carnage.
Gujarat, then, is the great national nightmare from which India has yet to awake. With Fireproof, Mr. Jha endeavors to ring the alarm.

A Long and Winding Road

Album Review of Sufjan Stevens' 2005 release, "Illinois"

Undoubtedly the most ambitious musical project undertaken since Harry Smith endeavored to record the history of American folk music fifty years ago, folksinger-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens’ grand plan to lay down an album for each of the 50 states reaches full flower with his second in the series, the lush, vibrant, and uncategorizable “Come on Feel the Illinoise.”

His fifth album since going solo in 1999, “Illinois” follows up last year’s quiet “Seven Swans,” a departure from the states series that began in 2000 with “Michigan,” about Stevens’ home state. Like that album, the 21 tracks of “Illinois” evoke their eponymous state with literate lyrics, but ratchet up the meandering soundscapes. Stevens has again practiced his lyrical travel writer’s craft on a worthy locale, but with this release drifts further from his folk rock roots. The album credits include a string quartet, the Illinoisemaker Choire, various friends singing back-up and blasting horns, and Stevens playing over 15 instruments, including an oboe, a glockenspiel, and “Laura’s rickety accordion,” and it shows.

The tracks, some with titles as long and twisted as a Dylan song, alternate between long and winding tales of historical people and places and short, lush instrumental numbers that break up what might become monotonous in lesser hands. The tale of serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is detailed and disturbing (“He took off all their clothes for them/He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands/quiet kiss on the mouth.”), while “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd,” honors the first lady who went insane after her husband, Abraham Lincoln, was shot dead next to her at the theatre. “THE BLACK WAR…” is a barker’s call to the fantastical festivities, with a slow building of voices and strings and wind instruments that climaxes in triumphant horns and drums; “Welcome to Illinois,” the song practically screams, “the greatest show on Earth.” Stevens steps on the gas with the twirling, swirling “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” which lifts from piano scales to a jazz hands-eliciting bounce of horns and percussion in taking us back to Chicago’s dazzling White City, built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893: “Chicago, the New Age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?”

One shudders to think, but surely even Mr. Wright would blanch at the nightwalkers in “They are Night Zombies!!” The long intro has gotten short shrift in alternative music of late, yet in that track, as well as others, Stevens uses a simple layering technique to brilliant effect. Start with slow, long piano keys, add bass guitar riff, cymbals, and drum beats, top it off with excited strings and a women chanting in fright, and you’ve got yourself a perfect mazelike sound. Stop! For just a second. Now drop some breathy, nervous lyrics and start ratcheting it up again. Repeat. Rinse. Not bad. Now change instruments, lyrics, and performers. Do it again. In “Chicago,” Stevens reaches orgiastic heights employing a similar scheme, with sleigh bells, shakers, and a clarion trumpet call that perfectly compliments the harmonies of the choir.

Some may call Stevens’ lyrics twee or his singing voice precious. A reasonable complaint, but with grandiloquent musical statements like these, the closeness of his voice and the sentimentality of his writing personalize the wild goings-on more than they drift into syrupy emo.

“Illinois” is an unqualified triumph, with echoes of Beck, Iron & Wine, the Shins, and the psychedelic pop of Athens, Georgia’s Of Montreal, not to mention many artists long gone. Stevens has created an album that is as broad, expansive, and unpredictable as the nation he is only beginning to document. Whether the 27-year-old will live to finish his musical road trip is impossible to know, but he should certainly make all efforts to do so. Like an improvised road trip in an amorphous roadster with an encyclopedic and musically gifted uncle, “Illinois” is a rich, informative, and stylish tour of the long gone and underappreciated.


Kung Fu Cartoon Chaos

Film review from April 2005

A visceral, visually explosive kick, Stephen Chow’s "Kung Fu Hustle" is one of the most enjoyable, elastic, and relentless films of 2005. Where his previous film, 2001’s “Shaolin Soccer,” mostly kept the whiz-bang of CGI-pyrotechnics to the soccer pitch, the visual exploits of Kung Fu Hustle know no such bounds. (“No more soccer!” one gangster says early on, after stomping on and deflating the ball three young boys are kicking around in an empty lot.)

Part homage to Hong Kong chop-socky, part ode to 80’s American cartoons and film parodies, and part paean to recent sci-fi spectaculars like “The Matrix,” Chow’s film serves up a wealth of aesthetic delights: spectacular combat sequences, a grinning Buddha in the sky, suited gangsters dancing with hatchets, a weapons-grade harpsichord, and an immediate classic of a chase scene lifted from the Road Runner. The viewer stumbles out woozy, stomach muscles sore from laughing and cartoon tweety birds circling his head.

And, oh, yes, there is a story as well. In Pre-Revolutionary Shanghai, the Axe Gang holds sway, turning cops, peasants, and crooks into lackeys, and making Sing, an unaccomplished street dweller played by Chow, yearn for membership and respect. Stumbling upon the aptly named Pig Sty Alley, Sing sees an opportunity to impress the Gang and tries to intimidate and extort its residents, who are more than up to the challenge, to even their own surprise. The Axe Gang soon shows up seeking vengeance and is quickly dispatched by three kung fu masters who had been hiding in plain sight as Pig Sty residents. From there, the stakes, chaotic carnage, and fantastic visual and physical gags swell to Looney Tunes proportions, climaxing in a vertical battle between Sing and a killer known as the Beast for what might well be the entire Universe.

There is a cutesy love story thrown in for good measure. As a child, Sing was told by a wizened con artist that he had the look of a one-in-a-million master of the Buddhist Palm kung fu technique. After buying an instructional book from the man and flipping through it, he tries to save a deaf girl from bullies. The young Sing is beaten badly and gives up his dream of being a master, but the girl, who will of course be seen again, never forgets.

But concerning ourselves too much with narrative misses the point, for Chow uses the tale mainly as a vehicle for broad comedy and fantastical physical exploits.

Although a deft, fearless comedian, Chow smartly chooses to focus less on Sing and lets the other players shine. Comprised of several former Asian action greats that Chow practically resurrected for this film, the cast is uniformly good. Yuen Wah, known to Chinese audiences for his many baddies, plays the split personalities of the Pig Sty landlord to insouciant perfection. Lueng Sui Lung’s Beast, a physically volatile yet emotionally contained assassin for hire, is undeniably one with which we would never mess. And special recognition must be given to Yuen Qui as the landlady of Pig Sty Alley. A former Hong Kong action star returning to film acting after a 28-year absence, Yuen gained 30 pounds to play a chain-smoking human powder keg that dominates tenants and husband both physically and verbally. A comedic force of nature, she steals every scene she's in.

With its brutal violence and occasionally pixilated images, Kung Fu Hustle is a mishmash of X-box fighting game – the Toad Style and Lion’s Roar are two of the combat moves – and animated violence from Tom and Jerry and the Road Runner, but jacked up on crystal meth and peopled with slightly more human characters. The combatants’ ability to withstand impossible beatings and the outlandish nature of many visuals, however, render the brutality benign and entertaining rather than cringe-inducing. When the Landlord is slapped about his own home and then thrown through the window by his wife, only to land face first on the stone ground three stories below and have a flower pot crack on his head, we do not feel his pain but relish the perfectly executed beating. There may be a loss of empathy that results from such cartoonishness, but it’s hard to complain when having this much fun.

Whither a Peacekeeping Force for Darfur?

This article, published by UPI in March 2006, could, with a few minor cosmetic alterations, run again today.

Speaking Tuesday at an Arab League summit in Khartoum, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan echoed a common and disheartening refrain concerning Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.

“People continue to be killed, raped and driven from their homes by the thousands,” Annan said. “The security situation has worsened as a result of fighting between Chadian troops and Chadian armed opposition elements on the common border.”

In an update to the Security Council last week, the U.N.’s top envoy in Sudan, Jan Pronk, offered scant evidence that recent agreements and cooperative steps had made any impact.

“The ceasefire does not function; the Joint Committee does not meet; the sanctions…exist only in theory,” he said at U.N. headquarters in New York, adding that countless human rights abuses threatened the peace in Sudan as a whole.

From Pronk and Annan to U.S. President George Bush and U.N. Human Rights Chief Jan Egeland, and from International Crisis Group to Africa Confidential and Human Rights Watch, a growing chorus of discouraging updates and urgent warnings has ratcheted up the urgency on Darfur over the last fortnight. Yet as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis deepens, a lack of international cooperation has underscored the logistical and political hurdles to swift and effective intervention.

Some 200,000 people have been killed and 2 to 3 million displaced since the conflict began three years ago, and in February the turmoil spilled over the border into neighboring Chad, igniting another proxy war and endangering additional hundreds of thousands.

This month Egeland predicted a rise in mortality and dubbed the region “the killing fields of the world,” Human Rights Watch urged the application of sanctions and an arms embargo on Sudan in an open letter to Annan, and an International Crisis Group study warned of an imminent disaster, placing the blame on the Sudanese government and calling for the immediate deployment of a 5,000-strong intermediate stabilization force.

“Darfur has become even more explosive because of tensions between Chad and Sudan,” said Africa Program Director for the International Crisis Group Suliman Baldo, referring to government-sponsored raids, cross-border incursions, and criss-crossing refugees. “I don’t foresee any improvement in coming months because I don’t see any change in the attitude of key players; why would the situation improve?”

The vocal tide has swelled on the heels of a March 10 African Union decision to accept U.N. intervention after its September 30 departure.

“I was pleased with the AU decision,” said Pronk, highlighting a lack of international preparedness. “Even though I had expected nine months [to prepare] because I don’t think we can do it, the transition, technically, in six months. We need troops and where are they to come from?”

Two days later the Security Council, expressing a similar query, formally asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to develop preparatory planning options for a UN-led Darfur mission. Not only thousands of highly-trained troops and advanced military supplies are needed, but, also consensus from a variety of players including the United States, NATO, and the Sudanese government, which again reiterated its stance against United Nations interference at the Arab League summit.

Key members of that government, the National Islamic Front, were in Abuja, Nigeria, this week at peace negotiations with opposing rebel forces of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. The U.S., European Union, and other international observers are pushing for an April 30 agreement on the Improved Ceasefire Protocol, but since the NIF violated the January 2005 agreement and has been openly supplying the janjaweed militia and controlling access to the region, analysts foresaw little real progress.

In violation of previous agreements, “the government is still blocking aid and there is virtually no access for non-governmental organizations and aid workers,” said Gillian Lusk, deputy editor at Africa Confidential, an insider’s weekly newsletter, who visited the region this month.

“Sudan may sign an agreement with the rebels, which will not go far but will allow the NIF to save face,” Lusk said. “If the U.N. is coming in, Khartoum will try to get as much as it can beforehand.”

Precisely how the U.N. comes in—including the number and allegiance of troops, degree of mobility, and, crucially, whether the mission is given a Chapter VI peacekeeper mandate, or the more robust, action-oriented Chapter VII, or peacemaker, distinction—is crucial.

Eight African nations announced their willingness to send soldiers after a closed-door meeting at the Arab League summit, while the U.S. and NATO have offered logistical and material support but committed no troops.

Baldo was pessimistic on the potential impact of a 20,000-strong NATO-led force.

“There could never be a military solution to this problem,” he said. “Greater international involvement and a cooperative U.N. force could stop the terrorizing of civilians, assist humanitarian and aid workers, and perhaps bring those responsible for this manmade disaster to account, but a political resolution is absolutely necessary to bring about legitimate social reconciliation in Darfur.”

Crisis Deepens in Darfur

The following story was published in the Sudan Tribune early last year.

Feb 9, 2006 (UNITED NATIONS) — The lone AU peacekeeping presence in Sudan’s western Darfur region is ill equipped, understaffed, and fast running out of funds. Violent rebel raids have recently torn tens of thousands from their temporary homes. And gun battles regularly spill over a neighbor’s border, threatening to further destabilize an already tense region.

As Africa’s best attempts to manage the crisis have faltered in recent weeks the region has fallen deeper into chaos. Yet as discussions on replacing overextended African Union forces loom the United Nations was working aggressively to garner international assistance while the United States sought to turn down the volume.

The 7,000-strong AU force had done an admirable job keeping a lid on Darfur’s cauldron of hostilities since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, but as the $17 million per month mission has sapped its thin resources, tensions have spun beyond its control. The conflict, which began after the end of a long-running civil war in late 2002, has claimed about 300,000 lives and displaced over 2 million.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan differentiated between the AU force and a possible U.N. mission, which would require Security Council approval.

"The African Union forces did really courageous and noble work," Annan said Thursday, adding that they did not have adequate soldiers, logistical support, or mobility. The U.N. "force would require the participation of governments with highly-trained troops, who are also well-equipped.

"It is not going to be easy, [but] the big and powerful countries...will have to play a part if we are going to stop the carnage," said Annan, who included the U.S. in that group. "They will have to commit troops and equipment."

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to contradict these words on Tuesday.

"It’s a huge area; it’s difficult to get at, but we have been actively involved," Cheney said during a televised interview. "I am satisfied we are doing everything we can do."

Last week U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer downshifted the American rhetoric on Darfur, citing genocide only in the past tense. Her comments came just days after U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council, which will soon begin discussions on the Darfur mission.

"The U.S. has said that genocide has occurred in Sudan, and we continue to be concerned about the security situation in Darfur," said Frazer. The situation "is very different than what it was. It’s not as systematic...there isn’t large-scale organized violence taking place today, [but] a series of small attacks and incidents."

The scene on the ground belies the American assertions.

After the Sudanese Liberation Army assaulted a government building in Golo last month, Khartoum-prodded Janjaweed raids on displaced persons camps in the Mershing and Shearia areas exploded, leading to the forced ouster of up to 70,000 refugees. Another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, recently accused the Sudanese government of seeking to extend the conflict into neighboring Chad by supplying troops and equipment along the border, according to the Sudan Tribune. Chad, in turn, has beefed up its Darfur border presence and humanitarian groups in that area have complained of increasing violence.

"The developments in western Darfur and the borders between Chad and Sudan have caused grave concerns,...whether inside Sudan or in the peace process here," said JEM leader Ahmed Tugod from the ongoing peace negotiations in Abuja, Chad.

A Security Council report released Wednesday detailed a thriving and mostly government-sponsored arms trade from neighboring Chad, Eritrea, and Libya. The report, which came on the heels of a survey chronicling late 2005 Darfur violence from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, recommended sanctions against the three countries in violation of a Security Council arms embargo.

Additionally, a study released last month by the Physicians for Human Rights detailed not only the usual rapes, killings, and various violent attacks of the past 40 months, but also "the disruption of all means of sustaining livelihoods and procuring basic necessities." After three extended visits to the region and more than 100 interviews in a two-year period, PHR found that "the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed have created conditions calculated to destroy the non-Arab people of Darfur in contravention of the ’Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.’"

At the center of the Security Council negotiations will be the size of the force and its mandate. In January, a U.N. military official cited a ceiling of 12,000 troops, which would most likely necessitate either U.S. or European involvement, if not both. And there is a vast gulf between the Security Council’s Chapter VII mandate—which confers peacemaking authority—and a Chapter VI mandate—which gives forces peacekeeping authority.

Annan described the U.N. mission he sought.

"I would want to see a highly-mobile force on the ground in Darfur...to be able to send a message to the militia and the people causing the damage, that we have a force that is capable to respond, a force that is everywhere, and a force that will be there on time to prevent them from intimidating and killing the innocent civilians."

Asked about the possibility of igniting a holy war in Sudan, the Secretary-General was cautious yet sanguine.

"The African Union needs to work with us to convince the government that they are coming in to help contain the situation, not coming in as an invading or a fighting force," said Annan. "I don’t think it’s impossible to get them to agree...and so I’m very optimistic about that."


Second-Hand and Vintage Shopping in Williamsburg

This visitors' guide was written in late 2005 for a non-local magazine.

Tired of the stratospheric prices of shapely dresses at Donna Karan yet unwilling to bow one's head in submission to Gap or H & M? Venture to the home of hip: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where affordable treasures abound. A clutch of quirky shops sell rare and quality second-hand clothing, handbags, and furniture, and high-end vintage stores offer the latest in retro-bohemian fashions. Just a short subway ride from Manhattan, with less crowded shops and streets and satisfying sustenance close at hand, Williamsburg should be your next shopping stop.

Beacon’s Closet

The Vibe: A youthful scene of uber-cool, where hipsters dig for deals among color-coded circular racks and a soundtrack of Bowie and Bright Eyes blares through the three-room space.

The Goods: Rows and rows of affordable jeans and pants ($15-$25), jackets and coats ($30-$100), sweaters and shirts ($10-$40), as well as dresses, records, and random funky finds like classic wool hats and cheesy 70’s lamps.

The Lowdown: The second-hand Mecca of Williamsburg, Beacon’s Closet expanded considerably after moving into its current digs three years ago. Ever since it has been embraced by both locals and informed foreign tourists. Vast selection, so persistence pays.

* Beacon’s will buy your clothes in return for 30% of its value in cash or 55% in store credit.

Pirate Supplies

The Vibe: Models of pirate ships and nautical knickknacks dot the small space and sidewalk display, offering the intrepid shopper the peaceful solitude of the sea. Proprietor Bonnie Bloomberg says the name originated from the idea of her store as a treasure chest of sorts.

The Goods: Amid books, boots, hats, and a diverse and quirky selection of clothing for men and women, a classic black leather jacket in good shape was priced at $60 and a pretty polka-dot summer dress $25.

The Lowdown: This cute, eclectic store, which also serves as a salon for many area musicians, is the perfect place to find a high-quality vintage gem at a good price.

Ugly Luggage

The Vibe: A constant stream of Bedford Avenue passersby slip in and out of owner Marcus Tyler’s time machine, where he spins old 45’s on a creaky record player as classic wood furniture and old tchotchkes whisk them into their past.

The Goods: Yes, there are pieces of luggage, primarily boxy brown leather cases, but the offerings here are all over the place. Fifties black Kodak cameras go for $40-$70, a porcelain lamp of a Chinese nobleman and his concubine will cost you $66, and antique wood tables start at around $300.

The Lowdown: For a hip trip down memory lane, there may be no better place in the city. “If you grew up with it,” says Tyler, ‘we’ve probably got it, or something similar.” Whether or not you want to take home a souvenir is another matter.

Amarcord Vintage Fashion

The Vibe: Sleek, white-walled outlet of vintage European styles with 21st century soundtrack and stylish employees.

The Goods: Imported from Europe, the clothes are fashionable and priced accordingly. Hats, sunglasses, and scarves speck the space, where shiny leather purses go for $70-$100 and a great selection of vintage zip sweatshirts $50-$70.

The Lowdown: Bring a chunk of change and a bit of attitude, and you might leave with something your friends will secretly envy.

Salvation Army Thrift Shop

The Vibe: Musty and smelling of mothballs, this sprawling space is the old gray lady of Williamsburg second-hand, and wears that moniker on its sleeve.

The Goods: Everything except the kitchen sink. Blazers and pants, books and cigar boxes, shelves, tables, chairs, couches, t-shirts, albums, and ancient sweaters, all decidedly affordable.

The Lowdown: It is nearly impossible to visit the ‘Burg without passing by this centrally-located shop at some point, so why not pop in? You might find just what you weren’t looking for.


For a break from the bustle of Bedford Ave, slip into Spike Hill, a comfortable brick and black wood restaurant-bar with semi-private booths, about 30 single-malt scotches and 50 bottled beers, and an excellent brunch on weekend afternoons. Just across the street is Bliss, a vibrant vegetarian café that offers hummus and lentil soup, a delicate, tasty quiche, and a wide, people-watching front window. Or, in clement weather, step into The Read Café, walk directly past the cashier and small kitchen, and settle into a table in their quiet back garden, where you can soak in the serenity and refuel with a fat mug of dark, rich coffee.

Smokers' Revolt

This article was published in a Brooklyn weekly in mid-2005.

Just before midnight on a recent Thursday at an intimate, darkly lit bar in Williamsburg, an attractive young woman – let’s call her Cynthia – pulled a Marlboro Light out of her purse, flicked open a lighter, and brought cigarette to flame in plain sight of the bartender. She inhaled deeply, blew a billowy gray cloud into the previously unsullied air, and smiled. Within minutes, a nicotine domino effect had smokers lighting up in every corner of the cozy space and the bar had gone back in time, to New York City circa 2002.

“Once again, we’ve taken back the night,” said Cynthia, proudly surveying what she’d wrought.

A little more than two years after Mayor Bloomberg’s Indoor Smoke-Free Act went into effect in April 2003, the city’s late night bar goers are conveniently “fuhgedding” about it and lighting up indoors late at night. What was recently the sole provenance of the city’s few tobacco bars is fast becoming de rigeur for happening New York nightspots after midnight, posing public health risks and often infuriating abstainers.

“When the ban first went into effect we would only let people smoke in here every once in a while, and even then only after 2 a.m.,” said Heather, a fast-talking, raven-haired bartender, from behind her Williamsburg bar recently. “Now the cigarettes come out every night after midnight, and it’s the same in a lot of the bars around here, too.”

A recent Friday night survey found indoor smoking in 8 out of 20 Williamsburg bars, including Zablonski’s, Blu Lounge, and the Brooklyn Ale House. In another hot neighborhood, the Lower East Side, the numbers were slightly lower, at just under 40%. Even with the temperature rising and Bloomberg offering free nicotine patches to any quitter who calls 311 looking for a quick fix, smokers seem undeterred.

Chad Gracia, 35, a non-smoking theater producer who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and frequents bars in the Meatpacking District and Lower East Side, pointed the finger at the smokers themselves.
“It’s the fault of this cutting edge, smoking hipster class, who think it’s just a harmless end of the night indulgence,” he said. “In reality its cuts through my ability to have an enjoyable, peaceful evening. More importantly, it’s a legitimate health risk.”

Indeed, the dangers of second-hand smoke have been widely-reported and the law itself claims that employees of smoking establishments have a 50% higher risk of lung cancer whether they themselves smoke or not.

“Last night I did some late night bar-hopping in the Village and Meatpacking District with some friends, and I can’t remember a single place where we weren’t surrounded by smokers,” Gracia said. “Now my throat hurts and my clothes stink. It’s like 2002 all over again.”

“It’s definitely a hazard to public health,” said Lauralee Munson of the American Lung Association’s New York chapter, who has monitored the effectiveness of the ban. “Something should be done.”

The law itself places the responsibility squarely on the city, stating “the department shall enforce the provisions of this [ban].” Yet a 311 operator, who had recently taken several smoking complaints, quoted a Dept. of Health brochure that read: “enforcement of the ban is the responsibility of the establishment.” Repeated requests for department clarification and comment were left unanswered.

“The inspectors were originally sent around after the ban went into effect to make sure bars put up no smoking signs and removed ashtrays,” said Munson. “That work is done so they’re not coming around anymore. Now it’s really up to the bar owners, and lots of them would rather have the smoking crowd.”

The reality bears out Munson’s assertion, with many late night establishments turning a blind eye. In the Tribeca club Mannahatta, cigarette smoke mingled with manufactured dance floor fog as revelers puffed with impunity on a recent Friday. The bartender, a slim 30-ish Ukrainian woman who was also smoking, said, “It’s like the law never happened in here.”

Asked if the owner of her bar was aware of the nightly smoking, Heather laughed and said, “She pretends not to know.”

Colum, an East Village bartender, was more forthcoming.

“Of course the owner knows – it was his idea,” he said, as several patrons drank and smoked at the bar behind him. “Look, would you rather five, ten smokers standing outside making noise at 1 a.m., waking up the neighbors and causing problems, or would you rather have them in the bar buying drinks? After midnight – sometimes even earlier – we prefer the smokers to stay inside.”

Desire for increased sales and neighborhood tranquility may have helped, but lax enforcement from the Health Dept. has played a major part.

“At the start, the inspectors were here pretty regularly,” said Colum. “We even got a couple of fines. But now they’ve pretty much disappeared. I haven’t seen an inspector in months, so we feel like we can do what we want.”

Citing sales concerns, city bar and tavern owners have been vocal in their opposition to the ban since Bloomberg first broached the topic in 2002. This past March, the state legislature approved a bill that gives public officials the power to give a waiver to establishments that are experiencing financial hardship because of the ban.

At the same time, the disappearance of inspectors appears to coincide with increased business for these establishments. A state Department of Taxation and Finance report released earlier this month revealed that, after six months of falling sales following the advent of the ban, New York City bars and taverns have experienced growth in four straight quarters, going back to late 2003. The report suggests that smokers have been flaunting the ban in increasing numbers.
Suggestions for better enforcement were less than revelatory.

“The inspectors have to get back on the beat and owners need to step up their enforcement, too,” suggested Munson. “Otherwise it will keep getting worse.”

Gracia recommended vigilante justice.

“People just have to keep an eye out,” he said. “I did it myself once. Went up to a guy trying to be the trailblazer and politely asked him to stop. He immediately put his cigarette out and apologized profusely.”

It is unlikely, however, that all New Yorkers will be so polite.

Prichard Smith, a Williamsburg filmmaker drinking among smokers in an East Village bar recently, sees complete obedience as an impossibility.

“In New York City, when you go out, you gotta expect to run into some smokers, some rule breakers; that’s what this city is all about,” said Smith, a nonsmoker who is not bothered by the return of the late night haze. “If I wanted everybody to follow the rules, I’d live in Iowa.”

"Snake in Fridge"

Theatre Review

The Themantics Group production “Snake in Fridge” is misnamed. Call it hungry home, or the lonely house, because we hardly glimpse the titular reptile and the twisted, noisy abode where most of the action in this sex, drugs, and anxiety-drenched story takes place ultimately becomes the most interesting character in a rather dull tale.

Like any number of predecessors, “Fridge” lays out the lives of six twenty-somethings living in that large Toronto home and attempting to navigate the waters of youthful hedonism and mature responsibility, and mostly failing.

“It’s not like I’m damaged,” one character says early on, and yet it seems all involved are just that in one way or another. The creaky old house, with its rhombus windows and angular doors and which one character repeatedly claims is haunted, is owned by Corbett, a closeted, drug-addicted, and self-consciously short young man who shoots steroids and pumps iron incessantly to compensate for his shortcomings, and his sister, Violet, an imperious, amoral careerist who lives elsewhere. Caddie, an angsty stripper, and her older, delicate sister Donna, who was sexually abused by their older brother years ago, spend their days in a muted tug-of-war for control of their relationship, while the studly Randy, who works for and sleeps with Violet, and his sweet girlfriend Stacy, who moves in with him early in the play, drift apart. Victor, a big, strong, and responsible black man, is Corbett’s best friend and apparently the only undamaged character here.

Stealing bits of “Less Than Zero,” “Rent,” and even “Reality Bites,” Brad Fraser’s story involves three main strands: Corbett’s drug habit and clubbing is catching up with him and he needs to take desperate measures to pay the rent; Violet offers Randy and Stacy $2,000 to be the first couple to have live sex on her new cyber-porn site, driving a wedge between the lovers; and Caddie grows increasingly upset and frustrated with her sister Donna’s flirtations and excursions with their new housemate, a gawky 40-ish man named Charles, who recently left his wife.

Although “Fridge” is directed with considerable energy by Blake Lawrence, with short scenes that pop up in one corner of the stage and melt away as the lighting moves to another spot, the story droops. The almost-youths enter and depart, grow upset and party, scream and screw, and progress predictably. The grungy slacker and gay club worlds seem dated, more out of 1990 than 2006, and the characters are mostly two-dimensional. A “Warning and Disclaimer” from the show’s promotional cards and emails proves accurate – the play does contain both male and female nudity, drug consumption, and even a couple of sex scenes – but rather unnecessary because it all feels tired rather than shocking.

The performances, too, are less than extraordinary, excepting those of Susan O’Connor (Donna) and Sean Baldwin (Charles). We watch with considerable interest as these two figures grow into themselves believably through the action, Donna from shy, almost-retarded waif to assertive, passionate young woman, and Charles from potential stalker to strong, protective lover.
Unfortunately, the action is not focused solely on them, and so we end up in the basement, with that little seen snake slithering somewhere in the shadows and Corbett tied to a pole after robbing and killing a drug dealer. “There’s no wrong when nothing makes sense anyway!” he argues to Victor. The angered house – shaking its disjointed windows and doors and sending residents scurrying with shouts for “More!” – would probably agree.

Snake in Fridge

By Brad Fraser; directed by Blake Lawrence; Sets by Jennifer Varbalow; costumes by Erin Murphy; lighting by Carrie Wood; sound by David Gilman; video design by Corey Behnke; production stage manager, Angela DeGregoria; production manager Beth Slepian; choreography by Tesha Buss; props by Sara Katzoff; dialect coach Kate Lavender. Presented by Jay Aubrey and the Themantics Group. At the Sol Goldman 14th Street Theater, 344 E. 14th St., Manhattan; 212/868-4444. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

With: Sarah K. Lippman (Caddie), Susan O’Connor (Donna), Angela Ai (Stacy), Christian Feliz (Travis), Matthew J. Nichols (Corbett), Sean Baldwin (Charles), Mimi Bilinski (Violet), and Gabriel Grilli (Randy).

Shopping in Pahalgam, Kashmir, India

Kashmir is known for its cashmere – “Sex and the City”-popularized pashmina in particular – and Pahalgam is no exception. Along MM road are over a dozen shawl, stole, and scarf sellers, the best of which is Kashmir Kalla Emporium across from the Pahalgam Hotel. Below are several alternatives to the ubiquitous wool hawkers.

Fresh Milk Shop (5a-11p, no phone.) Habibullah took over from his father a few years ago, but this tiny blue storefront still serves up the area's best milk, cheese, and yogurt, same as it has for over 40 years. Try the sweet kesar (saffron) lassi (Rs 15) and praise nature’s glorious bounty.

Smiling Gifts (428437, 9am-9pm, summer) Satisfy your plastered paper jones at this 50-year-old papier-mache fantasyland, where brightly colored hookahs (Rs 400-600) and ducks jostle for shelf space with keychains, bells, lamps, jewelry cases, and music boxes. The intricate and unusual wood-carved gifts include cigarette holders and tri-level pen and pencil cases.

Pahalgam Color Centre (5am to 8pm daily) Young owner Aishad and his minions have been churning out enough bread for the surrounding villages -- over 2500 Kashmiri rotis per day -- at this former copy-print store turned kiln-fired bakery for 10 years. For a healthy, tasty breakfast at less than Rs 20 pair two with a lassi from the nearby Fresh Milk Shop.

New Market -- Kolkatta, India

One block north of Sudder Street, New Market (10.30am--7.30pm Mon to Fri, Sat till 2:30pm) is definitive Kolkata and a bargain hunter's paradise. Opened in January 1874 as an up-market alternative for Britishers loathe to jostle with "natives" at hot and dusty bazaars, this sprawling shopping center is the brainchild of then-Calcutta Corp. Chairman Sir Stuart Hogg, for whom it was formally named in 1903. A northern portion added in 1909 and the 1930's addition of the renowned clock tower -- of a piece with architect R. Bayney's broad-shouldered, red brick style and ringing out every quarter hour -- have made the grand edifice one of the more appealing Raj era structures downtown. Even a fierce 1985 fire, after which several northern sections were re-built, failed to diminish its appeal.

Designed with airy, 19th century European shopping arcades in mind, New Market has since morphed into something entirely Indian. With over 2000 shops, the interior is choc-a-bloc with stalls and stands of every shape and size, from spicewallahs and their wares crammed into twenty square feet to the ample space and abundant salespeople of the Jamna Departmental Store. From sweaters to saris, chapals to cardamom, leather goods to luggage, toys, flowers, tea, pet supplies, sporting goods, cosmetics, jewelry, and a great deal more, a determined shopper can find anything here, often at prices that preclude haggling (this is where Kolkatans shop, too). Stores are grouped by product offerings – dairy goods in the NW corner, for example, and flowers on the SE – for easier perusal and greater competition. Essential stops include: Nahoum and Sons Confectioners, an oasis of warm baked goods and dark wood near the NW corner, offering popular Western-style brownies and dense, rich fruit cakes; Bombay Dry Food has a lock on the best nuts; and at Curio Cottage, brass Dancing Shivas and wooden Ganeshas share shelf space with white and blue habit-wearing miniature Mother Teresas. Additionally, an attractive variety of only-in-Kolkata specialties -- glass bangles, palm sweets, cane baskets, and fine embroidery -- can be found at the back, or northern end, of the market.

Although the licenses of the ubiquitous, wicker basket-carrying coolies patrolling the grounds attest to the continued existence of Sir Stuart Hogg Market, their place of work has been widely known as New Market for decades. Be not leery of their services; many have been working the market for decades and can lead you to the finest Kalimpong cheese or Kashmiri shawl at the best price in no time, and since they are paid a commission from the seller with every purchase, they expect no more than a nominal gratuity.

Finally, the market has matured beyond its original structure and purpose. Tentacles reaching into nearby alleys and side streets have transformed the surrounding seven or eight blocks into a single, slapdash shopping district. One block east on Mirza Ghalib, for instance, is a row of music shops. Record Prince offers the latest Western and Hindi CD's and an eclectic collection of old 45's; a quick flip-thru turned up Judy Garland, Charley Pride, and the Bay City Rollers.

After dusk, most of the interior shops close and New Market becomes a lively outdoor gathering place, with tea stalls and snack shops crowded with munching, chatting patrons and well-manned area shops staying open and brightly lit til late. The Chaplin Theatre in the northeast corner occasionally shows plays or performances, and numerous cinemas, restaurants and bars just north do a brisk business in the evening.

SPOTLIGHT: For the strong of stomach, a stroll through the Gothic masterpiece of a meat market that divides the New Market building into east and west wings is essential, and a powerful sensory experience. Less a place to buy meat -- although that is still an option -- than to absorb the glory of gore, the space seems to have dropped in from a previous, more forbidding century. The aroma of fresh animal viscera smacks the nostrils upon leaving behind the market stalls for the slaughterhouse. Cleavers crack through bone and meet tenderized tree stump with a thud as chicken-feathered blood runs wine dark thru small canals edging the butchering floors. A smiling Bengali jabs his arm elbow-deep into the body of an upside down-hanging goat, bobbing feverishly to separate furry skin from flesh and bone while nearby his colleague peddles two-gallon tubs of cream-colored animal fat. Overhead, dozens of cawing blackbirds perch on crisscrossed, cobwebbed ropes and wires, hedging hopefully towards freshly skinned shanks of pink meat. Hazy fingers of light streaking through shattered windows and vents bearing a century's worth of dust complete the Grand Guignol aura, as well as the eloquent argument for vegetarianism.


Liberation from the Inside Out

The inaugural International Film Festival of Kashmir unspooled at Tagore Hall this past weekend. Screening more than a dozen features, documentaries, and shorts from a handful of countries over three days, the Experimental Moving Image and Theatre Association (XMITA) event was a godsend for local cinephiles and an opportunity for one and all to experience varied and valuable points of view.

Despite a turnout hamstrung by the weekend's political rallies and traffic jams and several technical glitches that marred early screenings, the mood was upbeat.

"This is just the first one," said festival organizer Aarshad Mushtaq, a local filmmaker and theatre director. "We plan to do this if every year, and hopefully each one will be bigger and better than the last."

Many of the films commented directly or indirectly on the conflict in Kashmir. Temporary Loss of Consciousness, a short by Monica Bhasin, analyzed the legacy of Partition, while Anand Patwardhan's two-part Father, Son, and Holy War dissected communalism through the efforts of India's majority Hindu community to launch a baby boom as a means to overwhelm Indian Muslims. Paradise on a River of Hell, by Abir Bazaz and Meenu Gaur, shined a light on the havoc and destruction wrought by the violent struggle in Kashmir.

Amidst the rabble, one gem gleamed: Amandla, a feature-length documentary from Lee Hirsch. The sleek, professionally-made film reveals how Black South Africans used enduring traditions of music and dance as primary tools in their decades-long struggle for freedom. In doing so, the film celebrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit and highlights an ingenious undermining of an oppressive regime.

Apartheid, the social and political system in which an elected white Afrikaaner government segregated and treated as inferior black South Africans, began officially in 1948. A charismatic black leader named Vuyisile Mini emerged soon after: political figure, actor, poet, composer and singer, he spread the message of the freedom movement through song. His most lasting tune was "Look out, Verwoerd," which warned Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, known as the "architect of Apartheid" and South African Prime Minister from 1958 to his assassination in 1966, that the blacks were coming to get him.

Buoyed by an endemic song-and-dance culture, Mini sparked a trend that came to define the black South African movement. Starting in the mid-70's, Radio Freedom, the propaganda wing of the pro-black freedom African National Conference, brought the songs, ideas, and energies of the movement to a large and hungry audience, even as its propagators courted arrest. As the years passed and the suffering deepened not a rally, protest march, funeral, or public gathering of any sort would pass without group singing of freedom songs old and new.

"I want to join your revolution!" renowned American jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie is said to have admitted to one of the better-known South African musicians in the 1960's. "Everybody's always singing and dancing."

This movement expressed in song succeeded mainly for two reasons. Firstly, group song and dance is inherently appealing, with pleasing rhythms and smiling faces, and was thus allowed and even supported by the authorities. Second, the songs were written and sung in a language -- predominantly Zulu -- unfamiliar to the oppressors, and thus went unnoticed for years. Celebrating life as it denounced oppression, the music encapsulated a quest for freedom even as it freed a people.

"It wasn't liberation music," explains Abdullah Ibrahim, a musician, composer and activist forced into exile for almost 30 years. "It was a part of liberating ourselves."

In the last couple decades Kashmiris have failed to do the same. Admittedly, Kashmiris are not a people that breaks into song or dance at the drop of a hat, but Kashmiri history does include cultural touchstones capable of serving a similar purpose.

Sufiana is the most analogous musical form, mournful and spiritual; Kashmiris have embraced its soothing tones for centuries. It also represents a form relatively unfamiliar to our oppressors.
An even better alternative might be bhand pather, a respected yet slowly dying dramatic art. Alternatively comic and pathos-filled, pather is perfectly tailored for expressing, exagerrating, and satirizing oppression, and in fact many of the traditional tales make light of or point up Kashmiri suffering at the hands of various historical tormentors. This artform could undoubtedly have been dusted off and polished for a new era, used in the service of a new and more intense struggle. Instead, the most outspoken of Kashmiris embraced victimhood, and when independence seemed nigh, turned to violence.

[Black South Africans also took up the gun, in the 1980's, and experienced the most violent period of their struggle as a result. But as an underground movement it was never widely embraced. Also, no "friendly" neighbor offered a helping hand.]

The road to freedom has been a long, torturous and winding one for Kashmiris, but it seems the long-suffering people of the Valley have finally set aside the gun. On top of a considerable decline in violence and militancy of late, recent signs suggest Kashmiris are beginning to liberate themselves, as Mr. Ibrahim put it. Plays about disappearances and fake encounter killings have been well-received, a major screening of a lively pro-people film drew an animated crowd, and a Kashmiri-authored graphic novel about militancy has put the plight of Kashmiris in a vibrant and easily-digestable form.

Could it be too little too late? It's never too late to end needless self-destruction, but maybe Kashmiris have grown too comfortable with their sorrow.

"When we left the gravesites after a funeral we didn't weep," a South African freedom fighter says in the film. "We sang, because if you mourn for too long you start to lose hope."

Kashmiris have made mourning and victimhood a defining trait, thus rendering legitimate liberation anti-thetical to their way of life. Let's hope recent developments herald the birth of a new movement, one that finally brings true Amandla (power) to the people of Kashmir.

Into the Woods

Dachigam National Park sits nestled among Kashmir's Zhabarwan hills some 20 kms southeast of Srinagar. Famous for its hangul, the indigenous and endangered Kashmiri stag, the mountainous 141 sq. km. wildlife park also boasts himalayan langurs, black and brown bears, leopards, jackals, foxes, weasels, and marmots as well as an astounding variety of bird life, including babblers, redstarts, wagtails, flycatchers, wallcreepers, griffons, and tits.

For one April afternoon it also provided pleasant yet forbidding shelter to five bumbling conquistadors.

It all began in mid-March, when soon after the late winter snows melted my good man M. Farooq Shah proposed a little field trip.

"David, my dear, how would you like a nice spring visit to Kashmir's famous and very lovely Dachigam Park?" he asked with a winning smile.

I would like very much, but since Dachigam visitors require an officially-approved permit I spent the following month prodding him to make arrangements. The old enthusiasm shriveled.

"What's the status on Dachigam passes, Farooq?" I asked in late March.

"How many people should be we bring?" he asked in return. "Big group or small?"

"Doesn't matter to me," I told him, noticing the bright sun shining high in a clear blue sky. "Let's just go."

I asked again in the first week of April.

"How are we going to get there?" he shot back.

"I don't know," I said. "My bike, a bus, a SUMO; who cares, let's just go."

A couple weeks later he blithely ignored my waning interest.

"Dave," he served up in his sing-song, "I really think we should bring food for a picnic."

"Sounds great, Farooq," I responded dully. "Let's do it."

And then like a bolt of lightning the date was set, along with the crew. Your courageous adventurers were Noor - a chipper, middle-aged school principal, Mushtaq -- a kind, restrained restaurateur and businessman; Abrar - a young, laconic photographer, and sometime lackey of; Farooq -- renaissance man, leader-ever-in-training, and rebel; and Your Correspondent - intrepid foreigner. Abrar, Noor, and I had never visited the park, while Mushtaq hadn't been since he was a kid. Farooq was the seasoned vet.

On the appointed late April morning we gathered and tucked into a cup of tea.

"What do you think we'll see?" I asked Farooq, envisioning leopards and bears, even a glimpse of the shy hangul.

“Maybe everything, perhaps nothing,” he chirped confidently, eyebrows raised. "Let's just let nature take her course."

After securing our lunch in the trunk, five grinning, giddy explorers squeezed into Mushtaq's sub-compact and set off for adventure. At the front gate Farooq hopped out to show our permits to park officials as Mushtaq parked nearby and we hauled out the supplies.

"Hold on," said the comfortably seated security guard, raising his hand then pointing towards our bags of food as somewhere a gramophone pin scratched its way across an old '45. "What's this?"

"This is our lunch," Mushtaq replied.

"No, no," he told us. Standing next to him, an astute assistant frowned and shook his head. "No food or drink allowed."

We marched back to the car, popped the trunk, and shifted the food and drink from the plastic bags to our shoulder sacks, then strolled back through the gate and past the guards. A little semi-obvious deception appeared to satisfy all parties, and we entered at half noon.

Dachigam Park has been a protected area since 1910, first under the Maharaja and later under the state government. Initially created to ensure clean drinking water for the summer capital, Dachigam was not officially declared a national park until 1981.

As we enter the grounds over a quarter century later sun streaks through sheltering chinars, green mountains looming in the distance. White butterflies flutter by. In the front yard of the Woodland School just inside the park gates, a few dozen white and blue-uniformed girls sing in harmony with the rushing waters of the Dagwan River a few meters away. Wild cherry, peach, and apricot trees line its path as it wends from Marsar Lake in the park’s 14,000-ft high upper reaches towards the lower valleys. We cross a bridge over the rapids and hit the trail as fresh mountain air fills our lungs.

Within minutes we come upon the Animal Rescue Center and turn in to find three leopards lolling about in the mid-day sun. The largest and oldest emits a near-growl purr as we scratch the back of his head and neck through a chain-link fence. He rolls slowly over and sits up to face us. From a foot away I stare into the big cat’s shimmering gray eyes.

"Beautiful," says Mushtaq. "Just a beautiful beast."

Back on the trail we soon fall into a groove, around curves and over hills of dense green, making our way deep into the reserve. Now and then Abrar and I stop to snap pics of rapids, bridges, and the odd flower. Mushtaq, Farooq, and Noor chat amiably as they amble. I pick up a walking stick. Suffused with enthusiastic contentment laced lightly with guilt about duties left undone, we are boys playing hookey, and on a day custom-made for a leisurely stroll in a quiet wood. Indeed, after the Rescue Center we see no living thing bigger than finger-length lizards.

Recent Dachigam visitors complain regularly of a noticeable lack of wildlife, particularly hangul. Part of the blame can be put on Dogra rulers who used the park as their private hunting grounds throughout the first half of the century. But the lawlessness engendered by the conflict has nurtured illegal timber smuggling, wetland encroachment, and administrative neglect, significantly reducing wildlife habitat. Last week J&K Forest and Environment Minister Qazi Muhammad Afzal acknowledged that the state's hangul population was dwindling as a result of illegal hunting, and that other large mammals may also be at risk. Indeed, in the last few decades locals and even militants have taken to killing leopards, bears, stag and other big game for poaching purposes, but also for sustenance.

"Let's find a place to eat," suggests Farooq. We have paused in a dense thicket, with shards of sunlight fingering through thick branches over a grassy path.

A few hundred meters further I find a cozy spot along a burbling stream, with water for washing and large stones for sitting.

"No good," says Mushtaq. "We need a deck, to see the mountains, the park."

On we stroll, and after another luckless twenty minutes our moaning stomachs force us to park in the middle of the path and break out the briyani, rista, and roti. Soon sated, we clean up and resume the assault.

"Farooq is feeling good," he announces to noone in particular as he clambers to his feet. With stout walking stick in hand he assumes the lead, taking us deeper and deeper into the uncharted undergrowth of an overgrown Dachigam. Without warning the path peters out.

"We're lost, Farooq," I say.

"No, w'ere not," he replies. "Over here."

He tears through some thick, prickly bushes and climbs to the top of a small rise from which we can see the river. It's rushing loudly some two hundred metres below, over and around great gray rocks, its edges lined with poplar. In between us and the river looms an impenetrable wall of crisscrossed jungle fastness. Across the way a rust-colored hill rises sharply. Mid-way up, perhaps some two kilometers distant, a thin band of khaki snakes through the reddish brown.

"There's a road over there," Farooq says, gesturing vaguely.

"That one way up there, by the army post?" I ask, incredulous.

"No-oo," he responds with his classic two-syllable negation. "It's down there, just on the other side of the river."

"I don't see anything," I say, squinting.

The two of us look at each other and I get to thinking. This journey is fast becoming Conradian, an illogical quest to the heart of nothingness, or a race to nowhere, in which giving up means dishonorable defeat. And I'm not sure Farooq is the right man for pulling this motley bunch together and leading us back to civilization.

I take a deep breath and put my hand on his shoulder to keep him from heading down the path to our right.

"OK Farooq," I say, looking meaningfully into his eyes, "we wait here for the others and then take a vote."

"A whaa?" he responds, insulted. "I know there's a road right on the other side of this river."

He stomps away down the hill just as Mushtaq and Abrar catch up to me.

"So?" asks Mushtaq, catching his breath. "What now?"

"Farooq thinks there's a road over there, wants to keep going," I tell him. "I say we vote."

"Yeah, we should," he says. "It's getting late."

"One problem," I tell him, turning towards Farooq's fast-receding figure, "he's already gone ahead."

And so we follow, around looming hazards of tenacious, prickly branches, over and under fallen trees, through muck and marshes, and past several used firepits and a tranquil grove of wild orange blossoms. Around 4 p.m. I begin to wonder if there is a point of no return, and whether we have passed it, and if leopards pounce from trees. Ever positive, Mushtaq breaks up the plodding with tales from his youth.

"One time we were on boats in the Dal, and we had chosen this one guy as team leader for our group of rowers," he says, turning back to face me and stepping over a gnarled elm root. "Well, he didn't really know what he was doing so half the boat was rowing correctly and half of us weren't. So we just kept going round and round."

He laughs, and so do I. But then I realize that such circular movement wouldn't be so bad in our situation.

"Not a very good team leader," I say, grinning. "Let's hope Farooq is equally inept."

Finally as we approach yet another dirt rise with the river on our left, he comes around the bend in front of us, heading back our way.

"It's no good," Farooq says, resigned yet decisive. "The hill is too steep up ahead."

And just like that, more than three hours' walk into Dachigam, we turn the boat around. Amazingly, there are no moans and groans, just a quick time check and a sudden, determined focus on the task at hand -- getting out of the park before darkfall. The group walks steadily and remains mostly silent.

About an hour later I'm leading the retreat with long strides when I come upon two large trucks -- one a light blue animal release vehicle of the game department. About 20 mostly young men, a couple with video cameras shooting at a densely forested hillside, are milling about, chatting, and squinting in the direction of the hill.

I stroll into their midst.

"Hello," I say. "What's going on?"

In a single body the group turns to behold what must seem a strange beast: An English-speaking and white-skinned young man, unshaven and wearing patched-up jeans with a bright red bandanna wrapped around his head. He is brandishing a dead branch and strolling alone through the jungles of Dachigam as evening descends.

A 40-ish man dressed in silvery gray from shoes to cap bursts towards me, blue-green eyes shooting fire.

"Who are you!" he demands with grand melodrama. "What are you doing here!"

"My name's David," I respond. "I'm just walking around in the park."

"Where is your permit? Give me your permit!" he shouts, apparently certain I'm hiding three Kalashnikovs and a grenade under my t-shirt. "What are you doing in this section of the park!"

"I don't have it, my friend does." I tell him. "There are five of us."

"Five of you!" He is fuming yet strangely satisfied, perhaps wondering with whom we are in league and what sort of promotion he can expect for capturing foreign conspirators red-handed. "But how did you, what are you all...I need to see those permits!"

"Why are you yelling?" I ask. "And what are all you guys doing here? What is this?"

"Bears," I hear somebody say.

"What, you saw bears?" I blurt out, instinctively moving towards the hill and trying to follow the camera lenses.

"Right over there," a cameraman whispers to me, pointing to 11 o'clock.

"I'm still speaking to you!" the warden shouts. He is seething but begins to accept that his display has failed to put the fear of god into his subject.

"Where, where?" I ask of the bears in low tones.

Noor comes down the path behind me, followed soon after by the three others.

"Hey!" I shout, spying a couple bears moving up the hillside. "I see them -- there they are! A big one and a little one! Over there!"

A few of the men nearby laugh at my enthusiasm. I shrug.

The warden's assistant snatches the permit papers from Farooq and delivers them unto his master as another assistant conveys to me the gravity of the situation.

"You shouldn't be in this section of the park."

"Why?" I ask.

"Dangerous," he responds, nodding gravely. "There are bears and leopards, even militants."

With his minions gathered round, the warden examines the paper as if it contained a new key to the Rosetta Stone: bringing it close to his face, flipping it over once, twice and looking closely for clues or suspicious markings of any kind.

Mushtaq steps forward.

"Nobody told us not to come into this area," he explains to the warden. "There were no guides at the entrance or anything, we just walked in and nobody stopped us."

"Nobody told us this area was off-limits," I echo.

Realizing his dreams of the great catch and ensuing renown had vanished, the warden attempts to regain some authority.

"You have a foreigner with you," he tells Mushtaq sternly in Kashmiri. "You have to be careful and be aware of the situation. This area is not safe; there are many possible dangers here."

"Ok, yes Sir, we are sorry, Sir," says Farooq, "But we were never told."

"Well now you know," the warden says, putting a point on it.

The warden and his men get in their four very roomy SUV's and drive off, leaving us five neophyte explorers standing by the side of the trail without food, drink, weapon or compass in this very dangerous area of the park as the sun nears the horizon.

Yet as we resume our walk laughter consumes us as we recount the red-faced warden and his bumbling crew. My ostensible friends gleefully rehash my wild reaction at having seen bears "in the wild." Turns out our tormentors had released the mother and her cub into the wild just two minutes before I happened upon the scene. The last hour of walking passes in a flash.

After petting a caged, limping black bear and picking up a few kg’s of trout from the in-house fish farm we arrive, staggering, at the park entrance shortly after half six. The Kashmiri word Dachigam means ten villages, but by the time our weary gang settles into the car we feel as if we had crossed untold thousands of hills and vales. Mushtaq and Farooq estimate we have walked some 25kms on demanding terrain, and our legs are feeling every inch of the adventure.

A weary, contemplative silence reigns as we descend and edge around Dal en route to Srinagar. The place undoubtedly presented a pristine, natural beauty, but its failings were many. All of the large animals we encountered were either in cages or very recently in captivity, most less than completely healthy. All of the park employees with whom we interacted were unpleasant and uncertain of park rules and regulations. They hindered our enjoyment of one of Kashmir's most renowned public wildlife areas and generally made us feel unwelcome.

As we near the Boulevard, Farooq asks Mushtaq what he thought of the experience.

"I don't have the words for it right now," he says after a pause. "I will need to consider it for a while."


Partners in Crime

Asked last week whose idea it was for the US to invade Iraq, longtime Bush adviser Karl Rove pondered for a moment and then said, "I think it was Osama bin Laden's." At last, the truth revealed.

After some positive initial signs from the US' surge strategy in Iraq – a drop in deaths and violent incidents as well as several Baghdad neighborhoods returning to life in March – has come the deluge. Last Wednesday a series of car bombs across the Iraqi capital killed nearly 200, the deadliest day of violence in almost a year. The next day the UN announced that 4 million Iraqis had been displaced by the fighting; two million have left the chaos-ridden country and another two million relocated to safer provinces. A week prior radicals struck at the heart of the foreign presence when a suicide bomber exploded his payload in the cafeteria of the Iraqi Parliament inside the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone), killing two Iraqi parliamentarians. That same day insurgents blew up the much-loved Sufiyaa Bridge, sending dozens of cars as well as a revered monument and another chunk of vital infrastructure into the Tigris. To top it off, Shiite leader Moktada Al-Sadr broke a weeks-long silence only to rouse thousands of anti-American protesters and pull his six followers from the governing coalition, essentially shattering any chance of a legitimate power-sharing deal anytime soon. Taken together, the developments drove US Senator (D-Nevada) Harry Reid to pronounce the Iraq War "lost."

Four years after President Bush declared victory defeat in Iraq seems more inevitable by the day. The true mission was establishing and nurturing a stable democracy as a bulwark against the proliferation of Islamic extremism in the region. Yet this democracy is wafer thin and the war in Iraq has resulted in more extremism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism around the globe, according to a recent study by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruikshank and major surveys by Pew Research and Transatlantic Trends.

Indeed, an objective observer might wonder if it is not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condelleeza Rice that have had the President's ear these last few years, but Osama bin Laden. Nearly every major foreign policy decision since 9/11 has played right into the hands of Al Qaeda and its fundamentalist ilk, beginning shortly the attacks on New York and Washington with inflammatory pronouncements about religion. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed, the former widely accepted but since bungled, the latter against UN wishes and the international community. Secret prisons, permanent detainees, torture, failure to capture or find the Al Qaeda leader, stunning plans to invade Iran mysteriously finding their way into the press...the list is endless, and almost always with Islam in the crosshairs. The Bush administration's five plus years of sustained bumbling and stumbling likely represent the most damaging foreign policy and the most finely calibrated bad PR campaign in the history of modern politics. Just whose side is this guy on? Rove's recent claim prods us to take a closer look at one distinct possibility:

The evening of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Bush is on the horn to a mysterious friend in the Hindu Kush.

W: Hey 'Sama, what gives? You didn't tell me you were gonna knock those towers down!

OBL: Yes, it was a great success. Now you must whip up American anger and come after us in Afghanistan.

W: How do I do that?

ObL: Start with a forceful comment, something to convince people that America needs to take action, and that you mean business. I know: refer to the Crusades.

W: Ooooh, yeah. I'll talk about eradicating the evildoers. Then I'll call in the cavalry and smoke out those terr'ists.

ObL: Right.


February 2003, as the US' Iraq war plans become reality.

W: The entire world is against me!

ObL: Just as we planned.

W: Oh, yeah.

ObL: Now, don't mind the UN, or those surrender monkey Frenchman and their peace-loving brethren. Just start the bombing and move towards Baghdad, wreaking shock and awe as you go. And dump those post-Saddam reconstruction plans that the State Department recently sent you.

W: Which plans?

ObL: Precisely.


April 2004, Osama commends his prize pupil.

ObL: George, job well done with Abu Ghraib -- the mental abuse, the hoods, the electrodes and wiring, the sly release of the photos. And I have to say, the leash was an inspired touch.

W: Hey, you really think so, Sam?

ObL: My name is Osama...

W: It just came to me while walking my dog the other day. Barney doesn't much like that leash, so I figured either would Iraqis.

ObL: Good thinking.


November 2006. At his lowest moment, Bush turns to a trusty pal.

W: Sam, we lost the election. Those weak-kneed tree-huggers won.

ObL: Yes, I noticed.

W: You get Fox News in the cave?

ObL: No, I…

W: Oh but dadgum, nevermind. Our good times together may be coming to an end, my old friend.

ObL: That's why I've come up with another plan.

W: You're always cooking up something, you sneaky caveman. What is it?

ObL: That Iraq Study Group report will be released soon. Toss it out.

W: Done. I don't trust that Jim Baker anyway. Shifty-eyed.

ObL: Then announce that you'll be making a decision on Iraq in January – let people enjoy their holidays.

W: The holidays! I almost forgot. Y'know, I love Christmas, Sammy.

ObL: It's Osama.

W: I get dressed up as Santa and nibble on some spice cookies and Laura…

ObL: Stay with me, George.

W: Hmm?

ObL: In January you announce a re-commitment to the war in Iraq: a troop surge to secure Baghdad. It'll appear as if you're redoubling your efforts at restoring stability and security.

W: But isn't that what people want me to do?

ObL: Here's the twist: you won't commit enough troops to make any difference. Just 20-25,000, or so.

W: Well I'll be. Sounds like another one of your winners, Sammy. But...

ObL: What is it?

W: The people aren't going to like me after this here war goes belly-up. What about that?

ObL: Sacrifices have to be made, George. Think of the 72 virgins.

W: That's a lot.

ObL: Take as many as you like.

W: Can do.


It was mid-2002 and the US had just lost another opportunity at capturing the elusive Al Qaeda leader when the US President rang up his wily mentor. The following chat ensued, versions of which have been repeated several times in the intervening five years.

W: You're so slippery! My boys had you pinned and then suddenly – poof! – they don't. How do you do it?

ObL: I'm not in Tora Bora, George. I'm in Bora Bora.

W: Whoa, that's right. Brain freeze! I was there once myself, years ago. The music had me shaking my groove thing all night, although the illicit substances may have helped. But I have a serious question for you: do you like mo-ji-tos, Sammy?

ObL: George. Stay focused.

W: Huh?

ObL: Why did you call?

W: Shoot the breeze.

ObL: Well, it's good you did. Sometime this week you'll announce that I've slipped through your fingers. Again. And that I'm still at large. And maybe ask your VP to toss in something about Islamic extremism being an existential threat to the American way of life. A little hyperbole never hurt.

W: You know what, Sammy? This terrorizing is fun.

ObL: Tell me about it.

In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion

Winter in Kashmir -- an extended, revised version of an earlier post.

When last spring I began to consider moving to and living in Kashmir for an entire year I often heard tell of bitter cold nights that lasted a lifetime, of entire villages buried in snow, of roads closed and power out for weeks on end – of the confounding trials of a frigid season in an under-developed, Himalayan region without indoor heating.

"You're staying there during the winter?" asked Rafiq Kathwari, a Kashmiri journalist cum photo-documentarian who now spends much of his time in New York. "You will die."

But as September waned the days were still warm, and then October brought little change: the sun still shone nearly every day and even if the nights had grown chilly the daily rising of the mercury became as reliable as that of the sun.

Then in the early days of November the sun took regular siestas and that long, roomy overcoat-poncho, the Kashmiri pheran, quickly became ubiquitous. By the time I'd arrive home from work after the ten minute bike ride in the evenings my hands were nearly numb. And one evening I saw a man maneuvering something unseen under his pheran. When I walked past closely I felt its warmth: a kangri! The mythical earthenware pot that Kashmiris hold underneath their outer coverings during the winter months, it holds perennially burning coals and is generally a substitute for what the developed world all but ignores: heating. The slang term is winter wife a phrase that sounds much more pregnant in Kashmiri. But feeling generally warm enough at home, I shrugged off these developments and girded myself for what lie ahead.

A few days later just before dinner – as a wet, chilly day turned misty evening then bone-chilling night and I put a heavy wool cardigan on over my zipper hoodie, which topped another sweater and t-shirt – winter arrived. And as I finished my meal and shut the doors to keep out the chill, I saw it. Right there in front of my face as I opened a book; hovering and vaguely opaque. It looked like smoke but I wasn't smoking. And then it hit me: it was my breath.

And so I understood. In Kashmir the winter is not the one with which we Westerners are familiar. Yes, in New York temperatures drop below freezing, great snowstorms interrupt normal life, and ice mocks us on the roads; we have to bundle up against the cold, and plagues of flu can temporarily lay low entire towns. But no matter how cold, no matter how hard the wind blows or the snow falls, like an ill-mannered neighbor winter can be brushed away by shutting the door and pulling closed the window. The furnace clicks on and our home or office or wherever we happen to be – and we are mostly indoors – becomes a womb of one's own. We forget the world outside, the time of year, the cold, and go about our lives. But in Kashmir winter is a season just like any other, and when it comes it's everywhere, in our kitchens and bathrooms, our parlors and our bedrooms, and until it recedes we must pile on the layers, grin and bear it.

For the last four months plus I had done just that. But the infamous blizzards never came. The frigid cold mostly stayed away. And then in early March – right about the time my patience had worn thin – the season started to roar: a sanity-sapping fortnight of snow and rain, wind, chill and incapacitation.

First, three days of fat flakes buried Srinagar under more than a foot of snow. The Srinagar-Jammu National Highway , Kashmir's unreliable link to the outside world, was closed to traffic. For several days the Valley was without eggs, chicken, mutton, milk and most vegetables. Schools were closed for a week. All flights in and out were cancelled. The power went out for three days and for the next week flicked on only intermittently. The snowstorm would've been the last straw if it hadn't been so beautiful and so much stinking fun.

And then just when Srinagar had dug itself out and the snow had mostly melted, we were whalloped with three days of nonstop rain. The roads of my Rajbagh neighborhood flooded, along with many others. Schools closed again, as did the National Highway. Meals consisted of breadstuffs and rice and pre-made packaged curries. Mobile networks and Internet connections were woefully inconsistent; cross-town friends might just as well be in Bangalore. And without power, again, I couldn't work.

Now, I'm not saying it was hell – people are suffering through vastly worse days, weeks, even lives, across the globe. But after the long cold winter it was enough to drive a man, at least this man, half batty. I was short-fused and fussy for most of March. I hated Kashmir, the government, my computer, the Internet, my phone, my colleagues, even my market vendor. The longer the harsh weather lingered, the more I growled.

And then, without warning, April rose up like a dream. I looked out the window and praised Allah, Buddha, and Jesus – ten days of on and off precipitation and the 100-odd hellish days that preceded it had apparently come to an end, at long last. Today the sun is shining, and children are playing cricket in muddy open squares. Women are out chatting and shopping in twos and threes. Men stand laughing at tea stalls and snack shops. The mynahs are singing. Kites and pigeons are getting amorous on rooftops. Grass is greening, buds are sprouting; spring is swing in Kashmir.

And I'm still here. Slightly shaken, perhaps, a bit stirred, but alive and well. Take that, Rafiq.


Speak Softly, and Cover Yourself in Black

Born in 1963 in Srinagar’s Khanyar locality, Asiya Andrabi was more interested in science than spirituality in her youth. Today, however, she leads Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Community), an all-female Islamic fundamentalist group that is older than both the Taliban and Al Qaeda and that the Indian government has branded a “soft terror” group. Dressed in her habitual dark hijab and black leather gloves, an engaging and fervent Andrabi welcomed me into her home on a recent Friday morning. Over tea and biscuits we discussed the conflict between Islam and the West, the progress of Kashmir’s independence movement, and the assassination of the President of the United States.

I’ve read that as a teenager you wanted to be a scientist but were diverted and became interested in Islam. Tell me about that.

After my graduation I was planning to go to India for my studies because biochemistry was not offered in this KU in those days. My brother, who is a doctor, didn’t allow me to go to India for further studies as he was aware of what was happening in India to Kashmiris, especially to Muslim girls. So after a few days I went into my father’s library and found this book, “The Inner Feelings of a Woman,” compiled by Indian author Mya Faribad. One of the lead stories was of Miriam Jamilah and how she converted to Islam from Chistianity. She had a conversation with Maulana Mahdoodi and they spoke and wrote letters and she was converted. When I read this whole it was the turning point of my life. And I made up my mind that Insha’allah I too would spend my whole life devoted to Islam.

Before that I did not even know the ABC’s of Islam, and that too from such a family that was known for their prominence in Islam (Andrabi is part of the Sayyid clan, originally from Afghanistan). And then I decided that a Muslim is incomplete unless he or she knows Arabic, because most of the books and key Islamic works are in Arabic. So I started reading Arabic. My father too was an Arabic scholar, and he guided me very properly, and I graduated in Arabic from Kashmir University.

And soon after that you started Dukhtaran-e-Millat?

In 1981 I started a school, a madrassa in Srinagar, and the response was very warm from the women folk. And then I started my organizational work. I went door to door and I went to the mosque and delivered speeches from the loudspeakers. I talked to women just to tell them the status of women in Islam, and how we were exploited by West as well as East – everybody exploits us. So let us see what Islam has given us.

Wasn’t it unusual for a woman to speak in the mosque?

Yes, it was unusual in those days. There were confrontations and hurdles from our priests, from the ulema. But I showed them how Allah and Mohammed (SAW) never denied a woman from speaking about Islam. Finally they decided you are the best among all the human beings because you preach the real Islam, you go for the right and you are telling the people to follow the right path and take them away from all the evils.

And how big is the organization today – how many schools and members?

We operate 75 schools across Jammu and Kashmir. These are part-time madrassas for only girls where we teach the Koran and Arabic. I cannot give you exact member total but we are in all districts and areas of the state.

And what is DeT's goal, its mission?

Our goal and aim is that this whole universe belongs to Allah the almighty and so should be governed by the laws of the Almighty. It’s not only Kashmir; my strong belief is that all human beings should accept Islam, and Islam is not only for the Muslims it is for the whole of humanity. As I’m talking to you my brother I don’t know whether you are Christian or what you are, Jewish or atheist, but this is my inner feelings in my heart is that I want to tell you please go and study Islam.

But don’t study the Muslims of this era! Because there is a lot of difference between Muslims and Islam. If you are to study a Muslim you would say Islam is nothing, no different than any other religion. But if you would study Islam, then the teachings of Koran and Prophet Mohammed (Salassam) then you’ll come to know what Islam is.

This is what I tell everyone. Even when I met the Indian agencies when I was arrested, RAW and IBS, CBI – they talked to me. I told them you please go and study Islam.

And how did they respond?

(Andrabi giggles under her veil) I gave them my humble request, and they said OK, Insh’allah Rahman, we will, Insh’allah, go and study Islam (eyes still smiling).

But we are not going for the Dawa work only. Our job is not confined to Dawa only because first and foremost we should liberate Kashmir from Indian clutches, that too for the cause of Islam.

So you seek the re-establishment of the Caliphate, under sharia law?

Yes, we want an Islamic state, why not? Islam should be in power. They should be powerful, the Islam. And that should be governed by the laws of Allah the almighty. Koran is rules and regulations of all parliaments and assemblies – there is nothing that has not been revealed in the Koran.

Does that mean you believe in hudood punishments such as that a thief should have his hands cut off, adulterers stoned and apostates killed?

Yes, of course. These are the punishments from Allah the Almighty. If you cut the hand off one thief, the whole society – none of them would dream of the theft.

How do you say that this is not justice? So when you punish a man in this way, there will be a totally pure society. One man will be killed and whole humanity would be saved.

Even if your son had committed the crime?

Yes, why not. I myself would kill him. In the time of Omar the second Caliph, his son committed a crime and he said: “My son should be punished first then any other.”

Does that mean there is no room for compromise in Islam? That there is no room for moderates in Islam?

There will be no change in Holy Koran; it will be around til doomsday. Nobody can have even a single change, even Asiya Andrabi or any clergyman. Now it is the West who is dictating and wants to see the whole world like the West. In certain areas of the West they are not allowing the women to wear the purdah, because they don’t like it. Some people ask them: “What’s the problem, why can’t women wear this hijab?” But in the West Muslim women do not wear the purdah and should be exploited and sold like commodities and be made commodities like those in the market.

Following that line of thinking, does this mean that the West and Islam cannot coexist?

We don’t have any grudge or anything against the West. One thing we want: If West will try their best to understand what Islam is. What happens is that there are some attacks on Western countries. This is a reaction to what the West is doing! They are trying their best to dictate that the whole universe should be governed by laws of Western countries or laws of America – nobody is ready for that. So what is happening to Iraq, what has happened to Afghanistan: Muslims have a full right to react now. Now that reaction is not always fully according to the laws of Islam, but when somebody is reacting he cannot react in any other way.
If there were dialogues between the West and Islam, that could be positive. And there is a place for dialogues in our religion. Just last year when there were cartoons they were trying their best to show our Prophet Mohammed (Salassam Nowsbillah Nowsbillah) was a terrorist and everyone knows our Prophet Mohammed (Salassam) was the most humble man on this planet. So they are inflaming our emotions and all that – how do you expect there will be civility between the West and Islam?

OK, but these attacks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Iraq – many are Muslims killing Muslims, which is un-Islamic, as you say. Are these not bad for the ummah?

That is the conspiracy against Islam. There are some hired persons everywhere. As you can see what’s happening in Pakistan, there are blasts in mosques even. Nobody can justify that! Nobody can say that’s Islam, that’s jihad. They are hired person – hired from West, hired from India. So what they are doing, this is not Islam.

You mentioned the need for dialogues. The US-Islamic World Forum took place last month in Doha, an event organized by an American political organization to give the US an opportunity to hear reaction and advice from a wide variety of leaders from the Muslim world. Mehbooba Mufti spoke at the gathering, what do you hope she said?

This is a very sad thing that they called Mehbooba Mufti. She is a Muslim woman but she doesn’t know what Islam is. She can’t represent Islam anywhere.

Why do you say that?

Because she is not a practicing Muslim woman. She has nothing to do with Islam. She is a secular woman who believes in secularism and all that. So as far as the Islamic representative is concerned you must be aware of Islamic rules and principles and you must know what Islam is. …It was just a government-sponsored program but she has no authority because she doesn’t represent Islam.

What would you have said? What do you think needs to be said at such a gathering?

Until and unless they change their policies, there will be hatred against the US. And whenever and wherever you go, you ask anyone, not Muslims only, whosoever is part of the weaker section of the world, you ask them who do you most hate and they will say George Bush. Because George Bush is against the weaker sections, George Bush is trying his best to have an upper hand on the whole of humanity. So this is my message for the US: You have your whole United States, you have your own set of rules in the United States and you have no right to involve yourself in other people’s lives in other countries. So let us govern ourselves. Let us live our lives how we want. Who are they dictate to us? Who are they to dictate to Iraq? Who are they to dictate to Iranians how they use their nuclear energy and all that? Why are they interfering? Wherever they see that Muslims have some power they interfere to destroy that power! Why not the Israelis?!

So then what was your reaction to 9/11?

As far as my perception, 9/11, this was done by the CIA. I don’t think there was the hand of Al Qaeda in that. But when it occurred Al Qaeda said we have done it. But I think it was the handiwork of the CIA because they were trying their best to destroy Afghanistan, so for that this was all fabricated.

But there is clear proof of these 19 Al Qaeda men on the planes..?

No, no. It is very easy, you hire someone else and you tell him to please tell other people: “I am Al Qaeda man,” and all that. It’s not necessary that whatsoever they spoke was true. Because this was the basis to destroy Afghanistan, because they had no reason, and immediately after 9/11 they destroyed Afghanistan, bombed everything and Taliban system was destroyed. There are hundreds of documents proving that this was the handiwork of the Pentagon. And I don’t think Muslims have as much ability to do such a big job. I don’t think militarily they are mature enough yet.

Speaking of maturity, has DeT made progress towards its goals?

Very nice progress here, yes (eyes smiling). We are progressing very nicely. There are some laws from the government – we are not allowed to preach or go anywhere freely – but still progress for us has been very nice lately.

How do you get around these laws?

We used to get arrested and booked regularly under Public Safety Act even though we are trying our best to make this Kashmir society pure from all obscenity and all the evils. So whenever we used to go anywhere we used to have confrontations with police. But (ahumdullilah) we are trying our best to carry on.

Last month Duktharan helped destroy hundreds of posters and cards and broke up meetings between young couples in public restaurants. Please tell me, what’s wrong with Valentine’s Day?

In Kashmir we have a purely religious society. We had – nowadays it’s not. We were a very pure society based on Islamic rules. And Valentine’s Day vulgarity is not permitted in Islam. We can share our love with our husband only.

OK, but what about two young people showing their appreciation for each other by giving each other cards? This does not seem a terrible thing.

This all leads to vulgarity.

But that’s not…

Who is St. Valentine to you?

If I remember correctly, the holiday as celebrated in the West really has nothing to do with the historical St. Valentine. It was the English poet Chaucer who romanticized the event and the holiday has passed down from…

In Kashmir we know this Valentine was a man who promoted this vulgarity and who promoted that young girls and young boys should go for courtship and all these vulgar activities. And then he was hanged. Here in Kashmir they want to celebrate this…and as far as our Islamic culture is concerned we are not allowed to celebrate such affairs. I can show my love to my husband, and it is not just one day, it is 365 days a year and 24 hours a day.

Maybe not all Kashmiris want to be more devout Muslims.

On Valentine’s Day we saw them and told these youths, young Muslims girls and boys, we told them the ethics of Islam, the principles of Islam. And we asked them “what is wrong with you that you are indulging in these activities?” And with the help of Allah the Almighty they understood what we were telling them and some of them they wept, “what is wrong with us we are not following the rules of Islam?” They told me: “Baji, give us your number” – they called me Baji – give us your phone number, please, we want to contact you, please teach what Islam is.”

But isn't tolerance a basic principle of Islam? Doesn't the Koran preach tolerance – for other individuals, for other traditions, i.e. “No compunction in religion”?

We are tolerating everything but we are also preaching.

But tolerating and preaching seem contradictory. “To every people have we appointed rites and ceremonies.” (Al-Hajj 21:76-69). Doesn’t that suggest that people should be able to practice such traditions the way they want?

No, that’s not what Islam says. Islam says all the human beings should accept Islam and practice Islam, this is what Islam says. That this holy Koran has been given to the whole humanity by Allah the Almighty and whosoever accepts he will be in the life hereafter he will enter the paradise, and whosoever doesn’t accept it, he will enter the hell. So now it is up to human beings. It’s your will and wish. If you won’t accept Islam, it will harm you. This is the holy Koran, if they will accept it it’s good for them, if they won’t accept it they have to face the tyranny in life hereafter.

If they won’t accept it, should they be forced to accept it?

No. They won’t be forced. Its just we preach Islam, let them know what it is. If they won’t accept it, OK, let them do what they want to do.

But the Taliban – not to mention Al Qaeda – they seem to force others to accept their beliefs and practices. Do you support their methods?

Al Qaeda is something different: nobody knows where Al Qaeda is or who Al Qaeda are. But as far as Taliban is concerned, they were practicing Islam under Islamic government, with rules and principles according to Islam, but on the whole that was an Islamic government.

So you support their ideal?

We are not in power. There is difference between Muslims and non-Muslims. If we were in power and there would be a government of Muslims, we could have some rules for the Islamic government that whosoever doesn’t accept this, he will be punished. But as far as non-Muslims are concerned, you can’t force a non-Muslim. For instance, in an Islamic government all the Muslim women would have to accept the purdah, but this order would not be for the non-Muslims. Non-Muslims have their own way of life; they can act as they want. But as far as Muslims are concerned, they have to accept Islam and they have to practice Islam.

And part of the practice is accepting the veil…

Islam has given us respect, has given us honor and to protect this honor this purdah is very necessary for us and we feel that it is security for a Muslim woman.

But is it not sometimes difficult to wear in the modern world, both physically and psychologically?

I think it’s easier, to wear it and go everywhere, as compared to live without the purdah. This whole society is totally vulgar now. With the purdah wherever you go nobody knows who you are and no remark is passed on you. As you compare the girls wearing the jeans and semi-nude girls – I think that’s very difficult.

You have been quoted as saying, “Women are supposed to look after the kitchen and men are supposed to work.” But you seem to contradict this statement – you are out of the house, working quite publicly. Further, you yourself wanted to study and become a scientist – why shouldn't other women be able to follow their dream?

We are not telling them not to study. They can go for the studies wherever they want to. They can go for the study but according to the rules of Islam. Most of our girls are MBBS doctors, PhD doctors – nobody is telling them not to study. But even their mentors haven’t seen their face, even when they visit their guides they are with full purdah.
Let them go for studies. But one thing is there in Islam: duty of earning is not the women’s duty, in Islam. This duty has given to man, that he has to earn and he has to feed a woman. There is this unemployment problem in Kashmir and as a result both men and women are working. If there were no unemployment problem I’m sure there would be no women working.
Go for studies, whatever you want, but as far as the duty of earning the money, that is the duty of the man.

So the studies of a Muslim woman should not be part of building towards a career, towards earning a living.

Right. We are not studying to earn money. I don’t think you need to study to earn money. We are studying just to learn.

Some experts have argued that because men are busy doing the fighting and also the dying, women are the surviving victims of the conflict – half-widows, etc. They are taking the brunt of the Kashmir conflict’s suffering and sorrow. Do you agree?

I too am a woman and since I married I have spent just two years with my husband. He has spent his whole life in jail and he is still languishing with life imprisonment. Many other Muslim women also have lost their brothers, their husbands, their sons, to go to jihad. So there are some problems, nobody can deny. I am a woman, without a man, and I am facing hundreds of problems. But (ahumdillah), I am ready for that. I have sacrificed my life, I have sacrificed my love even. I was very closely attached to my husband and I don’t think there will be any husband and wife who love each other like we two. I have sacrificed this for Allah and I believe we will be together in paradise and nobody can separate us – Insh’allah Rahman -- over there. So this for the cause of Allah the Almighty, for the cause of Islam, for the cause of this freedom struggle. So it is for these other women also, we know there is a lot of psychological depression and they are facing threats from different corners. We cannot deny that men too are facing the same. We all are facing these problems at the hands of India.

As a means of combating these problems you’ve said all young Kashmiri men should become militants. Do you still support the insurgency?

My husband was a Mujahideen. When we started the struggle in 1988 we called all of the Muslim men to jihad. Until and unless India will leave this Kashmir, until and unless all the Indian forces will leave the Kashmir, jihad will continue (Insh’allah Rahman) and there is no option that mujihadeen will lay down their guns.

What about your sons?

Yes, I believe in that, and not only in Kashmir. I believe jihad is the most sacred job in Islam, and we believe we will be rewarded in the life hereafter. So if Kashmir will be liberated from Indian clutches and there will be jihad somewhere else in Muslim world it’s my dream that my sons will go there and fight.

Even if one became a suicide bomber?

Yes, why not.

Wouldn’t you, as a mother, miss your son?

I would miss them but I’ll see them in heaven (insh rahman). I would sacrifice anything to please Allah the Almighty.

But they would be killing people.

They won’t kill people. No. They would kill the enemies of Islam.

And who are the enemies of Islam?

Here in Kashmir the enemies of Islam are the Indian army. To kill Indian army is my dream. So are the Indian politicians -- they are the enemies of Islam and they are the enemies of our freedom struggle. Not the common man. If you are from America, I don’t have any grudge with you. But if I see George Bush anywhere, and my son would kill Mr. Bush, it would be a great honor for Asiya Andrabi.

I see. And who are these Indian politicians you mention?

Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mufti Saeed – politicians like this.

What about Mirwaiz and Yasin Malik?

They are not Indian politicians. But they have changed their ways and I think now they are in the hands of some agencies (smiling eyes). Though they were the freedom fighters but as far as the present situation is concerned there is something fishy in their character now.

What do you mean by that?

You know we don’t believe in Mirwiaz Omar Farooq now. We believe he is ready for compromise but we don’t believe in compromising politicians. We started this movement with this aim: Kashmir should be liberated from India, this one thing. And whosoever goes with compromise less then liberation from India we call him a traitor, and Mirwaiz is leaning that way.
Yasin Malik is also I think somewhere engaged (eyes smiling again).

Speaking of the current situation, what are your thoughts on these discoveries of encounter killings?

It is just for the elections now, and they are playing a card now. It is nothing more than that. A CBM for Kashmiris, and it is not a good sign. It’s not the first time that they’ve come to know about such encounters. If it were the first time we could say that they are doing it for the cause of Kashmiris, but it is a political card. They are not charging the Indian army for that, the CPRF or BSF – they are charging just the Kashmiri task force with that. And they want to give the signal that the Indian army is very loyal and Indian army security forces are for your security, but as for your own Kashmiri security they are no good.

And what about the independence movement – how do you think it’s progressing?

I am hopeful because (ahumdullilah) a movement that is now backed by one lakh martyrs cannot be stopped. But there are ups and downs in the movement and this is a time that I think there is a lot of confusion in our movement because of Mirwaiz. India was ready to have another Sheikh Abdullah but nobody was ready to play the part. But now they have hired Mirwaiz for that. So there is confusion among the common masses but I’m sure they are with the movement. As you may have seen Geelani sahab was going for kidney transplant and hundreds and thousands of youths were ready to donate their kidneys. Because people are with the ideology of Geelani sahab, and Geelani s sticks to his word that Kashmir should be liberated from the India – nothing less than that. I am sure with the passage of time the movement shall gain the momentum. If not today then in several years, Kashmir will be liberated – Insh’allah Rahman.