Timely novel: a Pakistani jihadi turned American businessman

by David Lepeska
for The National

Salahuddin Khan seems an unlikely literary figure. A kindly, grey-bearded businessman raised in Pakistan and England, he had carved out an impressive career as a technology and marketing executive when, at the age of 57, the idea for a narrative struck him like a thunderbolt.

It was the day after Christmas 2009 and Khan fell into 14-hour days of research and writing. By mid-February he'd churned out an epic 550-page novel that offers complex, sympathetic main characters and a timely retelling of Pakistan's recent history.

"The story erupted from me in six weeks," says Khan, who had never written before. "It felt a little like going downhill on a slalom: there were posts in different places, I began to design a path through these posts and, as I got up to, like, 100 pages of this, the characters themselves began to design it for me. It's something of a blur. I was completely possessed."

Possession may be an unusual route to literary success, but in this case it worked. Since its release in July last year, the self-published Sikander has earned a handful of awards, the interest of a prominent publisher and praise from a former Pakistani ambassador.

Khan was born in 1952 in Burewala, Pakistan, to a middle-class Pashtun family forced to leave Delhi during Partition. A few years later the family relocated again, to Karachi, and from there to Doncaster, in the English county of Yorkshire, where Khan went on to study aeronautical engineering.

During a visit to Florida in April 1972, to witness the launch of Apollo 16, he fell in love with the US. He moved to Boston in 1998 and, a decade later, accepted a top marketing and strategy position in Chicago and settled with his wife and six children in the cushy suburb of Lake Forest.

That leafy, wealthy community may have reminded Khan of England, where, as the only non-white student in every one of his schools until university, he had been very aware of his outsider status, had heard the slurs and insinuations. The attacks of September 11, 2001, brought those experiences rushing back.

"9/11 raised the notion of branding," says Khan. "Everyone I think rationally understands that not every Muslim is a terrorist. The brand aspect that bothers me is the perception that Islam itself has a DNA of violence, which is a more insidious undercurrent that runs through the culture."

In the years that followed, Khan became more engaged with the Muslim community, hoping to undermine that perception. He joined the board of a local Islamic school system and the trustees of the Human Development Foundation, a non-profit group focused on development, health care and education in rural Pakistan. He became the publisher of Islamica magazine and began hosting Radio Islam, the lone US talk show focused on Muslim issues. He co-produced a short film called The Boundary, in which a Muslim man, played by the Sudan-born British actor Alexander Siddig, is stopped and interrogated by US immigration officials at New York's JFK airport.

Sikander could be seen as the culmination of those efforts. The story opens in 1986, when Sikander Khan runs away from his Peshawar home at 17 to join the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He falls in with a group of insurgents working with the Haqqani militant network, the British military and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.

Having helped to defeat the Soviets, Sikander returns to Peshawar with his Afghan bride. After 9/11 he goes back to Afghanistan to rescue his wife's relatives and former mujahedden comrades, some of whom had become Taliban. He winds up in the hands of the Americans, who ship him to Guantanamo Bay, where he is tortured during long, intense interrogations. Finally, Sikander gains his release through a family connection to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and returns to Pakistan.

After finishing his novel, Khan sent the manuscript to Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the UK and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, in Washington, DC. One of the world's leading authorities on Islam, Ahmed has advised the likes of CIA chief David Petraeus and written several dramas about Islam, the US and South Asia. He said Sikander was bold and ambitious, a "Muslim Gone with the Wind".

"Most Muslim writers and scholars have made a mistake by approaching this issue in a defensive and monochromatic matter, arguing we are a people of peace," says Ahmed. "Here we have a multidimensional, multicoloured, multi-generational, multinational picture of modern-day Muslims, with characters that have all the warts and mistakes of real people, and that excited me."

Self-published by Khan's Karakoram Publications, Sikander attracted little attention upon its release. But from March to July of this year it won top honours at book festivals in Los Angeles, Paris, Hollywood and New York, as well as the National Indie Excellence Award for Multi-Cultural Fiction. Khan has trimmed and tightened the novel considerably for the 420-page fourth edition, which has a foreword from Ahmed and is being sent out this month to top review publications and leading publishers, including Little, Brown and Company.

The attention "feels phenomenal", says Khan, who hopes to write another novel, about Partition. But first he hopes Sikander pushes people to think. "Not enough is being done to affect the perception of Muslims through entertainment, or literature in particular," he says. "It's a commentary on today's news, particularly America's news, that everything now has to be squeezed between two commercials."

One name in the US news of late is Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Pashtun mujahideen was a US ally and CIA asset during the Soviet days, which is how he comes into the orbit of Khan's protagonist. Today, Jalaluddin still leads the Haqqani network, a bloody-minded militant group based in Pakistan's tribal region and suspected in the bombing of an armoured Nato bus in Kabul last month that killed 17, including 12 Americans, in the deadliest attack on the US-led coalition in the Afghan capital since the war began. US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region in late October killed two Al Qaeda senior planners and a deputy in the Haqqani network.

Despite being an enemy of the US, the Haqqanis still work with Pakistan's ISI. "All that happened in Pakistan is that we became a victim of circumstances in the region," said Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former president, during a lecture at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month.

US officials have begun meeting with Haqqani representatives, including Jalaluddin's brother, Ibrahim, in an effort to negotiate a resolution to the Afghan war. "We have to turn our attention here on the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani and other terrorist groups and try to get them into a peace process," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a recent visit to Islamabad.

Because of its long-term relationship with the Haqqanis, the ISI is instrumental in organising the peace talks. But US-Pakistan relations have deteriorated considerably since American troops invaded Pakistan airspace to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May. Observers worry that the ISI and Pakistani military leaders may see little advantage in bringing about legitimate negotiations.

Khan recently delivered a lecture on US relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan at the American Islamic College in Chicago. He accepts that the Pakistani military may still be working with the Haqqani network, as a hedge against future instability in Afghanistan - a real danger with the coming departure of US troops. Pakistani leaders, he says, do not feel the US is acting in their interests; in not pushing for a settlement with India regarding Kashmir, and in working towards a stable Afghanistan, the US is failing to ensure Pakistan's security.

"The American perspective is 'How do we got out of there?'," says Khan. "The strategy is an exit strategy, rather than a strategy strategy. You're really encouraging Pakistan to think independently about its strategic needs, and therefore you are not going to get a solution."

Towards the end of the book, Sikander moves to North Carolina with the help of a cousin and buys a local electrics company, where the head of security turns out to be his Guantanamo tormentor. Rather than succumbing to hate and firing him, Sikander keeps him on, becoming his friend.

"To us in the West, the Taliban and the Haqqani, they're villains and that's it, like comic-book characters," says Ahmed, who hopes to see Sikander made into a film. "But the novel gives you a much more accurate depiction, with all its complexities."

Khan intended the book as a study in the thin veneer of civilisation, an examination of the circumstances that push people towards inhumanity. When Sikander kills for the first time, shooting down a Soviet helicopter, he's shocked at how easy it is. When later faced with his Guantanamo tormentor, he is reminded of this.

"I think a willingness to be cruel and brutal is in me, in you, in us all, really," Sikander tells his torturer. "Once a system encourages operating beyond the reach of law, well then, as you so amply demonstrated, that brutality will only be limited by the forces at our disposal, no matter who we are."


With Fears of Asian Carp Fading, a Sleek Campaign to Revive Concern

by David Lepeska
for The New York Times

There was a time, not long ago, when environmentalists could arouse fears of invasive Asian carp by highlighting videos of four-foot-long fish leaping out of downstate rivers or the discovery of carp DNA samples a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.
But a recent event in Chicago suggested that sparking public panic about Asian carp these days requires more pizazz.

In a spacious antique furnishings store, Architectural Artifacts, on the North Side one evening last week, dozens of well-heeled guests mingled near the open bar hoping for a brush with genius: Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and new MacArthur fellow, was introducing her book about transforming Chicago’s waterways. Later, Second City took the stage to perform “Carpocalypse!” a hand-wringing ditty about Asian carp.

“There’s a real threat, and there are clear solutions,” said Henry Henderson, Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which organized the event, collaborated on Ms. Gang’s book and commissioned the song.

Two Asian carp species, silver and bighead carp, imported from China in the 1970s, escaped from their pens at fish farms in Arkansas and Kentucky. Disrupting ecosystems thanks to their voracious appetite for plankton and algae that other species need to survive, the carp swam up the Mississippi River, crowded the Illinois River and other regional waterways, and zeroed in on Chicago and the Great Lakes.

To combat these and other invasive species, which could threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem and its $7 billion fishing industries, the resources defense council has proposed physical barriers to separate Chicago waterways and Lake Michigan from the Mississippi. Ms. Gang’s book, “Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways,” sees the barriers as an opportunity to remake the city’s riverfront.

The barrier proposal, Mr. Henderson said, “is just a step toward advancing the broader discourse.”

But times are tough in the carp-fighting business. State and federal officials say they are controlling Asian carp and keeping them out of the Great Lakes. Anecdotal evidence from a surging carp harvest in the Illinois River seems to indicate that fishing for and selling the carp as food or processing them into fish meal or fertilizer might significantly reduce their numbers, and thus their pressure on waterways in the Chicago area.

In any case, no major action can be taken before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases its comprehensive study into the blockage of aquatic pathways between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. The findings are due out in 2015.

Given all that, public fears seem at an ebb. Last month, an environmental group in Milwaukee organized what it hoped would be the first anti-Asian carp rally, in a downtown park. Only a handful of people turned out.

Enter the resources defense council and other groups aiming to keep the high-flying fish on the public radar. Next week, Ms. Gang and Mr. Henderson will be interviewed by the public-radio personality Steve Edwards at the Harold Washington Library in the Loop. Separately, a handful of Michigan tourism groups last week rolled out “Stop the Carp Now,” an online and radio ad campaign.

Several regional scientists, including Konrad Dabrowski, an aquaculturist at Ohio State University, argue that the Great Lakes are not conducive to Asian carp reproduction. Anti-carp agitation merely muddles the debate, Mr. Dabrowski said.

Events like the recent book party “serve no purpose other than to increase public fear,” he said. “I think we need a serious discussion on these issues.”

Days after scientists found Asian carp DNA in North Dakota and in the Mississippi River near Minneapolis last month, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin petitioned the Supreme Court to force the corps to speed its study.

The resources defense council event suggested a more honeyed approach. For their $250 cover, attendees snacked on chicken satay and carp-shaped chocolates, and chatted with Ms. Gang as she signed copies of her book.

The Second City performers sang from the perspective of Asian carp, proclaiming that the corps’ underwater electric barrier, just outside Chicago, “tickles every time we swim through it.”

“Leave us alone,” they urged the crowd. “Let us call the river and the Great Lakes home.”



Why $1 Billion Doesn't Buy Much Transport Infrastructure Anymore

by David Lepeska
For TheAtlanticCities.com

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced a $1 billion plan to overhaul the city's L trains, which are run by the Chicago Transit Authority and began operations in 1892. "The public will get a new CTA," he said at a press conference.

That's a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, the money will be used to lay new rail tracks between 18th and 95th streets on the Red Line to eliminate “slow zones," replace ties on the Purple Line and improve underground ventilation and electrical substations. In addition, nine stations will receive modest technical upgrades and—finally, the most significant addition—two stations on the North Side will be rebuilt.

It seems $1 billion doesn't go very far in subway construction these days. Look at New York, where the 8.5-mile Second Avenue subway line is expected to cost more than $17 billion.

Internationally, subway construction costs remain considerably lower. Sao Paulo's new 11-km Yellow Line, completed last year, cost $1.6 billion, with fully automated trains and free high-speed wireless Internet at each of 11 stations.

Singapore's new Circle Line runs 22 miles with 28 stations and cost $4.8 billion, or $130 million per kilometer. Upon completion next year, it will become the world's longest fully automatic underground transit line, and among its most advanced.

In Europe, too, subways cost less. Madrid's recently-opened Metrosur line is 41 km long, with 28 stations, yet was completed in four years at around $58m per km. Recent expansions in Paris and Berlin cost about $250 million per km.

New York, meanwhile, is building the most expensive subway line of all time, at $1.7b per km. This figure makes London's 16-km-long Jubilee line and Amsterdam's 10-km North-South line, which both faced delays and controversy and cost $350m and $400m per km, respectively, seem reasonable in comparison.

New York's astronomical subway costs are partially explained by pricier real-estate and labor and the expense of tunnel boring into Manhattan bedrock. Blogger Benjamin Kabak thinks exorbitant consultant and design fees and stunningly over-priced construction contracts also play a part.

Another concern is age. Robert Paaswell, engineering professor at the City College of New York and director of the University Transportation Research Center, says costs are so high in Chicago and New York because their systems are the country's oldest and thus the most expensive to upgrade. The New York City subway, which began operations in the 1870s as an elevated system, has experienced three derailments in the past six months.

This helps explain why Washington, D.C., where the Metro opened in 1976, laid more than three new miles of track and built two new stations, a 2,200-car parking structure and a rail car storage facility as part of a subway extension into Prince George's County, Maryland, all for $456 million.

Paaswell also cites New York's higher regulation costs, over-conservative labor laws and financing via bonds, which lead to longer-term debt plans. Finally, Americans and Europeans generally hold different views of major public transport projects. The latter see the expense as justified, even necessary, while the former tend to embrace driving and view major construction projects as a potential hassle.

“There's no urgency by governments or citizens here to get subways done, and when it finally happens the construction causes so much inconvenience that people don't like it,” said Paaswell, a former CTA executive director. “In Europe, they don't care too much about it, they just blast right through and get it done.”

For this reason, less dense U.S. cities often prefer light rail, which averages about half the cost of subways and can often dovetail on highway projects. The new SouthEast rail line portion of Denver's T-Rex transport project cost $970 million for 19 miles of new lines and 13 stations.

And Minneapolis' 19km, 17-station Hiawatha, or Blue Line, which opened in 2008 and connects the Twin Cities' international airport and the Mall of America to downtown, cost $715 million and has far exceeded its ridership targets.

City officials still looking to justify exorbitant spending on subway expansion might want to cite a 1918 essay by Julius Glaser, a design engineer for the city of New York.

Why do we build subways? They're expensive. They cost several times as much, mile for mile, as elevated railroads, and their construction entails more inconvenience to the public and to business, and for a longer time. They interfere with and endanger the sewers, gas pipes, water mains, electric conduits, and other subsurface structures, for an extended period, and then, when finally completed, many people dislike to ride in them.

Yet we build subways, because, when finished, unlike elevated railroads, so far as street conditions are concerned, they are noiseless, invisible and do not obstruct light, air or traffic. Train operation is never interfered with by weather conditions, and real estate along the route is enhanced in value. The permanent advantages of underground railroads far outweigh the temporary inconveniences during the construction period.

The Best Solution for Shrinking Cities?

by David Lepeska
for TheAtlanticCities.com

Going from blight to blots, that's the latest DIY solution for shrinking cities.

Across a handful of troubled Midwestern cities, homeowners in failing neighborhoods are snapping up adjacent vacant lots for their own use, creating block-lots, or blots. The term was coined by the Brooklyn-based urban planning and design firm Interboro as part of a winning entry into Archplus "Shrinking Cities" 2006 International Ideas Competition.

Blotting, previously known as sideyard expansion, is an opportunistic response to urban decline that has been around for decades. The city of Chicago launched its adjacent land purchasing program in 1981; Cleveland did the same a few years later. But it has gained traction in recent years as cities have been depopulated and residents, planners and policymakers have sought redevelopment solutions.

Today, Cleveland and Chicago both have thousands of abandoned buildings and tens of thousands of vacant lots. Large swaths of New Orleans were emptied by Katrina. Yet no place is more ideal for blotting than Detroit, where the basic building block is the single-home lot. The city's population has fallen 60 percent since 1950 and nearly a third of its 139 square miles are vacant.

Residents like Jean and Michael Anderanin refused to wait for the city to launch a redevelopment plan. From 1992 to 2002, the mother and son purchased five lots adjoining their home, creating a six-lot garden blot that is enclosed by a fence and furnished with a gazebo, basketball court and several bird houses, according to Interboro's study, Improve Your Lot!

The result, according to University of Michigan urban planning professor Margaret Dewar, is a better, safer neighborhood. Vacant lots are breeding grounds for crime and illegal dumping. They place a strain on city police and fire resources and reduce surrounding property values and public safety.

"When people take over another lot they put in a patio, a garage, play equipment, a swimming pool—this improves quality of life because the lot is cared for," says Dewar, who published the first academic study on adjacent lot purchase in 2006. "It's become more and more common."

Blotting dovetails with a plan Detroit Mayor Dave Bing outlined to reduce population density in neighborhoods that have failed. Detroit planning director Rob Anderson recently told Changing Gears reporter Kate Davidson that the city's program to sell lots, for $200, has sold more than a thousand adjacent vacant lots.

In Chicago the price is $1,000, while in Cleveland lots go for as little as $1. A spokeswoman for Cleveland's Community Development Department had no readily available data on blotting, but said the practice had been increasing.

That would be a good thing, says Dewar, though she cautions against visions of urban paradise. In reality, blotting is one-part redevelopment and two parts de-urbanization, remaking the city as more green and less dense: a neo-suburb (it's the "new suburbanism," according to Interboro). Blotting won't create idyllic New Urbanist neighborhoods or return shrinking cities to their former glory, but it will reduce crime, add green spaces and improve safety. It's smart shrinkage for the recession-era Rust Belt, among the best of a handful of poor options.

Next June, New Orleans will host the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference, following Louisville, Pittsburgh and Cleveland as previous host cities. Among speakers and attendees, blotting is likely to be a hot topic. "This is a good way to approach the re-use of vacant land," says Dewar. "I think officials in cities where there's been a lot of this loss should think 'How can we encourage this and celebrate it?'"


Possible Resurrection for Chicago's Nastiest Waterway

by David Lepeska
for Atlantic Cities

In The Jungle, his searing, 1906 expose of Chicago's meatpacking industry, Upton Sinclair described a particularly fetid southern stretch of the Chicago River. "Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide," he writes. "Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across and vanished temporarily."

Though spiffed up in the intervening years, Bubbly Creek, named for the gases released during the decomposition of animal parts strewn there from nearby stock yards, remains a place Chicagoans generally avoid. Area rowing teams occasionally practice on its surface, but the creek's still, gray-brown water emits a stench in summer and, since 2007, the city has been considering a major restoration.

In her new book Reverse Effect, Chicago-based architect and recent MacArthur “genius” grant winner Jeanne Gang looks to transform the still-bubbly stretch of water into an urban destination to rival Millennium Park.

"We're a city that has these waterways, and they've always been used by industry," Gang says. "But how can we reclaim that river's edge and bring people and public uses to the water?"

Chicago remains the only major American city that merely dilutes its sewage, without disinfecting, before dumping it back into nature (the city's wastewater management body decided in June to begin disinfecting sewage before dumping, but implementation may take years). Other cities lack an outlet like the Chicago River, which was reverse engineered a century ago to carry sewage downstream towards the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

In certain areas, the Chicago River is now more than 70 percent partially treated sewage – and a public health risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Another problem is that invasive species, such as round gobies, zebra mussels and the most current threat, Asian carp, have had little trouble migrating up or down this watery pipeline to imperil eco-systems at either end.

In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council proposed the creation, at three sites in the Chicago area, of physical barriers to separate the city's waterways and Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin and stop invasive species, yet still allow sewage to pass downstream. One proposed site is near the north end of Bubbly Creek.

The NRDC's barrier proposal appealed to Gang, who grew up outside the city and has always been fascinated by water and sustainability. Her most well-known building, a billowy, 82-story skyscraper that rises from the spot where Lake Michigan spills into the Chicago River, is named Aqua.

Gang sees the construction of the NRDC barriers as an excellent opportunity to make Chicago area waterways more green. In Reverse Effect, she investigates design possibilities for the barrier and the city's water infrastructure along with students from Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where she taught earlier this year. The book also includes input from the NRDC and residents who regularly use the Chicago River.

One student draped a land bridge across the creek that would also serve as an arts park. Another incorporated the nearby coal-burning Fisk Power Plant, remaking it into a facility that helps clean the river water to support urban agriculture that can serve a nearby food desert.

"We decided to create these inland water lagoons, that would add water-cleaning facilities using green-friendly treatments," Gang says of her firm's design for the barrier. "The water in the sewer system would go to the lagoon, where it's cleaned, and then back into the lake to be re-used by the system. And you can build up the city around these lagoons, with boats and beaches that are clean enough to swim in."

It's a design that embraces one of Gang's favorite dictums: nature is technology. "In the past we always thought about using technology to overcome nature," she explains. "Now we're learning how to harness the activity of nature – like the cleansing of water using plants, algae or bacteria, instead of creating more gray infrastructure with bigger and bigger pipes. I just read about a new kind of concrete made from seawater in a process similar to coral. Or using heat from the ground, geo-thermal, to power buildings. That's nature as technology. We're in an exciting time right now because we're starting to understand these kinds of things."

For Gang, improving quality of life involves creating a dense urban fabric where people can live and work alongside dynamic green spaces. "We have to take care of nature," Gang explains, citing the world's ever-rising rising human population and an ongoing mass extinction of plants and animals. "Animals move along corridors, birds migrate, so as cities get larger it's important to create paths they can pass through. At the same time, people need outdoor space to enjoy: many inner-city kids don't have any experience with nature. So instead of just designing green lawns, the spaces can be designed to engage both people and diverse species."

Other examples of Studio Gang's effort to incorporate nature into the city include its stunning, multi-use design for Northerly Island, a 91-acre peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan near downtown, and a boardwalk and pavilion at Lincoln Park Zoo's South Pond, completed last year. Her latest vision may necessitate a new name for the stretch of water long known as Bubbly Creek. "This barrier could be the catalyst for that post-industrial riverfront to become something new for the city," says Gang.