Bartered away at age 5, now trying to escape to a life she chooses

October 22nd, 2014


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KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine years before an Afghan girl named Soheila was born, her half brother Aminullah eloped with a woman who had been betrothed to his cousin, an event that led to years of violent feuding between two sides of their family in Nuristan.

Soheila’s mother died while giving birth to her. Her father, Rahimullah, then bartered his daughter’s future for family peace, betrothing Soheila at the age of 5 to the aggrieved cousin, a man her father’s own age.

The practice is known as baad, in which young girls are traded between families to resolve disputes. Although illegal, baad is still widely practiced, especially in remote areas of Afghanistan. Once of legal age, 16, Soheila would become the fourth wife of an elderly man.

Fast-forward to late last month, when Soheila, who uses only one name and is now 24, sat in the offices of the advocacy group Women for Afghan Women and for the first time watched her own story unfold on screen.

Wide-eyed, she watched the documentary “To Kill a Sparrow,” a half-hour-long piece by the Iranian filmmaker Zohreh Soleimani that showed Soheila’s long struggle to escape the destiny her father had intended for her.

Much of the documentary, which was filmed over about a year and a half, took place while Soheila was in the women’s shelter run in Kabul by Women for Afghan Women, which is the largest private organization in Afghanistan operating shelters and other facilities for women in crisis. It is where she spent much of the past four years as the group’s lawyers worked to resolve her case.

The New York Times for more

(Thanks to reader)

Notes on the Leader

October 22nd, 2014


Since the results of the general election were declared, I have been in a state of unbelief. The country now has at its head a man who has widely been called a mass murderer, who likened a massacre of Muslim citizens to the accidental death of a “kutte ka bachcha”, who delights in preening for the cameras holding swords and wearing diverse kinds of head-gear, and whose stated qualification for the top job is a thorax whose circumference is 142 centimetres.

Modi may well be described as a manly, muscular manifestation of Hindutva. He is at once modern and mediaeval, moving among Tatas and Ambanis and space scientists and posing before a fawning populace in a regal crown and robes. Regal also are his declarations. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation through radio Friday morning, said the nation belongs to everyone and 125 crore Indians are blessed with immense skill and strength.” (, October 3, 2014)

This is the classic line of the oppressor. Praise to the skies those whom you oppress and exploit, imply that you have no privileges that they too do not have — and then proceed to bleed them dry, to snatch away the natural resources which belong to them, to turn their property into your own monstrously costly gift to a temple for the benefit of your own immortal soul, to remain loftily silent while your underlings threaten and attack them.

The manliness and muscularity of Hindutva have taken a form that can only be called bestial. “The systematic use of gang-rape as a weapon occurred in the Surat riots after the Babri Masjid demolition, and an ugly innovation was the videotaping of the gang-rapes…. According to Praful Bidwai, Modi was the mastermind of the unspeakable atrocities against women in the 1992 Surat riots.” (

Mainstream for more

Clothing the world: Poetics, poverty, and politics

October 22nd, 2014


Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Jeremy Seabrook, an independent writer, journalist, and chronicler of the human condition who has long had an interest in South Asia, probing especially the lives of those who inhabit India’s slums and Muslim ghettos, turns his attention in his most recent book to the workers of Bangladesh’s garment industries who clothe the world but, like the weavers of Bengal in colonial India, barely have enough to cover their own nakedness. The book takes its title from Thomas Hood’s elegy on the women workers in Lancashire’s textile mills, “The Song of the Shirt” (1843): working “in poverty, hunger, and dirt,” moving their fingers to the command of “Stich! Stich! Stich!”, they sowed at once, “with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt.”

If Bangladesh has emerged at all in the news in recent years, it is on account of the disasters that have befallen its garment industry, none as calamitous as the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building under whose debris over 1,100 people were left dead. Seabrook’s book is a searing indictment of the callousness of factory owners and others in the global system of the circulation of capital who are complicit in creating miserable working conditions for those employed in Bangladesh’s largest and most profitable industrial venture. Yet it is also an extraordinary tribute to the workers who pile into Dhaka and other centers of the garment industry from all corners of the country. Their lives are sketched not so much in detail as in poignantly suggestive prose. Do people flee to that “washed out concrete jungle” that is called Dhaka, which Seabrook unflinchingly describes as one of the world’s ugliest cities, to escape the narrowing of human possibilities that Marx sought to capture in his brutal condemnation of the “idiocy of the rural countryside”? One might suppose that it is the aspiration to become something in life, or merely to earn a livelihood, that brings people to the city from the interior, but what would then make the story of Bangladesh so distinct?

Lal Salaam for more

There is no such thing as “Team Australia”

October 21st, 2014


The shirt that began the backlash.

Woolworths was caught out this month selling T-shirts with the slogan “If you don’t love it, leave” emblazoned over an Australian flag.

After George Craig posted a photo of the shirt on Twitter with the caption: “@woolworths cairns, selling racist singlets for everyday low prices! #racist”, the T-shirt was quickly and widely condemned. Woolworths immediately pulled the stock from its shelves and apologised.

But the message on the shirt — that everyone should celebrate Australia no matter what, and if you don’t then you don’t belong here — is not just a T-shirt slogan. It is the same message being promoted by our political leaders.

It is what Prime Minister Tony Abbott means when he tells everyone, and particularly Muslims, to get behind “Team Australia”.

As conservative shock jock Ray Hadley said in defence of the shirts: “This is the best country in the world — if you don’t embrace it you don’t deserve to be here.”

Abbott has a lot to gain politically by using this divisive language. His government’s budget was deeply unpopular because it hit the poorest and most marginalised the hardest, while the rich benefited.

Abbott’s policies will raise fees for university students, introduce a payment to see a doctor and make young people wait for six months before they are able to access welfare.

Green Left for more

Bell Hooks reignites a writer’s feminist identity

October 21st, 2014


Cultural critic, writer and feminist Bell Hooks PHOTO/”Bellhooks” by Cmongirl – Own work

Maybe Mrs. Dieder did not think I could read. A worn rectangle of beige carpet marked out the parameters of our reading circle. We sat on the floor in the dull winter light of her second grade classroom, textbooks heavy in our laps, waiting for Neil Machever to pronounce the words on the page so that Erin Troncati, cross-legged next to him and furiously chewing the ends of her blond hair, could read the next sentence.

The class displayed their agitation with bouncing knees and rolling eyes as Neil pulled his eyebrows close together and frowned. With the spark of impatience that even today prompts me to sigh loudly (when someone takes too long to put their groceries on the rubberized belt or holds up the movie ticket line when they refuse to put down their cell phone), I hung my head and in a low but audible voice mumbled, “Puerto Rico.”

Mrs. Dieder, sitting in a chair that may as well have been a throne, turned her round face toward me, pushed her gold wire glasses higher up on her nose and said, “Pardon me,

Ms. Henderson? Did you have something to say?” Her gray curls shook around her face. Red splotches traveled up her neck. I was surprised to hear my name come out of her face. She had never called on me to read.

“PUERTO RICO,” I said loudly, pronouncing it “poo-AIR-tow REE-coh” with the same accent I had heard on a commercial when I watched TV after school. Didn’t Neil watch TV? Didn’t his mom sit with him at night and look at the brightly colored countries on the globe, or read him books about kids who did not live in Greenwood Lake, N.Y.?

Women’s E News for more


October 21st, 2014


Otto Muehl, Material Action no. 26, Nahrungsmitteltest (Food test), 1966. PHOTO/© Karlheinz and Renate Hein

Toward the end of a long fall in New York, I received a note from a friend that mentioned Peter Gorman as my “kind of guy.” I had never heard of Gorman, and an initial Internet search turned up a man who, on the surface of things, seemed an improbable connection. Here was a person who was middle-aged with three kids and a small ranch in Texas; I was younger, single, living in a third-floor walk-up in Harlem. In a headshot, Gorman was holding a cigarette, smiling with his eyes closed, bearded, unkempt, even dubious-looking. But it was not the family or figure of Gorman that had sparked my friend’s interest so much as his particular line of work—“writer, explorer, naturalist”—and a curious thing that had happened to him in the Amazon.

In my years as a travel writer, I have come to empathize with anyone bold enough to step off the map in search of unusual frontiers. The “nature” Gorman explored, being both real and cerebral, fit this bill: there was the physical region around the Peruvian city of Iquitos, so deep in the jungle it can only be reached by air or river boat; and there was the mental terrain of lucid dreams, so deep in the unconscious it can only be accessed by ayahuasca, “vine of the little death,” an infamous narcotic that induces brilliant hallucinations. Gorman wandered both frontiers using local curanderos—shamans in contact with the spirit world—in much the same way that Dante Alighieri used Virgil as his guide through the underworld. Nevertheless, Gorman also struck me as the sort of figure skeptics shrug off as a charlatan, peddling alucino (jungle medicine) to hapless travelers in search of instant enlightenment. Studying his book, Ayahuasca in My Blood: 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming, I came across scenes that shoved credulity into tight corners: a Matses Indian burns Gorman’s arm with an ember, wipes away the skin, and smears toad excretion across the wound; Gorman collapses.

Then unexpectedly, I found myself growling and moving around on all fours. I felt as though animals were passing through me, trying to express themselves through my body. It was a fantastic feeling, but a fleeting one. When it passed, I could think of nothing but the rushing of my blood, a sensation so intense that I thought my heart would burst.

Reading further, I discovered that plants like ayahuasca “broaden the bands of our senses so that we see, hear, feel, touch, taste and sense things we can’t under ordinary circumstances.” Starting from the Amazon forest with a curandero spirit guide, Gorman had taken hallucinogens to defamiliarize the world, creating a dazzling newness that he parsed for meaning through visions that were sometimes beautiful and just as often terrifying. Put another way, Gorman was traveling deep into his own unconscious, plumbing its mysteries in search of some ultimate truth.

Guernica for more

Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions – The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism (2013) (book review)

October 20th, 2014


Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions – The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism (2013) by Roger Burbach, Michael Fox, Federico Fuentes, Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, Winnipeg; Zed Books, London, New York, 208pp $29.95

Latin America’s Turbulent Transition is a well-written and highly informative book for comprehending the “new” Latin America, though it still remains less than complete in a number of important aspects – in part perhaps reflecting the nebulous nature of 21st-Century Socialism itself.

Written more for academic than activist audiences, Turbulent Transitions is a valuable resource, referring to many of the worthwhile books written on the rapidly changing Latin American political landscape. Nevertheless, it neglects important work with a class or Marxist perspective. This may help explain its hesitation to frankly discuss the conflicting class interests and alliances in some of the leading ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas) countries and governments, – Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador – a necessary task for clarifying 21th Century socialism.

The ALBA countries’ turbulent transitions have “shift[ed] the balance of power away from US hegemony and in favor of the popular movements” (43). They have rejected the neoliberal model in favor of building democratic and socially just societies. The peoples of Latin America are now better organized and more appropriately equipped than at any time in their brutalized history to assert their independence from US manipulation.

The first chapters of the book review the history of Latin America’s struggle against neo-liberalism, leading to the rise of ALBA, which was initiated by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in 2004. These countries are dealt with as the exemplars of 21st Century Socialism.

Somewhat slighted is Cuba’s role in leading the Third World struggle against neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s. At least since the time of Castro’s 1979 UN speech as president of the Non-Aligned Movement , he has continued to make a number of important public addresses , on this and related subjects. Castro also wrote The World Economic and Social Crisis (1983). Over the years, Cuba has staged several conferences at the behest of Latin American political movements and for trade union leaders in order for them to coordinate Third World opposition to neoliberalism, all unmentioned in the chapters on the anti-neoliberalism struggle.

Council on Hemispheric Affairs for more

Lila Downs on Borders and La Bestia

October 20th, 2014


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Lila Downs is a siren in the darkness, an ethereal range of many octaves seeking to blur borders and return wisdom to the earth. She appeared at The Appel Room at Rose Hall in Lincoln Center on Saturday, showering the audience with gifts from her life journey back and forth across the border between the United States and Mexico, one that is personal and political. “I grew up in Oaxaca…and Minnesota,” she said, noticing that the audience cheered more for the former. “Nobody’s clapping for Minnesota,” she laughed, perhaps in recognition of the stubborn intolerance that grows this side of the Rio Grande.

Nevertheless, she soldiered on, a guerrera de la luz, pushing back against the monocultural status quo with a Spanglish version of Cuban bolerista Osvaldo Farrés’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás“; a soaring, gentle take on “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” culled from her memories of Pedro Infante and Lola Beltrán; and a stunning performance of the ranchera “Paloma Negra,” her voice infused with a nomadic flamenco underbelly. Her guttural emotion made us jump in our seats like chocolate covered crickets, dissolving into gasping applause, calling for “otra,” from la voz del otro lado.

How did this last album with Argentinean singer Soledad and Spanish singer Niña Pastori come together?

We got approached by someone at the label. We signed at Sony two years ago, and they mentioned that Soledad, who is this artist from Argentina, was very interested in collaborating with me. I had heard about Soledad, and actually invited her to sing with me at a concert one time in Argentina. And then they also mentioned that they had the idea of inviting another singer from Spain. We weren’t sure at that point who, but then when they mentioned Niña Pastori, I got very excited and thought, wow this sounds like an exciting project and something to learn from, combining these influences of music.

So we met and that was the easy part, but of course the collaboration in the studio was a little more complicated vocally speaking because we’re each in very different ranges. Soledad and myself are similar. Niña is an octave away from each of us, so we figured that out later on and had to adapt to the different keys. It worked out very well, and in the middle of the recording we were invited by Carlos Santana to record on his album Corazón and did a song with him too.

North American Congress on Latin America for more

North Korea in grip of leadership tension

October 20th, 2014


North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun’s extended absence from public view opened a flood gate of rumors. It went from a military coup to broken ankles, with gout, diabetes and obesity also mentioned. International concern with Kim’s absence was justified, given the immense power this 31-year-old leader inherited from his father, Kim Jong-il, who passed away in December 2011.

An objective assessment of Kim’s dismal performance during the past two-and-one-half years is compelling: North Korea has become a more isolated and despised nation. The missile launches, nuclear test, threats of a pre-emptive nuclear attack, the brutal execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and the routine vitriol coming out of Pyongyang all contributed to North Korea’s pariah status.

Asia Times Online for more

Weekend Edition

October 17th, 2014