Sandip Roy

Islamophobia Rages from Texas to India

Mahesh Sharma, India’s Culture minister, and a high school in Irving, Texas have more in common than they realise. On the face of it, the two incidents appear poles apart.

Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old freshman in a high school in Texas, was handcuffed and detained by police after he took a homemade alarm clock to school to show his engineering teacher. But another teacher thought it looked like a bomb and called the police. The boy in his NASA T-shirt was interrogated and taken to a juvenile detention centre, triggering off a huge row about Islamophobia and stereotyping.

Meanwhile over in India, Mahesh Sharma, the culture minister who has recently found his tongue with a vengeance, tells India Today TV that it makes sense to rename Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam because Kalam “despite being a Muslim” was a great nationalist and humanist. Sharma was actually trying to deliver a compliment. The Texas police were reacting to young Mohamed as a threat but both responses draw from the same wellspring of prejudice.

Both see being Muslims ultimately from a base level of suspicion. The Texas authorities might insist anyone carrying a contraption with wires to school would be subject to the same treatment but they will never be able to demonstrate that Ahmed’s name and religion were not factors as well. “I like science, but I look like a threat because of my brown skin,” said Ahmed. He is not just a teenager building a clock, he is a Muslim teenager building a bomb-like device. As has been pointed out, if it was indeed a bona fide bomb scare, why was the school not evacuated? why was a bomb squad not called? And if it was a bomb hoax, why would the perpetrator call it a clock and defeat the point of a hoax?

Sharma might insist he was trying to prove that he, in fact, had no prejudice towards Muslims by making Kalam the "good" Muslim to Aurangzeb’s "bad" Muslim. That was belittling enough to Kalam’s memory but Sharma took it a step further because as Siddharth Vardarajan writes in The Wire, “In the Culture Minister’s perverted worldview, being Muslim is a handicap that the former President had to overcome in order to serve the country.” That's a fine message to send out to the country's Muslims.


The point of the story is the stereotypes we harbour. And that includes Taslima Nasreen who tweeted out, “If I could see Ahmed Mohamad’s home made clock, I would hv mistaken his thing for a bomb. Why ppl think Muslims can bring bombs? Cause they do.” But Muslims don’t bring bombs. Bad people, who come in all shapes, sizes and denominations, do. Just because there are terrorists who find their inspiration in their religion does not mean Ahmed Mohamed deserves to be interrogated for building a clock. America’s greatest school tragedies have not been caused by Muslims bringing bombs. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Springfield. Blacksburg. Those shooters had names like Eric Harris, Dylan Kiebold, Adam Lanza and Seung-Hui Cho.

Ahmed, however has been flooded with support from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama. “Cool clock, Ahmed,” tweeted President Obama. “Want to bring it to the White House?” It’s unlikely the Indian Prime Minister will say anything to Sharma. PM Narendra Modi, after all, is the face that launched a thousand #DespiteBeingAWoman hashtags after telling Sheikh Hasina, “I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism.”

Of course, it's also highly unlikely that Ahmed would have gotten anywhere near the White House with his contraption without triggering a security alert. But the point is the context. An unknown person with a jerry-rigged device with wires sticking out near the White House is clearly not the same as your fellow student bringing a clock to school and showing it to the engineering teacher.

Let’s be clear. No Qurans were desecrated here. No mosques vandalised. No one was beaten up for wearing a headscarf or a “beard like Osama”. But these forms of covert prejudice are more insidious and all the harder to root out because someone like Mahesh Sharma probably genuinely believes he was paying an ex-President a well-deserved compliment. Just as Ahmed’s high school, in a display of obdurate tone-deafness, has issued a statement without even a hint of apology, patting themselves on the back instead for “always” taking “the necessary steps to keep our school as safe as possible.”

Ahmed says he can “never look at the world in the same way”. But he is fourteen and hopefully the scars will fade and the support he has received is also unprecedented. As for Kalam, he is beyond caring about what anyone thinks of him. But what do we do about a Culture Minister who, despite being a Culture Minister, seems to show little appreciation for the breadth and diversity of India’s culture? Ahmed's clock was just a clock, but given his slew of explosive statements, Mahesh Sharma seems to be a ticking time bomb.

#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm Really Not Charlie Hebdo--And Here's Why

Je suis Charlie?

Well, not quite. I really am not Charlie Hebdo.

Nothing - no cartoon, no book, no song – justifies the kind of shooting rampage that happened in Paris. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy mosque in Paris says, “These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their souls to hell.”

And he is not talking about the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He is talking about those who mowed them down and fled.

But the spontaneous outpouring of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtags also elides over the really thorny issue of free speech. While we want free speech to be absolute, in the real world, it is not. And even as we stand with Charlie Hebdo we cannot pretend not to understand that.

Today, as a tribute to Charlie Hebdo, outlets in India like Mint and NDTV have published a sort of collector’s edition of some of their cartoons. It’s a respectful gesture but it’s also somewhat misleading.

Assuming most readers in India are not regular consumers of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it gives them a more sanitized, PG-rated impression of their fare. As Jacob Canfield writes in the Hooded Utilitarian, “its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.”

And that’s putting it mildly.

In reality, some of Charlie Hebdo’s most offensive cartoons would not be published in most parts of the world. Few media outlets would print a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad crouched on all fours with his genitals bared or show the Father, Son and Holy Ghost sodomizing each other. For that matter, most will balk at a cartoon like the one Onion put out showing a Lord Ganesha, Jesus, Moses, and Buddha all naked with erect phalluses having an orgy in the clouds? Now, that’s being equal opportunity offenders but that remains way outside the pale for most of the world. Anyway, in a freedom of expression absolute, it should not matter if you are an equal opportunity offender or a one-sided offender.

Let’s make no mistake - these cartoons are offensive to most people. And they are meant to be that way. They exist almost as a way to test freedom of expression to its limits rather than to make a satirical point. “This is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good,” writes Canfield. “Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist and remains racist.”

But that does not mean they deserved it. Not at all. The true mettle of freedom of expression is always tested against what we consider offensive or hateful or repugnant. That’s where the protection of freedom of expression actually means something. It’s easy to stand up for freedom of expression when we agree with the view point being depicted or do not care about it one way or the other. It gets far trickier when we are called upon to defend the right of someone to say what offends us deeply – whether it’s about our religion, our mothers, or our national leaders. The right to offend always butts up against the right to be offended.

In India, the latter routinely trumps the former. We prescribe to the thumb rule – when in doubt, ban. A publication putting out something like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo was infamous for would be picketed and shut down in double quick time. Our laws protecting “communal harmony” have far more teeth than our laws protecting freedom of expression. That’s why an NDTV or a Mint has to be careful about what images it selects from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons even as it wants to show solidarity.

As much as we might want to say “Charlie Hebdo tum aagey badho, hum tumharey saath hain” we cannot pretend that freedom of expression in India is the same as freedom of expression in France is the same as freedom of expression in the United States.

In an ideal world, the response to a cartoon that offends should be another cartoon. The response to a book that offends should be to not read it. The response to a film that offends could be a #BoycottPK social media campaign.

But the reality is there is no absolute right to free speech.

And yes, we forget that even France, which has become the embattled bastion of freedom of expression today, wears its own limits on its sleeve. Its staunch defense of freedom of expression did not prevent it from passing a ban on the niqab even though it was deliberately veiled as a ban on “clothing intended to conceal the face.” “Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect anyone compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights,” says Izza Leghtas at Human Rights Watch. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab.

A Reuters report points out that many of the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo got their start in another satirical magazine called Hara Kiri which proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty.” That magazine was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle. Its reincarnation after the ban was as Charlie Hebdo.

Everyone will read the lesson they want into the tragedy in Paris. Some will see it as proof that Muslim immigrants can never be truly French because they do not get what former President Nicholas Sarkozy called an “old French tradition, satire.” Some will see it as evidence of France's xenophobic attitude towards immigrants coming home to roost. Salman Rushdie sees the attack as “the deadly mutation in the heart of Islam” and how “religious totalitarianism combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedom.” Of course, that “threat” is not news in many parts of the world. People being killed in Iraq and Syria by Isis or in Afghanistan by the Taliban have known that for a long long time. It just hits us harder when it hits us in Paris. Or Sydney. Or London.

And very ordinary Muslim immigrants minding their own business will probably bear the brunt of the backlash as Arabs and Sikhs in the US did post-9/11 for as Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo once told Le Monde while defending his right to offend that “when activists need a pretext to justify their violence they will find it.”

But that argument offers us no answers to the knotty question of freedom of expression, an idea to which we all think we subscribe. Those JeSuisCharlie profile pictures on Facebook, perfect little squares all of them, create an image of geometric uniformity as if we subscribe to that right in equal measure. But if anything this tragedy forces us to admit that when it comes to what constitutes freedom of expression, most of us are not even close to being on the same page.

I think of myself as a staunch supporter of freedom of expression but I realize the disquieting truth that I could never publish some of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo did. It would go against every fiber of my being. But I will defend their right to exist and condemn what happened to them with every fiber of my being as well. But I just cannot say #IAmCharlieHebdo.

#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm Really Not Charlie Hebdo: Here's Why

Je suis Charlie?

Well, not quite. I really am not Charlie Hebdo.

Nothing - no cartoon, no book, no song – justifies the kind of shooting rampage that happened in Paris. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy mosque in Paris says, “These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their souls to hell.”

And he is not talking about the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He is talking about those who mowed them down and fled.

But the spontaneous outpouring of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtags obscures the thorny issue of free speech. While we want free speech to be absolute, in the real world, it is not. And even as we stand with Charlie Hebdo we cannot pretend not to understand that.

Today, as a tribute to Charlie Hebdo, outlets in India like Mint and NDTV have published a sort of collector’s edition of some of their cartoons. It’s a respectful gesture but it’s also somewhat misleading.

Assuming most readers in India are not regular consumers of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it gives them a more sanitized, PG-rated impression of their fare. As Jacob Canfield writes in the Hooded Utilitarian, “its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.”

And that’s putting it mildly.

In reality, some of Charlie Hebdo’s most offensive cartoons would not be published in most parts of the world. Few media outlets would print a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad crouched on all fours with his genitals bared or show the Father, Son and Holy Ghost sodomizing each other. For that matter, most will balk at a cartoon like the one Onion put out showing a Lord Ganesha, Jesus, Moses, and Buddha all naked with erect phalluses having an orgy in the clouds? Now, that’s being equal opportunity offenders but that remains way outside the pale for most of the world. Anyway, in a freedom of expression absolute, it should not matter if you are an equal opportunity offender or a one-sided offender.

Let’s make no mistake - these cartoons are offensive to most people. And they are meant to be that way. They exist almost as a way to test freedom of expression to its limits rather than to make a satirical point. “This is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good,” writes Canfield. “Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist and remains racist.”

But that does not mean they deserved it. Not at all. The true mettle of freedom of expression is always tested against what we consider offensive or hateful or repugnant. That’s where the protection of freedom of expression actually means something. It’s easy to stand up for freedom of expression when we agree with the view point being depicted or do not care about it one way or the other. It gets far trickier when we are called upon to defend the right of someone to say what offends us deeply – whether it’s about our religion, our mothers, or our national leaders. The right to offend always butts up against the right to be offended.

In India, the latter routinely trumps the former. We prescribe to the thumb rule – when in doubt, ban. A publication putting out something like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo was infamous for would be picketed and shut down in double quick time. Our laws protecting “communal harmony” have far more teeth than our laws protecting freedom of expression. That’s why an NDTV or a Mint has to be careful about what images it selects from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons even as it wants to show solidarity.

As much as we might want to say “Charlie Hebdo tum aagey badho, hum tumharey saath hain” we cannot pretend that freedom of expression in India is the same as freedom of expression in France is the same as freedom of expression in the United States.

In an ideal world, the response to a cartoon that offends should be another cartoon. The response to a book that offends should be to not read it. The response to a film that offends could be a #BoycottPK social media campaign.

But the reality is there is no absolute right to free speech.

And yes, we forget that even France, which has become the embattled bastion of freedom of expression today, wears its own limits on its sleeve. Its staunch defense of freedom of expression did not prevent it from passing a ban on the niqab even though it was deliberately veiled as a ban on “clothing intended to conceal the face.” “Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect anyone compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights,” says Izza Leghtas atHuman Rights Watch. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab.

A Reuters report points out that many of the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo got their start in another satirical magazine called Hara Kiri which proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty.” That magazine was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle. Its reincarnation after the ban was as Charlie Hebdo.

Everyone will read the lesson they want into the tragedy in Paris. Some will see it as proof that Muslim immigrants can never be truly French because they do not get what former President Nicholas Sarkozy called an “old French tradition, satire.” Some will see it as evidence of France's xenophobic attitude towards immigrants coming home to roost. Salman Rushdie sees the attack as “the deadly mutation in the heart of Islam” and how “religious totalitarianism combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedom.” Of course, that “threat” is not news in many parts of the world. People being killed in Iraq and Syria by Isis or in Afghanistan by the Taliban have known that for a long long time. It just hits us harder when it hits us in Paris. Or Sydney. Or London.

And very ordinary Muslim immigrants minding their own business will probably bear the brunt of the backlash as Arabs and Sikhs in the US did post-9/11 for as Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo once told Le Monde while defending his right to offend that “when activists need a pretext to justify their violence they will find it.”

But that argument offers us no answers to the knotty question of freedom of expression, an idea to which we all think we subscribe. Those JeSuisCharlie profile pictures on Facebook, perfect little squares all of them, create an image of geometric uniformity as if we subscribe to that right in equal measure. But if anything this tragedy forces us to admit that when it comes to what constitutes freedom of expression, most of us are not even close to being on the same page.

I think of myself as a staunch supporter of freedom of expression but I realize the disquieting truth that I could never publish some of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo did. It would go against every fiber of my being. But I will defend their right to exist and condemn what happened to them with every fiber of my being as well. But I just cannot say #IAmCharlieHebdo.

Why the Nobel Peace Prize is a Red-Faced Moment for Pakistan and India

This may well go down as the Line of Control Nobel Peace Prize.

Even as India and Pakistan talk tough and lob shells at each other across the border, here comes the Nobel Peace Prize committee doing their version of marriage counseling.

A joint Nobel Peace Prize for Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi -- a Pakistani and an Indian. Now if that doesn't embarrass the two belligerent armies into a ceasefire, what can?

The wild celebrations are already breaking out on social media at least. The Aam Aadmi Party has let Sh. Kailash Satyarthi know that “All of India is proud of you.” What AAP didn't say is most of India went “Kailash who?” before they were proud of him.

Chalo. On a day when one India-born Satya (Nadella of Microsoft) covered himself with ignominy and Twitter-shame for his comments about women in tech, another Satyarthi has redeemed our national honour. Satyameva jayate one way or the other.

But even as we puff up with pride we have to admit that this award is rather embarrassing on both sides of the border albeit for different reasons. It's a bit of a rude shock for most Indians to realise they know way more about the Pakistani Nobel winner than they do about their own home-grown one. Malala on the other hand gets a lot of coverage in India because the West has already turned her into a global icon. And as Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy know western attention automatically translates into fame at home as well.

We know about the Narmada Bachao Andolan but few Indians know about the Bachpan Bachao Andolan and fewer still about Kailash Satyarthi and that includes many of us in the media including this sheepish writer. We are righteously aghast at the Taliban's brutal attempts to prevent a girl from getting an education in Pakistan, and laud Malala's guts but Satyarthi too has faced risks to his life trying to rescue trafficked children from factories. But we are inured to the child slavery in our midst because it's so ubiquitous from tea shops to carpet factories. Three quarters of domestic workers in India are believed to be between the ages of 12 and 16 and 90% of them are girls. The Indian government's 2001 census says 12.6 million minors between the age of 5 and 14 are in the workforce. When a fifteen-year-old is rescued from Vasant Kunj with bite marks and head wounds infested with maggots and says she was kept naked by her mistress so she would not escape we call her a “maid” but in reality she is a “slave”.

Child slavery in India for most of us is one of the myriad “jholawalla” problems that's keeping the country down. Who knew that within that field there exists someone the committee found Nobel-worthy? Some will see in this Nobel, after the initial euphoria has died down, as yet more proof of a vast conspiracy to keep the international image of India as poor, ragged and starving as opposed to prospering, aspiring and Madison-Square-gardening.

But the larger embarrassment is while we rebuke a Maria Sharapova for the temerity of not knowing who Sachin Tendulkar is, we have been caught with our pants down as we desperately Google our first 100% pucca desi Nobel Peace prize winner. (Dr Rajendra Pachauri won in 2007 but it was really the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which he was chairing.)

But Indians can console themselves, as they often do, by looking across the border and saying the Pakistanis have it worse. We can be embarrassed about not knowing our Nobel laureate but at least we didn't drive our Nobel laureate out of the country to Birmingham.

For Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai's award hardly covers the country in glory. It really reiterates a horrible shocking and festering reality - the simple act of trying to get an education can get a girl shot in the head.

When Malala Yousafzai got the 2013 Ambassador of Conscience award she said she had written a short speech because she had to finish her homework. She said “With this powerful weapon of knowledge and education, we can fight against wars, terrorism, child labour and inequality” thereby unwittingly joining cause with Satyarthi's mission long before this joint Nobel. Now the Nobel has joined them together formally.

We may choose on both sides of the border to regard these Nobels as a way of humiliating our respective nations by only seeing our ugliest problems. Or we may regard the prize as a shining light on what should be a blight on our collective conscience.

That choice, and that challenge is up to us. As Satyarthi tweeted when Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister:
A tea-boy dares his detractors by becoming the PM of India. Now it's his turn to ensure that no child is forced to become a child labourer.

That didn't make news. He was just another jholawalla NGO-type then though the issue of child slavery was as unconscionable then as it is now. But perhaps now that we have all Googled him we will take him more seriously today.

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America’s Newest Public Enemy No1: The Humble Pressure Cooker

When I went to the United States for the first time, long before 9/11, I wondered if immigration officials would harass me, a single young man from a turbulent part of the world. I didn’t have to worry. Customs officials and their formidable sniffing dogs were much more interested in middle-aged Indian women. They rifled through the contents of the bursting-at-the-seams suitcase of a lady who could have been my aunt. In those days the “illegal immigrant” America was most nervous about a forbidden mango or a sneaky parwal.

September 11 changed everything. Soon shoes were suspect. Cosmetic bags were viewed as booby traps. Even the clearest liquids and gels signalled danger in an America that was permanently colour-coded threat level orange. And men with beards and brown complexions and Muslim names found themselves regularly pulled aside for questioning.

Now after the Boston bombings we enter confront the newest marker of the dangerous other – beware the pressure cooker.

Talal al Rouki, a Saudi student in Michigan found the FBI suddenly surrounding his house. Officers said a woman had called them because she had seen him carrying a “bullet coloured” pressure cooker out of his apartment.

The young man told the FBI he was cooking a traditional rice dish called the kabsah which he was taking to a friend’s house. 

“You need to be more careful moving around with such things, sir,” an FBI agent told al Rouki.

Indian mothers need to be more careful too in a jittery America. A Hawkins or Prestige pressure cooker has long been part of the must-have go-to-America-kit for any self-respecting desi student. The only question was how many liters – 2, 3, 5? I never took one with me when I went there, not because my mother was extraordinarily foresighted but because she was sure I’d make an absent-minded mess of it without her on-the-spot supervision.

However the hiss and whistle of a pressure cooker has always been the signature sound of apartment complexes filled with H1B families as much a marker of desi-dom as Subbulakshmi singing Suprabhatam. “The whistle is not working” is a domestic crisis on par with a lost green card. In Kolkata, my abiding memory of Sunday morning, is the pressure cooker whistling in kitchens around the neighbourhood – promising a Sunday lunch of goat curry and rice. In a country where it is hard for grown children to tell their mothers “I love you” and vice versa, we make do by asking “How many whistles?” the sharing of that pressure cooker wisdom as sure a sign of love as any Hallmark card.

The South Asian love affair with the pressure cooker is legendary though it was invented by a Frenchman. The blog TiffinCarrierAntiques hails the stainless steel workhorse of the Indian kitchen for being mother’s little helper in managing the “patriarchal expectations of a ‘complete Indian meal’” – a fairly impossible task which “would have been Herculean without the humble pressure cooker.”

Now thanks to the brothers Tsarnaev, the workhorse of the Indian kitchen is being viewed as the Trojan horse of America, its hiss more ominous than comforting. Swati on the blog WhistlingPressureCooker.com remembers how the pressure cooker saved her during Hurricane Irene in 2011.

(W)hen the electricity failed and the shiny, contemporary convection stove and oven beneath it at my in-laws’ house in Rhode Island were rendered useless, I cooked chicken tikka masala and rice in my pressure cooker over our tiny gas camping stove. Instead of ripening deli meat sandwiches made with stale bread, my in-laws and I ate a fresh, piping hot curry.

Now she writes of her dismay at the end of innocence as she sets her caramel custard in her trusty pressure cooker.

"(T)hat a pressure cooker could be used for anything other than cooking tasty food fast had never crossed my mind. I now feel nervous professing my love for my pressure cookers, and pressure cookers in general, openly."

Swati might be well-advised to change the name of her blog before the FBI comes knocking at her door. But one could also argue the Swatis of the world have been in blissful denial. As Praveen Swami points out in Firstpost, the pressure cooker has been cooking terror for a long time:

"In India, the Indian Mujahideen’s urban terror networks have used pressure cookers on several occasions—starting with the attack on Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market in 2005. Pressure cookers were also used in the 2006 attacks on a temple in Varanasi and the Mumbai’s train system; again, they were used to in the recent Dilsukh Nagar bombing in Hyderabad. On other occasions, though, the group has used steel milk cans and flour-boxes."

But Indians take the pressure cooker’s dark side in their stride. You can still get onto a bus or a train with your pressure cooker without everyone clearing the compartment.

In America it’s a different story. But it should not come as a surprise. Soon after 9/11, the Shaikh family of Pennsylvania found secret agents in moon suits and gas masks going through the spice cabinets in their kitchen after neighbours spotted them carrying a large pot of biryani into their friend’s home.

At that time I had written:

Multiculturalism was supposed to take care of this fear of the other. But despite Diwali greetings to Hindus from the White House and International Day at school, in the end, multiculturalism has proven to be just a cute, fancy dress party. If it has really made a dent on how we conceive what it means to be American, it hasn’t trickled down to the Shaikh family’s biryani… Multiculturalism might have made the foreign a little more familiar. It certainly did not make it any more American.

Now we find the pressure cooker has remained resolutely un-American as well – the shining symbol of diversity that needs to be hidden at home, not carried out into the yard. Perhaps some enterprising pressure cooking enthusiast will embark on a Take Back the Pressure Cooker whistlestop tour of America to restore its lost shine.

Until then you have to careful moving around pressure cookers in America these days. Guns, not so much.

    Wikipedia’s Sexist Turn: Men Are Novelists, Women Are ‘Women Novelists’

    At 5:44 PM on April 1, John Pack Lambert, a 32-year-old student of history at Wayne State University took a small step for one man which proved to be a giant leap for mankind.

    And I mean MANkind, not humanity.

    Lambert moved Patricia Aakhus, author of The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Curragh from American novelists to the category American women novelists.

    Two minutes later, teen romance author Hailey Abbott suffered the same fate.

    Then Megan Abbott.

    At 8:51 PM Lambert, the one-man army to engender order in the universe, created a new category, Nigerian women novelists and put Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie there.

    James Gleick’s account in the New York Review of Books of how Wikipedia fell into the great gender gap is a riveting read, a sort of detective story for category-geeks. (Read the full storyhere).

    The next day Lambert was briefly sidetracked by a discussion of whether there should be a Category:Jeans enthusiasts (for “celebrities and famous people who are always wearing or frequently spotted wearing jeans”), but then he got back to work and A. L. Kennedy, till then a Scottish novelist, became a Scottish woman novelist. On April 3 he created a category for Greek women screenwriters; so far it has only one member.

    The rest of the world cried “Sexism.” Leading the charge was Amanda Filipacci, one of the women writers who suddenly found herself banished to the ante-chamber while the men hogged the living room. (Sounds like an old-fashioned Indian wedding.)

    Filipacci complained in a post on The New York Times:

    People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of “American Novelists” for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women. They might simply use that list without thinking twice about it. It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.

    Even Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales was gobsmacked. In a post titled WTH, he wrote:

    My first instinct is that surely these stories are wrong in some important way. Can someone update me on where I can read the community conversation about this? Did it happen? How did it happen?

    Lambert stoutly defended himself to Gleick. “This whole hullabaloo is really missing the point,” he said. “The people who are making a big deal about this are not being up-front about what happens if we do not diffuse categories.”

    Diffuse is geek-speak for moving things from a parent category to a sub-category. American novelist, said Lambert was just too big to be useful. “It is really a holding ground for people who have yet to be categorized into a more specific sub-cat,” said a user called Obi-Wan Kenobi. “It’s not some sort of club that you have to be a part of.”

    May the force be with Obi-Wan Kenobi but really? If that’s the case why not move the men out to Male American novelists? There was a proposal to do that. It got shot down fast. That is our problem in a nutshell. We categorize by minority and therefore it’s hard to escape bias.

    So after The New York Review of Books (again!) scooped all the big pubs by tracking down the mysterious Misha, the so-called Svengali alleged to have “radicalized” the brothers Tsarnaev, many commenters complained that he was described as half-Armenian. Why not describe him as half-Ukrainian complained angry readers, probably Armenians.

    On the flip side, Indian American publications routinely complain that Kamala Harris is described as California’s first African American Attorney General when she is also its first Indian-American Attorney General.

    But Wikipedia’s women problem is different. It’s not about the clumsiness of describing Kamala Harris as California’s first female African American Indian American attorney general. Like much of the online world Wikipedia has a gender gap. But as it has become the default go-to site for information, its gender gap is showing in embarrassing ways.

    In 2011, Noam Cohen wrote in The New York Times that the contributor base was barely 13 percent women. That means there’s gender bias that shows up in the very act of deciding what topic is worthy of meriting a wiki entry and how long it is.

    A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

    For example, during the royal wedding in 2011, Wikipedia members debated furiously about whether Kate Middleton’s dress deserved an entry. Wiki founder Wales thought it did because it had more social and cultural interest than “100 articles on different Linux distributions, some of them quite obscure… and (they have) virtually no impact on the broader culture.”

    Well intentioned, I am sure. But a problematic example to use to try and fix a real gender problem. As one reader said at that time:

    “I really see this idea that keeping this article does something to remedy the gender imbalance here to be facile at best and insulting at worst.”

    Pardon me, Wiki, but your slip is showing.

    It’s a knotty problem that goes beyond one OCD history student. How do you create categories without creating hierarchies? Especially given the fact that a “gay writer” is happy to claim a Lambda award given out for LGBT writing and a woman politician is grateful for support that comes her way thanks to a group like Emily’s List which wants to encourage women in politics. But neither want those honours to disqualify them from being “writer” or “politician.”

    The problem is not one of the categories you belong to but the ones you don’t – this idea that somehow a woman American writer is not an American writer as well.

    So in the world according to Wikipedia Maya Angelou belongs to 20th century women writers, African-American memoirists, African-American women poets, African American writers, American Activists, American dramatists and playwrights, American people of Sierre Leonean descent – everything but 20th century writer.

    But the first categories Salman Rushdie belongs to are 20th century novelists and 21st century novelists.

    Until Wikipedia understands that the difference between the two entries is not just one of ordering but of perspective, it’s doomed to keep falling face first into the gender gap.

    Life of Pi Presents an Imperfect Slice of India

    I don’t think I spotted a cow but I might have missed it because I was too focused on the orang utan and the zebra and the hyena and the Royal Bengal tiger.

    The meandering cow, such the stock character of the ‘realistic’ Hollywood film set in India, seems thankfully missing in Life of Pi. There is a goat but it does have an important cameo to play in film instead of just adding local “gee whiz we are in India” colour. In fact if you are an Indian, and a vegetarian, as many Indians are, be warned before you rush out to see this film. This film should come with a statutory warning – not for the squeamish vegetarian.

    The colour and visual spendour of India tends to overwhelm any film that is set in India. And Life of Pi is no exception. Ang Lee pretty much admits as much to DNA when he says “the country overwhelms you, with the warmth, the culture and its beauty”.
     
    Even in the hands of a director as astute as him, India feels over saturated, wide-eyed and eye-popping, prone to fortune cookie maxim. It’s a striking contrast to the richly detailed but so much more atmospheric Shanghai he created for Lust, Caution. That felt epic and intimate at the same time. This India feels Amar Chitra Katha – bold colours without much shading.

    The book was widely regarded as unfilmable but author Yann Martel has said he never thought so. “The novel is full of contrast colours: the blue ocean, the white lifeboat, the brown boy, the orange and black tiger, the green island,” he told Hollywood Reporter. “And India is very visual.”

    “It’s a very spiritual and fascinating country. It’s also very inspiring and colourful,” Ang Lee told TOI. But the India portion takes its Technicolor too literally. It feels weighed down by its own big fat marigold garlands. The conversations at the dining table are strangely stilted. Mama-ji’s oddball Peter Sellers routine is astounding, as in astoundingly anachronistically bad. And the whirlwind tour of Hinduism feels like a National Geographic special with some little-baby-Krishna bedtime tales and a thousand flickering diyas. And every homily is hammered home with a sledgehammer.

    The problem is, as audience members, we are not being made to feel as if we are in India. Instead, we constantly feel that we are looking at India. But this is not a Passage to India film. Pi lives in India. He is supposedly so at home here he does not want to emigrate to Canada for a better life. But the film isn’t at home in India. It’s still stuck in a discovery of India mode. We are more forgiving of films like Pi because it’s mostly about Incredible India as opposed to Slumdog India but it’s an outsider’s gaze either way.

    Martel disagrees.

    “I like how they lingered on India,” he said. “They could’ve hurried through that and focused on the Pacific. It’s so visually stunning. It’s rare to have India portrayed in cinema — despite it being an economy of a billion people, it’s quite rare to have it shown in the screen as it is.”

    But really it’s only when the film leaves behind the heat and dust of “visually stunning” India and moves to the open seas that it finally takes off for me. Then it’s a story of a boy and a tiger, man and nature and the film relaxes and feels at home even though both of its characters are out of their element in the middle of a vast ocean.

    I stop being jarred by the hotch potch of accents. I stop wondering why people who should be normally speaking to each other in Tamil in Pondicherry are speaking strangely accented English instead as if they were all in Spoken English class. And I stop being annoyed by an array of characters, whether it’s swimming champion Mama-ji or the dancing school teacher, delivering their lines as if dredging up the wisdom of the ancients because we in India are just so in touch with our hoary cultural heritage we cannot say “pass the curry” without sounding like we are sharing a valuable nugget from the Rig Veda.

    Its India connection is what makes Life of Pi of such interest to Indians. “It’s a masterpiece!! So much Tamil in it!! Don’t miss it,” gushed AR Rahman recently on a social networking site. But the book (and the film) is set in India by accident. Martel just happened to be here for six months in 1997 working on another novel that did not happen. The spark that gave rise to Pi came from a Brazilian novella about a castaway and a jaguar. He then added India to the mix because, as he told Outlook, “India lends itself very well to such a story because it has a lot of animals and a lot of religions.” So let’s not get carried away. This is not Octopussy but it’s not the “India as it is” that Martel thinks it is. The story is a twist on the classic immigrant story – about a boy who leaves home (which happens to be India) and then ends up, not in America or Canada or London, but in the middle of nowhere. That’s the real story and the far more interesting one.

    “We will sail like Columbus,” says Pi’s father enthusiastically while announcing the decision to move to Canada.

    Pi, dejected at the thought of leaving Pondicherry, responds, “But Columbus was looking for India.”

    So it seems is Hollywood. Even when it is in India, it is still looking for India.

    Economist Fears Historic Loss of Assets for Minorities

    Editor's Note: The current economic downturn could lead to the greatest loss of assets for communities of color that's ever happened, says Alan Fisher, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition since 1992, which advocates for the right of low-income communities and communities of color to have fair and equal access to banking and other financial services. Alan Fisher was interviewed by NAM Editor and host of UpFront, Sandip Roy.

    Whether we call it a recession or not, what's the effect of what's happening in the economy on the low-income communities who are part of your coalition?

    I think low-income people and people of color have been struggling for many years now. The "recovery" has not helped them. Recent reports say that income levels for families are the same dollar-wise as they were in 2000, which means they are worth much less now. Food prices are going up, gas prices are going up and we have a huge housing crisis.

    How many people are impacted by the housing crisis?

    The housing crisis doesn't just impact those who are in the homes that are in trouble -- who in California may be half a million households -- but it impacts all of their neighbors and their city. Their neighbors' houses lose value, as their houses lose value. The cities are losing tax base, our whole state has been relying on home sales to keep going. The state says it has an $18 billion deficit in a fiscal year that ends June 30. I think we are in a deep crisis and whatever the economists may call it, regular people are suffering and having great difficulty.

    Can you give an example of how regular people are suffering and what are the first signs of recession in these communities?

    I think the signs of recession are people having to cut back on the basic things that they buy, on less meat, not being able to buy clothes for their children -- but much of this has been masked because of easy access to credit cards. Many people are in huge debt on their credit cards and have substituted those, or have taken out payday loans, to try to keep going. So, it's a dangerous situation that's been masked by the wealth of the most wealthy -- corporate profits -- while the people who are our neighbors are in tremendous trouble.

    But wouldn't something like a recession rip this mask off, with the way people have been relying on credit cards and payday lenders to get by?

    I think, whether we call it a recession or not, that it would be something that happens as people are unable to pay their credit card bills, as people are being forced to go into bankruptcy. With the new bankruptcy laws, it's even more punitive. Yet at the same time bankruptcies are going up.

    Homelessness is also on the rise. There are many people who are tenants in homes, and if those homes are foreclosed on, then, even though they pay their rent every month, they are forced out. They don't get their security deposit back, and where do they go to look for housing? Rental prices are going up, so it's a tremendous squeeze on families.

    There has been so much coverage of homeowners, but we haven't seen much on what has been the impact of the economic downturn on tenants.

    I think we are just beginning to hear that. It's sort of hidden because you don't see it in the same aggregated fashion. We know it's happening; we're hearing it more and more. We're hearing from homeless organizations that it's impacting folks that are becoming homeless, but there are no numbers at this point that I know of.

    Are you seeing a new profile of homeless people? Are homeless organizations reporting on new kinds of people who are becoming homeless and are coming to them for help?

    I think it's just starting, so I haven't heard that yet. I've heard concerns about tenants and we've tried to get state legislature to do something about tenants, but the opposition from the mortgage industry and the bankers pushed it out of the bill.

    Why are the mortgage industries opposing measures about tenants?

    Because they want the houses, they want people out immediately, and they want to try to sell them again and recoup their money. As you can see from the Bear Stearns rescue, the concern is about the corporations at the federal level because of campaign financing. So no one cares that people are being forced out of their homes because these people aren't the big contributors; they might be written off as not even voting.

    Where else would you be looking for to see the cracks, the great pressures that communities are going to be subjected to as result of the downturn?

    What's caught my eye is that the city of Vallejo, Calif. almost went bankrupt, and it's still on the edge of that. They went bankrupt because they were paying their workers a decent wage. The governor took away the vehicle tax money when he first came into office, which meant that police and fire -- the most basic things that every city needs to have -- got cut.

    You hear about libraries that are being closed down. They're talking about closing the parks; education and health care are being cut back by the governor. I think it's the whole infrastructure of society that's under attack. In a way, it's so large that it's hard for people even to take in what it means.

    With the foreclosure crisis, for example, I've heard that one of the interesting things was that it was affecting both African-American communities and Latino communities really hard, but in different ways. African Americans were being affected mostly because they were existing homeowners who had refinanced their homes, not understanding the terms. For Latinos it was more of a language issue. First-time buyers had locked themselves into mortgages that they were not going to be able to pay. The results were the same -- both of them were losing homes -- but the way they were getting there was different. In cases of the economic downturn and recession, do you see that affecting different communities differently?

    I think, as you are saying, the reasons for things may be different. The Asian-American and Pacific-Islander community -- the Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans may be coming to home ownership later, like Latinos. It will have a broad impact, but I think each community is different in how it's going on.

    But I know it's generally agreed that there's tremendous concern that this could be the greatest loss of assets for communities of color that's ever happened. We've all seen an increase in home ownership, but it was filled with fraud and greed on the part of the real estate industry and so people are in trouble now.

    These communities are also reliant on payday lenders, especially poor communities, and I know your organization studies that. Have you seen any spike in payday lender abuse as a result of this downturn?

    One of the difficulties with all of the statistics is that they're late. So, all we know about really is last year and that doesn't show a huge increase. But we are hearing that people are increasingly going to payday lenders, which are the lenders of last resort. We have a bill that we hope can make it through the legislature, to cap their interest rates.

    The Federal Reserve has been taking some steps to avoid foreclosures; the state government is doing something. How would you grade their efforts?

    I think the state government, the Federal Reserve, the federal legislature, the federal government are all making efforts that will have no large impact on the homeowner. Clearly, the federal government and the Federal Reserve had looked at large corporations and are concerned about that infrastructure. The predictions, which are probably very low, are that two million people could lose their homes. There's nothing that's comparable to that and many of the bills that would have really made a difference have been cut back in the legislature. There was an effort to try and soften the impact of bankruptcy on people, and that was soundly defeated by the corporate interests. There's been nothing that really can help people, and meanwhile thousands of people are losing their homes every week.

    The Truth About Guantanamo

    As one of the U.S. Army's few Muslim chaplains, Capt. James Yee thought he was serving both God and country at Guantanamo Bay. But in September 2003, two days after receiving an excellent evaluation, Chaplain Yee was arrested, charged with espionage and thrown into solitary confinement for 76 days. When he left the Army in 2005 after all charges were dropped, he received a medal. He recounts his journey from Muslim American poster boy to "enemy of the state" in his memoir, "For God and Country." Yee was interviewed by Sandip Roy.

    Sandip Roy: As chaplain at Guantanamo Bay you served not just the soldiers but also 660 prisoners. What did you have to do for them?

    Captain Yee: I was an advisor to the command on the unique religious paradigm in Guantanamo, where all the prisoners are Muslim. I had open access to them and I would talk to them daily, understand their concerns and relay that information to the command so some of the tensions in the cell block between soldiers and prisoners could be relieved.

    Donald Rumsfeld has called the prisoners some of the "worst of the worst." How did you find them?

    I disagree with that characterization. Clearly many of them are innocent. At least three were between 12 and 14. There are a dozen Uighurs from western China. Some of them have been deemed to be not enemy combatants by the Pentagon's own review board but still haven't been released.

    I saw prisoners who were so despondent they would no longer eat. At least two were permanently in the hospital being force-fed through a tube. One prisoner attempted suicide and ended up in a coma.

    There were also mass suicide attempts. A prisoner would attempt suicide, the guards would unlock his cell and take him down, and the medics would come. Fifteen minutes later another prisoner would attempt suicide, and this would go on for hours. They were demanding the commanding general apologize for the abuse of the Koran.

    Did you see any abuse?

    As a chaplain I was able to ensure some things like halal meals, the call to prayer, the painted arrow pointing to Mecca. But the Koran was desecrated. In the conduct of searches, it often ended up ripped. There were confirmed incidents where interrogators threw the Koran on the floor and stepped on it.

    When the Newsweek report about the Koran desecration outraged the entire Muslim world, the Pentagon responded by showing that there was a policy in place that gave proper guidance on how to correctly handle the Koran. What the Pentagon never said was that the chaplain they had accused of spying and threatened with the death penalty was the one who authored that policy.

    The government says the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, but you write that's not how it felt on most days at Guantanamo.

    There was really strong anti-Muslim hostility directed not just toward the prisoners but also to the patriotic Muslim Americans serving there. I wasn't the only one singled out. Two others were arrested around the same time.

    But was this the bigotry of a few bad apples, or more pervasive?

    The commanding general told me he had enormous anger toward "those Muslims" who carried out the attacks on 9/11. When new soldiers came to Guantanamo they were given a briefing that seemed to indicate the 660 prisoners there planned and carried out 9/11. E-mails referred to Muslims as "ragheads." Muslim personnel who attended services on Friday were sometimes called "Hamas."

    What do you think triggered the suspicions about you?

    The Muslim personnel pray five times a day, bowing and prostrating just like the prisoners. We read the Koran in Arabic just like the prisoners. To some over-zealous, inexperienced and bigoted few, we were some kind of subversive sleeper cell.

    But my ethnicity also played a role. I found out that someone had said, "Who the hell does this Chinese Taliban think he is, telling us how to treat our prisoners?"

    When you were arrested were you subject to the same things the prisoners had complained about?

    I was transferred to the consolidated naval brig in Charleston (S.C.), where U.S. citizen enemy combatants are held. I was shackled in three places -- wrists, waist and ankles. They put the blackened goggles on my eyes so I couldn't see anything and heavy industrial earmuffs on my ears so I couldn't hear anything. That's how prisoners are transported from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.

    Were you afraid you would just disappear?

    When I heard the accusations I thought they were absurd and would be cleared in a matter of days, if not hours. It became much more frightening when I heard I was being taken to some undisclosed location. Nobody knew where I was. My parents and family were not informed. My wife and daughter were in fact waiting for me at the airport to come pick them up. I never showed up. I essentially disappeared for 10 days.

    Did the military learn something from the experience?

    My experience has worked to undermine the efforts in fighting the war on terrorism. What the world saw was if a U.S. citizen could not get a fair look under U.S. military justice, what makes anyone think that foreign prisoners in Guantanamo are going to get a fair shake?

    Now that you are out, what do you want? An apology?

    When I separated from the military in January 2005, I received an honorable discharge and another army commendation, but I didn't receive that apology. Now I, my family and supporters, and several congressmen are awaiting the result of an investigation that the Department of Defense inspector general agreed to take on as to how it really was that I, Capt. James Yee, landed in prison for 76 days, being accused of these heinous crimes and being threatened with the death penalty. We are all looking forward to the results of that investigation -- and a well deserved apology.

    A Mountain Tsunami in Kashmir

    Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali. The Kashmiri poet died in 2001. Only he, the self-exiled poet from what he called "the country without a post office," could have made sense of the irony of an earthquake that in one mocking fissure kicked the "Line of Control" between India and Pakistan into rubble.

    Though it rocked aquariums in New Delhi and collapsed buildings in Islamabad, the earthquake's real punch was reserved for Kashmir, the contested Himalayan territory over which both Indian and Pakistan have fought wars and which remains an emotional minefield for both sides, almost six decades after independence.

    Pakistani newspapers describe the death toll in "Indian-held Kashmir." The Indian dailies talk about the devastation in "POK" or "Pakistan Occupied Kashmir." But looking at the pictures it's hard to tell from which side of the line of control they come. As Agha Shahid Ali wrote, "In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's reflections."

    I long for his poet's eye to make sense of the omens and symbols of this "mountain tsunami." It came while the Muslims were observing Ramadan. The Hindus were celebrating Durga Puja when the mother goddess comes home from her Himalayan abode.

    What symbolism does one read into reports that the earthquake shattered two piers of Aman Setu (Peace Bridge), a key bridge joining the two parts of Kashmir and over which the Srinagar-Muzaffarbad bus was supposed to ply in a fragile gesture of peacemaking? There is very little possibility of the bus plying on the route on its next scheduled date on October 20, a defense spokesman told the Press Trust of India, according to Rediff.com.

    It would have been a brave, romantic omen of peace if the bridge had withstood the quake which took with it at least 50 soldiers. But perhaps peace can spring yet from the rubble? Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to offer "any assistance with rescue and relief which you may deem appropriate" to Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, while gracious, demurred, saying it was "sensitive."

    While people still remained buried under houses and hillsides, few were talking about peace. The Pakistani Daily News International quoted a shopkeeper in "held" Kashmir as saying "(India) helped America after Katrina but there is no help for us from Delhi." Meanwhile the Hindu has a headline saying starkly, "Pak Rules Out Joint Relief Ops."

    But editorials in other Pakistani newspapers like Dawn complained "the government's ability to cope with such a catastrophe was found extremely wanting." The Hindustan Times in India lectured the Indian government saying, "It is one thing to talk about 'disaster management' and quite another to practise it." It was probably cold comfort for either editorialist to notice that neither New Delhi nor Islamabad was quite prepared for the "big one" despite living near the fault-line where the subcontinent is slamming into Asia to produce the still-growing Himalayas.

    But there were steps forward. The two foreign secretaries spoke for the first time over a recently activated hotline that the two armies said they might use to coordinate rescue operations. And the Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that the Mutahida Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of 14 militant outfits based in Muzaffarabad, has decided to suspend operations in the quake-hit areas and instead urged its cadres to help the victims. On an email list I subscribe to, one poster wondered if the quake and the landslide had managed to do what no one else seemed to have had the guts for -- bury Osama bin Laden in his hiding place in the mountains of the Northwestern Frontier Province. I wonder what he thought as the world shook around him.

    There is one other person I thought of when I read the news of the 7.6 temblor. Shenaz Kausar, a citizen of Pakistan-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, jumped into a river in 1995 to commit suicide. Instead she washed up on the Indian side, where she was arrested as a spy. Raped by the prison guard, she had a daughter. In 2001 the Indians tried to repatriate mother and daughter back to Pakistan, but the border guards refused to accept the child, an Indian citizen. Both returned and the Indian government, unsure what to do, invoked the Public Safety Act and threw them back into jail until a crusading lawyer got them freed.

    Did Shenaz Kausar's daughter with her star-crossed bloodlines have the last laugh today, as the earth split into two to show, as Agha Shahid Ali wrote, that we are stitched to each other's shadows?

    Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali amid the ruins of a Paradise Lost. But I still hear him say with the kind of prescience only a poet can have:

    Keep reading... Show less

    Listening To Salman Rushdie

    "What's blonde, has big breasts and lives in Tasmania?"

    "Salman Rushdie," says the author with a chuckle.

    No longer hiding undercover from a fatwa, Rushdie can now joke about it. But as someone who had a close encounter with religious fundamentalism long before "jihad" became part of the daily vocabulary of the West, he takes the issue with deadly seriousness. His latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, is set against the backdrop of a world of fundamentalist terror, and in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post he called for reformation in Islam.

    Pacific News Service editor Sandip Roy recently interviewed Rushdie on the radio.

    After the bombings in London, some people said the British concept of multiculturalism had allowed London to become 'Londonistan,' offering shelter to violent extremists.

    SALMAN RUSHDIE: That's not the fault of multiculturalism. The mistake was a deliberate government policy to allow radical Islamic groups to come in and set up shop in London, to set up bank accounts and come and go as they pleased. The justification was twofold -- one was if you did that you would be able to monitor them, and the other was if you gave them safe haven they would not attack their own safe haven. On July 7 both those arguments went out the window.

    But when Tony Blair says you can deport people for inciting hatred are you not punishing people for what they are saying, not doing? You yourself said, "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."

    The decline of Blairite politics into the kind of arrogance and opportunism that now characterizes his government is one of the great disappointments I can remember. I don't trust Blair and his new laws further than I can throw them.

    But I have to say the expulsion of some of those Londonistan figures I would not grieve about at all. Taking off my liberal hat for a moment, to throw out some of these firebrand mullahs who have been working up kids like these kids who blew themselves up, frankly I wouldn't give a damn. But there is a problem when you define offense so broadly that you can kick out anyone whose face you don't like. And given the authoritarian nature of the government one has to be very, very worried.

    You are calling for a reformation in Islam. What do you mean?

    In a way maybe the use of the word "reformation" was wrong. That makes people think about Martin Luther. And the Christian reformation was a Puritan movement and that would be a movement in the wrong direction.

    But I was talking about a reform movement. The purpose of that would be to reclaim Islam from the radicals. Islamic radicalism is relatively new. It had much less power 30 years ago. I think back to my grandfather, who was an extremely devout Muslim and went on the Haj to Mecca, but nevertheless an extremely open-minded and tolerant man. That's why I dedicate this book to him. Even though he was devout and I am not religious, he was a kind of model for me.

    But does a call for reform, coming from a writer who many thousands of Muslims regard as blasphemous, have any legitimacy?

    You are right. There are many who will never listen to anything I say because it's me saying it. That's fair enough. I am not asking to lead anything. I am not asking to even be a part of anything. What I am saying is if something like this does not happen, the danger is that all Muslims will begin to seem as if they are complying with the activities of the radicals. If there isn't a strong rejectionist voice, many people, particularly in the diaspora where Muslims are in the minority, will readily come to think that if you are not rejecting the stuff, that's what you secretly think. That would be catastrophic.

    But standing up to extremism is hard. In 1990 you yourself published a statement of remorse.

    There were enormous pressures on me, including government pressure to make some kind of gesture. But I regretted doing it. I felt the thing that gives me credibility is I say exactly what I think. And if I compromise that I lose myself and that's what I felt briefly at that moment. So I tried rapidly to un-say it.

    But I think there are voices out there beginning to speak up. In response to the piece I wrote (for the Washington Post), a lot of people wrote and said they agreed.

    What is the best thing the United States and the West can do to facilitate this reform? Just stay out of it?

    The danger is to do deals with the bad guys. I think the problem is the West, for its own economic purposes, makes agreements and thus shores up regimes that would more easily fall. We support regimes that in another part of the forest we condemn.

    In the end I don't want this to be a story of what the West is doing to the East. Because I found all my life as a writer it was too easy to make that statement. The more interesting thing to say is suppose this is our own fault, supposing we are doing this to ourselves. The reason why I try to stress the need for changes inside the Muslim world is not that I don't believe there is racism, of course there is racism, it's not that I don't believe there is oppression, of course there is oppression. What I am saying is that to take responsibility for your life is a better way to live than to assume you are an endless victim.

    Dispatch From London

    It was only last night that I watched Kofi Annan as he stood framed against the magnificent stained glass of St. Paul's Cathedral speaking about global poverty.

    "If it is bliss at such times to be alive, to be here in St. Paul's tonight is very heavenly," the U.N. Secretary General told the packed audience filling the pews, many of them wearing the white band that was the emblem of the Make Poverty History campaign. London had just won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Heaven was indeed in the air.

    "You are here at a historic time," said my friend Pratap. He was more prophetic than he knew.

    Instead of waking up to the hangover of too much Olympic partying, London woke to a daisy chain of bomb blasts. Today, everyone is talking about the Blitz. The geographic spread of attacks means everyone is somehow touched by them. My uncle passed through King's Cross Station moments before the blasts there. A friend says his university classes are near Russell Square, where another attack took place. I passed through Liverpool Street station, a third target, last night myself.

    The little Internet cafe I am writing from is in the heart of Brick Lane. This is where much of England's Bangladeshi community, mostly Muslim, lives. Shops sell burkhas and prayer mats. The supermarket sells stacks of gleaming silvery rui and boal fish flown in from Bangladesh. Restaurants have names like Monsoon and Nazrul and Naz Café. After Sept. 11, 2001, police were posted outside the Jamie Masjid here to keep the peace. This time they are not there.

    "Perhaps we don't really need them," says Zahid, a law student from Bangladesh who has lived here since 2002. "After all, we are the majority here now."

    The areas around Brick Lane are 70 percent Muslim. Indeed, Brick Lane seems open for business, though the Sonali Bank, which sends remittances home to Bangladesh, has closed early. Restaurants are open, and Bollywood songs mix in the air with Islamic prayers -- though the owner of a sweets shop worries business will plummet in the next few days if people stay at home. The only jarring reminder of the events of the day is the constant shriek of ambulances and the whirr of helicopters and the police tape at the end of the street.

    Only a few blocks from Brick Lane, along Whitechapel Avenue is Aldgate Tube station, where two people were killed in one of the first attacks. Throngs of policemen in fluorescent yellow emergency jackets turn around cars and pedestrians.

    Palash, a young visitor from Bangladesh, is standing at the barricade looking at the chaos. "It's all about creating panic," he says knowledgably. "We are used to this in Bangladesh. I remember when they would set off bombs in a whole series of movie theaters at once."

    But here, far from Central London, the panic is muted. A few puzzled tourists stand around, scouring their London A to Z's for alternative routes to their destinations. London is a city ruled by the Tube. With the Underground shut, it's as if blood is not flowing in London's arteries.

    "When will the tube reopen?" everyone keeps asking the policeman, as if that would be the first real step toward normalcy.

    But despite the outward air of business as usual, people are worried. The Islamic Human Rights Commission has condemned the bombings and asked Muslims to be vigilant and stay indoors.

    "After the Twin Towers, some women had their hijab ripped off. We are hoping nothing like this will happen this time. But the community leaders always talk to the police when something like this happens," says Ansar Ahmed, an office bearer with the Shadhinata Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving Bangla culture. His little daughter let off from school early is sucking on a candy that is making her tongue blue. "Her mother will scold her, but today I can't do anything," Ahmed says.

    Ahmed isn't worried about the safety of his daughter. In a London that has become increasingly multicultural, being Asian is no longer quite the threat it used to be. Ten years ago, he says, he would worry about going into a pub filled mostly with white people. Not far from here, Aftab Ali, a textile worker, was killed in a racist attack in 1978. Three people were killed and 110 injured in nail-bomb blasts in Soho, Brixton and Brick Lane in 1999, attacks that targeted gay pubs and Asian businesses.

    Now Asians are everywhere, as newscasters, entertainers, stockbrokers and restaurant workers. Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets, the host borough for the 2012 Olympics, has the most Asian councilors in the country. Now with so many Asians, mostly Muslims, around, Ahmed doesn't see attitudes toward them changing radically, as they did in the United States after 9/11.

    There, South Asians and Arabs were largely hidden from the mainstream. The image of Osama bin Laden in his turban spawned vicious hate crimes against anyone who looked like him. While hate crimes cannot be ruled out in many parts of England, especially some of the blighted old factory towns, here in Brick Lane, Asians like Ahmed, who has lived here for over 30 years, are the mainstream.

    But will the attacks scar the image of Muslims in Britain? Zahid, the law student, sighs. "The people who did this can't be genuine Muslims. How can genuine Muslims kill so many innocent people going to work?"

    Outside the shuttered Aldgate tube station a forlorn poster is getting soaked in the drizzle. It advertises an exhibition and seminar organized by a Sufi school. "Non-Violence: A Choice -- 4th to 10th July, Goldsmiths College," it reads.

    Ripples of Change in Indian Film

    When the lights came up after a screening of "My Brother Nikhil" at the Castro theater in San Francisco, my eyes were raw and red from weeping. I had expected that India's first film to take on the twin taboos of HIV and homosexuality would be an emotional tearjerker, with sad songs and 100 wailing violins. Instead, it was really about family.

    Coming out in India in the late 1980s was a lonely experience. In order to do it, many of us had to isolate ourselves, sometimes putting oceans between us and our families. Yet the family remained, like an amputated limb still tugging us back. And as Onir, the director of "My Brother Nikhil" found out, it's a feeling that cuts across cultures.

    "I thought being in San Francisco, people would go for the gay angle," says Onir, who uses one name only. "But a Mexican man who had been positive for 15 years came to me and said, 'Thank you for making a film about family.'"

    Coming out as gay is often about the triumph of the individual over family. In queer magazines, hunky gay men and women advertise everything from cruises to pills. They are usually alone, or at most with a cutie they might have met on Gay.com. Families are missing, as if they don't matter. But some of the biggest cheers at San Francisco's annual LGBT Pride Parade are always reserved for gray-haired folks in nondescript T-shirts, marching under the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) banner.

    Watching "My Brother Nikhil," I realized that if attitudes toward HIV or homosexuality are to change, that change has to come from within families. Onir realizes that too. Even the title, "My Brother Nikhil," places the film squarely in the realm of family relationships.

    The genesis of the story was a film Onir had edited about Indian swimmer Dominic D'Souza. In the early days of the epidemic in the '80s, laws allowed quarantining HIV-positive people in virtual isolation in sanatoriums. Yet D'Souza became one of the first openly HIV-positive activists.

    "Dominic's face would haunt me," says Onir. But instead of making a documentary about homosexuality and HIV, he decided to make a regular Bollywood film in Hindi. It even has a song.

    "I needed the film to be seen in India," says Onir. "We never promoted it as a gay film or a film about HIV/AIDS." Onir had seen both those strategies backfire. A critically acclaimed Hindi remake of "Philadelphia" with a heterosexual AIDS victim sank at the box office despite UNDP support. Onir turned down an offer from some leading international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on HIV/AIDS to release the film on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

    Previous queer-themed films like "Fire" and "Girlfriends" had released in India touting their lesbian content. India's right wing, always on the watch for "Western corruption," ransacked theaters. Onir describes his film instead as one about relationships, between brother and sister, father and son and also between two male lovers.

    Onir organized screenings for some of the more homophobic distributors as well as some big names in the right-wing parties. "I switched on the lights immediately after the screening," says actor Sanjay Suri, who plays Nikhil. "And I could see they had been crying."

    With an estimated 5.2 million Indians infected with HIV, HIV awareness has become the mantra of NGOs all over India. Media is key to this effort. But foundations funding HIV/AIDS awareness want films that have a direct message about prevention. "It never works," Onir says. "It has to be personalized, and then you can talk about the issue afterwards." "People know its all around, but they don't want to spend money to watch a film about AIDS," Suri says.

    One thing Indians do understand, however, is family drama. With Bollywood star Juhi Chawla -- a sort of Meg Ryan of wholesomeness -- playing Nikhil's sister, the film, Onir says, gets its point across "without making anyone uncomfortable, without threatening anyone." Even the Indian censor board, a notoriously prickly body, has issued a U-certificate, which allows the film to be screened for everyone from school children to army soldiers.

    Some gay activists have criticized Onir for toning down gay content in order to make the film more mass-market friendly. Though the relationship between the film's protagonist Nikhil and his lover Nigel is unmistakable, they are never shown kissing. "Even the heterosexuals in the film don't kiss," Onir retorts. "But from the very first look Nigel gives Nikhil, you know he loves him." The idea, Onir says, was to introduce to audiences homosexual relationships based around love rather than sex.

    It works. Onir recalls that some of the crew members were uncomfortable with the theme of the film. But toward the end of the shoot, he overheard the gaffer telling the cameraman, "I never thought of these things in this way before. I think it's OK."

    "It's OK" is a small ripple of change. But it's starting at the only place where change might really stick -- in the heart of the family. Gay films have often been about coming out. In some ways, "My Brother Nikhil" is about coming home.

    Swing State Envy

    As the presidential race heats up I find myself wishing I were a citizen. Not just any old citizen, but a swing state citizen. In post-2000 Florida USA, where elections are being determined by hundreds, even scores of votes, everyone is looking for the new swing voter. It could have been me.

    Armies of consultants, pollsters and pundits scour the swing states, looking for that legendary, semi-mythical "swing" beast. But who is he or she? What do they look like? Can they be lured out of their condos? What are the swing issues for the swing voters in swing states? Is it Iraq, or education?

    Every group with an acronym to its name is jumping into the Swing Voter of 2004 pageant. Latinos, the perennial swing voter bloc, are being sliced and diced. Maybe the Cubans will be all that's needed to swing Florida. Or Mexicans who have recently become citizens.

    Ex-felons, if they could get their right to vote, could swing the state as well. As could Latino business owners, religious women or Indian American doctors who don't like John Edwards' trial lawyer background. It seems any group that can count more than 200 people on its membership rolls in a swing state can issue a press release announcing itself as swing voter du jour. At this rate, gay bridge players in Denver who organize an election day carpool might just be the voting bloc that gives us our next president.

    The key to being a swing voter, of course, involves residing in a swing state. Ever-increasing swathes of the country are being unceremoniously dumped as states-that-don't-matter, as the hunt for the swing voter closes in. Kerry and Bush are almost colliding with each other as they crisscross smaller and smaller areas, hoping to stumble on the last swing voter as she waits to cross the street.

    Even if you live in a state that doesn't swing, you can get in on the action. Just tell the candidates your organization can reach 350 people of your ethnicity/stripe/orientation/penchant-for-growing-orchids in Ohio. That could earn you "friend of swing voter" status. You can still enjoy your latte in San Francisco as you dangle your e-mail blast list in front of the campaign managers as the key to the last undiscovered trove of swing voters in some other state.

    There are a few other things you need in order to get ahead in the race to be swing voter of the year. It would help if you were ethnically similar and shared a language; for example, Spanish. Asians have a hard time being swing voters, since they speak too many different languages and thus give pollsters and campaign managers a headache.

    You could also belong to a particular organization that believes strongly in a single issue. A good swing voter has a manageable issue that is easily explained in a 30-second ad – like gun control, protecting the redwoods or school vouchers.

    A Yahoo! group is a definite plus. Though Howard Dean never made it on the Democratic ticket, everyone is now enamored of the internet as a way of getting the message out. If your swing voter bloc doesn't yet have an email list, consider getting one. Karl Rove would love to send you a personalized message. President Bush did just that for Indian-Americans recently. "No administration in the history of this nation has been more committed to providing opportunities for politically active Americans of Indian origin," wrote Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in a 1,200 word e-mail specifically targeting Indian-Americans.

    My hope was all of this would give the election a new charge, making everyone feel counted. But it's having the opposite effect. The neck-and-neck race could have meant the parties would fan out horizontally, trying to drive everyone they could to the polling booth. Instead they have burrowed vertically, going deeper and deeper into an ever-dwindling number of states, looking to hit the last undecided voters with that perfect TV ad spot that will send all 350 of them out in a wildebeest stampede on Nov. 2.

    Meanwhile, I am busy downloading the citizenship forms from the Internet so I can be ready in 2008. As a first step, I am building a list of at least 300 former software engineers who like to hang out at all-you-can-eat Indian lunch buffets. And if that doesn't make the "Swing Voter of 2008" list, we can always start a support group for former swing voters whom no one cares about anymore. Remember the soccer moms?

    Whither Our Goddess of Homeland Security?

    The Attorney General insists that thanks to the Patriot Act, our house is being put in order. But that must be cold comfort to those of us who watch his Justice Department haul Martha Stewart to prison.

    What better symbol of an America in disarray than the sight of the maven of home orderliness, Martha Stewart, behind bars?

    Her imprisonment shakes the very foundations of my American dream. Martha symbolized all that we immigrants envied about America. My mother, back in India, saved American magazines from the 50s. We would look at the recipes for the perfect cocktail party in my mother's stash of magazines and wonder what our lives would be like if only our neighborhood store stocked pie crusts and cocktail franks.

    So why did Goddess of Domesticity fall from grace? Did she commit the cardinal sin of straying outside of the world of cookies and linens and into the arena reserved for cigar-smoking men in well-tailored suits? Or is this her just dessert for practically patenting a Stepford way of life?

    Admittedly, it‚s hard to feel sorry for Martha – the woman who destroyed our confidence in our cooking and color coordination skills. No need to pity Ms Terminator who declared with Arnie-like assurance, "I'll be back," after losing her latest appeal. It's no surprise that jokes about her new line of prison outfits are already doing the rounds. (I personally hoped that she would get community service, perhaps helping immigrant women in sweatshops, not jail time in a "country club" prison.)

    But it‚s one thing when shady immigrants with no papers or well-oiled CEOs in steakhouses are picked up by the cops. We‚ve learned to expect that. But Martha? She was the goddess of small things, preferably with lacy borders. Her downfall is an attack on Hallmark, Halloween pumpkins, warm freshly-baked chocolate cookies, no, the very soul of America. Truly, nothing is sacred anymore. Watch out, they could be coming for your Kitchen-Aid blender next. After all, over in California, the governor is already turning on the "girlie-men."

    And what message does this shameful act send to the rest of the world at a time when U.S. troops are under siege in Iraq. Remember in the early days after 9/11 when the President was telling us to go shopping, to let the world know that the terrorists did not win?

    President Bush didn‚t mention Martha when he ticked off the reasons why the evil ones hated us so. But we know there is no one else who better represents the American over-consuming way of life. Martha and her imitators were our shock troops against pain – the opiate that would help us forget orange alerts with a nifty recipe for an orange cooler (and matching doilies). It was good to know that as wars raged, Martha could still be counted on to make a soufflé with low fat milk. We could tune in and tune out, reassured that our American values were safe and sound.

    And now she too is gone. Where will a population, rattled by constant barrage of orange, yellow and red alerts, turn to now for reassurance? Now we are anchor-less, not to mention color-blind.

    The ACLU has been complaining about the intrusiveness of the Patriot Act. But who needs newly-minted draconian laws when the Justice Department can just step into millions of kitchens in one fell swoop and throw our chutneys into disarray. Dammit, Martha was our homeland security.

    But wait, it's not too late to start a round-the-clock vigil to protect Julia Child.

    Just Doing My Job

    Kolkata's most famous red light district desperately needs a fresh coat of paint. But something new is happening under the surface of the district's century-old crumbling houses and narrow by-lanes. Prostitutes here are insisting on being called sex workers, and their growing role as anti-AIDS activists has moved the debate that swirls around them beyond condoms and safe sex.

    As uniformed schoolgirls dart between bicyclists and honking taxis, a prostitute hands out safe sex leaflets to passersby, while another woman chants, "The women of the street are showing the way." They are among India's newest shock troops in the fight against spiraling HIV infection rates.

    "There is no wizardry in distributing condoms," says Mrinal Kanti Dutta, who runs Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a self-help group run by sex workers since 1995. "To combat malaria you can give out mosquito nets. But you also need to drain the ponds. What you need here is social and political empowerment.

    "When sex workers don't think their work is bad, that's when they can say no, when they can insist on condoms," says Dutta, who grew up in the brothels of Sonagachi, as the district is known. Even as his mother worked as a prostitute, Dutta went to school, and became one of the first of the neighborhood kids to graduate.

    It's a controversial idea: prostitution as bona fide work, not naked exploitation. For years, government policy at best tried to "rehabilitate" prostitutes. But Dutta says, "We are against rehabilitation because it implies this profession is bad. You can't just put some woman on stage, give her a sewing machine and say she is rehabilitated."

    Dutta's organization, funded by the government's National AIDS Control Organization, got an unexpected shot in the arm when Melinda Gates showed up at the office. The Gates Foundation has promised $200 million to combat AIDS in India. DMSC is being considered a potential model program.

    A U.S. National Intelligence Council report put the number of HIV-infected people in India between 5 and 8 million in 2002, and rising exponentially. In Sonagachi, where some 9,000 women work the streets and brothels, however, Dutta says condom usage has climbed to 80 percent and infection rates are holding steady at about 8 to 11 percent. (HIV prevalence in prostitutes in other cities has reportedly reached 30-50 percent.) Kolkata's mayor even proposed issuing prostitutes trade licenses in return for mandatory testing.

    Sex workers turned down the proposal, believing testing would be a human rights violation, driving sex workers underground and away from STD clinics.

    If sex workers organize, goes the thinking at the local organization, they feel strong enough to break the stranglehold pimps and policemen have on their lives. DMSC helps women save money, organizes loan programs, and trains their children in professions like electricians and beauticians. On one afternoon, a dozen members and their children practiced a dance number for a cultural program in a sunny courtyard ringed with potted dahlias.

    "Before we were alone and didn't have the courage to say anything when we were being exploited," says Rama Debnath, a sex worker who is also president of DMSC. "Now if the cops pick up one woman, 10 women will go to the police station and demand to know why."

    Some social workers complain that the women of DMSC are promoting sex workers' rights and legalized prostitution under the guise of HIV prevention. Indeed, Dutta maintains the two are connected. When cops raid Sonagachi and fewer customers show up, desperate women accustomed to turning three tricks a day are less likely to demur when the madam says "Set the babu down properly," a euphemism for unprotected sex.

    Not all advocates believe in calling prostitution "work."

    "I don't feel like we can call this 'work' in a South Asian context," says Indrani Sinha, whose non-government organization Sanlaap also works with sex workers and their children. Sinha says beyond prostitutes the sex trade here involves a criminal nexus of cops, neighborhood hoodlums, traffickers and crooked politicians. "There is so much exploitation here that by calling it work we just empower the pimps, madams and traffickers." She says police have told her that even if prostitution gets legalized, they will still raid red light areas looking for criminals and minors.

    DMSC is trying to forestall police raids by establishing its own board to, for instance, track new women to make sure they are not minors who have been coerced into prostitution.

    "We need to start making distinctions between trafficking (forced or coerced labor) and consensual sex work," says Shohini Ghosh, an academic and director of a documentary on sex workers, "Tales of the Night Fairies." One woman, Rama Debnath says she went into "the line" after marriage because it paid better than working in houses.

    But Sinha says consent isn't a meaningful word "when we are talking about desperately poor women with no options." She recalls a 12-year-old girl who ran away with a client and returned two years later with a baby. "Where is the choice in that?" Sinha asks.

    Whether prostitution finally gets recognized as "work" or not, attitudes are shifting here. Now sex workers regularly appear on television programs as guests and meet with government ministers. "I don't even want to be called a sex worker. I just want to be called a worker," Debnath says.

    Sandip Roy is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.

    Marrying Out

    Natalie Somani is packing up her Sacramento apartment as her husband Arif, an Indian Muslim, languishes in Sacramento County Jail. With all the phone and legal bills, she can't afford the rent. Born and raised in the United States, Natalie, 36, never thought she would spend hours plowing through reams of INS forms and regulations. That was before she married an illegal alien.

    Though the Department of Homeland Security just suspended the controversial "special registration" program for men from 25 countries, those already in deportation proceedings see no relief. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, some 13,000 are awaiting deportation mostly for visa violations. For their wives and children, many of them American citizens like Natalie, the choices are grim.

    Arif Somani, 29, came to the United States from Bombay after his father lost the soap factory they owned. On a cold December night in 1998, after crossing over illegally from Canada by boat, Arif stopped to buy a cup of coffee for the man who ferried them across the border. He was immediately picked up by the border patrol, who fingerprinted him but later dropped him off at the bus stop. "He hadn't been in the country 20 minutes before he was caught," Natalie says.

    He ended up across the country in El Dorado, Calif., working in a grocery store. Natalie met him there while delivering tobacco products. She knew from their first date that he had entered the country illegally. "But what is love worth?" said Natalie, when her mother worried about her getting involved with an illegal alien.

    Natalie had thought it was a matter of filling out the right paperwork to normalize Arif's status. What neither of them knew was that buried in his immigration file was a deportation order pending from a court appearance he had missed. When Arif went to the INS office for what he thought would be a routine visit to get a work permit, he never came back. "My husband is in custody because he's Muslim -- that's my gut feeling," Natalie says.

    Not so, says Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The federal agency cannot comment on specific cases, but, an ICE official says, "We don't hold people because of religion. People are held because they are under orders of deportation."

    Natalie says her life with Arif has given her an "eye-opening" experience about two entities she never really thought much about -- illegal aliens and her own government. "I thought they were just foreigners working under the table. Now I see how hard they work. Since he has been here, Arif has helped his family in India buy a flat, and he paid for his brother to go to an air-conditioning repair school," Natalie says. As for her government, after running pillar to post trying to get answers Natalie feels frustrated. "I took all the information I had to an immigration officer and he just said, 'Obviously you know more about the law than I do,' and walked away."

    Thousands of illegal aliens are in situations similar to Arif Somani's. Even if they have been here for years and paid their taxes like Arif did, it doesn't change the fact that they are here illegally. "Everyone wants to be legal," says ICE. "But you need to leave the country and file a petition so you can re-enter the right way."

    Caught in between the two is Natalie. Her husband's family in India, whom she has never met, is wondering why he is not sending them money anymore. "I don't speak Hindi," says Natalie. "But even if I did, he doesn't want them to worry."

    Arif, who has no criminal record and according to Natalie won't even squash a spider, is housed in a six-by-nine cell with criminals because INS detention centers are overflowing. Recently a lifer picked a fight with Arif and punched him three times, breaking his nose. When Natalie saw him he had a black eye that was swollen shut, a gash in his tongue and trouble breathing.

    He might be safer if he was transferred to the INS detention center in Florence, Ariz. But, Natalie says, "At least now I see him twice a week through a glass pane on a recorded phone. I can't just pack up my business and move to the middle of nowhere in Arizona."

    One way out of this limbo might be if Arif is deported back to India. Then Natalie can try to negate the deportation order, citing hardship, and petition the government to allow him to re-enter the United States -- a long and uncertain process. Natalie hopes that won't happen and he will get out, get a green card and they can visit his mother. That's Plan A. "But I have a Plan B," Natalie says. "If he does get deported, I will return to India with him and let my sister run my business."

    Sandip Roy is a Pacific News Service editor.

    Indian Americans Enter the Matrix

    Within the first few scenes of "The Matrix Revolutions" I knew Neo wasn't the One. I was. When Neo opens his eyes at the Train Station, the portal between the real world and the Matrix, the first person he sees is a young South Asian girl. That was Hollywood's way of letting me know it is finally my turn in the spotlight.

    Well, maybe not me in particular, but my people. We are cool at last. In 1492, Columbus thought he had discovered Indians. Now, after more than six centuries of waiting, we are truly discovered. It's no longer about the ethnic chic of Gwen Stefani's bindi, or henna tattoos. This is the real thing -- a bona fide Hollywood blockbuster.

    This is not your parent's sitar generation. That was just fizzless karma cola in comparison. This time we Indians take center stage, instead of just handing our sitars over to the Beatles to twang.

    The signs, as the Oracle would say, were all there. Like Neo, I just wasn't ready to believe.

    Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer a few years ago for "The Interpreter of Maladies," a collection of short stories about Indian immigrants. It was an unbelievable feat for a first-time author. She was our Trinity, taking us as far as she could into the cold Machine City heart of the highest echelons of the American intelligentsia. But even the high priests of literature are not immune to the lure of Hollywood -- Salman Rushdie showed up in a cameo in "Bridget Jones's Diary."

    Films like "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bend it Like Beckham" were our advance guard, our Hammer, breaking into the forbidden lands of the Midwest multiplex. Even though those movies are now moving to the video market, their effect remains. Louisiana just might elect the first Indian American governor in the nation, if Bobby Jindal has his way.

    The Bollywoodization of American popular culture has long been underway. There have been misfires, like those images of Hindu gods on footwear and toilet seats. But evidence has been piling up. Deepak Chopra has long been managing the spiritual fortunes of Hollywood's golden people. Britney Spears' new album has a Bhangra remix of one of her singles. Images from old Indian matchbooks and posters now retail as birthday cards. T-shirts say San Francisco in Hindi script. The vinyl seat-covers of Indian rickshaws are turning into tote bags for Manhattan's chic.

    But none of it amounted to much until Hollywood anointed us as cool. We were the model citizens -- winning spelling bees, writing reams of code and buying responsible cars like Hondas and Toyotas. We had money, motels and a lobbying firm in Washington. But we were never cool. When Hollywood blesses you, however, you become transformed. Suddenly we are the stuff that dreams are made of. We came here in search of the American dream. Now, Neo, we are in it.

    I do not know who decided it was our turn. Was it the new bonhomie between Washington and New Delhi in the war on terrorism that tipped the balance? The booming immigrant population from South Asia spreading across the suburbs with that deadly secret weapon -- the all-you-can-eat $6.99 lunch buffet? The promise of the giant middle-class marketplace in India hungry for washing machines and McDonalds?

    The question is, are we ready? We have been eager to protest the misappropriation of our images. When Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft or Xena played with Hindu mythology, some Hindus were outraged. Dr. Dre got slapped with a lawsuit for using a few lines from a song in an old Indian movie in his song "Addictive." But those were just minor skirmishes with the foot soldiers of the American dream factory. Now we face the real thing -- Hollywood itself. It promises us entry and says unimaginable glories will follow.

    But we know that once we enter the Matrix, there is no going back. There is no telling who will consume whom. We know we can be chewed up and processed and spat out as millions of cookie-cutter lunch boxes with images of Krishna stamped on them. Probably made in China!

    Its face is seductive -- the young girl in Matrix distilled from the ashes of hundreds of stereotypes and finally free of them. No more echoes of Sabu, the jungle boy, or Apu, the convenience-store owner in "The Simpsons." These might be the death throes of Mowgli. But if Matrix has taught us anything, it is not to trust appearances. All we can trust is the Oracle.

    The Oracle says everything that has a beginning must have an end. In the movie, the beginning shows a young Sati looming over a supine Neo. It ends with Sanskrit mantras chanting shanti. Enough said. Neo, move over. No hard feelings, it's just your karma.

    Sandip Roy (sandip@pacificnews.org) is host of "Upfront," the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.

    Will Arnold And Arianna Rally the Immigrant Vote?

    In California, where one out of four residents is foreign-born, the entry of an Austrian Hollywood superstar and a Greek anti-corporate pundit has electrified the messy recall contest. But will their gubernatorial bids make immigrants the swing vote at the ballot box in October?

    Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington touted their immigrant roots when they launched their candidacies. Though fewer immigrants know about Huffington, or even that she is an immigrant, Schwarzenegger's success story does resonate among California's foreign-born.

    Raymond Virata, a Filipino-American graphic designer in Daly City, at first found it hard to think of Schwarzenegger as other than a pumped-up superstar with grandiose ambitions.

    "You laugh at first because you think of an actor like (former) Filipino president Joseph Estrada who was a joke," Virata says. But on second thought he is struck by the fact that Schwarzenegger is "a self-made man," a bodybuilder who came from Austria and really made it.

    "Perhaps immigrants buy into the American dream much more than Americans who have been here two or three generations," concurs Firoozeh Dumas, the Iranian-born author of the memoir "Funny in Farsi."

    Dumas likes the idea that the California's next governor just might have a foreign accent, remembering how her parents struggled with their thick Iranian accents in blonde, blue-eyed towns like Whittier, Calif.

    But, "there is a hierarchy of accents," Dumas warns. "When someone with a pronounced Middle Eastern accent runs for governor, I'll know change has really come."

    This "hierarchy" may be hindering Hispanic and Asian immigrants' instant identification with European immigrants Schwarzenegger and Huffington.

    "It's interesting -- they both have these strong accents like most immigrants do," says Pilar Marrero, political editor of the influential Spanish-language daily La Opinion in Los Angeles. But, she adds, "Most immigrants in California don't sound like Arnold or Arianna."

    For Marrero, the true immigrant story is Cruz Bustamante's. "That the son of a working class immigrant family from a small town in the Central Valley can have a shot at being the state's first Latino governor -- now that's exciting, that's a real immigrant dream."

    Schwarzenegger's big hurdle with Latino voters is his admission that in 1994 he voted for the divisive Proposition 187, which cut off social services to undocumented immigrants and angered Hispanic voters.

    His campaign manager, former California governor Pete Wilson, was the main sponsor of Prop. 187. "The Republicans are utterly clueless about Latinos and other immigrants," says Roberto Lovato, a Los Angeles-based political consultant. "They hope that star power can erase the effects of repressive power like Prop. 187."

    But Schwarzenegger has powerful name recognition -- celebrity estimated by some experts as worth hundreds of millions of dollars if paid for in advertising. In San Francisco's Chinatown, for example, everyone knows the Terminator.

    "Arnold is a household name not just because of his movies, but also because an ad he did for an instant cup of noodles company was broadcast all over mainland China, " says Leon Chow, a community organizer with the Chinese Progressive Association. "In Chinatown, perhaps only 20 percent may know the name of the governor," Chow adds.

    For some, it's not Schwarzeneger's celebrity but his politics that appeals. "Russian immigrants like Arnold not because he's an immigrant or famous, but because he's conservative, and we have conservative values like freedom and family," says Janna Sundeyeva, publisher of the Russian newspaper Kstati in San Francisco. "And as an Austrian he understands the value of good public education."

    Hispanics and Asians traditionally have low turnouts. Only 32 percent of Asians and 26 percent of Hispanics voted in 1996, compared with 68 percent of whites. But can the candidacies of two non-politicians galvanize Hispanic and Asian voters, who are 14 percent and 4 percent of the state's voters, respectively?

    They can, says David Lee, who heads the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, but not because they're immigrants.

    "You will see a different kind of voter turnout -- maybe those who normally don't vote and are maybe less concerned about issues, but are drawn by star power," Lee says. "With 'Da Terminator' in the race, turnout will likely increase as the media go bonkers over his candidacy."

    But in a system where immigrants often feel left out of the electoral process it is no coincidence that the two high-profile immigrant candidates are both not career politicians. "Their candidacies are an indictment of bureaucratic politicians," says Arvind Kumar, editor of the San Jose monthly India Currents.

    Though he thinks the recall is "a costly waste," Kumar hopes Huffington and Schwarzenegger can energize the debate. "What's interesting is that they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, proving you cannot put immigrants in a box."

    Sandip Roy (sandip@pacificnews.org) and Rene P. Ciria-Cruz (reneccruz@pacificnews.org) are both editors at Pacific News Service. Additional reporting for this story came from Pueng Vongs and Elena Shore.

    Gay Rebels without a Cause

    SAN FRANCISCO--The Dallas Morning News has just announced that it will list same-sex unions in its pages. "That's the Dallas Morning News," my friend pointed out. "That's different from the New York Times." With the Supreme Court's verdict on the Texas sodomy case and gay marriage across the border in Canada, it seems all we need are gays in the military and the activists can all go home.

    In a way, it's what I dreamed of growing up in India, where gay sex is still illegal. I dreamed of a place where it wouldn't be a big deal to be gay -- and now here I am. The Supreme Court is OK with it. The Dallas Morning News is OK with it. Maybe we will even have some kind of gay marriage in Massachusetts. Activists on both sides of the debate, major periodicals are all speculating that the Supreme Court decision has opened the gates to the ultimate gay Shangri La: marriage.

    But some gay men are not so sure if that's what they are looking for. "I have no particular ambition to mimic my brother's marriage, with a ceremony in a bad hotel with poached salmon," says Richard Rodriguez. The author of books such as "Days of Obligation" and "Brown," which won the 2003 California Book Award, Rodriguez once wrote about the irony of gay men gentrifying San Francisco by converting and redecorating rows of old Victorians. After all, Victorians were the ultimate symbols of strait-laced family life. At that time, Rodriguez had written, "In these same Victorian homes homosexuals were leading rebellious lives to challenge the foundations of domesticity."

    But in the end, perhaps the Victorians had the last laugh as they domesticated the gays.

    Traditionally gays were the outcasts, the outsiders. "Centuries of being an outlaw did teach us other ways of imagining society," Rodriguez says. "Knowing you did not belong was sometimes an asset for young men growing up in desperate towns where you got married at 17 and where your horizon was otherwise limited to the local plant where your father and grandfather worked."

    As I watched crowds in San Francisco's Castro, the city's famously gay neighborhood, down half-price cocktails to celebrate "the Supremes," I couldn't help wondering what happens to gay rebellion when there is nothing to rebel against? So much of being gay has been about all the things I couldn't have that my sister took for granted -- the wedding sari, the kids, my brother-in-law's place in the family album. Can I face getting what I thought I always wanted? Am I ready to be a soccer mom?

    It's a bittersweet victory, this laying claim to being ordinary, to being "normal." I remember as a young man coming out in India, I longed for my own apartment that I could just bring a lover home to. I dreamed of a gay bar where I could meet men like me without cruising in shadowy parks while cops prowled.

    I have all that now. Yet every now and then in the midst of the non-stop party whirl of gay life in San Francisco, where shirtless men dance in large warehouses with fog machines, where the mayor shows up at a street fair for leather men, gay life can feel almost too legitimate. Sometimes I get the oddest hankering for the fillip of danger that went with being gay, when it was still forbidden fruit.

    Every year it seems the gay community is up in arms about one issue or the other -- the right to serve in the military, the right to visit our partners in hospital, the right to get married. These fights appear discrete, but their common thread is a much more basic yearning that exists outside the ambit of legislative change -- the need for society to acknowledge that we are not perverse.

    Rodriguez sees the Supreme Court less as making history than acknowledging a reality on the ground. When the vice president's daughter does not deny she is a lesbian, it means "the issue of whether or not we can join the American family is following the fact that we already are part of that family." Being gay is no longer the shadowy preserve of the night. The love that once dared not speak its name is part of daytime talk shows, Republican conventions and softball leagues.

    Rodriguez thinks our outlaw tradition might survive our newfound legal status. "We are using the words privacy, sodomy, even marriage in this debate. But no one wants to use the word that gets to the central issue -- love." According to him, it's not sex or even marriage with its poached salmon that we are really after. "Society might give us the right to sex in private. But when the Pope gives me the word 'love,' then I'll break out the bottle of champagne.

    Roy (sandiproy@hotmail.com) is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.

    Arab-American Media Still Battered by 9/11

    Arab Americans are in an unprecedented media spotlight following the events of 9/11, the war on terror and the fall of Baghdad. But even as reporters and marketers search for information about Arab Americans, many publications created by and for the community are struggling to survive. "Sept. 11 did not just destroy the Twin Towers. It took us down as well," says Nouhad Elhajj, whose Detroit, Mich. bi-weekly Arab American Journal eventually folded in 2002.

    With the demise of the journal, the Arab American community lost an important gateway into America. Elhajj feels that the post-9/11 interest in all things Muslim spawned more seminars and interfaith meetings but little advertising. His ad revenues fell 35 percent in the four weeks following Sept. 11, 2001. The trend never reversed.

    It is, of course, hard to distinguish between those who pulled their ads because of a general economic malaise and those who refused to advertise in Arab media specifically. "But when people who have advertised for several years stop returning calls or meeting face to face, you get the message," says Elhajj.

    Like most ethnic media in the United States, Arab media, whether published in English or Arabic, subsist on a mix of advertising from local mom-and-pop businesses and major corporations like AT&T and Albertson's.

    Though Arab-owned businesses have provided the bulk of Arab media advertising revenue, 9/11 made them step back as well, says Wassim Bruno Kalifa, editor-in-chief of At-Turath / An-Nahar in Whittier, Calif. "People want to keep a low profile," Kalifa says. "No one wants a stone thrown in their restaurant window."

    When Massachusetts high-tech company Akamai Technologies recently declined to help Arab news channel Al-Jazeera deal with hacker attacks, Al-Jazeera ascribed it to "political pressure."

    But Kalifa says Arab media would be fooling themselves to think the discrimination started with 9/11. "This has been a problem from the beginning," says Kalifa. He ticks off a list of California public health campaigns he claims neglected Arab media. "Arabs are heavy chain smokers, but we did not see a cent from the millions of dollars spent on tobacco education," he says. He has plenty of big-ticket items to add to the list -- breast cancer prevention, a bone health campaign, MediCal and the Healthy Families Program.

    "We will never have enough money to serve all the different groups out there," says Colleen Stevens, chief of the media campaign for the Tobacco Control Sector at California's Department of Health Services. Faced with budget cuts of up to 60 percent, Stevens says her department has become even more stringent in its choices. "We are looking not just at populations, but also whether they can speak English. We heavily target those who cannot."

    Many of the agencies that specialize in garnering ads for Asian businesses focus on East and South East Asian media, leaving Arab papers out in the cold. Greg Chew, creative director of DAE Advertising, a leading Asian-American advertising agency, admits that Arab Americans are much lower on the priority list for major corporations, who earmark their marketing dollars for large Asian populations such as Chinese Americans. "Arab media need to make more noise, attend conferences, panels, and get on the radar," Chew says. "For years, gay and lesbian markets were untouchable. Now they are looped in."

    As times get tougher, Kalifa predicts Arab media will have to invest in standard marketing procedures such as getting their circulations verified. "We can challenge discrimination, but only with proper data," Kalifa says. "We have to get our house in order so people cannot use excuses like, 'Your circulation is based on hearsay.'"

    Even in lean times, some Arab publications have chosen advertising carefully. "We turned away ads from organizations like the NSA (National Security Agency) because we did not want to be perceived as lackeys of an administration whose policies are viewed by so many as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim," says Nidal Ibrahim, who publishes the Arab American Business Magazine out of Huntington Beach, Calif.

    Ibrahim's English-language journal has lost several advertisers in the past year. He speculates that media that publish or broadcast in Arabic are harder hit than English-language Arab American media. "If I were an advertiser, it would make me a little apprehensive if I didn't know what the publication was saying," Ibrahim says.

    Some still say they can turn the new interest in Muslims into a commercially viable business enterprise. New York-based Bridges Network, Inc., announced in April it would launch Bridges TV, the first-ever nationwide English-language Muslim television channel. In its inaugural press release, Omar Amanat, founder of an Internet brokerage firm that is spearheading the venture, said, "I realized that the only way to undo misconceptions was to create our own media forum." The company has netted 1 million dollars in seed capital from investors and is trying to gather 10,000 paying members to demonstrate its market.

    Elhajj says anything that combats stigma and stereotypes is welcome. But he does not expect things will improve for Arab American publications in the near future. "Who will advertise in a small Arab American community paper while Arabs and Muslims are the enemy?" he asks.

    Sandip Roy is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.

    A Plea in the Dark Answered

    MARYSVILLE, California -- Even as he sits in Yuba County Jail, Kourosh Gholamshahi, 35, carries with him an old letter from a Rev. Robert Ash. It thanks him for saving a rescue mission in Marysville from a fire in 1994 while Gholamshahi was staying there. Glowing as it is, it's a flimsy shield in the battle he is fighting now -- to stop the U.S. government from deporting him back to Iran, the very country he fled as a teenager in 1985.

    Gholamshahi has one other unlikely lifeline -- Gae Geram, whose busy life selling immigration bonds was turned upside down by a collect call she happened to take from Sacramento County Jail last year. Gholamshahi had found her number in the yellow pages.

    "He just sounded so desperate -- he was on his last wing and a prayer," recalls Geram, sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Sacramento. Something in his voice piqued her curiosity, and she visited him in jail. He looked so miserable with greasy unwashed hair. She put $20 on his book so he could buy some shampoo. "If I did that for everybody, I'd be broke. There isn't even an immigration bond in this for me. But I just knew he was honest," she says, smiling.

    In the sleepy, dusty town of Marysville, visiting hours at Yuba County Jail are very quiet. Gholamshahi, a soft-spoken burly man with a goatee, still seems shell-shocked. "Can you help me? I am scared I will be killed if I go back," he repeats mournfully. Members of the Baha'i faith have been accused of apostasy and executed and tortured in Iran. But in 1988 when he applied for political asylum, Gholamshahi wasn't able to satisfy the judge with his knowledge of the Baha'i religion. His asylum was denied.

    Gholamshahi simply went underground. "Only 10 to 12 percent of the people ordered deported actually leave the country," says Randall Caudle, chair of the Santa Clara chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). He estimates that there are at least 6,000 to 10,000 people like Gholamshahi in the United States evading deportation orders. The number of illegal aliens is in the range of 8 to 12 million.

    Gholamshahi picked up a string of odd jobs -- at Denny's, at an IBM warehouse, as a security guard. He settled in Sacramento, married an American and bought a Jetta. Kourosh Gholamshahi was piecing together a very ordinary American dream. Sept. 11 changed all that.

    Picked up in the INS sweep for visa violators, Gholamshahi was bundled off to Sacramento county jail in June 2002. Though he has no criminal record, murderers and junkies and 23-hour lockdowns became part of his life. Floundering in the legal system, he couldn't even turn to his wife who was battling multiple sclerosis and had no money. "I can't even call her collect. I just write letters," he says. He had no other family in the United States.

    Soon he was calling Geram collect three times a week. When an INS official harassed him, it was Geram who wrote to the top brass. She has no beef with the INS. "They are mostly good people doing their job," she stresses. But it upsets her that a non-criminal like Gholamshahi cannot even get released under supervision to fight his deportation in court. "I am the first one to say people who are a danger to this country need to be sent back. But believe you me I have had people who have driven cars in drive by shootings get their immigration bonds."

    Geram started scouring the Internet for articles on the persecution of Baha'is. She found Gholamshahi had been represented mostly by a law student. She learned an old beating in a fast food restaurant "had left [Gholamshahi’s] head mushy" and probably dulled his comprehension skills. She got letters from his wife, job offers from a friend and testimonials about the dangers Bahai's faced in Iran. "She became my friend," says Gholamshahi.

    As someone who has lost his asylum claim, Gholamshahi can be put on a plane immediately if Iran will have him. When he was whisked off to Florence, Ariz. in early March to meet with Iranian officials, he was terrified that it was all over. Though the official told him they would not issue his travel papers currently, neither Gholamshahi nor his new lawyer can get any written proof of that.

    "This is a real dilemma," says Caudle of AILA. "If their country won't accept them, the U.S. government can detain them indefinitely, but the Supreme Court says you cannot do that either."

    For now, Gholamshahi is counting small blessings: like his new lawyer who is trying to reopen his case, like television for 24 hours on Fridays at his new jail. He's just written a letter to George Bush. "You go over to Iraq to fight for democracy and freedom. But I too came over here 18 years ago for my freedom."

    "He wrote that?" exclaims Geram. "Good for him. I just want him to get out and manage his life. And then he can call me non-collect."

    Gholamshahi's biggest fear is that everyone will forget him. "I had bought a car you know, a Jetta," he says wistfully. "I had only two payments left on it. They took it away."

    But strange as it may seem, despite all his travails Gholamshahi still fervently believes in the American dream. For him it got new meaning in jail when he picked up a phone book and dialed a stranger for help.

    PNS reporter Sandip Roy is host of UpFront, a weekly radio program on KALW, 91.7 FM, produced by New California Media covering the people and stories making news in America's ethnic press.

    An Unexpected Friendship

    Even as he sits in Yuba County Jail, Kourosh Gholamshahi, 35, carries with him an old letter from a Rev. Robert Ash. It thanks him for saving a rescue mission in Marysville from a fire in 1994 while Gholamshahi was staying there. Glowing as it is, it's a flimsy shield in the battle he is fighting now -- to stop the U.S. government from deporting him back to Iran, the very country he fled as a teenager in 1985.

    Gholamshahi has one other unlikely lifeline -- Gae Geram, whose busy life selling immigration bonds was turned upside down by a collect call she happened to take from Sacramento County Jail last year. Gholamshahi had found her number in the yellow pages.

    "He just sounded so desperate - he was on his last wing and a prayer," recalls Geram, sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Sacramento. Something in his voice piqued her curiosity, and she visited him in jail. He looked so miserable with greasy unwashed hair. She put $20 on his book so he could buy some shampoo. "If I did that for everybody, I'd be broke. There isn't even an immigration bond in this for me. But I just knew he was honest," she says smiling.

    In the sleepy dusty town of Marysville, visiting hours at Yuba County Jail are very quiet. Gholamshahi, a soft-spoken burly man with a goatee, still seems shell-shocked. "Can you help me? I am scared I will be killed if I go back," he repeats mournfully. Members of the Baha'i faith have been accused of apostasy and executed and tortured in Iran. But in 1988 when he applied for political asylum, Gholamshahi wasn't able to satisfy the judge with his knowledge of the Baha'i religion. His asylum was denied.

    Gholamshahi simply went underground. "Only 10 to 12 percent of the people ordered deported actually leave the country," says Randall Caudle, chair of the Santa Clara chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). He estimates that there are at least 6,000 to 10,000 people like Gholamshahi in the United States evading deportation orders. The number of illegal aliens is in the range of 8 to 12 million.

    Gholamshahi picked up a string of odd jobs - at Denny's, at an IBM warehouse, as a security guard. He settled in Sacramento, married an American and bought a Jetta. Kourosh Gholamshahi was piecing together a very ordinary American dream. 9/11 changed all that.

    Picked up in the INS sweep for visa violators, Gholamshahi was bundled off to Sacramento county jail in June 2002. Though he has no criminal record, murderers and junkies and 23-hour lockdowns became part of his life. Floundering in the legal system, he couldn't even turn to his wife who was battling multiple sclerosis and had no money. "I can't even call her collect. I just write letters," he says. He had no other family in the United States.

    Soon he was calling Geram collect three times a week. When an INS official harassed him, it was Geram who wrote to the top brass. She has no beef with the INS. "They are mostly good people doing their job," she stresses. But it upsets her that a non-criminal like Gholamshahi cannot even get released under supervision to fight his deportation in court. "I am the first one to say people who are a danger to this country need to be sent back. But believe you me I have had people who have driven cars in drive by shootings get their immigration bonds."

    Geram started scouring the Internet for articles on the persecution of Baha'is. She found Gholamshahi had been represented mostly by a law student. She learned an old beating in a fast food restaurant "had left [Gholamshahi1s] head mushy" and probably dulled his comprehension skills.She got letters from his wife, job offers from a friend and testimonials about the dangers Bahai's faced in Iran. "She became my friend," says Gholamshahi.

    As someone who has lost his asylum claim, Gholamshahi can be put on a plane
    immediately if Iran will have him. When he was whisked off to Florence, Ariz. in early March to meet with Iranian officials, he was terrified that it was all over. Though the official told him they would not issue his travel papers currently, neither Gholamshahi nor his new lawyer can get any written proof of that.

    "This is a real dilemma," says Caudle of AILA. "If their country won't accept them, the U.S. government can detain them indefinitely, but the Supreme Court says you cannot do that either."

    For now, Gholamshahi is counting small blessings: like his new lawyer who is trying to reopen his case, like television for 24 hours on Fridays at his new jail. He's just written a letter to George Bush. "You go over to Iraq to fight for democracy and freedom. But I too came over here 18 years ago for my freedom."

    "He wrote that?" exclaims Geram. "Good for him. I just want him to get out and manage his life. And then he can call me non-collect."

    Gholamshahi's biggest fear is that everyone will forget him. "I had bought a car you know, a Jetta," he says wistfully. "I had only two payments left on it. They took it away."

    But strange as it may seem, despite all his travails Gholamshahi still fervently believes in the American dream. For him it got new meaning in jail when he picked up a phone book and dialed a stranger for help.

    Sandip Roy is host of UpFront, a weekly radio program produced by New California Media.

    Supersize Those Freedom Fries

    After Ohio Congressman Bob Ney renamed Capitol Hill French fries "Freedom fries" -- an act of retribution for France's promised U.N. veto of U.S. war plans in Iraq -- I wondered if the linguistic fallout of the war would spread to other Security Council members.

    Who's next on the chopping block: guinea pigs, China clay and Tex-Mex cuisine?

    Spain's gung-ho support for President Bush's "coalition of the willing" means that the Spanish omelet is safe for now. But I am not sure veto-wielding China or the Russian Federation would mind at all if Russian roulette and the Chinese fire drill dropped their national credentials.

    Will Pakistan's vote make "Paki" an even more potent schoolyard slur, or will bullies not want to sully their tongues with the name of a country that doesn't vote the way the United States wants it to? Will chili con carne go out of favor because we cannot tell our chili from our Chile?

    Actually, I don't think greater scrutiny of nationalistic naming conventions is a bad idea. It might clear up a lot of cultural confusion. French fries, the French Embassy informs us, are really Belgian. Dutch treats are just penny-pinching, not necessarily Dutch.

    V. M. Molotov, the former Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs, didn't ask that an explosive be named after him. Finns, angry at Russians, named the flaming grenade the Molotov cocktail. Many of these designations carry the sorry baggage of cultural confusion, historical inaccuracies and mixed-up passports, not to mention colonial hangovers. Perhaps this could be the opportunity for a cultural spring cleaning that would return all things to their rightful owners. A sort of linguistic equivalent to the return of the Elysian Marbles.

    As an Indian, I am sorry India is no longer on the Security Council. I would have liked to get Indian summer and Indian ink de-Indianized. Heck, while we're at it, how about renaming American Indians, too, to solve that endless confusion?

    Words at their best can be confusing things. India ink is actually brought from China. An African marigold is an American plant. A Persian cat is the same as an Angora cat, which is sometimes called an Angola cat (Security Council member Angola, take note). The Thanksgiving turkey is a very American bird and has little to do with Iraq's neighbor where the United States is trying to set up bases. Of course, new Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has no idea that any vote on bases might also end up affecting the fate of Turkish towels.

    Words at their worst can be vicious things. When attached to national origins, they can acquire a sting that remains long after their etymology is forgotten. Not everyone knows where Paki comes from, few could even point to Pakistan on the map, but the slur applies to Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Sri Lankans and assorted brown-skinned people indiscriminately. Homeless vagabonds are "street Arabs."

    Slurs are certainly not the exclusive preserve of colonial masters. The subjects learned well, too. In Bengali, someone with no cultural refinement was derided as an "Ujbug," aka Uzbeg, though no one knows how many people from Uzbekistan a typical Bengali has ever met.

    Mostly, what these words say is that when entire countries and continents of people are amorphous, indistinguishable masses to those who have the power to name them, mistakes not only happen, they enter the dictionary and acquire a life of their own. When I call this ink/flower/cat/person Chinese, when it is really Japanese, it means they all look the same to me. As in, they are all foreign and strange. And the words remain, long after there ceases to be anything German about German measles.

    But the fuss about the French in French fries reminds us that long after we have forgotten their origins, such words can still itch. We try to flaunt or purge the associations depending on the national mood. Countries and cities rename themselves to shed colonial baggage. Bombay becomes Mumbai, leaving Bombay Duck and Bombay gin stranded.

    Nationalists and traditionalists argue endlessly about whether the change is good or bad, whether Rhodesia lost part of its history when it became Zimbabwe. In time, we forget the birth pangs, but the word remains buried in the language like a landmine. Until someone like Bob Ney looks at the menu at the Capitol Hill cafeteria.

    If I were Ney, I wouldn't have chosen Freedom fries. If I were Ney, I'd have offered the name to one of the other Security Council members who were still waffling. How about Angolan fries in exchange for an Angolan vote?

    Balancing Liberty and Security

    Seared into the memory of the architect of the USA Patriot Act is the image of his mother wielding an ax almost as big as herself, chopping to pieces the rickety boat that carried them from Vietnam to Malaysia in 1978.

    "My first question was, 'Is she crazy?'" recalls Viet Dinh. "We could be imprisoned or forced back to sea in an even less seaworthy vessel. But it was recognition that nothing could be as bad as going back to Vietnam. It was a leap of faith into our freedom." The irony for Dinh is that today, some Americans accuse him of presiding over perhaps the most sweeping curtailment of individual freedoms since the McCarthy era.

    The lanky 34-year-old with a ready smile sees it differently. As assistant attorney general overseeing the Office of Legal Policy, Dinh describes himself as "an attendant of freedom." Dressed casually in blue jeans, he looks more like a young, gung-ho hi-tech entrepreneur than a professor of constitutional law and what the Los Angeles times describes as part of the "brain trust" behind the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign.

    The child who learned English by reading Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries went on to Harvard University and then its law school, where he edited the Harvard Law Review. He became the first and only Vietnamese-American law professor at Georgetown University.

    After work with the legal counsels that investigated Whitewater and impeached President Clinton, Dinh honed his media savviness as a Constitutional law expert on CNN.

    Dinh's office used to be concerned mostly with judicial nominations. That changed after 9/11. "Out of the chaos of 9/11 came the opportunity to survey how we do our business," Dinh says. "The attorney general (John Ashcroft) asked me to do a top-to-bottom review of how we approach the task of counter-terrorism and recommend changes."

    In law school, Dinh wrote that the role of government was to maximize "the zone of liberty" around each person. When some, even in the government, now speak of balancing liberty and security, Dinh winces. That, he says, is the slippery slope toward becoming "the boy in the bubble -- security without liberty. It's not an America I would want to live in."

    For Dinh, the job of government is "to provide the preconditions for certain ends -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Security is a means; liberty is the end. As for charges that the Justice Department has gone too far in curtailing civil liberties and due process, Dinh says simply, "The threat to liberty comes from Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, not from the men and women in blue who work to uphold the law."

    When he and his family landed in America, Dinh says he took any job he could find, working in strawberry fields or flipping burgers. His mother, a teacher in Vietnam, took on seamstress work. They sent money back to Vietnam, where his father and sister were still trapped.

    "We had no money. We did not know the language. But we experienced true freedom -- no middle-of-the-night searches, no arbitrary government actions."

    Dinh says he recognizes that in post-9/11 America, immigrants are afraid that they can be deported for the slightest reason. Failure to comply with certain immigration laws, however must be "willful" to be a "removable offence." But an immigrant, he says, is a kind of "guest" obligated to obey laws, some of which "have not been enforced for 50 years."

    "We are letting you know that we are enforcing them now, Dinh says. "We are not here to play 'gotcha.'"

    What about racial profiling? It's "wrong ... immoral and illegal" to target any person for disparate treatment simply because of their race, ethnicity or religion, Dinh says. When asked why most investigative efforts have concentrated on men of a certain age, from certain countries, Dinh shrugs. "These are not our criteria. They are al Qaeda's. These are the countries they have cells in, the age groups they recruit from."

    Dinh says the Justice Department is aggressively investigating anybody about whom they have "individualized suspicions." Dinh says he makes no apologies for using "every legal authority" at his disposal to get such people off the street.

    Dinh says there are only two ways to prevent terrorist attacks -- information or detention. "By our constitutional design, we do not do preventive detention like many European countries," he says. "So we have to develop information for the purposes of detention." The voluntary interviews of thousands of Middle Eastern men in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, elicited good leads from people who did not even realize they had leads, Dinh says.

    The Patriot Act, he maintains, "makes the best use of the information we have, sharing information between law enforcement agencies to put the pieces of puzzle together so we can look for the needle in the haystack."

    Dinh says his department cannot release the information that many civil libertarians desire. About 20,000 people are picked up every day on immigration violations, and only a fraction of those are deemed "of interest" to the war on terror. "To give a constant update of who is of interest and who is not would give would-be terrorists a roadmap of our investigation," Dinh says.

    Long before he became assistant attorney general, Dinh was profiled in the book "25 Vietnamese Americans in 25 Years," published in 2000. Now, in addition to fending off questions posed by civil libertarians, Dinh must deal with persistent Vietnamese parents who want him to meet their daughters.

    "I know I have a special place in the Vietnamese community, though I seek to serve all Americans," Dinh says. "I just try to bring my girlfriend along with me whenever I can."

    Growing up, Viet Dinh's father hoped he would be a Catholic priest or a doctor. Dinh chose medicine, but jokes that he switched to law to avoid the sight of blood. He had always enjoyed debates, and still finds himself drawn to studying "the institutions that safeguard our government -- for I had seen government that did not work."

    Harry Potter Through Indian Eyes

    Harry Potter"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is still blazing at the box offices in America. But when I watch it, I realize it's not just Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle that haunt the movie. I see the ghosts of my childhood, the ghosts of little white kids who save the day, and little brown ones who only get to watch.

    Most readers in the United States have never heard of Enid Blyton, but the British author of children's books was a constant companion of our growing up in India. From "The Adventures of Noddy in Toyland" to "The Five Findouters" and "The Famous Five," she wrote hundreds of books for every age. Hogwarts is a darker copy of her Mallory Towers and St. Clare's schoolgirl series, complete with plucky kids, idiosyncratic teachers and the stern yet kind headmistress.

    If you added to it the adventures of the Famous Five as they tackled smugglers and pirates and thieves, and the magical escapades of brownies and elves, you get something close to Harry Potter. But the key, of course, is the kids. The kids who can do it all; the kids who can outwit the adults and solve the baffling mystery.

    But though her books were wildly successful, Blyton lost favor in her native country because the image she presented of England was a little too whitewashed, even for her own time. That in itself is not such a big deal, until you realize the volume of her work. Some 600 books, and over and over again the little white kids save the day. The only dark people are the golliwogs in Toyland -- and they attack little Noddy in the woods.

    Decades after Enid Blyton, J.K. Rowling still lives in the same world of make-believe. In 1990s England, where chicken tikka masala has outstripped roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in popularity, Hogwarts exists in its own time warp.

    I don't know if her writing ever makes it clear that Professor Dumbledore and Hermione are white. But they are. In these more politically correct times, Christopher Columbus, director of the Harry Potter films, peppers each movie with characters of color. They're prominently placed in the foreground. They occasionally even have a line or two. But they are window dressing, a United Nations backdrop for the little white kids to save the day.

    Does it matter? I'd like to believe it doesn't. It's still a damn good adventure, whatever the color of the characters. And when I raced through all those Enid Blyton books, I just devoured them without noticing color.

    But it seeped in.

    On hot, sticky summer afternoons in Calcutta, I lay in my bed reading the adventures of the Famous Five in the caves of Cornish coasts. Outside, the leaves of the neem tree barely moved in the sluggish heat. I was dreaming of gardens of primrose and moors covered with heather and cottages with honeysuckle over the door. I was hankering for strawberries and clotted cream and scones. I wanted to be a Findouter with a dog named Buster and solve a mystery. And then sit down for some Yorkshire pudding.

    Then, eventually, I went to England one day and had my first strawberries and cream and my first scones. The disappointment was pungent. The strawberries were kind of tart and the scones dry as cardboard. More importantly, it was the end of an illusion. Primrose wasn't that fancy a flower and the robin redbreast was a rather plain bird. And Blyton's cuddly, apple-cheeked old ladies looked at their new Indian neighbors and clucked and sighed about how things were just not the same anymore.

    As a small impressionable child, I remember when my aunt came visiting for the first time from London. Toys I had only read about came tumbling out of her suitcase -- chocolates, tapes, books. But what I loved the most was to open the suitcase and just bury my nose in that smell. At that time I thought it a mix of lavender and strawberries and cream and English summers. Now, of course, I realize it was just laundry detergent and fabric softener.

    But just like Harry Potter's zigzag scar, the shadow of that childhood fascination remains. It throbs in the Chamber of Secrets, as I wonder if my niece in Calcutta is also growing up imagining the taste of potted meat and clotted cream and fantasizing about Georgina and Larry and Pip, and their honeysuckle lives that could never be hers.

    Sandip Roy (sandiproy@hotmail.com) is host of "Upfront," the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.

    Reading the Middle Eastern and South Asian Press

    Editor's Note: This roundup assembles from regional news sources a collage of headlines and viewpoints that have gone missing in action in the U.S. press.

    Border Truce Possible in Kashmir

    Pakistan Today, Fontana, Calif.

    Pakistan's jehadi groups are in disarray and coming under intense pressure to end cross-border terrorism, according to the Pakistan Observer. They may end up calling for a conditional truce in Kashmir soon. They would reserve the right to resort to armed struggle if there was no acceptable solution to the Kashmir problem in six months. They hope this will shift pressure for a solution to New Delhi. However, some mujahideen groups are saying Islamabad is betraying them, the way it betrayed the Taliban.

    Israel Seeks to Replace Palestinian Authority
    Al Jazeera Television, Doha, Qatar

    The Palestinian minister of local government said that Israel seeks to destroy the Palestinian Authority and establish an Israeli civilian administration in its place. The Israeli government could then find local Palestinian leaders who would help them govern the West Bank, bringing it back to a pre-1993 Oslo Agreement status when the Palestinians were directly governed by Israel. According to the minister, Israel's daily incursions into the West Bank and imposition of curfews indicated it had no intention to give back the West Bank towns to the Palestinian Authority.

    Syria Grilled in U.N. on Terror Groups
    Albawaba.com, Amman, Jordan


    Syria, the current U.N. Security Council leader, was put on the spot recently when Israel urged the council to demand that the Arab nation stop supporting Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad. Israel's ambassador to the United Nations said Syria's support of "terrorist groups" was against the Security Council's own resolutions. Islamic Jihad had claimed responsibility for a recent suicide attack that killed 17 in northern Israel. The group is based out of Damascus. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Syria hosts no fewer than 10 terrorist organizations.

    Iran Ups Aid to Islamic Jihad
    Albawaba.com, Amman, Jordan

    Iran will boost financial aid to the group Islamic Jihad by 70 percent, according to the Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ramadan Shallah, secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, met with Iran's spiritual leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Islamic Jihad has recently claimed credit for some suicide attacks in Israel. Iran has decided to increase funding for several Palestinian resistance groups. Last year, a dispute broke out between Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah over funding by Iran.

    Fleeing Pakistanis Turned Back by Iran
    Albawaba.com, Amman, Jordan

    Forty Pakistanis fleeing their country were rejected by Iran's border police in the Sistan-Baluchistan province. Iranian state radio reported that the Pakistanis were turned back, but did not elaborate on why they were fleeing. It said Pakistani authorities confirmed the information. Iran has increased security along its borders to prevent an influx of Afghan refugees as well as infiltration by al Qaeda fighters.

    London: Jewish Youths Attack Son of Saudi Ambassador
    Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

    In London, the son of the Saudi Ambassador to England was beaten up by Jewish youths. Twelve Jews with baseball bats, bottles and Israeli flags beat the young man and four friends who were wearing Palestinian scarves, according to Ambassador Ghazi Algosaibi. Asked if he would encourage his son to carry out a "martyrdom attack," the ambassador said, "I would not oppose it but I would tell him it was his decision." Revival of Israeli Left?

    Palestine Chronicle, Mountlake, Washington

    Former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has reportedly launched a new political movement to rally the divided Israeli political left on a platform of peace with the Palestinians. The new Shahar (Dawn) Movement will promote a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders and evacuation of Israeli settlements. Beilin said the Labor party could not lead the peace camp as long as its leaders remained in the Sharon cabinet. He said Labor leaders who served in the current cabinet had damaged the peace process.

    Ex-Prisoners Tell of Horrors in Afghan Jails
    The Friday Times, Lahore, Pakistan

    Two groups of Pakistanis arriving home in April and May from Afghan prisons gave details of their ordeal. The prisoners were tortured and deprived of food and water. Food consisted of a piece of bread or a little rice in 24 hours. Many of them were suffering from consumption, diarrhea and infections. Prisoners died of suffocation because of overcrowding. Their Uzbek captors also forcibly stripped and raped many of the young boys who were imprisoned. They were mostly young rural men who had been urged by local clerics to join the "jihad."

    U.S. Envoy: Al Qaeda Can't Hide in Pakistan
    The News International, Karachi

    The United States is determined to eliminate al Qaeda in Pakistan with the same determination with which it fought the terror network in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, said, "Afghanistan is no longer the headquarters of the al Qaeda." He said the United States would wipe them out in Waziristan (in northwest Pakistan) or anywhere else in Pakistan where they might be hiding. Pakistan's foreign ministry refused comment on whether this would mean independent coalition troops launching operations on Pakistani soil.

    Pakistani Party Says Musharraf Referendum Rigged
    The News International, Karachi, Pakistan,

    The Jamaat-e-Islami party in Pakistan is alleging that the April 30 referendum on President Musharraf in Pakistan was rigged. In a white paper, it said the fake numbers for the turnout were achieved by printing 130 million ballots whereas Pakistan only has about 70 million eligible voters. The Jamaat-e-Islami said government servants and detainees in jails were forced to vote yes. It estimated the real turnout at about 3 percent.

    Muslims Blast U.S. Fingerprinting Plan
    Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

    New U.S. plans to fingerprint and photograph visitors from certain countries have been denounced in the Islamic world. In Malaysia, political scientist Chandra Muzaffar said the measures would not help the United States deal with terrorism, but just increase resentment. A Bahraini banker planning to fly to the United States said, "This will surely make us feel like criminals." An Iranian homemaker said, "I would never even try to go to the U.S., I cannot tolerate being insulted."


    PNS Associate Editor Sandip Roy (sandiproy@hotmail.com) is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.

    Reading the Middle Eastern and South Asian Press

    Editor's Note: This roundup assembles from regional news sources a collage of headlines and viewpoints that have gone missing in action in the U.S. press.

    Fallout from the war on terrorism is strongly felt in the countries of the Middle East and South Asia. Western media often overlook important stories from these nations. This roundup assembles from regional news sources a collage of headlines and viewpoints that have gone missing in action.


    Sharon Seeks 'Transfer' of Palestinians

    Jordanian political analyst Sultan al Hattab says that Ariel Sharon has an agenda to transfer Palestinians to Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza. Hattab said Sharon's plans had been frozen because many of the Arab countries where the Palestinians would have been forced to go had signed peace accords with Israel. But if the current crisis destroys the Oslo accords, Israel's agreements with the other Arab countries could go too. -- Al Bawaba, Amman, Jordan, April 25

    Hindu Party Reportedly Paying Youth to Say They Rioted

    The Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has reportedly been paying poor Hindu youths to say they were rioters in the recent communal violence in the Indian state of Gujarat. The VHP hopes to help the state government, which has been accused of colluding with the rioters and has come in for severe criticism in India and abroad. "The police are doing their duty by making arrests," the Gujarat home minister said. "Whether the VHP is deliberately sending innocents to jail for money is something only the VHP can answer." -- Hindustan Times, New Delhi, India, May 3

    Krishna Cakes Upset Hindu Nationalists

    Hindu activists in London are outraged by the Selfridges store's decision to sell iced fruit cakes decorated with likenesses of Indian gods. Images of gods such as Lord Ganesha and Lord Krishna frolicking against a backdrop of pink icing have been described as mocking the Hindu pantheon by groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which said it would never represent Jesus Christ that way. The half-Indian founder of Seriously Scrumptious, which manufactured the cakes, said the cakes were meant as an offering to the divine. In fact, part of the proceeds go to villages in Vrindavan, holy to Hindus for its association with Lord Krishna. -- Rediff.com, Mumbai, India, May 3

    EU Names Terrorist Organizations

    The European Union has moved to block the assets of 11 non-European terrorist organizations and seven individuals. All 15 EU member nations must now freeze the assets of those on the list, which includes groups in Spain, Peru, Japan, Colombia and India, as well as Kurdish separatists in Turkey and Iraq-based guerillas fighting Iran. U.S. officials welcomed the move, saying Washington did not want to be alone in designating terrorist groups. -- The Hindu, Chennai, India, May 4

    Saudi Arabia Cracks Down on Non-Regulation Cloaks

    The Commerce Ministry in Saudi Arabia is cracking down on factories producing abayas (all-covering black cloaks for Muslim women) that violate religious regulations. The cloaks should be thick, loose and devoid of any decorations. Recently, non-regulation abayas have been worn increasingly by women in some cities in the kingdom. Now the Commission for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice is working with the ministry to destroy offending abayas and take punitive measures against factories producing them. -- Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 2

    Syrian Businesses Kick Out Americans

    A boycott of U.S. products is gaining strength in Syria, where many view American support for Israel as one-sided. Now Americans themselves are being barred. Some restaurants have taken to writing in English upon their menus, "Entry is Forbidden to Americans." One university student said he was switching to French from American cigarettes. However, an American woman studying Arabic in Damascus said her life was continuing normally. -- Al-Jazeera Television, Doha, Qatar, May 1

    Syrian Meeting on Mideast Peace Mulled

    An unidentified Western diplomat said contacts have been ongoing this week between Syria and United Nations officials around the idea of convening a meeting in Syria in June on the subject of Middle East peace. Syrian President Bashar Asad and U.N. Middle East envoy Terje-Rod Larson met recently and Asad agreed without restriction to such a dialogue. The United States has been calling on Arab states to take a more proactive role in resolving the conflict in the Middle East. Israel is not keen on such a conference. -- Al Hayat, London, U.K. May 1

    U.S. Business Ties a Liability in Arab World?

    One of the world's richest men thinks that a key ingredient of his success -- close relations with American firms -- might be a liability now. Kuwaiti tycoon Nasser al Kharafi, whose business empire is valued at $5.7 billion, went out of his way to tell investors that his company Americana had nothing to do with the United States, and said that its owners and employees were all Arabs. Americana, which owns 13 franchises for popular American fast food chains, had been hit by boycott calls from Arabs angry at U.S. policies in the Middle East. -- Gulf News, Dubai, UAE, May 5

    Islamic Group Invites Philippines as Observer

    The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has for the first time extended an invitation to the Philippines to attend its meeting of deputy foreign ministers as an observer nation. Philippine officials regard this as a positive step in their quest for a political solution to the conflict in Mindanao in the southern Philippines, which involves groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front. The MNLF already has observer status in the OIC. -- Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 3

    Abu Sayyaf Aide Captured

    A senior aide of the head of the kidnap-for-ransom gang Abu Sayyaf was captured near General Santos city in the southern Philippines. Salip Abdullah faces 61 counts for kidnapping and murder, including the abduction and killing of a Catholic priest, the Rev. Roel Gallardo, two years ago. Abu Sayyaf leaders are reputed to be taking refuge in places such as General Santos to escape joint Philippine-U.S. counter-terrorism exercises on Basilan Island. -- News International, Karachi, Pakistan, May 4

    Prize-Wining Arab Photographer Stranded in Gaza

    Israeli authorities prevented a Palestinian photographer who works for Reuters from leaving from Gaza to receive an international prize for his coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ahmad Jad Allah was awarded the press photographer prize for this year from the Arab Press Prize in Dubai. Jad Allah, like many other Palestinians, has been unable to leave Gaza since 1994. Israel denied him permission to leave for what it described as security reasons. His prize-winning photo showed a middle-aged Palestinian mother weeping after Israeli forces killed her son in Gaza's Rafah city in September 2001. -- Al Jazeera Television, Doha, Qatar, May 2

    Oil Prices Drop With Arafat's Release

    Oil prices retreated sharply after Israel ended the blockade of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, which reduced market fears of an expanded crisis in the Middle East that might disturb the supply of oil. Meanwhile, when asked whether OPEC was thinking about increasing production this year, OPEC President Rilwanu Lukman said even if the price reached $28, $29 or $30 per barrel, OPEC would not necessarily increase production. -- Al Jazeera Television, Doha, Qatar, May 2

    PNS Associate Editor Sandip Roy (sandiproy@hotmail.com) is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.

    Foreign Press Digest

    Ed's Note: This roundup assembles from regional news sources a collage of headlines and viewpoints that have gone missing in action in the U.S. press.

    Top Al Qaeda Lieutenant Reportedly Captured
    Osama bin Laden's most senior lieutenant, Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri, has reportedly been caught and is jailed in Iran. An unconfirmed report in the Hayat-e-Nou newspaper, owned by a leading Iranian legislator who is also brother of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said al-Zawahiri was captured several days ago and imprisoned in Tehran's Evin jail. The Iranian foreign ministry denied the report.
    (Hindustan Times, New Delhi, India)

    U.S. Propaganda Leaflets Drop on Pakistan
    Pamphlets dropped by American planes to warn people against giving shelter to Osama bin Laden are now falling in Pakistan's tribal areas instead of just Afghanistan. The pamphlets show a smiling bin Laden making fun of his supporters because "you don't know that he is sending you to death." Other pamphlets announce a reward of $25 million for bin Laden and show him relaxing in a cave while his fighters risk death. It is unclear if the pamphlets have been deliberately dropped due to rumors that bin Laden may be hiding in Pakistan.
    (The News International, Karachi, Pakistan)

    Brother of Slain Northern Alliance Leader Made Ambassador
    The brother of the charismatic Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, who was slain shortly before Sept. 11, has been appointed Afghanistan's ambassador to Moscow by the government of Hamid Karzai. By appointing Ahmad Zia Masood, Kabul is sending a signal that it sees ties with Russia as "friendly, stable and of strategic character," reported the Afghan charge d'affaires.
    (Tehelka.com, New Delhi, India)

    U.S. Arms Firms Jump at Indian Market
    Major American armament firms are making a beeline for the Indian market now that sanctions against India have been lifted. Maj. Gen. Bruce Scott, chief of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, was in India recently discussing sales of the Firefinder Weapon Locating System, which can locate long-range mortars, rocket launchers and missiles. He said the weapon sales would enhance communications between Indian and American ground forces. He said radar weapons systems being sold to Pakistan were different.
    (Rediff.com, Mumbai, India)

    Comeback for Exiled Afghan King?
    Whatever happened to Zahir Shah? The exiled former king of Afghanistan was supposed to help unify his war-torn country. Now an unnamed official says the king wants to return in time to celebrate the Afghan New Year -- Nau Roz -- on March 21. But some people are concerned that the recent killing of aviation minister Abdul Rahman, a supporter of the king, was a warning from hard-line forces that oppose the king.
    (The News International, Karachi, Pakistan)

    Iranian Student Leader Says He Was Framed
    Iran's most famous student leader said he was forced to confess on television that he was attempting to overthrow the government. Ali Afshari, a leader of the pro-reform Office to Foster Unity, said he was kept in solitary confinement for 328 days and then interviewed in prison under psychological and physical torture. He says he was made to read an article about students seeking to overthrow the government that had been printed in a conservative newspaper. "Later, they mixed all these elements (and broadcast it on TV)," Afshari said at a press conference.
    (Gulf News, Dubai, United Arab Emirates)


    Philippine Army Fears Flood of Afghan Weapons, Fighters
    Philippine generals have asked the United States for help in stemming a possible flood of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and weapons to Southeast Asia. The generals relayed the request to the U.S. congress through visiting Congressman Jim Gibbons, who heads the intelligence subcommittee on human intelligence, analysis and counterintelligence. Philippine army officials asked for stricter control on arms going out of Afghanistan.
    (The New International, Karachi, Pakistan)

    Israeli Government Gets Green Light to Recognize Converts
    The Supreme Court in Israel has given the government the right to officially recognize converts to Judaism. This right used to belong to rabbis, and the court decision has sparked off severe criticism from Orthodox rabbis. Jewish Americans, who are mostly from the Reform and the Conservative schools, are pleased because conversions done by their rabbis were frequently not recognized by the Orthodox rabbis. Whether this decision will have an impact on other issues, such as the fact that only Orthodox schools receive state funding, remains to be seen.
    (Al Jazeera Television, Doha, Qatar)

    Arab League to Open U.S. Offices
    The Arab League is planning to set up liaison offices in the United States. Secretary-General Amr Moussa called on the Arab American community to be a bridge between the Arab world and America. Nasser Badayoun was named the first liaison, and will be based in Michigan. Moussa said other representatives would be named, and the Arab League would hopefully soon have a permanent ambassador in Washington.
    (Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)

    Sandip Roy is associate editor at Pacific News Service and host of "Upfront" -- a weekly radio program on KALW-FM San Francisco.

    Reading the Middle Eastern and South Asian Press

    Ed's Note: This roundup assembles from regional news sources a collage of headlines and viewpoints that have gone missing in action in the U.S. press.

    Top Al Qaeda Lieutenant Reportedly Captured
    Osama bin Laden's most senior lieutenant, Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahiri, has reportedly been caught and is jailed in Iran. An unconfirmed report in the Hayat-e-Nou newspaper, owned by a leading Iranian legislator who is also brother of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said al-Zawahiri was captured several days ago and imprisoned in Tehran's Evin jail. The Iranian foreign ministry denied the report.
    (Hindustan Times, New Delhi, India)

    U.S. Propaganda Leaflets Drop on Pakistan
    Pamphlets dropped by American planes to warn people against giving shelter to Osama bin Laden are now falling in Pakistan's tribal areas instead of just Afghanistan. The pamphlets show a smiling bin Laden making fun of his supporters because "you don't know that he is sending you to death." Other pamphlets announce a reward of $25 million for bin Laden and show him relaxing in a cave while his fighters risk death. It is unclear if the pamphlets have been deliberately dropped due to rumors that bin Laden may be hiding in Pakistan.
    (The News International, Karachi, Pakistan)

    Brother of Slain Northern Alliance Leader Made Ambassador
    The brother of the charismatic Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, who was slain shortly before Sept. 11, has been appointed Afghanistan's ambassador to Moscow by the government of Hamid Karzai. By appointing Ahmad Zia Masood, Kabul is sending a signal that it sees ties with Russia as "friendly, stable and of strategic character," reported the Afghan charge d'affaires.
    (Tehelka.com, New Delhi, India)

    U.S. Arms Firms Jump at Indian Market
    Major American armament firms are making a beeline for the Indian market now that sanctions against India have been lifted. Maj. Gen. Bruce Scott, chief of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, was in India recently discussing sales of the Firefinder Weapon Locating System, which can locate long-range mortars, rocket launchers and missiles. He said the weapon sales would enhance communications between Indian and American ground forces. He said radar weapons systems being sold to Pakistan were different.
    (Rediff.com, Mumbai, India)

    Comeback for Exiled Afghan King?
    Whatever happened to Zahir Shah? The exiled former king of Afghanistan was supposed to help unify his war-torn country. Now an unnamed official says the king wants to return in time to celebrate the Afghan New Year -- Nau Roz -- on March 21. But some people are concerned that the recent killing of aviation minister Abdul Rahman, a supporter of the king, was a warning from hard-line forces that oppose the king.
    (The News International, Karachi, Pakistan)

    Iranian Student Leader Says He Was Framed
    Iran's most famous student leader said he was forced to confess on television that he was attempting to overthrow the government. Ali Afshari, a leader of the pro-reform Office to Foster Unity, said he was kept in solitary confinement for 328 days and then interviewed in prison under psychological and physical torture. He says he was made to read an article about students seeking to overthrow the government that had been printed in a conservative newspaper. "Later, they mixed all these elements (and broadcast it on TV)," Afshari said at a press conference.
    (Gulf News, Dubai, United Arab Emirates)


    Philippine Army Fears Flood of Afghan Weapons, Fighters
    Philippine generals have asked the United States for help in stemming a possible flood of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and weapons to Southeast Asia. The generals relayed the request to the U.S. congress through visiting Congressman Jim Gibbons, who heads the intelligence subcommittee on human intelligence, analysis and counterintelligence. Philippine army officials asked for stricter control on arms going out of Afghanistan.
    (The New International, Karachi, Pakistan)

    Israeli Government Gets Green Light to Recognize Converts
    The Supreme Court in Israel has given the government the right to officially recognize converts to Judaism. This right used to belong to rabbis, and the court decision has sparked off severe criticism from Orthodox rabbis. Jewish Americans, who are mostly from the Reform and the Conservative schools, are pleased because conversions done by their rabbis were frequently not recognized by the Orthodox rabbis. Whether this decision will have an impact on other issues, such as the fact that only Orthodox schools receive state funding, remains to be seen.
    (Al Jazeera Television, Doha, Qatar)

    Arab League to Open U.S. Offices
    The Arab League is planning to set up liaison offices in the United States. Secretary-General Amr Moussa called on the Arab American community to be a bridge between the Arab world and America. Nasser Badayoun was named the first liaison, and will be based in Michigan. Moussa said other representatives would be named, and the Arab League would hopefully soon have a permanent ambassador in Washington.
    (Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)

    Sandip Roy is associate editor at Pacific News Service and host of "Upfront" -- a weekly radio program on KALW-FM San Francisco.

    Reading the Middle Eastern and South Asian Press

    Bin Laden: "Just Shoot Me"

    Osama bin Laden has told people close to him that he is living his last weeks. But he doesn't want Americans or members of the Northern Alliance to capture him. Instead, he has instructed aides to shoot him if there is no escape. Bin Laden believes it is better to die at the hands of his aides or his son, and has taped his last statement to be broadcast after his death. --Al Watan, Muscat, Oman

    Bin Laden Nuclear Threat?

    A five-hour journey on bumpy roads from Kabul led a blindfolded Hamid Mir, editor of the Ausaf newspaper in Pakistan, to Osama bin Laden in early November. Many reports on the visit buried what Mir learned from bin Laden. Bin Laden warned, "if the U.S. is going to use nuclear or chemical weapons against us, we will respond in the same way. But we will not use these weapons first." He called Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a traitor to Islam, but tempered his stance toward America, saying he was against "American policies," not all Americans. Bin Laden talked about his death more than once during the interview. "I may be killed in American bombing, but they will not have peace even after my death," he said. --The Week, Kochy, India

    Sudan: It Isn't So

    A high official in Sudan's ruling party responded to reports that the United States was going to expand the war against terrorism to camps in countries such as Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. Ibrahim Ahmad Amr, the Secretary General of the National Conference Party, said there were no terrorist training camps in Sudan. He said that in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Sudan had started a positive dialogue with Washington around the issue of lifting of international sanctions imposed in 1996. --Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar

    Turban-Making Downturn

    Turban makers in a small village in West Bengal, India, find their only source of livelihood has dried up since the war in Afghanistan. Their main customers were buyers in Afghanistan, who stopped purchasing turbans when the chaos of the war brought trade to a halt. --Rediff.com, Mumbai, India

    Hindus' New War Plank

    The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India came to power by galvanizing its vote bank around the controversial project of building a Hindu temple in Ayodhya on the ruins of an ancient mosque. Since Sept. 11 the party has found a much more effective electoral platform in pushing for passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance. Since terrorists are commonly thought of as Muslim, observers say that the party can disguise its Hindu-centric agenda by labeling anyone opposed to the ordinance as unpatriotic. --Outlook, New Delhi, India.

    Smack Down

    Following the U.S. attacks, the value of pure-quality heroin in Pakistan has fallen from Rs32,500 ($530) a kilo to 10-15,000 ($170-245) a kilo. In the areas bordering Afghanistan, 95 percent pure heroin is down to Rs5,000 ($85) per kilo. Dealers who had started hoarding opium after Taliban leader Mullah Omar banned poppy cultivation last year sold their stocks, fearing it would be destroyed in U.S. bombings. --The Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan.

    Dangerous Intelligence

    In an interview in Australia, exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto warned that the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence services) is a state within a state in Pakistan and is not to be trusted. --Rediff.com, Mumbai, India.

    Russian Bear in Kabul?

    Who will control Kabul: Washington or Moscow? It seems the Russians kept America in the dark while supplying the Northern Alliance with fresh munitions, enabling it to occupy Kabul. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee apparently encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the hopes that India would play a key role in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Now, with the Northern Alliance in Kabul, the Russian-Indian-Iranian axis has stronger bargaining power with the Americans in its efforts to minimize Pakistan's role in the region. --Tehelka.com, New Delhi, India.
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