On ‘Embracing the Infidel’

Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey WestEmbracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West by Behzad Yaghmaian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s rather fitting that I finished this book on 20 June 2018, World Refugee Day. And, it’s rather fitting that I read this book, now as the furor over migrants to my own country reaches a fever pitch.

In Embracing the Infidel, Behzad Yaghmaian allows us to walk in the shoes of those very much unlike ourselves. At least very much unlike myself. I do not have to be an asylum seeker or refugee to understand the desperation involved in fleeing one’s home, legally or clandestinely.

But, this rather heartbreaking book allows us to understand not just the reasons individuals risk their lives and their children’s to cross imaginary lines. It allows us to understand just how difficult it is to do so legally and safely, if not altogether impossible those conditions for migrating are for some.

Most of the individual life histories presented here focus on those fleeing various forms of violence—both mental and physical, state-sponsored and familial in origin. And, even when they attempt to follow laws, both local and international, the migrants described herein face additional forms of abuse and violence in the countries to which they seek peace and freedom.

Himself an immigrant, Yaghmaian compassionately and intimately allows each of those he meets on his two-year journey across Europe to shape their own narratives. From their reasons for leaving their homes to their progress (or inability to progress) across various lines drawn on maps by powerful men to the few who have reached ‘the West and what once promised a quiet life in peace, each of these individuals’ stories are important. They are crucial to understanding the migrant ‘crisis’ that dominates headlines and political discussions. They offer a narrative missed by those declaring their support or outrage at various policies.

Despite being published more than ten years ago, we’re still plagued by many of the same issues and the same inertia when it comes to finding solutions to conflicts or granting legal status to those in seemingly hopeless situations. No answers are provided here; but, that’s not the purpose of this book. If anything, this book provides a lesson in empathy, one we could all use a bit more of to my mind.

It’s worthwhile to understand that so many around the globe are currently living as refugees. 68 500 000 million of them in fact. Each of them deserves a chance to be heard. Each of them is important.

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Take a stand

There was a time, what seems like long ago, when political party affiliation wasn’t quite so starkly divisive. When an individual aligning as a democrat spoke respectfully to an individual aligned as a republican. When discussions of policy could take place and consensus could be reached. When cooperation was rewarded and legislation truly was bipartisan or nonpartisan.

When any interaction did not descend quickly into a mud-slinging insult-trading tirade, ending with both individuals storming off like petulant children who didn’t get their favourite ice cream cone because they behaved badly.

Those were good times.

I’m no longer surprised by any policy decisions from this administration. Angry and sad, yes. Outraged most of the time, yes. Incredulous, yes. But, not surprised.

What keeps me awake at night and leaves me utterly gut-wrenched is the knowledge that people I know support seemingly inhumane measures. More so, these individuals I respect mightily continue to twist themselves in knots to support actions which go against everything they previously believed in to justify this administration’s actions. And, the knowledge that there are far too many others just like them.

It’s left me oh so weary.

This latest battle, separating children from their parents at the border, … I don’t have the words. I cannot understand how anyone can justify this. And, yet, they do.

A quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr has been on repeat in my head for what seems like days. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Attempting to find the context and its origin, I discovered that it isn’t actually a direct quote, but a paraphrase. The original text stems from a sermon King gave in Selma following Bloody Sunday, another dark day in our history:

Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died…

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

— Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon in Selma, 8 March 1965
Regardless of party leaning or affiliation, regardless of creed, regardless of degrees of separation from your own ancestral immigration to the US, can we not set aside those differences and agree that this, children, are worth taking a stand for?
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Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

On ‘I Can’t Breathe’

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay StreetI Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine anyone watching the video of the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life and not being utterly horrified. Horrified by the excessive use of force and complete lack of concern for a man’s life.

I also cannot imagine how haunted Matt Taibbi must be from the research and passion he put into this book. But, I’m glad he took on those ghosts and took such care into getting the narrative right. He succeeded in so many ways.

By all accounts, Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. At least not because of an illegal choke-hold. But, he is, leaving a giant hole in his family’s life as well as the community he called home. By all accounts, the man responsible for choking him to death — Daniel Pantaleo — should have been held to account. He was not. In a rather twisted alter-reality, Pantaleo is viewed by many as the victim.

This book isn’t just about that fateful arrest and its aftermath. It’s about a system — in New York as well as the United States in general — that forces us all to examine our own ideas of community, safety and policing, and the consequences of attempting to ‘feel safe’. It’s about what we’re willing to allow police to do to feel safe. And, it’s about what we will accept as ‘the way it is’.

As much as I respect anyone who chooses a career in law enforcement, I also fear how far the justice system itself has gone to protect its members. When entire communities recount story after story after story of ‘walking while black’, being pulled from cars and brutally beaten for asking a question, and then charged with crimes they did not and could not possibly commit, we must recognise that something is broken. And, it’s not the windows.

Taibbi packs so much food-for-thought within this book. It’s heartbreaking, even more so when you consider living within the realities he describes so painstakingly. We know Eric Garner’s name because of the clear evidence of brutality captured on a cell phone. The world saw that video and collectively gasped. We gasped again when a grand jury came back with no indictment.

Taibbi begins this book by describing another event in Staten Island. Ibrahim ‘Brian’ Annan, a young man stopped by police around the same time Garner was choked, was pulled from his car and beaten so violently by two police officers that one leg was broken in three places. He was charged with a total of seven felonies, all of which were eventually dropped, a process which took nearly a dozen court appearances and more than two years. The charges lobbed against Annan were so absurd and so obviously intended to simply force him to relent even the judge presiding over the cases found them silly. Annan’s beating was not captured on film. And, whilst disabled, he lived to tell the story. But, sadly, this is not uncommon in Staten Island, in particular, or in other inner cities in general (think Baltimore and Freddie Grey). It is sadly not new, either. Taibbi also tells the tale of Clementine Ross, a woman who has been waiting 50 years for closure on the shooting of her husband by a cop in Arkansas. His crime? Asking for a receipt.

Matt Taibbi focuses on a killing on Bay Street. But, given all of the names of all those who have died before and since Eric Garner, individuals primarily unarmed and shot by law enforcement officials, I’m surprised any of us can breathe.

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On ‘Notorious RBG’

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgNotorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always reminded me a bit of my grandmother. Quiet. Proper. Often wearing a stern look or serious expression accentuated by flawless hair and pearls. And, retorts at the ready which leave all present to hear them slack-jawed and cowering at their own ignorance. In my family, we often repeated a mantra, ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. I would imagine some variant exists for RBG amongst those nearest and dearest.

Notorious RBG is a must-read for any self-respecting feminist or equal rights activist (Is there really a difference between the two?) needing a beacon of hope and a dose of ‘get up and go’. And, RBG the woman is that beacon during very dark times. This woman. Unlike her, rather than seeing nine women justices on the highest bench in the land, I’d like to see nine RBGs at SCOTUS.

Oh, to dare to dream.

Detailing her life as a young newlywed law student, then graduate of Columbia Law (top in her class) unable to land a job, then law professor (needing to hide her second pregnancy)…, she understands not just in theoretical terms but from lived experience what perceived differences mean and they affect us as individuals and groups. To her, it isn’t simply about disregarding those perceived differences and the ideal roles of men and women; it’s about those institutionalised cateogories and erasing the various barriers and injustices they unfairly impose upon us. Her weapon of choice, however, is the law and the US Constitution. And, this woman plays the long game.

As I was finishing this brilliant, inspiring book this morning, I wept. Not because of anything particularly troubling that appeard upon the page at that precise moment. But, because so many of us are simply too tired to continue fighting for and working towards what we believe is right and just. If this tiny woman could become one of the most inspiring memes of our times, we—who have benefitted from her tireless efforts in classrooms, courtrooms and on the bench—can certainly work just a little bit harder to solidify and make permanent those giant gains she made for us.

RBG inspires for many reasons. And, we do her and all others who have blazed various trails a disservice by simply giving in to despair because it is too damn hard.

One of the appendices features a list of ‘How to be like RBG’. It reads:

  • Work for what you believe in
  • But pick your battles
  • Don’t burn your bridges
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge
  • Think about what you want, then do the work
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy
  • Bring along your crew
  • Have a sense of humour
  • I’ve got my to-do list sorted then.

RBG. However long she graces the Supreme Court and this world, it won’t be nearly long enough to satisfy me. I’ll still want more. But, her legacy. Long may it guide and inspire us all. And, may we all have red hot pens at the ready to sharpen and hone our words. Because words and how we wield them truly matter.

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On ‘Assata: An Autobiography’

Assata: An AutobiographyAssata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that makes me uncomfortable, but for all of the right reasons. If we are ever to confront racism head-on, we need to listen to and attempt to understand the effects persistent and institutionalised racism have on those it targets.

Assata, the book (and the woman who wrote it), is raw and unfiltered in many ways. Her anger and frustration and rage at social norms and the systemic racism that imprisoned her again and again and again and the criminal justice system who offered her anything but justice justify that rage.

Her rage should make us all examine why her anger and words make us squirm. It should force us to examine our own biases, and begin to shift our thinking and our actions.

This book made me think. A lot. And, I’ll undoubtedly continue thinking about my own privilege, my own biases and my own prejudices because of her words. This book will also make me more inclined to call out injustice of any kind when confronted with it, whether directed at me or others, friends / family or strangers.

#blackhistorymonth

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On World AIDS Day 2017

1 December every year is World AIDS Day.

This year’s theme is ‘My health, my right‘. That is, one’s right to health represents a fundamental human right, and one’s right to health encompasses and extends to rights to sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working and living conditions, education and access to justice. All of which are accessible free from stigma and discrimination, and free of violence.

I may no longer devote much of my working life to issues surrounding HIV. But, I still very much believe in continuing to focus on the response to HIV and ensuring that no one is left behind in our local, national, regional and global responses to HIV and various other related issues.

On this World AIDS Day, much like each and everyone before it, my thoughts are with all those living with HIV first and foremost. My thoughts are also with those who have died far, far too young and long before they needed to. Their faces remain at the forefront of my mind on many days, but particularly today.

I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those who tirelessly continue to devote their voices, time and indefatigable energy to making sure others are not left behind. All those who work on HIV-related issues ensure that people living with HIV continue to receive the attention they need, at times desperately so. From activists to policy makers to aid workers to healthcare professionals, those working on HIV also ensure that those affected by HIV are placed at the centre of discussions on HIV policy, funding and programming, and highlight the necessity of inextricably linking access to health as but one fundamental human right.

Health. Gender equality. Freedom from harm. The freedom to make decisions about one’s health and one’s own life. Respect and dignity. These are but a few of the words which come to mind on each World AIDS Day. And, they represent a world we can look forward to, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here’s to all those living with, affected by and responding to HIV. You deserve so much more than one day each year. You are worth so much more than one day on a calendar. May we collectively never forget your worth.

AIDS ribbon tree

The stories we miss

I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss the case of James Byrd. But, I did. Last night, we watched the brilliant and chilling documentary, Two Towns of Jasper.

My sleep was more than a little disturbed.

 

Despite a lynching that took place nearly 20 years ago, this film and the reality of events surrounding James Byrd’s slaughter remain relevant today. I suspect this is why PBS’s POV chose an encore airing in August of this real-life horror story.

We need look no further than Charlottesville and the public boastings of folks like David Duke and Richard Spencer to understand that far too many individuals would welcome such ‘opportunities’.

But, perhaps the more troubling aspect of towns like Jasper are the words of those interviewed in Two Towns. A white man relaying that he doesn’t understand what changed, whereby ‘nigger’ is now considered a derogatory or unacceptable term for a black individual. By his own account, there’s nothing wrong with that word, as those sitting around the same table nod in agreement. A white woman at that same table makes claims that ‘James Byrd was no model citizen of Jasper’, to collective, murmured agreement. The implication is clear: maybe his death was brutal, but it wasn’t like he didn’t have it coming to him.

Perhaps the worst moments in this film were not related to the trials of those accused or the outcomes for those miserable humans who carried out a truly gruesome attack on another human being. The worst moment for me was when the local school board decided to adjust the academic calendar, and render Martin Luther King Jr Day as a make up day for days lost during the school year. They rendered MLK Day expendable, whilst the Jasper rodeo remained a day off from school. A fucking rodeo.

The board reinstated the holiday, but only after significant opposition. Reverend Ray Charles Lewis says it best: ‘It’s easier for whites to forget,’ he noted.

My family is from a town very much like Jasper. And, I grew up listening and being outraged by some of the same comments and reflections made around various tables as those made by the white residents of Jasper. Sadly, those conversations or ideas are nothing new to me, I suppose.

But, that doesn’t make it right and nothing will change unless those of us with power speak up when we hear / bear witness to such archaic notions and prejudices. Whilst everyone may have prejudices, as yet another white Jasperian claims, we don’t have to accept them as honourable or acceptable. Particularly not today.

We all have a responsibility to stand up and stop an injustice when we see it happen. We all have a duty to our fellow humans to call out those who feel justified in using derogatory and demeaning labels to characterise others. We all must stand up and defend those being beaten and thrashed, whether by words or fists, for simple being different.

Most of all, we all must speak up, particularly when our voices shake the most. Because that’s when it matters most.