how the world sees america

August 2007 Archives

August 2, 2007 12:34 PM

How India Sees America

AIIMS central lawn, where my father studied medicine
New Delhi - In 1976, my father graduated from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the best public med-schools and hospitals in the country. Tens of thousands apply, 50 are accepted; then the Indian government sponsors their topnotch education. But like well-known author alum Deepak Chopra and more than half his class, my dad left for the United States after graduating. Three decades later, I visit AIIMS to see if students are still leaving for America in droves.

The med-school isn’t the gleaming structure my dad described. It’s dark and dilapidated. Thousands of patients of all ages huddle on the ground awaiting treatment, stretched out on mats in the sweltering heat. Monkeys swing on exposed pipes. It’s a stark contrast to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where my dad now treats his predominantly geriatric clientèle in cool bleached rooms.

Cardio-thoracic surgeon Dr. Balram Airan is among the few members of my father’s class to stay in India, practicing and teaching. Outside his office a sea of bodies throb, jockeying for attention. I take a minute of his time to ask if his students are leaving India for America in the numbers his classmates once did. “No,” he says, “many more are staying put.”

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August 6, 2007 2:46 PM

Kashmiri Insurgent Puts Hope in America

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Srinagar, Kashmir - Yasin Malik introduced the Kalashnikov to Kashmir. That’s what villagers in Pampur say. He’s a folk hero here among the thousands who share his dream of independence. Malik tells me that America is essential to realizing that dream. From the schoolyard to the interrogation room, he has always thought so.

India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir ever since its king acceded his predominantly Muslim state to India in 1947. Over the decades, the India-administered portion has demanded independence, growing increasingly violent as the Indian army swelled to suppress militants.

Yasin Malik was born in 1966. His father was a government servant in Ladakh. He had three sisters, no brothers. His childhood was relatively normal. “When I was ten,” he tells me, “even that young, I had great hope for America.” Classmates and Malik giddily exchanged rumors that “Americans would send troops for the Kashmiris” to help them achieve independence. America distrusted the non-aligned India during the Cold War and cooperated with Pakistan to oppose the Soviet presence in neighboring Afghanistan, so the rumors grew easily that America would also side with Pakistan and Kashmir's Muslims over India's territorial claims. “We had great faith in America.”

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August 6, 2007 5:26 PM

On Landing, Pakistan Defies My Expectations

Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, Pakistan
Waiting in the New Delhi airport, I feed Kurkure (spicy Indian Cheetos) to a stray cat. My flight to Lahore is delayed by hours, no way to know how many. Nothing to do. It’s a fairly rundown place; only two duty-free stores and a few food stands -- an unimpressive airport for the capital of an emerging global superpower.

Finally the plane arrives. Eighty 30-something men rush to the boarding gate. A Pakistani airlines representative barks at them, “This is not a bus! You have assigned seats. Step back!” These laborers are rushing to leave India for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, transiting through Lahore, trying to earn more money. I board the plane, smile at the anxious worker beside me and stroke my beard.

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August 9, 2007 12:19 PM

American Arrogance -- Or Just Self-Awareness?

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Lahore, Pakistan - "It's all about me and I in America," says Umer Naru, elongating his vowels. He's a young director putting on the Neil Simon play "45 Seconds from Broadway" with high school drama students and recent graduates in Lahore, Pakistan. The play is about a talented, egocentric American playwright surrounded by aspiring directors and performers. To director Umer and lead actor Waleed Zaidi, Americans are a lot like the protagonist -- blunt, bright, but self-absorbed.

This applies both to the country, they say, which has selfishly pursued its own interests in Pakistan, and to Americans, who are as Umer says willfully "ignorant of the world." The former they have learned from parents and textbooks, the latter they know from Fox television broadcasts that find their way over here, and from relatives abroad. I try to dig further into politics and get a rebuff: "Look, America has done very little good here; they use us and we are then bombed," says Waleed. "We stay away from politics….We just live our lives."

As I watch them rehearse on the roof of a nearby primary school late at night -- to save money -- I see what they mean. These student actors drip with sweat as they squint at their scripts by the light of a billboard. They've fundraised for this play themselves over months, soliciting local sponsors. It's a labor of love.

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August 10, 2007 1:30 PM

Pakistani Rock Star Sings "bin Laden Blues"

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Lahore, Pakistan - When Pakistani rock stars Ali Azmat and Mekaal Hasan were hitting their teens, U.S.-backed military dictator Zia-ul-Haq “Islamized” Pakistan. “There was no entertainment; nothing. It was the worst time to be a teenager in Pakistan. We just roamed around on bikes,” Ali complained. “I didn’t drink until I was twenty-five!”

But during this time, American programming came through. Pakistan and the U.S. were allies. And as Zia-ul-Haq sobered up Pakistan, urban-dwelling Ali and Mekaal could still get their eyeballs in front of TV screens and watch MTV once in a while. “Black suite, white socks, Jackson changed everything; 'Thriller' changed everything,” says Ali. “Your MTV sent out videos of rockers with girls roller blading on Miami Beach….Fireworks. Chicks. Big cars. You’re like ‘Holy Fruity!’ I want to do that action on guitar myself.” So Ali imitated big singers from Bruce Springsteen to Eric Clapton, and found he could hit the high notes. His friends loved it. He felt liberated by it.

And after a while of imitating American sound and the style -- “Long hair, glamrock, cheetah print pants” -- he “got interested in...actually hearing the great musicians.” And with friends like Hasan, he traded dubbed tapes of Western bands, from famous to obscure.

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August 14, 2007 11:00 AM

Begum Nawazish Ali - Drag Queen Defies U.S.

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Lahore, Pakistan - "I'm a drag queen, darling…not an extremist…and I still say if Pakistanis had more self-respect, we'd be even more anti-American," says Ali Saleem, who glosses his lips and dons a sari each week to interview celebrities and politicians on his TV program Begum Nawazish Ali, a talk show sensation in Pakistan. "I'm not speaking religion; it's common sense."

From politics to culture, Ali says American intervention in Pakistan has “brought nothing but sadness” by supporting dictators and rendering Pakistan’s people impotent, constantly looking to the outside world, particularly the U.S., for help solving its own problems.

He sees his TV show as an attempt to rekindle a sense of pride and responsibility in his viewers. He uses our interview to call for a boycott of all American goods and cultural products. Pakistanis must “Turn within for inspiration.”

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August 17, 2007 3:36 PM

Ahmed Rashid: Bush Didn't Listen

Does Musharraf guide the Bush agenda?
Lahore, Pakistan - “I’ve promised myself I won’t go back to America until the Bush administration leaves . . . It’s hopeless with them there,” PostGlobal panelist and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid tells me in his bulletproof library outside Lahore.

For three decades, Ahmed has been investigating the nexus between the Pakistan military and extremist groups, roving tribal lands in between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the years, his books and articles have been translated into all local languages, spawning many enemies “bearded and non-bearded” who accuse him of undermining his religion and his state. He’s received so many death threats that he lives in a house encased in sheet metal. A spindly man with a fat shotgun guards the iron gate entrance.

Knowledge is a dangerous thing for Ahmed. When I told the Pakistani Press counselor in DC that I would be visiting Ahmed, I was told "not to put that in writing because Islamabad won't accept your request." Ahmed's family shares the burden. Over a pasta lunch, Ahmed’s Spanish wife tells me with a laugh how anxious her family back home still is about her safety, two decades after she left Spain. Their eighteen-year-old daughter chuckles, and pets one of their three dogs.

Ahmed believes his research is worth the risk. The mountains and valleys surrounding Afghanistan are among the least understood parts of the globe, he says. And he believes his findings help policymakers understand and alleviate tensions in the volatile region. He's shared his research with the world and has had high hopes, particularly for successive U.S. administrations. In recent years that hope has been dashed.

Until Bush came into office, Ahmed thought his words mattered to America. In the 1980s, he discussed Islamic resistance with ambassadors over tea. In the 1990s, he collaborated with policymakers to raise Afghanistan's profile in the Clinton White House. But during the Bush administration, he feels his risky research has been for naught.

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August 22, 2007 11:03 AM

Rumor Controls

Washington, DC - After 100 days abroad, I fly home to Washington D.C. scrutinizing an old copy of a Pakistani paper called The Daily Times to pass the late hours. America appears in 15 articles across 12 pages, only once with kind adjectives. Unsurprising. Then an article on A12 grips me:

Headline: "11 polio workers abducted in Khar, campaign halted"

Excerpt: Tribesmen in the Bajaur tribal district bordering Afghanistan refused to allow the [polio] vaccinations to take place after hearing rumors that the drive was a 'US plot' to sterilize Muslim children, residents said.... Health officials had been trying to dispel rumors -- sometimes spread by radio stations or from the loudspeakers of mosques -- that the polio campaign was a Western conspiracy to reduce Muslim populations.

I shudder. The two burly men squishing me from either side open their eyes into slits, grunt, and then pass back out. In the darkness, one word lingers in my mind: “Conspiracy...

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August 24, 2007 1:00 PM

Iranian Americans: Art Intimidates Life

Perhaps because he’s an artist Behn speaks openly even though his story is not an easy or a safe one to tell. “They could grab my father whenever they want...and start torturing him again,” Behn says. Even at home in Los Angeles, Behn fears Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. I watch as censorship transcends borders.

His studio.
Back in May before launching off to England, I visited Los Angeles, or “Tehrangeles” as some interviewees called it. I wanted to practice video-blogging and hoped to visit Iran sometime soon. I figured they'd have strong perspectives to explore.

So I spent two weeks talking with taxi drivers, artists, comedians, fashion designers, politicians, communists, and tortured revolutionaries. I found America was central to their vision for a better Iran.

Now in DC planning which countries to visit next, I thought it would be a good time to publish this material and explore the sentiments of this unique community with you. Let's start with Behn.

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August 28, 2007 1:01 PM

Young Iranian Americans Fear War With Themselves

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When the U.S. and Iran rattle sabers at each other on the world's stage, young Iranian Americans in Los Angeles get shaken up in very personal ways. “Every time there's conflict, like the hostage crisis, Desert Storm, 9-11, now Iran, we feel it here. We’re called 'bin Ladens' or '[Expletive] Iranians' in school and told to go home," says a young, earnest LA rapper who calls himself “The Poet.”

He and his colleague "Basic" prefer to use their artist names. Their identity is fluid, they say; birth names can't keep up. "We're a bridge between Iran and America," they claim, hoping somebody will use them.

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August 30, 2007 12:00 PM

How the World Sees Jack Bauer

"24" Season 4; 12:00pm-1:00pm. Two-dozen Muslim hostiles toting semi-automatics hold the U.S. Secretary of Defense hostage in a bunker outside Los Angeles. Within the hour they plan to execute him for war crimes. Why? “It’s Jihad,” explains the terrorist mastermind. Suddenly, U.S. agent Jack Bauer emerges through shadow and hurls a knife through the terrorist's neck. 24 and its hero Bauer, played by Keifer Sutherland, make for popular TV, with fifteen million U.S. viewers. But actor Maz Jobrani, who wouldn’t take the role of the terrorist mastermind, says the show is bad for him and for America.

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Maz, a bald, mustached Iranian American, grew up playing Li'l Abner and Batman in high school. In college, his Iranian parents pushed him to political science, which he dabbled in before deciding he liked the camera more than the lectern. But in the real world of Hollywood, auditions started coming in “for terrorist role after terrorist role” -- and “generic” terrorists at that “with no emotional or psychological complexity.” For an actor, it was boring. For an Iranian, belittling. And for Americans, Maz says, it's dangerously oversimplifying.

According to Maz, the problem with TV like this is that when average American viewers see a white American villain on screen, they think “‘Wow, that American’s crazy,’” but when they see a Middle Eastern or Iranian villain on screen they say, “‘Man those Iranians are crazy.’ They don’t distinguish.”

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PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.