NYC, déjà vu or as Seen on TV By: Kausar Shahab (Al Buraq June / July 2012)

When horizons look frighteningly unfamiliar and where the predominant population is a good foot taller than me, I still like to take my kids out to new places and experiences. It’s a schematic building of memories on my part so they can remember their childhoods with fondness.  Our adventures are hardly fool proof. Days have uh-uh starts, local food unpronounceable, the weather unfavorable, the waits too long, but at end we usually come back happy because we had that one moment. The one moment when we felt glad we came.  

 When one sets out to visit a place like NYC, which has a larger than life on-screen and off-screen persona, one is under immense pressure to experience it as it should be according to the some 5, 10, 50- things- to-do and places-to-eat guides. We have to achieve the euphoria that’s been prescribed to us in the time sanctioned to us by our busy lives. As I said a moment ago, things are hardly fool proof. While it is hard to relive travel brochure magic, it is inevitable to form our own memories. Every seasoned, unseasoned, pasty, and baked camera totting- currency converting tourist makes them.

So buckle your seat belts and come away to NYC, which is popular culture imbued and exuded. Having made an appearance in many (as in, really that many?) popular movies, sitcoms, books and songs, NYC imparts a sense of déjà vu in visitors. It is said that memory is linear or layered; we remember things in order of occurrence or in relation to other memories. So let’s take a look at the eclectic past of the cultural / architectural lasagna that is NYC. 

 A few incidents took place in the 16th and 17th centuries that led to the formation of NYC.  In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano discovered it as a harbour, the now synonymous with New York -Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River in 1609, and twenty five years later, the Dutch established a permanent trading post there. Then in 1626, Peter Minuit, the first governor of NY brought the island of Manhattan in the deal of the millennia from the Natives for 24$. Today the cost of living in the Upper East Side is more than 1,200 $ per square foot.  Amidst all this land acquiring, a tiny Dutch town in southernmost Manhattan- the New Amsterdam flourished in pelt / hide and fur trade. Meanwhile, pioneering green people farmed in Manhattan and Brooklyn. New York even back then was hardly puritan. Early settlers were made of the Belgians, French and English, and later Jews and black slaves.  In the mid 16th century, a wooden wall of sorts was built to fence in the town of New Amsterdam. The adjacent street was aptly called, Wall Street.

In 1639, a Swede settler by the name of Jonas Bronck settled in the area that became (surprise!) the Bronx.  The nostalgic Dutch also built the village of Nieuw Haarlem, named after an original in Holland in 1658. By the 18th century, the local real estate had begun its climb. Then in 1647, New Amsterdam acquired a governor, Peter Stuyvestant who proceeded further model this parallel universe to the municipal government of Dutch cities. He however, gave up in 1664 with the arrival of the English followed by a period of ‘mine, I saw it first, I win, you cheated’. In 1674, with the English in power, New Amsterdam anglicised, in the fashion of the creatively blasé and became New York in honor of the Duke of York.  Today, the neighborhoods of New York City are divided between its five boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx.

The Upper East Side: longitudes 59th to 96th Street, latitudes East River to Central Park. This neighborhood is home to the stretch known as the Museum Mile. Among the better known are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Frick Collection, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. To those who haven’t even flown over New York City, there is still a fleeting sense of familiarity with Park Avenue, Madison Avenue and Central Park where the rich and famous live, shop and stroll. Its hard not to feel familiar, when you have seen Sherman McCoy’s apartment on 186 Park Street (Bonfire of the Vanities) and picked up Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffan’s son from his elementary school in the same area (Kramer vs Kramer). And of course, when scrunching noses at the faux pas of the neuveu riche, one thinks of Upper East Side residents like Kennedys, and the Rockerfellers by international default.

Hell’s Kitchen: longitudes 34th to 57th Streets, latitudes 8th Ave to Hudson River. This mini geography is an upwardly mobile area that features the Theater District, unique neighborhood spots, weekend markets, and antique shops. Every third week of May it hosts the oldest street fairs in the city – the Ninth Avenue Association’s International Food Festival. Hell’s Kitchen has rehabbed and image managed in a big way since the American Civil War when it saw a jump in tenements and migrants, many of whom turned to gang life. The numerous warehouses that still survive functioned as breweries for rumrunners controlling illicit liquor. By 1965, Hell’s Kitchen was the head quarters for the Westies, Irish Americans associated with the Gambino crime family. Demographics began to change in the 1980s with the rise of the working class. Zoning laws, however, limited the extension of Midtown Manhattan’s skyscrapers into Hell’s Kitchen until recently. Laws were relaxed after September 1, 2001 under Michael Bloomberg, leading to a real estate boom. In June 2004, a hotel group bought a motel and an adjacent property for $9 million, and sold it ion August for $43 million.
The world addresses some of Hell’s Kitchen’s former residents by their first names, or only their last i.e. Madonna, Seinfeld, Stallone etc.  Movie bluffs even have visual imagery of its gang history from movies like the West Side Story, shot on 65th to 69th Street.  It tells of the conflict between the Irish, Italians, and the Puerto Ricans. Today the neighborhood accommodates numerous broad cast and music studios like the CBS Broadcast Center, and shows like Comedy Central’s the Daily show and the Montel William Show are taped here.

Greenwich Village / the Village: longitudes Houston to 14th Street, latitudes Broadway to the Hudson. Once, cheap and Bohemian, only the latter nomenclature has stuck. Its residents inspire style and enterprise in the remotest corners of the world. An unschooled Bangladeshi house maid I know, pulls a Carrie Bradshaw like no body’s business-  confidence, big hair, diamantes, etc. She may live under the poverty line, but she lives it up with a repertoire of girl friends.  For the rest, can you imagine what a humourless place the world would be without the uncoordinated bozo doing the YMCA by the Village People, or the jiver busting an ethnic move on “It Aint Me Babe” by Bob Dylan, a former villager.
A popular landmark in the Village is the Washington Park, entered through an archway reminiscent of the Arc de Tripomphe in Paris.  It is a public park, yet considered the core of the New York University.  It features gardens, walkways, commemorative statues, picnic areas, and chess areas.  You remember it, don’t you, from ‘When Harry Met Sally’ or ‘Ghostbusters’? No? But I am sure everyone has ‘Friends’ in the village; the popular sitcom used the park repeatedly as a backdrop. The neighborhood is a study in art deco architectures and an incongruent skyline. It offers Michelin starred food in Soto, Annisa, Blue Hill and Walle. It also offers performing arts and off-Broadway shows.

The Bowery: longitudes Cooper Square to Chatham Square, on the latitude it intersects southeast Manhattan. Its former skid row image is on a PR make over; the area is on a roll and has up coming and upscale hotels and restaurants to its claim, like the Sperone Westwater Art Gallery. In 2011, The Bowery Historic District was added in the National Register of Historic Places. While on a real estate revamp, the historic designation provides for financial incentives for the restoration of old buildings rather than their razing. Some prominent points of interest are the Peanut Gallery and New Museum featuring upcoming international artists. The New Museum has also been ranked as one of the architectural seven wonders by Conde Nast Traveler.  The Bowery has inspired some popular lyrics, so as I write this, I  cant help but hum “I walked by a Guernsey cow: who directed me down; to the Bowery slums: where people carried signs around saying, ban the bums” (Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream by Bob Dylan). 

Boerum Hill: a small neighborhood in the boroughs of Brooklyn. It is easiest described as an area of 36 blocks,  bordered by State Street in the north, Warren Street in the south, 4th Avenue in  the east, and Smith Street in the west. Boerum Hill also accommodates indie boutiques, writers, editors, hipsters and young families.  It is rich in history, and on the rise in development and respectability.  It’s a low key area, originally named for Simon Boeum’s 1900s farm. Today the main relationship it maintains with food is the eating out type. It encourages local produce and eateries with a French connection e.g.  Saul and Brooklyn Fare. In July it celebrates Bastilles Day fete on Smith Street. International food fare can also be found in Boerum Hill, including, Middle Eastern kibbe, fatoush and spiced hummus.  Creative Cooks, a culinary school for kids in Boerum Hill dabbling in international food is testament to this neighborhood’s fancy for fancy food. Among places to see in Boerum Hill are the Micro Museum, the New York Transit Museum, and Roulette, a venue for New York’s new art and dance experiments. 

So, whether you set out to build your own memories in NYC, or build on existing ones, one thing is for sure. This city is personal. Personal in way that when Godzilla rampages through its streets and when giant UFOs cast shadow over its well recognized landmarks, they have mass impact. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that there are more Irish in NYC than in Dublin, more Italians than in Rome and more Jews than in Tel Aviv. As the Vulcans would say “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, maybe that’s the legacy of NYC. 


Figs, Olives and a Land Safe.

Recently I sat across from a gentleman at a workshop. Being Toronto, the attendees were diverse, meaning a healthy balance of visible minorities and indiscernible majorities. But there was something that drew me inexplicably to the gentleman in question. At the first opportunity, I made a beeline towards him and blurted out “so which part of Libya are you from?” Normally I do not assume nationalities in the politically correct, ethnically amorphous city I call home, but there are somethings in life that one is just sure of. He smiled and asked me the same. I said to him:

A transient graft
a psycho-geographical product
in borrowed land

Of course I didn’t pull a philosophical haiku on the spot, but something close enough that said I had spent a lot of impressionable years in his country.

Following a traditionally prolonged exchange of greetings-cum-enquiries about our healths and that of our extended kin, my new found friend and I concur that countries are merely imaginary lines drawn on the globe. People put in the confines of those imaginations long enough morph into the idea of the country. Like Appellation d’Origine Contrôlēe (AOC) or controlled designations of origin based on the idea of terroir, people take on regional traits like accents, allegiances etc. AOC is a French recognition for the geographical indication of wine, cheese, butter and other dairy products – ‘nutty with ze ‘int of organic Alfa Alfa grown in Brittany’. I see no reason why the appellation cannot apply to people ‘nutty with ze ‘int of borderline but endearing tribal insanity’.

Time momentarily and a momentous time bend in a graceful ballet as we talk. Vegetation separate coastlines and oases from the desert. The fertile plains of Libya meet the Quranic description of figs, olive, and a land made safe. Homer’s Odyssey (IX.95; XXIII.311) describes it as “a land of wonderful richness, where the lambs have horns as soon as they are born, where ewes lamb three times a year and no shepherd ever goes short of milk, meat or cheese”. The sandy vastness of the Sahara is purifying and fluid, carrying legacies of the past, and claiming the present. Out of this amalgamation emerge days of prismatic sunshine and starry nights of velvety blue replete with dioramic cast and camel.

Libya is astoundingly beautiful in every touristy sense. Temperate and with the right amount of colonizations that ensure culturally and periodically miscellaneous ruins and fusion Mediterranean cuisine. A picnic of stuffed grape leaves in the ancient city of Leptis Magna, followed by espresso in the old Turkish markets make for incredible vacation moments. However, when a visit comprises of an entire childhood with open minded, gastronomically brave parents as guides, the tour becomes a lesson in insider intricacies, such as local saints, Berbers high in the mountains of Yafreen, and abandoned World War barracks reinvented as sheep pens. Unlike an itinerary, we lived our childhood as part of the land, if not as a product of it. We mourned lost war heroes and rejoiced in multiple independence days (from the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and at last count, the Italians). We exchanged Ramadan gifts with neighbors, sheltered stray dogs, ate prickly pears and regarded Omar Al Mukhtar as a true freedom fighter. Che, Dr. King, even Batman came much later as conscious efforts to globalize our horizons.

The local cuisine was less about restaurants and more about associations. Orange blossom water was synonymous with hot Ghibli winds; ghraiba (shortbread cookies) and basbousa (sweet cookies) with weddings; and weddings with Muna and Hamid. The two were love torn neighbors with feuding families. They waited patiently for their respective families to come to their senses while their younger siblings got hitched. We waited with them, as we attended those weddings. At Nadia’s wedding (Muna’s younger sister), “Ice Ice Baby” and “Didi” by Cheb Khaled played around the clock. To this day, they interject all wedding scores for me. Here comes the bride, (Now that the party is jumping, with the bass kicked in, the Vegas are pumping). Here comes the bride (Didi, didi zindi wah), Here comes the bride (Didi, didi, didi).
Boundaries and fear of common communicable diseases did not dictate our lives as we sat down to communal Cous-cous platters and got chased by a hose pipe wielding half crazed Haj (elderly man)for stealing green almonds from his trees. We saw Libya beyond its OPEC status or its latest severed diplomatic tie with the civilized world. Too young and naïve to prophesize its political future or crude oil status, we took it a day at a time. Tomorrow was far in the future. Jjust as well, because procrastination was a national attitude. There was nothing that could not be averted with “malish, ta’al bukra” (“no biggie, come tomorrow”).
Leaving Tripoli was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The finality of it took years to set in. I left behind a room full of teenage paraphernalia -posters, books and clothes. I also left behind heart aches, friends and my name scratched in desks and walls. That’s one of the first things I thought about when the civil war broke out in 2011, my name engraved in various wood and concrete surfaces. They maybe gone, but I keep looking for signs of Libya wherever I go. And sometimes they do turn up like terfase (desert truffles): ‘nutty, pleasantly non-descript, reminiscent of sand and sunshine’ where I least suspect. Seeking confirmation, I look at my friend from the workshop and both of us smile at my note pad on which I have a quote from George Elliot “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it”.
By: Kausar Shahab


By: Kausar Shahab (Originally published in a Toronto based Bengali Magazine commemorating Sheikh Hasina’s visit: July 2011).

“Klanti amar khoma koro Probhu
Pothe jodi pichchie pori kobhu
Ei je hia thoro thoro kape aji emontoro
Ei bedoan khoma koro, khoma koro Probhu” (Tagore).

Beautiful as the poem is, its entreaty and suplication is intensified and correctly appreciable only in Bangla. In what other language is there a word for cleanliness that sounds like a sparkly spell other than ‘poreshkar porechchinno’. No other language can embody the volatility and impatience of ‘hulustul’ and ‘osthir’. Bangla sounds like the tinkle of bells, Bangla brings back memories of home.

Bangla reminds me of shimmering mighty rivers. It reminds me of precarious fertile silt that sift the land and its people. It is the language I hear in my memories from Kamplapur railway station to Mymensingh. It is the language I see etched in the pained facial contours of Zainul Abedin’s famine struck farmers. It is the language of some of the best friends I ever made. It speaks of relentless loyalty and togetherness. It takes me on journeys of marriages, deaths, drag races and carefully orchestrated near deaths on getting the “ditch”. It patronizes me into over paying for roses I don’t need at traffic lights. It leaves me slightly debilitated when I don’t find it in my operative vernacular. It puts Ayub Bacchu’s “Tumi Kano Bojho Na” right up there on the list with Lionel Richies’ “Hello”. It is the language of my home.

Bangla takes me to a time before the rise of the geo-political cognizanti. In a time before documented history, I see the landscape unfolding to sustain the language. The geography and topography taking form in preparedness for syllable ridden words yet to be born. For in my mind, Bangla beholds and gives shape to the meandering Matamohori, and the ‘lota, patas’ of the Krishna Chura. No other phonetic could arbor and entail such names, were it not for the tendril like shapes of the ‘shoreos’ and ‘shoreas’. Bangla tells the stories of more than 160 million lives joined in a land. It tells the story of many who have given their lives for it. It beholds the future of many more whose lives are entwined with it.

Hardly has a language in history made an impact so deep on its politics and nationalism than Bangla. Of Eastern Indo Aryan decent, it evovled from ancient Sanskrit around 1000 -1200 AD. It wont be exgeration to say Bangladesh is probably the only nation in the world whose liberty was initiated by subjugatory threats to its language. The Bhasha Andolon or the Language Movement, started in the late 1940s, to gain regognition for Bangla as an official langauge. Today more than 200 million people in the world speak it.

Born some years after the liberation war, raised outside the country and educated primarily if not solely in English, there is different ‘andolon’ taking place for a new generation of Bengalis like myself. They struggle to instill the significance of their language and culture in a new world context. In Bangladesh the ‘andolon’ is of moving into the new times with the majority of our population still without basic humanitarian rights. Present times necessitates for us to once again raise our voices for what rightfully belongs to our people, dignity and freedom of choices in a land they live in. Let us, once again come together to ensure our rights and privileges as they were meant to be, of the people and for the people.

Starting at home, let us ensure that Bangalis are recognized and respected for what they are. One baby step at a time. Start with custom guys at the What-now International Airport. Yeah, you at the Bangaldeshi passport holder booths, match your attitude to the guys at the foreign passport holder booths. You are not dealing with visitors. You are welcoming home or bidding farewell to your brothers and sisters bound by history, geography, political science, sociology, statistics, and obligation. When you get abusive and superior with your own, what are you telling the rest of the world? Tumi kano bujho na? Lala lala hmm hmmm. Something, something, lalala hmm hmm….

On a Wing and a Prayer (Pubslished in Al Buraq April/ May 2012)

To combat the ennui of long distant travels entailing a combination of more than two airports, an equal number of continents and more time zones than can be good for you, I like to pretend I am an alien on a tight tour of cultures. Airports become a study in languages, human hues and corporate whos. They are places where globalization and international stick figure signs run unbound without preamble. Pants this way, skirts the other. Masais and Scots in traditional ensembles, consult. Families with cranky children, follow the beckon of the golden arches. Airline lounges speak volumes about where the carrier is headed to and who is being transported. For people watchers, airports could actually become destinations. Unlike people ‘at rest’, that ‘attend only to the invariable, the great, and general ideas, which are fixed and inherent in universal nature’(Reynold, Joshua), travelers represent the community of mankind at its most tired and intriguing.

Thus occupied mentally I soar, I land and go through metal detectors. My bemused complacency only changes when I ask my self where is it that I am headed?  I have just been home to my family on a two way ticket. I needed a visa with a date of expiration to visit my homeland. I am now, coming to a place I have decided to call home half way through life. On coming back, I would have been gone for six weeks. Will have encountered an in-flight magazine named Al Buraq and come home to realize nothing has changed, not a moment has elapsed since I left.

Burdened with such Dalisque spiritualism, I prepare to connect onto a Western carrier. I am once again westward bound. Headed to weather controlled buildings, competent flight attendants and a wider choice of non-alcoholic and decaffeinated beverages on the drink cart. In case of an airborne disaster, I know getting out of a burning/sinking aircraft would be orderly.  Racism or classism, more subtle. We have after all, in the civilized world, come a long way from circa Titanic to circa lawsuits. Feeling placated already, I settle in. Then it happens again. A fellow passenger asks whether I am headed home. Home? A sudden panic besieges me. Assured of all democratic civil, post civil and neo cyber amenities once aboard the plane home, the aircraft GPS would have stopped featuring the direction of the Qibla. That alone throws me off track and disorients me. So far, I have traveled on the wings of Subhanal lazi sakhkhara lana haza was ma kunna lahu muqrineen. That’s more than a mortal fear of flight speaking. No disrespect aimed at anyone remotely affiliated to human aviations, from the Wright brothers to Kwon Ki- ok (the later is not just a fun name; she actually helped found the Republic of Korea Air Force).

As we enter yet another time zone, I am reminded that times have indeed changed since I was a child. A famous skyline has been altered, dictators have been ousted and Carrie Fisher has been put on Weight Watchers. My brief transitory rendezvous (x) with Gulf countries remind of a world I knew.  A world that continues to exist outside of the one I know today. Aerial sand dunes give away to beaten dirt roads; palm trees to ‘barhee’, ‘halawy’, ‘khadrawy’ and ‘medjool’ (Arabic for dates at different stages of maturity) eaten along those dirt roads. Without giving away my exact coordinates, it would suffice to say my present vernacular could benefit more from being able to distinguish between ‘sikuliaq’, ‘sarri’ and ‘tuvaq’ (Eskimo for ice at different stages of maturity). I am nostalgic for times committed to memory. As Groucho Marx said “I don’t have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They’re upstairs in my socks.” Here put on my sock and come away with me.

In my memories, a major part of my sense of touch and vision is made up piles of clean, almost orange Saharan sand that was always cool in the evenings. The part of my vision that transforms simple visual realities into questions grew by staring at velvety starlit Saharan skies. All these were a part of, or rather because of a country not famous for its international diplomacy.  Old Turkish markets and elaborate weddings where one went to help make cookies. Where elderly ladies served mint and almond tea and affectionately called you noorie (‘my eyes’, translated literally) and kabdie (‘my liver’, also translated literally). I tried not to imagine myself as the supportive organs of diabetic and overweight old women, lest I became cataractic and dysfunctional. In reality, I know some important part of me would have been dysfunctional without these amazing people surrounding me. Especially, our old landlord Haj Ramadan who walked like a stubby barrel (childhood polio) between his porch and ours, telling us jokes through the window on evenings we were banished to our rooms for some domestic offence committed earlier in the evening.

My mind reels at the hardly contained emotions of a long past childhood, of parents that need me now like I still need them. The few weeks I spent with them already fading into a dream. Only the journey and changing races and faces of people remind me that I have crossed oceans. Panic besieges me afresh. We are no longer approaching the Qibla, in fact we are flying past it. I look back trying to still keep it in my line of vision. Where is east and at what longitude did west begin? Suddenly it dawns on me. Literally, for I am approaching my second sunrise in an unnaturally short time. All that I hold dear is neither left nor right of me. All that grounds me is at the very center of my universe. What is east, but a heliocentric, sometimes geocentric perspective. I turn forward once again in my seat, my back to the world I have left once again, looking forward to being in it once more.  Thank you Lord. Lord of the two Easts and Two Wests for this moment of clarity.

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