East vs. West

Stereotypes are terrible and the plural of anecdote is not data. Individuals from any culture should be judged as individuals. But there are cultural differences in attitudes and behaviors. I give below two anecdotes that I think illustrate some broad differences between East and West.

Anecdote 1: A day or so after our arrival  in Israel I entered the common room of our guesthouse. I found the guesthouse owner and his wife taking apart the protective wire mesh enclosing the fan blades of some portable fans and cleaning dust off the fan blades. My East vs. West alarm goes off and I realize that I am back in the West. In the East, the guesthouse owners would not be cleaning anything, they would have people to do the cleaning for them. And it is unlikely that fan blades would be cleaned in the East until the actual functioning of the fan was effected and then it would be sent to a repairman. Of course, in the West these days there are no repairmen.

There is a logic behind this, at least to a point. There seems to be more people available more cheaply in the East and so it makes financial sense for those who have some money to hire those who have less to do jobs we in the West would do for ourselves. It is even a generous and compassionate thing to do, to spread the wealth, so to speak. Labor costs have also made repair of all but the highest price items we in the West own uneconomical, thus rendering most of our possessions effectively disposable.

But we also observed in the East a denigration of cleaning. This may stem from the traditional caste system where someone who cleaned was of low caste and hence denigrated. A corollary to this was our observation that those who cleaned were seldom given efficient tools to do their work. Cleaners worked with worn out, manual,  and outdated equipment and without appropriate chemicals to do the job well. I saw one extreme in India. A man was using an ordinary broom to sweep a Delhi street, very early in the morning when traffic was almost nonexistent. He swept the dust to a pile on the median of the street. This man had a truly Sisyphean task as, of course, the next day’s traffic would simply redistribute the dust and debris back into the street. In another example, I watched four women sitting on a lawn at the Jantar Mantar (Jai Singh’s ancient observatory) in Jaipur, their children running and playing among the observatory’s instruments. I thought they were having a family picnic in this park-like setting until I realized they were weeding the lawn, by hand.

Anecdote 2:  Our car had been stored in a rented storage unit all year. We went to retrieve it in the afternoon on the day after we arrived. The battery, well past its expected life anyway, was completely discharged. I removed it from the car and we took it to a local auto shop. I asked the supervisor if he would sell me a new battery and would he please have someone install it at the storage locker, a five minute drive away. Well, he checked his inventory and announced that he did have one in stock that would fit my car. Then he looked at the clock and saw that it was 4:45 PM. This became the stumbling block. The job would take maybe one half hour and that would mean one of his employees would have to work maybe 15 minutes past the 5 PM closing time. He had four men, all idle, visible from the front of his business lounging in the shop. There was no discussion of whether I might pay a bit more to cover the overtime, no discussion with the slouching young men whether they might be willing to help someone out, nothing. The 5 PM closing time brooked no exceptions. My money remained in my pocket and I was asked to return the next day. For reasons I cannot explain, I foolishly did, effectively encouraging his foolish behavior. After all, I could have gone to WalMart and been done with it.

This would never have happened in the East. A customer with money in hand that has chosen your shop to spend the money is a precious thing, not to be wasted. Businesses in Sri Lanka often have posted closing times of 7:30 PM or later.  And we were never asked to leave a shop or even given subtle hints to leave even when we later realized that we were in a shop after its posted closing time. Kris made a number of visits to a jeweler whose shop was inside a hotel in Kandy. The jeweler gave the bartender his phone number and when Kris arrived one day when the shop was closed, the bartender asked Kris to wait and then called the jeweler who immediately arrived to open up the shop just for her. If there was an exception it was with Muslim owned shops that closed for a couple of hours for Friday prayers. But even then many Muslim shop owners had non-Muslim friends in neighboring shops who watched the business until prayers were complete. Now sometimes this eagerness to make a sale went too far. We had any number of instances where a shopkeeper would misrepresent his goods in order to make a sale. Shopping in the East is  caveat emptor at its extreme.

As befitting anecdotal evidence, there is no real conclusion to be drawn from these observations, just illustrations of our experiences with East vs. West.



Pakistan: Academic Visits

The United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) made good use of my ten days in  Pakistan. I have already mentioned my talk given at the Fulbright Alumni conference on my work establishing a computational physics course at Peradenyia. In the days following the conference, arrangements were made for me to visit Pakistan’s top university, Quaid-i-Azam University (see also), COMSATS  Institute for Information Technology (COMSATS IIT, see also), and Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (in nearby Rawalpindi, see also). I was astonished in all cases to be received as if I was a Nobel Prize winner.

My first visit to Quad-i-Azam University was to meet Professor Doctor M. Aslam Baig, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Distinguished National Professor, and a physicist. After talking for awhile to introduce ourselves to each other, including a visit to Professor Baig’s research lab, the conversation turned to one that seemed to run through all of academic visits. Leading Pakistani physicists are openly very concerned about the state of physics education at all levels (secondary through graduate). More discussion below, but one thing that came out of my talk with Professor Baig was that it was extremely difficult to get academics to visit Pakistan. Unlike Sri Lanka, there is some available money to “throw at” the problem, but Professor Baig’s attempts to bring American physicists to Pakistan to talk about new pedagogy were ultimately unsuccessful because of a reluctance by American academics to visit Pakistan. I find this somewhat unfortunate on a number of counts. One is that it shows that even American physicists are not very good at risk assessment (or not very interested in visiting such a historically interesting part of the world). Secondly, Pakistan is a long standing ally of the US and deserves our support on many levels. If the Pakistanis are putting there lives on the line against al-Quaida and the Taliban daily, the least we can do is to accept the infinitesimal increased risk of traveling to stable regions in the country. In any case, this reluctance may help explain my extremely warm reception in Pakistan.

My next visit was to COMSATS IIT where I met with the chair of the Physics Department, Professor Arshad Saleem Bhatti. After a brief mutual introduction, once again the topic turned to physics education in Pakistan. Professor Bhatti left the room briefly, rounded up his senior professors, and brought them back to his office to discuss the issue. Again, I will postpone a discussion of the details, but I was surprised at the openness and the apparent sense of urgency surrounding the issue.

After about an hour of pedagogical discussion, Professor Bhatti took me to his “dream” lab. He has been funded to create one of the first semiconductor fab research facilities in the country. I was not aware that in both India and Pakistan there has not been much development of semiconductor processing and research, the heart of modern electronics. In retrospect, this makes sense because of the expense involved in getting started in this area. Instead, India and Pakistan have been more involved in software development. However, recently Pakistan is devoting more resources to academic research and Professor Bhatti has created an impressive new lab that is just about to switch from the construction phase to the research phase. He told me it was his “dream” lab because it has been so long just a figment of his imagination, but now it is coming true after many years of hard work.

My first post-Fulbright Alumni conference talk was given to a general audience at Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (FJWU). We arrived just a few minutes late, unfortunately. Our USEFP SUV stopped right outside the auditorium where I was to speak. I was greeted by the Registrar of FJWU, the Vice-Chancellor unfortunately detained elsewhere. The hand shake greeting was recorded by an official photographer as was the rest of my visit. I stepped into the packed auditorium which probably had a seating capacity of 150 students. I was embarrassed by having to make them wait further while my PowerPoint slides were loaded and then I had to give my lecture from a podium with a fixed microphone, too far from my computer to advance my own slides.

The talk I prepared was a general talk on the rise of computation as a new mode of inquiry in science, on a par with theory and experiment. I told them of the duplicity of physicists in presenting basic physics as if all problems had analytic solutions if only one were smart enough to figure them out. I used the simple pendulum as an example then introduced the double pendulum as a counter example. I finished by talking a little about what it takes to set up a computational physics course and some cultural differences I had encountered in teaching computational physics at Peradeniya.

The professor who had introduced me at the start of my talk then returned to the stage. He told the students how, even though they probably did not understand anything I said, they should take note of my excellent presentation style. There were no questions.  Aaargh! My heavy American accent had done me in again. I was mortified. I had been part of forcing students to sit through a meaningless lecture. The professor then gave me a sack of FJWU souvenirs and a hand shake, duly photographed, and the talk was over. There was a short reception with faculty members afterward to conclude my visit.

Despite the difficulties (“other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?”) I was pleased to visit FJWU. The university represents a commitment to education of women by overcoming the objections of some that it is not proper for women to attend classes with men. From conversations I had with Pakistanis, FJWU is turning out well educated and progressive young women, which, in my opinion, bodes well for the future of Pakistan. ( To prevent confusion, I should say that public universities in Pakistan admit women as well, so FJWU is not unique in this regard. But it was the first all-female university established in Pakistan and is significant in providing an educational opportunity for women who might not otherwise have been allowed to receive a university education because of their or their family’s religious beliefs.)

My next visit to Quaid-i-Azam University was to meet a remarkable man, whose title as Head of the Department of Physics might be his least significant, Professor Doctor Pervez Hoodbhoy. In addition to being a distinguished nuclear theorist, Professor Hoodbhoy has been a voice of conscience for Pakistan. As he describes it, his advocacy priorities have shifted as the dominant threat to the country has shifted. For many years, he advocated against nuclear weapons in Pakistan (and elsewhere, of course). This was an extremely unpopular opinion in Pakistan, faced with the nuclear arms of neighboring India. His anti-nuclear advocacy also created enemies for him within the Pakistani physics community. Several years ago, it was his turn to become head of the physics department, but his appointment was blocked at least partially by the opposition of A.Q. Khan (the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb and the-would be father of Libyan, Iranian, and North Korean atomic bombs) who said that the Physics Department could not have as its head a traitor to Pakistan.

From anti-nuclear advocacy, Professor Hoodbhoy turned to the corruption inherent in Pakistani politics. One specific example turned virtually the entire faculty and staff of Quaid-i-Azam University against him. The university was allocated a very substantial tract of land as part of the design of Islamabad. During the tenure of Benazir Bhutto as president of Pakistan, the ruling party wished to reward its supporters with land grants and plotted to use university land to do so. Knowing that they needed the cooperation of the university to convert this public land to private use, they cut the university faculty and staff in on the deal. Everyone was going to get a piece of land worth several years salary; land that they could not have afforded otherwise. But Professor Hoodbhoy, with one fellow faculty member as ally, filed suit in Pakistan’s Supreme Court to block the deal. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, but of course he was vilified within the university for his action.

Lately, Dr. Hoodbhoy has been actively writing and speaking out against the forces of Islamic extremism in Pakistan which he sees as the current most potent threat to modern Pakistan.  That battle is still ongoing of course.  I felt honored to be received by someone of his moral courage. For some of his most recent commentary, see http://www.chowk.com/writers/495

My final visit to Quaid-i-Azam University was to give a research talk on dynamic scaling and pattern formation in the Cahn-Hilliard system. I don’t think it went very well but whether it was my accent, the topic, or the way I presented it, I do not know.

Let me finish this long post with a discussion of the physics education issues raised in the discussions I had during my various visits. I save it to the end partly to avoid repetition, but also partly to avoid attributing opinions to individuals. I am still a bit surprised at the candor with which the depth of the concerns were expressed and worry a bit that one of my Pakistani colleagues might b e criticized for expressing such negative feelings.

So one concern expressed was the quality of the students being given the PhD at Pakistani universities, including the best, Quaid-i-Azam. One question involved quality control, how to assure that Pakistani PhDs were on a par with graduates of other countries. One method that was tried was to require that before being conferred the PhD, a candidate had to “pass” the GRE Advanced Test in Physics. This is the test that is administered to applicants to US graduate schools in physics. If I recall correctly, the department first set the passing mark at 60 percentile, but no one passed. The next year they set the mark at 40 percent,  but only a very few passed. So the test was then dropped as a condition for graduation. As one professor expressed it, he was concerned that students were graduating with a PhD in physics from Quaid-i-Azam University who did not know enough basic physics to be admitted to an American graduate school. The concern was two-fold. The first was the worry about the future: how could these newly minted PhDs teach the next generation undergraduate physics? The second concern was the narrowness of the knowledge represented by research training for the PhD. A professor described a student whose theoretical research topic involved solutions to the Dirac Equation, but who could not answer basic questions about the non-relativistic Schroedinger Equation particle-in-a-finite-well problem during their thesis defense. However, one problem with using the GRE Advanced Test in Physics was that those who did score highly were admitted to US universities and left Quaid-i-Azam for a more lucrative position in the US.

Perhaps worse, there was a complacency among the professorate about these issues. One of the concerned professors was told that asking basic questions at a thesis defense was inappropriate and that questions should be restricted to the narrow topic of the thesis. One professor I talked to implemented his own PhD “quality control” in a different way. He required his students to publish three articles in internationally recognized journals before graduation.

I should point out that the Department of Physics at the University of Peradeniya avoids this PhD “quality control” issue by not granting any PhDs unless there has been substantial research conducted by the student at a US or European university. Also, at this point in time, all “tenure-track” physics faculty at the University of Peradeniya have PhDs from American or European universities. However, the department also has five, unfilled tenure track lines; unfilled for lack of qualified candidates, so the issue may become more acute in Sri Lanka as well. (I use the term “tenure-track” loosely here to indicate the approximate American equivalent of the jobs these candidates are applying for.) I admire the department for taking this politically difficult stand.

On a related faculty-complacency note, the faculty as a whole at Quaid-i-Azam also voted down a requirement that candidates for tenure-track  positions at the university be required to give a research presentation as part of the interview process. The majority of the faculty apparently holds the view that job candidates can be competently evaluated on the basis of one-on-one interviews and CVs alone.

The second issue turned around undergraduate education in physics. The issue is not restricted to undergraduate education, but since my expertise is in undergraduate physics education, most of the discussion centered around the undergraduate years. My Pakistani colleagues are aware that the educational system in Pakistan does not develop critical thinking or communications skills in their graduates.

The root of these two problems can be clearly traced to the educational style in Pakistan, a style that is shared in many countries in the world, including many classrooms in the US. A faculty member teaching a course gives a formal set of lectures. Students never interrupt the lecture to ask questions. They copy what the professor writes on the board into their notebooks.  No student leaves their seat until the professor leaves the room (thus eliminating another opportunity to ask questions). The formal relations between faculty and students mean that students do not approach faculty with questions outside of class either. At one or two points in the semester a high-stakes test is given on the material. Students do badly, but grading is on the curve, so the majority of the students pass the course.

Now I only say  that the problem can  be “clearly traced” because of the work done on physics education research in the US in the last few decades. Communications skills are learned and students must be taught communication techniques and given an opportunity to practice those skills. Asking questions in or outside of class can only happen if the professor (and the students) create an atmosphere in class where questions are welcomed. Mentoring students on open-ended or research projects can develop critical thinking skills. Infrequent, high-stakes testing is not the best way to motivate most students to engage meaningfully with the material over an extended time, though a few students do well in this system.

Of course, it was not so long ago that physics was regularly taught this way in the US, but hopefully that is changing, and it certainly has been changing in the best colleges and universities in the US. I think I may have only gotten one professor’s attention when I mentioned that MIT had changed its introductory physics course to a new, inquiry-style, lab-based system. The professor’s implication being that who cared what happened at a school like Kenyon that he had not heard of before, but if MIT was doing something new, then maybe it was to be taken seriously. (I felt  a little like Rodney Dangerfield: we get no respect.)

I was basically told that  I could get support to put together a team of US academics to bring to Pakistan to educate Pakistani professors on new physics pedagogies. I felt that it might be possible to find people willing to participate if I invited them personally. The remaining, but much larger question, is whether this is the right way to be of service. I will explore and ponder this more when I get back to Gambier.


Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

I just finished reading another book that Kris handed down to me: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Different books hit you in different ways, some with their plots, some with their characters, some with their settings. Hurston’s book grabs you with an astonishing use of language itself. Hurston tells the life story of a black woman in the early 20th century in Florida. The narrative changes back and forth between first person and third person as the tale is told by Janie and about Janie as she becomes emancipated from the grandmother that raised her and from the men that enter her life. The book was published in 1937 and is consciously feminist in tone. My favorite quote occurs early as Janie’s grandmother is telling Janie her fears for Janie’s future:

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able to find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down the load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.

Two other aspects especially resonated with me. Our time in Sri Lanka has reminded us that there are many forms of the English language. This year I had many reminders that I had a heavy American accent that was difficult for Sri Lankans to understand. When Kris volunteered in the English language teaching unit of the Faculty of Science, she got some hints that “real” English was what they spoke in England. She was given a pass, however, because most of her students would be studying in the US, not in England. This caused us to revisit the question of whether or not there was one “correct” English or whether there are multiple “correct” English-es, even if they are sometimes mutually unintelligible.

Hurston lets her characters speak in their own dialect. Is it a “correct” English even if it is not American standard English?  The wonderful, vivid imagery conjured up by her character’s speech makes a case that such expressive language must be, in some sense, legitimate. Here is an example: Janie has returned to town after leaving with the love of her life. She has told her best friend the story of her journey and now tells her friend of her indifference to what the townsfolk think of her.

“Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin’ ’bout. Dat’s all right, Pheoby, tell ’em. Dey gointuh make ‘miration ’cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

“Lawd!” Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’. Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin’ wid him after this. Nobody better not criticize you in mah hearin’.”

“Now, Pheoby, don’t feel too mean wid de rest of ’em ’cause dey’s parched up from not knowin’ things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let them consolate theyselves wid talk. ‘Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh a hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’  yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

The second resonance has to do with my personal history. When I went to the University of Chicago in 1972, they were just opeing up their core curriculum to subjects not found in “the Great Books.” They gave students a choice and I ran from the Great Books with a vengeance. I’m not saying that was the right choice, but it was the choice I made at the time. So my first year Humanities sequence was a quarter of classical philosophy and two quarters of black literature. I enjoyed both very much and learned a great deal from both. Reading Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, et al., helped me make sense of my encounter with the South Side of Chicago. But there was no mention of Hurston. So now I learn that Hurston’s wonderful stories were a victim of politics and it was not much later than 1972 that Huston was “re-discovered.” So, it was a bit ironic to me that the edition I read of Their Eyes Were Watching God” is obviously one created for use in the college classroom.

Recommended, primarily for the delightful use of the English language.


Our Trip to Yala National Park

My sister Shannon has arrived to share our trip back to the US. Partly in honor of her and partly to get in a trip to parts of Sri Lanka we had not had a chance to see, we took a trip to Yala National Park, on the south east coast of Sri Lanka. We chose to go what I call “over the top,” across the central highlands of the island.

Going “over the top” took us through what must be the most scenic scenery of Sri Lanka. We started our trip in Kandy at an elevation of 500 m (1600 feet). From there, our rented van and driver took us to Nuwara Eliya, the heart of tea plantation country. Nuwara Eliya (pronounced roughly new RAIL ee ya) is at an elevation of 1900 m (6200 feet), so you can imagine the wind-y, twisty, slow trip up the mountain sides. But the views were spectacular. Valleys opened before us, lined with lime green paddy below and emerald green, manicured tea plantations up high. Connecting the two were waterfalls on every size scale. We stopped at a tea factory and I got my postcard shot of a tea picker.

Tea picker, Nuwara Eliya

Tea picker, Nuwara Eliya

Lunch was in the dining room of the St. Andrew’s Hotel. The dining room is known for having a decorated copper ceiling, copper being good to discourage mold. The hotel also has a small man-made wetlands area. Make that very small, notable only for some dragon flies and the hotel’s nod to ecology.

dragon fly, St. Andrew's Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

dragon fly, St. Andrew's Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya is the “top” and for the rest of the day (and the next) it was all downhill. Before reaching our hotel in the town of Ella, we stopped at a Hindu temple. The temple is at the location of an important event depicted in the sacred Hindu text, The Ramayana. An evil god, Ravena, kidnaps Rama’s wife, Sita, and hides her away near the current site of this temple. With the help of the monkey god, Hanuman, Rama locates Sita and rescues her from the clutches of Ravena. So perhaps it was appropriate that there was a troop of monkeys roaming the temple, including this one, who seemed to have elevated himself into the Hindu pantheon.

site of Sita's captivity

temple at site of Sita's captivity

We spent the night in a small guesthouse in Ella. Ella is famous for the Ella Gap, a view down a steep valley from which you can almost see the ocean (on a good day. It wasn’t that good, but close.)

The next day found us finishing the decent to sea level and making it to our hotel, the Yala Village. Yala Village consists of separate “cabins” within a a hundred meters or so of a central registration, dining, and swimming facility. It was very nice and the food (all meals done buffet-style) was plentiful and good. Yala Village is close to the entrance to Yala National Park. To visit the park, you hire a jeep with driver and spend the next three hours tearing around the dirt roads of the park with screeching stops when an animal is sighted. For the first couple of hours, you stop a lot as you “collect” sightings of the most common park animals: samba deer, spotted deer, egrets, herons, storks, crocodiles, water buffalo, elephants. But the last hour is a hectic search for the “prize”: a leopard sighting. The leopards only come out in that last hour before closing time. We were in luck. The photo is of poor quality as the leopard in question was maybe 75-100 meters away, but in  keeping with my photo standards for birds and rare animals, it is a good photo if you can tell what it is:

leopard, Yala NP

leopard, Yala NP

Eventually I will get around to posting my other photos of the trip including some nice bird pictures on my Picasa  site, but I do not know when that will happen.

After spending a day at Yala, we headed from Ratnapura,  the center of the gem mining region of Sri Lanka. It is said that if you want to buy gems, you are better off in Colombo. But we had some fun looking and ended up buying a few small inexpensive items. We spent the night as the only guests in a 400 room hotel just outside Ratnapura.

The next day was a six hour drive back to Kandy and back to the task of packing for our trip home. Sigh. More when I can.


By popular demand! Kris in sari!

My colleague, Professor Careem, just sent us the only pictures extent of Kris in her sari. The occasion was the homecoming following the marriage of Professor Careem’s son that I wrote about in December. Without further ado:

Kris in sari at homecoming reception

Kris in sari at homecoming reception

Mini book reviews

It is amazing how many more books you can read if you do not have access to television. And when you have a wife like Kris who recommends really great (not necessarily “the Great”) books, reading is so much more interesting and satisfying than television.

We do have a television here with a satellite dish even. But the landlady has a package that is (naturally) mostly Sinhalese channels. The only English language channel we get on the dish is Al Jazeera. Now mind you it has been very interesting getting Al Jazeera’s viewpoint on the news, but like all other news channels it suffers from being pretty much all news and it repeats itself after awhile. I could not watch CNN for long periods of time for the same reasons.

So I’ve finished three books recently: Jeanne Cambrais’ Murder in the Pettah, Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle, and Jesse Kellerman’s The Brutal Art. If you exclude physics books and computer books, this would be about a year’s worth of reading for me back in the States.

As its name implies, Murder in the Pettah is a murder mystery. For me, its hook is that it is set in Colombo. The protagonist is a Sri Lankan who emigrated to the United States, is experiencing burn out on the job, and comes back to Sri Lanka to spend some relaxing time with his favorite cousin, a famous Sri Lankan fashion model. He has a chance encounter with a sexy Brit who ends up dead the next day and the mystery begins. He was not too comfortable being on vacation anyway and his cousin pressures him to help so she can get in bed with the dead girl’s very rich father (which is basically her retirement plan). Aside from the familiar and not so familiar Colombo locations where the action takes place, Cambrais does a convincing job of giving the character of the investigation a Sri Lankan feel. So, for example, the investigation becomes a project of the protagonist’s extended family. His favorite old aunt gathers information from her bridge club members. His cousin uses her glamour to distract and acquire information from pillow talk. The  family driver either knows or is related to the domestic help of  the various principals in the case. More help comes from the dead girl’s best friend, who turns into both a love interest for the protagonist and a suspect in the case (of course).

Kris met Cambrais at the Galle Literary Festival and liked her. Kris admires Cambrais’ frank reasons for wan ting to write: to make money and to spite her ex-husband. From what I can gather from Kris’ report, Cambrais had the first husband from hell who not only treated her shamefully, but told her he would make sure she stayed impoverished, and did manage to leave her without a dime. Writing has been Cambrais’ revenge. She authored a Playboy guide to San Francisco but under an assumed male pseudonym since she knew she would not get the assignment as a woman. And there is a sense on ets that the characters in Murder in the Pettah could easily find themselves reassembled for the next murder. In fact, I think it would make a pretty good TV series on the BBC’s Mystery. One thing she might have to tone down for TV is the sexual deviancy that is central to the story. Murder in the Pettah is not recommended for impressionable youth. In any case, for adults, while not great literature, Murder in the Pettah is a good satisfying read.

I have to confess here that I have never read anything by Virginia Woolf. The only reason I know the name is as part of the title of the Edward Albee play that might single-handedly make one decide not to teach at a small college. Well it turns out that Virginia Woolf had a husband, Leonard Woolf, who was also a writer. His book, The Village in the Jungle, draws on his personal experience as a minor British administrator during colonial times in the most southerly part of Sri Lanka, the town of Hambantota. In his administrative role, he acted as a low level judge, trying minor criminal complaints in the area. The Village in the Jungle is the story of a tiny village deep in the jungle that does not get enough rain to enable the villagers to thrive on the crops they produce. Instead they barely get by, always in debt to unscrupulous money lenders and the village headman who control the seed they need to plant the next crop. Woolf describes the jungle as evil, but the evil in the story is all man-made.

The story is not that long but is powerful. Actually, I started the book reluctantly, I tend to shy away from tragedies. But the book surprises with unexpected directions and the description of life as seen through the eyes of the villagers is fascinating. I got hooked. The real tragedy turns out to be that the villagers trap themselves. They are unwilling to leave the small jungle clearing that represents to them home and family. We  also see how little connection there is between the colonial rulers and those they ruled. Recommended.

Finally, I just finished Jesse Kellerman’s The Brutal Art. It is also supposed to be a murder mystery, but is quite unlike any murder mystery I’ve ever read. In fact, when the “who” of the “who done it” is revealed, it is almost beside the point. The story is told in a combination of the first person of the protagonist, a New York City art gallery owner, and third person accounts of significant past events. The art gallery owner is given possession of some astonishing drawings, apparently drawn by a creative genius who is fettered with mental shackles, and who has suddenly disappeared. The art gallery owner makes a desultory search for the artist, but enthusiastically puts on a show to sell the drawings. Everything goes smoothly until he gets a call from a retired New York City cop who has seen a reproduction of the central panel in the drawing and recognizes the cherubs as the faces of five murdered children. The art gallery owner starts a quest to prove the innocence of the artist and the sleuthing is on.

But just as the story gets down to the detective work, the story changes character. At first, the flashbacks seem like the usual writer’s tool to fill in background details. But the flashbacks themselves build in intensity until I was reminded of nothing else than a freight train from the past hurtling forward in time aimed right at the protagonist in the present. Without revealing the ending, let me just say that the crash of past and present knocked the wind out of me.

So, will I sign up for cable again when we get home? Probably, if only for Mystery, but now I will know what I am missing when I waste my time on Monk.


Been too long in Asia?

The Island newspaper here is available online and is one of two Sri Lankan newspapers I check pretty much on a daily basis. The Island is also available on local newsstands where its relative popularity (at least among English speakers) compared to the government organ The Daily News is demonstrated every day by the fact that the Island always sells out much more quickly than the Daily News. So reading the Island online is a more reliable way to keep up with its lead stories.

However, there is a downside to reading the Island online. The Island has a humor columnist who goes by the name of Nuri Vittachi. Humor is a tricky business but I’ve found that Vittachi manages to be funny on a pretty regular basis even with the pressure of a daily column. But the online version of the Island makes a mistake by not clearly identifying his column from among the other articles on the site. The online paper just lists the titles of the available articles and since Vittachi’s humor tend to the dry side, the titles most often do not give a hint to the humor contained within.

I got lucky the other day though and found Vittachi’s column about how you could tell when you had been in Asia too long. It seemed so apropos of our leaving and many of his “signs” rang so true that I thought I would pass it on to you all. Here it is, reprinted without permission (in the Sri Lankan spirit):

Signs that you have been living in Asia too long

My wife and I lived in a hotel at one time. Eventually we moved out and found a normal home. I was shocked to come home from work the first day and find that no one had folded the end of the toilet paper into a neat little triangle for me. “We are not animals,” I remember shouting at my wife. It took some time to realize that hotel life had changed my perception of what was normal.

In the same way, Westerners who spend a long time in Asia find themselves “going native”. One English friend went back to London after several years in Vietnam. Staff at Harrods, a fancy store, told her the price of the scarf she was looking at. She laughed scornfully in their faces, offered 20 per cent, and then marched out of the shop. Only when she noticed that staff failed to follow her, reducing the price at every step, did she recall that you just don’t do that sort of thing in London.

These memories were triggered by a letter I received from reader Jo Bunker, who has been living in Hong Kong for many years. “My list of signs you’ve been here too long would look like this,” she said. “You find yourself wondering how your friends back home can possibly survive without a rice cooker; you seek out a Chinatown when on holiday; you are shocked and suspicious when someone holds a door open for you; you manically over-pressing the ‘door close’ button in the lift; you peer over people’s shoulders at their account balance in the ATM queue; and you sneer at anyone who orders sweet and sour pork in a Chinese restaurant.”

Laurie Ashton, a Canadian who moved to Sri Lanka, wrote in her blog that she knew she had lived there too long when she stopped taking pictures of water buffalos mingling with traffic.

For Westerners in general, here are 12 Signs You’ve Been in Asia Too Long. 1) You find yourself bowing slightly when you are introduced to someone. 2) You don’t think there’s anything weird about eating a tenderloin steak with a side of rice. 3) You think of a motor scooter as a family vehicle for up to nine people. 4) You own more ethnic clothes than any of your Asian friends. 5) If you find a bug in your food, you pick it out and keep eating. 6) You no longer close your eyes when the driver of your auto-rickshaw cuts in and out of lanes missing other vehicles by a millimeter. 7) It now seems natural that breakfast buffets feature fried noodles, rice and curry. 8) When someone asks you a difficult question, you see the usefulness of responding with a South Asian head-wobble. 9) Using cutlery to eat feels weird. 10) You’re not particularly bothered when rural people defecate behind the nearest convenient bush. 11) You now really like foodstuffs you once thought weird and disgusting, like bitter melon, stinky tofu, lime pickle and stewed taro. 12) You are no longer too embarrassed to admit to other Westerners that you have servants.

But next time you visit your home in the west, remember not to defecate behind the nearest convenient bush. Especially not near Harrods.

If you want to contribute to the Island’s online ad revenue stream, you can click on the link to the article here. If you want to upset the woman in your life, read her today’s article.


What a picture I must have made…

OK. Picture this if you can:

It is 8:30PM, pitch dark. I am standing at the open gate of a neighbor’s compound.  I am naked except for a  (I must say,  ravishing), emerald green, tie-dye cotton sarong wrapped around my waist and Birkenstocks on my feet. The vast whiteness of my belly is exposed to the world, my locally unnatural furry body proclaiming my foreignness. Perhaps, then,  it is fortunate that I am alone in the dark.

Pregnant with Freudian symbolism, in my left hand I am carrying a foot long, Kenyon-purple torch (flashlight for those of you in the Western Hemisphere) and in my right hand I am brandishing (for no other word will do) a four foot, rolled up, white umbrella, wooden handle foremost. With my gray hair and gray beard I am the very picture of an Avenging Angel of the Lord. Or at least one of the Lord’s more fey, pale, and decrepit Avenging Angels.

Got that pictured? OK. Don’t worry. A couple of stiff shots of arrack and an hour or two should be enough to clear it out of your mind.

True to my avenging angel role, I am yelling angrily for the occupants of the house to come out or I will call the police. And I am angry. Hot angry. Not under total control angry. I am shouting at the top of my lungs in a residential neighborhood of a foreign city. When no one appears immediately, I call out that it is fine with me if they stay inside and call the police themselves. Either way. No one save for Kris and my nangi, Anna, have seen me this hot.

So how did I find myself in this situation? Well, it has to do with an increasingly vicious neighborhood dog. There are dogs everywhere here, mostly strays, mostly in miserable condition, feeding off piles of garbage. I have found that the strays are never a threat, too enervated from disease and starvation to challenge a human. But there are some pet dogs, elevated one might say, above the masses. This is a tale of two pet dogs.

Mitzi Amarasinghe Gunaratne - Doggy Hero

Mitzi Amarasinghe Gunaratne - Doggy Hero

The first is the pet dog owned by our landlady. We willingly took on the responsibility for the dog both because we had just had experience with the difficulty of finding someone to care for pets when one is traveling and because we genuinely like dogs and knew we would appreciate its cheerful companionship.  She is a small dog with long hair, all white, weighing between 3-4kg (7-9 pounds). She is a bit small for my taste and she is a bit “yappy.”  She prances rather than walks, bushy tail high, mouth slightly open giving her the appearance of a happy smile. Her open-mouthed, excited greeting will give you a distinct whiff of “doggy breath” when you stoop to return her greeting with a pat on the head.

The dog worships the maid, who is conditioned by her culture not to return much affection, so the little dog is predictably desperate for attention, alone in the world without an accepting  “pack.”  But the maid bathes her weekly and feeds her daily and generally looks out for her. The dog is approaching twenty years old, a bit of a holdover from when the landlady thought that her two children should have a pet, and not much liked by the landlady either as we were to find out.  Though I have lived with the dog for seven months now, I am not really sure of her name. Between my difficulties hearing and my unfamiliarity with Sri Lankan names, the best I can do is “Mitzi.” And she looks like a dog an American would call “Mitzi.”

Early on, Mitzi earned a place in my personal “Dog Hall of Fame.” She is a credit to dogs the world over. Born into an unappreciative, un-understanding,  human culture, she has soldiered on doing what dogs do: standing guard; alerting on intruders; never failing to greet each family member enthusiastically even if the parting has been for only five minutes; and being continuously devoted to their family no matter how she is treated. Mitzi Amarasinghe  Gunaratne deserves a medal on this Earth and I am sure as an agnostic can be that she has a place in Doggy Heaven waiting for her arrival in the not-too-distant future.

Less charitable things can be said about the villain of the piece, a mostly black, short haired, male and maleficent dog belonging to the aforementioned neighbors. The dog is twice the size, so ten times Mitzi’s weight. I do not know this dog’s name either, but will use our maid’s sobriquet, “this bad dog” which is suitably descriptive. This bad dog first came to my attention in the first month of our stay when it challenged me as I was walking home from the University. This bad dog was hanging around the path that leads off the alley toward our house. It ran at me, growling, barking, and baring its teeth. I raised my umbrella and challenged it right back. This bad dog’s owner eventually appeared. She said that this bad dog did not like humans carrying umbrellas. I responded that humans have the right to carry umbrellas, not to mention their obvious utility in a tropical climate, and that the real point was that she should keep her dog under control. Displaying the obvious lack of control she had over the dog, she then proceeded to ineffectually herd this bad dog back toward her house. It would circle around her, coming back at me, until she would get between me and it and start the process over. The dog was totally unresponsive to her voice commands. In fact, this bad dog was one of the reasons why item number four in “101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka” was noted as true and not humorous.

From time to time, this bad dog and one of his packmates would enter our yard and we would chase them off. But not too long ago, this bad dog attacked Mitzi on one of these forays. Mitzi received a puncture wound that our maid treated with an antibiotic. The location of the bite on her hindquarters made it obvious that Mitzi was in full submissive posture when bitten. Mitzi was obviously shaken, but recovered well after a day or two. We tightened our efforts to chase this bad dog out when he appeared and to make sure that Mitzi was safely locked up when we were not around to protect her.

Mitzi generally sleeps in a reasonably sized dog house outdoors as do many pet dogs in the neighborhood. This is as much to protect them as to confine them. Mitzi, while loyal, is not particularly bright and, even after twenty years, has not yet quite got the concept about the wisdom of staying in the dog house all night. She really wants to be with her family. A few nights ago, Mitzi was able to make an opening in the screen of her dog house and escape. Sadly, this bad dog found her that night. When I awoke in the morning, the maid had taken Mitzi to the garage. She was laying at the rear of the car, shivering violently. The maid had applied an antibiotic to the wounds, but, in addition to a deep puncture wound at one spot on her abdomen, there was a second wound that had torn the skin open, exposing the abdominal wall. I was not at all sure that Mitzi would recover with just home care.

I was frustrated and angry. A dear old pet dog should not be abused like this, especially not on my “watch.”  Dammit, this was a creature under my roof, even if it was a rented roof. I was tired of not knowing what was the culturally correct way to discharge my duties heretofore leaving it to the maid, leaving it to the neighborhood. I was angry, but not in any way out-of-control angry. But Kris knew I was angry and so did the maid.

Things began to happen. The maid took the dog to the vet where it received several stitches and more antibiotics. Kris wrote a carefully considered, even handed letter to the justice of the peace in Dongolla, to whom our landlady had introduced us before she left, pointing out among other things the danger to the half dozen children living on our lane younger than six.

The dog was in much better shape upon returning from the vet and the letter to the justice of the peace was acted on the very next morning. The justice of the peace called Kris to verify details and confirmed to Kris that this neighbor had caused some trouble before. He then called the neighbors and let them know  that if they did not control the dog, he would involve the police. He called Kris back to let her know that the neighbors had agreed to keep the dog confined.

And then came last night. Kris and I were finishing dinner when we heard a ruckous in the kitchen and the maid shooing some animal out the door. It was this bad dog. This bad dog had entered our house and attacked Mitzi. Fortunately the maid’s timely action prevented any harm to Mitzi, but once I appreciated what had happened, I went off.

While the maid and Kris chased the dog out the back door, I went through the house girding for battle. By the time I had collected sandals, torch, and umbrella, this bad dog had fled from the yard, but I knew where he lived. Kris asked where I was going. “Hunting,” I said. I marched to the neighbor’s house where this bad dog challenged me. He was loose, in clear violation of the agreement.

I will give the neighbor’s credit. They did come out. I’m not sure I would have  under the same circumstances. The man was placating, apparently accepting responsibility. The woman uttered simpering excuses about how she had put a collar on the dog, but “somehow” it wriggled out. What a miserable, pathetic, ignorant creature she was. It was so flippin’ obvious that the behavioral problems of this bad dog were totally due to her. By this time, this bad dog was defying all of their efforts to rein him in, standing in a narrow, human-inaccessable space between a parked car and a wall, barking away, ignoring their verbal commands. The man assured me that he had things under control  and, though I doubted it very much, I let myself be placated and returned to our house. The justice of the peace will  be called in the morning and we will see how it plays out from here.


A footnote to my dear friend Kara. Kara is my guru for all things about international education and was very helpful in helping us learn about acculturation by recommending some excellent books. She reads this blog and has contributed a number of useful and insightful comments. And I am ashamed that she now knows that by allowing myself to become angry, I committed one of the cardinal sins of intercultural communication. I will childishly snap back that intercultural exchange is a two way street,  but then I will beg to be allowed to remain in her virtual ashram.

Pakistan: Rugs!

Kris and I have a kind of deal with each other when we travel.  Rather than buy a bunch of trinkets as souvenirs, we give each other permission to seek out one really nice souvenir that we will treasure forever.

I decided that I wanted to buy a significant gem. A real “rock.” Something mined here in Sri Lanka. What a great souvenir that would be. So, along with the specialty texts on computational physics,  I shipped three carefully selected books on identifying and buying gems. From time to time I took the opportunity to visit jewelers, with Kris avidly encouraging me in this effort. She never seemed to begrudge me time in the jewelry stores. She was a very good sport about it, often pretending to be interested in the gems herself, sometimes even buying jewelery in an attempt to convince me that she was not really bored to tears during these long hours of my quest for the perfect stone.

At one point I had three different jewelers each holding a collection of stones that I was seriously considering buying. Playing the role, I even purchased a standard 10X jeweler’s loupe and a pair of specialist tweezers when I chanced upon a gemologist supply store. My suave, sophisticated, experienced purchaser of gems facade fell apart at the next jewelery store I stopped in as my inexpert tweezer work shot a large blue topaz clean across the jewelery shop as I tried to examine it with the loupe. Thankfully, no damage was done to anything, but my status as a poseur was revealed.

Eventually though, I gave up the quest, much to Kris’ sadness, as she could not return the amethyst earrings and the aquamarine “rock on a ring” she had purchased just to keep me company. It was many small things that discouraged me, but the biggest single reason is that I have lost all trust in Sri Lankan merchants.

Of course there have been exceptions. However, we have simply had too many examples of Sri Lankan merchants lying to our faces, even though, in some cases, we have been doing business with them for months now. In a weird, while not approving sort of way, I can understand the desperation of the shopkeeper who has one shot at selling a tourist some merchandise. It can be quite tempting, knowing the tourist will likely never again be back, to tell the tourist whatever they want to hear in order to make the sale.

As an example, everyone tells us that you can get clothes tailor-made here in Kandy really cheap and really fast. The really fast part is to enable tourists to pick up their goods even if they are on a short stay in Kandy. Well, I do not recommend it. First, if you are a woman, you will be groped during the measurement process. Second, there really is no need for the measurements in any case because the “tailors” do no fitting. The dart is a mystery to them. Sizing is done by eye, not by tape measure. They appear to be ignorant of patterns. The quality of the findings borders on the disposable. The seams are unfinished and the work sloppy and unprofessional.  Now, to be fair, long time residents eventually find a tailor and train them to make what they need. So long time residents often enthusiastically recommend the process to newcomers, even recommending specific tailors. But our experience is that even a recommended tailor will treat the newcomer as a golden goose to be slaughtered for immediate gain.

Just yesterday we were in one of the government run shops called “Laksala.”  The Laksala shops are a great idea. The shops are set up in places frequented by tourists and sell handmade crafts from all over the island. This gives Sri Lankan craftspeople retail outlets for their work in high traffic areas, leaving them to concentrate on their crafts. There are some really nice things for sale and even I could not pass up some beautiful batiks. But we also decided to buy a Sri Lankan flag, just for fun, to take home with us. I looked at the flag on offer and stated the obvious that is was made of polyester. “Silk,” the saleslady stated. Kris gave me a wink that told me that it was not worth pushing the issue. She had recently done a flame test  on some fabric that she had been assured by a fabric merchant was “100% cotton.” If you take a small bit of fabric and hold it in a flame, cotton chars slowly and evenly, like a candle wick. But synthetic fabrics melt and fuse as plastics do when heated. The twisted, drippy, melt,  reminding me of my days burning  up my sloppily constructed my plastic airplane models, showed clearly that the material was synthetic.

So, in the end, I decided that I could not be sure that, if I bought a gem in Sri Lanka, it would even be genuine, much less any kind of bargain. While I was disappointed, I did enjoy the process. I learned a lot about gems and handled and admired many fine specimens. For being just impure minerals, they do have a certain attraction.

But, my luck changed when my hostess in Pakistan, Dr. Grace Clark, turned out to be a genuine Oriental rug connoisseur. (In fact, she is so enthusiastic that I suggested at one point that she inquire as to the existence of a local chapter of “Rug Buyers Anonymous.”) Kris and I have long been intrigued by Oriental carpets, attracted by their beauty and durability. We made several visits to a rug shop in the Pioneer Square area of Seattle, kitty corner from the offices of NBBJ where Kris worked. We came pretty close to buying a rug just before we left Seattle, but were deterred by the high cost and the impracticality of dragging it along with us on our post-doc migration. We came similarly close to a carpet purchase in New Jersey at a yard sale of a divorcing couple, but could not quite justify the cost.

Dr. Clarks’ home in Islamabad has gorgeous Oriental carpets on nearly every horizontal surface.  It is a wonderful collection, diverse enough to use to  teach a complete course on the subject. My assigned bathroom had a small  “war rug.” These war rugs were woven in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and depict scenes of modern war. One of the images was clearly identifiable as a Russian Hind attack helicopter, but its rendering in wool made it look as if the helicopter had been knitted by Russian grandmas for their pilot grandsons. Now days, war rugs have been commercialized to the point that what is offered is sterile and uninteresting, resembling cheap tattoos. But Dr. Clark’s rug was clearly an example of an early, spontaneous response to the war and was quite interesting, if non-traditional. Dr. Clark also maintains a library of books on carpets. And, lucky for me, Dr. Clark graciously consented to take me rug shopping.

Over the course of my time in Pakistan, we spent over two hours in each of three separate rug merchants in Islamabad. I will describe the visit to the first merchant. Abdul Ghafoor Khudaybirdi’s card describes him as the “chief executive” of Pak Turk Enterprises (www.gozelpk.com). As I recall, he is Uzbekhi. He runs the shop from a lovely home in a residential neighborhood. We are welcomed warmly, Grace is clearly a regular. Grace introduces me and I am admitted to the club. We are offered tea, coffee, or soda. The day is hot. I choose a cold soda. Grace tells him we want to look at rugs. We are taken upstairs to an interior room with stacks of folded rugs lining every wall, sorted by rug type. The owner, one of his sons, and a helper spend the next two hours with us.

We are interested in traditional wool rugs, mostly. And so the son and the helper begin to take folded rugs from the stack, unfold them, and lay them, one on top of the other, in the center of the room. The owner makes a few comments, brings to Grace’s notice rugs of a style that she has shown interest in before, answers questions Grace has about age and origin. I see one I like and ask the price. I am politely told that this is not the time for that question. After some time, maybe forty or fifty rugs are piled in the middle of the room.

Now comes a selection process. Rugs are taken from the top of the pile one at a time and our reaction is solicited. Rugs are designated as of continued interest, or of no current interest and they separated into two piles accordingly. I find I have already developed a taste for these rugs. I have opinions. The rugs are beautiful and of many diverse patterns, but I like some more than others. Now we can ask the price. Cheap! At least by the standards of rugs Kris and I looked at in the US. About fifteen carpets make the “continued interest” pile, maybe four because of my interest.

We then proceed to the next stage. The fifteen elect are taken to an outdoor verandah on the second floor of the house, so we can see them more clearly in the full, clear, sunlight of Islamabad. Once again, they are laid out in front of us, one at a time for our admiration. Sizes are checked, prices are rechecked and compared. The selection process is repeated.

Though this is my first visit to a rug merchant in Islamabad, I have pretty much already made up my mind that between the prices, the self-evident quality, and the beauty of the rugs, that I am going to buy one. My four get whittled to two, then to one. Grace is not so sure. Since she is such a good customer, we are allowed to take six rugs back to Grace’s house without paying anything. One of the rugs is the one I am sure I want to buy, the other five are under consideration by Grace. The trial period will allow me to get Kris’ input, a real plus.

The owner of Pak Turk is a smart business man and has many things for sale in all price ranges.

Baluchi prayer rug

Tekke prayer rug

I buy a prayer rug (shown to the right) in the same style as the larger rug and a wonderful, not-quite-old-enough-to-be-antique, cylindrical wooden box with lovely painted decoration. The photo does not due the rug justice so I have added

Baluchi prayer rug, corner detail

Tekke prayer rug, corner detail

a detail of one corner of the rug.

We take the rugs back to Dr. Clark’s house and she  is gracious enough to let my rugs go first in her entrance hall. The rug lies in state while Grace does some research on the design in her book collection.  She is a bit worried that the design is not characteristic of the Iranian Turkmen carpets she has seen in the past. Close, but… Her library comes through and we find the particular pattern, characteristic of a Turkman tribe that lives just east of the Caspian Sea in Iran.

I send Kris photos by email. She thought it was pretty nice, too, and urged me on to buy it.

Oriental rug in entry hall

Oriental rug in entry hall

The rug is 11’2″x6’6″. Detail shots follow:

Corner detail, Tekke rug

Corner detail, Tekke rug

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

Tekke rug detail

So, one of the last errands I had to run on the day before my return to Sri Lanka was to return to Pak Turk and pay for the rug. Fortunately, the owner was open late, accepts plastic, and the deed was done.

I was a bit apprehensive about the cost of getting it back to Sri Lanka. The airlines have gotten kind of schizo about baggage weight limits. So the economy class standard is said to be 20 kg (44 pounds), but enforcement is haphazard and excess baggage charges can be steep. Worse, the airlines often demand cash in local currency. On our trip three years ago, we were part of a nightmare scene in the Bangkok Airport where we were hit with about $100 in excess baggage fees and the airline, close to closing the check-in counter, would not check in our luggage until we came back with a receipt (only available at another counter) that could only be paid for in Thai baht , which we only discovered once we had stood in line at that counter through one slug of people. So we had to find an ATM in another part of the airport to gather enough Thai baht to obtain our receipt and get our baggage checked in all before the check-in counter closed. Boy were we pissed.

So when I returned to the Islamabad Airport, I did not know what to expect. I had no Pakistani rupees, a US $20 bill and two one dollar bills, and a credit card. I had weighed the bags and the total weight of all my stuff  was now about 40 kg. I am dropped off at the airport by a USEFP driver with plenty of time before my flight. An airport porter appears and puts my bags on a cart. The airport has  a good system. You need a porter. Only airport porters are allowed to “port” and the cost is a uniform $2 US. So now I am down to a $20 bill and my credit card, but hey! I had exact change for the porter.

Our first stop was a rude awakening at 2AM. It is the inspection station of the Pakistani version of the DEA and I am a bit shaken when the officer, grinning in a Machiavellian way, begins to poke into my new rug with what looks like an ice pick, but with a little hollow behind the point. So, while I stand there wondering if the price of the rug may have been low for a reason and contemplate the inside of a Pakistani prison (if I am lucky), the man stabs my carpet repeatedly, withdraws the pick, passes the entire length under his nose, and sniffs. He then searches thoroughly the rest of my bags, though somehow missing my prescription medicine. He looks a bit disappointed that he can not actually prove that I am a drug mule (I think he honestly thought he had a live one in me) but returns my bags to me with a look that promises that next time it will be different. You would, of course, assume that after having gone through all that, my bags would need no further checking to get through security, but you would be mistaken. I resolved not to get too worked up about excess baggage fees and just prayed to get out of Pakistan as soon as possible.

I ask an airline agent where to inquire about excess baggage fees. I wanted to avoid the Bangkok scene and confront the issue head on. She looks mystified and points toward the check-in counter. My porter tells me conspiratorily that it is best not to ask such questions. “Let them tell you that you have excess baggage,” he whispers. So we get to the check-in counter and the clerk looks at my ticket. “Your baggage limit is 30kg,” he announces without explanation. I place my bag and my rug-in-a-bag on the scale and start to place my backpack onto the scale as well. My porter grabs my arm and simultaneously the clerk says that I do not have to include my carry-on baggage. This same airline (Qatar Air) had insisted on including my carry on bag in the weighing in on the way to Pakistan and no explanation was offered for their generosity now. I looked at the scale reading: 33  kg, just three kg (7 pounds) over. The clerk announces “You have 3 kg of excess baggage” and begins to calculate. “That will be 5840 Pakistani rupees.” Me: “I do not have any Pakistani rupees.” Him: “Ah!” and recommences his calculations. Him: “That will be 72 US dollars.” Me, opening my wallet: “I have one $20 bill and a credit card.” Him: “Ah!” and takes the credit card. He holds it up to a superior. Eyes roll. Apparently, it is all too much trouble. My credit card is returned and I am sent on my way, my excess baggage fees ignored.

We approach the emigration station and my porter wants a tip. So he got the $20 bill, despite the fact that the reciept for the $2 fee specifically says not to tip. Well it was 2AM and, as innocent as I knew I was, I was just thankful to have avoided Pakistani drug court.

These days, many airport duty free shops and terminal waiting areas are destinations in themselves. Good food, good shopping, comfortable seats, free Internet access. Not the Islamabad International Airport. In contrast to my impressions as I arrived at the airport on my way into the country, the  waiting area for international departures is positively grim. The duty free shop at one end caters only to the traditional vices (hard liquor, cigarettes, perfume) and not any sign of the modern vices (cameras, computers, travel accessories). A small smoker’s room in one corner is full to overflowing, and, with the door propped open, not fulfilling its objective of protecting the rest of us from second hand smoke. There is one departure gate. The two hours I waited there made me wonder if I was being sent to a Pakistani prison.

The rest of the trip back to Sri Lanka was uneventful, but there is a postscript that I only learned about on our 31st wedding anniversary, May 27th. It seems that while I was in Pakistan, Kris was in cahoots with a local jeweler. Kris purchased the set of three stones I had previously been having him hold for me. Each stone is about 20 carats. One is blue topaz, one is amethyst, one citrine, all “fancy” cut and  closely matched in size. Kris had the jeweler set the stones in a row on a silver pin and she presented it to me on our anniversary. If you are in Gambier in late August, the pin will be on display, attached to my velvet tam as part of my academic robes.

So it looks like I will get the souvenir I was looking for after all, and a rug to boot!


Pakistan: Day 11680, Sunday

I have got to to get out of using my sleep cycle as a organizing principle of this blog. Who cares how much sleep I am getting or how long I lie awake at night before I fall asleep?

So, the title of this post comes from a great video piece in The Onion. It is a spoof on the numbered day coverage of the Iraq war. Here a TV reporter on the Line of Control between India and Pakistan tells about the non-events of the 11,680th day of the tensions between these two nuclear armed powers.

So let’s get to the interesting stuff: the War on Terror and Pakistan. The Fulbright conference talks on Sunday were about terrorism as it relates to Pakistan. The keynote address was given by Dr. Tariq Rahman, Distinguished National Professor at Quad-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and a 1995-1996 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Texas. Dr. Rahman’s official web page is a few years out of date, but he is an accomplished scholar and an outspoken voice for progressive Pakistanis. Many of the essays on his web site are well worth reading for a Pakistani perspective.

Rather than detail all the conference talks that I heard, let me instead summarize my impression of what is happening in Pakistan, vis a vis, the Taliban and Afghanistan. In addition to the talks at the conference, my impressions were formed by conversations at dinners, in meetings with academics after the conference, and in discussions with Pakistanis I met on the staff at the USEFP, including a delightful young woman who was born to a family of the warrior caste from the area around Islamabad. She accompanied me on a visit to the Physics Department at Quad-i-Azam University and I jokingly introduced her to my host as my bodyguard. To make this role seem plausible for this  beautiful, slender young woman, I added that she was trained in ten forms of ancient Pakistani martial arts. I learned about her warrior heritage on the ride home and suggested that maybe she was skilled in ten forms of ancient Pakistani martial arts. She laughed.

From an American perspective, Pakistan seems not to be a reliable supporter of the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also appears not to be particularly stable, with the appearance of a credible threat of a Taliban takeover of this nuclear armed country. Democracy has only recently returned to Pakistan but democracy here is nearly synonymous with family dynasty and corruption. The CIA is using Predator drones to attack al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan while the US military is using Predator drones to attack Taliban targets thought to be involved in the war in Afghanistan. These attacks have increased in frequency since Obama took office. The US claims that the Pakistani government secretly supports the drone attacks, but the Pakistani government denies this more and more vociferously. What is one to think?

First let me say that we created a lot of the instability in this region. I will not claim to have made a detailed study of the modern history of Pakistan, but when India sided more with the Russians and less with the US after WWII, the US adopted Pakistan as its ally in the region. As with our “allies” in South America over the years, this often meant lending our support to dictatorial military regimes in Pakistan.

And then along came an opportunity almost too good to be true, certainly one that the administration of Ronald Reagan (the person I thought would forever top my list of worst ever presidents) was not going to pass up. The Soviet Union was involved in trying to suppress a rebellion in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was “the Evil Empire” and here they were in a similar position to the one we were in in Vietnam. The Soviet support for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was a huge factor in our humiliating defeat in South Vietnam. Now it was payback time! With the help of the Saudis as financiers and ideological supporters, and with the Pakistanis and the Iranians supplying safe havens, we created and armed an army of Islamic fundamentalists and their comrades in arms against the Russians, the northern tribesmen/warlords/heroin producers of Afghanistan.

And, sure enough, we made the Russians pay. Their humiliating defeat was surely a key in the breakup of the Soviet empire. The Russians retreated to their more traditional boundaries and are now fighting to hold the line in Georgia and Chechnya. For reasons that make me doubt the sanity of our national leaders, we continue to press them even there. (One of my hot buttons lately: Do we really want to go to war (potentially nuclear war) with the Russians over Georgia? Not the Georgia that contains the city of Atlanta, but the Georgia that borders on the Black Sea with a population about that of the US state of Alabama and an area about that of the US state of West Virginia.  Then why are we considering offering Georgia membership  in NATO?)

But back to Afghanistan. Once the Russians left we declared victory and went home. But who did we think was going to take over in Afghanistan? And did we imagine a well armed group of Wahhabi inspired, fundamentalist Muslims to feel grateful for our help, much less form a moderate, stable government that would enter a strategic alliance with us against, say, Iran? And we had encouraged close ties between the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, the ISI, and the people who would come to power in Afghanistan, namely the Sunni fundamentalists, the Taliban.

Let’s face it. We made our bed here and now we are lying in it. If there is any silver lining here it is that maybe governments are starting to realize that supporting terrorists, even if you agree with their causes, or just want to have a proxy fight with an enemy, will come back to bite you. So India, under Indira Gandhi, supported and trained the LTTE. They paid her back by assassinating her son. This year, India did not interfere with the Sri Lankan government wiping out the LTTE. Pakistan has supported insurgents in Kashmir and Afghanistan and now find them attempting to take over Pakistan itself. The Pakistani Army is now in a push to destroy the Taliban in Pakistan. And we, having created the jihadist movement to punish the Russians, are now condemned to relive Vietnam in Afghanistan. Have we learned our lesson?

(A bit off topic, but maybe representing a light at the end of the tunnel: Some major party politicians in Tamil Nadu shamelessly and recklessly exploited the conflict in Sri Lanka in the recent Indian elections. Some went so far as to say that they would guarantee the creation of a separate state in Sri Lanka for Sri Lankan Tamils if elected. These politicians were uniformly and decisively defeated at the polls helping the Congress Party in India to form a stable government with no need for participation by extremist groups. Compare that to the fear-mongering that lead to GW Bush’s re-election in the US.)

Another problem the US has in Pakistan is in trying to identify the players. From my  talks with Pakistanis, the issue is that pretty much every Pakistani can be classified in many ways. Are they successfully engaged in the modern, Western-oriented, capitalist economy, or not? Are they successfully engaged in the traditional feudal economy, or not? (For example, I was told that it is not only the Taliban that want children not to go to school. There are many feudal lords that prefer their people ignorant, and thus easier to control, as well.) Are they Sunni? Sufi? Shiite? Christian? Hindu? Fundamentalist or moderate? Which of the many languages do they speak? What tribe do they come from? Are they Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, or Beluchi? Have they been displaced by war? Are they trained for war? By whom?

It was interesting to observe that the Muslims I met in Pakistan used the same language that I’ve heard Christians in the US use in regards the culture wars: “Who are XXX to decide what my faith is?” Substitute “Taliban” for XXX in the case of Pakistani Muslims and “fundamentalist Christians” in the case of US Christians. For the record, leading Pakistani Muslim religious leaders recently met and declared that suicide bombing was against Muslim law. They would have done the same thing for Predator drone attacks, but it is not Muslims carrying out these attacks.

One effect of these multiple ways of slicing the Pakistani populace is the apparent difficulty of reconciling agreements made with the government of Pakistan and the actions that actually take place in Pakistan. The Pakistani government mostly speaks for…the Pakistani government, and, with the restoration of democracy, secondarily for the progressive, West-leaning population. And “government” does not include the army, which seems to form its own semi-autonomous entity whose aims and goals are not always identical with those of the government. Many Pakistanis I talked to were concerned that the army was not serving the democratically elected government. They argued that if the army truly supported the government, then the army would have prevented the advance of the Pakistani Taliban toward Islamabad a long time ago. Several Pakistanis felt that the army’s lack of action conclusively demonstrated the army’s sympathy for the Taliban. The other issue raised was the competence of the military. Many claim that the military is entirely focused on the threat from India and thus the army’s weapons and tactics are inappropriate and ineffective for combating the Taliban guerrillas, despite the Taliban being a demonstrably greater threat to…whom? Of course, everyone I talked to were progressive Pakistanis, so the Taliban threat is to progressive Pakistanis, their lives and their modern way of living. They are the part of Pakistan the West supports, but they are not all of Pakistan. In fact, I am not sure just how much of Pakistan they do represent, population-wise. The respected Pakistani newspaper Dawn had a poll on its web site. The question, arising from a statement made  by a Taliban leader, was “Is democracy incompatible with Islam?” The Taliban leader’s answer was “yes” with the implication that the decisions of a democracy should always be subject to review by religious authority. When I last saw the poll, Dawn readers were about evenly split on the issue.

And then there are the leftovers from supporting the insurgency against the Russians in Afghanistan. After 9/11, we asked the Pakistani military to do a complete about face, from providing training and arms to the Afghan Taliban, to demanding the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban be wiped out. Under military rule, Pervez Musharraf mostly did stop supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but, as you  can imagine, this 1984 style shift of enemies left people generally confused and unsettled about us.

And speaking of 1984, we have now completed a rapproachment with Pakistan’s great enemy, India. We, of course, do not see it this way. We believe we can be friends with both Pakistan and India. The Pakistanis (and, I dare say, the Indians) probably do not see it this way. From the Pakistani perspective, it was one thing when both India and Pakistan had US sanctions against them because of their development of nuclear weapons. But now we have concluded a deal to end those sanctions on India, effectively admitting India to the legitimate nuclear club, but leaving Pakistan as a nuclear pariah. France rushed in to conclude a nuclear deal with Pakistan “in principle”, but the US Congress, not without reason, continues to pressure Pakistan on a number of fronts, the nuclear arms issue being one of them. You can imagine that, from a Pakistani point of view, there is now some uncertainty about whose side we are on.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the issue of corruption. Pakistanis  described the government in Pakistan as pervasively corrupt. Not that this is any different from any earlier government in Pakistan. The two most influential political parties in Pakistan, the current ruling party, the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), and the current opposition party, the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N) are considered essentially equally corrupt. Government posts are given to the supporters of the party that won the most recent election without much regard to experience or competence.  Government salaries are uniformly low, so using ones political appointment to maintain a standard of living commensurate to ones political appointment is a standard practice. As I will describe in a separate post, there was some discussion of a program to introduce recent advances in physics education to Pakistan. One person told me quite directly that I should not even think of doing it at a public university as most of any grant money would be siphoned away as “administrative costs” and end up in a politician’s pocket. This concern has also been raised by the US Congress is their deliberations about increasing military support to Pakistan.

I will say that democracy as practiced in Pakistan seems little different from democracy practiced in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The major parties are all associated with a family, kind of like The Godfather. So in Pakistan the PPP is the party of the Bhutto family. The current prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari, is the husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Probably the strangest example to a Westerner is the Congress Party in India. Congress was the party of Mahatma Gandhi. Then Indira Gandhi. Then Rajiv Gandhi. Now, Rajiv’s Italian born wife, Sonia Gandhi. The Indian electorate seemingly did not care that Ms. Gandhi was not even a native of India. Perhaps for this reason, Ms. Gandhi did not put herself up as prime minister, instead supporting the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh. (Or perhaps she had noticed that all the previous Gandhis had been assassinated? Or, given that Singh is an economist, maybe she channeled Clinton’s rule that “It’s the economy, stupid.” In any case, she remains both alive and the leader of the Congress Party.)  But Singh is getting on in years and recently had heart surgery. So, everyone expects that Singh will retire in a few years giving way to Rahul Gandhi, Sonia and Rajiv’s son.

You may have read recently about demonstrations in Pakistan that succeeded in restoring the ousted, respected, non-corrupt, chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court. An independent and incorrupt judiciary is a necessary component of a true democracy, so this was good news, right? The Pakistanis I met agreed that the restoration was a good thing. But, in Paul Harvey style, I will now give you “the rest of the story.” The demonstrations were led by the leader, Nawaz Sharif, of the opposition party, the PML-N. Restoring the ousted chief justice seems like an appropriate thing for the opposition party to be doing. But there is more. It seems that both Mr. Sharif and the current prime minister of Pakistan, Mr. Zardari are under investigation for corruption. Conviction would disqualify the the guilty to hold public office in the future. So a subtext of Mr. Sharif”s leadership to restore the chief justice was to protect himself and his party. For, given the personal and family nature of politics in Pakistan, if Mr. Sharif were to be found guilty and unable to stand for election, not only would he and his family suffer financially, but also his political party. The reluctance of Mr. Zardari to reinstate the chief justice was along similar lines. If he were found guilty, then his family and party would be ruined. The expectation now is that with Mr. Sharif’s success in reinstating the chief justice, neither man will want to go to court, so some accomodation, bypassing the Supreme Court, will be worked out to forgive both men’s past corrupt activities, thus maintaining the (corrupt) status quo in Pakistani politics. And now you know…the rest of the story.

So what is the take away message about Pakistan? Are the Pakistanis the “good” guys or the “bad” guys? The take away message is that we Americans have to stop thinking in these simplistic terms. Life is messy. “Surgical” strikes aren’t, and, if they ever are, Big Brother will have finally taken over. Innocent civilians will always die in war. War will always be hell and lacking in moral certitude.  I have become profoundly less interventionist in viewpoint the more I have learned about the history of  US actions in Asia. Post World War II, we just do not have a good record of securing peace in Asia. And I would say that a big reason for that is that we do not know enough about Asia to appreciate what is really going on. And until we do, we should resist easy categorizations and keep our military at home.

Hmm. Why did I think you  would be any more interested in that diatribe than my sleep habits? I will have to think this over before I post again…


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