Dubai Can Bite Me, Ctd

We have often had harsh things to say about the treatment of South Asian guest workers in Dubai/UAE in many posts here (for instance), but here is one that hit home for me as an academic.

Syed Ali is an American citizen of Indian descent who teaches sociology at Long Island University. In 2007, he was in Dubai on a Fulbright with his family. One day before he was to leave the country, he got a knock on the door, and five men in white robes and a woman in police uniform asked him to come with them. What followed was a rather bizarre kind of interrogation by the UAE police:

Then the questioning began. Why are you here? Who do you know? He explained that he was a Fulbright scholar, on a grant by the very U.S. government that was the United Arab Emirates’ main strategic partner.

Ali, now 41, was in Dubai researching about second-generation expatriates from South Asia for an academic paper about how professional Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living in the Persian Gulf were adjusting to life and work far from home, in a place where they could live in for decades but could never gain permanent residency. He was shocked that his line of inquiry would set off alarm bells.

“It ended up I was interviewing people who were quite well off,” he said. “That’s why I was so really stunned. I never had any sense that there was anything objectionable about what I was doing. No one had any serious complaints about being there.”

Yet despite the reams of information they had on him, “there was a lack of basic information that they didn’t get or have or really understand,” said Ali, who wrote about his experiences in Dubai for Britain’s Guardian newspaper. They didn’t seem to get what a Fulbright was. “‘We think you’re working for the ‘Jewish,’ ” one interrogator accused Ali, who is a secular Muslim. “‘Maybe also the CIA.'” (link)

Note that he was researching white collar workers, not the folks working in construction (whose miserable working and living conditions have been amply documented). Eventually they let him go, warning him not to return to the country to do any further research: “The research you are doing is creating divisions in our society and we will not allow it” (See Syed Ali’s original account of his experience here.) They also took his laptop and the IPod he had been using to record interviews. They later returned the computer without its hard disk, and bought him a new IPod instead of returning the old one. So much for the months of research!

Now Syed Ali’s book, Dubai: Gilded Cage is out from Yale University Press. Revenge is a dish best served with coverage in the Chicago Tribune (above), The LA Times, and the Independent.

Maybe someone should mail a copy to Dubai’s secret police: here’s that scurrilous book by the “Jewish” “CIA” agent named … umm… Syed Ali. Continue reading

Travel Writing, Annotated

In the time-honored journalistic tradition of lists (o, you home of nuance and subtlety and click-worthiness), the NYT exoticism Travel section gives us The 31 Places to Go in 2010.

1 on the list? Sri Lanka. Wouldn’t you know it, but “for a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune.” Seems that way, doesn’t it? “But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era…” Timesdudes, is that misfortune all GONE? Sweet! Except for all the people dealing with the conflict’s aftermath! Including the hundreds of thousands of displaced! Not to mention all the bereaved!

(Also on the list… Mysore, Mumbai, and Nepal. The last may be the “next gay destination.” Trend-o-RAMA! (h/t to Anup))

Let’s annotate, just for kicks. Continue reading

Naveen Selvadurai & Foursquare


A little over a year ago, my social networking life was all but nonexistent. Like everyone else my age, I had a Facebook page left over from college. Other than the occasional stalk-in, er login, however, I rarely used my account. But overnight (it seems) everyone and their aunty joined Facebook. Before I knew it, I had second cousins from Pakistan who I’d never met trying to friend me and my mother calling me every morning to discuss my status. (“You were sick and you didn’t call me?”) Now Facebook is the first site I visit each morning. And after Facebook comes Twitter. (My name is ____________ and yes I do have an Interwebz addiction.) And now, I’m afraid I may just join Foursquare, a new social media site which has my friends abuzz. What is Foursquare you ask? Ever sat by yourself in a coffee shop? Wished a friend was close by and wanted to hang out? Didn’t feel like texting everyone in your phonebook? If you’d logged in to Foursquare, which was co-founded by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai this past March, you would’ve known immediately who was around.

Continue reading

Getting to Know Goa, Slowly

Though it is undoubtedly one of India’s most popular tourist destinations, it might be surprising to readers that Goa most definitely is not being overrun with big-time real estate development projects. There are some large resorts around (the “Taj Exotica”), in both north and south Goa, and a really insistently Philistine foreign tourist could potentially stay in Goa and never leave one of those places. But as far as I can tell, Goa is not in the process of becoming another Dominican Republic or Jamaica, with mega-resorts so dominant they threaten to eclipse local populations and culture. The best beaches are still, by and large, open to the public, and while some are quite crowded (Calangute), many of the public beaches we’ve visited seem perfectly tranquil, with a mix of foreign (largely Russian) and Indian tourists enjoying the sun and sand.

It’s also worth pointing out that the state has a substantial economic, industrial, and cultural life that has nothing at all to do with tourism. (To give just one example, Goa is apparently popular with pharmaceutical companies, because the low levels of pollution in the air and water make it easier for pharma factories to achive high levels of purity in manufacturing medicine. The local Cipla plant makes the Indian/generic version of AIDS cocktail drugs that are sent to sub-Saharan Africa, and delivered to patients at a cost of $1 a day.)

This resistance to outside money and mega-tourism projects is not for want of trying. This New York Times article from March 2007 is a good introduction to some of the debates over the direction of Goa. The short version is this: the state government was more than ready to implement a “regional plan” that would open doors to major development projects, but a popular “Save Goa” protest movement emerged in 2006-7 that forced them to drop the plan. As a result, you do see some pockets of new tourist development, but it is measured and limited. (The article foregrounds the story of an investor whose focus is on finding distinctive individual houses in Goan villages to renovate and then market in a limited way.)

The emergence of a movement to protect Goa’s distinctively laid-back, but fluid cultural heritage does not come without some problems and dangers. Yesterday, we had the distinct privilege of meeting a local Goan writer and journalist named Vivek Menezes, who had a lot to tell us regarding both the history and current status of Goa.

One article Vivek published in 2006 details the tensions produced by the boom atmosphere that was prevalent at the time:

Chakravarti continued, “Piece of the action is …driving Goa to the edge,” and writes movingly about tears at his friend’s funeral marking “a sense of loss for a Goa we pine after but can no longer recognise.”

It’s a sentiment that’s nearly universal in 2006. Long-stayers, relative newcomers and locals all describe a sensation of being under siege.

This feeling is particularly strong at the fringes of Goa’s burgeoning tourism marketplace, in the decades-old long-staying communities that developed from the hippie phenomenon of previous decades. On the heels of a series of directives from the centre, officials from half a dozen different state agencies are turning up at people’s doorsteps, checking the ownership and legal status of homes and businesses, and denying licences and permissions required to et up shop in Goa. (link)

I would recommend reading the rest of Vivek’s article, where there is some great material from people abroad who have come to the state not as tourists, but to live and settle here.

My preliminary outsider’s sense is that the feeling of “crisis” Vivek was referring to in 2006 may be at least temporarily at bay with the collapse of the regional plan. Some people still seem to have a sense of nostalgia for the lost “old Goa,” but in a region with history as rich as this one, it’s not always clear whether they are talking about the 1990s (Goa NRG/rave culture), the 1970s (“Dum Maro Dum”; western hippies), the 1920s… or the 1570s.

Vivek lent me a book called Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (edited by Jerry Pinto; Penguin India), in which I’ve been encountering some interesting essays that address some issues relating to Goa’s earlier history. More about that below. Continue reading

Hello from Delhi (and Dehra Dun, and Chandigarh)

We’ll be returning to Goa in a day or two, but meanwhile there was some family visiting to attend to in the north.

First up, Delhi. My dominant impression of Delhi this time around is of seeing construction everywhere for new Delhi Metro stations. In a couple of years (when Delhi hosts the Commonwealth Games), I’m sure it will all be wonderful, but right now it adds to the traffic headache. That said, I was impressed by the new domestic airport terminal (the old one was hopelessly insufficient), and by what I took to be preliminary attempts at revamping the central train station.

We were happy to get to meet Jai Arjun Singh at a Crossword book store (Jai, thanks for waiting for us) in Saket, south Delhi. The bookstore was in a massive, opulent new mall called “Citywalk Select,” which has designer boutiques everywhere (Indian, European, and American), and the general feel of the massive King of Prussia mall near our house in suburban Philadelphia. It was certainly surreal, after seeing continuing signs of poverty elsewhere in the city, and Samian wondered how there could be enough Delhi-ites who can afford to pay $500 for Kate Spade purses to support these stores. Also surreal in such a place was the presence of the writer Ruskin Bond, who I think of as an R.K. Narayan-type writer (simple, elegant, and compelling storytelling), not someone you would ever expect to see in this kind of place. In this case, he was doing a book-signing at the bookstore, which was surprisingly packed.

When you’re traveling with a two-year old, you don’t get to read quite as much as when you’re either alone or with other grown-ups. Still, I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Carlo Levi’s Essays on India here and there, and I thought some passages from his essay “The Invisible Capital” (1957) might be of interest:

The city of New Delhi appears, as you drop suddenly down towards it out of the sky, as something unreal and abstract, an immense placeless space, a utopian place. It doesn’t really seem like a city; there is no centre, no cluster of houses, only a vast expanse crisscrossed by immensely broad boulevards that seem to stretch out endlessly into the distance, and dotted here and there by monumental buildings, isolated in the greenery. Much as in the shapeless, ameboid city of Los Angeles, the distances are so vast that you can only move around by car (this modern conveyance that ensures medieval isolation). It is also reminiscent of Washington, with its plan of an administrative capital, silent and reserved; to an even greater degree, it is reminiscent of London, in the attempt to blend a sense of power with a yearning for the earthly paradise prior to the original sin.

I think the comparison to Washington is probably the most apt (I don’t see the comparisons to London or Los Angeles at all). More from Carlo Levi on Delhi below: Continue reading

Hello from Goa; Poem by Daljit Nagra

I’m always nervous about being too personal in this space, and anyway when you’re traveling with a two-year old your travel experiences tend to revolve around him, so I’ll boil it down to this: Goa sure is nice this time of year. (I’m visiting in-laws, who live here now.)

We were also in London for a couple of days, where I was happy to get to meet Sunny Hundal. Again, let’s keep details to a minimum, and say the highlight of our London experience was a restaurant called Imli, serving Indian Tapas (nice idea, huh).

In a London bookstore I found a book of poems by Daljit Nagra, Look We Have Coming to Dover! (the title poem is a postcolonial answer to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”). My favorite poem so far is “Rapinder Slips into Tongues,” and I hope the poet won’t mind if I share the poem here, in hopes of provoking discussion. It certainly resonated with me:

Rapinder Slips into Tongues…
by Daljit Nagra

Dad and me were watching the video–
Amar, Akbar, Anthony. It’s about three
brothers separated after the family is parted
by gangsters. You can get it with subtitles, Miss.
When Anthony, who grows up in a Catholic home,
begged Christ for the address of his real parents
then crossed himself, I jumped off our royal red
sofa, joined Anthony with his prayer:
Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary,
four-quartering myself then curtseying a little.

Dad just stared at me, knocking his turban side
to side that I almost thought it would come off
which it normally does when he’s doing his press-ups
and his face goes mauve. Instead he took off
his flip-flop (the one with a broken thong),
held it in the air, shouting in ‘our’ language,
Vat idiot! If you vant to call on Gud,
call anytime on anyvun of our ten gurus,
Do you tink is white Gud’s wife your mudder?

Dad’s got a seriously funny way Miss,
sometimes he cries, and says he’s going to give me
to a Sikh school, a proper school. That’s why
I did what my cousin Ashok does at our local
temple — while you were all doing hail mary
to end registration, I first locked my hands,
knelt down, prayed with this ditty we do on Sundays,

imagined the Golden Temple and our bearded gods
to your up-on-the-cross one, then roared:
Wahay Guru!
Wahay Guru!
Wahay Guru!
Like that.

A critic named Ben Wilkinson has a brief take on the poem, and Daljit Nagra’s poetic style as a whole, here. Continue reading

Punjabi Parmigiana

Riffing off of Sugi’s post concerning Naan Fromage in France, and I just learned [via Camille] that the Italian dairy industry in Lombardy that produces Parmigian cheese relies on desis for 90% of their work force. That’s right, we can do more than just paneer. No more Amul for you, baby, from now on it’s only the finest Italian cheeses. We are milkmen to the world!

The first immigrants came 20 years ago to (according to the documentary clip) work as animal handlers in the circus, now the town of Novellara has 600 Sikh immigrants and the second largest Gurdwara in Europe. The Po Valley has 60,000 desis working there and couldn’t function without them. Here’s the news clip:

My favorite part is when the guy explains that he likes to hire Indians because they are patient, methodical, and extremely reliable, with a natural gift for working with animals. Clearly he’s never been to India.

p.s. can I use the fact that Sikhs run the dairies of Parma as credentials for a government sinecure?

Related news: African Lumberjacks in Canada

Continue reading

Naan Fromage, S’il vous plaît

Hurray for traveling, but also: hurray for airports with sweet, stable and FREE (!) Internet connections. I have a brief interlude here in Kansas City on my way back from a reading, so I thought I’d tell you about a trip I took last month. After attending a desi wedding in Georgia (the American one!) I took the Delta nonstop to Paris (the French one!) for another wedding. And in France, I did a little desi-spotting, in the part of Paris known as La Chapelle.

So, in this blissful hiatus from the security line (as Kumar says, “random search, huh?”), I bring to you tales of gastronomie and naan fromage!

I can’t pretend that I had an exhaustive look at La Chapelle—time did not permit—but you know me, I managed to eat. And take pictures. Neither can I pretend to be Preston Merchant, but I did try to get some of the signs that captured the French-Indien-Srilankhan (!) vibes. Continue reading

The Roof and the Root


There were two reasons that I was in Africa. The first one was that the mountain is there. I contend that every good journey involves a mountain high enough that it keeps a piece of you with it after you think you’ve gotten off. On top of the mountain is a doomed glacier of storied beauty that I needed to see before it melted into just a “once upon a time” memory described in a book or by an old man. The second reason I had long desired to come here was that my mother was born in East Africa (Uganda) and I wanted to feel a trace of what she once knew. Being under this sky, on this land, the pidgin that is Swahili ringing in my ears, I sought to better understand some part of her that ended when she was a teenager, a part that remained an unearthed root of my life.


The South Asian quarter (Uhindini) of Dar es Salaam is where you want to be if you have only one night in one of East Africa’s largest cities and you blog for a South Asian themed website whose readers expect you to work around the clock. It is also where the food is the best mix of Indian, Chinese, and East African. The gem dealer from Sri Lanka recognizes us as fellow guests of the dingy hotel. Your first night in a country should always be spent at a dingy hotel, otherwise you won’t learn how things in that country really work (such as how much cab fares to locations in the city should really cost). He tips us off to the fact that the best money exchange can be found next to the mosque at the end of that street. A good restaurant (I have the mutton) is directly next door to the hotel. The 34-year-old sits down with us at dinner and explains that if we want to find nice girls (why aren’t we married yet?) all we have to do is provide them with a little jewelry and some spending money. He swears that those two things will keep them satisfied and they won’t ever talk of divorce. I decide to keep my “blood diamond speech” under wraps just this once, even though Africa is the most appropriate place for it.

The Muslim friend I’m with tells me to stick with him for protection in this part of town. Five minutes later and three blocks north we pass the Pramukh Swami BAPS mandir, services just ending. “Your on my turf now,” I tell him.

Closer to the hotel again, it sounds like some bar or disco is playing Bob Marley. Sweet. I wanted to check out a bar here anyways and this one apparently has good music blaring on a Saturday night. As we get closer to the source I see that the music I am hearing is in fact emanating from a large group of women sitting on a mosque floor. Yeah, it definitely wasn’t Buffalo Soldier I was hearing. It is probably not polite for me to keep staring like this either. Continue reading

Desi Spotting in Brazil

When I travel to a new country, my eyes are always peeled for a desi sighting. My recent trip to Brazil was no different. This is the second BRIC nation I’ve visited (with Russia and China left to go) and having heard about Indian Oil Corp., Hindustan Petroleum, and Bharat Petroleum joint venture earlier this year to start ethanol production in Brazil, I thought I might spot other signs of investment. At the very least, I figured I would come across a Sindhi shopowner (the joke goes that even if you travel to the moon, you will meet a member of the diasporadic community of Indian traders, of which my family is a part).

But, there weren’t any Sindhis or Indians to speak of in Brazil. At least, we didn’t see any. (Well, there was one uncle type we ran into near the Ipanema farmer’s market, but he turned out to be a Mallu from New York, visiting his Brazilian wife’s family!) IMG_4556.JPG

We’d heard about Nataraj, the only Indian-run restaurant in Rio. It’s in Leblon, Rio’s most trendy residential neighborhood, and I figured we’d find a desi there. “It’s no good,” our New York uncle friend told us while he helped us shop for figs and sitaphal. “Don’t bother going.”

So we didn’t. (Now that I’m home, however, some scoping did yield a little write-up about Indian restaurants in South America here which pointed out that the restaurant is run by a family whose matriarch used to work for the British High Commission in Rio. “She had been doing special event catering for the embassy as a side interest and then one fine day she decided to open a restaurant – I’m glad she did. It takes courage to make a caipirinha with an indian twist.”

Dang. Missed opportunity for a good Sepia post. Next time I go to Rio, I’ll have to make it a point to go here.

So, Brazil is home to a multitude of skin colors, so it’s easy to mistake Brazilians for Indians and Indians for Brazilians, so much so that many times, people mistook me and my husband for Brazilians and spoke to us in Portugese. There were, however, a few exceptions.

In Salvador de Bahia, the northern city which was the first capital of Brazil, from 1549 to 1763, a photojournalist came up to us during the 2nd of July Independence Day celebrations. “Are you Indian?” he asked. “Yes,” we answered. “Can I take a picture of you? First time I’m seeing Indians in Salvador,” he said.

Wow. I felt like an intrepid explorer, though I was quite certain I couldn’t be the first Indian in Salvador.

I was proven right. Later that day, in Salvador, we were at Rafael Cine Foto in Pelhorino, trying to get our camera repaired–and ahem, negotiating for a better price–when the shopkeeper (whose English was limited) asked us, laughing, “Are you Indian?” (I guess we carry our reputation as bargain makers around with us, wherever we go!) Later, my mother mentioned that her once-in-a-while Brazilian cleaning lady told her that there are lots of Indians who own shops at the malls in Salvador. I guess I should have gone to the mall!

Despite my lack of desi human spottings, there was no dearth of Indian influence–mostly of the exotic India variety–to be found in Brazil. [A brief photo essay follows below the fold.] Continue reading