Returning Home From Nepal


August 5, 2011

Doha, Qatar

Brendan in the Doha Airport, Qatar

We’ve been up most of the night, since our flight departed at 11:30 pm and arrived four hours later in a different time zone.  We had to wait for another seven hours for the next flight.   It’s a nice airport, extremely clean.  We’ve gotten used to grime.  There are trash cans!  I don’t know why Nepal lacks trash cans, or dumpsters, or people who clean bathrooms.  Nice to have toilets you can sit on, t.p., and soap again, too.

What else is different.  People are diverse.  There are a lot more Africans, Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners.  Lots of Arabs, but not as many as you’d expect.  Not too many women walking around in abayahs.   I’m wearing my favorite kurta suruwal, the one I had made to match the outfits I bought for the girls.  We only had one day together in our identical clothes.

Anura's mark on my palm

Anura painted a sun, surya, on my palm in henna.  It is my most precious ornament.  Like all things, it will not last.  It fades a bit more each time I wash my hands.  Who will make sure Anura washes her hands with soap now that I am gone?  No one comes to braid their hair before school, to sit with them during their breakfast.  A new volunteer will come, I am sure.  This does not console me.

Brendan is very happy to be going home, happy to have me with him in the airport.  He said that my being with him makes it 100 times easier for him.  He would have been fine without me, I think.  I have no way of knowing that.  No use pushing a child into a situation that they don’t feel ready to face.  You can’t build character through intentional suffering or indifferent neglect.

Same day, about 24 hours later:

New York, New York

Sitting in a well-lit Vino/Volo wine bar at JFK with Brendan.  When the waitress brought the salad I ordered, I had to stop myself from saying “thank you” in Nepali (danyabad).  Then, wonder of wonders, she brought salt and pepper, which never would have happened in Nepal.

I’m drinking pinot grigio, which is somewhat insane since I’m exhausted.  I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, Nepali time, and have had only short naps in the past 48 hours.   Brendan is dozing in the chair next to me.  He has been in a wonderful mood, thrilled to be able to get a milkshake that he could drink safely and very, very happy to be back in the States.

He just opened his eyes and laughed.  A woman has come onto the airport intercom twice now to cuss out another woman in standard Black American English.  I didn’t catch all her words, but did manage to hear “nigger, bitch, mother-fucking…”  Welcome to America!

I have spoken to Tim now twice.  I called him after we got through customs to announce our arrival.  We spoke for a few minutes in the usual friendly tones.  It was awkward. It has always been hard to talk to him on the phone, and this time the odd silences were no longer or more uncomfortable than usual.  Still, it felt strange.

He called again just now to say that he was going to the market for us, and to ask if we had any requests.  It’s nice of him to do this, and nice of him to pick us up from the airport, and nice of him to have gotten all his furniture out of the house in time for our arrival.  I asked him how he accomplished this.  He said that friends from his church gave him a hand, and that one of them had a 22 year-old son who was particularly helpful.  I wondered if this was the woman he’s interested in, but didn’t ask.

Tim has bought a house just steps away from mine but won’t close on it until the end of the month.  So he’ll go to his sister’s tonight.  This will probably be a strange move for him, since my house has been his house for so long now.  I’m worried that he house will feel very cold and empty without him there.

Brendan said, “Don’t worry!  Soon you’ll have me and Danielle and a Great Dane to keep you company.”

It is true.  With Baldr and Freya, there will be three dogs, two children, and one cat under the roof.  Plenty of company.   Thank goodness for Brendan.

I’m sure I can’t possibly assess to what degree or how I have changed in the past few months right now.  My brain is not working so well right now, and it’s too soon to say.  But it is certain that I have changed.  I’m neither devout nor dogmatic, but I’ve become much more seriously interested in Buddhism.

One of the strangest things about being here—in addition to the odd announcements from the airport loudspeaker—is getting used to the fact that from now on most of the people I’ll encounter will be Americans who speak only one language and who have never traveled anywhere outside the country.  Given the neighborhood I live in and the places I go, most of the people I see will be white.  Some of them will be black.  Very few of them will look like the brown faces I’ve come to know as ordinary. There will be no more diversity of Asian faces bearing witness to Indian, Mongolian, Tibetan, or Chinese ancestry!

I have been living at a Buddhist monastery for the past week, getting up to the sound of chanting monks.  I have gotten used to women in kurtas, dogs, cows, ducks and chickens in the street, to women swishing their beautiful Tibetan silk skirts and aprons, to men in Newari caps sitting for hours on storefront stoops, to gaudy saris and tikas and tinkling plastic bracelets, to attracting unwanted attention because I am white.

I love the slow pace of life in Nepal and love to gaze upon the stupa.

I miss Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala.  It seems cruel and unfair that I won’t be able to see them every morning.  It is terrible to contemplate the thought of never seeing them again.

Tawakul Karman Update


Yes, yes, it’s all very wonderful (and I sincerely mean this) that Tawakul Karman has been released from prison.  And I admire and respect her call for greater freedoms of expression and for her leadership of Women Journalists for Change.  It’s hard to stand up to a government that forces women–look at them–to shroud themselves from head to toe.  Look, it’s currently the fad in academic feminist circles to defend the veil and to stand up for it, which is kind of weird.

Obviously, women, all women, everywhere, ought to have the freedom to wear a veil if they want to, and I can understand the sense of freedom that one might have while walking around anonymously in public.

But the problem is that there we are not talking about women making the choice to wear the veil, but rather about a culture in which women who choose to take the veil off are made to feel like sluts.  Imposing the veil on women is an ancient way of manipulating and controlling women in public.

Are the women in the photo above, Tawakul Karman’s supporters, wearing the veil to dodge police cameras or for cultural reasons?  Either way, they are wearing it out of fear, fear of what would happen to them were they to show their faces and bodies in the world.  Are women are wearing the veil because they “choose” to, or because they fear what will happen to them if they don’t? Karman shed her veil.  Her followers may not have the luxury to do the same.

Just so you know where I stand, I think that the idiot-brained American bigots who have shamed Muslim women and girls in this country for wearing the veil are uncivilized barbarians and assholes who ought to be fined, jailed, and made to do long and tedious hours of community service for their crimes.  And the French!  The French have always been stupidly self-centered about their culture.  If a woman wants to drape herself in black, let her.  If she likes to cover her hair, so be it!  We don’t go after Orthodox Jews who cover their hair with wigs.  Why harrass Muslim women?  Let people be as they wish to be, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.  And no one is hurt by my neighbor’s headscarf.

In response to more than 5,000 protesters, many of them women, Yemeni authorities released activist Tawakul Karman yesterday, but quickly arrested lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Al-Anesi, who had been defending Karman.  Al-Anesi was arrested as he tried to reach the attorney general to explain why Karman’s arrest was illegal.  Security forces rushed him and carried him, along with a number of other human rights activists, to prison.

Both Al-Anesi and Karman are reported to be in good spirits and hopeful for political change.  Speaking at a rally after her release, Karman said,

We will continue our struggle until regime change happens in our happy country. We will defend order in our country, we will defend the system, the constitution, the law. The Jasmine Revolution will continue until the entire regime goes.

Karman is pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has dominated Yemeni politics for more than 30 years, to step down.  Parliament has recently considered changing the rules of terms limits, which would allow Saleh to appoint himself president for life.

More than 1000 civilians protested the crackdown on freedom of expression outside the office of the general prosecutor. Among the protesters was Naif al-Qanes, a leader in JMP and the chairman of the political administration in The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.  He was beaten and arrested this morning.  [Source: Hood].

Where these protests for greater freedom of expression in Yemen will lead is hard to say. Saleh is clearly concerned, if not frightened by the civil unrest and the outrage that his government’s arrest of Karman has sparked.  This morning’s New York Times reports that President Saleh, perhaps in response to these civil protests, has raised military salaries and cut taxes in half.  A “Jasmine Revolution” that would bring about greater civil liberties and a more democratic government would certainly be a good thing, especially if such a government were able to rid itself of  Al Qaeda in the region.   The current administration in Yemen makes a show of cooperating with the US, but has not so far managed to rout the group out.

Yemen is a poor country governed by tribal powers and characterized by powerful, traditional cultural patterns.   It is an unlikely spot for the blossoming of calls for greater civil rights, freedom of expression, and greater civil liberties for women by women.  Tawakul Karman has blossomed here, and inspired thousands of women to follow her.  She leads an organization called “Women Journalists without Chains” in a society in which women are frequently silenced and shut away.

To say this is not to argue that American women, many of whom voluntarily enslave themselves to men for economic or emotional reasons, are significantly more enlightened.  Nevertheless the educational, political and economic freedoms for women are much greater in this country than they are currently in Yemen or many other Muslim countries. That American women fail to make use of these freedoms is quite another problem for a later discussion.

We are talking about Yemen.  We are talking about a culture in which women are expected to remain silent and in which we see women speaking out and calling for greater freedom of expression.  This is important.  I am writing about it because I am hopeful and because I admire this activist.  I remain troubled by her affiliation with Islah, an apparently fundamentalist party that would subject the country to a narrower, Muslim (Shariah) rule of law.  I worry that the rise of  this party could set women back.   But for now, this woman is not stepping back.