Thursday, May 24, 2007

A conversation with Dr. Fulstac Nahbang

Here’s something old from my attic -- one of my many attempts at fiction that I never thought would see the light of day. Perhaps it still shouldn’t. But I guess there’s no harm in letting something like this loose on a blog.

I wrote this fiction piece sometime in 2003 and then abandoned it. I had then been thinking of the pitfalls of nationalism, or indeed any sense of belonging that might make us overly zealous. But I also was thinking of what might happen if we were to reject everything that contributes, subtly or otherwise, to what we are: our nationalities, communities, and religious beliefs. I wanted to write something about the tension between these two extremes - the extremes of strong attachment and identification, and total rejection - and this fictional conversation (it's an attempt at satire as well) is what I came up with. Needless to say, this is all very experimental.

“Dr. Nahbang, thank you very much for agreeing to be on this talk show.”

“My pleasure.”

“First, I’d like to ask where your name comes from. Fulstac Nahbang. It is a very different name.”

“It comes from nowhere. My name is made from a random permutation of letters, but with some care taken on the placement of vowels so that it is pronounceable. It has no origin, and it is as I’d like it to be.”

“Did your parents give you the name?”

“Yes. Their point was to not give it any particular racial or national feel. They obviously did not do a good job as many people ask me if I am African or Jewish or from Eastern Europe. Somebody once came to me and told me he was sure I was from Nigeria. This person had the peculiar hobby of guessing nationalities from names.”

“Your profession is a unique one – if I am not wrong you would call yourself as someone who cures your clients of the ills of nationalism?”

“Yes, that would be true, but I don’t restrict myself only to nationalism – there are other ‘isms’ that I am also capable of addressing.”

“How did you get into this profession?”

“I did not have to get into my profession; I was made for it. My ancestors for the last four generations or so are unique; they never married within their own communities. My maternal great grandmother was an Australian aborigine, and great grandfather a Swede; my paternal grandfather was a Navajo Indian and my grandmother Vietnamese. I don’t belong to any particular country or race. And nationalism, or, for that matter, any form of identity - religious or tribal or territorial or racial - is absent in me. The only identity that I care about is my lack of identity. All this and my interest in human psychology naturally led me to my profession.”

“How do you feel being one of a kind?”

“Lonely, because I feel there should be more of my kind. The greatest troubles in the world are because there are not more of my kind.”

“That’s quite a perspective…When did you seriously begin to form such a philosophy?”

“It was around eight years ago. One of my friends, who works at a law enforcement agency, sent over a convict with some psychological problems to me, and asked me to analyze him. This convict had a strong hatred of immigrant workers in his country. He had sent many death threats and had a history of assaulting immigrants. The source of his xenophobia lay his strong pride for his country, and in the belief that his country represented a certain race, and that that purity of race had to be retained. It was an easy and straightforward case for me. My law enforcement friend was pleased with the progress he saw after I’d treated him, and sent me more patients with the same problems. I was very good at solving their problems, as I view things from my own unique perspective: I lack identity and I view the quest for identity to be the cause for all troubles.”

“But don’t you think that violent reactions have their roots in economic problems?”

“It is a chicken and egg story. You could look at it the other way as well. Sure economics is intertwined with everything but the economically powerful usually claim to have some sort of value system –which comes presumably from their worldview, religion, race, anything. And they are chauvinistic about their value system and routinely – explicitly or implicitly – claim the superiority of their value system over that of the economically underprivileged.”

“How do you diagnose your client or patient? - if I may refer to the person that way.”

“It depends but let me give you an example. I had someone the other day who wanted to know how patriotic he was. I had him wear thin pads over his forearms and showed him maps of his country, pictures depicting its history and its present glories. At the end, my surround sound system played the most stirring rendition of the national anthem – I have a huge stack of CDs with national anthems and spend quite some time selecting the most soulful one for each nation. The pads over the forearms are connected to an instrument that detects how many goose bumps he’s had. That gives me a preliminary assessment…I also checked his pulse rate and heart beat.”

“Don’t you think that patients, since they are aware that they’re being diagnosed, might not respond…”

“No matter how dampened one’s responses may be, there is enough inadvertent reaction to make a judgment. My instruments are calibrated well enough to take this into account.”

“How about treatment – if a certain client wishes to be rectified of his or her problem?”

“Again, there are a variety of methods. One of my techniques is to let the client go through a rehabilitation session. One aspect of the session usually involves having a client in a room with the walls being projected in very different colors. Sometimes we show them flowers of various colors from all around the world– all these are treatments if somebody has a problem with respect to skin color. Then humans in all shades and colors from different parts of the world are shown; we take care that a variety of physical features – high cheekbones, flat noses, blue eyes, thick lips – are thrown into the mix. For those with religious problems, we have a collection of holy books and pictures of animistic practices from all over the world; we lock a patient in a room with these books and images for two days. This often yields very good results.”

“Are you typically busy? How many patients do you meet everyday?”

“Many, after the word spread that I treat patients who are too attached to their own countries or specific ideologies. I am always busy. I get patients who are not a social threat, but nevertheless want to get diagnosed. Maybe it has become fashionable in social circles, particularly those who consider themselves to be liberal or secular or think they are above petty things like nationalism. What is interesting is that they themselves are unaware of precisely what worldviews they hold and when they come to me, they get to know themselves better. Most of them want to be something – so that they can fit into a group – but have conflicts internally that fetter them. Since all of what I do remains strictly confidential, they feel free to speak their hearts. And some truths are bitter.”

“How is it that you are so popular? I mean how do people know about you?”

“Well, I am here on this talk show and though it might not have a wide reach, it still gets to enough people to sustain me. I get my advertising done through alternative radio stations like yours – I would like to call them liberal but it goes against my belief since such labels go a long way in creating categories. Every province or region in the world has some sort of alternative media, and they’ve been generous enough to give my work some exposure.”

“You say every province or region in the world – do you travel that much?”

“I cannot settle down in a particular country; I have to keep moving from place to place. I fear that once I stay in a certain place, I’ll develop an attachment to it and that will undermine my unique perspective.”

“But you must like some places more than others?”

“True, but I am not attached to any of them.”

“Please don’t feel forced to answer this question. But I am curious: Does your perspective have any implications about whom you marry?”

“I would have to marry someone who was as mixed as me. That’s what everyone in the world should be trying to do: mix yourself up so that there are no races and no countries. Actually – I wanted to say this earlier but it slipped my mind – my theory is that if aliens were to suddenly attack us, we would, to some extent, forget our differences and rally towards a common goal. I’d like to see the world in that state. In fact, in some of my rehabilitation sessions, I show clients a continuous staple of science fiction movies in which evil aliens attack the earth and diverse peoples unite. Such things can be quite motivating.”

“That’s quite extraordinary. Not to stretch the point, but what if such an invasion was to happen? Would you then encourage intermarriage with an alien?”

“We’ll get to that when it happens. There are more pressing problems now.”

“Indeed. Dr. Nahbang, thank you very much for agreeing to be on our talk show. It’s been a pleasure having you here; it’s been eye opening conversation and I am sure our listeners will agree with that. Thanks very much again.”

“My pleasure.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pictures from Chihuahua

For a few days last week, I was in the state of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. Some pictures from my trip are below (click on pictures to get a better view).

The Pink Store in the border town of Palomes, just across the New Mexico border. The restaurant in the store serves an excellent lunch.

Potters Daniel Gonzalez and his wife in the village of Mata Ortiz. Mata Ortiz is renowned for its pottery.

Mexico's brand of potato chips.

An abandoned hamburger stall in the town of Nuevos Casas Grandes.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mohsin Hamid interview

Jai Arjun Singh has a long but engrossing interview of the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, author most recently of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The interview covers diverse topics but I found most interesting Hamid's comments on writing while holding a full-time, routine job:
"...literary novels require a certain kind of mindset – a thought process, a psychological make-up which tends to fit very poorly with the work-world. And the reason for this is that the mind best suited for the construction of very large and complex internal universes (which is how the literary novel is constructed), such a mind tends not to be particularly gregarious.
"And even if they are competent enough to deal with the regularity of the 9 to 6 job – or, as it’s now become worldwide, the 9 to 9 job – there’s another problem. The very process of drafting, revising, questioning everything that you’re presented with, which is what the literary writer does, means that when you step into a standard working environment, you recognise it as a ridiculous, arbitrary environment.

"And you say to yourself, 'I don’t want to do this, it’s ridiculous.' You reject it as being just a pawn in the system."

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The ballad of Juan Quezada

From May17-20, I will be traveling in the province of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico with a group led by archaeologists of the Arizona State Museum. We'll be visiting the ruins at Casas Grandes – I’ve put up a picture of the aerial view of the site – and also the village of Mata Ortiz, known for its pottery (example in the picture).

The tradition of pottery in the region dates back at least to the 13th century, when the Native Americans there built the Casas Grandes structures. With the decline of this culture, however, the tradition lost its impetus. But Juan Quezada of Mata Ortiz has dramatically revitalized it in the last few decades. Nearly 40 years ago, Quezada, as a poor farm boy, found centuries-old complete pots in a cave high in the mountains. He managed to replicate these pots through a process of trial and error, which took many years. Today not only is Quezada internationally known, the village of Mata Ortiz teems with artisans who have learned pottery skills from him.

PBS Frontline has a short 7-minute documentary on Juan Quezada and other artisans of Mata Ortiz. Macarena Hern├índez, the reporter in the video, begins by describing the rugged terrain of Chihuahua rather romantically as the "the land of magic and myth". The general tone of the documentary is dramatic and reverential. What I do like though is the ballad that runs in the background - the ballad or corrido sung in praise of Juan Quezada. That’s what gives this post its title.

As with all the travel I do, my hope is that there will be something I can write about Casas Grandes and Mata Ortiz. But then again, nothing might come of it!