Tuesday, December 16, 2008


1. I've always put in a good word for the documentaries of Frontline, but now I've found another terrific source. This too a PBS production; it's called Wide Angle. The two documentaries I would especially recommend: Brazil in Black and White, which follows several Brazilian kids trying to get into college, and the effect of a recently implemented affirmative action policy. And Back to School - this one is an all time favorite - follows six children (one each in Kenya, Benin, India (in Rajasthan), Japan, Romania and Brazil and Afghanistan), trying to attend primary school, and the challenges they face.

2. Confessions of a xenophile:
Amitav Ghosh writes in this contemplative essay about his early experiences in the village of Lataifa in Egypt, which led to one of his best books, In an antique land. Ghosh ties his time in Egypt to something broader: a yearning for universalism. Some excerpts:
The world today is very different from that of 1980, when I came to Egypt. The conversations and exchanges that re-commenced in the post-war period are now in danger of being broken off again. Today, especially in the Anglo-American world, capitalism and empire are once again being packaged together, in a bundle that is scarcely distinguishable from the old ‘civilizing mission’. Indeed, one of the outcomes of the horrifying attacks of 9/11 was that it led to an extraordinary rehabilitation of imperialism, not merely as a political and military force, but also as an ideology – one that has led to the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq.


Against this background it is tempting to look back on the days of non-alignment with some nostalgia: and indeed there was much that was valuable in that period. Yet it would be idle to pretend that solutions could be found by looking backwards in time. That was a certain historical moment and it has passed. If I have reflected on it here, it is not in order to suggest that we should try to turn back the clock – as religious fundamentalists seek to do – nor in order to fall back on an ideology of permanent victimhood such as that which the French rightly castigate as ‘tiers-mondisme’. I have pointed to that period, rather, in order to evoke the desires and hopes that animated it, in particular to its strain of xenophilia, to its yearning for a certain kind of universalism – not a universalism merely of principles and philosophy, but one of face-to-face encounters, of everyday experience. Except that this time we must correct the mistake that lay at the heart of that older anti-colonial impulse – which is that we must not only include the West within this spectrum of desire, we must also acknowledge that both the West and we ourselves have been irreversibly changed by our encounter with each other. We must recognize that in the West, as in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, there are great numbers of people who, by force of circumstance, have become xenophiles, in the deepest sense, of acknowledging that in matters of language, culture and civilization, their heritage, like ours, is fragmented, fissured and incomplete. Only when our work begins to embody the conflicts, the pain, the laughter, and the yearning that comes from this incompleteness will our work be a true mirror of the world we live in.

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