Saturday, May 29, 2010

Common Ground: Islam In The U.S.A.

What better place than "Ground Zero"? The construction of 13-storey mosque and Islamic cultural centre would be a slap in the face to terrorists on all sides of the religious spectrum. It would be tantamount to saying "No fear." The pathetic cowards who are trying to suggest that it would somehow be an affront to the victims of 9/11 are a disgrace to the values that created the founding documents of the grand ol' U.S. of A. One idiot actually went as far as to say on his radio program:
"If you do build a mosque, I hope somebody blows it up...I hope the mosque isn’t built, and if it is, I hope it’s blown up. And I mean that...It’s right-wing radicals like me that are going to keep this country safe for you and everyone else from the people who are flying the planes from the country you fled from. If you want to identify with those people, go live with them."
That's right - show the terrorists who the real terrorists are! Religious tolerance is the American way and the American dream. What place is better suited to promote reflection and dialogue about Islam and other faiths than ground zero? To try and expunge references to Islam anywhere is fundamentally Un-American. I have a real problem with the ongoing conflation of terrorism with Islam which informs these fear-based reactions. This article from The New York Post spells out the source of the fear:
"Americans must always remember the horrors of 9/11 and must be vigilant in not allowing political Islam to wear down the principles that built our country."
How can the "principles" that created the U.S. be so vulnerable? I've got news - that will only happen if they are aided by these types of gutless buffoons, the equivalent of those who would threaten murder over a drawing of Mohammad. Islam can't be used as a motivation for violence any more than Christianity. If it is, than as with terrorists in Northern Ireland, it ceases to be about any faith. Here's a discussion from CNN on the issue:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Vino: Hong Kong Leads Asia!

It's a little-known fact that Hong Kong enjoys the highest per capita wine consumption in Asia. According to the International Wine and Spirits Report (IWSR), each adult drinks more than 3.5 litres of wine a year, significantly ahead of Japan (2.5 litres) and Singapore (2 litres).

Hong Kong is regarded as the gateway to the booming Asian wine market, which amounted to US$6.94 billion in 2008 alone and is projected to grow by an average of 11.5 per cent annually until 2013. The IWSR predicts that for the next three years, 50 per cent of the world’s wine consumption will be in just two countries – China and the United States. The mainland and Hong Kong are clearly the growth driver for worldwide wine consumption.

While Italy is the largest wine-consuming country, followed by the United States and France, the mainland and Hong Kong are leading consumers of spirits in terms of volume. As for wine, China is eighth in the world and is projected to grow by 31 per cent by 2013.

Red wine is by far the leading choice among Asians. In Hong Kong, red accounts for 80.6 per cent of consumption, followed by white at 16.1 per cent and rosé at 3.3. per cent. Although consumption of sparkling wine grew sharply between 2004 and 2008, it only represented 3 per cent of the volume drunk in Asia. Spirit consumption is slowing down and is expected to grow by 2.9 per cent, with vodka leading the way, followed by tequila and then rum.

In Asia, one bottle out of four consumed is imported, accounting for 59.8 per cent of sales. Last year, Japan remained the leading wine importing nation in Asia. France continues to be the leading supplier in the region and one in three bottles sold in Hong Kong is of French origin. Between 2004 and 2008, French imports grew by 41.8 per cent, while Chilean imports rose by 170.5 per cent and sales of Australian and American wines doubled.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Old Hanoi: Daily Bric-a-Brac

Hanoi - the labyrinthine center of Vietnam, a warren of fabled streets tunneling through the bustling grit and grime. An exhilarating slap in the face, a wake up call to be alive and remain so...

It's not just the scooters that twist you out of shape, but the people who call you in for a bite to eat, offer a seat for a drink or invite you in to check out their shops. And you want to do it all, everything...

This woman was selling sweet buns. We picked up a few and carried on around the old neighborhoods surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. This area dates back centuries and the buildings are all no more than 5 stories high and stuffed with the bric-a-brac of daily life - noodles, beer, grave stones, candles, clothes, books, tropical fruits and animal parts...

I made a friend too...

This guy was hanging around the Den Ngoc Son temple (Temple of the Jade Mound) on a tiny islet on Hoan Kiem Lake. He was taking a break from his daily performances at the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre nearby and explained a bit of history. Apparently, there are turtles in the lake - giant testudines - and if you spot one you're guaranteed good luck.

He hadn't had the good fortune of seeing one yet, which explained his rather severe hair style. I got him to take this photo of me on the Huc (Sunbeam) Bridge.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Songs Of Leonard Cohen: A Sinister Grace

"I'm cold as a new razor blade"
In the final days of 1967 a sinister beauty was born. Songs of Leonard Cohen was cast out upon the world “like an escaped ski” caressing the contours of an avalanche. During the following year as Cohen's fame grew, the stench of napalm and tear gas overtook incense and peppermint in the streets of Saigon, Paris and Chicago.
"Yes you who must leave everything
That you cannot control
It begins with your family,
But soon it comes around to your soul"

- Sisters of Mercy
Songs was an antidote to the times. Cohen internalized the turbulence of the sixties, drawing upon his own experiences to find expression for the violent dualities of the era. He once said, “your most particular answer will be your most universal” and Songs tames the chaos of his internal life into something resembling a cruel and febrile grace.

Cohen was our man in black, Canada's own Bob Dylan who emerged from the dark forests of the east brandishing a jew’s harp instead of a harmonica. He had more in common with the French chansons tradition of Jacques Brel or Serge Gainsbourg than Woody Guthrie. By the time his debut was released, he was already an acomplished author and poet and had developed a highly sophisticated aethetic that blended a chilling lucidity with the darkest of humour.
I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me.
But the room just filled up with mosquitos
They heard that my body was free.

- One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
Dylan once remarked that Cohen’s songs are like prayers and it’s this devotional attachment, a resolve to pursue the mechanics of salvation, which sets his work apart from others. Songs is as deep and darkly luminous as a canvass by Caravaggio or Rembrandt. Forty years-three later, it occupies a privileged place in the tower of song.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Glenn Greenwald: The Enemy Is Us

One of the most astute and consistent writers on U.S. politics is Salon's Glenn Greenwald. He always brings a fresh perspective and an informed legal analysis to the issues of the day. Since Obama was elected, Greenwald has revealed how his administration has maintained Bush & Cheney's extensive executive powers while continuing their assault on the American constitution. Now Obama is targeting U.S. citizens in a way Bush/Cheney never would have dared. We all could use more people like Greenwald, vigilant and articulate defenders of civil society. Here's a snippet from one of his most recent articles:

"What's most amazing about all of this is that even 9 years after the 9/11 attacks and even after the radical reduction of basic rights during the Bush/Cheney years, the reaction is still exactly the same to every Terrorist attack, whether a success or failure, large- or small-scale. Apparently, 8 years of the Bush assault on basic liberties was insufficient...Apparently, as "extremist" as the Bush administration was, there are still new rights to erode each time the word Terrorism is uttered. Each new incident, no matter how minor, prompts new, exotic proposals which the "Constitution-shredding" Bush/Cheney team neglected to pursue: an assassination program aimed at U.S. citizens, formal codification of Miranda dilutions, citizenship-stripping laws, a statute to deny all legal rights to Americans arrested on U.S. soil."
How pathetic is this? Rather than defend the principles he stood up for during the Bush years, Obama has caved into a never-ending demand for "security at any cost." The bullying of FOX & their cohorts is dictating policy and the Obama administration doesn't have the guts to kick back. A case in point was watching Attorney General Eric Holder today tie himself up in knots trying to avoid the term "radical Islam." Why not just say it's un-American to disparage any religion? Or at least reframe the question to include the Taliban?

That he didn't and appeared unable to do so speaks volumes about the Obama administration's inability to defend the core values of its own constitution. Pogo had it right: "The enemy is us."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Wan Yanhai: Exiled AIDS Activist

Wan Yanhai has been forced out of China. This is good news for the government and bad news for proponents of HIV & Human Rights issues. Wan was a tireless campaigner who through the past few decades (he's now 46) has exposed corruption within the government. From 1994-1997 he helped reveal the connection between blood transfusions and an outbreak of Aids in Henan province where over 150,000 people became HIV positive. In 2002, he was accused of "revealing state secrets" and detained for nearly a month after posting a government report on the internet showing that officials had ignored and covered up the blood contamination scandal. That's how they reward you in China.

Wan was the founder of the Aizhixing Institute, one of the mainland's most outspoken NGOs on issues related to Aids and sexual minorities. The government has been hounding Wan for years to the point where he began to fear for his family's well-being. That's how it's done in China - they target your family. Here's Wan from today's SCMP:
"It's my conscience. This society has too many problems and you have to have a sense of moral obligation towards it. So many children have been infected because of blood contamination. There are too many disasters in our society. We must work hard to make changes. Otherwise, we - our families, our children - will be victims, too."
Wan and his family are now in the U.S. where he intends to continue his work.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Digging Deep

"True art lies in a reality that is felt." ~ Odilon Redon
Some artists reassure, others interrogate. The greatest can do both. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was never comfortable using hand-me-down tools. Instead, he forged his own to capture reality as only he felt it. Throughout his life he was constantly challenging perceptions and afflicting those comfortable in their complacency. And like another kindred spirit, Jimi Hendrix, he was written off for a time as a charlatan and a clown who was all flash and no substance. Nothing was further from the truth.

Kirk could rock like no one before or since, blending soulful jazz explorations with playful bravado and righteous political proclamations. He was so far ahead few could see his work for what it was. One who could was Quincy Jones. He invited Kirk to play flute on his 1962 hit, “Soul Bossa Nova,” also known as Austin Powers' theme song.

I've recently been listening to Left & Right, Kirk's masterpiece from 1968. He continues his forays into intense, explosive jazz playing three saxophones at once, a nose flute, a kazoo and digging deep into classical and pop. By using circular breathing, Kirk could play for up to twenty minutes at a time without taking a break! Phenomenal. He deserves so much more credit for incorporating found sounds into his music like ticking clocks and for inventions like his "black mystery pipes" before such innovations were as common as they are today.

Here's the master rippin' up Burt Bacharach's "Say A Little Prayer":

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Huế: Citadels & Tombs

We arrived in Huế at about 7 am after an overnight train ride from Nhà Trắng. The ride was okay, nothing special apart from the married couple and their cute daughter bedding in the two bunks below us. Huế's swampy humidity was a big change from the beaches and blue skies of Nhà Trắng. Located in the middle of the country, half-way between HCMC and Hanoi, Huế is a former royal capital for the Nguyen Dynasty and played a central role in the 1968 Tet Offensive when U.S. forces claimed to have had to "destroy the city to save it."

After we checked into our hotel we had a delicious breakfast at the Mandarin Café, owned by Mr. Cu, a photographer.

I had my best bowl of phở in Vietnam here and a rich cuppa joe...

We explored the Citadel across the Perfume River (Song Huong), and the neighborhoods surrounding it. While most of the area was flattened during the war, the Citadel and its walls survived. They've got an ancient texture, coated with lichen and charred by the elements.

We rented a scooter and drove over to the Thien Mu Temple and then out to the royal tombs, getting lost on the way and soaked from a shower. The quality of light in and around Huế gave it a special resonance. The greyness of the sky highlighted the shadows and textures of the stonework, while the dampness coated everything in a glistening sheen.