Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Soaking wet but still there

There were easily 50 to 60 umbrellas huddled loosely together under a gloomy grey sky. The rain was starting to pound and the temperature was hovering low enough to create talk bubbles.

Come rain or shine, Fahad Hashmi's supporters' had made it once again. Bryan Pickett, from Theaters Against War,  had rallied hard in the past few weeks to get supporters to join hands one last time before Fahad's trial begins this Wednesday, April 28.

I bumped class early, much to the annoyance of my professor (how many vigils are you going to cover?), and headed down umbrella-less to the subway station. Carrying camera equipment though New York's underground subways never fails to turn into a nightmare.

By the time I emerged from the green line and onto Brooklyn Bridge, I was ready to turn back home. The camera bag and tripod holder are badly made with straps that never sit steady on one's shoulders. They knock into people and the weight of the equipment goes largely unsupported by the weak harnesses.

By the time I walked up to Center street and passed Foley square, I was drenched through my thick peacoat. I saw Jeanne Theoharis, Fahad's undergrad Pol Sci professor from brooklyn college. She's been one of the core organizers behind the FreeFahad campaign. She gave me a cheerful wave as she got ready for a video interview with one of the many TV networks covering the event. Al Jazeera was supposed to be there but I didn't see any name tags; Eyewitness news had made it with their DSNG.

Pickett started with the bad news as if the weather wasn't enough. Today, Judge Loretta Preska, the federal judge appointed to this case, accepted the prosecution's motion to keep the jury anonymous and under extra security.

Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International and Council for American Islamic relations has protested against the decision calling it unfair and a means of manipulating the jury. The human rights groups call it "a clear attempt to influence the jury by creating a sense of fear for their safety and to paint Mr. Hashmi as already guilty." For more, click here for their press release.

The news was followed by the distribution of white flowers instead of candles because of the relentless rain. Pickett requested the supporters to drop the flowers in front of the Metropolitan Correctional Center where Fahad has been detained for the past 3 years.

Like always, Theaters Against War had arranged performances by artists who support Fahad's cause. At each vigil, different New York artists perform in front of an ancient and unwired microphone. The mic is used more as a symbol of the broken instrument that doesn't pick the voice of the masses than a prop. 

This time round, critically acclaimed soprano Christine Moore performed. I was able to catch her on tape after much hustling with cameramen who were completely devoid of any kind of media coverage etiquette. The fact that my plasticy Panasonic HD is covered under a garbage bag instead of a custom made water proof sleeve does not mean you can blatantly step in front of my lens for your shot. 

The sound of pounding rain on plastic distorted most of the sound but its still worth listening to.

Take a look at the event here: 

Vigil Held Fahad Hashmi from ayza omar on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Enlisting for MIA?

Anti-war organizations plan to protest the most contentious issue after the health care debate.. An issue that makes White House officials all hot and uncomfortable - the war on terror.

"Tens and thousands' of people are expected to show up in this extravagantly planned protest in D.C. this weekend.

I'm amazed by the amount of details available in this news letter. From public transport to hotel arrangements. Everything is included to the help protesters better prepare for the march. But how many thousands will actually show up? and out of that, how many will be people belonging to Santa's list of naughty children, more commonly known as 'the countries of interest?'

The fact that wire-tapping and under-cover surveillance is no longer a violation of the US constitution makes Muslims in this much revered land of the free paranoid and on edge. When undercover agents in ordinary clothes start taking photographs of you through crowds and placards, you should be worried. and you should be ready for the worse if you also happen to be a Muslim.

It happened in Chicago. When Palestinian, Muslim students and human rights activists protested against the University of Chicago's invitation to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak, similar undercover photography unnerved participants according to Christina Abraham Civil Rights Director for CAIR-Chicago.

It happened in New York, in Dr. Afia Siddiqui's last few trial hearings. Security officials demanded ID cards from supporters who watched from the overflow court room. Many turned away, afraid of being profiled. 

In Syed Fahad Hashmi's case, the 29-year old detained American-Muslim from Karachi, Pakistan, there is a similar dearth of Pakistani's and Muslim Arabs supporting the Free Fahad campaign. You see more of the gora than the desi. It is a plight which is sad and yet not surprising. Families that have sold generations worth of wealth and belongings to immigrate in pursuit of the 'American Dream,' in pursuit of the happiness and peace, are now under the the ethical dilemma to stand up for their rights, or continue living inconspicuously. Many chose the latter, praying that the 2am knock won't be on their door.

It would be interesting to see how many of these selected few will actually brave it to the D.C. protest on March 20.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Uptown Radio Broadcast

Uptown Radio is a weekly one hour live radio show hosted by the Columbia Radio News team.

I did a piece on how the lesbian, gay , bisexual and transgender voters are swaying over the choice between incumbent Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and potential challenger, former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Junior.

Take a listen.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

In Memory of Feefee

FeeFee was always smiling or whining. She was barely ever serious. She also had a short fuse. Her spurts of anger were obvious from her mad dash to the gate, teeth bared, legs splayed and a low guttural growl that made the bravest of guests perch on the balls of their feet, ready for flight.

She was eight when I last saw her. Having given birth to a litter of three beautiful puppies, she was still more playful than her kids.

Out of breath, I would give up well before she did. I couldn't help but marvel at this tiny animal's forceful energy. In her self-styled game called 'Chase me!' Feefee would weave circles around the garden chairs with dizzying speed. After a while of chasing, a bystander wouldn't be able to tell who was chasing whom, which I think was the very idea Feefee had in mind. You see, she was a dog with extraordinary intelligence.

After reducing me into a blob on the grass, she'd break the chase and dive in front of me.
Planting her triangular head and whiskered white ears over her dainty paws, she would then proceed to ogle at me with her big brown eyes, an endearing expression that can be best described as pouting

She barely got sick. But when she did, it would change her demeanor. She would lose weight; her skin would sag; her eyes would go dull; her whippy tail would lose energy and she would start to sigh a lot.

She developed a fungal infection in her ear that, despite rigorous treatment, worsened with time. It developed into a burning skin disease that made her lose her hair and her appetite. She would fight the debilitating pain by sprawling on the wet grass in the dead of winter. The frost apparently numbed her suffering.

My sister Muni and Ami, horrified at the sight of Feefee sprawled in the cold, uncovered and shivering, would drag her back to her kennel, at times locking her in. Thinking, the poor souls, that they were doing what was best for her. Little did they know this was the last thing she needed.

When the disease started to spread from animal to human, Feefee's vet raised the alarm; “hospitalize her at once and see a skin specialist for yourself!” he ordered.

Muni and Ami took Feefee to the local veterinary Hospital, the only available option. The University of Veterinary Animal Sciences is the oldest (125 years) and largest veterinary care hospital in the Punjab. But that doesn't make it the safest. I've done reports on the place, and although the place has improved considerably, the conditions in which the research animals are kept are deplorable and inhumane.

She was there for three days and two nights. A phone call from the hospital broke the bad news on Saturday. Muni took the call. 'You're dog has expired- we're sorry.'

What does one say at that point? I can imagine Muni standing in Ami's doorway, phone receiver in one hand and the knife from chopping vegetables in the other, mouth ajar, eyes bulging and then what? What does one say to some indifferent, probably bearded Pakistani lab assistant who is busy picking his nose and examining his find on the other end of the line? How does one kill the messenger when the messenger is some one so deprived of empathy he can’t tell a loss of a loved one from the loss of a dirty green booger on a laboratory floor?

Poor Muni must have felt so alone in the world at that point. I wish she didn't have to take the call and find out that way. I wish I were there. After our first dog died, Lassy the graceful and beautiful Alsatian, I had closed up and refused to cry. In the process I unintentionally left Muni out in the cold. She loved Lassy like no other. Since then, I promised myself I would never do that again.

But I'm here, some 7,000 miles away from where my family silently grieves... How do you comfort each other on the phone? How do words suffice for the yawning gap left in your home?

I remember we compared the two dogs; Lassy was the graceful, older and more mature one with a heart made of gold, and Feefee was what we lovingly called "Gawar,” or the uncouth one. She never learned how to indicate she wanted to go; I failed in potty-training her. Our training sessions on the terrace with the aide of sugar balls only resulted in two things; Feefee bouncing off the walls with the sugar rush and developing the habit of pee-ing just when someone would pet her.

I also failed miserably at teaching her how to fetch. Feefee would chase after whatever you threw her way, catch it, chew it, attempt to mutilate it and then leave it a few feet further away from where it landed. She would return to you with a gleeful smile as if to say, 'Now you go get it.' And so we would. It soon became our special fetch game- in reverse.

She preferred meat to milk and hated bread. The roti that we fed her with the choicest offal had to be broken into tiny pieces otherwise she would completely disregard it, leaving it for the birds to pick on in the morning.

She had the habit of picking her favorite pieces and walking away with them. She never ate directly out of her bowl. She loved ice cream. She loved tearing things up into tiny bits. Yes, even the morning paper.

And then Feefee had her bad days; when she just wanted to be left on her own. She'd dig herself a hole somewhere in the corner of a flower bed and lie there, curled; the look in her eyes distant and cold. Times like these she would growl if someone came near her. She wouldn't even let me close. And then, just like that, she'd come bounding out, with that cracked smile of hers, black lips spreading from ear to ear, and embrace you as if to say 'I'm sorry!'

Feefee was the most communicative dog I have ever come across. She would come hollering at you, demanding to be pet and played with. If you refused, she'd lie on her back and wave her feet at you, emitting a bark-like noise that sounded halfway between a pleading 'come-on!' and an admonition.

If you still refused, she'd sit back up and talk to you between a yawn that made her sound like a complaining child who's denied candy. And if that still didn't melt your heart, she'd hurl herself at you, planting her tiny padded paws on your knees and squeak until your ears hurt and you just gave in.

Feefee was a great watch-dog. She barked her head off at the smallest provocation. She woke the house up when a burglar jumped into our lawn. We called the police but the man managed to get away before the cops got there.

She hated cats. She could bring the peace of an afternoon siesta to a crushing halt with her vicious, berating barks. We'd come out groggy eyed to find a smug looking feline, sitting all puffy on a ledge. Thoroughly amused, the cat would watch a hysterical Feefee go black and blue from flinging herself at an eight foot high wall again and again.

Feefee’s bark was far bigger than her. She sounded like a monster from the other side of the gate but was shockingly small framed. When we went to Khunjerab, I left five-month-old Feefee in a friend’s care. Their she would routinely terrify guests on to beds and chairs with her barking. Only when she would emerge, her tiny body jerking with the force of her barks, would they climb down, embarrassed and thoroughly amused at the sight of the little creature.

I remember when I brought her home the first time. She was only three months old and flee ridden. The vet said she wouldn't make it if we didn't get the flees off her soon. She was weak and scraggly. After many days of scrubbing, plucking and washing, Feefee radiated like a white cotton ball. Two sparkling hazel brown buttons for eyes and a small black and wet heart for a nose were the only markings on that bundle of white.

It was cold out on the terrace, so I'd smuggle her into my bedroom-not accepted practice in my home. She'd snuggle under the bed and wet the carpet in at least four different spots by morning. The routine ended one night when Ami walked in and sniffed the air suspiciously. Before I could cook up a convincing story about a window left open, Feefee came ambling out from under the bed and peed at Ami's feet.

We thought of calling her Reema and other random names. I kept calling her Meera, unintentionally, of course. Eventually, it came down to Feefee because somehow it fit perfectly.

Now Feefee is gone. She died alone on the cold floor of a shady hospital ward on February 6, 2010. None of us were there to help her. None of us were there to hold her tiny paw as she slipped out of consciousness, one last time. I feel more responsible than anyone else. I brought her home and I should’ve seen her out. Somehow that thought will never let me be.

For what it’s worth, Feefee, you will always be our favorite girl.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ayza Omar at NYC in Focus

This is Ayza Omar's bio-profile from NYC in Focus:
Ayza Omar took a roundabout route to the world of journalism. A native of Lahore, Pakistan, Omar graduated from that country’s Punjab University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. She says she’s always seen herself as an entrepreneur, and could easily have joined her family’s wholesale upholstery business, but first she wanted to do something on her own.

Of the jobs she considered, journalism seemed an especially unlikely candidate: It paid less than her other options, and Omar rarely ever picked up a newspaper. Still, she was attracted to reporting because it’s “one job where you never get bored because you’re always learning,” she says.

Omar quickly discovered she had a talent for broadcasting, and became the primary anchor and reporter for the state of Punjab at the Dawn News Network. Dawn News represents an innovation in Pakistan—it’s the country’s first 24-hour news channel broadcasting in English. Along with her other duties, Omar hosted a weekly current affairs show produced by a team of the network’s reporters. She later became an associate producer, writer and anchor for a traveling info-tainment show focusing on food. After only three years in the broadcasting business, she was on track to expand her producing role with Dawn News before leaving to hone her craft at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Now living in New York City, Omar enjoys working out and reading, though she may have a harder time indulging her tastes for horseback riding and badminton. She hopes to eventually cover foreign policy stories focusing on both the U.S. and Pakistan. Still an entrepreneur, she hopes to start a company to handle outsourcing of documentary filmmaking. Even after hosting her own show, she calls herself a novice. She hopes Columbia will allow her to trade that label for a title she wants to earn: reporter.

At Liberty - Dawn News Television

At Liberty is a magazine show that explores the rich cultural heritage of the Punjab through stories about a wide variety of topics such as art, culture, sport and food, and also explores problems experienced in the region such as crime and other social issues.

Host: Ayza Omar

Day: Sunday
Time: 9:05 pm

Aired (repeat)
Day: Monday
Time: 04:30 am; 1:30 pm
Email us your feedback at atliberty@dawnnews.tv

A Passionate Activist or a Supporter of Al Qaeda?

This story was originally published by NYC in Focus on December 9, 2009.

Their numbers weren’t as large as they used to be, but supporters still showed up for Syed Fahad Hashmi. They were in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on November 12 when Judge Loretta Preska struck her gavel and brought the pre-trial hearing to a close. Her ruling: all motions denied.

Hashmi, the defendant, stood and turned to see family and friends sitting just a few feet behind him. His eyes lit up, and he smiled. The diverse group of supporters beamed back despite their disappointment that Preska had denied the motions they thought would give 29-year-old Hashmi a fair trial.

Hashmi, an American citizen, is charged with providing material and financial support to Al Qaeda. He allegedly provided that support through an acquaintance, Junaid Babar, who stayed at Hashmi’s London flat for two weeks in 2004. The U.S. government believes Hashmi loaned Babar money for the purchase of an airplane ticket to Pakistan. During his stay at Hashmi’s flat, Babar stashed what the U.S. government has called military gear; waterproof socks, raincoats and ponchos. Babar has confessed that he delivered this military gear to a high-ranking Al Qaeda official in Pakistan. Hashmi claims he was not aware of Babar’s involvement with Al Qaeda and has pleaded not guilty.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Hashmi moved with his family to Flushing, New York when he was three years old. By the time he graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, he had become an American citizen. In 2003, Hashmi traveled to England to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at the London Metropolitan University. Three years later, the U.S. government had issued a warrant for his arrest and the British police took Hashmi into custody at Heathrow airport. He was kept in Belmarsh prison in England for 11 months before being extradited to the U.S.

Since his extradition, Hashmi has been kept in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan under the Special Administrative Measures (SAM) imposed by the U.S. Attorney General. These regulations have authorized the Bureau of Prisons to keep an inmate in solitary confinement 23 hours a day and to monitor all communication between the inmate and his or her attorney. They have also restricted visitation to one and a half hours every other week. Only Hashmi’s immediate family members or his attorney can visit him. He is allowed to write one letter, no longer than three pages, to a single-family member once a week, and he can only have access to filtered news clippings that are at least 30 days old.
Jeanne Theoharis, associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, who once taught Hashmi and now is one of the supporters spearheading the “Free Fahad” campaign, remembers him as an intelligent and passionate student activist. She says Hashmi was critical of US foreign and domestic policy in the War on Terror. To family members and friends, Hashmi was a devout Muslim who had never gotten into any kind of trouble.

One of Hashmi’s attorneys, Sean Maher, had argued that Hashmi’s past associations with a radical Islamist organization should not be admissible as evidence in the upcoming trial. The organization, Al Muhajiroun, was created in 1996 in the U.K. and was led by the notorious Sheikh Omar Mohemmed Bakri, according to the Center for Policing Terrorism at the Manhattan Insititute. The group disbanded in 2004, and Maher argued that Hashmi had only briefly belonged to the organization and that he had left it by the time Babar came to stay in his flat in London and that the information could prejudice the jury.

In the courtroom, Hashmi’s supporters no longer fill all the benches. After nearly three years of imprisonment, the numbers of young and old, Asian and American, Muslims and non-Muslims who attend Hashmi’s court proceedings have decreased.

Only seconds after the judge ruled, security marshals from the Metropolitan Correctional Center blocked Hashmi’s view and guided him out of the courtroom. In the third row of pew-style benches, Hashmi’s mother suppressed a sob.

After the hearing, Hashmi’s supporters shuffled out of the courtroom and reassembled across the street under a cold November sky. Theoharis addressed the small group standing in the rain and implored them to spread the word of Hashmi’s trial so that they can pack the courtroom for his next appearance. She told them how important it is for Hashmi to see all of them vouching for him. “For Fahad’s sake,” she added before the group broke up and everyone went their separate ways.

Hashmi’s trial is scheduled to begin on January 6 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

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