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Film review: What is the meaning of Pakistan?

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I was honored to be asked to introduce and lead a discussion of the wonderful documentary film Without Shepherds at the 9th Annual Seattle South Asian Film Festival on Nov. 9, 2014. Below is my review.

withoutshepherdstruckerPakistanis are human beings, with a normal range of human worries, charms, foibles, weaknesses, and susceptibilities. This is a working premise and major theme of my own writing and public speaking around the U.S. these days, because I think it’s an important point to bring home to Americans. It’s an obvious point, not subtle or complicated, but challenging to make because of mindsets ingrained by a dozen years and more of war, bad political leadership, and popular culture. And anyway, you can get only so far by insisting on something.

How much more effective it can be to show than to tell is demonstrated by the documentary Without Shepherds, produced and directed by Cary McClelland with Pakistani colleagues. (You can like and follow the film on Facebook.) Beautifully shot and artfully edited, the film follows an assortment of Pakistani individuals in their lives and work and allows them – or rather, asks and invites them – to speak for themselves. The result is a lovingly witnessed and depicted, endearing, and even haunting tapestry of human stories inhabiting the landscapes of Pakistan.

The landscapes, plural, linger in memory as much as the personages, perhaps for me because they quicken nostalgia for my own deeply felt Pakistani experiences. Parts of Pakistan are stunning and lush, of course; much of it is hard, dusty, unlovely, but (to me) deeply lovable and loved. You can’t express such love in words, or really even in pictures. (I do try to express it in words, though, in Alive and Well in Pakistan and in a speech I titled “Why I Love Pakistan.”) It’s what Graham Greene in The Quiet American called “the real background that held you as a smell does”: in Pakistan, it’s the trains and train stations, the highways both flat and mountainous with those wonderful colorful trucks – one of the people the film follows is a long-distance truck driver – the flat-roofed urban neighborhoods, the earth-colored Afghan refugee camps.

The film’s visual portrayal of these slices of Pakistan rings exquisitely true to the country I’ve known and loved for almost two decades. This might be partly due to today’s new super-duper video technologies, but it’s at least equally about the filmmakers’ eye, where they opt to direct their attention and let it linger. What is important and meaningful is always and unavoidably a matter of personal choice and responsibility, and the question – at once artistic and political – is whether we’re going to determine these for ourselves, or let others with vested interests or manipulative agendas decide them for us. For me personally, that’s not a question at all but a fundamental matter of self-respect. True art endorses and amplifies things one already knows or viscerally feels to be true. By that standard, Without Shepherds is true art, a true depiction of the Pakistan that I know and love.

withoutshepherdstearsWithin the country’s and the film’s landscapes are the voices (mostly in Urdu, with subtitles). Abdullah, the truck driver: “If there’s a traffic jam or a strike, then everyone gets long faces, saying, ‘Where did all the trucks go?’ A driver gets respect when he’s at the wheel. The moment he steps out of his truck, he’s a nobody.” Ibrahim, the earnest young man who, as we learn, became and then ceased being a militant: “It’s our nature to take the things we inherit for granted. That’s why we don’t value Pakistan.” Vaneeza, the businesslike fashion model: “Tidying up is one thing this country will never do.” Laiba, the intrepid Pushtun woman journalist (like so many tough, gutsy Pakistani writers and artists – especially women – that I’ve known): “This country is so plentiful, but we’re just busy fighting each other.” These people have their being amid the perpetual white noise of events, politics, policies decided in Islamabad and Washington. They’re along for the ride, hanging on as best they can, maybe nudging things in one direction or another according to their lights. In this they’re representative not only of Pakistanis, but of all of us.

The personage in the film I haven’t mentioned yet is Imran Khan. We can debate politics later and elsewhere – that’s what long Lahori dinner parties are for – and it’s not for me to say who should govern Pakistan or how. What I will say is that Without Shepherds offers a marvelously intimate portrait of Imran at work and at play: speaking at rallies, mumbling about politics while reading the newspaper, playing pick-up cricket in the mountains, duck hunting with his sons. This film offers delightful and fascinating glimpses of who Imran Khan really is and what he’s about.

I’ve saved mention of Imran until now because I don’t want to leave the impression that Without Shepherds is a film about him. It’s not. But he certainly is part of Pakistan’s story, not only over the past two decades of his long, hard political slog, but of course before that with his career as one of probably the five greatest world cricketers of all time, culminating in one of Pakistan’s great national moments: the 1992 World Cup triumph. It’s part of the triumph of Without Shepherds that it includes his story seamlessly and without pretension among the stories it tells of Pakistan and Pakistanis, and it shows him as much more fully human than the mere “cricketer-turned-politician” that non-Pakistanis read about in news reports.

The film takes its title from Ibrahim, the ex-Taliban: “Sometimes you see animals here without a shepherd,” he tells the filmmakers while showing them around the rocky, scrubby landscape where he used to fight. “We let them roam free. And no matter how far the cows wander, they come home by dusk.” But, except for a couple of charming codas, the last words in the film are Imran’s, appropriately leaving us with things to think about. “Now answer one question,” he tells a rally. “Pakistan ka matlab kya? What is the meaning of Pakistan?”

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Has America Spoken?

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Late in the evening on election day, unable to sleep, I posted on Facebook:

My friends on the right need to keep in mind that they live here in America with the rest of us, and that the rest of us are far from happy. And my friends on the left need to grow some self-respect, quit your bellyaching … and get out of bed tomorrow morning, and every morning thereafter, and figure out how to make yourselves directly useful in some way or ways, if you’re not already.

… and more in the same vein. My hope was to say something constructive at a moment when America’s destructive divisiveness had become all too glaringly obvious. My post got some “likes,” but it also brought out of the woodwork a few of my fellow Americans who had little more to say than “Ha! We win. Deal with it!” – although that didn’t keep a couple of them from saying that at some length. Most telling was a comment from Wayne Pimental of Summerville, South Carolina:

America has spoken, most Americans, some realizing too late, that our country is going in the wrong direction the past six years, change most didn’t want. Now, as Americans lets [sic] move forward and preserve the Constitution the way it was meant to be. Oh, now you know how some Americans felt after the last two presidential elections.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyWhat’s revealing is that Wayne seems to feel that America has spoken this time, but apparently didn’t really speak in 2008 and 2012, when it said things he didn’t want to hear. The truth, as I discovered when I spent 3 1/2 months driving 18,000 miles around America two years ago to research my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, is that America is far too big and various to speak with one voice. And that in itself bothers many Americans, because it’s complicated as well as ambiguous.

Near the end of my 2012 trip, as I turned the corner at Los Angeles on the home stretch to Seattle, I happened to be reading Lustrum, Robert Harris’s historical novel of Rome, whose narrator muses: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. … Perhaps Caesar is right – this whole republic needs to be pulled down and built again.” Part of the grim fun, if that’s the right word, of Harris’s novel is that we know what happened next in Rome.

Come to think of it, America itself is like a big, sprawling multi-generational family novel, but part of our problem is that we want to skip ahead to find out how it ends. We also are haunted by the yawning gap between the abstract ideals we ostensibly cherish and the concrete realities that we actually live. “America in theory is so awesome,” the libertarian writer Lucy Steigerwald remarked the other day. “America in practice is terrified, Puritanical, and punitive. It is a nasty, bitchy teenage nation that can dish it out and can’t take it. This never fails to be disappointing.”

What I’d like Wayne from Summerville and others like him to know is that during my 2012 trip America spoke to me, and it spoke in many voices. When I asked Cathy Waller, executive director of the Republican Party of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, whether it was possible for people like her to find common ground with Madison liberals, she said, “I’m going to be honest: I don’t know if we can. We’re not going to get anywhere.” Democratic Party activist Elisa Miller told me about specific death threats and hangings in effigy of President Obama around Wisconsin and reflected, “This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism. Volunteers are like, ‘You want me to knock on doors, when those crazies live out there?'”

“I told my parents that if Obama wins, there’s gonna be riots,” Lenny Miller, an African American airline pilot and entrepreneur in Virginia, told me just before the election. “There’s gonna be lawsuits, recounts, all that.”

“If you were President of the United States, would you be more vocal than he is?” I asked him.

“Oh, I would,” replied Lenny. “I’m Morehouse College. He’s Harvard.”

“Does the American system have what it takes to self-correct at this point?” I asked George Campbell, a thoughtful young Republican lawyer in Greenville, South Carolina.

“Yep, it does,” he assured me. “The system does. The question is whether the people do.”

No selection of American voices would be complete without the voices of immigrants, and one that I met was a Haitian teenage girl in Orlando, Florida. When I asked which presidential candidate she preferred, she said, “I would say Obama. The most point is, why would you choose somebody who’s already rich, that don’t have a clue what it’s like for the poor?”

America did speak this November 4. But what it said that day was not the last word; we’re all still subject to the remorseless grinding forward of events.

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America: Now What?

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Seattle – I’m writing this on election day 2014. My initial idea was to write and post something the day after the election, but the things that most fundamentally ail America transcend any routine scheduled political event, so I might as well address those regardless of the election results.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyNot that election results don’t matter; they do. But still. Just after the presidential elections two years ago I was in New Orleans, where I asked Alden McDonald, CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust, the third-largest African American-owned bank in the country, whether the Republicans would be chastened by President Obama’s rather decisive re-election. “That’s a good question,” he replied.

I have not seen anything that will cause them to change. I think some leadership is going to have to rise on that side to get people to begin looking at what’s best for the country, as opposed to what’s best for the party. Everyone has to realize that we have to get the budget in line, no two ways about it, but we have to do it together. The bipartisan committee came up with some recommendations that the Obama administration put together, and the Republican Party rejected. Now, Alan Simpson, who was not only a well-known but a well-respected Republican, was co-chair of it, and I knew Alan from some past relationships, and we’ve talked about his work privately. He’s terribly upset for his party, terribly upset. Well respected, staunch Republican, and he could not believe the pushback he got from his party. So we have a lot of things to worry about, we have a lot of things we have to fix, and at what point does the leadership of this country come to the forefront and say enough is enough?

I quote Mr. McDonald in my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, published a year ago. I’m currently making corrections and minor revisions to Home Free, preparatory to ordering a new printing. My premise in traveling during the 2012 election season was that the historical moment would prove telling, and that as the American national story continued to unfold, the personalities and stories in my book would remain revealing and edifying.

So at least I hoped and hope. To invoke one of the hoariest of journalistic cliches, time will tell. But one of the strongest impressions my 18,000-mile, 3 1/2-month road trip left me with was that not only are we Americans not all on the same page (to put it mildly), and not only do we not even want to be on the same page, but we live in different worlds.  And really, how could it be otherwise in a country the size of a continent? Near the end of the book I wrote:

One of the motivating premises of my project had been that America was not separate or different from the rest of the world. I had proven that, at least to my own satisfaction. And I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.

This October, invited to give the keynote speech at an annual “conflict resolution” conference in Colorado Springs, I opted to narrate a version of my Home Free slide show. I said jokingly at the beginning that America itself is one big conflict-resolution scenario, but no one laughed. I had misjudged my audience. Colorado Springs (my parents live there, and I devote a chapter to it in Home Free) is less monolithically dominated by right-wing Bible thumpers than many outsiders believe, but it’s true that that faction is both prominent and assertive locally. They also come across as oddly resentful – as if the rest of us were bullying them, rather than vice versa.

Admittedly I could have executed my talk better than I did, but I also violated a peculiar kind of politesse that afflicts Colorado Springs in particular and, I think, America in general: a tacit presumption that we mustn’t talk about precisely the things that we really should be talking about. As my high school friend Jill Radi put it to me in Wisconsin earlier in my trip, “You just don’t enter into the conversation, because it’s just so painful. The emotion’s so high because you can’t even listen.”

What’s funny is that, in my Colorado Springs slide show, I quoted Jill and praised her thoughtfulness and insight, at the same time identifying her as someone who holds conservative views. I did the same with several other right-of-center Americans I had met along the road. Then, after my speech, a man approached me and asked: “Did you interview any left-wing extremists?”

Nonplussed, I cast my mind over my trip and answered honestly, “Um … I don’t think anyone I interviewed was an extremist of any kind. Why do you ask?”

“I think you’re extremely biased in favor of liberals,” he said, and walked away.

Welcome to Colorado Springs, and welcome to America. But I’m an American, dammit, and I don’t want to live in the America that that guy wants to live in. He reminded me of Earl, a reviewer on Goodreads who griped that most of the people I met in Home Free were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” Not so, but even if it were, if the white Middle America that I come from doesn’t start getting used to, maybe even appreciating, the real extent and nature of this country’s diversity, we’re all in for ugly times ahead. In Miami, over lunch the day after election day 2012,  I asked the novelist Edwidge Danticat what it means to her to be an American. “I feel like I don’t know Middle America that well,” she replied.

But what it means to me to be an American has always been hyphenated and diverse, because I’ve always lived in these melting-pot cities. When I first came to New York [from Haiti at age 12], I went to Brooklyn and so, to me, that was America: people speaking Spanish, people speaking Russian, Korean. You have your Haitian groceries at the Korean store. So that, to me, was America: this place where all different kinds of people meet, and sometimes people who are enemies elsewhere can be friends there. Like Haitians and Dominicans might not get along on the island, but in America, in Brooklyn, they’re neighbors.

And, no, I’m not saying that all of America should be like New York City.  I don’t live in New York myself, and I’m glad I don’t. But I am saying that we’re all neighbors. If, by the time you read this, the Republicans have increased their dominance of the House of Representatives and maybe even retaken the Senate, we’ll all be feeling the aftershocks, as the Obama White House drifts rudderless for another two long years and the right wing scents blood in the water. But we’ll all still be neighbors, and we’d better at least try to make the best of it.

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Enter giveaway for Home Free: An American Road Trip!

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Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyPlease share: I believe that my book Home Free: An American Road Trip is a very revealing, even landmark, book that anyone who wants to know and understand today’s America would do well to read.

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen, says, “Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he’s listening to America.” Bill Steigerwald, author of the brilliant debunking road-trip book Dogging Steinbeck, believes that I did in Home Free what John Steinbeck failed to do in his famous 1962 bestseller Travels with Charley – and I take that as a very high compliment.

I’m running a giveaway of 50 copies of Home Free on Goodreads. You can join the giveaway through this link:
https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/94492-home-free-an-american-road-trip

You can also like me on Facebook and follow me on Goodreads:
https://www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author?ref=hl

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/723009.Ethan_Casey

Finally, I was recently asked to contribute an op-ed article based on Home Free to The Hindu, a national English-language newspaper in India. That article, titled “In search of America …” has just been published. Here’s the link:
http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-search-of-america/article6090097.ece

Ethan Casey

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