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Six Years in the Heart of Dixie

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By GEORGE BRAINE

In 1989, while finishing graduate studies at the University of Texas, at Austin, I accepted a teaching job in Alabama, where license plates proudly proclaim it’s the “Heart of Dixie”. Dixie is the nickname for the 11 Southern states that formed the Confederate States of America, which fought and lost the Civil War with the Northern Union states. These Southern states have a terrible legacy in terms of slavery, the KKK, and the murderous treatment of Black people. These areas are also notoriously backward, in terms of literacy, standard of education, and healthcare.

Not all my friends, in Austin, were pleased with my move to Alabama. One, a liberal woman from New York, said that she would “not stop to change a flat tire in Alabama”. I was aware of the legacy of the deep South, but most universities are open minded communities, and English departments oases of liberalism, so I didn’t anticipate much prejudice. The job market was tight, and, as a foreigner, I felt fortunate to find a job.

The University of South Alabama the city of Mobile, is a comprehensive university, with medical and engineering faculties, in addition to arts, sciences, business, education, computer science, nursing and social sciences. In 1989, the enrollment was about 12,000 students.

The English Department was, in every sense, traditional, dominated by White males and gracious Southern ladies, all of them White except for one Black female professor. James Dorrill, the chairperson, was a Jesuit priest and a Harvard man. To their credit, they hired me – the first from Asia (and the face, skin colour, and accent not matching the name) – to teach English to Americans.

 

Mobile, Alabama

The city of Mobile was the epitome of a conservative, Southern city. During the Civil War, it was one of the last Confederate cities to surrender to the Union Army. Mobile port, used to ship cotton from large, slave-holding plantations during antebellum (pre- Civil War) times, became a leading dockyard during the two World Wars, 200 ships having been built during World War II. When I arrived, the port had seen better times, although cruise ships would occasionally dock, and timber and coal had replaced “king cotton” as the main export.

Vestiges of Mobile’s halcyon days remained in the downtown area, dominated by the Greco-Roman style Catholic cathedral. Gracious Southern homes, with their open verandas, large casement windows with wooden slats, tall Grecian pillars, and the weathered brick walls gave the area a 19th century appearance. Streets lined with old oak trees that met in the middle enhanced this ambience. Some houses, in the Queen Anne style, had elaborately decorated exteriors. The gardens were full of flowering shrubs, shaded by magnolia, weeping willow, and ancient oak trees hung with moss. What these homes evoked was a leisurely lifestyle – iced tea, mint juleps – and old money. Uniformly, all these houses were occupied by Whites.

Not far off, but in a world apart, lived the poorest Blacks. Their wooden houses – mainly of the one-room shotgun style – were near collapse due to neglect, and I wondered how people managed to live there. A scattering of discarded furniture, rusty appliances, like refrigerators, and even vehicles raised on cinder blocks, filled the weedy yards. People sat on their porches, staring at the road, or hung around aimlessly, apparently with nothing much to do. A supermarket, or even a 7-Eleven, was nowhere in sight.

Two roads lead away from the downtown area, westward. One was Old Shell Road, where the houses and vegetation resembled the downtown area. Spring Hill College, an old liberal arts university, was on this road. It even owned an 18-hole golf course. The newer parts of Mobile were along Airport Boulevard, which ran parallel to Old Shell Road and was the main thoroughfare. Here, Mobile resembled a typical American mid-sized city, with a few department stores and numerous strip malls, McDonalds, Burger Kings, and other fast food outlets. Typically, affluent subdivisions, housing spacious, stately homes, were set far back from the road. The less affluent houses – flat, single storied, ranch homes – lined the roads. Apartment complexes catering to tenants of various income levels, were scattered throughout the city. The most prominent tree was pine, not of the coniferous Christmas-tree variety, but unattractive, with thin, long needles. These pines grew along the roads and alongside the houses. Fallen pine needles and cones smothered the grass.

Mobile’s population was about 200,000. Religion triumphed over everything: more than 200 churches, mainly Baptist, served the community. Catholic churches were also numerous. Typical of conservative societies, rich people and businesses paid low taxes, and the result was the erosion of funding for public education and health services. For lack of permanent classrooms, some classes met in converted mobile homes. This problem was often discussed on TV and in the newspaper, but no solution was in sight.

Air pollution was high. A number of paper factories operated nearby, and when the wind blew towards Mobile, a foul odor of sulphur dioxide enveloped the city. I would get up some mornings to this odor and a thin sheen of polluted mist, which might last till midday.

 

Teaching

I taught writing, what Americans termed rhetoric and composition, both at the freshman (first year) and senior (fourth year) levels. In addition to Americans, the freshmen classes had international students coming from a range of countries in South and Central America, Asia, and Europe, the latter mainly from former Soviet republics. As a result, in terms of accents, varieties of English spoken, and cultural features, my classes resembled a mini-United Nations. I found this delightful. In a class of 25, I could have students speaking 15 different languages.

At the more advanced class, the students came mainly from engineering and computer science. Many students were older adults, either returning to university after taking years off for full-time work, or starting university after raising a family. I had interesting conversations with some of them – about their jobs, their struggles to meet tuition payments, growing up in the South, pros and cons of American cars – and gleaned much about American life. One topic never touched upon was race relations.

My classes were taught in a computer lab, for which I had raised funds. For some students, this was their first use of a computer. Teaching composition is my forte, and I received positive evaluations from most of my students. American students could be blunt and confrontational at times, but, despite my “foreignness”, I never heard a racial slur in or out of class, or read a racist comment in the anonymous end-of-term evaluations that students provided.

Among my colleagues, in the English Department, my favourite was Patricia Stephens, not the typical Southern belle by a long shot. Pat, who taught American literature, had a smoker’s rough voice, and a no-nonsense, direct manner. She had attended college in Memphis when Elvis Presley was performing at the clubs there. I introduced Pat to V.S. Naipaul, and she told me his travelogue “A turn in the South” was the best book about the South that she had read. Later, we team taught a graduate course titled “Rushdie and Naipaul”.

My wife and I also had a close friendship with Prof. Dorrill (we called him Father Dorrill), the Chair of the English department. Once in a while, we invited him home for a Sri Lankan meal, which he enjoyed. We kept in touch over the years, and, in 2016, I returned to Mobile to see him when Father became feeble after his health deteriorated.

Race relations

Since arriving in the United States, in 198, for graduate studies, I lived in Washington DC, Philadelphia (for one semester) and Austin, Texas. In Washington DC and Austin, I had met Black students and professionals, studying or working confidently alongside Whites and apparently being treated equally. In Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania was in the downtown area, I often saw down and out Blacks, some homeless and others perhaps addicted to alcohol or drugs. Raggedly dressed, trundling a shopping cart that held all their belongings, they would sometimes wander around campus, and even walk disruptively into lecture halls. In Alabama, a state where Blacks people had been persecuted since the days of slavery, and where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for civil rights that had been met with violence, I did not expect to observe smooth relations between the Blacks and Whites.

So, I was surprised to observe the two main races getting along without any visible friction. Black professionals appeared to be respected – we had Black professors and even my doctor was one – and a few could be seen managing department stores and other businesses. But, on Sunday mornings, when everyone attended church, the racial division became clear. Most Blacks attended their churches, while the Whites went to theirs. Although a few Black folks attended church alongside the Whites, I could not imagine a White person in a Black church.

From my readings and observations, I gradually began to realize how matters stood. As long as the Blacks knew their place, and stayed there, the society could be harmonious and functional. When these invisible boundaries were crossed, trouble could erupt.

In this milieu, how could my family define ourselves? We were clearly not White, and had no Black roots either. The term Asian was for Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans. My wife Fawzia had a Muslim name, but hardly anyone realized that. Americans are notoriously ignorant of world geography. When asked, I told them that Sri Lanka was the little island below India. But, how many of them could even point to India on a world map?

Fawzia worked for a while as a librarian, at Spring Hill College. Not once did Fawzia or I face any type of racial discrimination in Mobile. But, when our son was attending high school there,
a clash broke out between students from the two races, which turned into a minor riot. When we went to pick our son up, the area was surrounded by police cars and armed policemen.

Two incidents provide evidence of the acute racial discrimination that had existed in Mobile before my time. In 1958, Jimmy Wilson, a Black handyman, had been condemned to death for stealing $1.95 (yes, less than two dollars) from a White woman. The jury may have been influenced by the woman’s testimony that Wilson had spoken to her in a disrespectful tone. (Fortunately, due to an international outcry, including a plea from the Pope, Wilson’s sentence was commuted). Second, the last recorded lynching in the USA had occurred in Mobile in 1981. A young man was killed elsewhere, but brought to Mobile and hung from a tree. During my 2016 visit, I was shown the tree.

After six years in Mobile, in preparation for a move to Hong Kong, I had advertised my house and car for sale. One day, a Black family came to see the car and later came into my house to discuss the deal. After they left, my neighbour, a middle-aged White woman, rushed in, saying “I hope you are not selling the house to them”. She didn’t mind Sri Lankans, but didn’t want any Blacks in the neighbourhood.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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