Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why the world hates America?

I read about Postglobal during one of my aimless surfing sojourns and came across this and I was hooked on to it. The first thing that stuck me while reading the blog was, "How I wish, I could also do the series!" (I remember having felt something similar before) It's an amazing assignment which gives a chance to go to different countries and meet different kinds of people from all over the world. I personally feel it's a huge kick for any journalist. Sigh....I wish I'm able to do something similar in future. However, I thought I will do an email interview with Amar C Bakshi, the chief contributor of the project and well, here it is....
How did you become involved with the project? What has been your personal interest in it?
I proposed it to Fareed Zakaria, David Ignatius and Hal Straus. They were all very supportive. I've been fascinated by views of America ever since seeing strong political anti-American rhetoric in Zimbabwe. It is also a crucial issue facing Americans, one worth exploring and putting a human face on.

How many countries have you visited till now for this project?
So far I've been to England and India. I'm in Jammu&Kashmir now, going to Pakistan next week. Then I'm taking a break for a few weeks before pushing off to East Asia or the Middle East.

Starting afresh in a new country with an assignment can be quite a task. Can you tell me a little more about how did you go about your work in various countries? Who all helped you?
I've received great help from MJ Akbar, who put me in touch with Asian Age correspondents around the country. Similarly India Express reporters in Srinagar and Calicut were very helpful. It varies greatly -- between contacts from the Post, friends, other journalists and luck I manage to get by.

You have met a lot of people and written about hem on your blog too. Can you talk about any interesting experience which you haven't mentioned in the blog? (Something that would be irrelevant for the site, but interesting nevertheless)
Well, I've made a lot of friends along the way. The girls from the TV in the American Language piece opened up Manchester nightlife for me, which was a blast, and I got a real deep look into Blackburn's tabacco hookah scene before the smoking ban went into effect.

What are the apsirations of the youth you met in various cities and countries?
Big question, but basically to earn money, have fun, and improve the lot of their family or community in some way. Aspirations of youth are vital. I always ask about it, especially because often the U.S. is a part of those aspirations for more education or money, or to resist. Anyway, not sure what else to say here. Maybe you can be more specific?

Your parents are from India. As opposed to the initial views you had about India, what are the different things that you experienced about India especially in this specific assignment?
Well, America was always the sole land of opportunity for my parents. I'm seeing now more and more how India itself has become the land of opportunity for many of the brightest students. Seeing this energetic, hopeful part of India is wonderful.

Did you come to Bangalore? (Bangalore has a huge section of population working in call centres serving clients from USA) I believe you went to Mumbai and interacted with the call centre junta there. What were your observations? How was it visiting South India?
I loved South India. I loved the way people laugh there. I visited call centers primarily in Chennai, and didn't end up going to Bangalore for a variety of logistical reasons, and because a lot of American journalists seem to go there, I figured I'd look at Hyderabad or Chennai. I spent time in Kerala too driving up and down.
I found call centers very interesting because of the aspirations of the young who work there -- for money, success, material things, and a chance. Often America represents a meritocratic ideal, which is interesting. Also, it's fascinating for Americans to see who it is calling them. I think it might be alienating for call center employees to call hostile, distant Americans, and it might be aggravating for Americans to get distant phone calls, but by putting the two communities in touch online and showing a face to both sides, it creates understand, the goal of this project. I was proud of the call center piece and hope it gets more Americans aware of just who calls them.

You talk about Muslims in madrassas being close minded. But are you aware of instances of modernisation of Madarssas wherein Maths, English are being introduced? (There are some madrassas like that in Bangalore)
I never talked about Muslims in madrassas being closed minded. In fact, my post was about how modern Muslim madrasas in Malegaon can be. I've taken readers/viewers into madrasas in Malegaon to show them how progressive they can be, how education-oriented they can be
My other post talked about how Muslim teachers avoided teaching politics, but curious students wanted to know more. And in that case the teachers used history and theology to say that there is no need to enter politics because all great powers fall. It's a peaceful but tricky balance. *** Please fix your line above where you say I say Muslims in madrassas are closeminded. This is a misunderstanding on your part. Thank you!***

For a patriot (you mention in a post about how you hung American flag prominently at the entrance of your house after 9/11) was it unnerving to hear people's opinions regarding their hatred for America? Was this the first time you were personally coming across such views?
It was unnerving. See this. But it wasn't the first time. Doing research in Zimbabwe I can across really vehement criticisms of the U.S. as a neo-colonial force by a lot of government ministers who got political mileage, like Mugabe, off of such rhetoric.

Books like Inheritance of Loss, The Kite Runner have portrayed that despite the faults, USA is still the place to realise one's dreams. Do you think it is a dominant perception while interacting with the youth in India? How was it interacting with a upper middle class urban Muslim youth of India?
Yes, I think it is true. America still represents great hope. In Srinagar, for example, I am finding the same. Now there are certainly chinks in America's gleaming armor, but it still as an ideal holds weight. Upper middle clas urban Muslim youth that I met were incredibly bright and worldly. Like most Indians, they criticized recent American foreign policy and hoped that it would genuinely support human rights and democracy, and like most Indians they felt great love for the idea of America, though wariness of its international actions over time, and especially lately.

Racial profiling of people from South Asia is a common phenomenon in USA that was started after the 9/11 attacks. Do you think that plays a important role in how South Asians view USA post 9/11?
Yes, I think racial profiling in America has a real bad impact on perceptions abroad, especially because these cases make big news here, while they might not make quite as a big a headline in the U.S. I hear, though I do not know, that this is especially true in Pakistan.

Why have you put on a beard before going to Pakistan? This is interesting because 'beard' + 'South Asian' looks are a stereotype for a Muslim terrorist. Do you think people In Pakistan will warm up to you because of your appearance? Does looking similar to the majority help in any way?
I might shave the beard. It was a bit of a joke, but maybe not an appropriate one. I really haven't had much time the past few months, I've been traveling, been busy, and have only carried the bare necessities around (which doesnt include a razor and cream) so I just haven't gotten around to it. I might well shave it off this weekend when I catch my breath. But as far as looking local, my appearance has helped. I don't stick out quite so much when I travel, which helps me get my camera in different places without raising quite as many eyebrows.

You have interviewed non resident Indians as a part of your project too. How do they view India?
A good place to invest, a place of rich history/culture, a place that could benefit from some of the looser social mores that America has -- particularly vis a vis gender and class.

What do you think is this project going to achieve? How has the reaction been of American readers to your articles?
It's added depth to news items and given people a glimpse at human lives around the world touched by America. I think it might help people have a sense of the impact of their electoral decisions, and the degree to which America is involved globally. There are many ways Americans can help shape the world for the better from smart buying to aid to votes. So far the reaction has been great. People are saying they didn't have a human face on a lot of big issues: like a student at a madrasa or a call center employee. This project puts it out there, encourages readers to interact with interviewees, and tries to make people see people around the world so headlines become more than just a sound-byte, but a bit of understanding - empathy and hope - for others around the world.